Harry Potter and the Ritual of Love's Memory by Forge2

Summary: After the horcrux hunt implodes leaving most of those Harry loves dead, he starts a new life with a few fellow survivors far away from wizarding Britain. But the discovery of an ancient ritual that promises to send a single memory back in time sparks hope that maybe things can change. Dark ending to DH followed by a tweaked retelling of GoF through DH. Harry/Ginny. Friday updates.

Original Timeline

Voldemort's Victory - Chapter 1-5 (Feel free to skip if you don't like major character deaths)

Tenochtitlán - Chapter 6-9

New Timeline

Harry's 4th Year - Chapter 10-28

Harry's 5th Year - Chapter 29-68

Harry's 6th Year - Chapter 69-Current
Rating: PG-13 starstarstarstarhalf-star
Categories: Post-HBP
Characters: None
Genres: None
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2022.09.23
Updated: 2024.05.10


Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
Chapter 10: Chapter 10
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
Chapter 12: Chapter 12
Chapter 13: Chapter 13
Chapter 14: Chapter 14
Chapter 15: Chapter 15
Chapter 16: Chapter 16
Chapter 17: Chapter 17
Chapter 18: Chapter 18
Chapter 19: Chapter 19
Chapter 20: Chapter 20
Chapter 21: Chapter 21
Chapter 22: Chapter 22
Chapter 23: Chapter 23
Chapter 24: Chapter 24
Chapter 25: Chapter 25
Chapter 26: Chapter 26
Chapter 27: Chapter 27
Chapter 28: Chapter 28
Chapter 29: Chapter 29
Chapter 30: Chapter 30
Chapter 31: Chapter 31
Chapter 32: Chapter 32
Chapter 33: Chapter 33
Chapter 34: Chapter 34
Chapter 35: Chapter 35
Chapter 36: Chapter 36
Chapter 37: Chapter 37
Chapter 38: Chapter 38
Chapter 39: Chapter 39
Chapter 40: Chapter 40
Chapter 41: Chapter 41
Chapter 42: Chapter 42
Chapter 43: Chapter 43
Chapter 44: Chapter 44
Chapter 45: Chapter 45
Chapter 46: Chapter 46
Chapter 47: Chapter 47
Chapter 48: Chapter 48
Chapter 49: Chapter 49
Chapter 50: Chapter 50
Chapter 51: Chapter 51
Chapter 52: Chapter 52
Chapter 53: Chapter 53
Chapter 54: Chapter 54
Chapter 55: Chapter 55
Chapter 56: Chapter 56
Chapter 57: Chapter 57
Chapter 58: Chapter 58
Chapter 59: Chapter 59
Chapter 60: Chapter 60
Chapter 61: Chapter 61
Chapter 62: Chapter 62
Chapter 63: Chapter 63
Chapter 64: Chapter 64
Chapter 65: Chapter 65
Chapter 66: Chapter 66
Chapter 67: Chapter 67
Chapter 68: Chapter 68
Chapter 69: Chapter 69
Chapter 70: Chapter 70
Chapter 71: Chapter 71
Chapter 72: Chapter 72
Chapter 73: Chapter 73
Chapter 74: Chapter 74
Chapter 75: Chapter 75
Chapter 76: Chapter 76
Chapter 77: Chapter 77
Chapter 78: Chapter 78
Chapter 79: Chapter 79
Chapter 80: Chapter 80
Chapter 81: Chapter 81
Chapter 82: Chapter 82
Chapter 83: Chapter 83

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

Author's Notes: This story picks up in the middle of the horcrux hunt while Harry, Hermione, and Ron are attempting to break into Bellatrix's vault. The first five chapters will be set in the midst of the upheaval caused by things going wrong on this mission. There will be a significant tone shift beginning in the sixth chapter, so if you prefer a story without as much darkness, that'd be a good place to pick up the narrative. It should provide a reasonably smooth on-ramp for new readers, though I think the first five chapters contain worthwhile characterizations and world-building. Either way, thanks for reading! If you choose to review, I promise to read and consider your feedback. Upload schedule is every Friday, at least for now. Enjoy!

Hermione's cushioning charm prevented them from injury as they landed on the cold, slick ground, but Harry's mind was already reeling. Their desperate plan to break into Bellatrix Lestrange's vault in Gringotts had come unraveled in record time. Running into Travers had complicated matters almost immediately, and Harry's hastily cast Imperius curses seemed unlikely to hold. None of that compared with the impending danger which now threatened the trio.

After the waterfall washed away their polyjuice disguises and deposited them deep underground in the labyrinthine caverns, the alarms began to sound in the distance. Their echoes off the cave walls made it impossible to know where they originated, but their steady blare caused Harry's feelings of dread to steadily grow.

"The Thief's Downfall!" exclaimed Griphook. His eyes frantically darted from Harry to Hermione and Ron, who no longer resembled Bellatrix and Dragomir Despard. "We will be overrun in a matter of minutes! We must finish the task and escape at once!"

"What kind of guide 'forgets' about something like a waterfall that removes all enchantments?" snarled Ron as he scrambled to his feet. "Do we even have time to get to the Lestrange vault? And how in Merlin's name are we going to get out of here, even if we get what we're after?"

"We already know we can't apparate or portkey out, and even with Griphook's help, we can't hope to stay hidden while the goblins search for the intruders." Hermione was barely able to keep panic out of her voice. "We're already this far, and they'll be able to figure out who we were impersonating. It stands to reason that they'll remove the object and secure it somewhere else if we can't get it now. I think we have to push ahead."

Harry hated to admit it, but if Voldemort realized they were hunting horcruxes, things were going to become impossible almost immediately. He wasn't sure if it was possible to create any additional horcruxes; how much soul did Voldemort have left to split? But even so, once Voldemort knew that his secrets had been found out he would no doubt redouble his efforts to hide them away and protect them.

"Hermione is right. Griphook, can we reach the Lestrange vault on foot?"

"Yes, Harry Potter. The passage ahead will lead us to the vault. We will still need Bogrod to open the vault doors and the clankers to make it there safely."

"Good. Let's hurry there and see what we can find. Everyone be thinking of ways to get out of here once we've got what we came for. Imperio!"

With that, Harry quickly followed Griphook and Bogrod into the dimly lit passageway, with Hermione and Ron right behind.

Soon they stumbled into a larger cavern with several sets of ancient doors built into the walls. Despite the warnings from Griphook and the preparations they had made, Harry couldn't help skidding to a stop when faced with the enormous dragon chained to the middle of the room.

With a roar that seemed to shake the very foundations of the caverns, the dragon let loose a blast of fire towards the stalactites that held to the roof over a hundred feet up. The metal chains binding the legs of the dragon creaked as it stepped towards the passage opening where the five of them were standing and staring.

"The clankers! It is mostly blind, but it knows to expect pain when it hears them. Quickly! Give them to me!" Griphook snatched the metal tools from Ron's grasp and set about making a racket. The dragon immediately recoiled, giving Harry the impression of a dog that had been abused by her owner.

They made their way to the doors of the Lestrange vault, which were right where the goblin had indicated. Harry pointed his wand at Bogrod, whose eyes remained glassy as he raised his palm to the door for a quick caress. The doors seemingly melted away, and the trio rushed inside. Griphook, after shoving the clankers into Bogrod's hands, barreled in behind them. The sound of a frustrated snort of the dragon was cut off as the doors rematerialized, plunging them into darkness.

"Lumos!" called out Ron. The light from his wand glittered off of the mountains of gold. The vast room was bathed in a kaleidoscope of colors, as beams refracted through gems the size of apples and off of countless priceless treasures.

"Remember the enchantments!" cried Hermione, as Ron reached toward a jewel-encrusted chest. "We've got to find the cup while touching as little as we can. The flagrante and gemino curses will be on the entire hoard, and there's likely to be more protection on the most important items!"

"Hermione, you and Ron start here at the front. Griphook and I will check the back and meet you in the middle. Call out if you see anything!"

Hermione gave a nod before beginning to peer around the entrance to the vault, while Ron (who had quickly brought his hand away from the chest) used his wand to carefully maneuver items out of the way of his search. Harry led Griphook cautiously towards the far end of the vault, his eyes roaming for treasures of higher value, though this was complicated by how opulent everything appeared. His eyes raked over the treasures, every second feeling more and more that their chances of success were slipping.

Harry jumped when he heard a clanging from behind him. Hermione's swearing almost caused him to laugh, especially since her word choice was precisely what she'd chastised Ron for using two days prior. An irritated, "I'm fine, Ronald!" barely reached Harry's ears as he returned focus to the task at hand.

And then he saw it. Gleaming from a shelf attached to the wall, a small golden cup sat perched about 12 feet off the ground. Though it was surrounded by several other ornate chalices and cups, Harry was immediately certain that he had found the horcrux when his scar twinged with pain as he stared at it.

"It's over here!" he called out and heard a whoop from Ron as he began considering how to obtain the cup without falling victim to the enchantments on the surrounding gold. Hermione reached Harry just a few moments after Griphook, with Ron sprinting up to them.

"We're not going to be able to reach it without touching all this gold," said Harry as he pointed to the cup on the wall. "Can one of you lift me up so I can grab it?"

"I don't know that we should try to grab it at all." Hermione winced as she hugged one hand to her chest. "What if we use the sword on it now, so that we don't have to worry about whatever curses might be protecting it affecting us as we escape?"

She produced her beaded bag and pulled the Sword of Gryffindor from its depths. "I burned my wand-hand pretty badly, so I don't think I should swing it. I might be able to wingardium one of you close enough, though…"

Ron stepped forward. "Not with your hand like that. Harry, you've got a steadier hand than me. If you'll lift me over there, I'll take care of it and we can get to work escaping this bloody place."

There wasn't enough time to argue back and forth. Ron grasped the sword and gritted his teeth as Harry pointed the wand at him. "Wingardium leviosa!" The taller boy was quickly airborne, and it took some concentration on Harry's part to keep him aloft.

"Easy does it, Harry! I don't fancy a nosedive into cursed gold." Ron wiggled a bit in midair, trying to position himself for a clean swing. "Just like taking a beater's bat to a bludger…" he whispered to himself. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry could see a nervous Hermione holding Bellatrix's wand with her uninjured hand.

Suddenly, his scar exploded with pain.

Voldemort was apoplectic. A terrified Bellatrix watched as Rodolphus writhed in pain. "My Lord…" she began but felt the cruciatus rip through her body before she could finish.

"To Gringotts! Now!" Voldemort bellowed, and Bellatrix shot up from the ground in time to see her master disapparate.

Hermione's screams were in Harry's ears before he could reopen his eyes. With Harry's focus lost, Ron had fallen just before he could swing the sword. His long arm had reached forward and grabbed the shelf, but the cup tipped over and fell into the pile of galleons beneath him.

Harry started groping along the ground as soon as he realized that he'd dropped his wand and his glasses. He instead brushed against several coins and trinkets near where he had stumbled to his knees. Angry red burns burst onto his hands and arms wherever he touched the gold, which magically multiplied.

"Hold on, I'll get you back!" Hermione concentrated as she leveled the wand at Ron, who was hanging by one hand to the shelf, with another hand holding tightly to the sword. "Wingardium leviosa! Wingardium leviosa! Levicorpus! Wingardium leviosa! Damn this wand!" An ancient suit of armor near Ron rose a few inches before collapsing under its own weight. A bag of gold zoomed up to the ceiling, burst, and rained down on them, burning and multiplying around them all.

Harry frantically grasped at what looked like his wand, but it turned out to be a splintered antique chair. He yelled in pain and surprise as he felt his skin begin to blister. Identical chairs began materializing, further constraining the already limited space at the back of the vault. The mounds of treasure were quickly rising, and Ron's lower half was soon blocked from Harry's view.

"I've got an idea!" called out Ron. "The cup is right under me! I'm going to drop on it with the sword, then we make a break for it!"

"NO! Ronald Weasley, you can't! We've got to all get out together!"

"Mione, I can't hold on! Head for the exit! I've got this!"

Harry's oozing hand finally grasped his wand as he shouted, but Ron had already let go of the shelf. A blurry, black-robed body topped with blurry red hair sank behind the pile of multiplying gold and landed with a sickening crunch.

The lights extinguished as Ron hit the ground, his Lumos no longer active. Harry and Hermione both cried out as the clanging and jingling of dozens of gold pieces became a roar of a breaking wave of gold. A rough hand caught Harry by the scruff of the neck, and Griphook's magic pulled him and Hermione out of the vault, away from the burning cascade that had swallowed their best friend.

Hermione's cry of anguish pierced Harry's very being. This couldn't be happening. Through all the close calls and near misses, through his own doubts about whether he would be able to survive himself, the thought that Ron might not make it had never quite sunk in.

Tears were already streaming down Harry's face. He stared unblinkingly ahead as the sound of Hermione's pain washed over him.

They had lost Ron. He had lost Ron. His first friend. Harry hadn't been able to save him before Griphook swept them out of the vault.

"How could you? You left him to die!" Harry tried to grab Griphook by the arm, but couldn't hang on due to the searing pain in his hand, already wet with blood and burn-ooze.

"There isn't time! We will soon be overrun! He knew what he was getting himself into!" Griphook's countenance did not betray an ounce of sorrow or regret. "There is but one chance of escape. The oldest vaults have means of connecting with the outside world. You are the heir of the Potter vault. We must make haste!" The goblin took off towards another passage without a second look.

Another cry from Hermione wrenched through Harry. A mixture of anger, grief, and fear surged in his mind. He started to grab for her to pull her to follow Griphook when an explosion of heat and light pulled his attention.

Bogrod had not ceased making noise with the clankers, but the dragon appeared ready to reclaim dominion over the cavern, especially as the sound of angry goblins came closer. Its fiery breath flowed into the tunnel in which Griphook had just vanished. The great head turned towards Harry and Hermione as shouts from the horde of goblins carried through the passageways.

With the lightning-quick reflexes of a seeker, Harry pushed off of Hermione, sending them both sprawling across the stone floor as flames belched forth from the dragon's mouth over the spot they had just been standing. Harry scrambled behind a small outcropping of stones before realizing that Hermione had no such cover. As the great beast rose back to ready a swipe at his exposed prey, Harry yelled, "Accio Hermione!"

A claw tore through Hermione's calf as she was summoned away from the spot. Harry's hand covered her mouth immediately as the dragon began sniffing the ground where its mighty blow had just landed.

"We're getting out of here, Hermione," whispered Harry as he muttered a hasty healing charm on her leg. The wound kept bleeding, but the blood flow seemed to slow considerably.

The dragon was disappointed to find nothing beneath its claws. Before it could consider where the morsel had escaped to, a dozen goblins burst into the cavern with clankers sounding. Such a sudden influx of noise startled the beast, which reared back on its hind legs, spewing fire towards the ceiling. Behind the goblins, a pale figure in black robes swept into the cavern, flanked by a witch on one side and a wizard on the other.

The three began firing spell after spell at the dragon. Old scales, worn from years of malnourishment and abuse, sloughed off in spots where it was hit with particularly nasty curses, though the magic of the animal repelled most spells away from its hide. Several unlucky goblins were mowed down by ricocheting curses.

Unused to such a painful onslaught of spellfire, the dragon roared in anger and shot fire at the attackers. Rabastan dove to the side to avoid the flames while Bellatrix and Voldemort stood still. With the flick of his wand, the fire was parried to the side, engulfing Rabastan and two goblins in the inferno. Bellatrix did not glance to the side to see her husband's body quickly becoming a heap of ash, keeping her gaze fixed on Voldemort.

Harry was trying to pull Hermione backwards, away from the fighting, when his hand pressed up against a set of double doors. He instinctively looked up, and read the words inscribed over the doorway. Toujours pur.

Before his mind could process the thought, he heard Bellatrix cry out "Sectumsempra!" A deep gash on the dragon's partially exposed stomach started pouring blood onto the floor of the cavern. But the spell collided with several magical scales, which caused the cutting curse to rebound in multiple directions. Voldemort summoned one of the remaining goblins to use as a shield, and its body was shredded by the curse.

As the magical doors began to react to Harry's touch, he looked back to see a reflected jet of light strike Hermione. She gasped in surprise as the curse struck her stomach.

Voldemort's red eyes darted to the open doorway from which the screams emanated. He saw Harry desperately trying to pull an eviscerated girl past the doorway. As he walked past the convulsing dragon, he saw a flash of spell light from the young witch's wand blast Harry backwards into the depths of the vault, and the doors to the vault rematerialized.

Bellatrix cackled. "The little mudblood thought she could steal from my vault? Thought she could hide Potter in the vault of my forefathers? She must be far stupider than we were told. Well, since our playtime at Malfoy Manor got cut short, let's see if you can survive long enough to have some fun with us."

Hermione's vision was fading as she lost more and more blood, but the thought of torture at the hands of Voldemort and the Death Eaters kept her focus resolved. "Harry will… find a way… to beat you…"

"Potter has already lost!" snarled Bellatrix "He's trapped with no hope of escape!"

"He's resourceful…" Hermione wheezed, as she pushed herself into a sitting position against the doorway. The manic glee on Bellatrix's face at the thought of another round with Hermione was offset by the almost-inquisitive look on the face of Voldemort."I learned a bit of that… from him…"

Before either of them could stop her, she brought the wand at her side in front of her. Impenetrable shields sprang forth in front of Bellatrix and her Dark Lord, but Hermione didn't fire a spell. Instead, she firmly grasped the wand and snapped it cleanly into two pieces. Bellatrix began to laugh.

"No need to use the last of your strength to snap your wand, Mudblood! I'd have been happy to do that for you. Your kind don't deserve to have a wand of your own."

Hermione couldn't help the small smile that broke through the pain. "Actually… that wasn't… my wand…"

Bellatrix's laughter cut off abruptly. She reached down to grab the pieces of the now broken wand. A crazed look flashed through her eyes. With a cry of rage, she leveled her borrowed wand at Hermione's face. A green light burst forth, and the brightest witch of her age knew no more.

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Chapter 2: Chapter 2

Voldemort's red eyes flashed with malice. He backhanded his servant, who tumbled to the ground. Bellatrix was engulfed in the Cruciatus before she knew what happened, and her screams echoed through the tunnels.

"You fool! Don't you realize that's exactly what she wanted? Now we cannot extract any details about what they've been doing nor what they've accomplished! Your impudence has robbed me of crucial information!" The intensity of the curse grew, casting odd shadows on the cavern walls.

"I'm sorry… My Lord…" panted Bellatrix as she still convulsed. She had long ago learned not to rise after her Master's curse until instructed to do so. "No matter what they sought to do, nothing can undermine..."

Another jet of light hit Bellatrix, though its intensity was not as great as the first. "Do not speak of my plans as if you know all the wheels I've set into motion. Coming to Gringotts, breaking in disguised as you to infiltrate your vault. There is more to these children than we had expected. Stand up. Fetch the treasure I entrusted to you all those years ago."

Bellatrix shakily got to her feet. The Dark Lord wasn't looking at her, his gaze locked on the doors to the Black family vault. She swiftly hobbled to her own vault doors, placed her hand on them, and stepped through the doorway.

The thieves had clearly been looking for something. Her gait was evening out as she passed open drawers and chests, walking towards the back corner of her treasure trove. With a bit of difficulty stemming from her borrowed wand, she removed the curses, which undid the magical multiplication of coins and trinkets, as well as allowed for everything to be handled without being burned.

As the false items evaporated, Bellatrix noted with some trepidation that the largest pile of duplicates stood right in front of the wall where the cup had been stored. A bead of sweat formed on her brow. She soon realized that the shelf on the wall had been pulled down and that the cup was likely near the bottom of the pile of gold, gems, and…

A gasp escaped Bellatrix's lips as she saw a charred human body slumped against the wall. She had seen countless bodies in her life, caused more deaths than she could count, so the fear welling up inside her had little to do with the tall, red-haired corpse. No, her heart was pounding in her chest because the body's hand held tight to some sort of sword even in death, and that sword had plunged straight through her Master's gift.

She ripped the sword from the lifeless hand of its former wielder, closely examining it. The small cup was oozing something black and ominous. With a feeling of dread, she brought both items back to the entrance of the vault.

Voldemort's unblinking eyes had not moved from where Harry had disappeared minutes before. The trepidation in his servant's voice, however, caused him to slowly turn towards her.

"Master… I apologize. It appears that there was a third among the number who broke into my vault. He was dead, burned beneath an avalanche of cursed treasure, but his hand held this sword with your cup on it."

As Voldemort took the sword, which was still buried halfway through the cup, his body began to pulse with some sort of malevolent energy. Bellatrix Lestrange had witnessed a great many outbursts of rage, but nothing compared to this. A jet of white-hot light billowed from Voldemort's wand, indenting the doorway of the Black vault. There was no spell uttered; no incantation to mold or direct the spell. This was pure malice made into magic.

When the doorway held against the onslaught, Voldemort slashed it back and forth, scouring the cavern with deep gashes. The now-dead dragon was hewn in two. Bodies of fallen goblins were reduced to ash instantly. Bellatrix turned tail and ran, making for the closest tunnel, before her unseeing Master's rage finally caught her. She didn't even have time to question whether the curse was some unknown version of the Killing Curse, or if it was simply a Cruciatus with such powerful hate behind it that it was ripping her apart.

The earth quaked beneath Voldemort as he finally regained some semblance of coherent thought. The force of the blast had dislodged much of the stone from the cavern ceiling, and great boulders were crashing to the floor. He noted that the lifeless form of his former Lieutenant was quickly buried beneath the rubble. As he left, Voldemort cast a few more blasting hexes. The once wide and deep caverns finished collapsing on themselves as he walked up the next tunnel.

Frantic goblins accosted him almost immediately, yelling to one another in their disgusting language and demanding answers. With the flick of a wrist, all of them but one had fallen to the ground, never to rise again. The terrified goblin looked at the wizard with fear overpowering all other emotions.

"The next room has collapsed. A thief is holed up in the Black vault. Bring him to me, alive, and I will consider not extinguishing your entire race. You have three days." The shocked goblin sprinted away, leaving Voldemort to consider his next move.

"The old fool must have set his allies to the task of finding my horcruxes," he thought to himself. "He was too clever for his own good. Nevertheless, I must check to ensure no more have been compromised." But which to confirm first?

"Dumbledore knew of the orphanage. It's possible he could have found out about my exploits at the cave. He also could have information from my time at the school that would lead him to the Gaunt house. Lucius already failed me by losing the diary. Nagini is well protected, as is the diadem." By the time he strode out of Gringotts, his plan was in place.

A loud pop sounded as Voldemort apparated to the Gaunt house When he stepped inside, he was immediately aware that something was amiss. Layers of protections had been dispelled. His pace quickened, and soon he stood above the floorboards where his treasure had been so carefully hidden.

His wand twitched and the wood opened. An ornate box emerged, but Voldemort knew the truth before it was even unlatched. The ring was gone. A cry of fury echoed through the countryside, and a spell flew from his wand as he apparated away. The flames that engulfed the old, wooden house would not be quenched for days.

After apparating to the cliffside, Voldemort flew down to the cave entrance. He cursed himself for not thinking to bring someone to provide blood for the doorway but quickly decided he was in too much of a hurry to care. He pricked his own finger and pressed it to the stone. It creaked open, and Voldemort once again took flight.

The water was filled with inferi, but many of them were mangled and burned. Voldemort's eyes darted back and forth at the bodies under the water until he reached the island. He stood over the basin, anger mounting as he cursed his mortal enemy for thwarting his plans, even in death.

This morning, Nagini had been sunning herself on a large stone in the back garden at Malfoy Manor, digesting a meal she had made out of a Snatcher who had given a disappointing report. While Voldemort already had plans in place to further fortify her position, it was his horcrux at Hogwarts that concerned him most.

He had not seen fit to visit the grounds since his incursion to take his enemy's wand. There had been no need yet, and his loyal servant Severus had been quite confident that a show off such force would terrify the students beyond what their tiny minds could take. It was just as well. Coordinating the war effort, taking over the Ministry of Magic, and any number of other tasks had taken up his valuable time. Yet now was not the time for assigning jobs to lackeys.

Voldemort was still irked that he could not yet apparate directly into Hogwarts and stored away that he would confront Severus about that soon. For now, he arrived outside of the wards and began flying towards the castle.

Severus Snape was on guard. He had heard that the Dark Lord, Bellatrix, and Rodolphus had left Malfoy Manor for Gringotts in a rage, and had been informed that only his Master had exited the bank. So he was not surprised when he entered the Headmaster's office to find Voldemort standing there with a murderous look in his eyes.

"My Lord, to what do I owe the surprise?" he asked, quickly kneeling.

"My business is none of your concern, Severus, except that you may want to keep any students you wish to stay alive away from the seventh-floor corridor."

"I will do as you wish. Shall I post the Carrows nearby to assure none disturb you?"

"Yes, do so at once." He started to walk past the still-kneeling wizard before stopping. "Bellatrix and Rodolphus failed me again, but this was the final time. Your services may soon be needed elsewhere. Be ready."

"Yes, my Lord," said Snape, betraying no emotion at the confirmation of his assumptions.

"And one more thing…" Voldemort smiled as he left the room. "Potter is trapped in a vault at Gringotts, and both his little friends perished."

A sneer formed across the old Potion Master's face. "Excellent. The fools had no chance to stand against your might." The door slammed as Voldemort strode away.

Snape's hand moved instinctually to his brow, which quickly scrunched together. His sneer dissolved into a scowl. How could those imbeciles have made such idiotic choices? Why in Merlin's name would they undertake such a moronic task?

Granger and Weasley dead, Potter captured. On some level, it was a surprise they had survived this long on the run, with the weight of the Death Eaters, the Ministry, and roving bands of Snatchers on the loose. Dumbledore had always played his hand close to his chest, but leaving some task of the utmost importance to those three had been foolish to the point of insanity. Snape still couldn't believe that the old man hadn't looped anyone else into the plans.

On the one hand, the logic of keeping the full truth from himself was a tactically sound decision. Dumbledore had never betrayed a hint of disbelieving his sincere turn from Voldemort, but one as talented at legilimency as he would naturally engender some level of mistrust. But to leave the secrets of Voldemort's potential downfall in the hands of three students, ignoring members of his own Order? Surely, McGonagall or Shacklebolt would have been better suited. Even the werewolf or Arthur Weasley would have been preferable.

Snape sighed. His best course of action, at this point, was to follow the Dark Lord's orders so as not to arouse suspicions. Today's revelations would likely force his hand in ways that he didn't like. He swept out of the office to find the Carrows and try to spare any unfortunate students who might be heading into danger.

Voldemort was livid when he walked past the wall where the door to the Room of Hidden Things should have appeared for the ninth time. Just as he had all those years previous, he strode past the wall, concentrating on needing a place to hide something of great importance. The blank wall remained unchanged.

With a snarl, he shot a spell directly at the wall. The Reducto made impact and indented the stonework, leaving a dark scorch mark where it collided with the wall. The wizard cocked his head to the side, inquisitively, as he thought he could almost hear screams from inside.

Another spell leaped forth from the Elder Wand, and the indentation grew deeper. Now Voldemort could distinctly make out voices behind the wall. His anger at the children for slowing his retrieval was tempered by his fascination that others had found the room until the thought that if these students had gained entry to this room, then it was likely that Dumbledore had done so as well hit him like an electric shock.

He poured his magic into a final Reducto, which blasted a large hole in the wall. There seemed to be fewer students than he originally expected based on the noise.

As Voldemort ducked to enter the room, he found four students standing amongst nearly two dozen small beds and hammocks. On the far wall was a large portrait with several figures fleeing down a pathway. The four students looked to be sixth or seventh years, and they had clearly had more than their share of time with the Carrows.

"Bloody hell…" whispered one of the girls, whose dark hair shone in the torch light.

"Am I to assume that you are some of the students who have been giving Severus and the Carrows such headaches this year?" asked Voldemort, as he twirled his wand through his fingers. "As foolish as that was, it is far more dangerous to stand between Lord Voldemort and his goals."

It was Neville Longbottom who spoke. "You and your demented followers are the reason so many of us have lost people we love! We'll stand against you, come what may!"

"Well now, isn't that something? Most of my victims spend their final moments begging for mercy rather than spouting off drivel about ending my reign of terror. Surely, four teenagers such as yourselves must know the futility of opposing me? But if these illustrious halls have failed to teach you such a basic premise, allow me to instruct you myself."

Before any of the four students could react, a green spell struck their leader square in the chest. Neville collapsed in a heap on the floor as his friends began to yell. Parvati dove to her right as a menacing orange curse flew past where she had just stood. She scrambled on her hands and knees behind a four-poster bed, desperately looking to catch sight of her sister. Seamus' screams ripped her attention from her search, as the boy writhed on the ground. Voldemort cackled in delight at his pain.

Padma tried to signal to her sister from where she was hiding in a younger student's abandoned hammock. She could see from the corner of her eye that almost all of the other students had completed their trip through the passage to the Hog's Head, but it looked like they needed a little more time. When her twin's eyes caught hers, the Ravenclaw mouthed the spell that she felt they both had the best chance of firing effectively and maybe slowing down the monster between them.

Parvati could barely make out what her sister was mouthing, but had done enough lip-reading for gossip purposes that she quickly understood. She held three fingers aloft, then two, then one.

Seamus had experienced the Cruciatus from several of the older students in this, his 7th year at Hogwarts. He'd even been on the receiving end of the curse from the Carrows on a few occasions. But nothing, nothing in the world, could have prepared him for this. When the curse was finally lifted, he could still feel nothing but pain. It was as if pain was all he had ever known, all he was capable of knowing.

Above the piercing ringing in his ears, he heard two familiar voices shout, "Expelliarmus!" simultaneously. Voldemort deftly dodged the spells, which exploded into a shower of red sparks as they impacted each other. Seamus shielded his face from the explosion, so he did not see the curses that the Dark Lord fired toward each of the sisters. He did hear the telltale sounds of curses ending the lives of his two friends.

When he looked up, Voldemort was walking back towards the hole in the wall from whence he had entered. Seamus had a fleeting second of hope before Voldemort pointed his wand without looking. A jet of green light sped towards his still-spasming body, and all became black.

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Chapter 3: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

While Voldemort was still angry that he had now lost three of his six horcruxes, his rage had simmered into a dulled malevolence. Yes, Dumbledore had figured out some of his secrets, but the old fool had missed the horcrux right under his crooked nose!

It was regrettable that he had exhausted the limits of horcrux creation… Whatever sliver of his soul was cleaved off by the process of killing was no longer large or stable enough to bind to an object. But still, he had two remaining, and that should be more than enough to assure his immortality. Even if he decided not to fully rely on his horcruxes, he supposed he had the time and mental acuity to plumb the depths of magic for alternatives. Perhaps the creation of his own Philosopher's Stone was in order.

One plan that needed to go into action right away had been a long time coming. With the losses his enemies had sustained, their forces were scattered and hiding out as much as possible, with a few exceptions. Most of those exceptions resided right here in the castle. It was past time to thin the herd and send a statement to any who considered opposing the rule of Lord Voldemort.

It was only five minutes until lunch when the doors blew off of the Transfiguration classroom, causing screams from the third-year Ravenclaw students who were supposed to be practicing their spells. Professor McGonagall just barely intercepted one of the doors, turning into loose straw before it careened into her students in the first row.

"Minerva, I regret to inform you that your services are no longer required at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry." The students gasped as Voldemort himself walked into the classroom. His wand was trained on her. With remarkable speed, she dodged a jet of green light while pointing her own wand at her desk. Hundreds of papers flew into the air, flapping just like a flock of birds. They surrounded the intruder, swarming around him and obscuring his view.

"Students! You must escape through my quarters! At once!" Her voice was almost deafening, though none of the students had seen her cast a Sonorus. The entire class was panicking as they clambered to the back door in the classroom, even as Voldemort slashed his wand through the enchanted papers, causing them to alight with fire. The pages had become flaming arrows, which were directed towards the students jamming through the back exit.

McGonagall pointed her wand at a nearby table, which animated and flung itself in front of the volley of arrows. "Engorgio!" she shrieked, and the table grew as it fell to its side, absorbing the strikes of the arrows as the last of the terrified students disappeared into the doorway.

A flicker of a smile crossed Voldemort's face. "I must admit, I had thought rumors of your prowess must have been exaggerated. I fear that you may be the last of my foes that I ever consider to be formidable." His eyes narrowed. "But now it is time for all who oppose me to perish. I don't suppose you're interested in joining my ranks?" Another spell launched from his wand, narrowly missing the witch as she dodged right.

"No, I can't say I'm interested," she spat while parrying another curse. If she could only stall him a few more moments, perhaps the students would have enough time to warn the rest of the staff. A wry smile flit across her face as she remembered her stash of items she'd confiscated without alerting those who might punish the students harshly for them.

Voldemort laughed, a cold and joyless laugh. With a swish of his wand, McGonagall's hand was severed, her wand clattering to the floor. A howl of pain escaped her. He strode forward into the center of the classroom with his wand trained on her. "Any last words before you meet oblivion?"

The green was already forming at the tip of his wand when she transformed. The burst of light ripped through the space where the Professor had been a moment earlier. Her feline form darted to a sealed box on the floor in the corner, where she resumed her human stature. "God bless those troublemakers," she said as her remaining hand activated a myriad of items that had been stored for safekeeping.

She was struck from behind by a fiercely cast Avada Kedavra. Voldemort couldn't see the edges of a smile forming on her lips as she died.

The room exploded with colored light and deafening sounds almost at once. The Dark Lord quickly conjured his most powerful shield, wondering what kind of defenses the old professor could have unleashed. Whatever it was that he was prepared for was most certainly not what he experienced.

Voldemort was suddenly plunged into a swamp more than a foot deep, which then grew to nearly three feet deep. Enchanted fireworks careened off of the walls, screaming back and forth until they collided, bursting from two into a dozen, then repeating. Round discs caromed around the room, with enormous teeth that chomped down onto anything unfortunate enough to venture too close to their fanged mouths. Then, without warning, everything was engulfed in a darkness so deep that it seemed nothing could ever escape. The sound of the fireworks screaming by and the frisbees squelching into the muddy water were the only noises to betray that Voldemort had not, himself, been transported into some subterranean cavern miles beneath the Earth's surface..

With water and foul-smelling mud up past his knees, Voldemort made to vanish the incantations. As soon as the spell left his lips, the swamp had doubled in size. With it localized solely in the Transfiguration classroom, the mud and water were suddenly up to his chest. Not that he could see anything. The Peruvian Darkness powder had encompassed all the remaining air and turned all the water pitch black, too.

Annoyance turned to anger with frightening speed as Voldemort concentrated his power as he yelled, "Finite Incantadem!" The Fanged Frisbees fell motionless into the muddy water, but the fireworks only seemed to become more agitated. Their screams doubled, and Voldemort had the momentary wondered if they increased in number by several fold, or if they had each just become that much more intense.

When the water and muck levels again doubled, all thoughts of fireworks left Voldemort's mind.

The swamp had expanded once again, and now the mud bottom of the Transfiguration room was at his waist. The inky water had nearly reached the ceiling, and Voldemort was well and truly underwater.

The Dark Lord had experienced panic very few times in his life. This had much to do with his own power being so overwhelming that few ever set to the task of opposing him directly. But it must be said that part of his lack of experience with panic was due to not spending much time on the receiving end of Weasley pranks.

Red eyes searched the darkened water for a way out, squinting against the lack of light, but it was no use. A twinge of fear mixed with overwhelming rage crossed his mind as he pointed his wand straight down and roared.

The floor of the classroom melted away, as did the entirety of the contents of the room directly beneath the room. In fact, a chasm had opened where several rooms on lower floors had been moments ago. Gravity pulled the swamp down the shaft, leaving a soaking wet wizard flying in what had once been a place of learning. He sealed the door behind him after exiting the room, cleaning himself off with a spell.

Fury rose in his chest as he thought about the indignity of fearing something, even for an instant. His nostrils flared as he breathed in and out, his traitorous lungs succumbing to their need for air. He slowly raised his wand to his throat.

A collection of third-year Ravenclaws ran into the Great Hall searching out their diminutive Head of House when a deafening voice rang out above the subdued chatter of the students at their tables.

"Students and faculty of Hogwarts! Meet in the Great Hall at once, if you do not want to surrender your life. Be ready to account for yourselves in fifteen minutes. Anyone not present will answer to Lord Voldemort directly!"

Panic swept through the hall. Professor Sprout and Professor Flitwick rushed to their house tables, and Slughorn was next to the Slytherins moments later. The hysterical third-year Ravenclaws were stumbling over themselves to explain to Flitwick what had happened, with the two other Heads of House listening in. As realization sank in, the three looked at each other.

Of course they had known this was a possibility, but they had always assumed that if an end had to be made, Minerva would be standing with them, leading them. Many students were already crying, others were tugging at the robes of their Head of House. Several looked ready to make a break for the doors, when Sprout's voice rang out.

"SILENCE!" Every eye turned to the woman, and the room fell quiet, except for a few muffled cries and sobs. The Herbology professor climbed atop the nearest table and spoke with a strong, clear voice. "Students, listen carefully! You must all leave immediately. Leave through the main gates toward Hogsmeade, get to a shop, a pub, or any magical home, and use the floo to get to safety. Your teachers will remain to provide you the time to do so safely. It has been an honor teaching you. May you find safe harbor somewhere beyond the reach of this monster. Now GO!"

Before the crowded room could begin to move a voice called out. "Not so fast! Don't anyone move a muscle!" came a voice entering the Great Hall. Amycus Carrow's eyes were flashing with excitement. "You'll all ignore her blathering and wait for the Dark Lord, or you'll pay for it in blood!" Alecto walked forward from behind her brother, with her gaze fixed on Professor Flitwick.

In an instant, there was an incredible flash of blinding light. Both Carrows covered their eyes with their hands as Slughorn's wand produced a Lumos Maxima that shot straight in between them. Before they could recover, Sprout and Flitwick rushed forward. It was suddenly quite apparent how Filius had won dueling championships in his youth, as he parried the blindly-cast curses of the Carrows. And though her spellwork was not at the same level as her counterpart, Pomona's wand slashed with a fury. In seconds, both Carrows were left unconscious in a heap.

Flitwick turned at the sound of cheering behind him. "What are you waiting for? You've got to get out of here before You Know Who arrives!"

As the students began to run for the doors, a red light burst from further down the hallway, knocking the Charms professor to the floor. His wand flipped in midair as it flew into the outstretched hand of the Headmaster.

"Filius! What the hell do you think you're doing?!" spat Snape. He watched as students ignored them and rushed towards the gates to the Hogwarts grounds. "Pomona! He'll flay you both alive for this!"

"I won't stand by and watch students tortured anymore! I won't watch them be led like lambs to the slaughter!" Flitwick pulled a spare wand from within his robes as he stood back up and walked forward to stand next to Sprout.

"We may not be enough to fend off You Know Who, but we can buy the students precious seconds." Pomona's face was hard as stone as she pointed her wand at Snape. "Severus, if you ever were the man Dumbledore believed you to be, you must see that your Master is bent on killing countless innocents. Will you be able to live with yourself if you don't fight for them now?"

Before he could answer, a jet of green light flew from the pile of Carrows. It struck the short professor in the shoulder, and the gleam in his eyes was gone before his body had time to crumple to the floor.

A scream of agony and anger escaped the Herbology professor's lips. Her wand pointed to the stone archway above the Carrows, which exploded into rubble and collapsed on their prone bodies, crushing them both.

Snape fired a disarming spell at Sprout, but she dodged to her left. Before he could fire a second time, he was forced to hastily conjure a shield to block a curse from Slughorn, who had moved to flank his position. He shot back a Sectumsempra at his old Potions teacher's legs. The older man was not particularly athletic, and a cry of pain let him know that his aim was true, even as he turned his attention more fully to the spells fired by Sprout.

Things were spiraling out of control quickly. Snape glanced out the window to see the stragglers of the student group nearing the gates. Chances were that many would be captured or killed in Hogsmeade, but he had to give Pomona credit. Forcing the students to leave had been a smart choice. It looked like most of the Slytherins had followed her advice as well, as only a few of the older students had remained back. Bold enough to stay in the Great Hall, but cowardly enough to not jump into the fray with powerful witches and wizards dueling and all manner of curses flying around.

The problem was that he had no recourse. There was no way to signal to his opponents that he was still on their side, still working toward the downfall of his Master who even now was tearing the castle apart and who would arrive any minute now. He had long since resigned himself to killing when necessary, but couldn't help but feel remorseful as Filius' body, which somehow seemed smaller in death, lay between him and the kind Professor Sprout.

He hoped that the injury to Horace would be enough to convince him to flee. He had never been a brave man, and even the half-hearted curse he'd shot at his former professor should be enough to make him tuck tail and run.

"Do you have any idea how many students I've had to comfort this year, Severus?! How many dozens of children, CHILDREN, Severus, have come to me for aid because they feared you or your Carrows would torture them if they took their injuries to the hospital wing?" A wild fury was etched onto her face as she shot spells one after another. She didn't even bother with incantations and kept accusing her enemy as she shot another flurry toward him. "Not just my 'Puffs, but Ravenclaws and Gryffindors, too! I've even patched up Slytherin first and second years who were put under the Cruciatus by the Carrows and your Junior Death Eaters! You are no teacher," a bright blue spell flew dangerously close to his left shoulder, "no headmaster," a sickly grey spell almost hit his right knee, "and a disgrace to these hallowed halls of education!" a pink curse slipped just under his hastily erected shield.

Electric shocks shot up from his foot all the way through his torso. The pain wasn't as bad as a Cruciatus, but it also wasn't pleasant. Snape growled as he ducked against a wall, trying to regain feeling in his fingers. He would have to banish her through one of the windows… Yes, perhaps that would be enough for her to see the benefit of living to fight another day.

Severus leaped back to his feet, blocking a dark blue spell from Sprout before dodging a hex fired Slughorn from his position lying in a growing pool of his own blood. The fool had somehow summoned the will to drag himself to a position to fire the hex, which he only just noticed at the last moment. Snape fired a blasting hex at the ground near Slughorn, before returning his attention to Sprout.

A squelching sound and a spray of blood caused Severus to look downward. There, protruding from his chest, was a significant length of arrow.

Another suddenly burst forth from his chest, not six inches to the right of the first.

Snape turned to look down the hallway. His already fading vision saw Firenze galloping towards him, a third arrow already aimed at him. As he fell to the ground, the third arrow found its mark. He didn't even have time to fully remember Lily Evans' face before the darkness closed in.

Firenze emerged into the Great Hall in time to see Professor Sprout tending to Horace's leg wound. "Pomona, it is not safe to tarry here. We have little time."

"I'm not leaving. Every moment we hold You Know Who's attention is a moment for our students to escape." She looked from Firenze to Slughorn. "I'm sure most of the faculty has fled by now. Minerva had planned for the eventual deterioration of our standing here. When he announced his presence, anyone with a floo should have quickly taken any nearby students to safety. With any luck, the castle is almost deserted as we speak."

"Which means that we should follow their lead, 'Mona," said a frantic-looking Slughorn. "I'm not too proud to say I doubt we stand a chance against him, even without his lackeys."

Firenze looked into the distance. "My prowess in archery will do little to slow down such a wizard, but a slain centaur, even one as disgraced as I, may be worth the sacrifice should it galvanize the herds. Pomona, if you stay, it will not be alone."

"Thank you, Firenze. You deserve a world better than this."

Slughorn struggled to meet Professor Sprout's gaze. He looked to the back of the Great Hall, where several older students, Malfoy, Parkinson, Crabbe, Goyle, and Nott by the looks of it, were huddled behind an overturned table. A small touch of pride swelled in his heart when he realized that some of the students he'd personally mentored, like Zabini and Greengrass, hadn't stayed. The remaining students might have an easier time of it by pledging themselves to the Dark Lord, but the others were made of better and stronger stuff. They wouldn't serve at the pleasure of a madman who delighted in the kind of torture and mayhem they'd seen over the past year.

Horace shakily stood back up, leaning uneasily onto Firenze for support. "Firenze, you're not even a man, and yet you're a better man than me." Slughorn winced as the newly-closed wound on his leg stretched and threatened to reopen. "I don't have much of a chance at running away on this leg, and the fact that I fought against the Dark Lord's minions, against so many fellow Slytherins, means I'm not likely to survive long even if I were to escape. But maybe I can follow Firenze's lead and give some misguided students a different idea of what the Green and Silver can stand for. And I'll be damned if I let one of my favorite students," he winked at Pomona, "steal all the glory."

"Horace! How very touching!" Voldemort's voice seemed to surround them, coming at them from every angle. "You seek to teach the few loyal enough to me to remain how to be a coward? I'm sure they have far too many examples of that already."

An arrow was at the ready in Firenze's bow, and Pomona's wand pointed towards the corridor. Slughorn fumbled with his wand before sidestepping to the right. Pomona moved in the opposite direction in an attempt to spread their attacking forces out.

"You seek to slow down my progress? To prevent me from reaching the students? My followers in Hogsmeade are already making short work of them. Any who escapes will soon find that there is no haven to be found. I own the Ministry. Hogwarts is mine. Soon, all of Britain will fall to me, and then my rule will only spread. Surely, you must realize that the world is full of those yearning for the power and the permission that I promise."

Voldemort casually spoke to his three remaining enemies while strolling down the center aisle of the Great Hall. His tone was matter-of-fact as if he were explaining his plans to a group of particularly dense children. "You have seen how the numbers of my followers expand quickly, while those willing to lay down their lives for the ideals you espouse dwindle, like sand falling from an hourglass. Severus and the Carrows reported that even the students you work so hard to protect were being molded to my purposes. As foreign-born wizards and witches learn what I have to offer, the number of Death Eaters will swell."

A window of the Great Hall exploded inward, showering all of them in shards of broken glass. Mounted on her own personal broom, Rolanda Hooch sped through the opening while firing spells directly at Voldemort. "Caught ya' monologuing, ya' great bloody bastard!" she yelled as she made a pass by him, peppering him with more jets of light. Pomona and Firenze took her emergence as the signal to begin fighting, and their arrows and spells were soon flying. Slughorn couldn't help muttering, "Hooch is crazy…" before he began firing a flurry of his own curses.

Despite their numbers and the element of surprise, Voldemort clearly had them outmatched. When the broom she was riding exploded, Rolanda was blasted off course, chunks of wood and splinters piercing her. She collided with a stone column at the side of the hall with a sickening crunch and didn't move.

Firenze valiantly fired arrow after arrow, but saw that none were penetrating the shield of his foe. Instead of aiming for Voldemort's well-protected vital areas, he changed tactics and attempted to hit lower extremities. He let loose an arrow that struck the ground before bouncing back up and under the shield, ripping through Voldemort's black robes and catching the wizard's lower leg. The wizard hissed in pain before turning on the spot and yelling, "Avada Kedavra!" Firenze's hooves couldn't find enough purchase to leap out of the way. His lifeless form collapsed to the floor.

Pomona whipped her wand towards the long Ravenclaw table next to her, which rocketed towards her opponent, who simply slashed with his wand to split the table in half. She cried out in anger and frustration as her next spells were each parried to the side. In the blink of an eye, Voldemort was upon her. He grasped her by the throat and lifted her from the ground as her wand fell from her hand.

Slughorn's hand shook from fear as he shot errantly. The few spells that were on target merely bounced off of the still active shield. Still holding Sprout aloft, Voldemort turned to face his former Professor.

"You were weak enough to give valuable information to that old fool and stupid enough to think he could provide you with safety. You've made your choice, now for some fitting consequences. How about you do the honor of ending one of your students? Imperio!"

Horace couldn't feel the pain in his leg anymore. Nor could he feel the exhaustion that had been gripping him moments before.

He heard a voice inside his head. The disembodied voice told him to kill the witch in front of him. A nagging thought in that back of his head feebly fought with the voice, but it was no use. Killing her would be easy, and it would make everything better.

The portly wizard stepped forward and trained his wand on the witch, who was kicking at another wizard robed in black. Quite impolite of her to kick like that, he thought. The wizard seemed to almost be caressing her, but she struck at his outstretched hand. Yes, killing her was the best course of action.

The nagging thought was becoming more and more frantic. It was trying to wrest his concentration away from his task. It seemed to be trying to convince him that he knew this strange woman. And there was something familiar about her… But no, the voice was certain that he must kill her. There just wasn't any other option.

"Hor… Horace…" wheezed the professor, even as Voldemort's grip tightened.

Slughorn's glassy eyes shot open. "'MONA!" he cried, as a blast of green light shot from his wand, not at his former student, colleague, and friend, but at the monster holding her. Before the light reached its target, Voldemort brought her in between the curse and himself. Her body went limp in his hand, and he flung her corpse to the floor in front of the horrified caster.

Horace Slughorn fell to his knees. His wand slipped from his fingers as he grabbed Pomona's still-warm hands in his. Voldemort stepped forward and said something to him, but he didn't hear what had been spoken. He simply looked at the bright and inquisitive student who had wowed him all those years ago with how quickly she took to potion making. His thoughts fluttered to her fifth year when she had actually taught him about lesser-known properties of gurdyroot and how it could enhance potions. He'd just gone over those findings with his sixth-years a week ago. Last year, he'd headed to her greenhouses to remind her of the story as soon as his class covering gurdyroot had finished. With everything that was going on, he had yet to mention it this year. He'd planned to remind her of it over the weekend.

A flash of green light reflected in the tears that were flowing freely down his large cheeks.

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Chapter 4: Chapter 4

Harry wept. Great sobs wracked his body without ceasing. He was alone. Truly and unendingly alone.

His two friends who had carried him through everything were gone.

He didn't bother lighting his wand. It didn't matter, anyway. Nothing mattered.

Time seemed to lose meaning. Harry cried until exhaustion overtook him. He woke often, with waves of sorrow washing over him. He had no idea how long he had been lying on the cold floor of the vault when his hunger finally refused to be overtaken by grief and guilt.

Was Voldemort waiting just outside the vault doors? Even if he were not, whatever protection he had left would surely be more than Harry could overcome in his state. He was exhausted. He was starving. And he was alone.

A cry of rage and mourning echoed off the stone walls of the Black vault. Harry slammed both fists into the ground, one after the other, until what little strength he had evaporated. He lay curled up in a ball in the darkness.

Without thinking about what he was doing, he hoarsely rasped to himself. "I need Hermione."

He choked on another sob. "I need Ron." He coughed and spluttered. "Or Sirius. Or bloody Dumbledore." He sobbed again. "Or Moony or Tonks. Hagrid or Mad-Eye." His hand angrily swiped at the tears that were falling. "Or Hedwig. Or Dah…Dobby…" A great sniffle. "Or even Kreacher."

"Master Harry Potter called for Kreacher, sir?"

The vault was illuminated when the House Elf appeared. As his orb-like eyes rested upon the form of his master, he let out a gasp. Harry was lying in the fetal position, emaciated from lack of food and drink. His hands were bruised purple and his robes were soiled with more than just the blood he was still oozing from multiple wounds.

"Master! How long has Master been here in the vault of the Ancient and Noble House of Black? Why did Master not call for Kreacher's aide sooner?!" Harry made no sign of moving or answering. House Elf magic crackled in the air as a bed with crisp sheets and a warm comforter appeared next to the teenage wizard. His clothes were removed as the gentlest version of an elf Scourgify got Harry mostly clean. Wounds were tended to before he was helped into some sleep clothes and lifted into bed. The elf had murmured something that Harry didn't have the energy to hear, then disappeared.

Harry knew he should thank Kreacher, but the pain of loss was like a deafening drumbeat in his head. He couldn't focus on what was right in front of him. With a bit of a start, he remembered that he'd lost his glasses. Such a trivial loss, compared to all that had been taken from him, but it felt debilitating.

Another pop alerted him that Kreacher had returned, and the smell of a hearty stew flooded Harry's senses. The ache of loss still cut like a knife, but as he began to shakily bring warm stew past his lips, soothing his raw throat as it went down, Harry seemed to feel almost like a human again. Before he could finish his first bowl, the warmth of the stew and the softness of the bed allowed Harry to succumb to sleep

It was less than an hour later when he woke up with a scream on his lips and vomited off the side of the conjured bed. His tears had returned in full force, and he wept bitterly.

"Master Harry Potter, sir." Harry had never heard Kreacher's voice be so…tender. "Please allow Kreacher to care for Master, sir." A few more sobs clawed their way out of Harry before he could answer.

"Kreacher, I've lost everything. Ron and Hermione… They're both gone."

"Shh, Master. Kreacher is knowing. Kreacher must help Master regain his strength. Master must get to somewhere safe."

Harry didn't have the heart to argue. The elf quickly cleaned up the mess beside the bed and brought a lighter soup to Harry as he sat up.

The warm soup felt good in his belly, and the rawness in his throat seemed to subside a fraction with each gulp he took. "Kreacher, what happened? What's going on out there?"

"The Dark Lord's war has truly begun," whispered Kreacher. "Hogwarts has fallen."

Harry instinctively knew that the school would be crucial to Voldemort's plans. It was filled with some of the few witches and wizards bold enough to oppose him, and the symbolism of clearing out his enemies from those hallowed halls would be enticing. Despite Hogwarts being one of the few places in the world where he felt at home, a place he loved, his heart just didn't have the capacity to feel much more pain beyond what he already experienced. Harry simply nodded to Kreacher and brought up another spoonful of soup.

"Kreacher does not know which wizards and witches survived, which perished, which are hiding, and which have fled. But none that oppose the Dark Lord are safe." Again Harry nodded. "Master must regain his strength quickly. Goblins are working to clear the cavern and seek to capture Master for the Dark Lord. Kreacher can transport Master out of the vault, but can only go directly to the Ancient House of Black. Kreacher fears that this will be unsafe."

With the beginnings of food in his stomach, Harry's understanding of the situation began to come into focus. He coughed several times and started speaking, despite the pain that had still not subsided. "Kreacher, you've done so well. Thank you for taking such good care of me." His mind tried to focus on the next steps. "Are you able to safely find a strengthening potion for me? And maybe a blood replenishing potion?"

"Yes, Master, I can return with those in minutes."

Harry rubbed his eyes and tried to get them to focus. "Is there any chance you could find me a pair of glasses?" Kreacher leaped onto the bed, landing lightly enough that the soup on the tray next to Harry didn't even ripple. A spindly finger pulled on Harry's right eyelids, then the others.

"Yes, Kreacher can bring new glasses."

"Okay, let's start with that. And if you can find out any news about how my friends are doing, any of those who visited Grimmauld Place with the Order, I'd really appreciate it."

Kreacher bowed low. "I will return quickly. Rest here, Master."

The next hours were a blur. Harry lay in bed, occasionally eating more soup or taking the potions that Kreacher had procured. In addition to the Strengthening and Blood Replenishing potions, he had secured a Dreamless Sleep potion.

Harry took his potions, including a half dose of the Dreamless Sleep, with the hope of being ready to make a break for it within the next half day. The sounds of excavation outside the vault were becoming less muffled, and Kreacher estimated that the goblins would gain entry in twelve to eighteen hours. Harry needed to be gone before that happened.

When Harry awoke, Kreacher supplied him with a new pair of glasses. The elf made a few quick adjustments for comfort, and the young wizard could see clearly again. The waves of sorrow still crashed over him as he worked with Kreacher in preparation for their escape, but his grief was tempered by the need to focus on the task at hand. Tears continued to fall, but work got done.

The sounds of the goblins clearing the cavern grew louder. Kreacher's huge ears twitched as he came to a stop.

"Master does not have much more time. Has Master decided to whom he will go?"

Harry's brow furrowed in concentration. While he had slept, Kreacher had attempted to surreptitiously scout for allies with whom Harry could connect. Most of his obvious choices weren't available. His first choice would have been to meet up with Lupin and Tonks, but Kreacher had been unable to find them. Shell Cottage and Aunt Muriel's house were off the table as well, since Kreacher had reported that both were abandoned. Harry scowled when remembering Kreacher's description of the burnt-out homes. The Burrow was a no-go, as was Luna's house.

The guilt of losing Ron and Hermione welled up in the pit of his stomach, but it was buffeted by the potential guilt of so many others who were in danger. He had no idea where the Weasleys had ended up. Not for the first time, he wondered if Ron's death would mean the end of his connection to the family he considered to be his own. How could he ever look Mr. Weasley in the eye after leading his son to his end? Would he never be gathered up into one of Mrs. Weasley's bone-crushing hugs? Could he ever explain things to Ginny?

Harry's eyes burned again. He shoved the thoughts back, unable to think straight. With monumental effort, he turned back to Kreacher, who was patiently standing at the ready. The elf seemed to understand what Harry was thinking, but did not bring attention to the fresh tears streaming down his Master's face.

"Still trying to figure that out, Kreacher," he said with a sniffle. "What do you think about Neville's place?"

The old elf looked thoughtful. "Longbottom Manor is an old, pureblood home. There are many protections, and Kreacher will not be able to gain entry. But it would be a safer place than most."

"That figures. I've still got my communication coin from the DA. I don't want to give away the plan to everyone with a coin until right before I leave, just in case," he turned the coin over and back in his hand. Hermione's superior spellwork on the Protean Charm was intact, even now that she was… "I'll send out a call for members of the DA to check-in. Maybe that will give us a better idea of options."

He pointed his wand at the coin. "Check in - HP" appeared quickly, and it warmed in his hand. "If we get confirmation from Neville, maybe we can make Longbottom Manor work. If we don't hear from him," Harry closed his eyes and fought to not give in to the thoughts of what might have happened to his friends, "I'll try to figure something else out. How long until we need to be out of here?"

Kreacher's ears twitched, and he turned back toward the vault entrance.

"Master has no more than two hours before the goblins enter. Perhaps closer to one hour."

Harry blew all the air out of his lungs. Would the members of the DA still be holding onto their coins? Were they somewhere safe enough to contact him? Had they even survived? He sighed.

"Then we'll get out of here within the hour." The elf nodded and started to clean up the mess that had piled up around the bed. Even in such desperate times, Harry noted, Kreacher cared so much about the Black family.

"Kreacher, I've got a question. What happens to you if I die?" The elf froze in his tracks. He snapped, and the dishes and empty vials of potion disappeared.

"Master must not die. Kreacher will protect Master."

"Dobby saved me from Malfoy Manor. He gave his life to protect me and get us to safety. I can't handle any more death on my account. What happens to you, Kreacher, if I don't make it?" There was a hard look on Harry's face as he stared down the elf.

Kreacher hesitated before starting cautiously. "If Kreacher cannot serve his Master, elf magic will bind Kreacher to another member of the Ancient and Noble House of Black. If Master has not designated a family member, Kreacher will pass to whichever witch or wizard has the closest ties to the Black bloodline."

"Who would that be?"

"Mistress Narcissa Malfoy."

Harry swore loudly.

"And if she's your Master, and she demands to know everything you have heard about the Order, or helping me and my friends, or the fight against Voldemort, your magic would force you to tell her, right?"

Kreacher nodded and looked almost ashamed that he could be used to harm those his current Master cared for.

"The Malfoy family already has elves, sir, and Kreacher is very old. New masters would likely force out any important information, then would kill Kreacher."

"You said that happens if I don't decide who you go to?"

"Yes, Master is able to assign Kreacher to bond with a different member of the Black family line."

"Would Nymphadora Tonks work? She's the daughter of Andromeda. Or Andromeda, herself. Either of them would be better than the Malfoys."

Kreacher nodded. "Mistress Andromeda and her line have been cast out of the Black family, but still has the blood of the Blacks. Kreacher could bond to Mistress Andromeda."

"Okay, how about this… We don't have much time. If I die, I order you to present yourself to Andromeda and offer to bond yourself to her, Nymphadora, Remus, or Teddy." Unbidden, an image of a cross-looking Hermione wearing a S.P.E.W. pin sprung into his mind. Her face was reddening as she built up to one of her famous lectures. "Wait, before I order anything, Kreacher, would you rather be freed? It's your life, so if you'd rather have clothes, I could…"

"NO!" screeched the elf. "Never! No, never! Kreacher will not abandon the Ancient and Noble House of Black. Kreacher will serve Master Harry Potter or Mistress Andromeda's family. Kreacher will not accept clothes, never!" The elf stood resolute and more than a little angry.

Harry smiled the first legitimate smile since before he had entered these ruddy caverns. "I apologize for insulting you, Kreacher. I know that your service to the Black family means so much to you. I only wanted to ask because my friend Hermione would have wanted you to have the freedom to choose, and I had to honor that for her."

The elf still looked upset but gave a quick nod. "Kreacher sees. Master's friend did not understand elf ways, but tried to help nonetheless."

"Yeah, she really did."

Harry quickly pulled the DA coin from his pocket as he felt it warm up. He greedily looked at the few letters on the coin and felt his heart sink a bit when he saw "CC. On continent."

He let out a sigh. He felt no ill will towards Cho. He didn't really feel much of anything towards her. He was glad she was safely away from these shores and hoped she'd be safe out there, somewhere. But if Harry was honest, he was really disappointed that he hadn't heard back from anyone he was closer to yet.

He slid the coin back into his pocket, trepidation building as he looked at a large grandfather clock across from him. He needed to leave soon.

Before his hand had even reemerged from his pocket, Harry felt the coin warm up again. The ups and downs of communication with the outside world had him feeling hopeful as he stared at the changing letters.

"GW AJ LL - hiding"

Harry's heart lept as he stared at the six letters at the beginning of the message. "Kreacher, we're in business!" shouted Harry. He pointed at the coin. "LL has to be Luna, and GW is either Ginny or George. It'd make sense if the third one was Angelina. If we don't hear from Neville, they might be our best option." He pointed his wand at the coin again, and "on run. meet you?" replaced their message.

Moments later, as Harry held the coin in his hand, a new message replaced his. "pond?"

A pond… Harry wracked his brain. If the GW was Ginny or George (and he couldn't imagine it being anyone else), then the message had to refer to the pond the Weasley's had brought him to during the summers. He had loved swimming around in the small pond, wrestling with Ron and the twins, and splashing Hermione and Ginny when they weren't looking. The corners of his mouth almost curled enough to be considered a sad smile.

Harry had to think about how to communicate his plans in so few letters, but finally settled on his reply: "pond in 20 if no trouble."

"Alright, Kreacher, it's settled. You get me to Grimmauld Place and I'll apparate away as fast as I can. Have you been able to check in on the house to see if it's safe?"

"Kreacher feels that the wards have changed. It is likely that Master's enemies will be alerted when we arrive."

"Nothing's ever easy, is it?" Harry shook his head and started gathering his things. He doubted he'd ever make it back into this vault, not that he wanted to come visit anytime soon.

The muffled shouts of goblins on the other side of the doors were growing louder. There was a terrible scraping sound as if something heavy was being dragged across the ground.

"Master must take Kreacher's hand!" barked the elf as he darted towards the wizard. "The goblins will soon have the doors open!"

Harry grasped the small hand that was offered and felt Kreacher's long nails dig into his flesh as the elf summoned enough magic to transport them. A crack echoed through the vault as they disappeared, leaving the room in complete blackness for the goblins.

A screech filled the air as Harry landed on his knees in the entryway. "Filth! Wretch! Disgusting half-blood besmirching the house of my ancestors!" The portrait of Walburga Black screamed at the top of her lungs. "How dare you set foot back in the Ancient and Noble House of Black?!"

Acid green vines shot forward out of the walls, their tendrils wrapping around Harry's wrists and ankles. They pulled taut, thorns digging into his skin. He cried out in pain as his grip on his wand slipped. It clattered to the floor.

The portrait sneered. "Oh, I can't wait to find out what the Dark Lord will do to you! Maybe he will give you a taste of the Cruciatus right here where I can watch." A manic glee lit up her face as she rushed beyond one side of the frame, already calling for Death Eaters to claim the captured intruder.

Kreacher came to Harry's side at once, attempting to sever the vines. As soon as his magic had cut through a vine and he began to work on the next, the first vine reconnected and thickened, holding its prey tighter.

Harry yelled as more thorns pierced his arms and pulled him in opposing directions. The elf looked panicked as the second vine started mending itself before he had even finished cutting it.

"My wand!" Harry gasped. "Grab my wand!"

Kreacher dove at the wand, which had rolled several feet away from the struggle. He grasped it and triumphantly raised it aloft.

"KREACHER!" boomed the voice of Mrs. Black. "Kreacher! Don't let that dirty-blooded thief escape! You must keep his wand from him! The Dark Lord's followers are already coming!"

Kreacher stopped in his tracks. Harry was being stretched by the vines, with blood already dripping from his wrists and ankles. Walburga stood, appearing more winded than a painting should, as she looked down on the teen. The elf stepped forward, yowled in pain, and grabbed his ears with either hand.

"You will not give aid to this blood traitor, Kreacher! You will make your Mistress proud!" The portrait was growing louder with each word she screamed, and Kreacher seemed to be engulfed in pain.

Another cry of pain emanated from deep within Harry. His head turned towards the elf, and his tear-brimmed eyes silently pleaded.

"YOU WILL HAND THAT FILTH OVER TO THE DARK LORD!" bellowed Mrs. Black, whose painting seemed to be shaking itself off the wall.


The wand flew from Kreacher into his master's hand. Harry slashed at the vines, which receded back into the walls.


Harry looked back towards Kreacher. The elf looked as if he was gasping for breath underwater. His body shuddered and he fell to the floor. Harry rushed to him just as his body stopped convulsing. Kreacher's vacant eyes stared without seeing.

Harry roared as he turned on the spot. With all the power he could muster. He aimed his wand at the painting and screamed, "REDUCTO!"

An explosion shook the house. Dust and debris settled onto the floor, blown a bit by the breeze that wafted in from the gaping hole in the wall where a portrait had once hung. Harry looked at the small body of Kreacher one last time before apparating away.

Back to index

Chapter 5: Chapter 5

Author's Notes: Combined two chapters, which means the tone change will begin with next week's chapter. Hope y'all enjoy!

The late-spring sun shone brightly in the clearing where Harry landed. He immediately covered his eyes, accustomed to the low light of the vault as he was. A thicket of trees lay a few dozen yards away, and Harry quickly made his way towards them. He drew deep breaths, marveling at how fresh the air smelled. He was not meant to live underground, that much was certain. He wouldn't have called it optimism, hope, or even happiness, but he did feel somehow lighter now that the subterranean world was behind him.

He crouched down behind a tree so that he was obscured by the trunk and some shrubs growing near it. He directed his wand towards the dozens of small punctures and cuts on his forearms and legs. While he could be reasonably assured that he'd never be able to cut it as a professional healer, his wounds had soon closed enough that he wouldn't leave a trail of blood droplets wherever he went.

Harry had apparated a good half mile from the pond. He hoped it was far enough away to keep anyone who might be monitoring the Weasley's property from being alerted. He looked around for landmarks so that he could get moving.

A little ways off, he noticed the plot of land where Bill and Fleur had said their vows less than a year prior. Memories of the night came flooding back unbidden.

Fred and George setting up a prank that they later sprung on Ron. Bill's happy tears as he watched Fleur walk up the aisle towards him. Mrs. Weasley smiling warmly while straightening her husband's tie. Mr. Weasley resting his hand on Harry's shoulder while chatting amicably with some distant family member. Ginny beaming as she danced back down the aisle after the new bride and groom had left.

Harry shook his head quickly from side to side, trying to dispel his memories. He needed to press onwards to meet up at the pond, and he needed to do it carefully. He didn't think this could be an ambush, but he wasn't about to let down his guard.

He grabbed into his pocket for his DA coin. A moment later, it warmed in his palm as the words "safe at pond?" materialized. He was grateful to feel it warm again less than a minute later, with the words "yes. you coming?" etching themselves into the metal. He quickly replied, "be there soon" before he pulled his invisibility cloak from his pouch and covered himself.

Through the underbrush he crept. Months of living on the run had helped train him to step softly and to avoid anything that might betray his position if stepped on.

Harry stayed on the side of a gentle hill as he moved silently towards the pond. A little ways away, he was able to catch a glimpse of the clear water pool as the sunlight glinted across its rippled surface. A silvery hare hopped back and forth near the water's edge. Though he couldn't see Luna herself yet, her Patronus somehow seemed to warm his insides, as if a tiny dementor that had been hovering over him had been chased away.

His fears of an ambush were dispelled, and Harry began to run forward. The sudden, overwhelming need to see another human being, an actual friend, bubbled up inside him, and he was sprinting towards the pond before he fully had time to comprehend what he was doing.

The hare looked up from a patch of grass it had been examining and cocked its head to the side. While Harry was still a few steps away from it, he felt a pull at his ankle. The world was suddenly upside down, and he watched his cloak float down to the ground that was a good six feet below him.

"Luna! It's me! Are you all alright?" The rush of blood to the head combined with the panic of being upside down suspended by his leg reminded him, albeit too late, that rushing into a clearing based solely on an ethereal rabbit wasn't the wisest decision.

A jet of red light struck him in the chest, and he felt his wand fly out of his hand. Harry kept one hand on his face to keep his glasses from falling off as he frantically looked at his surroundings.

"Petrificus Totalus!" called out a dreamy voice from behind a nearby tree. Harry felt his entire body become still, but not before the slight twinge of a smile reached his eyes.

Harry felt his body being eased to the ground. When his back was steadily against the cool grass, his eyes darted back and forth to the three faces that stood over him. Their wands were out and at the ready.

"Right then," said the dark-haired young woman. "How can we be sure it's really him?"

The younger blonde girl next to her looked quizzical. "I've got a question that only Harry would know the answer to."

The redhead young man opposite her replied, "Me too. How about we each ask him something."

The witch next to him nodded. "We're each going to ask you a question, then release you from the full body bind. Answer quickly, and don't you dare make us think you're trying something tricky, got it?"

Harry couldn't actually move his head to nod, but the look in his eyes seemed to be enough of an answer.

"This should be easy enough for the real Harry:" the redhead smirked to himself. "What did Fred and I give to you back in our fifth year? Next?"

"When we lost our first match in my fifth year, what did Wood do afterward?"

The wizard next to her sputtered in laughter. "Damn, woman! That's better than mine."

She punched him good-naturedly in the shoulder, then turned her attention to the youngest of their group.

"Hmm. How about this… When you and Ginny barged into the fourth-floor broom closet…"

"He took Ginny where?!" called out the male voice.

"...I had already been in there with someone for a while. You seemed very embarrassed and blushed rather a lot before promising to never mention it to anyone. Who was I with?"

The source of the male voice snorted loudly and nearly fell over as Harry's eyes grew wide. "I must be losing my touch. You both put me to shame." He brandished his wand and readied it at Harry's unmoving body. "Ange is going to lift the spell, and Merlin help you if you don't know the answers. Ready?" The two girls nodded.

Harry felt the bind dissipate as it was removed..

"Right, well… Umm…" Harry's cheeks were suddenly red. He kept his gaze fixed away from the blonde. "George, you two gave me the Marauder's Map so that I could sneak into Hogsmeade in my third year. You didn't even realize that my Dad helped make it." The three standing over him noticeably relaxed a bit but kept their wands pointed at his prone body.

"Ang, I wasn't conscious for many of the times that Wood had to mourn a loss," George laughed again, "But I remember him trying to drown himself in the showers. Very glad we came back to win the Cup that year."

Angelina smiled wide, and her wand was back at her side, as was George's. With reddened cheeks, he looked imploringly at the last inquisitor. "Do I have to?" She nodded.

"Fine!" Harry looked away and muttered in a low voice. "We found you in a passionate moment with Parvati."

Luna smiled sweetly. "For the record, I knew it was you as soon as you started blushing. But you are exceptionally fun to tease."

Harry sat up, only to find a freckled hand in front of his face. He grabbed it and felt himself being pulled up to his feet and into a tight embrace.

"It's good to see you, Harry. We were all worried, especially after the last couple of days." George released him, and Harry had just enough time to see tear streaks on his face before Luna wrapped her arms around his midsection and squeezed.

"You look like you've been through hell. I'm glad you're okay." Harry blinked back his own tears as she held him for several long moments.

She sniffled a few times during the long moments before she let go, and Angelina pulled him into a hug, too. "Get over here, Harry. It's been too long. We thought we lost you."

The breath caught in the back of Harry's throat. He was certainly not used to being embraced, and the isolation of the past few days on top of the previous months made it all the more jarring to have friends surrounding him like this. Hugs had been few and far between, usually either awkward, sisterly hugs from Hermione or decidedly non-sisterly hugs from Ginny. He did his best to swallow a sob that had begun to materialize.

"I think it would be beneficial to get Harry somewhere safe," said Luna as Angelina ruffled his messy black hair. "We can swap news and try to figure out some next steps."

George nodded emphatically. "Ang, you're better at side-along apparition than me, and he's pretty banged up. Want me to take Luna and you help Harry?"

"Should I be jealous that you want to apparate with another girl, George?"

"Eh, I get the feeling that, despite my devastating good looks, I might not be her type." He tried to grin at Luna, even though the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "And note that I'm not getting defensive about you apparating with a bloke who's been on the cover of Witch Weekly. That's very secure of me if I do say so myself."

Angelina gave Harry a quick look up and down. "He's pretty scrawny… I probably won't look to trade you in for an upgrade. At least not yet."

Harry saw George proffer an arm to Luna while giving Angelina a rude hand gesture. He grabbed tightly onto the older girl's arm and felt the familiar pull of his body into nothingness.

The next few hours ended up being some of the most excruciating of Harry Potter's life. After reaching the safe house (the home of Angelina's parents), the four sat down to swap news about what had been happening. By the time Luna, Angelina, and George shared their updates the hollow look in Harry's eyes had fully reappeared.

As best anyone could guess, Voldemort had decided to go on an all-out offensive after leaving Gringotts. Harry was speechless as the others relayed the rumors that had filtered out from Hogwarts paintings and ghosts. A fallen ministry had allowed the despondent Myrtle to give a summary of Voldemort's purge of the castle that she'd learned from portraits, and with better details regarding the battle in the Great Hall that she'd personally witnessed.

Each death seemed like a battering ram to Harry's chest. He didn't bother to hide his sobs as he learned of so many who were killed. He collapsed onto Angelina's shoulder when she told him about McGonagall. A modicum of pride flashed onto George's face and she recounted how his products had helped his favorite Professor.

After finishing up how things went at the school, George took over as the lead storyteller. "We haven't been able to confirm anything officially, but it seems as though members of the Order were all targeted. I'll spare you the details for now, but we lost…" his voice shook with emotion. "We lost a lot of good people."

Angelina moved to sit on the couch next to George, wrapping an arm around him as he gathered himself.

"There's no easy way to say this." Harry wanted to shout for George to hurry up but also wanted to bolt out the door, as if hearing the news would make it more real. George let out a cry, and Harry knew the Weasleys must have lost someone.

"I was out on guard duty when they came. I only got knocked out as the Death Eaters broke into Aunt Muriel's, but Mum, Dad, Ginny, and Fred…" A strangled sob wracked George while tears flowed from Angelina and Luna.

Harry's head was spinning. It couldn't be true. He sprang out of the chair before the dizziness hit. His vision was suddenly blurry and he had the sensation of falling.

He awoke to find Luna kneeling over him, attempting some sort of incantation. Harry turned to see George curled up on the couch with his head in Angelina's lap. He didn't seem to notice the fat teardrops that regularly dripped from the tip of her nose onto his shirt.

Realization of the horrible truth began to set in. Harry looked frantically back and forth between Angelina and Luna. Luna was the first to move, confirming with a small shake of her head.

The Weasley parents, who had taken him in and treated him like a seventh son. A twin who'd protected him, both on the Quidditch pitch and in the halls when everyone thought he was the Heir of Slytherin. The girl he'd saved in his second year, who'd recklessly stood by him in the Department of Mysteries, and whom he spent the happiest days of his life with, their fingers interlocked.

He would never see that blazing look on Ginny's face again. Never watch her sprint forward, quaffle in hand, aimed at an overmatched Keeper who didn't stand a chance. He wouldn't get to marvel at her ferocity when being teased by her brothers. He would never experience being on the wrong end of her Bat Bogey hex for making her mad, never get to enjoy making up under the big tree behind her dad's shed. Harry would never get the chance to tell Ginny how he felt about her, that he…

Suddenly sick to his very core, Harry scrambled to the bathroom and vomited, the burn in his throat matching the stinging in his eyes.

By the time he reemerged and steadied himself on a chair near George and Angelina, he felt completely hollow. More news washed over him like waves crashing against a battered shoreline. Bill and Fleur had been able to flee to France and Charlie was still in Romania, but Percy had been killed in a purge of ministry officials who had connections to blood traitors. His death coincided with most of the Aurors, including Tonks and Shacklebolt. The werewolves had been ordered to execute any of their number not loyal to Voldemort, and Remus had been lost that same day.

Luna wrapped up with the members of the DA that she was aware of. The Creevey brothers hadn't made it. Neither had Hannah Abbott. Angelina and George had apparently not yet run out of tears, and their muffled sobs restarted with the news that Katie Bell had been killed. And the portraits had confirmed that Neville, Parvati, Padma, and Seamus didn't make it, either.

Harry lost track of time and the count. It was more than his mind could comprehend. So much loss. By the time the three had finished, a numbness had overtaken him.

Finally, it was George who broke this silence. "I know you're in bad shape, Harry. You look like you've been through hell. But do you have any news?"

Harry didn't respond for a long moment. He didn't speak, didn't even move. Eventually, he whispered, "I lost them both." He then dissolved into tears once more.

A great and terrible cry rose up and out of George. In a fit of rage, he put his fist straight through the wall, tore it back out, then repeated the feat a second time before Angelina could reach him and pull him away. George slumped to the floor, ignoring his bleeding hand. Angelina pulled his head to her chest. Whatever attempts to comfort him she made were lost to her own sobs, but she held on for dear life as grief wracked both of them.

Luna's face was in her hands, clearly overwhelmed by the flood of emotions. With a herculean effort, she walked to the chair that held a shaking Harry and gently took his hand in hers.

The four of them stayed there for a long time before sleep finally caught up with them.

Harry had offered the last of his Dreamless Sleep potion to the others, but none accepted. When he finally awoke in the Johnson's spare bedroom, the late morning light was streaming in through an open window. George's bed was already empty. Harry reached to a small dresser to grab his glasses and his wand.

After a quick shower and getting dressed, he sat down on his bed to think. His friends hadn't pressed him for details last night, but he knew they wanted to know more about how things had gone so very wrong.

Harry winced. He did not want to go through each detail of his year on the run, but he also didn't want to leave his friends in the dark. Dumbledore had given permission for him to share about their lessons and the work of undoing Voldemort's horcruxes with Ron and Hermione. With them gone, (Harry shuddered involuntarily as tears began to pool in his eyes) it made sense to tell someone else. With as many close calls as he'd experienced, Harry couldn't help seeing the wisdom in ensuring that someone knew of the horcruxes for when he eventually met his end.

On the other hand, by involving them in this hunt, he'd basically signed the death warrants for his two best friends. Would things have been different if he'd gone on the search alone? Would they be alive, would so many of his friends be alive, if he'd taken up this mantle on his own?

Harry gasped for a gulp of air when he suddenly realized that he'd been unconsciously holding his breath.

As much as his inclination was to blame himself, he couldn't help knowing that Voldemort would have done this eventually. He thought back to all their frustrations with Dumbledore, with his secrets and lies. Harry would never be a wizard as powerful or as intelligent as his former headmaster, but he could learn from some of the old man's mistakes.

Though his body felt like it was made of lead, Harry trudged downstairs. Angelina's parents were already gone for the day, so Ang, Luna, and George were huddled around the kitchen table. From the untouched food on their plates, it looked as though none of them had recovered much of an appetite.

"Bit of good news this morning," said Angelina, though her voice did not sound like good news was something she really believed in. "Heard from Alicia. She and Wood were able to grab a portkey to Barcelona, then made their way across the pond. She couldn't give many details, but they should be safely to Canada by now."

Harry didn't smile, but his countenance did seem to become slightly less dour. He sat next to Luna and dished some cold eggs onto his plate, before promptly ignoring them.

"Are you three going to head out, too? Do you have any idea what you'll do next?" Luna looked to Harry and to George and Angelina. "With my father gone, I'm having a hard time thinking through what to do."

"It sounded like Ange's parents were going to try to leave England. Is that right? Are you going to head out with them?"

Angelina looked over at George. "Have the last few weeks changed your mind about wanting me to move in with you? It seems like I'll be trying to find a new career since the Quidditch league has been reduced to shambles, but I'd rather prefer doing that with you."

"Well, I'm not exactly sure what I'll be doing from here on out, but I suppose I could be persuaded to spend some more time with you." George waggled his eyebrows just a little as a smirk crossed his lips. Even though the smile didn't look all that genuine, Harry felt slightly better to hear George teasing.

Angelina made a rude hand gesture toward the redhead before turning to Harry. "What about you? Any ideas on what's next?"

Harry sighed. It was as good of an onramp to the conversation as he could hope for.

"That's kinda complicated," he began, not meeting anyone's eyes. "I'm sure you've guessed, but we were doing some stuff to fight against…" Harry trailed off and grabbed the bridge of his nose. "I'd completely understand if you don't want to hear the details, especially since it's cost us so much…"

He felt like he was drowning. How in the world could he explain two years of training, searching, fighting, fleeing, and loss?

As he paused, Angelina stood up abruptly, opened a cupboard, and reached for the top shelf. George nodded and conjured four glasses. Before Harry could protest, Luna spoke up.

"We're with you, Harry. We're not going to judge. If you're up for telling us, we will listen."

"You don't understand," whispered Harry, his fists clenched tightly. "This is stuff that got Dumbledore killed. The mission he set me on… I told Ron and Hermione that they didn't… If they hadn't been with me, they might still be…"

"ENOUGH!" yelled George, with no trace of the prankster remaining on his face. Harry sat stock still. "You aren't allowed to pretend this is all your fault! You saved Ginny's life in my fourth year and Dad's life in my seventh! You bankrolled Fred and me to start our shop! I'm still shocked Mum and Dad never found a way to adopt you, and all of us were looking forward to you being a brother-in-law someday!" George's chest was heaving and his face had gone Weasley red. "Did I miss anything?!"

"I believe Harry saved Ronald with a bezoar after he was poisoned in my fifth year," posited Luna.

George gave a slight bow to Luna. "Do you see, Harry?! How can you not understand? I'm here trying to list off all the ways you've made the life of the Weasleys better, and I bloody forgot a time you saved one of our lives because you've done it so many bloody times!"

Harry had just started to open his mouth to argue when Angelina pointed her wand at him. "Silencio!" Harry's mouth opened and closed animatedly, but no sound came out. He eventually looked at George, then Angelina, then Luna. He released a large, inaudible sigh.

"Okay," started Angelina. "We're going to try this again. Harry, I think it'd be fair to assume that you've got a lot more to share. I will do my best to prevent this beautiful manchild," she waved her wand at George, "from interrupting you if you can do your best to explain things without blaming yourself. Agreed?"

Harry nodded.

"Excellent. Should we head to the living room?" She didn't wait for a response before grabbing George's hand. He managed a small shrug before following her to a couch.

It was a challenge to tell the whole story. Hermione was so much better at explaining everything so that it all made sense. He made it through his own sixth year fairly quickly, pledging to go back through and give further details on some of the memories later. There were quite a few gasps when Harry told the tale of the horcrux hunt. None of the three had ever gotten the full story of the night that Death Eaters broke into Hogwarts, and they looked stricken as he explained the last few minutes of Dumbledore's life.

"Bloody hell…" murmured George in a way that felt very much like Ron.

"But at least you got the horcrux!" interjected Angelina, who was clearly shaken by the story.

"No, actually we didn't."

Harry took a long breath before restarting the tale. George and Angelina both unleashed quite a few swears once Umbridge became a character. All were impressed once he reached the part where they infiltrated the Ministry of Magic.

Soon, Harry had come to one of the parts he was most wanting to avoid. How could he in good conscience drag Ron's memory through the mud, especially less than a week after he'd readily sacrificed himself on account of others?

He did his best to gloss over the incident and didn't dwell much on the intervening time until he reached the point when Ron triumphantly saved him from the locket in the pond. He didn't explain that the horcrux had taken the form of himself and Hermione in a state of undress, but made sure that they knew that it took the form of some of his greatest insecurities and that he bravely destroyed it.

Soon, he was walking them through their capture and how they were taken to Malfoy Manor.

Luna was glad to do most of the heavy lifting on this part of the story, having been there for most of it and having been filled in by the trio afterward. This gave Harry a chance to refill his glass. The fire whiskey burned going down, but his throat felt slightly better after a few sips. As Luna finished with Dobby's heroic sacrifice and burial, Harry readied himself for the final push.

It took several attempts and much longer than he wanted, but Harry eventually shared how the Gringott's mission fell apart. To his great credit, George listened intently without interrupting as Harry muddled through Ron's last few moments and his choice to give his life to destroy a horcrux. He sat there in the silence that followed for a few long minutes as Harry tried to compose himself. Tears streaked George's cheeks. He eventually stood and looked out the window into the distance.

With voice a hoarse voice and a shaking hand, he lifted his glass. "Ron. The best of the Weasley brothers, even if he never could see it himself." He downed his fire whiskey as the others followed his lead. George then reached over and grabbed Harry's closest shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Harry nodded and returned to the story.

It was less than five minutes before he got to Hermione. Luna had been standing near Harry's seat while listening, but as his voice began to shake again, she moved to sit on the arm of his chair. She reached down and took one of his hands in hers, applying light pressure. He pushed forward.

He shook when trying to describe how Hermione had blasted him into the vault, securing his safety at the cost of her own life. Before he could describe her actions, Angelina gasped. "Oh no, Harry. Did she… Did she force you through the doorway? Is that how she…"

A sob escaped him as he nodded. Had Harry looked up, he would have seen Luna's face paler than he'd ever seen it. Angelina's hands were steepled around her mouth and nose. George, who was still reeling from what had happened to Ron and a significant amount of alcohol, hadn't quite followed.

"Wait a sec. What did Hermione do?"

"She knew she didn't have much time after the cutting curse hit her stomach, so she used the last of her strength to get Harry to safety. She saved him." Angelina answered.

George swore loudly and shook his head as he stared at the ground. "I teased her for being a rule-follower for so many years. A goody two shoes…" He let out a mirthless laugh. "Only later do I find out that she must have broken more school rules than Fred and I ever did, on top of twice breaking into the Ministry of Magic and leading a raid to destroy a bit of You-Know-Who's soul by breaking into bloody Gringotts. She puts me to shame."

Luna lifted up her glass. "To Hermione. The bravest witch of her age."

Harry's eyes burned as much as his throat as he knocked back another drink. He could feel that he was losing a bit of his ability to communicate clearly, so he quickly finished his tale. He explained how Kreacher had come to his aid and been able to transport him to Grimmauld Place. He mournfully told of how the elf had defied his insane former master by helping him escape before the Death Eaters arrived. And before he'd fully realized it, he had recounted the entire story.

Though his vision was a little blurry from the drinks he'd consumed during the marathon of narrative, Harry couldn't detect the anger or disappointment he'd been unconsciously expecting.

"Lemme say something, Harrikins." said George, who seemed more than a little tipsy at this point. Angelina looked a little nervous, but Luna seemed quite ready for whatever was going to happen next. Harry did his best to look him in the eye, at least as much as his overactive sense of guilt would allow. "I've lost too many family members already. Five family members in a week!" Angelina squeezed his hand. "Dammit! I keep forgetting about Percy! Damn it all, I was so bloody angry with him and now I can't…" He took a breath and tried to regain a bit of composure.

"What I'm saying is that I've lost a lot of family in the last few days. Fred and I have considered you like a little brother for a while, as did Ron. Just about all of us had you pegged as the only one we'd consider allowing Ginny to marry someday. Merlin knows she loved you. And none of that's changed." George angrily shook his head, as if to clear the fog that had been rolling into his brain for the last hour or so. "I hate that we've all lost so much, but none of what happened changes that you're part of the family." He drained his glass again and got to his feet unsteadily.

Harry's eyes brimmed with tears as George stepped towards his chair while Luna pulled on Harry's hand and forced him to his feet. George engulfed him in a bear hug. And there in Mr. and Mrs. Johnson's living room, between two of his few surviving friends, Harry James Potter heard words that hadn't been spoken aloud to him since he was a baby.

"Love you, Harry."

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Chapter 6: Chapter 6

Author's Notes: The tone shift and time jump are here! If you read through the first five gruesome chapters, I hope that you enjoy how the story changes in this new setting. If you decided to skip the first section and are starting here, welcome to the Ritual of Love's Memory!

A rooster crowed across the street. Harry groggily reached for his glasses and his wand. The fan in the window had cut out in the middle of the night again, and the 22-year-old was not pleased to wake up drenched in sweat. Sunlight was already pouring into the room as he pointed his wand at the fan to restart it as he headed toward the shower.

Once he was all cleaned up and dressed, Harry went downstairs into the small kitchen and dining area. Luna was already making breakfast and a pot of coffee was warm. Sometimes, the little things really made a difference.

"Good morning, Harry!" said Luna brightly as she dished some eggs scrambled with spicy sausage into her bowl. "There's enough for you to grab some if you can stand the heat."

Harry chuckled. "The chorizo I can handle. Atzi's salsa on the other hand…" He poured himself a cup of coffee and rolled the egg and meat mixture up into a tortilla. "I think that stuff is made out of pure peppers and lava."

Luna smiled before taking a bite of her breakfast, which was covered in a red salsa that somehow looked angry. As Harry sat across from her at the table, she sipped her glass of juice. "I still think you could build up a tolerance for it if you'd give it another try. That might even keep George from teasing you so much."

"Nothing will ever stop George from teasing me," replied Harry. "He's already got little Freddie coming after me every time we get together for a meal. I swear that kid turns his hugs into headbutts on purpose. 'Run and give Uncle Harry a big hug!' George knows exactly where his son's head reaches on me, and he can't keep a straight face when it happens. It's a conspiracy."

Luna rolled her eyes but didn't argue. "What's your plan for the day?"

"I've got some grading to power through before Spring Break ends," Harry replied. "For the life of me, I thought I hated homework when I was a student. But reading through thirty essays on how to defend yourself from dangerous creatures? This break is excruciating."

"You're more than welcome to do the grading up at the library with us," suggested Luna. "I should be starting some new translations today, and if it's defense-related, I might need your help. Who knows? Maybe we'll find something that'll interest you!"

Harry considered the offer. Their flat was already warm and the day only promised to get hotter. Sure, he could cool things down with regularly placed charms, but the library had air conditioning and he wouldn't have to break his concentration to keep casting cooling charms every hour.

"Fine, fine, you win," grumbled Harry, though he was smiling all the while. "You sure you won't get sick of me if I follow you to work like a lost puppy?"

"I'm quite adept at slipping away when I want time to myself. You needn't worry too much."

Harry finished his cup of coffee, wolfed down the rest of his breakfast taco, and sent both of their dishes into the sink where they began washing themselves as he grabbed his work bag. He and Luna set out at a brisk pace. They passed several busy intersections and a number of street vendors selling their wares. Harry slipped some coins to one of them, and in return was rewarded with a concha that looked to be almost the size of Luna's head. He tore it and offered half to her, and they enjoyed the sweet bread as they walked the remaining nine blocks to the library.

Harry sat down in a far corner of the second floor, near the rooms Luna most often used for her translations. The morning was still early, so there weren't many other patrons at the Biblioteca Magia de Tenochtitlán. He began to categorize his remaining papers to grade. A small pile of graded papers was overshadowed by a formidable stack of unmarked essays. Harry sighed as he set two smaller, more even piles of work further to the side.

His sixth years were one of his more fun classes, and he enjoyed going over their advanced work more than hitting the basics with his massive swath of first and second years. He stared down the tallest pile for a moment before diving in. Once he knocked out a good chunk of the dangerous creatures defense essays, he'd give himself a reprieve by working through the upper levels' Transfiguration as Defense papers. Harry was honestly looking forward to seeing his older students attempt the end-of-year exams he'd been preparing.

Working from the library helped Harry complete more of his grading than he'd expected. He had been distracted by this and that when working from home and definitely didn't want to head up to the school. He spent too much time in his cramped office already. Luna popped out of her translation rooms occasionally to run a word or meaning past Harry, and he was glad that his Spanish had improved enough to be helpful. Sure, Luna's mastery of the language was much better than his from her work translating old manuscripts and tomes from Aztec and Spanish into English, but there were still some words and phrases he understood better. He did, after all, spend significantly more time working with students. He'd picked up a good deal of more common, everyday language from them, including several incredibly colorful Spanish swear words.

By six in the evening, Harry's vision felt blurry from staring at scribbled essays for so long. His sixth-year essays were completely graded and stored in his work bag. Unfortunately, His second-year ungraded pile was still taller than its counterpart. With as much progress as he'd made, he figured if he returned tomorrow he could finish up and have the weekend to relax. It'd be nice to spend Saturday with Angelina, George, and Freddie.

Luna was finishing cleaning up her desk when Harry knocked on the open door. "You ready to head back or do you have plans for tonight?" he asked.

"I hadn't made any firm plans, but I think it'd be nice to go to Cocina de Roberta for dinner. Señora de Olmos told me I'd be working on some exceedingly challenging manuscripts tomorrow, so I thought it'd be nice to see Atzi tonight, in case I'm too tired tomorrow." Luna's cheeks reddened ever so slightly before continuing. "Her shift doesn't end until later, midnight if the restaurant stays busy, but I was thinking of spending some time with her after she gets off."

Harry looked at his friend with exasperation. "Luna, I promise it doesn't bother me at all if your girlfriend stays over. I'm exhausted anyway, so I'll probably be long asleep by the time she arrives. I might just walk home now and cook something up for myself so that you can hang out with her."

"No, Harry, you should come with me for dinner, especially if you won't be up when she comes over." Luna grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the restaurant. "I want to hear about how your upper years are doing and Atzi will be too busy working to sit and eat with me. I just want to be there so I can see her a little bit more, and I can do that just as easily at a table with you." Harry quickly acquiesced, knowing it was a hopeless proposition to argue against Luna once her mind was made up.

In truth, he thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Luna and hearing her explain the world in ways that he didn't always follow. She made for an exceptional flatmate. She knew him well enough to know when he needed space and when he needed a firm kick in the arse. He could relax around her and speak in English on the occasional days when teaching in Spanish wore his brain out. Best of all, she didn't possess the apprehension about talking about loved ones who had passed on as most people did.

Even five years later, Harry still found himself with a lump in his throat when he visited old friends or hosted people from his time in Britain. It wasn't that he couldn't talk about the losses; he and Luna had talked through everything many times. It usually took a few cervezas or a couple of shots of Angry Thestral brand Tequila, but he, Angelina, and George had processed their grief together through the years, too.

Angelina had become something of an older sister, even before making an honest man of George in a ceremony less than a year after the four of them had left for the magical part of Mexico City. To the wizarding population, it was still known as Tenochtitlán from its previous centuries when it served as the Aztec capital. George and Ange had wanted to find somewhere new to settle down and had invited Luna and Harry to tag along. Neither of the single friends had all that much tying them down.

The four had spent a couple of months with Bill and Fleur in the aftermath of the fall of wizarding Britain. They'd had a small ceremony to honor their fallen family members. It wasn't much, but it provided a modicum of closure as Harry tried to figure out the next steps on his path.

Harry had passed on the stories he'd shared with Angelina, George, and Luna to the remaining Weasleys not long after the ceremony. He figured that at this point, the secret wasn't worth the cost of keeping it hidden. Bill, Fleur, and Charlie had all responded about how George had anticipated when he talked through the plan with Harry the night before. Charlie stayed silent for most of the tale, rarely asking for clarification. Fleur sat on the arm of their sofa, stroking Bill's hair and trying to stave off the eruption that was looming. Bill had a harder time listening. He kept jumping to his feet, pacing around, and refilling his glass.

"Look, I respect the hell out of Dumbledore," he interrupted again after Harry explained the mission to retrieve the locket and subsequent fighting at Hogwarts. "But sharing all these details with a couple of school-aged kids and NO ONE ELSE was just asinine! I mean, no offense Harry…" Harry quickly assured him no offense had been taken. "But come on! He kept us in the dark and it cost us so many lives." And Bill's anger only grew when Harry reached the parts of the story involving Gringotts.

"What a blithering idiot!" Bill hurled his glass at the wall where it shattered. "How stupid can you be to leave this monumental of a task to three kids, and forbid them from seeking out the help they need?! How many times did I come to you, Harry? How many times did I try to find a way to help, but the three of you kept pushing me away? And now I come to find that it wasn't even you doing it, but Dumbledore forcing your hand?!" Fleur grabbed his flailing arms and held him tightly. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

"I would have helped," he gasped through a sob, his choked whisper clearly meant for his wife but audible to the whole room. "If I'd known, I would have been right there with them. If I'd been there, maybe we wouldn't have…" His pained voice trailed off into nothingness.

Fleur's grip on him tightened as she whispered some words of comfort in French that only Bill could hear. He clung to her for another few minutes before returning to the sofa. "Sorry, Harry. I'm not angry at you for all this. I'll never forgive Dumbledore as long as I live, but you were just doing the best you could in the circumstances." He sighed deeply before gesturing for Harry to finish.

Though Fleur and Bill assured the four of them that they'd be welcome to stay nearby in France, it felt wrong to Harry. Given the power Voldemort was amassing in Britain, Harry and Luna both preferred to find a more remote location to start fresh. Angelina had an inside track to a semi-professional Quidditch league in Central America through a friend from Hufflepuff's team who had graduated before Harry started at Hogwarts.

After some deliberation, the four decided to spend at least a year abroad. Angelina was named a new chaser for the Quidditch team based out of Tenochtitlán, the Azteca Ashwinders. George decided to try restarting his shop by mail business, though even he admitted that the shop had lost a lot of its magic with Fred's passing. Luna had connected with the local wizarding library while she was working to learn the language. Señora de Olmos, the library's elderly Director of Special Acquisitions, had taken an interest in Luna right away. Occasional conversations and weekly Spanish lessons led to a part-time job helping with translation. By the time Luna had finished her courses in Spanish, a full-time position was waiting for her at the library.

That had left Harry to find something worthwhile. As much as he would have preferred to disappear back to England to destroy horcruxes or die trying, his friends were relentless in their arguments. The remaining horcruxes would no doubt be impossible to find on his own. There was no point in going on a suicide mission. As much as it hurt, it was time to recuperate and hope the international wizarding community would step in.

Harry had written countless letters to the International Confederation of Wizards, explaining the basics of Voldemort's rise to power and the need for swift action. He pledged to help in any way he could and wanted to be with their number when they led a force to oppose the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, the ICW was mired in bureaucratic infighting and moved at a snail's pace on their best day. Prospects of action were further stymied by a few influential members of the group who were sympathetic to Voldemort's cause, if not already quietly pledging their support.

"The nargles are really after you today." Luna swiped at the invisible creatures she claimed to be flying around Harry's head and causing a lack of concentration. He laughed and shook his head so that his hair flopped back and forth.

"Much better. Thanks, Luna." In his reverie, he'd missed most of the walk to the restaurant. He strode to the entrance and held open the door for his friend. She smiled as she walked in and asked in excellent Spanish for a table for two in Atzi's section.

The hostess told them it might be a minute and asked them to stay put while she checked on available tables. As she moved to look, Harry stood behind Luna and did his best to channel George as he mouthed, "¡Esta Luna! ¡Atzi's Luna!" The hostess' eyes grew wide and she unsuccessfully tried to keep a huge smile from her face.

"Lo siento. ¡Un momento, por favor!"

"She seems nice," offered Luna as she turned to a suddenly far too innocent-looking Harry. The younger of the two cocked her head to the side as she examined her friend. "Harry, you wouldn't be trying to start some mischief here at my girlfriend's place of business, would you?"

Harry lied unconvincingly that he was not managing any mischief and Luna didn't press the subject. A few seconds later, the beaming hostess guided them to a table on the patio of the restaurant. As the two pulled out their chairs and sat down, Luna began to smile.

Harry soon regretted his antics, as Luna had questioned Marisol, the hostess, about whether any of the staff was interested in a date because her friend here (she gestured to Harry) was single. His blush deepened after Luna mentioned that she'd never confirmed whether Harry preferred "hombres o mujeres" and offered to go on a double date to help him out if needed.

Marisol giggled as she watched the mortified young man melt into his seat. He did not make eye contact when he ordered a cerveza.

"You should know better by now, Harry." Luna smiled as she scolded him. "You must be aware that you're much easier to tease than I am."

"See, this is the problem…" Harry climbed back into a proper sitting position as the burning in his cheeks began to subside. "Between you, Angelina, and George, I'm always the easiest target! And now Freddie is getting in on it. I'm just thankful that Atzi has enough heart to not torment me."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that," came a voice from the doorway to the kitchen. Atzi Xóchitl was a few inches shorter than Luna, with long, dark hair that hung past her belt when it wasn't done up in some sort of knot or ponytail. Her brown eyes danced in the last of the evening sun as she sauntered up to the table. "What's this I hear about a beautiful woman asking to be seated in my section with a handsome young man in tow? And an incredibly single one at that! If you're interested, I think Marcos might be up for a double date."

A tall man with short-cropped hair flashed a smile at Harry from behind the bar. Marcos gave him a wink before returning to pouring a tall margarita for a woman who seemed utterly convinced the wink was meant for her.

Harry smiled sheepishly. "Buenas noches, Atzi. Como estás?"

She plopped down next to Luna as she answered. "I'm good! Please, I want to practice my English. How are you? How was your day?"

Harry was grinning within moments of Atzi's arrival. He knew that George had hoped that Luna's romantic interests might eventually expand to include a certain young man with dark hair, but Harry was honestly relieved that her sights were set elsewhere.

Without realizing that it had happened, Luna and Atzi had drifted into their own little world. Harry figured that it made sense; they had only been dating a few months now, so it all must feel so new and exciting.

Harry's thoughts flew back to summer days half a dozen years past when he was in the middle of something new and exciting. The blazing look on Ginny's face as she ran towards him. The terrifying but exhilarating walk around the grounds after their first kiss. The warmth of her leaning against him in front of the Gryffindor fireplace while they both pretended to be studying their Transfiguration homework instead of each other. Their peals of laughter echoing down the halls after Ron and Hermione caught them in a broom cupboard during their prefect rounds.

Harry sighed. As much as he missed those elusive joys he'd found in his sixth year at Hogwarts, he still hadn't figured out a way to move on. Sure, he'd kept busy in the last few years, studying Spanish and for his NEWTs, joining the faculty at a local wizarding school to help teach Defense and be an assistant coach for the Quidditch team. There was always just enough on his plate to justify turning down his friends' offers to set him up.

Both Ange and George had made a few attempts to find him a girlfriend within the first couple of years. Harry had partially blamed his disinterest on his lack of fluency in Spanish, but it didn't take legilimency for his friends to see that he was still hurting too badly to start up something new. Harry had been genuinely touched when George sat him down a few months after Freddie's birth to talk to him about girls.

"To Freddie!" toasted Harry as he clinked his bottle of cerveza against George's. "May he claim his birthright as a marauder by giving his Mum and Dad as much trouble as his father and namesake gave their parents!"

George blanched for a moment before smiling. "To Freddie! May he carry on the tradition of devastatingly good-looking and charming Weasleys bent on the best kinds of mischief!"

They both took a deep swig before collapsing into their chairs.

"Well little Harrikins, I suppose you're wondering why I invited you out this evening." He knocked back another gulp of his beer. "I wanted to talk to you about Ginny."

Whatever it was that Harry had expected, this was not it. He nearly spat out his drink and found his shirt had absorbed some stray droplets. "Bloody hell, mate! You've got to warn a bloke before you start in like that!"

George laughed at his friend's consternation. "That was your warning."

He leaned forward and looked Harry straight in the eye. "You loved Ginny." It wasn't a question, even though Harry had never confided that fact in anyone, including the witch being spoken of. He exhaled a long breath before nodding.

"And I know for a fact that she loved you." Harry started to argue but thought better of it. Despite everything he grew up experiencing and all the suffering of the last few years, he could acknowledge that if anyone was capable of actually loving him, it would be Ginny. His eyes didn't meet George's, but he gave another quick nod.

"Alright then. With that established, I want to tell you something on her behalf." George grabbed Harry's shoulder and squeezed until green eyes met brown. "She wouldn't have blamed you, mate. Not for running off to fight Voldemort. Not for her, Mum and Dad, Ron, and Percy. And she wouldn't blame you if you let yourself move on.

"She was absolutely going to kick your arse when you finally got wise and came crawling back to her, but she understood why you left. It hurt her, but she understood."

Harry grit his teeth and concentrated on not falling apart. He was attempting to stare a hole in the floor, but he could still feel George's eyes on him.

"You wouldn't be betraying her if you let yourself fall for someone, Harry."

"I don't even know how I'd do that, George. Ginny understood me so well." He shook his head and took a long sip of his drink. "She knew what it was like to have Riddle in her head, yeah? But she still found so much joy in the world. She had the perfect way of breaking me out of my darkest moments."

"Sure, and that makes sense. You aren't going to find another Ginny. She was one of a kind. But that doesn't mean there can't be someone whose company you could enjoy." He unleashed the patented Weasley eyebrow waggle.

Harry thought back to how he'd agreed to at least try out a few dates. None went particularly badly.

Angelina had set him up with Nikki, the reserve keeper for the Ashwinders, and they'd gone out four or so times. He'd liked the way she laughed and really enjoyed hearing about her childhood in the Dominican Republic. In the end, they'd both agreed there just wasn't much spark and left it at that. She'd given him a big hug when he'd shown up at the team's end-of-season party, and he didn't protest when she later pulled him into a deserted room to snog him senseless. But when Ange told him later that week that she had secured a contract with her hometown team, Harry only felt happiness for her.

George's options hadn't worked quite as well. Harry wasn't sure how George had met the muggle girl named Jess who was attending a university in Mexico City, but he realized quickly that the secret-keeping of a relationship with someone who knew nothing about the magical world was a dealbreaker for him. Sure, it was nice to not have the weight of celebrity weighing on him, but Harry walked home after the date feeling like he'd been trying to dance around who he was the entire time. He had called to invite her to lunch in order to let her down easy, but since she never returned his voicemail, he decided that the muggle-friendly version of Harry Potter just wasn't that appealing.

There had been a few other attempts through the years, but Harry just didn't seem to have his heart in it. He would be kind and polite when George and Angelina or Luna brought their single friends around, but he was never fully the fun and caring person they experienced when it was just the four of them.

"¡Lo siento! ¡I must return to work!" yelped Atzi as she rose from the table. She hurried off to the kitchen, with Luna's eyes following her every move.

"She is quite extraordinary, don't you think?" Luna spoke without letting her attention return to the table.

"Yeah, Atzi's pretty great. She seems really good for you."

"Are you upset that we ignored you? You seemed lost in thought, but we didn't exactly include you in conversation."

"Actually, not at all. Seeing you with her reminded me of back when George wanted you and me to get together, and it made me think back through some of his and Angelina's other attempts to set me up." Harry chuckled a bit. "Other than earlier with the hostess, I really appreciate that you haven't pushed for me to find someone to date. You just seem to… I don't know… Get it. It's not like I'm upset at them for trying or anything, but it's nice to have someone like you."

"Yes, I remember that stage for George. I'm pretty sure he was joking, but he did at one point deliver a photo of you without a shirt in hopes that I would 'broaden my horizons.'" She laughed a bit as Harry's blush reemerged. "Don't worry, I filed it into one of the books at the library. Some lucky patron is going to end up with an interesting bookmark."

Harry groaned and put his head into his hands. Luna simply smiled as she watched Atzi skipping toward them with their drinks.

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Chapter 7: Chapter 7

The stubborn piles of papers had nearly all been vanquished. Harry was down to his last dozen or so essays from his second years, but time seemed to have dragged to a standstill. The words he stared at seemed to lose their meaning. He forced his eyes to look down at the essay in front of him as his vision blurred slightly. Grindylow. Grin-dy-low. Grind. Y? Low! He blinked a few times and shook his head. These essays were going to be the death of him.

He searched for the hanging clock and saw that he had two more hours before he had planned to head home. Plenty of time to have a quick break to check on Luna before finishing his pile. He pushed away from the desk, meandering around the Mediwitch students who were huddled, frantically studying for their next round of exams.

The door to Luna's office and the rooms where the translation happened were uncharacteristically closed. Harry gave a couple of quick raps on the door. There was no answer for more than a minute, so he walked to the water fountains and drank deeply. When Luna got super into her work, she could be as stubborn as Hermione about riding the wave of productivity.

When he went to try to knock at the door again on his way back to his table, the door was flung open and a wild-eyed Luna grasped him by the wrist and pulled him inside, locking the door behind her. Harry's confusion only grew as she dragged him into one of the Special Collections rooms, where a yellowed and ancient-looking scrap of paper was surrounded by the tools of Luna's trade: a magnifying glass, several pages of nearly unreadable, handwritten notes, and a few reference books.

"I've translated this page and gone back over it four times. Read it and tell me what you think." Luna was rarely this energetic and animated, so he sat down at the desk and began reading.

Ancient Aztec Ritual - Love's Memory

For use when love's time is cut short. This ritual sends back a single memory to the person's past self, allowing for that person the chance to find their love sooner and enjoy more time together.

Confirmed uses: 542? BC, Tamara invoked ritual to send a memory of her betrothed fighting to protect her. She had previously rejected his advances before agreeing to marry him later in life. He perished while defending her before they could wed. No record was found as to whether the ritual was successfully performed.

167? AD, Sarcha invoked ritual after her husband of two months, Aileo, was killed in a skirmish with a neighboring tribe. Sarcha was with child when her husband perished and sought to run away with Aileo at an earlier age.

1521 AD, Allamano invoked ritual after Tenochtitlán was conquered by Cortéz and his wife perished. He hoped to flee with Jama away from the city before the attack. Allamano later reported that he believed the ritual had worked and that the memory had been sent back, though this could not be confirmed.

The manuscript continued with very detailed descriptions of the process of invoking the ritual, its limitations, and speculation about how it could be used. It seemed to require a memory that involved both the person who had loved someone and the person who loved them in return. A few examples of the ritual gone incredibly wrong made it clear that it was not to be used in the case of unrequited love, as the descriptions were quite graphic about the consequences that would be endured.

"What do you think, Harry?" asked Luna as she positively bounced up and down in anticipation.

"I dunno, I dunno…" he whispered back as he frantically tried to piece the possibilities together. With everything that had gone wrong in the last years, he wasn't quick to be optimistic. But as he stared at a way to change the past, Harry Potter felt a spark of hope light somewhere deep inside.

Angelina sighed as Freddie jumped up and down on her as she lay on the couch. She had made it through a brutal training in the increasing heat that afternoon and was hoping for a bit of a break once she arrived home. As she stepped into the front door of their apartment, a silvery stag was relaying a message to her husband.

"What's up, babe? Is Harry okay?" She swept Freddie up into her arms as he ran to her and gave her husband a quick kiss on the lips.

"Not sure what's up, but it looks like Luna and Harry are coming over for dinner tonight. I'll start some dinner if you can keep Freddie from setting everything on fire?"

Her son took that as the signal to fully sneeze down her shirt. "Damn! I'd just showered, too."

George laughed as he pointed his wand toward the stove to get things going. A smile tugged at Angelina's lips as she watched him bustle around the kitchen. He wasn't in the same league as his Mum had been, rest her soul, but he'd definitely inherited a few genes from her. Something was sizzling aromatically by the time she and Freddie collapsed onto the couch.

While she was a spectacular mum most of the time, she occasionally would allow herself to play the role of a jungle gym instead of a parent. Freddie clamored across her legs and back, climbing up and down her as she let her tired muscles relax. He only slipped off of her once, grabbing her long braids as he tumbled. She had a wand trained on him the entire time, and his rear end was no worse for wear after landing on her cushioning charm. Freddie was undeterred by his fall and soon resumed his climb up Mount Mum.

Ange woke a few minutes later when there was a knock on the door. She quickly tried to smooth out the lines from the couch that had been imprinted on her face as she followed a jubilant Freddie to the door. There were hugs all around as Harry and Luna stepped inside.

"Come in, come in! George is just finishing up dinner. We're excited to have you over tonight!"

"You'll be even more excited once you see what Luna picked up on the way over here," said Harry as he leaned down to embrace Freddie. Luna held aloft a large bottle of imported Fire Whiskey. "Now, Freddie, your Mum and Dad haven't been filling your head with nonsense about Quidditch, right? You're going to grow up to play Seeker like me!"

"Nuh uh! I'll be a Beater, 'cause they get to have a bat!" Freddie seemed to think this settled the matter.

"Soup's ready!" called George from the kitchen, "Grab a bowl and let's eat outside, yeah?"

After a good meal and some catching up, Angelina and George took Freddie up to bed to sing with him and tell him stories. Harry and Luna busied themselves while they waited by cleaning up the dishes and refilling glasses. They'd already made a dent in the bottle Luna had brought, but Harry figured they would probably need a little more before the night was over.

When the parents crept down the stairs twenty minutes later, they reconvened in the living room and each took a glass.

"So, are you two going to fill us in on what's got you so excited? You both seemed like a great ball of nerves throughout dinner." Angelina was glancing at their two guests appraisingly.

"I'm telling you, Ange, he's pregnant and is here to ask us to be Godparents!" George lovingly set his hand on Harry's stomach and began whispering sweet nothings. Harry simply reached past him to grab George's glass of Fire Whiskey and downed it before its owner could protest.

"If I was pregnant, I wouldn't be drinking, now would I?" Harry smirked as Angelina and Luna laughed at George's distraught face. George made a move for Harry's glass, but his opponent was too quick. "Looks like you've lost a step in your old age."

George flopped down onto the couch as he brandished an offensive finger at his guest. Harry refilled George's glass and handed it to him magnanimously.

"We found something at the library today that we think you both should see." Luna pushed a copy of the manuscript across the coffee table as Ange and George leaned forward. George slipped a pair of reading glasses on as they both began to read through the document.

Angelina's eyes were fluttering as she sat up. George's cheeks had lost a little bit of their color, too. "I've never heard of anything like this…" mused George. "Not even when Ron explained about Hermione's Time-Turner or when Ginny told us about the fight at the Department of Mysteries. How trustworthy do you think this is?"

"I'm not sure yet," answered Luna. She was rummaging through a bag filled with notes. "We only discovered it a few hours ago, so we'll need to do a lot of research, but the premise seems reasonable enough. I don't know of any magical law that prevents this from being possible."

"But the opportunity for the ritual to change things, big things, is really slim." Angelina had stood up and was pacing back and forth. "We'd need to find someone who can make a difference in the war and ensure they send back a 'memory of love' that would have a big ripple effect." Her eyes darted to Luna, then to Harry. A smile began to spread across her face. Harry put a finger to his lips and gave her a wink.

George was sipping his drink while reading back through the manuscript a second time, not paying attention to the unfolding conversation. "It's a bloody fascinating ritual. I'm with Ange: I think we can use this somehow…" He looked up at his wife, who was positively beaming. Luna and Harry both seemed awfully pleased with themselves, too. "What'd I miss?"

"Well, husband of mine, I seem to remember you mentioning what a fool Harry had been for not noticing your sister sooner…"

Harry cut in. "And you surely recall when Bill blew up about Dumbledore allowing others to help me on the search for horcruxes…"

Luna moved to continue. "And if anyone was bold enough to fight for Harry, even against Dumbledore, that person would be…"

"Ginevra Molly Weasley!" George rocketed out of his chair as if his cushion had been swapped with a cactus.

He summoned a tall blackboard that had various product ideas sketched on it. It banged into several pieces of furniture as it flew into the living room. Ange swatted him and said, "Don't wake Freddie!"

George cleared the board with a wave of the wand and began scribbling notes, making lines with small tick marks every so many inches and connecting everything with arrows.

"Brainstorming session! Everyone grab your drinks and start tossing ideas on the wall! Create your own categories or fill in underneath someone else's. We're doing this just like Fred and I did back in the day, and not a one of those plans ever failed!"

"I thought you two did one of these brainstorms before you tried to sneak into the dorm to visit me back in our sixth year?" queried Angelina sweetly as she grabbed a piece of chalk.

"Don't besmirch the process, love! We were playing the long game. I may not have found my way into your bed that night, but seeing as the sleeping terror-spawn upstairs has your eyes and hair with my nose and charm, I think it's fair to call the plan a success."

The scritching and scratching of chalk on a blackboard was interspersed with exclamations at a particularly good point or frustrated erasing leading to chalk dust-caused sneezes. Occasionally someone would ask a question that would elicit responses from others, or an overzealous writer would nudge someone out of the way to complete a thought. After twenty minutes of furious work, the brainstorming session devolved into a chalk fight. They each had to wash their hands before heading back to the living room to survey their work.

Luna was affixing the remaining colored chalk pieces in her hair like a tiara when George finally finished removing the last of the chalk dust from his left nostril. With a hint of reverence he said, "You fight dirty, Ange…"

"You know you love it!"

"Too right. Okay, let's see what we've got to go on. Looks like our main categories are Pros, Cons, Allies, Requirements, and Potential Memories. Where do we want to start?"

"I think that it would be wise to begin with the end in mind," mused Luna dreamily. "If we are clear about the possible benefits, that can help us properly weigh the rest of the factors."

"Fair enough. Any objections?" Fred surveyed the room before plowing ahead. "Alright, number one pro is underlined, circled, and has a little heart drawn next to it: save our people. Well, can't argue with that. We don't know how possible it is to achieve, but if that's a possibility on the table, it's our greatest possible goal.

"Next up is that we could possibly win the war before it escalates. That goes along with point one, but it's still valid. Messing with time is super tricky, but there seems to be a legitimate chance of making a significant difference in how the horcrux hunt goes."

Angelina cut in. "Harry, Hermione, and Ron did a remarkably good job hunting down the horcruxes, all things considered. If they had more help and got started earlier, I think there's a better chance of them succeeding."

"We know that Voldemort didn't realize they were being destroyed as it happened," reasoned Luna, who had a strand of her blonde hair in her mouth. "Perhaps his rise could be prevented entirely."

"Agreed," said Harry as he looked at the board. "This connects with a con, but I consider it a pro, too. From what we read, it seems like this world," he gestured around them, "won't necessarily change because of the ritual. It seems more likely that it would create some sort of different world from ours. But even if it doesn't change things here for us, I think a pro is that we know we're doing anything we can to change a world for the better. Even if it doesn't change our past, I'd like to know there is a universe out there where Voldemort doesn't win."

"Another one that goes along with that is that if it doesn't change our world, we don't have to worry about losing what we've gained." Angelina looked a little hesitant as she spoke. "It's not that I don't wish things here had been different, because of course I do. It's just that, with Freddie…" She looked to George imploringly.

"Absolutely. The calculus on this would look a lot different if we thought doing this ritual would possibly erase our son. I want my family and friends back, but I don't think I could go through with this if it cost us Freddie."

Luna smiled as she replied. "I agree. I wouldn't wish our tragedy on anyone, but I rather like the life we've built here. Were it not for all the heartache, I doubt the four of us would have become so close. And I doubt we would have ended up in this wonderful place."

"I'm sure meeting the beautiful young Ms. Xóchitl hasn't got anything to do with it, either," said Harry as he sported a wry smile. He nudged her with his elbow.

"I am quite happy to have found her. Missing out on this chance to get to know her would be unfortunate."

"So, we've got a pretty compelling list of why using the ritual could be a good idea. What about the other side of the coin?" George scooted to the side so that the scribbled words were visible.

Harry piped up. "That first one is mine. Even though things in this timeline went terribly, there's always a chance that meddling with things could make it worse for everyone."

"Ever the optimist!" chuckled George. "You're not wrong, but I think that point is mitigated by just how bad things are here. It'd take a lot to make things worse than they already are."

"Fair, but I figured it was worth considering," replied Harry. He looked at the next con on the list. "Who wrote 'When does the memory go?' and what did you mean?"

"That was me," said Angelina. "I think it's pretty clear that we don't have tons of options of people for whom we could make this ritual work, much less folks who might change the timeline using only the addition of a single memory. I'm guessing we're all more or less agreed that Harry's connection with Ginny is our best bet, right?"

George and Luna nodded emphatically. Harry grimaced a bit, shrugged his shoulders, and gave a half nod.

"Okay, Harry, do you know of anyone else who might fit the bill?" Angelina didn't betray any negative emotions as she questioned him, but she did seem very skeptical.

"Well, that's the thing. One of my first thoughts was you and George, but I admit that it seems unlikely to affect the horcrux hunt unless you can find a way to relay information about what Voldemort is doing back to younger me or Dumbledore. I also considered that Bill and Fleur could be a possibility since they've got curse-breaking experience and better knowledge of Gringotts."

"Not that I'd mind getting to spend more time snogging Ange senseless while we were in school, but I think both of those options would run afoul of the basic premise of the ritual. Sure, we've lost a lot, as have my brother and sister-in-law, but we didn't miss out on time with the person we fell in love with."

Luna piped up. "From how I understand the spell, it would only work for someone who lost the one they love. I don't think either couple would qualify. I briefly considered that I might send back a memory about Parvati, but I don't think a few months of exploring broom closets really counts as love. We were young and infatuated, but I doubt it was really much more than that. Plus, despite how good Harry has become at listening to me, in our school days he thought many of my ideas were a bit fanciful. I believe the most effective course of action would be to send back one of Harry's memories."

"Ginny and I were only together for a little while, too," argued Harry. "I mean, sure I think I was in love with her, but we're not sure she felt the same way…"

George blew a rather wet raspberry as Angelina snorted. Luna rolled her eyes before shoving Harry off the arm of the chair he'd perched on.

"Seriously, mate, we've been over this before," George's exasperated look was rather reminiscent of Mrs. Weasley as he began to scold Harry. "She was over the moon for you basically since birth. You were too stupid to notice how she looked at you in her first year and even after the Chamber. She came to Fred and me crying in our sixth year when Ron suggested you two go to the Yule Ball together and she turned you down because she'd already agreed to go with Neville. Just cause she was honorable enough to stick with the date who asked her first doesn't mean she wasn't crushed to miss out on that chance."

"When you two were together during our fifth year, I can't explain this difference in her demeanor. It was like she radiated sunshine. She never told me this directly, but I think she was doing her best to wait until you mentioned love first, since she was a bit worried about scaring you away with too much, too fast."

Harry felt a little warmth in his chest growing. "Okay, okay. I admit, the ritual seems to fit my situation better, and I'd have more opportunity to change how the horcrux hunt goes." He looked over at Angelina. "So what exactly does 'When does the memory go?' mean?"

Ange hopped up and pointed to a long line at the top of the blackboard. "Well, we know that the ritual would send your memory back far enough so that you and Ginny would have more time together." She grabbed the chalk that George was offering and made a mark on the line and labeled it HG and enclosed it with a heart. "That was at the end of your seventh year, right?"

"No, love, his last year was his sixth. He followed in the footsteps of his illustrious mentors by leaving early for his little camping trip."

"That's right. And at what point did you begin to have feelings for the lovely Miss Weasley?"

Color rushed to Harry's cheeks as he thought back to that era. "Err… I'm not exactly sure. Probably the summer before that? I'd been really impressed with her at the Ministry and was well past Cho at that point."

Angelina made another mark and drew an eye with a green, heart-shaped iris. Harry covered his face with his hand.

She continued, "So it seems reasonable to assume that if the ritual works, his memory will go back to before the summer between Harry's fifth and sixth year. But that still leaves a lot of options. I figure we should consider what the likeliest entry points are." Her chalk made a few more marks further up the line.

"There isn't much in the manuscript about timing, but it seemed reasonable to infer that it would be a time that is either meaningful to both of those involved or that grants the memory gainer the best odds of changing their future." Luna scrunched her brow. "The most obvious option would be after Harry rescued Ginny from the Chamber of Secrets. They were both involved in the experience, it provided a chance for him to see Ginny in a new light, and it also featured a horcrux."

"That makes sense, but I wasn't even thinking about girls back then. I don't know what a twelve-year-old me would do if I suddenly had future memories of dating Ginny."

"With that in mind, my suggestion is probably out, since it'd be earlier in the timeline and it was less impactful, but I'd been thinking about when you first met Ginny on Platform 9 ¾," proffered George. "It was meaningful for you as one of your first tastes of the magical world, and Ginny wouldn't shut up about you for months afterward. But yeah, if little Harrikins suddenly had an obsession with Ginny after one meeting, that could cause more problems than it solves."

Angelina marked both on the timeline with a picture of a train and a messy-haired stick figure holding a sword. "George mentioned the Yule Ball earlier. There's some real potential there because that's before Voldemort revives, you're noticing girls, and it gives plenty of time before the horcrux hunt falls apart."

Luna was nodding along as Ange explained. "That's a strong possibility. Another option, although I'm not sure if this would count as 'giving them more time' or not, is the summer when Harry started to notice Ginny. She was dating Dean at the time, but maybe the memory would get Harry to simply snog her right away and end up with a full year together instead of just part of the spring term."

"Ugh, I hope not…" muttered Harry. "As much as I hated seeing them together when they were dating, that seems like a low blow. I don't want any version of myself to do that."

Luna considered his objection. "Well, if the version of you who gets the memory has the same morals as you do now, it seems unlikely that the memory would plant itself in a time in which you'd have to break up a relationship."

"I guess my original question doesn't matter too much since we don't have any way to control when the memory arrives. Maybe we should add another heading for Potential Timeline Issues?" Angelina offered the chalk in her hand back to her husband.

"Excellent idea!" George took the chalk back from Ange as she sat down. Once he'd added the new category, he returned to the con list. "'Ritual goes wrong' is the other major thing to look out for. I think that we can pull this off without it backfiring, but might as well go over the potential downsides."

"From what I read, I want to avoid the consequences of it going wrong at just about any cost." Harry shuddered at the thought of some of the physical complications that had been described. "Besides the risk to my younger self's body, the boundary hex seems absolutely terrible. It'd affect both Ginny and me in ways that are hard to predict. If I understood it correctly, I'd be warded from ever coming within fifty yards of Ginny again. That'd screw up an awful lot of the hopes for that timeline in the fight against Voldemort. It could severely impact my friendship with Ron, I wouldn't be able to spend summers or holidays with your family. There's a chance I'd end up needing to attend another school entirely. I might not even be able to help Ginny in the Chamber. There are so many variables…"

Harry's voice was strained as he tallied multiple ways the ritual could malfunction. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like too great of a risk.

"Those are legitimate dangers." George was scribbling down shorthand notes under the con list. "Shockingly, you left off the dangers that your current self would incur if things went wrong."

"Those don't matter as much. If I explode or something from trying to send back a message to save a bunch of the people I love, at least I tried, right?"

Luna rolled her eyes. "Has anyone ever told you that you've got a bit of a 'saving people thing'?"

Harry shot a rude gesture in her direction.

"In any case, I think we can mitigate some of our fear of this con by studying the ritual as best we can to understand it and by reassuring Harry that Ginny's feelings for him were just as strong as his were for her." Again, Harry felt his cheeks flush at George's words but didn't argue. "Next up are our Allies. Bill and Fleur make the most sense to me. I bet they could help a lot with researching the ritual."

Angelina nodded fervently. "It would be great to see them again. Aurelia is a little older than Freddie, but I'm sure they'd have a lot of fun playing together. And the last owl from them said that Genevieve has just started walking."

"It would help us to have a native Spanish speaker help us review the necessary preparations and instructions. That's why I wrote Señora de Olmos as my first pick. She's trustworthy and incredibly intelligent, plus she already knows a great deal of our reasoning for considering the ritual."

"I don't really know her at all. Do you, Ange?" She shook her head. He looked to Harry.

"I've met her on several occasions. She's been really kind, has helped me some with my Spanish, and has treated Luna well. I don't know her well enough to know if she'd be the best fit, but I trust Luna's judgment and don't have any reason to object."

"Well put, Harry. If Luna gives her the thumbs up, that's good enough for me. George?"

"I agree, and not just because we've got a fairly meager list of potential allies. I'm interested in who put Ginny and Dumbledore on the list, though."

"That was me on both counts," Harry replied. "Here's my thinking: the horcrux hunt was obviously super dangerous. I tried to convince Ron and Hermione to let me go on my own, but they refused. They could be really stubborn sometimes." At this, George shouted "Hear, hear!" and downed what was left of his drink.

"Well, the only reason I got away with leaving Ginny behind was that we'd only been dating a little while by the time we started the hunt. If we'd been together for longer, like a couple of terms or even a year, I doubt I could have convinced her to stay behind. She'd probably be just as involved in plotting how to get the horcruxes as Ron or Hermione. I'm getting queasy even considering her coming with, but she was a powerful witch who could handle herself. I'm not foolish enough to underestimate her."

"Spoken like a man in love," said Angelina thoughtfully as she gave Harry a wink.

"As for Dumbledore, the man did the war effort a huge disservice by holding his cards so close to his chest. But if a younger me came to him and brought up horcruxes, that might be enough to change his mindset. Or at least maybe he'd start looking for the damn things sooner. The task seemed impossible at times, especially knowing that Dumbledore had only managed to find the ring and where the locket had been."

"Having Dumbledore on the case earlier and being more open with folks could have some really big benefits," mused George. "As long as we're thinking of allies on the other end of this thing, let's add Sirius. If the memory goes back far enough, there's a chance that the whole ministry thing doesn't happen in the same way, or maybe doesn't happen at all. Never hurts to have a Marauder on your side!"

Harry hadn't thought of that. There were a million ways things could go wrong again, but the corners of his mouth began to rise as Harry imagined hugging Sirius again, Sirius learning the truth about Regulus, and the look on his godfather's face as he teased Harry about his relationship with a certain redhead.

"Any others worth mentioning?"

Harry shook his head. "There'd still be our same friends and allies from the first time around, but I don't think sending a memory back would affect them too much. Maybe if the younger me confides in Luna, we'd be better friends more quickly. You seem like one of the only friends of mine who'd believe a story about a memory from the future."

"True, though you weren't exactly known for confiding about all the extraordinary things that happened to you."

George had turned his attention back to the board. "Most of the ingredients for the potion aren't too tough to find, though a couple are pretty expensive."

"I'd offer to bankroll the operation, but I'm fairly certain the goblins have seized all the contents of my vaults to pay for our intrusion. And I'm not sure I could waltz in the front doors and ask to talk things out."

"Not to worry, oh investor of ours," intoned Angelina. She cut a quick look at George, who was already nodding. "George and I had been putting aside some of the earnings from the mail-order business for years now. We can dip into our savings to fund the potion, and I'd bet Bill and Fleur could pitch in, too. The cost shouldn't be an impediment."

"You don't have to do that, Ange! I know you were looking to buy a home soon."

"Good luck stopping us, mate!" George had a dangerously devious look as he looked at Harry. "You helped get our enterprise started, and I'll be a Prefect before I let you wriggle out of this one."

The image of a horrified George sporting a Prefect badge being ridiculed by his twin who was rolling on the ground flashed into his head. Harry cracked a smile.

"The wandwork and incantations are very complex," noted Luna. "If I went over the pronunciations with Señora de Olmos, I believe I could handle the incantations, but we'd need someone else to help with all the wand movements. It's well beyond a swish and a flick."

"With all the times he's had to finesse a product or a prank just right, I think George would do nicely for that." Angelina raised an eyebrow as if daring her husband to contradict her.

"What can I say? I'm a specialist. Not to mention that, by Weasley rules, this counts as a massive prank on old Voldemort, which only increases my effectiveness."

"Which leaves us with one major question mark left…" Angelina turned to Harry. "Do you have a memory of the two of you that could change things?"

All eyes rested on him as he thought through the options. "So, I've been thinking about this… It's been on my mind ever since Luna showed me the manuscript." Harry closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift back to what was probably the happiest day of his life before he began narrating.

"So, I just finished detention with Snape when I entered the common room. They were all in the middle of a massive party after Gryffindor had won the Quidditch Cup, thanks in large part to Ginny's incredible seeking. I walked in and suddenly she was running towards me. I didn't exactly plan it, but I just kissed her, right there in front of everybody."

"Yeah, yeah, Potter. We all know the story! We only heard Ginny retell it a few dozen times. I don't need details about you snogging the living daylights out of my sister." By this point, George was pelting Harry with pieces of chalk.

"That was just setting the scene!" yelped Harry before banishing several pillows directly at George's head. "That's not the memory I'd sent back!"

"Then get to the important part, preferably without describing any unneeded details, if you please."

Harry considered revealing that Ginny had given him a rather cheeky squeeze of his bum while walking back to the common room that evening, but thought that detail might be better to keep quiet.

"Well, we went for a stroll by the lake afterward. I'd want to check the memory in a Pensieve to be sure, but I think I said something along the lines of 'I wish we'd supported you more after the Chamber.' I dunno, there was more to it. But the basic idea was that I wished I'd been closer to her before."

"Not bad, Harry. It's subtle, but it could certainly give you a nudge towards Ginny to see the two of you together and you saying that. Do you remember if you were kissing her right before or afterward?" George faked vomiting behind the blackboard, but Angelina ignored him. "It seems like we won't be able to send a very long memory back, so brevity is important."

"No, we were just sorta leaned against a tree with her head on my shoulder. We were holding hands though."

"That may not seem like much for us, having been raised by affectionate families, but from what you've told me about the muggles you grew up with, I imagine the image would be quite powerful."

Harry didn't doubt Luna's analysis at all. "True, but that's not the only reason that I favor that memory. Dumbledore had already been walking me through Voldemort's horcrux plans and I knew that the diary had been a piece of his soul. I distinctly remember saying that I wish we'd been there for her out loud, but I was internally thinking about how much I hated that she had fought with one of Voldemort's horcruxes. Horcruxes, as in plural."

"Bloody hell, Harry…" George's face had gone very pale, with his freckles standing out all the more as his jaw went slack. Angelina began furiously rereading the manuscript. A smile broke out on Luna's face as the beginnings of tears formed in her eyes.

As his friends started chattering with excitement about the implications, Harry thought to himself that this plan might have some merit to it, after all.

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Chapter 8: Chapter 8

The next few months were a bit of a whirlwind for Harry. His spare time became research time overnight. Between teaching classes, helping with the school Quidditch team, and preparing for the ritual, he felt like he was going nonstop from when he woke up until his head hit the pillow. Thankfully, a renewed sense of hopefulness had further buoyed his spirits and given him added energy. Sure, he might be reading through his first and second year essays a bit less thoroughly than before, but he still felt like he was doing a good job overall.

He and Luna spent an inordinate amount of time at the library, where Señora de Olmos had graciously allowed them to set up in one of the small translation rooms towards the back of the staff offices. They dutifully brought their materials each day and returned with them each night, even though it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would tamper with them. Mad Eye Moody's growl of "Constant vigilance!" played in Harry's head each time he considered just leaving the bags of notes locked in the room overnight. While they hadn't been able to completely confirm that Harry's memory would be able to confer his unsaid thoughts about horcruxes to his younger self, it seemed like a strong possibility.

George had owled Bill about visiting over the summer and helping him with a special project. Their family of four was planning to arrive for a two-week visit in mid-June. Angelina's quidditch season would be over by then, so she would be helping Geroge with their mail-order business. Between the two of them, they felt confident they could juggle things while investing extra time to get Bill and Fleur up to speed.

Atzi had been staying over at Luna and Harry's place more and more often. To Harry, their relationship seemed serious. No, he thought, serious wasn't the right word. Though they were quite serious about their commitment, they were far too playful and happy to be described as being "serious." Stable seemed to fit better.

Harry smiled as he thought of their late nights talking about growing up. Harry even managed to make Luna blush while telling stories of her school days every once and a while, though she was much more accomplished at embarrassing him.

Near the end of the school term, Harry met up with Luna in the library, spreading manuscript notes and papers to grade across the table. Luna had joined him before he'd even gotten the paperwork sorted out.

"Harry, I'd like to ask you a question."

Harry's eyebrows jumped up as he finished tapping a stack of fourth-year essays on the table to keep them more neatly together. "Sure, what's up?"

"We haven't told many people about the ritual. Just Señora de Olmos, Bill, and Fleur. I've been thinking about it, and I'd like to tell Atzi. What do you think?"

Harry cocked his head to the side and thought for a minute. "Well, that makes sense, especially with the amount of time you're putting in to ensure everything goes well. I can't see why it would hurt to share with her. I sorta figured you would have already told her if I'm being honest."

"I've wanted to for a while now, but it feels like it's too important for me to just make a decision without talking about it first."

"I can see that. Want to check in with Angelina and George in the morning? I bet they'll be on board, then you could maybe talk to Atzi after her shift tomorrow. She's got the lunch shift, right?"

"Yes, she'll be done by around two. Would you want to help me explain everything to her?"

Harry considered it. "How about you and Atzi go spend some time together and tell her however you feel works best? I'll stay home and whip up something for dinner and she can ask questions of both of us if she needs to. It'll at least help me start repaying her for all the time I've kept you busy when you could have been snogging."

By the time Luna and Atzi got back home, the whole house smelled delicious. Harry was quite pleased with himself. He'd nearly overcooked the barbacoa but had pulled it off the heat just in time. He also had beans, rice, and his own homemade salsa. It wasn't nearly as hot as Atzi's, but he thought what it lacked in heat it made up for in flavor.

Before Harry had even turned around to greet them, Atzi had flung herself into a hug around his midsection. "You will send your memory of love back in time to save the world and your beloved?! iEres tan romántico!" She squeezed him with extra fervor.

"So, I'm guessing Luna told you, huh?"

"Sí, she told me all about it." She took a big sniff of the barbacoa. "I want to eat this, drink something strong, and hear more about your love story."

Harry chuckled and replied, "I wouldn't dream of denying you any of those."

Dinner was delicious, and the conversation sparkled with excitement as it swung from English to Spanish and to a mixture of both. Luna was clearing the plates and tossing several empty cerveza bottles into the bin when Atzi turned to Harry with a question.

"I know the memory you will send back to your Ginny is personal, but would you be willing to let us watch it with you? I want to see this chica peliroja who has stolen your heart."

"I wish I could show you, but I don't have any way to do it. You'd like her though. Ella era fuerte y… Como se dice feisty?"


"Si, era luchadora bondadosa."

Atzi made a high-pitched noise as she melted into her chair dramatically. "I must see this woman! Can we please go to the pensedero?"

Harry's mind screeched to a halt. "Umm, what do you mean by a pensedero?"

Atzi looked at him quizzically. "Luna said you used a pensedero to view memories about your dark wizard. They are not cheap, but there is a shop here in the city where you can rent one for an hour at a time. It would be so much fun to see this memory with you!"

"That would be such a great help!" exclaimed Luna. "We could ensure that your memory is just as you recall and we could calculate exactly how long it needs to be. That would help us ensure the potion and wandwork to be more precise!"

Harry was beaming. "Atzi, I would be honored to introduce you to Ginny. If we've got enough time, maybe I can show you some memories of your girlfriend when she was younger?"

The look on Atzi's face quickly changed from excited to predatory. With a dangerous smirk, she asked, "You were the one who walked in on her in a closet with someone, no?"

Before he could answer, a rather large pillow collided with his head.

Due to the high cost of renting a Pensieve room and scheduling difficulties, it was another week before the three could meet up with Angelina and George at La Tienda de Recuerdos de Águila y Serpiente. The Weasleys showed up ten minutes late due to Freddie becoming a little bit clingy as he was passed over to the babysitter.

"Sorry, sorry!" apologized Angelina as they met up with their friends. "We were halfway down the hallway to the stairs when Freddie had a burst of accidental magic. He had run to the door and was crying for one more hug, and apparently his emotions got the best of him."

George wiped a mock tear from his eye. "I wish you lot could have seen it. Blew the ruddy door right off its hinges."

"I don't think he was this proud when Freddie said his first word…" muttered Angelina. "Then again, I'm the one who married a Weasley and gave birth to his progeny. I suppose I should be thankful nothing caught fire."

George gave her a somber look. "With us Weasleys, the pyromania usually doesn't begin until age seven or eight."

"So, the gang's all here!" cut in Luna with a smile. "Are we ready to take a look at this memory?"

"I think so. Atzi agreed to try to haggle them down on the price a bit." Harry nodded toward her and she crossed her fingers for luck. "If we can get a good enough deal, I thought we might rent it for two hours instead of just one. That would give us a full hour for the ritual memory, but we'd also hopefully have time to check out some other memories. Luna was hoping to introduce Atzi to her parents, or at least let her see a bit of them, and I figure the two of you might have something you'd like to revisit."

"That we do, but not with you lot in there with us!" George's eyebrows were waggling like mad before Angelina pinched him hard on a doughy bit of his side. "Geroff me, woman! It was only a joke!"

"I'm sure we can think of something appropriate, but if not, I've got an excellent memory of Fred and George in fifth year when one of their little 'experiments' went wrong."

George blanched. "You know, Atzi here wasn't around when Ange and I got hitched. Perhaps that would be a better choice. We'll come up with something more interesting than a joke product that didn't work."

Atzi was laughing as she climbed the stairs to the shop. She entered and began speaking to the young man at the front desk animatedly. Five minutes later, she opened the doors and beckoned them in.

"Everybody! Roberto here," she waved her hand at the desk worker. "has agreed to give us a discount on our room for tonight!" The four of them were effusive in thanking Roberto, who seemed slightly less enthusiastic now that he realized that he'd give a sweetheart deal to a group of mostly foreigners who he might have gotten more than the full price from.

The five of them were directed down the hall to a small, dimly lit room with a pedestal in the middle. There were instructions written in Spanish on a sheet of paper placed upon a small table in the back of the room, but Harry strode forward straight toward the large basin on the pedestal.

"It will be a tight fit, but we should all be able to enter together, right Atzi?"

"Si, Roberto explained that their Pensieves could do six, but five was more reasonable."

"That's great. Like we said, this first run-through is just to get a feel for the memory. After that, we'll go back in with our assignments. Atzi will count out the seconds from when we want to start the memory to when we want it to end to help with brewing the potion while Angelina tries to take mental notes on the specific wording of everything we say within that timeframe. Luna will concentrate on Ginny specifically, looking for anything that might be noteworthy and being ready to help Ange with what Gin said and George will do the same for the younger version of me. I'll be doing my best to concentrate to see if I get any inkling that younger me was thinking about horcruxes."

George brought his hand to his brow in a mock salute. "Yes, General Potter, sir!"

"When we come up after the first pass-through, I'm sure we'll all be eager to talk about it or really emotional." Harry looked around at the friends alongside him. "Even though that's natural, let's do our best to focus on the task at hand. We go in, we watch, we come out. If the plans need to change at that point, so be it. Otherwise, we dive right back in. Once we come out the second time, everyone grab your parchment and write down everything you can. We've got enough time to go back in as needed, but if we accomplish what needs to be done, we can have some fun with other memories."

"And we can go celebrate afterward!" added Angelina. "We've got a babysitter until midnight!"

Harry pulled out his wand and tapped it against his temple, pulling a glowing white strand from his mind. He gently placed it into the Pensieve and gulped without realizing he was doing it. As the group began submerging their faces into the water, Harry took a deep breath and hoped he was ready to see her again.

The first pass-through of the memory was excruciating. Though all of those who knew Ginny had been preparing themselves, the heartache was still overwhelming. There she was, sitting in the grass, laughing, blushing, and holding Harry's hand… Living her life with no idea that it would only last another year before being cut short. The grief hit them in waves and, try as they might, they just couldn't hold it all together.

When they resurfaced, each immediately began consoling one another. George cried in Angelina's arms as Harry and Luna held each other through the sobs, with Atzi standing nearby. When Luna moved towards her girlfriend for comfort, George seized the opportunity to grasp Harry bracingly and hold him tight. Soon, Angelina, Luna, and Atzi joined them, and the group spent a few minutes allowing themselves to mourn together.

"Well, so much for that brilliant plan," said Harry with a sniff. "Who was it who said not to get emotional after the first run? Because that guy has rocks for brains."

"Actually, I really like the plan," said Luna as she wiped a stray tear on her sleeve. "We just didn't realize we would need to go through an extra time first to help us process it all. Shall we retry the plan?"

"I think that would work," agreed Angelina. She looked at her husband, who nodded despite the redness of his eyes.

With a sad smile, Atzi said "Vamanos!" and they dove back in.

The hurt they experienced the second time through was still striking, but the friends concentrated on the scene in front of them despite it. They came close enough to hear more of the conversation. Harry smiled as he kept his eyes glued to Ginny. Her smile was every bit as radiant as he remembered. After seeing a lot of smiles faked over the last few years, he felt a warmth in his chest as he recognized the genuine article on her lips.

He actually laughed out loud at one of her jokes that he had completely forgotten, and felt his own cheeks burn as he watched his younger self stumble over his words. Yet Ginny had simply rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. She had instantly felt safe around him, even though near him was the furthest thing from "safe." He let out a long sigh as the scene began to fade away.

Back in the small room, Harry did his best to catch his breath. Angelina made her way over to him and pulled him close. He didn't enjoy showing weakness, but falling apart with these friends in these circumstances felt like a reasonable response to the situation.

"Hey Luna," George called over. "What if we modify the plan a bit? We've only been in here forty-five minutes by my count. How about you and Atzi check out one of your memories while we regroup? I think we will be ready in a few minutes, then we can finish up our mission and you two can have any time that's left."

"We'd be happy to do so, George. Shall we?" She used her wand to deposit Harry's memory into a vial, then planted her own in the basin. She called out "We'll be back soon!" over her shoulder before she and Atzi disappeared into the waters.

Harry walked to the small table and hoisted himself up to sit on it. Angelina hopped up next to him while George stood to his other side with an arm around Harry's shoulders.

"I can't believe you're here consoling me. It should be the other way around. She was your sister."

"We're both hurting, sure, but it's a different kind of hurt. Not a lot of use comparing them, mate."

"I knew it'd be hard, but… I can't even find words for what that was…"

Angelina bumped him gently with her shoulder. "I get the feeling you won't be arguing that you didn't love her anytime soon."

Harry's laugh was at least partly a gasp as the pain of the memory mixed with the truth of what she had said. "No, I don't suppose I will."

She leaned her head against his. The beads on her braids made a little noise in his ear that he found comforting somehow.

"For what it's worth, she looked an awful lot like someone in love," said George as he leaned against the wall. "Or if not, like someone right on the edge of the precipice, ready to jump in."

Harry couldn't help but smile at that. Whatever fears and worries he had about the ritual, he at least believed in the premise: he loved Ginny and Ginny had loved him, and he desperately wished that they'd had more time, whether it helped win the war or not. Steely determination was being pumped through his veins, and by the time Luna and Atzi reemerged, he felt ready to dive back in.

This time, the five all gathered quite close, with Luna and George across from their targets and Angelina hovering over them, leaning against the tree while craning her neck toward the couple so as not to miss a thing. Atzi waited for Harry's signal to begin her count, then would take a few steps away as she did her best to keep time without distracting the others. Harry, for his part, plopped down next to his younger self and closed his eyes, forcing himself to refrain from losing his concentration. The beats of the conversation were more familiar this time, and he could sense that younger Harry was about to begin the chosen dialogue. He waved his hand blindly at where he remembered Atzi standing, then grew very still and quiet.

It was a bit awkward and the older Harry would have liked this memory to be more polished, but he knew that his words were both real and true. As his younger self turned to plant a gentle kiss into Ginny's mane of red hair, Harry felt it. The unmistakable memory of marveling at the young woman he was with for surviving when pitted against one of Voldemort's horcruxes. The admiration he felt was thick in the air.

Both Harrys smiled.

When the furious scribbling of his four friends had ceased, the smile had not left Harry's face.

"Oi, Potter! You better not be thinking about my sister with that look on your face!"

He couldn't help but chuckle a bit.

"It's in the memory, George. It's right there when I kiss the top of her head." Harry cupped his hands behind his head and stared into the distance.

Angelina grinned as she looked back at what she had written. "Let's get these notes organized before Bill and Fleur arrive, finish the potion, and plan to make it happen before they head back to France. It's a quick turnaround, but I think it's doable."

"Excellent!" exclaimed Luna. "I've got one more memory that you might all want to see, and then I thought that maybe we could see George's memory of leaving Hogwarts? That was quite the spectacle."

"I have heard the stories, but seeing it would be even better!" Atzi was grinning eagerly.

"It would be my pleasure to indulge you. Are we allowed to mix multiple memories together if it's of the same event? If so, we might try out all four points of view?"

"Roberto said that was one of its more popular uses. You just drop all the memories together, then draw them back out after with your own wand."

"Sounds fun!" Harry gestured toward Luna. "Would you do the honors first?"

Soon, the group were attending a young Luna's Nth birthday party. Her parents looked on with joy as she blew out the candles on a cake that Harry thought must be intended to resemble a Crumple-Horned Snorkack. Harry's heart warmed as he watched a young Ginny bring Luna a gift. It was a handmade painting of the girls standing together under a bright orange sun atop shockingly violet grass.

When the scene changed to the Weasley twins making the greatest exit Hogwarts had ever known, Harry again found himself looking at Ginny. His smile widened as the light of the fireworks danced in her bright eyes as she cheered for her brothers.

After leaving the Pensieve shop, everyone made their way back to Luna and Harry's flat. Atzi went on and on about how much she liked Ginny and requested stories about her. Drinks were poured as they gathered in the living room, and Luna started the festivities.

"I was not a particularly popular child at Hogwarts in my first few years. My house was Ravenclaw, and even though it was known for intelligence, most of my classmates were much more interested in what had already been proven instead of what was left to discover. Some of the older students spent rather a lot of their time pestering me and hiding my things.

"Ginny had a hard first year because of the horcrux and the chamber. Her outgoing personality was diminished by contact with the diary, which made it hard for her to make friends. In our second year, she was recovering from the ordeal but was still isolated from many of our peers. Some of them were afraid of her because of the rumors of what had happened, but most had just already established their friend groups."

Harry nodded with a pained expression. He wished, not for the first time, that he and his friends had done a better job of including her back then.

"About midway through the first term of our second year, Ginny stayed back to get some extra help from Professor Lupin after double Defense Against the Dark Arts, since we had a dreadful professor our first year and she was trying to catch up. I was slowly walking to lunch on my own when Ginny rushed up to me. We had known each other before we came to school, but hadn't been close."

Luna looked wistful as she took another sip and continued. "Ginny smiled at me. It wasn't the devious smile of the older students looking to tease me or the sad smile of a professor thinking about what happened to my Mum. It was real and kind. She asked if I'd ever taken my lunch to eat outside. I hadn't thought to try. So she invited me to grab some food and meet her under the big tree outside the Great Hall. Our time wasn't anything out of the ordinary, except it was the first time I felt at home at Hogwarts. We started eating together regularly, especially on the weekends. That's how she became my best friend."

She raised her glass and said, "To my friend, Ginny."

Angelina was smiling as she raised hers as well. "That's a great story, even though I was hoping you were going to go with when Roger Davies was picking on you and she hit him with the Bat-Bogey hex. I couldn't stand him." She took a swig and started in.

"So, Ginny was in her third year when she approached me. That was the year of the Triwizard Tournament, so the quidditch season had been canceled."

"Right shame that was," interjected George.

"A bloody travesty," continued Angelina. "Anyway, after the champions were chosen and I didn't make it, I decided to spend some extra time training each week. I knew that I wanted to play professionally, so I couldn't afford to go a full season without training. Alicia and Katie both agreed to help me out when they could spare the time, but Katie was in her OWL year and Alicia was a bit flakey while she was dating what's-her-name from Beauxbatons, so I was on my own more often than not.

"Anyway, one day I was walking down from the dormitory and see young Miss Weasley sitting near the bottom of the stairs. I asked her how she was doing, and she said she was sad because she missed flying. Apparently, her git brothers didn't let her fly with them at home, so she had to sneak out and fly in the dead of night."

George winced under the withering glare Angelina sent his direction. "Okay, let me explain…"

Angelina's eyebrows shot up dangerously, and George had the decency to look ashamed. "Okay, it was indefensible. Mum didn't want her flying, but we broke every other rule she set over the years, so that's no excuse. Terrible mistake by us."

Ange looked mollified by his admission. "So, as a Gryffindor greatly concerned with the glory of our house continuing after my time at Hogwarts ended, I decided to invite her to join me for some flying. I let her use my broom and borrowed Alicia's to ride myself, and we headed to the pitch.

"That girl was born to be in the air. I didn't know if she'd be any good, though I figured she might be half-decent just from having some good genes like her brother Charlie."

George called out, "Umm, rude?!"

"Oh, be quiet and let me finish! You and Fred each had a modicum of skill, too, as did Ron." Angelina rolled her eyes as her husband's pout morphed into a grin and he gave her two enthusiastic thumbs up.

"Anyway, she was a natural. When Ginny told me she wanted to try out for my spot after I graduated, I was thrilled. I invited her to join whenever we had Chaser-only trainings, and she came with me to practice flying and special moves every chance she got. She even kept it up during my seventh year when I was captain. She hid it from everyone else since her idiot brothers couldn't be trusted not to go running to tell her Mum, but she had serious skills."

"I'll second that!" replied Harry. "I thought she had a chance to play professionally, too. She averaged more goals per game than Ange did, though you, Alicia, and Katie were all so good that you split up the goalscoring duties more evenly than Ginny's fellow chasers."

"Weren't you supposed to be seeking out the snitch instead of staring down my sister, Potter?" A mischievous smile was plastered on George's face.

"Couldn't help it," laughed Harry. "And this coming from the bloke who let me get smacked by a bludger in third year because he was staring at a certain chaser's backside?"

Ange swatted George lightly on the back of his head as he looked sheepish.

"Well, one of my favorite memories was during young Ginevra's first year. While she had a really bad time of it overall, she had the smarts to come to my brother and me about a special request she had around Valentine's Day."

Harry sputtered his drink as his cheeks colored. "I hadn't thought about that poem in years!"

"My darling sister wanted to send a Valentine's Day card to this scruffy little second-year boy that she had a crush on. One of the only things I enjoyed about having Professor Lockhart that year was his singing telegrams, hand delivered by ugly little dwarves dressed up as cupid.

"The three of us spent an hour working on that poem about little Harrikins. And while it didn't spark an immediate relationship between the two of you, I like to think it was a strong foundation for love to be built upon later, so I get credit for you two getting together."

George's drink sloshed as he ducked under the pillow that Harry tossed at him.

"I hate to side with George, but Harry's definitely blushing," noted Angelina. "I've got no doubt that my husband recalls it line by line, but the real question is, does Harry remember it?"

Atzi was beaming and clapping her hands and Luna leaned forward in her chair. George inclined his good ear toward Harry in anticipation.

With a great sigh, Harry raked his hand through his hair. "Okay, I'll say it, but this is for Atzi's benefit since she's wanting to get to know Ginny better." He made a rude gesture at George before beginning.

"His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad,

His hair as dark as a blackboard,

He's really divine,

I wish he were mine,

The hero who conquered the Dark Lord!"

Harry's face had done an excellent job of mimicking a ripe tomato by the time he wrapped up the final line. Atzi and George erupted into a standing ovation while Angelina wolf-whistled. Luna was convulsing in silent laughter.

"Yeah, yeah, get your laughs in…" said Harry as he tried to control the rush of blood to his cheeks.

"My memory is when she was older and is a little more somber. Fifth year was a bit of a nightmare for me. I'd seen Voldemort return at the end of my fourth year and watched a friend get murdered. We had a sadistic professor who refused to teach us anything and loved torturing students she didn't like, and I was near the top of her list. I was also trying to date a girl who had been dating my friend who had been killed, but she kept crying whenever I talked to her. It was a really bad time.

"My friend Hermione convinced me to start a club of sorts to practice defense since we weren't learning anything in class. Ginny was a part of our group and really excelled. I was impressed with her progress.

"At the end of the school year, there was this thing that happened…" Harry took a deep breath as he considered how to explain what had occurred.

Luna thankfully cut in. "I told you about how Voldemort planted a false vision in Harry's head before we went to the Ministry of Magic. That's what was going on."

Atzi nodded in comprehension. "That was when you fought against the Death Eaters. Harry's Godfather died, no?" Atzi reached over and squeezed Harry's hand.

"Yeah, my Godfather Sirius died in the battle. But my memory of Ginny is before it all started. See, she'd already faced Voldemort before during her first year through the diary and in the Chamber of Secrets. I remember telling you, Ginny, and Neville not to come with us."

"That was rather stupid of you. We were quite helpful."

"You're right, but I wasn't thinking clearly at the time. I was desperate to save Sirius and didn't want anyone else to get hurt. I tried to convince the three of you that you should stay behind. That was the first time I remember Ginny really standing up to me. She wasn't a little kid alone in the chamber or even the girl who accidentally stuck her elbow in the butter dish. She was strong and confident and was not about to let us leave her. Ginny had more reason to be afraid of Voldemort than most because of the diary, but she refused to back down."

Harry rubbed his face with one hand as he remembered her determined look. "I can't say for certain, but I get the feeling that was when I first started realizing who she really was."

The friends each raised their glass and drank in Ginny's memory.

George and Angelina managed to apparate safely back to their home at half past twelve, which seemed like a win to the entire group. Considering how the night had gone, they weren't too concerned about paying a little extra for babysitter overtime. Stories had been swapped for the rest of the evening. Atzi recounted how Luna had first asked her on a date and Angelina followed with how George proposed. Luna told tales of searching for magical creatures with her father, and George retold some of his favorite pranks.

Harry listened in rapt attention but didn't tell any more of his own stories. It was nice not being the center of attention, and he was glad that his friends were more interested in George pulling one over on Filch instead needing a play-by-play of one of Harry's adventures.

The three remaining friends were sluggishly trying to clean up the mess in the living room when Harry nudged Luna and whispered, "It's been a long day. Let me clean this up and you two can sneak off to bed."

Luna smiled wide. "Atzi!" she called out rather loudly. "Harry is trying to subtly give us permission to head up to the bedroom for some snogging. Would you like to join me?"

Harry's palm hit his forehead as he blushed furiously.

"¡Me encantaría!" she exclaimed and ran over to plant a quick kiss on Harry's red cheek. Harry shook his head as they headed upstairs, marveling at how interesting living with Luna could be.

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Chapter 9: Chapter 9

Author's Notes: Last chapter in Tenochtitlán is a little shorter than most, but hopefully you'll enjoy the details of how the ritual goes down! I'm excited that I've found an awesome Beta reader to help with the story, and she's currently reading through and editing / providing ideas and notes. Once I get the okay from her, I'll give her a shoutout by name here. Really thankful that so many folks have read the story so far, and especially grateful for those of you who choose to comment!

Bill and Fleur arrived in Tenochtitlán as the summer heat was beginning to shift from sweltering to oven-like. Aurelia and Genevieve were both thrilled to see their aunt, uncle, and cousin, and they quickly took to Harry, Luna, and Atzi.

The weekend they made it to town the Weasleys spent getting settled and taking the kids to a nearby Muggle park, while Harry and Luna finished gathering their notes and Atzi took a shift at the restaurant. The playground equipment was far too hot in the late afternoon sun for the kids to climb on until Fleur muttered an incantation under her breath which caused the nearby area to cool significantly. The Weasley kids and several other families' children were overjoyed as they climbed, used the slide, and got pushed on the swings.

By the time the kids were fed, bathed, and tucked into bed, both sets of parents were exhausted from the chaos of travel and hosting. They stayed up a while chatting and catching up, but all four were happy to have decided to begin their planning meeting the next night.

The next evening, the house was packed. George had placed an order at Atzi's restaurant for a meal for nine plus a toddler, and the magically-enlarged dining room table was still elbow to elbow. Luna was happy to hold Genevieve for most of the meal while her girlfriend played peekaboo with the little bundle of cuteness. Aurelia was reveling in having a slightly younger playmate who would follow her lead, and kept trying to teach Freddie the French words for things.

Harry cast a Muffliato to ensure that their voices were dampened as the Weasleys tiptoed back down the stairs after putting their kids to bed. Luna was organizing their research about the manuscript on the coffee table while Atzi was laying out their compiled notes from their time in the memory. Fleur, Angelina, and Bill sat down in the living room while George grabbed libations from the kitchen. The younger of the brothers soon returned with enough for everyone.

The explanation took the better part of three hours. Both Fleur and Bill had a wide variety of questions, and though the five friends had thought through most of their concerns, there were still some loose ends to tie up.

"It is not the most important detail, but do you know if the memory would be lost to this Harry completely once it has been sent back?" Luna rifled through her notes as Harry considered Fleur's question.

"I don't think that ever came up in our research,' answered Luna. "It's possible that he will retain it, but it's not certain."

"It's one of my favorite memories, but if I lose it to the ritual, it'll be worth it," asserted Harry. "I don't know whether it'd be a possibility, but I suppose I could always rent out a Pensieve again and borrow the memory from one of the ones who viewed it during our research."

Bill had moved to the couch next to Luna and was examining the ritual notes closely, occasionally scribbling his own thoughts into the margins. "This isn't the most complex spell I've read up on, but it looks like it'd be top ten pretty easily. This wandwork is exceedingly complicated. Who were you planning to have doing it? And who is on the incantation?"

"Luna has been practicing the pronunciations with Señora de Olmos and me," offered Atzi as she laid a hand on her girlfriend's back. "She has it perfected."

"Yes, I feel quite confident that I can recite the incantation. George has been working to ensure he can accurately perform the wandwork."

"Hmm…" Bill gave George an appraising look. "I can see how that could work. But from my experience, some of these rituals need more than a skilled hand on the wand motions. Many require both confidence and the ability to make last-minute adaptations based on how it feels like it's going. I think that you could pull it off, George, but I need to ask: how confident do you feel going in?"

George furrowed his brow. "Well, I felt more confident before you started explaining the nuances of it. I figured that my time designing and testing products would be helpful, but now I'm not as sure."

"The creation of spells is a different type of magical strength than the performing of an already established ritual," explained Bill. "I almost worry that your talent for creativity and finding new things would work against you. What this requires is someone to be able to not only do the wandwork that has been laid out by the translation, but also… It's hard to explain… Sorta feel out the grooves of the magic while in the middle of the ritual. Even the best translations can lose something when brought to a different time and culture. It might be worth considering an alternative caster."

"Well then, it's a good thing we looped the two of you in on this, eh?" George's tone seemed to be tinged with a little sadness at not being able to help, but also a good bit of relief that he wouldn't be messing the ritual up.

"Fleur has a better touch with this kind of thing than I do. It's one of the reasons Gringotts were so keen on bringing her on. I could probably fill in if needed, but I think she's our best bet."

Fleur blushed. Harry liked seeing that she still got such joy from her husband's praise, especially since she had endured so many hollow compliments based solely on her Veela looks and allure. "It is one of my specialties. I've been rereading your notes about the wandwork, and I believe I can learn it all quickly enough to perform it before we return to France. Is the potion completed?"

"It's simmering in our pantry as we speak. In two days we will add the fire ant larvae, then it'll be finished within 48 hours." Angelina and George had spent the most time brewing the potion. Despite years being taught by Snape, both had become adept at potioneering. "It's now a deep maroon, just as the manuscript described. Once the final ingredient is added, tiny white bubbles of smoke should begin to emanate from the liquid. Then we take it off the heat, and it'll be ready to drink when the bubbling ceases."

"The potion can be safely stored for a month, but it seems worthwhile to get this done as soon as we can." George looked to Fleur, who was already pouring over the notes again. "Any idea how fast you can be ready to do this?"

"If I can sneak away during nap times and do some practice in the evenings, a week at most. It is very complex, but it doesn't seem to have anything written into it to prevent someone from using it. With Egyptian curses and rituals, there were often parts that required a certain kind of cleric or priest, which we would have to work around. This ritual is very naturally complicated, but it was not designed to make things more difficult."

Harry spoke up. "Let's aim for a week from Wednesday. That gives Fleur a bit more cushion in case it's trickier than anticipated or the kids don't cooperate, and that's usually Atzi's night off. Any objections?" Everyone shook their heads. "Right then. Anything else need to be said before we head out?"

"Just that this is all really impressive," stated Bill thickly. "You've done incredible work that could really make a difference, not just for us or our families, but for the world. I'm really glad that you all brought us in."

"I agree. I will begin studying my wandwork right away." Fleur gathered a few more pages of notes that had been spread out during their marathon explanation session. As the others stood and began saying their goodbyes, Fleur signaled to Harry to come near. "My sister, Gabrielle, asked me to tell you hello on her behalf. The one she is dating now is an idiot, so I wanted to check on how you were doing while I was visiting here, wondering if you had found someone. Ever since the second task, I've held out hope that the two of you might connect. But it seems safe to say your heart is still with Ginny, no?"

Now it was Harry's turn to blush. "Err… Yeah, I think that's fair. I haven't really dated anyone seriously since Gin. Maybe I will someday, but I dunno…" He finished lamely as Fleur smiled.

"Not to worry, Harry! At least I can tell her that you are unmarried. Maybe that will help her decide to dump Philipe."

"Anything to help you out, Fleur."

George was snickering nearby as he gathered up notes. Fleur looked at him with a bit of danger flashing in her eyes. "And what is so funny, George?"

"Nothing at all, Sis, nothing at all. I overheard your predicament, though, and have a possible aid for you to use on Gabrielle. Let me go grab it from the office…"

Fleur watched him skeptically duck into the room they used as an office for the mail-order business. Harry wasn't sure where this was going but felt confident he wouldn't like it. Sure enough, George soon returned with a page-sized glossy version of the photo of an embarrassed Harry without a shirt. As soon as the picture-Harry realized he had been brought in front of others, he covered himself with his arms and tried to flee out of frame.

"If that doesn't do it, I don't know what will!" George exclaimed. "Gabbi will be sure to get rid of her beau after catching a glimpse of this."

The real Harry made a dive for the photo, but Fleur was too quick and stashed it in her purse.

"Merci, George. I see you, too, would like to have our friend marry into the family." Fleur's mischievous smirk looked as dangerous as the twins' pranking faces ever had. "If you two will excuse me, I have wandwork to practice."

George's loud laugh was quickly muffled as Harry smacked him in the face with a pillow. He peppered George with a relentless pillow barrage, with each blow followed by, "You! Told! Me! You! Destroyed! All! The! Copies!"

George was quickly in the fetal position on the couch, laughing uncontrollably as the pillow rained down on him. "What kind of Weasley would I be if I let such a treasure go?"

Harry was about to reply when Genevieve began to cry upstairs. Bill shot a look at the two of them as they fell still and silent. Harry glanced at George and hurriedly said, "Well, it was a great evening, but I really must be going! Lovely to see you all!" With a pop, he apparated back home, leaving George to face the wrath of a parent of a woken child alone.

Two vials of the potion lay corked on the table in front of Harry. Somehow, he felt a little bit more nervous knowing that there was a backup, just in case something went wrong.

Across from him, Luna sat on the edge of her seat with a parchment that had been checked and rechecked countless times by Señora de Olmos, Atzi, and herself. Despite the assurance that she could recite the ancient words by heart, her quivering hands held tight to the paper.

Fleur stood behind him with her wand at the ready. She, too, had her instructions written down in front of her. She was murmuring instructions to herself in French as she stood motionless, which added to the sense of nervousness creeping up Harry's spine.

George and Atzi were nearby, ready to step in if anything went wrong with the ritual partway through. Neither was as confident as their counterparts, but both felt capable of helping should things go awry.

Angelina stood to the side of the living room near the front door while Bill was posted next to the entry to the kitchen. Their job was to maintain a ward to prevent magical interference from outside the home. It was a trick of the trade he'd picked up in Egypt. Every once in a while, magical tourists would visit near sites where he was working. Most low-level spells had no effect on the curses and traps he was working on dislodging, but occasionally a powerful cast would cause a jinx or hex to go off at just the wrong time. His mentor had lost several fingers to an unfortunate accident like that.

Bill had researched wards to prevent ambient magical energy from affecting a limited area but found nothing. Instead of giving up, he'd spent the better part of two years creating a ward from scratch that was now featured in Curse-Breaking training courses. Between him and Angelina, they had most of the house covered in the ward, and they felt fairly confident that they'd done all they could to ensure the ritual went off without a hitch.

Harry pulled his wand from his pocket and laid it on the table. "Everybody ready?"

Luna's eyes shone as she nodded. Fleur gave a confident "Oui," from behind him, and George said, "Let's go!" Bill and Angelina both gave a go-ahead thumbs up, and Atzi smiled and said, "You can do this!"

He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and uncorked the first vial. His eyes closed as he brought the potion to his lips.

Harry's eyes shot open as he tried to swallow the liquid. He forced himself to gulp it down as his body shook. Tears were forming in his eyes already, and it took every ounce of self-control not to flee the room to find relief.

"Harry! Are you okay?" shouted George as he started to move towards his friend.

Harry tried to answer, but his words came out as a mixture of a gasp and a hiss.

"Bloody hell, is that Parseltongue? Anyone understand snake speak?" Bill kept his hands outstretched for the warding but looked panicked. He called out, "Harry, you've got to let the potion work inside you for at least five minutes! Can you do it?"

Harry was coughing violently but nodded his head enough to reassure Bill.

"Angelina! How much longer does he have to wait?" Luna's usual calm seemed to be breaking as Harry's face became increasingly red.

"Just over four minutes!" she answered.

Luna got Harry's attention. "What's wrong? How can we help?"

With tears running down his flushed face, Harry spluttered before finally yelling, "SPICY!"

The panic of the room immediately transformed into relief, then relief quickly devolved into laughter.

George seemed to have lost his ability to stand and had draped his arms around Fleur's shoulders as he attempted to stay upright. She was doing little better, and her laughs had become a series of snorts that seemed very unVeela-like. Atzi had fallen to her knees and buried her face in Luna's lap as she shook with giggles. Bill doubled over while keeping one hand up to keep the warding active, and Angelina had simply thrown her head back and allowed herself to gasp and wheeze.

Harry was decidedly less amused. Every breath in felt like fiendfyre was burning through his insides and every breath out re-scorched his throat, mouth, and tongue.

Through her giggles, Luna commented, "I told you that you need to build up a tolerance to spicy food. Atzi has been trying to help, but you keep refusing."

Harry met her eye and glowered at her as the rest of the group redoubled in laughter. Through the burning, he managed to wheeze, "Time?!"

Angelina checked the clock and answered, "Less than a minute and a half!"

Sweat was dripping off of Harry as he concentrated on the task at hand. He had to pull out the piece of his memory, only the small part they'd agreed upon, and hold it aloft at the end of his wand. Luna and Fleur could then begin their parts of the ritual. If all went well, once they were done the memory would be sent back to his younger self.

He grabbed his wand, but Angelina called out, "Not yet! Thirty more seconds!" He gave her a hand motion that he hoped conveyed that he would wait for her signal. Everyone had regained their composure and was in position. Angelina counted down the last ten seconds.

Harry forced himself to wait for another five count in his own head, just in case, and then placed the tip of his wand to his temple. Instead of a strand of bright white light, the memory was golden and shimmered while dangling from his wand.

Luna and Fleur made eye contact, then began their parts of the ritual. The ancient Aztec words seemed to crackle with magic as Luna spoke them. The complex motions of Fleur's wands left glittering light behind with every movement. As the moments passed, the glow of the golden memory grew and grew. It soon became too bright to look at directly, and Harry was grateful that both Luna and Fleur could do their parts with their eyes closed.

Harry could recognize a few of the words of the incantation Luna was reciting and knew that it was drawing to a close. He tried to catch a glimpse of the memory one last time, but even squinting out of one eye left his vision blurry and dotted with sunspots.

Luna finished the last line with a strong voice just as Fleur completed her wandwork. Harry's wand seemed to move further upwards of its own accord and Harry was forced to stand to keep from losing his grip on it. With eyes still closed tight, he nervously stepped onto his chair and then onto the table. He faintly heard the tinkling of glass breaking as the spare vial shattered on the floor. Then, without warning, a massive gust of wind whipped through the house. Papers were blown everywhere, doors slammed open, and all sorts of items toppled to the floor.

His eyes opened briefly to see the last bit of the memory dissolve into nothingness. A final burst of light and sound shook the house. When the rest of his friends were able to survey the scene, they found Harry's unconscious body lying still on the floor.

Back to index

Chapter 10: Chapter 10

Author's Notes: We've reached the new timeline! Hope y'all enjoy!

Harry woke with a start. The sheets of his four-poster were drenched in sweat.

Less than a week prior, he had been fighting for his life against a Hungarian Horntail. He was still more than a little shocked at how well his firebolt ploy had worked against the great dragon. The incredible relief of not only surviving but also scoring well had eased a lot of his worries, not the least that he was not treated like a pariah by the majority of the school anymore.

Harry brought his hands to his head as the ache inside it grew. This wasn't a normal pain, like the kind he often felt in his scar. No, this was his entire head pounding and pulsing. He felt like his mind had been placed on high alert to prevent an intruder from barging in.

His eyes got wide. Was this what someone felt like when they were about to be possessed? Had Voldemort found a way into the castle and was trying to infiltrate his mind?

Harry grabbed his glasses and wand then sprang out of his bed. He pressed his back to the stone wall while pointing his wand at the door.

"Ron! Ron!" he didn't want to wake the entire dormitory, but Harry desperately wanted some sort of backup as he scanned the darkened room. Without taking his eyes off the door, he kicked Ron's bed.

"Whuzzat? Whachu want?" A groggy Ron looked for the source of the disturbance.

Ron might be a challenge to wake up, but Harry did feel a strong sense of gratitude that their friendship had returned to normal. Whatever was happening, he was glad to have someone else nearby.

"Ron! I got a weird headache and I think something's after me! Maybe all of us! Help me keep a watch out!"

The panic in Harry's voice seemed to shake the sleep from Ron's brain. He sat bolt upright and fumbled for his wand before standing between his and Harry's beds. He immediately trained his wand at the same spot as his friend.

"Should we wake the others?" Ron whispered as he sidled up to Harry.

"Not yet. I know a lot of wild things happen with me, but this feels different. I can't explain it." Harry took stock of his surroundings. There didn't seem to be anything setting up to attack him and his head wasn't pounding as much anymore. A sudden burst of shame filled his heart as he thought about the embarrassment of waking Ron for a false alarm.

"Better safe than sorry, mate. Wanna head down to the common room and wait it out?"

"Yeah, that sounds good. You don't have to come, I'm sure the feeling will pass…" Harry trailed off, still unsure of how to act around his prodigal best friend.

"Or…" Ron smirked. "You grab your cloak and we make a run to the kitchens?"

Harry's smile matched Ron's. "You, sir, are a genius."

Cloak in tow, the two friends snuck down the stairs into the common room. Before they could make their way out of the portrait hole, a glowing strand of golden light fluttered through the glass pane of the window. The two friends froze as it moved through the air towards them.

"What do we do?" whispered Ron as it approached. The throbbing in Harry's head had returned, but was somehow more gentle. It felt almost as if all the blood vessels in his head were strings on a guitar that were being gently strummed.

Harry shrugged. "I dunno. It feels like it's not going to hurt us. You don't think it's dark magic, do you?"

"Beats me. I've never seen anything like it. It doesn't look dangerous, but I could be…"

Before Ron could finish his sentence, the strand of golden light flew forward, directly at Harry's head. Harry's well-honed Seeker instincts helped him duck out of the way.

"Get out of here!" Ron yelled to Harry as he aimed his wand. "Stupefy!"

The spell had no effect on the strand, which rocketed back around for another pass. Harry scrambled to his feet and tried to make a break for it, but the light collided with the back of his head as he ran towards the portrait hole.

"HARRY!" Ron was beside him an instant later. "Mate, are you alright?"

But Harry Potter didn't answer, except to emit a loud snore.

"...the boy escapes from the clutches of a dragon, not a scratch on him, and I think to myself, 'Maybe his run of bad luck is over!' Then, not a week later, he's in my wing again for who knows what!?" Madam Pomfrey seemed to be in a mood based on her tone. She rarely spoke in such a way when students were around, so Harry surmised that she thought any students in her care were asleep.

He peeked a look at the window and saw the inky blackness of night was only just beginning to warm with the first hints of sunrise.

With a start, Harry remembered the circumstances of his wakefulness in the night and the wild situation he and Ron found in the common room. He tried to recall details about the mysterious light they had seen, but came up with little. It wasn't much of a silver lining, but knowing that Ron had seen it, too, made him feel slightly better. At least when he was explaining the circumstances to Hermione, and maybe Dumbledore, Ron could back him up.

He tried to concentrate on what he remembered from the night's adventures. It was odd, because he could recall most of what happened right up until the strand of light hit him. Then everything went black.

But as he strained his mind to think back, he felt a warm sensation in the back of his mind. It was as if he was focusing on a strong, happy memory to fuel a patronus charm, but it didn't feel familiar. He closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could.

It was as if he could feel the warm sunlight that was dappled by the tree overhead on his skin. The air was a bit muggy, but a gentle breeze kept him from being uncomfortable. His back was leaned up against the trunk of a thick tree, and his legs were splayed out in front of him on the cool grass.

To his right, he could sense that something or someone was leaning up against him. The weight was pleasant against his shoulder, even as a few red strands of something tickley blew against his face in the breeze. His right arm was pressed against something warm, and he could feel that warm right down to his hand and between his fingers. A glance confirmed that beyond his interlocked fingers were a pair of legs that rested quite near to his own.

A somewhat-familiar floral scent filled his nostrils as he gave a satisfied sigh.

"Hey, Harry?" He marveled at how the voice seemed both tender and excited. "What are you thinking?"

Harry began to speak, or at least his memory of himself was speaking. "I dunno, Gin. Just how happy I feel right now. And how much I wish I'd started to get to know you sooner. Especially after your first year, all of us should have done a better job of supporting you. Me, Ron, Hermione… Even the twins."

A wry smile blossomed on his lips. "It woulda been great to realize you were this amazing sooner."

Harry was so confused. He recognized himself, sort of. And he saw enough of the girl in question to piece together that it was Ginny, though she seemed somehow older. But none of this made sense!

Harry leaned to the side and pressed his lips into the crown of red hair at the top of Ginny's head and thought to himself, "I can't believe this girl fought one of Voldemort's horcruxes all on her own for nearly a year."

Voldemort's what? Harry felt as if he had absolutely lost it. As the memory began to fade, he heard Ginny chuckle and whisper, "I guess we'll hafta make up for lost time."

Harry swore loudly.

What in the world was going on? One minute, he was engaged in some weird combat with a golden flying string, the next minute he was on a cot in the hospital wing with some weird version of a memory floating around in his head. None of it made any sense.

Madam Pomfrey rushed to the bedside and put the back of her hand on Harry's forehead. "Mr Potter! I'm glad you're awake and alert, but I won't have any such language here." She began looking back over her notes. "If there were other students in here and you'd woken them up…"

"Madam Pomfrey, do you know what happened to me?"

"Lay back down, Mr. Potter. Mr Weasley brought you to my door a little over an hour ago and told me that he had seen some sort of light touch your forehead after you'd woken up with a nagging pain and a feeling that something was after you. I've found nothing the matter with you and you seemed to be sleeping just fine until a moment ago."

Harry layed back for a second before asking, "If I'm okay, may I be excused? I need to find Professor Dumbledore."

The witch sighed. "I doubt he'll have much more to say about it than I do, but since my tests have all come back clear, you may."

Harry thanked her quickly before running out the doors and sprinting down the hallway. Over his shoulder, he heard the matron call out, "And watch your language!"

Sunlight was pouring into the dormitory by the time Harry reached it. He tossed items and clothing aside as he searched his trunk for the Marauder's Map. When he found it, he whispered, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good" and began scanning for the Headmaster. Several professors had already gathered in the Great Hall, as had Madam Pomfrey and Mr. Crouch. Dumbledore hadn't arrived yet, but appeared to be walking that direction with Madame Maxime. He stuffed the map back into his trunk and hurriedly put his robes on for the day before rushing toward breakfast.

Upon reaching his destination, he strode purposefully past the sparsely filled house tables to the front of the room.

"Ahh, Harry! Splendid morning to you. How are you feeling now that the first task is behind you?" The Headmaster's eyes were twinkling as he smiled down on his pupil. Madame Maxime, who was seated next to him, seemed considerably less pleased to find the second Hogwarts champion in front of her as she was dining.

"Er, feeling rather glad to be through with it. There's something rather concerning that happened last night, and I was hoping to discuss it with you privately?"

"Very well, very well. I shall expect you to visit my office this evening at seven. The password will be 'pumpkin pasties.'" Dumbledore smiled kindly, but also in a way that communicated that the conversation would not begin any sooner. Harry gave him a nod and then slowly walked back to the Gryffindor table.

Harry's plate had already been picked clean by the time Hermione and an exhausted-looking Ron found their way to the seats across from him.

"I can't believe Madam Pomfrey let you out already! I figured this was going to be another three days in the hospital wing, for sure."

"No, she let me out early this morning, though she still wasn't exactly sure what had happened. But either way, thanks for waking up with me and getting me to her so fast. I don't know what's going on, but I'm going to talk to Professor Dumbledore about it this evening."

Hermione couldn't contain her questions any longer. "Ron explained a bit of what happened last night, but I'm curious about your perspective. How'd you wake up? What happened when the gold light struck you? Have you felt any differently since you woke up?"

Harry smiled. He half expected Ron to give her a hard time about her flurry of questions, but he seemed just as interested, though he was loading up his plate while listening. "Well, I woke up with a sort of throbbing pain in my head, but it wasn't like when my scar hurts sometimes. That's more of a tingling or at worst a stabbing pain. This was more like the blood in my head was all pounding in a slow rhythm."

As he searched for the right words to describe the ordeal, a group of third year girls walked into the Great Hall. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ginny whispering conspiratorially with a blonde girl from Ravenclaw. The other girl smiled and nodded. Both went to their own tables, grabbed a plate of food, then headed to a doorway that led outside.

"Umm… Then what happened?" he asked aloud, having lost his train of thought.

Ron answered, "Then you made a mad dash for the portrait hole before the light beaned you in the dome!"

Harry nodded, "Yeah, that's about it. When it struck, I think I sorta passed out. I woke up about an hour or so later with Madam Pomfrey going on about how she thought my luck had turned around after the dragon failed to eat me, but I'd proved her wrong."

"Considering how often you end up under her care, you really ought to buy her some flowers, mate. Maybe you could ask her to be your date to the Yule Ball!" Ron laughed a bit at his own joke while furtively glancing past him at Hermione.

"Ugh…" Harry groaned. "I'd almost forgotten about that. At least the two of you have it easy."

Hermione looked at him indignantly. "And why is it easier for us?"

"Because neither of you have to bring a date. McGonagall told me that it's required of all the champions to bring a date and start off the ceremonies with a dance. You don't even have to attend if you don't want to."

Hermione seemed to accept his answer as acceptable. "You shouldn't have much trouble finding someone to go with you, especially now that most of the school has decided to get behind you as a champion. I've already owled to my parents asking for permission to stay for the dance. It should really be a fascinating experience, especially with the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students involved."

"It's still a long time away, Harry," assured Ron with a mouthful of eggs. "One crisis at a time, right? Figure stuff out with Dumbledore tonight, and find a girl to ask later." Harry shrugged but thought the plan made sense.

He hadn't told Hermione or Ron about the weird pseudo-memory he'd awoken to this morning. For starters, he had just gotten back into a good place with Ron, and explaining a weird dream-memory about dating his sister didn't seem like the best way to rebuild their bond. He also had a lot more questions than answers already, and Hermione seemed likely to only add to that growing list of questions.

As his friends dug into their breakfast, his mind wandered to the odd new memory that seemed so vividly stuck in his mind. Harry had dreams fairly regularly, but most faded into some unknowable part of his brain almost as soon as he was awake. This thought felt distinctly different from those illusory dreams. He wondered what it all could mean and how he'd be able to explain it to Professor Dumbledore.

With a sudden realization, he was aware that later this evening he would be face to face with the headmaster attempting to explain a vision of himself snuggling up to another student. Harry drug his hand over his face as he imagined how that conversation would unfold. When he, Hermione, and Ron left for their first class of the day, Ginny was still outside the Great Hall, eating her breakfast with a friend in the bright, morning sun.

At ten minutes until seven, Harry Potter was nervously pacing the corridor leading to Dumbledore's office. If only he'd stopped to think about it before blabbing to the headmaster. Color was rising to his cheeks seemingly with every breath.

When the waiting became more than he could take, Harry approached the gargoyle and uttered, "Pumpkin pasties." It sprung to life and jumped to the side as a winding staircase appeared behind it.. Harry trudged up and tried to rethink for the hundredth time how to explain the previous night in a way that didn't make him sound like a candidate for St. Mungo's.

He rapped on the door to Dumbledore's office and entered after he heard a kindly voice beckon him to come in. Harry again marveled at the ornate instruments and trinkets that adorned the walls and tables. With a low trill, Fawkes shook his plumage and craned his neck toward Harry. "'Lo, Fawkes," murmured Harry as he scratched the Phoenix behind the ears.

"Good evening, Harry. May I offer you a lemon drop?"

"No, thank you, Professor." Harry heaved a deep sigh. "Did Madam Pomfrey tell you what happened last night?"

"I receive a daily report each morning about all students who visited the infirmary the previous day. But I must say, I take a little more interest when the story that goes along with the report is filled with intrigue and unexplained happenings, especially if they concern students who frequent the Hospital Wing."

"Okay, well… There's more to the story than Ron was able to tell Madam Pomfrey." Harry looked into sparkling blue eyes for affirmation, but the older man simply steepled his fingers under his chin.

"So, I woke up in the middle of the night with a pain in my head. It wasn't like when my scar hurt, because that was all contained right here in my forehead." He pulled his hair to the side to indicate the scar. "My whole head was throbbing and I felt almost like my brain was trying to defend itself from something."

Dumbledore let out an interested "Hmmm…" but didn't interrupt.

"I kind of panicked, because I thought about how Voldemort had possessed Quirrell in first year and Ginny during second. I woke Ron up so that he could help me keep watch, but by the time he got up I was feeling a little more calm. We went to the common room to regroup, when this golden light string thing flew through the window."

"Fascinating. Now Harry, did this light break the glass when it entered the common room?"

"No, sir. It went straight through it, kind of like the castle ghosts go through walls."

"Ah, excellent. Please continue."

He felt a twinge of frustration that the headmaster always seemed so nonplussed by all the wild things that happened to him, but Harry supposed that if he lived to over one hundred years old, maybe it'd take a lot to surprise him, too. "Well, it flew directly at me, so I ducked out of the way. Ron tried to hit it with a spell, but it didn't seem to affect it at all. Then it charged right back at me as I ran and hit me in the back of the head. Next thing I knew, I was lying in a cot in the hospital wing."

"Would you please describe this light in detail?" Dumbledore's brow was furrowed slightly, almost like Hermione's when she came across a word in her book that she didn't recognize.

"It was kind of like a glowing string the length of my wand, maybe a little longer." Harry replied as he thought back to his brief interaction. "When it moved, it wasn't like an animal, but it did seem almost alive."

"The glow of it… Was it a white light?"

"No, sir. It was golden."

"Hmm. That is curious." Dumbledore stroked his long beard. "Is there anything else noteworthy about the encounter that you can share?"

"Well, there's something that happened when I woke up in the infirmary, but it's a little difficult to describe…"

"Do your best, Harry, and we will attempt to piece the clues together."

"When I woke up, I could hear Madam Pomfrey speaking," he began, careful to point out that this wasn't just some weird dream. "I was trying to remember what all happened the night before, when I remembered something new. Or thought of something I had never experienced before, but I had already…" Harry felt a growing sense of embarrassment as he grasped for the right words to describe his experience.

Professor Dumbledore simply gazed at him, betraying no emotion. Harry didn't feel like the headmaster disbelieved him yet, but also he didn't seem convinced.

"It was so odd. I've had lots of weird dreams over the years and I saw Professor Trelawney do the trance-thing when she made the prophecy last year, but this wasn't anything like those." A note of desperation caught in his voice as he tried to get the point across. "It was almost like there was a new memory in my head, someone else's memory." Harry sighed as his explanation fell flat. He did not think he'd done a good job explaining the situation.

Dumbledore stood up from behind his large, wooden desk and opened what appeared to be a small closet area on the side of the office.

"Your description of the string of glowing light and what you've experienced since have made me wonder. Harry, would you come to this basin, please?" The aged wizard scooted to the side as Harry walked to the edge of the raised basin. "This is a Pensieve. A rather remarkable magical object, and a very rare one, as well." Harry gazed into the liquid pooled in the basin.

"A Pensieve is incredibly useful because it can be used to view previous memories. To use it, one can simply remove a memory, like so," he placed his wand on his temple, "focus on the memory to be extracted," his eyes closed in concentration, "and pull it from the mind." As he did so, a glowing white string was brought forth out of Dumbledore's head. He held it out at Harry's eye level.

Harry's breath caught in his throat. "Professor, that looks a lot like what I saw in the common room." The glowing white string moved subtly, but did not appear to be alive. "The only differences are that the other one was golden and moved around on its own."

"That is exceedingly unusual, but there is much beyond my own understanding. Perhaps what you experienced was a phenomenon that I have not yet learned about." Dumbledore began to smile. "I do enjoy learning new things."

"Do you think I could pull it out of my head to put in the Pensieve, if it's a memory?"

"Yes, my boy, I think that should be well within your power. And it seems likely to be the best way to uncover more clues about this mystery."

Harry suddenly felt hesitant. Although the memory wasn't anything out of bounds, it did feel rather private. The moment was shared between the older him and the older Ginny, and he couldn't help feeling like it wasn't one he would want the world seeing.

But Professor Dumbledore was already instructing him on the technique of extracting memories, and his concerns were quieted as he started to learn the proper wand motions to bring forth a memory.

Within five minutes, Harry felt fairly confident about the procedure. "Just in case something goes wrong, should I try a regular memory first, Professor?"

"Splendid idea! Pick any memory you want for us to relive together."

Harry thought hard about memories, and hoped he didn't accidentally pull one where he was breaking school rules. After a few moments, he scrunched his eyes closed, put his wand to his temple, and breathed out slowly as a glowing white memory dangled off the end of his wand.

"I did it, Professor! What do I do now?"

"Dip it into the Pensieve and it will mix with the liquid inside. Then, all we must do is submerge our faces to view the memory."

Harry swiftly dropped the memory in and watched the glowing white swirl around in the dark mixture.

Professor Dumbledore asked, "Shall we?" and without waiting for an answer, plunged his face into the basin. Harry followed, but soon felt himself falling, falling ever deeper, until he landed amongst filled tables in the Great Hall. The headmaster came alongside him and spoke. "Ahh, the Welcoming Feast. Judging by your diminutive size at the Gryffindor table and the presence of Professor Quirrell, am I right to assume this was during your first meal at Hogwarts?"

Harry wasn't sure why he felt a bit sheepish about this being his chosen memory, but a little color found its way to his cheeks. "Yes, sir. It was a strong memory, so I thought it might be easier to collect."

"Very well reasoned, Harry." The memory Dumbledore was rising to give a speech.

"Can the memories hear us, Professor?" Harry whispered as the students began to get quiet.

"Not at all. They cannot see or hear us, as this is only your impression of the event."

"Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!"

Harry snickered as the real Dumbledore smiled broadly. "Sir, you really have a way with words."

"I am glad you think so. The memory seems to be fading. Was this the end of that on which you were concentrating? If so, we should be returned to ourselves next to the Pensieve…"

With a gasp, Harry pulled his face from the water. He was dripping on the carpet and felt bad once he saw that Dumbledore had remained over the Pensieve so that the liquid fell back into the basin.

"Well, that was rather fun. I must admit that I have relived portions of that day before, but never that particular piece. Thank you for sharing your memory with me."

Harry used his wand to remove the memory from the Pensieve and returned it to his temple. He didn't see exactly how it got back into his mind, but he felt almost as if a small book had been set back into place on a great shelf within his head.

"Now Harry, let us attempt to plumb the depths of this rogue memory. Would you please place it in the Pensieve for us to view?"

Harry nodded and focused his mind on the odd new memory. His wand was at his temple again, and he began to gently tug. Strangely, the memory seemed to be holding on tightly, much unlike the ease with which he extricated the previous one. Professor Dumbledore watched in puzzlement as a faint golden glow emanated from the spot on Harry's head where his wand tip was touching, but try as he might, Harry could not pull it from his own mind.

"Not a problem, Harry, you can relax. Let your wand down." Dumbledore pulled his wand forward. "I have a good deal of experience helping others with this sort of thing. If I might have your permission, I'd like to try to bring it out myself."

Something inside him twitched and he felt a sudden distrust of allowing anyone else to tamper with this memory. Instead of acting on the feeling, he simply nodded his assent and closed his eyes. "Alright, Harry, now concentrate on the memory." Dumbledore raised his wand and lightly tapped it to his pupil's temple.

Without warning, a sound like a clap of thunder boomed through the office. The windows overlooking the grounds exploded outwards and glass fell onto the shrubberies beneath. A great many of the trinkets fell from their tables and shelves, smashing on the floor. Fawkes remained on his perch, but hid his head under one of his wings. Professor Dumbledore was thrown back and landed heavily into one of the overstuffed chairs arranged near his desk.

Harry's eyes snapped open. Seeing the headmaster crumpled across the chair, one leg over an armrest and an arm hanging limply over the back of the chair, he rushed over. "Professor, are you alright? I swear I didn't do that on purpose, I don't know how it happened!"

The old wizard blinked owlishly a few times before shaking his head. "Well now! That was certainly unexpected!" He met the frantic eyes of his student. "Not to worry, Harry. That was not your fault, and it shall be easy to remedy."

He stood upright and dusted himself off before reciting a few spells. The glass from the windows sprang back up off the ground below and reformed the windows. With a wave of his wand, the odds and ends that had fallen to the floor returned to their respective spots.

"Ahh, good as new!" Dumbledore's eyes were twinkling as he walked back behind his desk and indicated for Harry to be seated again, as well. "Perhaps it would be wise to assume that your new memory does not wish to be removed, either by you or by outside forces. Instead, would you be willing to describe the memory as best you can?"

"Yes sir," Harry answered. A part of him was relieved that Professor Dumbledore wouldn't be strolling around in the middle of the memory, but he wasn't looking forward to saying it all aloud. He closed his eyes and began to speak. "I think I'm at Hogwarts during the springtime. I'm leaned up against a large tree near the lake."

"Just a moment," interrupted the headmaster. "When you say that you're at Hogwarts, do you mean that you are observing as we did within the Pensieve?"

Harry considered the idea. "No, we were able to move around in the Pensieve and I wasn't seeing everything through my younger self's eyes. In this memory, it's like I'm recalling what it was like to be in that moment without the ability to change anything."

"Ahh, I see. Please continue."

"So, I'm leaning up against a tree while seated in the grass. It seems like I'm older somehow, though that doesn't really make sense." A blush made it to Harry's cheeks as he concentrated. "I notice that there's someone sitting next to me, and she's leaning up against my shoulder."

"Interesting," murmured Dumbledore.

"She and I were holding hands and she asked me what I was thinking. I replied that I was thinking about how happy I was and how much I wished I'd gotten to know her better before and how great she is. And that I wished Ron, Hermione, the twins, and I had done a better job supporting her after the chamber."

"Which identifies the girl as young Miss Ginevra Weasley…"

"Yeah, that's what I figured. Then I, err…" He sputtered as he tried to carefully choose his next words. "I think I kinda kissed the top of her head, then she said we needed to make up for lost time. Then the memory fades."

"Absolutely astounding. Is it safe to assume that this memory is not something that has happened to you and Miss Weasley?"

"No, definitely not! I've never had a girlfriend, much less dated Ron's little sister."

Albus gave him a knowing grin. "As I thought, but I had to check. Is there anything else about the memory that you would like to report?"

Harry thought to himself before one of his main questions sprang to mind. "Actually, yeah, there is. After I mentioned how much I think of her, there's something that I remember thinking about, but not saying out loud." His eyes closed again as he tried to remember the feel of the moment. "I thought to myself, 'I can't believe this girl fought one of Voldemort's horcruxes for nearly a year.'"

Harry almost continued talking, wanting to inquire about what a horcrux was, when he reopened his eyes. Dumbledore looked absolutely gobsmacked. His jaw was hanging slack and the twinkle in his eyes had evaporated. The man almost looked like he had aged considerably in the few moments that had passed.

"Umm, Professor? Is everything alright?"

The ancient wizard stared blankly ahead for another full minute before attempting to regain his composure.

"I'm quite sorry, Harry, but that was most unexpected. Could you repeat it back one more time, so I can be sure my aged ears aren't playing tricks on me?"

"I guess. I was thinking, 'I can't believe this girl fought one of Voldemort's horcruxes for nearly a year.'"

"Harry, this next part is exceedingly important: have you ever heard of a horcrux before? Even the most obscure reference to a horcrux from another student or stumbled upon it while in the restricted section of the library? I assure you that I will not be upset with you, no matter how far out of bounds you may have been when you came across it."

Harry thought back to his excursions into the restricted section but could not recall any mention of a horcrux. "I'm sorry, Professor, but I think this memory is the first mention of it I know of." Professor Dumbledore's piercing blue eyes were staring intently into Harry's, so much so that he felt the old man could see straight through him. After a long moment, he seemed satisfied with the answer.

"Very well. Harry, I cannot for certain determine from whence this rogue memory has come, but I must admit that it seems rather significant. I need to conduct some of my own research on this phenomenon. I would like to request that we keep the details closely guarded, as the implications could be far-reaching."

"Well, err, about that…" Harry squirmed in his chair. "I told Hermione and Ron about it this morning. Not everything, but enough that they were both very curious."

"Ahh, I see. Have you shared with them the contents of your new memory?"

"No, sir. I figured it wouldn't be a good idea to explain that until I had met with you."

"And perhaps you did not wish to tell young Mr. Weasley the details about being cozy with his sister?" The twinkle had returned to Dumbledore's eyes in full force.

Harry shrugged lamely and gave a slight nod.

"Understandable. Let us keep that portion of the mystery strictly between us for now. Is there anything else that is concerning you at this time?"

"Have you found any more clues about who entered my name into the Goblet of Fire? Or if there are any ways I could withdraw?"

Dumbledore laughed to himself. "After your display in the first task, I thought you might have reconsidered your hesitancy to compete. I must say that I was quite impressed. But alas, the trail has run cold as of late. I will certainly inform you if further information comes forward. Until such a time, it would probably be wise to proceed under the assumption that you will be a part of the second task. Have you begun discovering the secrets of the egg?"

Harry blushed and looked at a spot on the carpet. "I opened it in the common room while we were celebrating, but it screeched so loudly that I put it away. I've been, err, focusing on catching up on my classes this week, since I was prioritizing preparing for the task before."

"A worthwhile choice. As much as your professors would love to have a Hogwarts champion, I imagine they will not deem that a good bargain if you fail their classes." The corner of his lips twitched ever so slightly. "I am forbidden by the rules of the contest from giving aid to students, so I will not direct you towards the answers you seek within the egg. I will, however, remind you that you have many who are freely able to help, should you ask."

"I know, Professor. Hermione helped out a lot when I was practicing the summoning charm, and she and Ron have offered to help me get ready for the second task."

"Ah, yes, two excellent allies to have in your corner. But I was suggesting you think beyond just your schoolmates. While a professor could not help you decipher the egg, many of them would be more than willing to give you extra lessons on mastering a spell that you thought important. Perhaps a trusted adult who does not work at the school would be able to advise you, as well."

Harry thought about the suggestion. Could Mr. and Mrs. Weasley help him understand the egg? Would Professor Flitwick or Professor McGonagall tutor him once he knew what he was up against? Could he get in touch with Professor Lupin and Sirius?

His eyes widened as he imagined two adult Marauders orchestrating a plan to unearth the egg's secrets and whisk him through the task to safety.

A soft smile rested on the kindly old man's face. "You appear to be well on your way to a plan. If there is nothing further, I will contact you about the rogue memory at a later date." The twinkle in his eyes sparkled as Harry rose to leave. "And speaking of a later date… Not to lay another burden on you, Harry, but it seems you also need to find a date for the upcoming Yule Ball. Yet another task on which I would caution you not to procrastinate."

Harry's face reddened as he gave a tentative nod and exited the office.

Back to index

Chapter 11: Chapter 11

In the corner of the Gryffindor common room, three friends spoke in hushed tones. A fire was crackling in the fireplace, adding a warm glow to the trio.

"So, Dumbledore swore you to secrecy about this rogue memory?" Hermione was not pleased about a lack of full disclosure.

"Yeah, he was pretty adamant about not telling anyone until he'd done more research." Harry did his best to sound frustrated about the predicament, but inside he felt a bit of relief to have an excuse not to share the details. His voice became even quieter. "It seemed like he might let me tell you eventually, but he thought it was related to Voldemort."

"But you're sure it wasn't an attempted possession like you thought at first?" Ron was clearly trying to keep his tone from sounding panicky but had obvious concern.

"No, Professor Dumbledore seemed pretty certain that it was a memory, even though neither of us could pull it out to watch it in the Pensieve."

"If you weren't able to look at it, did you describe it to him?" Hermione asked.

"Basically, yeah. I just sat there and did my best to recount what I remembered, even though I'd never done what I was doing in the memory."

"Wait a sec, what do you mean by what you were doing in the memory? Were you in the memory? Is it something you've experienced before?" Hermione was sitting straight up by now and examining Harry as if he were a specimen under glass.

"Well, err, that's kinda what I'm not supposed to say…" Harry fumbled his words as he tried to find a way to right the ship. "Okay, I shouldn't say more than this, but I am a part of the memory, except it's not me when I'm younger. It seems like a memory of me that hasn't happened yet."

Hermione let out a small gasp. Ron looked stricken as he spoke. "Harry, you can't mean… Could you have been messing around with a time-turner?"

"No, he can't have. They're heavily regulated and nearly impossible to get, plus they don't work that way. There's got to be something else to it, though…" Hermione looked at the fire as she murmured to herself about time being tricky and unpredictable. Ron gave Harry a smile as she seemed to be thinking through everything she'd ever learned about time. With a jerk of her head, she turned back to Harry.

"In this memory, are either of us there?" She indicated herself and Ron, whose eyes lit up at the question.

Warmth spread to Harry's cheeks as he realized that his friends were knocking on a door that he wasn't interested in opening.

"That's kinda the stuff Dumbledore wanted me to keep secret…" Imploring looks from Hermione and Ron broke Harry almost immediately. It was just too good to have both of them by his side again that he didn't want to deny them. "Okay, okay! But no more after this! Neither of you are in the memory. Happy?"

Ron immediately asked, "Is You Know Who in it?"

Harry rolled his eyes as Hermione attempted to give Ron a scolding look, but her curiosity had peaked and she couldn't contain herself.

"No, he's not, and that's all I can say!" Harry's voice raised slightly as he tried to prevent himself from divulging any further secrets which he'd promised to keep to himself an hour beforehand.

"Alright, alright, my bad!" Ron was apologetic. Hermione offered, "We're just so interested! Is there anything else he said to you that you can talk about?"

"Actually, yeah," replied Harry. "He suggested that I try to get extra help in preparing for the second task. He was a bit cagey about it, since he didn't want to help me directly, but I got the feeling he wanted me to talk to Professor Lupin and Sirius about the egg and the task, and that I should get help from the professors to train once I know what kind of spells I need to practice."

"That's brilliant! Since Professor Lupin doesn't work for the school, he could help you out, no problem! And I bet Sirius could come up with some great ideas!" Ron was already enthusiastic about the option.

"It might be hard to contact Sirius safely right now, but I agree that Professor Lupin would be helpful…" Hermione considered the two. "I'm more excited about the prospect of special training with the professors. I'm glad that we're both proficient in summoning charms, but I'd be happy to have experts helping you prepare for the next task."

"For sure. He also warned me not to procrastinate on the task. He didn't say it outright, but I think he wanted me to believe it'll be more difficult than the first task."

"Bloody hell! How much harder can things get? You had to get past a dragon!" While the idea of facing danger and difficulty beyond a Hungarian Horntail felt grim, Harry couldn't help but be buoyed by Ron's indignation on his behalf.

"And that was it, Harry?" Hermione was dead set on mining for every available detail.

"Mostly. When he was after me about not putting off the task, he added that I shouldn't wait until the last minute before finding a date to the Yule Ball, either."

"That's good advice, Harry," stated Hermione in a rather matter-of-fact tone. "Lots of girls like to coordinate their dresses to match their dates, so the earlier a boy asks, the easier it is for her to figure things out."

"And if you wait too long, all the good-looking girls will be taken," said Ron with a laugh. "Imagine having to go with Eloise Midgen!"

"Ronald Weasley! Eloise is such a nice girl! It's terribly rude to say something like that about her!" She turned toward Harry. "I hope you won't pick a partner based solely on who the prettiest witch you can find, like some insensitive berks!"

She stormed across the common room and up the stairs to the girls' dormitories.

"What was that all about?" asked Harry in the wake of her departure.

"I dunno, but I stand by what I said…" He scrunched his nose. "Mostly. I figure you oughta figure out who to ask and do it quick before some other bloke beats you to it. Any idea of who you're gonna ask?"

Harry didn't notice the nervousness in his friend's voice as he scanned the common room. He saw Parvati and Lavender chatting animatedly on a couch and several first and second-year students gathered around a game of Exploding Snap.

In the opposite corner of the room, he saw his quidditch teammates sitting at a table and laughing at something. Angelina Johnson's tall frame and braided black hair stood out next to the shorter Alicia Spinnett, whose hair was much lighter and cut above her shoulders. Katie Bell was barely visible behind them, though her distinctive laugh confirmed to Harry her presence in the group.

As he watched, Harry made to answer without meeting Ron's eyes. "Uhh, I dunno yet. I kinda figured that if I'm not exactly looking to date someone, I might just see if someone would go with me as a friend."

"Oh, like Hermione or somebody?" The tension in Ron's voice would have been unmistakable had Harry been paying attention, but instead, his focus was on a redheaded girl who had apparently been hidden from view behind Angelina.

Without thinking, Harry replied, "Err, no. Not really. Going with Hermione would be…" He searched for the word. "I dunno. But I wasn't planning to ask her."

A silent sigh escaped Ron's lips as Harry watched Ginny laugh with the older girls from the team. "I thought you might think of asking Cho? She's pretty and is a good seeker."

Harry suddenly regretted sharing that observation with Ron after a match the year prior. "Yeah, but I don't really know her well and she's really popular. Plus she's a fifth-year. I'm not thrilled about having to ask anyone at all, much less someone who might turn me down and then hafta ask somebody else."

Ron considered the point. "That makes sense. You'll figure something out."

The conversation turned to other topics as Ron brought out his chess board. He was so engrossed in thrashing Harry's pieces that he didn't notice the occasional furtive glances his friend made to the other end of the room.

"So everybody's staying for the Yule Ball, yeah?" Seamus had chosen the moments right before Harry drifted off to start up a dormitory-wide conversation. It was all the buzz of the school in the two days since he'd met with Dumbledore.

"I am, and so's Harry. He's got to start it off with a dance since he's a Hogwarts champion."

"I know I'll be staying," replied Dean. "What about you, Nev?"

"Figure so. Gran sent an owl saying she expects me to be there to represent the family well."

"Well then, we're five-for-five!" Seamus exclaimed. "So the question is, who're ya askin'?"

Harry covered his head with his pillow and tried to feign sleep.

"I was thinking of asking Katie, the fifth year," Dean attempted to sound nonchalant as he answered, but seemed to be a little nervous about saying it out loud.

"She's certainly a looker, but do you really want to take a girl who's better than you at Quidditch?"

"Hey, we don't know that she's better! I was thinking about trying out for a chaser spot this year before the season was canceled. I could have taken her spot!"

Ron replied, "You should lead with that when you ask her! I'm sure it'll go over well."

"Oh, suddenly Weasley thinks he's an expert on girls. So, who're you going to ask?"

The standard Weasley blush found its way to Ron's cheeks. "I'm not sure yet." His voice was much softer than it had been while mocking Dean.

"No surprise there." Dean laughed as he turned to Seamus. "Anyone you've got your sights on?"

"I caught that sixth-year Hufflepuff named Matthew giving me a look a few weeks back. He and Devon broke up back in September, so I might see if there's any interest." Seamus cupped his hands behind his head and lay back on his bed. "Longbottom? Does your Gran have a date planned for you, too? Does she require you to find a respectable pure-blood with a large estate attached to her name?"

The others laughed as Neville replied, "No, nothing like that. I don't think she cares who I bring, just that I 'uphold the family honor by presenting myself at social functions.' I don't have any idea who I should ask, though." Neville glanced away and didn't meet anyone's eyes.

"Well, here's a hint that might set you up nicely," said Dean with a glint in his eye. "If you're nervous about asking someone our year, you could always ask someone in second or third. They can't attend the ball unless asked by a fourth year or older."

"Not a bad thought, Dean." Neville as the tension in his brow began to dissipate. "I hadn't thought of that. Maybe if I asked a younger girl, she'd be happy enough about getting to go that she'd be okay with me as a date."

"What about Harry? Is he already asleep?" Harry didn't stir as the other boys looked to his four-poster. "Guess he's out. Ron, any idea who he's going to ask?"

"Not yet. But the poor bloke's gotta find somebody. McGonagall told him he and his date hafta open up the dancing and basically told him he's gotta show up with somebody."

"What if I went with him?" asked Seamus with a grin. "Think Dumbledore would have a conniption?"

"I dunno, he seems pretty cool with everything," answered Dean. "And I don't think he's ever been married. Maybe you should ask him instead, mate!"

Seamus laughed. "No way, definitely not my type. Beards are the worst."

Harry shifted under his covers as the conversation died down. He thought about the predicament before him. Dean was right: the girls in the year below theirs might be more receptive to an invitation than those who could freely attend, with or without him.

As he imagined himself asking a younger student, his mind kept returning of its own volition to the rogue memory of him next to Ginny. Truth be told, the memory was rather pleasant, and he'd spent more than just a few passing moments recollecting how some version of him seemed to be enjoying an excellent afternoon.

While he'd set aside his jumbled thoughts about Voldemort and his horcruxes for now, the words his other self had spoken seemed to be echoing in his head. "Just how happy I feel right now. And how much I wish I'd started to get to know you sooner." Harry couldn't help but think that the memory Harry had felt like he was rather happy. The feeling was palpable when he thought back to his time by the lake.

The voices of his dormmates were gone, replaced with Ron's snoring and the occasional wheeze from Neville.

Harry's mind wandered back to Ron's sister and began weighing possibilities. She was a third year, so she wouldn't be able to attend the ball if she didn't find an older date. That made it more likely that she'd say yes if he asked. Yet even Harry wasn't thick enough to have missed the fact that she'd had a crush on him back in her first year, which could make things awkward if she got the wrong impression. He certainly didn't want to upset her, and he didn't fancy facing a swarm of angry brothers, either. But his new memory did seem to indicate that he had once wished to have more time with Ginny.

He closed his eyes and remembered the floral scent when his other self kissed older Ginny's head. A smile crept onto his face.

Perhaps it would be worth the risk to ask Ginny to go with him, as a friend. He could make sure that she had someone to go with and it didn't have to be more than that. Harry let out a small, "Hmm!" as he mentally decided to make that his plan. He wasn't sure how he was going to accomplish this feat but figured he could sort that out later.

A week had passed, but Harry still hadn't made any progress toward securing a partner for the Yule Ball, and his tension was steadily rising. Gaggles of giggling girls heralded that the asking had begun in earnest, and a surprising number of students could be seen holding hands now that they'd officially paired up.

Harry felt more nervous than ever. He didn't want to miss out on his chance to invite Ginny, but the whole school seemed to be going relationship mad. While he made a detour through one of the secret passageways so that he wouldn't be late to charms, he bumped into a Ravenclaw sixth-year prefect snogging a Slytherin fifth-year. He blushed furiously as he slipped past them, though neither girl seemed to notice him.

Part of his problem was that he rarely saw Ginny on her own. He certainly didn't want to pull a stunt like Ron, who had succumbed to Fleur's Veela allure and asked her to the ball loudly in the middle of the Great Hall. The stunt had not won him any goodwill from Hermione, who had done her best not to lecture him, but could occasionally be heard mumbling about how certain boys "only thought with their eyes" and "didn't deserve Eloise Midgen."

As the three friends sat down for lunch, Harry noticed that Ginny was grabbing a plate and looked to be heading outside again.

"Hey Gin!" he called, trying his best to sound normal. "Do you want to eat with us today?"

Ginny smiled brightly. "Thanks for the offer, but I promised Luna I'd eat with her today."

"Oh, alright," replied Harry as he stifled a bit of disappointment. "Is Luna your friend from Ravenclaw?"

"Yeah, she is." Ginny looked at Harry appraisingly. "I didn't think you knew her. How'd you meet?"

Harry was suddenly fumbling for answers. "Err, I don't think she and I have actually met. I just noticed you talking with a girl from Ravenclaw a few times and figured you were friends." Harry willed his traitorous cheeks to remain their usual color.

"Oh, okay." Ginny looked slightly perplexed, but not displeased. A shy smile spread across her face. "She and I eat by the big tree outside sometimes to catch up. If you want to meet her, you're more than welcome to join us."

Ron was busy piling food high on his plate. "I'm not sitting out in the cold and missing out on seconds!"

"Well, it's a good thing I didn't invite you, then." She stuck out her tongue at her brother. Meanwhile, Hermione was giving Harry a curious look.

"I'm going to eat quickly and then head to the library, otherwise I'd come with. I was going to see if Harry wanted to come work on our Potions essay with me, but it's up to you."

Harry had already been thinking that eating with Ginny might provide him with an opportunity to ask her about the dance, but Hermione's offer of Potions homework settled the matter. "We've still got a week until that essay is due. It'd be nice to meet your friend. I'll grab my stuff!"

Ron rolled his eyes and scooted down toward Dean and Seamus while Harry slung his bag over his shoulder and grabbed his plate and pumpkin juice. He followed Ginny out the doors into a crisp, autumn afternoon. It wasn't uncomfortable when he was in the sunlight, but the chill got to him when they walked through a shadow.

As they approached a large tree, Harry could see a slight, blonde-haired witch leaning against the trunk. Her uniform indicated that she was a Ravenclaw student, but she seemed very unlike the Ravenclaws he was accustomed to. Her earrings were made from butterbeer corks and her shoelaces appeared to be enchanted to coil around like little creeping vines around her ankles. In her hand was a copy of a newspaper that he'd never heard of titled, "The Quibbler."

"Hey, Luna! I hope you don't mind, but I brought a friend with me today." Ginny didn't seem to notice or care about her friend's strange appearance, so Harry decided it better not to make note of it.

"Hello, Ginny. I don't mind at all." Her voice was more than a little dreamy and Harry thought it sounded far off, somehow. "Oh, your friend appears to be Harry Potter."

"Err, yeah, that's me. Ginny told me that she ate outside with you every once and a while and thought it'd be nice for me to meet you. She said your name is Luna?" He set his plate and bag down and settled on the ground near the tree.

"Yes, I'm Luna Lovegood. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance." She gazed at him and Harry felt a little bit uncomfortable. "You were close with Professor Lupin last year, correct?"

"Sure. He was way better than Quirrell or Lockhart. I learned a lot from him and… ahh…" Harry wasn't sure where the question had come from, but he felt compelled to explain. "He was actually friends with my Mum and Dad when they were in school. I'm a bit sad that he's not teaching again this year."

"I understand. I feel a certain closeness to Ginny's Mum because she and my mother were friends before she died."

Harry's eyes were suddenly very wide as he attempted to avoid spitting out his potato. "Oh, I didn't realize… I'm sorry about that."

"It's kind of you to express sympathy, even though you don't know whether my mother was a good person worth mourning or not." She took a sip of her juice as the color drained from Harry's face. "She was a good person, by the way, and an excellent mother."

Harry let out a long breath. "Ahh, well that's good to know…"

Ginny smiled at him. "Luna is a really great friend, though she can be a bit more direct than most people. She sees the world a bit differently, which is nice."

A nod was all the response Harry could muster.

For the next twenty minutes, Harry was more of a spectator than full participant in the conversation as Ginny and Luna talked about a variety of topics. Ginny would attempt to bring him into the discussion, but he felt more comfortable chewing his food and listening as the two girls talked through their shared classes and life in their dorms.

Despite her obvious quirks, Harry found himself appreciating the chance to get to know Luna. Several older students, including those in her house, had apparently been picking on her through the years, which was frustrating to Harry. While Cho wasn't one of the main instigators, she seemed to be part of the problem. Harry frowned as his opinion of the older girl took a hit, and he felt rather pleased that he'd not asked her to the ball.

"I'm sure the Yule Ball will be interesting. Hogwarts is sure to have many Polytaras flitting around on their annual migration. I asked father if I could stay for the holidays, but he had already planned a trip to Morocco. Will you be staying at school?"

Ginny's cheeks were already tinged pink from the cold, but her color reddened a bit. "Well, my brothers all wanted to attend the Yule Ball, so my parents said we'd all stay here together while they go visit Charlie in Romania." Her eyes remained unswervingly focused on Luna. "There aren't many of the Gryffindor girls in our year who've been asked to go, so I'm not sure what it'll be like, but I'll make the best of it."

"How about you, Harry?" Luna turned to him as if he'd been chatting with them the entire time.

"Well, I'm sorta required to go to the ball." He shrugged as he explained. "Professor McGonagall said that, since I'm a Hogwarts champion, me and a date hafta open the dancing in front of everyone. The thing is, I don't even know how to dance and it's not like I've got a girlfriend."

His heartbeat quickened as he continued. "I was thinking about trying to ask a friend to go with me, but I haven't exactly figured out who to ask yet."

"Oh, it's unlucky for you that Hermione's already got a date, otherwise I'm sure she would have gone with you as a friend," offered Ginny.

Harry looked over at her as if she'd sprouted a second head. "Wait, Hermione doesn't have a date, does she? She didn't say anything to me about it."

Ginny let out an "Eep!" as she clapped her hands over her mouth. "Harry, I'm so sorry, but I don't think I was supposed to say anything. I just figured that if you were asking a friend, Hermione would be at the top of your list. Please don't tell Hermione I said anything!"

His mind reeling through possible blokes who might have asked Hermione to the ball, Harry waved off her apology. "Not a problem at all, although now I'm curious about who she's going with…" A thought occurred to him. "Is she going with Ron?"

Ginny snorted. "Ron's been way too busy asking out French Veelas to see the girls right in front of him."

Harry and Luna laughed, too.

"Harry, it was nice to meet you, but I must head to Herbology. Ginny, I'll see you in Charms!" With that, Luna grabbed her things and started walking back towards the Great Hall.

"Yeah, I guess lunch is almost over, so we should probably go inside, too." Ginny's voice softened as Luna left as if a little bit of confidence had left with her friend.

Harry gulped as he began to stack their empty plates to bring inside. "Actually, err, I wanted to ask you something if that's alright?"

Harry took a deep breath as Ginny turned back towards him with a smile.

"So, like I said, I'm supposed to find a date, er, partner for the dance and was trying to think of a friend who might want to go and wouldn't mind coming with me…" How was he rambling this much? He'd rehearsed in his head a quick and painless way to ask, but it had completely vanished into the recesses of his mind. "Anyway, I was thinking that, maybe if you were interested, and since you'll be here for the holidays anyway, maybe you might come with me?"

The red in Harry's cheeks had nothing to do with the chill in the air. Luckily, Ginny didn't seem to notice. Her grin was wide as she responded enthusiastically, hugging him briefly before saying, "Harry, that'd be wonderful! I was really hoping to get to go, but I didn't think any of the older boys would ask and then I'd have to stay up in the common room while everyone else enjoyed the party…" Her brow furrowed slightly. "My Mum didn't send me any dress robes since it wasn't required for third years, but I think there's still enough time to owl her and get something figured out. What do yours look like?"

"Not sure, but your Mum picked them out for me, so I bet she knows."

Ginny had turned into a whirlwind as she grabbed their empty pumpkin juice goblets and began walking briskly toward the Great Hall. Harry followed her before she stopped in her tracks. She stared right at Harry with a dangerous look on her face. "Did the twins put you up to this?"

Harry laughed with a bit of relief. "No, Ginny, I swear. I just wanted to bring a friend and I figured you'd be a fun girl to hang out with."

Her smile returned. "Good. If this was a prank, the three of you would all have to suffer my wrath." Harry thought to himself that, even for a short girl a year younger than him, she could be fairly intimidating.

Ginny walked back into the doors as students flooded down the corridors. She called out, "See you later, Harry!" as she ducked into the mass of bodies, and Harry smiled as he watched her red hair disappear into the crowd.

Ron and Hermione both looked cross that evening when Harry dropped his bag at the table where the two were working on Transfiguration.

"Hey. How bad is it?" he asked while searching the depths of his bag for his notes.

"It's terrible! She assigned 24 inches and I'm stuck after six," huffed Ron. "It's not my fault that I'm a concise writer."

Hermione tutted as she looked back to her book. "It's not as bad as all that. Ron's just grumpier than usual."

"I am not!" shot back Ron. "And even if I was, it's because the whole school has gone spare over this idiotic Yule Ball!"

"Have all the good-looking girls been taken? Eloise is probably starting to seem like a pretty good option now, huh?"

Ron scoffed. "Look, I'm just saying that this whole thing is overrated. I mean, none of us have dates, and it shouldn't be that big of a deal."

"Actually, Ron, I do have a date," stated Hermione primly. "And I heard a rumor that Harry had found a date, too."

Ron gaped at Hermione, then at Harry before responding. "Oh, I get it. Neville finally bucked up the courage to ask you to go with him as a friend. I don't think that really counts, Hermione…"

Harry grimaced as indignation built in the chair across from him. "Ronald Weasley! I'll have you know that I was asked by someone else before Neville, but that shouldn't mean you tear down a friend and dormmate! It's no wonder you don't anyone to go with you!" With that, she stormed out of the common room.

"What's got into her?" Ron asked. "And what was she on about saying you had a date?"

Harry ran his hand through his hair. "Well, she's not wrong. You see, I was trying to think of someone to ask to go with me, just as a friend. And while I was talking with Ginny and her friend Luna, I figured out that Ginny was staying over the break but wasn't old enough to go to the ball, so we agreed to go together." Harry kept his tone casual as he pretended to be interested in his Transfiguration homework.

"You asked my sister? Harry, you're a Hogwarts champion and on the quidditch team! You coulda asked just about anyone!" Ron was flabbergasted at the news. "You don't, you know, like Ginny, do you?" He didn't seem as angry as Harry had imagined, but his tone wasn't exactly friendly.

"No, it's like I said," started Harry. "This whole thing has been so stressful, so I figured I'd ask someone I already knew to go as a friend."

"Well, Ginny'll be happy enough. Bet she was really excited about going to the ball. Just don't give her the wrong idea." Ron considered the situation. "And don't do anything that'd make me have to cream you."

"Not to worry, Ron. Any idea who you'll ask?"

Ron's gaze darted around the common room. "I don't know…"

"After the mess with Fleur, it might be worth it to think about it a bit before you ask next time."

Ron looked dejected. "I know, I know. It's just when she comes around, everything seems to go a bit wobbly."

"Maybe Dean or Seamus have an idea of which girls in our year haven't been asked yet. At least that way, you could be sure not to go after someone who already has a date."

"Good idea, Harry." He was still looking over at his shoulder across the common room, toward the stairs to the girls' dormitory. "Do you think Hermione really has a date already?"

"I reckon so," answered Harry. "But I don't have any clue who it could be."

Ron grunted in reply as the boys both struggled to make progress on their work without Hermione's aid.

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Chapter 12: Chapter 12

The end of the term came in a great rush as the professors tried to force knowledge into their distracted pupils. The upcoming break and the anticipation of the Yule Ball had all the students abuzz. Even Hermione, Harry noted, seemed to be paying a little less attention to her classwork.

With most of the older students remaining at school, Hogwarts felt more magical than ever. Instead of wasting away listening to Professor Binns drone on and on about goblin revolts, Harry found his morning filled with a late breakfast and a marathon of Exploding Snap.

That afternoon, several Gryffindors were engaged in a snowball fight outside of the Great Hall. Hermione, Ginny, Ron, and Harry stumbled into the fray that had originally started with Angelina, Alicia, and Katie on one side and the Weasley twins and Lee Jordan on the other. Harry was unsurprised when Ron darted to his brothers' side while Ginny and Hermione went towards the Gryffindor chasers, and decided to ensure the teams were even by joining the boys.

Forty minutes later, the whole group of Gryffindors (including the rest of the fourth-year lions and several older students) was soaked and freezing cold. Harry had dodged much of the incoming fire with skills he'd honed avoiding bludgers, but the three chasers opposite him had a knack for drilling him when he went to scoop up snow for a new projectile. Much to his surprise, Ginny was one of the only other students who'd been able to peg him so far, and he was fairly certain his left thigh would be bruised from where one of her throws had smacked him.

Just as the fracas was winding down, the doors to the castle burst open as a contingent of yelling Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws bounded forward.

"Gryffindors! To me!" Angelina shouted. The twins took no time to coalesce in opposition to the new combatants, and the rest of the boys followed their lead. Soon, snow had been piled to form a wall to stave off the flurry of snowballs that rained down on the worn-out warriors. Angelina captained the undermanned Gryffindor squad with prowess, but the overwhelming number of opponents was too much, especially after a contingent of Slytherins joined the ranks.

As the barricade was breached and the lions found themselves overcome by the onslaught, the opposing alliance fractured and soon the notion of teamwork had evaporated. Most of the snow had been trampled and muddied, so the fight was becoming more akin to a freezing mud war. A massive swarm of humanity churned in the crisp air until a small voice carried over the tumult.

"STUDENTS! Your attention, please!" Standing at the nearest doorway to the castle were Professors Sprout, Flitwick, McGonagall, and Sinestra. Harry was not the only head to turn quickly around, wondering if they had violated some unknown school rule. As the Head of Gryffindor started to speak, a late-thrown clump of snow collided with one of the twins' arms, and they both shot a withering glare at a grinning seventh-year Hufflepuff.

"This snowball fight seems to have devolved into more of a mud pit,' noted Professor McGonagall. "As such, I gathered a few professors who I thought might be able to ensure that your festivities didn't melt away like so much slush."

She gave a very uncharacteristic wink toward the students before turning to her fellow professors. She brandished her wand with a flourish and the other three followed suit.

The air about forty feet above them became suddenly opaque. Soon, the sky was no longer visible. As the students looked upward in wonder, the first few snowflakes began to fall. A wry smile crossed Sinestra's face.

"Shall we turn it up a few notches?"

"Indubitably!" cried Flitwick as he twisted his wand clockwise. His counterparts did the same, and the air became a veritable flurry of snow. Within seconds, the muddy slush had been covered with fresh, white powder.

Professor Sinestra's voice rang out above the murmuring of the students. "All students! Form a line in front of your Head of House, except for Slytherins who can come to me! We've got something special for you!"

The students were a bit confused but they followed the instructions, even as some looked longingly at the snow that was piling up behind them. Each professor performed a charm that Harry didn't recognize on the hands or gloves of their students.

After five minutes, all the students had been charmed and were anxiously milling about, waiting for release.

"Professor Sprout? Professor Sinestra? Will you do the honors?" Professor McGonagall's mouth looked to be straining against the smile that was struggling to break free.

"Certainly!" answered Sprout as she and Sinestra strode to the middle of the again-snowy field. Once in the middle, both stooped to form a snowball and then gave each other a nod. Many of the students looked incredulous while others were on pins and needles.

Each professor threw their ball at the other, but as they flew, something changed. After both teachers turned to show where they'd been hit, several of the students gasped. Professor Sprout was sporting a large Slytherin green splotch of snow on her shoulder where she'd been struck, and Professor Sinestra's hip was stained Hufflepuff yellow.

Devious grins were appearing on the students' faces as they each realized what this meant.

"Wicked…" exclaimed Fred and George simultaneously.

Flitwick cast a sonorus and shouted, "LET THE BATTLE RECOMMENCE!"

A mad rush of students plowed back towards the snowy field with battle cries and hastily-shouted orders. George and Angelina were running past Professor McGonagall on either side when her arms both shot up, causing them to skid to a stop.

"Yes, professor?" Both were clearly eager to rejoin the fray, but neither would dare openly defy their Head of House.

With steely determination, McGonagall whispered, "Give 'em hell. Make the fields run red." Then she turned and walked back to the castle without another word, though both Angelina and George would later swear that they heard a small laugh. The two gave each other a meaningful look before charging toward the gathered Gryffindor forces.

The melee was fierce and none of the combatants emerged unscathed. When Harry, Hermione, Ginny, and Ron finally climbed through the portrait hole into the common room, doubled over from exhaustion and from laughing, they collapsed onto the couch in front of the fire.

"I can't believe you missed it, Harry!" said a breathless Ron. "She came out of nowhere! I swear Malfoy was aiming straight for your head while you weren't looking, but Hermione hit him with a snowball right below the belt!"

Hermione's cheeks were already tinted red from exertion but managed a slightly darker shade at the praise. "Well, if I'm being honest, I may have been aiming for Pansy who was standing next to him," she admitted, though the smile on her face made it clear she did not regret her miss. "After he doubled over, Crabbe and Goyle both targeted me so I made a run for it. That's how my back ended up so green."

"Oh, that's excellent! Way to go, Hermione!" cried Ginny as she good-naturedly bumped the older girl with her shoulder. "And you're not the only one to save Harry's skin out there."

"You're not kidding! Cedric and most of the Hufflepuff quidditch team came after me right after everything restarted." Ron's eyes flashed protectively as his smile turned to a frown, but Harry waved it off. "No, it was fine. I just found myself deluged under an awful lot of yellow snowballs."

"You've got to avoid the yellow snow," said Ginny with a smirk.

Harry rolled his eyes as he grinned. "Anyway… I was getting pummeled and just about buried when a red snowball caught Cedric in the back of his head. Ginny had pegged him really well and had Ange, Alicia, and Katie with her as backup. The four of them rescued me from certain doom. All three of our team's chasers have incredible arms, but Ginny was throwing just as hard. I wouldn't want to be a keeper if she was barrelling towards the goals with the quaffle."

Ginny looked exceedingly proud of herself. "That was the most fun I've had in a long time!"

The four spent the evening warming up by the fire, recounting the battle, and playing Chess until they dragged their exhausted bodies up to the respective dormitories.

As Harry attempted to smooth his unruly hair again, he took a look in the mirror. He still felt rather nervous about the evening, especially the dancing part, but at least he felt pretty confident about the way he looked. Mrs. Weasley had picked out his dress robes, and the green fabric did look nice. He glanced sideways at Ron, who was decidedly less pleased with his dress robes. They were definitely second-hand, if not third or fourth, and were a faded maroon with white lace.

"I can't go out there like this, Harry. I'll die from embarrassment." A woeful Ron turned to the side to try to find any angle in which he didn't look ridiculous.

Harry tried to reassure his friend, but couldn't help agreeing with the estimation. "It's not that bad, right?" Harry searched for something reassuring to say. "You won't really be the focus of attention. Since you didn't ask anybody to go with you, you won't even have to be out on the dance floor if you don't want to…"

Ron didn't look persuaded.

"How about this?" Harry turned to Ron, grabbing a handful of lace that was attached to a sleeve. With a quick severing charm, the offending material had been removed. Ron gave himself a glance in the mirror, then turned around to compare the laceless side to his other.

"That'll work! You're a lifesaver!" Ron held out his other arm, which Harry was able to make match. "If the whole 'Savior of the Wizarding World" thing falls through, you could go work for Madam Malkin!"

Harry shoved his friend before attending to the lace on Ron's collar and at the bottom of the robes. The end result wasn't especially fashionable, but it was much less likely to leave his best mate a laughingstock.

"Alright, Ron, I think you're good to go. I have to go find Ginny and meet Professor McGonagall, so I'll see you down there." Harry clapped Ron on the shoulder before he headed down the stairs. He did his best to ignore the nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach, attributing it to the forthcoming dance in front of the entire school.

The common room was bustling when Harry arrived. Students were grouped together to admire each other's robes and were excitedly talking about the night to come. Harry tentatively walked toward the stairs to the girls' dormitory.

Parvati and Lavender were the first he saw come down the stairs. "Hey, Harry! I love your robes! The green really sets off your eyes."

"Thanks, Parvati. You two look really nice. Have either of you seen Ginny? We're supposed to meet with Professor McGonagall before everything gets started."

Lavender giggled while looking over Harry's shoulder until Parvati elbowed her. Perplexed, Harry turned to check out what Lavender was gawking at.

Standing between Angelina and Katie amongst several older students was Ginny. She was laughing at something Alicia was saying as George pretended to hold Fred back. Though she was a good deal shorter than the other students, Harry was struck by how well she seemed to fit in with them.

Her dress robes were black with green trim and accents, cut much more modestly than the girls who were standing around her. Mrs. Weasley had no doubt picked it out, but her choice didn't diminish the fact that Ginny looked quite nice. Fred was gesticulating wildly while Alicia stuck out her tongue and Ginny's laughter rose above the cacophony of voices in the common room as she leaned against Angelina for support.

Harry smiled.

"Oh, Harry! Make sure to mention her hair. She worked a long time on it." Harry gave a grateful nod to Parvati as he walked to the group of students, who were all in stitches over whatever happened with Alicia and Fred.

"If that's the way she wants to be, I can go to the ball with my backup date! You all know how much extra attention McGonagall gives me! All I've gotta do is ask and she'd jump at the chance to be Professor McGonagall-Weasley!"

Most of the nearby students were doubled over laughing as Fred ranted. Even not knowing what was happening, Harry couldn't help the grin that spread to his face before Alicia approached her date.

"I'm sure she's waiting on pins and needles for you to ask her, but I think I'd rather we just go together. You done?"

Fred immediately stood up and dusted himself off. "Absolutely!" he said brightly, all traces of his previous reticence gone. Ginny wiped tears of laughter from her eyes as she grinned at her brothers. "Oi, Gin! Looks like your date finally got done powdering his nose!"

Ginny turned away from the group to find Harry smiling at her.

"Hey, Ginny," Harry said as she walked toward him. "I think McGonagall wants us down there a little early to go over things before it all gets started. Shall we head that way?"

Her cheeks were tinted slightly pink, but Ginny had not allowed them to fully fall into a Weasley blush. "Sounds good to me. See you all down there!"

Harry and Ginny, climbed through the portrait hole and walked down the corridor toward the Great Hall.

"Your robes look good," said Ginny, a little more quietly than she usually spoke.

"Thanks! Your Mum picked them out for me, so I think we've got that in common. Yours are really nice, too." Harry felt a little awkward now that it was just Ginny and him. He suddenly worried that he wasn't doing the whole date thing well. "Oh, I meant to tell you that I like how you did your hair."

Ginny's smile broadened. "Thanks! It took longer than I'm used to since I usually just throw it into a ponytail."

"I tried to get mine to look a little nicer than normal, but it's as obstinate as ever."

"No, your hair is meant to always look like you just got done playing quidditch. It's all part of the Potter charm."

"You say that now, but when you see Cedric's perfect locks, you may think differently."

Ginny giggled before replying. "That's the thing, Harry. Cedric obviously spends a lot of time each day making sure his hair looks nice. Imagine how bad Fred and George's teasing would be if I was at the ball with someone who spent more time on their looks than I did." She gave him a quick up-and-down scan. "You're a good middle ground. You look nice and all, but it's clear you haven't been staring at yourself in the mirror all day."

A swell of pride rose inside of Harry as he ran his hand through his unruly hair, even as his nerves were still a bit on edge.

"Well, Cedric probably knows how to dance. I've never really danced with anyone before. I hope I don't embarrass us both out there."

"Don't worry, Harry. I asked Professor McGonagall about it and it's really just ceremonial. We'll just have to go out onto the floor and sway back and forth a little bit before everyone else comes out. Mum taught all of us how to dance, and since I'm the only girl, I ended up as the partner for Fred, George, and Ron. I'm not that great, but I think between the two of us we can manage."

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay, that makes me feel better. I was worried that we'd have to do some sort of waltz or something."

"And yet you didn't think to ask or try to learn some moves?" queried Ginny with a smirk.

"In my defense, there's been a lot going on," replied Harry.

"Fair enough. I haven't even thought to ask, how's the egg coming? Any idea what all the screaming means?"

Harry's insides squirmed. With the excitement of the end of term, his worries about finding a date, and trying to keep Ron and Hermione from descending into more rows, he hadn't spent any time trying to crack the clue. Dumbledore's admonishment rang in his ears as he fumbled for words.

"Actually, not really at all. I should have been working on it harder, but I've been preoccupied with other things." He felt especially down about it as they entered a hallway where he could see the other champions gathered near the far doorway.

Ginny seemed to pick up on his reticence. "Well, you've still got loads of time to figure it out, and you're tied for first place, so you've got that going for you. And if you need help with it, you've got Ron, Hermione, and me to help, if you want…" She trailed off a little at the end, but Harry smiled as they walked.

"You'd be up for helping out?"

"Sure, but maybe not right at the moment. I want to see what you think of the other champions and their dates."

As they walked up to the group of six students in the entryway, he immediately noticed Fleur and her date, Roger Davies, who looked absolutely starstruck. Fleur looked elegant and a good bit older in her floor-length golden dress robes. Harry had the feeling that the French girl was doing her best to reign in her Veela allure, but Roger was still drooling slightly.

Next to them stood Cedric and Cho Chang, who were whispering to each other in hushed tones. As Harry and Ginny approached, the older boy smiled.

"Ah, now our seeker convention is complete! With the three of us plus Victor, we've got all the seekers at school who didn't have to buy their way onto a team with daddy's brooms."

Harry and Ginny both grinned, as did Cho. "And I see your date is the Gryffindor chasers' protégé! If you throw a quaffle half as well as you toss a snowball, your team will be formidable in a couple of years." Cedric rubbed the back of his head as Ginny began to blush.

"By the way," said Cho as she motioned the other two to come closer conspiratorially. "Thanks for giving Cedric the heads up about the dragon. I was so worried the whole time, but the extra notice meant he was able to be way better prepared. It means a lot to him."

Ginny looked at Harry quizzically, but he simply replied, "It's not a big deal. When I learned about it, I figured it just wouldn't be fair if we weren't all on a level playing field."

"Well, I appreciate it all the same," finished Cedric.

Harry was about to try changing the subject back to quidditch when he heard a familiar laugh. He looked to his left to see Krum beaming as Hermione laughed at something he had said. But this was Hermione like he'd never seen her.

Her hair had been straightened and was long and flowing down her back instead of bushy and swept into a bun or ponytail. Her dress robes were a periwinkle blue to match the flower pinned to Krum's formal black attire. More than her hair or her clothes, though, Hermione looked surprisingly happy.

"Hermione?!" called Harry as his jaw began to drop. She turned and waved to him before returning to her conversation.

"She's here with Krum?"

Ginny snickered and replied, "Yeah, he asked her a few weeks ago. Apparently, he was hanging out in the library trying to figure out how to make his move. Hermione said his English isn't great, but they've been practicing together."

"Huh! I don't know who I would have guessed if you'd asked me who Hermione's date would be, but Krum wouldn't have been in my top ten picks. Probably not in my top hundred." Harry shook his head from side to side for a moment, as if trying to force his brain to assimilate this new information. "She looks happy, right?"

"Oh, absolutely. I think she was more shocked than anything at first, but she really seems to like spending time with him. I don't know if you've noticed, but she's been spending a lot more of her free time at the library recently."

Harry chuckled. "Nope, I hadn't noticed at all. Hermione plus the library didn't exactly set off any alarm bells in my head. But as long as she's happy, good for her!"

Ginny eyed him questioningly. "She was a little worried at first that you might have felt bad that she was going as the date of a rival champion. She was overthinking things and getting in her own head, so I told her I didn't think you'd mind. Hope that's alright…" Ginny's voice didn't make her sound entirely sure of herself, though Harry wasn't sure why.

"No, that's perfect. Hermione's been known to think too much from time to time," answered Harry. "You did the right thing. With how much she goes on about international cooperation, maybe we should have seen this coming."

"So, you weren't disappointed that she went with someone else?"

"Not at all. Hermione's great and all, but I'm glad things worked out the way they did."

Before Harry could see the expression of relief on Ginny's face, Professor McGonagall strode into the entryway. "Champions and their partners! Momentarily, you will proceed into the Great Hall and be seated at the head table. After dinner, the eight of you will be invited to the dance floor to commence our festivities. As leaders and role models to the rest of the student population, we expect all of you to conduct yourselves appropriately." The glazed look on Roger Davies' face indicated that he did not notice the Deputy Headmaster glaring daggers at him.

"Now, if you're all clear on expectations, you may enter." With that, she opened the doors to the Great Hall. The eyes of all the gathered students were on the four couples as they began descending into the spectacularly decorated room. Cedric and Cho walked in first, followed by Fleur and Roger, with Viktor and Hermione behind them, and Harry and Ginny bringing up the rear. Harry noticed at the last minute that the three girls ahead of him had all snaked their arms around the proffered arm of their dates. He glanced to the side and whispered, "Gin! Are we supposed to?" but found her small hand wrapped around his elbow before he finished the question.

Harry had plenty of experience being gawked at through the years. He had developed a certain resistance to caring too much about having unwanted eyes on him, which had served him well. He'd also learned to look for friendly faces to focus on instead of the folks who were staring at him. While he wasn't as uncomfortable as when he'd been accused of being the Heir of Slytherin in his second year or when most of the school had thought him to have cheated his way into the tournament, he still felt strange having so many people watching his every move.

From a distance, he glimpsed Fred and George standing near Angelina and Alicia. While he knew they'd have a few friendly jabs at him that night, he was thankful to see both of them nodding approvingly at him from afar. Neville, Seamus, and Dean were all standing in a group with their dates. Neville gave him a smile and a discreet thumbs up.

Harry was trying to catch Ron's eye but was having a hard time picking him out of the crowd. Finally, he spotted the tell-tale maroon robes at a distance near the table of refreshments. His friend didn't seem to be looking at Harry arm-in-arm with his sister, though. He was too busy gawking at Hermione as she walked with Krum to the head table. Though he was too far off to hear him say it, Harry was fairly certain he'd read Ron's lips as he swore.

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Chapter 13: Chapter 13

As Harry and Ginny approached the main table where the champions would be seated, he took note of the others positioned around it. Professor Dumbledore was seated next to Madame Maxime, while Karkaroff was a few chairs down from them. Ludo Bagman was across the table from the two headmasters and didn't look thrilled to be next to a young red-headed wizard to his left.

"Percy?" exclaimed Ginny. "What are you doing here?"

He puffed out his chest as he indicated for Ginny and Harry to be seated next to him. "I have been promoted. I'm now Mr. Crouch's personal assistant. I'm attending the event tonight as his official representative."

Harry thought he looked, if possible, even more conceited than when he'd received his Head Boy badge, but thought it better not to mention that. "Congratulations, Percy."

"Thank you, Harry. I have heard that you performed quite well in the first task, despite the circumstances of your entry into the tournament."

Harry looked down at the table. Of course Percy would think that he had broken some sort of rule to get into the tournament. The evening seemed to be on track to become much more uncomfortable.

"He did really well! Charlie said that the Horntail was the most dangerous dragon out of the four and that they had to change up their plans to bring it once they found out that Harry had been forced into being the fourth champion. Did you and Mr. Crouch work to make sure all that went smoothly? It seems like a huge deal to organize such an important, secretive event and make late changes. And all of this is on top of all the other work towards international magical cooperation?"

Harry looked quizzically at Ginny, who gave him a nudge as Percy began to puff himself up importantly. She winked before returning her gaze to Percy, who looked ready to burst with pride.

"You are right, of course. The department has been very busy with the minutiae of several proposed laws for the wizengamot to consider and many important meetings with foreign dignitaries. But the Triwizard Tournament is quite the feather in our collective cap. With how well it has been received by the public, Mr. Crouch has been very pleased."

"Wow," said Ginny with what Harry knew to be false reverence. "With as important as the tournament is to your department and the Ministry, it's shocking that Mr. Crouch and Professor Dumbledore haven't been able to figure out who entered Harry. It must have been someone really powerful since it'd take a lot more than an underage student to create such a challenge for a department head like your boss."

Harry couldn't believe how thick Ginny was laying it on, but Percy was oblivious to her tactics.

"You're absolutely right, Ginevra. Mr. Crouch was just saying the other day that the other judges should be helping uncover more clues as to how it occurred." Percy looked at Harry again, this time with a twinge of sympathy. "For what it's worth, I want you to know that our department will continue to investigate the matter."

"Thanks, Percy," replied Harry, trying to keep up with Ginny's expert flattery. "I know I've got to compete for now because of the magical contract, but if you and your department find out who entered me and I was released from having to be a part of the tournament, I'd feel a lot safer and be able to focus more on my schoolwork."

"Of course, Harry. That makes sense. Obviously, we can't change the tasks to make them more appropriate for a fourth-year student, not after all the hours spent creating and refining them. But I do hope that you'll be able to keep up with your studies while preparing for the next tasks."

Before Percy could dive into his full monologue about the importance of schoolwork, Dumbledore clinked his glass for everyone's attention, then clearly said, "Pork chops." Before him, his empty plate was instantly filled with the exact food he had ordered. The other guests and students followed his lead, and the sounds of an excellent meal being enjoyed filled the Great Hall.

Hermione was sitting next to Ginny and was listening intently to Krum as he explained some of the differences between Hogwarts and Durmstrang. Harry realized that he hadn't really heard Krum speak more than two or three words at a time until now. Though heavily accented, he was doing a good job of communicating in English. Across the table, Fleur was also comparing her school to Hogwarts. Her date wore a dazed expression that indicated that his brain had ceased most non-visual functions. Cho and Cedric were seated between Dumbledore and Bagman, who seemed to be having an excellent time regaling them with quidditch stories, even though the two of them seemed more interested in each other than the former beater.

When Bagman and Percy began grousing about some interdepartmental squabble, Harry began to whisper to Ginny, "Thanks for getting him going. I was taken completely off guard at first, but you knew just what you were doing. It almost feels like he's on my side now!"

Ginny smirked back at him. "Youngest of seven and the only girl, so I had to learn how to handle each of my brothers. Percy loves for people to look up to him and know how competent he is. You've just gotta understand how to direct it. Though I almost gagged when you said the reason you wanted out of the tournament was so you could focus on schoolwork."

"Hey, it seemed like the kind of thing he'd appreciate! I don't have as much expertise in buttering him up, so I just went with the first thing that made sense."

"Oh, it worked perfectly for him, but you'll have to start the ball out dancing by yourself if I'm in the loo vomiting."

Harry snickered. "Alright, I won't go that far again. Think I've got time for some treacle tart before the dancing begins?"

"Why even ask?" laughed Ginny. "I know you well enough to know you'll always make time for treacle tart!"

Sure enough, Harry's dessert plate filled with his favorite as Ginny requested a slice of pie ala mode. They both relished the sweet ending to their meal as students began excitedly talking and pointing at The Weird Sisters, who had begun setting up their equipment across the room.

"Okay, so any tips before the dancing starts?" Harry's nerves were beginning to come back as his dessert dwindled and the band looked almost ready to start.

"I think we'll just walk out to the middle of the floor and wait for the music to start," explained Ginny as her cheeks began to color slightly. "You'll put your hands on my waist and I'll rest mine on your shoulders. Then we'll just sway and move around a little. It also wouldn't hurt to follow the lead of the others, though if you act like Roger Davies, you'll end up in the hospital wing."

Harry snorted as Roger nearly fell out of his seat from leaning toward Fleur. "Madam Pomfrey is already frustrated with me for ending up there so often, so I'd better not risk it."

Again, Dumbledore rose and gathered everyone's attention. He had everyone step back from their tables, which he promptly vanished. Chairs zoomed toward the outer reaches of the room, leaving a sprawling dance floor cleared in the center of the Great Hall. The lights began to dim as the band stepped forward. Harry saw the other champions and their partners begin making their way toward the dance floor, so he and Ginny followed suit. Harry shot a glance at the position of Krum's hands on Hermione's waist and did his best to mimic the placement with Ginny. He had the distinct feeling that if he attempted to follow Roger's lead, Ginny's brothers would not hesitate to use a severing charm to remove his hands from his wrists. Being a friend of the family could only extend so far.

The band started off with a slow rendition of one of their hits. Before Harry could register what was happening, slight pressure from Ginny's hands on his shoulders indicated for him to begin moving. Harry was doing his best to not step on Ginny's toes or trip over his own robes, but he did get the feeling that this wasn't quite as bad as he'd imagined. It seemed as though the champions and their partners were simply rotating in a large circle while spinning with their date.

Harry leaned closer to speak into Ginny's ear. "I'm glad you know what you're doing. All this moving around and spinning was not what I had expected."

"Yeah, it's kind of like in astronomy, when the planets are spinning while they rotate around the sun. As long as we don't crash into anyone else, we should be fine."

"Now look who's bringing up schoolwork," said Harry with a smile. "If Hermione wasn't so engrossed in dancing with Krum, I'm sure she could explain exactly how all that works."

As Ginny stuck out her tongue at him, Dumbledore led Madame Maxime to join the champions, and dozens of student couples soon found their way to the dance floor. The Weird Sisters kept playing as the dancers swayed and moved to the beat. When the song came to an end, the students cheered loudly before the next song began.

"Harry, I figure that you might not be all that excited about dancing. Did you want to go back to the table or stay out here a while?"

Harry glanced back to the table where Percy was speaking in an animated fashion with Bagman, who looked ready to take a beater's bat to his own skull in order to remove himself from the situation.

"Actually, I think I'm kinda figuring this out. I don't mind another song or two."

Ginny's eyes lit up as she beamed up at him. "Sounds good to me! Think you're up for maneuvering while we dance to check in on Hermione? I lost sight of her earlier."

"Good plan. I promised her at least one dance at some point, but I figure she's happier with Krum for now."

Though it took some work on their part, Ginny and Harry were able to meander their way through the mass of students to the other side of the dance floor, where Krum and Hermione were swaying back and forth. The second song had concluded while they were searching and the third was beginning as they approached.

"Having fun so far, you two?" asked Harry as they neared the couple.

Hermione smiled broadly as she spotted her friends. "Oh, I've already had such a great time! Harry, I know you've already met Viktor, but this is Ginny Weasley. She's another of my friends from Gryffindor, in her third year. Ginny, this is Viktor."

Viktor hadn't taken his eyes off Hermione while she was speaking, but nodded politely to Ginny and Harry. "It is nice to meet you, Geeny. Herm-own-ninny speaks well of you."

"My pleasure, Viktor. One of my older brothers works with dragons, and he told me that Chinese Fireballs are really tricky to work with, so I was very impressed with how you handled the first task."

"It vas not easy, but I am glad to have succeeded," replied Krum. "I vish I had thought to summon a broom. Your partner flew very well. I vas impressed." Harry blushed at the compliment as the third song drew to a close.

"Viktor, could we get something to drink before we do more dancing?" inquired Hermione.

"Of course. Harry, vould you join me and we can get something for these lovely ladies?"

Harry glanced at Ginny, who gave him a nod. As he and Krum walked toward a table of refreshments, he couldn't quite make out what the two girls were excitedly saying to each other.

"You are close with Herm-own-ninny, yes?"

Harry grabbed two glasses and started pouring drinks. "Yeah, she's been one of my best friends since first year." The older boy eyed him thoughtfully. "I'm glad you asked her to the ball. She looks really happy tonight."

Viktor smiled hesitantly. "I am glad that she has good friends. I vas worried that she might decline my invitation since she is so close to you."

"Well, just because we're friends doesn't mean she can't go to a dance with whomever she likes. Even if you and I are competing, the point of it all is international cooperation. Plus, I wouldn't want to stop my friend from having a good time."

"So, you and she are… only friends?" Viktor asked, with a hint of hopefulness as he picked up the two glasses he had poured.

"Yeah, she's like a sister to me," replied Harry while they walked back toward their dates. "But that means you'd better treat her with respect."

"Of course. I vill treat her like a princess. I only hope that she has a good time tonight."

"Just what I wanted to hear."

Before they had reached the girls, Harry nudged Krum and whispered, "By the way, I had a hard time with her name when I first met her, but I broke it down to Her-My-Oh-Nee. Give it a shot?"

"Her-my-own-nee?" Viktor sounded it out, doing significantly better than before.

"Nicely done."

"Thanks for the drinks, gentlemen!" said Ginny as the two returned. "What took you so long?"

"Harry was ensuring that I vould treat Her-my-own-nee with respect, and I assured him I vould."

"Viktor! That's the best you've done pronouncing my name!" Hermione leaned up to give him a quick peck on the cheek. Harry averted his eyes toward Ginny while Viktor's face reddened. She launched into a conversation with him about how his English proficiency had improved.

"Shall we give them a little room, Harry?"

"Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing. Want to go check on Ron?"

"Sure. Don't know how much fun he'll be having. Did you see the look on his face when we were all entering at the beginning?"

"Oof. Poor guy looked like he got hit with a bludger in the back of the head."

"After all the things he said about Hermione only pretending to have a date, I think it was a nasty shock to see her on Krum's arm."

As the two of them skirted the edge of the dance floor, they caught sight of Ron from a distance. He was leaning back precariously on a chair near Dean and Neville. Harry pulled up a seat next to him with Ginny standing next to him. Ron looked miserable.

"Hey, mate. How's it going?" asked Harry.

"The whole bloody thing's idiotic. Who thought that it'd be fun to have a big dance on Christmas? And to top it off, I can't believe Hermione would betray you like this!"

Harry felt confused. "Wait, how'd Hermione betray me?"

"She's out there dancing it up with your competition! It's unforgivable!"

Before Harry could reply, Ginny scoffed derisively. "That's saying something coming from you! As I understand it, Hermione was the one who spent half the term helping Harry prepare for the first task. And what were you doing the whole time? Accusing Harry of cheating to get into the tournament and leaving him high and dry!"

Ron blanched at the excoriation from his sister. He sputtered as he tried to regain some of his bluster, but Ginny didn't allow it.

"It took Viktor two weeks to build up the nerve to ask Hermione to the ball, and if you hadn't been so busy insulting girls' looks and embarrassing yourself by asking out a French Veela champion, maybe you could have asked her. Oh, but I guess it would have been fine for you to go with one of Harry's competitors, right?"

Ginny's hands were on her hips and her tone was becoming more Mrs. Weasley-esque by the moment. Ron had almost interrupted before Ginny brought up him asking Fleur to the Ball, but the accusation set him on the back foot. He looked more than a bit shaken as he considered whether his asking of a champion amounted to a betrayal. His hesitation was all the opening Ginny required to pounce.

"No, of course not! You treated Harry like rubbish all term and he forgave you in an instant, so now you're turning on your other best friend, who just so happens to be the happiest I've ever seen her. Aren't you always going on about how you think she shouldn't care about grades and should have a little fun? Well, look at her! Looks like she's having fun now!"

Ginny was red in the face and standing on her tiptoes as she viciously pointed toward the dance floor. As fate would have it, Ron's eyes found Hermione just as she was laughing while Viktor gently dipped her. Whether by unfortunate coincidence or a hidden spell cast by his sister, Ron's balance failed him and he and his chair toppled over backward.

"If you want to try to talk some sense into this git, be my guest." Ginny's eyes flashed dangerously at her brother. "I believe I promised a dance to Neville."

Harry's roommate flinched when she said his name before realizing that he wasn't the object of her ire. He quickly got to his feet and followed her to the dance floor, leaving Dean shaking with silent laughter. Harry grasped his friend by the hand and hoisted him to his feet. Ron was shaking his head forlornly as he stared down at his hands.

"Look, mate, it's not as bad as you were thinking. Hermione was worried at first about going with him since we're competing against each other and all, but I told her it's not a big deal to me." Harry searched for a way to say that Ginny made good points without angering his friend. "She worked really hard to help me get ready for the dragon, so I'm not worried that she's here with Viktor."

Ron sighed deeply. "I wish I'd been helping you. Bloody brilliant of me to be such an arse…"

"Don't worry about it, mate. Just try not to treat your friends that way, yeah?"

Ron glanced back to the dance floor, where Hermione was resting her head on Krum's shoulder while they danced. He looked back at Harry. "Maybe I'll head back to the tower. I feel ridiculous in these damn robes anyway. At least I had a good dinner."

Harry clapped him on the shoulder. "Sounds like a plan. I'll see you later on. Maybe I can beat you in a game of chess once we get done here?"

Ron forced out a laugh but gave Harry a small smile. "Not likely, but we'll see. Night, Harry! Try to keep Ginny from harassing anyone else."

Harry plopped down to chat with Dean while Ron headed back to Gryffindor Tower. Soon enough, Ginny and an embarrassed Neville returned to the table.

"For the last time, Neville, if you apologize again, I really am going to hex you."

"I just didn't realize how hard it would be to dance without stepping on…"

Ginny brandished her wand in Neville's direction. "No. More. Apologies."

"Right. Got it. Where'd Ron go?"

Dean and Harry looked at each other. "Harry gave him a bit of a pep talk after Ginny laid into him, and he ended up deciding that he'd had enough of the ball now that dinner was done, so he headed out."

"And did he say anything that I should make him regret?" asked Ginny as her nostrils flared slightly.

"Nope. But I'd pay good money to see you smack him around like that every once and a while. Any chance you can yell him into not snoring so loudly?"

"Sadly, there are some things beyond even a sister's power…" replied Ginny gravely. Both Dean and Harry laughed as Ginny ruefully shook her head.

"Well, even if you can't create a solution to our dorm's noise complaints, maybe you could do me the honor of a dance?" Dean's smile was genuine as he offered her his hand.

"Sounds lovely," replied Ginny. She looked at Harry as she rose to her feet. "I'll catch up with you in a little while, okay?"

"Sure thing." Harry watched as Dean led her onto the dance floor and they began to dance. With just a hint of bitterness, he noted that Dean was a much more confident dancer than he had been.

"Ugh, I feel awful about stepping on her toes the whole time," said Neville. "Susan's probably too bruised to walk after our first dance. I thought maybe if I practiced with Ginny for a song I might improve enough to try again with Susan again, but I'm just rubbish at dancing."

"I was really nervous at first, since I'd never had lessons or anything, but Ginny suggested just doing a little bit of swaying without moving my feet too much. When we had to go in a direction, I kinda shuffled my feet without lifting them off the floor. Maybe you could try that?"

"You were nervous? You always look like you know what you're doing!"

Harry spit out a bit of his drink as he laughed, before quickly using his wand to clean up the front of his robes. "Mate, I'm winging it, like, all the time. I feel out of my depth in most situations."

"Yeah, right. You're a Triwizard champion, have a cool girl as a date, you're on the quidditch team…"

"Nev, can you remember how terrified I was when my name came out of the goblet? Or how most of the school thought I was a glory-chasing cheater?" Neville looked unconvinced. "I spent days trying to get the nerve to ask Ginny, and I've ended up in the hospital wing from quidditch more often than anyone. I think you're just imagining me being more put together than I am."

"Well, maybe you're just really good at looking confident even when you're not."

"Maybe, but I sure don't look as confident as Dean does out there," Harry indicated where their dormmate had just spun Ginny by the hand before effortlessly bringing her back to himself.

"Yeah, but Ginny looked a lot happier when she was dancing with you."

"Alright, Neville, here's an idea." Harry leaned closer to his friend. "You find Susan and ask her to try another dance with you, and I'll get Ginny and we can dance near each other. If we're all talking back and forth a bit, it'll be easier for both of us to not have to move around as much. That way, neither of us have to worry about stomping on our date's feet."

Neville looked up for a moment as he calculated the risk of embarrassment, but eventually nodded. "Okay, Harry, I'll go find her. Where should we meet?"

"Let's aim for near the refreshments. If it goes badly, at least we can find something sweet afterward."

"Right. See you there. Thanks, Harry!" Neville strode away purposefully and Harry really hoped Susan gave him a second chance.

The Weird Sisters were transitioning from a more upbeat song to something slower. Harry figured that since he'd roped Ginny into helping Neville, he should probably give her a little warning. He left the table and walked out to the dance floor, giving Seamus a thumbs-up as he passed his dormmate dancing with the older boy he assumed was Matthew.

"Hey, Gin! Can I borrow you for a few minutes?"

Ginny smiled broadly before hugging her dance partner. "Thanks for the dance, Dean!"

"No worries! See you later." The boy gave her a nod and began walking to a table with several other fourth-years.

As Harry led Ginny toward the other side of the Great Hall, he gave her a questioning look. "I thought you told me you weren't that great at dancing? You and Dean have some serious moves."

"Well, it's a bit different when you're the focus of attention for the whole school. I was really nervous for that first dance, but now it's no big deal."

"Fair enough. Hey, the reason I pulled you away is that I was hoping we could help Neville out a bit. He said he was nervous about trying to dance with Susan again because he kept stepping on her."

"Of course he's nervous. He's honestly not that bad…" Ginny cocked her head to the side and Harry gave her a look. "Okay, he's pretty bad. What were you thinking?"

"I figure if you and I can dance next to them and talk with them a bit, maybe we wouldn't have to move around so much. That way, Neville could get a good dance in and Susan won't end up in the infirmary."

"Harry Potter, that's almost Slytherin of you!" exclaimed Ginny with a laugh. "I'm in. I don't know Susan well. Any ideas for conversation starters?"

Harry thought about it. "She and I don't talk much, but she's nice enough. I think she's kinda like her house's version of Hermione. Top grades, likes books."

Ginny nodded as she started coming up with her plan. Soon enough, they found Neville and a hesitant-looking Susan near the drink table.

"Hey Susan! Nice to see you. Do you know Ginny?"

"Hi Harry. I think we've met a few times. I like your robes, Ginny."

"Thanks, Susan. Yours look really nice, too. Harry and I were going to try to dance over here away from the crowd if you two want to join?"

"Uhh, sure. I guess…" Susan clearly wasn't confident about the plan, but she dutifully stepped forward with Neville.

As they got positioned and Harry's hands found themselves again on Ginny's waist, she looked over to the other couple. They exchanged small talk for a minute or two before Ginny sprung into action. "Okay, Susan. Hermione told me how good you are in all your classes. Was there anything in your third year that I need to look out for? I'm doing alright in Transfiguration and Charms, but I sometimes have a hard time in Potions and Herbology can be challenging at times."

Susan's face brightened as she and Neville gently swayed back and forth close enough for a conversation. "Oh, I hear you about Potions. I have such a hard time with Professor Snape since he's always assigning things that are a bit different from what's in our book. Sometimes I just ignore what the book says completely and just go by what's on the board."

Harry was surprised at her answer, especially considering how much stock Hermione put into doing everything by the book. By the looks on Ginny and Neville, it was news to them, too. Ginny may have asked just to make conversation, but she now seemed legitimately interested.

"As for Herbology, that's one of my weaker subjects. I just spent tons of time in the library tracking down various books about magical plants. It was a huge headache."

Harry decided it was time to chime in. "If either of you needs help with Herbology, you've got to go to Neville. I swear it's the only class where Hermione has given up on getting top marks. It just comes to him naturally."

Neville's blush became a hue of red that few of the plants in the greenhouses could rival. "It's not that big of a deal. I've just always enjoyed growing things and plants interest me." He met Susan's eyes. "If you're ever researching for Herbology, Professor Sprout mentioned some really helpful resources. I've got 1001 Magical Plants and Herbs, which I don't think is in the school library and a couple of others. Professor Moody even lent me one of his books on Magical Mediterranean water plants, and I think we'll be covering some of those next term."

A slight pressure on his shoulder from Ginny's hand brought Harry's attention away from Neville and Susan. "Seems like they've found something to talk about," whispered Ginny. "Want to give them a little space?"

"Yeah, but maybe we stay close enough to come help if he needs it?"

"Absolutely." Ginny furtively glanced at Neville's feet and giggled quietly. "You conquer dragons, catch snitches, and teach dance? You certainly are multi-talented!"

"He does seem like he's doing better, doesn't he? I think he just needed to get out of his own head," Harry said with a smile. "Do you really have a hard time in Herbology, or was that just a setup to get Neville talking about plants?"

"Well, I wasn't lying about it not being my best subject, but I did think it might get him talking a bit more…"

"And you were calling me a Slytherin earlier?" asked Harry in mock outrage. "That's positively devious!"

"Says the boy who pulled out the 'Neville-does-better-than-Hermione' card!"

The two of them bantered back and forth good-naturedly as the band transitioned to a new song, and neither one moved to leave the dance floor as it began.

Back to index

Chapter 14: Chapter 14

Author's Notes: Dealt with writer's block for about a month, but finally pushed through to complete a chapter I had been dreading but now feel really good about. It's a good thing I'm about ten chapters ahead of what I'm posting each week... Big thanks to everyone who reads and especially those who review! You're encouragement and support helped me push through and keep going.

The clock struck eleven while Harry was making good on his promise to save a dance for Hermione. She gushed about how kind and attentive Viktor was and how much she was learning from him. Harry's mind wandered as she tried to explain how Bulgaria and Britain were connected through the International Confederation of Wizards but was quite happy to hear her speak so excitedly about her time with Krum.

"He's such a good listener, Harry," repeated Hermione for the third time in as many minutes. "You can tell he cares about what I'm saying and he asks such good follow-up questions and I just…" She threw her head back and grinned up toward the ceiling.

"I'm glad you're having a good time. He seems like a good bloke. Have you talked to him at all about House Elves?"

"Not yet, but I'm waiting for the right opportunity," she replied. "I don't want to force the issue with him, but having someone famous like him supporting the cause could be a big deal!"

"Don't want to force the issue, huh?" Harry gave her a wry smile. "I seem to remember you 'forcing the issue' with a number of other people…"

"Oh, don't you start!" she said as she swatted his arm. "Have you and Ginny had a good time so far?"

"Yeah, we've had a lot of fun. Err, I think she has. I know I liked dancing a lot more than I thought I would."

"From what I saw of her, I think she's enjoying herself, too."

"Well, from the looks your date has been giving me, I get the feeling he'd rather like to get back out here with you." Viktor was looking at them from behind the several girls who were attempting to chat him up or pull him towards the dance floor. "I'm going to go check on Ginny so that you can go save him. Thanks for the dance, Hermione!"

She gave him a sisterly hug before quickly walking back toward Viktor, who looked relieved as he excused himself from the contingent of now-disappointed girls. Harry found Ginny talking animatedly with the five other third-year girls who'd been invited to the ball. Her eyes were alight with mischief as he arrived at the table.

"Harry! Perfect timing!" Her tone was conspiratorial as she began to whisper, "I just saw George and Angelina slip out the doors heading outside. My dear older brother has been giving me a hard time about coming to the ball with you."

Harry looked alarmed before Ginny reassured him, "No, no, it was all in good fun, but I've been looking for a chance to pay him back. You up for it, or are you too scared to sneak around without an invisibility cloak?" She raised her eyebrows at him in challenge.

"I'm not scared, but I do have a healthy amount of respect for the pranking abilities of the twins. What are you thinking in terms of payback?"

"Let's walk and talk." Ginny waved to the others as she started towards the doors with Harry. "I figure that if we're precise about it, we could use a quick 'Wingardium Leviosa' on the snow under George. Imagine the look on his face if he were in the middle of trying to chat up a certain quidditch captain when a sudden influx of snow found its way into his underwear."

Harry snorted as he held the door. "Ginny, I fear you might be the most dangerous Weasley of all. Remind me not to get on your bad side." He followed Ginny as she stealthily moved behind a shrubbery, then crept to the large tree under which they had sat with Luna. With a single finger over her lips, she peered around the tree trunk. Seated on a bench beyond a statue of a reindeer were two immense figures gazing at a water fountain. Before Ginny could redirect Harry in a different direction, he heard Hagrid's voice call out pleadingly.

"Wait, please! Don' go yet! I've never met another like me before."

"Anuzzer like you? What do you mean by zat?"

Both Harry and Ginny held their breath, not wanting to alert the two that they'd stumbled into such a private conversation. Harry fidgeted in the cold stillness, while Ginny stared at a beetle that was crawling on a nearby tree limb.

"A half-giant, like me, o' course!"

Ginny's hand covered her mouth as she silently gasped.

"You presume to say zat I am 'alf giant? Zees is unbelievable!" Madame Maxime rose from her seat on the bench. "I cannot believe you would insult me in such a way! 'Ow dare you?" The sound of an open hand striking a cheek echoed off the stone wall of the castle. The Beauxbatons headmaster stormed up the path back to the doorway without noticing a mortified Harry and Ginny hiding behind the tree.

As the great doors slammed shut, Harry and Ginny tentatively looked at the silhouette of their friend and professor. His shoulders were slumped and he made no sound. Hagrid stayed on the bench for a few long minutes before he rose to his feet and began to trudge through the snow toward his hut. By the time he rounded the corner of the castle, Harry thought he could hear a large sniffle.

"Harry, I think we should go…" Ginny whispered even though there was nobody else nearby. She sounded deeply uncomfortable about something.

"Yeah, sure," replied Harry quietly. She didn't meet his eyes as she walked back toward the doors. "Err, Ginny? Is everything okay?"

"I just had no idea that Hagrid…" She looked for reassurance from Harry, but found him only looking back at her with a blank expression. "I guess it must be different for you, not having grown up with magic. My brothers would tell scary stories about giants, how vicious and terrible they were. They talked about them tearing people in half and eating them…"

She had stopped in her tracks as she explained but was shivering as she spoke. Harry didn't know if it was because of the cold or from being so shaken.

"On some level, I know that they were just trying to rile me up. And I've got Hagrid for Care of Magical Creatures, so I know he'd never hurt a fly. But even so…" Ginny looked imploringly at Harry, willing him to understand. "It's a way bigger deal in the magical world than I can say. If word of it got out, there'd be calls for him to be fired."

"I guess that explains why he's never mentioned it," said Harry, feeling a bit defensive about the person who introduced him to magic. "I just feel bad for him for how Madame Maxime treated him. Hard to believe that she's not half-giant if Hagrid is. She's even taller than him."

Ginny nodded. "The poor guy… It must be hard to not have anyone you can talk to, then think you've found a kindred spirit, only to get shot down like that. He's probably lonely."

Harry considered the point. "Yeah, he probably is. Maybe that's why he loves animals so much. They don't judge him by his size, just by how he treats them."

"And maybe that's why he looks for the good in creatures that most people fear or hate? He can see the good in them, just like he wants people to see the good in him." Ginny's teeth looked to be on the verge of chattering from the cold as she spoke.

"Oh, I didn't even think about how cold it is out here!" exclaimed Harry. "Let's get inside and warm up. Everything should be winding down pretty soon. Unless you still want to find George?"

She shook her head with a smile. "If he's convinced Angelina to give him the time of day, who are we to stop them? Plus, I wouldn't mind her hanging out around the Burrow more often."

"Then let's go!" Harry grabbed her hand and pulled her through the doorway, back into the warmth of the castle.

The Great Hall had cleared significantly by the time the two Gryffindors reappeared. Many of the students had taken their leave, while several of the remaining couples had abandoned all pretext of dancing and had locked lips as far from staff eyes as possible.

When the main singer for the Weird Sisters announced that they were gearing up for the last song of the night, Harry gave Ginny a look. "What do you say? Head back to the tower or one last dance?"

"How many chances will we ever have to dance to the Weird Sisters? I'll stay if you will."

As they began to dance, Ginny rested her head against Harry's shoulder. Her hair was still quite cold from the night air, but Harry didn't mind as they gently moved about the dance floor. As he caught a whiff of something flowery and familiar, a soft smile emerged on his face.

"Hey, Harry?" Ginny spoke quietly, and he could barely hear her over the music. "Thanks for inviting me to come with you. I've had a really great time."

"Glad to get to bring you, Gin. I had a lot of fun, too. I couldn't have asked for a better dance coach."

"Well, I'm glad you were a fast learner."

Like a bolt, a thought occurred to Harry: the evening had gone remarkably well. He and Ginny were on a date, even if it was supposed to be a friendly one. They had danced together quite a bit, and now she was resting her head against his chest while the final song of the night played. He glanced to and fro, spotting multiple other couples who apparently had already thought through these kinds of implications and were acting on them. Surely, the halls and corridors were already littered with students who were spending quality time together.

His heart pounded a little harder in his chest, and he hoped against hope that Ginny didn't suspect why a small panic had gripped him. Harry's mind raced as he imagined how to extricate himself if he'd given Ginny the wrong idea. What if she tried to kiss him? Should he go along with it?

The damned memory of his older self with an older Ginny flashed in his mind, but he forced himself to focus on the present. The last song was drawing to a close, but he felt no certainty about what to do next.

Ginny gave a long, contented sigh as she and Harry came to a stop. "This has been such a good night, but I'm dead on my feet. Mum sent me heels so I wouldn't be at eye level with your navel all night, but they hurt really bad. Are you ready to head back to the tower?"

"Sounds good to me. Although I didn't think you were that short, right?"

She arched an eyebrow at him as she reached down to remove one shoe, then the other. She then stood up to her full height. "Without these, I would have barely been able to reach your shoulders to dance. My arms would have fallen off from being held straight up!"

"Oh, you're exaggerating and you know it!" The two began walking up a flight of stairs toward the tower, Ginny with her shoes still in her hands. Despite Harry's worries, they only ran into a few students snogging in the corridors, and both of them descended into fits of laughter after passing some of their more amorous fellow students.

As they climbed into the common room, the flicker of the fire cast a warm orange glow on the two of them. Harry hadn't come up with a real plan to end the night yet and kept thinking of more and more implausible ways that it could happen for him. As he considered the possibility of Sirius dragging him away in dog form as he'd done Ron in the spring, he found strong arms wrapped tightly around his midsection.

"This really was an incredible night, Harry! Merry Christmas!"

She gave him one extra squeeze before releasing him and turned to bound up the stairs to her dormitory.

Before she reached the first landing, he heard himself call out without conscious thought, "Hey Ginny?" She stopped and peered down at him.

"Merry Christmas, Gin." She beamed at him before disappearing up the stairs.

The day after Christmas, Harry made his way to the Great Hall for lunch, having slept well past breakfast. He plopped down next to Ron, who was just finishing up his first course. As Harry groggily spooned potatoes onto his plate, Hermione and Ginny sat down across from them.

"Good morning," said Harry as Hermione hoisted her book bag onto the table.

"Good afternoon, Harry," replied Hermione while Ginny let out a small laugh.

Ron looked up from his lunch with a bit of hesitation. "I ended up going back to the tower after dinner last night since I wasn't very interested in dancing." His cheeks took on a twinge of pink, but he kept his tone casual. "How'd the rest of the night go?"

Ron's eyes had latched onto Harry, who couldn't help but wonder if his friend really wanted to know the details. "I thought it went really well. We danced some more and listened to the music. Oh!" Harry suddenly considered the conversation between Hagrid and Madame Maxime that had kept him from sleeping well the night before. He glanced to the left and right to see if anyone was listening. "Ginny and I heard Hagrid talking to Madame Maxime about something in the courtyard."

The two of them recounted their attempt to prank George and how they'd stumbled into the conversation. Hermione didn't react much to the news, but by the end of the story, Ron's eyes were wide and he had a vacant look about him.

"I think I kinda suspected something like that," said Hermione tentatively. "I mean, he's certainly massive enough. He couldn't be full giant; they're usually 20 feet tall, but half-giant makes sense."

"Shhh!" whispered Ron. "Don't say 'half-giant' too loud. You two don't understand 'cause you didn't grow up around magic. Giants are feared for a reason. They've all been driven out of Britain, but they… They kill just for the fun of it. If word got out that…" his eyes darted toward the staff table where Hagrid's seat was empty. "If people knew about this it'd be a huge deal."

"I was trying to explain it to Harry last night," continued Ginny. "We all know him well enough to not let it bother us, but a lot of giants joined You Know Who during the war. It was really bad and people are still scared of them."

"I just feel so bad for Hagrid about how she treated him," mused Hermione. "He really deserves better than that."

Harry saw someone approaching their table out of the corner of his eye and quickly signaled for his friends to cease their conversations. When he looked up, he found Cedric Diggory walking toward them.

"Hey Harry! Missed you this morning. I was hoping we could talk for a couple of minutes?" His demeanor seemed relaxed and his tone was friendly.

"Okay, sounds good." Harry grabbed one last bite of his potatoes before standing up and following the older boy toward a nearby hallway. Cedric ducked into an empty classroom and Harry did the same. Once the door closed behind them, Cedric began to speak.

"So, I wanted to thank you again for the tip about the dragons. I dunno what I would have done if I'd just learned what we were facing a few minutes before getting thrown out there, but I don't think it would've gone well."

Harry shrugged. "Just seemed like the right thing to do."

"Well, in that case, I figured maybe I could repay the favor. Have you figured out the clue in the egg yet?" The look on Harry's face was all the confirmation Cedric needed. "Okay, here's the deal… It just shrieks when you open it, right? If you take it with you for a bath and mull it over, I think you'll figure out a solution."

Harry was very confused as to how this constituted a repayment of the favor. Harry cocked his head to the side and looked rather incredulous. "You're saying I should take a bath with the egg?"

"Yep! Just that simple," replied Cedric. "Oh, and I'm guessing your dorms don't have bathtubs in them either. Ours don't. But the Prefect bathroom on the fifth floor has a huge tub you can use. It's the fourth door on the left and the password is 'Pine Fresh.'"

Cedric leaned back on his heels and looked rather pleased with himself. If this was his idea of a prank, Harry thought he had a long way to go before reaching the rarified air of the Weasley twins. "Err… Great. Thanks for the tip."

"Best of luck! I'm still going for the win, but I figure I'd rather have a Hogwarts victory either way. See you later, Harry!" He left the classroom and made his way toward the Hufflepuff table, leaving a flummoxed Harry in his wake.

Hermione, Ron, and Ginny all looked to be waiting with eager anticipation as Harry returned.

"Oi! What'd he want with you?" asked Ron.

"Well, he said he wanted to return the favor since I gave him a heads-up about the dragons. He told me to take a bath with the egg, and that would somehow help me figure out the clue."

"You told him that the first task was going to be facing dragons, and he repays you by saying 'take a bath'?" Ginny scoffed.

"Harry hasn't even tried it out yet, so we don't know how helpful the clue will be," chided Hermione. "Have you made any progress on the egg yet?"

Harry shook his head ruefully.

"Now at least you've got a lead to follow! The question is, where could you find a bathtub to use?"

"Cedric actually pointed me in the right direction on that. He gave me the password to get into the Prefect bathroom, so I figure I'll try it out there first." Harry's memory of Dumbledore warning him to prepare well in advance flashed in his mind. "I'll try it out tonight and see if his hint is worth anything."

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Chapter 15: Chapter 15

That evening, Harry strode down the corridors of the castle with the egg under his arm and his invisibility cloak draped over himself. The quiet footsteps garnered no attention as he made his way through the empty hallway on the fifth floor. After passing the statue of Boris the Bewildered, Harry found himself in front of a locked door. He clearly spoke the password and heard the door click.

Sprawling before him was the fanciest bathroom Harry had ever seen. Everything was made out of white marble, from the floor to the sinks. A bathtub the size of a small pool lay empty in the middle of the room, surrounded by a myriad of golden taps and faucets. On the far wall hung a painting of a sleeping mermaid seated on a rock jutting out of the sea. Her delicate hair shifted with each small snore.

After experimenting with several of the faucets, which each created a different kind of bubbles along with its flow of water, Harry disrobed and took a running leap from the diving board. The water was pleasantly warm and quite aromatic. He swam back and forth a few times, reveling in the heat during a bitterly cold winter. As expected, however, no new insights regarding the cries that had emanated from the egg occurred to Harry.

He paddled his way back towards the edge where he had left the egg by his pajamas, noting with some frustration that he had splashed his own clothes when jumping into the water. He grasped the egg firmly and braced himself before opening the egg again.

The same ear-piercing shrieks from the post-task party echoed throughout the bathroom. Harry slammed it shut forcefully. With extreme care, he barely cracked the opening of the egg, only to have his ears assaulted just the same.

He pressed his hand on his face as he inhaled a long breath. Harry hadn't had high expectations about Cedric's advice, but his own lack of progress weighed on him.

"Good evening, young one. I haven't seen you here before."

Harry gasped and instinctively thrust himself under the water. After a few moments, he came to the realization that he was unlikely to be able to hide beneath the surface forever. As his head emerged tentatively, he rubbed the water from his eyes and tried to focus on his surroundings. He grabbed his glasses from his pile of discarded clothes, but didn't see anyone matching the feminine voice he had heard after affixing them in their regular position.

"No need to worry, I'm not going to hurt you."

Harry turned to see that the mermaid in the portrait had woken up. She was smiling down at him while brushing her hair with what looked to be part of a sea urchin.

"You scared me half to death!" Harry's heart rate had skyrocketed and his entire body felt on edge. He did not appreciate being surprised while separated from his clothes and wand.

"And you woke me from a most pleasant dream with that egg, so I will call it even." Her voice was serene, and Harry thought to himself that the noise from the egg would be a rather displeasing alarm.

"Sorry about that," called out Harry. He grabbed the egg, careful not to open it, and swam toward the end of the pool closest to the painting. He was careful to remain where the bubbles were most dense. "I'm supposed to figure out some sort of clue from the egg, but I'm having a difficult time with it."

"The older boy did the same thing. He was in here for hours before he sorted it out."

Harry's face brightened. "So he solved it in here? I was worried it was a big prank."

"No, he told me that a professor had hinted at bringing it in this room. That was only two days ago."

"Okay, well at least I know I'm on the right track…" He started to reach for the egg again before stopping. "Hey, I didn't catch your name. I'm Harry Potter."

"A pleasure to meet you. I am Agea Eventide." She nodded before returning to brushing her hair.

"I hope it's not too much of a bother, but I'm going to keep trying to work on this egg."

"Don't worry about it. I think I'll simply take my leave so it isn't quite so grating on my ears." She winked at him saucily before diving beneath the cerulean waves of her painting.

Over the next twenty minutes, Harry poked and prodded the egg in every way he could think of. He racked his brain for some missing piece of the puzzle that could help crack the case.

What could Cedric have meant when he had suggested taking a bath? Harry pondered the question again and again as his attempts to solve the egg proved fruitless.

"If only I'd asked the mermaid for a hint," he thought to himself. "But who knows how long she'll be gone now, and she can't even hear me since she's…"

Under the water!

He plunged the egg beneath the surface and opened it again. Instead of the screeching that had been driving him spare, a faint and melodious sound bubbled up from the water. He couldn't understand what the words were saying. He sucked in as much air as he could hold before submerging his head.

Ethereal voices filled the waters. Harry struggled to memorize the riddle they sang out before he gasped back out of the water. It took several minutes of him memorizing a few lines, climbing out of the water, and jotting them down on a spare parchment he'd had in his robes before he was confident he'd transcribed the entire clue. Without stopping to consider its meaning, he dressed, gathered his things, and set out for Gryffindor tower.

When Harry pulled off his invisibility cloak in the mostly empty common room, he noticed three students seated near the fireplace. Hermione was perusing a thick book, while Ron and Ginny were in a heated chess game that looked well-matched.

Hermione's book snapped shut as he approached. "Harry! We didn't think it'd take so long. How did it go?"

Both Weasleys brought their focus away from the board as Harry began. "I figured out how to get the clue. Had to listen to it while the egg was underwater, and it turned into a song. Reckon Cedric was right about it being easier to solve in the tub."

"So the screeching was actually the clue? What did it say?" Ron looked relieved that the task wouldn't be an assault on Harry's ears.

"I copied it all down, though my parchment got a little wet in the process. You all can take a look at it."

He withdrew the paper from his pocket and gave it to Hermione, who immediately read it aloud.

"Come seek us where our voices sound,

We cannot sing above the ground,

And while you're searching, ponder this:

We've taken what you'll sorely miss,

An hour long you'll have to look,

And to recover what we took,

But past an hour - the prospect's black,

Too late, it's gone, it won't come back."

"Well, that sounds ominous," said Ginny once Hermione had finished. "Any idea what the riddle means?"

"No idea. I just copied it down and came back to the tower. Figured four heads are better than one."

"Fair enough." Ginny looked at Hermione, who was elbow-deep in her book bag searching for parchment to use for notes. "At least we've got something to work with now. So should we start by trying to determine who's doing the singing?"

"Absolutely! Once we know what you're up against, we should be able to piece together the rest of the riddle." Hermione was copying Harry's scribbles onto a large parchment with extra margins for whatever notes she was sure to write during her upcoming research. "The first two lines are what most pertains to the 'We' who are singing the riddle…"

Harry nodded slightly. After straining to comprehend how to get the clue for quite a while, he wasn't enthusiastic about trying to solve the riddle right away. He looked from Hermione's frenzy of copying to Ginny who was trying to read over her shoulder. Ron had put away the chess set and was staring into the fire as if he could will answers to jump out of the flames. With a sigh, Harry flopped into a seat on the couch. If his friends were this eager to help, he wouldn't protest.

As the new term approached, four Gryffindor students found themselves spending an inordinate amount of time in the library. Harry had sent off an owl to Sirius the day after taking the egg to the bath. It wasn't quite as long as his nearly novel-length letter detailing the play-by-play of the first task, but it outlined their progress on the riddle and the immediate challenges ahead.

Tackling the second task was daunting, but the addition of Ron and Ginny made preparations much more enjoyable. Harry was exceedingly grateful for Hermione's talent in research and training him to summon, but he found the four of them had a more pleasant energy when working together. Hermione's skill of seeking out obscure clues and logical thinking made her an ideal helper on the front end, but both Ginny and Ron had better background knowledge of the magical world as a whole. Each was better equipped to know what kinds of spells were possible.

Hermione hadn't taken much time to determine that merpeople's voices were only intelligible underwater. Ginny recalled Charlie talking about mermaids in the Black Lake from his upper year Care of Magical Creatures classes, and Hermione soon confirmed that a population of merpeople resided there from her copy of Hogwarts, A History. The two main problems were that none of them could ascertain what might be stolen that Harry would need to reclaim and none of them had experience with magic to allow for such a long, deep dive.

Harry had decided that it'd be better to focus on the means to rescue rather than the object to be rescued. Hermione found an almost hopelessly-complicated option called the Bubblehead Charm, but the skill and precision required created problems of its own. If Harry was able to cast the charm effectively, which was already a large if, it would severely hamper his ability to cast anything while swimming. Should he lose concentration, the charm could fail and leave him drowning beneath the waves.

Faced with the competing desires to begin training to cast the charm and search for a better solution, Ron came up with a plan. Harry would request tutoring from Professor Flitwick so that he would be ready if he ended up needing to use the Bubblehead Charm, but the other three would keep researching other means of carrying out the task. With the new term beginning, it was the best option they had.

Their professors were wholly unsympathetic as their pupils shambled from one class to the next with exhausted looks during their first week back. Harry's homework was piling up already by the time he, Hermione, and Ron traipsed toward Hagrid's hut for their first Care of Magical Creatures class of the term. The three were surprised to learn that their friend and professor was absent, replaced for the day by Professor Grubbly-Plank.

After what Harry begrudgingly considered one of the more engaging classes they'd experienced, a gleeful Draco Malfoy shoved a copy of the Daily Prophet into his hands. As the three read Rita Skeeter's front page scoop about Hagrid's parentage, they could hear Draco jeering and mocking the professor to Crabbe and Goyle. By the time they reached the Great Hall for lunch, the entire school was abuzz with the gossip that Hagrid was a half-giant and had yet to teach any of his classes.

"This is absolutely disgusting!" exclaimed Ginny after she read through the article at the lunch table. "How in the world did she learn about Hagrid's mother?"

"I just don't know. I get that Malfoy and a bunch of Slytherins have been feeding her stories, but he never even told us about this." Harry looked toward the head table, where Hagrid's seat was conspicuously empty. "You two said he might get fired if word got out. You don't think that Dumbledore…"

"I dunno, Harry. I bet they're both getting flooded with owls, probably Howlers, too." Ron frowned as he looked at the headmaster, who betrayed no sense that anything was amiss.

"I hate that this happened to Hagrid, but at least our substitute was good," offered Hermione. "The unicorn lesson was one of my favorites we've had in the class."

Harry shot her a look of betrayal. "Well, I'm going to talk to Hagrid and let him know we missed him and that we don't care who his parents are. With all the times he's been there for us, it's the least we can do." His tone dared Hermione to disagree.

"Oh, that's a great idea, Harry," Hermione quickly replied as she tried to recover from his withering gaze. Ron gave a thumbs up before hurrying to finish his meal.

Harry looked to Ginny, who spoke cautiously. "I don't know him as well as you three, but if you think it'd help, I'd be glad to come along. I just don't want to impose." Her brown eyes were fixed on her plate.

"No, I bet he'd appreciate having all of us there," interjected Harry. "Should we head that way now?"

With mouth still full, Ron held up his hand for them to pause. He swallowed before chugging the rest of his pumpkin juice. "Right, now I'm ready! Can't go comfort someone on an empty stomach!" Hermione rolled her eyes as they made their way back outside toward the forest.

But Hagrid was not in his hut when the four arrived. Fang bounded up to them in greeting, nearly knocking Ginny to the ground, but there was no sign that their friend was nearby.

"Well, we've got classes all this afternoon,'' reasoned Hermione. "Maybe we can check with Professor Dumbledore at dinner if Hagrid isn't in the Great Hall. He might have gone to the Ministry of Magic to file a complaint or get things sorted out?"

"Or gone to a pub…" muttered Ron. Harry had a strong feeling about which of his friends was more likely to be right.

Harry was unsurprised when Hargrid's seat remained unfilled that evening during dinner. An unexpected development was that Professor Dumbledore's chair was also empty. Resolved to at least make an attempt, the four friends approached Professor McGonagall after they finished eating.

"Excuse me, Professor. I'd like to talk to Hagrid, but I haven't seen him today. Do you know where I could find him?"

Her eyes closed for a moment before she replied. "Professor Hagrid has taken a leave of absence and is not at the school right now. I'm certain that he will be happy to speak with you once he returns."

"But it's not fair! That foul woman dragged his name through the mud! He needs to know that the students don't care about all that and that we want him back!" Harry's distress was leaking into his voice.

"Mr. Potter, I assure you that when Hagrid returns, you will know and will have ample opportunity to encourage him. At present, there is nothing you can do."

"What about Professor Dumbledore? Can I talk to him? We don't want to see Hagrid fired!" Hermione, Ron, and Ginny were nodding.

"The headmaster is away from the school this evening. While I'm sure he appreciates your advice when it comes to matters of employment, Professor Dumbledore has the situation well in hand."

Harry sighed deeply. "I don't mean to come across as rude, but Hagrid has had it so rough. He got accused of opening the Chamber of Secrets and was thrown into Azkaban. He spent so much time and energy trying to help Buckbeak last year. Now this?" He looked imploringly at his Transfiguration professor. "We just need him to know that we're behind him."

Professor McGonagall's eyes softened and she gave the students a small, sad smile. "Very well. Professor Dumbledore indicated that Hagrid would likely return on Sunday. I will personally let him know that you wish to meet with him that afternoon."

"Thank you, Professor."

"How did your training with Professor Flitwick go this morning?" Hermione was holding a large book in her hands and had a heavy-looking bag slung over her shoulder as she walked towards Hagrid's hut. She strode beside Ginny, with the boys trailing behind by a few paces.

"Ooh, yeah! I want to hear how it went! Does he think you'll be able to master it by the second task?"

"Well, not much luck yet," said Harry wearily. "Flitwick told me that's to be expected since it's a NEWT-level charm. He does think I can get it figured out in time but encouraged me to look at other options, too. If nothing else, it made me feel like there's got to be another way to do it."

Ron piped up. "If he thinks there's another way that'd be easier for you, maybe it's not a spell. Hermione, most of what we've been looking through are different charms that Harry could learn. Maybe we need to broaden our search?"

"Ron, that's brilliant!" cried Hermione. "If we can find a non-spell solution, that could leave Harry able to use his wand more freely while he's in the lake!" She stuffed her book into her bag as they approached the hut.

"Just thought it might be worth considering," said Ron a bit sheepishly. He stepped forward to knock on the door.

"Come on in, yeh lot," came a very subdued voice from inside. They entered to find Hagrid seated at his table looking forlorn. He had great tear streaks running down his cheeks and took a large swig of something from a flagon as they sat down. "Nice o' yeh to come by 'n see me."

Hermione spoke first. "Of course we wanted to come see you, Hagrid. We've missed you this past week."

Harry was nodding enthusiastically. "I don't care what that foul woman says about you, we know the kind of person you are. Malfoy and the other Slytherins who talked to her are a bunch of liars. Anyone with a brain could see they're making up things to make you seem like a bad teacher. Who ever heard of a bite from a flobberworm? They don't even have teeth!"

Hagrid sniffled. "Doesn't matter. By now there'll be a hundred owls callin' fer me to be sacked fer bein' a half-giant."

"They can't do that! It doesn't matter who your mum is, you belong here at Hogwarts!" Ginny had found her voice. "It's not fair that you've been blamed for so much that was never your fault to begin with!"

"Parents won't want me around their kids. Dumbledore's already stuck his neck out fer me too many times."

"HAGRID!" Harry's voice seemed to shake the walls of the small hut. "I don't care what we have to do. We can help with research like last year with Buckbeak's trial. We can talk to Professor Dumbledore. But we're not letting you get fired. Do you understand?"

"We don't care that you're half-giant." Ron was looking straight into Hagrid's eyes. "Anyone who knows you knows you wouldn't hurt a soul. You're a helluva lot better teacher than Snape, and he's still here after all these years."

"If Professor Dumbledore is really considering sacking you, I can start researching laws on discrimination and employment," began Hermione, who grabbed a parchment from her bag to start jotting down notes.

Hagrid shook his head. "Professor Dumbledore said he wasn't going to do tha'. Said he would take care o' the parents an' governors. Great man, Dumbledore. But I reckon I should just resign and save 'im the trouble."

"But if you bow to pressure from people who hate you because of who your parents are, you're just letting them win," argued Hermione. "What happens if they decide that muggle-borns like me shouldn't be allowed to teach?"

Hagrid let out a small laugh. "If yeh wanted ter teach, no one in the world could stop yeh, Hermione."

"But that's the thing, Hagrid," interjected Ginny. "They're trying to disqualify people based on their family. No one loves magical creatures more than you, and it'd be wrong for you to lose your chance to share that love with students, just like Hermione being a muggle-born witch shouldn't stop her from following her dreams."

"Look at Harry's aunt and uncle. Great bloody idiots if ever there were any, but Harry turned out just fine." Ron looked over at Harry to see if he was upset by the remark, but Harry merely shrugged.

"Yeah, if you hold people's families against them, I'm definitely not doing so well." Harry thought for a second. "Back in second year, when everyone thought I was the Heir of Slytherin and had opened up the Chamber of Secrets, you didn't abandon me. Even if some parents decide to be idiots and believe the worst about you, it doesn't mean we will."

Hagrid pawed at his eyes. "'S not the same, though. You never did all those things."

Ginny took a deep breath. "That's true, but I did." All eyes turned to the smallest person in the hut. She gathered herself before continuing. "Even if it was because of Tom's diary, I still did those things in my first year. I sent the basilisk to attack people. I killed your roosters. I hung Mrs. Norris up by her tail."

Ron started to interrupt, but Hermione grabbed his arm as Ginny continued. "It's been hard, knowing that some people still look at me differently. But I've been trying to remember not to let myself be defined by things I can't control. And the people who really matter don't hold it against me.

"Your mum is a giantess, and that's part of who you are. But the people who really matter aren't going to treat you differently because of it."

Large tears fell onto the table as Hagrid's shoulders sagged. "Yeh're better than I deserve, you lot." Hagrid wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Yeh really wan' me back as yer professor?"

Four heads nodded back at him.

"Alrigh' then. Professor Dumbledore refused ter accept my resignation anyway." Hagrid let out a long breath. "Well, how are yeh doin' workin' out yer egg? Yeh know what yeh'll do yet?"

"Well, I think we're on the right track," hedged Harry. He was glad to have gotten reassurances that Hagrid wouldn't be sacked, but his nerves about the second task gripped him as soon as it was brought up. "We think that I'll have to dive to the bottom of the Black Lake to retrieve something that will be taken from me. Professor Lupin went over a lot of the underwater creatures I could run into during Defense last year, but we're still trying to figure out how I can hold my breath for an hour."

"We've researched the Bubblehead Charm, which would let him breathe normally while swimming, but it'd hamper his ability to defend himself with magic," added Hermione.

"Well, I don' know how to fix that fer yeh, Harry. But I've spent a lot o' time in and 'round the Black Lake. If yeh want any pointers on what you really need ter look out fer, I'd be happy ter help."

Harry's face lit up with a broad smile. "That would be great. I need all the help I can get."

"Well, I can certainly help yeh with what critters yeh might encounter. Might be worth checkin' with Professor Sprout about the plant life. There's more'n jus' animals down there."

"Yeah, okay. I'll ask her about it after our next Herbology class."

For the next hour, the four sat in rapt attention as Hagrid explained the various creatures that inhabited the Black Lake, where they each were most likely to be found, and the best means for bypassing them. Hermione was furiously scribbling notes as Hagrid spoke, no doubt already sorting anecdotes and facts into lists to be researched.

When he wrapped up his explanations, Hermione looked up at him from her notes. "Hagrid, that was incredible! This is going to help us so much as we get Harry ready for the task." He beamed with pride as the others nodded their agreement. "I think this is one of the most effective ways you teach: when you're explaining about animals you've had experience with and showing others what you've learned about them."

Hagrid's huge cheeks reddened. "Thanks, Hermione. This kinda thing's my favorite thing ter do. Just talkin' 'bout creatures an' how they do."

Harry could sense Hermione trying to tiptoe up to a point, even though he wasn't exactly sure what it was yet.

"I'm sure you've already got your lessons for the term squared away, but I was wondering if you might be up for doing some of your classes like this. I'll bet lots of students will be interested in what's in the Black Lake after the second task."

Hagrid looked like he was considering the idea. "Yeh think students would care 'bout all this stuff?"

"Absolutely," said Hermione emphatically. "I'm sure everyone will want a better idea of what the champions had to take on."

Ginny had apparently caught onto Hermione's tactics. "Ooh, and maybe you could do a lesson about the four kinds of dragons the champions faced. Lots of students are still talking about the first task, and I'm sure everyone would like to learn more about how they're each different."

"That'd be wicked!" exclaimed Ron. "I'm sure you're saving a lot of the more dangerous stuff for your NEWT classes, but the whole school's a bit obsessed with dragons at the moment."

By the time they left Hagrid's hut behind, they'd discussed several exciting topics that could be covered in Care of Magical Creatures, none of which involved Blast-Ended Skrewts.

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Chapter 16: Chapter 16

"I'm just saying that it wouldn't hurt to talk to Neville first. You know how much Sprout likes him. Cedric is from her house, so if you're going to ask her about the task, you might want to get some insider information on how to approach her."

Harry frowned as he considered the idea. "What do you think, Hermione?"

"I agree with Ron," she replied as they sat with notes spread out at a short table in front of the common room fireplace. "Neville is her favorite student and he helps her out in the greenhouses a lot. Hagrid helped you out because you're one of his favorites."

"Plus, I think he's still grateful for your help during the Yule Ball," added Ginny. "I bet he'd be happy to repay the favor!"

"I guess that makes sense. I think I just hate to bother people by asking for help."

"We ask for Hermione's help on homework all the time," countered Ron.

"Yeah, but that's different. It's not the same with you three, since you've all offered to help with the tasks."

"Well, I still think he's worth asking," said Ginny. "And he's walking in, so here's your chance."

Sure enough, their Gryffindor housemate had just climbed through the portrait hole. He looked just a little queasy, but Harry thought that could be due to the stress from their double Potions class earlier in the day. Snape had taken special care to humiliate Neville in front of the class after his potion burned through a cauldron and left a foul-smelling stain on the dungeon floor.

"Hey, Neville!" called Harry as the boy neared them. "I've got a question for you. You up for sitting with us?"

Neville looked almost startled by the offer, but quickly nodded and took a seat next to Harry. "Sure, Harry. What's up?"

"So, we're working on figuring out how to tackle the second task, and we've made some progress. We think I'm going to have to swim to the bottom of the Black Lake and reclaim something from the merpeople who live there. But there's tons of stuff living down there that will make things difficult. I talked with Hagrid about the different creatures I might run into, but he said I should check with Professor Sprout about magical plants that could give me trouble."

Neville was nodding along while Harry explained.

"I know Cedric is from Sprout's house, so I kinda expect that she won't be as willing to help me out as Hagrid was. I was wondering if you had any ideas about how to talk to her about what I should be looking out for?"

"Oh, that's all you need?" asked Neville. "Professor Sprout is really easy to talk to. I stay after class to help her out with plants all the time. I think she'd be willing to talk you through anything you might encounter, but there probably isn't too much to worry about. The water temperature here is far too cold for many of the aquatic magical plants."

He looked off to the left as he appeared to be thinking deeply. "You could possibly run into Scorealtus Weeds, depending on how deep you end up going, but their blooms are the only dangerous part of them and they won't even be budding until late spring. Poloffertols can live this far north, but they need salt water. Never heard of Lalert Pads attacks in the area." He looked back to Harry. "Nothing springs to mind that you should worry about, but I'll keep thinking. And if you want, I don't mind asking Professor Sprout with you after class Thursday."

"That'd be great," responded Harry with a bit of relief. "Considering all the things Hagrid warned me about, not dealing with a bunch of deadly plants is a small victory. Although, if I can't figure out how to dive down long enough to complete the task, all the knowledge in the world won't help me."

Neville paused. "Do you have any ideas on how you'll do that yet?"

Hermione jumped in. "We're still researching possible solutions, but we did find a charm that Harry could use. It's a lot more advanced than we'd like, but it could work."

"Are you allowed to bring things with you into the task?" Neville's brow had furrowed and he was intently staring at Harry.

"Yeah, I think so. Bagman told us we could only bring a wand for the first task, but he didn't give us any instructions about what we could bring for the next one."

Neville's eyes lit up. "Give me a sec, I'll be right back!" With that, he darted up the stairs toward the boys' dormitory.

"Wonder what he's on about?" mused Ginny.

"Maybe he thinks you could bring something with you,' said Ron. "I've heard muggles have underwater breathing suits. Maybe you could wear one to dive down?"

"Well, those do exist," offered Hermione. "But they are really complicated to use and you need lots of special training. I doubt that would work, especially since all the magic around Hogwarts makes muggle technology likely to malfunction."

Harry imagined himself wearing the kind of suit he'd seen when Dudley was watching television. A picture of a swarm of grindylows ripping at the tubes as he sank motionless to the lakebed was enough for Harry to mentally nix the idea.

Less than two minutes later, Neville bounded down the stairs with a large book in his hands, his thumb acting as a bookmark. He opened the book and pushed the tome toward Harry.

"Do you think Gillyweed would work? I'd never heard of it until Professor Moody let me borrow this book on magical plants from the Mediterranean." Harry started reading as quickly as he could, but Hermione had outpaced him while looking over his shoulder.

"Neville, this is brilliant! It says that if a person eats this plant, they sprout gills for up to an hour at a time!" She kept reading. "Harry, this could be just what you need. Growing gills from the neck checks out… Webbing between fingers and transformation of feet into flippers? That'd increase your speed and mobility significantly! Increased eye size ensures higher-quality vision when submerged in dimly lit depths?"

Ginny had snatched Hermione's parchment and was furiously taking notes based on what her friend was reading out loud. Ron was muttering to himself about how these new abilities could be used strategically to ensure Harry made it to the bottom of the lake first. But Harry was simply staring up at his sheepish-looking friend.

"Mate, I don't know what to say. It hadn't even crossed my mind to consider looking at magical plants for help, and even if I had, I doubt I'd have ever found this."

Neville blushed under the praise. "It's not really a big deal. I wouldn't have known about it at all if Professor Moody hadn't lent the book to me after that run-in with Malfoy last term."

"No, Neville, you don't understand," Harry glanced back at the book as Hermione read it as if it would disappear any second. "I can't tell you how important this is. I've been having nightmares about my Bubblehead Charm failing while I'm at the bottom of the lake, and you just provided a way for me to avoid all those worries."

Harry scooted over on the couch to make room and Neville plopped down next to him. "When I first got thrown into this bloody tournament, I just wanted to survive and hopefully not be a laughingstock. But now…" His eyes were twinkling as if he'd just beaten Malfoy to a snitch.

A smile grew on Neville's face. "Yeah, I think you can win it all, too."

Harry bumped him good-naturedly with his shoulder. "So, how'd the rest of the evening go with Susan?"

After leaving Herbology a few days later, Harry had to give Neville even more credit. Professor Sprout had indeed been forthcoming with her thoughts about the potential challenges that magical plants in the Black Lake could present, but she hadn't provided any new information beyond what Neville had already said. Harry made sure to brag to the professor about how knowledgeable his friend had been.

Neville grabbed a few extra order forms for a herbology supply store Professor Sprout swore by for her more difficult-to-find supplies as they thanked her for her advice, then headed back toward the castle.

As they walked from the greenhouses, they spotted Hagrid teaching a group of third-year Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors about unicorns, complete with a pair of juveniles for them to pet. Hagrid's voice boomed a greeting to them and both boys waved back.

Before Harry's attention could fully return to walking back to the castle, his eyes fixed on a red-haired student who was brushing a unicorn's mane. He smiled without thinking before tripping over a tree root that he swore came out of nowhere.

"Alright there, Harry?" asked Neville while stifling a laugh. Harry quickly got to his feet and dusted off his robes.

"Yeah, yeah. Perfectly fine," said Harry unconvincingly. "Nobody else saw that, right?"

"Looked like Ginny got a kick out of it," replied Neville with a wry smile.

Harry cast a furtive glance back toward the field where the students had gathered around the unicorns. Ginny remained next to her unicorn, seemingly chatting with a friend and oblivious to the boys making their way toward the castle. He glared back at Neville, who looked ready to crack up.

"Low blow, mate. I should put you in a full body bind and just leave you here."

"Yeah, well, that worked out alright for us in the end, so I'm not all that worried. Best ten points I ever earned." Harry laughed as Neville continued. "Anything happening between you two?"

Without intending to do so, Harry looked back over his shoulder toward Hagrid's class. "Just friends is all. She's great and we had a lot of fun at the ball, but I'm not sure about anything else for now."

"Plus, she's Ron's sister?"

Harry nodded grimly.

"For what it's worth, I figured he'd have been more upset about you asking her. Dean, Seamus, and I were ready for another blow-up. Maybe you earned some goodwill by saving her back in second year?"

"Well, that doesn't matter right now. I'm just trying to get through the tournament and the rest of this year as best I can. Things will hopefully calm down after all that."

"With your luck? Not likely."

"We'll see. For now, I just want to get this order sent off so I can practice with the Gillyweed a few times before the task."

Hedwig brought back the reply from Herbologist Sherry Gunderson the next week. Gillyweed was apparently not easy to find at this time of year, but for an additional procurement fee (on top of the already exorbitant amount of galleons Flora Obscura was charging for the plants), Harry could have his order by mid-February. That was cutting it closer than he would prefer, but Harry couldn't see a better option.

His extra tutoring with Professor Flitwick made Harry more grateful for Neville by the day. Trying to cast a Bubblehead Charm reminded him of his ordeal attempting to master the Patronus his previous year. It was a complex spell that required a great deal of concentration. It also was difficult to practice under the conditions when it would be most needed.

Professor Lupin had been able to simulate a dementor attack with a boggart, but there wasn't a particularly simple way to replicate the effects of water pressure, advancing time, and a variety of water creatures on Harry's Bubblehead Charm. Flitwick had eventually settled on having Harry first master the basics without outside interference before attempting to use the spell underwater. The diminutive professor explained that a workable version of the charm was easy enough to perform in order to protect one's self from airborne odors, but the power and focus required to maintain the bubble underwater while casting other spells would significantly increase the difficulty. He seemed more than a little relieved once Harry confided that he had discovered an alternative to the charm and that the Bubblehead had been relegated to a backup strategy. Harry was encouraged that this confession did nothing to diminish the professor's verve when it came to their practice sessions.

After a long Saturday afternoon session (in which he had been able to keep his bubble intact for a solid 40 minutes), an exhausted Harry collapsed into his seat at the Gryffindor table. The amount of energy he'd expended left him feeling nearly hungry enough to outeat Ron.

"How was training today, Harry? Flitwick put you through your paces?" Ron smiled as he added an extra roll to his plate.

"Half the time I think he's got money on me to win, he pushes me so hard," groaned Harry as he filled his plate. "The other half I think he bet against me and is trying to bump me off before I even get to the task."

Ginny gave him a sympathetic look. "At least you've got a strategy in your back pocket, just in case. What would you have done if summoning your broom hadn't worked?"

Harry shrugged. "I figured I'd just waltz up to it and try to talk it down. Parselmouth and all that, right? Maybe the Horntail would have just let me take the golden egg when it realized that it wasn't part of her brood."

Ginny spit out some of her pumpkin juice as she started laughing and Ron nearly choked on a bite of chicken. Hermione let out a high-pitched squeal of a laugh before covering her mouth with both hands while Neville nearly toppled off his seat.

Hermione wiped a stray tear from her eye once she regained her composure. "Oh, Harry, that's too good. You would have been charred to a crisp!"

"Yeah, I've gotta say I feel much more prepared this time around," acknowledged Harry. He gave a couple of firm pats to Ron's back to help him through his coughing fit.

"Thanks, mate!" Ron had regained control of his airway.

Hermione took a sip of her pumpkin juice before addressing Harry again. "Other than training with Flitwick and doing a couple of test runs once the Gillyweed arrives, is there anything else you need to do to prepare?"

"I kinda think we're on a good track for now. If you're right about the other champions using the Bubblehead Charm…"

Hermione cut in. "No guarantees that the others will use it, even if it's the most likely scenario. And Viktor and I don't talk about the tournament, so no insider information." She blushed a little before conceding the floor back to Harry, who couldn't help but notice the frustration on Ron's face when Viktor came up in conversation.

"Of course. Not a problem, Hermione. But unless other champions are using Gillyweed, I should have an advantage when it comes to speed. And not having to worry about my concentration for the bubble means any spells I cast won't be weakened like anyone using the charm."

Ron had the same look as when he was plotting out the final few moves before a checkmate. "That advantage could be a difference maker for you. Sure, the others are older and more experienced than you. But if they play this in a way that divides their power between multiple strategic fronts, that significantly weakens them."

Ginny was nodding in agreement. "The other three champions got chosen for a reason, and none of them are going to be push-overs. But Ron's right: you've got a real shot at winning this task outright."

"Harry Potter must wake up, sir!"

Harry's eyes shot open to see the blurry form of Dobby on his chest, prodding him again and again with his spindly finger. He yelped in surprise and the elf hopped down to the ground, looking relieved.

"What are you doing, Dobby?" grumbled the still-sleepy wizard. He groped for his glasses and his wand. "You nearly scared me to death!"

"Harry Potter must hurry to the lake for his second task! The task begins in 20 minutes!"

A gasp escaped his lips as he noted how brightly the sun shone through the window.

"My alarm didn't go off! Ron was supposed to help me get ready this morning!"

"They have taken Harry Potter's Weezey to the bottom of the lake!"

Harry froze in his tracks.

"Wait a second, Dobby… What do you mean that they took my Weezey?"

"Harry Potter's friend Weezey was taken by Professor Dumbledore to the bottom of the lake for the task."

His eyes blazed over as he stood, half-dressed and staring at Dobby. The words of the riddle echoed in his head.

"But past an hour - the prospect's black,

Too late, it's gone, it won't come back.

A panic descended into Harry's heart as he strapped a knife to his left leg and his wand to his right. He ran out the door, swore loudly, quickly reentered his dormitory, and grabbed his pouch filled with his remaining two mouthfuls of gillyweed.

He called out over his shoulder, "Thanks, Dobby! You're a lifesaver!" and was leaping down the stairs three at a time before the elf could decline the praise.

The common room and corridors were empty as Harry sprinted toward the doors leading outside. He furiously tried to recall the lessons he'd learned in his practice sessions in the lake. Avoid the grindylow-infested plants at the dropoff where the shallows began to steeply transition to deeper waters. The giant squid looks fearsome but doesn't mess with you if you don't mess with her. The merpeople's village is in the deepest part of the llake bed Don't panic if the gillyweed starts to wear off, just have another bite at the ready.

As he was going through his mental checklist, he finally saw the tops of the newly-constructed stands surrounding the lake. Harry arrived in the champions' tent with two minutes to spare. Cedric, Fleur, and Viktor each looked slightly peeved that he had made such a late entrance, but Ludo Bagman was beaming.

"Ah, our fourth champion decided to show up fashionably late! Could that be an intentional tactic to gain an advantage?" The former Quidditch star's eyes had lit up.

Through his huffing and puffing, Harry managed to reply, "No… I just… Overslept… Sorry about… That…" His hands were on his knees as he tried to regain his breath. He didn't notice Bagman's face fall at Harry's answer.

"Well, then…. Not to worry, we're about to get started. You'll each have one hour to retrieve the person we've taken into the lake. Top points will be awarded based on speed of rescue and skills used while en route. I've got to get up to the announcer's box, but each of you should be ready to start within the next five minutes or so." He looked hard at Harry. "Mr. Potter, can I borrow you for a moment?"

Harry reluctantly stepped forward, still breathing heavily, and walked with Bagman outside the champion's tent.

"Harry, m'boy, how are you feeling about the task? Got everything figured out?"

"Yeah, I feel pretty confident about getting down there. But did you really put Ron down there? What are you on about?"

"Not to worry! Not to worry! Dumbledore took care of it all. But do you know what you're going to do? Need any last-minute tips?"

"No, I'm fine," replied Harry, looking askance at the older man. A question began to form in his mind. "Why do you keep offering to help me?"

"Offer to help? Not at all! I just feel bad that you got roped into this, is all. Listen, I need to get up to the box, but I'm going to stall for a minute or two so you can catch your breath. Wouldn't be fair for you to go into the task at a disadvantage, right?" He gave Harry a roguish wink before heading up toward the announcer's box. Moments later, the magically magnified voice of Ludo Bagman boomed out to the gathered crowds.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am thrilled to welcome you to the second task of the Triwizard Tournament!" A bevy of cheers and applause rang out, and Harry noticed that Bagman gave the audience more time to express their excitement than was necessary. "The champions each secured an egg in the first task, which contained a clue as to what they'd be facing today. It is time to see whether they successfully cracked their riddles and whether they've devised a means to rescue their hostage from the bottom of the lake." A gasp rose from the crowd.

"Yes, that's right!" exclaimed Bagman. "Each of our champions must dive into the chilly waters of the Black Lake to retrieve someone special who has been taken from them. They will have one hour to complete this task. Without further ado, let's welcome our champions! First off, from Hogwarts' Hufflepuff house, it's Cedric Diggory!" Yellow-and-black-clad supporters erupted in cheers as Cedric stepped out of the tent and into the bright morning sunshine. "Mr. Diggory will be attempting to rescue Miss Cho Chang of Ravenclaw!" The Ravenclaw students cheered almost as loudly as Hufflepuff when they were mentioned. Several wolf whistles and giggles could be heard as the shouts began to subside.

"Next up, hailing from Beauxbatons, is the lovely Fleur Delacour!" called out Bagman. Her classmates, and a sizable portion of the male population of the other schools, raised their voices to the sky. Fleur walked to stand next to Cedric, her long hair bundled into a swim cap. She gave a polite wave before turning to stare into the water. "Miss Delacour will be searching for her younger sister, Gabrielle.

"From Durmstrang, our next competitor is the Quidditch sensation, Mr. Viktor Krum!" All of the Durmstrang students began to yell in support, along with some of the biggest Quidditch fans. "Mr. Krum will seek to retrieve a student from Hogwarts, Gryffindor's own Hermona Granger!"

As Krum stepped to the edge of the lake, a number of students laughed at the awful pronunciation of Hermione's name. Harry's heart began thumping even harder in his chest. Hermione and Ron were both trapped underwater, counting on him and Viktor to reach them within the hour. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow.

"And finally, our fourth champion who was quite unexpected, both when his name came out of the Goblet of Fire and when he finished his dragon quickest out of all competitors, Mr. Harry Potter of Gryffindor!" Harry shuffled forward to riotous applause from the red and gold contingent of the crowd. He noticed that a significant portion of the other Hogwarts students was clapping politely. The Slytherins were mostly giving him dirty looks, but most of the Ravenclaws appeared to be behind him, and even a fair number of Hufflepuffs had decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. "Mr. Potter will be attempting to rescue his fellow Gryffindor, Ron Weasley!"

"Leave him down there, Harry!" The voices of the twins rang out before anyone else could applaud. Harry grinned as he looked to the stands where Fred and George were already being scolded by Professor McGonagall. Almost all the nearby students were laughing along with the not-at-all-remorseful-looking twins. Harry resolved to thank them afterward for lightening the mood.

Bagman's loud chuckle echoed through the cool morning air. "Let's hope Mr. Potter doesn't take advice from those two!" He looked to either side, where the other judges each gave him a nod. "Alright, champions, you may begin in three! Two! One! GO!"

Harry hastily brought a clump of Gillyweed to his mouth and began chewing. The rubbery texture and muddy flavor weren't something he'd be requesting as a snack anytime soon, but he gulped it down as he ran into the water ahead of the other three champions, who had each stayed on the shore to cast whatever spells they were planning to use. Harry took that as a good sign and plunged headlong into the frigid waters just as gills sprouted on his neck.

Webbing between his fingers and fin-like feet allowed Harry to move through the water much faster than he could normally swim. He stayed near the surface to keep himself oriented towards a large copse of trees on the far banks. Once he'd swam for as long as he thought necessary, he pointed his nose straight down and began swimming toward the lakebed.

Visibility diminished as the sunlight filtered through the murky waters, but Harry's newly enlarged eyes helped him see clearly, even in the low light. He grasped his wand in his webbed hand, which slowed his movement slightly. Considering how he'd been surprised by grindylows during his first practice foray into these waters, however, the slight loss of speed seemed like a reasonable tradeoff for added safety.

As if on cue, four grindylows materialized from the dark waters to Harry's left. He knew that they were quick enough to keep up with him, even if he was swimming as fast as he could, so he pointed his wand and began thinking with as much concentration as he could muster of the spell he had determined would be most effective.

"Stupefy!" He mouthed the spell as his wand lit up. Though he didn't hear any sound, a pulse in his arm and a blinding flash of light indicated that his spell was away. Sure enough, when his eyes readjusted to the dim light of the depths, he could see all four creatures stunned and floating harmlessly back toward the surface. With a powerful kick of his legs, again Harry sped downwards.

The outlines of spired buildings started to become clear as he neared the lake floor. An eerie green glow emanated from a phosphorescent algae that lit the city. The faces of Merpeople dotted the windows as Harry made his way toward the center of the city to what he assumed was the town square.

In the middle of the square were four large stakes, each with a person lashed to it and it wasn't hard to determine who was who. Cho's dark hair was a dead giveaway, as were Hermione's bushy locks. Ron was by far the tallest hostage, and his red mane was distinctive even in these conditions. Gabrielle looked like a mini-version of Fleur, and her tiny form seemed even smaller next to the gangly redhead.

Harry stowed his wand and opened his knife, making quick work of the ropes that bound Ron. But before he turned back toward the surface, his gaze fell onto Hermione. He looked at his watch. He'd only been underwater for about twenty minutes. If he could get Ron to the shore quickly, he could make a quick turnaround and check to make sure that all the hostages were rescued.

With a furtive glance back at his friend still tied to a stake, Harry grabbed onto Ron's collar and kicked upward. The dour glares of dozens of Merpeople were unnerving, and he was glad once the city began fading beneath him.

A shape was materializing in front of him as he swam toward the surface. Out of the inky blackness, a shark was swimming straight toward Harry. Hagrid had definitely not mentioned sharks during his briefing on creatures of the Black Lake, and Harry drew his wand as he shielded Ron with his body.

Faced with a wand pointed at its head, the shark turned to the side to move around Harry. As it showed its flank, Harry saw that the creature was half shark, half human. It kicked its legs as it descended into the depths, and he wondered if that had been Cedric or Viktor.

Nearing the surface, Harry spotted another figure in the distance. Fleur had used the Bubblehead Charm but she had been grabbed by nearly a dozen Grindylows. She looked like she was more than a little off course, and each swipe of her wand seemed a little weaker than her last.

Without stopping to think, Harry turned toward the French witch. He whipped his wand towards the creatures that were clawing at her and fired off spells in rapid succession. Several of the Grindylows were knocked back while another few were immobilized. With a cry of rage that was muffled as it carried through the water, Fleur cast her own curses at the remaining Grindylows, which knocked three more out, and the last few swam away in terror.

Fleur mouthed, "Merci!" to Harry, who pointed her in the direction of the Merpeople city. She gave him a nod before setting off toward the hostages.

At the forty-minute mark, Harry and Ron burst through the placid surface of the lake not more than a stone's throw from the shore. Harry had to keep his face beneath the water to breathe, but he was able to drag the unconscious form of Ron to the edge of the water. Assured that his friend was safe, Harry leaped backward, disappearing back into the water.

Ten minutes into his trek back to the Merpeople's city, everything went pitch black. Harry's eyes were still wide from the Gillyweed, but his vision wouldn't work no matter how much he strained his eyes. As he struggled in the darkness, he felt something wrap around his left ankle. Suction cups affixed to his skin as the Giant Squid pulled him out of the inked water and towards its huge beak. An enormous eye focused on him as the beak opened wide.

The tentacle was dragging Harry back towards the gaping maw when Hagrid's training sprang to mind. Deep water creature. Huge eyes. Sensitive to light!

With great effort, Harry put all his energy into a powerful, "LUMOS!" The light burned brightly and the iris of the Giant Squid contracted. Harry felt the tentacle release his ankle as the beast jetted away from the light.

A very distant-sounding, "Nice one!" came from Harry's right. He looked to see Cedric in his own Bubblehead Charm swimming Cho back toward the surface. Harry gave him the best version of a thumbs-up his webbed hands could produce before descending again.

The city of the Merpeople was in view when Harry checked his watch. He had only another five minutes or so before he would need another dose of Gillyweed. Fleur was just making her way out of the city square when Harry arrived. He gave her what he hoped looked like a friendly wave before moving toward the stakes.

Harry was shocked to see Hermione remained tied to her stake. Viktor had to have been the partially transformed shark, and he was the closest behind Harry as he was heading up earlier.

A beeping at Harry's wrist indicated that the Gillyweed was about to wear off. He reached for his Gillyweed and used his knife to cut the plant in half. He pocketed half of it and stuck the other half into his mouth. It was less painful to eat some before the effects completely disappeared, and he could feel his head clear once his first gulp of water flowed over his new gills.

His eyes darted around once more, searching for any sign that Viktor was nearby, but saw nothing but angry Merpeople eyeing him menacingly. Harry looked at his watch one last time. The hour was gone and Krum hadn't made it to save Hermione. With a look of determination plastered across his fishy features, he grabbed his knife and started freeing Hermione.

A spear tip lowered as a Mermish guard swam forward. Harry figured things would get more difficult if he tried to rescue a different hostage, so he had his wand at the ready. For a moment, the guard stared into Harry's unblinking eyes. The tip of his wand glowed as Harry concentrated on a spell that he knew wouldn't be pleasant. He tried to express with his eyes that he didn't want trouble, but that he wasn't about to leave a hostage.

Suddenly, a red light flashed from the road leading to the town square. Krum swam forward, and his body had returned to its fully human form. His body was covered in scratches and suction cup marks, and he looked decidedly worse for the wear. He was struggling to maintain a small Bubblehead Charm that looked ready to burst at any second.

Viktor swam unsteadily toward Hermione as Harry backed up a few feet. The bubble was barely large enough to cover the young man's nose at this point, and he took longer than expected to detangle Hermione from the ropes. He gathered her under his left arm and started to swim back up.

With a small pop, the Bubblehead Charm gave way, and Viktor accidentally took in a deep breath of cold water. He started thrashing about, even as he held fast to Hermione's arm.

In a matter of seconds, Harry was beside them. He grabbed for the last of his Gillyweed and shoved it into Viktor's open mouth as he screamed noiselessly into the depths. The older boy's eyes shot open, and Harry mimed chewing and swallowing. Comprehension dimmed the panic on Viktor's face as he began to force down the plant, and Harry soon saw the Seeker transform in front of him.

Krum stared down at his webbed hands and powerful feet before grasping Harry by the head. Terror gripped Harry for a moment, until Viktor simply placed his forehead on Harry's. Harry breathed a sigh of relief, then followed behind Krum as he brought Hermione back to the surface. With ten minutes of Gillyweed remaining, the three of them breached the surface.

"And there they are! Krum returns with his hostage in just over one hour and twenty minutes!" Applause rang out over the lake.

Harry and Krum stayed in the water until the last of the effects of the Gillyweed wore off. While they waited, they noticed the Merchieftainess speaking in hushed tones with Dumbledore by the water's edge. When Viktor and Harry were finally able to exit the lake, they were rushed by Ron, Hermione, and Ginny.

Ron's long legs helped him make it to them first, and he gave Harry a friendly shove. "Oi! What's with leaving me soaking wet in the reeds while you went for another refreshing swim?"

Ginny barreled into a bearhug, nearly toppling Harry to the ground. "You did it! You got Ron out way faster than anyone else. What'd you go back in for?"

Harry pushed Ron right back. "The other hostages were still down there, so I figured your super tall brother could handle the ten feet to get onto the shore on his own." He smiled as Hermione reached Viktor and started peppering him with questions. "I woke up really cross with Ron since he was supposed to make sure I got out of bed on time, but I guess since he was unconscious at the bottom of the lake, I'll let him off this time."

"Yeah, Dumbledore called Hermione and me into his office with Cho and Fleur's sister last night, and next thing I knew, I was lying in freezing water with Madam Pomfrey scowling about dangerous this and irresponsible that."

"And I stand by those comments!" came the matron's voice. Madam Pomfrey wrapped a warm towel around Harry and insisted that he accompany her to the champion's tent, where Hermione and Krum were already heading.

A brief check from Madam Pomfrey kept Viktor busy, so Hermione excitedly joined her friends. "You did so well, Harry! I heard that you rescued Ron faster than any other champion, and then you came in and helped Viktor. He said that his Bubblehead Charm failed while he was very nearly at the bottom of the lake, but that you gave him some of your Gillyweed! I can't thank you enough!" She flung herself into Harry, who awkwardly hugged her back. Harry looked past her bushy hair to where Ron and Ginny were beaming at him. Somehow, it felt like the point totals didn't really matter all that much.

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Chapter 17: Chapter 17

The common room was raucous that night as Gryffindor celebrated another stellar performance. Harry felt that his back would be bruised tomorrow from the number of hearty congratulatory slaps it had taken over the course of the evening. Fred and George had disappeared after the task, arriving after the party was underway with copious amounts of delicious food that Harry suspected were courtesy of the House Elves. He was less certain how they'd procured several cases of butterbeer, and did his best to ignore what appeared to be a bottle of fire whiskey being shared by a few older students.

In addition to Harry, both Ron and Hermione had gained a touch of celebrity. Multiple students crowded around Ron to hear his account of being held captive by the Merpeople. With each retelling, his story built into a more grand tale. Harry and Ginny burst out laughing at him as he jumped up onto a couch to reenact being attacked in the dead of night by a swarm of angry guards, thrilling the gullible first years listening in rapt attention.

Hermione didn't join the festivities for several hours and blushed when she ducked through the portrait hole. A few girls surrounded her immediately, bursting with a flurry of questions for her about Krum and how it felt to be who he'd miss the most.

Angelina was seated on the arm of a couch in front of the fireplace, angrily dissecting the unfairness of the scoring at the second task to Katie, Ginny, and Harry.

"You got Ron back a full fifteen minutes before Diggory! It's ridiculous that Karkaroff pushed to have points deducted from you for leaving Ron in the shallows while you went back to help the others, especially since you bailed out his golden boy!" She was clearly fuming at the injustice of it all, as was Ginny.

"And that cheater pushed for Krum to get extra points for his Transfiguration, even though it wasn't a full change and it didn't even last the whole time!" Ginny looked to Angelina, who was nodding gravely.

Katie piped up. "I get why Cedric earned his points since he didn't get any help, but Harry jumped in to help both Fleur and Krum! It's a travesty that you didn't get full points. You should have just left them to fend for themselves, then you and Cedric would be in the lead by even more!"

"Oh, like that would ever happen," said Ginny with a grin while rolling her eyes. "Harry's got a bit of a 'saving people thing,' am I right?" She gently elbowed him in the ribs. Harry chuckled as he rubbed his side.

Angelina's eyes were twinkling. "Says the girl who Harry saved from a gigantic evil serpent…"

Ginny stuck out her tongue at the older girl before continuing. "I'm just saying that expecting Harry to leave hostages behind was a hopeless proposition."

"If I'd been thinking clearly, I would have known that Dumbledore wouldn't have left them down there and that the champions were being monitored. It was stupid of me to think they were going to drown if I didn't help."

"It's hard to think clearly in the moment," replied Angelina. "We make all of our tactical plans ahead of a Quidditch match, but sometimes the heat of the moment means we're just acting on our instincts and doing the best we can. It's not a big deal that you saw someone in distress and wanted to help."

"Oi! What are you lot on about?" George somersaulted over the back of the couch, landing in a seated position next to Angelina.

"Just reflecting on how our Gryffindor champion is leaving points on the table by not being cutthroat," answered Angelina. "If he didn't care so much about being a good person, he'd be far and away ahead of the rest of the pack."

"That may be true," mused George. "But now he's earned extra goodwill from all three of his competitors! Krum and Fleur both owe him for saving their bacon in the lake, and I hear that Diggory's still in his debt from the first task. The points matter a lot, but ensuring that the others think twice before they come after you? That's priceless!"

"Okay, first of all, Cedric already paid me back by giving me a hint about the egg." George blew a rather loud raspberry at Harry. "Second, I doubt any of them are going to hesitate if they run into me during the third task just because I helped them out a bit."

Fred bounded over the back of the couch, landing in George's lap before resting his head on Angelina's shoulder. "Ah, young Harrikins. You know so little of the world. Owing someone a favor always matters, even if it's hard to quantify."

"Yeah, well, I'm just glad to not have to worry about another task until late June. We won't even know what we're up against until a month beforehand, so I can't do much to prepare yet."

Meet me at the end of the road out of Hogsmeade at two on Saturday. Bring food if you can.

Harry read the short letter he'd received the week after the second task before passing it to Hermione.

"He can't be planning to meet us in Hogsmeade, can he?" she asked.

"Looks like it," replied Harry. "I can't believe he'd risk his safety just to come see me. If he gets caught…"

"But it should be a lot safer for him now that the dementors are gone. He's obviously good at staying hidden, he should be alright," said Ron.

"I feel bad that he's so hungry," said Ginny. "After all that time in Azkaban, I'm sure some decent food would help him out a lot."

"Yeah, I think I'm going to talk to Dobby about getting some food to bring to him." Hermione looked like she was going to say something, but kept it to herself. "You three want to come with me to see him?"

"If he promises not to drag me around by the leg, yeah, I wouldn't mind catching up with him," said Ron. Hermione and Ginny smiled as they nodded along.

A squeal of merriment emanated from down the Gryffindor table, where Lavender and Parvati were thumbing through a magazine. They were giggling every few seconds and casting furtive glances toward Harry.

"What do you think has them going?" asked Harry.

"Ugh. It's Friday, so they're probably obsessing over Witch Weekly again." Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's so hard to share a dorm with them when all they want to talk about is which celebrity is dating now and who broke up and…" She gave an exasperated huff.

Harry had never read an article from the magazine, but he had seen Lavender, Parvati, and many other students deeply engrossed in its pages from time to time.

"Why do they keep looking this way, though?" wondered Harry aloud. He caught Parvati's eye as she glanced up from her reading, and she descended back into a fit of giggles. She whispered something to Lavender before waving at Harry.

"I think you're going to want to read this!" She rose from her seat and walked to the four friends, dropping the magazine in front of Harry. There was a photo of Harry on the front cover from when he was outside the champion's tent with Ginny and Hermione on either side. Both were smiling at him while he looked back and forth. The photo Hermione occasionally stepped forward for an awkward hug. Emblazoned in loopy lettering over his head were the words Harry Potter's Secret Heartaches?

Harry's eyes grew wide as he opened the magazine to the article and began reading.

The Boy Who Lived has successfully faced dragons and merpeople in the Triwizard Tournament this year, but can he conquer his biggest challenge yet? The famous Harry Potter now contends with emotional turmoil as he navigates teenage relationship drama, writes Rita Skeeter.

On the one hand, Harry is seldom seen without steady girlfriend Hermione Granger, a Muggle-born witch in his year at Hogwarts. But sources indicate trouble brewing. Miss Granger opted to accompany Harry's Triwizard rival from Durmstrang, international Quidditch star Viktor Krum, to the recent Yule Ball. The plain but ambitious girl clearly has her sights set on famous wizards and doesn't care how many boys' affections she has to toy with in her devious pursuit. Harry must be heartbroken to learn that Krum had invited Miss Granger to visit him in Bulgaria over the summer and insisted that he has "never felt this way about any other girl."

Speculation about how she has captured the interest of two Triwizard champions has turned to foul play. "She's clearly ugly and not well-liked," says Pansy Parkinson, a popular and attractive fourth-year student. "Granger has to be using some sort of Love Potion. It's the only way she could get someone like Krum to give her a second look."

Meanwhile, with Granger galavanting with the enemy, Harry was forced to ask a younger student to the Yule Ball instead. Jenny Weasley is the younger sister of his dormmate Ronald and is described by Miss Parkinson as "obsessed" with Harry. "She wrote him a creepy poem in her first year, and he's been trying to avoid her ever since. "

Other students also question whether Miss Weasley might also have ulterior motives for chasing after Harry's attention. "Their whole family is dirt poor," notes Draco Malfoy, another student in Harry's year. "She's probably just trying to get in good with Potter since his family has got a bit of gold to their name."

Already plagued by the loss of his parents and the trials of the Triwizard Tournament, now young Harry is thrust into a love triangle between Miss Granger and Mr. Krum while other students are attempting to cozy up to him for his fame and fortune. Mr. Potter's well-wishers can only hope that he chooses his friends and romantic partners more carefully in the future.

By the time Harry had finished reading the article, his hands were shaking with frustration. He heard Ron utter a series of escalating swears as he and his sister looked on from either side of him. Both were red in the face by the time they finished reading. Hermione took several deep breaths as she attempted to compose herself.

"How dare she print this garbage? Dragging your name in the mud, making baseless accusations, insulting the Weasleys…"

"Hermione, she made you out to seem like some kind of… you know… some scarlet woman!" exclaimed Ron. "And she acted as if our family was just trying to be near Harry for his money!"

"It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever read in my life," stated Harry flatly, trying to prevent himself from using his wand to turn the magazine into confetti. He scanned the room quickly, noting with frustration that multiple sets of eyes were glued to him and his three friends.

Pansy looked as if Christmas had come early, and a gaggle of enthralled Slytherins surrounded her as she read aloud from her copy of the magazine. "Skeeter didn't use some of my better quotes. I told her that everyone hates Granger and that the only people who put up with her are the ones too stupid to do their own classwork, but I guess it was cut for space." She sneered toward the Gryffindor table. "I explained more about Weasley throwing herself at him, but maybe she's saving it for the Daily Prophet."

Harry was vaguely aware that his hands had clenched into fists at some point, but he didn't remember when. He started to push himself up from the table when the clatter of a plate falling to the ground broke him from his trance. He turned to see Ginny darting away from the table, her face buried in her hands.

Ron's gaze followed his sister before turning back toward the Slytherin table, a murderous look etched onto his features. He leaped to his feet and looked ready to vault the table to charge the entire Slytherin house when Hermione's hand grabbed his sleeve.

"Ron, we've got to go after Ginny! I can't remember seeing her this upset, we need to follow her!" She tugged at his sleeve, urging him to let it go.

Chest heaving and nostrils flaring, Ron gave a terse nod. He shot a look towards Pansy, who was gleefully pointing his direction and laughing, then turned to follow his sister. "You coming, Harry?"

Harry thought that pummeling Malfoy with Ron while Ginny and Hermione went after Parkinson seemed a much more productive way to sort out this whole affair, but gave a grunt of assent and stalked behind his two friends.

"Poor little Potter!" called out the voice of Draco Malfoy over the murmur of the Great Hall. "How will he ever deal with the emotional trauma of being rejected by a Mudblood?"

Ron and Harry froze in place. Hermione looked back at them imploringly, but there was no use. Both boys had already turned around and sprinted toward the Slytherin table. Neither paid mind to the professors at the head table yelling out warnings or the faces of the Ravenclaw sixth years who scattered out of their way as they ran toward a suddenly wide-eyed Malfoy.

Before either Gryffindor could reach the table, however, the blonde-haired boy found himself suspended in midair upside down by his ankle. Harry and Ron skidded to a stop, staring blankly at Draco's face, which was already turning red from the rush of blood.

"Vat did you call Herm-Own-Ninny?" The hesitant, almost-shy demeanor of Viktor Krum had evaporated, replaced by steely resolve and an angry gleam that flickered in his eyes.

"Put me down! You have no idea who you're dealing with!" Malfoy sputtered as he attempted to squirm out of the jinx. "My father will hear…"

His face hard as stone, Viktor flicked his wand. Draco fell to the ground in a heap, before another flick of Krum's wand returned him to his place in the air.

"I said, vat did you call Herm-Own-Ninny?" Viktor's voice was icy. Harry and Ron were rooted to the floor, unable and unwilling to look away.

"Viktor, no!" Hermione had apparently found her voice after the shock wore off. The young man's hand was still trained on the floating form in the air, but his eyes met hers. "Viktor, he's not worth it!"

Krum released Malfoy and was walking toward Hermione before the boy had even landed. Ron and Harry watched in awe as Krum stopped a few feet from the terrified Malfoy, crinkled his nose as if smelling something odious, and spit at Malfoy's feet. Krum resumed his walk toward Hermione, only breaking eye contact with her long enough to gesture to Harry and Ron to come with him. The Great Hall, which had fallen eerily quiet the second that Malfoy had risen into the air, burst into chattering commotion as the three reached Hermione and walked away.

The four walked quickly down the corridor until Hermione found an empty classroom and they all ducked inside. The heightened emotions that Harry and Ron had been experiencing had greatly diminished, replaced instead by a sense of wonder.

"Her-my-oh-nee, I am sorry you had to see that. I should haf better control of myself." Krum's bravado had also slipped, and he looked more like the tentative version of himself who had been hovering near their table during the previous term.

"Bloody hell, Krum! Why are you apologizing? That was the greatest thing I've seen since she decked Malfoy last year!" Whatever animosity Ron might have felt while reading Skeeter's article had been lost to the camaraderie of mutual Malfoy loathing.

"You didn't have to defend me, Viktor. We all know that Malfoy's just an arrogant bigot, and it doesn't make sense to let him get under your skin." She turned to Harry and Ron. "Same goes for you two. I can fight my own battles, and I'll do so when I deem it necessary."

She looked at the three of them, none of whom seemed persuaded. She sighed with a slight smile. "But I will admit, the look on Malfoy's face when the two of you were barreling toward him was priceless. Then watching him dangled upside down like that? I don't think I've ever seen him so scared."

"You are right, Her-my-oh-nee. You are capable of handling yourself. I apologize for embarrassing you in vront of the school." Ron and Harry hurriedly followed suit.

"I guess there are worse things than having you three defend my honor in front of everyone," admitted Hermione. "Viktor, we were leaving the Great Hall to find Ron's sister, Ginny. A magazine printed a horrible story full of lies, and I think it really got to her. Do you mind if we try to track her down to check on her?"

"You help your friend. I should go speak to your headmaster. I vill accept punishment for my actions, but he must know that I vill not be as kind if the blonde one uses language like that again." Viktor leaned down to plant a kiss on Hermione's cheek before he doubled back toward the Great Hall.

A blushing Hermione watched as Krum walked away before returning her gaze to her friends. "Right, then. Do you think Ginny will be in the tower?" She didn't wait for them to answer before turning to begin briskly walking up a flight of stairs. She called out, "If she's not there, we can use your map to see where she's gone!"

Harry looked over at Ron as they started behind her. "Any idea what spell you were gonna use on Malfoy before Viktor got to him?"

Ron snorted. "I was going to pull a Hermione and clock him in the nose. You?"

Harry smiled as he took the stairs two at a time to catch up with their friend. "Great minds think alike, mate."

"Just one minute, Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley!" The unmistakable tone of the Deputy Headmistress froze them in their tracks. "Get down here, at once!"

Hermione turned to see Harry and Ron trudge back down to Professor McGonagall, whose lips looked to be on the verge of disappearing. "Why am I not surprised that it was the two of you stampeding across the Great Hall, no doubt in an attempt to accost another student?"

"Professor, Malfoy called Hermione a…" Ron began but was cut off almost immediately.

"I have no doubt that there was disgusting filth spewing from the boy's mouth, Mr. Weasley, but you two were the only ones who decided to take up arms about it."

"Umm, Professor McGonagall?" Hermione was half-raising her hand as if she were in class, but wasn't sure if she knew the correct answer. "Technically, Ron and Harry didn't do anything wrong, since it was Viktor who jinxed Malfoy."

"Do you take me for daft, Miss Granger? Of course I know what happened. What I'm interested in is why two of my Gryffindors were acting in such a manner."

"We just saw that Rita Skeeter, the one who wrote about Hagrid, published a story about Hermione, Ginny, and me." Harry's eyes didn't meet his professors. "She basically accused Hermione of chasing after me and Krum for our fame and said Ginny went to the ball with me because their family wants my money."

Professor McGonagall started to open her mouth, but thought better of it, opting instead to clutch her hand over her chest.

"Yeah, and the story quotes Malfoy and Parkinson backing her up. We were just leaving the Great Hall to find Ginny, because she got really upset when she read it, but then we heard Malfoy call Hermione that word and we…" He looked to Harry for help.

"We didn't think. We just reacted."

McGonagall took a long breath in before slowly releasing it. "Very well," she said, staring at one boy and then the other. "Given the circumstances, and the fact that you did not physically accost Mr. Malfoy, you will not lose house points for your outburst. However, you will make sure to avoid any such altercations in the future. Do I make myself clear?"

Harry and Ron nodded enthusiastically, thrilled to have absconded without serious punishment.

"And a week's worth of detention for you both." Their faces fell. Her stern look let them know that the matter was settled. "I believe the three of you were looking to console Miss Weasley? Perhaps it would be best to attend to that. I would hope the three of you could handle walking to the common room without finding any more trouble." Harry thought he heard Professor McGonagall mutter "bull-headed" under her breath as they went their separate ways.

As Ginny rushed up the stairs to her dormitory, her eyes burned with the tears she was desperately fighting to hold back. She hadn't felt this way since the first term of her second year when many of her classmates still watched her with uneasiness if she spoke up. She shuddered remembering how many students were staring at her as if she was an exhibit in a carnival, a freak to be gawked at.

Things had been going so well. She had made real, meaningful connections with others in her year, especially Colin and Luna. Classes were going well, and she wasn't struggling to keep up as she had during her second year when she was attempting to make up for her disastrous first. She had started spending time building friendships with older girls like Angelina, Alicia, and Katie through their chaser training sessions and joking around with the twins. She'd even gotten over her crush on Harry enough to spend time with him, Hermione, and Ron, and felt like she belonged when the four of them hung out. But this article threatened to undo all the progress she'd made.

Ginny flung herself onto her bed, punching her pillow a few times before covering her face and screaming into it. She lay on her bed for a few minutes, chest heaving, trying to contain her fury and frustration. Her face heated as she thought of the implications of Pansy's accusations.

She was well aware that her family didn't have much money. Her hand-me-down robes and lack of new books weren't especially hard to spot. But she loved her family and wasn't about to trade them for anything. She wasn't nearly as sensitive as Ron about their finances, but it still stung to have your relative poverty thrown in your face like that.

Beyond that, though, was the accusation that she was a gold digger chasing after Harry's money. She emitted a growl as she thought about it. She'd sent one stupid, childish poem two years ago at the urging of her devious older brothers to a boy she had a crush on. Was that really so bad? Sure, she'd gone to the Yule Ball with Harry, but it was just as friends. And HE had asked HER!

She threw the pillow savagely across the room toward the door to her dormitory, which she hadn't closed all the way. Her accuracy was off due to her emotions, but her velocity was improved if anything. It collided with the wall with a satisfying thump.

Harry had invited her to go to the damned ball! What was she supposed to say? Of course she wanted to go and of course she was going to say yes if Harry asked her! He said he wanted to go just as friends, so she steeled herself against any sort of ideas her heart might have had. She made sure to stay casual and not let herself get swept up in the moment, even though there were a lot of moments to get swept up in!

She danced with Harry Potter in front of the whole school. He treated her really kindly and like a true gentleman. Ginny kicked her feet wildly on the bed as she thought of how close she'd come to giving him a goodnight kiss in the common room before retreating to her dormitory, but instead, she held back. Would a quick peck have been so wrong? She mentally cursed the universe for allowing her to believe that her restraint might be rewarded someday, only to have this rubbish published instead.

Now, the whole school was likely to be buzzing with ideas about what kind of girl Ginny was. She flipped onto her stomach while clutching her blanket, rolling over until she was wrapped into a burrito of frustration. She sniffled a few times as angry tears fell.

"Hey Ginny? Are you in here?" Hermione's voice was gentle.

"Go away, Hermione. I'm going to melt into my bed and never see anyone again."

"In that case, can I have your books?" Hermione sat down on the end of the bed next to Ginny's feet.

"Ha ha. That's so funny I forgot to laugh…"

"You missed quite the scene in the Great Hall. Not that I blame you for getting out of there, of course. I thought your brother and Harry were going to start an all-out brawl with the entire Slytherin house."

Ginny peeked out from her blanket burrito, curiosity getting the better of her. "What happened?"

"Pansy was being her usual cow of a self, but I'd just about convinced the boys to follow me up to the tower to make sure you were alright when Malfoy decided to insert himself into the situation."

"Of course he did…" muttered Ginny darkly.

"Well, he made a crass remark about Harry having to get over, how did he put it? 'The emotional trauma of being rejected by a Mudblood.'"

A small gasp escaped Ginny's lips.

"Ron and Harry were both running at Malfoy before I could stop them, but someone else got to him before they could." Ginny extricated herself from her blankets and sat spellbound as the older girl told the story. "Viktor levitated Malfoy into the air by his ankle, and said, 'What did you call her?"

Ginny couldn't help herself as she let out a squeal of excitement. "Hermione, he didn't!"

"He absolutely did, right there in front of everybody!"

"And what did Malfoy do?"

"Exactly what you'd expect. Started on about 'Do you know who I am?' and all that. So Viktor dropped him onto the floor, then picked him back up and asked again."

"Do the voice! You've gotta do the voice!"

Hermione giggled before making her face as stern as she could muster. "Vat did you call Herm-Own-Ninny?" Both girls immediately burst into laughter.

"Oh my gosh, Hermione, did you swoon right then and there?"

Hermione's face was tinted pink. "My knees felt more than a little weak, but I didn't want him to get in trouble on my account, so I told him to stop and the four of us left together."

"That's incredible!" Ginny sighed wistfully. "I'm sad to have missed it."

"Me too. I'm just glad that Ron and Harry didn't get into too much trouble. Professor McGonagall was really upset, but they managed to avoid losing points. One week of detentions isn't too bad, all things considered."

Ginny's ears perked up. "Wait, isn't Harry supposed to meet Sirius in Hogsmeade?"

A look of concern flashed across Hermione's face. "Oh, I hadn't thought of that! Let's head down to the common room and talk with them about tomorrow."

Before Hermione could stand up to leave, Ginny grabbed her by the arm. "Wait, wait, wait. I don't think I'm ready to go down there yet."

Hermione looked at Ginny sympathetically. "I know that the article was terrible, but I promise that Harry doesn't believe a word of it. It's by the same woman who wrote about Hagrid, and it quotes Parkinson and Malfoy. The only way Harry would find it less credible is if Professor Snape was quoted, too."

Ginny laughed weakly. "I guess. I just don't want him to go back to not noticing me. I like spending time with the three of you, and I don't want things to be weird."

"Well, the least weird thing you could do right now is come with me to laugh at Malfoy with them. I think Ron's finally warming up to Viktor now!" Ginny rolled her eyes as she got off of her bed, washed her face, and followed Hermione back down the stairs.

"Honestly, Ron, if you don't hurry up and finish eating, we're going to leave you here!" said Hermione irritably. The lunch rush at the Three Broomsticks was beginning to thin as students wandered toward various shops to occupy their time before heading back to the castle. Ron had cleaned his own plate and was now polishing off the remnants of Hermione's sandwich. Ginny finished the last of her butterbeer before standing up from the booth.

"Just bring it with you," suggested Ginny. "We've only got fifteen minutes and I'm sure Harry would rather not be late."

Ron dutifully grabbed the remains of the sandwich and followed as they moved to the exit. Harry held the door and waved to Madam Rosmerta as she wished him luck in the tournament.

The four walked through the snow-dusted streets, passing store windows decorated with wares the shop owners clearly thought would attract students with spare spending money. Zonkos was especially full, with a plethora of patrons filling the store.

Harry walked at a brisk pace, even as he hefted an overfilled duffle bag of food that Dobby had packaged for him. Shops gradually gave way to small cottages as the street became more residential. The four students had never explored this part of the village before, and Harry thought they were unlikely to encounter any of their classmates this far off the beaten path.

Near the end of the street sat a large, black dog that began wagging its tail as the four students approached. He bounded forward and jumped onto Harry, placing his oversized paws on the boy's shoulders.

"Hey Sirius!" exclaimed Harry. "Great to see you! I brought you some tasty treats. You hungry, boy?"

The dog barked in response, then started walking away from the road up a rocky slope leading toward a mountain.

Harry and his friends clambered up the mountain for nearly a half hour before following the dog into a cave that was hidden behind an outcropping of boulders. Their eyes took a few moments to adjust to the lower light, but soon they could see a haggard but smiling man standing before them, petting Buckbeak's feathery neck.

Sirius was still in what he'd been wearing when he escaped Azkaban: tattered grey robes that looked completely threadbare. His long, black hair was untidy and matted in a few places. He was painfully thin, but the smile on his face was genuine. It only grew larger when Harry dropped the bag of food to the ground and unzipped it.

"Harry, that smells delicious!" He grabbed a large chicken leg and began devouring it with speed and fervor that was impressive to even Ron. "I've been subsisting on rats, mostly. Can't draw attention to myself by stealing too much food."

"What are you doing in Hogsmeade?" asked Harry. "The whole of wizarding Britain is on the lookout for you, and you're staying this close to a magical village?"

"I'm here being the best godfather I can be, under the circumstances. There's no chance I'd be anywhere else, especially with all the fishy things that have been going on. Your name coming out of the Goblet of Fire isn't the only strange thing that's been happening." He pointed to a small pile of newspapers that had been tossed to the ground as he tossed a chicken bone to Buckbeak. Their headlines chronicled the disappearance of Bertha Jorkins and the mysterious illness that had befallen Barty Crouch.

"But before we get into all that, though," Sirius chomped into a roast beef sandwich with gusto. "We need introductions!"

Harry had almost forgotten that Ginny was there, or else forgotten that she hadn't been a part of the misadventures of their previous school year. "Oh, sorry! Sirius, this is Ginny Weasley, Gin, this is my Godfather, Sirius Black." He noticed that she still looked a bit hesitant. "I promise he's not actually a mass murderer."

Ginny tentatively took a few steps forward and offered her hand. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Black."

Sirius' bark of a laugh echoed through the cave as he bowed expertly before taking her hand and planting a kiss on the back of it. "Miss Weasley, the pleasure is all mine." He raised her hand above her head and twirled her before giving her a roguish wink. "And if you call me 'Mr. Black' again, I won't tell you any of the embarrassing stories about Harry that I'm sure you came here for."

"Sirius isn't what I'd call a 'typical adult,'" offered Hermione.

"Too true!" replied Sirius. "Harry mentioned you in a letter, but left out some details. I should've guessed you were a redhead, though. It's a well-known weakness of Potter men."

Both Ginny and Harry blushed so furiously that they seemed to be competing to see which of them could most closely resemble a tomato.

"I missed out on thirteen years of embarrassing you, so I've got to make up for lost time, right?" Sirius' eyebrows were waggling in a manner most reminiscent of Fred and George. "But enough about that for now! Give me the update on the tournament!"

The four students regaled Sirius with updates and pressed him with questions for the better part of two hours. Sirius proved both knowledgeable and forthcoming, answering questions about Crouch and Jorkins as well as giving details about Professors Moody and Snape. He was also particularly interested in Harry's assertion that Ludo Bagman had offered to help him in the tournament.

The five talked out strategies for communication, including using school owls and referring to Sirius as "Snuffles" to avoid detection. The marauder was impressed with Harry's preparation so far and resolved to help plan out options once the third task was revealed.

"Keep up the training with your professors, Harry. I'd prioritize McGonagall and Moody, though extra time with Flitwick wouldn't hurt. Until we know what you're up against in the third task, just ask them for help preparing more generally. Work on upper-level spells that they think might come in handy. Even if they don't know what you're facing, they could have heard something about the task that they can use in your training." Sirius stared at Harry and Ron. "If you've both got detention with McGonagall all next week, she might be willing to get you started then. She's a strict disciplinarian, sure, but she's got a soft spot for students who want to learn. One of the reasons your dad and I had such good marks in Transfiguration was because we sometimes turned our detentions into practice sessions."

"Okay, I'll see if we can convince her," replied Harry.

"You three," he directed his comments at Hermione, Ron, and Ginny. "I don't want Harry wandering off alone at any point. I need one of you with him anytime he leaves the common room. His invisibility cloak and the map make it easier to wander around, but neither is foolproof. We don't know who put Harry's name in the goblet, but it's likely they're still around the castle. Worst case scenario is someone wants him dead and finds him alone."

Sirius thought for a moment. "And as much as it pains me to say it, I don't want you using secret passages to visit me here in Hogsmeade. It'd be too easy for someone to get the drop on you. Stay in touch via owl."

Harry was growing frustrated, in part due to how vigorously Hermione was nodding along. "After all the trouble you got into in school, you're telling them to be my minders and forbidding me from using the passages you discovered?"

Sirius chuckled. "I'm definitely not saying to stay out of trouble. I'm all for you doing a healthy amount of troublemaking." Hermione looked appalled. "But there was never a time when I was a student where someone was trying to kill me, so I'm prescribing a bit of caution. So if you're craving a late-night snack, just be sure to bring Ron with you. If you need to break into the restricted section of the library, let Hermione tag along. And if you're interested in exploring a broom closet or two, maybe invite Ginny to join." Sirius' mischievous grin and waggling eyebrows were on full display as Harry blushed again.

"Okay, okay! I get the idea. I'll stick close to them when I'm not in the common room."

"Excellent!" Sirius clapped Harry's back heartily. "Looks like you're all running out of daylight. We should head back to the village."

Ginny's cheeks were still flushed when she asked, "Would it be alright for us to send you food with a school owl? It might be suspicious if Harry was the only one doing it, but if all four of us took turns maybe you wouldn't have to eat so many rats."

A grin spread across Sirius' face. "I think you and I are going to get along famously." He transformed into his animagus form and trotted up next to her. She reached down to scratch behind his ears.

"I like your godfather, Harry, although he's a little easier to deal with when he's like this. It's still weird to pet a dog that's really a person, though."

The trek back to the village was less tiring since they were headed downhill. When they reached the road where they'd met Sirius hours earlier, the students each took a turn patting the dog on the head and saying their goodbyes. Harry had a fleeting thought that he should explain his odd future memory to his godfather but thought it better to hold off until they had more time and fewer others around. With as much teasing as Sirius had directed his way after meeting Ginny, he had a feeling things would only escalate once he shared about having an unexplained memory of them together in the future.

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Chapter 18: Chapter 18

Ron and Hermione had been sniping at each other for days. Harry had hoped that the relative peace they'd found after Viktor humiliated Malfoy would last a bit longer, but that dream had fallen apart in the kitchens.

While bringing a gift of socks to Dobby as thanks for ensuring Harry wasn't late to the second task, the four spoke with Winky. The elf had drowned her sorrows in butterbeer, lamenting her eviction from the employment of Mr. Crouch.

Hermione's sympathy for Winky quickly turned to anger at her former master. Ron's lack of tact and refusal to side with her had led to a shouting match. Neither was keen to admit fault, so they simply attempted to ignore each other as much as possible. Harry and Ginny did their best to juggle the responsibilities of carrying on conversation in ways that didn't lead to tempers flaring, but their efforts came to naught at least once a day.

The most recent round of bickering caused Ron and Hermione to both storm off to their dormitories. The potions homework that Hermone had been helping Harry with was only about one-third completed and Ginny's grudge match of Chess against her brother had only lasted ten moves before voices had been raised and unkind words had been spoken. The common room had become so accustomed to their outbursts that only a few first years even looked up as they each rushed up the stairs.

Harry sighed deeply and Ginny rolled her eyes. "Wanna help me finish this game?"

The potions textbook slammed shut exceedingly quickly before Harry moved to take Ron's seat. "Sure! Should we start it over or just go from where you were?"

Ginny looked at Harry appraisingly. "I've seen my brother beat you enough times to know that you need all the help you can get, so I'm fine with you taking up where he left off."

"You don't think I can win on my own?" Harry made to put the pieces back in their starting positions, but desperate pleas from Ron's well-positioned attacking knight and bishop plus the admonishment from the queen won the day. "Alright, I'll keep the game going, but no whining when I beat you!"

Ginny shook her head as Ron's pieces cheered. "Alright, game on. It's your move since Ron was concentrating more on making Hermione angry than playing for the last few minutes."

"I don't get why they argue so much," mused Harry as he inadvertently moved a pawn into the diagonal of Ginny's queen. "They fight more than anyone else I know."

"Might just be a Weasley thing," answered Ginny, above the forlorn cries of the pawn being captured. "Mum was constantly squabbling about something or another with Bill and Charlie when they were in school, even though they both did really well. She does it even more with Fred and George. The twins are constantly bickering with and pranking Percy and Ron, who both go after each other and the twins right back.

"As for me, Mum and I get into it a lot because she clearly was hoping for a daughter who'd take after her love of cooking and give her a break after six boys, but instead I'm probably more like the twins than anyone else in the family. I think we all just learned how to show each other we care even when we're fighting. It works well enough for us, but with Hermione…" She eyed Harry as he moved a rook forward to endanger her queen. "It seems like her family works differently, and neither of them can figure out how to communicate with each other unless things are already going well."

Harry shrugged. "I guess that makes sense. I just wish they'd figure it out sooner rather than later." A knight that Ginny had poised for attack moved forward, placing Harry's king in check. He dutifully moved his king out of harm's way before Ginny's queen removed his rook. Harry chuckled darkly to himself. "Is your whole family this good at chess?"

A wicked smile spread across her face. "How do you know we're all that good? You might just be terrible!" Several of Ron's pieces tried to agree with her assessment before she shushed them. "Only joking, Harry, you're not all that bad. You just seem a little too focused on what's right in front of you instead of planning a few moves in advance. Dad is a great chess player and taught all of us to play. Ron's the best out of us, then probably Bill, Percy, me in some order. Charlie was always more interested in the outdoors and creatures to spend too much time practicing, and chess never seemed to hold the twins' interest."

Without intending to do so, Harry's mind flashed back to the new memory and how he had once wished for more time to support Ginny. With his cheeks flushing slightly, he decided to try acting on what he had seen, hoping that he didn't mess it up.

"Can I ask a kinda personal question?" Harry's traitorous cheeks heated up further as Ginny looked up from the board. "How'd you manage after your first year? I didn't really know you much back then, but it seems like you bounced back really well. I guess I'm just interested in how you got through it all."

Ginny shuddered and Harry immediately regretted bringing it up. "I mean, you don't have to say anything if you don't want to. I just meant that…"

"No, it's fine, Harry," said Ginny. "Last year was really hard. Mum and Dad tried to help over the summer, but Mum kept babying me and acting as if I was made of glass. Dad eventually figured out to just sit with me and that helped more than anything. We played chess some or read together. He'd be reading up on some muggle contraption and I'd be studying for a class I'd fallen behind in or looking at a quidditch magazine, but we'd be together. Even while we were traveling, he'd find ways to just be near me." She smiled as she moved a bishop forward to protect her queen.

"The school year was rough. Lots of the students my age already had friend groups, so I was alone a good bit. I don't think they were like that because they were trying to exclude me or were scared of me from first year, though it felt that way at the time. But I reconnected with Luna and that helped me not feel as alone."

"Me and Ron and Hermione should have included you more." The scant remaining pieces of Ron's once-formidable defense groaned as Harry moved his bishop to check Ginny's king, only for it to be immediately captured by a lurking knight. "You'd gone through such a hard time, and at least we knew what you'd been through."

Ginny gave a sad kind of smile. "I'm sure that would have been nice and all, but there was a lot of stuff I needed to figure out on my own. I think last year made me a lot more independent, and I like that." She watched as he moved a hapless pawn forward. "Why do you ask?"

"I dunno," hedged Harry as his pawn was tossed aside by Ginny's queen. "After all the support you've given me through the tournament, I kinda realized that the chamber is another thing that most other people wouldn't understand that we've got in common."

Harry's remaining rook captured a pawn, but another of Ginny's pawns was making a break for the back line. "It is kinda nice to know that I don't have to explain everything to you. With some of my other friends, I've wondered when and how to tell them about all that. There's not an easy way to bring up the 'I was possessed by You Know Who during first year' conversation."

"Yeah, I think that's one of the reasons I'm so close to your brother and Hermione. We've been through so much together that it'd be hard to explain to anyone else."

Harry's defense was unable to prevent the pawn from reaching his back line, where it transformed into a second queen, placing Harry in check. He moved his king forward then watched his remaining rook get taken by Ginny's queen.

"I guess I figured that you and I have a bit of the same thing going. Ron and Hermione never went into the diary, and even though I've told them what it was like, they don't really understand how slick he was or how the memory seemed so convincing."

"That's what was hardest for me. Nobody understood what it was like."

Harry hesitantly pushed his last pawn forward. "I felt really stupid once I figured out that he was using me. I mean, he used a memory of catching Hagrid to make me think he was a good guy. As if Hagrid would ever hurt a soul."

Ginny moved her queen next to Harry's king, which toppled to its knees. "Ugh, I hate that feeling of being used and manipulated. It just sorta crept up on me at first, but by the second term I felt gross all the time."

"The diary told me that I was a lot like Tom." Harry sharply inhaled as he realized that he had definitely not intended to share that particular detail.

Ginny didn't look scared, as Harry worried she might. Only quizzical. "What do you mean?"

Harry took a deep breath. "It said that we were both orphans who grew up in places where we weren't appreciated. And that Hogwarts was both of our first homes. Plus we both speak Parseltongue."

Ginny finished packing the chess pieces before moving to the couch next to him. "Well, as someone who unfortunately spent a lot of time with Tom, I don't think you're like each other at all."

Harry gave a noncommittal nod but didn't seem convinced. "Okay, think of it this way: Tom fed me a thousand lies until they seeped into me and I believed them. It was all meant to make me easier to control and manipulate. If that's what he did to me, whatever he said to you was probably just what he thought would help him use you."

"I don't understand what you mean," admitted Harry. "He just pointed out similarities between us."

"Yeah, because he wanted you to focus on those things, not all the ways you're different. You've got real friends who you care about and who care about you. You're kind to people, like with Neville at the ball. Tom wanted to manipulate you, so he tried to get you to think you were like him when he's the opposite of who you are."

Harry began to reply, but Ginny cut him off. "Harry, you fought a giant snake to save me! Tom would never have risked himself for someone else. That's not who he is, but it is who you are."

He let out a quiet laugh. "You're better than me at chess and arguing." Harry nudged her with his shoulder.

"Glad you know it," she said with a grin. "That'll save you a lot of trouble if you remember it next time."

Breakfast was muted the next morning, as neither Hermione nor Ron were over their latest spat. None of the friends brought up the argument, but an unease hung in the air as they ate.

Dozens of owls descended into the Great Hall with a variety of letters and parcels for the students. Surprisingly, quite a few of the owls swooped down to land between the four friends.

"What's all this about?" exclaimed Ron as he defended his sausage from a large grey owl with an envelope addressed to Ginny on it.

"I don't know," answered Hermione. "I took out a subscription to the Daily Prophet and Witch Weekly so we don't get blindsided again, but none of these look like the paper or a magazine."

Ginny tentatively opened the envelope attached to the owl that was nipping at Ron's fingers. "Oh, that explains it." She passed the letter to Hermione, who was about to open a letter addressed to her. A quick glance at the menacing letters, which looked to have been cut out from a newspaper, indicated that this was not friendly post.

Hermione passed it back after a quick read. "Unbelievable! How do people believe the rubbish that woman prints?" She tore open the first of her letters, scanned it quickly, then looked at Ginny. "More of the same, although this writer used some different language."

Harry looked back and forth between the girls. "What do you mean? What's going on?"

Ginny scowled. "It seems some people are taking Rita Skeeter's article to heart." She grimaced as she read another letter. "Wow, this one managed to misspell a remarkable number of words. But they did get all the foul ones right, so they get credit for that…"

Hermione and Ginny began piling the hate mail in the center of the table, each comparing their letters to those sent to the other girl.

"This one's pretty unoriginal, mostly just a lot of calling me a Mudblood."

"Apparently, the world would've been better had I not been born."

The girls seemed much more entertained by the letters than Harry expected. He carefully untied a letter addressed to him from a nearby owl's leg, only to find that it contained advice that neither of the girls was worthy of his affections and that Harry should contact the sender at once. The included photo was of a witch who looked to be in her late fifties blowing kisses and winking up at him. He quickly stuffed both the letter and photo back into the envelope before discarding he whole thing into the pile.

The sound of sizzling was drowned out by a painful yelp as Hermione dropped a letter to the ground.

"Oi! Hermione! What's on your hands?" Ron was staring with mouth agape at a viscous yellowish-green liquid that had oozed from the envelope. It smelled of petrol and was causing the sizzling sound as boils erupted from Hermione's hands "Bubotuber pus! Get it off, quick!"

Hermione grabbed napkins and tried to remove the stinking liquid, but her hands had already swollen to the point that her fingers didn't bend properly. Ginny did her best to help, but tears were forming in Hermione's eyes with each dab.

"I think you're going to need to head to see Madam Pomfrey," said Harry as the boils grew. "We'll tell Professor Sprout why you're gone, and Hagrid if you're not back by then." Hermione looked frustrated about missing class but hurried out of the Great Hall toward the infirmary.

Harry looked at the pile of hate mail stacked in the middle of the table, then at the envelope on the ground that was still oozing. "How many people read this rubbish anyway?"

Ginny was no longer amused by the pile of letters, instead looking a little queasy. "Lots of folks read Witch Weekly. Mum has a subscription for the recipes, though she read it more often during the school year once more of us were away at school."

The thought of a disappointed Mrs. Weasley reading about his personal life, with her only daughter tossed in as a sideshow, caused Harry to shudder. "Hey, Ginny? Quick question… Have you sent an owl to your Mum since the article came out? I wouldn't want her to get the wrong idea and worry about you."

Ginny rolled her eyes at Harry. "Appreciate the thought, Harry, but I owled her that same night. The last thing I want is her thinking she needs to send me a howler." She construed a very convincing version of a Molly Weasley face before glowering at Harry. "Ginevra Molly Weasley! I demand that you stop acting like a 'scarlet woman' at once! You're not allowed to date until after you're married! And make sure Harry eats extra helpings at dinner! The poor dear looks far too thin! I've attached ten pounds of treacle tart for him, and if you eat so much as one bite of it, I'll drag you straight home!"

By the time Ginny had finished her howler impression, Harry was in stitches and Ron had nearly collapsed out of his seat. She took a mock bow before returning to her food.

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Chapter 19: Chapter 19

The spring was relatively uneventful for Harry, at least when compared to the first term. His routine of classes, homework, and extra tutoring took up much more of his time than he would have preferred, but he did feel like he was steadily increasing in skill.

Professor McGonagall was an excellent teacher in a classroom setting, but Harry found her even more effective one-on-one and in settings with fewer students. He and Ron dutifully showed up for their week's worth of detentions, but their eagerness to practice their transfiguration and seriousness while doing their spellwork had a positive effect on the Deputy Headmistress. She instructed them both in how to use their focus to increase the effectiveness of their spells and by the end of the week, both Harry and Ron were casting more powerfully and controlling their transfiguration much better.

The two laughed on the way back to the common room after their final "detention," assured that Malfoy and Parkinson weren't having nearly as much fun during the two weeks McGonagall assigned them. Harry felt like it was much less likely that they'd give quotes to Rita Skeeter again after overhearing Filch describing the state of the bathrooms the Slytherins would be cleaning. With a grin, Ron noted that he'd never had a professor provide biscuits at the end of a punishment.

In subsequent training sessions, McGonagall built on the Transfiguration he'd already learned, but her focus on using that magic defensively was quite interesting. With steady practice each week, he was becoming adept at moving objects around defensively; enlarging and transfiguring them as means of protecting himself.

While McGonagall's trainings were challenging, they were not nearly as grueling as Professor Moody's sessions. Once a week, Harry spent two hours under a barrage of spellfire from the scarred former-Auror. The man seemed to take pleasure in putting Harry through his paces, firing off jinx after jinx as Harry attempted to dodge as many as possible. Harry had learned a few helpful counterspells from Moody, but he mostly felt more confident about staying on the move.

"Your opponents will likely telegraph their spells, both verbally and by their wand movements," called out Moody as Harry ducked behind a desk in the unused classroom they had set up in. "If you anticipate what they're going to cast or where they're going to cast, you'll be at an advantage. Constant vigilance!" A stinging hex shot through the legs of the desk and caught Harry directly on his knee. "And if you're taking cover, you need to be readying your next move. If you're just hiding, your enemy can move to flank you or set up a better defense. Take cover when you need to, but remain actively engaged!"

Harry thought that his advice was easier said than done but took it to heart. With a swish and a flick, he levitated a desk near Moody and sent it toward the professor. While Moody dodged the furniture, Harry made a break for a more defendable point in the room and cast a tripping jinx. He heard the tell-tale sound of his professor hitting the ground behind him as he slid behind an overturned desk.

Peeking from behind the desk, he expected to see Moody collecting himself from the ground. Instead, a wand was leveled right at his forehead.

"Not a bad play, Potter. Good use of your environment. Tell me where you went wrong."

Harry rubbed his sore knee before taking Moody's hand, who hoisted him to his feet. "I trusted my ears too much. I thought I heard you fall from my tripping jinx and didn't hear your wooden leg as you moved toward me, which made me overconfident that you were still on the other side of the room."

"Aye, right on both counts. I cushioned the desk you sent my way, which made it sound like I'd fallen over. Also used a helpful little charm to silence my footsteps. Anything else you noticed?"

"I should have kept an eye on you as I ran for cover."

"Exactly! Your opponent is much more likely to move around than whatever you're trying to use for cover. Quick glance at where you're retreating to, then eyes back on your enemy."

Harry nodded resolutely.

Professor Flitwick was the most pleasant of his three tutors, though Harry thought that might have been due to the diminutive professor no longer being tasked with teaching him one absurdly difficult charm that his life depended on. Flitwick had helped Harry master several helpful charms and hexes, including the footstep silencing charm Moody had used to get the jump on Harry.

As April faded into May, Harry's nerves began to give him fits. While his success in the first two tasks was heartening, the final task loomed large. Much like the first task, his lack of knowledge of what he was up against fueled a plethora of imagined scenarios that left him stressed.

When Professor McGonagall held him back after Transfiguration to inform him that Mr. Bagman would meet the champions that evening at the Quidditch pitch to explain the third task, Harry felt a sense of relief. He'd had a nightmare in the wee hours of the previous morning that the final task had been a singing competition. In the dream, his voice had cracked on a high note during his rendition of "A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love," which had left him in last place and fed to Hagrid's Skrewts. While that seemed unlikely to be the final task, he was very ready to know what he was facing.

Just after eight that evening, Harry walked through the entrance hall where he met Cedric en route to the pitch.

"Appreciate your help with the egg, Cedric," said Harry as they walked companionably along. "I was getting nowhere fast on it. Dunno if I'd have figured it out at all, much less in time to get prepared to go into the lake like that."

"No worries. I was glad to be able to repay the favor from the first task. Any idea what we're getting ourselves into for this last one?"

"Not really," replied Harry. "I've been doing extra training with McGonagall, Flitwick, and Moody to try to make up for being years behind you three, and a lot of what they've been going over has been defensive magic. Nobody has said what it's going to be, but it kinda feels like it might involve dueling based on what they're going over in our training."

"I could see a duel as a possibility…" mused Cedric. "Maybe tournament style? We could each go up against the other three champions, one-on-one. Whoever does best wins the cup."

Harry considered the idea. "That wouldn't be so bad. Even though you, Viktor, and Fleur are all a lot more skilled than me, at least that way I wouldn't be worried about drowning or being roasted by dragonfire if I mess up."

"What about an all-out four-person duel?"

"Ooh, yeah, that'd be interesting. That might be less likely, though, since I doubt Maxime and Karkaroff would want to allow the possibility of their champions getting double-teamed."

"Well, whatever it is, we're about to find out. Looks like Fleur and Viktor are already with Mr. Bagman."

Sure enough, standing in the middle of the pitch were the other two champions and the former Quidditch star.

"Now I know what you two are thinking," started Bagman as Harry and Cedric climbed over the low hedges to reach the others. "You'll have your Quidditch field back before long, don't you worry! But for now, it's being used for the third task. Hagrid will have these hedges a good twenty feet tall by the time we're ready to blow the whistle on the finale. Any guesses as to what you'll be facing?"

The four champions looked at each other for a moment before Krum grunted, "A maze?"

"Right in one! The third task will be fairly straightforward: each of you will be trying to work your way to the middle of the maze. There, you'll find the Triwizard Cup, and the first to touch it will win the tournament!"

"Eet is as seemple as getting through the maze?" asked Fleur a bit incredulously.

"Simple doesn't mean easy, m'dear," answered Bagman excitedly. "The maze will be chock full of obstacles to test your skills and nerve. There will be a variety of creatures, traps, spells that need to be broken, and the like.

"You'll also be released into the maze in order based on point totals. That means Harry will go in first, followed by Cedric, then Fleur, and Viktor. But not to worry! While it's certainly an advantage to go in early, this task is likely to take at least an hour, if not more, so it's anybody's game. Any of you have questions?"

"I've got one," offered Cedric. "When we ran into trouble in the lake, we didn't have any way to signal to you. If we get into a tight spot, is there any way to let the judges know?"

"Yes, that vould be helpful," agreed Krum. Fleur and Harry were nodding along.

"Fair enough! If it makes you feel better, the judges were monitoring the situation in the lake and were ready to step in, if needed, but you bring up a good point. If you run into trouble in the maze and need assistance, all you'll need to do is shoot red sparks to the sky. That will signal us to come to your aide. You'll have to restart from the beginning of the maze in that case, but if you find no other option available, you can use that in a pinch."

"Okay, that's good to know." Cedric looked pleased at the answer, as did the other champions.

"Alright, then! If there's nothing else, I've got to get back to London. Best of luck to each of you in the third task!" The older wizard smiled broadly toward the four students, though Harry couldn't help feeling like Bagman had caught his eye when wishing them luck.

"Before we leave, may I have a vord?" Krum looked hesitantly at the other champions.

Harry tried to smile reassuringly. "Sure, Viktor. What's on your mind?"

Krum took a deep breath before starting in. "I did not do vell in the last task. Harry had to help me rescue Her-My-Own-Nee." He nodded gravely at Harry. "I vas vorried that in the lake, one of you might attack in order to vin, but instead you helped me. And I learned that Harry helped you in the lake as well," he indicated Fleur. "And that you two have helped each other." His gaze fell back to Harry and Cedric.

"Oui, Harry aided me when I was attacked by ze grindylows," said Fleur.

"When I learned about the dragons a few days before the first task, I saw both of your headmasters there," explained Harry. "It didn't feel right for Cedric to be the only one who didn't have advance warning, so I told him about it."

"That's right, and that warning saved my arse," agreed Cedric. "So when I figured out the egg, I told Harry to take a bath with it. Figured he treated me right, so I should do the same."

A small smile found its way to Krum's face. "You are each strong competitors, but I think you are also good people. I will still be trying to get to the cup first, but perhaps we could be in agreement before we start?

"Karkaroff wishes for me to use spells against you in the task. He has been training me to attack first. But I am thinking that it vould be better to agree not to do that." He looked back and forth at the other champions. "Does that make sense?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah, that makes sense, Viktor. One of my professors has been drilling me on defensive combat, but I'd much rather not have to duel any of you. Partly because you're all older and more advanced than I am, but also because you all seem pretty nice."

Fleur was agreeing as well. "Madame Maxime 'as been trying to 'ave me use any means necessary to ween. But I would rather lose wis honor than ween dishonorably."

"I'm on board," said Cedric amiably. "How about this: if we run into each other while we're in the maze, we all agree not to impede each other. We just go on our own way and let the other person go theirs."

"Yes, that vould vork." Krum looked relieved that the others had been open to his idea.

"Eet is hard to believe eet will be over in only one month, no?"

"Yeah, weird to think that I'll only have one more year of school left. You two are both graduating, right? What'll you do after you're done?"

"I vill be playing professionally in Germany. They have the best Quidditch league in the vorld, so it will be good to test myself against them."

"I was accepted eento a Curse Breaking program weeth Gringotts. Many people theenk I am defined by my looks, so I 'ope to find a career that uses my mind and my magical skills."

"I know a Curse Breaker with Gringotts!" exclaimed Harry brightly. "Bill Weasley! He's great. He's Ron and Ginny's oldest brother. Ron was my hostage in the lake and Ginny was my date to the ball."

Fleur smiled as she replied, "So, I should be on ze lookout for anuzzer redhead, no?"

"Well, I think he's working in Egypt, so you might not see him, but yeah, his hair looks a lot like theirs." Harry looked to Cedric. "What about you, Cedric? Any plans for after Hogwarts?"

"More school, actually," he said with a grimace. "I'll take my NEWTs next year, then I want to be a Healer, so I've got to put in a few more years before I'll be ready to work. Maybe one of these days Madam Pomfrey will get fed up from healing you every time something goes wrong and I'll get the chance to apply for her post!"

Harry was about to make a comment about how often he ended up under the matron's care when a sudden thud caused them all to freeze. In the darkness near the stands, a figure had fallen headlong onto the ground. He was muttering something incoherently and had begun crawling toward them.

"Who's out there?" called Cedric as all four students pointed their wands at the stranger.

"Lumos!" cried Fleur, bathing the man in light. His robes were in tatters, ripped to shreds below the knees, and were caked in mud and what appeared to be blood. His face was unshaven and gaunt, looking as though he'd been on the run for days, if not weeks. Harry didn't recognize him at first, but then it suddenly dawned on him.

"Mr. Crouch? Is that you?"

The man was speaking to someone that none of the students could see and gesticulating wildly. "Weatherby! When you get done with that report, bring me a cup of tea. My family will be arriving soon and I'll be taking them to a concert this evening…"

"He vas a judge for the first task, no? Vot is wrong with him?"

"I dunno, but he's been sick for a while. It was in the papers that he'd been missing. Mr. Crouch? Are you alright?"

"DUMBLEDORE!" he screamed, causing the four students to jump. "You've got to… get me to… Dumbledore! "

Harry looked from Mr. Crouch to Cedric. "Okay, sir. If you get up, we can take you to Professor Dumbledore."

"I've made…terrible mistakes… So idiotic…" His eyes were bulging out and rolling backwards into his head. Every word seemed more strained than the last. "Must…tell….Dumbledore…" He flopped over onto his back, gasping for breath.

"Mr. Crouch, can you get up? We'll take you to him!" Harry felt frantic.

"Who…Who are you?" Crouch stared blankly into the dark sky, his panic-stricken eyes darting to and fro. "Jorkins… Dead… Dark Lord… Stronger… Potter… Danger.. My fault…"

Cedric grabbed Harry by the shoulder. "He's not in his right mind, Harry. How fast can you get to the headmaster's office?"

"I dunno, but I'll run as fast as I can."

"Okay, good. If you can't find him, grab Madam Pomfrey! I'll see if I can help him while you're gone."

As Harry turned to go, Fleur grabbed his arm. "I know ze way to ze infirmary. I will go to get 'er."

Krum and Diggory moved toward Mr. Crouch as Harry and the French witch sped away. Her longer legs outpaced him, and the doors to the entrance hall were already swinging closed behind her by the time Harry reached them. As he sprinted toward a staircase, Harry nearly toppled into someone.

"Professor Moody! So sorry! Do you know where the headmaster is?" Harry didn't stop moving to the stairs after picking himself off the floor, but turned to face his defense professor while moving backwards as the former-Auror dusted himself off. His electric blue eye swiveled around until stopping while focused up and to Harry's right. "Up in his office. What's the matter, Potter?"

"Mr. Crouch just showed up out of nowhere. Looks like hell." Harry was out of breath from his sprint. "Said he needs Professor Dumbledore. Gotta go!"

He started running again before hearing his professor call out, "Where was he?"

"Quidditch pitch!" yelled Harry before he turned a corner, heading toward Dumbledore's office.

As Harry barrelled down a corridor not far from the headmaster's office, he saw Dumbledore walking alongside Snape in the opposite direction.

"Professor Dumbledore!" cried out Harry through the pain in his side from running. "Professor Dumbledore! There's an emergency!"

Both adults whirled around. Kind blue eyes met his as he came to a stop by them.

"Mr. Crouch is here… Something's wrong with him… Found him at the Quidditch pitch!"

Harry expected the headmaster to ask questions or require more explanation, but he simply uttered, "Lead the way!" with a note of concern in his voice.

Harry didn't need to be told twice. He rushed back down the way he'd come, though now with Dumbledore following behind he was merely walking rather briskly instead of sprinting.

"What did Mr. Crouch say to you?" asked Dumbledore as they descended a staircase.

"It didn't make a lot of sense," replied Harry. "He seemed to not know where he was. He thought he was talking to Percy Weasley at times, but then was desperate to talk to you." Harry tried to recall what the man had said. "He said that Voldemort… Something about him getting stronger. He mentioned Bertha Jorkins. And he said something about me. I think me being in danger?"

It was all jumbled up in Harry's mind, bt he thought those were the main things Crouch had talked about. "I was talking with the other champions at the time. Fleur headed to get Madam Pomfrey, while Cedric and Viktor stayed with Mr. Crouch."

The two burst out of the great double doors and into the darkened grounds. "You said you left them at the Quidditch pitch, correct?"

"Yes sir. They should be right up here." Harry squinted into the night, looking for Diggory and Krum's outline to no avail. "Cedric! Viktor? Are you still here?"

"Lumos!" Bright light poured from Dumbledore's wand, illuminating the pitch with a beam like a flashlight. Harry did the same, and the two scanned the darkness until the light fell upon a body on the ground.

They rushed to the side of Cedric, who was unconscious in the grass. As Dumbledore checked for a pulse, a groan sounded from nearby. Harry's wand whipped toward the noise, and he saw Krum lying in the fetal position against the stands, a small trickle of blood on his forehead.

"Ennervate! Harry, stay here with Cedric while I check on Mr. Krum!"

Harry knelt down as Cedric sputtered as he began to come around. "Hey, Cedric. I'm right here. You're going to be alright, mate. Professor Dumbledore is here."

The older boy coughed twice before his eyes popped open. "He attacked me! Crouch attacked me!"

From up ahead, Harry could hear Dumbledore tending to Krum. "What happened? We weren't gone for more than ten minutes."

"I was standing over Crouch, trying a couple of minor spells to close up the cuts he had all over him. He kept talking the whole time, but nothing he said made much sense." Cedric rubbed the back of his head as he sat back up. "He wasn't in his right mind, like when he was talking about his family before you left. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped talking and his eyes got really glazed over. He pointed his wand at Viktor and fired a stunner then hit me with one."

Harry could hardly believe it. Before he had a chance to further probe for answers, Madam Pomfrey arrived with Fleur. "Headmaster! What's going on?"

"Poppy, please check Mr. Diggory and Mr. Krum for injuries. Both were hit by stunning jinxes from close range. Miss Delacour, would you and Mr. Potter help me search for signs of Mr. Crouch?"

Madam Pomfrey started her examinations immediately, while Fleur and Harry joined the headmaster in shining light around the pitch. Despite their best efforts, the three found no trace of the ministry official.

"These two are both in good shape," called out Madam Pomfrey after looking them over for a couple of minutes. "What do you need from us?"

"Find Alastor!" answered Dumbledore. "Tell him to meet us here at the pitch!"

"No need, Professor!" came Moody's gravelly voice. "Damn leg slowed me down, but Potter told me there was trouble out here. How can I help?"

"Excellent timing, Alastor," said Dumbledore with a little more calm in his tone. "The four champions were here receiving their instructions for the third task when they encountered Barty Crouch. Mr. Krum and Mr. Diggory were attacked while the others went for help. We must find Mr. Crouch at once."

Moody gave a grim nod before training his magical eye on the forest. "You lot say he came from this direction?" At their nods, the former Auror stumped off toward the woods.

"Poppy, would you be so kind as to escort Miss Delacour and Mr. Krum to their lodgings while our Hogwarts students return to their common rooms?" Dumbledore turned to Viktor. "I expect your headmaster will have questions about the evening. Please inform him that I will come speak with him as soon as I am able."

The matron hurried off with the two champions, while Dumbledore turned to the remaining two students. "As you head back to the castle, would you please stop and ask Hagrid to meet me here? And please ask him to bring Fang, if you please."

"Yeah, we can do that," answered Cedric as he turned to go.

"Are you sure you don't need us to stay and help?" asked Harry. He felt sheepish after asking, knowing that the headmaster and Professor Moody were two of the most capable wizards he knew.

"A kind offer, but knowing you two to be safe is most important, and Hagrid's knowledge of the grounds is second to none. Thank you for inquiring, though." With that, the old wizard strode purposefully in the direction Moody had gone. Cedric and Harry marched off toward Hagrid's hut.

Back to index

Chapter 20: Chapter 20

Author's Notes: Apologies for the late post! After years of avoiding it like the plague, Covid finally tracked me down this week and I've spent most of the last few days asleep. Hope this chapter proves worth the wait!

Harry was soaring through the air, gripping tightly to the back of an eagle owl that was descending toward a dilapidated house on a hill. They entered through a broken window. With a few flaps of its wings, the owl swooped through a corridor and landed in a large room with a roaring fireplace.

Harry looked around the room, noting a large, high-backed chair with its back to him and two dark shapes stirring on the ground. The first was a massive snake, larger even than the one he'd set upon his cousin years prior. The other was a balding man with a rat-like face. His pointed nose and watery eyes were more pronounced as he writhed on the floor, emitting occasional whimpers and sobs.

"It appears to be your lucky day, Wormtail," came a high-pitched, cold voice from the chair. "Quite fortunate, indeed. Your idiotic blunder has been set right. He has been killed."

A desperate sob of relief punctuated the air as the man on the ground wept. "My Lord… I am so sorry for my mistake… So pleased your plan can continue… A brilliant plan…"

"Nagini, it looks like you will not be feeding on Wormtail tonight. Do not fret, though. Soon, you will feast on young Harry Potter." The snake hissed at the rat-faced man, who recoiled as its yellow eyes stared into his.

"Yet failures such as these must not go unpunished."

A look of panic overtook Wormtail, who attempted to crawl toward the chair. "Master… Please! I beg of you!"

The malevolent voice hidden behind the door scoffed before saying, "Crucio!"

Pettigrew's cries filled Harry's ears, and he soon found that his own screams were intermingled with Wormtail's.

"HARRY! Wake up!" Green eyes opened to see that they were not in the house on a hill that was falling apart but in a glowing room full of gaping students and a bespectacled woman who was staring intently. Quiet muttering and a few nervous laughs broke the silence as Harry looked at Ron for guidance.

"You must have been having a nightmare, mate," said Ron in a low voice, though the hush that had fallen on the room ensured that the entire class heard every word.

"A nightmare? No, this was a premonition! A prophecy! Sight beyond sight!" Professor Trelawney was hopping up and down on her toes as she hurried to Harry's side. "You must tell me what the fates have shown you! Quickly! Before the vision fades and the truth is lost!"

Harry's head was swimming. The pain of the torture curse felt like it had shot electricity through his veins. Despite the strong feeling that whatever he'd just dreamed was more real than most of what came out of his professor's mouth, Harry had no intention of divulging anything to her, much less in front of his classmates.

"Sorry, professor," he mumbled, wiping the sweat from his brow. He shuddered as the memory of that cold voice echoed in his mind. "I didn't sleep much last night and must have dozed off."

"Never mind that, what did you see? What visions encroached upon your dreams to warn you of what the future will bring?"

"I just had a nightmare, is all! It's not a big deal." Harry's frustration mounted as the eyes of his classmates and professor remained glued to him.

"You were writhing in your seat and clutching at your scar! The fates do not deal in coincidence! Your dream could portend to…"

"I dreamed that I failed the second task! Ron and Hermione drowned and it was my fault! Is that what you wanted to hear?!" Several students gasped as Professor Trelawney clutched at her heart. Her eyes grew wide as took a tentative step back.

"It is just as I foretold…" she whispered. She raised her hands above her head for dramatic effect before loudly calling out, "You are in grave danger! Do you know what this means?"

"Yeah, it means you're full of it!" shouted Harry. "Of course that's not what I dreamed! The way you pretend like everything's a death omen is one of the reasons your class is such a joke!"

It was clear to everyone present that Professor Trelawney had not seen that one coming.

Harry was too busy stuffing his things into his bookbag to notice the look of shock on the professor's face. Without another word, he stormed out of the classroom down the stepladder and made to slam it closed behind him, only to have Ron's legs follow down the steps. Sensing what Harry was about to do, he moved aside once on the ground and raised his eyebrows at his friend.

Harry's surprise tempered his anger so that he didn't slam the trap door nearly as hard as he had wanted to a moment before, but the relief of having Ron with him made up for it.

"I'm just saying, mate, it would've ruined my reputation if both you and Hermione told off a teacher and quit class like that and I didn't come along for the ride. Can't expect to skate by on flying a car to school forever, y'know?"

Despite the situation, Harry couldn't help but laugh.

"So, not to intrude or anything, but what was going on up there?" asked Ron with a little trepidation. "You didn't really dream about me and Hermione drowning, right?"

"No! Nothing like that. But it was…" Harry looked around, noticing a few portraits that were failing in their attempts to look inconspicuous. "It was something I should tell Dumbledore. I promise I'll fill you in later, but it wasn't about the second task."

"Well, I think we've got the rest of the period free," said Ron with a sheepish smile. "Want to go to his office right now?"

Harry weighed his options. He didn't like the idea of speaking with the headmaster in the immediate wake of his Divination blow-up. Then again, Trelawney was likely to go straight to Dumbledore after class. Now was his best shot at explaining the situation before she could give her account of things.

"Yeah, actually that'd be helpful. Whatever my dream means, I'd feel better letting him know sooner rather than later."

"Right then. Let's head that way. Figure Snuffles would come after me if I let you wander around the halls alone after something like that." Harry grimaced as he imagined the look on Sirius' face in that scenario.

The walk didn't take them long, and they were soon standing in front of the gargoyle that marked the entrance to the headmaster's office.

"Want me to come in with you?"

"No need. Just help me guess the password, okay? It's always some sort of sweet. Sherbet lemon?" The gargoyle remained still and unblinking. Even though Harry wasn't familiar with all the types of sweets of the magical world, Ron was in his element.

"Pear drop! Fizzing whizbee! Drooble's Best Blowing Gum! Chocolate frog!" Ron glowered at the ground as he cycled through his apparently-encyclopedic knowledge of wizarding candies. "Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. Sugar quills. Everlasting gobstoppers."

Harry kicked at the statue. "Dumbledore has really weird taste. Maybe something less popular?"

"Good idea… How about licorice wands?" He looked eagerly at the gargoyle, who was unmoving. "Damn, I thought that might be it. Cockroach cluster?"

Suddenly, the gargoyle sprang to life. It moved to the side as a spiral staircase appeared.

Harry gave Ron a high five before taking the steps two at a time. "Brightest wizard of your age, Ron Weasley!" he called over his shoulder.

"And don't you forget it!"

Harry stepped forward from the stairs toward the great door leading into Dumbledore's office and heard voices from behind it.

"I'm sorry, Dumbledore, but I just don't see any connection! Ludo has assured me that Bertha is perfectly capable of getting lost overseas." Harry's mind whirred as he tried to place the owner of the pompous-sounding voice. "Of course, we expected to have found her sooner, but there's just not any evidence of foul play. And there's certainly no reason to believe her disappearance has anything to do with Barty Crouch!"

Moody's growl of a voice was much easier to identify. "And just what do you think happened to Crouch, minister?"

Harry connected the dots as Fudge replied haltingly. "Well, I believe there are two possibilities… Either he finally lost it, which is more than likely considering his personal history, and lost his mind completely…"

"He wandered directly to Hogwarts, a feat which would take no small amount of skill. Not exactly an easy task to accomplish without the use of one's mind," noted Dumbledore coolly.

"Yes, well… If not that, then it could be…" Fudge sounded slightly embarrassed by the holes in his logic. "I'll feel more confident after I see the grounds where he was allegedly seen. I was told it was near the Beauxbatons carriage? I would not be surprised at all if it was that woman. No doubt you know what she is!"

"I know her to be an excellent headmistress and quite a fine dancer," replied the headmaster, though there was an air of power crackling in his words.

"Don't give me that rubbish!" answered Fudge angrily. "You seem to think those like her can do no wrong because of Hagrid. I'll tell you, they're not all harmless. And I wouldn't even call Hagrid harmless, not after all the questions through the years and his obsession with monsters."

"I do not suspect Madame Maxime, nor do I suspect Hagrid. Perhaps your presuppositions are blinding you to other possibilities, Cornelius."

"We'd better wrap this up," stated Moody. "We've got a visitor waiting to speak to the headmaster. Should I let Mr. Potter in?"

Harry moved to knock on the door to cover for his eavesdropping, but it swung inward before he could reach it. He stood in the open doorway, hand extended into space, failing miserably in his attempt to not look guilty.

"Hello, Professor Dumbledore. I was hoping to speak with you about something urgent."

"Ahh, Harry m'boy! So good to see you!" Fudge flipped the switch into full politician mode before Harry knew what hit him. The now-jovial man beamed as he firmly shook Harry's hand, and he wondered if the minister was expecting a photographer to snap a picture of the moment from behind one of Dumbledore's overstuffed chairs. "I understand you found the man claiming to be Mr. Crouch near the Beauxbatons carriage, correct?"

"Actually, sir, Mr. Crouch came up to me and the three other champions on the Quidditch pitch. I don't think the carriage is very close. And none of us saw Madame Maxime anywhere around there. Figure she'd have a pretty hard time staying out of sight, y'know?"

Fudge's countenance soured slightly, and he didn't catch the proud smile on the headmaster's face. "Well, we were about to take a stroll about the grounds to ensure that everything is in order. Perhaps it would be best for you to run along back to class."

"Professor, this is really important," argued Harry, looking past Fudge at Dumbledore. He didn't dare explain anything in front of Fudge but hoped that the headmaster could sense that this was a matter of importance.

"I will be glad to speak with you once we have completed our examination of the Quidditch pitch and surrounding areas. You may wait here in my office if you wish, and I will return shortly."

Harry released a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Professor. I'll stay here."

The three wizards promptly exited the room, and Harry could hear the clomping of Moody's wooden leg fading as they disappeared down the recesses of the stairway.

"Hello, Fawkes." Harry stepped forward to pet the Phoenix's neck. Fawkes trilled and inclined his head toward the boy.

Green eyes flit around the room while Harry's fingers ran through the warm plumage. He noticed that the small closet area that contained Dumbledore's Pensieve had been left ajar. Curiosity got the better of him, and he walked away from Fawkes to check it out. He was quite surprised to see that several memories were already floating in the basin.

Harry had been considering reliving a few memories of his own while waiting for the headmaster to return. He thought it would be fun to experience some of his favorite Quidditch matches a second time, and there was something appealing about seeing the Yule Ball from a new perspective. He could even rewatch the dream he'd had to better explain it to Dumbledore. Unfortunately, Harry didn't think he could use the Pensieve if there were already memories floating around inside.

He looked around the podium on which the basin sat but didn't find any sort of storage vial to use. Harry looked back over his shoulder and wondered whether he should just sit quietly on one of Dumbledore's guest chairs while waiting. Perhaps he could read one of the various tomes that lined the shelves…

Yet his eyes were drawn back to the Pensieve. He gazed into it longingly, craning his neck slightly as he tried to focus on the wisps floating clockwise in the basin. Without consciously deciding to enter, Harry felt a cool wetness as the tip of his nose dipped into the liquid. There was a sensation of falling as he was surrounded by blackness.

Harry was seated in a large amphitheater-like room, surrounded on all sides by adult witches and wizards of varying ages. To his left sat Dumbledore, not looking much younger than he did in real life. Harry wondered if the memory was recent, or if his headmaster had grown his long beard at an early age. He tried to imagine a tiny, first-year Dumbledore with a full beard.

In the center of the room sat a solitary chair that was fitted with iron chains. Harry felt a foreboding while looking at the manacles and wondered if he was witnessing some sort of trial.

For the next twenty minutes, Harry did his best to take in everything he could. He noticed that Moody looked quite a bit different when he sat next to Dumbledore. He still had two matching eyes and looked a little less war-ravaged than his professorial counterpart. Crouch, on the other hand, looked every bit as serious as the man he'd met over the summer. His hair wasn't as gray, but the man was dripping with an attitude of self-importance and frustration.

When Karkaroff stepped into the center of the room, flanked by dementors, Harry wasn't shocked. Sirius had already explained that the Durmstrang headmaster had been a Death Eater who sold out others for a pass out of Azkaban. It was still striking to see the now-proud man groveling as he worked the angles to secure his release.

Harry only recognized one of the names that Karkaroff offered, but it sent a shock wave down his spine. "Snape! Snape!" called out Karkaroff. "Severus Snape!" He looked at Dumbledore in disbelief as the older wizard stood to speak.

"I have already given evidence in the matter of Severus," uttered Dumbledore calmly. "He was a Death Eater at one point but rejoined our side well before the fall of Lord Voldemort. As a spy, he gathered important information that was crucial to our fight, and risked much by doing so."

Harry saw that Moody looked very skeptical about Snape's change of heart.

Crouch sent Karkaroff back to Azkaban while the case was reviewed, and the scene faded into the next memory.

To Harry's surprise, the next person being questioned was Ludo Bagman. He recognized many of the same wizards and witches from the previous memory, but most looked to be unconcerned with the proceedings, some even appeared to be a little starstruck. Bagman was accused of providing information to a Death Eater named Rookwood but was arguing that he didn't know that the man had been working for Voldemort. Harry noticed that the gallery was much more inclined to believe the Quidditch star than it had Karkaroff, and there were hardly any votes to convict him before the memory ended. Celebrity had served Bagman well.

A new memory materialized, and Harry could feel the difference in the atmosphere immediately. Crouch and Dumbledore presided again, but there was no hint of the malaise that had permeated Bagman's trial. The room was silent but for the strangled sobs of one woman in the gallery.

When four prisoners were ushered into their shackled chairs in the middle, Harry could see the hatred etched onto Crouch's face. His voice dripped with venom as he outlined the crimes of the accused. The youngest of the four prisoners, a boy in his late teens, beseeched his father to listen and cried that he was innocent. His entreaties fell on deaf ears, but he continued calling out for mercy from Crouch. The crowd murmured and the boy's mother descended into sobs as the accusations were leveled.

The verdict was a life sentence in Azkaban. One of the prisoners, a woman named Lestrange, cackled with menace as they were being led away.

"The Dark Lord will return! He will free us, his most loyal servants, and will reward us for our faithfulness! He will crush you underfoot like the worms that you are, and this world will know darkness the likes of which has never been seen!" Her insane laughter carried through the room, drowning out the last of the screams for mercy from Crouch's son, who was imploring his mother to save him. She never heard those cries, as she had collapsed to the floor, stricken to unconsciousness by her grief.

"Harry, I believe we should now return to my office," came a voice from Harry's side. The memory Dumbledore was still seated and looking sadly on at the scene, but another Dumbledore stood to Harry's side, offering him a hand. Moments later, both had reemerged into the light of the headmaster's office.

"Professor, I'm so sorry," began Harry. "I went to the Pensieve when you left to revisit a few memories I wanted to share with you, but there was already some inside. I didn't have anything to store them in, and I just…" The professor gazed at him without interrupting.

"I was curious."

Dumbledore gave him a knowing smile. "Curiosity is not a sin, Harry, but I must caution you not to dive into another person's memories without permission." Harry nodded.

"We can speak more about what you saw in the memories in a moment, but I believe you had a rather pressing matter you hoped to relay to me?"

Harry's eyes widened. With the flurry of new information he'd learned in the Pensieve, he'd nearly forgotten about the dream he wanted to share with Dumbledore.

"Yes sir. I was in Divination class and I must have dozed off." Harry suddenly felt nervous to admit this fact in front of the headmaster, but he only smiled.

"Quite the understandable situation. Feel free to continue."

"Well, I had a dream. But it didn't seem like the kind of dream my own brain would make up. It seemed like I was watching something that was really happening. Something with Voldemort and Wormtail." Harry looked at the professor for understanding, and Dumbledore gave him a quick nod.

"Voldemort was torturing Wormtail for some sort of mistake he'd made that had almost ruined their plans. He threatened to feed Wormtail to a snake that was in the room. But an owl landed on Voldemort's chair and he seemed really pleased. Voldemort said that someone had fixed the mistake, and he mentioned someone being dead, so instead he was going to feed me to the snake."

"Ahh, I see," mused Dumbledore.

"Then Voldemort used the Cruciatus on Wormtail, but it felt like it hit me. I felt intense pain, like back in my first year with Quirrell. It hurt my scar so much that I woke up screaming."

"I imagine that did not go unnoticed by your professor and classmates?"

"Err... No. They definitely noticed," replied Harry sheepishly. "Professor Trelawney was sure it was some sort of premonition and started badgering me to explain it to the class. She's predicted my death so many times in the two years I've been in there that I just kinda…"

Harry sighed as he tried to find a way to explain that didn't make him sound like a terrible person.

"I told her I dreamed that Ron and Hermione drowned because I didn't save them in the second task. She started in saying that it was just as she foresaw, and I just couldn't take it anymore. I said that wasn't really what I dreamed and that I didn't believe in Divination, then stormed out of the classroom. Ron followed me, but I think that was mostly because I had just said I dreamed that he died."

Harry tried to convey his remorse for his actions, which felt much more justified in the moment and much less so while explaining it calmly to the headmaster.

"I see." Dumbledore's stare seemed like it was piercing right through Harry, who felt eager to move the conversation away from his exit from Divination and back toward the dream

"I don't understand why my scar hurts like that. It still aches a bit, even though the dream was more than an hour ago. Are scars like this common in the magical world?"

"No, Harry, yours is the only scar I know of that behaves in such a way," replied Dumbledore. "This is merely my conjecture, but I believe that your scar connects you to Voldemort in ways that are difficult to measure. You seem to endure pain from your scar both when Voldemort is in close proximity and when he is feeling particularly strong emotions."

Harry blinked a few times while trying to comprehend his headmaster's words.

"What do you think the dream means, sir?" asked Harry. "Do you think it really happened, and that I saw it because Voldemort was really pleased by the owl's news?"

"It is certainly possible... Perchance even probable. Did you see Voldemort himself in the vision?"

"No, the chair had its back to me the whole time. I thought he might have just been a spirit thing, but he used a wand to torture Wormtail. Does that mean he has a body? Is he getting stronger?"

Dumbledore looked like the many years he'd lived were sagging onto him all at once. "Disappearances, like those of Bertha Jorkins and Barty Crouch, were commonplace during Voldemort's rise to power. We often were without information about where he would strike, only to learn later how his machinations fit into a larger plan. There are even more that the magical world overlooks. Frank Bryce, a muggle who lived in the town where Voldemort's father grew up, has gone missing. These disappearances fit the pattern of the Dark Lord and his followers."

Both sat quietly for a few long moments, digesting the news that Voldemort was out there, somewhere. Planning. Growing stronger.

Harry broke the silence. "May I ask you about what I saw in the Pensieve?"

"You may, but know that some details I may decline to divulge."

"Right. Er… In the trial at the end, the one with Mr. Crouch's son, they attacked two people named Longbottom. Were they Neville's parents?"

Dumbledore looked rather surprised at the question. "Has he never explained why he has been raised by his grandmother?"

Harry felt a stab of guilt as he shook his head, knowing that his dormmate had endured a loss much like his own, yet he had never thought to ask him about it.

"Yes, the Death Eaters in the memory were caught having used the Cruciatus curse on Neville's parents in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of Lord Voldemort after his fall."

"So Neville's parents are dead, just like mine?"

"No, Harry," said Dumbledore, his voice so filled with bitterness that Harry was taken aback. "They are not dead. They were tortured until their minds collapsed within them. They are insane and have lost all ability to recognize those they once knew and loved."

It was as if a sledgehammer had collided with some part of Harry hidden deep inside. He felt the prickle of tears gathering in his eyes.

"Neville's mum and dad don't know who he is?"

"No, they do not." The hardness in the headmaster's face lessened, albeit slightly. "I understand that he still visits them regularly during holidays and over the summer. They were very well-liked, both here at school and after they graduated. The severity of the crime on top of their popularity made for a great outcry to bring their attackers to justice. Unfortunately, due to their condition, neither were able to confirm the details of the incident."

"Does that mean there's a chance Mr. Crouch's son was really innocent?" asked Harry as the teenager's cries for mercy seemed to be ringing in his ears.

"I am not certain," replied Dumbledore gravely. "I hope that you would respect Neville's desire to tell his friends on his own timeline." Harry nodded quickly, remembering all too well how miserable he felt when it seemed the whole world knew his story better than he knew it himself.

"I also saw your memory of Mr. Bagman's trial," began Harry. "Do you think he…"

"He has not been accused of Dark activity again in all the contravening years," answered the headmaster before the question was finished.

"And Professor Snape, sir?"

"Neither has Professor Snape, Harry."

Before he could stop himself, Harry's words had poured out of him like ice cubes tumbling down an overturned cup. "What did he tell you that made you believe he'd really turned away from Voldemort?"

The man stared deeply into Harry's eyes for a minute before sighing. "That matter must remain between Professor Snape and myself."

Harry sensed that he had plumbed the depths of the memories as much as he would be allowed, so he moved to leave. Before he did, a final thought occurred to him, and he thought it was worth a shot.

"I haven't told anyone about the rogue memory," Harry was determined to control his tone so he didn't sound demanding, especially after his explosion at Trelawney, but wanted to be clear. "But I think it's really important for me to talk to Sirius about it."

Dumbledore's right eyebrow twitched upward, but he did not interrupt. He merely looked curious.

"Would you be willing to help me explain the situation to him over the summer? It's important, but it doesn't seem pressing enough to take to him now."

"When we studied the rogue memory before, we agreed that the information it contained could be incredibly dangerous, yes?"

"Yes sir. I just thought that he'd be trustworthy. He didn't divulge the secret about Professor Lupin to anyone, even after being in Azkaban for so many years." Harry felt as though he might be making some headway, so he went for broke. "This memory seems like the kind of thing to talk about with a parent. I figure that maybe, since my parents named him Godfather, he might be the best person to share it with…"

Dumbledore's bright blue eyes looked a little bit misty as he rose from his chair. "I am not entirely convinced that expanding the circle is the wisest course of action at this point. But you do make valid points, and Sirius has certainly proven himself skilled at keeping secrets. Please continue keeping this memory to yourself for now, but I shall thoroughly consider your suggestion."

With a quick thanks to the headmaster, Harry walked back to the doors before hearing, "Oh! And Harry?" He turned to see Dumbledore smiling again, the signature twinkle back in his eye.

"Best of luck with the final task."

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Chapter 21: Chapter 21

"So Dumbledore really thinks You Know Who is getting stronger, huh?" Ron shuddered as he posed his question. Ginny had gone a bit pale while Harry explained everything and Hermione looked as though she might be sick to her stomach.

"Yeah, that was the feeling I got from him."

Hermione did not chastise Ron when he swore in response.

"It's hard to believe that Professor Dumbledore would allow Snape to teach here after all that," whispered Ginny. "I've always been on edge in his class from hearing so many bad things from you and the twins, but knowing that he was a Death Eater?"

"No kidding," said Harry ruefully. "Dumbledore wouldn't tell me what made him switch sides, but it definitely makes me suspicious."

"But Harry, remember that Professor Snape saved you back in first year," argued Hermione. "It seems more likely that Karkaroff or Bagman would be behind this. They're the ones who showed up this year and are trying to interfere with the tournament. Karkaroff has obviously given you unfairly low scores as a judge and Bagman keeps trying to help you. I think they're both more suspicious."

"They're both dodgy, but Snape's definitely had it out for Harry since day one." Ron clearly wasn't not going to absolve the Potions professor so quickly.

"I'm going to write to Snuffles about it all tonight. I dunno what else to do about it for now."

"Quick question…" interjected Ginny. "You said that you asked Dumbledore about telling Snuffles about the memory this summer. What memory?"

Harry's eyebrows shot upwards. He had been so intent on sharing all that had transpired with the headmaster and in the Pensieve that he hadn't thought to leave out that portion of the conversation. Ron and Hermione both looked to Harry to respond as Ginny waited for an answer.

"Well, about that…" His mind was swimming, trying to come up with a way to avoid saying too much. It was one thing to have given a few details to Hermione and Ron back when the memory first lodged itself in his mind. It was another thing entirely to try to explain it to Ginny, who was prominently featured in said memory. "Dumbledore swore me to secrecy about a lot of it, so I can't share much. But I can tell you what I told them when it happened. It was a few days after the first task. I woke up with a weird headache and a really bad feeling."

Ron jumped in. "He woke me up out of a dead sleep and told me he thought something was coming for him! We got ready for a fight, just in case, but nothing happened, so we decided to go down to the common room. Harry grabbed his cloak, in case we wanted to make a run to the kitchens since neither of us thought we'd be able to go back to sleep."

"When we got down there, something really strange happened…" Harry tried to picture the events of that night, which were oddly more fuzzy in his recollections than the memory he'd never actually experienced. "A golden string-like thing came straight through the window and was heading right for me. I dodged it on its first pass while Ron tried to hit it with a spell, but it tracked me down when I made a break for the portrait hole."

"Wait, some sort of golden string thing broke open the window?" asked Ginny.

"No, it didn't break the window," replied Harry. "Think like a ghost moving straight through it."

"Okay, that makes sense. Well, not that any of the stuff that happens to you actually makes sense, but I guess I understand how the string got to you. What did it do?"

"That's the thing, I don't really know. It hit me in the head and the next thing I knew, I woke up a couple of hours later in the hospital wing with Madam Pomfrey complaining about how often I end up in there. Apparently, your brother had to drag me there on his own."

Ginny rolled her eyes with a smile. "Did he drop you while going up the stairs? Probably ended up more injured from the trip than from the attack, right?"

Ron puffed out his chest and did his best impression of Percy. "Young Harry had a run in with an unidentified bit of magic, so I took it upon myself to escort him to the infirmary. Can't let the Boy Who Lived perish on my watch. Plus, saving Harry's arse looks excellent on a resume. I'll be Minister of Magic before 40!"

Ginny snickered and gave Ron a friendly shove while the others laughed along before Harry restarted.

"When I woke up, there was something different. I had a new memory, but it wasn't anything I'd experienced before. It was like something out of someone else's life."

Ginny's grip on the arms of her chair tightened and her breath caught as the laughter from a moment before evaporated. She tried to keep the panic out of her voice as she asked, "What do you mean? Someone else's memory attacked you?"

Luckily, Harry picked up on her apprehension right away. "Sorry, I didn't explain that very well. It wasn't like the diary where you fell into someone else's memory that you were viewing. It felt like my own memories, except that it was something I'd never done before."

Ginny nodded weakly, though she was still apprehensive. "What was the memory, then? Do you recognize anyone from it?"

Harry had a feeling this line of questioning was coming, but still had a hard time controlling the warmth in his cheeks. "Well, that's the thing. It was like a memory from when I was older. I was definitely in it, and it was like I was looking from my own eyes. I told Dumbledore about it that evening, and he pretty much confirmed that it was a real memory and that it was incredibly hard to fake something like that."

"Wait, a future version of you was in the memory?" Ginny looked incredulous.

"Yeah, pretty much. I recognized myself and one other person, but we both were older than we are now. I can't explain what happened in the memory because Dumbledore swore me to secrecy, but some of the things I said didn't make sense. He said he'd do some research on the whole situation, he called it a 'rogue memory,' but he seemed really concerned about some of the things I heard."

Hermione was grinning like the cat that ate the canary. "You didn't tell us there was only one other person in the memory last time! That's helpful information!"

Harry groaned. He had zero interest in delving further into the details of the memory with the three of them, especially with the other main character sitting across from him.

"Yeah, and he told us that neither of us was in it and that it didn't have You Know Who," added Ron. "Any other details, Hermione?"

"Nothing else that he shared. Has Professor Dumbledore given you any indication of when you'll be able to tell us more about it?"

"No update yet," said an increasingly nervous Harry. "I don't think he's pleased that I've shared as much as I have with you all, and he didn't seem especially fond of the idea of talking about it with Siri… Err, Snuffles."

"So you're saying that you got some sort of future memory from yourself?" The look in Ginny's eyes softened as her fears subsided.

"Yeah, that's the basic gist of it. And I get why you'd be nervous about it after the whole situation with the diary, which was a big part of why I went straight to Dumbledore."

Ginny nodded, more to herself than anyone else. "Okay, I think I've got it. How's it affecting you? Not like you don't have a lot on your plate already…"

Harry frowned. That was not a question he had been expecting. He thought back to the past months since waking with a new memory lodged in his mind and felt like he didn't have any complaints.

"It's hard to explain," began Harry. "I don't really know how much it's affecting me. But it's a good memory, so it's not like I'm upset about having it. Dumbledore seems to think it's important, so I guess that it's good that he's got the information from it. I dunno… It might not be how my future goes, but it seems pretty good to me."

A smile crept across Ginny's face. "Well, if the memory really is from an older version of you, at least you know you'll survive the third task!"

Harry laughed out loud. "At least I've got that going for me…"

The weeks leading up to the third task seemed like a blur to Harry. Though he was grateful to not have to study for final exams, as Hermione, Ron, and Ginny were doing while assisting him in training, the looming task cast a shadow on all of his activities.

Sirius was sending letters daily, suggesting ideas for navigating the maze and hexes to learn. Hermione had been thrilled when he suggested a spell that functioned like a compass, and Harry could see how such a skill would come in handy amongst the tall hedges.

He'd become proficient in a number of spells that he'd hoped would aid in his task, one of which was the Impedimenta. It was excellent at slowing down or even stopping a solid object that had been in motion. When Ron suggested that Harry learn it, Hermione was skeptical at first, since it wasn't taught until sixth year. Ron countered that he'd learned a bit about it from the twins, and demonstrated surprising skill with the spell when Ginny threw a pillow at him from a few feet away. Harry was ready to ask for Professor Flitwick's help mastering the spell, but Ron insisted they go to the twins first.

"Oi, George! You think this scrawny git has what it takes to learn from us?" asked Fred.

George pursed his lips and walked around Harry slowly, murmuring to himself. "I reckon he might survive our training. Might be a nice way to improve the odds on our bet, too."

Hermione perked up. "Bet? What do you mean, bet?"

"Don't worry about it, Hermione," placated Fred. "A few students just set up a little wager as to how the results of the tournament will shake out. Naturally, we put some coins in on Harrikins winning it all. Not that you need extra encouragement, mate, but there are more than a few Slytherins who'll be out galleons if you win this thing."

"So it helps our chances if we get Harry prepared… I like it!"

After a few rigorous training sessions, Harry felt confident in his ability to pull off the spell. He felt much less confident once he saw how the twins planned to test his skills. Angelina, Alicia, Katie, and Ginny strolled into the large classroom that Harry had been using to train with Fred and George. All four were holding a quaffle or two, and Ron entered right after them with a thumping chest that clearly contained two bludgers.

"Alright then, Harry. It's time to see if you're as good under pressure as people keep saying you are. Sure, you may have beaten a dragon, escaped a werewolf, and killed a basilisk, but you've never had to face off against the Gryffindor quidditch team." Fred looked to George as he stepped toward the chest.

"You'll start by the wall, while these three incredible chasers and a future team member attempt to pelt you with quaffles. You can dodge if needed, but we want you to focus on using the Impedimenta quickly and accurately. They'll start by throwing only one at a time, but things will become more chaotic soon." George's eyes gleamed dangerously. "If you do well enough on that, we've got other options for testing your skills."

Harry gulped as the four girls stretched their arms and rolled their shoulders in preparation for the onslaught. He had spent a good deal of time in primary school gym classes playing dodgeball, but none of the children from his school had the power or aim that these four possessed.

"You two promised a reward for helping out with his training," called Angelina as she pushed her left hand on her right elbow to stretch it a bit more. "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, we had an idea about that, but we haven't run it past Harry yet," replied George. "There's one last Hogsmeade trip coming up next weekend. How about whichever of you hit him the most gets a coupon for a trip to the village with whichever of the three of us you choose? If you're into scrawny gits with glasses, you could go with Harrikins. Or you could go with the second-most attractive Weasley brother over there." He pointed to Fred who was making a rude gesture at his twin. "But for the discerning among you, I'm sure you'd prefer my company."

There was a good deal of eye-rolling from the contingent of chasers, although Ginny's eye roll was accompanied by a rapid surge of color to her cheeks.

"I've already got plans with Adeline for the Hogsmeade trip, plus none of you are exactly my type," said Alicia. "Your 'reward' basically seems like an excuse for one of you to take Angelina or Katie on a date without having to do the asking yourself."

Fred looked aghast. "Alicia! I can't believe you would suggest such a thing! We were only trying to offer the most valuable thing we possess: ourselves." His wide grin coupled with waggling eyebrows got the girls laughing.

"How about whoever has the deadliest aim gets the option to choose between you three, but can also pass the option to any of the other competitors?" Angelina had a wry smile that Harry sensed had a bit of danger to it.

"I don't see why not, Fred," said George with a shrug. "Though I cannot be held liable for any friendships that crumble over your need to spend time with me." Angelina's quaffle collided with George's stomach and his eyes bulged.

"Consider that a warmup," said Angelina as she collected the quaffle from the ground. "How're we keeping score? I don't trust any of Ginny's older brothers to keep a fair count if the prize could be a date with a boy." Ginny continued stretching as if she hadn't heard anything.

"I'll keep the tally," offered Katie. "But try to keep up with your own score, too, just in case."

The four girls smirked as they stepped forward. "What do you think, Ange? No throwing past the halfway point of the room?" asked Ginny. "Just to be sporting."

"Works for me. You ready, Harry?"

Sweat was beginning to form on Harry's brow. "As ready as I'm gonna be. Ron, if I don't make it, you can have my cloak, give Hermione Hedwig, and Ginny can have the Firebolt, yeah?"

Ginny's eyes flashed as she grinned widely then yelled, "Incentive!"

"Good luck, mate!" cried Ron from the other side of the room as Harry drew his wand.

Alicia wound up and threw her quaffle right at Harry's midsection, though she didn't put quite as much oompf on it as he had feared. With a quick sidestep, he was able to dodge the incoming projectile.

"Oi! The whole point is to use the spell!" called out Fred. "And Alicia, I'm dead certain you can throw harder than that."

Angelina gave a small headnod to the girls as she stepped forward, and Harry had the distinct feeling she wasn't going to hold anything back. She rocketed the quaffle toward him and let out a grunt of exertion as it flew off her fingertips.

Harry's eyes were wide as the ball barrelled toward him. He pointed his wand and shouted, "Impedimenta!" just before the quaffle impacted his left shoulder.

"Well thrown, Ange!" called out Katie as Alicia and Ginny looked at their captain in awe. George let out a whistle while Fred instructed Harry, who was rubbing his tender shoulder..

"That wasn't too shabby! Remember what we trained on, though. Anticipate where it's coming from and try to fire and move together. You're squirrelly enough to dodge a bit, but you've got to get the shot off quickly if it's going to work. You fired half a second late, but your aim was really good. Nail the timing and you'll be golden."

"Easy for you to say," mumbled Harry, but he repositioned himself in front of the wall, his eyes on Katie. When she let loose, his wand was already moving and his spell connected as the quaffle was halfway between them. Harry's hop to the left proved unneeded because the ball had come to a near-complete stop in midair. Ron let out a whoop as Harry wiped his brow with his sleeve.

"Excellent work, Harry!" called George.

Ginny tossed a quaffle up and down a few times, feeling it out as she stared Harry down. He couldn't help but feel a bit nervous as she wound up. When she released the quaffle, Harry attempted another hop to the left as he fired the spell, only to see the light soar well above the ball. Ginny had aimed low and to her right, nailing Harry's ankle as he landed.

"Nice throw!" called Alicia as Angelina gave her a hearty slap on the back.

"Harry always dodges left if he can," explained Ginny with a smirk. "We've been doing a lot of training and he's pretty hard to hit. But if you can anticipate which way he's going to move, it gives you an edge."

"Good to know…" Alicia's eyes narrowed and Harry got the impression that a pride of lionesses had just zeroed in on their next kill.

Fred was laughing at Harry's fearful expression. "Alright, ladies, why don't you take two more throws each, then we'll see how our target is doing?"

Ginny caught Harry jumping right the next time in an attempt to outthink her, but his spell stopped both Ange and Katie's quaffles. Alicia did a sidearm throw that Harry hadn't expected, and even his reflexes weren't enough to prevent the quaffle from smacking him in the thigh. In the third round, Harry managed to stop all the throws with the spell except for Angelina's, which was too close to him by the time he'd managed to fire. He ducked to the side enough that it only grazed his arm.

"Now for the fun part!" George drew a circle ten feet across in the center of the room with a spell that reminded Harry of chalk. He then had Angelina and Katie stand on one end of the room while Alicia and Ginny were on the other. Ron, Fred, and George sat to the side on a windowsill with their gangly legs hanging down. "The four of you will have just one quaffle between you. Harry has to stay within the circle to dodge and cast spells. How many points do you each have?"

"Ginny and Ange have two, Alicia's got one, and I'm sitting on a goose egg," answered Katie, though she didn't look pleased about it.

"Right then! Two points if you can nail this bespeckled git, but also one point for the assist to whoever passed to the one who gets him. What do you think, George? Stop once he's been hit five times?"

"Fair enough! Go on the count of three… Two… One!" George tossed a quaffle to Angelina, who immediately faked a throw at Harry. While he fired an Impedimenta at where he thought the ball would be, she deftly passed to Katie, who took the shot without hesitation. With a stinging quaffle-sized red whelp on his side, Harry resolved to avoid asking for help from the twins for a while.

Luckily, Harry was a fast learner. The three chasers had lots of experience passing a quaffle back and forth while trying to hit a small target, but they were used to maneuvering at high speeds through the air. With limited space to move, Harry had a decent opportunity to keep the ball in front of him, ensuring he wasn't blindsided. It took a good five minutes of work before Alicia and Angelina both got him again on spectacular throws about a minute apart, one assisted by Ginny and the other by Katie. Ginny took a smart pass from Katie not long after that and caught Harry in the knee.

Another three minutes of near misses and effective spellwork ended with Angelina powering a shot that caught Harry below the waistline. She apologized as he crumpled to the floor, and the Weasley brothers all grimaced and let out a collective moan on Harry's behalf.

Out of the three, George recovered his speech first. "Give the man a minute! What do the scores look like?"

"If I counted it right, I think Ange took it with seven points, Ginny had five, and Alicia and I ended up with three and four."

"I think that checks out," agreed Angelina. "But it's sometimes hard to tell with their convoluted points systems." The tall girl took a mock bow as the competitors and spectators clapped. "So does that mean I get the so-called grand prize?"

"Yep, unless Harry wants to go a few more rounds. We didn't even use the bludgers yet!"

From his place lying on the floor, Harry called out that he was quite ready for the training session to be done.

"In that case, I think I'll bequeath the honors upon Ginny. She had some excellent throws and makes me confident that the team will be in good hands once I graduate." She gave a wink to the younger girl.

"I'm just saying that you don't have to think of it as that big of a deal," said Angelina as Ginny paced back and forth in the older girl's dormitory. Katie and Alicia were also sitting on beds, lazily tossing one of the quaffles from earlier in the day back and forth. "You two seemed to get along just fine at the Yule Ball."

"But that was different," countered Ginny. "He only asked me to go with him as a friend. We had a really fun time and all, but it feels like there's more pressure on this, especially since the twins didn't exactly give him a choice in the matter."

"Ginny, you're going to be fine," said Katie. "Harry's a nice enough bloke and he didn't object at all when Fred and George offered up the possibility of the reward being a Hogsmeade date. I think it's way more likely that he's happy about how it all played out. He doesn't seem like the kinda guy who relishes asking a girl out, like your brothers do."

"Yeah, but maybe he was hoping one of you three would win and go with him. He might be disappointed that Ange gave it to me." Katie snorted as she tossed the ball to Ginny while Alicia and Angelina laughed.

"I think we'd know if he had the hots for any of us," argued Ange. "We all look out for each other in the air and in general. Alicia was the one who noticed George's eyes lingering on me while I was flying last year, and she and I both figured out that Wood fancied Katie, even if he was too obsessed with playing professionally to do anything about it."

"Bloody idiot, he is…" said Alicia.

Katie continued. "Not to trash talk our venerable seeker or anything, but he just doesn't seem like the smoothest operator when it comes to girls. If he had a crush on one of us, I bet he'd have a harder time talking around us. Might have plucked up the courage to ask us to dance at the ball or even to go with him, yeah?"

"Speaking of getting tongue-tied around a girl, I seem to remember you said he rambled on a bit when he asked you to the Yule Ball." Alicia snagged a low throw by kicking it up to herself before continuing. "Seems like the boy might enjoy spending time with you but have a hard time saying it."

Ginny caught Alicia's pass and tried to twirl the quaffle on her finger, but it fell after a few seconds. "I guess I just don't want to get my hopes up or make things weird between us. But honestly? I'm looking forward to it. Hermione is hanging out with Viktor, so it'll be the two of us and Ron, but I have my doubts about how that will go."

"Ron's great and all, but probably not your preferred third wheel for your day." Angelina looked out the window for a moment. "How about this: Katie and I can meet you at the Three Broomsticks for lunch with the twins. If they're good for anything, it's soaking up attention. Maybe Alicia will bring Adeline, too. You can decide whether to come with us to Zonko's afterward or head off with Harry. Gives you options, and having options always helps calm my nerves." She bent down to grab the quaffle, tossing it just beyond Katie's reach so that she tumbled off the bed as she lunged for it.

"Yeah, Adeline isn't much of a planner, so I bet she'd be happy to eat with everyone."

Ginny considered the idea. "Sounds like a good plan to me, although I'm always nervous that Fred or George will tease me in front of Harry, what with the poem and all."

Ange looked at Ginny sympathetically. "I've seen you put them in their place enough that I'm not worried about that, but we have ways to keep them in check, too." She grinned wickedly.

Harry had to admit that lunch had been entertaining.

He and eight others were crammed into a booth that was meant for six, and found himself squeezed between Fred and Ginny. He tried to angle his shoulders for a bit more breathing room, but he couldn't go more than a minute or two without knocking into someone with an elbow. The three chasers, four Weasleys, Harry, and Adeline spent a raucous hour and a half downing butterbeer, eating lunch, and telling stories.

His nerves were on edge when Fred and George had announced the prize during training, but Ginny had assuaged his concerns the next day. She had simply asked if he wanted to grab lunch at the pub in Hogsmeade with her and her brothers, along with the rest of the squad that had pelted him black and blue. He quickly agreed, with the caveat that he was hoping to visit with Sirius again that afternoon and that she was welcome to come along.

By the time the group poured out of the Three Broomsticks, Harry was anxious to visit with Sirius again. The main contingent, including Ron, were heading to Zonko's while Alicia and Adeline planned to go off on their own. Harry hung toward the back of the group as they walked in the joke shop's direction, soon finding the youngest Weasley alongside him.

"Hey Harry, quick question," whispered Ginny under her breath so that the raucous bunch ahead of them couldn't hear. "I know you said you wanted to meet up with Snuffles. If you don't mind company, I'm happy to come along, too, but if you wanted it just to be you and him, that's fine. Just didn't want you to show up to meet him and get an earful for being off on your own."

An easy smile flickered across Harry's face. "It'd be great to have you come with. Just be ready in case he gives us a hard time. Teasing seems to be one of his specialties."

"Oh, I'm ready for him this time around. I went easy on him last time because I was just meeting him and he looked so hungry, but this time I won't have to hold back as much."

Harry chuckled as they passed a few small shops on the way to Zonko's, looking at the happy students inside. "Are you sure you want to spend most of your Hogsmeade trip hiking with me and Snuffles? Seems like most people are finding fun things to do around the village, and I was supposed to make your trip special and all."

"You were kind enough to go along with the twins' training plan, which was a lot of fun for me already, and didn't complain about getting thrust into hanging out with me. Plus you paid for my lunch! Seems like a pretty good deal for me as long as I don't fall down the mountain."

"Fair enough! Just didn't want you to feel trapped into spending the afternoon talking about the tournament and how there's some nutter trying to kill me again."

The two kept walking as the others moved toward the entry to the joke shop. Ron glanced over his shoulder at Harry, who kept walking toward the spot they were to meet Sirius.

"Hey mate! You want me to come with?" Ron's eyes darted in the direction that he was sure a Snuffles was waiting.

"No, it's alright. Enjoy Zonko's and we'll catch up with you later. Gin and I can fill you and Hermione in later."

Ron looked as though he was considering his options, but gave a thumbs up before ducking into the joke shop behind Fred.

The late-spring sun was warm on the two of them as they trod the last few blocks to where the road ended. Sure enough, a scruffy black dog was asleep in the grass next to the road.

Ginny pressed a finger to her lips as she crept toward the dog, pulling something from her pocket. Before the dog could react, she'd fastened a collar around his neck complete with a leash.

Snuffles leaped back, pulling against the line, but Ginny held fast. "He's a pretty cute pup, but he definitely needs some training. Probably should have him neutered, too."

The dog let out a reproachful bark while Harry bent over laughing. Ginny finally relented when Snuffles let loose with his most mournful eyes, and she clicked the collar open. Sirius bounded several feet away, watching her warily.

"Charlie taught me that you've got to show dominance with animals, or else they'll think they're in charge," explained Ginny to Harry, though she made sure to say it loud enough that Sirius could hear. He tried to growl at them, but his wagging tail gave him away.

The trek to the cave didn't take quite as long this time, partly since they knew the way and partly because they weren't waiting on Hermione. Ginny's legs may have been shorter than Harry's, but her years of exploring the woods near the Burrow had made her adept at navigating off the beaten path.

Once they arrived at the cave, Sirius transformed and enveloped Harry in a hug before doing the same to Ginny. The difference in his appearance was remarkable; he had put on a good amount of weight from the care packages that were being regularly owled to him. Ginny had nicked some robes from the twins and Ron had sent one of his own, which meant that Sirius' clothing from Azkaban had been reduced to kindling for his small fire weeks ago. The robes didn't cover his exposed ankles, but he looked much more put together now that his previous rags were long gone. The gaunt look on his face remained, but his cheeks had filled out enough that he didn't look skeletal, and his eyes weren't as darkened as before.

"I guess I'm out of practice on pranking because it usually takes a lot more than that to get the drop on me. Mooney tried to leash me once in sixth year, but I bit him pretty good." He looked back and forth at the teens. "It's good to see you two! Buckbeak isn't nearly as good at holding a conversation. Where're the other two?"

"Hermione has a date with Viktor and my brother couldn't resist the siren song of Zonko's, so it's just us today," replied Ginny as she carefully walked to greet the hippogriff. "Last time you said to bow first and let him come to me, right?"

"If he gives you a return bow, you can just walk up to him," said Sirius, watching her as she approached Buckbeak. She gracefully bowed to the creature, who eyed her cautiously before inclining his head to her. She stepped forward and began stroking his neck.

"So the two of you left your chaperones behind in order to sneak off and see me. Or was it more along the lines of wanting to see each other and I just made myself a third wheel?"

Harry's cheeks began to burn, but Ginny had prepared for this line of questioning. Without removing her left hand from Buckbeak, her right pointed her wand at the man as she uttered "Canaris!"

Where once stood Sirius, a small yellow bird flapped and fluttered on the ground. Harry was beside himself with laughter, doubling over while the canary squawked. It only took a minute before Sirius was back to his former self, complete with a look of bewilderment and awe.

"What the bloody hell was that?!"

"My brothers are quite the pranksters. Really look up to some former students who were pretentious enough to give themselves the name 'the Marauders.' They've been coming up with their own joke products, including a dessert that can turn folks into birds. Canary Cremes, they call them. By the way, did you enjoy the food I sent you last night?" Harry's laughter continued as Ginny's eyebrows waggled. "Surely a distinguished purveyor of pranks would know not to blindly trust food provided by someone with motives that could be diabolical?"

Sirius' mouth was agape as he looked positively gobsmacked. "Harry, as someone with a vested interest in your well-being, I must insist that you do not piss off this young woman. I get the feeling I wouldn't be able to protect you from her wrath." Ginny winked at Sirius before giving her full attention back to Buckbeak.

For two hours, the three talked strategy and tactics for the third task. Harry demonstrated some of the new spells he'd been practicing while Ginny explained details they'd gone over with Hermione and Ron.

"Any ideas on what to do if you get turned around in the maze?" asked Sirius as they were wrapping up.

"Figure I'd have to retrace my steps and try a different path."

"Well, that's one way to go about it, but it might not be your only option. Depending on how the hedges are enchanted, you might be able to use a cutting curse or some fire to go straight through the wall."

Ginny was nodding along. "If you use your compass spell, you could know exactly where it'd be best to go through. Maybe you could dodge a few obstacles that way. Saving time and energy would be really helpful."

"Exactly! You were at an advantage in the second task because the others were all sustaining themselves using their own magic, instead of relying on gillyweed. This time around, each of them will likely be in their top form, which means they'll each be drawing from larger reserves and more years of experience. To be fair, you're a good deal more powerful than most fourth-years and probably have more defense experience than the three of them combined, but conserving your energy for things you can't get around is important."

"Right, avoid what I can so I can take on other stuff."

"Ginny, have you gone over his acceptance speech yet? I don't want him rambling on and on. He's got to get up there, grab the cup in one hand and the winnings in the other, thank the three of you and his devastatingly good-looking Godfather, then tell Snivellus that he can go…"

"I'm not practicing a victory speech, Sirius! I'm already too famous for my own good and I don't care about the prize money. I just want this to be over and to get on with what passes as 'normal' in my life."

"Now that you mention it, I've got some news about what should be a new normal for your summer…" A wide grin spread across his face. "Ol' Dumbledore thinks that I should be able to take control of Grimmauld Place this summer. It's my family's ancient house in London. Warded as much as any home in Britain and hopefully safe enough for me to post up in for the foreseeable future. Dumbledore still says you've gotta spend some time at the Dursley's house to start the summer, but we should have you out of there as quick as we can. Might even have some more guests there by the time you arrive!" He nodded to a puzzled-looking Ginny but gave no further explanation.

"Wait, I might get to spend the summer with you? And you'll have a place to stay?" Harry's face was shining with hope.

"Part of the summer, but yeah! It's not exactly a fun place by any means, but it's a damn sight better than a cave."

"That'll be great! Anywhere's better than Privet Drive. I'd almost rather spend the summer with the Malfoys." Harry looked out the entrance to the cave to see the sunlight shifting into orange and red tones. "We'd better start heading back if we're going to avoid taking secret passages. Anything you need from us? Have we been sending enough food?"

Sirius laughed as he patted his belly. "As you can see, I've filled out a touch since your last visit thanks to all your deliveries. It's been perfect." He moved to change into his animagus form before hesitating. "Although, Ginny, if you could send another of those Canary Cremes, I'd be quite grateful. Gotta scope out what your brothers did. If they're trying to rekindle the marauder magic, I need to do my due diligence. Probably should meet them in person at some point, too, but that can wait."

"When you meet them, make sure to give us a heads up so we can stay a safe distance away," replied Ginny. "What do you think, Harry? At least a few miles, just in case?"

"Definitely," agreed Harry. "Thanks for going over everything with me. It was a big help."

Sirius gathered him into a hug before pulling in Ginny as well. "You two are alright in my book. I'll walk you down, but any more talk of neutering and I'll treat your leg like a fire hydrant, got it?"

Harry and Ginny laughed as they followed the great black dog out of the cave and back toward the village.

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Chapter 22: Chapter 22

On the morning of the third task, Harry awoke much earlier than usual and was unable to fall back to sleep. He tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position before giving up and staring blankly at the ceiling. Within a few short hours, he would be in the maze and facing a variety of dangers. He shook his head before grabbing his glasses. There wasn't any use in stewing in bed, so he got dressed and trudged down the stairs to the common room. The lone figure up this early was Hermione, who was nervously pacing back and forth.

"Good morning, Harry!" she called as he walked in her direction. "Too nervous to sleep, I'm guessing?"

"Yeah, something like that. What's got you awake this early?"

Hermione blushed as she looked toward the portrait hole. "Viktor told me that the champions' families have been invited to attend the task tonight. Apparently, he wants me to meet his mother and sisters. He's told me a lot about them, but I had no idea I'd be seeing them this soon! I thought I'd have until this summer when I go visit Bulgaria."

She resumed pacing as she muttered some phrases in Bulgarian to herself.

A vision of the Dursleys wandering the halls of Hogwarts filled Harry's mind, and he couldn't help laughing. Dudley might not mind it if they started in the Great Hall during a meal, but the paintings, ghosts, and people in general would probably cause Vernon and Petunia to pass out immediately.

"It's not funny, Harry! This is a big deal and I don't want to mess it up for Viktor!"

"No, Hermione, I'm not laughing at you. Just picturing what my aunt and uncle would do if they showed up, but I can guarantee they won't be here."

Hermione's frantic energy subsided and she looked sad for a moment. "Oh Harry, I'm sorry! I got so wound up about meeting Viktor's family that I didn't even think about it from your perspective."

"Don't worry about it," said Harry easily. "It's not a big deal. Any idea when they're supposed to get here?"

"I believe they'll be here at lunch, but I'm not entirely sure," she answered.

"Fair enough." Harry glanced at the stairs to the girls' dormitories before continuing. "I'm going to head to the Great Hall to see if I can force down some breakfast. Wanna come with me, or are you going to pace here for a while longer?"

Hermione let out an exasperated huff, but grabbed her bag and followed him out of the portrait hole.

The two picked at their Saturday breakfast together, joined by a groggy Ginny a few minutes later. Hermione was trying to distract herself by going over her theories regarding Rita Skeeter's methods of gathering information, which had been robust enough to report on Harry's Divination exit a few weeks prior. Ron missed the meal completely, stumbling into the empty classroom where they trained holding several pastries from the kitchens. The four went over plans for the task together for most of the morning, though eventually the discussion became more of an attempt to get Harry's mind off of the evening's activities.

By the time the group walked to the Great Hall for lunch, both Harry and Hermione were visibly nervous. Ginny kept up with Hermione's frenetic pace while trying to convince her that meeting Viktor's family wouldn't be too bad while Ron slowed to mirror Harry's trudge. When they reached the hall, Harry noticed Cedric standing next to two women he presumed to be his mother and a sister. A bright smile lit up Cedric's face as the four entered, and he beckoned Harry over.

"Hey, Harry! Good to see you! Wanted to introduce you to my Mum and my sister. Mum, Liz, this is Harry Potter! My dad'll be here closer to the start of the task." Harry shook both of their hands, hoping neither of them was as impolite as Cedric's father had been at the Quidditch World Cup.

"Lovely to meet you, Harry. You can call me Ms. Fawcett."

"It's great to meet you both," said Harry. "Cedric has been really great this whole time. Professor Dumbledore still hasn't figured out how someone got my name in the Goblet of Fire to make me into a Hogwarts champion, but Cedric's been really kind about it. He even helped me figure out the clue for the second task, which made a huge difference for me."

Cedric's mother smiled warmly at the compliment. "It was quite a shock when we learned that Ced had been chosen as one of two from Hogwarts, but any frustration I might have felt melted away once he told me about your tip about the dragons. Let me tell you, I'll never listen to a word against you as long as I live!"

"Yeah, Mum wasn't pleased when she found out Ced was going up against a dragon. She's fine with us playing quidditch, but I thought she was going to lose it when we got the owl about the first task."

"Oh, did you play Quidditch, too?" asked Harry the young woman.

"I keep forgetting you're a few years younger than Ced! I was on the Ravenclaw team my third year through my seventh. Won the cup twice as a keeper, including one time against my little brother here. Ced, remind me how many times you've hoisted the trophy…"

Cedric's face became decidedly grumpy. "Look, we had a real shot at winning it all until the season got canceled in my fourth year because of the whole Chamber of Secrets thing, and it got canceled again this year for the tournament. I can't help that I haven't had as many opportunities as you did!"

"That sounds suspiciously like the sound of someone rationalizing their losing streak…" Liz was smirking while she poked Cedric's side. "You spend so much time rooting for the Chudley Cannons that their losing rubbed off on you!"

Harry didn't know much about the professional Quidditch leagues, but he felt fairly certain that her comment was a low blow. He looked over his shoulder at Ron, half expecting him to be storming over to defend his team.

"Pay no attention to Liz," said Cedric to Harry. "Ever since Wimbourne won the league last year, she's been insufferable."

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry noticed Hermione frozen by the Gryffindor table. Viktor, his mother, and two young sisters were near the entrance to the Great Hall, speaking with Karkaroff.

"Well, it was a pleasure to meet you two. Good luck today, Cedric! See you on the pitch!"

Harry strode with purpose to the table, where Ginny and Ron were already sitting. Hermione, on the other hand, seemed unable to move.

"Hermione, you okay over there?" asked Harry.

"I just forgot every word of Bulgarian I've been studying, I can't remember any of his family's names, and I think I'm going to be sick to my stomach."

"But other than that, fine?" said Ginny with a smirk.

"Not helping, Ginny!"

"How about this, Hermione… I just got done meeting some of Cedric's family and I was wanting to say hi to Viktor's and Fleur's, too. Want me to walk over there with you, then I can step aside once you've calmed down a tad?"

Hermione glanced back toward Viktor, whose grimace changed to a smile when she caught his eye. "Sure, sounds good. But let's do it before I lose my nerve and make a break for it!" Without waiting for confirmation, she hastily made her way toward Viktor and his family.

Karkaroff was muttering in Bulgarian as the two arrived, and Harry got the sense that the headmaster had been complaining about the addition of a second Hogwarts champion based on the glowering stare he received from the man. Karkaroff stormed away as they approached. Hoping to dispel some of the tension, Harry shook Viktor's hand heartily.

"Hey Viktor! It's great to see that your family made it to the task!" He turned to the three guests and offered his hand. "Hi! I'm Harry."

"Hallo, Harry," replied the older woman whose face greatly resembled Viktor's, only without evidence of multiple broken noses.

Viktor smiled as he made introductions. "This is my mother, Yordanka Krum, and my sisters, Radka and Nadejda." He then started speaking in Bulgarian to the three. Harry only caught the last of what was said, something that sounded very much like Her-My-Oh-Nee. The two sisters began to squeal and latched onto her legs. Within moments, Hermione was doing her best to make use of the Bulgarian she had been learning while Viktor and his mother laughed at the sight.

Harry caught Viktor's attention and whispered, "She was a little nervous about meeting everyone, but it looks like she's doing fine now. I'll let you all have some time to yourselves. See you this evening, and good luck!"

Viktor turned back to the girls, one of whom had somehow climbed onto Hermione's shoulders despite what sounded like reproachful Bulgarian words from her mother. Hermione's cheeks were pink, but Harry thought it was more from relief than embarrassment as he walked back to the Gryffindor table. As he reached Ginny and Ron, he noticed three red-headed figures wandering into the Great Hall from the main corridor.

"Mum? Dad? BILL?!" exclaimed Ginny. Both Weasley children rocketed from their seats to meet their family. Harry was excited to see them, too, and walked up to the group as they began catching up.

"What in the world are you doing here?" asked Ron as Bill grabbed him from behind and mussed his hair.

"Well, Professor McGonagall suggested that Mum and Dad come for the final task to support Harry, and I thought it would be fun to tag along."

"I know it's not the same a having family here, Harry, but we wanted you to have someone in the stands rooting for you," said Mrs. Weasley kindly. "And truth be told, you're as good as a member of the family anyway."

"Thanks so much, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley! It's great having both of you here! Glad to see you, too, Bill!"

"Wouldn't miss it, Harry! Charlie told me about your tangle with the Horntail, and I'm pretty impressed! Can't wait to see what you do tonight."

"Oi! What's all this!" called out a voice from further down the Gryffindor table.

"Our family comes all the way to Hogwarts to visit, then forget all about us when they get one glimpse of a Hogwarts champion." Fred had a look of mock pouting on his face while George wiped away an imaginary tear.

Bill sauntered to the table where Fred and George were seated across from Katie and Lee Jordan, gathered both twins into a hug, then somehow got them lifted into the air on either shoulder before carrying them back to the assembled Weasleys. Katie and Lee were left howling in laughter in their wake as Fred and George attempted to extricate themselves from Bill's grasp to no avail.

"Mum! Look who I found!" Bill dropped them to the ground in a heap in front of their mother, who tried to look disapprovingly at them. Her wry smile could not be held back, however, and she engulfed them in a bone-cracking hug before passing them to her husband.

After hugging the twins, Arthur placed a hand on Harry's shoulder as he addressed the group. "I'm interested in a tour of our old stomping grounds after lunch, but right now I'm famished. Do you mind if we sit with you for lunch, or will we ruin your reputation?"

Ron quickly agreed that eating first was the best course of action and everyone made themselves comfortable. Harry found that his appetite had returned slightly now that he was surrounded by Weasleys. Conversation swung from the twins' escapades to Ginny's electives to summer plans. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley assured Harry that they hoped he would stay with them some during the summer, though they didn't specifically mention the Burrow. Harry was pleased that none of them had brought up the Yule Ball, and his cheeks began to redden remembering some of the teasing Sirius had put them through on that account.

The group was just finishing off their pudding when Harry felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find Fleur, Gabrielle, and a woman who had to be Fleur's mother standing behind him alongside a short, balding man.

"'Arry, I would like to eentroduce you to my muzzer and fazzer, and you 'ave already met my seester, Gabrielle." The tall half-Veela inclined her head slightly to Harry as he stood while the shorter man's wide grin lifted his mustache while shaking Harry's hand.

"It's an honor, Mr. and Mrs. Delacour. Your daughter has done really well so far. I've enjoyed competing with her."

"Pleasure to meet you, m'boy!" chortled Mr. Delacour, who was still shaking Harry's hand. "Fleur told us all about the second task and her run-in with the grindylows. Right sporting of you to help our girl out in a tight spot. Being part Veela means she's not at her best underwater, and well, with both our girls under that lake, we sure appreciate you stepping in."

Harry had a hard time meeting Mr. Delacour's eyes during the compliment but felt a swell of pride as the parent thanked him. "I hadn't considered how the water would have affected her. It was really disorienting and nerve-wracking for me without any added challenges from something like that, so I can't imagine how it felt for you." He looked to Fleur, who was quietly translating the conversation to her mother.

"Eet was not pleasant, no, but I should 'ave performed better," said Fleur with a furtive glance to the Gryffindor table. "'Arry, ees thees your family? I would love to meet them."

"They're as close as I've got," replied Harry as he turned to the Weasleys. "Hey, can I introduce you all to Fleur and her family? Fleur Delacour is the Beauxbatons champion and this is her mum, her dad, and her younger sister, Gabrielle. She was down at the bottom of the lake with Ron in the second task.

"Fleur, you already know Ron from the task and Ginny from the Yule Ball," Harry felt his cheeks heating up, so he hurried to move past that particular detail. "Fred and George are the twins, you've probably seen them around Hogwarts."

"Causing only the best kind of trouble, no doubt," said George with a roguish grin.

"Mr. and Mrs. Weasley have been kind enough to put up with me staying at their home while visiting their children over most holidays." Harry's gaze fell on the oldest of the Weasley brothers, who Fleur was eyeing with interest. "And this is Bill, who I told you a bit about. He works as a Curse Breaker for Gringotts."

"Eet ees a pleasure to meet you all," said Fleur as she took each of their hands in turn.

"Fleur Delacour…" said Bill as he looked up toward the enchanted ceiling with a quizzical look. "Why does your name sound so familiar?"

"Do you work weeth the apprenticeship program?" replied Fleur. "I applied to join Gringotts once I graduate."

Bill clapped his hands together powerfully as he said, "That's what it is! I wasn't part of the selection process but I know there were almost one hundred applications for the three open spots in the program, so it's really impressive that you got in. Looks like we'll be working together a bit over the next year."

Fleur blushed slightly at the praise as Bill continued. "They actually tightened up the application process two or three years ago, so you must have taken the new version. My tests to get in were pretty brutal, so I'm sure your testing was even tougher. Makes sense that you'd be chosen as your school's champion if you can make it through that gauntlet."

"I did not know the tests had been changed recently, but they were exceedingly difficult," admitted Fleur.

Arthur had begun chatting with Mr. Delacour, who was now insisting he be called Elias. Gabrielle was shyly attempting to use the English she knew with Ginny while their mothers watched with proud smiles. The twins and Ron had joined in the conversation with Bill and Fleur about Curse Breaking.

Harry sat down beside Gabrielle, with Ginny on her other side, and joined in the game of picking up objects and naming them in English as Gabrielle recited the French name. After a couple of minutes, a raucous burst of laughter exploded from the end of the table where the Weasley boys and Fleur had been standing.

It was impossible to know for sure what had occurred to cause such an uproar, but Harry suspected it involved the twins somehow. One of them was leaning on the other for support as laughter left them both unsteady. Ron's grin was evident through his hand that was covering his face, while Bill had collapsed into the seat next to him, his loud laugh echoing through the hall. Fleur had doubled over with one hand on her knee and her other trying to stifle herself. Suddenly, she let out a snort, gasped in embarrassment, then redoubled in laughter as all five descended into hysterics again.

"Your brothers are something else…" said Harry as he noticed several nearby students looking at the group askance.

"You think I'm not aware?" Ginny shot him a look with a raised eyebrow.

"No, I just don't see them together all that often, so it still catches me off guard sometimes."

"Just wait until you see Bill and Charlie together. They're not as devious as the twins, but they've been known to pull some stunts. They'd usually get in trouble for trying to have some wild adventure instead of pulling pranks, but Mum got after the two of them a lot over the years. Now their jobs are both adventurous, which suits them."

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were soon saying their goodbyes to Fleur's parents and beckoning their children to follow as they made their way toward Gryffindor tower. As the group waited for a particularly stubborn staircase to move into position, Bill was whispering conspiratorially with Ginny. Harry couldn't quite hear what they were saying, though he would have sworn Bill's eyes darted to Harry before Ginny smacked him on the arm.

He turned his attention to the twins. "What had you all in stitches earlier? I thought we were going to have to call Madam Pomfrey for you!"

George and Fred both began to smile, but George was the one to answer. "We were regaling Fleur with a few of our best pranks, and she decided that she wanted to one-up us. I wouldn't have expected it from her, since she comes across as kinda…"

"Stuck up and aloof?" offered Fred.

"I was going to say 'French,' but that works, too," replied George with a grin. "Anyway, apparently there's more to her than meets the eye. Miss Delacour wasn't pleased with how Roger Davies was drooling and pawing at her during the Yule Ball, so she planned a prank of her own."

Fred had a look of awe on his face. "She convinced a Ravenclaw fifth year, that girl he dumped near the start of term, to swipe all his underwear from his dorm. Fleur jinxed the hell out of them! George, what all did she say she did to them?"

"She put a mild freezing charm on a pair that only activated if he thought about her and a heating charm on another that activated after he said anything about the Yule Ball. I forget what engaged the sticking charm, but good luck to him if he needs to use the loo when it hits… She said that one wouldn't wear off for an hour!"

"Yeah, yeah, that was excellent!" said Fred, counting out jinxes on his fingers. "My favorite was the itching jinx that goes to work whenever he sits at a classroom desk. No chance of sleeping through a Binns lecture with those on!"

"Ah, but we can't forget her pièce d'résistance!" cried George with a laugh. "If Mr. Davies calls any girl what he said to Fleur after she turned down his amorous advances, whether to their face or behind their back, he will find himself with a small problem, eh Fred?"

"Indeed, and sometimes it's the little things that can give you the most trouble." Both of the twins fell back into giggles as Harry's eyes grew wide.

"Just saying, Harry, but she may be the most dangerous one in the maze tonight," Fred said with a laugh. "I wouldn't cross her if I was you!"

The afternoon passed quickly. The Weasleys and Harry visited Gryffindor tower, spoke with Professor McGonagall and Hagrid, and returned to the Great Hall for an early supper. Harry didn't eat much, even though Mrs. Weasley insisted on piling his plate nearly as full as Ron's. The Weasley contingent remained raucous, even as Harry grew quieter as the evening approached.

After a glance at a nearby clock indicated ten minutes until he was to meet the other champions, Harry nervously rose from the table to leave. A chorus of encouragement washed over him as the Weasleys wished him well, as did a bevvy of Gryffindor students. Many of the Ravenclaws gave him a smile or a thumbs up as he passed, as well as a few Hufflepuffs as Harry greeted Cedric and walked next to him toward the pitch.

As they stepped outside, a rather flushed Hermione and Viktor sprung apart. She rushed past them, stopping only briefly to wish Harry luck as she cast furtive looks back toward Viktor, who looked similarly embarrassed by the intrusion.

The three waited for a few moments while Fleur hurried out the doorway to join them. As the four champions began walking good-naturedly toward the pitch, Dumbledore's voice boomed through the hall.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Students, professors, and guests! If you please, let us gather at the quidditch pitch. The third task is about to begin!"

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Chapter 23: Chapter 23

"Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the final task of the Triwizard Tournament!" Ludo Badman's magically magnified voice boomed out into the warm evening air over the excited murmuring of the crowd. Harry looked over at his three competitors, noting that each had a look of steely determination. In the leadup to the task, he felt rather queasy but was doing his best to put on a brave face.

"The four champions will be seeking the Triwizard Cup that rests in the center of the maze you see before you. Each of the four will start based on their results from the first two tasks. That means that we will begin with Mr. Harry Potter of Hogwarts!" A roar of a cheer erupted from the stands as Harry gave a hesitant wave. "Two minutes later, we will release Mr. Cedric Diggory of Hogwarts into the maze" Another loud cheer echoed into the approaching darkness. Cedric smiled broadly and pointed to a section filled with Hufflepuff students, including a second-year dressed in a badger costume.

"Two minutes after that, Miss Fleur Delacour of Beauxbatons will enter!" The yells for Fleur were not quite as overwhelming as they had been for the two champions playing on their own home turf, but it was still quite loud. The slightly higher pitch of the screams in her corner made Harry think that some of the girls might be rooting for Fleur as a young woman up against three boys. She waved to the crowd and blew a kiss toward her sister, who was seated in the front row of one of the boxes. Harry rolled his eyes as a few students in the vicinity swooned.

"Finally, two minutes later, they will be joined by Mr. Viktor Krum of Durmstrang!" Viktor placed a fist over his heart and nodded toward his mother, sisters, and Hermione, who were cheering as loud as anyone. Radka and Nadejda each had a small flag they were waving with pictures of Viktor drawn on them.

"The task will begin at precisely seven, which is only two minutes away! Let's hear it for your four champions as they wait for the maze to open!" Bagman gave a shout of encouragement as the rest of the crowd followed suit. The deafening noise seemed to be shaking the ground Harry was standing upon and his insides felt tied up in knots.

Green eyes stared at the outer hedge of the maze where an entryway was soon to appear. He thought through the various spells that he'd been going over with his friends and professors, mentally checking off which would be most helpful in which situations. Without warning, Harry felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Good luck, 'Arry," said Fleur with a smile. Cedric walked forward to clap Harry's other shoulder and Viktor completed the circle. "And to you all. We will be competitors for only anuzzer 'our, but I hope we can all be friends beyond that."

"Hear, hear!" replied Cedric warmly. "Whoever comes out on top has to buy the first round of butterbeers, yeah?"

Viktor nodded and gave an affirmative grunt. Though his expression was serious, Harry saw warmth in his dark eyes. "Glad to get to call you friends, too. See you all afterward!"

Harry took a deep breath as the noise of the crowd built to a crescendo. Suddenly, the hedge opened in front of them as Bagman's magnified voice shouted, "And we're off!" He sprinted into the maze, looking back just in time to see the other three champions staring in at him as the hedge began to close.

Another dead end.

Harry skidded to a stop as his path was once again blocked. He rested one hand on his knee as he bent over, gasping for breath, while he glanced at the watch on his wand hand. It read 7:40. He'd been frantically traversing the maze for nearly three-fourths of an hour already and he was beginning to tire from running.

He had been surprised by how few obstacles he had encountered thus far. He'd had a run-in with a gigantic Blast-Ended Skrewt, but had been able to use a few well-placed impedimentas to immobilize the behemoth for long enough to make a sprint for a safer path.

A darkly-cloaked figure had scared Harry half to death a few minutes later, but he had thought on his feet enough to realize the wraith couldn't actually be a dementor. With a cry of "Ridikulus!" Harry turned the Boggart version of a dementor into a black balloon. It deflated noisily as it rocketed back and forth between the hedges before vanishing into smoke as Harry laughed at it.

Soon afterward, he'd barreled around a corner and into Viktor's back as he stared at two diverging paths. The older boy had wheeled around with wand in hand as Harry tumbled to the ground, but his expression calmed once he realized the collision had been accidental. Viktor pulled Harry up off the ground before they each took a different path.

The most dire moment had come when some sort of charm flipped his world upside down with his head dangling precariously over an inky black expanse of sky. Harry had debated internally whether to send up red sparks, but he'd forced himself to step forward, which broke whatever spell had been placed on the ground he'd walked over.

Harry shook his head as he muttered, "Point Me!" As best he could ascertain, the center of the maze should be further down the dead-end path. He aimed his wand at the hedge blocking his way and shouted, "Incendio!" The leaves burst into flames as thick plumes of smoke wafted into the air.

On the other side of the hedge, Harry tried to get his bearings. He thought that if he could keep going southward, he should be nearing the cup's resting place. He set out in that direction only to have Fleur burst through a hedge just a few feet in front of him. Her blonde hair was full of leaves and twigs, her clothes were torn, and she had a wild and terrified look in her eyes as she landed hard on the grass, pointing her wand at the hole in the hedge she'd jumped through. Her chest heaved as she stared from whence she came.

"Fleur! Are you alright?" Harry took a few steps toward the girl before she wheeled around to turn her wand at him. He stopped in his tracks.

"Was zat you?!" she snarled as she aimed her wand at his chest. A vein in her forehead was pulsing and her voice dripped with venom.

Harry had no idea what to do. The woman before him was nothing less than chilling.

"I'm not sure what you mean, Fleur… Did I do what?"

"Expelliarmus!" she shrieked, and Harry felt his wand slip from his fingers before he could react. She thrust herself back onto her feet, caught Harry's wand from midair, and leveled her wand at him again. "What were you casting just now?"

"I used an incendio on the hedge back there to make it through! Before that, I used a spell to figure out what direction to go next! What the hell is going on?!"

The French girl stared at him for a long moment with her piercing glare before her shoulders sunk. With a flick of her wrist, she sent Harry's wand back to him.

"I apologize, 'Arry," said Fleur, her voice thick with emotion. "You remember zat I am part-Veela, no? Well, Veela have been attacked by lustful wizards throughout 'eestory. Most girls with Veela blood are taught from a young age to resist ze imperius curse because it 'as been used against our kind so often."

Harry had never heard any of this before and was confused about where Fleur was going with this explanation.

"A few moments ago, I felt the signs that someone was trying to put me under an imperius," she shuddered as she hugged her arms around herself. "I have not felt zat since I was Gabrielle's age. A wizard tried to use it on me when I strayed away from my parents." The full implications of her story began to sink in for Harry, as a look of sadness descended on her.

"Fleur, I'm so sorry," was the best Harry could get out. He looked to the opening in the hedge where she had come through. "Are you okay? Do you think it's safe to go on?"

She let out a small sniffle and wiped a stray tear from her eye. "I sink I am alright. There is a chance that I mistook some uzzer spell for an imperius, since I cannot believe ze judges would allow such a curse as part of ze task, no?"

"I can't imagine that being part of it. It's an Unforgiveable Curse, there's no way."

"I have been working on my legilimency and occlumency in preparation for my work at Gringotts, so perhaps something less sinister tripped my alarms," she replied. "Even so, I was able to see zat you were telling ze truth. Sorry for attacking you like zat…"

Harry laughed ruefully, though his interest was piqued by her ability to know he was telling the truth. "Well, no harm done. If you're okay and I'm okay, think we should try to finish finding the cup?"

Fleur nodded once and then looked at her surroundings. A path split off the long corridor they were standing in. "You choose which direction you will go, and I will go a different way."

"Before you came crashing in, I was just going to keep heading straight on this way," Harry indicated his plan.

"Magnifique! I prefer this uzzer path, anyway. Au revoir!" She waved to him as they hurried their own ways.

According to his watch, Harry had been stuck sorting out the Sphinx's riddle for nearly eight minutes. Still, all things considered, he felt like he was nearing the center of the maze and that he'd made decent time by solving the puzzle instead of backtracking around for a different way in.

As Harry rushed forward with renewed vigor, he caught sight of a body lying still in the grass where several paths converged ahead of him.


The body's limbs were splayed out in all directions, and there was a small pool of blood seeping out from a nasty gash on the torso. Cedric made no move as Harry sprinted with all the speed he could muster to the Hufflepuff's side.

"Cedric? Can you hear me?"

Harry swore as he grabbed the boy's shoulder and turned him onto his back. Cedric's face was ghostly pale and his eyes gazed without seeing into the darkness above them. As Harry crouched, he could see a huge rip in Cedric's robes, which were covered by the blood that had been oozing from a deep chest wound and something else that smelled foul. Hermione had insisted that Harry learn a healing spell during the last month, just in case, but he knew this was far beyond anything he could mend.

A crashing sound emanated from a different path than the one Harry had used. He tore his eyes away from Cedric just in time to see a massive spider scuttling down the side of one of the hedges, its beady eyes focused on the two humans in the path.

"Stupefy!" cried Harry as he aimed at the fast-approaching spider. Before it was struck, the great beast leaped from one hedge wall to the other, losing no speed as it scurried their way. "Stupefy! Stupefy!" The spider dodged the first spell while the second deflected harmlessly off its tough exoskeleton as it zeroed in on them. The panic that arose in Harry would be enough to ensure he never mocked Ron for a fear of spiders.


Harry's head turned to see the figure of Viktor Krum standing behind him, wand drawn. His spell struck the massive arachnid square in its face. Harry thought it must be a powerfully magical creature, because the spell barely knocked it off course, though it was moving less quickly.

"Viktor, Cedric's hurt bad! We gotta keep that thing away from him!"

"We vill! Shoot your strongest stupefy vith me! Ready? Aim!"

Harry pointed his wand at the still advancing spider and bellowed, "STUPEFY!" as Viktor did the same. Harry's spell struck first, causing the spider to rear back and away from the pain. That exposed its underbelly, which made a cracking noise as Viktor's spell collided with the joint between body segments. The spider released an unearthly screech, unlike anything Harry had heard in his life, then fell to the ground. Its legs kept moving and grasping, trying to pull itself toward the hedges.

Harry stared at the twitching mass while Viktor knelt down. "He has a pulse, but it is very veak. He needs help, fast!"

Without hesitating, Harry pointed his wand skyward. A shower of red sparks burst forth. "That should get someone here quick. I'll stay with him if you want to go on ahead."

"No. There may be more dangers nearby. I vill wait until he is safe."

Harry released a long breath. "Good. That thing just about scared the life out of me, and I dunno if I could have held it off on my own. Think it's what might have injured him?"

"Could be. Haff you seen Fleur? She may be at the Cup by now."

"Ran into her about fifteen minutes ago. We ended up going different directions, but I got stopped by a Sphinx right afterward. It said there was a long way around, so I think she might have been going that way."

The Bulgarian looked at his own watch and muttered something in his native language. "It has been almost an hour. There is not much time left. Once Cedric is safe, we must hurry."

"Yeah, sounds good," replied Harry, looking down the paths that diverged to and fro. "Since you swooped in to save the day, why don't you choose your direction and I'll go a different way?"

Viktor looked at Harry appraisingly. "You helped me first in the lake and you offered to stay with Cedric while I went ahead. Now this. You are a good man."

"It's not a big deal," said Harry as he averted his eyes from the piercing stare of the older boy. "You've made Hermione really happy this term and you haven't complained about her taking so much time to help me get ready for the tasks. You're a good bloke and it's just the right thing to do, y'know?"

"Hmm. Before I saw you two and the spider, I was running down this path," he pointed with his wand. "I vill go there once he is safe."

"Great. I was thinking about the one next to yours, so maybe that means we're both on the right track."

A loud swear sounded from their left, and they saw Alastor Moody stump his way to them. "One of you sent up sparks? What're ya doing here instead of finding the Cup?"

"Professor Moody!" exclaimed Harry as relief washed over him. "Cedric's been hurt really bad. Can you get him to Madam Pomfrey?"

The auror's magical eye swiveled from Harry to Viktor, then to Cedric. "He's in a bad way. I'll take him, but you two need to get going."

The champions nodded and both turned to leave before Harry remembered something.

"Wait, Professor!" He turned to find Moody standing beside Cedric's body with his wand drawn. Viktor had taken a few steps toward his chosen path, but stopped at Harry's words. "I saw Fleur earlier and she said she thought she'd felt someone cast an imperius curse on her. She wasn't certain, but I thought it would be worth you telling Professor Dumbledore. Constant vigilance, right?"

"Good lad, you're right to tell me. I'll get Diggory to Madam Pomfrey then go speak to Dumbledore. Off you get!" Harry and Viktor watched as the man levitated Cedric's body and followed it as hedges opened before their retreating figures. With a thumbs up to his counterpart, Harry plunged forward down his own path while Viktor took his.

Less than ten minutes later, Harry was doing his best to ignore the smoldering remains of his left sleeve as he raced forward, not at all sorry that he'd done some serious damage the the damned skrewt that almost got the jump on him. His legs burned with the exertion but he was picking up more and more sounds that were causing extra nervousness. Something that seemed both large and exceedingly powerful was up ahead, and Harry knew he was getting closer to it with each step. The ground shook beneath him as he hurried down another short path until an opening to his left revealed a large clearing. Just a few paces from the center of the clearing stood a huge earthen golem looming over the figure of Fleur Delacour.

With what appeared to be herculean effort, she fired two stunners at the beast, but the light of her spells was extinguished within the dirt and muck of its hide. It did take notice of her attack, and a gutteral cry of anger escaped its gaping maw as it swung to attack with its other hand. Fleur narrowly dodged the blow.

Harry had come to an abrupt stop as he beheld the behemoth, which was nearly as tall as the hedges, but quickly regained his bearings. He ran toward the golem's left to flank it and called out, "Oi, Fleur! You want a hand or should I wait my turn?"

Her first response was one of the most foul French words he knew, but she nodded before moving to its right. "Stunners do not work, nor cutting curses! Ze Cup is inside of eet!" She aimed a spell that he didn't recognize at it's midsection, but Harry couldn't ascertain whether it had any effect. Its dark red eyes followed her as she stayed just beyond the reach of its powerful arms.

"Glacius!" cried Harry, aiming for the leg nearest to him. The spell struck true, and the golem wobbled slightly as its lower extremity was encrusted with ice, but with a great stomp the ice fell away, leaving the golem looking barely worse for wear.

The contours of the golem's right hand began to change as soil and mud flowed from the arm, elongating into some some of weapon. The monster reared back and flung a spear of its own creation at the French witch.

Fleur realized the danger too late. Her dive to her left prevented the projectile from hitting her directly, but Harry winced as her saw her knee buckle backwards as it was struck. She let out a long, loud scream into the night.

The golem took a large step toward the fallen champion, then another. Its right arm and hand were smaller and less formidable now that it had flung so much of itself at an opponent. With another long stride, the beast was nearly to where Fleur lay, her leg clearly broken. With a cry of pain and anger, she pointed her wand up and cast red sparks.

Red light bathed the clearing with an eerie glow as Harry saw Viktor skid to a stop as he entered from a pathway to the right. The earthen giant watched the red sparks fly upward, then took another step toward Fleur as it drew back its other arm like a hammer. Panic flashed across her face as she tried to scramble backward, dragging her injured leg across the ground.

Harry hadn't consciously decided to act, but he found himself running toward the golem at full speed. Without looking to confirm, he called out at the top of his lungs, "Viktor! Impedimenta together! Go!"


The mountain of a golem stood frozen in place for a long moment before it began to slowly twitch.

Harry rushed to Fleur, arriving just after Viktor. "We've gotta get you out of here!"

Viktor was nodding "Those spells von't hold long!"

She grabbed Harry by the collar. "Do you know how to cast bombarda?"

Harry's mind raced to a particularly grueling training session alongside Professor Flitwick soon after learning about the third task. He hadn't been able to explode the targets as well as he would have liked when the diminutive professor explained them in class earlier in the term, but after some one-on-one coaching, Flitwick had been impressed enough to warn him not to use it unless absolutely necessary.

"Yeah, I do, but we don't have much time. Someone should be here for you soon, we just need to…"

"'Elp me up! NOW!" Tears were fully flowing down her dirty cheeks, but the look of determination in her eyes brooked no disagreement. Harry and Viktor each grabbed under an arm and hoisted her to her feet. She leaned on Victor as she trained her wand at the golem. "We cast on trois! Un! Deux! TROIS!"

The three champions fired their curses as the previous spell wore off of the golem. Three balls of neon purple collided with its chest before exploding, sending soil, mud, and debris careening in all directions. Most of the remains were blown into smithereens, though a few small bits fell to the ground harmlessly like a muddy rain. The golem's oversized head was the only recognizable part left. With the enchantment dispelled, the dirt and muck lost its shape as it melted back into the quidditch pitch, leaving the gleaming Triwizard Cup somehow pristine on the ground in front of them.

Fleur slumped back to the ground, grabbing Harry's hand to steady herself. She let out a gasp of pain as the movement aggravated her injury.

"Someone should be here soon," reassured Viktor. "Is there anything you need?"

Her face was stuck in a pained grimace, but she managed to shake her head. "Non, merci. One of you should grab ze Cup and end this. I am ready to be done with this damned tournament…"

"You beat us both to the clearing," replied Harry. "And we all took down the golem together. You've got just as much claim to it as either of us."

"I cast my sparks, which means I should have been removed from the task," argued Fleur. "Exploding zat beast was quite satisfying, but I cannot claim to have won today. Please, one of you should just go do it." She grit her teeth as another wave of pain shot through her.

Viktor looked to Harry. "Perhaps she is correct. If we end the task, maybe a healer can help Fleur sooner." His piercing dark eyes seemed to be searching for something in Harry. "You should take it."

"Wait, what?" Harry exclaimed. "No way! You saved me from that spider a few minutes ago, you deserve the win!"

"And you saved me and Her-My-Oh-Nee in the lake. Do not vaste time, just go end this."

Harry didn't want to argue back and forth with Fleur injured, but taking the win for himself seemed wrong. Then, like a bolt of lightning, the answer struck him.

"Together." Harry had made up his mind, his jaw clinched. "We grab it together, agreed?"

Viktor shook his head while rubbing his brow as if he were appeasing an obstinate child, but quickly agreed.

"Accio Cup!"

The cup shot from the ground to where Viktor and Harry knelt over Fleur. Each boy raised a hand to grasp a handle, which glowed blue as it connected with skin.

Harry felt a familiar tug behind his naval as the world around him vanished.

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Chapter 24: Chapter 24

Harry stumbled as his feet struck the hard ground. The cup rolled a few feet away, resting against a mound of recently overturned soil. His green eyes darted around the unfamiliar landscape shrouded in the darkness of twilight. Large, grey stones jutted from the earth, occasionally marked with ugly statues. Before his mind had time to register what it meant, he heard a voice from behind him say, "A graveyard."

Viktor hadn't fallen to the ground upon landing, but he looked just as troubled by the setting as Harry felt.

"Do you think it's a final challenge for whoever grabbed the cup?" asked Harry as he rose to his feet and dusted off his pants.

"I don't know. Perhaps, but this does not feel right." His eyes narrowed as he took in his surroundings. "I think we should stay together. Keep on guard."

Harry nodded before pointing his wand at his shoes and casting the footstep-silencing charm Professor Moody had used against him in their training. Viktor gave him a nod, and Harry cast it again on his friend's feet. They crouched down a bit and moved uphill through the graves, careful to dart from one to the next quickly and quietly.

Viktor was turning around to say something when Harry's scar seemed to burst with pain. A scream escaped his lips. He fell to his knees, his wand clattering off a weather-worn tombstone as his hands sprang to his forehead.

A high, cold voice cut through the air. "Fool! I told you I heard the portkey! Find him at once! NOW!"

The pain pulsating from Harry's scar was enough to have him writhing on the ground until a knee came down on his chest, nearly knocking the wind out of him. A rough hand covered his mouth, stifling his cry. Dark eyes filled with worry met his gaze.

Viktor's whisper was barely audible. "Stay quiet." It took all the concentration he could muster, but Harry reined in his will to yell out in pain. He even managed to quiet his ragged breathing so that it wouldn't give them away as he heard Viktor cast a hasty disillusionment charm on them both.

Less than a minute later, a short man with a pointed nose cautiously passed into their line of sight, his watery eyes darting to and fro as he searched the graves. A mixture of anger and revulsion roiled inside Harry as he beheld the man responsible for giving up his parents to Voldemort. Viktor had loosened his grip over Harry's mouth slightly but felt the frown forming nonetheless.

In a hushed whisper, he asked, "You know him?" Harry nodded just enough to indicate to Viktor before he lowered his hand.

"He wants to kill me," Harry's words were so soft that Viktor could hardly hear them. "He got my parents killed."

"Attack? Or stay hidden?"

The fear and anger Harry felt in the moment made it hard to think clearly. They outnumbered Wormtail at the moment, but they didn't know if the voice of Voldemort meant that there could be others who were as of yet unseen. They were at a disadvantage by not knowing their location or the surroundings well. On the other hand, if they could catch Wormtail, Harry felt certain that Sirius would be exonerated and able to walk free. He knew capturing an adult wizard who'd been working with Voldemort wouldn't be easy, but he couldn't help thinking this might be worth it.

"Can you apparate?" Harry whispered, his green eyes staring unrelentingly at his parents' former friend.

"Yes, but only for myself. I cannot bring another with me."

"Damn! I don't know how yet." Harry furiously thought through ideas of how to both escape and take Wormtail captive. "What if you apparate back to Hogwarts, then get Dumbledore or some other professor to come back to get me?"

Viktor scowled before whispering, "I von't leave you here alone with a man who vants to kill you. And I don't know how I could explain to anyone vhere ve are." He held up a hand as the man looked in their direction, but the disillusionment charm was working well. The man muttered, "Lumos!" and cautiously tiptoed further down the path away from the hidden boys. "Also, Her-My-Own-Nee said we could not apparate to the school."

Harry reluctantly nodded. "My scar hurts worse than it ever has before, which always seems to mean Voldemort is nearby. I really want to capture the man who walked by, but I think we hafta figure out a way back."

"I doubt there is a working floo nearby…" Viktor's eyes followed the bright wand tip of Wormtail as he made a turn down a path parallel to their hiding spot. Suddenly, Viktor's body became rigid. Harry tore his eyes from Wormtail to see a slight smile on Viktor's face.

"The Cup!" he exclaimed before clapping his free hand over his mouth. The wand light down the path shone in their general direction as neither of the boys even dared to breathe. The man began slowly treading in their direction, though the light of the wand was not directed at their hiding place.

"The Cup vas a portkey," said Viktor in a nearly inaudible whisper. "It may bring us back."

"Master!" called out Wormtail as the two hidden teens froze. "I think I found something!"

As soon as he heard the man's voice, Harry covered his mouth with his hands and braced himself. Sure enough, the pain in his scar redoubled and it took every bit of will not to succumb to the pain that wracked him as the high, cold voice replied, "Assistance is coming."

Wormtail pointed the light right towards them as Harry's involuntary twitches and movements stirred the dead leaves. "I can't see him, but I think he's somewhere over here. He might be under an invisibility cloak!"

Harry knew he didn't have time to be angry at the moment, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he thought that this betrayal would throw Sirius into a fit of rage. If he survived long enough to recount it to his godfather, that is.

Wormtail's light was trained in their general location, but Harry felt as though the man hadn't quite surmised where they were huddled against a weathered gravestone yet. He began to raise his wand to point at the slowly approaching man when a new voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Yessss, he wassss correct. But there are two hidden, Massster…"

Before Harry could move, he heard the voice from before say, "Capture them!"

An enormous snake rapidly slithered from behind a nearby grave directly toward Harry and Viktor. The surprised Bulgarian swore as he fired spells in rapid succession at the beast, but each either missed or glanced off its scaly hide. Harry's wand trained on the serpent, too, but his cutting curse had no effect. The snake struck with a hiss, pumping venom deep into Viktor Krum's thigh.

Viktor let out a cry of anger and pain. He gave up trying to use spells on the serpent, instead punching it with wild abandon. It released his leg from its mouth before retreating a few feet away, where it coiled and eyed the two warily.

"Stupefy!" came the voice of Wormtail. As the light sped towards him, Harry realized that the disillusionment had been dispelled. Then, the world around him went black.

The sharp pain in Harry's forehead caused his head to jolt back, where it collided with some sort of flat stone. He hissed at the pain in his head before noticing the throbbing in other parts of his body. His lungs strained to draw breath against the ropes lashed across his chest. He was fairly certain he was more bruised than he'd been while fighting in the maze, and a trickle of blood was oozing down from his right ear and onto his shoulder. Another more freely-flowing cut on his arm was dripping onto the ground. His vision was blurry, but that seemed to be more due to his lack of glasses than anything else.

Harry squinted as he surveyed the scene before him. A tall, black-robed figure stood over a small, whimpering man. From the sound of the smaller man's cries, Harry knew it was Wormtail, thanking the tall man for something. The faint pop of apparition alerted Harry that more wizards and witches were gathering. They formed a line in front of the tall man, and even Harry's poor vision was enough to understand that these newcomers were dressed just as the Death Eaters at the Quidditch World Cup had been.

To his left in the glow of the firelight, Harry saw that Viktor had been lashed to the neighboring gravestone. The young man seemed to be much paler than usual and he was bleeding profusely from an already-swollen wound on his thigh. As he coughed, a frothy trickle of blood dribbled down his chin.

"Viktor!" Harry said quietly, hoping not to attract attention from the gathering Death Eaters. "Viktor, what happened?"

He coughed again before looking toward Harry, his eyes looking vacant.

"The man who captured us tied us here," said Viktor with some difficulty. "There vas a giant snake and a child that looked like evil itself. I did not understand the potion, but the man put in bone from the grave you are tied to, blood from your arm where he cut you, and his own hand into the cauldron then dropped in the child. Out came the one standing there." He inclined his drooping head toward the tall man facing the Death Eaters. "I think the Dark Lord has returned."

"That is precisely correct!" Harry watched as the figure from the cauldron wheeled around to face them.

"How kind of you to bring young Mr. Potter up to speed while I welcomed my Death Eaters. You are Viktor Krum, a student of one of my former followers, Igor Karkaroff." Voldemort's red eyes narrowed as he spat the headmaster's name. He sauntered past the fire toward the grave where Viktor was tied. "Perhaps you are wiser than he, as you are definitely more skilled. It would take quite the wizard to make it here with my faithful servant rigging the competition to allow Mr. Potter to reach the portkey first.

"So I will offer you a choice… Will you serve me loyally? Or will you perish?"

Harry couldn't see the expressions on the now-unmasked Death Eaters behind Voldemort, but the determination on Viktor's face was visible to Harry even without glasses.

"Karkaroff did not speak of you much." Viktor's voice shook slightly as he spoke. "Vhat does it mean to follow you?"

"My followers seek a better world, where those of us with pure magical blood take our rightful place."

"And in this better vorld, vhat happens to the Muggleborns?"

Voldemort sneered as he moved directly in front of Krum.

"Whatever we want."

With his head hanging, Viktor coughed again. Blood and the snake's venom dripped from his chin onto the hard ground. He lifted his heavily-lidded eyes to meet the red ones.

"My heart belongs to a Muggleborn. I vould not see the light of her eyes lost."

Voldemort cried out, "Crucio!" Harry watched his friend in horror as a great chorus of jeers arose from the Death Eaters. Viktor thrashed against the ropes binding him to the gravestone until Voldemort's wand lowered.

"A small taste of your alternative should you decline my generous offer," said Voldemort. Viktor hung limp against his restraints.

"Let him go!" yelled Harry as he strained against his ropes. "He's not even who you wanted! You wanted me, right?"

"Harry Potter! And I thought you might snooze throughout my triumphant reemergence." Voldemort turned to the boy with a malevolent smile. "It is true that I had planned to bring only you to serve as witness to my rebirth. My faithful servant at Hogwarts had to put in quite a lot of work to ensure someone as undeserving as you made their way through the tasks well enough to get to the portkey first, and even with all that aid you still managed only a tie. But that serves my purposes well, as it would be a shame to let such a gift go to waste, especially since you seem to care what happens to him…"

Red eyes maintained a stare deep into Harry's while the Dark Lord retrained his wand on Viktor. "I could torture him while you watch… or perhaps force him to turn his wand upon you?" Voldemort's brow furrowed as he peered deep into the green eyes of his enemy. "Ah, I see. You hope to delay me in order to give time for someone to save you both? Or even just him? You really have spent too much time around the old fool…"

He cast his gaze over his shoulder at the Death Eaters, who were listening in rapt attention. "Young Master Potter is holding out hope that someone might come to save him, or at least his pitiful friend here. Shall I help rid him of these last vestiges of hope?"

Without waiting for an answer, Voldemort wheeled around and pointed his wand at Viktor. "Avada Kedavra!"

A green light shot from the wand, colliding with Viktor's chest at point-blank range. The force of the spell knocked him backward into the gravestone, cracking it down the middle and side-to-side from the force. When the dust settled, the crumpled form of Viktor Krum lay unmoving on the broken stone, as lifeless as the rocks on which he lay.

Hot tears streaked down Harry's cheeks as he took in the scene. He hadn't had time to yell a warning or offer a deal. He had simply watched as his friend's life was extinguished.

"Now then…" Voldemort walked nonchalantly to stand in front of Harry. "Wormtail kept suggesting we use the blood from any wizard who opposed me. 'Blood of the enemy' could certainly refer to any number of fools too blind to see the folly of standing against Lord Voldemort. Yet I knew it had to be you."

Voldemort was addressing Harry, but it was clear that his audience was hanging on every word. The Death Eaters were all eager to learn.

"The ancient magical protection afforded to you by your mother was powerful, and far be it from me to pass on such an enchantment. When Quirrell touched you, the blood protection on you consumed him and caused agony I had not felt since our first meeting. But now…" Voldemort's words had no effect on Harry, who was still staring at Viktor's body. A hand reached out and grabbed him by the chin, pulling him to physically move Harry's gaze to Voldemort's eyes. "Now that protection lives in me."

Pain shot through Harry like electricity as Voldemort began to laugh. "For over a decade now, the world has called you 'The Boy Who Lived.' Coddled by Dumbledore and lacking any real talent, yet somehow able to thwart my plans to retrieve the Philosopher's Stone and defeat my Basilisk. Perhaps even some of my Death Eaters wondered if you would be my ultimate downfall…"

Voldemort looked to his gathered followers, as most of them grew paler. Their uncomfortable stares wandered as red eyes narrowed on them, one by one. He slowly returned his gaze to Harry.

"The fools should have known that I have plumbed the depths of magic deeper than any who have gone before me. No mere child could possibly hope to undo the greatness of Lord Voldemort! But just so that each of you knows for certain which of us is worthy of their faith, I will offer him an opportunity to prove himself.

"Wormtail!" called Voldemort over his shoulder. "Bring him his wand. Let's see if this 'Boy Who Lived' can stand against the greatest wizard to ever live!"

The lens on his right side was cracked, but Harry could finally see his surroundings mostly clearly as he stood opposite the fire from Voldemort. The pressure from gripping his wand tightly was causing the wound on his arm to worsen. The blood flow had slowed while he was tied to the gravestone, but Wormtail's careless removal of the ropes had reopened the cut and it was again seeping blood down to his wrist.

The path leading to where Viktor and Harry had landed after the portkey was to Harry's right, beyond the stone where he had been tied. On his left, a menacing line of Death Eaters looked on at the spectacle. Harry noticed Lucius Malfoy standing between two intimidatingly large men who he assumed must be the fathers of Crabbe and Goyle.

"Now then, Harry Potter. You have been taught how to duel?" Voldemort's eyes gleamed with anticipation in the firelight.

Harry thought back to his disastrous evening in the Dueling Club back in second year, when he'd watched Professor Snape disarm Professor Lockhart before being set to duel against the younger Malfoy. That ended with Harry talking a conjured snake into not attacking another student, but then everyone thought he was the Heir of Slytherin because he spoke Parselmouth.

"We begin a duel with a bow," said Voldemort, who inclined his back ever-so-slightly, though he kept his snake-like face focused on Harry. "Oh, come now! You must observe the niceties… Even Dumbledore would want you to show some manners in your last moments. Show some respect!"

Despite the order, Harry remained motionless. Voldemort's sneer and the laughs of the Death Eaters would not budge him. If this was the way he was going to die, Harry thought, he wasn't going to play along with their games.

The sneer turned to a scowl. "I said BOW!" With the flick of the Dark Lord's wand, Harry felt as if a great invisible hand had grabbed him by the spine, forcing him into a deep bow that almost caused him to topple over. The Death Eaters howled with laughter as Harry stood back up straight.

"And now," drawled Voldemort. "We duel!"

Before Harry had a chance to dodge or cast a defensive spell, Voldemort's wand was trained on him as he cried, "Crucio!" Pain enveloped him as he fell to the ground, writhing. He felt his scar would burst from the white-hot searing pain that took hold of his entire body. The pounding of his head and ringing in his ears drowned out the cackling of the Death Eaters.

Then the pain evaporated just as quickly as it had arrived. As Harry regained his faculties, he realized that he was curled in the fetal position on the ground. An occasional involuntary muscle spasm seized him as he attempted to regain his footing. He stumbled sideways into a blonde Death Eater who snarled at him as he shoved Harry back toward the fire and Voldemort.

"A small reprieve… Tell me, Harry Potter, did that hurt you? Would you like for me to stop?"

The tears in the corners of Harry's eyes had stopped falling for the moment. He knew that he had no chance against Voldemort, let alone the thirty or so adult wizards and witches in Death Eater garb watching. But despite everything, he was resolved not to give them any additional enjoyment. They wanted him to beg and plead for mercy, but he was going to deny them that.

Just like Viktor had a few minutes prior.

"When I ask a question, I expect an answer," said Voldemort in a voice dripping with hatred yet hardly louder than a whisper. "Do you want another Cruciatus or not? Answer me! Imperio!"

Suddenly, the pain, frustration, and fear left Harry. It was as if all his thoughts had been wiped clean off of a blackboard, and there was nothing left but a quiet voice entreating him. …just say please no... say no… tell him you don't want any more… just say no…

But a strong voice from the deep reaches of his mind began to oppose the voice. I won't do it. There's no reason to answer.

…just answer no…

I will not.

…just answer no…

I won't!

…just answer…


The words rocketed from Harry's lips as his chest was heaving, his knuckles white as they gripped his wand with all his strength.

The chorus of laughter from the Death Eaters halted. Harry lifted his head to take in the form of a thoroughly-perplexed Voldemort, though he hid his reaction immediately.

"Now, now, those are very poor manners, indeed." Voldemort twirled his wand between his fingers with a flourish. "It seems like the Cruciatus affects you more than the Imperius. Let's try the first again, shall we?"

Light from his wand sped at Harry again, but the younger wizard anticipated it well. With the lightning-quick speed of a seeker dodging a bludger, Harry leapt to the ground behind a nearby gravestone as the spell passed him by harmlessly.

"Hiding from me, Harry Potter? Surely you understand that there is nowhere safe from Lord Voldemort." The Dark Lord shot a curse at the gravestone, which exploded a moment after Harry darted behind another monument. "I challenged you to a wizard's duel, not a game of hide and seek. If you aren't willing to abide by the rules, I will be forced to cut the duel, and your life, short."

As Harry listened to the quiet footsteps approaching his hiding place, a thought burned itself into his mind. He would not die crouching and cowering like a child. His mother and father had died standing against this monster, and he would do no less. He gripped his wand tightly, ignoring the wound on his arm, as he readied himself for the end. His training with Professor Moody flashed through his head as the nearby footsteps slowed.

Harry jumped to his feet as he whirled around, his wand pointed directly at the imposing figure of Voldemort. With as much strength as he could muster, he bellowed, "Expelliarmus!" as his foe cried, "Avada Kedavra!"

Red light flew at green for a moment before they struck each other with a mighty crack. Instead of the oblivion Harry anticipated, his wand arm began to shake violently. He brought his other hand to steady the wand, which appeared to be connected to Voldemort's by some sort of golden beam of light, almost like a thread. The Dark Lord's wand appeared to be straining against his grip, too.

Despite his surprise and the fear that still gripped him, Harry couldn't help but think that the beam of golden thread reminded him a bit of the rogue memory from a few months ago. Unexplained golden strands seemed to be finding him again and again.

Harry had almost no time to dwell on this mystery before he felt his feet begin to lift up off of the ground. The golden thread lifted both combatants high into the air, then somehow shattered itself to create a dome of light that encircled them both. The beam remained connected to both wands, and Harry's surprise did not prevent him from noticing the shock and perhaps fear in Voldemort's eyes.

Many of the Death Eaters were just as confounded by the new situation. Several drew their wands and hesitantly aimed at Harry or the dome of light itself. Others called out to their master for instructions.

"NO! Do nothing!" cried Voldemort to his followers as he attempted to steady his wand. They swarmed around beneath them like crocodiles anticipating a falling victim, but they heeded his order. "Nothing unless I command it!"

Voldemort was straining against the beam and looked to be trying to wrest his wand away from the light, but Harry held tightly and the beam seemed to almost imperceptively strengthen. At that moment, a beautiful otherworldly sound rang out across the cemetery. The sound swelled in Harry's heart as he tried to recall where he had heard it previously until a similarly bleak moment of despair in the Chamber of Secrets flashed into his mind. It was phoenix song.

The sound of hopefulness echoed in his ears and in his heart. It was both strong and tender, lifting his spirits and glowing with promise. The song wasn't just around him; it was inside him, too. Somehow, the song seemed to be encouraging him not to give up. That there was a chance to survive.

Don't break the connection!

As soon as Harry understood the instruction, it became all the harder to maintain. His wand became shaking more fervently and it was all Harry could do to hold it with both hands. Beads of bright light were forming at the end of Harry's wand, and Voldemort's, too. The beads were slowly sliding down the strand of light where they collided in the middle.

With a twinge of fear, he saw that the gathered beads at the middle point had moved slightly toward him. His wand pitched and bucked as the beads shifted more toward Harry, and his wand was heating up from the strain. Harry felt as though his Holly wand would catch fire at any moment.

With the phoenix song swirling in his head, he summoned as much concentration as he could muster and pushed back through his wand. Voldemort was yelling to his followers not to interfere as the beads of light slowed to a standstill, then began to backtrack toward the Dark Lord. Harry's face was scrunched up in concentration, but he noticed Voldemort's startled look when the beads of light crossed the midway point between them. The wand was becoming less hot in Harry's hand as the beads moved further from him.

With renewed vigor, Harry forced all of his strength into pushing the light further, even though he had no idea what doing so would accomplish. Still, he redoubled his push until one of the beads was mere inches from the end of his opponent's wand. With clenched teeth, Harry grunted with effort as he forced the bead forward.

The light was absorbed into Voldemort's wand, which emitted what sounded like a shriek of pain. Its owner looked down at it in shock as what appeared to be densely packed smoke poured from the wand, forming the shape of a smokey figure flowing out. First a dark head and torso, then arms and legs, until a ghostly Viktor Krum floated in front of a shocked Voldemort. It swooped next to the golden thread toward Harry until it was but a few feet from him and said in an ethereal whisper, "Hold on, Harry!"

He hadn't been planning on releasing his hold on the wand, but hearing the command from Viktor's… Ghost? Shade? Apparition? Harry had no idea what the smoke-version of Viktor actually was, but his resolve to hold tight was buoyed by the return of something approximating an ally.

Voldemort, on the other hand, looked flabbergasted by the intrusion of his recent victim. Another screech from his wand heralded the emergence of a smoke-ghost hand, which fluttered around the golden thread for a moment before dissipating. Though Harry had no idea what this all meant, he took some comfort in seeing the bewildered look on Voldemort's face, which he took to mean that he had not expected any of this, either.

Another bead entered Volldemort's wand, accompanied by another unearthly scream as more smokey substance billowed forth. It formed into a shape of an elderly man whom Harry had never seen in real life, yet he recognized him as the Muggle caretaker from one of his dreams. Frank Bryce's smokey figure glided to Harry, saying, "He's a real wizard, eh?"

Harry's eyes darted from Voldemort to the floating apparition then back. "That one killed me, he did… Fight him, boy!"

The figure of a woman was now emerging from Voldemort's wand, and soon Viktor and Frank were joined by the ghost of Bertha Jorkins. "You can do this!" she cried. "Don't give in, Harry! Don't let him win!"

Death Eaters were whispering to each other in hushed tones below them as they floated in the air above. Harry could see that Voldemort was straining to regain control of his wand, but another bead of light connected before he could stop it. A lump gathered in his throat as Harry anticipated who he thought the next victim of Voldemort's wand would be.

A young woman who looked to be in her early twenties poured out from the wand as it emitted a screech. Harry's jaw became slack as the smoke formed into a visage of his mother, who moved close to him and set her ghostly hand upon his cheek.

"Harry… My dear, Harry." She gazed at him for a long moment with a tender look in her eyes. "Your father is coming. Just hold on…"

Harry was still holding tight to his wand, though his eyes were focused solely on the image of his mother. The telltale scream of Voldemort's wand pulled his attention back to the fight, and he watched as the smoke-version of his father made its way to complete the circle of wraiths around him. Pride shone through on the face of James as he took in his son before he began to speak.

"Oh, my boy…" James smiled with a twinge of sadness. "Harry, we don't have much time. Once this connection is broken, we will only have a few moments. You've got to reach the portkey. The five of us will slow them down as best we can. Do you understand?"

The strain from holding onto the wand felt like it was tearing at his muscles. Harry nodded as his gaze bounced from his father to his mother, then past them to Voldemort.

Viktor came closer and whispered, "Please, tell Her-My-Oh-Nee…" He trailed off as he looked out into the night sky.

"I will," answered Harry. "But I'm sure she already knows."

A resolute smile crossed Viktor's smokey face.

"We love you, Harry," said his mother's voice. "We always will."

"And we're so damn proud of you," followed his father. "But now's the time to get out of here! Get ready to bolt! Do it now!"

"NOW!" yelled Harry as he ripped his wand away from the golden beam. His entire body was exhausted from the fight, so he doubted he could have held on any longer. The dome of light immediately vanished as the golden thread broke. Both Harry and Voldemort fell to the ground amidst the throng of surprised Death Eaters.

Harry felt a crack as his body collided with the ground, his ankle and his left side seemingly screaming out in pain. Despite an immediate limp, he sprang to his feet nonetheless and sprinted back toward the part of the cemetery where the portkey had dropped them off. The air was filled with smoke as the five figures swarmed Voldemort and his nearby followers. Through the chaos, Harry heard Voldemort scream, "Stun him!"

Harry dove behind a nearby gravestone as the air exploded with jets of red light. A nearby angel statue was reduced to rubble as the spells hit anything solid in Harry's direction. He took two deep breaths in and out before springing away from the spell fire, aiming his wand backward over his shoulder, and yelling, "Impedimenta!" Harry didn't look back to see how many foes were affected by the spell, but instead darted to and fro behind tombstones and memorials as quickly as he could.

He winced as his injured ankle struck an unseen grave marker, and he tumbled to the ground as three more jets of red light and a purple one flashed above him. A cry of pain escaped his lips as he rolled behind a large tombstone. He was so close to the cup that he could see it down a path to his right, but the throbbing of his surely-broken ankle told him making a run for it was a useless proposition. Another red spell collided with the stone he was hiding behind, then a dark-blue curse exploded nearby, covering him with earth and stone debris.

"Stand aside, all of you!" Voldemort's yell was dangerously close. "He is mine to kill! Mine and mine alone!"

Harry could hear the footsteps of a dozen Death Eaters as they spread out to encircle him.

"Harry Potter, you are full of surprises…" called Voldemort into the night. "But nothing and no one can stand against Lord Voldemort. Show yourself, and I may be willing to make your demise a quick one!"

His red eyes lit up with surprise when his quarry stood from behind his hiding spot. Voldemort began to sneer. "Such a fool…" laughed the Dark Lord, but he was interrupted by a shout of "ACCIO!" Voldemort watched in shock as the Triwizard Cup flew into the boy's outstretched hand.

Harry felt the touch of cold metal in his hand and the familiar pull behind his navel as the world around him disappeared, while Voldemort's scream of fury faded into oblivion.

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Chapter 25: Chapter 25

Author's Notes: Early update! Since I broke some hearts with a death last week and left y'all on a big cliffhanger again, I figured I'd offer a peace offering by uploading ahead of schedule.

Sorry for killing off Viktor. I really enjoyed writing for him and hated to let him go, but I couldn't justify keeping him alive. After the way the story began in the first few chapters, it's pretty clear that Voldemort is incredibly dangerous and violent. Since I'm aiming for a combination of a love story between Harry and Ginny and an action / adventure fic, I didn't want to simply keep every great character alive just because I like them.

While I hated to lose a great character like Viktor, it was really encouraging reading so many comments from folks who enjoyed this portrayal of him and were equally sad at his death. Your comments really boosted me as a writer, since I'd hoped to write Viktor in a way that made this moment both heartbreaking and meaningful to the narrative. Thanks for sticking with me as we plow forward past this particular tough spot. Still have a couple of big chapters ahead, including this week's post. Hope y'all enjoy it!

The surprised cries of people from all sides assaulted Harry's ears in the split-second before he crumpled to the ground, overcome with exhaustion and pain. He did not attempt to stand; his injured ankle, broken ribs, and various other wounds were enough to make even breathing exceedingly difficult, and he did not have the strength to focus on anything else at the moment. He could feel his glasses pressing angrily into his cheek as his face lay on the grass, but couldn't muster the will to open his eyes to take in the scene.

Above the din all around, a voice called out. "Harry?! HARRY!"

Strong hands quickly moved his body so that he was on his back. With some effort, Harry opened his eyes. The blurry face of Albus Dumbledore floated above him. Harry let out a ragged cough and tasted blood.

"He's back…" Harry whispered hoarsely. "Voldemort is back."

Another face appeared next to Dumbledore's. Topped by a green bowler hat, Fudge was looking down at Harry.

"What's going on? Potter, you need to tell us what happened immediately!" The Minister's face was flushed and there was more than a little panic in his eyes.

"The Cup… " Harry's voice was faint as he tried to compose himself enough to explain. The pain in his side and down his leg made him wince. "Was a portkey…"

"Yes, Harry. Miss Delacour told us about the last few moments before you and Mr. Krum were transported." The headmaster's voice was a forced calm. "Where did the portkey bring the two of you? Where is Viktor?"

"To a graveyard… Viktor…" Saying the name felt more real. The tears which had been held at bay by necessity and terror began welling in his eyes again. "He killed Viktor. I couldn't save him…"

As Harry's vision was becoming sharper, he could see the stricken look on Professor Dumbledore's face. The old man instinctively clutched a hand to his mouth.

"Krum is dead!?" Fudge was aghast. "How could this be?"

The Minister's exclamation reached the onlookers nearby. Harry could hear hushed whispers as the crowd relayed the news. Before he could answer the Minister, a strangled cry pierced the night.


Harry squeezed his eyes shut as tears began to roll down his cheeks. The sound of racing footsteps and heaving breaths assured him that Hermione had reached him and that she was not alone.

"What happened? Where's he been!? Harry, are you okay?" Ron's voice had none of the warmth it usually exuded, instead filled with panic.

"He was just about to tell us that," snapped Fudge. "All students are to stay back."

Harry felt a small hand slip into his. "We're here with you, Harry." Ginny's voice trembled as she spoke, but there was no question that her response was both a reassurance to Harry and a warning that they would not be moved.

Hermione's quiet sobs filled the quietness between them. Harry reopened his eyes enough to see her on her knees next to him, weeping into her hands. Ron was down on one knee with a hand on her shoulder, his face deathly pale. Ginny's eyes brimmed with tears as she huddled next to her brother, her hand tightly clutching Harry's.

"Harry," intoned Dumbledore with both kindness and power. "It is imperative that we know what happened. Can you tell us?"

Harry breathed in deeply to attempt to begin, but winced badly and started coughing. He released the cup that he had still been grasping in his other hand and covered his ribs with it.

"Albus, the injury on his side." Harry hadn't noticed Professor McGonagall's arrival, but she and Snape had approached from behind.

A bright wand tip twirled into Harry's vision. Moments later, the overwhelming pain from his ribs subsided as Dumbledore muttered something that sounded like, "Poppy will have my head…" With breathing much less painful, Harry again attempted to explain.

"Viktor and I landed in some sort of graveyard. We thought it might have been some last part of the task, so we moved forward together until we heard voices. Someone was searching for me; It was Pettigrew on Voldemort's orders. We tried to get away from them, but Voldemort had a huge snake that he told to attack Viktor. Pettigrew stunned me, and when I woke up, we were both tied to tombstones."

"Pettigrew? You can't mean Peter Pettigrew! He can't believe the nonsense you brought to me about…"

Dumbledore's bright blue eyes held none of their usual twinkle as he shot a look at Fudge, who quieted at once, but still appeared horrorstruck and kept shaking his head and wincing when Voldemort's name was mentioned.

"Pettigrew had used some sort of potion to bring Voldemort back to full strength. Viktor said he used bones from a grave, some of my blood," he indicated the laceration on his arm. "And then Pettigrew cut off his own hand for the potion. Whatever it was, it worked. Voldemort is fully back."

"Impossible…" whispered Fudge as something flashed in Dumbledore's eyes. "He can't be back…"

"Then Death Eaters started arriving," continued Harry, his eyes focused on his headmaster. "Thirty of them, at least."

"Nothin' but a bunch of cowards!" Moody's growl matched the grimace on his scarred face as he limped to the gathered group. He spat on the ground as his magical eye focused on Harry. "Then what'd the Dark Lord do?"

"He was talking to the Death Eaters. Viktor was hurt badly from the snake bite, but he was trying to tell me what had happened while I was unconscious, but Voldemort noticed and stood in front of Viktor. He… He offered Viktor a chance to join him."

A gasp escaped Hermione's lips.

"Viktor refused. Didn't want any part of hurting Muggleborns." Harry's eyes darted to Hermione, willing her not to listen. "Then Voldemort used the Cruciatus on him."

Hermione cried out as Ron's eyes widened and jaw dropped. Harry felt Ginny shifting next to him as she reached across her brother to lay a hand on Hermione's leg. Fudge looked as though he wanted to flee, but remained still. Moody's magical eye was trained on Harry. Dumbledore dragged his hand through his beard but did not interrupt.

"I tried to get him to stop, told him that he didn't want Viktor and that he should let him go. Then he looked in my eyes… It was like he knew what I was thinking. He said he was going to use Viktor to hurt me…"

He blinked as hot tears flowed down his face.

"He said he knew that I was hoping someone would come to save us, or at least save Viktor. Then he…" The words lodged in his throat as another sob doubled Hermione over. "He killed Viktor."

What strength Hermione had left failed her as she collapsed onto Ron, releasing a cry of anguish into his robes. A gasp of grief escaped Ginny as her hand clenched tightly in Harry's. Dumbledore's head sank. He looked as if he'd aged decades in the hours since the third task commenced.

"This cannot be…" Fudge's eyes darted from Harry to Dumbledore and then back again. "If You-Know-Who returned, then how in blazes did you get back here?"

"Good question," said Moody as both his regular eye and electric blue magical eye bore down on Harry.

"He said he wanted to prove to the Death Eaters, prove that it was only luck that kept me alive when he'd killed my parents. He made Pettigrew give me back my wand so I could duel him."

Fudge scoffed. "And you expect us to believe that you bested He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in a duel?"

A gust of wind whistled as a surge of power from Dumbledore billowed through the robes of all those gathered around Harry. Dumbledore spoke in a deeper and more serious voice than Harry had ever heard him use. "Cornelius, there is no falsehood in him. We can verify with whichever truth potion you think best later, but for now, we will hear his account."

Fudge shrank back under Dumbledore's withering glare, and even Professor Moody took a small step back. But the headmaster's eyes returned to a kind sadness by the time he met Harry's gaze again. He nodded to the boy and resumed his posture of listening.

"I didn't beat him," said Harry softly. "He used the Cruciatus on me. He only let up because he was toying with me."

Harry felt the stares of his friends as he spoke, but he couldn't bear to meet their eyes, instead focusing on Dumbledore. The fear that had gripped him in the graveyard rushed back into the pit of his stomach.

"He was taunting me as the Death Eaters watched and laughed. He tried another Cruciatus, but I dove behind a tombstone. He said he was going to kill me, so I tried firing a spell back at him as he cast the killing curse. I don't really understand what happened, but our wands connected somehow. There was a golden light between them."

"Priori incantatem…" muttered the headmaster under his breath. "Of course…"

"What's that supposed to mean, Dumbledore?" Fudge was clearly not used to being out of the loop and was not taking the string of revelations well.

"A rare magic, indeed, in which two wands connected by outside forces are unable to properly attack each other. Tell me, Harry, did some sort of apparition appear from your wand? Or Voldemort's?"

Harry blinked back tears before nodding. "It was like smoke versions of the people he killed came out of his wand. First Viktor, then an older man. He was a muggle. Then a woman, Bertha Jorkins. Then…"

Harry hesitated, not wanting to describe his parents emerging. Mercifully, Dumbledore interrupted before Harry could continue. "These apparitions… What did they do?"

"They hovered near me and told me not to break the connection until the right moment. They said that the Triwizard Cup could take me back to Hogwarts. When they told me to break the connection, they flew at Voldemort and distracted him long enough for me to make a run for it, but I hurt my ribs and ankle falling. I think the smoke figures disappeared really quickly because the Death Eaters and Voldemort caught up to me, but I summoned the Cup and ended up back here."

Harry rested his head back against the grass and let his eyes close. All he wanted was for this to be over, for it all to be a nightmare, and to wake up back in Gryffindor tower.

"This is, without a doubt, the most preposterous story ever concocted…" muttered the Minister as he shook his head. "You-Know-Who is dead and gone! This boy has obviously suffered some sort of trauma, but what he said just cannot be true."

"Minister, there is much to be done. Igor Karkaroff fled before Harry returned. Viktor Krum's family is here for the task and they must be informed about their son's murder. His mother is influential in the Bulgarian ministry and our country needs our allies. You are skilled in challenging diplomatic matters such as these. Will you accompany me to speak with them, and then we can confer upon our next course of action?"

Harry couldn't help but notice that Fudge was shocked to have Albus Dumbledore speak to him so deferentially. A glance at McGonagall and Snape made Harry believe they were no less surprised.

"Yes… Well, I suppose…" Fudge was looking as though he, too, desperately wanted this all to be a nightmare he would soon wake from, but he also had puffed his chest out a bit as Dumbledore requested his help. Harry's mind traveled back to the Yule Ball when Percy had been so quick to amend his beliefs when Ginny plied him with compliments.

"But we cannot give them such an obviously false story!" The Minister had finally stumbled upon an argument that he felt satisfactory. "We cannot tell a prominent family their son has been murdered by You-Know-Who when there is no proof of his return!"

Dumbledore gave a small nod before turning to Snape. "Cornelius, I believe you will remember the circumstances under which I hired Professor Snape. Severus, would you please present proof to the Minister? It is crucial that he fully understands the importance of the moment."

Fudge looked at the Potions Master, as did Harry. Without expression, Snape rolled back his sleeve to reveal the image of a skull and snake emblazoned on his arm.

"It has been growing clearer all year, as you have no doubt been informed. It burned black minutes after Krum and Potter went missing. The Dark Lord used it to call his followers. When the Dark Mark burned, each was to disapparate and appear at his side. No one but the Dark Lord could have activated his mark."

Cornelius Fudge was not a man with a weak stomach. He had presided over numerous cases in the Wizengamot involving Death Eaters and the worst kind of crimes. But the sight of the ugly mark on Snape's arm along with Dumbledore's insistence on Voldemort's return became too much for him. He stumbled backward a few steps before turning and retching.

When he had wiped his mouth with his sleeve and turned back around, he looked at Dumbledore once more with fear and unbridled anger in his eyes.

"I don't know what you're playing, Dumbledore, and I don't care. That boy can't be trusted! Maybe you're trying to destabilize my administration, or maybe you've finally lost it after all these years, but I will not have you upset the fragile recovery we've built! I will not have you standing against me!"

"Cornelius, you refuse to see the danger right in front of you. None here stand against you; we stand against Lord Voldemort, and we gladly stand with all those who oppose him."

Fudge did his best to raise himself back up to a respectable stature, but even at his full height, he was not an imposing figure as he looked upward at the headmaster. "Expect to hear from my administration concerning your hiring practices and curriculum. As Minister, I will not allow our children to be so woefully misled."

He turned to leave in a huff but stopped short and rummaged in his robes. He pulled a sack of gold from his pocket and dropped it next to Harry with disdain, speaking without meeting Harry's eyes. "Your winnings for the tournament. There was to be a ceremony, but under the circumstances, it has been canceled. Congratulations and whatnot." He then swept away from the gathering.

Dumbledore squeezed the space between his eyebrows between his thumb and forefinger and sighed deeply.

"It seems we are already frightfully behind on doing what's needed. Minerva?" Professor McGonagall looked as if all the blood had drained from her face over the last few minutes, but she met the headmaster's gaze unflinchingly. "Take Harry and these students to the Hospital Wing. Then begin contacting the old crowd. Tonight was not how Voldemort wanted to announce his return, but we must begin making his enemies aware of this new reality.

"Alastor, please help Pomona and Filius get the students back to their dormitories. And I'll need you to begin reaching out to your auror contacts."

Moody looked up at Dumbledore, though his magical eye remained fixed on Harry. "I can do that easy enough. Though it might be better for me to take Potter. She's more talented at wrangling scared first years than me." He stuck out his wooden leg and shook it a bit.

Dumbledore had already turned to Snape before Moody finished speaking. "Certainly, Alastor, take these four. Severus, I trust you know what I am asking you to do?"

Snape's dark eyes didn't blink as he stared back at the headmaster. He gave a curt nod.

"Then good luck."

Snape didn't wait a second longer. He strode purposefully away from the crowd toward the gates to Hogwarts, disappearing into the darkness of the night.

Ron and Ginny helped Harry to his feet, but his ankle had swollen to twice its normal size. He couldn't put any weight on it at all without debilitating pain shooting up his leg. He settled for throwing an arm over Ron's shoulder, who stooped a little to allow his friend to hobble along next to him. Ginny pulled Hermione into an embrace before taking her arm and following behind the two boys. Professor Moody stumped along behind them, his magical eye whizzing around as if assailants were likely to pop out from behind every shrubbery.

As they moved through the Great Hall and into a corridor that led toward the infirmary, Harry tugged on Ron's shoulder. Harry was exhausted from the task, the graveyard, and hobbling along on one leg. "Quick break?"

Ron chuckled darkly. "Oh, c'mon, mate. Only four staircases until we get to the hospital wing. Three if you don't count…"


Harry and Ron looked back just in time to see Ginny and Hermione collapse to the floor as Moody lowered his wand at them. "STUPEFY!"

Ron shielded Harry as the spell struck, but both boys fell limp to the ground once Ron was no longer supporting both their weights.

Harry remained motionless, willing himself not to cry out. His back was now to Moody, who was muttering to himself. Harry tried to grab his wand, but the weight of Ron's body prevented him from reaching it and he couldn't hope to make a move without alerting their attacker.

As Moody let out a series of escalating swears, Harry decided to chance a look in his direction and saw that the man's back was to them. He made a grab for Ron's wand, which had fallen to the floor next to them.

"Expelliarmus!" The wand that Harry had barely touched flew away from his fingertips and into the hand of his Defense professor.

"Potter, you absolute pain in my arse!" Moody snarled. "Petrificus totalus!"

Every part of Harry's body, whether relatively unharmed or deeply injured, froze stiff as a board. He could only watch as the man returned to what he was doing. It looked as though he was casting some sort of complex spell on a school book.

"Do you have any idea how infuriating you are?" called Moody as he made two loops in the air with his wand, then a counter-clockwise twist. "I spent a whole year carrying you across the finish line in this damned tournament, and you still almost managed to fail.

"Convinced Hagrid to tell you about the dragons, and I still had to bludgeon you over the head with a clue to get you past the first task!" He spat his words venomously, but Harry had no way to respond. His regular eye was focused on the spellwork, but the magical one had zeroed in on Harry. "Had to help Diggory in the second task just to get you past the clue, gave Longbottom the book with the perfect solution, and you still couldn't come out on top! It would have been even closer had I not riled up the blasted squid the night before!

"But despite it all, I got you to the third task with a lead. Dispelled most of the obstacles on your path so that you could get to the Cup first, but no! You had to check on Delacour after she threw off my imperius and wait with Diggory so the spiders wouldn't eat him."

He swore loudly and began redoing the last several wand movements. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to make two portkeys in one night? Especially after forcing that damn golem to only attack the others?

"Well, it doesn't matter what kind of luck got you away from my Master tonight. As soon as I'm done with this new portkey, you'll end up right back at his feet. And I'll be honored as the most loyal, his most capable, the Dark Lord's most faithful…"


The enchantment on Harry evaporated and all the pain of his injuries being held stiff for so long washed over him as he watched the figure of Alastor Moody fall to the floor. Behind him stood Sirius, his chest heaving and with furious terror in his sunken eyes.


He sprinted the length of the hallway before skidding to a stop in front of Harry, whose face shone with relief as the man pulled him into a rough hug. Sirius held Harry tightly to his chest, and it was only when his godson let out a low hiss of pain that he thought to release the still-injured boy. He swore loudly before grabbing either side of Harry's head and staring him in the eye.

"Harry, are you okay?" Emotion dripped from each word.

"Well… Not really," answered Harry honestly. The terror of being sent back to Voldemort had not yet fully subsided. "But I'm a lot better now that you're here."

"Fair enough. Hold steady here for a minute, yeah?"

He got back up and walked back toward the man he'd just attacked. "Incarcerous!" Dark ropes bound Moody as he lay on the floor. Harry was about to ask a question when he saw a great silvery dog leap from Sirius' wand and bound back down toward the quidditch pitch. Sirius grabbed the wand from Moody's hand before turning to Harry.

"Figure we better get Dumbledore up here before I figure out all the reasons I should tear one of his staff limb from limb. Suppose he's the one who got you into the tournament in the first place?" Harry was nodding as Sirius moved toward the crumpled heap of Hermione and Ginny. With two carefully cast enervates, both girls began to wake up while Sirius cast another at Ron's stunned form.

"How'd you know to come find me?" asked Harry as his friend stirred next to him. "And how'd you get here so fast?"

"What, you thought I'd miss out on my favorite godson's final task?" He laughed at his own joke and Harry allowed a faint smile for a moment. "Been listening to Bagman's miserable commentating from over by Hagrid's hut. Fang and I get along famously since I ran around with his mum during my time here. When you disappeared, I moved close enough to keep an eye out. Caught sight of Dumbledore when he ran over to where I'm guessing you landed because the area got blocked off except for you two, Fudge, your friends here, and a few professors."

"What's going on?" asked Hermione as she gathered herself from the floor. "Why are we on the ground? And why is Sirius here?"

"'Cause we got attacked by another bloody Defense professor," said Ron pointing to where Moody was tied. "Harry and I heard him stun the two of you, then he got both of us before we could react."

"Actually, mate, he just knocked you out." Ron turned back to Harry with the first twinge of frustration on his face as his mouth opened slightly, but Harry continued. "You pulled me back a bit and shielded me from the spell. I still collapsed when you did, since you were holding up most of my weight at the time, but you definitely took the curse for me."

Ron's cheeks went pink. With nothing to say, he just sat there with his mouth agape.

Sirius laughed as he helped Hermione to her feet. "I can hear someone running this way, probably a couple of people. I'm going to duck into a classroom until we're sure who all is coming, but be ready for anything. I'll keep watching, too. I'd rather get sent back to Azkaban than have anything else happen to you."

Sure enough, by the time Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall came barreling into the corridor at breakneck speed, Sirius was well hidden in a nearby darkened classroom.

"Then how did you manage to escape?" The Deputy Headmistress looked to be some combination of horrified and incredulous.

Harry's condensed explanation had stalled because he didn't want to give away his godfather's presence.

"Minerva, I would venture a guess that their savior is nearby and might be willing to reconnect with one of his favorite professors if you would…"

"SIRIUS BLACK!" Her yell cut across Dumbledore. "If you aren't out here in the next five seconds, you will sorely regret it!" Professor McGonagall's nostrils were flaring and she had a wild look in her eyes. Harry was alarmed enough to make a move toward her, but Dumbledore placed a hand gently on his shoulder and the twinkle had returned to his blue eyes.

Harry watched as his godfather sheepishly walked into the corridor, shrugged his shoulders with his palms out to either side, and met her blazing look.


With speed Harry wouldn't have believed had he not seen it, McGonagall ran to Sirius and engulfed him in her arms. Through her choked sobs and his words of consolation, Harry could barely hear what they were saying.

"I knew that something wasn't right! It just made no sense at all for you to betray James and Lily, and then all last year I wondered but… Then I learned you hadn't even gotten a trial!"

Harry had always suspected that, underneath her stern exterior, Professor McGonagall harbored great affection for her students. He thought her fondness might have extended especially to those whom she disciplined most often. But seeing tears flow unabated down her cheeks as she apologized for not believing in Sirius seemed something else altogether. Harry smiled as his godfather floundered under the weight of regret his former professor was laying bare.

"And then as soon as I heard that Pettigrew was alive tonight, the truth of it came into focus. You've got so much explaining to do, not the least of which is how in blazes you escaped from Azkaban and snuck into Hogwarts multiple times while the whole Ministry has been searching for you!"

Sirius looked down at McGonagall, whose confession and apologies had somehow still sounded professorial, and grinned widely. "Explaining that'll take several hours that we don't have right now and at least one bottle of firewhisky, but how about this for a preview of the story…"

He took a large step backward and began waggling his eyebrows as a smirk emerged on his face. In the blink of an eye, there stood a shaggy, black dog in the spot Sirius had been, wagging its tail with wild abandon. An instant later, Sirius was human again. Minerva swore softly to herself, looking as shocked as Harry and Ron had when she transformed from a cat during their first Transfiguration class.

"Remember how me and James asked you about becoming an animagus back in our second year?" Mischief was dancing in Sirius' eyes, and it was clear to everyone present that he'd been wanting to savor revealing this secret to her for a very long time. "We may have started working on that little project earlier than we let on."

A twinge of a smile formed on McGonagall's face. "You didn't…"

"James fully transformed about a month before the summer holidays in fifth year, and I got it a week and a half later. Peter took until the third week of our sixth year."

"And you spent the next two years running amok through the castle and grounds?" Harry thought Professor McGonagall looked both incensed and impressed.

"Hard to beat four friends pulling all-nighters under a full moon."

Dumbledore cleared his throat. "I am quite pleased that the two of you are reacquainted, but perhaps it would be wise to continue bringing the students to the hospital wing? Once they are safely under the care of Madam Pomfrey, there are a number of questions I have for our Defense professor…" With a swish and a flick of Dumbledore's wand, the unconscious Moody floated a few feet off the ground.

When they arrived, Madam Pomfrey sprang into action. She swiftly closed the curtains behind her as she left the bed Fleur was sitting upon with the Delacours huddled around. Harry's cuts and bruises were easily dealt with, but his ankle had been badly broken and his ribs hadn't been mended to the matron's high standards. Harry noticed that Professor Dumbledore had whisked Professor McGonagall away to question the captive before the examination of his injured ribs had begun.

Pomfrey made Harry drink three revolting potions to help with his broken bones and the effects of the cruciatus, then left to track down a spare dreamless sleep potion. Harry thought for a moment that he would be able to speak privately with Sirius, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny, but Mrs. Weasley burst through the door just as Madam Pomfrey was leaving. Bill and Mr. Weasley followed soon after, though they looked less frantic than she.

Mrs. Weasley had rushed halfway across the room before she stopped in her tracks as her eyes met those of the fugitive murderer Sirius Black, who was standing over Harry's bedside and next to her daughter. Her wand moved with lightning quickness and before any of them could utter a word of explanation, Sirius lay stunned on the floor.

"Bloody hell, Mum!" cried Ron. "He's a good guy!"

Mrs. Weasley's eyes flashed dangerously as she moved in between Sirius' unconscious body and the children, indicating that Ron's words had not registered.

"Really, Mrs. Weasley, he saved us tonight! He's been protecting Harry since last year."

"Yeah, Mum! I've met him before and he's really nice!"

Neither Hermione nor Ginny's words had much effect as the Weasley matriarch kept her wand trained on Sirius' form slumped on the ground against an empty cot, though her shoulders did seem to relax a tad. Both Mr. Weasley and Bill had their wands out, too, but Bill was looking and listening as he slowly walked back and forth through the infirmary while Arthur quickly stepped to his wife's side.

Harry heard Madam Pomfrey talking to herself as she reentered the room. She took one look at the scene before smacking a hand against her forehead and muttering something under her breath, then addressed Mrs. Weasley.

"I'm so sorry, I would have warned you if I wasn't so preoccupied tending to Mr. Potter's injuries." She whisked past everyone and knelt beside Sirius, placing the back of her hand against his brow. "You sure stunned him good, Molly…"

Her eyes fell on Arthur, and she called him over with a look. "I need to finish grabbing a few things for a dreamless sleep potion. Would you be so kind as to revive Mr. Black? I assure you that he is here under orders directly from Professor Dumbledore and is not a danger to any of us."

Mr. Weasley nodded slowly and used a quick "Enervate!" despite how confused he looked as the matron slipped back into her office with the ingredients that were under her arm.

A window slammed shut behind a triumphant-looking Hermione, who was holding something tightly in her hand, but most eyes stayed trained on Sirius. The man looked a bit groggy as he stood back up and dusted himself off. "Judging by the hair and the protective mother bear energy, would it be safe to assume you're a Weasley?"

Mrs. Weasley had mostly lowered her wand, but she still positioned herself between the man and her youngest children. Her cheeks remained flushed slightly despite Madam Pomfrey's reassurances.

"Yes, I'm their mother," she indicated her youngest two, though she didn't see Ginny roll her eyes at Sirius. "I'm sorry for stunning you. After seeing your face on wanted posters for almost two years, you can imagine how startling it was to see you looming over the children."

"Actually, I get it completely. I'm Harry's godfather, and I reacted exactly the same earlier this evening when I ran up on someone threatening these four." He smiled broadly and offered his hand to her. "You probably guessed already, but I'm Sirius Black. It's a pleasure to meet you in person. I've heard good things about you and Arthur, and if how your kids treat Harry is any indication, you're definitely my kind of people."

There was definitely some hesitation on her part, but Mrs. Weasley slowly extended her hand to shake his. "Molly Weasley… We're all quite fond of Harry, and always glad to know others who care for him."

Mr. Weasley took his hand as well. "I'm guessing there's a story here that we haven't heard yet," he stole a quick glance at Ron, who was doing his best not to look guilty. "But we trust Dumbledore. I'll be interested to hear more about whoever was threatening our kids earlier, but you have our thanks for stepping in."

Sirius' eyes got a little bit more distant all of a sudden, and he turned back to Mrs. Weasley. "Hold on a sec… You wouldn't happen to be Molly Prewett, Fabian and Gideon's little sister, would you?"

Harry watched as Mrs. Weasley's face went pale and she clutched her hand to her chest. Her husband grabbed her other hand and ran his thumb back and forth over her knuckles.

"Yes, I was a Prewett before I married Arthur." Her attempt to maintain her composure was valiant, but her voice still trembled as she spoke. "Did you know them?"

Sirius gave her a sad smile. "I did. During the war, Dumbledore had me and some others fresh out of Hogwarts helping out where we could. Your brothers helped train up me and Harry's dad during that first year. We both liked them a lot. They were good men, and I was sad to hear what happened."

Mrs. Weasley let out a sniffle and squeezed her husband's hand. "They were so good about helping others. I'm glad you got to know them."

"Excuse me, the dreamless sleep potions are prepared," called Madam Pomfrey as she walked briskly back into the room. She peeked her head through a gap in the curtains at the Delacours, then opened them more fully so that both patients and their visitors could see her. Fleur's injured leg was wrapped in a cloth that looked to have been dipped in some sort of purple potion. "Both of my patients require a good night's sleep. I was instructed to allow one visitor to remain with each of you, but the rest of you will need to leave."

Ron started to offer to stay back with Harry, but Ginny elbowed him in the side and nodded to Sirius, who was chuckling at the two redheads. Mrs. Weasley also looked as if she fully intended to maintain watch over Harry, but Mr. Weasley placed a hand on the small of her back and whispered something in her ear. Bill's eyes had locked with Fleur's while her father was translating for her mother, who it seemed would remain in the hospital wing that night. Gabrielle and her father kissed Fleur before leaving the infirmary, followed by the throng of Weasleys and Hermione.

Sirius dragged a chair next to Harry's bed and fell into it as Madam Pomfrey administered the potion. He laughed and said, "Bottoms up, kiddo!" while resting his feet on the crisp sheets of the bed, only for Madam Pomfrey to promptly knock his feet back to the ground. The last thing Harry saw as the world around him faded was his godfather's roguish grin.

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Chapter 26: Chapter 26

The next few days flew by Harry in a blur. Madam Pomfrey kept him in the infirmary for three whole days, which was excruciating for Harry. He longed for the peace of his own bed and the privacy of the empty classrooms in which he'd spent so many hours training with his friends. As a high-profile patient, it seemed like Harry couldn't go half an hour without visitors interrupting his attempts to connect with Hermione, Ron, and Ginny.

Sirius had stayed the first night, but Dumbledore had sent him from the castle on some sort of mission soon after Harry awoke the first morning. His godfather had assured Harry that they'd see each other again soon, and his wink before leaving made it clear that something was already in the works.

Bill and Mr. Weasley had both left the following morning, as well, but Mrs. Weasley had been unwilling to leave until Sunday evening. Though Harry did feel a bit smothered at times, especially when she brought him plates so full that even Dudley would have suggested it was too much, he couldn't help feeling grateful as she did her best to speed his recovery. When she finally departed, she gathered him into an embrace and whispered how proud she was of him. He blushed slightly when he felt his eyes grow a touch watery, but she gave him one last smile before leaving to use Professor McGonagall's floo.

The hardest part had been when Professor Dumbledore entered with Viktor's mother and sisters, along with Hermione. The headmaster served as a translator while Harry recounted the story. Yordanka Krum's face was streaked with tears as she listened, only asking a few questions during the retelling. Viktor's sisters were still too young to fully understand what had happened, and Hermione did her best to distract them during the worst parts of his tale, a kindness that their mother deeply appreciated.

Professor Dumbledore told Harry that she was grateful that he had brought word of Viktor's fate back to them and that she thanked him for being a friend to her son. "She says that Viktor spoke fondly of you and that you showed him kindness both in the second task and at the Yule Ball." A few tears escaped his blue eyes as he went on. "Viktor wrote to her every week, and he told her that you were an honorable competitor and a good person. He had hoped to remain as your friend after the tournament."

Before they left, Harry got Professor Dumbledore's attention. "Sir, will you please give Mrs. Krum the prize money? Viktor and I technically tied, and I don't want the winnings." Dumbledore smiled sadly and passed along the message, but she politely refused.

"She expresses her thanks but wanted me to assure you that they don't need it and won't take it. She only asks that you look them up should you ever visit Bulgaria."

The woman dried her tears with a handkerchief before bidding them goodbye. Though she had seemed a bit stiff when Harry first met her, he marveled at the emotion she poured into an embrace with Hermione before leaving. She then held Hermione by both cheeks and said something to her in Bulgarian, eliciting a soft sob as Hermione nodded emphatically.

Several of Harry's professors made visits to the hospital wing to see him. Professor McGonagall chatted with him for half an hour about his spellwork in the third task and in the graveyard, allowing herself to smile a little as he recounted his fight with her golem. "Mr. Weasley outmaneuvered my chess game, you beat my golem, and Miss Granger has aced every quiz and exam I've thrown at her. I may have to come up with something more challenging for the three of you next year…"

Professor Flitwick was also excited to talk through some of the highlights. Though Harry was weary of talking about what happened, he found that the diminutive man was especially interested in the details of his duel with Voldemort. Before he left, he promised that he would be willing to continue helping to train Harry, even though the tournament had ended. Flitwick figured that, since trouble had a way of finding Harry, it'd be worth giving him more ways to defend himself.

The Diggorys had taken Cedric straight to St. Mungo's after his removal from the third task, but he was back at Hogwarts before Harry had been cleared to leave the infirmary. The Hufflepuff spent part of an afternoon chatting with Harry while they snacked on some sweets he'd brought from the Great Hall.

The labyrinth had been a lot more challenging for Cedric, who didn't have a crazed Death Eater clearing a path for him. Harry was quite appreciative of the opportunity to sit back and listen while Cedric explained the various obstacles he'd encountered. As Harry winced and grimaced at the story, the events of his own night were pushed a little bit toward the back of his mind, if only for a few minutes.

Cedric was effusive in his thanks for Harry defending him while he was unconscious in the maze. Though Harry attempted to demure, Cedric was of the opinion that Harry had acted both bravely and with loyalty, which he deemed fitting for a friendship between a Hufflepuff and a Gryffindor. Though neither of the boys said it aloud, Harry felt confident that their connection would be all the stronger next year. At least when they weren't flying against each other.

Out of all his visits, Luna's was by far the most odd. After one of his potions had left him a bit groggy in the late afternoon, Harry fell asleep. When he woke an hour later, he was surprised to find Luna sitting on her knees in the chair next to his bed, drawing on a spare piece of parchment. He hadn't a clue what to say to her, so he feigned sleep for another ten minutes as she scribbled.

"If you're pretending to sleep so you won't have to talk about everything that happened again, don't worry. I'm sure it's probably the last thing you want to talk about."

"Sorry, Luna!" Harry's eyes shot open and he began coughing out of nervousness. "But you're right. It seems like that's all anyone wants to talk to me about."

"If that's what you don't want to speak about…" She flipped the parchment sideways before starting again. "What do you want to talk about?"

Harry lay back on his pillow and looked at the ceiling. "Err… I don't really know, to be honest. What about you?"

"You want to talk about me?"

Harry jolted his head off the pillow. "Wait, no! That's not what I meant! I was just trying to ask what you wanted to talk about."

"Hmm. I supposed that makes more sense." She moved her quill so the end of it nestled in the hair dangling behind her ear. "I think I'd like to talk about Ginny."

Harry gripped the sheet beneath him as the perils of a Luna conversation crystallized.

"I think Ginny was happier this term than I've seen her before. It felt as though some of the sadness she had been carrying since first year melted away. Did she seem happy to you?"

In truth, Harry did think Ginny had seemed happy, though he had imagined that was mostly her default. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he thought that maybe he'd been a part of her having a good spring.

"I'm not sure if I'm a good judge of that, especially since I didn't know her as well before this year, but I think you're right. She seemed like she had a good term, even though she spent a lot of it helping me with stuff."

"I'm glad we agree. During our lunches in second year and last term, her laugh wasn't nearly as strong as it's been the past few months, and somehow she felt more subdued. I think she's been more like her true self."

Harry liked the sound of that, though he didn't know how best to respond. It seemed as though Luna was the type of person who was not afraid of silence, as they both remained quiet for another couple of minutes as she scribbled on her parchment. The quiet would usually make Harry uncomfortable, but it seemed to suit the conversation.

As he lay there, his mind wandered from one thing to the next. His thoughts flit from the golden strand of memory to the golden thread between his wand and Voldemort's, then to the smokey apparitions he'd seen for just those few moments.

"I saw my Mum and Dad when I was in the graveyard," whispered Harry without meeting Luna's gaze. He could see from the corner of his eye that she'd begun to smile. He wasn't sure exactly why he hadn't told any of his friends about that part of the story; he'd given a fairly thorough account to Ginny, Hermione, and Ron the previous evening, but had skipped past his parents emerging from Voldemort's wand. Somehow, it hadn't felt quite right to explain it to his friends who still had both of their parents.

"I'm glad to hear that. I'm sure it was very frightening, so I imagine having your parents present would be helpful. What were they like?" There was no disbelief in Luna's voice, but there also wasn't any pity. Harry felt something warm inside him as he considered her question.

"It's hard to say… They were only there for a few moments from some sort of magic that I don't understand…" Harry looked out a nearby window as he tried to compose his thoughts. "They were young. They were both really young.

"When I look and Ginny and Ron's parents, they seem old. Not like Dumbledore old, but like real adults. Same thing when we're at Platform 9 ¾. It seems like everyone's parents are… I dunno… Grown-ups, if that makes sense."

Luna nodded but did not interrupt, and Harry was grateful that she was the kind of person who would understand even if his words didn't explain well.

"But my parents… They looked almost like they were kids straight out of Hogwarts. My Mum came to me and just kinda touched my face while my Dad was on his way over. He helped tell me how to get away from there, then they both helped keep me safe when I made a run for it. Before that, though…"

Harry's voice got caught in his throat and he felt his eyes becoming watery. Without saying anything, Luna leaned forward and grabbed his hand. Harry let out a sniffle but was heartened to note that there was no flush in his cheeks.

"My Mum told me that they both loved me. Then my Dad said they were 'damn proud of me.'"

Luna breathed in and out deeply a few times before responding. "What a gift. What an extraordinary gift."

"Yeah… Yeah, I think so, too."

Again, they sat quietly for a while, Luna still gently holding his hand. Harry wasn't quite sure how the conversation was supposed to continue, let alone end. The problem was solved when Ginny walked through the doors into the infirmary, arms laden with snacks from the kitchens.

Harry's eyes grew wide as he hurriedly withdrew his hand from Luna's. His traitorous face chose this moment to turn red.

"Oh, hello Ginny! Harry and I were just talking about you a few minutes ago."

Harry didn't mean to shoot daggers at Luna with his eyes, but it felt like he didn't have any alternative options. Ginny seemed awfully pleased about something, and the grin plastered on her face made Harry nervous.

"You were speaking about little old me? Should I be concerned? And was that why you were holding hands when I came in?" The panic swelling in Harry meant he didn't notice the mischievous twinkle in her eye.

"It's not like that, Ginny," he said a little too loudly. He wasn't sure why explaining himself to her was imperative, but he knew that it was. "She was just doing it because we had been talking about the graveyard and stuff, so she was trying to be supportive. I wasn't trying anything on her, I swear!"

Ginny burst out into laughter as Luna started giggling, too. Harry, feeling very out of the loop, had to wait for the laughs to subside.

"I very much doubt she suspects us of being in some sort of secret relationship," said Luna with a wide smile. "Ginny is well aware that you aren't my type."

"Very true!" replied Ginny as she tried to stifle another fit of giggles.

Harry was clueless. He looked back and forth between the two friends for a moment before Luna began again.

"Harry, I prefer girls rather than boys."

That was a thought which had not occurred to Harry Potter. Luna and Ginny fell back into giggles as Harry's face began to look as if he'd been struck with a rather strong Confundus. It was a few moments before he regained his ability to speak.

"So, err… Is that something you'd like me to keep a secret? Or… Uhh…"

"Eloquent as always, Potter!" said Ginny with a small snort.

"Well, I think the question is kind, nonetheless. I'm not hiding who I am. If someone asks, feel free to be honest."

Harry nodded as he tried to regain control of his cheek coloration. "That sounds fair. Seamus basically said the same thing to us in the dorm in third year, but he eventually told us not to worry about it at all once he and Justin started going out."

"Thank you, Harry. Ginny assured me you were a safe person."

Soon, Ginny and Luna were chatting away about the end of the term. Their conversation didn't pertain to him all that much, but Harry found it somehow comforting to hear them talking through all sorts of things that had nothing to do with him. He drifted into a small nap feeling content.

When Madam Pomfrey finally discharged him, Harry bounded back to Gryffindor tower. He was thrilled to be out of the hospital wing and looked forward to the few remaining days before the train ride back to London. He ignored several small groups of students who began to whisper and stare as he made his way through the corridors.

When he reached the common room, he waved to his friends who were lazing around the fireplace recuperating from their end-of-year exams. Being exempt from those tests remained one of the only things Harry appreciated about the damned tournament. He ducked up the stairs to drop off the things he'd brought back from the infirmary (a few sweets left for him by well-wishers, the potions Madam Pomfrey made him promise to take each night before bed for the next week, and a beat-up snitch that the twins had nicked from the quidditch shed), only to find a hand-written note in a loopy scrawl sitting on his bed.

I should like to spend some time discussing your recent adventures and some upcoming challenges with you. I will be in my office at 8:30 this evening. The password is 'chocolate frogs.'

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

Back in the common room, Harry passed the note to Hermione, Neville, Ginny, and Ron in turn as they lazed near the fireplace.

"It doesn't say you hafta go," offered Ron weakly.

"It's Dumbledore," replied Hermione as she rolled her eyes. She had been much quieter over the past few days, and Ginny had mentioned she'd been pulling off on her own more, too. Ron had been walking on eggshells trying not to argue with her about anything, but his insistence on agreeing with her no matter what didn't seem to make much of a difference in her mood. "Just because he didn't say it outright doesn't mean Harry has much choice in the matter."

"Wonder what he means by 'upcoming challenges'?" mused Ginny as she prodded the fire with a metal poker. "Other than the Ministry denying everything."

"Not sure," muttered Harry as two burning logs collapsed in the fireplace, bathing them in warmth and splashing a red glow onto all of their faces and Ginny's hair. "But Sirius already told me that Dumbledore wants me to go back to the Dursleys after the term ends."

"Mum mentioned that to us before she left. Apparently, she tried to talk Dumbledore into letting you come straight home with us this summer, but he wasn't having it. Seemed like she expected that we'd see you soon, though."

"And we'll write to you," added Ginny as Neville nodded. "Maybe it won't be as bad this year."

"Maybe…" said Harry without meeting any of his friends' looks. "But the note says challenges. I get the feeling he's not just referring to heading back to Privet Drive."

Neville glanced at the clock. "Well, we can wait up for you, if you want."

"You don't have to. How about I give you the highlights tomorrow? I'm sure whatever it is he's going to tell me can keep for one more day." He pushed himself up off the couch and started toward the portrait hole. As he walked, he called over his shoulder, "Don't let Hermione stress over her History of Magic exam!"

A few minutes later, the gargoyle sprang out of his way before he climbed up to the headmaster's office. He lightly rapped on the door twice, then entered as the door swung open. Professor Dumbledore sat behind his desk, writing something on a long scroll of parchment. He indicated an overstuffed chair across from him, and Harry sat dutifully as his host finished what he was writing.

"Ahh, Harry. So good of you to join me this evening. I trust you are on the mend if Madam Pomfrey allowed you to leave her sight?" His eyes twinkled as he smiled down at Harry.

"Yes, sir. My ankle feels good as new, and most everything else feels fine. She said I'll still be sore from the Cruciatus for at least another week, but it's much more manageable now than it was."

Sadness crossed Dumbledore's wisened face. "Yes, she is correct. It has been many years since I was last struck by that ugly curse, but I will not soon forget the aches that came with it. I'm sorry that you have had to deal with that, but I am so grateful you made it back in such relatively good shape. When Fleur told us what happened, I feared the worst."

Harry felt quite curious about the circumstances under which Dumbledore had been hit by the Cruciatus, but thought it better not to pry.

"I've spent a good deal of time in the last few days in the Pensieve, examining the memories you loaned me. My dear boy, I cannot begin to tell you how proud of you I am. You withstood a burden that would have undone many grown witches and wizards, yet you not only survived, but you did so while holding fast to who you are. I fear that the rest of the students and even the faculty might cry foul if I awarded you House points for your actions that night…"

The image of the faces of Snape and Malfoy in despair as they were showered in crimson at the End of Year Banquet caused a small smile to break onto Harry's face.

"There is a great deal that our side now knows because of you which will aid us as we fight the tide of violence Voldemort seeks to unleash. Though you deserve to understand your contribution better, I thought perhaps it would be better to explain what we have learned regarding how you ended up in the graveyard that night."

Harry's ears perked up. This was what had caused him the most consternation as he lay in his hospital bed: how did Professor Moody, one of the fiercest of those fighting against the Dark Arts, end up sending Harry into the clutches of Voldemort? Why did Mad-Eye Moody change over to help orchestrate Voldemort's return?

Dumbledore seemed to anticipate Harry's thoughts. "The truth is that you never knew the real Alastor Moody. The man who taught Defense classes was a Death Eater named Bartemius Crouch, Jr., who used Polyjuice Potion to assume Alastor's likeness all year."

Harry's look of consternation was not reason enough for Dumbledore to pause his explanation. "Once Professor McGonagall brought the imposter to my office after Sirius had stunned him, we administered a powerful truth potion called Veritaserum. Under its influence, Crouch admitted to a string of crimes committed in the name of Lord Voldemort. His father had smuggled him out from Azkaban as a final favor to his dying wife, hiding his son at home as a secret prisoner, controlled by the Imperius curse."

Harry imagined the young man from Dumbledore's memory of the trial locked up with a glazed look on his face and shuddered when he realized his imagination had placed the younger Crouch in a closet beneath a flight of stairs.

"The unfortunate Ms. Bertha Jorkins delivered some work to Mr. Crouch Sr. at home one evening and discovered the secret. Crouch, Sr. placed a powerful memory charm on her which hampered her brain's functioning. She ended up far from home, lost within a forest deep in Albania. Pettigrew discovered her and captured her for his master, who plumbed the depths of her mind. It destroyed her, but he learned of the upcoming Triwizard Tournament and that he had a loyal servant waiting for him.

"Voldemort and Pettigrew showed up at the Crouch home. They subdued the elder Crouch and placed him under an Imperius. He was forced to go about his work under the power of Lord Voldemort, reporting what he knew and helping the wizard he'd spent his adult life fighting.

"The three hatched a plan to provide the Dark Lord with the ingredient of his resurrection that he most desired…"


"Precisely. He had learned about how your mother's sacrifice provided you with a magical protection that went deeper than the dark magic into which he had delved through the years. I believe he coveted that protection, and thought by using your blood in the ritual that it would be passed to him."

"He was right," said Harry morosely. "After he came back, he could touch me. Whatever protection my Mum left me didn't work anymore."

"Of that, I wouldn't be so sure," replied Dumbledore with the beginnings of a wry smile. "Though he was able to overcome the barrier that prevented him from physically touching you, by my recollection, it seemed as though your mother and father were still squarely in the camp of those working to protect you. When the echoes of your parents appeared during your duel, neither spent time comforting Lord Voldemort nor did they attempt to aid him once you broke the connection. Despite the use of your blood, it seems that the sacrificial love of your parents is still capable of distinguishing between the two of you."

Harry shook his head from side to side as he tried to comprehend what the headmaster was saying.

"In any case, Pettigrew attacked Alastor before the term began, holding him captive in a trunk so that Crouch Jr. could mine him for all the information he needed to impersonate him for months and use his hair for a steady supply of polyjuice potion. Quite ingenious, really… Alastor was infamous for only ever drinking from his flask as means of protecting himself from being poisoned.

"In the end, Crouch Jr. volunteered to bring the cup to its pedestal in the maze, where he turned it into a portkey. That, of course, is a tricky bit of magic. Round-trip portkeys are easier to create, which is what provided you with your ticket back to Hogwarts. Quite a nasty shock for him when he realized you'd made it back safely."

Professor Dumbledore sighed as he looked down his half-moon spectacles at Harry. "I should have realized something was amiss when he made the play to take you to Madam Pomfrey. Alas, I allowed my frustrations with Minister Fudge to cloud my thinking. When you returned, my first thought should have been to ensure everyone's safety, since someone had just abducted two students from the grounds from right underneath my nose. It's far too small a gesture at this point, Harry, but I wish to offer my most sincere apology. I will be forever indebted to Sirius for following you into the castle and preventing further calamity."

Harry nodded gravely, not knowing exactly what to say. "So, what happened to Mr. Crouch? The one from the Ministry who I met?"

"Sadly, his son was the first to find him using Alastor's magical eye after he approached you and the other champions. Crouch, Jr. confessed to using the Imperius curse to force his father to stun Mr. Diggory and Mr. Krum, then he killed his father and hid his transfigured body in the forest."

"And what will become of Crouch, Jr.?"

"That is an interesting question, indeed…" replied Dumbledore. "The Ministry of Magic is working to discredit him as a crazed lunatic. With Minister Fudge denying that Voldemort has returned, Crouch, Jr. has become a bit of a challenge for them to explain away.

"Fortunately, after Professor McGonagall and I questioned him under Veritaserum and procured a few copies of important memories, we were able to transfer him into custody. Rufus Scrimgeor, for one, has assured me that he will be given a full trial so that all of his statements and memories will be on full display. And Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt let me know that he's got trustworthy people ensuring that Crouch remains safe until he can be brought to trial."

A scowl beset Harry as his headmaster mentioned the possibility of a trial. "Why should Crouch get another trial? He's already gotten a trial once, and now he's getting a second when they never gave Sirius one! Shouldn't he just be thrown into Azkaban?"

"I thought you might bring up the discrepancy between his treatment and that of your godfather," said Dumbledore with a gleam in his eye. "One of the reasons I used my considerable influence to guarantee that Crouch, Jr. receives a new trial is because of the implications his testimony will provide. Should this trial prove that Peter Pettigrew is not only alive but also working in the service of Lord Voldemort…"

Harry's face lit up. "It'd help prove Sirius is innocent!"

"I certainly hope so. Sirius has gone through so much undeserved, much like his godson. If things go well, perhaps Sirius could be exonerated. I know that this past week, and the tournament as a whole, has been a terrible burden for you, Harry. I would be quite pleased if the suffering you endured produced something as sweet as freedom for Sirius."

The dour feelings that had plagued Harry for most of the meeting evaporated as he allowed himself to imagine disembarking from the Hogwarts Express and seeing Sirius waiting for him with his trademark grin.

"How can I help? I can be a witness or offer up my memories if that'd help!"

"Those details haven't been finalized yet, but I promise to discuss the next steps with you and Sirius over the summer. Which brings us to another important juncture…" Professor Dumbledore eyed Harry for a moment as his pupil leaned forward eagerly. "When we last spoke, you expressed an interest in explaining the contents of your rogue memory to Sirius. Do you still wish to continue with this plan?"

The excitement at a potential life with Sirius had made Harry forget all about his desire to tell his godfather about the memory from the future and how he had perhaps overstepped his place in pushing for it with Dumbledore. Despite feeling a little bit less confident than he would have preferred, he answered, "Yes, sir. I want Sirius to know." He almost left it that, but then offered an addendum. "He saved me."

"Indeed, he did. To be honest, since you first suggested doing so I have felt that divulging such information would be a mistake. I changed my mind when Sirius' patronus alerted me to your danger." The old man pulled off his spectacles and rubbed between his eyes before addressing Harry again.

"Please understand my position, Harry. For years, decades, I have mostly kept my own council as a leader in the fight against Voldemort. I have earned my reputation as a duelist and tactician. And yet, I allowed a Death Eater to roam the halls of Hogwarts, to murder a Ministry wizard on school grounds, and to kidnap two students he used to revive Voldemort.

"I fear that whatever future sent back a memory to you did not remain as idyllic as your recollection of your minutes with Miss Weasley appeared. I will admit that my plan had been to address Voldemort's horcruxes on my own, never burdening others with the knowledge of the depths of the Dark Arts he explored. If a future version of me was so hard pressed that I divulged this awful truth to a student, even a student as exceptional as you, my assumption is that something went exceedingly wrong."

As Harry watched and listened, he saw Professor Dumbledore seem to sag under the weight of his thoughts. He barely resembled the jovial man who had led so many dissonant renditions of the school song, always bobbing his head to a tempo that was completely unused by the student body. It was as if he was an elderly grandfather lost in memories of a war long past, but still vividly painted in his mind.

"A brilliant young arithmancer once told me that insanity was repeating the same action and hoping for different results. With that in mind, I plan to bring a few trusted people into my confidence regarding what I have learned about Lord Voldemort and his horcruxes. Would you be willing to hear my choices and advise me as to whether you believe them to be wise?"

To say that Harry felt overwhelmed would have been quite an understatement. Professor Dumbledore always seemed like he was holding all the cards, so for him to acknowledge his own faults and offer Harry a glimpse into his inner thoughts was jarring.

"I suppose, sir, but I'm not sure why my thoughts would be helpful…"

"Thank you, Harry. Let us skip the 'Why' for brevity's sake and work under the assumption that I value your thoughts on the matter. Would you prefer all of them one by one, or should I simply list off my top choices?"

"Err… I guess maybe just all at once?"

"Excellent! As you've probably surmised, Sirius is one of my choices. Professor McGonagall is another. A third choice was a bit more difficult to settle on, but I am considering the real Alastor Moody. And finally, I thought perhaps you would be willing to delve deeper into these matters with us, as one unwillingly dragged into the situation from a young age, but who has provided a bevy of insights and has thwarted our enemy on multiple occasions. That would equal five with the knowledge to effectively lead the fight against Voldemort, should the need arise."

With that, Albus Dumbledore steepled his fingers on his table and fixed his eyes upon Harry with an expression on his face that looked uncannily like Hermione's when she was waiting for a professor to grade an assignment she felt confident she would ace.

"Oh! Okay then…" said Harry nervously as he tried to collect his thoughts about the individuals Dumbledore had just named, figure out how his headmaster wanted him to respond, and wrestle with the news that he would be included. "I guess it would be helpful to know what you're wanting from the group. What are we going to be doing?"

"Our purpose will be to identify, track down, and destroy the horcruxes created by Lord Voldemort. Until these tasks are finished, Voldemort cannot be defeated. Our allies must be capable of great magic, able to keep the gravest of secrets, and be willing to sacrifice all to see Voldemort defeated."

Harry tried his best to absorb the information. "Well, I agree with you about Sirius. It might be hard for him to contribute while he's on the run from the Ministry, but he can definitely keep a secret. And he wants to see Voldemort defeated as much as anyone. Plus, he's an animagus, which might come in handy."

"Astutely put. Professor McGonagall?"

It felt odd to be speaking to Dumbledore about his professor, but Harry did his best to swallow his discomfort.

"I think Professor McGonagall is really smart. Some of the things she's done in Transfiguration and when she helped with training me this term definitely count as 'great magic.' Plus she's an animagus, too. She seems like a strong choice, except she has a lot to do here at Hogwarts. I imagine she has a lot of grading to do for all her classes, plus trying to keep all of us Gryffindors out of trouble as a Head of House. I don't exactly know what being a Deputy Headmistress requires. I guess I think she'd be really good at it, but she's also doing lots around here."

"Well reasoned, Harry. It would be fair to note that the time-related drawback is not limited to Professor McGonagall. I, too, find myself pulled in many directions that require both time and attention. Another reason why your suggestion to include Sirius sparked such a change of perspectives in me. Please continue."

An uncomfortable knot was forming in Harry's stomach as he gathered his thoughts to continue. It wasn't that he thought Professor Moody was a bad choice, but there was something about it that just didn't feel quite right.

"I think it would be hard for me to give a good answer about Professor Moody, since I never really met him, just someone pretending to be him. From everything I've heard about him, he seems like a really powerful wizard who would be helpful in tracking down dark objects. I don't fully understand how his magical eye works, but it seems like it would be helpful."

Harry paused, wondering if the headmaster might bail him out by moving the conversation along. Instead, the older man simply sat patiently behind his desk. He reached for a lemon drop from a dish in front of him and popped it into his mouth. He gestured to the dish for Harry, but the younger boy shook his head slightly. Dumbledore sucked on the sweet, seemingly unperturbed by the growing pause.

"I don't think it's enough reason not to choose him, but part of me feels like it's not a good idea…"

"Interesting. Can you explain why you feel this way?"

"I dunno. Maybe it's because he's been locked up in a trunk for nearly a year as a prisoner, and this seems like a lot to drop on someone just getting over something like that." Harry searched his head for a better reason for the tightness in his gut. "Did you say that he had retired from being an Auror?"

"Yes, Alastor has been retired from the Ministry of Magic for a few years," answered Dumbledore.

Harry considered Mad-Eye Moody's strengths and weaknesses, as far as he knew them. "I guess I'm not exactly against him joining… Having someone connected to the Ministry could be useful, especially if Fudge makes it hard for you to get help from them. It might be nice to have it be someone still working there, but I don't really know many people like that. Maybe Mr. Weasley? But I guess he doesn't seem like a great fit…"

"While I feel confident Alastor will be raring to make up for lost time, you are wise to note that it may take a bit before he is back to full fitness after such a long ordeal. And you are quite right that a Ministry connection would be advantageous."

A small trill from Fawkes startled Harry, who had barely noticed the bird seated upon his perch. Dumbledore chuckled as he stood to walk to Fawkes' stand, where he pet the bird's long neck. "Oftentimes, I am guilty of waiting too long to make a decision, while other times I choose far too quickly. Perhaps, the best course of action at this juncture would be to plan to loop Sirius and Minerva in over the summer, and keep an ear to the ground, so to speak, about a possible fifth confidant.

"In the meantime, we must discuss a few points of scheduling. Though unpleasant, I must ask that you again return to your aunt and uncle's house for the beginning of summer. It is of great importance that you not only remain there for at least a few weeks but that you not get into any unnecessary trouble. With the Ministry looking to discredit your account of Voldemort's return, it is imperative that you stay both safe and inconspicuous."

Harry's shoulders sank a bit, but he did his best not to wear his disappointment on his face. It wasn't as if it was particularly shocking news, since Sirius had warned him about it during their previous visit in Hogsmeade. Considering how many deeply important things Dumbledore had shared with him, Harry figured that this frustration wasn't worth pushing. He simply nodded to the headmaster as the man walked back behind his desk.

"Additionally, I have spoken with Professor Trelawney regarding your withdrawal from her Divination class."

A sudden heat filled Harry's cheeks as he remembered that he had not only stormed out of her class after telling her off in front of his classmates, but he had never really resolved the issue. Though there had been only a month of school left when he'd absconded from Divination, Harry had been so overwhelmed with training and preparation for the third task that he'd simply used the free period as a chance to polish up his technique.

"As headmaster, I am not typically of the opinion that classes should be dropped without thorough consideration and consultation with the professor in question and one's Head of House." Harry's eyes grew wide as he imagined sitting under Professor McGonagall's stern glare while Professor Trelawney loudly accused Harry of all sorts of things of which he was technically guilty. "Fortunately, I believe I have come up with a solution that you may consider preferable to returning to Divination during your fifth year."

The hope of a year without Trelawney predicting his imminent doom on a weekly basis caused Harry to sit up a little straighter in his chair.

"If you are to be studying matters involving Lord Voldemort and the Dark Arts alongside adults, it seems reasonable for Hogwarts to do more to prepare you to defend yourself. Not only with spellcasting, but also with abilities like how to close off your mind from would-be attackers. I am proposing that, once a week, you will spend time learning directly from myself or other specially chosen instructors. There are a variety of skills that I believe will be even more important now that Lord Voldemort has returned." Professor Dumbledore's blue eyes were twinkling as he watched the broad smile emerge on his pupil's face. "Unless you would prefer to return to Divination?"

Harry quickly assured the headmaster that he would certainly be willing to miss out on Professor Trelawney's class for these special sessions.

"Excellent!" Dumbledore clapped his hands before rising from his seat. "I have kept you from your bed for far longer than Madam Pomfrey would approve of, so I shall send you on your way. Unless there is anything else you wish to speak of?"

A nagging thought wouldn't leave Harry's mind, even though he didn't want to push his luck. "Well, here's the thing… I've been trying really hard to not tell Ron, Hermione, and Ginny about the things you and I have discussed. But it's getting harder and harder to keep secrets from them. I want to do a good job of honoring the fact that you've shared so much information with me, but I also want to be upfront with my friends."

"And you would like me to share what information needs to remain secret, for the safety of your friends and for your own?"

Harry breathed out a "Yes, please," as the weight of keeping secrets tugged at his chest.

"I still have not found satisfactory answers about your rogue memory, which makes me believe that it remains a subject worth not fully divulging. Voldemort's horcruxes would be the brightest line over which I would ask you not to step while speaking with your friends."

A quick inventory in Harry's head confirmed that the restrictions were both reasonable and that he hadn't yet broken them. "Thank you, sir. I think they will all appreciate being looped in on what's allowable."

"If I remember correctly, when you first presented me with the information regarding the rogue memory, you were only concerned with sharing details with Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger." Harry would've sworn he saw Professor Dumbledore's right eyebrow make the most subtle waggle. "It seems that what was once a trio now more closely resembles a quartet."

Harry didn't know quite what to say in response as he stood up from the overstuffed chair, but couldn't help noticing the broad smile on his professor's face.

Back to index

Chapter 27: Chapter 27

Author's Notes: It is absolutely wild that we've reached the end of Goblet of Fire. When I started this project I had an idea of how it would go, but it's grown so far beyond what I imagined. It's so fun sharing it with y'all, reading your comments, and anticipating how y'all will react. Some of the highlights of my week are when I receive an encouraging comment from a reader who noticed something I put special care into.

There will be short hiatus for RLM next week since I'll be out of town for spring break with my wife and our two kids. Gonna give myself a little time to soak up some family time and prepare for the events of Order of the Phoenix. Things have remained pretty similar to canon so far, but that's changing in the next few chapters! Looking forward to sharing it with y'all!

With the end of term rapidly approaching, Harry found himself with more free time on his hands than ever. Most of his classes were preparing for finals or finishing them, but he had been exempted from all such examinations. With Defense suspended due to the lack of a professor and Harry fully removed from Divination, he found himself wandering the castle and the grounds more often. He also had more time freed up now that he wasn't training weekly with Professor McGonagall, Professor Flitwick, and the imposter Moody.

A few visits with Hagrid had boosted Harry's spirits. The man's beady, black eyes shone with tears as he recounted to Hermione, Ginny, Ron, and Harry how the headmaster had praised him for his lessons in the second term. The classes about the similarities and differences between the dragons that the champions faced and the lesson by the lake (complete with an appearance from the Giant Squid) were especially well-received by the students.

The four friends spent a good deal of time together as the term drew to a close. Hermione was distant, often failing to engage in conversation or leaving abruptly from a meal. After she hurriedly packed up her books and made for the stairway to her dormitory one evening, the three remaining friends watched her with forlorn expressions. Ginny had followed behind her the last two times this had happened, but this time she hung back.

"How do you think she's holding up? Is she doing any better?" asked Harry quietly as Hermione disappeared up the stairs.

"She's having a really hard time," answered Ginny, her shoulders drooping as she turned back to the chess board that no longer held her attention or Ron's. "I can't imagine what all she's feeling. And feelings aren't exactly her strength…"

Ron's eyes caught Ginny's with a look halfway between hurt and defensive, but before he could say anything, Ginny continued.

"That came out wrong. I meant that she's so good at thinking through everything, but she can't think her way through this. She can't analyze her way through heartbreak."

Ron's look softened and he nodded, returning his gaze to the chessboard. "I dunno what to say to her," he mumbled. "It's not like I was Krum's biggest fan or anything, but I didn't want him to end up dead. He seemed like a decent enough bloke, especially when he went after Malfoy."

"You seemed like a pretty big fan of him after the World Cup," noted Ginny cautiously, meeting Harry's eyes while Ron examined how to extricate his bishop from a sticky situation. "It kinda felt like you got a bad taste in your mouth about him after he took Hermione to the Yule Ball."

"Well, yeah…" said Ron, a hint of pink tinging his ears. "But he was competing against Harry at the time, so I was worried. Didn't want him using Hermione to get to him…"

Ginny didn't push but didn't give her brother an easy out either. Harry had no desire to attempt to sort out what was happening, so he simply sat back and tried to anticipate where the two chess masters would move next.

"But I guess he ended up being alright, in the end. Good luck to the next guy who asks her out though," Ron's focus was so intent on his bishop that he completely ignored Ginny's knight intruding on his queen. "International quidditch star and Triwizard champion… That'll be a tough act to follow."

Ginny smirked as her knight ousted Ron's queen, causing him to swear. "Eh, I don't think she cared much about all that stuff. When we talked about him, a lot was just how it made her feel to have someone listen to her. She's got so much in that head of hers: a million questions about how the world works and a million more ideas on how to make things better. Viktor just let her talk and made sure she knew he cared what she thought."

Ron's concentration on the chess game seemed to be waning with each passing moment. Harry leaned forward. "You really think that's why she liked Viktor?"

Ginny rolled her eyes as she pushed a rook forward. "The fact that he asked her at all was a big deal, too. Being bold enough to tell someone you like them means something. But yes, it factored in. No offense, but neither of her two best friends seem all that interested in what she thinks a lot of the time. You're quick to ask for her answers on homework, but aren't always sparkling conversation partners."

Harry considered the point as Ron attempted to fight his way back after his blunder left him down a queen. "It's not like you're always wearing a S.P.E.W. badge or talking Hogwarts: A History with her," countered Harry.

"True, but we talk about other things," answered Ginny cryptically as she pressed her advantage on the board. Soon, her bishop was staring down Ron's now-checked king. "I'm just saying that Hermione really wanted someone who would listen to her, and Viktor stepped up. That's probably part of why she's taking it all so hard. He's the person she's used to talking through things with, but now he's not there."

"I still think whoever asks her out next has big shoes to fill…" muttered Ron as he dejectedly positioned his bishop to protect his king.

"Well, it'll probably be a while before she's interested in anybody after losing Viktor. But she'll bounce back, eventually."

Ron was well behind on material, which left him scrambling to regain some semblance of his usual dominance. The fire crackled as a friendly silence fell over the three of them, punctuated only occasionally by the cries of a captured piece.

Ten minutes later, it was Ginny who let out a swear once she realized that her opponent had maneuvered himself into a stalemate instead of her desired checkmate. Though defeated, Ron regained a bit more of his pride as his sister stuck out her tongue at him. He cleaned up the remaining pieces before he and Harry wished Ginny goodnight and climbed the stairs to their room.

Neville was propped against his headboard with a large tome in his hands as the two began readying for bed. "Can't believe this is our last night at Hogwarts as fourth years."

"No kidding," said Ron as he pulled his shirt over his head. "Looking forward to the summer?"

"For the most part. It's kinda boring not having you all to hang around with, but at least there's no Snape over the summer. What about you two?"

"Mum's been quiet about our plans, but I figure it'll just be hanging around the Burrow, mostly. Hopefully we'll get to bring Harry over at some point, yeah?"

"Dumbledore wants me to go stay with my aunt and uncle for the first of the summer, but I might get to go to the Burrow later on, which would be great. And Snuffles said I might get to stay with him if everything works out."

"Either way, anywhere's better than with your relatives…"

Neville glanced at Harry as if he wanted to say something, but quickly dropped his eyes back to the book on his lap.

"Yeah, I'm not looking forward to dealing with them at all. What's it like for you, Nev? Boring sounds kinda nice to me."

"My Gran is pretty strict. She's always going on about upholding the family legacy and how I need to live up to the standards my parents set. Last summer, she started making me come with her to the Ministry for Wizengamot sessions every week. They're really boring, but she said I can get my own greenhouse if I keep going. Not like I have much choice, but at least I'll get to have somewhere for my plants."

"Ugh. Percy tries to tell me about Wizengamot stuff sometimes, and it seems like the most boring thing in the world." Ron frowned for a moment. "Of course, he could probably make quidditch sound dull…"

"I hear you on having people constantly comparing you to parents. It's like every time I meet someone, they say 'You look just like your father! Except you have your mother's eyes!' Folks think that since they knew my parents, they know what I'll be like. Do people do that to you, too?"

"Yeah, I get that a lot," replied Neville, looking a little bit braver. "My dad was apparently really popular and talented, and my mum, too. They were both Aurors, but Mum took time off when I was born."

"You're parents are Aurors?" exclaimed Ron and Harry cringed internally at his phrasing. "That's wicked! I was thinking about being an Auror after Defense with Moody this year, though him being a fraud who tried to kill us made me rethink that a bit."

"Well, that's the thing…" Neville's boldness eluded him after having opened up this much but not having any avenue to stop the flow of information. Ron didn't pick up on his friend's hesitation, but Harry did.

"I heard your parents got attacked not long after my family," said Harry cautiously. "Right when most folks thought things were going to be safe."

Neville hung his head as he nodded while the color drained from Ron's face.

"Bloody hell…" whispered Ron. "I had no idea. I'm so sorry, mate."

After a few moments, a sniffle broke the silence that followed. Ron glanced at Harry with a look of befuddlement, but Harry didn't know what to do, either.

"That's why I live with my Gran," said Neville thickly. "Mum and Dad are stuck at St. Mungo's in the long-term spell damage ward. I go visit them during the summer and on holidays, but it's hard because they can't really communicate or remember much."

Whatever Ron intended to say was swallowed up by silence. Neville's eyes had locked onto Harry's, and neither boy seemed capable of breaking the eye contact.

"The Death Eaters who did it… Apparently, they thought they could use the Cruciatus to get my parents to tell them what happened to You-Know-Who. They wanted to bring him back."

Ron found enough voice to swear. Harry kept looking at Neville steadily. Even if he was unable to say anything to make this less painful, he was determined not to look away.

"So, I think Gran expects me to be just as good at magic and as powerful and popular as my dad was, but I'm obviously not. She even gave me his old wand to use, but I'm barely better than a squib."

"Wait a sec, that's not fair," interjected Harry. "You're good when you're confident and not even Hermione can touch you in Herbology!"

"But I'm rubbish in Potions and barely keep up in Charms and Transfiguration, and I've almost failed Potions every year."

At this, Ron piped up. "You can't blame yourself for Potions, mate. Snape is a git and he hates you as much as he hates Harry."

"If you weren't so good with plants, I never would have found out about Gillyweed. You saved my skin," replied Harry. "If your Gran expects you to follow in your parents' footsteps, that's on her. You don't need to be an Auror. You'll probably be the plant version of Newt Scamander!"

"Nev, did you say you're using your dad's old wand?" asked Ron. Neville gave a quick nod as he lifted the wand for Ron to see. "I used a hand-me-down wand from my brother Charlie my first two years here, and I kept thinking I was useless at loads of magic. Part of that was when it mostly broke when we crashed into the Whomping Willow, but it didn't work properly for me before that, either. I remember Charms and Transfiguration were always the worst because I just couldn't make my wand work right.

"But when I got this new wand, everything just sorta fell into place. It's not like I'm better than Hermione or anything, but I keep up without setting things on fire, plus Flitwick and McGonagall aren't mad at me as much."

Harry could see Neville was a bit hesitant as he looked at the wand in his hand. "Maybe your Gran would take you to Ollivander's over the summer to see if there's a wand that fits you better," suggested Harry. "You wouldn't have to give up your dad's wand, but it might be nice to have one that's more suited to you before our OWLs year."

"Don't remind me about OWLs," said Neville ruefully. "Not looking forward to all the work we'll be given next year."

"No kidding," added Ron. "We've got to make sure to stay on Hermione's good side, or else none of us will have a chance."

"What do you mean, we?" asked Neville with a faint twinge of a smile. "I don't see her getting mad at me or Harry very often."

"Yeah, I try to steer clear of her wrath, unlike some other people I know…"

"Uncalled for!" Ron tossed a pillow at Neville, who tried to dodge but only managed to fall backward off his bed. "I've been better this term!"

Harry snickered as his friend while Neville climbed back onto his bed, making a rude gesture at the redhead. "Maybe you've been a bit better as of late, but I have my doubts about how long it'll last."


"Another school year has come and gone!" Professor Dumbledore's voice boomed through the Great Hall as the students and professors watched and listened. "A year unlike any in recent memory, and one we will not soon forget.

"We must acknowledge the grave loss we have suffered and the young man who should be here celebrating alongside us. Please stand and raise your glasses to honor Viktor Krum."

Bench legs scraped across the floor as the student body rose to its feet. Goblets were hoisted toward the enchanted ceiling, and in one voice, the collected students and faculty uttered the name of the fallen. Several Slytherins were quick to return to their seats, but most stood for a moment as they took a sip of their drink and watched the head table. Once everyone had returned to their seats, Professor Dumbledore continued.

"Viktor Krum was an outstanding student and competitor, both in Quidditch and within the Triwizard Tournament. He was a son and an older brother. He was a good person."

A somber silence had befallen the amassed students, punctured only by occasional sobs from Hermione or one of the Durmstrang students.

"Viktor was cruelly killed after the completion of the Third Task. Though many of your parents do not wish for me to explain the circumstances of his death, I find that truth is preferable to lies. It would be a disservice to his memory to allow rumors to go unchallenged or to leave you wondering if Viktor met his end by some fault of his own."

Albus Dumbledore heaved a long sigh as he collected himself before continuing. "Viktor Krum was murdered by Lord Voldemort."

Whispers began circulating as soon as the words had left the headmaster's lips, and Dumbledore waited a few moments before raising his hand for quiet.

"In his final moments, Viktor was offered the chance to save his own life by turning against others. Given the choice, he elected to remain true to his ideals and refused to turn against Muggle-born witches and wizards. And for this decision, Viktor Krum was killed.

"Many do not wish to believe that Lord Voldemort has returned. But our world depends on being willing to face hard truths and meet the moment. Viktor Krum did this, and we must prepare to do the same."

Murmuring began to grow again within the ranks of the students. Dumbledore simply stared out into the ocean of faces, waiting until the students quieted down after a few prefects shot looks at their peers.

"I must also bring up another student who faced the same dangers as Viktor. Harry Potter managed to escape the trap laid by Lord Voldemort. Voldemort used an imposter disguised as Alastor Moody to enter Harry into the Triwizard Tournament and to transform the Cup at the end of the Third Task into a portkey. Harry escaped, in part, due to his bravery and quick thinking. Though he was able to return to Hogwarts, he sustained multiple injuries during the harrowing ordeal. I ask that you respect his privacy regarding the matter."

Though Harry appreciated the sentiment, he couldn't help noticing that most of the students had trained their eyes on him during Dumbledore's explanation.

"The aim of the Triwizard Tournament is to build connections between students, schools, and countries. It appears that these kinds of relationships will soon be more important than ever. I urge our guests to remember Hogwarts as a place in which you will be welcome. Should the need arise, this school would be honored to host you again. We hope that you will bear our goodwill back to your home countries and communities, and that we can strive for a better world for all together.

"One of Lord Voldemort's greatest strengths is his ability to sow discord and mistrust among those who should be united. We can fight against such division by looking past differences of language, culture, and blood status to find that which binds us together.

"I believe that challenging times are coming for us all, though I hope to be mistaken." Dumbledore's gaze traveled across the room as he spoke. "Our best hope of meeting these challenges is to work together.

"Some of you have already experienced loss at the hands of Lord Voldemort or his followers. Families have been ripped apart and lives have been lost. A student was taken from our midst. May we remember Viktor Krum, and what happened to a good young man who faced evil."

Hedwig hooted angrily as Harry bumped her cage into Hermione, who was holding a very frustrated Crookshanks under one arm and a heavily-laden bookbag over her other shoulder. The wait for the carriages that would transport the Hogwarts students to the train was taking longer than usual since the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students were also saying their goodbyes before departing. Ginny, Ron, and Neville milled about by their trunks nearby.

"Easy, girl," said Harry in an apologetic tone. "I'll let you out for a fly once we get onto the train, I promise." Hedwig looked back at him skeptically but refrained from hooting at him further.

Harry watched as dejected Durmstrang students filed away from the castle. Without Karkaroff or Krum, the group looked much less regimented than they had when they'd first arrived. The lack of a clear leader left them much quieter and more reserved. Many had already boarded their ship before the Hogwarts students had exited the castle.

"'Arry!" All five friends turned to find Fleur bounding in their direction. Ron swallowed hard as he attempted to keep his composure, but he at least didn't sputter as much as he had during the first term. "'Ave you recovered from your injuries?"

"Yeah, I'm feeling a lot better. Just a bit sore now and then. How about you?"

"Madame Pomfrey took very good care of me. I am much better now. I will spend the summer back in France, but I begin working with Gringott's in August! Perhaps we will see each uzzer again sometime?"

"That'd be great," said Harry with a smile. "When you're in England, feel free to send an owl. I bet Cedric would be happy to catch up with you again, too."

"Zat would be lovely," replied Fleur, her dazzling smile gleaming in the bright sunlight. She turned to Ginny and Ron, who were standing by Harry's side. "Eet was a pleasure to meet your family before the Third Task. Would you be so kind as to do me a favor?"

Ron's gaze seemed a bit fuzzy, but Ginny paid him no mind. "What do you have in mind?"

"I meant to send a letter to your bruzzer, but I theenk the school owls do not trust me because I am part-Veela. I could not convince them to take my letter. Would you be willing to pass it along to him for me?"

Ginny regarded the older girl for a moment. "I think I could be convinced to help you out, for a price…"

"What do you have in mind?" asked Fleur. She didn't seem intimidated by the suggestion but didn't betray any feelings of being above granting a request to the younger girl.

"I heard you were quite good with charms on a certain Ravenclaw's undergarments," began Ginny with a smirk. "As the youngest with six brothers, those kinds of charms could be quite useful…"

The awed expression on Ron's face melted into horror as the memory of what had been unleashed on Roger Davies roared into his mind.

"Ah, a woman I can respect!" Fleur reached into her bookbag and soon produced a thin book with loopy calligraphy on the front. "Eet is in French, but you seem more than capable to use a translation spell for eet. I added a few notes in the margins, and I'd love to hear how they work for you." She slipped an envelope marked 'William' into the middle of the book and passed it to Ginny, who looked as mischievous as the twins while she slipped it into her bag.

"I must 'urry to ze carriage, but I am so glad to 'ave met you!" She swept down to place a quick kiss on each of Harry's suddenly-warm cheeks before waving goodbye and turning toward the carriage where Hagrid was helping Madame Maxime tend to the horses. Harry saw her wait near Adeline, who was tearfully bidding goodbye to Alicia. The chaser kissed her once more before they parted, Adeline's arm slung over Fleur's shoulder.

Soon enough, the train was loaded with luggage and the compartments were filled with excited students. The sun shone down through an unclouded sky, oblivious to the ominous tidings of the previous weeks.

Harry was holding his own in a game of Exploding Snap against Ron and Ginny, with Hermione and Neville sitting just outside of the danger zone. With an exasperated huff, Hermione wadded up a copy of The Daily Prophet and tossed it aside.

"That's not an encouraging sound," said Harry as he met Hermione's eyes. "What did they write this time?"

"It's not what they wrote, it's what they're not writing," explained Hermione. "There's nothing about You-Know-Who, Crouch Jr, or any of it! It's the most important story in years and the newspaper is completely ignoring it!"

"Well, that's just until Skeeter gets her next scoop," said Ron with a hint of disgust. "Bet she's furiously writing up a story about how Harry ruined the tournament because he's an unhinged maniac and that he got a professor fired for no reason."

Hermione let out a small laugh. Harry thought it was the first time he'd heard her laugh since Viktor's death.

"Rita Skeeter isn't going to be writing anything about us for a while." She sat looking very pleased with herself while her friends remained perplexed. "I figured out how she's been listening in on our conversations for her little stories. Turns out, she an unregistered animagus!"

The four friends stared at her, mouths agape. Ginny was the first to recover her ability to speak. "That's so illegal! Is she something small, like Scabbers?"

"Even smaller. I got the idea after Harry mentioned the idea of her 'bugging' us with listening equipment. It took me a long time to put it all together, but she wasn't just listening in. She was hiding nearby anytime something big went down, watching and listening herself!" Hermione triumphantly produced a glass jar from her bag that contained a stick, a leaf, and an ugly red insect. "Check out the markings on its face. It's the same as those horrid glasses she always wears!"

Sure enough, as the students huddled around, the bug fluttered its wings angrily and bumped into the lid before falling back to the bottom of the jar. Its tiny legs reached skyward to no avail until Hermione shook the jar vigorously enough for it to land right side up on the leaf.

Neville's face grew rather pale. "Are you saying that's Rita Skeeter?" Hermione simply smiled.

"We saw that bug when we stumbled onto Hagrid when he was talking to Madame Maxime!" exclaimed Ginny, pointing at the jar accusingly. "That's how she knew about his Mum!"

"Precisely!" replied Hermione, clearly relishing the opportunity to inform the others of her discovery.

"And the window was open in Divination the day you had that dream," said Ron. "She must have been listening in on our class!"

"Yes, she's been snooping around for stories all year. But this jar is unbreakable, so she's not writing anything until I figure out when and where to release her. From what I've read, being an unregistered animagus can get you some serious time in Azkaban, so I think she'll be quite interested in making a bargain with me."

The compartment door slid open to reveal a very smug-looking Draco Malfoy, flanked by Crabbe and Goyle. Each looked exceedingly pleased with themselves as if Christmas had come early.

"Bravo, Granger! You finally figured it out. Took you long enough," drawled Malfoy, rolling his eyes. "It doesn't matter, anyway. The Dark Lord has returned and Dumbledore will be gone soon, then nobody will be around to protect you. You blood traitors and Mudbloods will be the first to go, mark my words!"

Draco sneered as he let out a laugh as he turned to Goyle. "Well, maybe not first to go, because that honor went to Kru-"

A flurry of blinding lights flashed through the room, followed by three loud thumps. Harry removed his glasses to rub the spots from his eyes. In the doorway, Draco lay unconscious beneath the large frames of his fellow Slytherins. Each looked to be dealing with a variety of spell damage not only from the five students they'd been accosting.

"Damn!" said Fred as he stepped on Goyle to enter the compartment. "I would've thought it was impossible to make these three any uglier. Who used the Furnunculus?"

"That was mine," said Ron. Fred gave him an impressed nod.

"Apparently, those don't mix well with my Jelly-Legs Jinx. Eww, look at the little tentacles sprouting from Malfoy's face…"

George feigned tripping as he entered, knocking his shoe into Malfoy's ribs. "Almost feel bad for What's-His-Name on top there. Ginny, was that your Bat-Bogey Hex?"

"You know it!"

Another voice came from the hall and Cedric poked his head through the doorway, followed by Cho. "Saw these gits heading your way and figured you might want some backup, but it kinda seems like overkill at this point. I just used a Stunner. What about you?"

"Same here." Cho was looking at the three Slytherins with disgust. "Do you all want us to leave them here, or should we try to move them?"

Harry smiled at the two. "I've had to look at them more than I'd like this term already. How about we stash them in somewhere else?"

Between Cho, Cedric, Fred, George, and Harry, the three unconscious Slytherins were levitated into the next train car, where they were left at the feet of Blaise Zabini, Theo Nott, and Daphne Greengrass for safekeeping. Harry felt little affection toward the three Slytherins from his year, but none said anything to him as they deposited their dormmates unceremoniously on the floor.

"They tried to come after Harry and his friends in their compartment," said Cedric after dropping his levitation spell. "It'd probably be best if they stayed in here until we get back to London."

Blaise watched as a bogey-colored bat crawled out of Goyle's nose before tossing a blanket over the pile of classmates. "You couldn't have taken them to Parkinson? She would've loved the chance to play nurse for him."

"Ugh, I don't want to think about what that cow likes to play," said Cho with an exaggerated gag while Daphne rolled her eyes. "Just try to keep them from getting their arses handed to them again, okay?"

Theo laughed. "That's harder to do than you'd think, but they look like they'll be out a while."

"Appreciate it," replied Harry as they moved to leave. "Have a good summer."

"You do the same, Potter," called Zabini as the door slid shut.

Cedric and Cho walked with them back to their compartment, but Harry wasn't too surprised when they decided to turn down the offer to come sit with them. Cho's fingers quickly interlaced with Cedric's as they walked down the corridor.

Several games of Exploding Snap later, Fred had the compartment howling with laughter while describing an unfortunate accident that had befallen George while testing a new joke product.

An uncharacteristically blushing George smacked his twin. "If you give away all the secrets of our process, the joke shop won't get off the ground!"

"Joke shop? You're not really going through with that, are you?" Hermione appeared to be doing her best McGonagall impersonation.

"Absolutely! We're a bit behind on the startup funding since bloody Bagman swindled us, but we've got our first few items sorted out and should be able to do some serious product testing over the summer and next school year."

"Wait, how'd Bagman swindle you?" asked Ginny.

"Remember how we put down a big wager with him before the World Cup? The git paid us back in Leprechaun gold. A few hours later, all our winnings had disappeared."

"But that had to be some sort of mistake," said Ron.

"We thought so, too, but he kept dodging our owls or avoiding us when he was here for the tournament,' replied Fred. "We eventually cornered him in Hogsmeade, and he flat-out refused to pay us. Said we were too young to be gambling and wouldn't even give us our money back from the original wager."

"Turns out that old Ludo has a bit of a gambling problem," added George. "He owes lots of galleons to lots of different folks, including a hefty sum to the goblins."

Neville grimaced at the mention of goblins. "Ooh, owing money to the goblins gets dicey fast. A cousin of mine owed a bunch of galleons to a goblin, and he ended up fleeing the country once he realized he couldn't pay it back. We haven't heard from him in years."

"Sounds about right," said George with a grim nod. "Anyway, turns out Bagman put everything he had left on you to win the tournament. Figured if you came out on top, he'd win enough to pay back most of his debts."

Ginny's eyes lit up. "That's why he kept offering to help you! He wanted you to win so the goblins wouldn't hunt him down!"

"Well, does that mean he can pay the two of you back?" asked Harry with hope.

Fred laughed ruefully and George shook his head before replying. "Nope. Turns out the goblins outsmarted him on the bet, not that it takes too much outdo him. They said he bet on you to win outright, but you tied with Krum. The poor idiot had to make a run for it, and we don't expect to see him around."

The brakes of the train began to squeal as they approached the station, and students excitedly bustled out of the doors onto the platform. Before the twins could exit the compartment, Harry gave them a meaningful look, causing them to hang back. They looked at Harry questioningly.

"Are you two serious about starting a joke shop?"

"Yeah, of course," answered George. "We've been planning it for years."

"Someone's got to keep ol' Zonko from getting complacent," added Fred.

"Excellent. That's what I was hoping." Harry dug into his bag and produced the sack of galleons Fudge have given him as tournament winnings. "This oughta get you started since you never got your savings back from Bagman."

"He's mental, he is!" said Fred as he tried to push the sack back toward Harry.

"No, I've more than enough gold to my name. I don't want it and I don't need it, but I could use a few more laughs, yeah? Take the money and get inventing. I think we're going to need more joy really soon."

"You've got to be mental," whispered George reverently. "That's a thousand galleons!"

"That's gotta be enough to do some research on a line of prank undergarments like the ones Fleur jinxed, right? Just make sure your mum doesn't know you got the money from me. I'm not willing to risk losing out on her cooking for this."

Harry tossed the sack to Fred, who fumbled it as if it were red-hot, barely catching it by the string. "And how about you do me a favor? I know Ron and Ginny both want to try out for the quidditch team next year, but the school brooms are terrible. Maybe use some of that gold to get them something to fly?"

With that, Harry grabbed his luggage and hopped off the train. Molly Weasley was talking animatedly with her two youngest when Harry walked to their group, followed by a rather shell-shocked set of twins. She gathered each of the three into a hug in turn before they headed through the barrier. Hermione caught sight of her parents quickly, and said hasty goodbyes while her mother and father strained under the weight of her school luggage and bookbags.

Uncle Vernon looked none too pleased as the raucous contingent of teens walked his direction. Mrs. Weasley stared at the man with just as much contempt, if not more, and pulled Harry close for a quick word. "I've talked to Professor Dumbledore about getting you to come see us as soon as possible, but it will probably be a few weeks before we can swing it. However, I don't want you showing up looking like you didn't eat a single meal in the meantime. Send Hedwig to us if you're not getting enough to eat, and we'll do what we can."

"Thanks, Mrs. Weasley. That means a lot."

Ron gripped his hand tightly while Fred and George clapped him on either shoulder and gave him a grateful look. When Ron released Harry's hand, Ginny pounced forward, wrapping her arms around his midsection. Though somewhat aware of her mother's watchful gaze, Harry squeezed her in return. Her cheek was pressed against his chest and a flowery scent that connected him to his rogue memory wafted around him.

Harry smiled.

When Ginny let go, Harry did his best to regain his composure while promising to write each of them over the summer. His mind drifted back to the memory as he loaded his things into Uncle Vernon's car and climbed into the back seat. He had promised himself that he'd try to make it through the tournament and the rest of fourth year before spending too much time deciding what to do about the vision of him alongside an older version of Ginny. With a small smirk, Harry thought to himself that he now had some time to figure things out.

Back to index

Chapter 28: Chapter 28

Author's Notes: We’ve finally arrived at the beginning of the Order of the Phoenix arc! I’m super excited about some of the upcoming storylines and characters. Since I was away on vacation last week, I thought I’d drop this chapter a couple of days early. Important note: a reader let me know that my section breaks hadn’t been showing up once I posted a chapter, which led to weird transitions between sections of the story. I think that problem should now be solved, and I’ve backtracked to ensure all previous chapters were fixed.

In the smallest bedroom of the house at number 4 Privet Drive, a teenager with messy hair sat at his desk surrounded by opened envelopes and parchments of various lengths. The longest of the letters was signed by Hermione Granger. A hastily-scrawled letter from Ron Weasley lay to the boy's right, which rested upon a more formal-looking parchment folded underneath it from Neville Longbottom. A letter from the twin Weasley brothers was being used as a page marker in a nearby book. A brightly colored sheet of paper containing the correspondence from Luna Lovegood was propped against the wall with a short note from Cedric Diggory beneath it.

Harry Potter didn't consider himself much of a letter writer, but he'd responded to each of the letters his friends had sent him over the past three weeks. Except for the one in his hand which he was rereading again.

It wasn't that he hadn't had the time. With his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon determined to ignore his existence and his cousin Dudley's wariness, he'd had lots of time to himself. But things were a bit more complicated when it came to responding to the youngest Weasley.

It wasn't that her letter to him had been anything ground-breaking. Ginny wrote about the stresses of temporarily moving out of the Burrow to an undisclosed location, her frustration at not being able to take her new Cleansweep for a ride in the orchard behind her house, and her hope that she'd be able to make the Gryffindor Quidditch team in the upcoming term. Her mother was out of sorts as she adjusted to life in a new home, and that was causing tension between the two female Weasleys. Her dad was stressed by the move and by his job at the Ministry of Magic, which was not meeting the dangerous moment their world had been thrust into.

Hedwig had brought the letter the previous day, along with one from Ron. But try as he might, Harry couldn't figure out how to send back a message that seemed reasonable. He'd started four different letters only to scratch out multiple sentences on each one before chucking his parchment into the bin and starting again.

The response to Ron had been simple, but it remained safely in an envelope in the desk drawer. Hedwig had become rather agitated when Harry refused to give the letter to her, insisting that both letters bound for the Weasleys be sent together. His failure to put quill to paper for Ginny's letter resulted in hiding the completed response to Ron from his owl until he was ready to send both.

Harry's eyes raked over the letter one more time, bouncing up from her signature (she had simply signed off with "Gin") to the sentences which concluded her letter.

"Hoping you'll get to join us sometime soon, but at least we're not having much fun without you. When you arrive, we'll hafta make up for lost time!"

Harry's stomach turned an uncomfortable flip as he read the words again. His eyes closed, and a vision of a memory that he'd never technically experienced flooded his senses all over again.

He could feel the warm, summer sunlight even with his eyes closed. A soft breeze blew a few strands of fiery-red hair across Harry's face, tickling his nose just a bit. He scrunched his bare toes in the grass as he leaned against the thick tree trunk supporting him from behind.

Ginny, or at least some sort of older version of Ginny, was leaning against the tree to his right, with her head resting on Harry's shoulder. Her left hand flexed slightly within his right, and he felt his thumb making small circles around her knuckles.

The floral scent he associated with the youngest Weasley filled his mind and he sighed to himself in contentment. It really was quite the good memory, even if he'd never actually really experienced it.

"Hey, Harry? What are you thinking?" asked Ginny, a grin plastered across her slightly-swollen lips, and Harry couldn't help thinking about what might have been recently happening to leave her in such a state.

"I dunno, Gin. Just how happy I feel right now." Despite the harrowing weeks he'd experienced, Harry felt like there was truth in what his alternate self was describing. "And how much I wish I'd started to get to know you sooner. Especially after your first year, all of us should have done a better job of supporting you. Me, Ron, Hermione… Even the twins."

A feeling of hope swelled inside his chest. "It woulda been great to realize you were this amazing sooner."

Harry leaned over and pressed his lips onto the crown of Ginny's head, thinking to himself, "I can't believe this girl fought one of Voldemort's horcruxes all on her own for nearly a year." The thought still didn't make much sense to Harry, but he was focusing in on the response Ginny was about to give.

The memory began to fade, but he smiled as Ginny's laugh caught his ears before she whispered, "I guess we'll hafta make up for lost time."

Those words lodged in his head as he leaned back in his seat, peering down his nose at the parchment as he balanced on two chair legs. "Make up for lost time…" The way her words from the memory mirrored those written in Ginny's letter had flung Harry's emotions into chaos.

The question in Harry's mind was no longer whether he was interested in Ginny as more than just a friend. The answer to that question had been staring him in the face for several months, only for him to stuff such feelings away when an errant glance or accidental brush of an elbow caused him minor heart palpitations. Harry had thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her at the Yule Ball and during their Hogsmeade excursion, as well as the hours of friendly banter while training for Triwizard tasks and evenings spent playing games in front of the Gryffindor fireplace.

Though Harry didn't consider himself as good-looking as Cedric or as funny as the twins, he thought there was at least a moderate chance that Ginny still harbored some feelings for him. She had seemingly enjoyed spending time with him, both alongside Hermione and her brother as well as when they'd been one-on-one.

More pressing was the matter of Harry not being confident about how to go about dating someone. He hadn't seen too many relationships up close and certainly didn't feel confident about asking for advice. Even if he knew what questions to ask, Harry didn't exactly have a long list of people he could go to. Ron was just as clueless, if not more, plus he was a danger to blow up about relationship things regarding his sister. Hermione had some dating experience and knew Ginny well, but Harry got the feeling she wasn't the ideal candidate to offer him advice. If not for the circumstances, Harry thought Ginny might be the most helpful advice-giver out of the three.

In the end, he decided that Sirius was his best hope, but he wanted to talk to his godfather in person about the situation. Since he was going to explain the rogue memory to him soon, Harry figured that he would have ample opportunity to brief him on his growing interest in the subject of the memory and request help. Sure, Sirius was likely to tease him ruthlessly, but it'd be worth it to get his advice.

A part of him worried about the possible repercussions of a relationship with a member of the closest thing to a family he'd ever known. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were kind enough to allow him into their home and treated him more like a son than his Aunt and Uncle ever had, but Harry wondered if that goodwill might evaporate if he walked into the Burrow holding their only daughter's hand.

Then again, Harry found himself grinning at the mere thought of walking around with her hand in his.

As the trepidation regarding her parents subsided, the image of six protective brothers flashed in his mind. If Harry was honest, he wasn't too worried about Ron. His best mate could be overprotective at times, but Ron hadn't objected to him taking Ginny to the Yule Ball and had declined to stick with them as a self-appointed chaperone when they'd gone off to visit Sirius. Likewise, Fred and George had pranked Harry on more than one occasion, but they had always stuck to the kind of good-natured teasing all of the twins' friends expected.

Ginny's older brothers were harder to gauge.

Percy was much more concerned with rules and appearances than any of the other Weasley siblings. Their conversation at the Ball had been polite, but Harry recognized that Percy had not been inclined to believe that Harry hadn't entered the tournament himself. With the Ministry disputing Dumbledore's description of events, there was a chance that Percy might not be thrilled to have the night's sole corroborating witness dating his sister.

Harry had less experience with Bill and Charlie. Both had seemed nice enough during his few times around them. They were both the kind of cool that Harry admired. They worked in dangerous professions doing interesting work, as few jobs could stack up against Curse Breakers and Dragon Keepers. They also exuded confidence.

Harry had noticed Bill sticking close to Ginny when he and their parents had visited for the third task. From conversations during the term, he knew that Bill had a special place in his heart for his only sister and that they were quite close. Charlie was away in Romania caring for dragons most of the time but had been kind when they'd occasionally run into each other.

Even with multiple unknowns, Harry had the feeling that Ginny could make all of them fall in line if she so chose. She had flattered Percy into being more reasonable and loudly put Ron in his place within the space of an hour at the ball, not to mention that she'd described herself as more like the twins than anyone else. Knowing her, Ginny probably had Bill and Charlie wrapped around her finger, too. Beyond that, Harry wasn't sure that he cared whether her brothers had anything to say about who Ginny dated.

Out of all the potential complications which had been fluttering through his mind, the main problem was the memory on which he had just been dwelling. Harry wondered what Ginny would say if and when he told her about the memory that had attacked him the previous year. It wasn't that he wanted to keep it from her, but it was rather personal and could end up embarrassing. Her reaction when he'd explained how the memory came to him and a bit of its contents had been distrusting and fearful at first, but that made sense considering her experience with Riddle's diary. She'd eventually come around to believing it wasn't malevolent.

But how was she going to react when he revealed that the rogue memory not only involved her, but also had been the catalyst that spurred him to ask her to the Yule Ball? Would she be frustrated with him? Would it change how she thought about the past few months of becoming better friends?

He crumpled up another parchment and sighed deeply. He thought it rather stupid to second-guess himself constantly when he didn't even know if Ginny was even interested in him, so he decided to do his best to put quill to paper.

Thirty minutes later, he stared at his page sheepishly. It wasn't the kind of letter anyone would swoon over, but he had at least included a few more details than he'd written in his response to Hermione and had more than doubled what he wrote to Ron. He tied both letters to Hedwig, who hooted at him in frustration and nipped at his fingers before winging into the early evening light.

From the floor below his feet, Harry heard Uncle Vernon swearing, then the stomping that indicated his imminent arrival. The latch on the outside of his door rattled before the man burst into Harry's room.

"Ruddy owls!" he yelled, his face advancing from its normally pale hue to a deep crimson. "That's the third day in a row an owl has flown to or from this house in broad daylight! I won't have the neighbors thinking our house is infested with pestilent birds!"

"I can't help it that my friends send me letters…" said Harry crossly, knowing that he'd made an unforced error by not waiting the extra hour until darkness had fallen. In his eagerness to get his finally-finished letter into the air, he'd forgotten the growing tension he'd noticed from his brief interactions with his uncle over the previous days.

"That ruddy bird flew out from your window just now in full view of the Greenlees! They've been in their back garden all afternoon!" A vein in Vernon's neck was bulging threateningly as if it were ready to burst at a moment's notice. "You'll have our reputation in ruins!"

Harry scoffed, allowing his voice to rise more than he'd intended. "I'm sure the Greenlees already aren't fond of you after Dudley hit their car with a rock two nights ago!"

Vernon glowered at Harry. "You know damn well that wasn't Dudley! It was probably you, ungrateful little ingrate!"

"I don't need this," spat Harry, conspicuously pocketing his wand before storming past his uncle. He was halfway down the stairs when he called back over his shoulder, "I'm leaving!"

"Don't expect any dinner!" Harry heard the door slam behind him as he walked across the grass in front of the house. Muttering to himself, he made for the park a few streets over. Most of the equipment had been broken or defaced by Dudley and his gang of friends, but Harry found a lone swing that had survived their rampages.

He sat dejectedly, kicking at the gravel at his feet. It took a few minutes for him to cool down, but he soon felt regret about the situation. Not about telling Uncle Vernon off; Harry felt quite good about throwing his cousin's misdeeds in Vernon's face. But he'd promised Dumbledore that he would remain at Privett Drive unless extenuating circumstances arose, and his lump of an uncle yelling a bit surely didn't qualify.

Harry had wandered around a bit over the previous four weeks but had forced himself to remain in the house during the evenings and at night. It wasn't precisely what Dumbledore had wanted, but the headmaster hadn't forbidden him from leaving the house completely.

The sound of a crude song being sung loudly and off-key made Harry look to his left. Dudley and three of his friends were careening out of an alley on their bikes. Several bins had been knocked to the ground with garbage strewn in their wake. The frustration that had been subsiding flared back up as Dudley steered at one of Mrs. Figg's many cats, which narrowly avoided being flattened by the bike.

Dudley Dursley was still large for his age, but a year of dieting had slimmed him down considerably. More than that, he'd grown broader in the shoulders and less prone to losing his breath after short stints of activity after taking up boxing. Though Harry had long since moved past fearing his cousin, he wasn't fond of the idea of the teen being more adept at throwing punches.

His pugilistic prowess had spurred even more confidence, which had translated into Dudley and his friends running amok through the neighborhood ever since the start of the summer holidays. Harry had been careful to avoid the mayhem they caused, if only to ensure he wasn't blamed for their destruction.

He wondered how his cousin would react if the boys came upon Harry in a seemingly vulnerable position. Dudley was quick to bully kids smaller and younger than he was, especially when flanked by Piers Polkiss or other members of his little gang. Harry, on the other hand, was more than capable of defending himself, though Dudley was the only one of them aware of that fact. Would he risk trying to push Harry around just to save face in front of his friends, or would his fear of magic force him to back down?

The rebellious side of Harry yearned for a chance to find the answer, but he thought better of it. Dudley met Harry's gaze for a brief moment from half a block away and turned down a sidestreet. He resisted the urge to call out one of Aunt Petunia's pet names for her son (Dudders or Diddly-Dinkums would have surely gotten a rise out of his cousin) and simply watched as the group headed toward the Polkiss house. They had just passed from his view when a slight chill went down Harry's spine as gooseflesh raised on his arms.

"Harry Potter!" came a clear, deep voice from Harry's right.

Harry whirled around to find a tall man with a dark complexion and a stern look on his face approaching his swing quickly. He wore Muggle clothes, but Harry immediately got the impression that the man was a wizard. His right hand rested on the wand that he had stuffed into his pocket, but his position in the swing prevented Harry from producing it quickly.

The man must have noticed because he raised his hands slightly before speaking again. "My apologies, Harry. It wasn't my intention to startle you. My name's Kingsley Shacklebolt. I'm here on Dumbledore's orders." His eyes shifted from Harry to the sky, which was darkening at a rapid pace. "Get your wand out, but don't use it unless I give the word or I'm incapacitated. Do you understand?"

Harry stood up abruptly and pulled his wand from his pocket. "What's going on? Why are you here?"

"Dumbledore has been keeping tabs on you to make sure you stay safe. I was on guard duty when you were rowing with your uncle and followed you here. Would have remained hidden if not for this feeling that something is off."

The explanation seemed reasonable to Harry, especially since a Death Eater would have likely cast curses rather than engaging in conversation, but the memories of the graveyard were flooding back into Harry's mind. The man claiming to be Shacklebolt had a wand in his hand as his eyes darted to and fro, but it wasn't pointed at Harry and he certainly seemed to be on the defensive.

"How do I know I can trust you?" asked Harry while drawing his wand.

"Not much I can say at the moment so I don't expect your trust, but I am going to do everything I can to keep you safe. If something goes wrong, get back to the house as best you can. It's got enough wards to keep you safe from just about anything. We can head that direction." He cast his eyes skyward and swore to himself. "It feels like it might be dementors. The darkness and the chill… Lupin said you could cast a Patronus?"

The knot that had been steadily growing in Harry's stomach loosened slightly at the mention of his former professor. "Yeah! He taught it to me in third year!"

"Good. Hopefully, you won't need to use it, but stay sharp. I'll cast it first if needed. Plenty of experience with these things as an Auror. But have the memory you'd use at the ready and make sure to keep focused on what's in front of you if a dementor comes near. Don't let yourself get distracted by how they make you feel."

The thought of being attacked by dementors increased the dread Harry felt, but he did his best to follow orders. The two moved swiftly from the empty park back toward Privett Drive. Harry gripped his wand tightly as he tried to think back to the various positive memories he'd experienced that he could draw power from, but the task was challenging with the knowledge that he might soon come face to face with soul-sucking wraiths. He hadn't yet tested whether the rogue memory would work properly for conjuring a Patronus, and he mentally kicked himself for overlooking such an important detail. After a stressful minute of following Shacklebolt while wracking his brain, Harry settled on his memory of completing the second task and celebrating alongside Ginny, Ron, and Hermione.

A strong arm shot out in front of him, and Harry nearly lost his glasses bumping into the man's elbow. The night sky, which had been dotted with the first few stars of the evening and a glowing, crescent moon, was now inky black above them. The streetlights looked to be in a losing battle against the encroaching darkness.

"Straight ahead," whispered the Auror as he pointed into the distance. "Two of them."

Harry peered forward, but he did not need to see the black-cloaked creatures to know they were there. Their rattling breaths grew louder as they glided toward the two wizards, and the air in Harry's lungs felt like ice. His mother's cries began to echo in his mind, followed by high, cruel laughter, and then the screams of Viktor Krum under the Cruciatus. With as much effort as he could muster, Harry shook his head back and forth, willing himself to ignore the visions appearing before his still-open eyes.

"I'll use the charm first. Two dementors shouldn't be a problem on their own, but there could be more. Plus there's a chance there are Death Eaters waiting to attack. I'll yell to you if I need your help, but you're focused on getting back into the wards at your house. And if one of those things gets close to you?" He turned and met Harry's gaze. "Give it hell and damn the consequences."

"Yes, sir," said Harry instinctively. Whatever misgivings he'd had about the wizard minutes before had evaporated. Shacklebolt nodded.

"We're about half a mile from the house. I'll cast and we'll make a break for it. Once we make it past them, you take the lead while I stay between you and them. If you see anything, call it out. Ready?"

Before Harry had a chance to respond, Shacklebolt thrust his wand forward and bellowed, "EXPECTO PATRONUM!" A silvery Lynx burst into the darkness, causing the two dementors to come to a stop. With a powerful slash of his wand, the Lynx bounded forward at the creatures. Harry had to sprint to keep up with his protector, who commanded his charm back and forth as the Lynx herded the dementors aside.

The voices in Harry's head grew louder as the two ran past where the Lynx was squared off against the dementors. From the corner of his eye, he could see the nearest one reaching its skeletal hand toward him, longing to take him by the throat.

"Get to the house!" shouted Shacklebolt as he slowed to remain between Harry and the dementors. Harry's legs burned with exertion and cold air stabbed at his lungs with each breath, but he did not slow down.

After another minute of all-out running, Harry reached the Dursley's front door and flung it open. The older wizard was right behind, and soon they were both gasping for breath in the hallway with the door securely shut behind them.

Before either had time to collect themselves, a scream emanated from the kitchen. Aunt Petunia had dropped her best glass salad bowl at the sight of Harry and an unknown stranger careening into her home. The sound of a chair scraping against the floor before toppling over preceded Vernon's appearance in the doorway to the kitchen.

"What's the meaning of this? Who the hell are you?"

Harry started to pipe up when he felt a strong hand grip his shoulder. "I apologize for startling you. The weather took a strange turn earlier and the wind slammed the door behind us. Please let me introduce myself. I'm Officer Shacklebolt."

At the introduction, Vernon's face hardened and he glowered at Harry. "Officer? What have you done this time, boy? I swore I'd have you out of this house if…"

"Excuse me, sir, but this young man has done nothing wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact!" Shacklebolt squeezed Harry's shoulder ever-so-lightly before continuing. "You see, there have been some miscreants running around the neighborhood recently. Criminal mischief, vandalism, that sort of thing. We've been gathering evidence on the matter and believe the ringleader is a local youth by the name of Piers Polkiss."

Vernon appeared to be doing his utmost to remain impassive while Petunia had shuffled closer to her husband, no doubt enticed by the prospect of neighborhood gossip. After hearing the name of Dudley's best friend, however, both could not contain their looks of shock.

"Well, Polkiss and a few of his friends have become bolder. This evening, four of them accosted a neighbor of yours, Arabella Figg. Attempted to swipe her purse. Young Harry here," the man clapped Harry's shoulder, "ran to her aid while my partner and I went after those ruffians."

Petunia's bony hand was clutched to her chest. Vernon had gripped the doorframe so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. Neither made eye contact with Harry.

"Have you and your partner… Apprehended any suspects?" Vernon's voice was shaky, and it was impossible to tell whether it was out of frustration that Harry was being praised or fear that his son had been involved.

"Not yet, but the victim was confident she could identify at least one of her assailants. Don't worry, we'll find them." Shacklebolt turned to address Harry. "What you did tonight was very brave. Who knows what would have happened to Ms. Figg had you not stepped in."

He met Vernon's eyes again. "May I borrow this fine young man for a few more minutes? I've got to get back to my partner and try to sort this mess out, but I need to get a quick statement from Harry first."

Petunia finally recovered enough of her voice to say, "Take as long as you need, sir! The sitting room is to your left!" before she hurried back into the kitchen. Harry was so dumbstruck by Shacklebolt's smooth delivery of lies that he didn't even take time to grin at the panicked expression plastered on his Uncle Vernon's face as he retreated with his wife.

"Harry, I don't have much time, so this will have to be quick. I need to get help to sort out why two bloody dementors just showed up in Little Whinging and make sure they don't attack anyone. I'll make sure Dumbledore knows what's happened, but I need your word that you won't leave the house until he gives you the go-ahead. Is that clear?"

"Absolutely. Not a problem," answered Harry quickly.

"Good man. That story I wove should be enough to keep your Uncle from giving you a hard time tonight. Once we're sure the area is safe, I'll send someone to modify their memories. If I can swing it, I'll try to get them to leave some of the realization about your cousin and his friends. Good thing I've been paying attention while on guard duty." Shacklebolt winked at Harry before moving toward the front door.

"Err… Mr. Shacklebolt?"

"Call me Kingsley."

"Oh, okay. Right, Kingsley. I just wanted to say thanks for looking out for me. I hate dementors; they affect me a lot more than most people. I wouldn't have wanted to take them on alone."

"You're welcome," Kingsley replied with a smile. "Stay safe and someone will be in touch soon. I imagine I'll be seeing you again."

The tall wizard called out a last goodbye to Harry's aunt and uncle before stepping outside and into the warm night air.

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Chapter 29: Chapter 29

Harry lay awake through most of that night, nodding off for no more than a half hour at a time. Vivid dreams of Voldemort bursting into the nursery to kill his mother were interspersed with visions of Viktor's final moments and a long hallway that had been making regular appearances as he slept. He woke soaked in sweat on more than one occasion, certain that the moisture on his face included more than a few tears.

Around half past three, he snuck downstairs to check to see if any of Dudley's typical snack hiding places contained some chocolate. Most of the stashes were picked clean with only empty wrappers left behind, but Harry managed to find two candy bars hidden in a shoebox at the back of a coat closet. With a mental thanks to Lupin for teaching him about the remedy to the after-effects of encounters with dementors, Harry gobbled down the chocolate hungrily. His small lunch had been a long time ago, so the meager snack did little to soothe his rumbling stomach, but the unease that he'd felt since Kingsley first showed up immediately began to subside.

Sleep came a little easier after the chocolate flooded Harry's system. He still woke up a few times, but he was able to get decent rest. Just after seven, his eyes shot open when he heard three sharp knocks on his bedroom door. Without waiting for him to respond, Aunt Petunia called to him.

"Vernon found two letters stuck to the front door this morning. Here's yours," she said as she slipped an envelope under his door. "Apparently, you're being picked up this evening. Make sure to pack up everything in advance. I don't want any of your…things… left here. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," answered Harry as he groggily stumbled to grab the letter. He tore it open and raked his eyes across it quickly.


I'm grateful for Kingsley's report that you are safe and were able to avoid using magic. I have arranged for several trusted wizards (including Arthur Weasley) to accompany you tonight to ensure your arrival at a secure location. Please stay within your Aunt and Uncle's house until they arrive and keep your father's cloak at the ready. I will meet with you soon.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

After a second and third reading, Harry felt a rush of hopefulness. That he would be leaving Privet Drive today was welcome news, to be sure. It was hard to determine whether Dumbledore was upset with Harry, but he figured no direct admonishment was a good sign.

The cryptic reference to "a secure location" had Harry's interest piqued. Ginny had mentioned in her letter that her whole family had temporarily relocated somewhere, but she hadn't been able to say where. With her father coming to coming to spring Harry from the Dursleys, he thought it likely that he'd soon be under a roof with the Weasleys.

Packing up his belongings didn't take Harry long. He stuffed a pile of questionably-clean laundry that'd been left unfolded at the end of his bed into his trunk, along with an assortment of textbooks and various odds and ends. The Marauder's Map was one of the few items placed in the trunk with care. Harry's Firebolt and Invisibility Cloak rested on top of the trunk, while Hedwig's empty cage stood next to it.

With nothing better to do, Harry flopped down onto his bed with the day spread out ahead of him. Other than a quick trip to the loo, he stayed in bed for the remainder of the morning, until his rumbling stomach finally forced him downstairs. He found his cousin at the table looking dejected, but Petunia was nowhere to be seen. When Dudley heard him walk into the kitchen, Harry noticed him flinch slightly.

Harry began making a sandwich without saying anything to the room's other occupant. He started back toward the door after finishing, intending to eat in the privacy of his bedroom, but Dudley spoke up.

"Hey, Potter?"

Harry looked at his cousin without knowing what to expect.

"Mum told me an officer came by last night. Said something about them being after Piers and some of his friends for some stuff." Dudley's voice was much quieter than usual. "He said Piers robbed an old lady last night."

Harry nodded slowly. "Yeah, that's what he said."

"Did you…err…talk to him about anything?"

Harry stared at Dudley, who was clearly scared of the trouble brewing. For a moment, he considered going along with the story Kingsley had laid out to send him into a full-fledged panic, but decided against it. Despite Dudley's many faults, it was Vernon and Petunia who'd caused most of the harm to Harry over the years. Compared to them, much less Draco or Snape, Harry's cousin just didn't warrant Harry's ire.

"Just told him some people looked like they were after Ms. Figg. I didn't say anything about seeing you riding with Polkiss yesterday. Didn't mention anything to your Mum or Dad, either."

"For real?" Dudley's eyes were wide and looked a bit glassy. His broad shoulders slumped slightly as his tension released.

"Yeah. Doubt they'll want you hanging out with him anymore, but I don't think the officer will be after you." That was technically true, especially since Kingsley had much bigger problems on his hands.

Dudley let out a long breath. "Right, then. Err… Thanks for that."

"Don't mention it. Just make sure you don't get caught up in stuff like that." He laughed to himself before adding, "It'll blow my cover if you really get sent to St. Brutus' Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys."

Dudley let out a small laugh, too, as Harry made for the stairs.

"Mum said you're leaving tonight, yeah?"

"Think so. Gonna stay with some friends for the rest of the summer."

"Alright… Well…" The larger boy stuck out a hand. "Have a good one."

Harry wasn't exactly flooded with emotion as he gripped his cousin's hand and said, "You, too," but he did feel a little lighter. The sound of Petunia emerging from her bedroom was the signal to beat a hasty retreat up the stairs, where Harry thoroughly enjoyed his sandwich.


Just as the streetlights began to flicker on in the growing dusk, Harry heard a knock at the door downstairs. He bolted out of his room and took the stairs three at a time, but still arrived after his uncle. Vernon was not pleased by the sight of half a dozen people in his front garden.

"What in blazes do you think you're doing?" he blustered at the wizard in front, whom Harry couldn't quite see with Vernon blocking the doorway. "Why do you need so many to pick up one damn teen?"

The gentle voice of Arthur Weasley responded at once. "There are some extenuating circumstances. We will need to be off with him within a quarter-hour. May we step inside?"

Vernon let out a noise like a growl. "I don't want any more of your kind in this house!"

"How about I put it this way, Dursley…" came the gravelly voice of a man Harry had never really met. "Either let us in now or I'm turning your car and your house pink. Your choice."

Harry snickered at the speed at which Vernon stumbled backward, retreating into the sitting room. Mad-Eye Moody's demeanor was remarkably similar to what Harry remembered from his impersonator during the previous year. His electric blue magical eyes swirled around in its socket, examining the premises for danger as he stepped inside.

Mr. Weasley stepped in next, followed by a much younger witch with absurdly purple hair and Kingsley Shacklebolt from the previous night. Behind them, Harry was thrilled to see Remus Lupin grinning widely as they locked eyes. One more witch who Harry didn't recognize walked in behind Harry's former professor and shut the door behind them.

"Alright, Lupin. Before we get this operation started, make sure he's the real Potter." Moody's eyes were now both trained on Harry. "It'd be a fine mess to bring a polyjuiced Death Eater to headquarters."

"Very well. Harry, what was in the aquarium in my office when I was your professor?"

"Oh, err… A grindylow."

"That's him." Remus stepped forward and clapped Harry on the shoulder. "It's good to see you, Harry."

"Likewise!" exclaimed Mr. Weasley. "I believe some introductions are in order!"

The witch with purple hair started forward to shake Harry's hand, but tripped over Arthur's foot, nearly falling over before Remus caught her by the arm. Chuckling, he introduced her as Nymphadora Tonks, causing her to shoot a venomous look at him.

"Call me Tonks. Everyone does. Still angry at my parents for naming me as if I was going to grow up to be a forest fairy." Harry smiled as she grasped his hand.

"Kingsley tells me you two met last night," said Remus as the tall wizard moved forward to shake Harry's hand.

"Glad to have you back. Thanks again for getting me here safely."

"Not a problem. Let's hope tonight is less exciting." He smiled broadly before side-stepping to allow the other witch to introduce herself as Hestia Jones. After her, Moody stumped forward.

"Never got to meet you in person, but Dumbledore's told me a good bit. From what I hear, I woulda enjoyed having you in class. Knack for sniffing out dark wizards and a certain cavalier attitude about rules." His magical eye ceased swiveling while aimed down at Harry's shoes. "Damn this thing! Ever since that scum wore it, it keeps getting stuck!"

He reached to his eye and popped out the offending eyeball, which made a horrible squelching sound as it fell into his hands. He spat on it and rubbed vigorously as Harry did his best not to be sick to his stomach.

"Moody, you do realize that's one of the foulest things any of us have ever seen, right?" asked Tonks nonchalantly. The former auror's response was a scowl and a swear. Remus and Kingsley chuckled while Hestia simply shook her head in dismay. Arthur did his best to ignore Moody as he reinserted his eye, focusing instead on Harry.

"After last night, quite a few folks volunteered to help escort you to headquarters. Dumbledore has it on good authority that we won't run into as much trouble but wanted to be safe rather than sorry. The floo network is being monitored and there's a crackdown on portkeys because of the tournament," Moody scowled at the mention of his impersonator. "So our best available mode of transportation is brooms."

At the mention of flight by broom, Harry's face lit up. It had been far too long since he last rode his Firebolt, and he'd been longing to feel the wind in his face again.

"Brooms are vulnerable to attack, but are more mobile than our alternatives and give us an advantage if we need to counter-attack," said Moody gruffly. "You're comfortable casting spells while flying, right Potter?"

"Yes sir. I haven't done it very often, but I cast a patronus during a quidditch match in third year and used some spells while flying against a dragon in the first task last year."

"So you really can cast a patronus? That's advanced stuff!" exclaimed Hestia with an impressed look on her face.

"Well, in the match it was just mist. I wasn't able to cast it fully yet," admitted Harry, feeling a bit sheepish in front of so many powerful adults.

Lupin nudged Harry's shoulder. "But he cast a corporeal patronus by the end of that school year, one powerful enough to drive away over a hundred dementors that were after him and Sirius."

The other five each looked impressed and more than a little shocked. Even Moody let out a low whistle. Mr. Weasley looked particularly flabbergasted. "Ron gave Molly and me a bit of an overview of that night's events, but I had no idea…" He stared at Harry appraisingly. "Took me until I was twenty-six to finally get it down."

"Well, I had a really good teacher," replied Harry, nudging Lupin's shoulder in return. "Plus, that year there were so many dementors around Hogwarts that I had extra motivation to figure it out."

Moody glanced at his watch and then at a clock on the wall. "Enough pleasantries. We need to be ready to fly in seven minutes. Potter, grab your things and we'll go over the plan out back."

Tonks and Lupin accompanied Harry up the stairs to help carry the luggage, which they shrank down and pocketed. As Harry made a last pass-through for items he might have missed, Tonks peered into the mirror attached to his dresser.

"Harry, this purple just isn't working. Bad color for me, right?"

While her hair was a violent purple, Harry didn't feel confident criticizing her appearance. Thankfully, she didn't pause long enough for him to respond. Without warning, her short purple spikes became shoulder-length and light blue. "Better, right?"

"Wha… How did you… Huh?"

"Tonks is quite the marvel. As a Metamorphmagus, she can alter her appearance at will."

"Not just my hair, either!" she said as her nose grew much longer and her eyes changed shape and color. "Made my Concealment and Disguise exams a breeze during Auror training. Pretty fun to use for pranks, too."

"That's incredible," said an awed Harry. "And you can do any colors?"

"Just about! It's not like I can change my height or weight much, but it's a pretty handy trick if I do say so myself." Her face returned to how it had looked when they first met while her hair shifted to silver, then neon green, and finally red.

"Might want to land on a different color, Tonks," added Remus with a mischievous smirk. "Potters are known for having an affinity for redheads, and Sirius was just saying that Harry might be following in his father's footsteps."

Remus had his eyes on Tonks at that moment, so it came as a surprise to him when a pillow collided with the back of his head. Tonks laughed loudly as Harry held another pillow at the ready.

"Alright, alright! No need to get defensive." Remus reached down to grab the pillow and tossed it back onto Harry's bed. "You were a lot less smart with me when I was your professor…" Harry smiled when the man gave him a wink.

"Well, you were less likely to give me grief about my personal life back then, Professor Lupin."

"He's definitely got a bit of Sirius in him," said Tonks as she gave Remus a shove.

"I'm not your professor anymore, so you can drop the formality. Remus is fine, or Moony works. Got it?"

After double-checking to confirm that Harry hadn't left anything important behind, the three of them headed back down the stairs and through the kitchen. Before reaching the back door, Harry saw Petunia huddled behind Vernon, who clutched a golf club tightly as the wizards passed by.

Once assembled in the back garden, Moody addressed the group. "The original plan was to fly straight through to headquarters overnight, but we've got a slight change. Our intelligence indicates that the floo network is under surveillance, but only in a few specific areas. The range is about a fifty-mile radius from this location, but we're going to double that, just in case. Jones' house is about 120 miles southwest, which is our target. Once we arrive, we'll be able to floo safely to headquarters. If we're attacked en route, our top priority is Potter's safety. I'll be first to break off and engage the enemy if we're being followed, followed by Shacklebolt, Tonks, Lupin, Weasley, and Jones. If we're all killed or incapacitated, Potter will…"

"You're going to give him a heart attack, Moody!" said Tonks with a laugh. "There's no indication that we'll run into any trouble, but if we do, whoever's closest to you will Side-Along Apparate you to safety."

Harry released the breath that had lodged in his throat while Moody had been explaining. "Sounds good. What do I need to do for that?"

She gave him a smirk. "Hold on tight and try not to lose your lunch."

Red sparks, not unlike the ones he'd cast on Cedric's behalf in the third task, erupted into the air from less than a mile away. Moody began growling individual instructions to each adult as Kingsley moved to stand next to Harry.

"Stow your invisibility cloak away for now. With the wind, it won't conceal you as well as a Disillusionment Charm. The spell's not quite as effective, but that won't matter in the dark and at our altitude. Plus, it'll allow for more maneuverability. It'd be a shame to lose James' prized possession."

Harry smiled as he felt the odd sensation of the charm dribbling down from his head to his toes. "You knew my dad?"

"I did. I was two years ahead of James, Sirius, and Remus here," said Kingsley with warmth in his deep voice. "I was a Hufflepuff prefect and ended up as Head Boy. Spent half my time kicking them out of the kitchens or trying to stop them from pranking some unsuspecting student. Caught each of them with a witch in an empty classroom or a broom closet more times than I want to remember."

"That was mostly Sirius, and you know it!" shot back Lupin good-naturedly. Harry tried not to dwell on the image of his father exploring broom closets with unnamed witches.

"Fair enough," replied Kingsley. "It's funny that I spent so much time chasing Sirius around at Hogwarts, and now finding him is my main assignment as an auror…"

Remus and Kingsley both laughed, but Harry's face was already becoming red. "Kingsley, I know this sounds impossible, but Sirius didn't kill all those people. It was actually Pettigrew, Sirius is innocent! I'll testify, I swear it!"

"Easy, Harry, easy!" Remus placed his hand back on Harry's shoulder. "Kingsley is well aware of the truth about Sirius."

"Which explains why I didn't arrest him when the three of us were catching up over firewhisky after last Sunday's meeting."

"King's been throwing the ministry off Sirius' trail. Got them thinking he's hiding in Tibet."

"Yes, and being assigned such a useless task has its benefits. Gives me time to do more for the Order, and gave me cover for why I was here last night. The higher-ups believed I was here investigating Sirius when I ran into the dementors since he's thought to be after you."

Another shot of sparks, this time green, lit up the horizon.

"That's our signal!" called out Moody as he mounted his broom. "Potter, stay in the middle of the formation. Call out if you see an enemy. Let's go!"


After three hours of flying, Harry was exhausted. He rarely rode a broom for this long at Hogwarts, and when he did it was in the middle of a thrilling quidditch match or during a grueling practice with Oliver Wood. This journey was a different story, flying relatively slowly through the cold night air and squinting against the wind in his eyes. Moody had directed them back and forth through the skies to lose potential assailants, but it felt like overkill to Harry as they finally descended to the country home of Hestia Jones. Before grabbing floo powder, Moody had given Harry a slip of paper with a note in Dumbledore's loopy handwriting.

You are invited to the headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix, which can be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place in London.

Harry read the note twice before Mr. Weasley approached him. "Professor Dumbledore is the Secret Keeper, so nobody can get in without him allowing it. We're going to floo there one by one, but I need you to be very careful when you call out 'Grimmauld Place,' okay? Can't have us repeating the Knockturn Alley fiasco. Let's hear it a few times before you go, just in case."

Harry blushed slightly at the reminder of his first attempt to use the floo but assuaged Arthur's nerves by repeating the location a few times. The fireplace roared with green flames as Moody and then Tonks left for headquarters, followed by Remus.

"Head on through, Harry," said Mr. Weasley kindly. "We'll be right behind you. I'll bet some people will be quite pleased to see you on the other side."

Harry nodded and threw his powder into the flames. He clearly enunciated, "Grimmauld Place!" before disappearing.

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Chapter 30: Chapter 30

Harry stumbled out of the fireplace and onto the floor, a thin layer of ash affixed to his clothes. He scrambled to his feet just in time to be engulfed in the embrace of his godfather. Harry grinned into the hug as his eyes darted about the room. Remus was positioned behind Sirius while Moody and Tonks were walking into the next room. The roar of the fire behind him announced Mr. Weasley's arrival.

"It's good to see you, Harry!" Sirius pushed him back while holding both shoulders. "What's this I hear about you playing around with dementors without me?"

Harry laughed. "Oh, you know me. Just trying to keep things interesting."

Hestia emerged from the fireplace last, dusting herself off before looking around. "Everything looks good from that end; I don't think anybody followed us. Are we meeting in the dining room?"

"Yeah, we're gonna get started in about fifteen minutes," answered Remus. "Figured Padfoot was going to be useless until he'd welcomed Harry, plus Dumbledore said Vance will be running a few minutes behind. Molly's got something delicious ready in the kitchen, though, if you want to get started while we're waiting."

At the mention of Mrs. Weasley's cooking, Hestia's eyes got wide and she licked her lips. "That's the best news I've heard today! Glad to have you here safely!" She patted Harry on the shoulder as she hurried toward the kitchen.

"I'm going to check in on Molly," said Mr. Weasley with a gleam in his eye. "Ron, Ginny, and the twins are upstairs. Hermione, too. If I know my wife, she's already sent dinner for you up there."

"I'll show you around. Welcome to the Ancient and Noble House of Black," said Sirius with more than a twinge of loathing. He made a grand sweeping gesture with his arm before making a rude gesture toward the house.

"Wait, this is your house?"

"Yep, ever since my deranged mother bit it about ten years back. Most of my family have been the unsavory sort, which helps explain why the house is decorated like a funeral home, only bleaker. Keep quiet at the landing by the hallway so as not to disturb my mother's portrait and try not to touch too much. There are who knows how many dark things hidden away in this place, and we're just starting to make it habitable again."

"How long have you been here?" asked Harry as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. Sirius crept quietly past a set of moth-eaten drapes and waited for Harry to do the same before answering.

"A few weeks. Offered it to Dumbledore to use as headquarters while you were in the infirmary. My father and who knows how many Blacks before him have warded the place to the teeth, so it's unplottable, off the registered floo network, you can't apparate into it from outside, the works. Dumbledore added a few extras of his own, including the Fidelius. At this point, it's one of the most secure places in Britain.

"Unfortunately, it's barely livable. Our family's old house elf went 'round the bend at some point after my mother croaked. Not that he was all the great before, but he really let the place go. It's like he didn't clean anything for a decade. So we're dealing with infestations of doxies, a thousand things not working properly, and all this dark stuff that my family just left where anyone could stumble onto it. Bit of a nightmare, if you'll believe it."

Harry started to ask what Sirius meant by "headquarters" when his godfather stopped at a door that was about halfway down the hallway. He knocked three times before calling out, "Hey, you lot! Everybody decent?" Without waiting for a reply, he turned the knob and pulled the door open.

"Harry's here!" Chess pieces went flying across the bed in the middle of the room as a red blur rocketed through the doorway, nearly bowling him over.

"Oi! I was five moves from checkmate!" called a smiling Ron as he hopped off the bed in Ginny's wake. Hermione snapped her book shut and raced toward them, as well.

Harry wasn't focused on either of them, however, instead fixating on the strong arms that threatened to crush his ribs in a hug. Red hair was pressed against his collarbone and his arms had snaked around Ginny's shoulders, holding her tightly.

"Sorry we couldn't send you more details about everything, Harry," said Hermione apologetically. "There's so much happening, but we couldn't say anything about most of it until you got here, especially about where we are and who all is here." Ginny gave one extra squeeze before releasing Harry, who received a less-energetic hug from Hermione and a hearty back slap from Ron. "We've been dying to hear about everything from last night, but I'm sure you've got a load of questions, too. Were there really dementors? How'd the Order get you? We'd heard that the floo network might not be viable, but we hadn't learned what their backup plan was."

"Give him a minute!" said Ron. "You hungry, mate? Mum left a bowl of stew big enough to fill up Hagrid."

Harry felt his stomach rumble, having only eaten a sandwich around noon. He flopped down into a lumpy green high-backed chair with a steaming bowl of stew and began to dig in.

"I've got to get back down there for the meeting," said a grinning Sirius. "You all catch up and I'll be back after it finishes."

For an hour and a half, the teens took turns recounting the events of the past month. Harry hungrily devoured the stew while listening to the others explain the Order of the Phoenix, naming as many of the members as they had met or seen.

Ginny and Ron explained how their parents had whisked them and the twins to the Burrow after they returned from Hogwarts for just enough time to gather some essentials before the family moved to Grimmauld Place. With Mrs. Weasley helping to coordinate Order communications and their family being known Dumbledore supporters, it had made sense for them to stay in Grimmauld Place with Sirius for at least the duration of the summer. Though both Ron and Ginny missed the freedom and comforts afforded by the Burrow, they had enjoyed being present to listen in on some of the discussions about Order business that had leaked out after the meetings and both had fun stories about members they'd gotten to know.

Hermione's summer had not been as pleasant. She and her parents had traveled to Bulgaria for Viktor's funeral a few days after arriving back from school. Her voice cracked as she described the ceremony and sitting with Viktor's sisters at the graveside service. She hadn't stayed home long before coming to Grimmauld Place, though she would be going back for nearly a month before the end of the summer holiday.

The twins literally popped in, having recently received their apparition licenses after coming of age. They were eager to hear news about Harry's adventures and seated themselves on the dresser as Harry began. There hadn't been much to tell about the majority of Harry's summer, so he cut to his row with Vernon and run-in with dementors straight away.

When Harry got to Kingsley's introduction, Hermione let out a sigh of relief. "I'm so glad it was him on guard duty. There are some people in the Order who would have been… Less helpful. He's easily one of the best we've met!"

Harry described the dementor attack and how he and Kingsley had made a break for the Dursley's house with the patronus protecting them. The twins cracked up at "Officer Shacklebolt" lying his arse off to give his Aunt and Uncle a fright. Lastly, he told them about the six who'd brought him to Hestia's cottage, the flight over, and ended with flooing into the house.

With the meeting still going strong, Fred took the time to talk Harry through a few of the new joke products they'd been devising. George produced an example, his Extendable Ears, which allowed for listening in to conversations from a more safe distance.

Even though the circumstances weren't ideal, what with them stuck inside an unpleasant house, dealing with the loss of a friend, and on the cusp of a wizarding war, Harry felt his spirits buoyed by the presence of his friends. As they waited on the adults, Harry smiled as he watched the twins tease each other and the rest of the room, tried to keep up with Hermione's myriad of questions, and caught himself glancing into Ginny's brown eyes.

Sirius walked back into the room looking a bit worn out. "I know meetings are important, but what I wouldn't give to have certain folks learn a bit of brevity… Alright, Harry, Dumbledore said that he needed to speak with you and me about something. Molly thought you might be too tired after everything, but I figured you'd be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, yeah?"

In truth, Harry felt exhausted from his long flight and a lack of quality sleep the night before, but he wasn't about to push back this conversation. He told his friends not to wait up for him before following Sirius back through the hall.

As they turned at the landing to make their way down the stairs, Harry saw Tonks nearing the fireplace. "Hey, Tonks!" called Harry. "It was really nice meeting you! Thanks for…"

"Scum! Filth! Blood traitors and half-breeds and mudbloods! How dare you besmirch the ancient and noble house of Black?!"

The portrait of Walburga Black screeched obscenities and insults as the curtains billowed away from the wall. Harry was so startled that he leaped back away from the wall. Sirius stormed over to the painting and was soon joined by Remus, both struggling against obstinate curtains on either side of the frame.

"Abomination! Shame upon the name of Black! Traitor to us all!"

Both men pulled the drapes closed with a mighty heave, silencing the portrait. Remus wiped his brow as Sirius leaned on his friend's shoulder. He gave a small huff of a laugh and said, "Turns out you don't have the market cornered on terrible family members. What d'you think of my mother?"

Harry looked horrified. "She was your mum?"

"Yeah. Broke her heart when I got sorted into Gryffindor instead of Slytherin. She even blasted my name off the family tapestry after I ran away from home. Just about the worst mother you could imagine. What do you think, Moony? Fair characterization?"

"I try not to speak ill of the dead…" Sirius rolled his eyes. "But your mother was one of the most heartless women I've ever had the displeasure to meet."

"And if Moony is willing to say that, you know it must be true," said Sirius as they rounded the stairs. "Apparently, Harry and I have to stay after class already. Will you tell Dumbledore that we didn't do whatever it is we're in trouble for?"

Remus grimaced and shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry, Padfoot, but he's already got McGonagall in there. Looks like you two are stuck in detention. Best of luck with it, though! I'm going to turn in. Got an early morning tomorrow." He followed the hallway while Sirius and Harry took the stairs.

There were a few witches and wizards still milling about in the large dining room. Dumbledore inclined his head slightly to Harry before returning to a conversation with a short wizard Harry had not met. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were holding hands while chatting with their oldest son, Bill, who walked over to shake Harry's hand firmly.

"Glad you were able to make it, Harry," he said brightly. "Kingsley told us you had a run-in with some dementors. Is your life ever dull?"

"The four weeks I spent doing nothing in the Dursley's house was pretty boring, but I hear your point."

"Fair enough! I'm going to get back to my flat, but I'll probably see you again soon." Bill walked two steps before turning back to Harry. "Oh, and Fleur made me promise to tell you she said, 'Bonjour!'" He gave Harry a wink before darting back toward the fireplace.

The room began to thin out. Sirius was laughing about something alongside Kingsley while Arthur and Molly spoke to McGonagall and the short wizard Harry had seen with Dumbledore earlier. The headmaster strode up to Harry while smiling.

"Ah, Harry! Just the person with whom I hoped to speak! Before we sit with Professor McGonagall and Sirius, I have an idea of a potential third confidant." Harry looked over his shoulder at the wizard speaking with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley.

There was a part of him that knew Dumbledore must have good reasons for anyone he would be suggesting. Whoever the wizard was, he would surely check the boxes they had discussed in his office after the third task. But Harry felt a sense of dread as he imagined sharing such personal information with a complete stranger.

The man in question bid farewell to Professor McGonagall before making his way to Dumbledore and Harry. He didn't look as old as the headmaster, but Harry thought he might be fairly close. He was mostly bald with a white mustache and kind, hazel eyes.

"Albus! I couldn't leave without introducing myself to young Master Potter!" He extended a frail hand to Harry, who shook it and gave him a small smile. The man was at least a head shorter than Harry. "Elphias Doge. Albus and I are old friends. I've heard some fantastic stories about your exploits in the Triwizard Tournament. Congratulations on your win!"

Harry's cheeks went pink as the man continued to shake his hand vigorously. "Nice to meet you, sir, but I didn't really win the tournament. I tied with Viktor Krum."

Dumbledore's eyes were twinkling as he spoke. "Harry is quite extraordinary for a number of reasons, but I believe his humility to be one of his most exemplary traits."

"That I do not doubt! It's an honor to meet you, young sir. Albus, I've got to be on my way! I still expect you to visit over the summer! Marian was ever so disappointed when I had to cancel our dinner last month."

"I look forward to it! Have an excellent night, my friend." Elphias inclined his head to both Dumbledore and Harry before exiting the kitchen. The headmaster lowered his voice conspiratorially and whispered to Harry. "I'm glad you got to meet Elphias, but I must admit that when he walked this way I feared we might not be able to extricate ourselves from the conversation until you had a beard as long as mine."

Harry chuckled a bit as Dumbledore smiled at his own joke.

"As I was saying earlier, I have considered a potential third person to bring into our confidence. Tell me, Harry… What are your thoughts about Kingsley Shacklebolt?"

Harry blinked several times before cocking his head to the side. He'd been so caught up thinking about having to duck out of regular conversations with Doge that he hadn't considered the possibility of someone else as the third person to bring into the loop.

"Oh, Kingsley?" Harry's mind began to race as he thought through the previous two days. "I liked how confident and prepared he was. Before the dementors even arrived, he made sure I knew what was happening. He was cool under pressure and his Patronus was really effective. It was a tough situation because he didn't know me, but he had a good plan, got me prepared for what we were facing, and got me back safely.

"Talked to him some today and he seemed really solid. Being an Auror and connected to the ministry are pluses…" Before he left it at that, one final positive sprang to his head. "And he was great at lying to the Dursleys."

Dumbledore nodded appreciatively. "You have listed many of the reasons I thought he would be a fine choice. Do you have any reservations?"

Harry couldn't come up with a good reason not to include Kingsley and found that he was fine with that. "No, sir. Based on what I know of him, I think I'd like to have him be a part of it."

"Splendid! I was rather excited about the possibility myself but felt it best to continue practicing the art of inclusion with regard to decision-making, as it is a muscle I have not flexed as often as perhaps I should have." The headmaster turned to gather the attention of the three remaining occupants of the room, as the Weasleys had already exited. "Kingsley, may I perhaps ask a favor of you? Minerva and Sirius have agreed to sit with the two of us to discuss some matters of great import and I believe your presence would be most advantageous. May we impose on your time further?"

"Certainly, Albus. Not a trouble at all."

"Excellent. I've seen quite enough of the dining room over the past few weeks, and my aged back wouldn't mind a cushion. Sirius, shall we retire to the sitting room? The tale we plan to tell deserves a roaring hearth and perhaps something slightly stronger than pumpkin juice."

Sirius had no objections and bustled off to grab drinks while the other four got settled on couches and comfy chairs. Soon, Professor McGonagall and the headmaster were sipping glasses of wine, Kingsley and Sirius were nursing their brandies, and Harry was holding a butterbeer, even if his nerves made him a little too nervous to bring it to his lips.

"Before we begin, it is imperative that this conversation remains between the five of us. I have already cast several charms to ensure we are not overheard by others, either by accident or due to curiosity, but feel free to add your own. Sirius, will you ensure that Kreacher neither listens in nor interrupts?"

"Good thought," said Sirius with a frown, though his eyes were still alight with curiosity. "Kreacher! Come here!"

With a crack, an ancient and rather miserable-looking house elf appeared before Sirius. He was clad only in a dishrag and his drooping features made him look like a wax figure left out in the sun too long.

"Master has called Kreacher," croaked the house elf with a look of disgust. "Mistress would be heartbroken to see young Master defiling the noble house of Black with such scum."

"My mother didn't have any heart to break and you know it. Listen up! You are to go down to the cellar and tidy up until we finish our meeting. You are not to leave the cellar and you are not to listen in on our conversation. Same rules apply as with our other meetings, understand?"

"Master has bidden Kreacher to clean the cellar while Master and Blood-Traitors befoul the house of Black with their schemes. Oh, what would Mistress say?"

"She'd say a lot of foul things that we hear every time someone sneezes too loudly near her portrait. Now get to it!"

With a scowl, Kreacher snapped his fingers and disappeared again. Harry noticed that Kingsley had been pacing the room muttering an incantation. With the house elf's departure, the Auror returned to his seat.

"I believe it would be most helpful to begin with Harry's portion of the story before building out from there. Would you be so kind as to share with the group the events that predicated our meeting after the first task?"

Harry had expected more of a preamble from Dumbledore, who raised his wine glass to Harry and said no more. "Oh! Right. Yeah, I can tell you what happened." He took in a deep breath before beginning. "I woke up in the middle of the night about a week after the task with the dragon. I had this sensation like something was coming after me that I'd never felt before. It was like my mind was suddenly on full alert, like it wanted to defend itself.

"I woke Ron up in case we were being attacked, but he didn't feel anything and the sensation subsided some. I told Ron he could go back to bed, but he suggested that since we were already awake, we ought to sneak down to the kitchens to grab a bite."

Harry kept his gaze focused on Sirius, but thought he could almost hear Professor McGonagall's lips pursing at him as he explained. Harry hesitated while his face was heating before Dumbledore interrupted.

"As a side note, our story will include a healthy dose of rule-breaking, both by Harry and myself." Harry's eyes shot to the headmaster, whose smile was still warm. "I must ask that any law enforcement officers or school officials grant us pardon for our trespasses in advance, as our night will grow much longer if we must ask forgiveness after each described infraction."

Harry felt more confident after Dumbledore's admission of his own guilt and managed to meet his Head of House's stare. He was surprised that she looked nonplussed. Sirius was mouthing the words "I'm so proud of you!" at Harry and giving him two exaggerated thumbs up while Kingsley shook his head with a rueful smile.

"So, yeah. We walked down the stairs and started toward the portrait hole when something attacked me. Some sort of golden thread or string flew into the common room through the window, but it just moved right through the glass like ghosts do. It was floating toward me, but moving around a bit, almost like it was alive." Harry wiggled his hand and wrist a bit to simulate how the memory looked. The three new listeners were at full attention now, with none of the light-heartedness of a few moments previous. Their faces ranged from quizzical to concerned.

"The string flew directly at me and I had to duck out of the way so it wouldn't smack into my head. It went past me and Ron tried to hit it with a Stupefy, but the spell didn't affect it at all. I made a run for the portrait hole, but it was too fast and collided with the back of my head. Ron told me it disappeared when it hit and that I was out cold, so he took me to Madam Pomfrey.

"When I woke up a few hours later, something was different. I was trying to think back, figuring out what had happened to land me in the infirmary again, when I realized I had a new memory. But it wasn't my memory, except it kinda was mine? It's hard to explain..."

Dumbledore chuckled. "After speaking with Harry at length and spending several months searching for answers, there are a few details that I can confirm as fact and several inferences I feel reasonable given the information." McGonagall had a look resembling Hermione when she desperately wished to ask a question. Sirius was squinting slightly as if he couldn't quite make out what was in front of him. Kingsley's brow was furrowed but looked less worried than the others, even if he was just as perplexed. "The golden thread that Harry encountered was indeed a memory, only unlike any that I have encountered to date. After teaching Harry to use a Pensieve, he was unable to extricate this rogue memory from his mind for us to examine together."

"Did you attempt to extract the memory for him?" asked Kingsley. Harry tried to mask his snicker behind his hand with a cough.

"Indeed, I did attempt that very maneuver. As my wand touched his forehead, a blast not unlike a small bomb exploded in my office. Harry was thankfully completely unharmed, but the paintings are still giving me a hard time about being thrown across the room by one of my own students. From our experimentation, it seems reasonable to assume that this memory does not wish to be dislodged."

"Bloody hell, Harry!" said Sirius a bit more loudly than he intended. "This is the kind of thing you're supposed to tell me immediately, not half a year later!"

Harry shrank a little under Sirius' frustrated glare. He had known that his godfather wouldn't be pleased that such an important event had been kept from him, but the hurt in Sirius' eyes stung.

"Sirius, I must take the blame for Harry's omission. When he came to me regarding the rogue memory, I impressed upon him the need to keep the incident quiet for the time being for reasons which will become clear soon enough. Your godson has regularly advocated for your inclusion and is the reason we are sharing it with you now."

Grey eyes met imploring green ones as Harry willed Sirius to understand. "Alright, alright, you were sworn to ultra-super Dumbledore secrecy. But I'm still dying to know what this memory was actually about, though. When do we get to that part?"

Harry gulped as all eyes turned to him. Harry stared right back at Sirius. "That's a great question… So, before I tell you, I'm going to need you to promise that you're not going to make fun of me too much."

Sirius' eyes grew as wide as saucers and his grin would have sent the twins running for the hills. Apparently, the frustration of being left out of the loop had evaporated in the face of teasing fodder. "Harry, as your godfather, I solemnly swear that I will mock you relentlessly." McGonagall reached over and smacked the back of his head, causing Harry to laugh out a bit of his tension.

"Harry, I'm afraid you may be asking too much of him," said Kingsley gravely.

With a deep breath, Harry resolved to plunge ahead anyway. "Well, the memory is of me when I'm older, if that makes sense. I'm at Hogwarts down by the lake sitting up against a big tree next to someone who's leaning up against me." Harry ignored the look of absolute glee plastered across his godfather's face as he continued.

"She asks me what I'm thinking, and I say back to her that I'm really happy. Then I say that I wish I'd noticed her sooner and supported her more after her first year since it was so tough." The corners of McGonagall's mouth began to pull upward as she failed to contain a smirk that caused Harry to blush further.

"In the memory, I lean over to kiss the top of her head and remember thinking, 'I can't believe she fought one of Voldemort's horcruxes for almost a year.'"

Kingsley Shacklebolt swore so loudly and vehemently that Harry nearly fell out of his chair. McGonagall and Sirius both looked at him in a state of bewilderment as the auror's eyes zoomed back and forth as if he were trying to count dozens of unseen pixies fluttering around the room. He swore again, more quietly this time, before looking to Dumbledore.

"Well said," replied the headmaster.

"Hold on a second," said Sirius. "I'm going to need further explanation so I know when I should be yelling out that kind of thing. What the hell's a horcrux?"

"It's the worst kind of magic," Kingsley muttered quietly. "Absolutely evil stuff. That's… That's how he survived?"

"Yes, I'm afraid it is. In short, a horcrux is created when a witch or wizard splits their soul through murder and binds that piece of themselves into an object. The process is too horrific to describe in detail, but suffice it to say it is the epitome of the Dark Arts."

"And that's the reason why Voldemort was able to come back? He'd hidden part of his soul in something?" Sirius looked at Dumbledore as he grasped for answers.

"Not something. Some things."

Kingsley stood up and started furiously pacing back and forth. The color had drained from Professor McGonagall's face. "The diary… Good heavens, Ginny Weasley carried a piece of Voldemort's soul around for nearly a year!" Harry thought she looked as if she was going to be sick to her stomach.

"Yes, Minerva. That is precisely what we are saying. I'm sure you have many more questions, but perhaps it would be best for me to explain what I have learned in the past few months as well as a few of my guesses. Harry, was there anything else you needed to add in describing your rogue memory?"

"Not really about the memory itself," answered Harry, who was still a bit shocked at how chaotic things had become after the horcrux reveal. "Just a request that you don't make a big deal about all this to Ginny. I told her, Ron, and Hermione a bit about what happened. Hard to keep it from them since Ron was there for part of it and all. But all they know is that some sort of memory got planted into my head that contained information Professor Dumbledore thinks is important. And they know it's got an older version of me, but they don't know Ginny's in it."

Professor Dumbledore smiled at Harry and inclined his head in thanks before beginning. "The horcrux is not a well-known magic. In fact, there are scant few remaining books that mention it at all, let alone explain how to create one. I have been considering possibilities ever since Harry brought me this more than two years ago." The headmaster produced from within his cloak a leather-bound book covered in ink stains and marred by a nasty puncture wound straight through its middle.

The other adults gathered around the coffee table on which he laid the book. "Though the diary was destroyed before I came into contact with it, I was able to determine that it had been a horcrux. There are few reliable ways to rid the world of such an evil, but Harry was able to find one as he fought to save Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets."

Kingsley ran his fingers over the hole in the diary. "Basilisk venom?"

"Indeed. The incident was more troubling for me than I led others to believe. I held in my hand proof that Voldemort had successfully created a horcrux while still a student at Hogwarts, which was troubling enough on its own, yet it had been treated so cavalierly. Lucius Malfoy had been entrusted with the key to Voldemort's immortality, yet he used it only as a means to attack and discredit the Weasley family. Though I have no doubt Lucius would savor revenge against Arthur for his affinity for Muggles and his connection to our side, I could not fathom the choice to endanger his master's only means of remaining tied to this plane…"

"Unless it wasn't his only one," whispered McGonagall. "Albus, how many are there?"

"Of that, I am not sure. Part of our task as a group will be determining that. But I am getting ahead of myself. I must admit a grave error to you that a version of me committed. One that I almost repeated." The headmaster sighed deeply. "Until Harry came to me about this rogue memory, I had all but decided not to share my convictions regarding the probability of Voldemort creating multiple horcruxes. My intention was to research his past, track down the remaining items, and destroy them myself without burdening anyone else with the knowledge of the depths of evil Voldemort plumbed, thus ensuring that none who sought to follow in his footsteps would be able to learn of what he did or how he did it."

Professor McGonagall's lips became thin as she fought the urge to say something. Sirius' face was white as a sheet. A silence hung in the air before Kingsley mustered the wherewithal to speak.

"That would have been an incredible gamble, Albus."

Harry was astonished to see the headmaster blush slightly. The wizened man bobbed his head slightly to acknowledge the truth of Kingsley's statement before continuing.

"More than anything else, Harry's rogue memory shook me because of the implication. As he mentioned, the memory that was sent back to him involves an older version of himself, but he is still a student. This leads me to surmise that in whatever world the memory hails from, my plans have gone so terribly awry that I confided in a student. An exceptional student with more reason than almost anyone to know the truth of what Voldemort had done, yes, but a student of no more than sixteen or seventeen nonetheless."

"And that scared the hell out of you," said Sirius flatly.

"Without a doubt," replied Dumbledore. "In the aftermath of Harry's reveal, I spent as much time as I could spare attempting to rethink my plans. I considered ways I could change the outcome that had been described. I drafted a resignation letter to present to the Board of Governors, the Wizengamot, and the International Confederation of Wizards under the belief that I could dedicate myself fully and wholly to the search for horcruxes."

The three other adults let loose a chorus of disagreement, but Albus merely raised his hand slightly for quiet.

"In the end, Harry provided what I believe to be a much better solution. His entreaty to be allowed to share the memory with Sirius weighed on me greatly. I resisted his urging, coming up with far too clever reasons to keep my own counsel, until Sirius saved Harry and three other students after the third task. In my haste to address pressing concerns of the school and of the ministry, I did not recognize the danger right beneath my nose. Were it not for Sirius, Harry and his friends would likely not be alive today."

Kingsley nodded gravely and laid his hand on Sirius' shoulder.

"Once Harry recovered from his ordeal, I invited him to my office to discuss the tournament, the graveyard, and the rogue memory. During our conversation, I admitted some of these mistakes and asked for his counsel. We determined that it would be best to widen the circle, so to speak."

Sirius let out a laugh while shaking his head. "So you're telling us that you went from not telling anyone about these horcruxes to asking Harry for advice about who to loop in? That's a wild change in direction!"

Albus chuckled to himself and smiled knowingly. "Yes, that is the case. Given the choice, I think it wise to favor new, exciting mistakes rather than the same ones that have previously failed."

Sirius cocked his head to the side for a moment, considering the point. "Good enough for me. So, what do you need from us?"

"I would like to borrow each of your time and talents. The most pressing need is to ascertain how many horcruxes Voldemort created and begin identifying which objects he used for the process. As we unearth these secrets, we shall determine where they are located and when to destroy them. I am still unsure as to whether there is a maximum limit to how many horcruxes can be created, but I think it safe to assume it best not to alert Voldemort that we are aware of the lengths to which he has gone in pursuit of immortality. We do not want him to create more, nor do we want those he currently possesses to be hidden more securely or guarded more fiercely."

"A huge undertaking," mused Kingsley. "They could be anywhere… Or anything…"

"You are correct, but I doubt that the self-styled Lord Voldemort would choose an old boot or a tin can to harbor a piece of his soul that he thought would ensure his immortality. I believe it to be likely that the objects we seek are of great significance to our enemy, and therein lies an advantage. I intend to brief the group on what I have discovered thus far."

A grandfather clock somewhere in an adjoining room began to sound, indicating it was two in the morning.

"I have kept you much longer than I intended this evening. I propose that we adjourn for tonight and plan to meet again soon to discuss our next steps. In the meantime, please keep this conversation between the five of us. There may come a time when the circle will expand, but I must admit that I am still coming to grips with sharing so much with even as trusted allies as each of you. Shall we reconvene in a fortnight?"

"Sooner, if possible," answered Sirius. "I know it's different for those of you with day jobs, but I've got plenty of time. As much as I love fighting with this damn house to make it suitable for humans again, I'm raring to get to work on this project!"

Professor McGonagall was nodding along. "I know that our schedules will become more and more hectic as the new term approaches. I would be amenable to meeting again in a week's time. Kingsley?"

"Absolutely," replied Kingsley with resolve.

Professor Dumbledore looked pleased. He turned to Harry questioningly.

"Oh! Yes, sir. I'm with Sirius on this. I've got plenty of time and want to get to work."

"Wait a moment," started McGonagall. "Albus, surely you're not suggesting…"

The twinkling in Dumbledore's eyes was unmistakable. "Yes, Minerva, I intend to fully include Mr. Potter. In addition to the fact that another version of me entrusted him with this knowledge, I have my own reasons for believing him to be important to this venture, though they are best left for another meeting." He gave a significant look to the other three adults which Harry did not understand. Albus turned to Harry and winked. "Plus, he is the only one of us with experience destroying Voldemort's horcruxes."

Professor McGonagall looked ready to argue the point but instead released a long breath from her nose and closed her eyes. "Very well, though there are more logistical matters that must be adequately addressed than I can count."

"Challenges we shall meet together!" The headmaster stood up as the other four followed his example. "Thank you, truly, for your time this evening. I shall eagerly anticipate seeing you again soon!" He disappeared into the fireplace in a burst of green flames.

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Chapter 31: Chapter 31

Kingsley and Professor McGonagall did not stay much longer than Dumbledore. After they left via floo, the two remaining wizards took the empty glasses into the kitchen. Sirius tossed a box of biscuits to Harry before hopping up to sit on a counter. Harry popped a few in his mouth as he settled onto a stool and waited. After a long moment, Sirius broke the silence.

"What the hell just happened?" His smile was incredulous through the hand that he was raking across his face. "No, seriously… And don't you dare make the joke! Seriously, what was all that? I figured Dumbledore wanted to talk about Crouch's trial or Wormtail or you staying here more permanently, but horcruxes and Voldemort and rogue memories and future timelines?"

A flabbergasted Sirius looked at the ceiling as he searched for words. Harry made the mistake of snickering at him.

"Oh, look who's laughing now! You think you've pulled one over on me, have you?" Sirius couldn't contain his grin as he attempted to admonish his godson. He snatched the box of biscuits from Harry's hand, whose laughs were growing louder. "I can't believe this…"

Sirius bit down on a biscuit and crossed his arms in a pout, chewing angrily. "Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Harry smirked. "Ta-da?"

Sirius snorted and doubled over with laughter. "Damn it, James… Your kid stole my line!"

Harry was laughing along with his godfather, which was a welcome release of the tension that had built during the stressful meeting. Sirius shook with silent laughter as he tossed a biscuit at Harry, who tried to catch it in his mouth only to have it bounce off his chin.

"So, you're telling me you've known about all this since last year, and this is the first I'm hearing of it?"

"Ultra-super Dumbledore secrecy. Nothing I could do!"

"That didn't stop you from telling Ron, Hermione, and…" Sirius' eyes lit up as he raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Hold on, Sirius. I can explain…"

"You can explain? Well, go ahead! Not so funny now, huh?" Harry blushed furiously as a triumphant Sirius laughed. "How about you start by telling me more about that new memory of yours? Anything else going on that I need to know about? Maybe something you didn't share with the class in front of Dumbledore?"

"No! Nothing like that!" Harry searched for a way to make the conversation less embarrassing but came up empty. "Basically, it seemed like the memory was of the two of us together and we both were really happy."

"Which naturally led you to ask her to the Yule Ball, right?" asked Sirius as he finished another biscuit.

"Well, kinda. I'd been thinking about asking somebody else before the whole memory thing happened. But turns out someone else had asked her already, though." Sirius simply stared at Harry for a long few moments. "Alright, alright! I was going to ask Cho. She's the Ravenclaw Seeker and a year ahead of me, but she ended up going with Cedric. She's alright and all, but I'm really glad I didn't end up going with her."

Sirius raised an eyebrow. "Interesting… So the memory changed things for you?"

"Yeah, it really did. I'd liked Ginny well enough beforehand, but she was mostly just Ron's little sister, if that makes sense. But it was like something changed after the memory." Harry tried to find words to describe his thinking. "It's not like I was certain of anything right away, but I did start noticing her more. Professor McGonagall had just told me that I was required to bring a date to the Yule Ball as a champion. The more I thought about it all, the more I figured it made sense to ask her. The older memory version of me said he wished he'd gotten to know her sooner…"

"And you figured the dance would be a decent place to start?"

"Yeah, exactly. I didn't know what to think about the memory, but I thought it was worth it to spend some more time getting to know her. We ended up having a really fun time at the ball and have been hanging out a lot more ever since."

"That checks out. She helped out a lot with training for the second and third tasks, plus the two of you were thick as thieves when you visited me in Hogsmeade." Harry raised an empty hand to Sirius, who tossed a biscuit to fill it. "I guess my question is, what are you waiting for?"

Harry sputtered and coughed, his eyes growing wide. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, come on, you can't be that dense! You're as bad as James!"

Harry made a rude gesture. "It's complicated!"

Sirius laughed and rolled his eyes.

"No really! I haven't done anything yet because I wanted to talk to you first."

"Well, at least you came to the right place for advice. What's so complicated about a boy liking a girl?"

"Besides the fact that she's my best mate's little sister?"

"Pish posh," replied Sirius with a wave of his hand as his eyebrows waggled. "If Remus or your dad had sisters, I would've dated them strictly on principle!"

Harry raked his fingers through his hair as he shook his head. "Why does that not surprise me? The big deal is that there's a weird memory of me somehow dating her in the future stuck in my brain! If that doesn't count as complicated, I don't know what does!"

Sirius paused with a look of consideration before shrugging. "You make a fair point." He stared at Harry appraisingly for a few moments.

"It's not like I want to bring it up while asking her on a date…"

"But keeping it from her could definitely blow up in your face…" finished Sirius. He sighed deeply before looking Harry in the eyes. "I wish your Mum and Dad were here for this. They would have known what to say or at least would have been better equipped for this than me. I guess I should ask what you want to do?"

Harry looked at the floor as he swung his legs back and forth on the stool. After a moment, he met Sirius' gaze.

"I want to ask her out."

Sirius grinned as Harry blushed again. "Well, there's your answer. When she agrees, be on the lookout for the right time to explain things. You'll figure it out."

"If she says yes, you mean."

"Harry, if she doesn't have feelings for you, I'll eat Buckbeak. If you need me to run interference to give the two of you a little time away from her brothers and Hermione, just say the word."

Harry nodded gratefully as a yawn overtook him.

"It's after three," said Sirius as he yawned in response. "You ready to go to bed, or are there any more startling revelations you need to drop on me?"

The two quietly climbed the stairs. The younger slipped into a twin bed opposite Ron's, but the loud snores of his friend didn't prevent Harry from falling fast asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.


Sirius and Harry both missed breakfast the next morning. Mrs. Weasley did her best to keep the teens busy, insisting that Harry had been kept up late after the meeting and that he wasn't to be disturbed. By ten, however, she relented and allowed Ron to roust him from his slumber.

"Harry! Wake up, mate," said Ron as he prodded his unconscious friend's shoulder. His only response was to turn over and pull the covers over his head. "Hermione and Ginny are going spare. We waited up for a couple of hours last night to get details but gave up around two-thirty. If you don't wake up, they've got in mind to jinx you into oblivion!"

With great effort, Harry sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes before putting on his glasses. He made a grumbly, moaning sound as he scratched his chin.

"Mum's got us cleaning one of the guest bedrooms. Real nasty one, it is. But we're all supposed to be working together, so we figured you could give us the update." Even in his groggy state, Harry did not miss the hope in Ron's voice as he made it sound as if the girls were the only ones champing at the bit to hear the news.

After a quick change of clothes and a trip to the loo, Harry and Ron headed to one of the smaller guest bedrooms. Ginny and Hermione were inside, facing a window covered in deep red curtains that were almost black. As the boys entered, Hermione smacked a curtain with a broom handle while Ginny sprayed several doxies that angrily flew at their attackers.

"Oi! Guess who I found!" called out Ron.

Both girls turned to greet them, which meant neither noticed a doxy that zoomed up from near the base of the window and into Hermione's hair. It took the four a minute to remove the offending creature, and Ron ended up with a nasty bite on one finger from grabbing it without gloves.

"How long were you meeting last night?" asked Ginny once the doxy had been dealt with. "We tried to wait up for you."

"Meeting lasted until after two, but then Sirius and I talked until about half past three."

"Was it just you and Professor Dumbledore at the meeting?" asked Hermione. "Or was Sirius there with you?"

"Both of them, plus McGonagall and Kingsley."

"What was it all about?" Ron looked at Harry expectantly, as did Ginny and Hermione.

Harry took a deep breath. "Alright, don't be mad, but I'm not allowed to talk about a bunch of it."

Ginny blew a raspberry at him before giving him an emphatic thumbs-down. Neither Hermione nor Ron looked convinced, either.

"I know, I know. Just wanted to let you know that from the get-go, but I'll tell you what I can."

Unfortunately for Harry, he was able to summarize the only parts he could divulge in the space of about ten minutes, leaving his friends with many more questions than he could answer. Hermione had let out several exasperated huffs during his description, while Ron had resorted to asking basically the same questions repeatedly, just with slightly different phrasing. Ginny was unwittingly doing her part to test Harry's resolve simply by staring at him with her bright, brown eyes.

Hermione rubbed the space between her eyebrows with her thumb and forefinger as she spoke. "So, future Dumbledore told future you something really, really secretive. Then you or someone else sent part of a memory about that back in time, and our Dumbledore thinks it's so crucial that this knowledge could change our future. So now, the five of you are working on a secret project that involves taking down You Know Who and you'll be meeting with them regularly over the summer…"

"Oh, almost forgot! Dumbledore said that he and some other people are going to be training me once a week next term as part of the process instead of Divination."

His three friends looked a combination of impressed and envious. "I don't want to take Divination either!" said Ron hotly. "Lessons with Dumbledore would be wicked!"

"Not up to me, but of course I'd rather have you all there with me."

Ginny had a quizzical look as she observed Harry. "You haven't mentioned much about after the meeting when you were talking with Sirius. Don't tell us all of that is under official lockdown, too!"

When Harry met her eyes, his attempt at nonchalance fell apart under the weight of nerves. "Err, well… A lot of it was talking about stuff from the meeting. But some of it was just… Catching up." His cheeks flushed slightly as he stumbled for a reasonable answer.

Ginny scrunched her face in a mock pout and said, "You're the worst!"

"Look, I'm not meaning to keep things from you," Harry said imploringly. "I want to tell you more, I just can't yet."

Ron looked sympathetic, while Hermione looked unconvinced. Ginny was harder for Harry to identify. Thankfully for him, Mrs. Weasley entered the room and scolded them for not making enough progress on cleaning. She told them to wash up and head downstairs for lunch.

Their meal was relatively subdued. The twins whispered conspiratorially as they wolfed down their sandwiches while standing by the sink. Sirius trudged in a few minutes after they began looking very much worse for the wear. Mrs. Weasley shook her head at him but poured him a cup of coffee and brought a sandwich. He took a long sip of coffee as his bloodshot eyes squinted against the late-morning sun streaming through the kitchen window.

"Molly, you're a godsend. Didn't mean to skip out on tackling the guest rooms this morning, but last night really took it out of me."

"Not to worry, Sirius," she replied. "Your helpers were too busy chatting to finish the room they were working on, so I thought they could divide and conquer this afternoon."

Sirius perked up immediately at the suggestion. "That's a great idea. I was thinking that they could start working on the third-floor bedrooms so that we have some options if more folks come to stay with us. The second floor is getting a bit crowded, as is.

"What do you think about splitting up Ron and Harry?" asked Sirius with a smirk as he leaned back in his chair. "When James and I were in detention, we caused more trouble when the professors forgot to split us up. Not that doing housework is meant to be like detention for you all!"

Ron, Hermione, and Ginny may not have caught the glint of mischief in Sirius' eyes as he spoke, but it was not lost on Harry. He squirmed in his seat as he anticipated where his godfather intended to take the conversation.

"From what I've seen, I think Hermione might be able to keep Ron on task. And Ginny's got enough fire in her to keep Harry hard at work. Any objections?"

"That's a fine idea," said Mrs. Weasley with a smile. "Sirius is right; this isn't detention, but we do want to pull our weight since we're guests in this home. How about you each tackle a room, and once it can pass my inspection, you'll be free for the rest of the afternoon. Sound good?"

She was greeted by a chorus of "Yes, ma'am" and "Sure, Mum." Harry glanced at Ron and gave him a shrug, but Ron didn't look especially crestfallen about the arrangement. His eyes fell on Hermione, who was finishing up her sandwich.

"Hey, Potter! No way we let these two beat us, right?" Ginny's competitive side looked to be dancing in her eyes.

"They've got no chance," Harry replied as he bumped Ron with his shoulder.

"Nothing like a little competition to help things along!" said Sirius with a laugh. He nodded at Harry and Ginny. "The two of you can get started on the first bedroom on the third floor. It's a bit bigger than the others; right next to the drawing room. Ron and Hermione can finish up with the one from this morning and then tackle the smaller guest room at the end of the hallway. That should just about even out the workload. Come grab us when you've got it finished."

He turned to Fred and George, who had been slinking quietly toward the doorway. "Molly! Do you mind if I commandeer these two? Having some extra wands would be helpful while I'm working on the library. Dumbledore gave me some homework last night that I need to start researching, but every time I pull a book off the shelves something or another tries to do me in."

"If you think you can handle them, be my guest," said Mrs. Weasley. "They're liable to cause as much trouble as they help you solve."

Sirius finished his coffee and stood up, walking directly between the twins. "These little angels? I'm sure you must be mistaken!" He threw his arms across their shoulders before pulling them both into headlocks. "But if they give me trouble, I'll hold them while you rough them up a bit, yeah?"

Fred managed to pull his head out from Sirius' grip and jumped onto the man's back, freeing his twin. George pulled his wand and started to cast a Jelly-Legs jinx before his mother started calling them by their first and middle names.

"My apologies, Molly!" said Sirius quickly as the twins moved to keep him between them and their mother. "We'll just pop up to the library now, won't we, boys?" They nodded emphatically before racing down the hallway.

Harry felt confident that whatever it was that the three of them were going to be up to, it would not meet Mrs. Weasley's standards for how an afternoon should be spent. She let out a prolonged sigh and rolled her eyes, muttering something to herself as she charmed the dishes to clean themselves.

"You ready for this?" asked Ginny as she dropped her plate into the soapy water. "Some of the doxies we've seen are big enough to carry you away."

Harry followed her with his dishes, making sure to grab Ginny's empty cup from the table, as well. "In that case, you'll have to protect me." His eyes darted to her lips before rapidly bouncing away.

"I dunno, that seems like a pretty tall order." She smiled at him before heading out of the kitchen toward the stairs, ruffling Ron's hair as she walked by.

"See you two later," Harry said to Hermione and Ron as he trailed behind Ginny. He caught up with her on the stairs and started to ask her about how the cleaning went during the morning, but she wheeled around and shushed him. She moved to the side of the stairway, pulling him with her by the arm. Standing on the stair below hers, Harry was still a few inches taller than her. She pointed around the corner, indicating the portrait of Walburga Black.

"Stay quiet. I don't fancy being called a blood-traitor for the next hour!" As she whispered, Harry was very aware that he was perilously close to Ginny.

"Gotcha," he answered, smiling at the warmth where her hand remained on his elbow. "Do you have any experience sneaking around?"

"Have you ever heard of me getting caught swiping my brothers' brooms? Didn't think so."

They crept past the painting without a sound. Ginny released his elbow when they reached the third-floor landing. Harry let out a small sigh and thought to himself that the summer was going to be torture if he didn't figure something out.

When they passed the drawing room nearing their assignment, Harry began to feel a sense of unease. His mind flashed back to stumbling over his words when attempting to ask Ginny to the Yule Ball, his face burning scarlet and unable to meet her eyes. His steps slowed as she entered the guest room and he leaned against the wall.

Unbidden, his recollection shifted to the night of the ball. He remembered sitting dejectedly in a chair next to Neville, watching a myriad of couples enjoying themselves on the dance floor. In the middle of the festivities were Ginny and Dean, who twirled her with a flourish. Despite the distance between Harry and the laughing duo, he could see her smile and the blossoming attraction dancing in her brown eyes.

"Harry? You coming?" Ginny's voice broke him from the daydream as she poked her head back into the hallway.

He shook his head back and forth firmly to dispel the images that had been swimming in his mind and forced a smile onto his face as he followed her into the guest room. Ginny looked as if she was going to ask him something, but the moment passed quickly.

The two of them worked well as a pair. They traded off duties when clearing the doxies from the curtains, with one of them agitating the nests and the other dousing the swarm as it flew at them in a rage. Next, they cleared out the closet, which contained more than a dozen plate-sized spiders and a decrepit overcoat that tried to strangle Harry. Ginny tore its arms from around his neck before Harry stomped on it while Ginny sprayed it with the doxycide until it shuddered a final time and moved no more.

It took another hour and a half to finish cleaning the faded carpet, changing the linens, and dusting the furniture without using magic. The two chatted some while they worked but also fell into a few uncomfortable silences. Harry's mind flit back and forth from eagerness to frustration as the time wasted away.

After they wrapped up the finishing touches, Ginny wiped her hands on her pants and made for the door. "Let's get over to the library quick! The room isn't quite up to Mum's standards, but if we get Sirius to check it out he should give it the thumbs up. Not a bad job, Potter, if I do say so myself!"

Harry smiled at the compliment and hurried to not get left behind. "You didn't do too bad yourself, Weasley! We definitely knocked that out faster than if it'd been me and Ron."

"That's not a hard bar to clear," she called back over her shoulder with a smirk. "My brother woulda bolted the second you opened the spider closet, then that coat would have snuffed you. Honestly, I probably saved your life."

Harry chuckled for the first time since lunch, feeling more optimistic as her musical laugh filled the stairway.

When they arrived, Sirius, George, and Fred were huddled around a table looking at a large parchment covered in bright colors. At the sound of the two entering the library, Fred waved a wand over it and turned to face Harry and Ginny.

"Hey, you two! Finish up the guest room yet? I thought you would've taken longer up there!" Sirius met Harry's eye expectantly.

"Yeah, we're done up there if you want to check on it. It's probably not clean enough for my Mum, but we thought it'd pass your inspection," said Ginny easily. "What have you all been doing?"

Fred gave George a significant look, but his twin nodded. "Well, none of this is public knowledge yet, but seeing as you're our favorite sister, I suppose we could let you in on a little sneak preview."

"And we've got good reason to trust Harry, here," said George as he strolled between the two and flung his arms onto their shoulders. "We've got some plans in the works for this upcoming year at Hogwarts, and we figured an illustrious former student like Sirius might be interested."

George tapped the blank parchment with his wand. Violently colorful letters appeared on the paper spelling out "Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes."

"Ol' Zonko has lost his touch in the past few years," spoke Fred gravely. "Resting on his laurels. Not innovating much. Relying on his old gags that anyone with half a brain can see coming a mile away."

"Which is a pity, since his stuff was all but revolutionary back in my day," said Sirius as he shook his head.

"On the plus side, there's a huge market for new joke products for an untapped audience. We figure that if we spend a good portion of this year testing new ideas and building a customer base, we could start our joke shop after we graduate." George's eyes were shining with mischief. "The Canary Cremes and Extendable Ears are a decent start, but I think we hit a gold mine with the Skiving Snackboxes!'"

"What kind of snack boxes?" asked Harry with a hint of trepidation.

"They're a line of treats that help you skip out on a boring class, a work meeting, or a visit to an unpleasant family member," said George. "Let's say you're in Potions and you feel the need to abscond because Snape's being a git…"

"Hard to imagine, I'm sure, but stay with us," interjected Fred.

"Well, it's as simple as popping a Nosebleed Nougat into your mouth! As soon as you swallow it, your nose starts running red, making for a simple excuse to go see Madam Pomfrey. Once you're out of Snape's sight, you pop in the other half of the treat, which stops the bleeding in its tracks. Viola! You're now free to spend the rest of the class period attending to much more important tasks."

"We've got loads of ideas for them, so you don't have to keep relying on the same excuses over and over: Fainting Fancies, Puking Pastilles, and Fever Fudge to go along with the Nosebleed Nougat."

"That's actually brilliant," mused Harry. "Every student at Hogwarts except Hermione will want a box."

"Definitely need to get these on the shelves before Mum tries to drag me back over to Aunt Muriel's. I swear, last time I almost hexed her after she said I needed to wear more dresses unless I wanted to end up as an old maid." Harry thought it better not to mention that she looked quite nice, no matter what she was wearing.

"Exactly!" exclaimed George. "Next time, you act excited to go on the visit until a few minutes before Mum and Dad are ready to floo, pop in a Puking Pastille, and suddenly they want you to stay home and rest so you don't upset Muriel with your vomiting."

Harry eyed them suspiciously. "So why are the two of you going over all your plans with Sirius?"

"Good question! If you'll remember, we passed a map of inestimable worth to you a few years back, right?" asked Fred. "Well, imagine our surprise when our illustrious host began calling our former Defense Professor by the moniker of 'Moony.'"

"Then picture our face when said professor referred to one Sirius Black as 'Padfoot.'"

George shoved Harry toward Fred, who caught him by the shoulders. "I can't believe your dad and godfather are both marauders, and YOU NEVER TOLD US!" He flung Harry onto a nearby couch before dramatically falling into his brother's arms, emitting loud and exceedingly fake weeping.

Sirius laughed as he sprang onto the arm of the couch, bringing one foot up onto the cushion. "Moony and I were treated to quite the surprise. He and I were catching up a few days after the Weasleys arrived, drinking some firewhisky and thinking nothing of it, when a small piece of parchment fluttered in and landed on the table between us. On it were the simple words: 'We solemnly swear we are up to no good.' Who knew we had a fan club?

"I've been trying to advise them a bit about business, helping them get connected to folks who can provide ingredients without overcharging them, giving some ideas about potential locations, that kinda thing. Passing on the knowledge that any good prankster might need."

For the next hour, Sirius regaled the four students with some of his favorite stories of escapades while at Hogwarts. The riotous sounds of mirth echoed down the halls of the house. More than once, Harry's eyes caught Ginny's in between peals of laughter.

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Chapter 32: Chapter 32

Author's Notes: Whoa! Wild to see the 100th comment for this story go up! A huge shout-out to everyone who's been reading and reviewing here on SIYE. As a special thanks to this entire community, I'm going to occasionally be posting chapters here a day or two earlier than I put them out on some of the bigger, more general fanfiction sites. SIYE's been a huge encouragement to me, so it's a little way to show my gratitude. Figured it made sense to start with this chapter, especially since I've been eager to share the last section since it first popped into my head months ago. Hope y'all enjoy!

The following two weeks followed much the same pattern. Harry would spend a few hours after breakfast cleaning alongside one or two of the other school-aged residents, occasionally aided by an adult. One or both of the twins would often sneak away to their room to invent and test joke products, but not even Hermione made much of a fuss about it. The group would reconvene for lunch, each trying to outdo the others with their tales of glorious battle.

After eating, Sirius would join them in the library for a few hours. He explained that the monumental task at hand was to comb through the entire Black family library for cursed items and books containing dark magic.

“This job is going to take a while, but it’s dead important. My family has done a lot more than just dabble in dark magic for generations. Anything in here could be jinxed six ways to Sunday. When we’re first clearing a bookshelf, I want an adult in here. And no, Fred, I’m not counting you two. I don’t care if it’s me, your Mum, or another Order member, but I want a fully-qualified witch or wizard standing by, just in case.”

George and Fred both looked a bit put out, but Sirius gave them a look. “I’m not kidding about this stuff. Before I got sorted into Gryffindor, the angriest I’d ever seen my mother was when she caught me and Regulus climbing that ladder to try to reach the books on the top shelf. She was absolutely raging. Said I’d almost ended the Black family line with my stupidity.”

He stared across the room without blinking for a few moments.

“First time she used the Cruciatus on me…”

A small gasp escaped Hermione’s lips. Ginny grasped Harry’s arm and squeezed hard, but didn’t say anything. Ron’s mouth was slightly agape, and the color had drained from both of the twins’ faces. Harry, on the other hand, felt sad but not surprised. He didn’t know whether the Dursleys would have ever stooped to those depths, but Harry was well aware of how an irate adult could wield power against a scared child.

“Look, I probably shouldn’t have said anything,” said Sirius as he raked his hand over his face. “The point is, there’s really dark and dangerous stuff in here. I want you lot to be smart about it. We clear off a bookshelf and bring everything to these tables. Split up the books and get to scouring them. You don’t have to read them all cover to cover, just skim.”

The six nodded quietly as he gave instructions about which shelves to use for the neutral books that weren’t a threat, where to pile the books containing strong dark arts influences, and how to store anything that felt off or dangerous until it could be examined by Moody, Bill, or someone else with expertise.

“One last thing before we get started,” said Sirius. He looked at Hermione, who was still shaken from his reference to the Cruciatus. “Most of my family believed in pure-blood supremacy and all that bullshit. I’m sure they never expected a Muggle-born witch to set foot in this house, much less peruse their personal library, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t curses that might target Hermione.”

He smiled at her. “I know a library like this is basically your Honeydukes, but I want you to promise you’ll be extra careful. If your gut says something isn’t right, leave it for one of us. Everyone else, keep an eye on her, yeah?”

Hermione let out a small sniffle as she moved to wrap Sirius in a hug. “Thanks for looking out for me. I promise to be careful.” He patted her shoulder before she released him. A small smile emerged on her face. “Plus, can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if I was done in by a book?”

Their afternoons in the library weren’t especially pleasant. Most of the time, the students were quietly flipping through assorted books filled to the brim with self-laudatory family histories, records of questionable financial transactions, or other details of no interest to anyone. By the end of their fourth day on the task, Harry had watched Hermione angrily toss no fewer than ten books across the room into their piles. Sitting across from him, Ginny whispered conspiratorially, “Never thought I’d see the day when Hermione disrespects books.”

Harry laughed as she grinned back at him. The two locked eyes for a moment and Harry felt the familiar rush of heat in his cheeks. He quickly refocused on the ancient tome in front of him, which was surely destined for the dark arts pile. Some of the curses it described were horrific, and the inclusion of detailed illustrations made Harry all the more eager to finish with it and move on to something else.

Remus joined them when he wasn’t on a mysterious mission for the Order, even though Sirius teased him relentlessly whenever he donned his reading glasses, refusing to address him as anything except “Professor Moony.” Despite the mockery, the former Defense professor proved exceedingly helpful, especially when they were reshelving. Remus had worked at two different Muggle bookshops before taking on the Hogwarts teaching post, and he was quite adept at organizing the books and slipping them back into place on the walls.

“When you take a few sick days each month for the full moon, you’ve got to find ways to endear yourself to the owner,” Remus explained while Hermione watched him awestruck as he categorized books. “When Miss Crowder wasn’t looking, I’d alphabetize boxes of new books and magazines so that I could get them put away a lot faster than her other employees. Held that job for nearly a year before my transformation coincided with a big, midnight book launch. Still the longest I’ve kept the same job.”

The first major incident occurred late in the afternoon on a Friday. Sirius called for everyone to knock out one more book before they finished for the day. Ron’s drooping eyelids were a sign that his concentration was lapsing, but he trudged to the unsorted pile dutifully. He rummaged around, avoiding the thicker options before settling on a large green hardback that looked to have fewer than one hundred pages. He flopped back onto the bench, rested the side of his face on his hand, and opened the book.

A spray of shiny black ooze poured out from the pages, covering the table and the front of Ron’s shirt and splashing onto his arms. A few drops of the ink flew onto his face as he stumbled backward off his seat, crying out in pain.

Sirius bounded to him in a flash and used a cutting curse to remove the shirt, which was already beginning to disintegrate where the poisonous ooze had made contact.

“Fred! Get your Mum! Scourgify! Damn it! Someone get me wet towels!”

Fred apparated downstairs and was back in moments with Mrs. Weasley. Her face blanched at the sight of her youngest son writhing on the floor as dark ooze looked as if it was boiling on his arms and face, but she swooped down to him without a second of hesitation and began rubbing his face with the dish towel she’d been using in the kitchen.

Ginny rushed back into the library after wetting some towels she’d found in the closest loo. While still halfway across the room, she shouted, “Mum! Catch!” With a heave, she launched a balled-up towel at her kneeling mother, who barely looked up from Ron as she caught the wet cloth and applied it to his arms. Ginny skidded to a stop on Ron’s other side a moment later, and the two Weasley women went to work removing the ink as best they could.

A loud pop indicated someone had apparated into the library. George ran to Sirius with his hands filled with small bottles and boxes. “I’ve got our Dittany and Murtlap Essence! There’s not much, but will it help?”

“Absolutely!” exclaimed Sirius. “Molly, you know more about remedies. Trade spots?”

Mrs. Weasley stood and grabbed the box of dittany leaves from her son. “As soon as they’ve cleared it from his arms, slather the Murtlap on. I’ll take care of his face.”

She stuffed the leaves into her mouth and chewed vigorously while George applied the Murtlap Essence to the parts of Ron’s arms that Sirius and Ginny had gotten clean. Angry purple and green boils were already forming on his skin, and he was still kicking his legs and moaning loudly. Molly spit the chewed leaves into her hand and smeared the mixture onto the discolored splotches on Ron’s cheeks and forehead. The boils ceased growing as soon as the Dittany made contact, with their color fading quickly.

Mrs. Wealsey took over scrubbing Ron’s arm from Ginny, who began helping apply the Murtlap. After a few minutes, Ron’s moans had quieted and the group was able to take a breath. Harry replaced the now-sullied towels with fresh ones, one of which Sirius folded to serve as a pillow for Ron as he lay on the floor sucking in deep breaths.

“Great thinking on the Dittany and Murtlap,” said Sirius as he fell into a high-backed chair. “Probably prevented permanent scarring.”

“Agreed,” said Molly while wiping sweat from her brow. “The splotches on his face are almost completely healed already. His arms may be discolored for a while, and I’d feel better if we could get him checked out at St. Mungo’s or by Poppy, but it looks like he’s going to be fine.” She released a long breath.

Ron’s eyes were still closed as he lay, with Harry, Ginny, and Hermione each sitting on the ground close to him. As his mother discussed options to get him checked out, Ron muttered quietly, “Bloody books…”


It was challenging for Harry to balance his curiosity about the upcoming meeting with not frustrating his out-of-the-loop friends. When the day finally arrived, he did his best to contain the eager energy he felt. Hermione peppered him with questions at lunch, most of which he couldn’t answer. She vacillated from sympathetic to his plight to exasperated at the lack of adequate answers.

Ginny was forcing herself not to fall in with Hermione’s inquiry, despite her clear interest. Occasionally, he’d meet her gaze with a pleading look after an especially pointed question. She would frown and shrug, which Harry didn’t take as full support but at least made him feel slightly better.

When Kingsley arrived for dinner, Harry sat close to him to learn more. The Auror was more subdued than Sirius, but the two got along quite well. He regaled the table with a few embarrassing stories about their host from their school days and explained the process of becoming an Auror. Harry found this line of conversation fascinating, as did Ron. Both boys had become interested in the career the previous year in school, although the revelation that the man encouraging them to consider it had been a Death Eater in disguise had dampened their excitement somewhat.

After dinner, the dining room cleared out as both McGonagall and Dumbledore arrived. Once they reset the privacy wards, Dumbledore began to explain the research he had been undertaking over the past two years.

The headmaster knew far more about Tom Riddle than anyone at the table, and Harry guessed more than anyone in the world, other than Voldemort himself. He carefully laid out what he knew about Riddle’s parents and early years, leading into his time at Hogwarts. Harry listened in rapt attention as Dumbledore enumerated the suspicious disappearances that he believed could coincide with the creation of horcruxes.

“Riddle has been collecting objects since I first met him in the orphanage those many years ago. As his knowledge and power grew, his affinity for mementos appears to have expanded. With the knowledge he gleaned from his time working at Borgin and Burke’s, he could have begun targeting and acquiring objects of great significance to him. I believe it likely that the Slytherin locket is now a horcrux, as it symbolized his connection to a Hogwarts founder and his place as the Heir of Slytherin. Furthermore, I posit that either the Gaunt ring or the Hufflepuff cup could be another. Possibly both.”

“If you’re right about that, which is still a big if, we still don’t know if he created any more of these things,” said McGonagall as she massaged her temple.

“You are of course correct, Minerva, though I still have several leads to track down.”

Kingsley, who Harry noticed rarely sat still for long, was pacing back and forth at the far end of the table. “He entrusted the diary to Malfoy. What are the chances he left others with his followers?”

“That’s plausible, except if the Death Eaters had the means to bring back Voldemort, why’d they wait so long? And why would my deranged cousin attack the Longbottoms if they already had what they needed?” Sirius leaned back in his chair. “Not that she ever needed a reason to be a psychopath…”

“The mystery persists,” replied Dumbledore as he smoothed out his beard with his hand.

“How long would it take to examine those memories together, Albus?” Kingsley wore a determined look as he met the headmaster’s eyes.

“I have hundreds of hours of collected memories of varying significance. If we focused on the most pertinent, perhaps twenty hours?”

“Yikes,” said Sirius as he allowed his chair legs to fall back onto the floor with a thud. “So much for your off days.”

“Probably worth it to get another set of eyes on those memories, though.” Kingsley scrawled a note to himself on a small pad before pocketing it again.

“It would be beneficial for us to learn how best to identify a horcrux,” suggested McGonagall, eliciting nods of agreement from the others. “After Harry brought you the diary, how did you determine what it had been?”

“With a rather ingenious bit of magic, I must say.” Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled as he drew himself up to full height in his chair. “I began by attempting to use various dark detectors and revealing spells, none of which gave satisfactory results. I believe that the process of horcrux creation scrubs the object of the type of magical signatures that such methods use for identification.

“Despite my certainty that the diary had contained a part of Riddle’s soul, I could not confirm my belief. It wasn’t until several months later that a dead simple solution occurred to me.” He caught Kingsley’s eye. “Would you be so kind as to cast the spell you use to determine if there are humans nearby?”

Albus smiled as realization dawned on the Auror’s face. “Homenum Revelio!”

“Tell me, Kingsley, how many human presences are you picking up?”

“I’ve got five strong ones that correspond to each of us, but something faint down at your end of the table.”

Dumbledore reached forward to pat the diary between McGonagall and Harry. “The horcrux leaves a mark of the humanity it once contained. I believe it likely that a horcrux we have not yet destroyed will still give off a signature that the spell can identify.”

“It’s a good start, at least,” said McGonagall. “But I’m going to be uneasy until we can determine how many horcruxes there are in total. Albus, what progress have you made so far?”

“Very little, I’m afraid. Having never encountered such magic before and the extreme methods used to cast, my options are limited when studying the mechanics of the spells involved.”

“It’s been a few years since I undertook a research project of this scope,” she mused while rapping her fingers rhythmically against the table. “It stands to reason that a soul which has been ripped apart and had a piece of itself stored elsewhere would be… Diminished. Made lesser by the process. If that is the case, and the remaining soul fragment in the creator of the horcrux doesn’t grow back or heal itself, there would be less soul to rip apart after each instance.”

“That makes sense,” replied Sirius, his fingers lacing through his dark hair. “Think that’d create an upper limit as to how many could be made?”

“Possibly. The arithmancy needed for confirmation would be more complex than anything I’ve undertaken.” Her eyes fell on the headmaster.

“Not knowing the properties of a soul is an added complication,” he said, twirling the end of his beard. “But between Minerva and myself, I believe we have a reasonable chance at ascertaining the outer limits of horcrux creation.”

“As crucial as that research is, theory isn’t my strong suit,” said Sirius. “I’m more of a hands-on guy.”

“Same here,” agreed Harry, speaking for the first time in a long while.

“Perhaps those of us who are less adept in theoretical matters can begin searching for the horcruxes we presume to have identified,” suggested Kingsley. “Crouch, Jr.’s trial will be at the end of the month. With any luck, that will get Sirius a real shot at being exonerated, which would mean he and I could tag team some investigating. The orphanage you mentioned and the Riddle property both could be worth checking out.”

Sirius was nodding along. “Agreed. Probably want to add the Gaunt shack to the list, too.”

“Good call. Any other ideas about places he could have hidden a horcrux?” Kingsley looked at each of the adults, but none spoke up.

“Actually, I might know of a place worth searching,” said Harry. “Professor Dumbledore told us that Voldemort came to Hogwarts to apply to be the Defense professor. Maybe he slipped away to hide one in the Chamber of Secrets? He’s the only one who knew how to get inside at the time, plus it was defended by a Basilisk.”

“Well-reasoned, Mr. Potter,” said McGonagall with a proud smile. “The Chamber seems the most likely place named yet.”

Dumbledore also looked impressed. “I confess that I had not thoroughly considered that possibility. The diary was connected to the Chamber, which led me to believe that other horcruxes would be tied to different markers in Riddle’s life. However, that assumption may not be accurate. It would certainly be worthwhile to explore it further.”

A smiling Sirius balled up a scrap parchment in front of him and tossed it across the table at Harry. “Teacher’s pet!”

The rest of the meeting was mostly logistical. The two professors scheduled meeting times at Hogwarts to delve into the arithmancy surrounding souls and horcruxes while Kingsley and Sirius coordinated ideas for searching potential horcrux hiding spots. They resolved to check the Chamber first as it was the only one located somewhere Sirius wouldn’t be in danger of potentially running into law enforcement. This encouraged Harry because he felt certain that he would be included in the search as one of the few people able to speak Parselmouth. Having previously explored the subterranean chamber was a plus, too.

“Before we adjourn, a word of warning,” said Dumbledore as the party began to rise from their seats. “In the event that one encounters a horcrux, it is imperative that the utmost caution is used. The diary that fed on the soul of Ginny Weasley was dangerous enough to wield a wand. Other objects may be protected by any manner of powerful spells or other means of defense. If possible, do not interact with a horcrux directly. Searching in pairs is preferable.”

The meeting had not lasted nearly as deep into the night as the previous, which meant that when he quietly climbed the stairs to his shared room, he was not met with the sounds of Ron slumbering. Hermione’s eyebrows were smoldering as Ginny laughed and Ron covered his grin with the Exploding Snap cards in his hand.

“Thank goodness you’re back,” said Hermione while wiping ash off her face. “I haven’t lasted more than ten minutes in a game yet. How was the meeting?”

“It went well. There’s still not much I can tell you about it, but I did learn that Crouch, Jr.’s trial is going to be at the end of the month! Kingsley thinks there’s a chance that Sirius will be cleared of his charges!”

“Wicked!” exclaimed Ron. “Does he think we’ll need to testify?”

“Probably not in person. Kingsley said that since we’re underage he’ll probably be able to just bring our memories for a Pensieve viewing. They’ve also extracted some from him, plus his testimony under Veritaserum should be enough to prove he was behind the whole Goblet of Fire situation and that he was working with Pettigrew. It’ll also be a huge problem for Fudge since he’s been publicly denying that Voldemort is back.”

Ginny scoffed as she rolled his eyes. “Dad has been saying that Fudge has lost a lot of popularity. It’s not like everyone’s ready to believe Dumbledore yet, but there are so many holes in Fudge’s story that Dad thinks there’s a chance of a No Confidence vote.”

“Sounds right to me,” said Harry darkly. “Still can’t believe he’s pretending it’s all a hoax…”

Hermione nodded while shuffling through her bag, producing a copy of The Daily Prophet with a photo of a blustering Fudge opposite a serene-looking Dumbledore under the headline “Who is telling the Truth?”

“The Prophet is putting a lot of emphasis on the upcoming trial. I think Fudge was trying to keep it quiet at first, but someone from the ministry gave an anonymous quote that the prisoner that will be examined will be Crouch’s son and that he’s implicating Pettigrew. The paper ran with the story, probably against Fudge’s orders, and the readers ate it up. As much as Fudge would like for them to just report on his talking points, I’m sure the Prophet sold a lot more papers with such a sensational story on the cover.”

“When everything comes out into the open at the trial, Fudge is going to look really bad,” said Ron. “Bet he doesn’t last another month after that.”

“Anything else from the meeting?” asked Ginny hopefully.

Harry sighed as he racked his brain for details that he wouldn’t be opposed to sharing that might satiate his friends’ need for information. “Okay, so I know it’s not what you want to hear, but there’s not much else I can share for now.” He cringed slightly as the faces of his three friends fell, and his eyes caught Ginny’s for a moment. “But I learned a whole lot more about Voldemort and some of the things Dumbledore thinks we can do to defeat him. Honestly, the meeting was mostly him talking about Voldemort’s life and then the adults planning out what they’re going to do next.”

Hermione sighed. “I know you’re trying to keep us from feeling bad, but you do realize that listening to Dumbledore lecture for two hours on the wizarding history of You Know Who sounds like my ideal birthday gift, right?”

A small chuckle escaped Harry as he shrugged at her. “Sorry, Hermione. You know I feel super guilty about not being able to share everything with you.” A thought occurred to him, and Harry smiled while raising an eyebrow at her. “I’d feel even worse if you hadn’t been playing around with a Time-Turner for a whole school year without telling us…”

A flush reached Hermione’s cheeks while Ron laughed and bumped her with his shoulder. “That’s the only reason she hasn’t thrown herself headlong into researching Veritaserum, Harry. Otherwise, you wouldn’t stand a chance!” Ginny had scrunched her face up while giggling and grabbed onto Harry’s arm for a few moments. Despite being on the scrawny side, Harry still flexed his muscles a little. The four chatted and played games as the evening wore on before Hermione and Ginny said their good nights and headed to their shared room.

Ron was ready for bed in record time, but a thought had lodged itself in Harry’s mind while they were discussing the meeting. Ginny’s hand on his arm while she laughed replayed again as he told his roommate he’d be right back.

His feet quickly brought him down the hall to where the girls had left their door open. Hermione stepped out of the room with a rather large plastic basket of shampoos and conditioners, almost dropping them when she noticed Harry approaching. “Don’t scare me like that!” she said reproachfully.

“Sorry, Hermione,” said Harry as he fought back the blush already encroaching on his cheeks. “Err… Is Ginny still up? There was something I wanted to talk to her about.”

Hermione’s tight-lipped smile said a great deal, but the bushy-haired girl simply replied, “She should be coming back in just a minute. G’night, Harry!” A few moments after she disappeared around the corner, Ginny stepped into the corridor in her place.

“Oh! Hey Harry. What’s going on?”

“Hey, Gin. There was something I wanted to talk to you about. Could I borrow you for a few minutes?”

“Sure, but Hermione will be back through after she showers and I could hear the twins still at work in their room, so it might be better to find somewhere other than the hallway. Downstairs? Or the third floor?”

Harry thought about options. The third floor was unoccupied at the moment and the drawing room had a few comfortable couches where they could have a conversation. But the room gave him a sense of unease that few other places in the house matched and he wanted to be at his best for this conversation. The sitting room made for a better option, even if it was more likely someone might stumble upon them.

“Let’s go downstairs if that’s okay.”

She grinned at him and said, “Lead the way!”

They crept back down the corridor and past Mrs. Black’s portrait, which they were glad did not awaken when Harry accidentally stepped on a particularly creaky stair. Ginny lightly smacked him on the shoulder and shushed him as she tried to hold back a giggle. At the bottom stair, Harry turned toward the sitting room until a warm hand tugged at the crook of his elbow as Ginny moved toward the kitchen. He smiled at the ways she was similar to Ron.

Ginny grabbed a bowl of strawberries before hopping onto the kitchen counter, leaving enough space for Harry beside her. He happily took the spot next to her and reached for a strawberry, only to have her pull the bowl just out of his reach.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Don’t you know never to take food from a Weasley? You’re liable to pull back a bloody stump if you try to swipe my food!” She grinned as she popped a ripe berry into her mouth, then reluctantly passed the bowl to Harry.

The two sat in a comfortable silence as together they downed a half dozen berries while Harry tried to think of how to begin.

“So, remember how I told everyone there wasn’t much I could say about our meeting?” Ginny met his gaze as she chewed an especially juicy berry. “There was something that came up that I can share but didn’t want to say in front of everyone. I kinda wanted to tell you first, if that makes sense.”

Harry saw her gulp and hoped it was merely the strawberry instead of trepidation about what he was going to share.

“I can’t go into all the reasons, but we’re going to be exploring some places Voldemort went to over the years looking for clues about… Well, clues about how to beat him.” She set the bowl down on her other side and focused in as Harry explained. “We were trying to think of different places where he might have left something behind, or might have protections or be hidden and out of the way…”

“The Chamber,” she whispered as a shudder ran down her spine. “You’re going back down into the Chamber again.”

Harry paused for a long moment before grabbing her hand in his. “Yeah, we are. I dunno what we’ll find, if anything.” He let out a long breath. “I just kinda thought you might want to know first. Seems like somebody brings up the graveyard every few days without realizing it. Remus and Kingsley said something at dinner last night that just sorta sent me back there. Your Mum made an off-hand comment a few days ago that made it flash in front of my eyes again. I dunno. I didn’t want to do that to you, y’know?” He squeezed her hand and hoped that he hadn’t messed things up.

Ginny rested her head on Harry’s shoulder without saying anything. They sat in the dim light of the empty kitchen for several minutes, with only the ticking of an ancient grandfather clock breaking the silence. Despite having no idea what to say next, Harry felt rather content sitting quietly as he breathed in the flowery aroma that he associated with Ginny and his rogue memory.

“I hate that stupid Chamber.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but there was strength behind her words. “It’s been years, but I’m still so mad at myself for getting into that whole mess. I feel so guilty for letting him use me.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Harry as he released Ginny’s hand to wrap his arm around her opposite shoulder. “None of us think less of you because of it.”

Ginny let out a sniffle. “I keep telling myself that, but it’s like his voice is there in the back of my mind, still telling me all those horrible things.”

“I hear you,” Harry replied. “But it wasn’t really you doing those things. It was him. If Crouch had gotten Fleur under an Imperius during the task and she hurt one of us, would you blame her or Crouch?”

“But she was smart enough and strong enough to fight back. I just let him take over.”

“Not according to Myrtle. She said you tossed the diary into her u-bend. Pretty morose about the whole situation, if I remember correctly.”

An elbow gently bumped into his ribs. “Was she ever anything other than morose?”

“Hey, you know that’s not fair. Sometimes she was depressed, other times sullen. I even saw her dejected once!”

Ginny closed her eyes as her head rested against Harry. “You know it’s different, though.”

“I learned about unforgivable curses from a Death Eater, so I don’t know what to believe,” replied Harry, not wishing to linger too long on that fact. “But the diary seemed to work a lot like an Imperius, and you fought it for an entire school year.”

“I have so many blank spaces in my memory from that year… So many times I’d wake up knowing I should be terrified without knowing what had happened. I was so on edge all year. I don’t even remember the Chamber itself, except for walking out after you’d saved me. I think Tom wanted to keep those secrets, even from me.”

“You’re not missing out on much,” said Harry as he brought his hand forward to count. “It’s not well-lit, super slimy, and smells pretty foul. Weird statue of Slytherin’s head. Giant snake infestation. Simply not an ideal living space.”

Ginny’s quiet laugh made Harry smile. “See, you’re thinking about it all wrong. It’s not infested with snakes, it’s newly exterminated. It’s got unique architecture, a long history, and plenty of space. Needs some renovation, sure, but look at the location! Could be great for a family with students at Hogwarts or for a professor.”

Harry laughed along with her. “Y’know, you’ve almost got me convinced.”

Ginny sat back up straight. Harry did his best not to sigh as he returned his arm back to his side instead of its preferred perch on her shoulder. “I don’t remember if I ever thanked you for saving me from there.”

“In your defense, you’d just been through a really tough time.”

“I was so afraid that I was going to be expelled and that Mum and Dad were going to go ballistic…”

“Yeah, I’ve done the walk to the Headmaster’s office when you think you’re getting expelled before. Not fun at all. But you didn’t get in any trouble and, last I checked, you’re still enrolled.”

“Still, I should’ve thanked you for coming after me. You didn’t even really know me at the time.”

With a warm smile on his face, Harry replied, “You’re very worth saving.” Ginny blushed as he looked at her for a long moment. “Plus, you more than paid me back already. You helped make sure I was ready for the second and third tasks. You came with me to visit Sirius and kept me from making a fool of myself at the Yule Ball.”

Ginny laughed again before responding, “I don’t think any of that makes up for you stabbing an enormous snake through the skull and defeating Tom while he tried to steal my soul.”

“Well, how about this? The months since we became real, actual friends have been the happiest I can ever remember. That’s gotta count for something!”

Her blush deepened, with shades of pink reaching all the way to her ears. Harry grinned as a genuine smile burst onto Ginny’s face. At that moment, he felt a surge of Gryffindor courage. He had only intended to talk to her about the Chamber stuff, but seeing her so pleased to have made him happier burst the last vestiges of hesitation. He brought a hand to her cheek.


Her brown eyes grew wide at the touch, but she made no move away as he leaned in until his lips met hers.

In an instant, her hands found him. One gripped his shoulder while the other intertwined in his hair. Harry, who had been quite worried about a potential first kiss and whether he’d be any good at it, lost himself in the moment.

Several minutes later, the two somewhat reluctantly pulled apart. Harry had a sheepish grin plastered on his face. Ginny took a long, slow breath as Harry allowed the red hair that his hand had been playing with to slide from his grasp and fall gently back onto her shoulder.

She smirked before launching herself at him and squeezing his midsection tightly. His arms snaked around her back and pulled her closer, inhaling deeply as the taste of strawberries and the scent of flowers flooded his brain. He delicately used his thumb to brush a few strands of hair behind Ginny’s ear so that he could see her rosy cheek a bit better.

Her voice was quiet but unmistakable as she spoke a solitary word.



“He’s been out an hour! I think we should enervate him!”

George was nervously pacing, as he had been for most of the hour since Harry fell into unconsciousness. Angelina had given up trying to force him to stop moving and was instead sitting on the arm of one of the cushioned chairs, her bare feet underneath her on the seat. Bill was leaning against a nearby wall and trying to reason with his younger brother while massaging Fleur’s shoulders as she sat on a stool in front of him. Atzi was seated with her legs crisscrossed in front of Luna’s chair while her girlfriend absent-mindedly played with her dark hair.

Harry’s prone form had been gingerly placed onto the couch by George and Bill, where he still lay unmoving as Angelina found his pulse and determined that he was still breathing. As the minutes dragged on, the entire group became more and more antsy. George had taken to checking Harry’s blank face every few minutes for any sign of a change, but there was no indication from Harry about what was happening in his head.

“We’ve got no idea how that might affect him and there’s nothing I’ve read about how long this could take,” replied Bill wearily. He glanced at Luna, but she merely shook her head. “Using magic to wake him might ruin the whole ritual. We don’t know what kind of reactions it could cause.”

“I am weeth Bill. I theenk we let him sleep overnight, at least.”

George scowled. “I don’t like it. Are you sure we shouldn’t wake him up now? We could just shake him, or pour some water on him, or… Something!”

“I think they’re right, babe,” said Angelina with a sigh. “There are so many unknowns with the ritual that we don’t want to risk. Let’s just let him lie there for now. We’ll have a better idea of what’s going on in the morning.”

George’s lips grew thin as he stared at the ceiling and mumbled something to himself, but turned back to the group. “And if he doesn’t wake up in the morning?”

Luna piped up. “Then we try to wake him ourselves. Without magic at first, like you suggested, but ready to use an enervate if we need to.”

Atzi nodded. “We can stay up with him overnight. Maybe we take turns?”

“Absolutely,” said Bill with a glance at George. “Genevieve will be up in an hour anyway, so we’ll be awake. How about one of you take the first shift, then Fleur or I will come relieve you while the other gets Gen a bottle?”

The group spoke for a few minutes, ironing out logistics to ensure someone stayed next to Harry all night. As they began to bustle around to gather their things to leave, a surprised Atzi exclaimed something in Spanish and rushed next to Harry’s prone form.

“Look at his face!” she cried with excitement.

The others quickly gathered around to look at Harry. His unconscious face was sporting a wide grin. Luna’s eyes shone with hope as she waved her hand in front of Harry’s closed eyes, but he didn’t react at all.

“This must be a good sign... Do you think it worked?” asked Atzi

Luna was already nodding. “The research said that one of the people who used the ritual was later able to confirm that it had worked, but it didn’t explain how they knew. Maybe… Maybe Harry already knows that it’s worked somehow?”

“You theenk ‘Arry might be smiling because ‘e ‘as told Dumbledore about ze memory?”

The nearly frantic worry that had gripped George melted away as he started to laugh. He nudged Angelina. “Doubt that look has anything to do with Dumbledore… I remember you with that same grin after we first snogged!”

Ange elbowed him right back. “Sure it’s not the look you had after the Astronomy Tower in seventh year?”

George snorted. “Better not be, or else Bill and I are going to hafta have some serious words with Harry once he wakes up!”

Back to index

Chapter 33: Chapter 33

Author's Notes: Well, hope you enjoyed last week's chapter! Been building toward it for a long time and spent a lot of effort on them coming together. Think I threw some of y'all off with my comment replies… You can also find RLM on tumblr now, along with FFN, AO3, SIYE, and Wattpad.

Some folks had questions about the original timeline. They only agreed to use the Ritual once they felt confident it wouldn't erase their own timeline, as discussed by George and Ange when they were talking about not losing Freddie. Sending the memory created a new, separate timeline. While I don't want to give away too much, the fact that Harry is grinning in his sleep is a good sign. We probably won't check back in with that timeline for a long while, but I thought y'all might be glad to know those characters still exist, especially since their last chapter ended with a bit of an unresolved cliffhanger.

Harry's eyes flew open much earlier than usual the next morning. He hurriedly got dressed and ready for the day, careful not to awaken Ron, who was still snoozing. His long arms and legs jutted in various directions, with one exposed foot hanging off the side of the bed.

The walk down the corridor and around the corner took Harry little time, and soon he was nervously tapping on the door to Ginny and Hermione's room. The door opened wide and a red blur rocketed out toward him, squeezing his torso tightly.

"I didn't just dream it, right?"

He leaned down to place a quick peck on her lips, which spread into a grin at the contact.

"I dunno what you're talking about, Gin." He smirked as her fingers interlaced with his. "What didn't you dream?"

"You're terrible!" she exclaimed, pushing him into the wall with a well-placed shoulder bump. "You take months to finally kiss me and now you're all nonchalant about it?"

"Hey, that's not fair!" Harry replied with a laugh. "How was I supposed to know you liked me back? It took months to build up the courage to ask!"

"If my memory is still working, I think you kissed first and asked later," Ginny said as she tried to lean her head against his shoulder, only to find the maneuver difficult while walking. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you only asked because you wanted to kiss me again."

"Not true! I'd decided to ask you a while ago, back when I was at the Dursley's house. I've just been…" He tried to find the right words to say. "Waiting for the right moment."

"If you'd 'waited for the right moment' much longer, I was just going to climb over the dinner table and snog you senseless."

Harry snorted and squeezed Ginny's hand. "My fault. Honestly, you've been kinda stuck in my head since before Christmas, but I was trying to sort everything out. Your family's been so good to me that I didn't want to mess anything up unless I was really sure, y'know?"

Ginny's face sprouted a mischievous grin. "Can't say that I follow. You wanted to be really sure of what?"

He met her gaze with a raised eyebrow. "Sure that I was going to go mad if I didn't kiss you."

"Good answer, Potter," she said as they started down the stairs. "I think I'll keep you around."

"FILTH! SCUM! BLOOD-TRAITORS! DISGRACES TO WIZARDING KIND!" Walburga Black's portrait had been disturbed, interrupting the exciting reverie of the two teens. "HOW DARE YOU BESMIRCH THE HOME OF OUR FOREBEARS?! HOW DARE YOU SULLY THIS HOUSE WITH YOUR PUTRESCENCE!"

Ginny and Harry rushed forward to restore the drapes that were flowing away from the painting as if a great wind was blowing from within its frame. Her screeching epithets rang in their ears, but the two couldn't stop giggling. Despite their efforts, they couldn't pull the curtains closed, leaving Mrs. Black's foul language to resonate through the house.

"Honestly!" exclaimed a cross-looking Mrs. Weasley as she climbed the stairs two at a time to reach them. "This infernal painting!"

She reached over Ginny and gave her a bump with her hip to send her to Harry's side of the painting. "Pull it closed on three! One!"





With a mighty heave, Molly wrenched her drapes to the middle as Harry and Ginny did the same with theirs. The matriarch was breathing heavily from sprinting up the stairs and from exertion on the curtains while the two teens were still giggling to themselves.

"Not exactly a pleasant alarm clock, but I'll bet even Ron's down for breakfast on time after that," said Mrs. Weasley as she adjusted her apron. She turned to say something to Harry and Ginny before noticing their intertwined fingers. A wry smile blossomed on her round face. "I've got bacon and eggs ready in the kitchen, and I'll pop in a bit of toast for you two."

"Thanks, Mum! That sounds delicious. Has Dad already left for work?"

"You just missed him, dear. He said he hopes he won't have to work late this evening, but we'll see how that goes."

Mrs. Weasley doled out heaping helpings of breakfast to both of them, and Harry thought for a moment that he saw her sigh when he pulled out a chair for Ginny before seating himself. Ginny simply giggled and nudged him with her shoulder before starting in on her meal.

A decidedly surly-looking Sirius entered the kitchen, muttering something to himself. "Molly, I'm going to remove the whole damn wall if Dumbledore doesn't come up with a better idea soon. I'm too old to wake up to my mother's screaming."

"There, there. No need for such drastic measures," she said placatingly while handing him a plate. "I'm sure everything will work itself out, in time. Speaking of, could I borrow you for a moment?"

Sirius grunted his thanks for the food and dutifully followed Mrs. Weasley into the next room. Ginny began to snicker.

"Word's going to travel fast. What are the odds we both get a talking to about responsibility and propriety before lunch?"

Harry's eggs dropped from his fork, which he was attempting to use left-handed so that he could keep holding Ginny's left with his right. "Can't be that fast, right? Your Mum will probably want to wait until your Dad gets home."

She snorted and squeezed his hand. "Harry, it's a minor miracle she hasn't dragged me away from the table kicking and screaming to talk to me yet."

Hermione joined them a few minutes later, sitting primly and properly across from the two. The only indication that she was aware of recent changes was the strain of holding back a smile painted across her face.

"So, Harry…" she began, her eyes unable to meet his for more than a second or two before quickly staring at her plate. "Did you end up finding Ginny last night? You looked like you really needed to tell her something."

Color rushed to Harry's cheeks, but before he could respond, Ginny burst out in laughter. Hermione's wide grin broke loose, too.

"Ginevra! You told me you'd hold it together!" Hermione said as she swatted her friend with an old Daily Prophet. "And you thought I'd be the one to break!"

"Sorry! Sorry!" apologized Ginny through her laughs. "I thought I was ready for it, but I just… Couldn't help it!" She leaned her head against Harry, who was laughing along with them.

"What's all this?" called Fred as he and George sauntered into the kitchen, followed by a groggy Ron. "You lot are almost as loud as dear old Mrs. Black!"

"Just enjoying a beautiful morning," said Ginny with a wicked grin. She leaned over and planted a kiss on Harry's cheek.

Fred swore loudly and George slapped his own forehead. Ron, suddenly very much awake, threw his arms over both his brothers' shoulders and said, "Easy money, boys!"

"He tampered with Harry, I'm sure of it," said George, peering past his younger brother to catch his twin's eye. "There's no way. This was rigged!"

Fred shot a look toward Harry, who was quite contently holding Ginny's hand while making a valiant-yet-doomed effort to get his breakfast into his mouth left-handed. "How much did Ron promise you to wait this long, Potter? I had good money on you asking her the moment you stumbled head-first out of the floo!"

"You bet on when I was going to ask out your own sister?"

"Mate, it's been clear as day for ages," said Ron sagely. "The question was always when, not if."

Harry dropped his fork to cover his face with his hand. "I can't believe you three!" said Ginny with an embarrassed smile.

"Not just us three!" exclaimed Ron. Harry and Ginny both looked at Hermione, who shrugged sheepishly.

"What can I say? I thought Ginny would get tired of waiting and make the first move."

There was plenty of good-natured joking at Harry and Ginny's expense during breakfast, which Mrs. Weasley and Sirius eventually rejoined. Neither said much to them at first, though Harry thought his godfather's eyebrows were likely to fly off his head and flutter away with the amount of waggling they were doing.

"Assignments!" said Sirius as he clapped his hands together. "I want the twins to finish out the drawing room on the third floor this morning. Hermione and Ron, get started on the full bathroom down the hall from them. Look out when you open the cabinets, I think something took up residence in there. Harry, you're with me. Ginny, your Mum wants your help."

Harry's brow furrowed as he let out a long breath from his nose while the Weasley boys and Hermione chuckled at them. He followed Sirius to his godfather's bedroom, the same one he'd grown up in. The older man swung a wooden chair around, straddling its back and leaning his elbows on it as Harry sat on the bed with his feet crossed under him.

"Well, took you long enough!" Sirius leaned the chair forward so that he could ruffle Harry's already-messy hair. "Last night?"

"Yeah, last night," said Harry with a crooked smile. "I was telling her, Ron, and Hermione what I could about our meeting, the stuff that Dumbledore said was fine, but I didn't want to spring the whole Chamber of Secrets thing on her out of nowhere. Before I went to bed, I kinda figured I'd pull her aside and explain. I think she appreciated it. We got to talking for a while, and next thing you know, I kissed her."

"And here I was worried you might be as hopeless as your dad was," Sirius replied with a grin. "He would've liked Ginny. Your Mum would, too."

Sirius let out a wistful sigh before refocusing. "Alright! Molly's downstairs trying to give Ginny an extra-thorough talking to since she's probably afraid I'm just going to slap you on the back and leave it at that, but Ginny's a pretty special one. Plus, your parents would want me to give you a real talk about all this, and I owe them for you being a fairly decent godson most of the time."

The conversation lasted over an hour, which felt like an eternity to Harry. He was grateful to have some advice about how to be a good boyfriend, even if it came alongside a multitude of pointers that left his cheeks burning as he attempted to stare a hole in the floor. The ground rules that Mrs. Weasley had told Sirius she would be enforcing weren't super unreasonable, though he wondered whether Ginny would feel the same about not being behind closed doors alone.

After they finished, Sirius and Harry walked to the third-floor bathroom, where Hermione and Ron were quite happy to have an extra set of hands to tackle the hundreds of deep red moths that streamed out of the cabinets each time they were opened.

Before Sirius could leave, Ron caught his attention with a highly suspicious cough. "Yeah, yeah. I know," he said, pulling several silver coins from his pocket and handing them to the redhead. "Can't believe you didn't go for it after my pep talk, Harry! It was inspirational!"

"Sorry, Snuffles, but you just don't understand Harry like I do. He had to spend weeks agonizing about whether it would ruin our friendship before he could make a move." Ron flipped one of the coins into the air and caught it with a flourish. "Pleasure doing business with you!"

Sirius produced a rather rude gesture for Ron before heading back downstairs, and the three friends recommenced their war against the bathroom. Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Weasley and a still-blushing Ginny appeared. "Lunch should be ready in an hour and a half or so. Harry, could I borrow you for a moment?"

Harry gulped involuntarily as Ginny rolled her eyes and uttered an elongated, "Muuuuuum!"

"Oh, it'll just take a minute, sweetheart. Don't worry."

Several nervous footsteps later, Harry stood before Mrs. Weasley in the hallway. "Now, Harry," she began as Harry's cheeks burned hotter than he'd ever felt them. "I'm sure Sirius explained things to you, but I wanted to make sure some things were clear."

Harry nodded as small beads of sweat formed on his brow.

"Ginny's our only daughter and she's our youngest, which can make me feel a bit… Overprotective of her at times. But Arthur and I have been talking about how she's growing up for a while now. Really since we first got her owl about attending the Yule Ball with you. We decided that it was important to keep the same boundaries for her as we've expected from her brothers." Her emphasis on the word "We" made Harry believe that Mr. Weasley may have had a bit more influence on that particular decision.

"Sirius mentioned that he thought you might've had eyes for Ginny for a while, but may have been a bit nervous because of your connection to our family." She gently pulled his chin up so that he met her gaze, and Harry saw oceans of care in her misty eyes. "Arthur and I love you, Harry. And that's… That's not going to change."

She pulled Harry into a bone-crushing hug. "You're a good young man and I know you'll treat Ginny right."

He held on tight, not knowing what to do with the emotions welling up inside him. When she released her grip on his shoulders, her hand cupped his cheek and she deftly used her thumb to wipe away a lone tear.

In a small voice, Harry said, "Thanks, Mrs. Weasley."


The two and a half weeks leading up to Crouch's trial were the happiest Harry could remember. The worst of the house decontamination was completed, which left much more free time for the teens. They still reconvened each afternoon to make progress in the library, but the daily morning chores had become a breeze compared to exterminating moths, spiders, and doxies.

Harry hadn't given too much thought to how being Ginny's boyfriend could change the dynamic between their friend group, which was just as well since not too much changed. The two of them spent a great deal of time alongside Ron and Hermione, neither of whom made much fuss if the new couple disappeared for a few minutes here and there. The twins had new fodder for teasing but rarely took their jokes far enough to force Ginny to threaten them with a Bat-Bogey Hex. Harry felt more than a little proud to be taking their good-natured ribbing.

Both Remus and Tonks were happy to join Sirius in giving the two a hard time, but Harry caught his former professor staring at the two of them wistfully more than once. Hermione relayed that she had caught Lupin and Sirius with a half-empty bottle of firewhisky one evening talking about how much the two reminded them of James and Lily.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had been true to their word; the fact that Harry was dating their daughter didn't affect how they treated him. Mostly.

Molly had recently picked up the habit of checking on everybody more often. Harry supposed she would probably do the same if any of her sons started dating a girl their family was living alongside. The two did their best to earn her parents' trust. It was surprising that the two had only been forced to spring apart while blushing furiously a few times when Mrs. Weasley knocked on an open door and asked innocently, "How's everyone doing in here?"

Charlie still had not gotten a chance to visit headquarters yet, but Ginny assured Harry that her brother's reply letter after she divulged the recent news was mostly congratulatory. She promised that very few words were spent explaining what angry dragons could do to a scrawny git.

Percy had not been seeing the family regularly. He had been under inquiry after Mr. Crouch's fate had been discovered. The inquiry had found no wrongdoing on Percy's behalf, but it was not an auspicious start to his career. He was rarely mentioned in front of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, who became much more tense when his name came up in conversation.

Bill had gotten settled into a flat on the other side of London but came by for dinner at least once a week. When a gleeful Ginny jumped into his arms and whispered something to him, his eyes found Harry. "Alright, Potter. Get over here. We need to have a talk."

"Oh my gosh, Bill!" hissed Ginny, but he effortlessly tossed her onto a nearby couch. He then gingerly seated himself on her back, effectively immobilizing his now-thrashing sister. He ignored her giggles and cries of protest and pointed at Harry before indicating the open chair next to the couch.

He spoke a little louder than usual so that Harry could hear him over the threats of forthcoming violence Ginny was promising from beneath her eldest brother. "So, Harry… I hear congratulations are in order." He flicked his wand downward, locking Ginny's arm against her torso just before she could begin pinching his leg. "I must warn you, though. Our little Ginevra is quite…"

"Don't you call me that, William!" she spat as she tried to wiggle free. Ginny whispered a few choice words at her brother that Harry was quite sure Mrs. Weasley had never heard her daughter use.

"Silencio!" Bill watched as Ginny's mouth continued to move soundlessly, which only served to infuriate his captive more. "Much better. As I was saying, our little Ginevra is quite beloved by the Weasleys, goodness knows why.

"I know it's a huge favor to ask, but would you mind keeping an eye on her? She's been known to cause a fair bit of trouble, and having a responsible minder like you might be just what YOUCH!"

Unfortunately for Bill, incapacitating Ginny's arm only forced her to be more creative. The youngest Weasley had wiggled loose enough to chomp down on the back of Bill's calf, causing him to rocket off the couch and over the coffee table, swearing loudly enough to bring Mrs. Weasley in from the dining room where she'd been enjoying a cup of tea with Remus.

"What do you think you're doing, spouting off that kind of language? I've half a mind to wash out your mouth with soap!"

Bill's face was still painted with surprise. "Your daughter," he pointed an accusatory finger at Ginny. "Just BIT me!"

Ginny was seated on the arm of Harry's chair, thumbing through a quidditch magazine while acting as if nothing had happened. She looked up at her mother and brother innocently, as if she hadn't noticed the commotion. "What's up, Mum? Need something from us?"

"Mum, look at my leg!" Bill twisted his leg around to prominently feature the red bite mark emblazoned on his calf. "Don't let her fool you with the innocent act! She's a menace!"

Molly looked back and forth from her youngest to her oldest, but Ginny intercepted before she could do any further investigation. "Hmm… It does look a bit red. Almost matches the mark on your neck…" The color began draining from Bill's face as his mother's stare focused on a red mark just above his collar. Ginny's grin flashed wickedly. "That reminds me! I got a letter from Fleur the other day saying that she was going to be in London to look for a place to stay while she's working at Gringotts. Have you gotten to see her yet? You two got on well when you met at Hogwarts."

Mrs. Weasley was overcome with excitement and began peppering Bill with questions, dragging him away to give her details while she finished her tea. He looked over his shoulder at Ginny, who was sticking out her tongue.

"I noticed you didn't come to my aid in my moment of need," said Ginny, smirking as she allowed herself to slip off of the chair's arm and into Harry's lap. "You can slay a basilisk, but you're afraid of my brother?"

Harry laughed and planted a quick kiss into her hair. "You didn't ask. I'm under the assumption that you can handle just about anything, especially your brothers. No need for me to get on Bill's bad side if you're going to put him in his place without my help."

"Not a bad answer, oh responsible minder of mine," replied Ginny warmly.


The day of Crouch, Jr.'s trial was chaotic. Dumbledore had been preparing to serve as lead prosecutor but was anticipating strong pushback from an increasingly-desperate Fudge. The Minister had already made a play to reschedule three times and had even tried to have the entire hearing canceled. A few members of the Magical Law Enforcement who had interrogated Crouch had been able to use their clout to keep the story in the news and the hearing on the docket, with some added assistance from Dumbledore.

Sirius had been jockeying for the chance to show up as a surprise witness, but the headmaster and Kingsley shot that idea down. Despite how good it might feel to have Sirius kick open the doors and leave to raucous applause as an exonerated man, there were too many ways such a plan could go awry.

"The papers are going to have a field day with everything that's coming out at the trial," counseled Kingsley. "Voldemort's return confirmed, a high-ranking ministry official breaking his Death Eater son out of Azkaban, Fudge likely on his way out as Minister… You love being the center of attention, Black, and you being innocent wouldn't even make the front page!" Sirius had muttered something under his breath but agreed not to attend the trial.

The morning of the trial dragged on. Mrs. Weasley and Sirius had half-heartedly assigned some chores to the six teens, but no fuss was made when they milled about in the sitting room instead of cleaning. Remus was back at Grimmauld Place for a brief respite after a challenging assignment, and soon the three adults were anxiously killing time alongside the students.

Lunch came and went without any word from the ministry. The normally energetic bunch was subdued as they waited. Sirius did his best to present an upbeat appearance, but Harry could sense that his godfather desperately hoped that things would go well.

The fireplace roared to life as it filled with green flames, and a beaming Tonks stumbled forward.

"Couldn't have gone better!" she called out as she rushed forward to hug Sirius. "No official date for a trial for you, but having a trial quickly was almost unanimous. Crouch got life in Azkaban without parole, and Fudge looks cooked."

Nervous tension melted into relief as the assembled residents of the Black residence greedily consumed every nugget of detail Tonks could provide.

"I wish you could have seen Kingsley," gushed Tonks as she described the scene. "He did his 'I'm being so respectful that it ends up insulting' thing when Fudge started trying to discredit Crouch's testimony or the memories the three of you provided. Between him and Dumbledore, Fudge looked weaker and more impotent by the minute. And when Kingsley said his investigation into Sirius implicated Pettigrew instead?"

Tonks screwed up her face in concentration until her head resembled that of Cornelius Fudge. In her best impression of his voice, she cried out, "This is preposterous!" Even Molly, who was not typically one for mocking authority figures, had to bury her face in her hands as she joined the others in laughter.

"I bet he's out within a month, two tops," said Sirius. "Wonder if he'll have the pleasure of granting my official exoneration personally, or if that'll fall to his successor?"

Remus slapped him heartily on the back. "I hope it's him. Not just because that'd mean your trial happened quickly, but because I'd love to see the look on his face while handing you the gold for wrongful imprisonment."

"Hadn't even thought about that yet!" said Sirius with a wink, leading Harry to believe that his godfather had very much been planning something for just such an occasion. "Alright, everybody! I think this calls for a celebration. We're taking the rest of the afternoon off and I'm ordering a feast for tonight! No, you don't, Molly!"

Mrs. Weasley had already summoned her apron and was midway through tying it.

"We're ordering takeout! Remus has just reminded me that I'm due a large sum for my time spent in Azkaban, and I can think of no better use for that gold than stuffing us each so full that we burst. Especially if it means you get to rest after feeding us so well for so long," he added with a nod to Molly. "Everyone write down your absolute favorite food and Remus and I will figure out how to make it happen!"

There was a mad scramble for quills and parchment, and Sirius was soon in possession of a list of a wide variety of foods. He pursed his lips and nodded while letting out a sporadic "Hmm" or "Nice choice." He produced a small bag of gold and dropped a good deal of Muggle money into it before passing it to Remus.

"I'm trusting you to make sure my cousin doesn't trip over her feet and spill the whole lot of it on the way back, okay? Grab some extras while you're out, too, in case some of the others want to celebrate here with us."

Remus stowed the bag in his pocket and exited through the floo, followed by Tonks. Harry wasn't sure, but he thought he saw her wink over her shoulder to Sirius before she disappeared into the green flames.

Dinner was a raucous affair. Other than those they'd anticipated like Arthur and Bill, the party was joined by McGonagall, Kingsley, Hestia, a less-than-savory Order member named Mundungus Fletcher, and Mad-Eye Moody. Those who had been present for the trial regaled the rest with their accounts.

When the party began to wind down and guests were making their way to the exits, Professor McGonagall pulled Sirius and Harry to the side.

"Albus and I have determined that it would be best to further explore the Chamber before the start of the new term. The Minister appears to be intent on interfering in the affairs of Hogwarts, and we believe it will be advantageous to perform the search before the new faculty arrive. Kingsley indicated he would be available Tuesday afternoon."

"My calendar is wide open," said Sirius with a smile. "Harry?"

"Works for me."

"Excellent. Albus requests that you bring your invisibility cloak, Mr. Potter. An item I'm certain that neither of you two have ever used irresponsibly." Her eyes narrowed slightly.

Sirius was a bit too effusive in his assurances that he would never have used such an item while in school and that he was certain his godson's high moral fiber would prevent him from straying out of bounds in such a manner. The professor released a long breath from her nose as she shook her head at the mischievous smirk plastered on her former student's face before bidding them goodnight and disappearing into the floo.

Back to index

Chapter 34: Chapter 34

Author's Notes: Wow! The story has gained quite a few new readers in the past few weeks while lots of longtime readers have been checking in regularly. All in all, RLM now has over 100,000 views across all platforms, which is absolutely wild! Thanks so much for being a part of this story, especially to those of you who leave such encouraging comments!

It was good to be back at Hogwarts, thought Harry as he and the three newest members of the circle of trust waited for Professor Dumbledore to arrive. Harry stood next to Fawkes' perch and carefully stroked the bird's neck, who trilled at him appreciatively. Kingsley and Professor McGonagall were each in the overstuffed chairs in front of the headmaster's desk as they talked with Sirius, who had seated himself at the edge of the desk.

"My money's on Scrimgeour," said Sirius as he popped a lemon drop from Dumbledore's desk into his mouth. "I think Amelia would be a better pick, but now that folks are finally opening their eyes to a war on their front doorstep, bet they go with Rufus. Head of the Auror Office and all."

"Either would be leagues better than our current minister, but given the choice, Madam Bones would be my pick, as well," intoned Kingsley. "Fudge has called in all his favors to delay the No Confidence vote, but I doubt he'll be able to pick up much more support. He's been pushing for our department to make more arrests so it looks like he's doing something, but we're still far behind where we should be."

"I do not envy your position, Kingsley," said Professor McGonagall. "I imagine your job is going to be much more difficult in the coming months."

"True, but I'm beginning to look forward to it. After so long pretending to chase this clown," he pointed his thumb at Sirius, who gasped theatrically and flung a lemon drop at the man. "It'll be nice to actually be assigned to do my job. There is so much to be done, and I'm quite ready to begin in earnest."

Green flames announced the arrival of a clearly frustrated Dumbledore, who apologized for his tardiness. "Terribly sorry for the delay. My conversation with the new Defense professor ran longer than I'd hoped. Cornelius has seen fit to lob a final dung bomb before he loses power." He glanced at Harry. "Forgive me, that was rather unkind."

Professor McGonagall huffed. "Unkind doesn't mean untrue. You're certain nothing can be done?"

"I'm afraid it appears as though our alternative options will not be viable," he replied, shaking his head. "But enough about that unpleasantness! An adventure awaits! Harry, would you be so kind as to lead the way and explain the pertinent details regarding the Chamber?"

During the short trek to the third-floor girls' bathroom, Harry did his best to brief them on the ins and outs of what they'd be facing. He wasn't sure how many side passages might branch off from the main room, but he explained how multiple doors and entryways only opened with Parselmouth. When they reached the door, Harry tentatively knocked before pushing ahead.

"Such a considerate young man," said Sirius as he ruffled his godson's hair.

"Harry!" came a voice from further within the room. "It's been ages since you visited!"

The translucent form of Moaning Myrtle floated forward to greet the visitors, or rather, one of the visitors.

"Hey, Myrtle. Nice to see you again." Harry's voice was much less enthusiastic than the ghost's as he began checking the taps for which had the inscription of the tiny snake.

"You and the others stopped coming to see me," she pouted, drawing nearer and nearer to Harry as he attempted to focus his attention on the faucets. He mentally cursed himself for not memorizing which one they'd used previously.

"Miss Warren, might I ask what Mr. Potter and his friends were doing when they were coming to visit you more often?" McGonagall looked as if she didn't want to know the answer to her own question, but her curiosity got the better of her.

"Oh, they were brewing a potion they wanted to make sure no one knew about. They kept it hidden here since nobody ever comes to see me." Myrtle began to sniffle, but the professor wasn't ready to abandon her line of inquiry.

"And just what kind of potion were they brewing?"

Harry caught Myrtle's eye and tried to signal her to keep quiet, but she paid him no mind. "It was a Polyjuice Potion. The girl said that they were going to sneak into the Slytherin Common Room."

McGonagall's eyes grew wide as she turned to face Harry, who had found the right tap moments too late to prevent the information from being divulged. Sirius and Kingsley were doing their best to stifle their snickering, and even the headmaster couldn't contain his sly grin.

"Mr. Potter?! What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Err… About that. You see, we were trying to figure out who was actually the Heir of Slytherin. We suspected Malfoy but knew he'd never tell us, so we may have snuck into their Common Room disguised as Crabbe and Goyle."

Sirius' loud laughter burst out from behind his hand as Harry squirmed under the professor's glare. Kingsley was leaning against Sirius for support while Dumbledore's chuckle could no longer be contained.

"Am I correct in assuming that this foolishness is what resulted in Miss Granger ending up in the hospital wing looking very much like a feline?" A pink-cheeked Harry nodded as McGonagall raked her hand down her face. "I should have known."

"Minerva, might I remind you of the agreement we…"

"I know damn well what I agreed to, Albus!" She shook her head ruefully as she cast her eyes at the ceiling. When her stern eyes met Harry's again, there was the faintest hint of a smile behind them. "When you first arrived, you were so nervous and polite that I thought it possible that your personality favored Lily…"

"But he's got more than a little James in him!" finished Sirius with a laugh.

"That you do, Mr. Potter. And I'm thankful for that, despite the number of headaches it causes me."

"If you need to assign him detention, he could always come clean in here," offered Myrtle.

"I appreciate the thought, but that won't be necessary," answered McGonagall. "Please lead the way, Mr. Potter."

Harry squinted his eyes so that everything else faded, save the tiny inscription. As his mind thought of the word "Open," he uttered a hiss. The tap began to move and shift as it gradually became a dark hole leading deep under the floor.

"Ron and I just kinda slid down," said Harry as the group peered into the blackness. "Well, we made Lockhart go first. Fawkes carried us when we came back because it was too slick to climb up."

"Fascinating," mused Dumbledore as he illuminated his wand. "If Miss Weasley was able to enter and exit the Chamber, there must be some mechanism that allows for egress. Harry, would you be so kind as to speak in Parseltongue the word 'stairs'?"

Having already spoken the language once, Harry felt slightly more confident as he concentrated on the image and hissed again. Almost immediately, the tunnel's floor shifted into a long staircase whose bottom was beyond their view.

"Wonderfully done. I had a suspicion that the young and self-serious Tom would have never deigned to slide down a tunnel with the wild abandon of a child on a playground. Shall we proceed?"

Wand aloft, the headmaster began to descend, followed closely by Kingsley and McGonagall. Before Sirius and Harry could join them, Myrtle floated right up to them. "If anything goes wrong down there, my offer still stands. You could stay here with me."

"Hate to break it to you, but Harry's already got a girlfriend. The redhead he saved from down there."

Betrayal flashed in Myrtle's face before she flung herself into the nearest u-bend, her wails echoing off the walls. Sirius clapped Harry on the shoulder.

"Just between you and me, I think you made the right choice."

The walk down the stairs took a good deal longer than sliding had, but Harry was glad to be unsullied with muck as he and Sirius joined the others. Dumbledore had lit a series of torches along the outer walls of the corridor, which helped diminish some of the unsettling feelings creeping up in Harry's stomach. The five fanned out to ensure they didn't miss any potential passages, but the corridor led straight forward until they reached the site of the partial cave-in.

Kingsley let out a low whistle as he picked up one end of the Basilisk's shed skin. "Not going to lie, Harry. It's astonishing that you came out on top against this thing."

"I wouldn't have if it weren't for Fawkes," replied Harry as McGonagall and Dumbledore reinforced the tunnel before clearing out more of a path through the rubble. "He pecked out the snake's eyes and healed my arm after I got bit."

"Even so…" Kingsley's eyes followed the length of the skin. "Count me as impressed."

The five moved steadily forward until the corridor was blocked off by an ornate door covered in snake carvings. With a quick hiss from Harry, the door creaked open. An acrid smell wafted forward, causing Harry's eyes to burn slightly behind his glasses.

"I had wondered whether the body of the Basilisk might decompose slowly, as a magical creature filled with such potent venom. Perhaps a Bubblehead Charm would be in order?" suggested the headmaster. Harry gladly used the charm, silently thanking Flitwick for helping him master the skill well enough to use it without problems when out of the water.

The group stepped into the cavernous chamber, marveling at the sight of it all. Various passages dotted the side walls, while the wall opposite the entry point was dominated by the visage of Salazar Slytherin hewn into the stone. His mouth was still agape from where the Basilisk had emerged more than two years prior. The only sound was the dripping of water on stone and the soft footfalls of the five visitors until Sirius swore loudly.

"That bloody thing's enormous!"

Laying on its side, the dead Basilisk looked much less intimidating than Harry had remembered it. Much of the snake's muscles and insides had rotted away, but the beast's hide still clung to its bones. The gleam of firelight on the Basilisk's emerald scales was still eerie enough to make Harry shudder.

All four adults gathered around the snake's corpse, murmuring as they examined it. While the others knelt, Sirius walked back to Harry and pulled him into a hug without saying anything. Dumbledore straightened back up to his full height before uttering, "Homenum Revelio!"

After a few moments, the headmaster's brow furrowed. "Very curious… It appears as though we five may be the only ones present, but there is the faintest inkling of another presence. It is not even as slight as the diary felt. Kingsley, would you confirm?"

The Auror cast the spell and closed his eyes in concentration. "You're right. Whatever it is, it's really faint. Almost like a whisper in a room full of loud voices. Definitely could be another horcrux. Moaning Myrtle didn't happen to follow us down, did she?"

Sirius chuckled. "Doubt it. Harry apparently broke her heart when he and Ginny became an item." Albus' eyes twinkled in the firelight.

The five began to scour the Chamber for any secrets it might be withholding. Harry felt a bit out of place at first as Sirius and McGonagall changed into their Animagus forms to check out some of the smaller tunnels that spilled into the main room. Kingsley and Dumbledore each began at opposite ends of the room before walking slowly next to the walls. Harry watched them hesitantly before the Auror called him over.

"I'm trying to feel out whether there are any traces of magic that would indicate something has been hidden nearby," explained Kingsley. "Follow along with me and see if you can feel anything out of the ordinary. Something that causes a slight chill to run down your spine or a sudden onset of goosebumps might be worth further examination. And don't worry if you either get too many of those feelings down here or none at all. Hogwarts in general is dripping with all kinds of ancient magic, and this chamber even more so. It may be tough to sort out what all is ambient and what might be more localized."

He started to walk forward only to halt a few steps later. "If all else fails, you could just try hissing at anything that looks remotely interesting to see if it helps."

Harry felt a surge of excitement as he did his best to follow his instructions. The outer walls didn't produce any treasures for either of them, though the Auror nodded with pride when Harry noted that he thought he could sense the kind of sensation Kingsley described when he approached the stones that made up the face of Salazar Slytherin. Dumbledore joined them as they peered at the carving.

"What do you think, Albus? I couldn't find anything along the sides, but our friend here definitely feels like he's hiding something."

"Agreed. It stands to reason based on Harry's account that the serpent's lair lies beyond this gaping maw."

Kingsley climbed up into the open mouth of Slytherin before offering a hand up to Dumbledore and Harry. The tunnel leading back was much more narrow than those they'd explored so far, and all three wizards had to stoop slightly as they followed the corridor as it sloped gently upward.

Their path emptied into a smaller cavern that Harry judged to be roughly the size of the Transfiguration classroom. The stone floor was covered in a thick layer of dirt with the bones of small animals scattered here and there.

"I'd hoped there would be a chest full of potential horcruxes in here, but it looks like we're coming up empty," said Kingsley as his eyes darted back and forth across the room. "Homenum Revelio!"

The Auror's concentration gave way to resignation. "Same as before. Still get the feeling that there's something we're missing, but it's barely enough to register. Think there's a chance that a horcrux leaves some sort of trace behind that we're picking up? Maybe some sort of soul residue that got left behind by mistake?"

Albus' eyebrows furrowed, but he betrayed none of his thoughts as he walked the perimeter of the Basilisk's former home. "There is merit in that suggestion, Kingsley, though it is hard to say for certain. I do believe you to be right about this Chamber. If we cannot find a horcrux in the main room or this one, I doubt Minerva or Sirius will meet much success, either."

"In that case, should we head back up?"

"Yes, I think that best." The headmaster sighed and looked at Harry. "Though it was a clever idea to investigate the Chamber further. I must admit that when you suggested searching here, I felt rather embarrassed to not have thought to check here myself. Tom always had an adversarial relationship with me, and I would not have been surprised to learn that he had hidden something so important at Hogwarts as a way to thumb his nose at his former professor."

After emerging from the lair and hopping down out of the stone mouth, the three found Sirius and McGonagall waiting for them. As Dumbledore had surmised, neither had located anything of value or that gave the impression of a horcrux. A long climb up the stairs later, they finally dispelled their Bubblehead Charms as they walked into the hallway, each quite grimy from their exploration.

"Well, so much for that," said Sirius and he used a scourgify to remove some muck from his boots. "It would have been nice to get a horcrux for our troubles."

"That is true," replied Albus. "But I still consider the excursion a success. We have eliminated a potential hiding place from our list and done so without injury."

McGonagall had been casting furtive glances toward Harry while they climbed out of the Chamber. She motioned him to her side as Kingsley and Sirius spoke to Dumbledore about next steps.

"With all the scrapes you get into and out of, Mr. Potter, I tend to forget how extraordinary these situations are. As inadvisable as it was for two second-year students to enter that hellhole in search of Miss Weasley, I am so grateful that you did.And I have not forgotten that you came to me with your theory regarding the Stone in your First Year, only for me to dismiss you out of hand.”

She drew a deep breath. "It will not surprise you that I did not think it wise for Professor Dumbledore to fully include you in this venture. In fact, I spoke with him rather directly after our first meeting on that point.

"While some of my hesitations remain valid, I must say that you have impressed me. The idea to explore the Chamber was excellent, even though we did not find a horcrux. Few in the Order could have stood against that Basilisk and lived to tell the tale. Even in your near-constant rule-breaking, the skill to surreptitiously brew such a complex potion and the wherewithal to infiltrate the Slytherin Common Room…"

Her eyes met his. "But more than any of that, you possess an uncanny knack for figuring out what is worth fighting for and giving of yourself fully in order to succeed. The troll, the stone, the Chamber, Sirius and the dementors, the Triwizard tasks, and the graveyard… You have shouldered more responsibility than I have given you credit for."

Almost in disbelief, Harry watched his professor swipe a lone tear from her cheek. "There are still important skills that I believe are crucial for you to shore up in order to reduce the liability of entrusting a student with such vital knowledge," she said with a small sigh. "But I want you to know that I am committed to helping you learn them so that you may continue to contribute to our collective task."

Harry swallowed as a rush of emotion welled up within him. "Thanks, Professor McGonagall. That really means a lot to me." She gave him a genuine smile before they both returned to the others.


Harry and Sirius returned to Grimmauld Place to find Ginny, Ron, and Hermione anxiously awaiting their arrival. His brief explanation was frustratingly devoid of details, which he knew would be challenging for his friends. That made him all the more thankful to produce six sealed envelopes, one for each of them as well as for George and Fred.

When Hermione lay eyes on the envelopes, she audibly gasped. "Our booklists!" She snatched the letter from Harry's hand fast enough to make a professional Seeker envious and tore into it. As she turned the envelope over, a piece of parchment fell into her hand while a small metal badge tumbled down to the floor at her feet. She emitted a sound of exuberance that Harry thought was just shy of shattering glass as she grabbed it and beamed from ear to ear. "A Prefect?! I can't believe it!"

Harry laughed along with Ginny and Ron as he handed them their letters. "C'mon, Hermione. You've had this in the bag since our first year!"

"No kidding!" said Ron as he ripped open his envelope. "Surprised they didn't just make you Head Girl straightaway. Not that you had much competition from Parvati or Lavender…"

"No, I really thought it might go to Parvati! Her grades are pretty high, too, and she hasn't gotten in as much trouble as I have over the years."

"See, I think that's points in your favor," said Ginny. "Dumbledore knows how much trouble these two would be in if it weren't for your influence. That's gotta count for extra credit!"

Harry opened his letter and found that it was going to be a lighter load of books than in the past, especially compared to buying Lockhart's entire collection. The only new books required were the Standard Book of Spells for fifth year and Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard.

He did his best to focus on his letter while watching Ron out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, the color began to drain from his face as he looked inside his envelope.

"No bloody way…" he whispered without blinking.

"What's up, Ron?" asked Harry brightly, barely concealing a grin.

His best friend reached into the envelope and held up a shiny badge emblazoned with a "P."

Harry finally allowed himself to smile broadly. "Nicely done, mate!" He clapped his friend on the shoulder.

"But… But I'm… This can't…"

"Oh, congratulations, Ronald! This is so exciting! We're going to be Prefects together!"

"But I thought for sure it'd be Harry…"

"Not a chance. I've gotten into way too much trouble. The whole school thought I was the Heir of Slytherin and folks are still upset that I was in the tournament. McGonagall probably wanted to balance things out. Now when you're doing your rounds, Hermione can check out the library while you patrol near the kitchens."

Ginny's hand found his and squeezed gently as Ron let out a nervous laugh. "Yeah… I dunno, maybe you're right. I just didn't expect it, is all."

Hermione grinned. "Well, to be honest, it probably had to be you or Harry. Neville's great, but I don't think he's got the confidence to be a Prefect. And Seamus and Dean don't really take much seriously. You said your grades were up last term since we all were working on helping Harry prepare for the tasks." She blinked hard a few extra times at the thought of the tournament. "Maybe Professor McGonagall noticed how much better you were doing and thought you could handle more responsibility?"

A little more color returned to Ron's cheeks as he considered the thought.

"I can't wait to tell my parents," said Hermione excitedly. "They rarely understand much about what's going on at Hogwarts, but they'll definitely understand this!"

Ron was still a bit shell-shocked. "Yeah, that'll be great. I'm going to go tell Mum and Dad." Hermione quickly rushed upstairs to write to her family as Ron tentatively moved toward the kitchen. Before he got there, he turned and looked at Harry. "You're not mad, are you?"

"Not in the slightest," said Harry with a grin. "I'm not the one the twins will be teasing about it."

Ron's face flashed with fear for a moment before he smiled back. "Worth it!"

"Mr. Potter, why do I have the feeling you knew about my brother's new role before we did?" Ginny whispered into Harry's ear, causing a much more pleasant shiver to run down his spine than he'd experienced earlier in the Chamber.

"Miss Weasley, what are you insinuating?"

"I refuse to believe you were that nonchalant about him getting Prefect without some prior warning. I would have bet my broomstick you'd have gotten the badge!"

"Not that I'm complaining, but have you considered the possibility that you might have too high of an opinion of me?"

Ginny huffed before jumping onto Harry's back, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pressing a kiss to his cheek. "You spent all afternoon hanging out without me. Let's make up for lost time!"

Back to index

Chapter 35: Chapter 35

The final month of summer passed by in a flash for Harry. Hermione had returned home to spend time with her parents two days before Harry's birthday. Though she still had not recovered much of the joy she exuded the previous term, the sharp edges of her grief had been dulled through tears, conversations, and time. Harry's description of Viktor's bravery in the face of Voldemort and the smoky version of him who passed on a final message for her before helping Harry escape had been a balm of sorts. A reassurance that Viktor's feelings had been just as strong and deep and real as hers.

Harry's birthday celebration was spectacular. Sirius, Ginny, and Mrs. Weasley had combined forces to plan the event, and Grimmauld Place was almost as full as when the Order had a major meeting. All the Weasleys except Percy and Charlie were present, as was Fleur, who had been newly inducted into the Order and had been officially dating Bill for a few weeks. She hugged both Harry and Ginny as soon as she arrived and told them how happy she was that they were together. Later that night, Ginny blushed furiously when Harry mentioned that he hadn't even felt Fleur's Veela allure at all when holding Ginny's hand.

Remus, Tonks, Kingsley, and Mad-Eye each showed up over the course of the night, as did Professor McGonagall. Some other Order members, including Hestia Jones and Mundungus Fletcher, also made appearances. While Harry wasn't as close to them, it was still nice to have a full house for the party.

Harry opened his various presents, receiving a few books and several sets of new clothes from various adults. Mrs. Weasley had been fed up with Dudley's hand-me-downs draped on Harry's thin frame, so she had requested that folks help fill his wardrobe. Harry also got three framed photos, one of Sirius teasing Harry while poking and prodding him, one of Harry, Hermione, and Ron from first year looking much tinier than Harry remembered them being, and one of Harry and Ginny, who kept sneaking out of the frame and then returning with red cheeks.

His favorite present, though, was Ginny's. For two weeks, she had been borrowing Hedwig and keeping her correspondences away from Harry. When Harry opened her gift, he was touched to find more than a dozen letters from friends and classmates waiting for him. Hagrid's messy scrawl was on one, and each of his fellow soon-to-be fifth-year Gryffindors, too. Angelina, Alicia, and Katie had each sent a note, as had Lee Jordan and Oliver Wood. Charlie had sent a letter that included a dragon tooth from the Hungarian Horntail he'd battled, which Harry appreciated far more than Percy's standard Ministry birthday card on official letterhead. Colin Creevey had sent a photo of Harry casting an incorporeal Patronus while chasing the Snitch, and Cho and Cedric had packed both of their letters into the same envelope. Dumbledore's loopy handwriting was one of the last he read.

If Ginny had been unsure if her new boyfriend would like the gift, his misty eyes and wide smile provided ample reassurance.

With Hermione away, the final push to clear out the library became a slog. Several minor mishaps had kept the amateur librarians on their toes, but most of their time in the afternoons resulted in drooping eyes and exaggerated yawns. In the large stack of deeply disturbing books about the Dark Arts, Sirius had found two books that obliquely referenced horcruxes and one other that described them in slightly more detail. They'd been passed on to Dumbledore and McGonagall, whose research into the outer limits of horcrux creation was moving slower than hoped.

After the extravaganza thrown for Harry's birthday, Ginny's was quickly upon them. Harry didn't feel confident about his ability to top her gift of letters, but after consulting with Sirius and getting Mr. and Mrs. Weasley's approval, he thought his gift wouldn't be half bad.

The morning of her birthday, Harry greeted her with a kiss on the tip of her nose before they entered the kitchen to grab breakfast. The twins pretended to retch into a nearby waste bin after witnessing the "offensively cute" display of affection.

The morning was filled with laughter and games, with multiple rounds of Exploding Snap and a few chess grudge matches. By the time the grandfather clock struck eleven, Harry was becoming antsy. He breathed a sigh of relief when Remus and Tonks flooed in fifteen minutes later, apologizing profusely for being late. A quizzical Ginny greeted them, noting the mischief etched on both of their faces.

"Oh, did I forget to tell you about your birthday gift?" asked Harry with a wry smile. "I thought you might be interested in a proper date."

"A real date?" She exclaimed with glee. "An actual date-date?"

Tonks snickered. "Yep, Harry pulled some strings to spring you out of here for a couple of hours!"

Ginny flung herself into Harry's embrace. "You know being inside has been driving me barmy! What a great present!"

"Oi! How come you two are getting out of here?" asked Ron looking more than a bit dejected at being left out. "You could bring me, too!"

"Sorry, mate, but I can only bring one. If you want, I can still take you out on a date for your birthday, though."

"I don't want your pity date!" Ron said with a grin as he flung a pillow at his friend.

"It'll be so fun to do a double date," said Ginny as she released her grip around Harry's midsection. "Where are we going?"

Remus' cheeks flushed a bit. "Not exactly a double date… Someone needed to keep guard, just in case, so Tonks and I volunteered. We'll be nearby the whole time, but it's not like we'll be sitting at a booth with you."

"Oh, I see…" Ginny was smiling at him dangerously. "So, you two will just be on your own date near us?"

Remus stammered a bit before Tonks cut him off. "Yeah, that sounds about right. But don't get any ideas about sneaking away. Your Mum would have all of our heads if we didn't keep a sharp eye on you!"

Harry laughed as his former professor's face continued to color. "I figured it might be nice to get away for a bit. There are some Muggle restaurants nearby that you can pick from and then I thought you might enjoy watching a movie."

Ginny was thrilled at the itinerary and rushed upstairs to change into going-out clothes. When they left a few minutes later, her grin was a mile wide. They walked down the sidewalk with fingers interlaced for almost thirty minutes with Remus and Tonks following behind before a restaurant caught Ginny's eye.

It wasn't as if the two hadn't been able to talk to each other at Grimmauld Place; they'd spent hours in conversation, interspersed with occasional snogging. But the novelty of talking while sitting at a cafe patio made the conversation sparkle with newness and excitement. The two laughed aloud much more than they were used to while inside the confines of their temporary home.

Tonks had decided against disguising herself, which meant Harry could easily keep track of their minders due to her bubblegum pink hair and Remus' excessive height. Ginny admitted that she and Tonks had talked about the older witch's interest in the former professor and how he seemed reluctant due to the age difference and his lycanthropy. Harry, in turn, confessed that Sirius had insisted that the two serve as their guards to force Remus into action. Both of the teens were convinced that Remus and Tonks would make a cute couple and resolved to find ways to nudge them along.

Ginny's eyes shone as she watched the movie flash across the enormous screen. She was so spellbound by the magic that the Muggles had created that Harry thought she had channeled her father. Harry paid no mind to the two adults watching over them from a few rows behind as he wrapped an arm around Ginny and placed a kiss on the top of her head.


The news was expected, but Harry was still jubilant when Kingsley delivered an official letter to Sirius requesting him for a hearing regarding his previous conviction. It was not scheduled until after Harry had already left for Hogwarts, but Harry assured his godfather that he'd be happy to attend as moral support and testify if needed.

Molly had made the trip to Diagon Alley to purchase school books and supplies. All five teens had been eager to make the trip with her, but Kingsley had advised remaining at Grimmauld. Several known or suspected Death Eaters had been spotted in the vicinity, and it seemed unwise to press their luck. Even after their foray into Muggle London, Ginny and Harry both felt imprisoned in the house, and the twins and Ron felt it even more so.

With Hermione gone and his sister and best mate occasionally seeking more privacy, Ron spent more time with the twins. Fred and George were happy to have an extra guinea pig for some of their products, and Ron enjoyed pocketing a bit of spending money as a test subject. Harry was glad to see the three brothers laughing together on multiple occasions, which assuaged some of the minor guilt he felt when snuck away with Ginny.

By the morning of September 1st, most of the household was ready for school to begin. The comparative freedom of Hogwarts called to the Weasley children and Harry, and most of the adults were growing weary of the complaints from the "captives," as the teens began calling themselves.

The chaos of departure meant everyone was a bit on edge, especially Mrs. Weasley, who spent a good portion of the morning yelling to try to get everyone out the door on time. She shook her head ruefully when she opened the front door and a great black dog sprang out into the fresh air ahead of the kids.

"Your hearing still isn't for a few weeks, Sirius, you really shouldn't…"

The dog rested his massive paws on her and whimpered, brandishing a very potent sad puppy face. She shoved him away, but couldn't help smiling.

"Oh, alright. But don't come crying to me when you get locked up again! Kids! Let's get going!"

Remus and Tonks joined the boisterous crew from across the street. It should have only been a twenty-minute walk to King's Cross station but the large group took its time enjoying being out of the house, much to Mrs. Weasley's chagrin. Even so, they managed to reach the barrier in plenty of time. Harry and Ron both still had bad memories of crashing into the stone when Dobby had magically sealed it, but everyone was able to enter Platform 9¾ without incident.

As they spilled onto the platform, Hermione met them with gusto. She had been speaking with Moody along the edge of the crowd, but she easily left him to his guard duty upon their arrival. A train whistle sounded as they all bid their farewells. Harry noticed Mrs. Weasley holding her daughter even longer than usual as Sirius wagged his tail at Harry's feet. Remus walked toward them and knelt down beside the dog and Harry followed suit.

"Your godfather here," Lupin patted the dog heavily on the head. "Informed me that you two had an agreement last term that you wouldn't run off on your own, since there was a wizard bent on harming you. I think it would be worthwhile to reinstate that agreement."

"What?" exclaimed Harry, frustration bubbling in his chest. "That was different!"

"I know, I know. It's not fair that the most dangerous wizard alive holds a grudge against you, but that's part of your life right now," Remus replied calmly. Harry could tell his former professor was attempting to placate him, but he did not feel particularly interested in the reasoning. "Just make sure you're with someone who can help watch your back. You're not going to get a Howler from either of us if you get caught in a broom closet with Ginny or nicking a snack from the kitchens with Ron, but please don't wander off on your own."

Remus furrowed his brow and shook his head. "Voldemort has infiltrated Hogwarts before. We're not saying it's going to happen again, but we want you to be smart. You feel confident about sending a message via Patronus?" Harry nodded. His training sessions with Professor Moony had been quite successful, and Harry felt better knowing he had means of contacting help if needed.

"Good man. Dumbledore said there's a strong chance you'll be approved for an underage apparation license once the new administration gets into place. Sirius and I are going to be working from our end to get some Order members to patrol Hogsmeade when students are allowed to visit the village. It's not exactly a carte blanche to explore the wide world, but we did put up a fight to make sure you still got to go to Hogsmeade. Am I forgetting anything, Padfoot?"

The dog licked Harry across the face, causing him to fall backward onto the ground with a cry of, "Ugh, gross!"

Remus laughed as he pulled him to his feet. "Good point. Have a great term, Harry! We'll let you know more details about the hearing. Get into just the right amount of trouble, okay?"

Harry grinned back at his parents' dear friend. "I think I can manage that mischief."

"That's what we want to hear," said Remus with a smile as Harry walked toward the train, waving over his shoulder. "Oh, and we're hoping to both be at your first quidditch match!"

With a heave, Harry hoisted his trunk onto the train and toward the compartment where Ginny was waiting for him. Ron and Hermione dropped off their luggage and quickly made their way to the front of the train for a Prefect meeting, but Harry and Ginny did not feel harshly done by their departure. She rested her head in his lap, allowing Harry to easily run his fingers through her hair, one of his favorite activities he'd discovered over the summer.

The train had only been moving for five minutes when Harry heard the door to their compartment open. He turned to find a sheepish Neville standing in the doorway.

"Hey, Harry. Hi, Ginny. Err… Do you mind if I sit with you? It's okay if you don't want to. I can just…"

He turned to leave, but Ginny sprang up from her spot and grabbed his trunk, pulling the luggage and its owner into the compartment. Neville blushed slightly as he sat down, but Ginny and Harry showed no sign of frustration at him as they caught up on their summers.

Ginny took great pleasure in explaining how Harry had finally asked her out, detailing several prior instances in which she was certain he was going to ask but "chickened out at the last moment." Harry insisted that he was simply "waiting for the right moment," but Ginny just rolled her eyes while grinning at Neville. They skirted around details about the Order and Grimmauld Place, but Neville didn't pry.

Before Neville had a chance to reciprocate by telling them about his summer, the compartment door opened again. A blonde girl holding an upside-down newspaper entered without a word and plopped down on the other side of Ginny. Neville looked confused by her intrusion, but the redhead leaned over to hug her friend before making introductions.

"Luna, this is our friend Neville. He's a fifth-year Gryffindor like Harry. Nev, this is Luna. She's a Ravenclaw in my year and we've been friends since our second."

"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Neville." She extended a small hand to him, which he shook graciously.

"Likewise!" he replied brightly. "We were just going around and catching up on what happened over the summer. Did you do anything interesting?"

Harry repressed a chuckle as Ginny squeezed his hand. Whatever Luna had been up to over the summer was certain to go well beyond interesting.

"It was a rather eventful summer. Daddy and I made a month-long trip to Norway to research the Crumple-Horned Snorkack, I helped him write an important column about the Ministry's Rotfang conspiracy for the Quibbler, and we planted several new varieties of dirigible plums at my mother's grave. What about you?"

Whatever it was that Neville had expected from his first interaction with the young witch, this was not it. The color had begun to drain from his face when she mentioned whatever a Snorkack was, and looked almost ready to faint by the time she mentioned her deceased mother.

"Ahh, well… Not as interesting as yours, I suppose. Installed a greenhouse for my plants, had to attend a bunch of boring Wizengamot sessions, and got this cool Mimbulus Mimbletonia for my birthday." He pointed at an odd-looking plant resembling a cactus, only it was grey and moved slightly as the students looked at it. Instead of spines, it was covered with what looked like boils.

The four chatted amiably as the train chugged along until they were joined by Ron and Hermione. The two had very different impressions of their first Prefect meeting.

"I think our group of Prefects will be really strong this year," gushed Hermione as she sat down between Neville and Ron. "I think Cedric is going to be the best Head Boy we've had in a while, just because the student body already has so much respect for him and he's so friendly to everyone. Did you know he's the first Head Boy from Hufflepuff in more than a decade?"

She didn't slow down long enough for anyone to interject that they had not been keeping up with who had been Head Boy before they began their time at Hogwarts.

"Hannah and Ernie got the badges for Hufflepuff. Ernie still frustrates me sometimes, but Hannah is the sweetest girl in our year. I think she'll be great! And it's Anthony and Padma from Ravenclaw. I was really hoping they'd get it, especially since I don't particularly get on well with Terry, who I thought was the other likeliest contender."

"It's Malfoy for Slytherin," spat a frustrated Ron. "Can't believe I'll be sitting through meetings with him all year…"

Hermione was trying to maintain her composure, but it was clear that she wasn't thrilled about the prospect, either. "I'd really hoped it would be Blaise. Not that he's especially friendly, but at least he's not a huge…" She looked like she was trying to think of an acceptable word to describe Malfoy, but ended up giving up. "At least Daphne is the girl Prefect from Slytherin. If it had been Pansy, I would have been so disappointed."

Ron sighed deeply. "I was kinda excited to make Prefect at first, but it feels like you two may have lucked out. I didn't realize how much patrolling the corridors and sitting through meetings we'd be doing."

"Speaking of, Cedric wanted us to patrol the train cars to make sure the first years are doing alright and keep older students out of trouble."

"Yeah, but everything looked fine while we were walking over here from the meeting. I figure we could hang out here for a while before we make rounds, yeah?"

He was met with a glare from Hermione, causing him to dejectedly rise from his seat. "Alright, alright. We'll go make sure no firsties are crying their eyes out. Check in with you later, though? Nev, I've been stuck thrashing Harry at chess all summer. Can I count on you for a game?"

"Maybe if you start without your queen."

Ron smirked as he stepped out of the compartment. "Still too easy, mate!"

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. The rhythmic sounds of the train eventually lulled Ginny to sleep as she lay with her head in Harry's lap, which made him quite happy about life. Spending time catching up with Neville had been good for Harry, who had found that he missed his dormmate over the summer. Luna's additions to the conversation weren't always easy to follow, but he enjoyed her presence nonetheless.

When the train finally reached their destination, Harry was quite glad to stretch his legs. He'd spent the last hour with his leg serving as Ginny's pillow, and it took a couple of minutes of tentative steps before the tingling in his foot and toes subsided. Still, he felt quite optimistic as he walked toward the carriages with Ginny's fingers interlaced with his.

"First years! Can I get all the first years to come my way, please?" A kind woman's voice carried over the crowd of students. Harry looked around, but there was no sign of Hagrid anywhere. Professor Grubbly-Plank, who'd taught a few lessons for Hagrid the previous term when he'd been out after Skeeter's article, was rounding up the first years and leading them to the boats.

"They can't have sacked Hagrid!" whispered a concerned Harry as his eyes searched in vain.

"No way, they can't have," agreed Ginny. "We would've heard something over the summer with as much as Dumbledore and McGonagall have been around. It's gotta be something else." She squeezed his hand tightly, providing a modicum of comfort to Harry's racing heart. They continued on alongside their friends until reaching the carriages.

"What in the world are those things in front of the carriages?" asked Harry with shock as he looked at horse-like beasts with huge bat wings and clouded white eyes. "I've never seen anything like them."

"There's nothing in front of the carriages," said Ginny with a laugh. "They're always pulled by magic. That's why they don't need horses or anything."

"But there's something there!" He pointed at the creature tied in front of the carriage they had been assigned. "What is it?"

Ron and Hermione had joined Ginny in looking at Harry askance, but Luna patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Harry. I can see them, too. They’re just thestrals.”

“Thestrals? Where have I heard of those before?” asked Hermione as she gazed out the window. “It sounds so familiar.”

“They’re a type of magical creature that are only visible to people who have seen someone die,” said Neville quietly.

A hush descended on the other five students in the carriage. Neville did what he could to avoid eye contact with Hermione, who found Ron's hand on her shoulder. Harry didn't realize how tightly he was grasping Ginny's hand.

In a small voice, Hermione spoke. "You're right. I'd read about them because there's a section about them in Care of Magical Creatures this year." She sniffled as her eyes got misty.

Harry was still struggling to understand the implications. "You're saying that those things have always been pulling the carriages, but we've just not been able to see them?"

"Probably," answered Luna. "They've been here since my first year."

With a glance out the window at a thestral in front of a nearby carriage, Harry's mind returned to the graveyard and watching Viktor as Voldemort struck him with the killing curse. When he looked back around at his friends seated near him, he could see a glistening tear falling down Hermione's cheek.

"How is it you can see them?" asked Ron, though he seemed preoccupied with how upset Hermione was to his right. Ginny kicked him in the shin from her seat and glowered at him, but Luna did not appear to be concerned.

"My mother was a brilliant witch. She excelled in experimental potioneering. When I was nine, she was working on a new potion that she thought would help prevent Dragon Pox, but it ended up being too volatile. It exploded while she was adding ingredients. It was quite terrible."

Ginny's hand slipped out of Harry's as she reached over to hug Luna. She smiled sadly. "But I still consider myself fortunate to have known her at all, even if I'm still sad sometimes. Daddy is good about helping me talk through how I feel when I get sad about her being gone."

The group was rather somber as they made their way into the Great Hall. The five Gryffindors bid goodbye to Luna as she sat down at the Ravenclaw table. Once the students were all seated, Harry looked at the beat-up wizard hat perched atop a stool in the front of the room as Ginny scooted a little closer to his side.

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Chapter 36: Chapter 36

Way back when, when I was new

And Hogwarts newly founded

Four friends each sought to teach the youth

And unity abounded.

But times have changed from then 'til now

And attitudes have shifted

And it's my job when called upon

To sort you as you're gifted.

But when I think of the discord

That's led us down this path

I yearn for peace of days long past

Instead of enmity and wrath.

For once were Godric and Salazar

Each other's closest friend,

Like Helga and Rowena

Who were connected to the end.

But arguments about their students

Tore those friends apart.

Such disagreements became the end

To what had been a noble start.

Each of the founders had belief

Of which students should be taught.

Their stubbornness and pride

Undid the unity once sought.

For Slytherin thought best to teach

Only those with blood that's purest

While Ravenclaw, with her intellect

Desired minds that were the surest

Gryffindor favored students

He believed could each be bold

While Hufflepuff was happy to

Bring all and any into her fold.

So ev'ry year I get brought out

And placed upon some heads

And then yell out the house in which

You'll lay upon your beds

But I can't help but wonder

As I composed my song

If I'm doing a disservice

If all of this is wrong?

Have I outlived all my usefulness?

Should I choose to retire?

Am I spreading divisiveness

As the world's becoming dire?

Alas, I fear that I cannot

Oppose the purpose of my lot

But at least I'll leave you with

This warning that I've got:

You must find ways to each rebuild

The bridges long since burned

And trust that now is hard to reach

Must once again be earned.

Hogwarts has faced many foes

Since the dawn of its creating

But none have ever threatened quite

As the one who's now awaiting

In the face of such a test

We must all stand and fight

For enemies won't overtake

Our school if we unite.

Though I must split you into four

Remain one in your heart

With my song now at its closing

Let us let the sorting start!

A muted applause rang out within the Great Hall as confused students looked from the Sorting Hat to one another, trying to absorb the warning of its song.

"Well, that was a lot different than the last few years, right?" Harry shook his head as he wondered how a hat had such a firm grasp on current events.

Hermione had a forlorn expression on her face. "It's like what Professor Dumbledore was saying last year: the need for cooperation among different countries is so important, yet we've been dividing ourselves here at home so much. Is it any wonder that we have so many problems?" Though her voice had caught when she mentioned other nations, she was able to plow ahead without stopping. "Maybe we can do more this year to foster inter-House connection?"

Harry's eyes fell on Draco scowling as a First Year was sorted into Hufflepuff. "Maybe, but I feel confident I won't be doing much uniting with Malfoy…"

When the first years had all been sorted, Dumbledore wasted no time before commencing the feast. Even though he'd spent quite a few meals practicing using only his left hand for utensils at Grimmauld Place, Harry did not feel bad releasing Ginny's hand to fully give himself over to the delectable food spread out before them.

After Harry had stuffed himself well beyond reason, Dumbledore again stood and called for attention. Ron gave a sad whimper as the remaining food vanished, causing Hermione to roll her eyes.

"It is my great pleasure to welcome you to another year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! If I may borrow your attention after such a wonderful meal, there are a few important notices you would do well to observe. First Year students are advised that the forest on our castle grounds is called the 'Forbidden Forest' for a reason, and all students are expected to avoid it. Some of our older students may want to remind themselves of this, as well."

Harry, Ron, and Hermione grinned at each other while Ginny smiled and shook her head.

"I would also like to introduce two new faculty members for this school year. Professor Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank has agreed to step into the Care of Magical Creatures role until Professor Hagrid is able to return to the post. Additionally, Professor Dolores Umbridge has been assigned to serve as our new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Will you please join me in welcoming them to our staff?"

The news that Hagrid was only gone temporarily buoyed Harry's spirits, though he and many other Gryffindors did not clap very enthusiastically for the new additions.

As the noise quieted, the headmaster began again. "Quidditch tryouts will be held over the course of the next three weeks…" He cut off his sentence and looked down the staff table to where Professor Umbridge was sitting next to a very displeased-looking Professor Sprout. As soon as Dumbledore's eyes met hers, she stood up and looked out at the room full of students. Harry thought he could detect a note of frustration on the headmaster's face, but he inclined an ear in her direction and acted as if he was thoroughly interested in what she had to say.

"Good evening, children. It is such a pleasure to be back at Hogwarts with each of you. As a member of your faculty and an official within the Ministry of Magic, it is so good to be in a position to help mold young minds. The Ministry has long valued education as one of the pillars of our society. Though each headmaster or headmistress has brought their own distinct flavor to the post," The forced smile plastered across her toad-like face made Harry sure that she wasn't a fan of the current "flavor." Her simpering tone grated on his nerves immediately. "...your government has deemed it time to be more directly involved with ensuring that the future of our world is built upon a strong and truthful foundation.

"There are a great many rumors and conspiracy theories flying about, so I am exceedingly glad to be here to put falsehoods to rest and assure each of you that your safety and well-being are our utmost priority. Should any of you become upset by the kinds of nasty lies that have been peddled by the likes of the Daily Prophet or other rags posing as journalistic enterprises, feel free to meet with me for a more factual understanding of the world outside the walls of Hogwarts."

Harry was already getting the distinct impression that Defense Against the Dark Arts would not be a pleasant class this year. It had become one of his favorites under Remus during his third year after two frustrating years under Quirrell and Lockhart. If Harry was honest, the imposter version of Moody had been a surprisingly good teacher. But the prospects of Defense remaining an enjoyable and helpful class for a third straight year were diminishing with every syrupy-sweet word dripping out of Umbridge's mouth. Her eyes narrowed as they darted toward the headmaster before continuing.

"Despite what you may have heard third-hand from those bent on stirring up dissent, there is no evidence of any dark wizards returning recently. I will be doing my utmost to ensure none of these nasty rumors are being spread, utilizing a professor's full range of means to dissuade students who repeat such ugly untruths. I am sure my fellow faculty members will do the same."

Her sour smile toward the other professors was not returned by any of them. McGonagall looked to be fuming as Flitwick stared into the middle distance without blinking. Sprout had cast her eyes on her plate as if she could will earplugs to appear there. Snape looked absolutely venomous and ready to use her as a test subject for one of Crabbe's disastrous attempts at a potion. Harry thought it might be the first time he and Snape agreed on their estimation of a person.

"Progress can be important, but it is imperative that we conserve the institutional excellence that has made this school great in the past and that the Ministry strives daily to uphold. There is no need to chase progress for its own sake, as the greatness of magic has sustained our community for many long years. Many dangerous ideas have seeped into these hallowed halls from outside of the magical community, but together, we can restore the strength and standing of this school.

"Your Ministry is fully capable of ensuring your safety and continued education, which I'm certain will become much more satisfactory now that the curriculum and staff will be more closely monitored. If you have concerns regarding any aspect of your educational experience, please inform me during my office hours. The Ministry is committed to making Hogwarts a shining example of our greatness, as it has been in the past."

Professor Umbridge sat down with a defiantly smug smile plastered across her face. She looked at Dumbledore as if to dare him to contradict her as a small smattering of applause rose up, mostly from the Slytherin table. Hermione released a long and pained sigh as she rubbed her face with both hands.

"She seems like a right little ray of sunshine," muttered Ron darkly. "Sounds like she loves the Ministry even more than Percy does…"

"Bet you anything she's one of Fudge's lackeys," replied Harry. "I'd guess she believes all the lies he's been spreading about Dumbledore making up Voldemort's return."

"It's much more than that," whispered Hermione as the headmaster listed various Zonko's products that Filch had requested be banned. "Did you catch the part about the Ministry meddling with Hogwarts and students reporting to her if people are spreading rumors? And how dangerous ideas from outside the magical community are threatening the school? I'll give you one guess what kind of people she's referring to…"

"Muggleborns," answered Ginny, her angry brown eyes narrowing as she stared at Umbridge. "Looks like that's one of our formerly interesting classes that'll be a nightmare to get through now. If I've got Defense on the same day as Potions or History, I think I'll scream."

After Dumbledore completed his announcements and released the students, Ron and Hermione began rounding up their new first-year Gryffindors as best they could. Hermione shot Ron a reproachful look when he called out, "Oi! You shrimps get over here!" but Harry couldn't help but notice how effective it was.

Despite the relatively simple path available for them to reach Gryffindor Tower, Ginny and Harry struck out on a more circuitous route. The two ducked into an empty classroom on the third floor when they heard Peeves zooming down the corridor, and remained there for several minutes more than absolutely necessary as they waited for the coast to be clear.

They stopped by the kitchens a little later to check in on Dobby, who was elated to see them both. Harry promised to return again soon to visit and Ginny heaped praise on the elf for the delicious Welcome Feast. Dobby's wide eyes darted back and forth from his two guests to their clasped hands until a great smile appeared on his small face. With what Harry thought was the elf's best attempt at subtlety, Dobby gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to them both.

One meandering walk around the castle later, Harry and Ginny entered the Gryffindor Common Room a mere ten minutes after curfew. Neither of the new fifth-year Prefects looked especially happy with them as the two entered, though Harry thought with a smirk that there were probably different reasons for their frustration.

"Ginny, Harry, please tell me you're not going to do this to us constantly. We're supposed to uphold the rules for everyone and not play favorites."

"It's my fault, Hermione," said Ginny with a mischievous grin. "I lost track of time while showing him my cauldron of polyjuice potion. It won't happen again!"

Hermione did not look particularly amused by the joke, but Harry laughed aloud as he lay an arm on Ginny's shoulder. "How did your patrols go?"

"When did the first years get so small?" asked Ron. "We were trying to shepherd them up the stairs to the Common Room, but they kept wandering off. Then Peeves showed up and started popping out of the floor right where they were about to step. I think half a dozen of them were crying when we dropped them off in their dorm. Then later, we were making our rounds and found a Ravenclaw seventh-year snogging a Slytherin sixth-year behind some drapes in the corridor."

Hermione wore a brave expression, but it was clear that day one of being a Prefect had not been quite as exhilarating as she'd anticipated.

"And now, just when I thought my night was done, you two show up looking happier than Hermione at a library. I swear I should have gone the protective brother route so you'd at least try to sneak around a little more instead of flaunting what the two of you have been up to…"

Harry had the decency to blush as Ron rolled his eyes. Ginny looked completely unashamed and planted a loud kiss on Harry's cheek.

"Oi! Any chance you can pry yourself away from my baby sister for enough time to play me in chess? I need something to end my day on a high note, and smacking you around might be just what I need!"

Even with Ginny occasionally whispering hints to him, Harry still managed to lose spectacularly. Despite the defeat, he felt fairly optimistic about the upcoming term as he lay in his four-poster that night. He dreamed of sunlit days yet to be had exploring the woods behind the Burrow with Ginny, of flying on his Firebolt from a swarm of angry doxies, and of a long hallway with a locked door at the end.


At breakfast the next day, Professor McGonagall walked along the length of the Gryffindor table as she passed out the class schedules. Harry saw her grimace as she handed one to Dean and another to Seamus a few seats down. Before she reached Harry, his dormmates began to groan loudly. With an apologetic look, McGonagall lay the parchment face down next to Harry.

Ginny grabbed his parchment before he could and let out a low whistle. "Wow! That's a rough way to start each week… You've got History of Magic first thing and then Potions. Dunno what you did to deserve that. And then Umbridge right after lunch? Yikes…"

Hermione, Ron, and Neville were following along on their newly delivered class schedules. "Bloody hell, that's a brutal Monday… Not looking forward to Muggle Studies on Tuesday, either."

"Wait, you're taking Muggle Studies this year? They let you drop Divination?" Neville looked as if Ron had won the lottery.

"Yeah, no more Trelawney for me. Except I'm two years behind all the others in Muggle Studies, so I doubt I'll be able to scrape an OWL. Still, Divination was the worst. Glad to be done with it."

Hermione grinned at Ron from across the table. "I think it's a very wise decision for you to drop Divination. Muggle Studies didn't have nearly as much homework as Trelawney gave us, and you've got plenty of friends raised in the Muggle world to help you. With some hard work and our help, I definitely think you can earn an OWL."

Ron's ears turned pink as he returned his eyes to his plate. "My dad was really excited about me switching. You know how he is about Muggle stuff."

The friends continued checking their schedules and discussing which classes they were excited about or dreading the most. When McGonagall returned with Ginny's schedule, she and Harry compared them to determine when they had a chance to steal away between classes.

"Hey, you lot!" From near the end of the table, Angelina was walking toward the group. "Good to see you all! Turns out McGonagall's named me Quidditch Captain this year. We've still got most of our starters from our winning side two years ago, but we're going to need a new Keeper to replace Wood."

Ron's attention was fully on Angelina as she gave the group details about when the tryouts would be.

"Wood had a thing about never having reserves on the team. Said he wanted us to be a 'cohesive unit' without lots of moving parts. But I'm not Wood and I think not having reserves is right mental, especially since one of our players has a knack for ending up in the hospital wing right before important matches…" She looked at Harry sternly. "None of that this year, right?"

Harry grinned back at her. "None whatsoever, Captain!"

"Excellent. I'll post a flyer about the tryouts in the Common Room but figured you all would want to know. George and Fred told me Ron's a right decent Keeper, and I've seen for myself how well Ginny can fly. I expect each of you flying at your best."

Ron nodded enthusiastically, even if his complexion had become a little green. Ginny, on the other hand, had a look of determination as she gave Ange a curt nod.

"That's what I'd hoped for. I'll catch up with you more later!"

"Have there ever been four siblings on one quidditch team?" asked Neville as Angelina returned to sit next to Alicia. "That'd be wild!"

"I dunno," said Ron nervously. "Ginny's been practicing with Angelina, Katie, and Alicia for a while now. Bet she gets a reserve spot. It'd be rough to be the only Weasley other than Percy not to play for Gryffindor…"

Harry nudged Ron with his shoulder. "I bet you'll do well in the try-outs, and Keeper's the one position without a returning starter. Plus, you'll be on your new Cleansweep!"

Ron's spirits lifted with the mention of his broom as Hermione piped up. "Since you're going out for Keeper and Ginny for Chaser, you two could practice some ahead of time to be better prepared."

With a grin, Ginny kicked her brother under the table. "It might ruin Ron's confidence to see me put so many goals past him!"

"Oi! We'll see about that!" He kicked back at Ginny, not knowing she had protected her leg behind Harry's. Harry tossed a roll at Ron's head before rubbing the painful new bruise on his shin. "Less than a week until the tryouts, so what do you think about doing some training before dinner once you're done with classes?"

"You're on! But no crying when I light you up!"


History of Magic was just as boring as Harry remembered it from the previous four years. He wondered what his age-eleven self would think if someone explained that a class about goblin wars, murderous giants, and strings of corrupt wizards and witches attempting to overthrow governments would be the dullest class he could imagine.

Though not uninteresting, Harry dreaded Potions even more. Professor Snape began the class by assuring the class that most of them were not up to his high standards and therefore should not expect to continue for his NEWT classes. He then threatened them about not besmirching his record of students passing their Potions OWL while staring down Neville in particular.

Their class had been assigned a difficult and complex potion for which Snape had written the instructions on the blackboard. Harry had tried to follow the directions closely, but it was difficult for him to read from his place in the back of the room with so many cauldrons of steaming potion ingredients between him and Snape's tiny scrawl. The steam rising from his own cauldron (meant to be light silver instead of its current dark grey) was fogging his glasses, too, making things more difficult.

The Potions Master approached Harry's workstation with a sneer. "Potter, did you read my instructions?"

Harry furiously cleaned his glasses with a loose bit of his robe. "Yes, I read them."

"What does the third line say?"

A scowl grew on Harry's face as he affixed his glasses, certain that whatever it was that he missed was about to be pointed out. "Add in the powdered moonstone, then stir counterclockwise three times, simmer it all for seven minutes, and add two drops…" Harry mentally cursed himself for missing it. "Two drops of hellebore syrup."

Snape's upper lip curled as if he were smelling something foul as he looked at Harry and the potion. "Did you follow the very simple instructions I provided for the class, Potter?"

With a sigh, Harry answered that he did not.

"An improperly brewed potion can not only fail to bring about the desired effects," Snape announced loudly for the whole class to hear, including a snickering Malfoy several rows over. "But could become poisonous and harm its unfortunate user later. Your mess is useless and I won't stand for such sloppy work in my class. Evanesco!" With a wave of his wand, the contents of Harry's cauldron vanished.

The other students scooped some of their potions into a vial and placed it on Snape's desk. Harry noted with growing frustration that more than half of them looked to have done worse on the potion than he had, but only he would receive no marks for his work. He was too angry to bother writing down the assigned homework to be completed by Thursday, figuring he could check with Hermione about it later. After the class was dismissed, he stormed out of the room.

Lunch was a helpful respite. Harry allowed Ron and Hermione to be the ones to explain the potions incident to Ginny, who joined in bemoaning Snape's unfair treatment. Neville was honest about his own terrible mixture that could scarcely be called a potion while lamenting that the professor definitely had it out for Harry. The collective complaining and acknowledgment of the unfair circumstances made Harry feel less singled out, and Ginny's hand in his helped brighten his mood considerably.

As the friends finished their meal, Harry noticed Cedric walking from the Hufflepuffs to the far end of the Gryffindor table. He spoke with Angelina and another prefect for a minute before approaching their section of the table.

"Hey Harry! Hey everyone! How's the first day going?"

The seventh year was greeted by various groans and grumbles from them before Harry responded. "Hey Cedric. Not great so far. I don't know why McGonagall decided to punish us, but we've got the worst Monday schedule you've ever seen. History of Magic and Potions with the Slytherins in the morning, and we're about to head to Defense with the new professor who seemed so charming at the Welcome Feast."

Cedric grimaced as he looked at the frustrated expressions of the Fifth Years. "Wow, that's almost criminal… Wish I could say Defense wasn't as bad as you'd think, but I already had her this morning. Thought I'd give you a bit of a warning: she's quick with punishments."

The older boy pointed to the hourglasses used to keep track of the points earned by each of the four houses. There were about twenty small rubies resting at the bottom of the Gryffindor hourglass compared to nearly thirty emeralds for Slytherin, while Ravenclaw's sapphire total looked to be in the lead by three or four. Cedric let out a frustrated sigh as he indicated the empty fourth hourglass.

"She started out her lesson, if you could call it that, by denying everything that happened at the end of the tournament and going on about how anyone who disagrees with Fudge is a liar who's out to get him. Laura's mum wrote one of the articles in the Prophet about Crouch's trial, so she tried to argue the point. Umbridge docked her twenty points and called her mum an enemy of magical society."

"There's no way!" said Neville in consternation. "Laura's gotta be one of the nicest girls at Hogwarts!"

"You're not wrong, but that didn't stop Umbridge. Me and Kirby tried to stick up for her and both lost twenty apiece, too." He shook his head in frustration. "Still not sure if losing points just doesn't matter if you're at zero or if we've gone into the negatives…

"Anyway, figured I'd give you a heads up, just in case she's especially after folks who she thinks are discrediting Fudge. Might want to be on the lookout." He looked over his shoulder at a group of first-years who were nervously arguing nearby about how to reach the Transfiguration classroom. "Hey, I've gotta run. Let's catch up better sometime soon, yeah?"

"Sounds good, Cedric. Thanks for the warning!"

He flashed a winning smile before jogging to the new students, who quickly followed behind him as he led them from the Great Hall.

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Chapter 37: Chapter 37

Harry was milling about outside of the Defense classroom with the rest of the Gryffindors. None were particularly pleased about how their first day of classes had gone thus far, and few looked especially hopeful about their next class. Two minutes before class was to begin, the door to the room unlocked from the inside and the group of students filed inside.

Standing in front of them, Professor Umbridge wore a sickly sweet smile. Her desk was emblazoned with an official nameplate that read "Professor Dolores Jane Umbridge - Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic." She held her hands clasped in front of her primly as the students settled into their seats.

"Good afternoon, class!" she called out a bit too forcefully.

The few who murmured "Good afternoon" in return did not satisfy her.

"No, that simply will not do," she narrowed her eyes while her mouth remained frozen in an unsettling smile. "When I greet you, I expect you to reply, 'Good afternoon, Professor Umbridge!' Let's try again, shall we? Good afternoon, students!"

An uninspired reply of "Good afternoon, Professor Umbridge" rose from the class.

"Well done. That wasn't so hard, now was it?" She scrunched her face in a way that Harry thought made her look like a pig snorting before she smiled again. "You may put your wands away and get out your quills."

Many of Harry's classmates quietly groaned or let their shoulders sag. Rarely had they experienced a fun or interesting class that began with stowing their wands. While the students rummaged for quills and parchment, Umbridge strode to the blackboard and tapped it twice with her stubby wand. The words "Basic Principles of Defense" appeared on the board. Once the rustling had ceased, she began to speak again.

"Your instruction in this subject has been woeful during your previous four years, hasn't it? You have been saddled with multiple professors who had no right to be educating young witches and wizards. It seems that your class, in particular, has not been exposed to enough of the ministry-approved curriculum specifically designed for students of your level. This has resulted in your being vastly below the expected standards of a beginning fifth year."

Harry gritted his teeth as he stared at her angrily. The only thing stopping him from arguing was the tiny, Hermione-esque voice in the back of his head that reminded him of Cedric's warning. Umbridge's patronizing voice droned on as if the lot of them were eight-year-olds who were incapable of coherent thought. "Yet I believe it possible to rectify this oversight through careful instruction and hard work. By giving your all to the curriculum of theory-based defensive magic, each of you has the chance to score well on your upcoming OWLs. You may begin by copying down the course goals."

She tapped the blackboard again, erasing the previous words and replacing them with three numbered sentences. The scratching of quills across parchment was the only sound for several minutes. Harry forced himself not to roll his eyes at the second goal, which was centered on knowing when the use of defensive magic was legal. If there were times when it was illegal to defend yourself, Harry thought, he was likely to have broken some laws during the numerous times he'd been attacked by various creatures, magical items, and deranged professors.

After the students all finished, Professor Umbridge returned to the blackboard. "Do each of you have your copy of Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard?"

A few murmurs of agreement accompanied several bored nods.

"It is quite simple to respond in a respectful way. We will have to work on that together. When answering a question, my expectation is for you to reply with a 'No ma'am, Professor Umbridge,' or a 'Yes ma'am, Professor Umbridge.' Give it another go. Do you have your books, class?"

"Yes ma'am, Professor Umbridge," replied the Gryffindors sullenly.

"Isn't that so much better?" Her smile grew wider as she surveyed the students. "Open your books to page five, where you may start reading the first chapter, 'Basics for Beginners.' Talking will not be tolerated."

Over the course of twenty minutes, Harry only managed to force himself to read four pages. The textbook was devastatingly uninteresting, transforming what had been one of his favorite classes over the past two years into an interminable slog. He glanced at Ron, who had propped his head up with one arm to feign reading while looking downward, but his telltale jolt when his head began to slip indicated that he was no more enthralled than Harry.

Beyond Ron, Harry could see that Hermione had not yet opened her book, which was the kind of phenomenon that happened so rarely that he felt a little startled. Instead, Hermione's book was closed on her desk while her hand was outstretched into the air. She shifted in her seat and switched arms, rolling the shoulder that had been reaching skyward. Her eyes were straight ahead, despite Harry's attempt to gain her attention. After nearly five more minutes and two additional arm swaps, Professor Umbridge must have decided she could ignore the situation no longer.

"Was something about the directions unclear to you or do you have difficulty reading?"

"No, the directions were very clear. I just have a question," she replied. Harry's eyes were glued to Hermione. Had a professor spoken to him in that way, he would not have been able to maintain such a deferential tone.

"There is no need for questions at this point. Simply read the chapter I have assigned." Umbridge smiled and cocked her head to the side slightly to indicate the end of the conversation.

"But my question is regarding your course aims."

Umbridge's smile diminished slightly as she stared at the girl. "Your name?"

"It's Hermione Granger."

"Miss Granger, I think the course objectives are very clear for anyone who has read them carefully."

"It doesn't say anything about actually using defensive magic." More than a few students looked to the blackboard to confirm, though Harry seriously doubted Hermione would be causing a fuss if she hadn't quadruple-checked first.

Professor Umbridge emitted a small, tinkling laugh as she shook her head gravely. "Using defensive magic? I assure you that no such need will arise in my classroom. You mustn't expect to be attacked while I teach, you silly little girl."

"We're not using any magic in this class?" said Ron a little more loudly than necessary.

"In order to be called upon in my class, a student must raise their hand, Mr. ”"

"Weasley," offered Ron angrily, as he thrust his hand into the air.

Umbridge smiled more broadly as she ignored Ron's hand, who looked exceedingly frustrated. Harry's hand shot up, as did Hermione's. The woman's eyes flit back and forth between them until she called out in her simpering voice, "You had another question, Miss Granger?"

"I thought the whole point of this class was learning how to defend ourselves? How are we supposed to do that if we can't practice magic?"

"Tell me, Miss Granger," Umbridge's wide smile dripped with disdain as she spoke. "Are you a trained expert in the field of education? Have you been accredited by the Ministry of Magic to oversee the tutelage of students? Or are you simply a misinformed child questioning those who know better than she?"

Not all of the fifth-year Gryffindor students were entirely fond of Hermione. In fact, several thought her to be fairly insufferable. But the entire class seemed to take a sharply inhaled breath at the Professor's cutting words. Before Hermione could respond, Umbridge continued.

"I thought so. Our lessons will be much safer than what you've experienced. You will learn about defensive magic through reading and writing reports ”"

"But how will we know how to use it if we never practice!" called out Harry, attempting to contain his frustration.

"Raise your hand, Mr. Potter!" replied Professor Umbridge in a sing-song voice, smiling as she ignored his fist as it thrust into the air. Turning, she encountered several more students with hands raised. "Name?"

"I'm Dean Thomas."

"Mr. Thomas, what is it?"

"Kinda the same question as Harry. How are we going to know we can do this stuff if we get attacked and we've never practiced any of it?"

"I do not enjoy repeating myself, but I will say it again: you will not be attacked while in this class." Harry thought she sounded as if she was speaking to toddlers afraid of a vacuum cleaner as her smile became somehow wider. "I prefer to remain on the positive side of things, so I try to refrain from criticizing the ways this school has been run in the past. But the wizards you have been unfortunate enough to call 'Professors' have clearly filled your head with ridiculous stories and unfounded fears. It is simply educational malpractice to have exposed you to such inappropriate magic and creatures, not to mention hiring one."

She turned back toward Dean just in time to miss Neville reaching across the aisle to grab Harry's shoulder and shake his head. Harry took a deep breath before training his eyes on his shaking fists.

"Professor Lupin was the best teacher we've had!" said Parvati with more than a little frustration. Several other students nodded emphatically.

"You have not raised your hand!" came Professor Umbridge's response with false sweetness. "Your class has been introduced to curses and spells far beyond your capacity, completely inappropriate for children of your age. I understand that you have not only been made to witness illegal curses being cast but have had them used against you."

"But that's because our last professor was actually working for You-Know-Who, yeah?" said Seamus. "Didn't he just get convicted of being a Death Eater?"

"You did not raise your hand!" Umbridge replied hotly, a touch of her sweetness melting away. "I have spoken with the Minister about the subject at length, and he assures me that the perpetrator is mentally unstable. Though the man may indeed believe he was working under the directions of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I must ask that none of you believe the deranged ramblings of a lunatic." Her eyes flashed at the multiple hands raised before pointing at a student.

"My name's Parvati Patil. We've got our OWLs at the end of the year, but isn't there a practical section of the test? How are we going to get through that if we haven't practiced beforehand?"

Umbridge rolled her eyes before responding, "If you study the theory that undergirds the use of defensive magic, you should have no difficulties with your spellwork under the close supervision of your exam proctors."

"Even if we've never cast them before?" Parvati looked nervous, along with a few other students.

"Yes, Miss Petal," she replied slowly, enunciating each syllable as though Parvati couldn't understand English. "Trust that I am much more aware of the requirements for a Defense OWL than any of you."

"And what about when we get out into the real world? You really think the theory alone is going to make a difference?" Harry was tapping his foot unconsciously to release some of the angry energy building inside him as he glared daggers at Umbridge.

She looked almost as though she would lose her composure, but pulled herself back, affixing the smile that she had lost in the deluge of questions. "Real world, Mr. Potter? There's nothing out there in the 'real world,' that will harm you, unless you count the people and institutions who don't take kindly to liars." Her smile became much more of a sneer as she nodded to Harry primly.

"Let me be clear: you've been told many falsehoods in the past few months by your classmates, newspapers, and even some of your faculty. These irresponsible rumor-mongers have attempted to fill you with dread about 'the return of a dark wizard' and how our world is in peril. Such talk is dangerous, and I will not abide it."

"You think I'm lying about Voldemort?!" Harry's voice had risen to a yell. At the mention of the name, Lavender gasped, Neville let out a small scream, and Seamus fumbled an inkwell off his desk, shattering it to pieces. Umbridge's smile only grew wider.

"You see how your lies affect those around you? That's twenty points from Gryffindor for your outburst. If you wish to ruin your chances for the House Cup on your first day of classes, please continue. I'm sure your fellow classmates would be thrilled by that." Her voice was softer again as she surveyed the classroom and soaked with pleasure as all eyes followed her. Harry wanted nothing more than to scream at her, but held his tongue.

"I do not understand why a few formerly-respected wizards and witches have chosen to believe the kind of lies that have been spun. Perhaps they are dissatisfied with the long era of peace and prosperity that Minister Fudge has ushered in, or maybe they hope to destabilize his administration in a foolhardy attempt to grab power. Or they may have simply been bamboozled by the lies of a misguided, attention-seeking child."

Her eyes narrowed as she glared at Harry with loathing written across her smiling face.

"Voldemort is back!" yelled Harry. "And if Fudge doesn't believe it, he's going to get a lot more people killed!"

"Mr. Potter! That's a week's worth of detentions!" The false sweetness had gone from her voice as her chest heaved. "My office, starting at five tomorrow evening."

She turned back toward the rest of the class, who were all in a state of shock. She did her best to regain her sickly-sweet demeanor, but her voice trembled with the rage beneath her smile. "I assure you that your classmate is lying. I work directly with the Minister of Magic and know for a fact that not one shred of evidence has crossed his desk."

"That's because he refuses to look at my memories or question me under a truth potion! If he did any of that, he'd know I was telling the truth!"

"Silencio!" With wand outstretched, Professor Umbridge glowered at Harry. She spoke in nothing more than a harsh whisper, but anger infused every word. "The Minister of Magic has far more important things on his plate than listening to the lies of an insolent child with a hero complex."

Harry tried to yell a reply but was incapable of producing any sound. Umbridge smiled and cocked her head to the side again before returning to her desk. Harry angrily grabbed a quill and scratched two words into the margin of his Defensive Magical Theory book before angling it toward Ron.

His friend looked every bit as furious as Harry felt, but there was hesitation in his eyes when he read Harry's note. When Harry tapped the words three times in rapid succession, Ron relented and began to search his bookbag. With a glance at Professor Umbridge to ensure she wasn't watching, he gripped his wand and whispered, "Finite incantatem."

Harry breathed out and heard the sound of the air leaving his nostrils. With determination, he stood up from his desk. "Hey! If you say Voldemort isn't back," many of the students around him jumped at his sudden return to sound-making and the name he uttered. "How the hell did my friend Viktor die?"

"I will not be spoken to in such a manner!" shouted Umbridge, rising from her chair. "I will not ”"


"With your