Chapter Fifteen: Training Day

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Chapter Fifteen: Training Day

 

"Potter, you're late!" Daphne Greengrass declared. She was turned out exactly as a Head Girl ought to be - perfectly fitted new black robes, a gleaming badge, even the official pointed hat that all students realized were a farce after their first week in the castle.

 

"Er, sorry I lost track of time. I was -"

 

"- out on the pitch making a fool of yourself. At least you managed a shower."

 

Harry ran a hand through his still damp hair, and glanced down at his rumpled denims. "Didn't realize today was so formal."

 

Daphne rolled her eyes. "You might not concern yourself with first impressions, but others don't have that luxury."

 

Harry shrugged. "So, where's McGonagall?"

 

"The Headmistress?" Daphne corrected him. "I assumed she was going to meet us here, but it's already twenty after."

 

"She's probably in her office," Harry suggested as he led the way up the grand staircase. Daphne hurried past Harry and hung a right on the second floor. "I doubt she's in the transfiguration office," Harry offered as he continued climbing.

 

"Right," Daphne replied, and scurried to follow behind Harry. "Do you know where to go?"

 

"Sure," Harry answered, "I've been there a few times."

 

"I'm sure," Daphne harrumphed.

 

"You're sure of what?" Harry bristled.

 

"I'm sure you know where the office is. I'm sure you've been there a lot."

 

"What's that supposed to mean?"

 

"Don't be so defensive!" Daphne snapped. "Everyone knows you were Dumbledore's favorite. How many times have you been in his office?"

 

"I don't know."

 

Daphne smirked in triumph. "Most students never set foot in there, much less enough times to lose track. You can count right?"

 

Harry shrugged. "After twenty it gets a little murky."

 

Daphne snorted trying to suppress a laugh. She caught up with him and the two climbed in silence for a while.

 

"You seem excited to be Head Girl," Harry observed.

 

"My mother is thrilled, but I'm just nervous" she replied candidly. "I know I wouldn't have got it normally."

 

"Neither would I. I wasn't even a prefect."

 

She rolled her eyes. "False modesty is unbecoming, Potter."

 

"Honestly, I'm not."

 

"The head system would be a total charade if you weren't appointed Head Boy," she lectured. "It's not about being a prefect or getting good grades. It's about the respect of the student body."

 

"Then there is even less reason for me to be Head Boy. I've never enjoyed a lot of admiration around here."

 

Daphne openly gaped at him. "You're delusional! You've basically walked on water since winning that stupid tournament."

 

"That stupid tournament was rigged. Barty Crouch manipulated everything so I would win."

 

Daphne shrugged. "Really? Draco kept saying you were cheating."

 

Jaw clenched, Harry whirled to face her. "That ferret was a worthless bag of shit! I'm glad I killed him. Do you have a problem with that?"

 

She threw her hands up in surrender and backed away slowly. "Frankly? No. I don't have a problem with it... but you've got to take it easy, Potter - Asshole or not, Draco said a lot of things about you. It's hard not to believe a few of them."

 

"Asshole doesn't even begin to..." Harry spun away and began stomping upwards again. "I hate him more than anything!"

 

Harry seethed all the way to the Headmistress' office, but paused near the gargoyle to take a few deep breaths. "Dumbledore always set his password to some kind of sweet," Harry muttered. "I wonder what Professor McGonagall has chosen. Lemon drops? Licorice ropes? Malted apple stems?"

 

"Terrific! We could be here forever," Daphne lamented. "She should have just met us in the Great Hall."

 

"Yeah..." Harry agreed when 'chocolate cheese' reduced the gargoyle to hysterics. "Maybe we should... Oh, I know! 'Meee-owww'."

 

Daphne looked at him quizzically for just a second before the gargoyle stepped aside with a snicker, revealing the spiral staircase. "That woman is a complete nut case," Daphne observed.

 

"That woman can probably hear you," Harry said with a smirk as he knocked on the office door.

 

Daphne's eyes widened in horror and she gasped, covering her mouth with both hands.

 

"Come in," Professor McGonagall's voice answered from insider her office.

 

Harry opened the door and stood aside to let Daphne enter. "Good Morning, Professor McGonagall."

 

"Mr. Potter, how did you get past my gargoyle?"

 

"Er, I guessed the password?"

 

"You did?" McGonagall looked up in surprise.

 

"Yes ma'am," Daphne affirmed. "He meowed and the door opened."

 

McGonagall shook her head in frustration. "Apparently, I need to re-work the spells," she muttered. "In the future you may both use spesei."

 

"Spesei?"

 

"It means to expect good things, Potter," Daphne lectured, "Latin."

 

"Very good, Ms. Greengrass, not many students bother to learn Latin nowadays."

 

"My mother insisted."

 

"Yes, I suppose Frieda would," McGonagall commented knowingly. "Well, you are here for your orientation, so let's begin." The group descended the spiral stairs and began making their way toward the library. About a stone's throw from the entrance to Madame Pince's territory, McGonagall opened a door and motioned for Daphne and Harry to enter. "The prefects' classroom," she intoned.

 

"I never knew this was here," Harry observed. He briefly surveyed the room and understood why Ron and Hermione had never been a big fan of prefects' meetings. The floor was grey barren stone. The walls were drab brown, and peeling beige paint dangled from the ceiling. Two dozen desks faced a lectern at the front of the room. A large blackboard covered the front wall.

 

"Ugh," Daphne muttered, silently flicking her wand to erase a chalked depiction of Professor Sprout covered in bubotuber puss that must have taken Peeves half the summer to draw.

 

The wall nearest the door was covered by a large corkboard. Next to it, another blackboard hosted a blank quidditch schedule. "Yes Mr. Potter, the heads are responsible for ensuring the pitch is scheduled fairly. The team captains will meet with you both to work out a schedule."

                                 

Harry grinned at her, "Of course, Professor."

 

McGonagall did not find this amusing. "Perhaps, in light of the situation, Ms. Greengrass should have the ultimate authority in this area."

 

"Er, right," Harry answered trying not to be disappointed. The best practice times were a highly valued commodity, and he wasn't about to give up on setting the schedule in his favor.

 

McGonagall cleared her throat, earning Harry's attention again. "Albus didn't much care for the prefect system; he preferred students see their heads of house for counsel. But, I think the faculty should only get involved if the prefects cannot handle the problem. Consequently, I'll be counting on you both to make yourselves available to students regularly. The back room is the Heads' office. Studying there will give students a place to find you when they need."

 

Harry wandered toward the back of the room. A large window looking into the Heads' office comprised most of the back classroom wall. The office held three sofas, one along each wall and two large executive style desks in the center of the room. In the far corners there were sparsely populated bookshelves holding a handful of Hogwarts rule books and assorted detritus left behind over the years.

 

"We're supposed to study in there?" Daphne asked doubtfully.

 

"Feel free to decorate if you wish," McGonagall replied dryly as she motioned for Harry and Daphne to follow her out of the classroom. On the sixth floor, they walked past the bathroom where Harry had attacked Draco Malfoy the previous year and stopped in front of an open window that offered a beautiful view to the west of the castle. Harry could see Hagrid's (former) hut and birds flying over the forbidden forest.

 

"Knowledge without compassion is fruitless," McGonagall observed. At these words, the windows were suddenly forty meters away and the group was standing in front of a pane of glass that looked into a well appointed common room. Opening the door that had appeared in the middle of the glass wall, McGonagall led them in.

 

"As you can see, Rowena's house has a beautiful common room," McGonagall observed, "and I am assured by Filius that the charms on the wall are quite impressive."

 

"I always thought Ravenclaws were voyeurs," Daphne quipped, nudging Harry to turn around. "You can see out, but you can't see in."

 

"Oh shit," Harry moaned. "I wonder what I've done in this hallway."

 

Both Daphne and Harry jealously explored the room. The beautiful view of the castle grounds was still visible on the fall wall. The ceiling was easily seven meters high and four large hearths served as focal points for blue and gold sofas. All the furniture looked new, not worn like the Gryffindor room.

 

The two side walls were lined with tall book cases and thousands of books. Sliding ladders stood like sentries, ready to help even the shortest first year reach the highest shelves.

 

"I wish I'd been sorted into Ravenclaw," Daphne mused.

 

"Does this wall have a password too?" Harry asked as he stepped near the window again to look out?"

 

"No, they're quite real, and quite impervious to locking charms," McGonagall said ruefully. "Filius constantly complains about students sneaking off to Hogsmeade through the window."

 

"Where are the dorms, then?" Daphne asked.

 

McGonagall walked to the center of the south wall and placed her hand on the side of one of the book cases. She gently pulled the case toward her and the wall hinged backward leaving an opening without disturbing the bookcase. There was a spiraling staircase that led up into the west tower. "The boys' rooms are up this way. The girls' quarters are identical, but on the other side of the common room. The dorms in all of the houses are pretty much the same. They expand and contract to fit the appropriate number of students sharing the room. Each student gets a four poster bed and a night stand."

 

After leaving the Ravenclaw rooms, the trio headed up to the seventh floor and entered the Gryffindor common room. McGonagall had set the password to, "Fortune favors the brave, but arrogance is despised."

 

Daphne was also impressed by the Gryffindor common room, but remained mute on the subject as she disdainfully inspected some of the more worn lounge chairs.

 

For Harry, the room quickly became claustrophobic. There was his favorite seat... the one where he, Ron, and Hermione had spent so much time together... he wasn't ready for this! Silently he climbed back out the portrait hole, ignored the Fat Lady's greeting, and wandered until he found a seat at the top of the nearest staircase.

 

After a few more minutes, McGonagall and Daphne emerged. As they passed him, McGonagall reached out and gave Harry's shoulder a squeeze saying quietly, "It'll be alright Harry; it's just going to take some time. You'll make it." Taking great comfort in McGonagall's reassurance, he trailed after the two witches.

 

On their way downward, McGonagall continued lecturing. "As head students, you have the authority to take and award points from students. Be judicious and fair in using this power, but do not hesitate to use it. House points work surprisingly well as a disciplinary method. You are also permitted to assign detentions if the infraction is serious. These detentions will be served with a member of the staff."

 

"For yourselves, keep your noses clean. You especially, Mr. Potter."

 

"Why only me?"

 

"I do not expect that Ms. Greengrass will cause any more problems this year than she has in the past. Have you ever had a detention or lost house points, Ms. Greengrass?"

 

Daphne looked down at her feet and quietly answered, "No."

 

Harry stopped straight away. "You've never so much as lost house points? Sweet Merlin! I'm stuck with some goody-two-shoe."

 

"I expect you could learn a few things from her, Mr. Potter."

 

Daphne herself seemed alarmed. "How many detentions have you been assigned, Potter?"

 

"Er. It's kind of like my visits to the headmaster's office."

 

Daphne smirked. "Remind me again, how is it that you're Head Boy?"

 

Fortunately for Harry, they had arrived at the main level of the castle by that point. McGonagall gestured toward the Great Hall and said, "We'll be eating with the rest of the staff at noon." She then turned left and went down the staircase that Harry knew led to the Hufflepuff common room.

 

They were soon standing in front of a large painting that depicted about twenty witches and wizards working together to ward a home. "Loyalty is a gift that should be given with caution," McGonagall declared. At this, the portrait shifted to the side revealing a large set of double doors which Harry, Daphne, and McGonagall walked through.

 

The Hufflepuff common room reminded Harry starkly of Gryffindor's. The furniture appeared worn, but exceedingly comfortable. Chairs and sofas were scattered about in small pairings, but the center of the room was dominated by two large tables with approximately twenty chairs around each.

 

Pomona Sprout was placing informational packets in front of each chair at one of the tables. "Hufflepuffs like to study together and help each other with their homework," Professor Sprout proudly noted as she saw Harry's questioning look. She walked over to him and gave him a warm hug. "I'm so glad you decided to come back," she said softly.

 

"Hello, Professor Sprout," Harry said, grateful for the hug. He'd always had a soft spot for the Herbology professor.

 

"Daphne, I'm disappointed to hear you dropped my class." Sprout's attempt at sounding stern was not very convincing, but Daphne settled on a handshake instead of a hug. "It's good to have students arriving back in the castle," Sprout mused. "I was so worried that it wouldn't open this year."

 

"Well, Mr. Potter over here was so excited to return to school he just had to go out and solve the problem," Daphne said flippantly.

 

Harry rolled his eyes.

 

"I think it was a bit more complicated than that," Sprout replied somberly. "Come on, let's take a look around. Over here we have a portrait of Sarah the Baker. She was Helga's great grand niece..."

 

"We best be getting along now," McGonagall observed after a few minutes.

 

"So soon?" Sprout complained. "Well, I'll see you both at lunch; enjoy the rest of the tour."

 

After leaving the Hufflepuff room, McGonagall led the way toward the dungeons. Twenty paces down the hallway, Harry encountered a painting with more than a passing resemblance to Susan Bones. The young woman was stooped over, inspecting a tomato plant that was growing in her garden. "Glenda the Gardener," Harry paused as he read the label on the painting.

 

McGonagall and Daphne continued on ahead of him and rounded a corner, out of sight. Quickly, Harry slid his fingers behind the portrait frame, trying to find a lever or a button that might reveal the secret passage Susan had alluded to.

 

"What are you looking for? I don't think there are any chick-peas back there."

 

Harry jumped in surprise, but it was only Glenda. "Er, my friend told me that you guard a secret passageway."

 

"Well, it's not much of a secret if people can't keep their mouths shut," Glenda teased. She batted her eyes at him. "I told another Head Boy my secret once. He didn't do a very good job of keeping it. You remind me a little of him."

 

"Well, if other people know about it, then what's the harm in telling me?" Harry cajoled.

 

"Oh my, you must be right!" Glenda winked at him. "I'll just have to tell that to Professor Sprout if she asks why I've loosed my secret again." She giggled. "Just give me a little hug and I'll reveal everything."

 

Harry awkwardly reached for the edges of the painting and gave Glenda's frame a little squeeze. In the painting, an unseen wind blew up the edges of Glenda's robe. With little modesty, she bent over at the waist to keep from revealing too much, and ended up doing so anyway.

 

Glenda giggled in delight as her frame hinged upward, forcing Harry to jump backward to avoid being knocked under the chin. Behind the frame was a recessed doorway about a meter deep. Harry walked in and twisted the tomato shaped door handle. As the door swung in, the painting gradually lowered. When the door was fully opened, the painting latched closed behind Harry, and he was entombed in darkness.

 

Harry dug his wand out of his back pocket and cast a lumos spell. The bright light revealed a long hallway with a staircase at the other end. With a sigh, Harry realized he didn't have time to explore the passageway now. However, when he tried to close the door, it would not budge.

 

"Erm, Glenda?"

 

"Yes?" A muffled voice asked.

 

"Er, I can't get out."

 

"Just, put in a pinch of effort," the voice giggled. From the wooden panel in front of him, a round bump of cloth appeared and twitched slightly.

 

"Sweet Merlin," Harry laughed, giving the tush a good squeeze. The painting blocking his path flipped upward, and the door behind him soundlessly slammed shut. Glenda was giggling again as Harry walked out into the hall and brought down the painting.

 

"Thanks, Harry," Glenda squeaked. "It's boring during the summer when none of the boys are around."

 

"I'd heard that Professor Sprout uses your passageway all the time," Harry answered.

 

Glenda cautiously looked both ways down the hallway before whispering, "Professor Sprout isn't very enthusiastic."

 

Harry grinned. "Well, I've got to run or Professor McGonagall's going to wonder where I've gotten to."

 

"Come back and pinch me soon, Harry!" Glenda called out after him as he ran toward the Slytherin common room, slowing down momentarily at each corner so as not to look like he had fallen too far behind. He rounded the last corner and swore under his breath. They weren't waiting for him anywhere. Had they moved on without him? He'd only been delayed ninety seconds with Glenda. Well, his goose was cooked, Harry thought, but searching for them throughout the castle would be a fruitless endeavor, so he sat down, leaning against the wall waiting for McGonagall and Daphne's return.

 

"He's over here, Headmistress -" Daphne called out a minute later when she craned her head around the corner at the far end of the corridor. "Potter, where did you go? - and how the hell do you know where my common room is?"

 

Realizing too late that he should not have known to stop in front of a blank section of wall, Harry tried to cover himself and said, "Er, what do you mean, I was just waiting for you."

 

"Really Potter, you're a lousy liar. Why did you stop here?"

 

McGonagall looked on with a slight smirk and said, "Yes Mr. Potter, I'm interested to know why you stopped here."

 

Knowing the game was up, Harry smirked. "Second year, we were trying to prank Malfoy."

 

"That invisibility cloak has gotten you into more trouble than I know about, hasn't it Mr. Potter?"

 

"Uh, yes ma'am."

 

"Keep it in your trunk this year, will you please."

 

"Er..."

 

McGonagall grew tired of waiting for a response and instead turned to the wall, "Blind ambition and prejudice are a dangerous combination."

 

After the wall swung aside to reveal the room, Harry explored a bit. He was happy that he had been sorted into Gryffindor if for no other reason than that he'd escaped seven years of the dark and depressing Slytherin common room. There were no windows. The room was cold despite the fact that it was August and fires roared in both hearths, and the place smelled like a sewer.

 

"Charming dump," Harry observed snidely. "You must freeze in here during the winter."

 

"That's what warming charms are for, Potter," came Daphne's acidic reply.

 

"Well, we don't have much time," McGonagall interjected, throwing a sharp glance in Harry's direction. "Lunch will be in the staff room in three minutes."

 

The staff room, it turned out, was on the opposite side of the Great Hall from the room Harry had gone to after being named a school champion by the Goblet of Fire. The four house tables in the Great Hall were covered with cloths that matched their house colors, and were already set for the welcome feast that would take place the next evening.

 

The enchanted ceiling revealed a beautiful blue afternoon sky with a few puffy clouds. The sun shone brightly, glinting off the silverware. "I wish I was on my broom," Harry observed wistfully.

 

Daphne longingly looked skyward, "Me too! When we're done with lunch, we're going to have a little competition. First one to catch the snitch wins ten galleons."

 

"Sure," Harry readily agreed. "I didn't know you like quidditch."

 

"Of course I love quidditch. Who do you think I am?"

 

"You didn't seem too fond of it this morning."

 

"Because you were late, Potter! My father plays seeker for the Falcons, and I can beat him half the time. You're going to owe me ten galleons."

 

"If you're so good, why don't you don't play for Slytherin?"

 

"Malfoy," Daphne spat. "That arse bought his way onto the team during second year and he's been losing matches for Slytherin ever since."

 

"Slimy ass-faced bastard," Harry concurred.

 

McGonagall looked on disapprovingly, but held her tongue. Even if the two bonded over a little Malfoy hatred, it was a good sign that the two might just be able to work together for a year.

 

---888--

 

The assembled Hogwarts professors were milling about the staffroom, chatting with each other. When Harry, Daphne, and McGonagall entered, the volume level in the small room dropped precipitously as eager eyes riveted upon Harry.

 

"Well!" McGonagall seemed caught off guard as all of those eyeballs snapped toward her. "Thank you everyone for coming. I realize that Albus did not mandate attendance at these pre-term meetings, but I felt that in light of this year's challenges, we should all be here to start off the school year properly  - We have quite a number of new faces, so let's begin with introductions. Horace, do you want to start us off?"

 

Professor Slughorn cheerfully took a small step forward, the brass buttons on his vest promising to pop off at any moment. "I'm Horace Slughorn, the head of Slytherin House. I've agreed to teach potions for one final year." He grinned at the Headmistress who nodded affirmatively with her own small smile.

 

Professor Sprout was standing next to Slughorn, so she introduced herself next, followed by Professors Flitwick, Vector, Hooch, Sinistra, and Grubby-Plank. Next, a man who appeared to be a distant cousin of Arthur Weasley cleared his throat. He was a little overweight with a balding head of red hairs. His robes, which had probably been quite expensive at one time, were faded. "My name is Roger Durham. I'll be teaching Transfiguration Methods," he said softly.

 

The stocky man next to him stepped forward and sternly barked, "Ferdinand. Octavius Ferdinand. History."

 

Like most of the room, Harry gave a start at the gruff introduction. The History of Magic students, accustomed to sleeping through Professor Binns' lectures, would need to find a new nap hour. Ferdinand's face was dotted with overgrown tufts of black hair that faintly resembled a beard and his dark beady eyes belied an unsettling intensity - unmatched in the history classroom for over a century.

 

The introductions continued on until the last new professor stepped forward. By his apparent age, Harry knew immediately that this young man, who introduced himself as Hannibal Cartwright Mason the Fourth, must have been the Ravenclaw ponce that Theodore Nott detested so much.

 

"And our head students are Daphne Greengrass and Harry Potter," McGonagall concluded. "They've both provided exemplary leadership for their fellow students while at Hogwarts and I'm particularly pleased to have them both attending this term."

 

Daphne blushed slightly at the Headmistress' praise, but offered only a nod to the polite applause from the professors. Likewise, Harry fought the temptation to stare down at his feet. Rather, he smiled and nervously fingered the Potter family ring on his right hand as Professor Slughorn approached with a broad smile.

 

Summoned by the applause, Ponzi the house elf appeared, made a gesture to McGonagall, and popped back to the ether from which he came.

 

"The meal is ready," McGonagall announced. In the center of the room, a small hutch sprouted from the stone floor and began to stretch itself into a table. The veteran professors nimbly stepped away from the growing furniture, but Professors Ferdinand and Durham remained oblivious to it until the table gently nudged Ferdinand in the rump.

 

Once the table was large enough to seat everyone, chairs appeared and the professors began claiming seats. Harry sat in the one closest to him and watched as Daphne pulled out the chair next to his.

 

"Oh! Thank you, Ms. Greengrass," declared Professor Mason as he sat in the chair she had just pulled out. "Your manners are impeccable! Respect for your elders is in such short supply these days." 

 

Daphne's face reddened again, but not from embarrassment. Mason was all of six years older than her and was clearly not in a position to be assessing anyone else's manners. With most of the other chairs already claimed, Daphne found herself seated between Durham and Ferdinand on the opposite side of the room.

 

Slughorn was on Harry's left and offered him the platter of jacket potatoes. "You turned in quite a performance this summer, Harry. I've never had an Order of Merlin recipient in my class before. Of course, there were already a few in the Slug Club, but one more couldn't hurt!" Slughorn laughed jovially. "The meetings this year are guaranteed to be a smashing success!"

 

"Erm... well I don't know if..."

 

"I apprenticed under Mortimer Cornfoggle," Mason interrupted. "Minister Fudge awarded him the Order of Merlin for domesticating hippogriffs." This, Harry learned, was immediately after Mason had graduated from Hogwarts as Head boy with Outstanding scores on his O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s, but before the three years of study at an institution in Australia that Harry had never heard of. These years were followed by two years of teaching in Salem, Massachusetts.

 

While Mason expounded on his vitae at length, Harry couldn't help but notice Mason never once mentioned any practical experience in the subject. Harry got the distinct impression that he was supposed to be impressed by the man's travels and schooling. Delores Umbridge couldn't find a better defense student, Harry concluded.

 

---888---

 

Finally, the meal was over and McGonagall passed around a stack of multi-colored parchment. Each professor took one and began studying their copy closely. "I have managed this year's schedule such that there are no time conflicts," she proudly announced. "For the first time in two decades, every student can enroll in each class they requested."

 

"There are some benefits to lower enrollment, Minerva," Flitwick laughed.

 

McGonagall's lips pursed in dismay. "I suppose," she conceded. "In fact, there is some room for flexibility, and Filius was kind enough to charm the schedules for me. If the time block is red, the class must be held then. If it is blue, you can move the class to any time spot that appears green when you tap your wand to it. Does anyone wish to alter their class time?"

 

For the next thirty minutes, Harry and Daphne silently watched as the staff rearranged their schedules. It was an interesting experience watching Sprout trade her four p.m. class for Flitwick's two p.m. time slot. Flitwick was resistant until Sprout offered a barrel of mead and three pounds of chocolate.

 

These bargains continued for awhile until Harry was sure that McGonagall had wasted her time in setting the schedule originally. However when everyone was finished, McGonagall examined the schedule and performed a spell on her parchment that revealed no conflicts.

 

"Excellent! Mr. Potter and Ms. Greengrass, I have a few more things for you; everyone else is dismissed until the Welcome Feast tomorrow evening. If you need it, the floo connection in the Great Hall will be open until then. The password is perseverance."

 

Chairs scraped against the floor in a cacophony of chatter. Harry and Daphne huddled with McGonagall. "We have staff meetings every Sunday night. You're welcome to attend if you want, otherwise I'll inform you if your presence is required."

 

At this, Ponzi appeared with a stack of pamphlets. McGonagall gave half to Harry and the remainder to Daphne. "I have a board meeting this afternoon, but you can work out the prefect schedules yourselves." She tapped the back cover of one with a long curved fingernail. "It works best if you assign each prefect a patrol time and then make changes as needed. As for the rules, read them tonight, give a pamphlet to each prefect tomorrow, and review the basic points on the train. You two are responsible for ensuring the system works as it is supposed to. Any questions? Good."

 

As McGonagall rushed off, Harry and Daphne returned to the prefects' classroom on the fourth floor. "That was interesting," Harry observed. "No wonder our schedules never make sense."

 

"Yeah, I think Mason moved his third year classes three times and still wound up with his original timeslot."

 

"Sweet Merlin, he's a ponce!" Harry groaned. "Wouldn't shut up about all of his experience."

 

"Even Horace Slughorn couldn't get a word in edgewise," Daphne laughed. "He's clearly compensating."

 

Harry smirked. "Alright, let's get this done so we can go out and fly."

 

"You're on Potter."

 

It took fifteen minutes to set the prefect patrol schedule, and then they reviewed the handbook until they were both comfortable with the rules they were supposed to enforce.

 

"I'm glad I wasn't a prefect," Daphne commented. "This stuff is all really dull."

 

---888---

 

Twenty minutes later, Harry and Daphne found Professor Hooch in her office near the Quidditch pitch. "Good afternoon, professor," Harry greeted. "Erm, We were hoping to borrow two brooms and a snitch. We've got a friendly little wager."

 

"Of course, Mr. Potter," Hooch smiled as she retrieved two identical green and black Nimbus 2000s from the equipment locker. "How large is this wager?"

 

"Ten galleons."

 

Hooch frowned. "That's not an insignificant sum."

 

"I'm good for it," Daphne huffed. "And Potter here has got more galleons than good sense."

 

"Alright then," Hooch dropped her objection with a small head shake. "This will be as even as possible. You both have the same brooms, and you'll be playing with a professional snitch. I've seen the two of you fly and you've both got the skill." She extended the snitch to Daphne but withheld it momentarily. "If the snitch isn't caught by sundown, you'll have to call it a draw."

 

"Thanks professor," Harry answered as they left for the pitch.

 

"Don't be overconfident Mr. Potter," Hooch called out. "I've seen Ms. Greengrass fly, you'll have to work for this."

 

"I'm up for a challenge."

 

---888---

 

At center pitch, they released the snitch, but waited nearly three minutes before mounting their brooms and kicking off. Harry began by flying a few laps around the pitch while searching for the tell tale glint of the snitch. After a few minutes he was at the northwest end.

 

Looking around he saw Daphne several meters higher hovering near the center circle intently scanning for the snitch. Feeling reckless, Harry dove into a feint and looked up to see if Daphne had been fooled. She had apparently come down a bit but had not taken the bait. Perhaps this would be a tough wager, Harry decided.

 

Pulling back on the broom, Harry rose and floated toward Daphne. She seemed much more intent on finding the snitch than he was. "It takes all the fun out of it if there aren't Bludgers and Chasers whipping around you," he observed.

 

"It does, but you can get easily distracted by the game if you're watching the other players," Daphne answered. Without warning, she rocketed to her left, twisting and diving every few meters.

 

Harry slammed his Nimbus to full speed a moment after her, but was angry that she'd gotten the drop on him. With equivalent brooms there was little chance that he could beat her in a short chase. Fortunately, he watched as she pulled out of a dive and started laughing at him.

 

"You fell for my feint!" she declared gleefully, circling him like a shark. "Not so big and bad now, are we Potter?"

 

Harry grinned and set off to continue pacing the pitch. For the next thirty five minutes, Harry circled while Daphne hovered about the center. Finally, a golden spark appeared momentarily about twenty meters above her head.

 

Harry casually closed the distance between himself and her position. He caught her eyes and smiled benignly. "This is taking longer than it should."

 

"It's a professional snitch, Pot..."

 

Her momentary distraction was the only opening he needed. He was already at a great advantage because he had been moving, albeit slowly, while she was essentially at rest. Harry channeled as much magical power as he could muster and accelerated directly toward the snitch. It sensed his approach and half heartedly attempted a dip and a dodge, but Harry was upon it, palming it with practiced ease, Daphne close behind him.

 

"That was low," she complained hollowly.

 

"I'd say it was cunning," Harry said with a grin as they flew down to the equipment locker.

 

On the ground, Daphne dug out ten galleons and handed them to Harry. "We'll have to rematch sometime."

 

Harry grinned. "Just name the time and place." He started to pocket the coins but held them back out to her. "You know, I'll pay you ten galleons if you'll call me Harry."

 

"No Potter, you keep it. I'll manage," she said with a hint of a smile.

 

They reached the gate at the edge of Hogwarts' wards. "Have a good evening, Daphne. I'll see you tomorrow."

 

Daphne smiled and replied, "You too, Harry," as she disappeared with a sharp crack.

 

With a broad smile, Harry collected his thoughts and a much fainter pop could be heard as the road to the school was empty once again.

 

 

---

Author's Note: I am sorry that I haven't updated in almost 15 months. I don't have an excuse, nor am I going to make one. I don't have a single word on paper for the next chapter, so there's no telling when this will be updated next... but I would still like to finish this story one day. Lastly, I will say that reviews and feedback encourage me to take the story out of my head and put it on paper.

 

Author's Recognition: Fortune favors the Brave is not mine. I think it's Jeconais'. Also, I first saw the professional snitch in GreenGecko's memorable scene with Suzy the Slytherin seeker in Resonance.

 

Initial Post: 15 December 2008

Last Updated: 15 December 2008

Chapter Fourteen: The Wizengamot

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Chapter Fourteen: The Wizengamot

Friday morning announced itself with a tremendous thunderclap. A summer storm had pounced upon London in the wee morning hours, and lightning cracked the dawn before the sun could peek over the horizon.

Harry somberly stepped through his morning routine, the choppy night's rest insufficient for the coming day. It was the last Friday of the month, and as would become his custom, he was to meet over breakfast with Margaret Sedgwick before the Wizengamot convened at ten.

"Good morning, Harry." Margaret smiled as he entered the quiet café across from her law office. She had a plate of pastries and a steaming mug of tea ready for her client. "How was dinner with Minister Scrimgeour last night?"

He ignored her in favor of a few solitary moments with a jellied croissant.

She frowned and impatiently checked her watch. "Any last second questions? We've twenty minutes before the session opens."

"Not really," he grunted. "My plan is to smile politely at everyone without saying or doing anything. With any luck, everyone will think I'm boring and leave me alone."

She laughed gaily. "Good luck with that kiddo. I'm sure lots of boring people have their own statues on Diagon Alley."

Harry scowled at her, balling up his napkin and tossing it into the nearest refuse bin. "Let's go."

"Hold up a moment, grumpy." Margaret inspected his plum colored Wizengamot robe, tugging here and there so that it hung off his shoulders evenly. Next, she grabbed his hand. "Tisk, tisk," she mumbled. "You really ought to wear the other rings, too."

"One is enough," Harry answered curtly, tugging his fingers from her grasp.

"At least wear the Bonaccord ring," she pleaded. "I can understand your reluctance to wear."

"No."

---888---

Harry led the way into the Wizengamot chamber, pausing in an arch shaped doorway to gape at the opulent room. Shaped like a rectangular amphitheater, it was nearly the size of the Great Hall at Hogwarts.

"Don't gawk!" Margaret hissed, discreetly prodding him to the left and nudging him forward.

Harry slipped past an older gentleman holding a seat for his wife, and spotted a large throne-like chair with the name 'Potter' carved above a prowling lion. As he took his position on the throne, the lion gave a muted roar, which was fortunately swallowed up in the din of surrounding conversations.

Safely seated on his throne, behind an elegant desk, Harry unobtrusively examined the room. There were dozens of similar throne-like chairs, with names such as Bromfield, Leicester , and Morgan emblazoned above family crests on the backs of the thrones. Each throne was flanked by a pair of shorter, less ornate chairs, often occupied by wives, husbands, children, or the occasional over-coiffed solicitor.

The pattern of three chairs behind each desk repeated itself over and over throughout the chamber. Seven tiered rows, ten desks across. the product was space for seventy members in the Wizengamot, even if the body had shrunk over time.

Margaret slid into the chair on his left, and placed a leather portfolio on the desktop. "You have a visitor coming," she quietly warned him.

A wizard who looked vaguely familiar had spotted Harry, and was now making his way down the row.

"Good morning, Lord Potter," the man declared pretentiously, his voice loud enough to draw the attention of a half dozen surrounding Wizengamot members. "My name is Lord Alexander Smith. I believe you know my son Zacharias."

"Er, yes I do," Harry answered. "He's in my year at school."

Alexander grimaced, but continued to speak loudly. "Zacharias told me that you asked him to join 'Dumbledore's Army'. I was very proud to hear he worked with you to defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

Harry struggled to keep a straight face; the declaration was wrong on so many levels. In fact, Harry could hardly stand Zacharias. Still, he smiled politely. "We were just trying to pass defense."

"Of course you were!" Alexander declared with a jovial laugh and a nudge in the ribs, as if the two shared some sort of inside joke. "Well, I look forward to working with you, Lord Potter."

"The same, Lord Smith," Harry answered as Alexander took his leave, only to be replaced by a half-dozen plum robed Wizengamot members, all eager to see and be seen with the Harry Potter.

"Morning, Lord Potter," Sherman Quirke brushed Harry's elbow as he sidled past the assembled throng, and settled into his own throne just to Harry's right; a raven's caw announcing his presence. Quirke's arrival drew away most of the crowd, and soon the raven-haired Vanquisher of Voldemort was left alone to watch the youthful blond - the Maestro of the Wizengamot.

"Ah, Miss Sedgwick, I thought I detected your foul odor," sneered a tall thin man with long yellow fingers. "Might I have a few moments with my client, or have you poisoned him too thoroughly already?"

Margaret smiled maliciously at the intruder, causing the blood-quill etched scar on the back of Harry's hand to burn ominously. " Lawrence ," she declared magnanimously. "Pleasant as always! I wasn't aware Mr. Potter had engaged your services."

The man smirked before turning to Harry. "Lawrence Ligby," he declared. "I believe you've been dodging my post for the better part of two months."

For his part, Harry managed not to betray his guilt. "I've been busy."

"I'm sure." Ligby laughed mirthlessly, before handing Harry a large folio and a small black velvet box. "A summary of the Black estate, and your ring," he murmured discreetly. "You'll need to swing by my office sometime so you can sack me properly."

Harry quickly concealed the box in the folds of his Wizengamot robe. "What makes you think that I'll fire you?"

Ligby's laugh was genuine this time as he turned to leave. "Long experience, Mr. Potter." He then eyed Margaret distastefully. "Not that you'll listen to me, but do be wary of your current counsel. She's a rat."

Harry rolled his eyes as Ligby departed. "A real winning personality, eh?" he asked Margaret.

Her Umbridge-like predatory smile had been replaced by an indifferent mask, laced with an echo of concern. " Lawrence is Lawrence ," she declared. "It's amazing he still has any clients."

Somewhere, a clock declared the hour, and from a bench behind the podium at the front of the chamber, Rufus Scrimgeour paused his conversation with Michael Glentworth. "I bring this summit to order," Scrimgeour growled loudly. "The Lords of the Wizengamot shall announce their presence so that a quorum might be reached."

In the front row, a husky black man rose from his throne. "Lord Abercrombie claims his right to rule and affirms his responsibility to protect his subjects."

The second throne, marked Armitage, was empty, but in the third, a familiar wizard stood. "Lord Ashburton claims his right to rule and affirms his responsibility to protect his subjects."

As Lord Stephen Baddock answered the roll call, Margaret nudged Harry in the ribs and whispered. "Ligby will surely have let slip the identity of the new Lord Black. You're next."

But Harry resolutely kept his seat, and Lady Celeste Blaisdale-Park announced herself next.

Margaret ruefully shook her head, as Harry also refused to stand for the Bonaccord seat, but Harry was too distracted to notice. "Lady Bones claims her right to rule and affirms her responsibility to protect her subjects."

Susan was the last Wizengamot member present in the front row, and the roll call moved on to the second. Despite often feeling ignorant of Wizarding culture, Harry was surprised to realize that he either knew or had read about most of the Wizengamot members.

In the second row alone, there was Sheldon Bromfield - owner of the Ballycastle Bats, Ridley Brown - Lavender's father, Charles Carrow - Voldemort's secret backer (according to Minister Scrimgeour, at least), and Roger Davies' father, Cicero Davies.

By the time that the roll call had progressed to the sixth row, Harry had counted seven Wizengamot members who were either students at Hogwarts (like Susan and Theodore Nott) or the parents of students he knew. In back of him were another three: Sherman Quirke, Alexander Smith, and Blaise Zabini's grandfather Adelbert, who was chatting amiably with Professor Slughorn.

When it was his turn, Harry stood and called out in a steady voice, "Lord Potter claims his right to rule and affirms his responsibility to protect his subjects."

Many heads in the chamber turned to look at Harry. It had been nearly eighteen years since the last Potter had answered a quorum call. In a body as small as the Wizengamot, the return of a family name was big news. The return of the Potter family, and its Gryffindor legacy, was even an even bigger occasion. And, the very fact that 'The Vanquisher of Voldemort' would be wielding the Potter ring would surely be front page news. Several Lords and their advisors began to clap for Harry, and soon most of the chamber was giving him a standing ovation.

Harry quickly sat down and blushed at the attention he was receiving. Whatever this body expected from him, he was frankly intimidated by the unfamiliar traditions and procedures of the Wizengamot. Fortunately for Harry, Sherman Quirke took compassion on him and announced in a loud voice, "Lord Quirke claims his right to rule and affirms his responsibility to protect his subjects."

The roll call continued until Lord Zabini recited the phrase that had been called out by thirty nine others.

Minister Scrimgeour stood again. "This summit of the Wizengamot is hereby called to order. The chair notes."

Harry tuned out the procedural motions and returned to examining the Wizengamot. One row in front of him sat Lord Carlton MacMillan. The man bore a strong resemblance to his son, Ernie, but there was no sense of the brash, even arrogant bearing his son had learned. The man's shoulders slumped deeply and his head hung low; even his robes seemed limp. Defeat simply radiated from the man.

In times past, Harry might have felt pity or compassion for his deceased classmate's father, but now he found an unfamiliar contempt. This chamber was awash in loss, but few members had succumbed. These were men and women of strength, pillars of the community. Weakness was not acceptable - grief perhaps, but not an all consuming surrender. Where was the formidable enemy Minister Scrimgeour had warned about?

---888---

Briefly, Harry turned his attention to the proceedings. A new wand tax was up for debate. It was one of the supplemental revenue options being considered as part of the DMLE funding legislation on the agenda that day.

"Enjoying your first session?" Sherman Quirke asked with a slight yawn.

Harry replied with an amused smirk.

"Peace is good. I'll gladly take the mundane over the recent upheaval," Quirke commented. " Most of us." He gestured to the room in general. (Harry imagined it was unlikely the man could speak if his hands were tied together.) "Most of us are quite grateful that Voldemort was defeated."

At the mention of Voldemort's name, Harry raised an eyebrow. Despite Voldemort's death, it was still customary to refer to him as 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.'

"Did you know," Quirke continued, "he was entitled to a seat in this chamber?"

"I did."

It was Quirke's turn to be surprised. "I don't mean to pry, but how did you know that?"

"The Headmaster and I made a point to learn as much about Riddle as we could."

"Prudent," Quirke agreed. "Voldemort concealed his past well. Few knew his real name was Riddle. Even fewer knew of his relationship to the Gaunts," Quirke motioned to the empty chair that actually belonged to Harry. "My family has feuded with them for centuries. When my grandfather learned that Merlope Gaunt was pregnant, he tried to ensure the child was never known to her family. I think he had hoped to intervene somehow, but he died before Riddle entered Hogwarts."

"He told you about this?" Harry asked.

"I'm not that old," Quirke laughed. "No, he kept journals. Three months ago, we were desperately searching for extra votes to break the gridlock in the Wizengamot. I was reviewing my grandfather's notes and found an entry about the lost Gaunt heir. I tracked down the lead and discovered Voldemort's true heritage."

"Not the kind of vote you were hoping for?" Harry smirked.

Quirke grinned broadly. "I didn't fancy that particular conversation. I'm afraid I may have forgotten to send him an owl. Too, late now, I suppose."

---888---

The Wizengamot chamber was sparsely populated as the Minister gaveled open the afternoon session of debate, and a woman named Florence Piccoli began a well rehearsed presentation on the benefits of the DMLE proposal.

"She's amazingly intelligent," observed a silver haired version of Barty Crouch Sr. "Fluent in five languages. Took over the ICW posting in Bern after Headmaster Dumbledore died."

Harry startled at the comment. "Lord Carrow, is it?" Like most of the Wizengamot members, the man had wandered away from his throne to chat during the debate.

Carrow frowned slightly. "My reputation precedes me?" He asked dubiously.

"Erm, well sort of. But honestly, I'm trying to learn everyone's name." Harry gestured to a cheat sheet that Margaret had made for him.

This earned a smile. "Charles Carrow, Lord Potter. I'm pleased to meet you. I'll have to apologize since I only know you by reputation - one that I'm sure is both fair and completely accurate."

Harry laughed, drawing glances from around the chamber. "Does that make us best friends now?" he asked dryly.

"If you want," Carrow answered with an amused smirk. "So, what do you think of this bill?"

On his periphery, Harry noticed that several conversations paused, hoping to eavesdrop on his answer. "I haven't made up my mind yet. It seems like a good idea though."

Carrow silently listened as Piccoli explained a chart showing the relative strength of various Auror departments in the ICW member countries. Britain 's Ministry was the worst in Europe . "The bill is a typical Scrimgeour ploy," Carrow commented. "He takes something with broad public approval, and then tacks on a dozen questionable amendments. If he can't pass it, he complains to the media - and the people at home wonder what's wrong that we can't even agree to increased DMLE funding."

Harry was curious. "So, what are the questionable amendments?"

Carrow flipped through a copy of the proposed bill. "The whole transportation subsection is insidious. Everything is aimed at forcing transportation through Ministry controlled channels. For instance, he's removing the grandfather provision for flying carpets. It'll make it illegal to own one in Britain , even if it's been in your family for generations."

"Aren't they illegal already?"

Carrow shook his head. "The Ministry tries to give that impression, but it's only a half truth. They managed to ban new carpet sales almost two decades ago, but the old carpets are still legal. For many families, it's the only affordable transportation they have left. You get rid of the carpets, and everyone has to use the Floo system or the Knight Bus. both of which the Ministry tracks, and both of which are relatively expensive."

"You could Apparate," Harry offered, "or use a broom."

Carrow shook his head. "Apparation is beyond the skill level of many people, and brooms are both dangerous and expensive. Besides, the Ministry tracks them both."

"The Ministry tracks brooms?"

Carrow was surprised at this question. "Of course! They don't teach that at Hogwarts any longer? A broom is little more than a highly polished specialized wand. They have to be registered, just like any other magical foci."

"Makes sense," Harry muttered. "That explains why I can't fly my aunt's kitchen broom."

"It's amazing what passes for a magical education now days," Carrow answered snidely.

"Hey!" Harry was lost in thought. "So the bristles are the wand core?"

"On the lower end models," Carrow answered. "More expensive brooms embed the core in the broom shaft - regardless; anything with a registered wand core can be tracked by the Ministry."

"And what's so wrong with that?"

Carrow's eyes bulged. "I'm amazed to be having this conversation with you - Of all the people. Well, maybe your reputation is even less accurate than I had imagined. I'd heard a story from Delores Umbridge," he made a distasteful face, "about you blowing up your aunt once."

"What was she telling that for?" Harry demanded.

"I believe she was trying to convince me to send you to Azkaban for fending off a few dementors. Anyhow, after you ran away and took the Knight bus. Who was waiting for you at the Leaky Cauldron?"

"Fudge." Harry's top lip curled.

"As I recall, the political climate was faring well for you at that time. Suppose it had happened two years later after Riddle's reemergence. Would you still have been pleased to see the Minister?"

Harry connected the dots. "He tracked me on the Knight Bus, didn't he?"

"And that, Lord Potter, is why it's dangerous to let the Ministry track everyone's movements." Carrow's eyes narrowed dangerously and he whispered very low so only Harry could hear him. "Imagine if Riddle had managed to overtake the Ministry. How long would you have lasted with him tracing your every move?"

---888---

At first, Harry thought that Lady Ariana Kirkpatrick was a bit bizarre. She was, to his knowledge, the only Wizengamot member who did not sit in the center throne at her desk. Instead, she passed the time in the chair to the right of her throne knitting things. She had started the morning with a scarf, had moved on to mittens after lunch, and was now working on a matching sweater. (She was much faster than Hermione.) But, by the time that Lord Tiberius Ogden finished arguing against a two Galleon increase in the Crup registration fee, Harry was pretty sure Lady Kirkpatrick was the most sane person there.

And so, to preserve his own sanity, Harry wandered from his throne toward the front row. "Good evening, Lady Bones."

Susan glanced up from a crossword puzzle and smiled happily. "Good evening to you too, Lord Potter. Enjoying your first session?" she teased.

He pointed at her book of crossword puzzles. "No one warned me. I've actually had to listen to the debates."

Susan sniggered. "Well, we're almost done." She indicated the large clock at the back of the chamber. "Debate ends at six. We should be out the door by six thirty ."

This was welcome news to Harry, who sat down in the seat to the right of the Bonaccord throne. It would be time to vote in about five minutes.

"Harry!" she whispered in surprise, quickly glancing around the chamber while clearing her day bag off the chair to her left. "Don't sit there."

Bewildered, Harry slid over into the offered seat and was rewarded by the welcoming aroma of her Augurey perfume. "What?"

She continued searching the chamber for unwanted attention. Finding none, she whispered, "It's a faux pas to sit uninvited at another family's table. There are more charms and jinxes on these seats than you can shake a stick at."

His chest was already itching furiously, and he scratched it warily. "Itching hex, you think?"

She shrugged, offering a coy smile. "I've never actually sat there. Tried a couple of times when I was younger, but couldn't actually overcome the aversion charm."

Harry's chest was now a sea of blazing prickles, but he managed to stop scratching it, hoping not to worsen his predicament. "So. Er, do you think the bill will pass?"

Susan gave him a wry smile and faintly shook her head. "Not unless the Minister agrees to strip the transportation subsection. We've debated this same bill half a dozen times in its various forms. The only controversial part left is transportation. and I think the Minister would rather have a good headline than get rid of the remaining magical carpets."

"What if he doesn't cut the transportation provisions?"

Intrigued by the question, she reached for a battered notebook and flipped to a page near the end. "Assuming no one changes their votes, it would fail by," she glanced up and her brow furrowed as she started searching for faces to match the names in her notes. "Dumbledore, Valerio, Wetherby, and Code versus Churchill. That's five less nays and one less yay. Depending on your vote." she looked at him questioningly. "Four votes short if you vote nay, and um, two votes short if you support it?"

Harry was busily counting names on his fingers. "Five fewer nays. That's because Lady Code isn't here and she has two votes?"

"Right. Her husband died last year. She's one of a handful of Wizengamot members with multiple votes."

Harry studiously examined his chest, rather than looking at her. The monster inflaming his chest would not let up. "This itching hex is a right bugger," he muttered, giving into the temptation to start scratching it again as the clock chimed six.

Like a band of excited school children, the Wizengamot members began migrating back toward their seats as the Minister called for a vote on the new wand tax. As Harry stood, he nervously addressed Susan. "Er. I was wondering. Do you have any plans for afterward? I'm really hungry and. Well, it would be nice if you wanted to grab a bite with me."

"Um." she toyed with her plait. "That would be fun. Do you want to go back to The Baying Mare ? I'm really craving their pulled-pork."

Harry laughed. "Sounds good to me." As he walked back to his throne, the itching on his chest faded.

---888---

Harry was saying goodbye to Margaret after the last vote when Susan arrived - Blaise Zabini and Theodore Nott in tow.

"I hope you don't mind, but I invited Teddy and Blaise, too."

"Er. of course not," Harry stammered trying to hide his disappointment. "Hey guys," he greeted them sourly. "Ready to get out of here?"

Blaise smirked at Harry, but followed along as the four trooped toward the Apparation point. " The Baying Mare ? Everyone know where that is?" He looked doubtfully at Harry, who shrugged and disappeared with a crack. "Of course he won't mind, Susan," Blaise mocked.

Susan was blushing madly. "Well, I'm sorry. I just didn't figure he meant it as a date. I mean why wouldn't he just declare his intentions?"

Theodore rolled his eyes. "Don't let the plum robe fool you. He hasn't a clue - may as well be a Muggle!"

She thought this over. "Maybe you guys shouldn't come, then."

Blaise fixed her with an evil smile. "Potter said he didn't mind." With that, Blaise Disapparated.

"Come on, Suzie," Theodore encouraged. "You'll have fun tonight, just relax."

---888---

The Baying Mare was packed that Friday night, but the foursome had been seated before Harry realized that other newly arrived patrons were placing their names on a waiting list. At first, there was a palpable tension between Harry and the Slytherins, but a round of mead, and Susan's idle banter seemed to break the ice.

"So, Blaise," she asked, "how's Tracey doing?"

"She's well," he answered. "I got an owl from her yesterday. They're on holiday in Majorca , and Rex is keeping her parents busy, so she's free to enjoy herself."

Theodore laughed. "Guess what Rex did."

"Harry, do you know Rex, Tracey's younger brother?" Susan interrupted. Harry shook his head; he barely knew Tracey Davis, much less her brother.

"Tracey and Rex are my cousins," Theodore explained. "He'll be a third year Ravenclaw. He's a right pain in the ass, and always getting in trouble. Last week, in the middle of the day, he flew his broom right over the Muggle town they were staying in. The Ministry had to send about fifteen Obliviators."

Blaise just scowled. "If I did that, my Grandfather would see to it that I didn't sit down for the next month."

"Rex's father, Jefferson, grounded him from Hogsmeade for the school year." Theodore observed, evidently feeling like that was enough of a punishment.

"He's lucky he didn't get expelled," Harry commented. Susan and Theodore nodded in agreement.

"What's the difference between that and flying an enchanted car to school?" Blaise challenged.

Harry shrugged. "Not much, really. Ron and I were lucky there. Snape tried to expel us, but McGonagall intervened."

"Hmmf," Blaise grunted. "She's so frigid in class you'd think she's made of ice. but my Grandfather says she's actually pretty kind. What's she like, really?"

"She's tough but fair, for the most part," Harry answered. "She's always guarded around students, but she does a good job of looking out for her house."

"Will she be a good Headmistress?" Theodore asked.

"Yeah, I think so. She's getting a lot of pressure from the Board to improve the academics." Harry looked at Susan and Blaise pointedly. "So what does the Board think of her?"

"Grandpapa's disappointed with enrollment," Susan offered, "but he's not blaming McGonagall. In fact, earlier this week he said that enrollment would be half of what it is now if she weren't there. She spent all summer calling on families to get them to send their kids to Hogwarts."

"Enrollment will bounce back," Blaise declared dismissively. "It's the Minister's fault for trying to close the bloody school, many of the students committed elsewhere because of the uncertainty. My Grandfather's more concerned about the staffing decisions. He said she did well with an overhaul of the faculty. but he voted against the new defense professor. They still can't attract any decent candidates."

"Who's teaching defense this year?" Theodore asked.

"A hit-wizard named Hannibal Mason," Blaise answered with a scowl. "He was a seventh year Ravenclaw when we were firsties."

"That bastard's teaching us?" Theodore blurted out, laughing. "He's a complete ponce! Gave me my first detention just for exploring a bit - said Hogwarts was dangerous at night. That pansy was more scared than I was."

"What were you doing out after curfew as a first year?" Susan asked. "I didn't sneak out until third year."

The boys found this hilarious. "Come on, Susan," Harry cried. "I was sneaking off to Hogsmeade by then."

"Hogsmeade?" Theodore was impressed. "It took us until fifth year to figure out the secret passage to the greenhouses. Even then, it was fifty-fifty if Sprout was around."

Blaise scowled. "Of course, if we had an invisibility cloak, I'm sure we would have been tromping around Hogsmeade by third year."

"You know about my cloak?" Harry stammered.

It was everyone else's chance to laugh. "The whole school knows about that cloak," Blaise sneered.

"Play nice, Blaise," Susan admonished him as if he were three. "It was more of an urban myth until Draco broke Harry's nose last year."

"Urban myth, my ass," Blaise muttered, but did not offer a prior confirmed sighting. "The point is it's easier to sneak around if you're invisible."

Harry wasn't going to argue. Besides, he was trying to think of a way to probe into the heretofore unknown passageway without letting on that he hadn't yet learned of its existence. He settled on misdirection. "Which greenhouse passage do you use, the one by Delusional Delilah?"

Blaise' eyebrows shot up in surprise. "No, it's the one by - well, I'll show you at school. if you show me the entrance by Delilah."

"Er, sure," Harry agreed. Blaise had called his bluff, and unfortunately there was no passage by Delilah's portrait. He'd either have to take the hit to his pride, or show Blaise the tunnel into Honeydukes cellar. It sure didn't seem like a fair trade.

"Probably the one by the Hufflepuff common room," Susan volunteered, coyly ignoring Blaise and Theodore's murderous glares. "You know, Glenda the Gardener."

"Oh yeah, that one." Harry gamely pretended to have forgotten about it, while furiously trying to figure out how the Marauders could have possibly missed a secret passageway in one of the schools busiest corridors. "I don't care for it. It's tough to get in and out unnoticed."

"That's true," Theodore admitted, "but the Hufflepuffs are all in their common room after curfew, so it's easier then."

Susan shrugged good-naturedly. "The extra sleep helps our disposition. At least we're not as crotchety as the rest of you insomniacs."

The four teens laughed easily as an enormous platter of pulled-pork sandwiches arrived. Between bites, the boys boasted of their nocturnal exploits around the castle. The best story was Blaise, who had charmed a suit of armor to follow Filch around like a town crier, announcing the caretaker's presence, and warning the squib's targets.

---888---

After saying goodbye to Susan, Harry Apparated to a park near Fleischer's Place and walked the short distance to the Grangers' home. All of the lights were turned down, save the parlor where the flickering colors of the television painted the windows with blotches of red and blue.

"Oh! Hello, Harry. Come on in," Dan Granger greeted him. "What brings you by?"

"Well, I'm leaving for school this weekend and I wanted to visit before heading back. Sorry I didn't call ahead."

"Not a problem, Harry." Emma happily shut off the television. "Tea?"

"Sure." Harry followed the Grangers into the kitchen where Emma was just beginning to boil water. "Want me to speed that up a bit?"

"That's alright," Dan frowned. "I think we prefer to do it. a little more traditionally."

"Of course," Harry stowed his wand in the back pocket of his denims. "So. Er. how's the practice doing?"

"Quite well." Dan relaxed and began preparing the tea service. "We bought a retiring dentist's practice last week. That should keep us busy for a while." He continued talking business until the tea was ready and they had moved back to the sitting room. Emma would interject subdued comments here and there, but was primarily content to listen. After the subject of dentistry was thoroughly exhausted, Dan inquired about Harry's summer.

"It's been alright. I've been at my godfather's old place most of the time. There's a ton of work to do. everything from new bath towels to repairing plaster." He told them about his trip to France and mentioned his new plans to play Quidditch.

"Sounds safer than hunting dark wizards," Emma commented.

Dan and Harry both tensed. They'd been avoiding the subject of magic. "More enjoyable, at least," Harry replied.

"I'm glad to hear that. I want you to be safe," she answered with misty eyes. "It just seems like you've done your fair share."

Dan placed a protective arm around his wife. "Have things settled down among the Purebloods?"

"Mostly," Harry answered, "but I don't think that issue will ever really go away. There is something I need to ask you though." He set his tea down. "The Ministry caught the woman who. Er. the woman that left Hermione here. She obviously broke a few laws and could go to jail. Do you want me to press charges on your behalf?"

Emma inhaled sharply, a greedy gleam flashed in her eyes. "How long?"

"Maybe as much as three months."

Emma's expression fell. "Only?"

"Well." Harry shifted uncomfortably.

"This person, what did they have against Hermione?" Dan asked.

"I doubt it was Hermione in particular, more like misplaced anger, I think. Her brother was killed earlier this year."

Dan thought this over. "It's the blood thing again, isn't it? Her brother was killed by a Muggleborn and this was some sort of revenge?"

"Not exactly," Harry answered. "Her brother died because he was visiting a Muggleborn friend when the Death Eaters attacked all the Muggleborns."

"That doesn't justify it!" Emma seethed.

"What do you think, Harry?" Dan asked.

"What she did was inexcusable. I'm sure of that," Harry stated. "It's just complicated and I don't trust myself to make a decision for the right reasons. You know what I mean?"

"Not really," Dan replied. "I think it would help if you explained why it's complicated."

"I hate to admit this," Harry cringed, "but there are political consequences, and I don't think those should factor in. I'm trying to take all these pros and cons and put them together. and I feel like I'm basing the decision on the wrong things."

Dan leaned back into the sofa. "Okay, restricting ourselves to what you've told us - this person broke the law. It doesn't sound like she had a very good reason to do what she did. and so it seems like we can choose to forgive her or not. Has she expressed any remorse?"

"I don't know."

Emma balled her fists. "If she were sorry, she would have apologized by now! She can't expect forgiveness if she doesn't ask."

Dan gently stroked Emma's hair. "I think you have our opinion then, Harry." He stood, clearly signaling his intentions.

"Thank you. Er, I should probably get going." Harry fished in his pocket and retrieved a dog-eared business card. "If you want to write, you can send post to Margaret. She'll get it to me at school."

Emma came over and gave him a long hug. "Don't make yourself scarce, Harry" she pleaded in a shaky voice. "You're always welcome here." She began to cry, but hid her tears by taking the tea service back to the kitchen

"Do you have time for a stroll around the neighborhood before you go?" Dan requested.

"Sure."

"Hon, I'll be back in a bit," Dan called out as he reached for a light jacket off the coat rack. They were out the door a hundred meters by the time either spoke. "Thanks for coming by tonight, Harry. It might not seem like it, but Emma and I are extremely grateful to hear anything from your world."

Harry was surprised by this. "I'd think it would be painful."

"It is, but a little pain is better than feeling like Hermione was forgotten the second she died. You know, you and Professor McGonagall are the only contact we've had with magic folk since her death?"

"McGonagall's been visiting you?"

"She came once before Hermione's funeral. If it weren't for you both, all we would have known was a body on the kitchen table. It's so isolating to feel like your daughter disappeared without a trace. We just want to feel that she didn't die in vain."

"I can't help you there," Harry replied sullenly. "This whole war was pointless."

"All war tends to be," Dan answered, before lapsing into silence.

"You don't agree with your wife, do you?" Harry ventured after a time.

"I'm not sure," Dan mused, "but it doesn't matter. On some things, a couple has to stand together. She feels strongly, so I'll support her, even if I have misgivings."

"What if you both feel strongly?"

Dan laughed lightheartedly. "Then you have to weigh which is more important, your opinion or your relationship."

"I'm glad you think she should be prosecuted," Harry said. "I agree, but I don't really trust my judgment anymore."

"Why not? Has it failed you yet?"

"I don't know," Harry answered truthfully. "I don't know anything anymore. Ever since the battle, I've felt so weird, so different. The only thing I seem to care about anymore is me."

"I highly doubt that," Dan scoffed. "You wouldn't be here if that was true." He clapped Harry on the shoulder. "You still haven't explained why the decision is so complicated."

Harry sighed. "Did Hermione ever mention a guy named Ernie? He was a classmate of ours."

"No," Dan answered hesitantly.

"The woman who did it was Eileen MacMillan, Ernie's sister. We knew her from Hogwarts. and she didn't seem the type. So there's that. and her father is a member of the Wizengamot."

Dan snorted. "And that's important why?"

Harry shrank back. "I don't think it should matter at all," he said angrily. "But the Minister thinks it's better to just drop the matter instead of creating an enemy."

Dan stopped walking and grabbed Harry gently by the shoulders. "Harry! Do you think that should make a difference?"

"No."

"Then why are you worried about what the Minister thinks? Don't substitute his judgment for yours."

"You're right," Harry conceded. "It's just that I'm pretty good at screwing up these sorts of things. If I press charges, I'm afraid of what else will happen because of it. People want to read into my every action; nothing I do is taken at face value. Earlier this summer, the Minister and Professor McGonagall had a spat over the school, so when I enrolled in Hogwarts, they write in the paper that I'm doing it to undermine the Minister."

"Were you?"

"No! That's just it!"

"Did the Minister think you were?"

Harry replayed his dinner with Scrimgeour the night before, trying to detect any missed nuances. "I don't think so. He keeps asking me to support his agenda because he thinks I'm influential, but no one in the Wizengamot seemed to care how I voted today."

They had arrived at the park. Dan clasped his hand. "Maybe you're too worried about what other people think about you," he offered. "Sounds like it doesn't matter as much as you think. You'll be a lot happier as your own man."

---
Author's Note: I recently re-read (the now complete) Reign of Power by Fayr Warning. I am simply astounded at how much that story has influenced my own. In this chapter, above all others, it's only fair to mention this again.

Author's Recognition: Thanks to the AFC crew for their input. Nukular Winter, JBern, and IP82 did a good job of telling me my first try wasn't good enough, and I think the rework made this much better. This chapter is pre grammar beta. I'll repost once the comma errors and dependent clauses are cleaned up.

Initial Post: 25 September 2007
Last Updated: 25 September 2007

Chapter Thirteen: Complex Loyalties

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Chapter Thirteen: Complex Loyalties

Later that afternoon, Harry lay stretched across the sofa, his nose buried in a book, when the smoldering embers flared to life in the hearth.

“Harry? Would you mind if I came through?”

He glanced up and offered a broad smile. “Sure Professor. How are you?”

“Well enough.” McGonagall dusted off her cloak before taking her customary seat across from him. “What are you reading?”

He held up the book so she could see it. “It’s called ‘Snitching and Snatching: How to Break Wind with the Best, and Leave Others Panting in Your Wake,’ it was actually written by my great-great-grandfather.”

McGonagall allowed a rare smile to part her lips. “You seem relaxed.”

“I had a great holiday.”

She feigned surprise. “Oh really? I didn’t even know you’d left. You certainly didn’t mention you were going away.”

Harry gave her a boyish smile, the kind that had gotten him out of detention when he was twelve. “Sorry, Professor… It was kind of a spur of the moment thing. I was really mad at the Minister, and I… I just left.”

“Next time, you should tell someone,” she admonished. “Perhaps maybe even your house-elf.”

“I told Fred,” Harry offered, trying to squelch the growing resentment that yet another person felt entitled to his whereabouts.

“Fred Weasley?” she hissed.

“Uh huh.”

Her pupils narrowed dangerously. “Those two both swore they didn’t know where you were!”

“I asked him not to tell,” stated Harry.

“Well, at least you’re safe,” she relented. “So, do you want to tell me where you went?”

Harry forgot his frustration and spent the next fifteen minutes excitedly telling her about Bonaccord Manor – the regulation sized Quidditch pitch, the bust of Pierre Bonaccord, the Quidditch pitch, the small lake, the Quidditch pitch, the hiking trail, and yes – the Quidditch pitch. With a triumphant smile, Harry announced, “I’ve decided I want to play professionally.”

McGonagall didn’t seem surprised by the revelation, but neither did she share in his enthusiasm. “Are you sure, Harry? You won’t be able to train as an Auror if you’re playing.”

He welcomed her objection with a snort. “That’s the last thing I want right now – I’d have to work for Scrimgeour.” He fished around on a side table for a moment before producing a dinner invitation. “He’s roped me into a dinner on Thursday night so he can make one last pitch to me before the Wizengamot meeting. I could never escape him if I were an Auror… it’d be a complete disaster.”

She hid her disappointment well, but not entirely. “What about after he leaves office?”

“I’ve thought about it,” Harry admitted. “I just don’t think I want to be an Auror anymore. You’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices… and I’m just tired of... I don’t want… It’s too…”

“I understand you’re hurting,” she said gently. “And, I know you’ll love playing Quidditch for a few years, but eventually you might change your mind. If you finish school –”

Harry raised his hands in surrender, a grin sprouting from his somber mood. “I’ll save you the lecture, Professor.” He flipped to the end of his book and pulled a folded piece of parchment from between the pages. “I’d like to enroll in Hogwarts this term.”

“I knew I’d eventually wear you down.” Her triumphant smirk disappeared as she studied the sheet with an appraising eye. “This is one of the lightest course loads in your class.”

He nodded. “It’s the minimum I need to qualify for the Auror program. But I’m concentrating my efforts on Quidditch this year.”

“Very well, then.” She tucked the parchment into her robe. “May I ask a tremendous favor? You’re welcome to say no.”

“Er, what do you need?”

“I was hoping to announce your decision to The Daily Prophet. It would reassure some reluctant parents.”

Harry was not surprised at the request, but he still frowned at the prospect of voluntarily appearing in the paper. Yet, for all of Fred’s talk about ‘angles,’ McGonagall was still being honest with him. “How about a deal?” he replied. “I’ll grant them an interview if I can come up to the school and use the Quidditch pitch whenever I want.”

She shook her head. “You’re welcome to use the pitch anytime, Harry. But it’s not quid pro quo. I’m not going to push you into it, if you’re averse to the idea.”

Harry rubbed the bridge of his nose. It would have been easier if she’d just accepted his deal. He knew he could lie to himself and say that he’d granted an interview so he could use the pitch, but now she was forcing him to choose between his privacy and her request. “How many people will sign-up if I make an announcement?”

“Perhaps twenty students,” McGonagall answered, already knowing he would grant her the favor.

---888---

“So what’s his excuse now?” Parvati Patil yelled jabbing her finger at that morning’s Prophet. “He’s been using Harry as an excuse all summer, and now that Harry’s going back, he just wants to ignore it?”

Mrs. Patil, hands on her hips, glared at her daughter. “Do not raise your voice at me, young lady! Your father has his reasons. It’s his decision.”

“But, it’s not my fault!” Parvati seethed. “We’re seventeen. If Padma has to choose between father and Anthony, she’ll choose Anthony.”

Tears welled in the corner of Mrs. Patil’s eyes. “She wouldn’t do that. Padma’s a good girl.”

“Neither of you have even met Anthony,” Parvati shot back. “If his name was Gupta instead of Goldstein, we’d be picking a wedding date!”

“Well it’s not!”

“Tell him, mother! Hogwarts starts in one week, and I’m going with Padma! He can change his mind or lose two daughters.”

---888---

As Parvati Patil slammed the door on her mother, Harry Potter doubled over, wheezing for breath. He’d just finished running a lap around Hogwarts’ grounds, and was now contemplating life as a couch potato.

The Quidditch books had unanimously suggested that running was the best way to build endurance, so Harry was determined to learn how. Sure, he’d spent a childhood outrunning Dudley and his gang, but that required sprinting a few hundred meters until his fat cousin gave up. Distance running was apparently different. It required a sustainable pace… and breathing… the part Harry was currently struggling with. At least he was done for the morning, he thought with relief. Now he could get on with the enjoyable part of training.

“Accio Firebolt.”

---888---

A few hours later, Harry showered in the changing rooms before heading down the path toward Hagrid’s hut. Fang was dozing in the grass, but bounded over as Harry approached.

In the doorway, Hagrid wiped his brow with an enormous handkerchief. “Harry! I was hoping you’d stop by. Want a cuppa?”

“I’d love one,” Harry answered, stepping out of the sun and into Hagrid’s darkened hut. It was a disaster. “Hagrid, what’s with all the boxes?”

“It’s nothin’,” Hagrid muttered. “Just getting some stuff ready for Professor Grubby.”

“Why does she need,” Harry pointed at one of the boxes, “a picture of your Dad?”

“Oh, tha’.” Hagrid plucked the photo from the box and made a show of putting it back on the barren mantle. “Didn’t mean ta put tha’ in there.”

“Hagrid, what’s going on?” Harry asked, finding a familiar pink umbrella in another box. “You’re moving, aren’t you?”

The half-giant froze. “Can’t keep nothin’ from you… never really could,” he lamented. “It’s just not the same without… without Dumbledore.” Hagrid moaned, splashing tea into two large mugs. Clumsily, he extracted a flask from his moleskin coat and poured a healthy dose of amber liquid into his tea. “Great man, Dumbledore. He knew how to treat people right. Best Headmaster Hogwarts ever had. Know what I mean?”

“I miss him too –”

“He didn’t go ‘round tellin’ people how things ought to be – just let us do our jobs. But Minerva – she can’t let things be.” Hagrid stumbled over to one of the boxes and thrust a rolled parchment at Harry.

---
Dear Mr. Hagrid,

Following the recent death of our beloved Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, the Board of Governors has undertaken an intensive review of the school’s performance. We were dismayed to find that over the past decade exam scores have declined in every subject taught at our fine institution. To better serve our students, the Board has reviewed the resumes, evaluations, and relevant test scores for our entire teaching staff.

Effective immediately, it is now required that all professors have a NEWT level certification in the subjects they teach. Since you do not have this qualification, and the Board did not feel that your students’ test scores merited an exemption, we will not ask you to return in your capacity as Professor for the Care of Magical Creatures.

If you so choose, we would like to retain your services as Gamekeeper and Keeper of Keys. If you remain at the school in this capacity, you may continue to live in the Gamekeeper’s residence. Your pay and retirement benefits will remain at their current level.

We would like to thank you for your many years of service at Hogwarts. If you should wish to discuss this decision with me, I would be happy to answer your questions.

Gratefully Yours,
Lord Seth Ashburton, Chairman of Hogwarts’ Board of Governors
---

“That’s a kick in the nuts,” Harry muttered. “But, they want you back as Gamekeeper. Are you sure you want to leave? I’ll really miss you.”

“Minerva don’t want Grawp on the grounds either,” Hagrid complained, ignoring Harry’s plea. “She says he’s not safe around children. Load of hogwash, I tell ya. He’s no more dangerous than Aragog… and he never hurt a student.”

Harry knew better than to argue with Hagrid over the deceased Acromantula. “But Hogwarts is your home… your family.”

“I’m not stayin’ if Minerva’s gonna be Headmistress. She don’t know abou’ loyalty,” Hagrid complained. “She’s gettin’ rid of everyone she don’t like. Me, Argus, Sibyll, even Professor Binns. She’s taken everything away from me. First Aragog, then Dumbledore, now Grawp! It ain’t home if you’re not welcome, and it ain’t family if they don’t want you.”

Harry shook his head in frustration. “Hagrid, none of that is Professor McGonagall’s fault – certainly not Aragog or Dumbledore. And, the letter says the Board won’t let you teach…” Harry reached into his pocket and showed the Leoforte ring to the half-giant. “I control a couple of votes on the Board. I could probably get you reinstated.”

Hagrid patted Harry on the back hard enough to send the LeoForte ring flying across the hut. “That’s mighty kind of ya Harry, but I don’t want to stay!” Hagrid protested, despite suspiciously damp cheeks. “The Board’s just rubber stampin’ Minerva’s recommendations. They always vote how they’re told.”

Harry retrieved the ring with a silent summoning charm. “It can’t really be Professor McGonagall. You were in the Order together.”

“Loyalty don’t matter to her,” Hagrid lamented. “Old Minerva’s never liked me. She always complained about me to Dumbledore. Now she’s gonna run the school her way, forgettin’ about all the hard work I done. She can’t get rid of me fast enough.”

“But, she’s not pushing you out, Hagrid! The letter says that they want you back as Gamekeeper.”

Hagrid laughed, spilling his tea. “Bless you, Harry… but tha’s not how it works. When someone says you ain’t good enough, they don’t want you around anymore.”

Harry sipped his tea in surrender. “Then what are you going to do now?”

“Grawp and me are going to France.” Hagrid smiled genuinely. “Olympe offered me a job, and there’s a Giant reservation for Grawp.”

“Will you be a Professor?”

“No, she’s already got one, but her old Gamekeeper couldn’t handle the Abraxans.”

---888---

The following morning, Harry anxiously paced while waiting for the sitting room hearth to flare. “Hello, Professor,” he said coldly.

McGonagall sighed upon hearing the staccato greeting. “Good morning, Harry,” she returned, albeit without the hostility.

“So, I visited Hagrid yesterday.”

“And he shared his news with you?”

Harry crossed his arms. “Were you ever going to tell me? Or was it some sort of surprise?”

“It’s his prerogative. I assumed he would tell you, but it’s not my place.”

“You didn’t think that would affect my decision?” Harry accused. “How can it not be your place to tell me when you know how close we are?”

McGonagall chose her words carefully. “I didn’t say anything precisely because you two are close. Among friends, it is better to hear that kind of news firsthand. As for your decision, I assumed Hagrid’s situation would make your choice more difficult, but I didn’t think it would alter the final outcome. You never even asked.”

Harry reluctantly nodded his agreement. He had stewed over Hagrid’s news for several hours before he even briefly thought about withdrawing from Hogwarts. “Well, he’s pretty angry... and so am I.”

For the first time in weeks, Harry spotted a trace of defeat in McGonagall’s pursed lips. “I’m truly sorry for his situation,” she sighed. “There just isn’t an easy solution.”

“You could’ve hired him back as a professor.”

She offered him a hollow smile. “The Board would not allow it, even if I wanted to. Rubeus performed horribly on every metric they evaluated.”

“He thinks you’re pushing him out and the Board’s just doing what you tell them to.”

“That’s no longer the case,” she explained. “The Governors always treated Albus with great deference. He had a free hand in personnel decisions, but they now feel that was a mistake. The Governors have become much more attentive since the Minister tried to close the school. The Headmaster no longer has the final authority over personnel.”

“But, you could fight for him. He’s not that bad a professor.”

She nearly laughed. “I’m afraid your friendship with Rubeus is blinding you, Harry. I’m in complete agreement with the Board’s evaluation of his teaching.”

Harry scowled. If he was honest, he knew she was right, but it just wasn’t fair. “What about loyalty? You can’t just use someone when you need them and then toss ‘em out.”

“I did not discard him like some piece of rubbish!” she bristled. “I convinced the Board to retain him as Gamekeeper… and at a Professor’s salary, at that. Don’t make the mistake of confusing loyalty and competence!” she seethed. “That’s a mistake not worth repeating.”

He stopped pacing abruptly. Her thinly veiled criticism of Dumbledore stung the part of him that was blindly loyal to the late Headmaster, but the criticism had been well earned. “You don’t like Hagrid, do you?”

McGonagall nodded. “It’s professional, not personal. I’d happily bring him back as Gamekeeper, but not as a professor. I have to do my job well, too.”

“So you don’t like him, then?”

She sighed. “Rubeus and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things. We’ve co-existed in peace for many years. I consider him a staunch ally, but no, I don’t consider him a friend.”

Not that it should have, but her honesty and openness caught him completely off guard. In that realm, she was Dumbledore’s opposite, unfailingly forthright with him, unafraid to let him make his own decisions; it was why he respected her so much. Of course, he’d always felt that Hagrid treated him similarly. “I just don’t get it. What’s your problem with him?”

She let the question linger for a while, perhaps hoping he would withdraw it, perhaps recalling a decision made years ago. “I suppose it boils down to different philosophies,” she finally answered. “Rubeus sees the school through the eyes of a student. It’s a surrogate family for him. He becomes friends with the students, and like many students,” she shot a pointed look at Harry, “sees the rules as optional. But as a member of the faculty, he continually sets a bad example.” She thought for a moment. “How many times have you been into the Forbidden Forest with him? How many times has he placed you in harms way?”

“Quite a few,” Harry admitted with a grin. “I think that’s why I’m so disappointed he’s leaving. He’s one of my last friends at the school. I’m going to miss him badly.”

---888---

The next two days passed without incident. On Wednesday, Hagrid wheeled an enormous cart chock full of boxes and wire mesh cages up to the Quidditch pitch. He interrupted Harry’s morning workout to say goodbye, and the two ended up sharing a pint at the Hog’s Head before Hagrid left for France.

On Thursday, Harry woke early with the intention of sneaking off to Diagon Alley and purchasing his school things and a new set of dress robes for his dinner with Scrimgeour that evening. But, Salty had already made arrangements to have the entire shopping list purchased via owl order. As if on cue, Hedwig and Phaedippas returned with several neatly wrapped bundles between the two of them, and so Harry got in another full day of Quidditch training at the Hogwarts pitch.

---888---

Fifteen minutes before his scheduled dinner with Minister Scrimgeour, Harry appeared, shrouded in the long shadows cast by the Hog’s Head tavern. McDaniels’ Chophouse was across the quiet street, set back behind a tall row of hedges and protected by an equally tall black gate, which Harry slipped through.

If it weren’t for the half dozen tables arranged on a patio in front of the restaurant, Harry would have thought he’d stumbled into someone’s front yard. The restaurant was housed in a stately old brick home that perfectly matched the quiet sophistication of its patrons.

A black-robed maitre d’ approached. The man’s sharp eyes widening as they lit on Harry’s lightning bolt shaped scar. “Lord Potter, you’re here to meet the Minister?”

Harry self consciously fingered the Leoforte family ring that Salty had insisted he wear. “Er, yes.”

“Please follow me.” The maitre d’ led him into the old home, winding through rooms, passing a dozen tables until they came to a booth in the back of a sparsely populated room.

Minister Scrimgeour stood to greet him. “How are you doing, Harry? I read in The Prophet that you’ll be back at Hogwarts on Sunday.”

“Saturday, actually,” Harry replied as the waitress brought Butterbeers. “I have Head Boy training.”

“Ah! ‘Training Day,’ that’s right,” Scrimgeour smiled faintly. “Headmaster Dippet spent the entire day giving Elizabeth Telford and I a tour of every snogging closet in the castle. There are one hundred thirty four of them.”

Harry snorted into his drink. “Sounds like an excellent use for my last day of summer.” The waitress returned briefly to take their orders, and Harry seized upon the interruption to move on to weightier subjects. “Uh Minister, Have you learned anything new about who dumped Hermione’s body in her dining room?”

Scrimgeour set his fork down and gave Harry an apologetic, pleading look. “I’ve been meaning to speak with you… Could you… well… Let’s just say it would be convenient if you would consider dropping the complaint.”

“Are you serious?” Harry scoffed. “She was my best friend… her parents were mortified!”

Scrimgeour took a deep breath. “What’s done is done,” he proclaimed fatalistically. “Charging the person won’t undo anything… You see, she’s the daughter of a Wizengamot Lord,” Scrimgeour said hesitantly. “I’ll prosecute her if you refuse to drop the complaint, but we’ll both earn a powerful enemy.”

“You go from promising time in Azkaban to ignoring it because of who her father is? You’re no better than Fudge!”

Scrimgeour had the good sense to look ashamed of himself. “We really need her father’s vote… and the bloc of votes that follow him.”

“There is no we.” Harry said flatly. “I’m not dropping the complaint, regardless of who her father is.”

Scrimgeour read the burning emeralds across from him and relented. “At least promise me you’ll sleep on it before making a final decision, alright?”

“Who?”

“It was an office assistant in the DMLE – Eileen MacMillan.”

“Ernie’s sister?” Harry gasped. “I knew her at school… She wasn’t like that at all…”

Scrimgeour ran a hand through his tangled mane. “She’s had a traumatic summer. Her brother died in the Monday Muggleborn Massacre.”

The memory of that day still stung horribly. “Ernie was at Justin’s house,” Harry remembered. “Let me guess, she’s blaming Muggleborns.”

Scrimgeour eyed his drink and nodded. “It’s not uncommon.”

Harry mulled this over in silence for several minutes. “What exactly would she be charged with?”

“Dereliction of duty… and uh, Muggle-Baiting,” Scrimgeour answered. “She’s looking at maybe three months in Azkaban, probably less if she pleads guilty.”

“Would she?”

“I believe her father would insist upon avoiding a public trial.”

Harry slowly sipped his remaining Butterbeer. Suddenly he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be responsible for sending Ernie’s sister to Azkaban. “On the topic of trials, I read in the papers that Stan Shunpike was released last Friday.”

Scrimgeour nodded. “I took your suggestion to heart, Harry. We reviewed the charges against all the suspected Death Eaters and decided that we didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute.”

Harry fixed the Minister with a cold glare. “Spare me the company line!” he sighed. “You knew quite well that there was never any evidence against them.”

The accusation clearly angered Scrimgeour. “I did not know they were innocent. You need to learn that there is a formidable gap between suspicion and knowledge!” Scrimgeour strangled his napkin, knuckles white around the linen square. “Harry, the Ministry can’t make snap judgments about guilt and innocence. We have to let investigations run their course.”

“Oho! A new policy!” Harry exclaimed derisively.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Harry’s eyes bulged incredulously. “Sirius Black!”

Scrimgeour faltered at that. “In Mr. Black’s case, you are quite right,” he conceded. “Minister Bagshot ordered the case closed prematurely.”

“It’s the same thing with Stan,” Harry argued. “People rushed to judgment, and they were both locked up without a fair trial.”

Scrimgeour frowned. “Black’s case was much different than Shunpike. Primarily in that Shunpike claimed that he was guilty.”

“Have you ever met Stan?” Harry asked skeptically.

“Multiple times,” the old Auror replied. “How many times have you met him?”

Harry thought for a moment. “Twice. Once on the Knight Bus, and another time at the World Cup.”

“And how did you know he was innocent?” Scrimgeour pressed.

Harry paused for a bit. It was difficult to explain his original gut instinct on the subject. “A guy like Stan Shunpike would never make a good Death Eater,” Harry answered. “He’s not terribly intelligent or powerful, and he runs his mouth too much. Voldemort wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He would have killed him just as soon as he saw him.”

Scrimgeour pondered this as the waitress arrived with their steaks and another round of drinks. “Harry, think about what you’ve just said. Were there any Death Eaters that weren’t magically powerful?”

“Peter Pettigrew.”

“As for boisterous,” Scrimgeour laughed. “Can you name any that weren’t?”

Harry thought for a moment. “Snape was guarded...”

Scrimgeour apparently hadn’t thought of the potions master. “Yes, he was a quiet one, I suppose… but the exception that proves the rule nonetheless.”

“So you’re saying that just because some Death Eaters shared traits with Shunpike that he was obviously a Death Eater?” Harry made a face to explain what he thought of that logic.

“No,” said Scrimgeour. “I’m just saying that it wasn’t completely out of the question. Think about Shunpike objectively for a moment. He works on the Knight Bus and is in a terrific position to overhear conversations, and track people’s movements. He has a general idea where those people live, and best yet, no one suspects him because he appears stupid and weak… But, suppose he’s just a bit smarter,” Scrimgeour tapped his temple with a gnarled finger. “Now, what if you were Voldemort? Would you just as soon kill him? Or, would you try to tap him for information? Perhaps the imperious curse, or a touch of legilimency.”

“But he wasn’t spying for Voldemort,” Harry objected weakly.

“How was I to know? Shunpike told a pub full of people that he was a Death Eater.” Scrimgeour held up a hand to cut off Harry’s objection. “You see it as a foolish boy running his big mouth, but the Aurors saw it as a man with too much alcohol in his system saying more than he should have. We had to lock him up until we could prove one way or the other.”

“I still say it’s different.”

“Here’s a question for you,” Scrimgeour stabbed a fork full of steak in Harry’s direction. “Should we have arrested Lucius Malfoy after you accused him of being a Death Eater two years ago?”

“Of course! If Fudge had listened to me, the Ministry would have been better prepared.”

“On what evidence?” Scrimgeour challenged.

“I told Fudge what happened!”

“So on the word of an attention seeking fourteen year old we should have arrested a member of the Wizengamot?”

“I was not an attention seeking fourteen year old!”

“I’m just repeating what Fudge told me,” Scrimgeour replied. “You didn’t have any evidence. It would have been your word against his. You were right and I knew it, but I couldn’t do anything about it just because I knew it to be the case.”

“You’ve confused me,” Harry said looking up from his empty plate. “You knew Malfoy was guilty, but you let him go. You knew Stan was innocent yet you locked him up?”

Scrimgeour sighed at Harry’s bullheadedness. “First, you knew Shunpike to be innocent. I actually thought he was guilty. The difference between the two cases is that Malfoy professed his innocence and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we had to accept that. Shunpike claimed he was a Death Eater and without looking foolish or taking a major risk, we had to lock him up.”

Harry resolutely studied his jacket potato. “What made you decide to finally release him – them?”

“Mostly the fact that they’re still alive,” Scrimgeour answered. “It appears that Voldemort took all of his followers with him. I suppose he was disheartened by those that abandoned him last time.”

“What about Guffy’s group?” Harry inquired, genuinely interested in the Minister’s explanation. Grudgingly, he admitted that Scrimgeour seemed to have pure motives in the realm of law enforcement.

“We’re completely baffled,” Scrimgeour admitted. “Guffy’s wand, which was in her partner’s possession when they were arrested, was used to kill the Creevey boys. But, Guffy and her bridge partners were all interrogated under Veritaserum, and they all swear that no one left… There’s no evidence of a memory charm, and no one saw them at the scene. Trying the case would be a nightmare, and we have no idea if one, none, or all of them were involved.”

The truth struggled free from a repressed portion of Harry’s memory. “The Creevey attack?” he murmured sadly, the answer rising unbidden onto his tongue. “Severus Snape, Draco Malfoy, George and Greg Goyle… Greg Goyle used a summoning charm so he wouldn’t have to use his own wand. He was underage.”

Scrimgeour’s eyes brimmed with fear. “How do you know that?”

A voice in the back of his mind, sounding suspiciously like Snape’s, screamed at him for revealing so much to the Minister, but even his brief confession assuaged his guilt tremendously. “You thought the spells were important?” Harry asked distantly. “I beat Voldemort in his mind.” His voice struggled to convey the full implication of that statement. “Have you ever bathed in maggot-infested rotting flesh?”

Scrimgeour shuddered at the thought. After visibly shaking himself a third time, he leaned in and whispered. “This is the type of thing that you shouldn’t go spreading about. The public is fickle. They will turn on you as easily as they embrace you.”

“I know.”

Scrimgeour apparently didn’t think Harry was taking him seriously enough. “It has not happened for the last time,” he warned. “People fear power and love a good rumor. That combination will lead to more headaches than you could possibly imagine.” The Minister smiled ruefully. “Incidentally, it’s also a good reason why we should work together. Having allies is always a good thing, Harry. Right now I need your support to pass some policies that will make a real difference. In the future, I can promise you will want allies when things become more difficult.”

Harry’s eyes wandered around the restaurant, and for the first time, he seriously considered Scrimgeour’s overture. “I’ll think about it.”

“Will you at least vote for the DMLE funding bill tomorrow?” Scrimgeour pleaded. “Fudge left the department in shambles, and we desperately need to increase the budget. I’ve been trying for months, but the Wizengamot has been hopelessly gridlocked.”

“Probably,” Harry answered as the two got ready to leave. “I’m going to listen to the debate tomorrow, but I’m leaning toward it.”

---
Author’s Note: This is the first chapter written post-Deathly Hallows. That said, much of this chapter was written sixteen months ago… including the conversation about Stan Shunpike. As for HPDH, I am not going to try and adapt the story to be ‘canon-compliant’ with the seventh book, but where appropriate, I may incorporate some non-spoiling background information into this story.

Author’s Recognition: The line about maggot infested flesh is how Snape describes Voldemort’s mind in Resonance by Greengecko. (You thought I was that creative? Pshaw!). The mention of one hundred thirty four broom closets at Hogwarts is a tribute to JBern’s To Fight the Coming Darkness.

Author’s Recognition 2: Thanks to the AFC crew for their input. Among other things, JBern helped with the title of this chapter. Nonjon came up with the funny book title Harry reads at the beginning of the chapter. This chapter is pre grammar beta. I’ll repost once the comma errors and dependent clauses are cleaned up.

Originally Posted: 17 September 2007
Last Updated: 17 September 2007

"... Serving a filthy half-blood mongrel! It's beneath even vermin like you!"

Harry smirked as he appeared in the sitting room at Grimmauld Place . Mrs. Black was at it again. Every time he Apparated into the house, it set the damn painting off, but this time she had a new audience. Salty was in the front hallway, struggling to close the curtain.

"You've just got to sweet talk her a little," Harry called out, tossing his cap onto the sofa.

Mrs. Black heard Harry's voice and stopped screeching, a twinge of fear evident on her oil-brushed face.

"Shut it, you old hag! " Harry hissed.

Mrs. Black abandoned her struggle, and the curtains jerked shut of their own accord.

Salty's pale yellow eyes betrayed a flash of amusement. "I was not aware that you're a Parselmouth."

Harry shrugged. "Just hiss. She doesn't know the difference."

The elf's ear twitched in delight. With an evil glint in his eye, Salty ripped open the curtain, hissing like an asp in heat. Without so much as a single word, Mrs. Black dropped her lace handkerchief and fled the frame.

"You're a vindictive little bugger," Harry observed.

Salty emitted a low growl but did not bother to object. "The post arrived while you were out," he announced, retrieving a clipboard and handing Harry a collection of opened envelopes. "The Muggle Prime Minister is expecting you Thursday at nine."

"That's fine. Just keep that night open. I want to see Puddlemere and Falmouth ."

Salty jotted a note on his clipboard. "Mr. Stratton's office sent over the passport you requested. He's also available for dinner Friday evening."

Harry briefly inspected the new passport before slipping it into his pocket. "Dinner on Friday sounds terrific."

The elf scribbled another note before handing Harry a piece of green parchment. "This is the schedule for Saturday's ceremony."

Harry studied the schedule for the Order of Merlin presentation ceremony. To his surprise, he saw that Arthur, Remus, and Tonks would be receiving posthumous Orders of Merlin, second class.

"You've already ordered memorial wreaths for the others," Salty volunteered.

"Great," Harry murmured, setting the schedule aside and returning to the stack of envelopes. "Who is Lawrence Ligby?"

"Apparently, he's your solicitor. Mrs. Black hired him twenty years ago." Salty saluted the empty portrait with his middle finger. "He wants to schedule a meeting soon."

"Maybe later," Harry muttered. "The rotten shyster sure took his sweet time contacting me."

Glancing through the remaining envelopes, he came to a hand penned thank you note from Susan that brought a smile to his face. "I should send a card to Oliver Wood."

Salty gestured toward the kitchen. "It's next to your sandwich. Just sign it, and I'll give it to the owl."

---888---

"Salty!" Harry yelled, standing in front of his closet door.

"Good morning, Master Potter."

"Where are my clothes?"

The elf looked up at Harry peculiarly. "Your clothes are in the closet, sir."

Harry scowled, a hard edge glinting in his voice, "There are clothes in here, but none of them seem to be mine ."

"I bought you a new wardrobe yesterday. You desperately needed it."

Harry rolled his eyes. " Everything is black."

"Black is highly functional."

"For a bat," Harry muttered. "I have to meet with the Prime Minister in thirty minutes. Where's my old stuff?"

Salty huffed in annoyance. "I've binned it. Everything was either three times too large or too hideous to wear in public."

"You binned everything ?" Harry's voice quivered slightly. "Including my sweaters?"

"It's mid-August," Salty objected, shuffling his feet.

Harry glared at the house-elf. "Did your old master let you throw out his clothes like this?"

"I've told you. I'm magically bound not to talk about my previous owner."

Harry ground his teeth. "I think you had better rescue my clothes before the dustcart comes."

"Yes, sir." Salty disappeared with a soft pop, leaving Harry to a closet filled with black socks, black under shirts, black pants, black dress shirts, even black underwear.

---888---

The boy sat in the outer office. Most visitors would fidget and squirm before being admitted to see the Prime Minister, but this one did not. Rather, he calmly stared at his own dark and angry reflection in the mirror.

Behind the one way mirror, "The Animal" froze, stale breath burning, eyes refusing even to blink. The boy had not been in the waiting area twenty seconds before those green eyes had found the mirror and latched onto it. Could the boy sense him - an out of place hit-wizard, tucked away in a thoroughly non-magical observation post?

After a tense half-minute, Hannibal Mason exhaled slowly, chastising himself for allowing the boy's burning eyes to unsettle him. If the boy had detected a spy, he'd certainly not betrayed that knowledge. No knowing smirk, no raised eyebrows or shallow breathing, and no flash of recognition in those distinctive eyes.

Hannibal considered his assignment. This was The Boy-Who-Lived, The Chosen One, The Vanquisher of Voldemort. He was short and scrawny, skinny, and pale, marred by a handful of unsightly scars - and dressed from head to toe in black. Despite the appearance of a maladjusted teen, his mere existence caused ripples of fear all the way down the longest tentacles of government. The boy should have been dead. at least six times. The fact that he had just killed another man with a penchant for avoiding death was not lost on Hannibal 's Muggle employers.

In the second room visible from Hannibal 's observation post, the Prime Minister began a final review of the Potter boy's file. The manila folder was painfully thin, but it had only been opened two weeks ago.

The night of Voldemort's death, Hannibal had been summoned to number Ten Downing Street. The Prime Minister was worried. The Magical world was spilling over into the Muggle sphere too frequently. and too close to the coming election. Now that the wizards had eliminated that Lord Voldemort fellow, it was time to make sure the boy didn't follow in his footsteps.

"You might want to hold off on a hit," Hannibal had cautioned that night. The political situation was too unstable. Killing the boy would only strengthen the anti-Muggle contingent, enrage the Muggle-lovers, violate dozens of treaties. and generally cause even more 'spillover.' Hannibal and his boss, the head of intelligence, had finally convinced the panicked Prime Minister to restrict the mission to data gathering only.

He had started with the boy's relatives, or more exactly the police detective in charge of their triple homicide investigation. The boy was the number one suspect, and the hit-wizard did not bother to correct the detective. The real killers were all dead or incarcerated, and the murder charge might come in handy at some point. Instead, Hannibal interviewed the neighbors for clues about the boy's upbringing.

As it turned out, the neighbors in Little Whinging were quite nosy and the stories well detailed. The boy had been unloved at best and abused at worse. Each family had a tale of a missing cat or a mysteriously dead puppy. One housewife swore she'd seen the boy talking to a snake in his aunt's garden. Neighborhood children were unanimous about two things. They were all afraid of him, and each simply referred to him as 'the freak.'

The only evidence that the boy had ever lived in the house was a letter that arrived the morning his aunt, uncle, and cousin had been found. The envelope carried a return address of a solicitor named Lawrence Ligby, but the Muggle detective claimed the address did not exist.

"The letter is a distraction," the detective smugly confided to Hannibal over tea. "This boy has all the signs of a serial killer - no friends, abusive relatives, lots of small dead animals. You should see the linen closet. It's filled with piss-stained sheets."

All these details (and the pilfered Ligby letter) found their way into the boy's file where they were joined by a confusing mass of magical media. Some articles hailed Potter as a hero, while others hinted at a massive ego and an unsteady personality. From these often contradictory snippets, Hannibal cobbled together a rough biographical sketch of The Boy-Who-Lived.

In the outer office, the boy's eyes shifted, stealing a glance at the Minister's attractive new assistant. With each leering sweep, Potter's eyes lingered a touch longer on the beautiful receptionist. The file should be updated, Hannibal thought, sipping his tea. Potter definitely liked red-heads. and long legs.

Through the second window of his observation room, Hannibal watched as the Prime Minister withdrew the Ligby letter before slipping the Potter file back into his desk drawer. Hannibal 's Muggle counterparts had embedded a microscopic homing device in the thick parchment, and now it was time for the Minister to hand deliver it to the boy.

There was an intercom button on the stately desk, but the sound in Hannibal 's room came from the microphones planted in the office. "Belinda, please send Mr. Potter in."

The assistant looked up at Potter, frowning as she caught him winking at her. "The Prime Minister is ready now."

The boy twisted a gaudy ring on his finger so that the ruby L caught the light. "Thanks, Belinda."

---888---

It was an extra warm Saturday afternoon and Diagon Alley was packed with shopkeepers, ministry officials, and people from all walks of life. The Order of Merlin presentation ceremony had morphed into an all day party and shopping extravaganza. The Weird Sisters were performing from a stage in front of Quality Quidditch Supplies. Madam Malkin was raffling a set of school robes every half hour, and Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor, now managed by Florean's granddaughter, celebrated its grand-reopening.

In his pocket, Harry thumbed the corner of his passport for the umpteenth time. True to form, Minister Scrimgeour was taking full advantage of the podium. Ostensibly, he was dedicating a new memorial to those who had died in the wars against Voldemort, but really he was laying out his vision for the future of Magical Britain while many of his subjects sweltered in the mid-day sun.

Harry's eyes wandered from the back of Scrimgeour's head to the memorial. Truthfully, Harry thought it was a classy addition to the Alley. It began as a giant granite cylinder where the names of the dead would be etched around the outside. The top of the cylinder was scooped out to form a bowl that was filled with an eerie green fire, the exact shade of a killing curse. From the fire, a magnificent sculpted Phoenix poised on the edge of flight, a fountain of water spouting from its mouth.

"It's impressive, isn't it?" Andromeda Tonks whispered. She and her husband Ted were seated on Harry's left, the Weasley twins, Charlie, and Percy to his right.

"I like the Phoenix ," Harry returned. "It looks like Professor Dumbledore's."

A sorrowful smile failed to reach her grey eyes. "I'm sure he's proud of you, Harry."

---888---

"And for bravely facing and ending the threat posed by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I am proud to award Harry Potter the Order of Merlin, First Class!"

Harry stepped forward to the front of the stage so the Minister could place the medal around his neck. Fortunately, the ceremony was almost over. All he had to do was say a few words, and he could escape to the back of the Tri-W with Fred and George.

"There's also one more surprise," Scrimgeour declared with an enormous grin. "Zeke Coggins, the famous sculptor, wanted to contribute to our party today. He's been working non-stop on the final piece of our memorial!"

Ten meters away, the crowd parted and an eccentric wizard with wispy white hair aimed his wand at a now-suspicious stone bench. "Revelio!" he cried.

To a chorus of cheers, the glamoured 'bench' faded away to reveal an amazingly detailed life sized statue of Harry, his wand jabbing forward, robes flapping dramatically, and fierce emerald eyes daring any soul to challenge him. The statue's windswept hair parted to display a prominent red lightning bolt scar.

Before Harry even got a good look at his likeness, a pushy photographer seized his elbow, pulling him toward the statue. "Mr. Potter! Next to Mr. Coggins. Smile!"

Somehow, Minister Scrimgeour, cane and all, had instantly traversed the ten meters to the statue. Just in time to be captured on film with Harry, an arm draped across the young hero's shoulders like the two were old Quidditch pals.

---888---

"I got played like a cheap fiddle," Harry moaned, accepting a Butterbeer from Fred.

"What'd you expect?"

"I don't know. something different. something less obvious. you know?"

Fred laughed hollowly, sinking further into his purple armchair. "So you're mad that he took 'too much' advantage of you?"

"I told him I wasn't ready to support him," Harry answered indignantly.

"Then why'd you agree to the Order of Merlin in the first place?"

"I." Harry's eyes darted all around Fred and George's storeroom, anywhere but meeting Fred's amused grin. "I guess, I wanted it," he finally confessed.

Fred laughed again. "If you wanted it, then you both got what you were after."

Harry scowled. "But it isn't fair. I deserve the damn medal. It's not my fault he gets to present it."

"Grow up, Harry!" Fred chided. "You're not a kid anymore. People don't give a shit what's fair. You're playing for keeps now."

"I'm not being a kid! I'm just pissed that -"

"- That you're playing a grown-up's game and they didn't let you win?" Fred smirked at Harry's red-faced sigh. "Listen, people are going to take advantage of you if they can. When George and I rented this place, we weren't too smart. This nice little old lady had us over for tea and told us about how her husband died and left her a store full of new toilets. All we had to do was help her move the toilets out, and she would give us a great deal on the rent. So we did. Two months later, we found out that she'd sweet talked us into paying twice as much as we should have."

"Then tell her to halve your rent or you're leaving."

"We can't! She'd sue us, and we'd end up paying the solicitors three times what we're paying her now. That wench saw a couple of naïve kids, and she took advantage of us. It's how the world works."

"So, you're saying there's nothing I can do about Scrimgeour?"

"You can't change the past," Fred replied sagely.

Harry snorted in disgust. "The idea is to keep it from happening again."

Fred drained the rest of his Butterbeer. "I have no idea what you should do. Politics isn't my thing. You could ask some ministry people for advice, maybe Kingsley. He's given us a few pointers. but whenever someone gives you advice, always remember they have an angle."

"Angle?"

"Everyone has an angle, okay? Even the people you trust. If someone tells you a story about their greedy landlady, maybe they're fishing for gold."

"Do you need some?"

"No, Harry. You can always trust family. I'm talking about people. Take Professor McGonagall. Dobby said that she visits you almost every day. Why would she do that?"

"She wants me to come back to Hogwarts next month."

"Is that all that she wants?" Fred asked. "I'll bet you ten Galleons that if you tell her you're going to enroll in Hogwarts this year, it will be in the paper the next day."

"You really think so?"

"That's her angle. She wants to announce that you're coming back so that everyone will think it's safe again."

"You're probably right," Harry admitted, before falling into a contemplative silence. "So, what about Scrimgeour? He told me a story about a fellow named Carrow. Supposedly he's a real bad guy - helped fund Voldemort during the war. What's Scrimgeour's angle, do you think?"

Fred reached for another Butterbeer. "That's a tricky one. Dad didn't think too highly of Charles Carrow either. Said he was a snake. But Carrow was the one that tried to oust Scrimgeour earlier this summer. So maybe ole Rufus is just trying to poison you against his rival. He probably figures that's the next best thing to your support."

Harry rubbed his temples. "But how do I know if I can trust someone? It's not like I have a lot of family left."

"You don't have to trust someone to ask their advice. In fact, maybe you should ask Scrimgeour. He'll tell you what he wants, and then you'll know what he's thinking. If he tries to hide his angle, you probably can't trust him. If he's honest, trust him a little bit more."

"I still want to get even with him," Harry pouted. "I told him I hadn't made up my mind about supporting him."

Fred grinned, walking over to his workbench. "You're too much like Ron. He always had to get even, too. Here, use this." Fred tossed what looked like a black cloak to Harry. "It's a prototype we're calling the Glamour Garb. You just put it on and it applies a glamour charm. This one makes the person look like a troll."

Harry careful fingered the inside of the cloak. He didn't feel any different, but a green trolled appeared in the mirror. "Wicked! But why do I want to look like a troll?"

"Where's your sense of creativity?" Fred frowned. "It's reversible. It'll look just like a normal cloak until someone touches you. They won't even know they've turned into a troll."

Harry got a good chuckle imagining the front page of The Daily Prophet ; the Minister a giant green troll, his arm draped across Harry's shoulder. Sadly, he tossed the cloak back to Fred. "As much as I'd like to, I can't actually use this. You're right. I've got to play for keeps, and a juvenile stunt's not the way to do it."

Fred returned the Glamour Garb to his workbench. "You could just announce that you're going back to Hogwarts. McGonagall and Rufus aren't exactly exchanging Christmas cards after this summer."

"I don't know," Harry replied, once again thumbing the passport in his pocket. "I need to get away for awhile."

---888---

Nice was the last stop before Italy . Most of the passengers were sleeping through the pre-sunrise morning, their destinations Milan or Rome . But Harry joined a vacationing American family as they stepped off the train in southeastern France . A bus would take him half an hour along the sea coast to Menton, and the agent in London had given him the name of a taxi service that would drive him up the mountain to Sainte-Agnes.

The Bonaccord manor was built into the mountain overlooking the sleepy village. Locals had often gazed up at the buildings spotting the mountainside and declared that it must have taken magic to build the houses, much less reach them. Of course, they were right, but this did not deter townsfolk from marveling at the great engineering feats of the middle ages.

The pink tinges of sunrise faded as Harry passed a thick stack of francs to the driver. Soon, the taxi's tail lights disappeared around the first switchback, and he wearily turned his eyes to the steep foot trail leading further up the mountain. His eyes swept higher until he found the manor perched near the top. It was surrounded by a vast green blanket of trees, and the only horizontal surface Harry could see was the reddish-brown tiled roof.

"This better work," Harry sighed, before slipping the Bonaccord family ring onto his right hand. With a bit more deliberation than usual, Harry concentrated on the roof, grabbed hold of his trunk, squeezed his eyes shut, and Apparated. After sixty years, the family ring once again keyed the wards; Lord Bonaccord was home, struggling to keep his balance on the pitched roof.

The view from atop Bonaccord manor was breathtaking. The village of Sainte-Agnes rested tranquilly below, amid a large swath of forest, interrupted only by jutting mountain peaks. In the distance, Harry could see the Mediterranean Sea , as it caressed the French Riviera. But the best part of the view, in his opinion, was the shallow valley two hundred meters behind the house: It contained a regulation Quidditch pitch.

Apparating down from the roof, Harry tried the door. It opened easily, albeit with a lonesome creak. The interior of the house was dark and dank. He walked from room to room, leaving tracks in six decades of dust, as he parted curtains and opened windows. A gentle breeze floated inside, spilling sunshine, and erasing the musky scent of mothballs.

---888---

"Scourgify," Harry declared again. He'd finished the first level and was now cleaning an opulent second floor sitting room that opened out onto a giant patio beyond a set of now gleaming French doors. It was a magnificent space, clearly designed for entertaining guests.

"Achoo!"

Harry jumped, spinning around to find the source of the sneeze. "Who's there?"

"Bienvenue a la maison Bonaccord," a nasal voice announced.

Harry turned around again trying to find the voice. His eyes settled on a dusty bust resting in the corner. "Hello?"

The bust sneezed again. "My allergies are horrible. Would you mind finishing?"

With a flick of his wand, the remaining dust vanished. "Pierre Bonaccord?" Harry read. The name sounded familiar, but he could not remember why.

"Well, my likeness at least," the bust replied. "I've been dead several centuries."

"Er, right."

"And who might you be? I haven't had many Englishmen in my home."

"I'm Harry. Harry Potter." He raised his hand, showing the Bonaccord family ring to Pierre . "I've inherited this place."

Pierre scowled. "I met a fellow named Stanton Potter once. He stole my Dorene, and I haven't seen her since. Now, I see he's stolen my bloodline."

"Er."

"Not to worry, Harry. Englishman or not. I'm sure you're an upstanding fellow," Pierre said solemnly. "After all, you've got Bonaccord blood in your veins."

"Er."

"Now let's see here," Pierre ploughed on. "If you're Lord Bonaccord, but you carry the name Potter, Dorene must have had a son." Pierre studied him. "You're too young. At least one generation, maybe two."

"She was my grandmother."

"Who was your father then? He must have carried the title for a few years. English Dog! Too good to visit his ancestral home!"

Harry rolled his eyes. "My father was James. I'm sure he would have visited, but he was murdered at a young age."

"Murdered! By whom?"

"A fellow named Riddle."

Pierre froze as something clicked in his stone brain. "Harry Potter! You're that Harry Potter?"

Harry rolled his eyes. "You've heard of me?"

"Of course I have! Who hasn't? Congratulations on the Order of Merlin, by the way."

"Er, thanks. How did you know? It's not like this place gets a lot of traffic."

Pierre laughed. "I'm just like a painting. I've got another bust in Bern ."

Harry finally placed the name, Pierre Bonaccord. "You were the first Supreme Mugwump."

"That's right," Pierre smiled. "We've all got a painting or bust in the Mugwump's office. When the news came about Voldemort, all the English chaps had a great party in Lord Nisbett's frame." Pierre seemed lost in pleasant thought for a few moments. "So what brings you to France ?"

"I'm on holiday," Harry declared. "I heard there was a Quidditch pitch here, and I fully intend to get in some flying."

---888---

Harry touched down at center pitch and pocketed his quarry. The sun was setting, and he was liable to lose the snitch if he let it go again. Whoever had built this pitch was a serious Quidditch fan. Everything was regulation: the hoop diameters, the goal heights, even the scoring arcs. To the north, at center pitch, there was an observation tower with seating for a few dozen spectators.

At the base of the tower, Harry opened a red door. The towers at Hogwarts hosted changing rooms, so Harry was unsurprised to find a well appointed one here. However, where the girls' rooms were normally located, Harry found a dusty weight room and a small office with a bookcase in the corner.

After airing out and cleaning the tower, Harry began examining the bookcase. It was a virtual treasure-trove of Quidditch information. There were volumes on strategy, manuals on each position, and treatises on proper training technique!

With a giddy laugh, Harry selected a few books. Some sounded rather dry like, " Nutrition for the Successful Athlete, " and " Making the Most of the Weight Room ." Still, others promised a bit more excitement. Lars Heidrich, seven time winner of the annual Swedish broom race had penned an autobiography that Harry was anxious to read, " Stranger than Friction: From Dry Eyes to Splintered Thighs, a How-to Guide on Quenching Your Need for Speed ."

---888---

After only one week in France , Harry was already bored and lonely. He'd spent enough time on his broom to earn a beet red sunburn and chapped lips. However, with no one to fly against, and only Pierre to talk to, Harry decided he was ready to return to England . He caught the evening train leaving Nice on Saturday, and Apparated into the sitting room at Grimmauld Place just before noon on Sunday.

"Welcome back, sir." Salty called.

"Thanks," Harry replied, levitating his trunk up to his bedroom, before heading down toward the kitchen. "Hey Salty, can you whip something up for lunch? I'm - What are you doing?"

The house-elf looked up from a steaming cauldron. "Brewing."

"Brewing?"

"There are no medicinal potions in the house. I'm stocking the cabinet."

Harry paused, an odd impression momentarily flickering past his eyes. "I didn't know you could brew potions. You've never said anything."

"I can do pretty much anything needed to run a house," Salty answered. "I suppose I never thought to mention it."

Harry shrugged, pulling bread, sliced ham, and a pickle from the ice box. "Are you good at it? I'm pretty much rubbish."

"Well. I can hold my own." Salty counted out another ten clockwise rotations before setting aside the cauldron stirrer. "Sorry about lunch. I would have prepared it if I knew you were coming home."

Harry smiled sheepishly. "I probably should have told you I was leaving, too."

"It helps," the house-elf answered dryly.

"Anything exciting happen while I was away?"

Salty flashed a toothy grin. "You've made the papers a few times." He handed Harry the Daily Prophet from a week ago. On the front page, there was an enormous photo of the Minister smiling broadly, his arm around Harry's shoulder.

"I don't want to read that."

"Page nine, lower left hand corner."

Harry flipped back a few pages; Stan Shunpike's picture looked up at him. "Took long enough," he murmured as he began to read the article.

~~~~~~
The Daily Prophet
August 17, 1997
Page nine, lower left hand corner

Suspected Death Eaters Released from Azkaban

Citing a lack of evidence, the Ministry dropped charges against five suspected Death Eaters yesterday. Stan Shunpike, Elladora Guffy, Davy Gudgeon, Lewis Mattie, and Otis Nell, were released from Azkaban Prison where they had been held awaiting trial.

Shunpike was originally arrested eleven months ago when an undercover Auror overheard him discussing secret Death Eater plans at the Three Broomsticks pub in Hogsmeade.

In June, Guffy, Gudgeon, Mattie, and Nell were charged with the murder of Denis and Colin Creevey, two Hogwarts students. Additionally, investigators originally believed the four masterminded the 'Monday Muggleborn Massacre' attacks, which resulted in the death of forty three Hogwarts students and their families, but formal charges were only brought for the Creevey brothers.

"Following You-Know-Who's death, the Minister ordered a review of the five prisoner's cases," said Chief Auror Gawain Robards. "After studying each case thoroughly, we've concluded that the evidence is insufficient to present at trial."

The decision to release the five is part of Minister Scrimgeour's ongoing effort to move beyond the recent war. While the prisoners were being released, the Minister was in Diagon Alley presenting Order of Merlin awards to Harry Potter and several others who participated in the Battle of the Burrow. The awards presentation capped off a civic celebration touting the rejuvenation of the historic Alley.
~~~~~~

Harry handed the paper back to Salty. "Spectacular reporting. as always."

_____
Author's Recognition: I want to thank the AFC crew for their help on this chapter. Nonjon came up with the funny book title Harry discovered at the Bonaccord Mansion . I also owe a huge thank you to Lisa, my grammer beta. Also to my readers, my apologies that this took so long. I am now a CPA, and a homeowner. two things that were not true when I last posted. Unfortunately, I can't promise that progress will quicken, but I will try.

Initial Post: 26 June 2007
Last Updated: 26 June 2007

"WHAT IS YOU DOING IN HARRY POTTER'S KITCHEN!?" Dobby brandished a cast iron skillet, stalking toward the unfamiliar figure dicing potatoes by the stove.

The interloper whirled, his black robe billowing. "Cooking," he sneered. Pale yellow eyes peered down a long nose. "You must be Dobby."

Dobby paused mid-step, the skillet still cocked for an attack. "Who is you?"

"I am Salty. Master Potter's new servant."

Dobby advanced another step. "You is lying! Harry Potter is the bestest wizard ever! Get out of Harry Potter's house!"

Salty smiled malevolently. "I cannot leave. I have to make my master's supper."

"YOU IS LYING!" Dobby screamed. He brought the heavy skillet crashing down like a troll's club toward the other elf's head.

Salty ducked, allowing the skillet a clear path directly into the stove top. With an earsplitting bang, the kitchen began raining potatoes.

Dobby lifted the skillet once more, but his opponent was already airborne.

Executing a textbook flying tackle, Salty drove his shoulder deep into Dobby's stomach. The skillet launched across the kitchen, banging into a collection of pots and pans.

The two house-elves rolled across the floor punching, pinching, pulling, and scratching each other. For a brief moment, Dobby pinned Salty, but Salty managed to drive an elbow into Dobby's larynx.

"STOP!" Harry shouted, bursting through the door with his wand drawn.

Salty immediately released Dobby and was rewarded with a sucker punch.

"Dobby, stop!" Harry roughly pulled the two elves apart. "What the hell is going on here?"

"I was cooking," Salty snapped. "This shit attacked me."

"Is that true?"

Dobby could not answer. He was doubled over, clutching his throat and wheezing with every breath.

"Salty, give us a moment," Harry said, conjuring a bag of ice. "You should put this on your eye before it gets any worse."

With a pop, Harry was alone with Dobby.

"You alright, Dobby?"

Dobby didn't answer, but he accepted a second conjured ice-pack. After a few minutes, the house-elf managed to squeak, "Is it true?"

"Is what true?"

"Salty gets to be Harry Potter, sir's house-elf?"

"I hired him this afternoon," Harry confirmed. "He's specially trained to manage a household."

Dobby peered up at Harry, tears streaming from his tennis ball sized eyes. "Dobby has training, too," he whimpered. "Dobby could serve Harry Potter, sir."

Harry placed a hand on the house-elf's trembling shoulder. "You're my friend. I won't let you be my servant."

Dobby sorrowfully hung his head. "Dobby has to leave, then."

"No, you can."

With a brave smile and a soft pop, Dobby disappeared.

"Wait!" Harry Apparated to the small third-floor bedroom where Dobby had been staying, but the elf and his few belongings were already gone. Harry sank down onto the bed in defeat, "Damn!"

The bedroom door swung open after a few seconds and Salty stepped into the room, an ice pack covering his right eye. "He's left the premises."

"You saw him?"

"House-elves can sense each other," Salty replied.

"Right," Harry murmured. "You alright then?"

"I'll be fine."

"Did he really attack you?"

"Yes."

Harry studied the house-elf carefully. "Did you provoke him?"

Salty began to say 'no,' but he could not form the word. "I may have taunted him. slightly."

Harry frowned. "He's my friend. Don't bait him again. Understood?"

"Yes, Master Potter," Salty responded, properly chastised. "With your permission, I shall return to the kitchen, now."

"No, I'll get something at the diner. Take the night off and get settled in. Did you pick a room yet?"

"I'm next door," Salty replied with a bow, silently retreating to his room.

Retrieving a quill and parchment in his room, Harry penned a quick note. "Hedwig," he called. "Please, take this to Dobby."

---888---

The following evening, Harry emerged from the floo, his black cap pulled tightly over his distinctive scar. With a little practice, floo travel was becoming much easier, but he still detested traveling from hearth to hearth. Glancing around, he found the Apparation point below a large blue and gold sign welcoming fans to the 'Pavilion at Exmoor .' Next time, he could skip the Floo Powder and Apparate directly.

Approaching the main gates, he was surprised to see only a few dozen fans waiting in line. They were significantly outnumbered by the concession vendors busily milling about. He checked his ticket again; the gates, which opened ninety minutes before game time, were set to admit fans in three minutes.

A pimply-faced wizard dressed in an ill-fitting blue robe scurried past him. "Excuse me!" Harry held out his pass. "Where do I go?"

The usher hurriedly glanced at the ticket. "Gate D," he huffed, pointing in the direction he had just come from.

"Thanks," Harry muttered as the usher sprinted on toward his destination.

Making his way through a nearly empty Gate D, Harry showed his ticket to another usher and punched the lift button for level eight. The door opened onto a carpeted concourse lined with aged pictures of former Quidditch players.

"Swanky!" Harry grinned, as he found the door marked '818.' Oliver hadn't just sent him some spare tickets; this was the luxury box level! It was bloody fantastic!

The private box was divided into a small kitchen and a seating area. Platters of finger sandwiches, vegetables, and meat offered mouth-watering aromas from their perches on the counter. Beyond the kitchen, matching leather sofas formed an open square, completed by a gigantic sliding glass door that opened over the Quidditch pitch.

Harry ignored the food, walked past the sofas, and opened the glass door. The box was level with the top goal, giving him a magnificent view of the black and scarlet clad Ballycastle Bats as they practiced. Below him, the seats were dotted with small clumps of early arriving fans eager to watch the teams warm up. On the pitch, small dots dressed in Puddlemere blue and gold stretched muscles and tossed a Quaffle around.

Grabbing a warm Butterbeer from the pantry, Harry plopped down on the sofa, propping his feet up on the coffee table in front of him. It was early evening and the stadium lights already shone, but they weren't needed just yet. The scoreboard clock slowly ticked down from ninety minutes.

Harry recognized most of the Bats' warm-up exercises from his practices with Gryffindor. Chasers weaved in and out of the hoops, working on sharp, crisp turns. The Beaters batted Bludgers at the goal posts, continually honing their accuracy and 'punishment' (as the Weasley twins liked to call it).

Harry searched for the Bats' Seeker, hoping to glean some insight from a professional. There he was, diving toward the ground, a perfectly executed Wronski feint. "It's Viktor!" Harry shouted to the empty box. For the next fifteen minutes, the Bulgarian Seeker shot across the pitch practicing dives and turns, running through preset plays with the Chasers, and chatting with the Bats' attractive reserve Keeper.

Harry was green with envy. He hadn't been on his broom since. Since, the day before.

Like a nightmare, the Battle of the Burrow flashed before his eyes. His stomach clenched painfully. Sweat dampened the back of his knees. He could hear his heart racing as blood pounded in his ears. The room became hazy; colors muted. His lungs screamed for oxygen.

Harry gasped. His breathing was shallow and rushed. Damp palms wiped the sweat from his brow, cradling his head in his hands. He focused on deep breaths, inhaling until his chest expanded and exhaling until his lungs forced him to breathe in again. Eventually, his heartbeat slowed, and his breathing returned to normal.

"Bloody hell," he murmured, staggering to his feet where he paused, allowing the world to stop spinning around him. He washed his face in the kitchen sink, drank a tall glass of water, and then collapsed back into the sofa.

Looking for some sort of distraction, he found a souvenir program on the end table. But, the glossy photographs and player biographies couldn't hold his attention. 'Ron would have been so excited to be here,' he thought. 'Ron would have loved the food. Ron wouldn't have let me forget my Omnioculars.'

"Hey, Harry." Susan's casual greeting nearly caused him to jump clear of the sofa. "I didn't know we had a box today."

"Neither did I," he responded with a forced smile. "It was really generous of Oliver."

"Uh huh," Susan agreed, expertly retrieving two Butterbeers from a chill box below the kitchen counter. "Thirsty?"

"I take it you've been up here before?" Harry asked, accepting the drink.

"My uncle's cousin, Elliot Cunningham, owns the Tornadoes." She sat on the sofa across from Harry. "I've been to hundreds of games."

"You're a Tornadoes fan, then?"

"Not especially." She fell silent, staring out at the now vacant pitch. "Auntie was a big Puddlemere supporter. We used to come here a lot."

"Oh," Harry mumbled, absently dog-earing Oliver Wood's page in the program. A comfortable yet sad silence settled between the two as Puddlemere took to the air for their warm-ups.

"So, how are you doing?" Susan asked after a few minutes.

Harry continued watching Puddlemere's Seeker fly sprints across the pitch. "I don't know. Some days I don't want to do anything. then sometimes I'll get wrapped up in what I'm doing, and I won't even think about it for a few hours."

".And then you feel guilty for allowing yourself to forget," Susan suggested knowingly. "I don't think the guilt ever goes away. It's just that you forget about it for longer periods of time."

"How often do you think about your aunt?" Harry wondered.

"Auntie's death has been worse than Father's," Susan replied hollowly. "With him, I knew it was coming. I got to say goodbye. But Auntie was such a shock. And last year. every time someone died from the war, it all came back again."

Harry shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. "I didn't know your father died."

Oddly enough, Susan seemed to relax at the question. "When I was eight, he got sick one day. Six months later, he died from late onset Maeve's disease." She glanced at Harry, unsurprised that he'd never heard of the disease.

"Unfortunately, Maeve's isn't that uncommon," she explained ruefully. "It cannibalizes your magical core. Sometimes you die, and sometimes you turn into a squib. It's genetic and runs in a lot of the old families, but people don't like to talk about it."

"You seem eager enough," Harry offered.

She blushed slightly. "I want to get rid of the stigma," Susan declared. "There's nothing shameful about Maeve's. It's a disease, and the more people know, the easier it is to spot. My Dad just thought he wasn't a very powerful wizard. If he'd known about the disease, they probably would have spotted it before he went to Hogwarts. If you catch it early enough, there are potions and other ways to treat it."

Padma and Anthony entered the box and claimed a sofa. "Susan, you're on about Maeve's disease again?" Padma rolled her eyes. "You should let the boy enjoy the match instead of talking his ear off," she chided.

Anger flashed momentary in Susan's eyes. She looked about ready to yank a fistful of Padma's long black hair out by the roots, but Anthony was already gushing over the box. "Bloody marvelous seats, Harry! This match is going to be wicked! Ballycastle just got Krum from Heidelberg , and Painter's on top of her game again. Best Seeker match up of the year!"

Harry shot an apologetic smile at Susan who decided a fresh round of Butterbeers was in order. "When did Ballycastle get Viktor?" Harry asked.

"Last week," Anthony replied, accepting a drink from Susan. "It took two million Galleons to pry Krum from Heidelberg . It's the largest transfer fee ever."

"My Grandpapa said Elliot and the rest of the owners are about ready to lynch Sheldon Bromfield," Susan volunteered.

Anthony nodded in agreement. "Krum could have nixed it, but Ballycastle's owner gave him a new contract. He's banking half a million a year for the next five years. guaranteed ."

"A half million Galleons!" Padma exclaimed. "Anthony, have you been practicing your Quidditch? Father would be impressed with that salary."

Anthony laughed nervously. "Probably should have learned to fly by now then, you think? I'll be lucky to make five thousand Galleons a year, right out of school. I'd need Harry's talent on a broom to make enough to impress your father."

Padma's jaw raised and lowered half a dozen times as she stammered for something to say. The idea of living off of only five thousand Galleons a year was a foreign concept to the well-bred daughter of privilege.

"You think I could play Quidditch professionally?" Harry asked.

"Absolutely!" Anthony exclaimed. "You completely out flew Krum against those dragons."

"But, Krum didn't fly against the dragon!" Padma objected.

"I meant that when Harry flew against the dragon, he was better than Krum."

Susan smiled patiently. "Anthony, have you ever seen Viktor Krum fly in a match?"

Anthony paused to think for a moment. "No, but I've seen photos."

"Harry's good," Susan answered with a smirk, "but Viktor Krum is the best Seeker in the world."

Harry's heart put a little something extra into its next few beats. For some reason, he was really glad that she thought he was good. "So, what do you think, Susan? Could I make it into the league?"

Her grey-blue eyes, clear and alert, evaluated his figure. "I don't know, maybe as a reserve," she admitted honestly. "You fly pretty well, but most of the Seekers in the league are big burly guys or really light and fast. You're kind of in the middle."

Harry shrugged nonchalantly, hoping his disappointment wasn't evident.

"But don't listen to me," Susan backtracked. "You should ask someone who knows what they're talking about. I could get Elliot to give you a tryout."

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! " the Quidditch announcer's voice boomed. "MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION? TONIGHT'S MATCH FEATURES THE BALLYCASTLE BATS VISITING PUDDLEMERE UNITED! " The mostly filled stadium erupted in applause.

"AT KEEPER, THE BATS ARE STARTING DEREK SHELLER. AT BEATER, FRANZ CLUNK AND."

"Dobby!" Harry spotted his friend timidly entering the box. "Thanks for coming. Did you get my letter?"

" AT SEEKER, VIKTOR KRUM! " Anthony leaned dangerously far out of the box to cheer for the Bulgarian. " AND NOW. YOUR KEEPER! OLIVER WOOD! "

Dobby frowned, handing Harry a familiar Beaters Bat with a faded orange 'F' painted on the knob. "Dobby got Harry Potter, sir's note." The house-elf's quiet reply was barely discernible above the cheers for Puddlemere's starting lineup. "But, Dobby is only here because of Master Weasley. Dobby must deliver this bat to Harry Potter and then bring it back after the match."

"Well, I'm glad you're here." Harry grinned; Fred was a genius. "You want something to eat?"

Dobby sullenly shook his head before sitting on the floor in the corner.

Harry sighed at the house-elf's stubbornness. "Alright then, Dobby. Help yourself if you change your mind."

He returned to his spot on the sofa, ignoring Padma's inquisitive glance over the top of her Witch Weekly .

"Not again," Harry complained as he spotted a small picture of himself on the cover, repeatedly casting a Werewolf Patronus. "I wish they'd just give it a rest already."

Padma offered an evil smile before flipping back a few pages. "The Boy Who Lost Everything," she announced saucily. "Despite the heartache of burying his closest friends, Harry Potter managed to conjure up enough happy thoughts to cast a marvelously luminescent Patronus at Monday's."

"Padma!" Susan scolded.

Scowling at the magazine, Harry walked over to Anthony at the front of the box so he could see the entire pitch.

"They're about to start," Anthony commented as the referee opened the ball box in the middle of the pitch. The Snitch, unlatched, rose slowly before disappearing in the blink of an eye. The Bludgers followed suit a few seconds later, and then the Quaffle was tossed high into the air.

Like a shot, fifteen brooms launched as one. The Keepers streaked to their hoops as the Chasers jockeyed for position. Ballycastle's Beaters each chose a Bludger and followed it around the pitch, smacking the jet black ball in the direction of Puddlemere's Seeker whenever they could.

Puddlemere's Seeker, Jen Painter, was small enough to be a third year student at Hogwarts. "You reckon she's what? Six, seven stone at the most?" Harry asked Anthony.

"She's damn fast," Anthony replied. "I think my Arithmancy book is heavier than she is."

Harry laughed as he watched one of Puddlemere's Beaters swat another Bludger toward a Ballycastle Chaser.

Padma was watching the match now, her magazine tucked into her handbag. "That one guy, all he's doing is chasing her around the pitch," she said, pointing at a Puddlemere Beater.

"It's a disadvantage to have a small Seeker," Harry answered. "The Beaters have to spend most of their time protecting the Seeker."

The Beater assigned to Painter's protection detail launched another Bludger toward a Ballycastle Chaser. His aim was off, and the Bludger glanced off the broom handle of a Puddlemere Chaser. It was the only opening the Bat's Chaser needed: She slipped through the Puddlemere defense, feigning a shot at the uppermost goal.

"Come on, Oliver!" Harry shouted as the crowd roared to life. After another pump-fake, the Chaser flung the Quaffle toward the middle hoop, but Oliver had anticipated the shot. He easily caught the Quaffle before gunning it half-way across the pitch to an open Chaser.

The crowd, which had risen to their feet to cheer on Oliver, exploded in anticipation. Puddlemere had a two-on-one advantage as the Chasers streaked across the pitch. The lone Bat in position to defend the attack desperately tried to eliminate the passing lanes between Puddlemere's Chasers, but he was successful only in slowing Puddlemere's charge. As soon as she entered the scoring area, Puddlemere's Chaser gunned the Quaffle toward the left-most ring, well out of reach of Ballycastle's overmatched Keeper.

In one moment, Harry's perception of the Seeker position changed completely. From his hunt for the Snitch, Viktor swooped down directly into the path of the Quaffle, trapping the reddish brown ball between his chest and the broom. Shifting the Quaffle into the crook of his arm, he rocketed upfield like an experienced Chaser. A few meters ahead of him, Ballycastle's Chasers formed a wedge, ploughing through the Puddlemere defense.

To counter the attack, Puddlemere's Beater, who had been shadowing Jen Painter, shot upwards trying to cut off Viktor's angle toward the far right goal. Simultaneously, Painter darted toward the center of the pitch, apparently hot on the trail of the Snitch.

Viktor ignored Painter's feint. Five meters from the scoring area, he caught up with his Chasers, expertly handing off the Quaffle as he proceeded into the scoring area, flying straight at Oliver.

Nearly to the center hoop, Viktor stopped abruptly about three meters short of Wood, screening the Keeper's vision. The Bats' Chaser had followed Viktor into the scoring area, taking careful aim right at Viktor's back.

Unable to see the developing shot, Wood lunged toward the left hoop just as Viktor dove to the turf allowing the Quaffle to pass through the space he had vacated only a moment before.

"Damn!" Anthony yelled as the scoreboard gave Ballycastle ten points. "Is that even legal?"

Harry looked to the referee, expecting some sort of foul, even as he realized the entire play was legal. "Anyone can handle the Quaffle," Harry muttered, "and stooging only applies to Chasers."

"Stooging?" Padma asked.

"Only one Chaser is allowed to enter the scoring area," Susan answered. "But Viktor's a Seeker."

"That's gotta be blagging, though," Anthony objected.

"Blagging?" Harry scoffed, turning toward Anthony. "Refs only call that if there's a hard collision. Viktor pulled up well short of him."

Harry smiled broadly. Dobby was standing near the opening to the field, excitedly watching the match. Grabbing a Butterbeer for his friend, Harry sat on the floor next to Dobby. "Have a drink," Harry said. "Sorry for hurting your feelings yesterday."

Dobby accepted the Butterbeer, but didn't acknowledge Harry. Silently, they watched as Oliver blocked another shot and fed it to his Chasers; Puddlemere notched their first ten points of the match.

"How's your job going?" Harry asked, trying to start a conversation.

"Dobby is happy," the house-elf finally answered. "Masters' Weasley need a lot of help. The storeroom is being very disgusting."

Harry chuckled. "Did I tell you how I got them to hire you?"

---888---

The match lived up to its billing as the most exciting Seeker match up of the season. Puddlemere's Chasers clearly outclassed the Ballycastle line, but every time that it seemed like Puddlemere gained the momentum, Viktor would sweep down from above, neglecting his Seeker duties to help keep the score close.

With the scoreboard displaying a one hundred fifty point Puddlemere lead, Viktor stepped in on another scoring run. As in the past, Painter dove to the pitch, but Harry could see she had spotted the Snitch this time. The entire stadium roared in anticipation of a Puddlemere victory, but Ballycastle's Beater knocked a Bludger that caught her in the ribs. A heavier Seeker may have been able to absorb the shot and tally the snatch, but Painter was too light, and the impact sent her several meters wide of the Snitch, which disappeared before she could recover.

"That's gonna leave a mark," Anthony commented as Painter signaled for a time out. Puddlemere's lead was down to one hundred forty.

"Viktor's really dominating the match," Harry mused as he went back into the small kitchen area for a sandwich. He brushed by Susan, who was munching on a carrot from the vegetable platter. His nose twitched as he absently scratched an irritating itch on his chest. "Something smells really good. Is that..." He froze mid-sentence as he placed the scent. It was the unmistakable aroma of Augurey perfume.

Susan blushed, crimson cheeks offsetting her pale complexion. "Um. it's chicken," she answered hoarsely, handing Harry the plate of meat he had not requested.

"Er. thanks," Harry mumbled awkwardly, trying to figure out what to do with the plate. He settled for putting it down as Susan returned to the seating area.

Immediately following the timeout, it became evident that both sides had chosen adjustments in their strategy. Ballycastle tasked both Beaters to relentlessly attack Painter, while Viktor devoted most of his time to serving as a fourth Chaser. Puddlemere countered by placing both of its Beaters on Seeker protection duty, leaving their side short handed on the Chaser line.

With constant three on four disadvantages, Oliver's impressive saves ratio fell, and Puddlemere's lead dwindled. After the gap closed to seventy, Viktor abandoned his Quaffle efforts and began searching for the Snitch again.

"I can't believe Painter hasn't found the Snitch yet!" Susan seethed. "You have to make them pay for pulling their Seeker!"

"That Bludger did a number on her," Harry answered. "She's spending more time watching their Beaters than looking for the Snitch."

Without Viktor's presence, Puddlemere's Chaser line seized the momentum again, quickly racking up another fifty points.

"Looks like Krum's gonna chase again," Anthony observed as Viktor descended, signaling for the Quaffle.

Harry bolted to his feet. "No, he's seen the Snitch!"

A split-second later, Painter rocketed toward Viktor's position, signaling the end of Viktor's stealth pursuit of the Snitch. It was in this split-second that Harry truly understood Jen Painter's strength as a Seeker. Although she had been thirty meters from Viktor's position when she had spotted the Snitch, she had halved that distance by the time he'd noticed her movement.

With the experience of a Seeker long accustomed to competing against faster opponents, Viktor accelerated not toward the Snitch, but to the point directly between Painter and her quarry. Arriving moments before Painter reached the spot, Viktor negated her advantage, an obstacle three times her weight blocking her path. The positioning battle won, Viktor turned upfield and ended the match after a brief chase.

Cheers erupted from the Ballycastle fans as most of the stadium fell silent in stunned disbelief. Puddlemere had dominated most of the match, but Viktor's heroics kept the score close enough for a thirty point Ballycastle victory.

"Spackle me brown!" Susan muttered in disappointment. "We really gave that one away."

"Yeah, but Krum was amazing!" Anthony exclaimed a little too loudly. "Helluva match, Harry!"

Padma stood her handbag at the ready. "Anthony, dear, you're shouting."

Anthony apologized with an embarrassed smile. "Thanks for the invite, Harry. I had a blast."

Grinning from ear-to-ear, Harry shook hands with Anthony and Padma as they wandered out of the box.

"You're going too, Dobby?" Harry asked as the house-elf donned one of Hermione's knit caps.

"Dobby had a great time, Harry Potter, sir!"

"Brilliant!" Harry answered, bending down to shake Dobby's hand. "Do you want to come over for supper tomorrow?"

Dobby's eyes went wide with pleasure, and he seemed about ready to wrap himself around Harry's leg in excitement. But then he stopped, his eyes narrowing in thought. After a moment of consideration, he asked, "Would Harry Potter, sir, like Dobby to bring something?"

"If you want."

Delighted at the prospect, Dobby began skipping out of the box. "Er, Dobby. don't forget Fred's bat."

Susan had collected her belongings and watched in amusement as Dobby skipped out into the concourse with the battered club. "What's that about?" she asked as Harry retrieved his cap.

"It's complicated," Harry explained. "We had a little spat yesterday."

She arched an eyebrow, but didn't press. "Well, thanks for the ticket, Harry."

"I'm glad you guys came," Harry replied, smiling brightly as they stepped into the concourse together. "I had a great time."

A camera flash momentarily blinded him. "Who's your friend, Harry?" demanded an unfamiliar woman, holding a notepad. A lime green quick quotes quill dancing across the paper in anticipation.

_____
Author's Note A: One Galleon is equivalent to five pounds ( U.K. money), which is roughly $10 USD (U.S. Dollars). A stone is approximately 14 pounds ( U.S. weight). Augurey perfume was mentioned in chapter eight.

Author's Recognition: I want to thank the AFC crew for their help on this chapter. (JBern, Nukular Winter, and Japanese Jew). I also owe a huge thank you to my Beta, Lisa, for helping me clean up some confusing spots.

Initial Post: 17 January 2007

Last Updated: 26 June 2007

Chapter Ten: Business

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"Expecto Patronum!" A corporeal werewolf exploded out of Harry's wand. It paced the stage for several seconds before howling at the moon and dissipating into the wind.

Chapter Ten: Business

Terrorized screams resonated across the Burrow's paddock, fading into the night with Harry's Patronus. Fear gave way to shock. Shock birthed judgment. Judgment begot pandemonium. The funeral was clearly over.

"He's nothing but a show-off!"

"Of course he can cast the Patronus. He killed You-Know-Who!"

"He's clearly a Muggle lover, just like Dumbledore."

"Yes, Doris. Go with your friends, but be home by curfew."

Nimbly hopping down from the platform, Harry landed a meter from Scrimgeour, cutting in front of the crowd intent on speaking with the Minister. Willing his voice to sound as grave as possible, Harry declared, "Minister, we need to talk. Tonight."

Scrimgeour sighed, motioning to the growing queue of wizards. "Can't we put this off until tomorrow?"

"No," Harry replied angrily. "I'll wait 'til you're done, but not 'til tomorrow."

Scrimgeour nodded. "I'll find you later.. It might be awhile."

Harry's nascent smirk reversed abruptly as he realized that Scrimgeour was not the only one with a line of people awaiting him.

"Mr. Potter!" A mother of three reached him first. "I just wanted to thank you personally! You-Know-Who killed my brother nineteen years ago."

A hump-backed wizard clothed in fraying robes and leaning on a battered cane clasped Harry's hand, pressing a Galleon into it. "One sacrifice deserves another," the old man whispered mournfully, "no matter how inadequate mine is. I am truly sorry about your friends."

---888---

Nearly two hours later, Harry's queue of well-wishers drew to an end. After a brief search, he found Minister Scrimgeour sitting behind the stage with Seth Ashburton, Michael Glentworth, and an unfamiliar blond-haired wizard.

"Ah, Harry!" Ashburton stood, collecting his cane. "Rufus was just saying that you wanted to speak with him, tonight ." He winked at Harry. "Be gentle, okay?"

"Er, no promises," Harry nervously replied, unsure whether Ashburton was joking. The other two men erupted in laughter.

"Uh oh, Rufus! You've got it coming!" The youthful blond-haired man snickered before introducing himself as Lord Sherman Quirke. "It really is excellent to meet you, Harry," he said. "In fact, if you wanted to spare poor Rufus, you could join Michael, Seth, and I for a nightcap at McDaniels."

Harry's polite refusal did nothing to dampen their spirits, and the three Wizengamot Lords continued bantering between themselves as they ambled away from Harry and Scrimgeour.

"Your Patronus was a touching tribute to Mr. Lupin," the Minister offered when they were alone.

Frowning at Scrimgeour's attempted flattery, Harry withdrew his wand, lightly flicking it in a circle, "Muffliato."

Scrimgeour raised a bushy eyebrow in semi-surprise. "That's an interesting spell. Where'd you learn it?"

"A book," Harry replied, curtly ending the line of questioning. In fact, the spell, which produced an irritating buzz in the ears of would-be eavesdroppers, was a trick Harry had learned from the Half-Blood Prince's potion text. But, he wasn't eager to talk about spells with the Minister. "Why were Hermione and Remus excluded?" he demanded.

Scrimgeour leaned heavily on his cane. "I answered Andromeda's question honestly," he said. "Things are still quite unsettled. politically. Including Mr. Lupin would have resulted in a boycott or demonstrations. I didn't want to stir up controversy." Scrimgeour hesitated, confession leaking into his words. "Mr. Lupin had no family. No one asked for him to be included. I was just hoping the issue could be glossed over. I was wrong. In hindsight, it was a horrible mistake. I'm sorry, Harry."

Finding no solace in Scrimgeour's excuses, Harry's cheeks heated as repressed anger bubbled to the surface. "Would it still have been a horrible mistake if no one said anything? Or are you just sorry about getting caught?"

"Look, I made a mistake. I'm being completely honest with you," Scrimgeour replied. "I didn't know you would be upset. I should have asked."

Harry glared at him. "I was in your office two days ago . You had the opportunity. We talked about Hermione. Were you afraid of a Muggle-born controversy, too?" Harry demanded sarcastically.

Scrimgeour, who had been apologetic until that point, frowned and stood without the support of his cane. "I had the D.M.L.E. contact her parents an hour after your owl came," he barked. " They declined! They want nothing to do with us. It was their choice."

"THEIR CHOICE!?" Harry screamed, spittle spraying in all directions. "Hermione's body was dumped on their kitchen table! No one even talked to them!"

"She was dumped on the table?" the Minister rasped in shock. "Nonsense," he pleaded, even as his complexion paled. "Where did you hear this?"

"Mr. Granger."

Scrimgeour deflated completely, leaning heavily on his cane once more. Swearing beneath his breath, he vowed, "I'll look into this, Harry. If she was really dumped, I'll have that person sent to Azkaban!"

"That's not enough!" Harry fumed. "I'm tired of you doing one thing and then telling me you'll fix it later! Get it right the first time!"

Scrimgeour threw his hands up in resignation. "What would you have me do? Do you honestly think I would have permitted that kind of treatment if I'd known? I can't control everyone in the Ministry. People do stupid things!"

"Then fire 'em! Clean house within your precious Ministry!" Harry vented. "Hell! Put everyone under Veritaserum and find out who's loyal. Just do something!"

"I can't," Scrimgeour said sadly shaking his head. "It doesn't work that way."

"WHY NOT?" Harry screamed.

"Because everyone at the Ministry has a backer on the Wizengamot," Scrimgeour growled. "The Lords look out for their cousins, their cousins' cousins, their cousins' cousins' ex-nanny. You name it!"

Sinking back into his chair, Scrimgeour confided, "I'm too weak politically to try cleaning house. I'm one lost vote away from losing the Ministry to Charles Carrow."

"Then lose the Ministry!" Harry shouted. "If you can't get anything done, then let someone else try."

Scrimgeour was horrified. "Carrow's a Death Eater, Harry! No! He's worse! He's ten times smarter and a hundred times more dangerous than the worst Death Eater!"

"He's no Death Eater!" Harry snarled. "I was in Riddle's mind. I saw things in there that you'll never believe. Voldemort hated Carrow! He tried to kill him!"

"Riddle was a fool," Scrimgeour huffed. "He used blood purity as an excuse to make war. Carrow's scarier. he's a true believer!" Motioning for Harry to sit next to him, Scrimgeour paused to regain his breath and allow Harry's anger to abate.

"Charles Carrow comes from a long line of blood purists. He was born a purist, raised a purist, and after his father was murdered by a Muggle-born, he became obsessed with it," Scrimgeour said. "For years, he tried passing legislation in the Wizengamot, but he rarely succeeded. Dumbledore convinced even the oldest families that Carrow was a fanatic, so Carrow decided to prove Dumbledore wrong. He needed a diversion, something that would make him look good in comparison."

"Carrow knew about Tom Riddle," Scrimgeour continued. "He was this talented kid who was causing trouble, but didn't have enough influence or money to be a real threat. Then, one day, someone called The Asp started giving Riddle huge sums of money. His only instructions were to 'finish Salazar Slytherin's work'."

Harry nodded in understanding. During his battle with Voldemort, he'd learned of the gifts that catapulted Voldemort into prominence. Despite his continual efforts, Voldemort had never learned The Asp's identity.

"Carrow is The Asp," Scrimgeour stated flatly. "He funded Riddle. He ran interference for him in the Wizengamot, and now that Riddle and Dumbledore are gone, Carrow is back to his plan. He's going to convince the rest of the Wizengamot that he's not dangerous. that he's not evil. that he's just trying to retain the old traditions."

"How do you know all this?" Harry demanded skeptically. "Voldemort never knew who The Asp was. He hated Carrow."

"Riddle was blinded by his own arrogance," Scrimgeour replied. "He hated Carrow because Carrow wouldn't take the Dark Mark. He wouldn't even consider that his arch-enemy was The Asp."

"How do you know that Carrow is The Asp?" Harry pressed.

"I can't prove it. It's all circumstantial," Scrimgeour answered. "For instance, the Carrow family manufactures Floo powder. When a Muggle-born witch developed a new way to make it, everyone started buying FlooTwo. At the same time, The Asp's gifts to Riddle stopped. When the witch mysteriously died a few months later, the gifts resumed. That's the most damning evidence I have."

---888---

An hour after casting the Muffliato spell, Harry canceled the privacy charm. As the echo of the Minister's Apparation crack faded, Harry was surprised to hear voices coming from the other side of the platform. Investigating, he found Susan, Anthony, and Padma waiting for him.

"Hey, Harry!" Anthony greeted him. "We were beginning to think you'd never get done."

"Er," Harry mumbled, "the Minister and I were just talking."

"More like having it out, I think," Anthony laughed. "Just 'cause we can't hear you doesn't mean we can't see you."

"But I found out why my ears kept ringing in Herbology last year," Susan chimed in. "Madame Pomfrey thinks I'm crazy, thanks to you."

"We weren't having it out," Harry answered weakly. "We were just. discussing some stuff."

"I don't care. I'm starving," Padma complained. "We're going to The Baying Mare in Hawkman Alley for a late supper. Want to come?"

"Sure, I haven't eaten since this morning," Harry answered. "But I've never been there before."

Padma smiled broadly. "That's great! I'll see you there." With a wink, she spun and Disapparated with a quiet pop. A moment later, Anthony offered a guilty shrug before following her.

"We've been ditched," Harry complained.

"More like set-up," Susan replied with a grin. She crossed over to him, reaching for his elbow. "Come on. I'll take you."

Harry playfully withdrew from her grasp. "Am I going to lose anything important?" he teased her.

Susan grimaced at the memory of her splinched leg from the year before. "You just might," she replied. "I'm pretty good at leaving smartasses behind."

Harry chuckled and grasped her elbow. "Take me away. I'll be good."

Susan smiled at him before closing her eyes in concentration. Soon, Harry felt the iron bands of Apparation squeeze. His body compressed so tightly that he could feel himself being sucked through the narrow rubber hose he had first passed through a year ago with Professor Dumbledore. A moment later, the hose disappeared. His lungs expanded, greedily sucking in oxygen.

"Wasn't sure if you'd make it," Padma quipped as Harry and Susan appeared in Hawkman Alley. The four friends were standing in the middle of a well-maintained cobblestone street across from a wooden sign with a mare rearing up on her hind legs.

Rows of brick and limestone buildings lined either side of the Alley. The ground floors housed restaurants and shops, while the upper floors were apartments. Small wrought iron-encased balconies jutted out over the Alley. Tenants could be seen through undrawn windows. Gas lamps lent a hint of golden light, making Hawkman Alley simultaneously romantic and antiquated.

"This is different," Harry mused. "It doesn't even look magical."

"It wasn't originally," Susan replied. "The area was firebombed by the Germans fifty years ago. A Muggle-born wizard named Samuel Hawkman bought the land and hired Muggles to reconstruct it. He wanted to build an Alley to rival Diagon, but it never caught on."

"I didn't know that," Anthony said as he held the pub door open for Padma.

"All the real estate on Diagon Alley belongs to the old families." Susan entered the Baying Mare behind Harry. "They all banded together and refused to shop here. Some families still won't come."

"Ooh, it's Lisa and Zacharias!" Padma interrupted. "Let's sit with them."

"Hey mates!" Zacharias greeted them, possessively placing his arm around Lisa Turpin's shoulders. "Didn't expect to see you tonight."

Harry followed after a clearly reluctant Anthony, sliding into the u-shaped booth beside Susan. He was sitting directly across the table from Zacharias and Lisa, who were already half-way through their meals.

"Hello, Harry." Lisa's hushed tone contrasted sharply with Zacharias' self-important boasting. "We went to the memorial service tonight. I'm sorry about Ron and Hermione."

"Thanks," Harry murmured, studying the menu.

"Your Patronus was quite impressive," Lisa continued. "When did you switch from the stag?"

"Er," Harry set down his menu, surrendering to the conversation. "I just decided to switch it tonight. I thought it would be a good way to honor Professor Lupin. He taught me the Patronus in the first place."

Lisa was astonished. "You haven't been practicing?" she accused. "It's supposed to be very difficult to produce a Patronus, much less change your form. I've been trying all summer, and I can't even get any mist." She waited for Harry to say something, but he had returned to his menu. "Zacharias said you taught a study group in Fifth year."

Harry, dutifully ignoring Lisa's pointed comments, drummed his fingers against the tabletop before fiddling with a bowl of peanuts.

"Harry," Zacharias interceded, "she wants to join the DA next year."

"I know," Harry finally replied.

"I'll vouch for her," Zacharias assured him. "She's no Marietta Edgecombe."

"It's not that. I'm not doing the DA again."

"What about NEWTs?" Anthony stammered. "Harry, we'll never pass our NEWTs if we don't have the DA."

"Please, Harry," Padma pleaded as Susan nodded in agreement.

"Look," Harry said, "I'm not going back to Hogwarts. I just can't. Okay?" He raised his hands to prevent protests from his friends. "Can we just change the subject? I don't want to talk about any of this."

Despite a general reticence to let Harry's decision go unchallenged, Susan asked Lisa if she had any plans for the remainder of the summer.

Soon, a waitress arrived with their orders and the halting conversation intertwined with butterbeer and roast chicken. After finishing their meals, Lisa and Zacharias excused themselves, leaving Susan, Padma, and Anthony alone with Harry.

"What are you guys doing next Saturday?" he asked. "Oliver Wood gave me tickets to the Puddlemere United match."

---888---

Harry blearily cracked open one eye. Harsh yellow sunlight streamed through the moth-eaten curtains shielding the eastern window of his bedroom.

"Harry Potter, sir should wake up," Dobby repeated, lightly shaking Harry's shoulder. "Misses Tabby is here."

Harry groaned, pulling on the pair of slacks that had landed haphazardly on the floor the night before. Wiping an enormous sleep booger from his eye and donning his glasses, Harry realized that Dobby had finished rearranging the furniture in his room. There was now a fully assembled bookcase, proudly displaying his school texts, and the books that Dumbledore had left him. His empty trunks were stacked in the corner behind the door to his walk-in closet.

"Dobby, this looks great," Harry mumbled.

Dobby hopped up and down in excitement. "Harry Potter, sir is the kindest wizard ever! Dobby wants to help him!" His voice lowered to a pleading whisper. "Harry Potter needs a house-elf. Dobby wants to be his house-elf."

Harry kneeled down next to him. "We discussed this, Dobby. You can't be my house-elf. I want you to be my friend instead."

Disappointment painted his face. "Misses Tabby is waiting in the parlor." Dobby pouted, hanging his head.

Harry placed a finger under his chin and raised the house-elf's eye level to match his own. "Dobby, being my friend is much better than being my servant. In fact, I wanted to invite you to come to a Quidditch match with me on Saturday."

Any perceived slight evaporated as Dobby flung his arms around Harry's torso, hugging him as tightly as the elf could muster. "Harry Potter is the bestest wizard ever!"

---888---

In the parlor, Harry greeted Professor McGonagall. She sat on the sofa, sipping a cup of tea. Two steaming breakfast plates rested on the low slung table.

"You brought breakfast again?" Harry asked.

"No," she replied with a questioning glance. "Dobby served it."

Harry smiled before taking a seat and lifting his fork. "I'll have to thank him. He's been a great the last two days."

McGonagall's tight lips attempted a smile. "You're sleeping better."

Harry grinned sheepishly. "I am," he admitted. "A little whisky helps."

McGonagall frowned before setting down her tea. "I heard from Selby Turpin that you're not returning to Hogwarts."

"Is that Lisa's mother?" he questioned.

McGonagall nodded curtly.

"Er," Harry hesitated. This was easier to say to his friends than his Head of House. "I'm not really planning on coming back this year."

"Why is that?"

Harry shifted uncomfortably. He would rather have listened to a lecture than explain himself. "Why should I?"

"It will help you to heal," she answered quietly. "What else will you do? Sit in this dreadful house for the rest of your life? Frequent a pub and drown your troubles with whisky? Write a book and trade on your fame?"

Harry smiled at her veiled criticism of Gilderoy Lockhart. "I was thinking of leaving."

Evidently, she had expected this response. "Leaving to where? The Muggle world?" she snapped. "You'll be chased down by the press within weeks. You'll never escape. The farther you run, the more dramatic the Daily Prophet's stories will be."

"I have nothing here," Harry whined, recognizing his own pathetic excuse even as he muttered it.

"You also have nothing elsewhere," McGonagall shot back. "You cannot start clean, Harry. That's a myth. You'll never be able to forget what happened. Your only option is to heal." She locked gazes with Harry. "It's much easier to run toward something rather than away from it."

Harry grunted, unwilling to concede her point.

McGonagall was undeterred. "You have friends and acquaintances at Hogwarts. I will be there, Filius Flitwick will be returning, and Pomona Sprout will be back." She waited again until he looked up at her. "The staff at Hogwarts has always been impressed by your resilience; they will support you. The students will support you. You have more friends than just Ron and Hermione."

"I can't stay in Gryffindor Tower ," Harry protested. "We spent too much time there. The common room would kill me!"

"Those times were happy?"

Harry refused to answer, picking at a cold sausage instead.

"Grieving is about moving on. Facing our losses and overcoming them," she said quietly. "Frankly, spending a year in Gryffindor Tower would do you more good than a lifetime of running from the past."

McGonagall allowed a few moments to pass before continuing. "The school needs you, Harry," she urged. "The returning students will need leadership, and frankly I can't provide it. The faculty cannot provide it. It must come from the upper classes. The younger students will have read the papers. They will know what has happened this summer, and they will be looking to you and your classmates for advice. I need you to lead them."

"I don't know," Harry objected. "I need time."

McGonagall took a deep breath. "Promise me one thing, at least, Harry. Please stop telling your friends that you're not coming back."

He cocked an eyebrow in question.

"So far, we only have seventy students returning next year," she explained. "I need one hundred by September first... and I spent the entire morning at Selby Turpin's begging her to keep Lisa enrolled. I can't afford to lose committed students."

"I just don't know," Harry repeated quietly.

The browbeating sufficiently complete, McGonagall seemed content to move on to another subject. "I'm surprised you bonded with Dobby," she commented, re-heating her tea. "I assumed you agreed with Miss Granger."

Harry finished munching on a cold strip of bacon. "I didn't," he answered. "We've discussed it a few times, but I want him as a friend, not a servant."

She offered a troubled smile. "That's a very mature decision," she replied. "Did you hire him?"

"Er, isn't he still working at the school?"

She frowned. "No, he asked to leave last week. So, I let him go."

"Can you take him back? I don't want to hire him," Harry answered. "It'd be the same thing as bonding. I'd still be his boss, not his friend."

McGonagall studied her tea for a while. "I'd rather not. The other house-elves find his presence. disrupting."

Harry understood her position. He'd witnessed Dobby's outcast status on a few midnight kitchen raids with Ron. "Don't worry then. I'll find him a job somewhere. I think Fred and George could use some help."

Standing to leave, McGonagall attempted to hide a knowing smile. "I'd best move along. I have appointments with the Patils and Snodgrasses this afternoon," she said before stepping into the hearth and vanishing in a flash of emerald flames.

"Good luck," Harry muttered to the empty room, hoping for Padma's sake that McGonagall could convince the Patils to let their daughters return to Hogwarts.

After staring blankly into the hearth for a few minutes, he turned to his stack of unopened post. The Ministry mailroom had added to his list of correspondents and passed along several dozen additional envelopes made of heavy parchment and embossed with family seals. It turned out that most of the Wizengamot Lords had sent notes of congratulations and sympathy.

At the bottom of the stack, Harry opened a letter from his solicitors at Dunkirk , Langshire & Stratton. The note contained a sympathy card and a gentle reminder for Harry to reschedule the appointment he had missed three days previous. Retrieving parchment and ink from his room, Harry confirmed the suggested appointment for noon that Friday.

---888---

The following three days passed slowly and were, for the most part, unremarkable. Professor McGonagall visited each morning, urging Harry to return to Hogwarts. After perhaps twenty minutes of dodging her pointed suggestions, Harry would change the subject and they discussed Quidditch, politics, or changes at the school.

On Wednesday, Harry had wandered aimlessly through the Doghouse until he came to Buckbeak's old room. He found Kreacher sleeping in the corner, his skin sallow and stomach swollen. With a start Harry remembered angrily sending the elf up to Buckbeak's room days earlier, only to completely forget about him. The incident unnerved Harry, who did not want another death on his hands. He ordered Kreacher to eat and bathe daily, but the elf's continued existence constantly gnawed at Harry's consciousness.

Troubled by his "Kreacher problem," Harry visited Fred and George at their shop on Thursday. In the stockroom, Harry deliberately nudged a crate of trick wands with his foot, watching in mock horror as a dozen precariously positioned boxes tumbled to the floor around him.

"Dobby's looking for a job."

"He can start tomorrow," Fred replied.

---888---

Fifteen minutes early, Harry stepped from the lift into the lobby of Dunkirk , Langshire & Stratton. His dirty trainers squeaked as he crossed the brilliantly polished hardwood floor.

"Mr. Potter, I presume?" A smiling receptionist greeted him.

Harry self-consciously ran a hand through his hair. "Yes ma'am. That's me."

"Mr. Stratton will be right out. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Er, no thanks," Harry mumbled as he inspected a blurry painting of water lilies slowly drifting across a bluish green pond. He wiped his glasses on the tail of his t-shirt, but this did nothing to bring the lilies into focus.

The methodic clap of highly polished wingtips against the floor announced the arrival of an impeccably dressed grandfather. "Good afternoon, Harry. I'm Edward Stratton," he declared with a firm handshake and a clear-eyed smile. "Are you an art enthusiast?"

"No," Harry replied. "But, I think maybe I've seen this painting before."

Edward grinned at Harry. "You've undoubtedly seen prints of the original still-life. A French wizard named Rogeaux specializes in copying original impressionist pieces and animating them."

"Er, I really don't know much about art," Harry sheepishly admitted, "but I like the painting. It's nice."

"Yes, yes it is," Edward chuckled, flashing another warm smile. "Should we go meet the rest of the team?"

Edward led him back through the office, past dozens of paintings and sculptures, and what seemed like hundreds of offices. "We have over a hundred and fifty solicitors in the firm," Edward proudly declared. "About half our employees work upstairs in the Muggle office. The other half handles our magical clientele."

They paused in front of an imposing black door, which Edward opened to reveal a well- appointed conference room with a spectacular view of London . Two solicitors were waiting for them.

"Harry, meet Daniel Barnabee. He's an associate at the firm," Edward said. "He spends most of his time handling the day-to-day work on your estate."

A thirty-something, wiry man with a mustache greeted Harry, shaking his hand and passing him a business card, "I'm your details guy. Call me if you ever need anything."

"And this is Margaret Sedgwick," Edward said, indicating an athletic woman who was approaching fifty years old. "Margaret's a partner here; she handles your estate and has done so for what - twenty-one years?"

"Twenty-four actually," Margaret replied, shaking Harry's hand. "Edward and I worked together on this estate before your grandparents passed away. I took over the file when your father turned seventeen."

"You knew my grandparents?" Harry asked, a longing twinge creeping into his voice. "I've only met a few people who knew them."

Margaret smiled warmly. "I'll tell you about them sometime. They were very kind."

Edward placed a reassuring hand on Harry's shoulder. "Stanton and I were dorm mates at Hogwarts. We'll do dinner sometime in the next few weeks, and I'll tell you as much as I can remember."

Harry nodded enthusiastically. "I'd really like that. I'm free just about any time."

Across the room, a secretary entered, pushing a cart laden with drinks and sandwiches.

"Thank you, Kimberly," Edward said. "Is the Gringotts representative here yet?"

"No, sir. I'll send him in when he arrives."

"He's late," Edward grunted as she slipped out of the room. Turning to Harry, he said, "This meeting's going to be a long one. I took the liberty of ordering lunch; help yourself."

Grateful for the food, Harry piled three sandwich wedges onto his plate and poured a glass of pumpkin juice. Soon, Margaret and Daniel joined him at the table.

"We'll just get started," Edward said, glancing at his watch before joining the other three. After shuffling his notes, he leaned back in his chair. "What do you know about the Wizengamot, Harry?"

---888---

Some time later, Harry set down his glass of pumpkin juice. "So the Wizengamot passes most of the laws, elects the Minister of Magic, and tries high-profile crimes?" Harry asked, summing up the lengthy civics lesson.

"They also try cases involving Wizengamot Lords or the presumptive heirs to the Wizengamot seats," Edward replied, glancing at his pocket watch again before stalking over to the door. "Excuse me just a moment."

He reentered the room a few minutes later, preceded by a well dressed goblin carrying a large brass box. "Harry, let me introduce."

"Holcop," Harry sneered, interrupting Edward.

"You know each other?" Margaret abruptly blurted out.

Harry detected a note of panic in her question, but dismissed it with a muted chuckle. "We met the other day," he growled darkly. "Holcop personally escorted me to my vault. it took a bit longer than usual."

"Well, well," Holcop retorted, "I see Mr. Potter is in attendance. I assumed he would forget his appointment again ." Ignoring Edward's scowl, Holcop hefted his box onto the conference room table and began removing metallic pieces from a compartment on top.

Clearing his throat to break the tension, Edward motioned to the brass box. "This contraption is a Complete Lineage Identification and Core History Evaluator," he said. "It will verify your lineage by checking both your blood and magical core. It's been used hundreds of times by Gringotts to ensure that the rightful heirs are seated on the Wizengamot."

Harry looked on skeptically as Holcop assembled the machine. Into a hole in the side of the large brass box, the goblin screwed in a thick copper wand. He then affixed a silver funnel into a slot halfway down the length of the wand.

"You'll just need to bleed a few drops into the funnel," Edward explained. "Your blood will act as a magical core for the wand, enabling you to cast an identification spell into the Evaluator."

Harry ran his finger across the razor sharp edge of the funnel. Immediately, blood gathered on the tip of his finger and dripped down into the wand core.

"That's enough," Holcop sneered. "Now, cast the spell agnitio ."

Harry complied, gripping the copper wand handle and muttering the Latin incantation. Instinctively, he jerked away from the wand, gasping for breath. The sensation was unlike any he had ever felt before, almost as if he had instantaneously drained his magical core.

A moment later, his breath regained, Harry could still feel his magic crackling like static electricity on the tips of his fingers. "Blimey! What was that?" Harry stammered.

"I take it you've never used a metal wand before," Edward observed wryly. "The combination of the copper and blood are extremely efficient conductors of magical energy. They're a bit draining."

Harry agreed by sinking into his chair and reaching for the pumpkin juice. "Did it work?"

"Of course it worked," Holcop snarled. "Not everything is instantaneous."

As if to underscore this point, the brass box began vibrating and a few seconds later, a piece of parchment slowly scrolled out of the Evaluator.

---

Harry James Potter

b. July 31, 1980

First born child of James Stanton Potter

Soul of the Lion

Heir - Leoforte

---

Harry wanted to ask what 'Leoforte' meant, but the Evaluator vibrated again. As the parchment scrolled from the brass box, Holcop gasped as he read the words, dread shining in his beady black eyes.

---

First born son of James Stanton Potter

Heir - Bonaccord

---

Harry silently watched as Holcop nervously tugged on the vest of his three-piece suit, straightening out a nonexistent wrinkle.

"Bonaccord?" Harry prompted.

"It was your grandmother's family name," Edward replied, also eyeing Holcop curiously.

The scroll of parchment lengthened as the Evaluator began vibrating once more. Holcop was close enough to read the words. A jagged smile blossomed on his ugly mug.

---

Soul of the Serpent

Heir - Slytherin

---

Stunned silence conquered the conference room. Harry opened his mouth to protest, but the words he spoke wouldn't deny the truth he already knew. "You can't tell anyone!" he stammered. "You have to keep this a secret, right? You're my solicitors!"

Edward appeared shaken by Harry's sudden lack of trust. "Of course we'll keep your confidence," he vowed. "My firm has the best reputation in the country! We never disclose client information. Never."

Harry found reassurance in Edward's burning eyes, but cold calculation when he turned to Holcop.

"I'm a banker. We typically keep our client's confidence," the goblin replied.

Edward exploded before Harry could react. The older man slammed his fist into the table before grabbing the goblin by the lapel of his jacket and pinning him against the wall. "You won't leave this office alive, goblin! I'll rip your throat out!"

"Edward!" Margaret yelled. "Put him down before you kill him!"

Gritting his teeth in annoyance, Edward dropped Holcop at his feet. "I have a meeting with Ragnok tomorrow," he growled. "You'll be a blacksmith's assistant by Monday!"

Holcop climbed to his feet, proudly straightening his tie. "Your arrogance is astounding, Stratton. When Ragnok hears I've been manhandled like a petty house-elf, your clients will never set foot in their vaults again."

"Don't play us for fools," Margaret sneered. "I'm well aware of your rivalry with Ragnok. He'd be happy to get rid of you. Now, what do you want?"

Holcop flashed a toothy grin. "That's better," he sneered. "I just need some assurances from Lord Slytherin, here."

Harry stiffened at the title that had last belonged to Voldemort.

"What assurances would that be?" Margaret demanded.

"I have managed the Bonaccord estate for several years," Holcop replied. "I would just like a promise that the assets will remain under my stewardship."

Harry considered the request for a moment. "How much is in the estate?"

"A few million Galleons, a manor in France , and a family ring," Holcop answered with a wave of his hand, as if to suggest it was inconsequential.

"It isn't the money that concerns him," Margaret advised Harry. "He's worried about his reputation. It's shameful to be removed from an estate without cause."

Harry's eyes bore into Holcop, evaluating the goblin. "I don't trust you," he declared. "You're not keeping it. but if you'll swear an oath of secrecy, I won't say why. You can tell everyone else I'm just consolidating it with the Potter estate."

Holcop thought this over for a moment. "I swear it," he answered.

"I don't think so," Margaret objected with a wry chuckle. "You're doing this properly, or I'll let Edward at you again."

Holcop sneered at Margaret but made a show of kneeling down on one knee. "I, Holcop, do hereby swear on my life that I will uphold the Banker's Pledge. I will keep Harry Potter's confidence on all matters of business. and I will never disclose the results of his lineage evaluation or his status as the Slytherin heir."

"That's much better," Margaret declared. "Now, if you're done, Daniel will escort you out of our office. and you might want to come up with an excuse for why Braybar will be handling these appointments in the future."

Holcop smugly ignored everyone as he disassembled the Evaluator. When he finished, he started to follow Daniel out the door.

"Hem, Hem." Margaret held out an open hand. "The lineage evaluation, please."

With a toothy grin, Holcop produced the slip of parchment from his jacket pocket and handed it to Margaret. "Good day, Ms. Sedgwick."

---888---

Edward absently twisted his wedding band as Daniel returned from escorting Holcop out of the building. "I apologize for all the excitement," Edward huffed, "but sometimes you have to work with the pretentious gremlins."

Margaret winced at Edward's slur, but did not rebuke him. Instead, she passed two single sheets of parchment across the table to Harry. "These are your parents' wills," she explained. "They're short, sweet, and bulletproof. They left everything to each other first, and in the event of both of their deaths, everything to you."

"The second paragraph," she continued, "appoints the Potter Trust as trustee of your inheritance until you turn seventeen. The third paragraph names Albus Dumbledore as executor." She passed another sheet across the table. "And Albus appointed our firm to continue running the Trust until you were legally an adult."

Edward set a small black box on the table. "The lineage test proves that you're an adult," he said, handing the velvet box to Harry. "This is the Potter family ring. It signifies your status as head of the family and as a member of the Wizengamot."

Harry opened the velvet box and extracted the thick golden band. Seven square-cut rubies, seated so closely together that Harry had to hold the ring six centimeters from his nose to distinguish them, formed a large L. On either side of the rubies, two engraved lions guarded the stones. "The L is for Leoforte then?" Harry asked.

"Correct," Edward answered. "The Leoforte line passes to the oldest child, regardless of gender. So, the actual family name has changed a half dozen times in the last thousand years. Look closely at the lions, do you recognize them?"

Harry looked at the ring again. "Gryffindor!" he gasped. "These are the same lions from the house banner."

Edward beamed proudly. "Godric Gryffindor was very close to his mother, Edolie Leoforte. He wanted to take her name, but his father wouldn't have it, so he adopted the family crest instead."

"I'm related to Godric Gryffindor?" Harry stammered.

"You and most of magical Britain ," Edward chuckled. "But you're the only one who can wear that ring. So, yes, you are his heir."

As Harry studied the ring, he couldn't help but consider the path it must have taken from the Hogwarts founder to him. This ring was his identity, an identity he had longed for countless times while locked in a cupboard beneath the stairs. "My father wore this?" he asked.

"Sure," Edward replied. "Your grandfather, too; he was very proud of his lineage."

"When did the family change from Gryffindor to Potter?

"I don't know." Edward shrugged. "The family name changed a few times between Gryffindor and Potter. It was Wright for almost two centuries and then Locke."

Reaching into his pocket, Edward handed an envelope to Harry. "When your parents died, we put what was left from their house in a storage facility. The library made out reasonably well, and I believe the family Grimoire survived. You should read that. Stanton found it absolutely fascinating."

Harry opened the envelope to find a key and a full inventory listing for storage unit #405 at the Self-Store garage in Hounslow. "Thanks," he whispered.

Glancing at his notes, Edward continued. "As the heir of Godric Gryffindor, you may appoint two members to the Hogwarts Board of Governors. The board has nine members. One is appointed by the Minister of Magic, and all of the founders' heirs control two seats apiece. so the Slytherin heir also."

Harry's grin disappeared in a flash. "I just don't want to deal with it, okay! No one has to know, right?"

Margaret sighed in frustration. "You can keep it a secret, but you're giving up a lot of power," she urged. "The Slytherin seat would be enormously influential in the Wizengamot."

Holding up the Leoforte ring, Harry flatly refused. "I don't want it. I've already got enough power with this."

Apparently relieved by Harry's refusal, Edward pushed his notes to the side. "A word of advice. Normally the founders' heirs serve on the Board, but you should probably wait until you graduate before joining. It would put the Headmistress in a bad position to have a student on her board."

"Right," Harry said, calming down. "Who should I appoint then?"

Taking a deep breath, Edward replied, "You have several options, and none of them are easy. Your best bet might be to leave the Board as it is right now. But, doing that would be a tacit endorsement of Minister Scrimgeour."

"How's that?"

"The Minister fills any vacant seats," Edward explained. "So, the sitting Minister has effectively controlled the board since your father's death. If you leave the seats vacant, then you're allowing the Minister's appointees to control the school." He paused to pour himself a glass of water. "Cornelius Fudge, like most Ministers before him, demanded that his appointees consult with him before voting. But, the Board hasn't been terribly effective the last few years." Edward directed a grimace in Harry's direction. "And, the debacle with Undersecretary Umbridge angered a lot of the Wizengamot, including Seth Ashburton and Sherman Quirke."

"I've met them," Harry said.

"Ah, good!" Edward said. "Seth and Sherman are the other founders' heirs - Quirke for Ravenclaw and Ashburton for Hufflepuff. They tend to work together, but Fudge had them outnumbered on the Board, so they spearheaded the effort to oust him."

"So now they control the Board?"

"Not exactly. Scrimgeour learned from Fudge's mistake and appointed some independents." Edward smiled slyly. "Of course four weeks later, two of his appointees voted to overturn his decision to close the school. In the past, Fudge would have just replaced them. But, Rufus saved his skin by leaving them on the Board."

"The no-confidence vote?" Harry guessed.

"I think you're a natural, Harry." Edward beamed. "He impressed Sherman and Seth enough that they both threw their support to Rufus. He got all nine votes from the Board Members, and I think that swayed some of the fence sitters."

"So they're really independent then?" Harry asked. "Are they any good?"

Chuckling, Edward smiled at Harry. "I'm not an expert. You might want to talk to Seth or Sherman about that. They're both honorable men. I think you can trust them."

A knock on the door prompted Daniel to step outside for a moment before returning with two small black boxes and a thick leather folio embossed with the Gringotts logo. "Braybar brought over the Bonaccord estate," he said, handing the two boxes to Harry. Holding up the folio, he asked, "Mind if I take a look at this?"

"Go ahead," Harry replied, distracted by the ring he found in the first box. A massive blue stone dominated the simple golden band.

"The Bonaccord family also has a seat on the Wizengamot," Edward commented.

"I get two votes?" Harry asked as he opened the second box to find a vault key with an ornate 'B' engraved in the handle.

"Well," Edward hedged, "there's a handful of Lords with two rings, but none with more than two."

Grinding his teeth, Harry cursed. "I said I don't want to talk about Slytherin."

"I'm not," Edward replied. "The Black family also has a seat. I'm aware you inherited some things from your godfather, but I don't know if the Black family ring passed to you."

"Wouldn't the lineage evaluation have said so?" Harry asked.

"Not if the transfer was made in a will. The Evaluator only tests your blood and magical core."

"How do I find out?" Harry asked.

"You'll have to look at your godfather's will. By law, the trustee has one week to notify you after turning seventeen. You should have received a letter by now."

"Right," Harry muttered, fearing the letter was stuck in the Ministry mailroom. "My post's a little slow right now."

Daniel closed the folio he was studying and passed it to Harry. "Everything appears in order," he concluded. "Not surprisingly, Holcop has it all in bank securities."

Interpreting Harry's bewildered expression, Margaret explained. "The money is all invested in Gringotts' stocks and bonds. It's not a great investment strategy, but the goblins like to do that with the estates they manage. It gives them more control over the bank."

"It's actually a good fit with the Potter Trust," Daniel chimed in. "You already own a few shares of Gringotts, and this almost doubles the size of your investment in the bank. It will make you one of the larger shareholders."

Turning to Margaret, Harry objected. "I thought you said it wasn't a good strategy."

She smiled patiently at him. "Investing everything in one company is poor diversification," she answered. "But the Potter Trust is much larger than the Bonaccord account, so it fits well with what you already own."

Daniel retrieved an enormous hardbound book from the counter behind him and carried it to Harry. "These are the Potter Trust financial statements for the last sixteen years," he said. "It has a net worth of approximately 92 million Galleons, most of which is invested in real estate. The rest is in various commercial interests. mainly Snidget Industries, Cheetah Brooms, JSP Breweries, and of course Gringotts."

Harry curiously opened the book to a random page and began reading. "Consolidated depreciation schedule of Snidget Industries fixed assets. double declining method?" He looked up at Edward. "Am I supposed to know what any of this means?"

Edward sipped at a glass of water. "In time. perhaps. It's really up to you. If you want to be knowledgeable about your business holdings, then you'll need to learn at least the basics. Otherwise, you can always hire advisors whom you trust."

Harry looked down at the daunting book again. "That's why I have you guys then?"

Edward grinned at Harry. "Unless you'd like to hire Holcop," he quipped.

"So you guys will take care of everything?" Harry asked hopefully.

"Not everything," Edward replied. "You'll still need to handle a fair amount of paperwork, sign contracts, and manage your personal budget. Our firm could do a lot of that in house, but we're awfully expensive," he confessed. "Most of our clients have a house-elf that manages those kinds of things."

"I have a house-elf," Harry muttered. "I wouldn't trust him to take out my garbage."

Edward offered an easy smile. "Some elves are specially educated to run large households," he explained. "Several of them are looking for jobs right now."

"And you think I should hire one?" Harry said.

"Or buy one," Margaret suggested absently as she leafed through a stack of parchment. "It's less expensive that way."

"No."

Margaret looked up from her notes. "No, what?"

"No, I won't buy an elf," Harry snorted. "I don't approve of it."

"Hmm," Margaret returned to her notes, crossing several names off the list in front of her. "I pre-screened some of the applicants," she said, passing the sheet to Harry. "There's a glut of unemployed house-elves due to the war. Our firm routinely places them with families. This is the list of elves that we think are qualified for what you'll need."

Harry read the list she had passed him; all but four names had been struck. "Do I really need a house-elf?" he asked.

"Yes."

Harry glanced at the list again. "Er, am I just supposed to pick a name?"

"You might want to interview them first," Edward suggested wryly. "We've got Missy in the other room if you want to get started."

---888---

Harry sipped at his pumpkin juice as the third house-elf left the conference room. Maybe this was why elves and children bonded at such a young age. It would take years before he got used to the concept of an elf serving him personally.

"Are you sure that I need an elf?" Harry asked for what seemed like the hundredth time. "They're all so. excitable."

"Salty's a bit older than Moxy, and a little more reserved than Chippy," Edward encouraged. "You might like him."

Daniel escorted the fourth house-elf into the room, causing Harry to sit up abruptly in his chair. "You're wearing a robe," he rudely blurted out.

"And you're wearing trainers," the elf sneered.

Margaret shook her head in frustration and walked to the door, intending to dismiss Salty.

"Wait." Harry said, smiling curiously at the intriguing house-elf in front of him. This one was different; this one had a backbone. He stood, extending a hand to the elf. "Hi, I'm Harry."

The house-elf, clothed in a full-length black robe, shook his hand. "My name is Salty, but I also answer to Saul."

"Please, take a seat," Harry said before sitting down himself. "Which name do you prefer?"

Salty's discerning golden eyes studied Harry, evaluating the unusual request from a wizard. "I actually prefer Salty," the elf said as he chose one of the conference room chairs.

_____
Author's Note: Thanks everyone for your patience. I'm sorry about the long delay. Since September I took the final CPA review course and three of the four exams I need to pass. I know I passed one and will find out if I passed the others in a few weeks. The fourth exam is tentatively scheduled for mid-February.

Author's Recognition: This chapter is dedicated to Lord of Caer Azkaban by Rorschach's blot. The cliché of Harry going into a meeting and returning with a million titles is one of my very favorites and while I generally like to avoid clichés, this one I wholeheartedly embrace. And Caer Azkaban is one of the best of this genre of stories. Finally, I want to thank Ivan and Lisa for their beta work.

Initial Post: 11 December 2006
Last Updated: 28 December 2006

Chapter Nine: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

The evening air was cool, and a slight breeze chilled Harry. Across the parking lot, a restaurant advertised in brilliant red neon that it remained open 24 hours. The diner was of the hideous sort that served everything and specialized in nothing. But Harry, prompted by a growling stomach, ordered a sandwich and slowly consumed it while plying the waitress for refills of his hot cocoa.

After an hour, Harry left the diner and Apparated back to his room at Grimmauld Place . The distinctive crack announcing his arrival was echoed moments later by the crash of a partly-assembled bookcase.

The room was a disaster. Ron's mattress leaned against a wall, and the spare bed frame had been disassembled. There was now a battered night stand below the window. His trunk was open and the contents emptied. Most of his clothes were piled on the bed, and stacks of school books littered the floor.

"Dobby!" Harry sputtered in shock at seeing his friend emerge from beneath the collapsed bookcase. "You alright?"

"Harry Potter! Dobby is so happy to see you!" The house-elf launched himself toward Harry, clinging to his leg. "Harry Potter was so sad the last time Dobby came."

Harry awkwardly patted his friend on the head. "What are you doing here?"

"Dobby has come to help Harry Potter. Dobby wants to be Harry Potter sir's house-elf!" Dobby's huge bat-like ears twitched, and his upturned tennis-ball eyes watered in anticipation.

"Er." Harry shifted the pile of clothes to the foot of his bed and sat down. "Dobby, you can't be my house-elf. You're my friend."

Crestfallen, the elf's eyes snapped shut and large tears began pouring down his face. "Dobby doesn't need paying," he begged. "Dobby doesn't need clothes. Dobby just wants to be Harry Potter sir's house-elf."

"Ssshhh," Harry said, laying a hand on the sobbing elf's shoulder. "Don't you want to be my friend?"

"Dobby wants that more than anything else, Harry Potter."

"Well, you can't be both," Harry explained patiently. "Besides, being my friend is much better than being my house-elf."

"But," Dobby objected, confusion playing out across his face. "Why can't Dobby be both?"

"Because I don't like telling my friends what to do," Harry said. "What if I told you to stop wearing clothes?"

Dobby's eyes sunk to the ground. "Dobby loves socks and hats and scarves. but Dobby would do what Harry Potter wanted."

"You wouldn't like it though, and then we wouldn't be very good friends anymore."

Dobby silently considered Harry's example for a few minutes before hovering the pile of clothes from the bed to the closet. "Harry Potter is tired," he said, his tone leaving no room for argument. "Harry Potter sir should sleep."

---888---

Shortly after sunrise, Harry awoke with a throbbing headache. His hair and sheets were sweat-soaked, and his stomach clenched tightly. Scratching his chest and fumbling to don his glasses, he stumbled to the shower.

When he stepped from the ancient tub, Harry was pleased to find a clean towel and clothes perched on the toilet seat. Likewise, a steaming breakfast of eggs and bacon awaited him in the parlor downstairs.

"Dobby, I told you no. You can't be my house-elf."

"Dobby is being Harry Potter's friend," the elf replied with a grin as he brought over The Daily Prophet and a large stack of correspondence. "Hermy's birdy brought Harry Potter sir's post this morning."

"Thanks, Dobby," Harry said with a sad smile. "You're a great friend. Have you already eaten?"

Dobby's eyes widened and silent tears outlined the bridge of his long pointed nose. Nodding his head violently, the little elf solemnly insisted, "Harry Potter, sir, is too good to Dobby. But, Dobby is having work to do." One of Hermione's knit caps fell from its perch atop his head as the peculiar elf fled from the parlor.

Harry rolled his eyes before turning his attention to the mountain of post. Wading through the letters, he found that many of the envelopes were from unfamiliar people. He began to sort the correspondence and soon a pattern became readily apparent. All of the unfamiliar post was in expensive envelopes made of thick parchment and sealed with stodgy looking family crests. Setting these aside, he turned to the stack from his friends.

Cho's letter, scented with perfume, was sympathetic and sad. She mentioned Cedric four times and assured Harry that she knew how he must feel. Katie Bell, who had taken a position at Quality Quidditch Supplies, encouraged Harry to stop by the shop and see her if he ever wanted to talk.

Oliver Wood's note contained five tickets to Puddlemere's match against the Ballycastle Bats that Saturday. He suggested that Harry should invite his friends from the Gryffindor Quidditch team as a pre-season bonding experience.

At the bottom of the stack, Harry carefully opened the envelope from Viktor Krum. The letter, on thick, colored parchment, was written with magnificent penmanship that must have taken several attempts.

~~~~~~~~~~
Dear Harry,

I am deeply saddened to hear of Hermione's passing, and I wish to convey my condolences to you. I have enjoyed corresponding with her for the past few years, and she is a delightful person. Her ability to see past public perceptions to the person within is the basis for both of our friendships.

In my year at Hogwarts, only two or three students ever managed to see me as something more than a Seeker or Tournament Champion. Hermione did this with ease, and she told me that it was because of your friendship. As I have some idea as to how precious Hermione was to you, I am especially burdened for you in the wake of her death.

In Bulgaria , your defeat of the Dark Lord will undoubtedly cause shifts in the loyalties and alliances of the magical community. For those of us who simply desire to live in peace, your victory will result in new hope.

We all owe you much, but I wish to offer any assistance that I can as a token of friendship. We have much in common, and I would dearly like to count you as a friend as we both go forward in life.

Your friend,
Viktor Krum

P.S. Letters addressed to Murk Rotkiv will reach me directly.
~~~~~~~~~~

Harry re-read the letter from Viktor several times before carefully replacing the note in the envelope and setting it aside. Viktor's sorrow seeped from the page, and Harry knew that the Bulgarian Seeker harbored much deeper feelings for Hermione than Harry had previously understood. Ironically, he realized, Hermione's passing affected him similarly.

In an attempt to push such thoughts from his troubled mind, Harry turned to The Daily Prophet . Much to his dismay, a huge picture of he and Romilda Vane graced the front of the paper. She stood, arm-in-arm with him, a brilliant smile radiating her joy for all to see. Harry's image did not resist Romilda's repeated reassuring pats. Rather he stood there, absently scratching his chest, with an amused smile and a faraway expression glazing over his emerald eyes.

According to the accompanying article, Harry had fallen head-over-heels for Romilda during the summer. Only now did he feel that it was safe to be seen in public with his girlfriend. The reporter rehashed the Battle of the Burrow, speculating that somehow Harry must have secreted his girlfriend away from the fighting. The only quote in the article appeared near the bottom where Parvati Patil claimed that Romilda must have dosed Harry with a love potion. However, the reporter dismissed this as jealousy.

After finishing the article, Harry simply smirked and moved on to the bottom of the page. The Prophet was never going to get the facts straight, and he really couldn't do much about it anyway.

Below his picture, there was an article about the upcoming Weasley funeral. As he finished reading, Harry realized why George had been so upset. It really was going to be a circus. The Ministry was hosting a pre-funeral memorial service at the Burrow to honor those who had died fighting Voldemort. This would be followed by several speeches from Ministry Department Heads and Wizengamot Lords. The night would then be capped by the Weasley funeral, which would feature speeches from both Minister Scrimgeour and Harry Potter.

On the second page, Harry found similar funeral notices for the Longbottoms, the Lovegoods, Lawrence Dawlish, Delores Umbridge, and many of the Death Eaters. In fact, there were so many notices, that it took Harry several moments to realize that Hermione and Remus had been omitted. Angrily, Harry thumbed through the rest of the paper and finally found a small notice for Hermione, buried at the bottom of page eleven.

"Bloody prejudiced bastards," Harry muttered, flinging the paper into the hearth. Wizarding England owed better than this to Hermione; she was as much of a hero as any of the Weasleys.

---888---

Harry straightened his tie and fastened the bottom button on his suit coat. Nervously, he knocked on the Grangers' door.

"Harry," Dan greeted him with a weak smile. He gestured for Harry to enter the house and closed the door after him. "Thanks for coming."

Harry fidgeted with his cufflink. "Are you alright, sir? You sounded pretty tense last night."

Dan's face clouded over and his smile disappeared. "I'm coping, but Emma's having a tough time." Sinking into a chair in the dining room, Dan's thumbs massaged his temples, causing his glasses to slide down his nose. "Your Ministry needs to work on their public relations."

Harry groaned audibly. Dreading the answer, he asked, "What have they done now?"

Dan straightened up and smoothed the wrinkled tablecloth. "Yesterday afternoon, we were sitting in the parlor when we heard a loud thump. We came to see what made the noise, and we found Hermione's body laid out on the dining room table. Whoever delivered her was already gone. The only explanation we got was a manila envelope with a death certificate. I'd like to strangle them!" Dan seethed, pounding the table with his fist. "When Emma saw Hermione, she became hysterical. Now, the Doctor's got her on sedatives, and she doesn't even know what day it is."

"Bloody prejudiced bastards," Harry muttered as he began pacing the length of the Grangers' dining room. Someone in the Ministry was going to regret this!

"I'm really sorry, Mr. Granger," Harry volunteered weakly. He almost offered to Obliviate Emma, but then he decided that the most likely response would probably involve severe bodily harm to himself. Instead, Harry reached into his pocket and retrieved Viktor Krum's letter. "I wanted to show this to you," he said handing the parchment to Dan. "Viktor is right on about Hermione. She was really special."

Twenty minutes later, Harry helped Emma into the front seat of Dan's sedan before climbing into the back. She was doing better, but it was obvious that she was on medication.

The drive to the funeral home passed in silence. The morning was marred by an expanse of low-lying, gloomy, grey clouds that blotted out the sun. Inside the funeral home, adjacent to the cemetery, Harry inspected a planter full of yellow daffodils. The flowers, brilliantly colored as they were, could not combat the weight of death and sadness that seeped from the walls.

"Good afternoon, Harry," Professor McGonagall's distinctive Scottish brogue greeted his back.

Harry was relieved to hear a familiar voice. The morning was taking a vicious toll on his disposition, and Harry found McGonagall's presence reassuring. "Thanks," he mumbled turning to face her. "Er, Professor. you know this is a Muggle funeral, right?"

McGonagall, dressed in black robes and a prominent pointed hat, frowned at Harry. "Surely, Mr. Potter, you realize Ms. Granger was a fine witch. Do you not?"

"Of course," Harry answered dismissively. "But her parents' friends and relatives are all Muggles. What will they think?"

"They may think what they wish," McGonagall said briskly. "They are coming to a witch's funeral, and I will not dishonor her memory or her death by pretending otherwise." McGonagall's chin hardened in defiance. "Our world will not be rid of her that easily. I won't allow it."

Harry nodded in understanding. Glancing down at his tailored suit, he wished he was wearing dress robes instead. McGonagall was right. Ignoring Hermione's real life at her own funeral wasn't really honoring her memory. Harry might have returned to Grimmauld Place to change if organ music had not signaled the beginning of the service in the other room.

The chapel was lonely and depressing. It was large enough for several hundred mourners, but only a dozen were scattered throughout the first few pews. McGonagall sat stiffly in the second row, her pointed hat drawing stares and whispers from the few relatives and family friends in attendance. Notably, Harry watched Dan's visage stiffen every time he turned his head in McGonagall's direction.

Harry found a seat five rows from the front and was surprised moments later when Dobby walked down the aisle and sat down next to him on the pew. The house-elf was wearing an inexpensive suit that had been crudely tailored to fit his small body. Atop his head was a veritable mountain of knit hats, and his ankles were adorned with dozens of pairs of socks.

Dobby's appearance sparked another wave of furtive glances from the assembled mourners, but he ignored the murmurs and stared straight ahead at Hermione's open casket.

"Hi, Dobby," Harry whispered to his friend. "Thanks for coming."

"Dobby would not miss Hermy's funeral for anything," he replied with a doleful smile. "Hermy was the kindest witch Dobby ever met."

The organist finished playing his first song, and a few moments of absolute quiet reigned in the chapel before Dan slowly stood and greeted a woman with bushy blond hair. As the first few haunting notes of " Amazing Grace " resonated down the length of the pipes, three more visitors entered the chapel.

Hagrid, sporting an enormous cut that ran from his jaw to his ear, smiled broadly at Harry. Beside him, Professors Vector and Flitwick formed something of a human step-ladder. An escaping snicker from one of Hermione's relatives indicated that Harry was not the only one to notice the disparity in height among the three professors.

Hagrid greeted him by embracing Harry in a crushing hug that left him gasping for breath. Once he finally regained the ability to speak, Harry and the three professors exchanged pleasantries before Flitwick and Vector excused themselves to go sit by Professor McGonagall.

"Hagrid, what happened to your face?" Harry whispered.

Hagrid just stared at Harry for a few moments before bending down. "You'll be needin' ter speak inta my other ear," Hagrid replied. "I can't 'ear out of me left any more." At that moment, Hagrid's long black hair shifted and Harry could trace the cut all the way up his friend's face. Hagrid was missing his left ear.

"What happened?" Harry asked again, alarmed at how deep the cut ran.

"Don't yeh be worryin' abou' me," Hagrid said with a reassuring smile. "Me and ole Macnair had a spot o' trouble. But, Bucky and me - well Macnair won't be comin' 'round anymore."

Hagrid's black beetle eyes shone a little less as he finished speaking, and Harry understood the half-giant clearly. That haunted look was something Harry had seen in the mirror each of the last three days. Hagrid smiled down at Harry and patted him on the head before striding over to sit in the pew with the other Professors.

To Harry's surprise, Anthony Goldstein, decked out in a suit and holding hands with Padma Patil, entered the chapel a few seconds later. Upon seeing Harry, the couple reversed course and walked down the center aisle to greet him. As she drew nearer, Harry realized that Padma was wearing a black robe that was made of light material and cut like a dress. It would take a particularly observant Muggle to notice that she was wearing a robe.

"Harry," Padma greeted him with a hug. "I'm so sorry."

Harry silently nodded to Padma and shook Anthony's proffered hand. Sadly smiling at both of them, he said, "Thanks for coming. I'm sure Hermione would have appreciated it."

"It's the least we can do," Anthony replied, warily eyeing Hermione's casket. "We'll really miss her in class this year."

Upon hearing this, Padma's pupils narrowed in momentary panic before she averted her gaze and began studying her shoes. "Yeah," she muttered. "Classes will be really different this year."

Excusing himself, Anthony wandered over to greet the professors.

"Your parents won't let you come back?" Harry asked Padma beneath his breath.

She looked up at him, her eyes frozen in fear. "You can't say anything to Anthony. I haven't told him yet. I'm still trying to change their minds."

Harry was silent for a few moments before quietly volunteering. "I don't think I can go back either. It just won't be the same without Dumbledore, and." Harry's voice died, refusing to complete his sentence.

From the back of the chapel, an insistent, methodic tapping slowly approached Harry and Padma. An older gentleman, wearing an expensive black robe and leaning on a silver cane approached. On his arm, Susan Bones smiled warmly at Harry. "Hello, Harry, Padma. This is my Grandpapa, Seth Ashburton."

"Hello, sir," Harry said shaking the elder man's hand; he wore an impressive golden ring set with a large yellow stone. "I've seen your name in the papers a few times, Lord Ashburton."

Seth's eyes twinkled like Dumbledore's. "I seem to recall reading your name in the papers once or twice as well," he said with a small chuckle. "Truly, it's an honor to meet you Mr. Potter. I'm just sorry that we're meeting under these circumstances."

Harry, Padma, Susan, and Seth continued to chat until they were joined by Anthony and Professor McGonagall. Soon, Dan and Emma came over to the group, and Harry introduced everyone.

When it came time for the service to start, they all found seats and a minister began to speak. Sadly, the chapel was divided much like a wedding, Muggles on one side, and Hermione's Hogwarts friends on the other.

After the minister finished, the mourners lined up near the foot of Hermione's casket and slowly began to file past her body. When it came time for Harry to pay his last respects, he felt like someone had taken a beater's bat and slammed it into his gut. There was Hermione, cold, pale, and lifeless. His knees buckled, and Harry would have collapsed if not for Hagrid's beefy hand that was there to steady him.

Regaining his balance, Harry peered once more into the casket. He was prepared this time, and Hermione's lifeless form evoked sorrow and loss rather than shock and surprise. She was peaceful and serene, beautiful like a porcelain angel. Her hair had been brushed and styled, and she wore an emerald dress. Around her neck hung the runic amulet, its five pointed star matched perfectly to the scar on Harry's palm. He reached down into the casket and deftly unclasped the golden chain.

Walking over to Dan, Harry handed him Hermione's necklace. "Please don't bury this," he said holding his palm up for Dan to see the matching scar. "It's too precious."

---888---

Harry sat on a secluded bench beneath the shade of a weeping willow. The sun had pierced the ceiling of lifeless grey clouds and was busily painting the sky a brilliant light blue.

Hermione was in the ground, the mourners dispersed to their homes. Harry would have been alone, but for the silent presence of Susan Bones. She sat beside him on the bench, her legs folded up beneath her.

"I'm glad you came," Harry said softly. "I was afraid I'd be the only one there."

"Hermione was nice to me," Susan replied. "I would not have missed it."

---888---

Harry stood before Neville Longbottom's closed casket, silently saying goodbye to his friend and dorm-mate. Algernon Longbottom had elected to bury Neville and Augusta in the Edenic garden flourishing behind Longbottom Manor. Here, amongst the vibrant flowers and fragrant herbs, Harry could not have been more proud of his friend.

Despite the breathtaking colors surrounding the mourners, the funeral was a tense affair. A small group of pale, round-faced Longbottoms clustered near one end of the garden. Opposite them, a clan of dark-skinned, stocky wizards kept a wary eye on the proceedings.

"That's Lord Josef Theodoric," whispered Susan, who was standing beside Harry. She indicated a young wizard with short black hair. "He's head of the family now. Neville's grandmother was his aunt."

Harry studied the faces across from him. To his surprise, he recognized a classmate standing a few meters from Josef. "Is that Theodore Nott?"

"His father was Mrs. Longbottom's cousin," Susan replied. She subtlety pointed at the girl standing beside Theodore. "Tracey Davis is also related to the Theodorics. She's Teddy's cousin."

Harry nearly gagged at this? "Teddy? Teddy Nott?"

Susan smiled coyly at Harry. "Yeah. He doesn't like it, but it's what my Grandpapa calls him."

"Are they related, too?" Harry was bewildered as to why Seth Ashburton had a nickname for the son of a Death Eater.

"Distantly," Susan murmured, her eyes screwed up in concentration as if she were trying to picture an enormous family tree. "I think the Ashburtons and Notts intermarried five generations ago, but I'm not sure. I'm only good with the last three." She stopped trying to picture the great pure-blood tree. "Grandpapa and Teddy's grandfather served on the Hogwarts Board together, but Teddy's father was a bit of a black sheep."

"And Teddy?" Harry asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

"Probably threw a party when he heard about his father's death," Susan answered with a small laugh. "We played together a few times when we were young. He's a nice boy."

Harry doubted this. In his experience, there weren't very many 'nice boys' in Slytherin. He was still staring at the assembled Theodorics when he found another familiar face amongst the family. "Who's that?"

"Jakob Theodoric," Susan replied with a giggle. "Josef's younger brother. We went to the Yule Ball together in fourth year. He's surly, can't dance, and has a thing for French girls."

Harry couldn't keep himself from laughing quietly along with Susan. Probably half the students at that ill-fated ball had attended with someone other than who they wanted to go with. "So, why did you go with him?"

"He asked, and I wanted to go."

Algernon Longbottom finished his eulogy, and the mourners filed past the coffins, depositing flowers and keepsakes on the varnished oak. Harry paused momentarily before dropping his lily on Neville's casket. He felt no loss, no anger, not even sadness. Death, in its infinite cruelty had robbed Harry's heart too many times. He was empty again, unfeeling and hollow.

"Harry?" Susan prodded him forward, the line of mourners flowing once more. "You okay?"

He nodded absently before wandering away from the crowd, a few of whom were whispering and pointing at him. Susan followed.

They came to the edge of the small lake separating Longbottom Manor from the nearby village. "Where are you going next?" she asked.

"Luna's."

Susan tried but did not hide her disappointment. "I didn't really know her well. I was going to see my Grandpapa speak at the Ministry memorial."

Harry shrugged indifferently and prepared to Apparate.

"Harry! Wait! Would you mind if I went with you?"

"Er, come if you want. It's open to the public," he replied thickly before disappearing with a distinctive crack.

---888---

Harry reappeared where the long dirt path from the Burrow intersected the country road winding itself away from Ottery St. Catchpole toward London . This spot was the closest he had ever been to the town, but it left him with a kilometer's journey to the tall steeple that marked the center of the humble village.

The claustrophobic grey morning was but a memory now. The sun beat down on the lonely country road. Heat shimmered above the pavement, bleeding into a high blue sky devoid of clouds. The sun baked Harry, dampening his brow and tickling his back with beads of sweat. The elegant black dress robe he had changed into before Neville's funeral attracted heat, trapping and nurturing it.

By the time he made it to the cemetery beside the steeple, a small group of mourners had already congregated. Approaching, he spotted Susan's brown plait first. She was standing beside Anthony Goldstein and Padma Patil. Three other students that Harry vaguely recognized as Ravenclaws stood near the back.

"Such a small gathering," one of the blonde-haired Ravenclaws whispered to her friends.

"She didn't have any family. or friends really," an olive-skinned girl answered.

Harry brushed past the gossips, glaring at them pointedly as he went to join his friends. But, in the back of his mind, all he could hear was Luna's words from the train: "I enjoyed the meetings, too. It was like having friends."

---888---

The blistering afternoon heat waned in favor of a gentle cooling breeze as Harry, Susan, Anthony, and Padma walked from Ottery St. Catchpole to the Burrow. Half-way up the dirt track that led to the house, the quartet of friends approached a Ministry official who was overseeing the incoming Portkey arrivals. When they were about thirty meters away, Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil appeared.

"There's your sister," Susan said to Padma. "Should we catch up?"

Anthony groaned, "Please, no."

Padma covered her mouth, but a giggle escaped nonetheless. "Parvati ran into Anthony's parents in Hawkman Alley. They thought she was me..."

"So, Harry," Anthony cut in loudly, "you're dating Romilda Vane now?"

"No," Harry replied with a chuckle, happy to save Anthony a little embarrassment. "Never trust the Prophet . They always lie about me."

"I know," Anthony volunteered, "but, you have to admit, you look like a lovesick puppy in the picture."

Harry directed a pointed frown at Anthony but didn't say anything until he found all three of his friends staring at him questioningly. "It was her perfume, okay?" he said a little too loudly, his voice an octave higher than normal. "I really liked her perfume. It reminded me of. some stuff."

Susan smiled coyly. "So what scent was she wearing?"

"Er, I don't know," Harry mumbled. "It sorta smelled like rain."

"Oooh!" Padma squealed, "It's that new Augurey perfume! Parvati bought me some for our birthday!"

---888---

Hundreds of witches and wizards packed the Weasleys' paddock. A temporary stage stood alongside the memorial of flowers and candles. The shrine to the lost had swollen since Harry's visit the previous night, and continued to grow as new visitors constantly added to it. Six ornate caskets rested in front of the stage where mourners could file by, paying their last respects to the victims of the Battle of the Burrow.

Harry smiled sadly as Padma, Anthony, and Susan left to find seats. After a moment of scanning the crowd, Harry found a sea of redheads near the front, and went to greet the Weasleys.

Fred handled introductions, and soon Harry had met both Weasley uncles, a dozen cousins, and several in-laws. To his dismay, quite a few of the Weasleys seemed all too eager to meet the Chosen One, rather than Ron's best friend.

Fortunately, Fleur Delacour rescued Harry and introduced him to her parents. Her father, Carel Delacour, whose angular face was permanently set in a jealous scowl, smiled cautiously at Harry, seizing his hand and pumping it vigorously. The Frenchman, although equivalent in height with Harry, was much larger. He had a thick barrel chest and broad shoulders. His vice-like grip left Harry discreetly massaging his hand.

Fleur's mother, Marie, a half-Veela, was stunningly attractive despite the over-sized, frumpy, black robe she had chosen for the funeral.

"Pleased to meet you, Madame Delacour," Harry said, squashing the urge to brag about his forthcoming Order of Merlin.

"Eet ees good to meet you, 'arry," she replied with a heavy French accent. "Eet ees 'orrible about poor Bill."

Fleur's eyes, already puffy, moistened slightly at the mention of her departed fiancé. With deliberate grace, she spun and walked in the direction of her younger sister, Gabrielle.

"Excuse moi, s'il vous plait," Marie murmured as she chased after her distraught daughter.

Frowning at being abandoned to an uncomfortable conversation with Carel, Harry nodded his head in agreement. "Bill was great. very considerate."

"I thought so, too." Carel replied in flawless English. "He and Fleur would have been wonderful together."

The two men stood in silence, watching as Gabrielle peered around the paddock with a mixture of disdain and curiosity. "Have you ever been to the Burrow before?" Harry asked.

"We were going to come out next week and prepare for the wedding," Carel replied sadly. "I like it. It's quite. earthy. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy the English countryside. When we lived in London , Marie and I would come out for picnics and such."

"You lived in London ?"

"Before Fleur was born," Carel answered. "I used to play for Puddlemere United."

Harry smiled and glanced again at the man's impressive physique. "Beater?"

Carel's laughter began slowly but soon built a head of steam until the Frenchman shook so violently he had to sit down. "That's a good one," he said wiping away a tear from his eye.

Harry, genuinely confused, plastered on a vacant smile. "So what did you play?"

"Seeker, of course," Carel replied after a moment. "I'm too small to play anything else."

"Oh," Harry mumbled before excusing himself and approaching the ornate caskets near the stage. He wanted a chance to say goodbye to each of the Weasleys and Tonks. They had been his family, or as close to one as he'd ever had.

---888---

Charlie was the first to speak; he spoke about his mother. George came next, his pockets bulging with batteries and plugs. He reminisced about growing up with a father whose greatest ambition was to learn how Muggle airplanes stayed aloft, and how that inborn curiosity had blossomed in his own life. George's heartfelt tribute moved several in the audience to quiet tears.

Fleur took the podium next and spoke about her relationship with Bill. Her heavy accent and halting speech gave Harry the opportunity to glance around the paddock. He recognized many of the Hogwarts professors and dozens of current and former students. Lavender Brown, clutching a frilly pink handkerchief sat beside Parvati Patil. A few rows away, Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, Katie Bell, and Oliver Wood were in attendance. Next to them, sitting with her pack of friends, Romilda Vane smiled broadly when she managed to catch Harry's eye. He frowned and turned around to concentrate on Fleur, but she had already finished.

"When Charlie was appointed the Gryffindor Quidditch Captain," Fred was saying, "my parents decided they would give him a present. So, Charlie asked to go see Luke Dascenzo who was seeking for Tutshill. The Tornadoes were marvelous, they'd won three straight Cups. and Charlie wanted to be just like Dascenzo. So, Dad got us all tickets for the upcoming match between the Tornadoes and the Cannons.

"That was how my Dad was. If Charlie wanted to see Luke Dascenzo, then we were going to the one game where there was no way the Tornadoes would lose. The Cannons were awful; they had to be the worst team in the league. So, Dascenzo, who was by far the best seeker in Britain , was a lock to snatch the Snitch.

"Of course, it didn't turn out that way. The Cannons won their only match of the season that night. Everyone knew it was a fluke. except for Ron. From that day on, he became the biggest Chudley fan ever. He pleaded with Mom for posters, shirts, magazines, books, and anything with a Cannons logo on it.

"But the best thing about Ron was that when he realized just how horrible they were, he didn't let that stop him. He's always been a rabid Cannons fan, and he never stopped hoping that they would win." Fred halted his story at this point and looked straight at Harry. "Ron was always like that, quick to befriend someone. and undyingly loyal. It made him a great friend and a great brother."

As Fred stepped down from the stage, a piercing, mournful wail rose up from the crowd. Lavender Brown wept loudly into her pink handkerchief, tears streaming down her cheeks and intermittent sobs carrying across the paddock. With great animation, Parvati desperately tried to comfort her. But, she was only rewarded with muffled sobs and cries of, "my boyfriend."

Harry sneered in Lavender's direction. He couldn't help but think that she and Parvati were making a scene on purpose. None of the Weasleys were sobbing, much less loud enough to hear from across the paddock. They'd certainly lost a lot more than Lavender.

After she finally settled down, Percy ascended the podium. As it turned out, he was an excellent public speaker, sharing several anecdotes of Ginny, a young girl with six older brothers and enough spunk to fend for herself. Of course, Harry thought with a sigh, Percy never mentioned the estrangement from his family, or the fact that he had hardly known Ginny in the last few years. Death did strange things to people. The other Weasley brothers had apparently forgiven Percy, but Harry could not let go that easily. It would take time.

An older couple took the stage next, introducing themselves as Andromeda and Ted Tonks. Harry had never met them before, but he felt somehow that he knew them. Perhaps it was the fathomless grey eyes Andromeda shared with Sirius, or the sly smile Tonks had clearly inherited from her father, but Harry was drawn to the grieving couple.

Ted followed in the pattern set by the Weasleys, recalling several humorous stories about rearing a Metamorphmagus. And then, Andromeda spoke. She walked from behind the lectern, standing near where the Minister and several Department Heads were seated.

"My daughter was in love when she died." Andromeda's steel reinforced voice carried clearly across the paddock. "Remus Lupin died here three days ago. He fell just over there." She pointed toward the house. "He was fighting Death Eaters, just like everyone who has been honored tonight. Why isn't he being honored here, Minister?"

She said nothing more. Rather, Andromeda simply turned, took Ted's arm, and found her seat. The Minister was slated to speak next, he appeared distinctly uncomfortable. Harry, smiling broadly, managed to catch Andromeda's eye. "Thank you."

Whispers raced around the paddock as the Minister placed a few sheets of parchment on the lectern, sipped at a glass of water, and walked to the edge of the platform nearest the Tonks. Looking Andromeda in the eye, he declared, "Mr. Lupin is not being honored here tonight because he was a werewolf, and our society is not comfortable with werewolves."

Harry and the rest of the crowd were stunned. The Minister harbored no pretenses; he had boldly labeled a spade, a spade.

After the initial buzz of excitement passed, Scrimgeour continued, "I would have liked to include Mr. Lupin in tonight's ceremony, but I did not wish to turn a moment of unification into one of division. Our society needs to heal now. and I did not want a boycott of this ceremony."

The crowd's response was mixed. A few people clapped and whistled, while some quietly shook their heads. Harry would have left if he weren't speaking next. Scrimgeour had missed the point entirely. And so, as the Minister returned to the lectern and began reading from his prepared text; Harry simmered. He simmered for quite a while as the Minister's speech dragged on into eternity.

Harry's first impulse was to berate Scrimgeour when he took the podium. The man had no idea how to lead. How dare he ruin the Weasleys' memorial service? This was supposed to be about the victims, and now he had to go and start a debate on werewolves? But. the Minister had not broached the subject. not willingly, at least. It was Andromeda who had raised the issue. But, the Minister was wrong! Who cared about protestors at a funeral? It wasn't fair to Remus. or Tonks.

And then a revelation dawned on Harry. Where were the protestors? Why had it taken Andromeda's bold question to make this an issue? Why wasn't Hermione being honored here? No one was protesting her exclusion either!

It was Harry's turn to speak. He panicked. He had planned to speak from the heart about his family, but now he felt required to make some sort of political statement. Was it appropriate here?

As his legs carried him onto the stage by their own volition, he glanced at Fred and George; they looked defeated and depressed. He still didn't know what to do, but there were the coffins, the crowd, and the remaining Weasley brothers.

"The Weasleys are my family. I love them," Harry said. "Ron was my best mate. Ginny was my girlfriend. Mrs. Weasley treated me like her own son, and Mr. Weasley was always there to listen when I had a problem. Even before I met Bill, he came to support me at the tournament. he was always thoughtful like that. Three days ago, I lost them. They were treating me like family, throwing me a birthday party. That's how I remember them. Loving, caring, kind, and compassionate.

"Tonks was there, too. She was like a cousin, always fun to be around. But they weren't the only ones at my party." Harry imitated Andromeda, walking over toward the Minister and staring right at him. "My best friend Hermione was there. She was like a sister: loyal, smart, demanding, and an excellent listener. She fought against the Death Eaters, too." Harry smiled vacantly. "I'll miss her. I wish she had been honored here tonight. Regardless of her parentage, she deserved it."

Harry paused long enough to let that statement reach the trees on the far side of the paddock and echo back to his ears. The crowd remained silent, peering intently at him. "Remus was at my party, too. He was an uncle and a good man. He fought bravely and proved himself. proved himself better than this society that looked down on him. He should have been honored here tonight as well."

And as soon as he spoke those words, an idea, fully-ripened, took root in his mind. "Remus taught me how to do this," Harry declared, withdrawing his wand. He concentrated on the memory of Tonks rescuing him from a petrified train trip back to London. She had done it, and he could too.

"Expecto Patronum!" A corporeal werewolf exploded out of Harry's wand. It paced the stage for several seconds before howling at the moon and dissipating into the wind.

_____
Author's Note: Please enjoy the chapter. As I said last time, updates will continue to be sporadic over the next few months as I will be sitting for the CPA exam. As always, reviews are deeply appreciated and immensely helpful.

Author's Recognition: This chapter is dedicated to Zsenya and Arabella for their story, After the End . Since Ginny gets mentioned as Harry's girlfriend in this chapter, and that is about as close to the Harry/Ginny genre as I'm willing to get, I figured I'd honor one of the best H/G fics ever.

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me with this chapter. As always, my betas, Ivan and Lisa did an excellent job. I'd also like to thank imakeeper for a review that pointed out a canon error.

Initial Post: 11 September 2006
Last Edit: 26 September 2006

Chapter Eight: Meet the Public

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The final green flames flickered out in the hearth, and Harry felt the encroaching loneliness he was beginning to associate with the Doghouse. Professor McGonagall was gone for the day, and Harry had nothing to do, no one to talk to, no money, and no food.

Indecision and boredom paralyzed him for many minutes until Harry finally decided that he should do something . Something was better than nothing, even if it didn't sound all that appealing.

Turning his attention to the list of names that Scrimgeour had given him, Harry skimmed it quickly. There were three sections of names. The top was labeled 'recommended,' the middle was 'unknown,' and the bottom of the list was for 'howlers and potentially dangerous post.'

Harry was initially confused when he read through the recommended list. Whoever sorted the mail must have been confused because he only recognized a few of the names. Mixed in with the unfamiliar Ashburtons, Churchills, Cunninghams, and McDaniels were names like Susan Bones, Amos Diggory, Griselda Marchbanks, and Horace Slughorn. He ignored the names he didn't know and placed tick-marks next to the familiar ones.

At the bottom of the recommended list were a few more names, but these were not in alphabetical order. Harry was slightly shocked to see Viktor Krum's name below an Edward Stratton, but he marked off the Seeker nonetheless.

In the 'unknown' section, Harry found the names of several friends and classmates. Cho Chang had written him a letter, and he hesitantly checked her off. Harry was pleased to see that both Katie Bell and Oliver Wood had sent post. Near the bottom, he saw Fred Weasley right below Romilda Vane. He ticked off Fred's name and made a notation that Romilda's mail probably belonged in the 'dangerous' section.

Having finished, Harry wrote a short note to Minister Scrimgeour.

~~~~~~~~~~

To Leo Prowl:

Minister, I have returned the list with my selections. Please tell the mailroom that anyone with a tick-mark next to their name should be considered on the 'approved list' and all of their post forwarded to me immediately.

In another matter, I spoke to Hermione Granger's parents. They said that no one from the Ministry had contacted them yet. They want to have her funeral tomorrow. Would you please find out what the hold-up is?

Thank you,

Harry Potter

~~~~~~~~~~

As he completed the note, Harry whistled for Hedwig, but Phaedippas flew into the room instead, alighting on Harry's shoulder. Shrugging, he attached his post to the owl's leg and sent Phaedippas off in search of 'Leo Prowl.'

---888---

With a noisy crack, Harry appeared in Diagon Alley's designated Apparation Zone. It was near the Leaky Cauldron and across from Florean Fortescue's deserted Ice Cream Parlor. The kind shop owner, with an encyclopedic knowledge of medieval wizardry, had disappeared over a year ago.

Harry belatedly realized that it was the first Saturday of August, and Diagon Alley was teeming with shoppers. Elderly witches carried groceries, young children ran circles around their mothers, and dozens of Hogwart's students reveled in their annual school supply trips.

Unlike his last visit to the Alley, people were laughing and shouting. Small groups of shoppers moseyed from one store to the next. The line at Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions stretched outside the door, and the harried proprietor bustled back and forth trying to outfit impatient students.

With his transfigured sock-cap pulled far down his forehead, Harry followed a group of excited third-years toward Gringotts. Despite Voldemort's demise, the goblins had yet to relax any of their security measures. The lines in the lobby were interminable, and several witches in the group behind Harry complained bitterly about the delay.

Nearly three hours later, Harry reached the counter. "I'd like to make a withdrawal please," he stated politely.

"Mr. Potter," the teller, named Fangtut, glared at him for several moments. "Please wait." Fangtut climbed down from his stool and slowly made his way through a door in the back.

While he waited, Harry leaned against the counter drumming his fingers against the ancient, rough, oak surface. After fifteen minutes, the witches behind him graduated from complaints to vitriolic insults. At the half hour mark, insults became obscenities. Finally, after an hour, the cursing witches were asked to leave the lobby by a harried wizard with a large golden 'G' on his robe.

Finally, Fangtut emerged from the back room and reclaimed his perch on the stool behind the counter. "Mr. Potter, Holcop will be out shortly. He will escort you to your vault."

As if he had been waiting to be introduced, a goblin wearing a severely starched shirt, a waistcoat, and a tie approached Harry. The well-dressed goblin looked like he hadn't been down to the vaults in years. "I am Holcop. Follow me," he demanded curtly.

The cart ride to Harry's vault was extremely long. After thirty minutes, he began to recognize repeating patterns in their route. "Are we going in circles?" Harry demanded.

Holcop smiled maliciously, confirming a niggling fear in the back of Harry's mind. Holcop was angry at him.

"What's going on? Just take me to my vault!" Harry yelled above the roar of the cart as it continued to speed through the dimly lit catacombs. In response, Holcop sped up, taking another loop through the 300-level vaults. Twenty minutes later, the goblin slammed on the brakes in front of Harry's vault.

"Key, please," Holcop sneered.

Harry was livid. A strong wind whipped through the catacombs, threatening to knock Holcop off balance. Harry thrust the key at the goblin and towered over him, glaring down menacingly as Holcop struggled to maintain his balance. Bracing himself against the vault door, the goblin finally managed to insert the key into the slot.

Inside his vault, Harry angrily stuffed his Moke-skin moneybag full of Galleons. When that was full, he removed his cap and transfigured it into a sturdy canvas bag, piling even more Galleons into it. He wouldn't be taking a cart ride again if he could help it.

"I'm done," Harry declared through clenched teeth. "We will be returning by the most direct route! Is that understood?" Holcop did not reply. He merely climbed back into the cart and smirked as Harry struggled under the weight of his gold-laden canvas bag. Harry tried placing a feather-weight charm on the bag, but swore when he remembered McGonagall's lesson about the importance of charming objects before transfiguring them.

The cart ride back to Gringotts' lobby took only another five minutes. Once Harry was out of the cart (and safe from any further goblin-induced delays), he began to berate Holcop. "What the hell was that about?" Harry thundered.

"My time is just as valuable as yours," Holcop replied defiantly, straightening his tie. "I've claimed as much of your time today as you wasted of mine yesterday."

"Bullshit!" Harry steamed. "I wasn't even here yesterday."

"Nor were you at your solicitors' office."

Holcop turned to leave, but Harry roughly grabbed him by the shoulder. "What are you talking about?"

"My presence was requested at your estate meeting yesterday," Holcop replied angrily. "Your failure to attend wasted most of my morning."

Harry suddenly realized that he had forgotten the meeting with his solicitor the day before. However, he was still angry with the goblin and didn't want to back down or lose face. Jabbing his finger in Holcop's chest, Harry resumed his threatening tone. "The difference is that you serve me. I pay you for your time, not the other way around."

Harry started to storm off, but realized that his canvas bag was much too heavy. "I want these changed to pounds."

Holcop merely pointed to another counter in a dark corner of the lobby. There was a long line of Muggle-borns and their parents waiting to exchange pounds for Galleons.

"No way! You'll change them, and you will do it now ."

A stiff breeze fluttering through Gringotts' lobby convinced Holcop that his lesson for Harry Potter had drawn to an end. "Very well, Mr. Potter."

---888---

Harry's next stop was Waylen's Formal Wizard Wear. Entering the shop, Harry reveled in the relative quiet. There were no shouting children, only a few elderly wizards quietly inspecting a display of traveling cloaks. As Harry thumbed through a rack of black dress robes, the shop proprietor appeared behind him.

Waylen, it turned out, must have been half-troll. The proprietor was at least several heads taller than Harry, and spoke slowly in a deep rumbling voice. "Can I help you, sir?"

"I need a set of dress robes for a funeral."

Waylen rubbed his eyes and looked at Harry again. Recognition slowly dawned across his weathered face. "I understand," the troll-like man replied sympathetically. "Will you also need a suit for your Muggle-born friend?"

"Er, yeah."

Waylen produced a tape measure and began measuring Harry. "I like to do it the Muggle way," he observed. "The charmed tapes simply are not accurate." When he finished, Waylen recorded Harry's measurements and said, "My tailor will finish by tomorrow. Can you send an owl?"

"Sure," Harry replied, placing a black wizard's cap on the counter and reaching for his moneybag.

Waylen raised a beefy hand in protest. "I will not accept your money," he said. "I've had more business in the last two days than the rest of the summer. You don't pay here."

---888---

Harry set off in the direction of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. If possible, Diagon Alley was even more crowded than earlier that morning. As he passed Eyelops' Owl Emporium, Harry recognized Professor Sinistra's shrill voice.

"Wizards use magical owls to deliver their post."

"Owls?" asked a disbelieving father. The man, clearly a Muggle, loosely held his young daughter's hand.

"Owls have an excellent sense of direction," Professor Sinistra explained patiently. "There are several breeds." Her lecture on magical birds was cut short by a Jack Russell Terrier with a forked tail that began growling and barking loudly at the Muggle.

Frightened witches and wizards backed away from the small animal that was foaming at the mouth. Professor Sinistra was caught off guard and fumbled for her wand, frantically searching through her robes.

The animal continued stalking after the Muggle until Harry whistled at him, "Here boy." The dog turned around and approached Harry, his tail wagging happily. "Ssshhh. Be a good boy," Harry crouched down to pet the now-silent animal.

"What is that?" the frightened father demanded.

"Er, it's a Crup," Harry explained. "They don't like Muggles much." Harry reached behind the dog and seized his tail, holding up the forked end. "This one's unregistered. Their owners are supposed to dock the tail when they're young."

The Eyelops' manager charged out of his store, swinging a broom at the animal. "Shoo! Shoo! Get out of here you mangy mutt!" The Crup tucked its tail between his legs and ran away from the enraged broom-wielding manager. "Thank you, young man. That Crup's a right menace. But, you don't wanna touch him. He's infested with 'lil critters."

Harry glanced down to see small flea-like 'critters' crawling all over his chest. "Oh, disgusting!" he cried out, frantically swiping at the parasites until he was satisfied that he'd brushed them all off.

Most of the onlookers drifted away, but a few intently studied Harry. He knew they would recognize him any minute, so he began to quickly walk down the Alley.

As he hustled away, Harry's sense of smell was tickled by an alluring scent wafting from the door of a shop called, "The LadyBug." But the scent wasn't the only thing to draw his attention. Below the advertisements for perfumes, nail polish, shoes, and shampoo, there was an enlarged cover of the latest Witch Weekly .

"Just great," Harry moaned as he watched the life-sized photograph of himself repeatedly catching a snitch.

"Watch where you're going you great prat!"

Harry whipped his head around in time to see a pack of familiar girls. He collided with the one closest to him. Her shopping bag, filled with rolled posters, shoe boxes, and assorted hand creams, fell from her hand, and the contents spilled onto the ground.

The pack leader, who had just called Harry a 'great prat' recognized him immediately. "Harry! It's so good to see you!" The long black hair, prominent chin, and dark eyes of Romilda Vane thrust themselves within centimeters of his face.

Desperately hoping to avoid her, Harry bent down to help Romilda's friend pick up her purchases. "Er, sorry. I wasn't watching."

Romilda's friend squealed in horror, slapping at Harry's hand as he reached for a poster. "I'll get it myself," she said weakly.

"Harry! I've been so worried about you," Romilda exclaimed loudly. She shifted her own LadyBug shopping bag into her right hand and looped her left around Harry's arm.

Romilda's perfume smelled like freshly fallen rain and strongly reminded Harry of the spot where the Forbidden Forest met the Hogwarts Lake. He smiled fondly, absently scratching his chest as the scent brought forth a wonderful memory of Hermione studying with her back up against a giant oak tree. Harry had been sitting on a rock with his feet dangling in the water as Ron cannon-balled into the lake, splashing both Harry and Hermione in the process.

Lost in a moment that would, sadly, never again be anything but a memory, Harry did not see the swarming crowd in Diagon Alley or the Daily Prophet photographer busily snapping photos of himself, arm-in-arm with Romilda Vane.

"What was it like?" someone called out eagerly. "Did he beg for his life? What curse did you use?"

"You coward!" a hostile voice screamed. "They killed my children while you hid away at school!"

Harry extricated his arm from Romilda's iron clasp, gifting her with a scornful glare. He was determined to escape the crowd, but it moved with him, refusing to allow him out of the eye of the storm.

"Will you sign my magazine?" A young girl, no more than eight, held out a copy of Witch Weekly . Harry ignored her, searching desperately for an escape route. He couldn't handle the crowd. His emotions were too raw. No one understood. Romilda blocked his path again. She offered false support, grasping for his hand. He jerked back sneering, "Go away."

Behind him, two teens pushed through the crowd. "There you are, Harry. Come on, let's get outta here." Michael Corner gave him a knowing smile as he flung his arm around Harry's shoulder.

Michael's friend was a large boy named Stephen Cornfoot. Cornfoot was at least as tall as Ron and as broad shouldered as Crabbe. He plowed through the crowd with ease, leaving a large swath of newly vacated territory for Michael and Harry to escape through. Within moments, the three boys had miraculously escaped the hoard of strangers.

"You alright?" Corner asked removing his arm from Harry's shoulder. "Looked like you needed some help back there."

"Thanks," Harry answered with relief, mentally cursing Romilda's loud mouth.

"We're headed to Quality Quidditch Supplies," Michael boasted. "Stephen's been named captain. We're buying new brooms to celebrate."

Stephen turned around and eyed Harry with a malevolent but playful smile. "I'll knock you off your broom this year, Potter. I'll have a Firebolt, too. You won't be able to out-fly the Bludgers I send your way."

Harry laughed nervously. Stephen had always been large and an above average Beater, but he looked like he'd purposefully stepped in front of an engorgement charm over the summer.

"First Beater to be a Ravenclaw captain in eighty years," Michael chimed in. "Beaters are even more dangerous when they've got a brain to go along with their brawn."

"Er, sorry guys. I really shouldn't." Harry gestured to the twins' storefront. "This is my stop."

Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes was the brightest, loudest store on Diagon Alley. For several moments, the teenagers watched the flashing, popping, bouncing, shrieking display in the left window. However, to Harry's disappointment, the U-No-Poo poster was missing from the other display.

Entering the joke shop, Harry thought the atmosphere seemed subdued. Even though it was busier than his last visit, the store was less colorful than it had been. The change was subtle though, and it did not register with the cadre of young students sorting through bins of trick wands and studying the Patented Daydream Potions.

"Think they're working on one for you?" Michael kidded Harry.

"Huh?"

"A Daydream Potion," Michael pointed at two girls. "I'm sure you'd be a big seller."

"I'd kill them," Harry muttered beneath his breath.

Stephen quickly stepped back from Harry, fixing him with a bizarre gaze. Harry could only ruefully shake his head in response.

"Hey, Harry!" Fred greeted him. Seeing Michael, Fred frowned. "Corner?"

"We were just going," Michael replied, suddenly nervous in the presence of his former girlfriend's brother. "We spotted Harry and got him out of a bit-of-a-pickle."

Fred warily eyed Michael and Stephen for a few moments before glancing at Harry.

"It's true," Harry said, "Romilda Vane."

George walked up behind Fred and finished Harry's sentence for him, ".wants a Harry Potter Daydream."

"You said no, right?" demanded Harry, alarmed at the thought. Michael seized the distraction and slunk out the door, followed by Stephen.

"Let's talk," George said slyly, opening a door behind the counter. "There's a world of opportunities."

The backroom had hundreds of boxes of inventory stacked haphazardly along the walls. Near a staircase in the rear, there were two work tables beneath a solitary lamp. The rest of the room was dark and cool. Dominating the center of the space were two armchairs and a sofa, arranged around the hearth.

George scooped up a half-empty bottle of Firewhisky and plunked down in one of the chairs. Its lime green upholstery was ripped in several places; padding seeped from the pores.

Fred reached into a wooden crate by the door. Frozen air breathed into the room, and he extracted two ice-cold Butterbeers. Handing one to Harry, Fred collapsed tiredly into a purple arm chair similar to George's.

"You get my letter?" Fred asked.

Harry shook his head and sat on the sofa. "The Minister's holding all my post for now. I'll get it tonight."

"Percy and Charlie are planning the funeral," Fred volunteered. "We need to know if you want to speak." He hesitated before proceeding, "There's going to be a lot of people there. The whole thing's really getting out of hand."

"I'll say something," Harry replied hesitantly. "If you don't mind."

"I'd like that," Fred said earnestly. "You're family Harry. and Ron would be pissed if you didn't."

Harry smiled sadly. "George?"

George only grunted in reply, swigging at the bottle of Firewhisky.

"He's being moody," Fred explained, glaring at his twin. "He's pissed at Percy. But, the whole thing is Charlie's fault."

"What's Charlie's fault?"

"The circus," Fred explained. "He told the Ministry they could turn the paddock into a temporary memorial."

"Oh," Harry responded, still not understanding the disagreement.

"So," George interrupted Harry's thoughts, "can we make a Harry Potter Daydream?"

"You're serious? I thought you were joking."

"Lots of people have been asking," George replied defensively. He stood up and walked to the back of the room, tossing his empty Firewhisky bottle into the rubbish bin. The sound of broken glass shattered the temporary silence. "I don't see the harm," George pressed, pulling a fresh bottle from the box below his work table.

"Er, well, I really don't want to," Harry replied. "It'd be kind of weird seeing that. Don't you think?"

Fred cut in, shooting another angry glare at his brother. "Don't worry, Harry. We won't be making one."

George slammed his bottle down on the work table. "I need to help some customers," he said sullenly, banging the door to the shop closed behind him.

Harry stared into the top of his Butterbeer, avoiding Fred's eyes.

"Don't mind him," Fred apologized. "He's taking it really hard. He'll get better after tomorrow. He's just angry with everyone right now - Charlie, Percy, me. We've never fought until last night."

Harry was shocked by Fred's admission and cast about for a change of subject. "Er, you took down your U-No-Poo poster," Harry stated. "Do you still have it?"

Fred set his Butterbeer down and walked over to the rubbish bin. "We figured it was sort of outdated now." He extracted a rolled poster from behind the bin and unfurled it. "You want it? We're gonna pitch it."

The poster was ripped in places and spattered with Pumpkin Juice, but Harry nodded, accepting it from Fred. He shrunk it so that it would fit into his pocket. "Do you guys need anything from me?" Harry asked. "Can I help with the funeral?"

"No, Charlie and Percy have everything under control," Fred said, clapping Harry on the shoulder. "Just show up alright? The ceremony starts at seven tomorrow."

Harry nodded and glanced at the Floo. "Would you mind if I picked up my stuff from the Burrow? I don't even have a change of clothes."

"Sure, sure," Fred replied absently. George was calling for him from the shop. "Just don't be spooked by all the people."

--888---

The inside of the Burrow remained largely untouched since Harry had been there two nights ago. Someone had picked up the basket of laundry from the floor and re-hung the family clock over the mantle. Otherwise, dishes were stacked in the sink, and a row of dirty tumblers stood at attention on the counter next to an empty Firewhisky bottle.

Without warning, poignant memories assaulted Harry from every corner of the room. This was the Burrow, and it was dead. The vibrant life he associated with his family had been extinguished. Even the ghoul in the attic was silent.

Harry had to leave. Tears welled inside of him, and if he did not escape, they would. He flung open the back door, fleeing through the garden. He was ten again, and Dudley was chasing him. Memories of a life spoiled by fate closed in. Tendrils reached out to trip him, but he ran swiftly. Years of practice told Harry that he could run faster, fly more quickly, duck, bob, and weave away from the nightmares that haunted him.

He must have run twenty minutes before slowing. He was in the woods behind the Burrow, well beyond the pond. It was silent, and he had never been this far before. The memories could not find him here.

There was a stream trickling its way through the wood, and he approached it as a deer might. Kneeling, he cupped cool water in his hands and drank deeply. But, the water found its way to his still-churning stomach.

Harry wretched. The remains of his breakfast with McGonagall spilled into the clear water, diluting and floating away downstream. He remained kneeling for several more minutes, purging his body as best he could. When he was certain that his system was cleansed, Harry cupped the water again and drank. This time, the pure water was refreshing.

Slowly, Harry stood. He turned around. The sun was low in the sky, beginning its languid descent toward nightfall. For Harry, the journey from the stream to the Burrow gave him time to fortify his emotions. He frequently paused as a rock or a tree would evoke a memory. One at a time, he could deal with the loss tinged memories, granting them perspective and drawing strength from the shadows of joy.

So it was that when he reached the pond, Harry strode with purpose to the edge of the garden. There, he could see the paddock. In the place where he had struck down Voldemort, there were mounds of flowers; candles formed a haphazard circle.

A mother and two young children sat on the ground near the memorial. The woman placed a photograph of a smiling man with a pale face near the base of the memorial. Her children each clutched a bouquet of flowers. As the mother lit a green candle, her son tossed his entire collection of daisies atop the growing mound. But, her daughter painstakingly laid each one of her poppies in a frame around her father's face, braiding the stems together.

As another family approached down the road from Ottery St. Catchpole, Harry disillusioned himself so he could watch in anonymity. For hours, a slow trickle of visitors came and went. Some were families, others were elderly. Most painful for Harry to watch, a few children came alone, laying pictures of parents and siblings. Some visitors stayed only long enough to leave a picture or a flower. Others walked the grounds of the Burrow, inspecting the garden. Some mourned, others did not.

Neither a brilliant pink sunset nor the ensuing nightfall seemed to deter the pilgrims. Candles burned brightly, and the only sounds were the soft whimpers of mourners and the forlorn chirp of crickets.

Two hours after nightfall, Harry rose on stiff legs and unsteadily crossed the garden to an elm tree. Withdrawing his wand, he canceled a sticking charm and reached into the crook between the first branch and the trunk. Harry grasped the silky invisibility cloak that he had lodged there and ambled to the Burrow's back door.

Entering the Weasleys' home once more, Harry mounted the stairs to Percy's room and found his trunk. It was undisturbed. Quickly packing his scattered belongings, Harry checked to see that Voldemort's wand was still wrapped inside the invisibility cloak. When everything was to his liking, Harry grasped the trunk handle firmly and envisioned his room at Grimmauld Place.

---888---

Harry stayed in his room only long enough to set down his belongings, extract The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Two from his trunk, and rip a page from its binding. Stuffing the torn sheet into his pocket, he Apparated behind a Dumpster in Perkienew Square. There was a payphone not far from where he appeared.

"Granger residence," Hermione's father answered icily.

"Hi, Mr. Granger. It's Harry."

The line went silent for a few moments. "Harry, how are you?" Dan's voice sounded strained.

Harry reflected on the question for a few moments. His visit to the Burrow had done wonders for his psyche. "As good as can be expected, I guess," he replied. "Er, I wrote the Ministry today. Did they get in contact with you?"

Dan's voice hardened again. "You could say that," he said through gritted teeth.

"Are you alright, Mr. Granger? Do you want me to come over?"

"No," Dan replied with a resigned sigh. "The funeral will be tomorrow. Why don't you come over around eleven?"

"Sure," Harry replied sadly. "I'll see you then."

He hung up the receiver and leaned against the phone for several moments. Seeing his daughter's body must have brought the entire ordeal crashing down on Mr. Granger, Harry reasoned. Hermione's dad had been so gracious the night before, and now Harry wasn't even sure if he was welcome at her funeral.

_____

Author's Note: Please enjoy the chapter. Updates will be sporadic over the next few months as I will be sitting for several professional exams. As such, I can no longer reply to all of the reviews. Replying to each review tends to be repetitive and time consuming. I will still reply to some and I usually post answers to common questions on my LiveJournal. Take heart though, I plan to use that time to work on the story. As always, reviews are deeply appreciated and immensely helpful.

Author's Recognition: This chapter is dedicated to Ross Wrock for his exemplary story, Harry Potter and the Power of Time . He pioneered/strongly influenced the obligatory 'shopping chapter.'

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me with this chapter. My betas, Ivan and Lisa did excellent jobs as always.

Originally posted: 7 August 2006
Last Edit: 16 September 2006

After returning from the Grangers, Harry lay in his bed at Grimmauld Place. He was exhausted and unable to keep his eyes open; but sleep would not claim him. Instead, he battled excruciating pain. His soul had been violently torn to pieces, and he did not know what to feel. He didn't feel. Everything was foreign to him. He felt removed from his body, removed from his mind, removed from his essence.

As the sun gave birth to a red dawn, Harry finally succumbed to exhaustion. His dreams were not peaceful.

---888---

The following morning, Harry sat on the sofa in the sitting room at Grimmauld Place. In his hands, a book rested. It was open, but not to any particular page. He was staring into the hearth, which was as empty and vacant as his gaze. His mind was devoid of thought and emotion. Time passed unnoticed.

Unbeknownst to Harry, he was being observed by Dobby, the free house-elf. After twenty minutes, Dobby silently left the room. During that time, Harry never noticed his friend's presence.

Soon thereafter, the hearth burst to life, filling with flickering green flames. Minerva McGonagall's head appeared directly in Harry's line of sight. But unseeing emerald eyes made no note of her presence.

"Harry, may I come through?"

"Uh huh."

McGonagall's eyes narrowed in concern at Harry's despondence. The flames flared again, and Hogwarts' Headmistress stepped through the Floo. "Hello, Harry. How are you doing today?"

"Yeah. I'm fine." Harry's voice was hollow and devoid of emotion. He was only half-listening to McGonagall.

"Do you need someone to stay with you?"

Harry blinked before focusing his eyes on his professor. This question was somewhat unexpected. It required at least a minimal thought process to formulate a response. "No, I'll be OK."

"Would you mind if I sit with you for a bit?"

Harry grunted something that sounded like an affirmative response before glancing down at the book resting in his hands. The bound tome offered no escape from conversation. He belatedly realized that it was upside down. After a while Harry asked, "Where were you last night?"

"I was at the school," she replied softly. "I did not know about the battle until this morning when I read The Prophet ."

Harry groaned in annoyance at the thought of the newspaper. "What did it say?"

"It said there was a battle last night," she answered tentatively. "Death Eaters attacked your party. They killed several of the Weasleys and your guests. It also said that you killed You-Know-Who."

Harry snorted in response, mumbling, "They left out some minor details."

"Such as?"

Harry's eyes remained fixed on the upside down book in his hands. "The fact that I killed a bunch of Death Eaters."

Harry's response cracked McGonagall's frigid outer shell. "Oh, Harry," she sighed compassionately.

As if he hadn't heard her, he listed the slain Death Eaters. "Lucius and Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix, Wormtail, Dolohov, Snape. I killed them all."

By mutual consensus, the two sat in silence for a while longer. Finally, McGonagall asked, "How are you coping?"

"I'm fine."

"Then it is worse than I feared," she stated gravely.

Harry looked up at her for the first time since she'd sat next to him. "What is?"

"I have only known a few wizards who could kill and not be affected the next day. All of them, without fail, were evil beyond measure."

With an alarmed expression, Harry's voice hitched, "You think I'm evil?"

Calmly, she replied, "Only if you are truly 'fine.'"

"Well, what do you want me to say?" Harry asked defensively.

"You could begin with the truth."

"The truth is that I feel horrible. I don't want to talk to or see people, but I don't want to be alone. I hate life."

Harry's anger-filled response did not seem to affect McGonagall or diminish her patience. "Then you're not fine."

"No. Not exactly," Harry huffed, rolling his eyes.

"Would you like to tell me why you killed those Death Eaters?"

Harry broke eye contact with McGonagall and looked back down at his book. "No."

She appeared unfazed, but asked in a more demanding tone, "Harry, why did you kill those Death Eaters?"

"I was angry."

"I've seen you angry in the past. I've never known you to kill before."

Harry balled his fists and looked McGonagall straight in the eyes. Hoping to intimidate the witch, he leaned in toward her and nearly hissed, "You've never seen me as angry as I was last night."

McGonagall did not flinch, and her patience remained unbroken. "I see," she said in the same calm voice. "Why were you so angry then?"

"Why are you doing this?" Harry demanded as he backed away from McGonagall.

"Doing what?"

"Asking all these inane questions like some kind of bloody psychologist?"

"I've some experience dealing with children who have just been visited by tragedy."

Harry did not know what to say in response, so he grunted and fell silent again. When it was apparent he wouldn't answer her question, she asked, "Do you have a favorite Quidditch team?"

"Huh?"

"You heard the question."

"Er, I guess the Chudley Cannons."

"The Cannons?" McGonagall asked in disbelief. "Is there a particular reason why you like that abysmal team?"

Harry took no offense at her insult, but he realized that Ron probably would have challenged her to some sort of duel. "They're the only team that I know anything about, really."

Pride crept into McGonagall's voice. "I myself am a fan of the Pride of Portree. My uncle played for them when I was young."

"What position?"

"He was a keeper," she answered with a far-away look in her eyes and a slight smile on her thin lips. "He used to have me fly around and try to sneak the Quaffle past him. That was how I learned to play chaser."

"You played at school?"

"I was on the Gryffindor team for three years. We won the cup in my sixth year."

Harry pondered this for a few moments before meeting her gaze. "Did you ever think of playing professionally?"

She shook her head with a slight smile. "Unlike you, I wasn't of the appropriate caliber. The professional leagues are quite competitive."

"What did you do after school then?"

"I worked in the Department of Magical Transportation."

Subconsciously, Harry frowned at the thought of working for the Ministry. "Did you like it?"

"No. The Ministry has hundreds of rules. Few of them are actually followed." Her smile disappeared at the thought of broken rules. "I was always by the book. but my boss was always doing and owing favors for his friends. I did not think it was appropriate to bend the rules for only a few people."

Harry actually smiled at this, and the two sat silently for another few minutes before McGonagall pulled an antique pocket watch from the folds of her emerald cloak. "Harry, I need to get back to the school. Will you be alright here by yourself?"

"Yes."

"May I return tomorrow morning?"

He was surprised that she would consider coming back again. He'd been rude to her for most of their conversation. "If you want."

"Very well then, I shall see you tomorrow." With that, McGonagall retrieved a pinch of Floo powder from a small tin and tossed it into the flames in the hearth.

---888---

Faced with an afternoon all to himself, Harry was suddenly at a loss for what to do. If he had been thinking clearly, he would have remembered the appointment with his solicitor. But, death and its consequences left no room to think about such mundane things. Instead, he thought about Hermione and Ron.

Hermione would undoubtedly be coiled around a book up in the library, and Ron would be begging to go out and play Quidditch. Flying sounded like fun, but Harry didn't have his broom. The Aurors had confiscated it as evidence. In fact, Harry realized, he didn't even have a fresh change of clothes. Virtually everything he owned was still in his trunk at the Burrow . and he wasn't all that interested in returning there for a while.

Fishing around in his back pocket, Harry extracted his Moke-skin moneybag. Most Hogwarts students bought one during their first trip to Hogsmeade or once they realized how much of a hassle it was to carry around a non-magical moneybag. The brilliance of Moke-skin was that it could expand and contract as needed, thus allowing people to carry a sufficient supply of bulky wizarding coins.

From the Moke-skin bag, he retrieved fifty pounds. After running away from Privet Drive the summer before his third year, Harry had traded Hermione ten galleons for the notes. Since then, he had kept his 'just in case' money hidden away with his magical items, ensuring that Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley would never find it.

With the notes tucked safely in his left pocket (the right pocket had a hole in the lining), Harry ambled along the street for several blocks before emerging onto a thoroughfare. On his left, there was a small strip mall called Perkienew Square with an aging department store that was advertising a sale.

---888---

Harry returned to Grimmauld Place with three pounds in his pocket and a shopping bag in hand. He had purchased a new pair of jeans and a green button-down shirt. But, as soon as he walked in the door, he felt an oppressive weight settle on his shoulders. He couldn't stay inside; he needed to get out!

Changing into his new clothes, he decided that he ought to visit the Grangers again. However, Harry realized that transportation would be troublesome. The Grangers did not have a Floo connection, and Kingsley wasn't around to take him. For perhaps a split second, he considered the Knight Bus, but there was no way he wanted to take it if he could avoid doing so. The conductors were always nosy, and he didn't want to answer any questions.

Harry was tempted to Apparate. In fact, two days ago he would have. The worst the Ministry could do would be to expel him for performing underage magic. But, now that he was an adult, unlicensed Apparation carried the possibility of a stay in Azkaban. Still, Apparation would be the most convenient way to get there and pretty much anywhere else he wanted to go.

Taking an old sock, Harry transfigured it into a cap that would hide his scar. In the sitting room, with the cap pulled down snugly over his ears, Harry lit a fire and tossed a pinch of Floo powder into the hearth. "The Ministry of Magic."

When all the spinning finally stopped, Harry stumbled away from the hearth. He was in the Ministry atrium, standing in front of the Fountain of Magical Brethren and staring directly into the eyes of a sculpted wizard. The wizard and the other sculptures had been repaired following the duel with Voldemort at the end of his fifth year.

The atrium was bustling with visitors and Ministry employees. So, Harry had to wait in line to have his wand registered. When he got to the front of the line, he wrinkled his nose in disgust. The guard wore rumpled blue robes and his stench suggested he had spent the night in a smoke filled pub with sticky floors and peanut shells underfoot.

The guard lazily waved a long flexible golden rod in Harry's general direction, not bothering to actually check his legs or back. "Wand," he grunted. Harry handed the man his wand and waited as the brass scales vibrated. The guard's eyes, bloodshot with heavy purple bags beneath them, sagged shut. When the instrument printed a slip of parchment, Harry patiently waited for several seconds, but the guard's eyes remained closed.

Harry cleared his throat and the man jerked awake. Without reading the slip of parchment, the guard impaled it on a metal spike and thrust Harry's wand back toward him. "Next."

Harry gratefully advanced to the row of lifts and ducked into one that was just about to close. The Wizard sharing the lift with him had a lunch pail tucked beneath one arm and was merrily whistling an off-key Christmas carol.

When the car door opened on level six, Harry followed the signs to the Apparation Test Center. After signing in, he took a seat in a deserted corner of the waiting area and spotted Lavender Brown. She was on the other side of the room near a door that read 'Testing Area' in large orange letters.

Lavender was seated beside an older gentleman, and Harry was trying to figure out if the man was her father or grandfather. There was certainly a family resemblance between the two. Periodically, the man would try to engage Lavender in conversation, but her replies were monosyllabic and curt. She was too preoccupied with the latest edition of Witch Weekly to be bothered.

After a while, her father (Harry decided the man looked too young to be Lavender's grandfather) gave up trying to converse with his daughter and introduced himself to the middle-aged witch sitting next to him.

"Hello, I'm Ridley Brown." Lavender's father extended a hand to the woman. He was wearing a gold ring with a large opal stone. The ring was hard to miss; it glistened in the bright sunlight provided by the charmed windows lining the wall. "This is my daughter, Lavender." Lavender continued reading her magazine, ignoring both her father and the woman.

"I'm Selby Turpin," the woman replied with a nervous smile. "My daughter Lisa is in Lavender's class at Hogwarts."

"Really?" The other hushed conversations in the waiting area seemed to die out. Quite a few people were eavesdropping. "Lavender's never mentioned a Lisa," Ridley declared pompously. "Are you sure your daughter is in her year? Lavender's going to be a seventh year Prefect this term."

"Yes, I'm sure," Selby replied icily. She was apparently aware that the entire room had stopped to listen because she raised her voice and clearly enunciated every syllable. "Lisa finished third in her class last term, quite a few spots ahead of both that Potter boy and your Lavender."

Lavender had finally put down her magazine in time to be thoroughly embarrassed by Selby Turpin's announcement. Fortunately, a witch opened the door at the front of the room and called Lavender's name. She and her father both strutted through the door, leaving a pink-faced Selby Turpin to shoot malicious glares at those who were still staring at her.

There was no more drama during the remainder of Harry's wait at the Testing Center. He was pretty sure that Lavender failed her test because she came out of the room with puffy eyes. Selby, on the other hand, had a broad grin on her face when she finished.

When it was his turn, the same testwitch who had called Lavender opened the door and glanced at her clipboard. "Harry Potter?" she disbelievingly asked her sign-in sheet. Apparently the witch thought his name was some sort of joke because she began to call the next name on her list. "Thaddeus Steb-."

"Excuse me," Harry interrupted her. "Did you call my name? I'm Harry."

She glanced up at him and her eyes widened comically. The entire waiting room was staring at him. Several mouths were hanging open in surprise. "Mr. P-Potter. You're, you're, here to Ap-Apparate test," she stuttered, stumbling over her words. "Please f-follow me."

Harry Apparated around the Center easily, quickly completing the tests. It was the first time that the testwitch had ever been more nervous than her subject. When they were done, the witch began filling out the paperwork. As she filled in the forms, her hand shook so violently that she had to start over twice.

"Did you really kill You-Know-Who?" she asked Harry, handing him a small Apparation License.

"He's gone," Harry assured her. "And he won't be coming back."

When he left the Testing Area, Harry was not surprised to see a large crowd of people standing near the door, staring intently at him. Several people called his name, and a few actually reached out to touch him. "Excuse me," he said slipping past a witch in grey robes. "'Scuse me." He ducked out of the way of an arm reaching for his shoulder. "Excuse me, please." An elderly wizard was hoping to shake his hand.

Harry finally escaped the mob in the waiting room and quickly slunk down the hallway toward the lifts. He tugged his cap even lower, vainly hoping that it could somehow grant him anonymity. Harry pushed the button to take him back to the atrium and then impatiently punched it several more times as he heard voices following him down the hall.

The lift door finally opened. Harry ducked into the car, but it wasn't empty. A gnarled hand reached out and pushed the button to close the door. "Harry, it's good to see you." Rufus Scrimgeour's pale yellow eyes peeked out from behind his rectangular wire-rimmed spectacles. "I was hoping you'd join me in my office. It'll only take a few moments."

Harry noticed that Scrimgeour's hands were empty, and he had no assistant with him. The Minister was almost certainly not randomly riding the lifts, hoping to bump into Harry Potter. "Er, if it's quick," Harry mumbled. "I've got to get going."

"Excellent," Scrimgeour pronounced with a toothy grin. He pushed the button for the first level and then tapped it with his wand. "The lift will run 'express' this way," Scrimgeour explained when Harry looked at him questioningly. "Not many people know that trick."

On the first level, the car door opened into a reception area. There were desks for two assistants flanking a giant magical sculpture that dominated the center of the room. At its base, a jewel-encrusted crown, large enough for a dozen giants, served as a cauldron for a bubbling potion on magical green flames. Four wands leaned at an angle against the crown, shooting arcs of multicolored magical energy on a parabolic path up into the air and back down into the cauldron. Three lions, engraved on the outside of the crown, stalked back and forth, stirring the bubbling potion as they paced.

Harry tried not to gawk at the magnificent sculpture, but Scrimgeour paused to examine it. "It was commissioned by Artemisia Lufkin almost two hundred years ago," Scrimgeour told Harry. "It's called the Cauldron of Power." With a chuckle, Scrimgeour added, "You can buy a miniature replica in the gift shop."

"There's a gift shop in the Ministry?"

"Level seven, next to the British Quidditch League offices." Scrimgeour led Harry past an auburn-haired receptionist that he recognized from Hogwarts. He smiled at her trying to remember her name. Beatrice? Possibly. "Belinda?"

The receptionist blushed, hiding her surprise that he had remembered her name. "Hi, Harry." She definitely winked at him as Scrimgeour ushered Harry into his office, which was enormous. It had five walls and formed a perfect pentagon. Virtually everything in the office was either scarlet or gold.

"I was in Gryffindor when I attended Hogwarts," said Scrimgeour. "A fine house, don't you think?"

"Er, I like it," Harry said wondering again what the Minister wanted. At Scrimgeour's insistence, Harry took a seat on a scarlet sofa with gold stitching.

"Biscuit?"

"No thanks." Harry pointedly glanced at an antique clock on the wall.

"Well, I wanted to let you know about a few things." Scrimgeour sat in a leather arm chair across from Harry. "This morning, I did you the favor of having all your mail re-routed to our mailroom here. Thousands of people sent you owls, and they couldn't seem to find you. Most of the poor birds were just circling the city, and we didn't want the Muggles to notice."

"Thousands?"

"At least," Scrimgeour chuckled. "The mailroom staff does this for several famous people: quidditch stars, some of the popular bands, even Gilderoy Lockhart. He still receives a dozen letters a week."

"This is just temporary?" Harry asked. "I still want to get my post."

"You won't want all of it," Scrimgeour assured him with a distasteful frown. "Each week, the mailroom staff will make a list of all the people who sent you post. You can give them instructions on what you want done. Also, if you pick a pseudonym, your friends can write you directly. For instance, I chose Leo Prowl."

"So, if I sent a letter to Leo Prowl?"

"The owl would bypass the mailroom and come straight to me," Scrimgeour replied with a toothy grin.

"Sounds useful," Harry mused. He thought for a few moments about his own pseudonym. Ron Granger or Moony Black, were tempting choices, but he didn't want to decide right then. "I'll get back to you."

"That'll be fine. You'll really enjoy the mail service I set up for you," Scrimgeour declared magnanimously. He pulled out a long scroll of parchment and gave it to Harry. "This is the list of letters we've received for you since this morning. Just send me your selections, and we'll send your owl back with the letters you've requested."

Harry fidgeted with the scroll and wished that he was wearing robes so he could just tuck it in a pocket.

"Hmm, oh yes," Scrimgeour muttered. "I nearly forgot. Last night, I told the Muggle Minister about how you vanquished You-Know-Who. Well, he wants to meet you."

"The Prime Minister wants to meet me?" Harry asked in surprise before his eyes narrowed. "What about the Secrecy Statute? I thought they couldn't know."

"The Muggle Minister needs to know," Scrimgeour said reassuringly. "If there are ever 'spillovers' from our world into theirs, we need to tell them about it. It's fairly infrequent and the Muggles don't actually do anything, but they like to keep in communication." Scrimgeour waited a moment to let this sink in. "So, can I tell the man you'll meet with him?"

"I don't know why he would want to meet me," objected Harry. "There's nothing left to be done."

"I'm sure he's just curious," Scrimgeour said evasively. "He'll probably just want to have lunch."

"I guess," Harry reluctantly conceded.

"I'll have the Muggle Minister set a date," Scrimgeour declared with a single clap of his hands. "That's settled then. Oh! You'll like this." Scrimgeour walked over to his desk and retrieved a single piece of stiff parchment. "You've been selected as an Order of Merlin recipient." He paused for dramatic effect, "First Class! I nominated you myself and walked it through the approval process this morning."

"Er, I'm not sure."

"We'll want to schedule a big presentation ceremony! I was thinking two weeks from today." Scrimgeour was genuinely excited about having a party. "We desperately need a celebration. It's been such a dreary year."

"I'm not sure I want an Order of Merlin," Harry repeated. This time, Scrimgeour had stopped talking long enough to hear him.

"You don't want it? What do you mean?" Scrimgeour was crestfallen; his grand party was slipping away before his eyes. "You must accept it. Everyone will be disappointed if you don't," he pleaded. "You're a hero now, Harry. Just like Dumbledore."

Harry threw his hands up in frustration. "Minister, stop! I'm not 'just like Dumbledore.' That's really ridiculous. I don't want the comparisons."

"Harry," Scrimgeour continued to plead with him. "First Class awards are only awarded to the most deserving Wizards. You defeated a Dark Lord - truly remarkable. That's what this award is about. It'll give people hope again."

"Well."

Scrimgeour pounced on Harry's indecision. "I'll have Belinda work out the details. We'll do it on the steps of Gringotts. All the shops on Diagon Alley will be open. Families will come from all over! It'll be a huge boost for all the London businesses."

Scrimgeour's plans enthusiastically bubbled over for several more minutes. As Harry listened to the Minister extolling the virtues of a big celebration, he gradually began to agree with Scrimgeour. "Fine, I'll do it," Harry cut him off.

"That's great!" Scrimgeour smiled broadly. "Today is completely different from the last year. Yesterday, I was fighting a losing battle, but today - Today I'm planning a complete revitalization of the country. I'm going to improve the Ministry, kick-start the economy. I'm going to rebuild the Auror corps. There's just so much to be done!"

The last few sentences of Scrimgeour's speech sounded warning bells in the back of Harry's mind. It sounded rehearsed, like Scrimgeour was launching into some kind of stump speech.

"There's so much to do," Scrimgeour repeated wistfully. "I'll need a lot of help." The Minister's pale yellow eyes bore into Harry's. "I need your help, Harry."

The purpose of the meeting was now plainly evident. Scrimgeour had arranged for favors and awards hoping to charm Harry onto his side. But, politics was a two-way street, and Harry decided his price would be much higher than post services and an Order of Merlin award.

"I don't know, sir," Harry replied warily. "I don't want to commit to anything. There are a lot of things I'm pretty upset about."

Scrimgeour's smile faltered as The-Boy-Who-Lived dodged yet another one of his requests for support. Fortunately, however, Harry was willing to play the game. "So what are you upset about?" Scrimgeour asked.

"Tonks. I don't want her name sullied. She was fighting with me. She's no Death Eater."

Scrimgeour nodded in relief as a toothy grin reappeared on his weathered face. "I'm sure that the final report will be accurate."

Harry fixed the Minister with a deadly glare. "Completely accurate. No cover-ups. No appeasing prominent politicians."

Scrimgeour's grin faltered and his low voice gravely responded, " Completely accurate ."

Even though the Minister's office was below ground and all the magical windows were closed, a slight breeze ruffled sheets of parchment on Scrimgeour's desk. "What about Stan Shunpike and the other supposed Death Eaters you're holding in Azkaban?" Harry's emerald eyes darkened and his fists clenched. The slight breeze stiffened. "Either release them or have a fair trial. My godfather was wrongfully imprisoned for twelve years. It ruined his life and his reputation. What you've done to Stan is despicable."

Scrimgeour nodded warily as he eyed a sheet or parchment that blew off of his desk. "Of course, Harry. We said all along that we'll take a closer look at their cases when we could spare the resources. I'll make sure Stan and Ms. Guffy are high priorities."

Harry stood and shook the Minister's hand. "Don't ask me for your support again until they're released." The 'or else' was left unspoken, but clearly understood by both men.

---888---

Dan Granger answered the door wearing Khakis and an argyle sweater. "Hello, Harry. Come in. I'm a little surprised to see you so soon."

"I didn't want to make you wait," Harry replied quietly. "I'm sorry I left so quickly last night."

Dan waved off Harry's apology. "As you can imagine, we're feeling pretty awful today," Dan said closing the door behind Harry.

"Me too. I was up all night, I didn't fall asleep until sun-up."

"We're still in a state of shock." The two entered into the parlor, and Dan gestured for Harry to sit on the sofa. "I don't think it has really settled in yet."

"Harry dear, would you like something to drink? Coffee, tea, soda?" Emma Granger inquired from the entryway.

"Tea would be fine, Mrs. Granger. Thanks."

Silence descended as Emma left to retrieve the drinks. Dan was looking at Harry, and Harry was intently avoiding Dan's gaze, studying his clasped hands instead.

The silence persisted for several minutes until Emma returned with a tray of drinks. "Here you go, Harry. Sugar? Cream?"

"No, thank you."

Emma smiled and handed him a saucer with a cup of steaming tea and two sugar cubes. Unaware of the uneasy silence before her arrival, Emma dove right into conversation. "Harry, Dan and I wanted to thank you for coming last night with Auror Shacklebolt. It was good to hear the news from a familiar face at least."

"It was the least I could do," Harry replied finally finding the courage to look them both in the eyes. He was doing this for Hermione, and he would answer all of their questions, no matter how much it hurt him to talk about the battle. "I know it would have been a long night of worrying when Hermione didn't return."

Dan cleared his throat with a little difficulty before he began speaking. "Last night you said Voldemort and about forty others were killed. I'm afraid Hermione didn't fully explain the situation to us. She told us that he was a terrorist who was trying to destabilize the Ministry."

Harry was impressed by Hermione's succinct explanation of Voldemort. "That's about right, but his aims were broader than just the Ministry. He wants to, or," Harry corrected himself, "wanted to control wizarding society and more. They were politically motivated." Harry wavered for a moment, considering just how much to tell Hermione's parents. He settled on full disclosure. "Voldemort was a blood-fanatic."

"Blood?" Emma suddenly sounded rather concerned.

Harry went on to explain about pure-bloods, half-bloods, and Muggle-borns. He expounded on Voldemort's history and the irony of his political beliefs. Then, he launched into a history of Grindelwald's fall, Voldemort's rise to power, his subsequent defeat, and how the Dark Lord had obtained a new body.

"When he came back," Harry continued, "there were some light skirmishes and a lot of people died. But then in May, Voldemort won a huge victory. A spy in the Order of the Phoenix killed Professor Dumbledore."

"Snape, the potions master?" interrupted Dan.

"Yeah, Snape. The greasy bastard," Harry muttered under his breath. "Dumbledore trusted him, and he double crossed us." Harry seethed for several moments before he could continue his narrative. "Dumbledore's death cleared a major obstacle for Voldemort. Without him, the resistance crumbled. The Ministry and the Order were both ineffective. Voldemort has been winning battles all summer."

"They burnt down Janet's house," Emma offered.

"Hermione told me about it. That same night, they killed dozens of Muggle-borns. I think The Daily Prophet said forty-three students. Ten in our year alone."

" Ten students in your class?" Emma asked, shocked. Hermione had obviously not shared the details with her parents. Harry wasn't surprised in the least.

"Yeah, a quarter of our class dead in one night. and six more yesterday." Harry said quietly. He got up off the sofa and walked over to the Grangers' mantle.

Emma's voice interrupted his thoughts. "So why did they attack the Weasleys last night?"

Harry cringed. He'd known the question was coming, but he had deliberately been downplaying his role in the tale. "Me," he offered weakly. "Voldemort has been trying to kill me for years now. He was always worried because of the damn prophecy. Hermione might still be alive if it wasn't for me."

"Did you kill her?" Dan asked.

"No."

"Then I don't blame you," Dan replied without a trace of hesitation. Emma nodded although Harry did not see it.

"It's still a difficult truth," Harry mumbled.

With a slight hitch in her voice, Emma asked the burning question she had been wanting an answer to all night, "Who did kill her?"

"Draco Malfoy cast the Killing Curse," Harry answered softly, sitting back down. He sipped his cold tea. Harry averted his gaze again and studied the water-color painting of a beach that hung above the Grangers' mantle. "The party was just starting. We had invited a few friends from school and they portkeyed in. Like your house, the Burrow was under the Fidelius Charm. Only a few people knew where it was.

"This sounds like a great security measure," Harry continued in a hollow voice. "But it isn't, because if no one knows where the house is, no one can come to help. The Ministry didn't arrive until it was too late."

Emma was weeping again, and Dan was visibly trying to restrain himself. "Why. why did you survive?"

Harry's throat constricted, as he tried to answer. Picking up a cube of sugar between his thumb and his forefinger, he crushed it slowly into his tea. "I survived because I could not let him survive." He reached up and parted his fringe revealing his lightning bolt shaped scar.

"We've been connected since he tried to kill me as an infant. It's why I know so much about him, and it's why he didn't kill me last night.

"Our souls are connected. But we've been destroying the parts of his soul he used to try and become immortal. He wanted to start over again. So, he needed my soul. He thought he could mix and match to make himself a new one." Harry's tone had become derisive. "If he'd just tried to kill me outright, I'd probably be dead by now. Instead, he tried to steal my soul. It was a foolish thing to do, but he almost succeeded."

"How do you steal someone's soul?" queried Dan, disgust evident.

"Dark magic. You have to draw it out of the body. There's a curse. Voldemort tried it on me, but I managed to reverse it. He lost his soul instead; and I killed him."

"Thank you, Harry." Emma's reaction surprised him. He had perhaps expected Hermione's mother to react like Professor McGonagall. "What about Draco Malfoy?" she asked.

"He's dead, too."

"Did you kill him?" Emma's voice was barely above a whisper.

"Yes." There was no reassuring comment from Emma this time, but when Harry looked both doctors in the eye, he was relieved to see gratification rather than judgment.

All three were ashen faced as Harry finished telling his story. He had been brutally honest with them, telling them things he wouldn't even tell the Ministry or McGonagall . and yet, the simple act of confiding in Hermione's parents relieved an oppressive weight on his soul.

Several minutes of silence passed before Dan hesitantly asked, "What does the Killing Curse do?" His tone implied that he wasn't sure he wanted an answer.

"It just kills you. One moment you're walking around, the next you're not," Harry mumbled. A lifetime of green scythes, prematurely harvesting lives, replayed themselves in Harry's mind. "It's very sudden. No pain, just surprise." He looked Dan and Emma directly in the eyes. "It's worse for the survivors, I think."

Dan's relief spelled out across his face. Grasping Emma's hand, he asked, "Will we be able to have an open casket?"

The question caught Harry off guard. He had not even begun to think about a funeral. "I'm sure you can. She'll look very peaceful. Has anyone from the Ministry contacted you yet?"

A glint of anger was evident in Dan's eye as he shook his head. "Just yourself and the Auror. We're hoping to have the service in two days, if possible."

Harry nodded in agreement. "I'll be there."

It seemed to him that his conversation with the Grangers had wound itself to a natural conclusion. So, he stood and said, "Thank you for letting me explain myself a bit.

"Thank you for coming to us." Emma came over to him and hugged him tightly as Mrs. Weasley had done. "You're welcome to just stop by whenever you want."

"Thank you, that means a lot to me," Harry replied quietly. Glancing at the door, he said "I'd best get going. It's getting late."

"Wait a moment, Harry." Dan left the room and returned with an owl in a wire mesh cage. His voice was filled with pain as he thrust it into Harry's hands. "We don't know how to care for the bird. Would you please take her back?"

Harry understood Dan's unspoken plea. Caring for a magical owl is not a difficult task, but living with one that used to belong to your deceased daughter might just be unbearable. "I'll give her an excellent home. I really will."

---888---

Life is full of cruel and ironic twists. For instance, a young Wizard with an Apparation license and a Knight Bus phobia will occasionally find himself living in a house under the Fidelius Charm and carrying an owl that has never been there before.

After leaving the Grangers, Harry carried Phaedippas to a nearby park. However, when he opened the cage and asked him to fly to Grimmauld Place, the owl only hooted in response.

Harry wasn't sure if he could apparate with Phaedippas. So, seeing no alternative, he reluctantly raised his wand arm. The purple triple-decker Knight Bus came screeching to a halt, and a young, attractive witch dressed in a purple conductor's uniform stepped down on the bottom step. She had apparently taken Stan Shunpike's job.

Harry kept his head down and said, "I'd like to go to Perkienew Square, please."

The girl was chewing Droobles gum and it smacked as she spoke with a nasal twang. "That'll be seven sickles."

Harry paid his fare and quickly found a bed near the back of the bus. As he settled in, he overheard the conductor discussing the news of Voldemort's downfall with an older woman near the front of the bus.

"They say that Harry Potter single handedly defeated You-Know-Who and all of his Death Eaters."

Harry tugged his cap further down his forehead. The older woman probably had sixty years of practice as a professional gossip.

"That's what I heard, too." The conductor's gum smacked loudly again. "But you can never really trust the papers."

"Do you think it actually happened?"

"I don't know about all the Death Eaters, but everybody has been celebrating non-stop. He must have got You-Know-Who again." After a moment's lull in conversation, the conductor asked, "Do you think he's seeing anyone? He's cute in the pictures."

It was as if the older woman's favorite topic of conversation had been broached. From across the bus, Harry could hear her breathing accelerate. "Do you remember about two-and-a-half years ago," she asked, excitement pouring from her high-pitched voice. " Witch Weekly said he was dating Hermione Granger. Well," the woman's voice dropped to a stage whisper. "She was with Harry Potter last night and died in the fight."

"Oh, that is so sad," the conductor said insincerely. "But, he's probably available now. And he's only two years younger than I am."

After five more excruciating minutes, the Knight Bus jerked to a halt and the conductor called out, "Perkienew Square." Harry got up and left the bus, brusquely brushing past the conductor and the elderly woman. Gratefully, the Knight Bus disappeared without anyone realizing that Harry Potter had been aboard.

---888---

" Open. "

The front door of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place swung aside to admit its Parselmouthed owner. Harry wearily stepped across the threshold and set down the heavy owl cage he was carrying. Removing the wire mesh top, he gently stroked the reddish-brown owl before it took flight.

He wished Phaedippas good luck on the owl's nightly hunt before closing the front door and trudging up the stairs to his bedroom. There, he unceremoniously fell, fully-clothed, into the too-small bed. With his feet hanging several centimeters off the end of the mattress, Harry succumbed to an evening of fretful nightmares.

The following morning, Harry awoke with the rising sun. He was still tired, but the sunbeams provided an excellent excuse to escape his nightmares and face the next day. Without showering or changing clothes, he planted himself on the sofa in the sitting room. Early morning, Harry realized, was an excellent time to brood.

Several hours later, the flames in the hearth flashed green once again, and Minerva McGonagall asked for permission to come through the Floo. Harry greeted her warmly.

"Hello, Professor."

"Good morning, Harry. I'll say you are looking somewhat better this morning."

"Er, thanks." Harry glanced down at his rumpled shirt and jeans. By contrast, McGonagall's emerald cloak and black blouse were starched to perfection.

Taking a seat next to Harry on the sofa, McGonagall inquired briskly, "Do you have anything to eat in this house?"

Harry looked at his feet. "I'm sorry Professor. I should have offered you some tea or something."

"No, no, I was asking if you have any food in the house."

"I don't know," Harry said thoughtfully. "I'll rummage around the pantry and see if I can find something."

"No, do not worry yourself," she replied dismissively. "Unless you've purchased something in the last few days, I doubt there is anything edible here. This house hasn't been lived in for over a year. So, when was the last time you ate?"

"Last night. The Grangers offered me tea."

"Food, Harry." McGonagall's voice had an edge of impatience. "When was the last time you had a solid meal."

"Yester-um," Harry paused to think. "I guess two days ago at the Burrow. Lunch." He had gone nearly 48 hours without eating and had not been troubled with hunger until McGonagall had mentioned food. He realized now that he was exceedingly hungry.

"I figured as much," McGonagall muttered to herself. She then stood and tossed a pinch of Floo powder into the flames. "Ponzi, please bring breakfast for two." McGonagall turned around and resumed her seat next to him.

"You should take better care of yourself," she chastised. "I know you are grieving, but you cannot hide away in this house by yourself."

"I'm not," he replied defensively. "I went out yesterday. I went shopping and visited the Grangers."

McGonagall raised a thin eyebrow at this, but replied, "You have not showered, nor changed this morning. You have not eaten, and you have no food in the house," her tone softened. "Do you need a place to stay?"

"No," he answered her resolutely. Gesturing to the room around him, he said. "I have the Doghouse."

"I was thinking more along the lines of a home with someone to look after you."

"No," Harry said more sharply than he intended to. "I don't want to trouble anyone."

McGonagall eyed the obstinate teen warily. "Very well, but know that you are welcome to ask for my help if you ever need it."

Harry looked at his feet again, embarrassed at the concerned tone his normally reserved head of house had taken with him. "Thank you," he whispered.

As the ensuing silence threatened to become uncomfortable, a house-elf appeared. He was bearing a silver platter with two large steaming plates. The elf handed the first to McGonagall with a bow. Turning to Harry, Ponzi offered him the second with another identical bow.

"Thank you," Harry said to the elf.

McGonagall, who had been staring at Harry with a piercing gaze for the last minute, apparently found this amusing. Her thin lips upturned slightly before she focused her attention on the breakfast. The elf left without being recognized by the Headmistress. The two ate in companionable silence for a time until McGonagall stated, "You are remarkably similar to Albus."

She seemed surprised when Harry looked at her warily. "In what ways?"

She sighed. "In so many that it is difficult to count. Your treatment of house-elves comes to mind. Albus had a fondness for their magic."

"I wouldn't say that," Harry answered somewhat defiantly. "I like Dobby well enough, but I hate Kreacher."

At the mention of Kreacher's name, McGonagall tapped the side of her head with her forefinger. "I had forgotten about that," she said. "I wanted to speak with you about him. He is still at the school and has caused a fair bit of disruption in the kitchens."

"He has?" Harry asked darkly. "Kreacher!"

A disgustingly dirty and bruised house-elf hesitantly popped into place in front of Harry. "Damn you! Damn you! Damn you! Filthy half-breed in the most Ancient and Noble House of Black! I won't. I won't. I won't."

"Kreacher, shut up!" Harry yelled. "I never want to hear from you again." The elderly house-elf looked mildly shocked at this direct order, but was magically inclined to seal his lips. "I want you up in Buckbeak's room until I tell you otherwise. Do not leave this house and do not move any of the possessions here." Kreacher popped away with one last glare at Harry.

"Thank you," said McGonagall evidently relieved. "I'm sorry to bring this problem to you, but you're the only one that could deal with it."

"It's not a problem."

"But it is a very good lesson."

"What is?" he asked guardedly.

"Harry," McGonagall seemed to revert to the tone she used with her classes. "Kreacher is bound to you. He has a responsibility to you. But you also have a responsibility for him."

"I'm not going to kill him," Harry said defensively. His expression clearly indicated that he had been considering the opposite.

"I was not insinuating that you would or should," she replied reassuringly. "But, you are an immensely powerful wizard. I am just reminding you that with great power comes great responsibility."

"Now you're reminding me of Professor Dumbledore."

"That was one of his favorite truisms," McGonagall conceded with a smile. "You are like him in so many ways."

Harry was becoming annoyed with the repeated comparisons to Dumbledore. "Would it be unforgivable if that made me uncomfortable?"

McGonagall's expression changed to one of shock and surprise, but she did not answer immediately. After locking gazes with Harry for a moment she answered, "It may be more perceptive than I realized. Did something happen between the two of you?"

"Nothing in particular," Harry sighed. "Just life. I've had a summer to read through his personal journals and think about him. I'm torn about what I think."

"Go on," she prodded.

"The man I remember was mostly kind and gentle, almost some sort of a grandfather. But.actions sometimes speak louder than words. He placed me with the Dursleys. There had to be other options. He knew about the prophecy, but he didn't tell me until it was too late. He didn't train me to fight Voldemort until last year, and even then he just showed me memories of the man. When I put myself in his place, I would never have made the same decisions he did."

"Such as?"

"The Dursleys. He left me on their doorstep and assumed they would love me. They didn't. The memories he showed me of Tom Riddle reminded me a lot of my childhood."

McGonagall eyes darkened slightly. "I will confide in you that I did not agree with that decision."

Her confession floored Harry. "Then why didn't you stop him?" he stammered.

"Firstly, because I worked for him - both as a member of the Order and on the faculty at Hogwarts. Secondly, one simply did not defy Albus Dumbledore."

"Even if he was wrong?" Harry asked incredulously.

"Such are the perils of leadership." McGonagall sadly sipped at her tea. "Another lesson for this morning I suppose."

Harry's retort was sarcastic and angry. "Uh, okay. What is this lesson supposed to mean?" Harry didn't understand how she could calmly defend Dumbledore while admitting that the man had made so many mistakes.

She placed a hand on Harry's knee before replying. "Harry, you are a natural leader. So, this is something you will learn in due course. Sometimes a leader makes a bad decision, and more often then not their followers are the ones that pay the price."

Harry's anger receded to a simmer. "I still don't understand why you didn't stop him."

"I tried, but he would not be deterred," she said shaking her head slightly. "I could choose to defy him and lose his trust, or respect his decision and suffer the consequences. Oftentimes, a good leader is right in the first place. If I had chosen to defy Albus and he had been right, then I would have denied you invaluable protection."

"But he wasn't right," Harry pouted.

"And that brings us to the chief attraction of being a follower rather than a leader," McGonagall replied. "When decisions go poorly, followers are more easily absolved of the responsibility than leaders. Everyone should still be responsible for their actions, but often that is simply not the case. To the leader go both the glory and the responsibility."

McGonagall's point finally hit home for Harry, and he understood what she was trying to make him realize. "Sounds like great power and great responsibility to me," he said wryly.

"Exactly," she replied with a small smile. "As it is though, we all made mistakes. We should have removed you from their care when it became apparent that the situation was not working well."

"You knew?" Harry's crushing disappointment in both McGonagall and Dumbledore was bubbling to the surface again.

"Arabella may be a Squib, but she is neither deaf nor blind," McGonagall said, shaking her head slightly. "Albus, myself, and the others just didn't want to believe it was as horrible as all that. The bad reports didn't start coming until about a year and a half after we left you. We had moved on. It was a terrible mistake."

Harry was not so easily placated, but he had an immense respect for the witch who would sit before him and freely discuss this topic. He could not help but think that he had destroyed the better part of Dumbledore's office before the former Headmaster had chosen to speak to him about this. "You knew him very well, didn't you?"

"I knew him for forty-one years as a member of Hogwarts' faculty. I am one of the few people who really knew him well. Myself, Filius Flitwick, Rubeus Hagrid. we were like his family at times." McGonagall trailed off into silence for a few minutes. "He was always very private, very lonely. Harry," she fixed him with her intense gaze, "that is what I meant when I said you two are so similar. Be careful not to shut everyone out. You both have a tendency to bury your struggles deep within yourselves. Find someone to share your life with you."

_____
Author's Note: I promise this is the chapter in which the angst is worst. Things will improve. As such, I am dedicating this chapter to the most angst-filled story I have ever read: Harry Potter and the Maw by WoMo. Be warned, despite the fact that it was awesome, I just couldn't finish it due to the unbelievable amounts of angst.

Author's Recognition: The Minister's assistant, Belinda, is a character from Greengecko's Resonance .

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me with this chapter. My betas, Ivan, and Lisa did an excellent job. Thanks also to Myles, and Tim Joy (Jeconais) who saw this chapter in its primordial form and offered some excellent feedback.

The Prime Minister sat upon the navy pinstriped sofa in his office. His head was cradled in one hand, and he held a snifter of cognac in the other. His eyes were fixed on a small portrait of a frog-like man wearing a silver wig. Surely the portrait would cough soon. The secretary in his outer office, Kingsley Shacklebolt, had fled from his desk nearly two hours ago.

Finally, the portrait coughed. "To the Prime Minister of Muggles. Requesting a meeting. Urgent. Kindly respond immediately. Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic."

The Prime Minister corrected his posture. "Yes, send him over."

A moment later, the hearth began emitting green sparks, and Rufus Scrimgeour stepped into the opulent office. It was his third visit in the past two months. First, he had visited after Dumbledore's death. Then, only two weeks later, Scrimgeour had to explain the massacre of more than one hundred Muggles and Muggleborns. Not even a month after that, Scrimgeour had to inform the Prime Minister of yet another mass breakout from Azkaban.

"What is it now, Rufus?" the Prime Minister complained bitterly.

"The war is over!" announced Scrimgeour, his amiable tone disarming the Prime Minister. "You-Know-Who and all of his followers are dead or arrested. This time, we have a body and everything."

"This time?" the Prime Minister asked. "He's been dead before?"

"Twice, actually," Scrimgeour said with a broad smile, as if dying three times was perfectly normal. "Let's sit and drink. I'll tell you all you need to know."

The Prime Minister was too relieved at hearing the good news to be offended by Scrimgeour's lack of proper protocol. "Yes, yes, sit. Your Aurors," the Prime Minister looked at Scrimgeour to verify that he had the correct term, "they killed this Lord Vold-"

"You-Know-Who," interrupted Scrimgeour. "We do not speak his name."

The Prime Minister swore beneath his breath. "Your Aurors," he began again, "they killed You-Know-Who?"

"Well, no," Scrimgeour said with a frown. "It was the boy. He killed him."

"The boy?"

"Potter, Harry Potter. The boy has killed You-Know-Who all three times."

"A boy?"

"Well, he's a man now, I suppose. Today was his birthday. He's an adult."

"A boy of eighteen killed this wizard? Three times now?"

"Well, seventeen actually, but the first time he was only fifteen months old," explained Scrimgeour. He proceeded to tell the Prime Minister about Harry and Voldemort's intertwined fates. "So, it was prophesied," Scrimgeour finished. "He fulfilled the prophecy tonight."

"You're sure that You-Know-Who won't come back again? I mean he's already come back twice," the Prime Minister pushed.

"Potter says he's gone for good. and we've never had a body before."

The Prime Minister mulled this over before cautiously replying, "This sounds like good news, Rufus. I will certainly sleep better, but I would like to speak to the boy as well. I feel you owe it to me."

" I owe it to you ?" Scrimgeour asked incredulously.

"Yes, have you seen my opinion polls? The people are afraid they'll be killed in their beds. We had another family murdered just this morning."

"Dursleys?"

"Yours again?" the Prime Minister thundered. "I knew it!"

"They were Potter's relations," Scrimgeour said dismissively. "I'll try to arrange a meeting with the boy. He's headstrong."

"You can control him, can't you?"

"Well," Scrimgeour hedged again. "He's not evil, if that's what you mean."

The Prime Minister glared at Scrimgeour. "Good night, Rufus."

Scrimgeour stood and met the Prime Minister's gaze. "Potter wouldn't lie about this. It really is over."

"I sure hope so."

Scrimgeour reached into his pocket and withdrew a small vial of Floo powder. "Mr. Shacklebolt will not be returning," Scrimgeour said to the Prime Minister. "You'll need a new secretary." With that, the flames flickered gree, and Rufus Scrimgeour disappeared from the office.

---888---

Earlier that evening

"Mr. Potter?"

Harry was still seated on the Weasleys' paddock, his fingers entangled in Hermione's soft brown locks.

"Mr. Potter?" the man asked again.

Harry turned his vacant expression upon the interloper, frustrated at the interruption. "Yes?" he replied, a hard edge in his voice.

"Do you mind if I ask you some questions?"

Harry bolted to his feet and jabbed his wand at the man's heart. "Who the hell are you?"

To the man's credit, his own wand remained in his forearm holster. "Gawain Robards, Head Auror."

Harry weighed this answer for several more moments before lowering his wand. "What do you want to know?"

Robards slowly released a long breath. "Mr. Potter, we would like you to tell us what happened here."

"Voldemort," Harry said, watching Robards' reaction closely.

"Voldemort happened?" Robards repeated the Dark Lord's name, understanding the implicit test. "That much is obvious, but we need a full statement."

For some time, Harry walked the grounds of the Burrow explaining the events of the evening to Robards. However, he avoided any mention of Horcruxes or the fact that Voldemort had been weakened each time one was destroyed. When Robards asked Harry to speculate as to why Voldemort attacked, Harry explained that there was a prophecy. "It said that one of us would kill the other. That's why Voldemort's always been after me."

"It seems like the prophecy would have been fulfilled when you were a baby," Robards objected.

"Voldemort didn't think so." Harry proceeded to explain many of the events of his life, conveniently forgetting to mention Riddle's diary and the Chamber of Secrets. During this time, there were several other Aurors collecting evidence and processing the scene. They would periodically come over and ask Harry to explain why a body was burned, or decapitated, or missing an arm.

The first controversy of the night began when the Aurors were identifying bodies. A short, thick man approached Harry and Robards. "Gawain, you're gonna want to see this."

"What is it, Alcott?"

The Auror, who had earlier introduced himself as Alcott Proudfoot, led the group to a body several meters from where Voldemort's corpse still lay. "It's Auror Tonks - robed and all. Looks like we found the traitor."

"Wait! No!" yelled Harry. "She's not a Death Eater. She stole the robes as a disguise."

Proudfoot was incredulous. "Don't be silly. Who would steal a Death Eater's mask and robe?"

Harry tried to explain that Tonks had been at the party and had separated herself from the group. "She wasn't fighting with them. Tonks stunned a Death Eater who was on our tail and jinxed another who was holding me."

"Did you see her steal the disguise?" Proudfoot pressed. "We've had a traitor amongst the Aurors for a long time now. Tonks was in a perfect situation to be a spy. Order of the Phoenix , Auror, apparently you and Dumbledore trusted her."

"Tonks wasn't a spy!"

"Her family is as dark as they come!"

Harry's temper exploded, and he shoved Proudfoot in the chest. The Auror onto his back. Harry stepped over him, drawing his wand in the process. "Watch it asshole! Check for the Mark! Tonks died fighting Voldemort!" Harry took a perverse pleasure watching Proudfoot flinch at the Dark Lord's name.

"Enough!" Robards firmly placed a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Mr. Potter, please settle down. We're all jumping to conclusions here."

Harry reluctantly backed off the fallen Auror and put his wand away. "Go ahead, check for a Mark!" seethed Harry. "You won't find anything." He stooped down and yanked the dark robe up over her forearm. Tonks' skin was unblemished. "See!"

Robards gently grasped Harry's elbow and led him away from Proudfoot. "Mr. Potter, please calm down. We're all on edge here. Alcott just got ahead of himself."

"Well, I won't stand for it!"

Several of the Aurors were congregating around the seething teenager and Head Auror. Kingsley Shacklebolt stepped forward and said, "Gawain, let me speak to him."

"Kingsley!" Harry greeted the tall, black Auror. "He's just accused Tonks of being a Death Eater!"

Shacklebolt directed him away from the others. Once they were out of earshot Shacklebolt said, "Harry, you've got to calm down. There's some history there that you don't know about."

"What?"

"If you'll calm down, I'll tell you." Shacklebolt waited several minutes until Harry's breathing returned to normal. "Alcott Proudfoot was Lawrence Dawlish's training partner and best friend."

"Dawlish? Wasn't he the one who arrested Hagrid and tried to arrest Professor Dumbledore?"

"Yes, he was," Shacklebolt replied hesitantly. "But that's not the point. Dawlish disappeared from Azkaban last month, and he hasn't been seen since. Well, not until tonight. We found his body over by the Burrow."

"Then you already have the traitor!"

Shacklebolt frowned at Harry, "You've jumped to the same assumption that Proudfoot did. Dawlish was wearing Death Eater garb, but he wasn't Marked."

"Well, he wasn't here before the Death Eaters arrived!" fumed Harry.

"That's why everyone is so confused," Shacklebolt explained. "No one knows if he was undercover or why he disappeared from Azkaban. I personally think he may have been under the Imperious Curse. He was quite skilled with a wand."

Harry did not know how to respond. He was sure that Dawlish had been the spy. Something in his gut told him he was right. A faint remembrance niggled at his mind, but he couldn't place it. He knew, he just knew, and now that he thought about it, he knew many things. "Have you found Umbridge yet?" Harry asked Shacklebolt.

"Pardon?"

"Umbridge, she's the one over there." Harry pointed at the corpse that had been killed by Lucius Malfoy's errant Killing Curse.

Shacklebolt walked over and removed the mask from the Death Eater. "How did you know, Harry?"

Harry suddenly realized that he should have kept his mouth closed. Just knowing things was not a good sign, no matter what world you were in. "She was speaking before she bit it," lied Harry.

Shacklebolt's left hand reached behind his head and rubbed its bald surface. "Great, just great," he muttered before calling out for his boss. "Gawain, you better come over here."

Aurors milled around Delores Umbridge's body, discussing how yet another Ministry employee could be found dead, wearing Death Eater robes. A portly man, clutching a lime green bowler rushed over. "Delores! She's not here is she?" Cornelius Fudge exclaimed.

"Fudge, what are you doing here?" Robards demanded. "You're not an Auror. This is a crime scene."

Fudge ignored Robards and continued protesting Umbridge's innocence. Indeed, Harry noticed many Ministry officials who were not Aurors. He spotted Amos Diggory and a woman who looked very similar to Marietta Edgecomb. Near the Burrow, Rufus Scrimgeour was conferring with a grim-faced, tufty-haired man that Harry recognized from Dumbledore's funeral.

With all the confusion, it appeared that the Aurors had forgotten about Harry. So, he walked off toward Ron's body. He had taken the time to say goodbye to Hermione, and he wanted to do the same with Ron.

Harry sat down by his friend's lanky body and stared at him. Ron's surprised expression and lifeless eyes ingrained themselves upon Harry's memory. They were the elements of nightmares - sweat-soaked, bone-chilling nightmares.

Harry gently closed Ron's eyelids and brushed some grass from the fallen body. The pain in Harry's soul gnawed at his consciousness again. He wanted to cry, but his eyes would not water. The loss was too recent.

Leaning backwards, Harry's hand brushed something silky. It was a familiar sensation, but it seemed out of place here on the paddock. Harry fingered it for a minute more before placing the material. It was an invisibility cloak. The memory of the cloak blowing off of Snape straight toward Harry roared back into his mind. He had flung it to the ground and viciously attacked Snape, not sparing a second thought about the cloak.

Now, Harry pulled the invisible silky material toward him. He had not known that Snape possessed an invisibility cloak, although it would be a logical possession for a spy. However, upon inspecting it, Harry's heart leapt into his throat. This cloak was not Snape's. No, not unless the traitor marked his belongings A.M.

Holding the invisibility cloak in his hands, a sudden opportunity presented itself to Harry. He had been hoping for a chance to inspect Voldemort's body, and now he could. Glancing around to make sure no one was looking at him; he slipped beneath the cloak and slunk over to where Voldemort's body lay. He searched through the Dark Wizard's pockets, retrieving Molly Weasley's wedding ring, Bill's fang earring, and Slytherin's locket. As he slipped the items into his pocket, his foot nudged Voldemort's wand from the fallen wizard's hand.

Harry stood transfixed. He wanted the wand. He knew better than to take it. The Aurors would undoubtedly be looking for it if went missing. but he had to have it. No one would see him take it, he reasoned. So, Harry snatched the wand and crept through the gate to the other side of the garden wall.

Harry looked around to make sure no one was watching, and then slipped out from beneath the invisibility cloak. He wrapped Voldemort's yew wand in the cloak and found a hiding spot for it. He nestled the wrapped wand in the crook between a branch and the trunk of an elm tree and cast a sticking charm. The package was invisible, so no one would find it unless they knew where to look.

As Harry slipped his wand back into his pocket, both red-haired twins walked out of the Burrow's entryway. There was still no door hanging from the hinges. It was, in fact, resting on top of the Weasley family clock in the parlor.

Harry went to meet the twins. "Fred, George," Harry stammered, "I'm so sorry."

"Harry, mate," Fred held up a hand signaling for Harry to stop. "We came with the Aurors. We already know. Shacklebolt had to find us at our store. The Aurors couldn't get through the Fidelius."

"We knew Dad died while we were flying here," George continued. "We could suddenly tell 'em where the Burrow was." His voice wavered as he finished, "We just got here too late."

Harry was speechless. The twins were handling this so well, but he felt horrible. "I tried," Harry offered weakly. "I tried to." but he couldn't find an ending to the sentence that didn't sound ridiculous. Save them all? Kill Voldemort sooner? Stop the Death Eaters?

"Harry," Fred interrupted his thoughts. "You killed the bastard. In the end, you made him pay. It's better than what I could have done."

Harry wasn't convinced that the battle's outcome had been ideal, but he smiled vacantly at the twins. They were clearly trying to make him feel better, and he felt guilty wallowing in his own pity - especially since the twins had lost just as much as he.

"Let's go in and find Dad's Firewhiskey," George suggested. "These guys will be here all night."

Harry followed the twins inside. Fred went directly to the Floo, and George started rifling through the cupboards in the pantry.

Harry was uncomfortable watching George and soon decided that repairing the front door would be a useful activity. Maneuvering the flimsy wooden board near the hinges, Harry clearly pictured the door as it had been a year ago when he arrived with Albus Dumbledore. So much had changed since then. "Reparo," he muttered, shaking his head.

"Harry, come have a drink with me," George called over. The stocky red-head was lining up shot glasses on the counter. When they were all full, he re-filled his own. George handed one to Harry, who inspected the contents before carefully sneaking a sip.

It wasn't bad. The alcohol left a bitter taste in his mouth, but he could handle it. So, Harry brought the glass to his chapped lips and swallowed the rest of its contents. His first reflex was to gag. The Firewhiskey lit his esophagus on fire, burning its way like napalm into his empty stomach, where it stewed and boiled. The flames tickled their way back up his throat causing him to inhale sharply, and his eyes to water. The bitter taste in his mouth gripped every individual taste bud, massaging out any sensation but the pungent remains of the Firewhiskey.

"You better take it easy there, Harry," cautioned Fred, handing him a Butterbeer and prying the shot glass from his grip. "That's a little strong I think."

Harry was grateful for the Butterbeer. He twisted off the cap and quickly took a swig of the warm, rich drink. It cut the bitter taste of Firewhiskey, and the flames in his stomach lowered to a simmer.

"George, I told Charlie to come home," said Fred. "We have to tell him tonight."

George downed another shot. "Good thinking. Should we call Fleur?"

"Um, I don't really want to."

"If she doesn't hear it from us, she'll never forgive us. She thinks we don't want her in the family."

"Uh, we don't. Remember?"

"You better call her. We'll regret it if we don't."

"Only because Dad would have," conceded Fred as he returned to the Floo.

Harry sipped at his Butterbeer as George poured himself yet another shot of Firewhiskey. Voices outside announced the presence of another visitor before the door swung open. Percy Weasley strode into the room, walked right up to George, and gunned down a shot from the counter.

George greeted him. "Hi, Perce."

"Hello, George. Have you called Charlie yet?"

"Fred did."

"Pour me another?"

"Sure."

After downing the second shot, Percy turned toward Harry. "Hello, Harry. The Minister was hoping for a word outside."

Harry stood stunned for a moment. He had expected insults, yelling, and even, perhaps, a spell exchange upon Percy's arrival. Instead, George was acting as if Percy hadn't been a complete git for the last two years.

"Harry," Percy repeated, "the Minister."

"Right." Harry turned toward the door and frowned as he saw Rufus Scrimgeour standing just outside. "Minister Scrimgeour."

"Mr. Potter, could I have a word?"

Harry nodded silently and walked out to meet him.

"Let's take a walk," Scrimgeour announced, placing a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Our last one didn't turn out very well."

Harry shrugged his shoulders, causing Scrimgeour's hand to slip from its perch. The Minister took the hint and placed his hand in his pocket. The two plodded along in silence for a bit. Scrimgeour's limp was more pronounced than it had been the previous Christmas. "Don't ever try to understand brothers," suggested Scrimgeour. "They have their own way of forgiving the most grievous of sins without even speaking."

Harry grunted in response. He wasn't in the mood for a lecture on the bonds of brotherhood, nor did he have much patience for Scrimgeour. "Minister, what do you want?"

Scrimgeour stopped walking and leaned on his cane. He looked straight into Harry's eyes, judging something. Without blinking or looking away, Scrimgeour asked, "Is You-Know-Who gone for good this time?"

"Yes."

"Positive?"

"Absolutely."

---888---

"Can I get you anything else?" a curvy waitress asked the four men seated at a table that was nestled in a dark corner of McDaniels' Chop House.

"No thanks, Martha," replied her employer, Jeremiah McDaniels, the sixth generation owner of Hogsmeade's finest restaurant.

There would be no tab for this meal; it was a business meeting, really. The men, all Hogwarts Governors and Wizengamot Lords, had been discussing the astonishingly low enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year. It was the last day of July, and only fifty seven students had registered for the next term.

"Minerva is doing her best," explained Sherman Quirke. "She is spending all her time visiting students' families. Garridan Runcorn agreed to send both his daughters today."

"She is going about it the wrong way," complained Adelbert Zabini. "She needs to be speaking to the influential families. If she could convince Leighton Abercrombie and Ridley Brown to publicly announce that their children are attending, then more would follow along."

"Leighton and Ridley?" asked Seth Ashburton incredulously. "Since when do you consider them influential? Name two families who would send their children to the school because of Leighton and Ridley?"

Adelbert Zabini, who had been appointed to Lucius Malfoy's old Board seat, sipped at his drink in response. Ashburton, the Hufflepuff heir, was right, and everyone at the table knew it.

"Minerva says that most of the parents ask whether Potter is coming back," Quirke volunteered. "She isn't sure that it would be that big of a boost though."

Zabini snorted in response. "My grandson says he's arrogant and incompetent. Full of himself. Only the Gryffindors like him."

"Minerva likes the boy," replied Quirke. "Albus was fond of him as well."

"This 'Chosen-One' business is nonsense," offered McDaniels. "Just a way to sell more bloody papers."

"I wouldn't rush to judgment on that," an elderly gentleman with tufty-hair interrupted. "I come bearing news."

McDaniels jumped to his feet and brought over another chair for the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot. "Michael, it's good to see you. Take a seat. Would you care for a drink?"

"Whisky would be excellent."

McDaniels signaled for the waitress to bring over a bottle of fine Scotch. Once she did, he served Glentworth and then offered another drink to all his guests.

"So what is the news?" asked Quirke as he accepted his drink from McDaniels.

Glentworth sipped at his Scotch before calmly stating, "Potter defeated You-Know-Who."

The announcement was met with several moments of silence before Zabini asked, "What do you mean, 'defeated'?"

"Dead. Cold. Stiff."

"Are you sure?" asked Ashburton, disbelief tattooed across his face.

"Kicked the corpse myself."

"What happened?"

"You-Know-Who has been targeting Potter all day," Glentworth began. "Death Eaters attacked his Muggle relatives this morning. When they didn't find him, they started attacking his friends. Killed Augusta Longbottom and her grandson. Fritz Lovegood and his daughter, too."

"Fritz Lovegood, the idiot from The Quibbler ?" Zabini wanted to know.

"Burnt his building to the ground and set off a Dark Mark. Didn't leave any other evidence behind. Tied up the Aurors most of the day. You-Know-Who finally caught up with Potter at the Weasleys," Glentworth continued. "It was a massive bloodbath, bodies everywhere. The Death Eaters were decimated."

"Why did he attack Potter?" asked McDaniels.

"Potter said there was a prophecy. One would kill the other. It explains You-Know-Who's infatuation with the boy," mused Glentworth. "He says he killed You-Know-Who as an eleven-year-old, but Dumbledore covered it up."

"Dumbledore covered it up?" Zabini demanded, pounding his fist on the table. "What the devil for?"

"No body. He said it just burned up and that Dumbledore said the same thing happened when he was a baby. But, Potter says he's dead for good now."

"How can he be sure?" pressed Zabini.

"Well, there's a body this time. Potter says he's absolutely sure the bastard is gone. Wouldn't say why though. Just said that he knew."

The table silently digested this information for several minutes before Quirke asked, "How's Rufus taking this?"

"He's thrilled about You-Know-Who, but the situation's a bit of a mixed bag," explained Glentworth. "We've got two dead Aurors dressed as Death Eaters, but they don't have the Mark. No one knows why the Aurors were there. Potter insists that one of them stole the disguise and was fighting alongside him. Then, we've got Delores Umbridge. She's dead, also dressed as a Death Eater, but she has the Mark. Fudge is trying to convince the Aurors to keep the whole situation quiet. He insists that Umbridge was some sort of spy. And, to top it all off, You-Know-Who's wand has gone missing."

Quirke shook his head in disgust. "How'd that happen?"

"Merlin knows," sighed Glentworth. "Robards said the wand was there when they started processing the area. He thinks there may still be a traitor in the Ministry."

---888---

In Rookery Hill, a small community nestled along the southern shore of England , warm sea mist mingled with the cooling evening air. In front of the centuries old Manor south of town, a distinctive crack rang out.

"Susan, is that you?"

"Yes, Mum. I'll be in. Just give me a moment."

"Seth and Adelia are here."

"They are?" Susan's voice wavered a bit, and she sniffled softly. "Tell them I've got to use the washroom would you?"

"Sure, Honey." Claire Bones left the front entryway and stepped out onto the cool green grass to greet her daughter. "Are you alright Susan?"

"Yeah, Mum. I'm fine. The date was horrible though. I'm never going out with Roger Davies again."

"That bad, huh?"

"Worse than Fletcher Lonsdale."

Claire Bones chuckled in amusement. "Wizards have their issues. I still wonder if your father used a charm to convince me to go out with him a second time. Our first date was such a disaster."

"I know, Mum, you've told me a dozen times," Susan said with a smile, wiping away a solitary tear from her cheek. "These heirs are impossible though."

"Well, then stop dating the heirs. I seem to think their younger brothers are just fine."

"Thanks, Mum." Susan rolled her eyes. "Seth and Adelia are here?"

"Just arrived ten minutes ago. Said they have some news."

Susan and Claire Bones entered the parlor to find Seth and Adelia Ashburton reclining on the sofa.

"Grandma, Grandpa! I didn't expect you tonight."

Adelia stood in greeting, "Susan, my dear, we have some terrific news. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has been defeated!"

"He has? That's wonderful!" exclaimed Susan.

"I believe this calls for a drink," stated Seth with a twinkle in his eye. He produced an ancient looking mahogany wand and twirled it in a well-practiced loop. Four blue crystal tumblers and a dusty jar of mead appeared on the end table.

"Seth, you've already toasted this news twice!" Adelia scolded her husband. "I think you've had enough."

"I have had e-nuff," he replied, playfully slurring his words. "But, on a night such as tonight, there is no such thing. Now be merry my goodwife, for tomorrow we shall have peace again." Light danced in his large grey pupils, and a broad smile dominated his entire face. "I will drink with these fair Ladies this evening. They have as much to celebrate as any in all the land," he proclaimed dramatically.

He then took up two tumblers of mead and crossed the room to Susan. Handing it to her, he whispered in her ear, "Drink it slowly, Susan. It's quite strong and your grandmother is already exhausted with my antics."

Susan tried to conceal a girlish laugh by kissing the old man on the cheek. "Thank you, Grandpa, and congratulations."

Seth handed the second tumbler to Claire and enveloped her in a tight hug. "I wish Levi was still here for this. He fought for this as hard as we all did."

Claire accepted her mead and nodded in silence. Hesitantly, she asked, "Before he died, Levi always believed Voldemort would return. Is he gone for good this time?"

Everyone took their seats as an uncomfortable silence descended upon the room. "It was Harry, tonight, wasn't it?" Susan asked.

Seth shared a long look with his wife before replying, "It was Harry Potter. How did you know? I thought you didn't believe in that 'Chosen-One' stuff."

Susan held his gaze without blinking, "I knew he would do it long before the papers started printing that rubbish. If you knew Harry at all, you would understand. He just isn't afraid." No one seemed to want to continue in this vein, so Susan asked, "What happened?"

Adelia brushed a few hairs out of her face and replied, "You-Know-Who attacked a gathering at Arthur Weasley's home. Apparently Potter dueled and defeated him."

Susan set her tumbler of mead down with a clink. "Was anyone injured?"

"There were a number of fatalities. At least two Aurors died and several of the Weasleys. It was a bloody battle."

Susan stood and approached the ceiling-to-floor bookcases that dominated the north wall of the parlor. Pausing in front of a shelf, she ran her finger along the spines of her mother's legal reference collection. At the end of the row, she came to the bound tome she was searching for. The cover was tattered and the binding threadbare. Golden strands of silk weaved an intricate design across the front. 'Bones.'

"Ah, a fine idea, Susan," Seth murmured quietly. "This celebration is indeed worthy of being recorded in your Grimoire."

Susan carried the tome to a writing desk in the corner and took up an ornate Eagle quill.

~~~~~
July 31, 1997

The Dark Lord, who called himself Voldemort, has been defeated this day. Lord Seth Ashburton and his wife, Adelia, have come to celebrate the news with myself and mother. We are drinking fine mead in memory of the seven Bones who perished battling this evil: my grandparents Lyman and Annette, my Aunt Amelia, my Uncle Edgar and Aunt Elena (the Ashburton's daughter), and their children Hugo and Porter. My father Levi also opposed the Dark Lord before his death.
~~~~~

Susan read her entry aloud for the benefit of everyone in the room. "Should I say more?" she asked tentatively. "He wiped out our entire family."

"It is customary to give a little more information about the events themselves," Seth responded warmly. "Tell the history that is new; do not dwell on the past. That is the function of the Grimoire itself."

Susan contemplated the suggestion for a moment before continuing.

~~~~~
The Dark Lord was defeated by Harry Potter, the presumptive Potter heir, and a classmate of mine. Potter has defeated Voldemort several times, and it has been rumored that the two were connected by a prophecy. Voldemort's defeat will hopefully end the second English Wizarding war in two decades.
~~~~~

---888---

Blaise Zabini's head emerged from the main hearth at the Nott mansion in Edinburgh . "Theodore, are you home?"

A house elf, dressed in a dirty tea towel, popped into place a meter from Blaise' nose. "Master Nott is being in the library, Mister Zabini."

"May I come through?" Blaise asked impatiently.

"Yes, be welcomed to the House Nott," the elf replied. "I be telling Master Nott you is here." With a soft pop, the elf disappeared from the room.

Blaise stepped through the fire and dusted off his black robes, before striding to the cabinet in the dark corner of the room. Muttering the password, Blaise retrieved two tumblers and mixed gin with tonic in each.

"Good evening, Blaise. How are you?" Theodore Nott asked as he entered the room.

"Well enough." Blaise crossed the room and handed a drink to Theodore. "Sit, I have news."

The two friends sat down opposite of each other. "Your father died tonight," Blaise said bluntly.

Theodore's eyes narrowed, and he studied Blaise for several ticks of the ancient clock on the wall. "A true Slytherin."

Blaise shook his head and completed their secret passphrase. "A true Slytherin knows when to keep their mouth shut."

"He's really dead?" Theodore asked. "It's about time. What happened?"

"The Dark Lord attacked Ron Weasley's family. Your father and most of the Death Eaters died."

Theodore finished his drink and began chewing on an ice cube. "You're leaving something out, Blaise."

"Potter killed the Dark Lord."

"That changes things."

"No shit. He'll be even more insufferable now," Blaise complained.

Theodore rolled his eyes, "The Dark Lord is dead and all you can think about is Potter? You're sounding like Malfoy. Do you know what this means for me, you dolt?"

"It's a stroke of bloody luck," replied Zabini. Both teens knew that Theodore's birthday was in two weeks and that he would no longer face pressure from his father to take the Dark Mark.

"Potter's not so insufferable now, is he?" Theodore asked with a mirthless laugh.

---888---

As the evening wound down, Harry was growing increasingly tired. He wanted nothing more than to find a comfortable bed and rest, but he could not. He knew that no one from the Ministry would take the initiative and contact Hermione's parents for some time. They were just too busy.

Searching out Kingsley Shacklebolt in the crowd, Harry told him that he wanted to visit the Grangers. "Someone from the Ministry should come, too," Harry suggested pointedly.

Shacklebolt hesitantly agreed to accompany Harry. "I really should stay, but you're right. Someone ought to go. Do you know where you're going?"

"Roughly," Harry replied. Shacklebolt stared at Harry expectantly. "Er, it's called Fleischer's Place."

"You've never been, have you?" asked Shacklebolt with a knowing look. "You're lucky tonight. I responded to a Dark Mark there last month. But, once we get there, I don't know which house it is. Do you know her address?"

"It's next door to the burnt down house."

Shacklebolt winced. "That would explain some things. We never did figure out why they targeted that house. It was the only attack that night that didn't involve a Muggleborn."

Harry explained with a single word: "Fidelius."

After Flooing into the Leaky Cauldron, where apparently the good news had not yet reached, Shacklebolt and Harry apparated to a park near Fleischer's Place. They were several blocks from Hermione's house, but as the two approached they noticed that many of the neighbors were standing about on their lawns, gossiping.

"The Fidelius must have broken," Harry observed. "Same thing happened at Sirius' old house."

Shacklebolt nodded in agreement. "Looks that way. I've never met them before, have you?"

"Only at the train station. I'm pretty sure they'll remember me though."

"Do you know their names?"

"No, I just know they are both dentists. Dr. and Dr. Granger, I guess."

The two walked up a tulip-lined path to a stately brick home. When Harry knocked on the door, a distressed bushy-haired woman answered. Emma Granger stared at Harry and Shacklebolt for a moment, trying to place them. "Harry Potter, right?"

"Er, yes. Dr. Granger, this is Kingsley Shacklebolt. He's an Auror with the Ministry. May we come in? I'm afraid we have some horrible news."

Mrs. Granger's face paled and she said in a hoarse voice. "Yes, do come in. We were hoping someone would visit tonight. The neighbors have been swarming for hours." She showed them into her parlor and walked down the hallway. "Dan, would you come here please, we have some visitors." A man dressed in a cardigan accompanied Emma Granger back into the parlor.

"Hello, Dr. Granger." Harry's voice cracked. "I'm afraid I bring some horrible news."

With concerned expressions, both doctors took a seat on the sofa across from where Harry and Kingsley were sitting.

"As you know, the Weasleys were throwing me a birthday party tonight. They took numerous safety precautions, but Lord Voldemort found a way around them. He attacked the party with many of his supporters, and about forty people died tonight. Hermione fought back bravely, but she was killed."

The news blanketed the house in silence for several minutes as both of Hermione's parents stared at Harry in disbelief. Slowly, Emma Granger's silence grew into racking sobs. Harry, uncomfortable because of the woman's tears, continued, "I don't know how much Hermione has shared with you about our world, but the war that was going on ended tonight. Voldemort was killed, and Hermione played a big role in ending it."

"Who else? Who else was killed?" Dan Granger asked hoarsely. "I knew we should have left England after they tried to burn down our house."

"Er, Ron Weasley died. So did his sister Ginny and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. You knew them, didn't you? Their older brother Bill Weasley was also killed. He was going to be married in two weeks. Nymphadora Tonks died, Remus Lupin." As Harry ticked off the names, his already ashen face paled even further. It was beginning to hit home how many people he had lost that night.

As Emma Granger continued to sob, silent tears trickled down Harry's cheek. "I am so sorry. Hermione was the best friend I could have ever asked for. I wish there was something I could do."

"Harry," Shacklebolt interrupted, "why don't we leave the Grangers to themselves for now? They probably need some space, and you need to rest before you go into shock."

Harry stood to leave, and to his surprise Emma Granger did as well. She hugged him tightly and said, "Hermione always spoke very highly of you. You're always welcome in our home."

"Thank you," came Harry's whispered reply. With that, Harry and Shacklebolt departed into the cool evening air.

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Author's Note: I have no idea why this chapter took as long as it did, or why it was more difficult to write than I expected. That said, I hope you all enjoyed it. This chapter is dedicated to Jeconais for his many awesome stories. "This Means War," is quite possibly the funniest story out there.

Author's Recognition: I would like to thank everyone who has helped me with this chapter. My betas, Ivan, and Lisa did an excellent job. Thanks also to Myles, and Tim Joy (Jeconais) who saw this chapter in its primordial form and offered some excellent feedback.

Canon Review: Since Susan Bones will be a major character in this story, I thought it might be useful to undertake a quick review of some of the facts that we know about Susan from JKR's books.

Susan Bones was sorted into Hufflepuff. She sat next to Hannah Abbot at the sorting feast.

In fifth year, when she walked into the initial DA meeting, Harry did not know Susan's name.

Susan is described as wearing her hair in a long plait down her back. Canon does not specify a hair color.

Susan was the first to speak in Harry's defense at the initial DA meeting. She asked him if he knew how to produce a corporeal patronus.

Her 'auntie' is Amelia Susan Bones, and has told Susan about the events of Harry's hearing before his fifth year.

The following is a direct quote from Order of the Phoenix . "Susan Bones, whose uncle, aunt, and cousins had all died at the hands of one of the ten..." We also know that her uncle's name was Edgar Bones. Edgar was a member of the original Order of the Phoenix (and a great wizard according to Mad-Eye). Canon is silent on Susan's parents.

Susan, along with Ernie Macmillan, Hannah Abbot, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Anthony Goldstein, and Terry Boot helped defend Harry from Malfoy, Crabbe & Goyle on the train at the end of fifth year.

Amelia Bones was the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and a member of the Wizengamot before she was murdered, perhaps by Voldemort himself. Her death was reported in the muggle papers. Amelia was described as being fair and honest. She stood up to Fudge during Harry's trial and ensured that it was fair.