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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Chapter Thirty-four

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

September 14

Harry sat stock still, cross-legged, as he had for – minutes? Hours? Days? This odd training from Professor Covelli wasn’t as mad as Divination; it even made sense in a way, and that was more than he could say about Snape’s efforts in the year prior. Still… he could do as she asked of him, and he could hear and comprehend her explanations, but in the end he doubted that it made any sort of difference.

Covelli signalled him to end his meditation. “How do you feel?” she asked.

He blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. “Lighter.”

Covelli crooked an eyebrow. “Is that so? Explain, please?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know; it’s just the first thing that came to mind.”

“Rested, perhaps?” Covelli probed.

“I suppose so, yes,” Harry agreed. Covelli concealed her feelings well, almost as good as Dumbledore, but he was sure he caught a flicker of doubt – something in the flecks of colour in her eyes, it seemed.

“Does this still seem as ridiculous to you as seeking the meaning of life by staring into the remains of poorly steeped tea?” Covelli asked.

Harry almost laughed, but he had no intention of letting down his guard. Covelli had studied with Dumbledore; she was just as manipulative, Harry was certain. In fact she was better at it, he had decided after their first meeting. She sought to know his likes and dislikes, appealed to his sense of humour, and tried to understand him in order to lead him by using what she understood – all the while saying next to nothing about herself. She had made no attempt at Legilimency during the course of their first three meetings, and none thus far during the fourth. He wasn’t sure what he would do when she did, as she surely would. Covelli was very close to Hermione, obviously, which further discomfited him. Harry’s thoughts about Hermione were normally off-limits, as far as he was concerned, and even more so in this case.

“What’s next, then?” Harry asked.

Covelli searched his face impassively. “This work is not about tasks or lists, Mr. Potter. This work addresses the reorganization and integration of the mind.”

Harry was confused. “I thought it was about clearing my mind,” he protested.

Covelli slowly shook her head. “That is only a first step. If you were going to rely on clearing of the mind as a defence, then your mind would have to remain constantly clear. This is not likely given your age and the nature of your life. Any organising principle – any defence – must be constantly present.”

“Snape wanted me to clear my mind - get rid of emotions, he said,” Harry explained.

Covelli frowned. “He was describing his own organising principle, Mr. Potter – a principle suitable for life in darkness. This Snape… he could have destroyed you. He was not competent to teach this subject.”

“He’s not competent to teach any subject,” Harry grumbled, “but at least that much has been changed.”

Covelli let out a weak laugh. “Yet this man was assigned to teach for many years. You see… Dumbledore, he is not an effective judge of character.”

“He hasn’t been when it comes to hiring teachers,” Harry said evenly.

Covelli very nearly smirked; Harry felt it coming on but it didn’t quite materialise. “Should I feel injured by that observation?” she asked with a hint of teasing in her voice.

Harry kept his tone as even as before. “Only if you’re another one of Dumbledore’s mistakes,” he said.

“Oh yes, I am certainly one of Dumbledore’s mistakes,” Covelli returned, “but that is not the matter at hand. Here is our situation as I see it: you must learn Occlumency if you wish to retain both your sanity and independence, and I must be the one to teach it to you. This will not work without some small measure of trust. Trust requires openness and honesty. I am not sure if you are prepared for honesty as I measure it, Mr. Potter.”

She’s certainly as odd as Dumbledore’s usual fare, Harry thought. “If that’s what it takes to be done with this subject, then yes I am,” he said.

“Very well. You frighten me,” she said simply.

Harry sat there in shock. “W-why?” he managed at last.

“Everything I’ve been able to glean from others suggests that there’s very little difference between your upbringing and that of Tom Riddle,” she said. “For Dumbledore to live through the last fifty years and still commit you to that experience… of all the incomprehensible things that he has done, all the unconscionable things… this is unforgivable, to my mind.”

Harry certainly hadn’t expected anything so scathing – ‘unforgivable’ was a stronger term than he was willing to apply to the Headmaster, even if he still didn’t entirely trust the man. “Erm… well, he had reasons for putting me where he did,” Harry offered. “He could have been more involved, though; it was worse than it had to be, I think.”

Covelli seemed to think on this. “You were with your mother’s relations… blood protection, yes?” she confirmed.

Harry nodded. “Petunia is my Mum’s sister,” he said. “My Mum, she… did something, I guess; it kept Voldemort from killing me, and –”

Covelli’s eyes narrowed. “But Dumbledore sealed the blood protection, yes?”

Harry’s eyes followed suit. “He did mention a charm.”

“Then he made the choices,” Covelli concluded. “Dumbledore does nothing without a plan in mind. The plan may be flawed – badly flawed, they often are – but the plan is always in place.”

Harry decided to go along for the moment. “And this big plan of his was… what? Keep Potter from getting a big head?” he asked. “Dumbledore already admitted that much.”

“That is a consequence of his plan, surely not the plan itself,” Covelli said. Her voice lowered; Harry thought that the room seemed to darken as she went on, “Dumbledore seems happy for you to walk the same road as Tom Riddle walked. He needed a mythic hero in the event that the dragon rose again. Mythic heroes are dangerous, Mr. Potter. Sometimes this mythic hero discharges his responsibilities and then becomes as much a horror as his nemesis. How convenient for Dumbledore that your role was sealed by prophecy, no?”

“You know about the prophecy?” Harry shouted. He instantly drew his wand and trained it on Covelli’s forehead.

Covelli didn’t follow suit; she even failed to flinch. “Dumbledore, he had reason to reveal it,” she said calmly. “I am to teach you the art of Occlumency; do you not think it likely that I would eventually access this prophecy in the course of instruction?”

Harry pulled back but kept his wand’s aim true. “You will answer my questions,” he said angrily. “When I’m finished asking them, I’ll decide whether I trust you. If I trust you, we’ll continue. If not, we’re finished.”

“I agree; as I said, sufficient trust is needed. I will answer what can be answered,” Covelli told him, “but some things are protected under oaths, magical and otherwise.”

“When were you Dumbledore’s apprentice?” Harry demanded.

“From June of 1943 until the latter part of 1945,” Covelli answered. “By the coming of the winter, he no longer considered me his apprentice.”

Harry thought about the dates for a moment. “That’s why you called him Tom Riddle,” he said. “You knew Riddle, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Covelli said.

“Why did you leave?” Harry asked.

“Clarify your question, Mr. Potter,” Covelli instructed him. “Do you wish to know why I left the apprenticeship, or why I left the magical world?”

“You… you left the magical world? But Hermione was with you, so you had to know… and you’re here, and Dumbledore told you the prophecy…?” Harry tried to understand, but he was left with more questions than when he had begun the questioning.

“I have not lived in the magical world, not as it is defined by most, since the end of 1945,” Covelli explained. “I retained some connections over the years – your Professor McGonagall is one, Madam Bones from your Ministry is another. My second husband was a wizard, but he too chose to live largely outside the bounds of this world.”

“What are you to Hermione?” Harry asked. “She seems to take to you almost like her Mum. The only reason I’m giving you a chance is that I trust her.”

“It’s not appropriate for me to answer that,” Covelli said.

Harry took a different direction. “All right… you spent fifty years with the Muggles… what sort of work did you do?”

Covelli smiled. “I am a physician, Mr. Potter. I hold a medical doctorate as well as a doctor of philosophy degree.”

“You took care of Hermione, then, after… er… after everything that happened to her…” Harry trailed off.

“If you wish to know anything about my relationship with Hermione, you must enquire with her,” Covelli said. “I do know what transpired at the Grangers’ home, of course. May I ask, have you received care as a result of those events?”

Harry frowned. “I’m fine,” he said, “I did what had to be done.”

“Based upon our time together thus far, I believe that you are anything but fine,” Covelli returned, “but we are not here to address my professional curiosity. Dumbledore wishes me to see if you are able to occlude specific thoughts. He was no clearer than that, of course. I expect this regards the keeping of a secret of some sort. Tell me, do you feel prepared to defend yourself against mental probing?”

“Am I supposed to keep you out, or misdirect you?” Harry asked.

“You need to repel me for a period of thirty minutes,” Covelli said. “Dumbledore did explain the results of your failed instruction. I had hoped to assist you in finding your organising principle before conducting a probe. However Dumbledore, he tells me that the need is immediate, yes?”

Harry tried not to show his nervousness. Thirty minutes sounded like forever, he thought. Still, he needed to know if he could do it; he owed that to the Grangers. “You’re right about a secret. It’s important that I’m able to keep it – very important.”

Covelli pursed her lips. “I am quite unaccustomed to doing this in a formal way, after so many years…” She went silent and then seemed to look right through Harry, and he steeled himself for the invasion to come.

He heard no incantation; the first indication that she had done anything at all was a sudden strong pressure at his temples. Something tried to slip into his head; the sensation was very different than either Snape’s hammering attacks or Dumbledore’s gentle breeze. His heart raced and he was aware that instinct was taking over. He saw flashes of memory, too brief and fragmented for him to make out. Suddenly he saw something familiar – it was embarrassing and painful and assuredly none of Covelli’s business. She took an interest in the image of the cupboard and began to follow the thread.

No!” he shouted; it sounded as if it was coming from someone else’s mouth. He pushed hard at the pressure, and fell headlong into Covelli’s eyes.

The manor house was a shambles, barely held together by tattered vestiges of magic. The foul creature ran from her down corridors and through the remains of two ballrooms; she followed relentlessly.

Anything! I will give anything! Wealth beyond imagining! Power… it’s power you want, isn’t it?” it pleaded. Its formal robes and cloak were as tattered as the sagging house around them. Its eyes pleaded with her, as though she should allow it a name. She refused; the bastard was no longer worthy of a name – she didn't believe that it deserved to be considered human.

Y-your family and mine, we have been allied for a dozen generations! They will never forgive you!” it cried out.

Her eyes narrowed and trained on his. “You killed my brother, you and your filth,” she said coldly. “Alliances no longer matter; the rest of my family no longer matters. Where is Bormann?”

I… I don’t know!” it insisted.

Where is Bormann?” she repeated.

I couldn’t possibly tell you! He… he’s mad! He’ll kill me!” it whined.

What do you think I’m going to do to you?” she asked.

Its eyes went wide and its jaw went slack. “No… NO!”

Then you will tell me… where – is – Bormann?” she asked once more.

I mustn’t… you can’t make me…” it whimpered.

Oh, but I can,” she hissed. It raised its hands to its head and screamed.

Where is he?” she demanded.

He… I… I CAN’T…” it stammered. She felt the memory block – it was like a wall that stood in her path – but it was no matter. The power filled her now; it came at first with the sense of shock, like being doused with cold water, but then it was like becoming a goddess. She idly wondered if all the ancient alchemists had misunderstood the transitory nature of the Darkening as she systematically dismantled the wall that stood between her and Otto Bormann’s whereabouts. She would find him, and wherever Bormann was, Riddle would be as well.

Blood began to trickle from its ears. She increased the pressure; she could feel the wall cracking as the mind under her control fell to pieces. The answer was just on the other side – and then she would have her revenge…

STOP!” an all-too-familiar voice commanded.

I’ll be with you in a moment,” she sneered in a voice entirely unlike her own.

You must end this NOW!” Dumbledore demanded.

“STOP!” Covelli called out. “EXPELLIARMUS!” A burst of raw power struck Harry; his arm snapped back painfully and his wand burned in his hand.

“Y-you were going to find Riddle and kill him, and Dumbledore stopped you!” he blurted out. “That’s what happened, isn’t it?”

Covelli was shaking. “Did you feel it?” she managed to say.

Harry pressed on. “Did Riddle kill your brother?” he asked.

Did you feel it?” she asked forcefully. “Did you feel the power, Mr. Potter?”

Harry reluctantly nodded. He had felt it just as if it had filled him up. Covelli drew close; she said in an icy whisper, “Neither of us is ever to feel that power again – is that understood?”

Harry nodded again, much more quickly. “I didn’t set out to pry. It’s just that you were seeing… um…”

“Your mind is composed of walls set around fears,” Covelli said hoarsely. “The walls are enough to meet Dumbledore’s requirement, but they will not be enough in the face of darkness. Go.”

“Um… you’ll tell him that I was good enough, then?” Harry asked.

“Go,” she whispered.

There was finality in her voice, so he asked, “Are we… are we meeting here on Tuesday, then?”

Her voice was barely audible. “That will be for you to decide.”

“Are you sure that I should leave? Will you be all right?” he asked.

After a lengthy silence she offered a wan smile that surprised him. “Thank you for asking, Mr. Potter. Perhaps I will be all right, indeed,” she said softly; Harry thought she sounded almost surprised at the idea.

He wandered along the corridors and wondered how much that Hermione knew about Covelli’s past. He wasn’t sure what he knew, of course; he only knew what he had seen, and that she was afraid of whatever sort of power that she had long ago invoked. He figured that Hermione was in the library, which led him to think about his friend’s book-filled table in the Restricted Section and Covelli’s odd reaction to the books. His wanderings took him to the library, but the seventh-year Ravenclaw who manned the desk claimed not to have seen Hermione all morning.

Something that he overheard from a passing gaggle of young Gryffindor girls led him toward the lakeside. It was a surprisingly warm and sunny day by September standards. Scores of students littered the grassy hill that ran down to the rocky shore. He caught a few waves and a few stares as he made his way down toward the Lake.

Hermione was sitting atop one of the larger flat rocks that flirted with the water. She was dressed very much like she had been at the Burrow, the night when Dumbledore had undone him and when Ron had started to come undone and when Hermione had been the one to stand with him. Her denims were rolled up almost to the knee; she had cast her shoes and stockings aside and her toes dangled in the cold water. It was perfectly ordinary attire for an English teenager on a free day; amidst the Muggle-borns who had come unprepared for the heat and the purebloods whose shed robes revealed jerkins or high-waisted dresses, it was almost startling.

That Hermione sat there happily conversing with Luna Lovegood was even more startling, especially when Luna was so obviously being herself. She wore her uniform shirt and tie, but had replaced the skirt with bermudas, and had traded the usual Mary Janes for the heavy boots that she had favoured during the summer. Her hat had a wide brim that snapped tight to one side. It was rather masculine and had the finished look of something Muggle-made; it was the sort of hat that one would wear fishing off of St. Ebb, Harry thought, or whilst on safari, or anywhere but Hogwarts. As he drew closer, he could see the scar that emerged from her collar and stopped just below her right ear.

Luna spotted him when he was within twenty paces. She stood up and waved her arms wildly and shouted, “Over here!” as though he stood atop the castle ramparts. Hermione covered her mouth to stifle a laugh.

Harry grimaced and then gasped as Luna slipped off the rock, dashed forward, and drew him into a clumsy hug. “Hullo, Harry!” she exclaimed. “Do you like my hat?”

“Um… sure, Luna… it’s… er… smashing?” Harry stammered.

She drew close to his ear and whispered, “It’s from Canada.” Then she pulled back and smiled at him as though she had just shared something world-changing.

“Okay,” he said nervously, as dozens of Ravenclaw eyes fell upon him from the hillside.

For her part, Hermione simply grinned at him. “Sit with us,” she called out. He hopped atop the rock and sat beside Hermione, and Luna took a seat beside him.

“I thought you were with Doctor Covelli,” Hermione said.

Harry shook his head. “No, we just… wait! How did you know that?”

“You told me that you were meeting with her today, and she told me that she was unavailable this morning,” Hermione said. “It wasn’t difficult to connect the two. How was the meeting?”

“Different than the first three meetings,” Harry answered.

“The first three…? You’ve met four times? Is she training you?” Hermione asked.

“I haven’t decided yet,” Harry returned.

Hermione looked puzzled and concerned all at once. “What’s happened?” she asked.

Harry answered the question with another question, despite Dumbledore’s admonishment to the contrary. “How much do you know about Covelli’s past?”

“Enough, I think,” Hermione said. “Why?”

“Something came up, something very strange,” Harry said.

“Do you like bird watching?” Luna asked Harry abruptly. Hermione didn’t manage to keep from sniggering.

“Erm… what sort of birds do you mean?” Harry asked, and Hermione broke into full-throated laughter.

“There are so many different kinds,” Luna went on. “They’re everywhere, birds – fast ones, slow ones, big ones, small ones, all different colours. Yes, birds are watching right now, from everywhere.”

Hermione stopped laughing, and began to replace her stockings. “Thank you, Luna. Do you still need a hand with your Arithmancy later?”

“I would prefer the contribution of your intellect and expertise, but if your hand is all you have to offer, then I accept,” Luna answered. “Four o’clock would be suitable.”

“I’ll meet you in the Library, then,” Hermione said as she laced up her trainers. She gave Harry a look, and he stood.

Luna tugged at Harry’s sleeve. “Lest I forget, Harry, I want to thank you for meaning well on the first day of classes. I hope you know that overstepping one’s bounds increases the chance of a nargle infestation in one’s knickers?” Her eyebrows wiggled strangely.

Hermione’s eyes widened. “Luna!”

Luna laughed too loudly. “That wasn’t true, of course. Nargles in knickers! They wouldn’t fare well, of course!”

Ron called from the hillside, “Oi, Harry!” and Harry offered silent thanks to any deity who was watching over him.

Harry leaned toward Luna as soon as she stood. “I’m sorry, Luna,” he said quietly. “I should have warned you before I said anything.”

Luna smiled at him earnestly. “There’s no need to be sorry, Harry – be considerate. Consideration tends to attract birds of all kinds, you know.”

Ron quickly made his way down. “I thought you’d be under lock and key all day, mate!” he said excitedly as he approached.

Luna abruptly extended her hand, and wouldn’t budge until Ron shook it profusely. “Hello, Ronald; it’s a lovely day, wouldn’t you agree?” she sang out.

“Er… hello, Luna,” he said gruffly without entirely meeting her eye. “Nice hat.”

“Do you really like it? It’s from Canada. I can get you a matching one, if you like,” she whispered forcefully.

Ron managed a horror-tinged smile. “Uh… that’s not really… what I mean is, you don’t need to… er…”

“Don’t worry, Ronald,” she sighed. “I’ll save it until Christmas time, or until the first of March. I won’t even write my name on the wrapping – it can be our secret.”

Something changed in Ron’s expression, even as his smile faded. “It’s not like that… it’s just… it must be an expensive hat. You can’t be spending a sack of Galleons; that wouldn’t be right.”

“Money is meaningless unless put to good purpose,” Luna said. She took off her hat, unsnapped the brim and deposited it on Ron’s head. “Eight-and-a-quarter, I believe; there should be room for your head to breathe,” she decided. Ron stood in mute shock.

Hermione sniggered. “Um… I think it would look good on you if it fit properly,” she said.

“Harry…?” Ron began, with not a little pleading in his voice.

Harry shrugged. “You do look like a silly arse, but it’s nothing to do with the hat,” he smirked.

Ron growled at Harry; he whipped off the hat, but handed it gently to Luna. “Really, Luna, something like this would be too much,” he insisted. “We hardly know each other, right?”

Luna returned the hat to her head, the brim still down. “It would keep the sun from burning the back of your neck and your nose. You have darker freckles there, you know.”

“Oh?” Ron said, and absently rubbed his nose.

Luna looked up at him, squinting in the sun. “You do have a big head, as well,” she said.

“I’ve been telling him that for years,” Harry quipped.

“That tears it!” Ron boomed. Harry laughed and scampered up the hill as Ron gave chase. Over his shoulder, he saw Hermione glance pointedly at the castle and nodded in return. Ron lunged forward at the crest of the hill, and managed to catch Harry’s ankle. They both crashed to the grass, and proceeded to wrestle around like a couple of first-years. Harry knew that Ron wasn’t serious about it, and they each pinned the other a couple of times before Harry wriggled free.

Ron brushed grass from his hair and then crossed his arms with mock sternness. “We need to settle this like men, Potter – in the air, of course,” he blustered.

“I have one thing to take care of, and then –” Harry began.

Ron cut him off. “That’s the theme for the year, isn’t it?” he huffed.

Harry sighed. “Look, mate…”

“I know you’re madly busy,” Ron admitted. “It’s just frustrating. Neville and Seamus and Dean… they’re good fellows; it’s not the same though.”

“You’re my closest friend, Ron – my first friend, right?” Harry said. “I know it isn’t the same. I’ll make a better effort. We fly at four this afternoon.”

“Excellent,” Ron said; he sounded very relieved. “Be sure you bring your Nimbus, not that bloody bike! Are you sure about four, though? Will you be done with her by then?”

Harry was puzzled. “What?”

Ron let forth a barking laugh. “Merlin! Do you think that I’m blind? I saw the look she shot you – it’s the look that says ‘meet me in the library so we can save the world’. Are you sure you’ll be finished by four?”

Harry frowned. “It’s not like that. I was meeting with Covelli earlier and something strange happened. I’m hoping Hermione can make sense of it.”

“Something strange, you say?” Ron’s brow furrowed. “Well, I hope it’s nothing serious. I could get to like Covelli, if the Slytherins don’t hex her back to Italy.”

“What’s this about the Slytherins?” Harry asked.

“First day, she tossed her copies of the texts on the floor and cast Incendio on them,” Ron explained. “She said to everyone that V-V-Voldemort is a half-blood, and she said Bagshot and everybody else who’s written magical history in England are zena… zenic… um… zenta…”

“Xenophobes,” Hermione said from behind them. “You really are awake in History class now, aren’t you?”

“Who can sleep? It’s like a duelling ring in there!” Ron laughed. “I mean the only Slytherins who aren’t ready to curse her are Zabini and Davis; Daphne Greengrass looks like she wants to burn a hole in Covelli with her eyes, for Merlin’s sake!”

“Yes, she does,” Hermione said heavily.

Ron turned to Hermione. “I was just telling Harry that I knew you were off to swap secrets or whatever. He’s to be on the pitch and ready to fly at four this afternoon, right? I don’t care if you discover the Chamber of, um, Stuff That’ll Turn Lord Thingy Into Pudding – he’s free by four, right?”

There was a sudden gleam in Hermione’s eye. “Into pudding? There must be something in the Restricted Section on that!”

Ron gaped at her until the corners of her mouth twitched. “You’ve been around us too long,” he laughed.

“Look, Ron, I don’t have anything to say that you can’t hear. If you want to stick with us, it’s fine by me,” Harry offered.

“Nah, that’s even worse! If there are no life-or-death secrets… well, where’s the fun in that?” Ron looked around the grounds at the scattered groups of students sunning and playing and carrying on. “Besides, I have work to do. As a Prefect, I have a certain responsibility to the rest of the students…” His eyes locked on a passing Hufflepuff in an unexpectedly brief sundress.

“I don’t seem to recall that responsibility in the Prefect’s Handbook,” Hermione chided.

Ron waggled a finger at her. “You’ve obviously stopped keeping up – revised version, you know?” He gave a dueller’s bow, and headed off to the sundress-wearing witch and a knot of her friends. “Hello, ladies…” he began in an unnaturally low voice, and Harry winced.

Hermione shook her head. “Thick as a shepherd’s pie, that one,” she said. “Shall we?” She began to walk in the general direction of the castle, and added, “It’s strange to see everyone so… I don’t know… casual? Relaxed?”

Harry nodded in agreement. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite like this. There are three houses mixing freely, at least.”

Hermione let her eyes sweep the grounds. “I see a few Slytherins… not many, though.”

“So… when did you and Luna become so friendly?” Harry asked casually.

Hermione tugged her hand free. “The thing is…” She cleared her throat, and Harry knew that wasn’t a good thing. “Luna and I were in contact for a good part of August.”

Harry stopped walking. “What? How is that possible?”

“Doctor Covelli gave me a set of Repeating Journals,” Hermione explained. “She thought I needed to be in contact with someone my own age, someone who might understand how…” She let out a frustrated huff. “Look, I chose Luna, all right? I’m glad I did. She’s very different than I expected. Luna’s passing strange sometimes, but she’s very bright and very perceptive. She helped me, Harry – quite a lot.”

“When she was in St. Ebb, she was in contact with you?” Harry asked.

Hermione lowered her eyes. “Yes.”

Harry bit back his first impulse to shout. At least she’s ashamed, he thought angrily. “No wonder you felt guilty about shutting me out!” he snapped. “It wasn’t a one-time decision, apparently.”

“It couldn’t be you,” she said. “I couldn’t talk to you then. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.”

He supposed it was because he’d nearly gotten her killed, not once but twice – several times, in truth. He supposed that was the reason, but he wanted to know for certain. When he gave voice to the wanting, there was anger in it mixed with sadness and regret and perhaps a spot of fear. “Why?

Hermione stood there before him, rigid and terror-stricken. At first, he thought that he might have asked it too loudly except that he’d not drawn the attention that shouting would have commanded. “Never mind – you don’t have to answer that,” he added quickly.

“You deserve to know,” she forced out. “Not here, though.”

“You’re right,” Harry said. He didn’t want to play this out in front of the entire school. He grasped her fingers lightly, just enough to tug her in a different direction; she followed and he let go.

When it was clear that they were headed somewhere other than the castle, the lake or the pitch, Hermione asked, “Where are we going?”

“Somewhere more private,” Harry answered.

“There’s nothing in this direction other than Hagrid’s hut and the path to Hogsmeade,” Hermione protested.

Harry nodded. “That’s right.”

Hermione’s lips thinned. “It wouldn’t be right to use Hagrid’s hut without first asking.”

“That’s why we’re not going there,” Harry said; he increased their pace.

Hermione struggled against his grip. “Harry, this is not a Hogsmeade day!”

Harry let loose her hand. “Do you agree that I’m part of the castle staff?” he asked.

Hermione’s brow wrinkled. “As the Headmaster’s apprentice, you have a lot of privileges… you’re providing some instruction… yes, I suppose you’re a member of staff.”

“There’s a Staff Handbook. I can accompany students to Hogsmeade at my discretion – can you believe it?” Harry explained.

Hermione gaped at him. “To Hogsmeade? But… when you couldn’t convince your aunt and uncle to sign a permission… do you mean to say that Professor McGonagall could have let you go?”

“No, she would had to have taken me there. Can you imagine a day out in Hogsmeade with McGonagall?” Harry shuddered. “I’d have taken the passage to Honeydukes even if I’d known.”

“I’ve never heard this mentioned, Harry, not once,” Hermione said slowly. “Perhaps the professors are concerned about favouritism? Surely there are limitations…?”

Harry shrugged. “Maybe they want to avoid hundreds of requests? As for limits, the only one I found is that underage students have to be returned by curfew. Well, Dumbledore can overrule a decision, of course; he can overrule just about everything if he wants.”

“Are you sure this applies to you?” Hermione asked nervously.

“McGonagall gave me the Handbook,” Harry answered. “No one has mentioned any exceptions, not even Dumbledore.”

Hermione looked into the distance, where the grounds came to an end. “If you’re certain…”

“I am,” Harry said.

“The Three Broomsticks, then?” Hermione asked him.

“Above the Three Broomsticks, actually; that’s where I rented rooms,” Harry answered.

Hermione grew very quiet; she said nothing as they passed through the small pedestrian gate and began to round the lake. When the train station came into view, she asked, “Has it been lonely?”

“What, rooming in Hogsmeade?” Harry considered that for a few moments, and then answered, “A little, I suppose. I haven’t thought much about it. If I hadn’t stayed alone so much in August, I think the nights would be strange. Besides, I’m not the only lodger; Detheridge has the rooms below.”

“Professor Detheridge doesn’t live in the castle? That’s curious,” Hermione said.

“Not everyone lives in the castle, at least not all the time,” Harry told her. “Madam Pince lives somewhere in Hogsmeade. Vector regularly leaves on the weekends. I think Madam Marchbanks is commuting, and I’m not sure that Croaker stays at Hogwarts either. I know Mrs. Tonks returns to London most evenings.”

Hermione seemed quite surprised. “All of them seem to be at hand whenever needed,” she said. “I wonder how they manage it all?”

“Hogwarts looks a bit different from the staff room,” Harry said.

“Better? Worse?” Hermione asked.

“Different,” Harry decided. “Did you know that Flitwick’s wife died the year before we came to Hogwarts? She used to live in the castle with him. Sprout’s married as well; I haven’t met her husband yet.”

“It stands to reason that they have lives beyond teaching, of course,” Hermione said, but she sounded a touch uncertain.

“Dumbledore and McGonagall don’t, not so far as I can tell. Snape didn’t, but that’s not surprising,” Harry said. “Can you picture Snape off to the pub with his mates?”

“I’m not certain I can picture any of the professors off to the pub with friends,” Hermione admitted. “Even seeing them in the Three Broomsticks on Hogsmeade days was passing strange.”

“I wonder if any of them will be there today?” Harry thought aloud. He rifled through his pockets.

“Are you missing something?” Hermione asked.

“No… no… here it is,” Harry said. He withdrew a folded square of iridescent fabric. Detheridge had told him where to purchase one of the Any-Colour Expand-O-Robes that he’d worn on the Hogwarts Express; Harry thought it was one of the most dead useful things he’d yet acquired. “Black is as good as anything.” He held the square by one corner and shook vigorously. Hermione’s brows climbed as the square blossomed into a basic black robe. He slipped it over her shoulders, and added, “You’d stand out a bit in denims and that shirt.”

“I’d not thought of that; thank you, Harry,” Hermione said as she tugged her arms into the sleeves, and then proceeded to enquire about everything that Harry had learned about the charms on the robe.

She stopped talking and became noticeably uneasy as they entered the Three Broomsticks. The public room was busy. Harry scanned the room for Moody or other Order members. McGonagall was seated at a table with Vector and another witch he didn’t recognise; they were rather close to the door that led to the stairs. He hesitated for a moment, but it wasn’t as though he or Hermione were doing anything against the rules. Hermione didn’t move as he made for the door, so he reached back and took her hand again.

McGonagall caught his eye as they approached and nodded. “Good morning, Mr. Potter… or afternoon, rather. Have you completed your readings for our next session?”

“I’m ahead by one reading, actually,” Harry returned; McGonagall’s lips quirked into a small smile.

Miss Granger!” Vector exclaimed. “What are you doing in Hogsmeade? You are completely out of bounds!”

“She’s with me,” Harry said brashly. “She’ll be returned to the castle long before curfew.”

Vector stammered, “But… but… Miss Granger, as much as I… that is to say, I realise that you… Minerva, what will you do about this?”

McGonagall gave Harry an appraising look, and said, “It seems that you’ve taken the time to read the Staff Handbook.” Realisation dawned on Vector’s face. McGonagall’s lips thinned considerably, and she added, “I offer you this advice, Mr. Potter: be circumspect in the use of this privilege.”

“Indeed!” Vector said quickly. “There are those who will surely view such matters in the poorest possible light.” She turned to Hermione. “It is not solely a matter of Mr. Potter’s rights and privileges as a member of staff, you see; some will instantly assume that you are taking inappropriate liberties. This is the sort of thing that will easily ignite jealousy amongst your community of peers.”

“Thank you for your concern, Professor,” Hermione said evenly.

McGonagall audibly sighed and returned her gaze to Harry. “Mr. Potter… Harry… I am aware that the Headmaster does not wish you to lead a solitary existence for the remainder of your studies, and I share his concerns. I also understand why you may feel that life in the castle is now awkward, but perhaps you should reconsider the matter of your rooms. Professor Snape took his position at the age of twenty-one, and thus a fair number of the students had been schoolmates of his; it was a most difficult adjustment for him, as I recall…”

Harry squeezed his fists tightly. “It’s Mister Snape now, Professor, and I’ll ask you to never compare me to him again,” he said coldly.

There was an awkward silence, at last broken by McGonagall. “You are here now, so you may as well continue with your recreation. The Headmaster tells me that the both of you and Mr. Weasley will be otherwise occupied tomorrow, and perhaps Monday as well. I expect that you’ll find time this evening to address your studies, Miss Granger? ”

Hermione went rigid. “I’m addressing my studies, Professor,” she said flatly.

McGonagall’s expression softened, much to Harry’s surprise. “Your work thus far has been merely acceptable, which is far beneath you,” she said.

Vector appeared surprised. “Is that so? Miss Granger, if your arithmancy special project is taking away from other studies, then perhaps a less aggressive plan is in order?”

“No thank you, Professor,” Hermione said. “I’m only concerned with my eventual NEWT scores now; as I understand it, acceptable performance will qualify me to sit the examinations?”

McGonagall’s face fell; Vector appeared to be in shock. Not knowing what to do, Harry said quickly, “Have a pleasant afternoon, Professors. If you’ll excuse us…?”

McGonagall’s curt nod of acknowledgement turned to stone when she realised that they were heading not to an empty table but to the stairs. She called after them, but Harry couldn’t make it all out over the din – it was something to do with keeping doors open. Harry expected that Hermione would grind to a halt, or at least blush; she merely rolled her eyes. He couldn’t decide whether she no longer cared what McGonagall thought, or was so focused on something else that the comments weren’t registering; he thought that he sensed a bit of both.

“What in Merlin’s name was that?” Harry asked as soon as they were well past the public room.

Hermione shrugged. “I’ve revised my priorities. Professor McGonagall isn’t ready to accept that.” Harry tried not to goggle at her; she seemed comfortable with whatever choices she had made, and he forced himself to let the issue drop.

She watched with undisguised fascination as he took his wand and permitted their entry through the wards cast on his rooms. The fascination quickly fell aside. Well before Harry offered her a seat and she instead made for the window, arms crossed, her unease was palpable. He couldn’t recall being so absolutely certain that he was feeling someone else’s feelings. There was something so like Hermione about the feelings coursing through him that he couldn’t deny it, even though he couldn’t say what that something was. He didn’t like knowing that she was afraid, that much was certain.

“Did you create those wards yourself, Harry?” Hermione asked. “They’re very impressive.” It’s fear, raw knee-knocking fear. Something else, too, but it doesn’t have a name, it’s unfamiliar.

“Bill Weasley’s teaching me,” Harry answered. “Wards aren’t so complicated, once someone explains them. Well… Bill’s brilliant, not to mention being very patient.”

“He was a Head Boy, after all. Besides, nothing’s ever stopped you when you’re interested in the subject at hand,” Hermione said. Another wave of fear, weaker this time – different, at least. Nervousness? Why won’t she look at me?

“I meant what I said, you know,” Harry told her through gritted teeth. “You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want.”

“I do, Harry; I do have to tell you,” she returned without facing him. Stomach rolling! Room spinning! It seemed so intense; everything had been sharper and more uncomfortable since Dumbledore had explained what Snape had done, but this was the worst by far. He sat on the sofa, closed his eyes, and tried the simplest of Professor Covelli’s meditation exercises; the rolling began to subside.

Hermione was nearer now; she was concerned, and so was her voice. “Harry? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he said absently. “I don’t like it when you’re so frightened. You don’t need to spew up over telling me something, you know.” The sofa cushions shifted under him; clearly she had sat down. He returned to his exercise, because she was silent.

“How did you know that I felt nauseous?” she asked quietly. “Were you guessing, or… did you just use Legilimency?”

Harry’s stomach settled, but his head was throbbing. “I didn’t use anything; I told you what Snape did to me,” he snapped. “He left me open to everything. It’s been worse since Dumbledore figured it out, for some reason.”

When Hermione began to speak, it was slow and measured as though she was thinking aloud. “You’ve been picking up everything around you, because he never really taught you how to shut it out. You’ve been angrier when everyone else is angry, sadder when everyone else is sad… how long, Harry? How long has this been happening?”

He rubbed at his temples. “Dumbledore figures it’s been since the spring, since Snape was supposed to be teaching me.” Covelli’s exercise seemed to be working, which was not something he’d expected.

“I see,” Hermione said. He opened his eyes in time to see a flash of something profoundly painful in her eyes; he broke eye contact as quickly as he could, for fear that he might chase the pain to its source. When he glanced up again, she looked as though she’d felt nothing at all.

Harry ventured, “Hermione, I want to help you, but –”

“Help me with what, exactly?” she cut him off cheerfully. “I’ll be fine, given time – honestly. I’m just sorry you had to deal with this for so long. I wish I’d known straight away; things would –”

“Please don’t say things would be different. Everyone wishes things were different,” Harry interrupted.

“Yes, well… you did something to shake it off just now. Has Doctor Covelli taught you something that will help?” Hermione asked.

Harry frowned. “She’s been teaching me different exercises – meditations, she says. I suppose it did help just now,” he admitted begrudgingly. “Hermione, do you really trust her? Should I trust her?”

Hermione hesitated for quite a long time. He could feel conflict in her, though the feeling was not nearly as intense as before he’d done the exercise. He stilled himself and the feeling faded further. At length, she bore herself up in the way that he had associated with her since the first day on the Express. “Doctor Covelli saved my life, Harry, and I mean that in the literal sense,” she said. “I trust her, but… I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should do the same. Even if she’s trustworthy, she may not be the proper sort of instructor for you; that’s something you have to decide. What happened this morning, then?”

“I saw things,” Harry said, “things from her past.”

Hermione’s brow rose. “You were inside her mind?” Her curiosity was definitely piqued, but he suspected she wasn’t going to ask him outright for details.

“She left the wizarding world for fifty years,” Harry said. “Do you know why she left?”

Hermione chewed on her lower lip for a moment. “She was Professor Dumbledore’s apprentice in the last years of the war with Grindelwald, and she left at about the time that the war ended. I assumed that it had something to do with the war. She’s a pureblooded witch, and whatever happened was enough to drive her into the muggle world; honestly, I didn’t want to ask after it. Is that what you saw? Did you see the reason that she left?”

“Part of it, I think,” Harry said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hermione said firmly. “I trust her, Harry, but you have to make the proper decision for yourself.”

“She’s afraid of me; she’s afraid that I’ll end up like Voldemort,” Harry blurted out. “How am I supposed to trust her when she doesn’t trust me?”

“She… she said that?” Hermione gasped. “She actually told you that?”

“She thinks Dumbledore has set me up to be some kind of hero… a mythic hero, I think she said,” Harry explained. “She said that Dumbledore had me raised to be like Tom Riddle, and he was barking mad for doing it; apparently these heroes of hers end up turning dark.”

Hermione looked composed again, but something about her felt terribly shaken. “R-riddle was a student when Doctor Covelli was an apprentice,” she said. “The things you saw, Harry… were they about Tom Riddle?”

Harry nodded hesitantly. “She was looking for him. She wanted to kill him. Dumbledore stopped her.”

Hermione sagged. Harry drew closer, but she gave an agitated wave. “I made her relive it; how could she not? She came back here because of me… actually, Professor Dumbledore coerced her but he used me to do it… and for him to ask her to practice Occlumency and Legilimency with you… how could he do that to her?” She buried her head in her hands. “She must be miserable! This is her thanks for helping me?”

“She could have said ‘no’,” Harry pointed out, “but she didn’t do that. You can’t blame yourself for her choices.”

Hermione let out a hollow laugh from behind her hands. “Of all people, Harry, you should be the very last to tell me that.”

“Fine, I deserve that,” Harry said. He tentatively brought his hand to rest on her shoulder. “I am glad that she helped you, for whatever reason she did it.”

Hermione’s shoulders heaved a few times. She slowly lowered her hands; her eyes were red-rimmed. “You’d never turn dark, Harry. He tried to make me think it, but you’d never – ” She stopped instantly, her eyes wide.

Harry’s mouth went dry and a surge of anger went through him. Unlike most of the other times, it felt as though the surge passed through him and receded into the distance. “Voldemort tried to make you think that I’d turn dark?” he asked as calmly as he could manage. “Is that why you didn’t want me to know where you were?”

Hermione flinched and Harry’s stomach rolled at that. “Harry, please don’t be angry with me… I never gave into him, I swear!” she insisted. “It was so hard… it was as though he reached into every single thought, every memory, and tried to poison them all. Even afterward… have you ever stared at the sun? He left an afterimage, just like the sun leaves. If it wasn’t for Doctor Covelli, I don’t know if it ever would have faded…”

He ran his hand in slow circles around the back of her shoulder. “I’m not angry with you, Hermione – don’t think that. I had no idea… it only lasted a few seconds; I thought he was just looking for the prophecy. That would have been awful enough.”

There was a tremor in Hermione’s voice. “It wasn’t just seconds - it went on forever… he was everywhere; I couldn’t get away. He’s still there in my dreams – the afterimage, I mean. Doctor Covelli showed me a way to take control and it’s effective, but I still have to send the thought of him away every night. I don’t know how you survived last year, Harry; I honestly don’t know.”

“I wish you didn’t understand,” Harry said.

Hermione sighed. “It’s like seeing the Thestrals. These aren’t the sorts of things I’d like to have in common with you, but here we are.”

“If you’d like to go away with your parents for a while, I think everyone would support you,” Harry said gently.

Hermione sat up sharply. “What?”

“I don’t mean that you’d go away forever,” Harry added quickly. “I just think that if you need more time, people would understand. I’d understand.”

Her eyes were slightly narrowed. “How do you know that my parents went away?”

“Er… you mentioned it that first night,” Harry said quickly.

Her eyes narrowed a bit more. “Harry…?”

“I’m helping Dumbledore with the arrangements… that’s all I should say,” Harry allowed.

She continued to eye him curiously, but said, “I agree; don’t say anything more.”

Harry took a moment and composed himself. He took his hand away from her shoulder, but she followed it by budging closer to him. He took another moment to settle himself, and then said, “I’m concerned about you, right? I can’t be there for you now, not like before. I’m trying, but Dumbledore’s set something like full NEWT tuition at double speed, and Detheridge is a struggle – a good struggle, I think – and Flitwick’s working me over, and then McGonagall’s added –”

She sought out his hand and grasped it tightly. “I was afraid that I wouldn’t see you at all, so I’m hardly disappointed. You’ve come each time that I’ve asked. We’ve both been quite busy, actually.”

“McGonagall made it sound like you haven’t been busy. You didn’t actually pull an Acceptable on a scroll…” Harry’s eyebrows climbed. “You did! Hermione… are you sure that you’re…?”

“The research is consuming a good deal of time, Harry,” Hermione explained. “This project with Vector requires as much work as any three NEWT classes. Even with the minimum number of NEWT courses, it’s been a struggle at times.”

Harry was stunned. “Hermione Granger is taking the minimum number of courses? Are you taking the mickey out of me?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “It’s not as though I’m putting my feet up and knitting all day! I’ll be qualified to sit for either six or seven NEWTS when the time comes, I promise you,” she insisted. “This project is terribly important, and I’ve already learned so much. Professor Dumbledore has a theory about the nature of the Unforgivables, and I think that I’ve found secondary evidence to support it. If the theory’s valid, then we may arrive at an answer to our principal question by the springtime.”

Harry leaned back to think through all that she had said. Hermione hadn’t released his hands yet, and he didn’t mind; that particular startling recognition led to a series of awkward and distracting thoughts. “Voldemort said something else or did something else, didn’t he?” Harry said at last. “You’ve turned your life upside down, Hermione; there has to be something more than what you’ve said.” She bristled, and he added, “Forget I said that. You’ll tell me when you’re ready – you promised that, right?”

“I don’t like keeping secrets from you – it doesn’t feel right – but I know there will be secrets kept,” Hermione said. “I should tell you this one at least, and be done with it. Professor McGonagall thinks I’m being ridiculous, or she said as much. She probably thinks I’m as flimsy as Trelawney now.”

Harry snorted, “There’s no chance of that!”

Hermione was becoming more nervous, he knew. She went on, “I’m still surefooted when it comes to research and I can be clever when rising to an occasion, but when it comes to other things… intuition and feelings and the like… well, it’s much more confusing!”

“I won’t think badly of you, Hermione, whatever it is – I promise,” Harry told her.

“That’s not why I’m concerned,” she sighed.

“I don’t understand,” Harry said.

Hermione sat in quiet contemplation for a long while. Then she looked him in the eyes, unflinching, and said, “Promise me you won’t be like you were last year. Promise me that, Harry – that you won’t run off and sulk and pity yourself and try to bear the whole world on your shoulders and push back everyone who cares about you. Promise that you won’t go off in a rage. Promise that you won’t run from me. Promise me those things, and I’ll tell you.”

“Erm… how bad can it be?” Harry asked nervously.

Hermione held fast. “Promise me first,” she insisted.

“I won’t go off and do something foolish,” Harry promised, “and I certainly won’t run from you. I’ve missed you and I’ve only just gotten you back, after all.”

She was so anxious that he had to close his eyes again to let it flow away. “Are you sure…?” she asked. “It’s all so uncertain… almost silly, actually. If it wasn’t still there every night…”

Harry tugged at her hands to make her stop. “Tell me… please.”

She began, “You’ve been in my mind – or I’ve been in your mind; it’s hard to know which – and it’s happened more than once –”

His eyes snapped open. “More than once? There was the dream, of course…”

“And the dream before that, Harry,” she said as though someone else might overhear.

“Before that? Which dream…?” He trailed off as he recalled the dream following Dumbledore’s casting of the secret-binding curse; he had wondered at the time if it had been real.

“We were lying down together, you were holding me… you wondered if it was something best friends do,” she confirmed nervously. “I didn’t know it was real until after Doctor Covelli had me use a pensieve and… Harry? Harry, would you say something?”

Harry cleared his throat, and forced the conversation forward. “So you’ve been in my mind, or whatever, and you saw something – or thought something, or put something together, and…?”

She nodded. “When V-Voldemort was pretending to be, you know, Sirius… I didn’t know that he was a fraud, I just knew that he was off. There was something about him that felt comfortable, even when he was acting so strangely, something that felt right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, Harry, not until he came to the house and he… he…”

Harry tugged his hands free and reached out to embrace her. “I’m so sorry, Hermione,” he said.

She slumped down and he stopped advancing. “He was almost impossible to resist,” she said weakly. “It wasn’t just the power. He felt so familiar; I had to resist him and myself at the same time. He felt like YOU, Harry – he felt exactly like you.”

Coldness spread through Harry. “It was a trick,” he said immediately. “Dumbledore already told me that some of Voldemort’s power transferred to me; he must have picked up something or another.”

“It wasn’t a similar feeling; he felt exactly like you,” Hermione said. Her voice seemed so distant. “I told you there are very few books about Legilimency. I read one of them again, the day after. Legilimency is a projection of a wizard’s own magical imprint – his aura, if you like. It’s unique, like a fingerprint; even twins would have subtle differences. I could see him before me, and yet there were moments when I was sure it was you. For a while afterward, I thought that you’d been trying to break the connection. I thought that maybe you’d been there, but I know that you weren’t, Harry – I just know.”

Harry tried to collect himself, but he couldn’t. He wanted to scream inside, but didn’t know what to scream. “S-so you think there’s more than just a transfer of power?” he managed.

“Yes,” she said, and she opened her arms to receive the embrace that she’d avoided.

Harry held back. “He could be lurking about, then, just waiting to come through and… and you shouldn’t be here, should you?”

Hermione sat up straight and reached out to him. “Think it through, Harry. Dumbledore wouldn’t even meet your eyes last year, and now you’re his apprentice. V-Voldemort… he couldn’t possess you. He can’t control you. He’s seen everything I could show him, everything except the prophecy – and he may have taken that from my Dad. I’ve nothing more to fear from being with you.” She leaned forward and clutched him tight, and he nervously brought his arms around her shoulders.

Harry broke the quiet. “I can see why you wanted nothing to do with me afterward. I was upset… all right, maybe a little angry… but it was because I didn’t know.”

She laughed nervously into his chest. “I suppose we’re even now. I’m sorry you were kept in the dark last year.”

She began to relax; her shoulders settled, and she leaned into him more firmly as her breathing slowed and deepened. Several minutes went by before he realised that he was stroking her hair, and he quickly brought his hand back to her shoulders.

“What are you thinking right now, Harry?” she asked.

“Not much,” Harry said. “I was, er, ‘being in the moment’ – I think that’s what Covelli called it. What are you thinking about?”

“Uh… I was… well… nothing important, really…” she stammered.

“What, you didn’t expect that I’d ask in return?” he sniggered.

She swallowed hard and he could feel the movement of it. “I was… I was wondering if this is what best friends do?”

Harry laughed nervously, and then tried to make a joke of it. “Well, I’m not about to be stroking Ron’s hair any time soon, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything,” she muttered and began to pull away.

Harry tightened his hold, not so much to startle her but enough to stop her. “That first dream… it was me, wasn’t it? I wasn’t just picking up on your feelings, was I?”

She was almost shaking, he realised. “It wasn’t the sort of dream I usually have,” she croaked.

It took very little for him to recall the way he’d felt – how he’d had to forcibly relax, how she’d felt so warm and soft in his arms. He remembered the feel of straps through her shirt, and he felt them now. He remembered being afraid of what he wanted to do, and the same fear came back to him. Now he knew. It was his fear, not hers, and it was becoming quite easy for him to tell the difference. He had no doubt now that the dreams – both of them – had been his, or had at least started as his. She had responded, but he had wanted it in the first place. I wanted her, he realised, and it frightened him to the core because he wasn’t simply recollecting. “Are we… are we making this up as we go?” he asked, hopeful that his voice didn’t reflect his mortal terror.

Now she was truly shaking, and his hand returned to her hair as if it had taken on a life of its own. “What do you want, Harry?” she whispered.

He felt as though he might be strangled by his own voice. “That dream… I think I want that,” he forced out.

She took three heaving breaths, and he was fairly sure that he was going to faint. “You have no idea how difficult all this is… God help me for saying it… but you need to sort yourself out first, and I should finish sorting myself out as well,” she said. Then she let out a terribly long sigh and burrowed into him, which seemed to run counter to what she’d just said and thus left Harry utterly confused.

“Um… what do you mean… that I… er… need to sort myself out?” he spluttered.

She pulled away slowly, and Harry let her go. “Ron believes you’re still seeing Professor Lupin’s daughter – are you?” she asked. “I can’t let you toy with me, Harry – I just can’t do that – and I can’t imagine you’d do it to me. You’re not like that.”

Harry frowned. “I meant what I said, and I’m not seeing anyone,” he insisted.

Hermione’s lips thinned. “Maybe you’re not seeing her, per se, but you didn’t contradict Ron,” she said firmly.

He bristled. “Do you think I ’m lying then? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Don’t be snappish,” she returned. “I do think you meant what you said, and I meant it when I said that this is difficult for me. We’re friends; I won’t run away, difficult or not. I’ll help you study, if you like; I’ll – I’ll hold your hand, I’ll spend every free minute with you if you like, but I can’t let you…” Her cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry, Harry, there can’t be anything like that dream – not right now. If I give into this, if we become more than friends, I need to know that you’re certain – really certain.”

Harry’s brow furrowed. “Well, how certain are you? How am I supposed to know…?”

“I couldn’t be here now if I wasn’t fairly certain,” she said. He risked a glance at her face; she looked stricken – her brow was damp and her eyes were watery. “As I said, I still have some sorting out of my own to face.”

“If you weren’t certain then you couldn’t push me away… Hermione, you’re not making any sense,” Harry protested.

Her voice trembled. “This isn’t something that makes sense, is it?”

Harry sighed. “Look, the last thing I wanted to do was to make you cry –” he began.

“ – and I don’t want to cry!” she snapped. “I don’t want to be some sort of weepy girl – I’m not like that!”

“I’m not going to fight with you, either. I don’t like it when we argue – nothing good ever comes of it,” Harry said.

Hermione gave a hesitant nod. “W-what do we do now?” she asked.

Harry let out an exasperated groan. “I don’t know! I wasn’t trying to ask you to marry me, for Merlin’s sake, and suddenly everything’s about being completely certain. Who’s completely certain about something like this? It seems like you’re the one with the answers here…” He winced. “Bugger! That didn’t come out right – I don’t even know what to say!”

“You see? There’s another reason to worry about this, Harry,” Hermione said quickly. “There’s so much to be done, and no one can say how long we have; you can’t be tongue-tied around me, for goodness’ sake, and I can’t be that way around you either. People who are involved argue; and if we… you know… how would we get past it? You weren’t a prefect last year, Harry. You didn’t see what I saw: couples going from snogging in broom closets to spitting on each other. We can’t be like that! You need me - I have to help you, not distract you! I know I can’t be the one to kill V-Voldemort, but I might somehow find the way to do it. I need to help you, but I can’t do it if we’re not speaking to each other, and…” She shuddered, and went on even more quickly, “When I came back, I didn’t even know if you’d still be my friend, let alone my best friend… and now there’s this – whatever it is – and I don’t know what to do, and I don’t like not knowing – I hate it, really – and you don’t know for certain what you’re feeling and what you’re not – and that has to be horrible, honestly – but it all seems such a risk, and… and… what? Why are you smiling? I don’t – mmph!

Their noses bumped awkwardly and his glasses were in the way and she let out an audible gasp. Her eyes were wide with shock at first; he nearly panicked and backed off until she leaned into him and embraced him instead of pushing him away. Her lips were a little dry but very soft. Her eyes were closed when he pulled back.

When she opened her eyes they were unreadable. He reached up, tugged off his glasses and tossed them aside. “They’re in the way,” he said and he kissed her again. She laughed against his mouth, which was a strange sensation. He decided that he liked the way she tasted. She held him very tightly before she pulled her lips free of his. She didn’t frown, but she didn’t entirely smile either. She hadn’t tried to hex him or hit him or bite him, which he hoped were all good indications. She just sat there, breathing raggedly, and looked at him – searched his face for something.

He was sure that he was supposed to say something, so he let forth the first thing that came into his mind. “That was me,” he said. “I wanted to do that; I felt that. It didn’t come from somewhere or someone else. I just… I just thought you should know that.” And I can’t believe I just did it, either, he thought, and he hoped he hadn’t completely cocked up a friendship that meant more to him than he could ever find the words to express.

“W-what…?” she began.

He cut her off before she could reject him or offer the denial that was surely coming. “I don’t know what we do next,” he said nervously. “You know me, I’m not one to plan ahead.”

She laughed but he thought it was too loud, too fast, probably forced. “I was going to ask what you were thinking, tossing your glasses like that,” she said.

“There’s an Unbreakable charm on them now, remember?” he returned quickly.

“Still, we should pick them up,” she said, and then leaned over and gathered up his glasses by the bridge.

“Hermione, wait…” Harry started.

She thrust the dangling glasses into his hands. “It was nice, Harry… it was better than nice. It was also very… unexpected. All of this has been unexpected. I… I need to think.”

Harry nodded; he tried to put on a good face. “I hope you’re not angry with me,” he said quietly.

“I’m feeling a lot of different things right now, but I’m not angry; I promise,” she insisted. “I really need to think, that’s all.”

He consciously tried to pick up what she was feeling, and found himself utterly unable to do it. It seemed that there was no place to put his hands, and his stomach tossed and burned. “I… um… I guess I should walk you back, then,” he forced himself to say, “unless you’d prefer… I mean, McGonagall might still be downstairs, and…”

“I’m not running; not from you, not from her. No one is running away,” Hermione said firmly.

He let her out of his rooms first, so that he could seal the wards behind them. He followed her down the first flight, but she slowed her pace until they were side by side. She reached out to him and took his right hand with her left without hesitation. When he gave a start she said, “I told you I’d hold your hand,” and he accepted the possibility that perhaps she didn’t think him a great prat and merely needed some time to consider what had happened.

McGonagall and Vector were still sitting in the public room with the witch Harry didn’t recognise. Hermione made no effort to let go of his hand, and McGonagall’s frigid expression made it perfectly clear that the professor had noticed. They walked out of Hogsmeade in silence, hand in hand, and Harry thought that the tension slowly faded as they strolled along the carriage path. As the castle drew into view, her hand slipped free.

Hermione cleared her throat. “About tomorrow, Harry… I’ll understand if you want me to –”

Harry stopped her before she could offer to stay behind. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” he said. “You couldn’t possibly pass on this – it might be a once-in-a-lifetime invitation. Besides, I think it’s an opportunity.”

Hermione looked at him curiously. “Of course it’s an opportunity, Harry. You might be able to significantly influence the goblins’ position on the war.”

Harry nodded. “Yeah, it would be great if we manage something like that. I meant something else, though. You said you’re worried about being a distraction. Tomorrow, I can prove you wrong.”

Hermione laughed. “You think so, do you? You can start by being sure to read the book that the Headmaster and Doctor Covelli sent for us.”

“What, you mean ‘Living Amongst Us: The Goblin Subculture’? I finished that last evening,” Harry said smugly.

Hermione’s eyebrows lifted for a moment, but then she summoned a sly smile. “Fine, then – you can be sure that Ron’s read it. That way, I won’t have to badger him.”

“I already promised him I’d fly with him at four,” Harry pointed out.

“There’s an entire evening after that,” Hermione countered.

“I have a commitment later this evening,” Harry said, hoping she wouldn’t ask after it because he honestly couldn’t tell her anything, “but I’ll give him a nudge. You’re not planning to make this simple, are you?”

Hermione said, “Nothing about us has ever been simple.” She took his hand again, gave it a gentle squeeze before letting go, and continued toward the castle. Harry followed with the slightest hint of a spring in his step.

It had taken Harry a solid hour to regain his form on the Nimbus. He kept wanting to under-steer, and wrapping himself around a stick felt much less secure than planting himself on the Bonnie. It also had a tendency to dart, unlike his Firebolt. The Firebolt would always be important to him – he could see it as a mounted keepsake – but it had become as much a reminder of Umbridge and the loss of Quidditch as it was a remembrance of Sirius. The Bonnie was like the living embodiment of his godfather, really, and Harry had to admit to himself that his once-prized broom now took second place.

He wondered if his hour of poor steering and sloppy dives and sub-par acceleration would have been something closer to a quarter-hour if he hadn’t kissed Hermione. Every few minutes, he reminded himself that she honestly didn’t seem to be angry with him. In the other minutes, he admitted to himself that Hermione probably would have hexed his hair off if she’d known what had happened on the beach in St. Ebb the week prior.

“Harry! Fetch the bloody Quaffle!” Ron snapped.

Harry blinked rapidly, just in time to see the Quaffle that they had been tossing; he turned hard – almost too hard – and managed to catch it in seconds.

“Where’s your head today?” Ron called out. “Did you leave it in the library?”

“We didn’t go to the library,” Harry said quietly. He flipped the Quaffle in Ron’s direction, and pulled into a shallow loop.

Ron scooped up the Quaffle, and set it drifting in Harry’s direction. “You can’t let her get to you,” he advised Harry. “I’ve learned that the hard way, right? She’ll dig and dig and dig and you have to say ‘enough’! Set your line and play Keeper – that’s what I say.”

Harry caught the Quaffle and held it close. “Ron… what in the bloody hell are you talking about?”

Ron flushed. “Erm… thought you were having a row with Hermione. You have that look in your eyes; she must have said something horrid.”

“She didn’t do anything of the sort,” Harry growled.

“Easy, mate!” Ron said. “I’m only saying that you have that look! Are you going to toss the Quaffle or not?” Harry gave the Quaffle a disgusted toss. Ron barely managed to field it; he frowned and descended toward the open equipment box at the edge of the pitch.

Harry pushed the Nimbus into something as close to a flat spin as it would allow, and only pulled out when he could make out blades of grass. He came to a stumbling stop a few feet from the stands, and let his broom fall to the ground.

“Merlin’s Beard! Do you want to visit the Hospital Wing?” Ron shouted as he ran across the pitch. As soon as he drew close enough to lower his voice, he added, “I think you’d better tell me what happened.”

Ron didn’t appear angry – he seemed more concerned – but Harry held back. “It’s nothing,” Harry said. “Look, let’s try again… oh.” He hadn’t noticed that the equipment box was latched shut.

Ron crossed his arms. “Harry, this is me – Ron… you know… fighting mountain trolls, playing with big bloody chess sets, hexing mad professors, getting dumped in the lake, dodging Death Eaters and, um, brain thingies… er… that Ron, remember?”

Harry tried to put him off. “Ron… I really don’t think that we should – ”

Ron was having none of it. “When you say ‘it’s nothing’, that means you’re not bleeding to death. You were fine earlier, so something happened. What did she do, then?”

“She didn’t do anything! Hermione didn’t do anything wrong,” Harry insisted.

Ron stared at Harry for a few moments; his jaw tightened and his ears reddened. “What did you do to her, then?”

Harry picked up his broom and began to walk away. “Drop it, Ron,” he warned.

Ron followed closely. “Right… now you’re scaring me,” he said. “You couldn’t have hurt her – you couldn’t have… Harry! Stop walking and tell me what this is all about!”

Harry turned on him and snarled, “I kissed her. There – are you satisfied?”

Ron just stood there, speechless, and Harry went on his way. He was nearly to the locker rooms before Ron caught him. “So what’s the problem?” Ron asked. “You kissed her, and…” He broke into a smirk. “First Cho Chang, now Hermione… you are a bad kisser, aren’t you?”

“Sod off, Ron!” Harry snapped. He quickly looked around; the stands appeared to be empty.

“I don’t see the problem here. You fancy her, she fancies you… wait a minute, I’m on to you.” Ron sighed. “This is about Heather.”

Harry’s eyebrows shot up. “Will you shut it? We’re in the open here!”

Ron drew himself up. “Look, if you think I’m going to stand by and let you play with Hermione while you’re still thinking – ”

“SHUT IT!” Harry shouted. He was positive that one of the locker room doors had moved.

“I’m not going to shut it!” Ron returned. “You’re my friend, but so is Hermione, and – ”

Harry let out a frustrated roar. He lunged at Ron; when Harry took his next step, he dumped Ron on the grass on the far side of the Forbidden Forest.

Ron rolled to his feet, panic-stricken. “What the bloody effin’ hell was THAT?”

“There was someone in the locker rooms!” Harry shouted back. “I’ll not have this spread all over Hogwarts – and what if Malfoy was in there? Hermione doesn’t need any more grief, and the Slytherins can’t know about Heather!”

No! No! HOW DID WE GET HERE?” Ron shrieked.

Harry’s stomach churned, and he quickly offered, “Er… emergency portkey?”

“EMERGENCY PORTKEY? ARE YOU…?” It was as though someone fed Ron a Calming Draught. “Are you serious? I mean, I can understand why Dumbledore would do that for you… that’s wicked…”

Harry quickly piled on to the lie. “Now I have to ask him for another,” he pretended to fume.

“Well, you shouldn’t have wasted it on this!” Ron scolded. “I’m not blind – all you had to do was wave your hand toward the locker rooms, for Merlin’s sake!”

“You wouldn’t shut up!” Harry shot back.

Ron huffed, “Fine! Let’s talk about… AAAHHHH!”

Harry instantly drew his wand. “What? What is it?”

Ron grabbed him by the shirt and madly shook him. “MY NIMBUS! YOUR NIMBUS! They’re sitting there on the bloody ground, practically gift-wrapped! THEY’RE JUST SITTING THERE!” Harry gibbered at him and then began to laugh. Ron dramatically let go and huffed at him, and Harry’s laughter only increased.

“That’s enough of that!” Ron said sharply, and Harry wiped tears from his eyes as the laughter rolled on. “Put a cork in it, Potter!” Ron added, and Harry muffled his own mouth in a failed attempt to quiet himself.

“It’s a broom,” Harry choked out.

Ron looked at him as though he’d just said that magic didn’t exist. “It’s not just a broom, you ponce – it’s a Nimbus 2100-R!” he whinged.

Harry took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It has an engraved nameplate and Devlin Whitehorn’s personal message to you written on it,” he pointed out, still chuckling. “Not very bright for someone to nick it, right?”

Ron harrumphed and set off at a brisk pace. “I’m fetching my broom,” he growled.

“Ron, you don’t even know where you are,” Harry called after him.

Ron stopped. “Please tell me that you know,” he said.

“This is the back side of the Forbidden Forest,” Harry said. He glanced around, and envisioned the Hogwarts grounds and surrounding area in his mind. “Erm… it might be best to use the, um, Portkey to get back… er, it was supposed to leave us somewhere close to Hagrid’s hut, not here.”

Ron hesitated. “There’s no other way? I’m not in a hurry to repeat that ride; that must be what Flooing is like for you…”

Harry shrugged. “Unless you want to walk round the whole of the Forest and past Hogsmeade, I’m out of ideas.”

“Not a very accurate thing, was it?” Ron muttered. He looked at Harry intently, and added, “It’s not a one-time sort of thing? Dumbledore gave you an unlimited Portkey?”

Harry decided to keep piling on. “Dunno… it’s always supposed to take me to the same place, so I figured if we try it again… um… it’s meant for one – maybe that threw it off?”

Ron licked his lips; he was clearly thinking over Harry’s explanation. “I suppose that’s possible… figuring that out would get into Arithmancy, I think, and that’s best left to Hermione. You could ask Bill about it. He’s probably made his share of Portkeys and what-not to get out of close scrapes. The thing is, if you’re right and the two of us together threw it off, what’s to say it doesn’t leave us in the middle of the Forest the next time?”

Harry frowned; he certainly didn’t have the time to walk back. “We still have plenty of light. I suspect it would take a few hours to walk back; that would leave us on the edge of the Forest at nightfall.”

Ron grimaced. “Right, then – bloody Portkey it is. If we end up in there – ” He jerked his thumb toward the thick trees. “ – and we run across those… those spiders, I’ll make certain they eat you first, I swear!”

“And to think you’re my oldest friend,” Harry muttered, and Ron sniggered. Harry reached out quickly in hopes that Ron would be distracted. It worked; Ron flinched and squeezed his eyes shut. By the time he recovered, Harry had deposited the both of them unceremoniously next to Hagrid’s pumpkin patch.

Ron rolled over, breathing hard, and for a moment it seemed that he might spew; “Next time, Harry, just stun me and be done with it,” he groaned. Harry followed as Ron stumbled to his feet and began to pick his way toward the Quidditch pitch. He wondered if popping with someone was like forced Apparation; one of his readings at Grimmauld Place had mentioned something about forced Apparation causing nausea and headaches and sometimes worse. I’ll have to ask Dobby about this before I try it again, he quickly decided; it wasn’t hard to imagine that he and Ron – or he and Hermione, or all three of them for that matter – might have to rely on popping for a quick escape.

For most of the hike back to the pitch, Ron seemed resigned to mumbling about misplaced brooms and portkeys and other grievances. For his part, Harry was quietly thrilled – Hermione wasn’t mentioned once. The two Nimbus racers lay in the same place where they had been left.

Ron held his broom out and sighted down its length. “You don’t suppose they’re hexed, do you?” he asked. “After all, you thought you saw someone, and they were just laying here…”

Harry gave his own broom a visual once-over without touching it. “Detheridge has been covering detection; we went over a few charms for finding hexes…” He recalled the various incantations and methodically checked each broom, but found nothing. “They’re free of the basic sort, at least,” he concluded, and slung the broom over his shoulder.

Ron followed suit; then he cleared his throat in a noisy way that for a moment made Harry think of Ron’s brother Percy. “I can’t let it go, you know,” he said. “I won’t let you mess about with Hermione.”

Harry gave a start; he whipped out his wand and immediately built a silent space around the two of them. “I’m not messing about; she knows about Heather,” he told Ron.

Ron’s eyes saucered. “Are you mad? This is why you’re acting like the kneazle died, right? What did she do, then? Did she sock you like Malfoy, or did she cast pruritis aegrius on your bits?”

“No! Hermione’s not like that!” Harry insisted. “I didn’t say anything; she remembered what you said in the Room of Requirement.”

“What did I say? Oh… I did mention Heather, didn’t I?” Ron said sheepishly.

“Now if she knew that I’d kissed Heather as well, then she probably would have cursed me halfway to Hogsmeade,” Harry admitted.

Ron flushed instantly. “You… you are two-timing! Bloody hell, Harry – I won’t have it, not with Hermione! What’s gotten into you?”

Harry gritted his teeth. “Oh, that’s rich coming from you, Ron,” he snapped.

“It’s completely different!” Ron bit back. “Nobody expects anything from me, and I don’t expect anything in return – it’s all in fun. Nothing’s gone any further than your basic snog – well, except Lavender, and we… er… have an understanding, I guess you’d call it. See, it’s completely different – no one’s being hurt.”

“How does Luna figure into that?” Harry asked angrily.

“That was your fault – you and Heather and whatever the two of you did. Look… Luna’s not like I thought she was. She’s a lot smarter than I knew, for a start, and she’s got a sense of humour under all that… um… under the weird stuff, right?” Ron’s easy smile dropped a bit, and he added, “It’s like with Hermione, I suppose; Luna can do better than me.”

Harry couldn’t believe that Ron could say that about himself with a straight face. “Don’t even think that, mate,” he insisted.

Ron looked Harry dead in the eyes. His smile had returned but there was something cold and hard behind it, and Harry didn’t care for that at all. “They want something that they can’t get from me,” Ron said. “I’m not out to buy jewelry for a girl; I’m not shopping for dress robes, see? Come on, Harry, you’ve known Hermione as long as I have – she doesn’t do things in halves. I don’t think Luna’s any different that way, now that I’ve gotten to know her a bit. I could ask Brocklehurst to Hogsmeade and there’d be no worries. I’m planning on it, actually.”

Harry just wanted to be done talking about Hermione; he suspected that he was in for more than his share of it later that evening. “What’s your point?” he asked.

Ron rolled his eyes. “You – kissed – Hermione! What do you suppose she’s thinking right now? She’s probably in the Library, looking through some old scroll on relationships!”

Harry cringed at the thought; he realised that there was a very good chance that Hermione was obsessing about what had happened. “I didn’t mean to kiss Heather,” he said. “I wanted to kiss Hermione, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Ron shrugged. “It’s your mess, mate – enjoy it.” He broke into a smirk. “Now if you need Heather to go somewhere else, I’m sure I could help you with that.”

Harry smacked Ron on the arm. “You’re impossible!” he groaned.

Ron closed his eyes and summoned a fatuous grin. “Come on, Harry, don’t tell me you couldn’t watch her walk in that bloody skirt all day long! How do they accomplish anything, anyhow? Skin everywhere… I’d need an extra set of eyes if I were a Muggle.”

“Ron!” Harry snapped.

Ron opened his eyes again; he was back to the easy smile and the cold eyes. “Heather told me what she’s looking for, when we were on the beach. We’re looking for the same thing, Heather and me.”

“And what would that be?” Harry asked; he couldn’t keep the irritation from his voice.

“We just want to feel good,” Ron said seriously. “We’re thinking about today, see? Not next year – now.”

“Ron…” Harry began.

Ron waved him off. “Just don’t hurt her, Harry – don’t you dare. If you hurt Hermione, I… I don’t know what I’ll do, but it’ll be horrible!”

The feelings that Ron gave off were so conflicted that Harry’s head began to throb. He closed his eyes and tried to work through one of Covelli’s exercises.

Did you hear what I said?” Ron shouted.

Harry nodded, his eyes still closed. “I heard you, Ron. You won’t need to do anything horrible,” he said calmly.

“Er… right, then…” Ron said; he sounded confused, and Harry held back a grin.

Harry slowly opened his eyes; the throbbing was gone. He glanced at his watch and frowned. “I have to go,” he said. “Next time we fly, I’ll bring my best game – I promise.”

“You want to do it again?” Ron asked hopefully. “I was sort of wondering if some of the problem was, um, that you didn’t want to be here.”

“ ‘Course I do!” Harry insisted.

Ron smiled again, and this time it seemed to reach his eyes. “You’d better bring your game, all right! Maybe, er, you’d scrimmage with the team?”

Harry thought for a moment. “I’d have to ask McGonagall about that,” he said. “It might be against the rules.”

“I’ll have a go at the Rulebook,” Ron said excitedly. “It’ll be brilliant!”

Harry smiled at his friend. If scrimmaging would make him happy, then Harry would scrimmage – assuming that Gryffindor wouldn’t be penalised as a result. He let the silent space fall; Ron gave a hearty wave and headed for the castle. Harry stayed behind until Ron passed from view. With wand at the ready, he checked the locker rooms. He found no one there, nor was anyone hiding beneath the adjacent stands. He re-entered the nearest locker room door and then popped to the rear of the Three Broomsticks.

Madam Rosmerta nodded at him as he entered and gave a slight shrug toward the door to the private room. Harry knocked on the closed door. The knob turned, and Ted Tonks waved him in.

“Good evening, Harry. Everything is in place,” Mr. Tonks said.

Dumbledore rose from a squashy armchair that he had no doubt conjured for himself. He held out a knapsack. “Everything is inside,” he said.

Engorgio on each item, and then cancel the feather-light spells?” Harry asked. Dumbledore nodded.

“Are you carrying your passport?” Mr. Tonks asked.

“No… I hadn’t thought of that,” Harry admitted. “It’s upstairs.”

“Fetch it, then,” Mr. Tonks said. “I have some local currency for you, in the event you might have need for it.” Harry casually left the private room, climbed the stairs, pocketed the passport that identified him as James Black as well as the shrunken Bonnie, and then returned. Dumbledore motioned to the two people seated before the hearth. They were completely cloaked and hadn’t said a word. Harry was glad for that; he hadn’t summoned the courage required to look them in the eye, not yet.

The Headmaster said, “Fawkes has agreed to provide transportation to and from the location. He will return for you two hours after you arrive.” There was a fiery flash in the corner of the room. Fawkes flew to Dumbledore’s shoulder and sang two brief notes. Though he couldn’t see the faces of Dumbledore’s cloaked companions, their postures seemed to relax and Harry was glad for that. Dumbledore gave a slight nod to Fawkes, and the phoenix left the Headmaster’s shoulder and alighted on Harry’s with a single flap of his wings.

“We certainly wouldn’t want anyone falling by the wayside,” Dumbledore said. He withdrew a great length of brightly coloured rope from within his robes, which he wrapped around Harry’s waist and then tightly knotted; he then repeated the wrapping and knotting around the waists of the two persons in cloaks.

Fawkes rose into the air and slowly lowered his tail. “Think clearly of your destination, Harry,” Dumbledore instructed. Harry fixed the image in his mind and then grasped Fawkes’ tail. There was a rush of motion and two loud shrieks behind him, and then he found himself in the clearing that he had envisioned. He released Fawkes’ tail; the phoenix flew clear of him, sang briefly and then disappeared.

Mr. and Mrs. Granger lowered the hoods of their cloaks. “Someone… might have… warned us…” Mrs. Granger gasped.

Mr. Granger laughed nervously. “Would it have mattered?”

Harry raised a hand. “Please… stay quiet until we’re on the property,” he whispered. Mrs. Granger’s eyes flitted from one tree to the next and she quickly nodded. Mr. Granger just looked at him, and Harry looked away as quickly as he could. He walked to the edge of the clearing and gave a series of complex waves with his wand; there was a ripple of something, and then stillness. “Come on,” he whispered. As soon as all three of them were within the cover of the trees, Harry repeated the sequence of waves and once again felt the ripple. The wards were in place, and he could breathe a bit easier.

“We should be all right now,” Harry said. “Hopefully no one was watching.”

Mrs. Granger slowed to a crawl almost as soon as they began making their way along the walk through the gardens. For a time, Harry feared she would stop at every rosebush and every different sort of flower; she lingered before a bed of monkshood. Mr. Granger’s eyes were chiefly fixed on the house – Harry supposed it was properly called a manor.

“What is this place?” Mr. Granger quietly asked.

“It belonged to my grandmother's family,” Harry returned.

Mr. Granger squinted in the direction of the sun. “It’s late morning here,” he murmured.

Mrs. Granger marvelled at a large topiary. “If our stay here is supposed to be a secret, I have to ask, Harry – how is all of this maintained?” she asked.

Harry hesitated, as he had a vague sense that Mrs. Granger would be as unyielding as Hermione when she heard his answer. “We really should make our way inside,” he said at last.

The entry doors were massive and sat beneath a portico. Harry tapped the brass doorknocker lightly, which yielded a rumble that brought to mind Hagrid seeking entry. The right-side door opened slowly.

Dobby emerged, dressed in the patchwork tuxedo that Winky had made him for the reading of Sirius’ will. “Harry Potter, sir!” he squeaked excitedly.

Harry greeted him as a friend, for he was exactly that. “Dobby,” Harry said, “I’d like for you to meet – ”

Dobby burst forward and eager shook Mr. Granger’s hand and then did the same to Mrs. Granger, as he burbled, “You are the parents of Miss Granger! Dobby is so happy to be seeing you! Dobby is welcoming you to Henshawe Manor!” They handled quite well the spectacle of a three-foot-tall long-eared pointy-faced creature wringing their hands; Harry tried to imagine Uncle Vernon or even Aunt Petunia in the same circumstance but couldn’t manage it.

“To… where?” Mrs. Granger asked.

“To Henshawe Manor, Mistress Granger,” Dobby repeated. “Brucewood is the name of this place where Harry Potter has brought you and where we will tend to your needs.”

Mrs. Granger looked to Dobby and then to the gardens and then back to the grinning house-elf. “You care for the house and the gardens, Dobby?” she asked. “We’ll have to see about that.”

“Mistress Granger need not lift a finger, if Dobby can help it,” Dobby assured her; “The manor is ready for you, Harry Potter,” he then announced proudly and ushered them inside.

Both of the Grangers gaped at the sheer size of the entry hall. “Harry… this is too…” Mrs. Granger began. “Generous,” Mr. Granger finished.

Harry waved them off. “It’s sat empty for thirty years – that’s what I was told,” he said.

The four corners of the hall were fitted with large planters, filled with plants that flowered in brilliant reds and golds. “I think I recognise the gold ones,” Harry thought aloud, “but I’m not sure about the red ones.”

“Lychnis and solidago, Harry Potter sir,” squeaked a tiny voice from the shadows. “Dobby said that the colours suited Harry Potter sir’s manor.”

“I wondered where you were, Winky,” Harry said. “Come and meet the Grangers, would you?”

While Dobby was all motion and energy, Winky was tentative for the most part. She fretted with the hem of her dress as she slowly crossed the hall. “Winky will serve Harry Potter sir by serving the not-wizards as best she can,” Winky said softly.

Mrs. Granger knelt down, which left her a few inches taller than Winky and drove the house-elf’s eyes into saucers. “Will you show me the gardens later?” she asked. “They’re quite remarkable. I can’t imagine how you would have restored them after such a long time. Did you select the plants to be included?” She continued to fire away questions and Harry couldn’t help but see Hermione in her mother, bristling at the idea of being served and thirsting for knowledge.

When the questions tapered off a bit, the house-elf said to Mrs. Granger, “Winky does not know your given name, so Winky does not know how to address you.”

Mrs. Granger smiled. “My name is Cordelia.” She gestured to Mr. Granger, and added, “My husband’s name is Thomas.”

Winky nodded; she still absently toyed with her dress. “Winky will show you whatever you wish, Cordelia Granger,” she said.

Dobby tapped his foot angrily. “This is Master Granger and Mistress Granger,” he insisted.

Winky hissed at him, then said forcefully, “If Harry Potter sir is Harry Potter sir and not Master Harry or Master Potter, then this is Cordelia Granger and Thomas Granger sir, or Madam Cordelia and Mister Thomas.” Dobby glared at her, but said nothing.

“Simply Cordelia would be fine, Winky,” Mrs. Granger interjected.

Winky noticeably stiffened, and cast her eyes downward. “Winky did not mean to presume,” she whispered.

“Our daughter has told us that your people are enslaved,” Mrs. Granger said kindly. “In our world – in the world of Muggles – slavery has been a crime for many years. We’ve certainly never kept slaves and we’ve never hired servants. I don’t know what you expect from us, but we’re likely to treat you as fellow guests even if you do provide services.”

“Hired servants wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world…” Mr. Granger said under his breath.

Mrs. Granger’s head snapped around. “Thomas!”

Mr. Granger held up his hands. “I’m just saying – that’s all!”

“You certainly won’t be treated as though you were slaves,” Mrs. Granger finished in a huff. Dobby had a glint of understanding and a few unshed tears in his eyes; Winky appeared bewildered.

Harry shuffled his feet. “Well, then… I have to set a few things in place, and then we should cast the charm as soon as possible,” he said. Watching the Grangers made him think of Hermione, and he didn’t want to do that – he wasn’t going to think of her, especially when she wasn’t even there. She believed that she was a distraction, and he wasn’t going to let her be right about it.

Dumbledore had helped him pack a kit for the casting of the charm and the marking of the supporting runes. Harry went into the study just off the entry hall and spread out the pack atop a bare desk. Because Brucewood had blood wards, he had to wet the stick ink with drops of his own blood before mixing in the water and adding the fixing oils. Once the runic ink was mixed he took the inkbottle and quill, returned to the entry doors, and began to inscribe the proper runes on the doors. Dumbledore had prepared a card that showed Harry exactly what to inscribe; after every few runes, Harry stopped to check his work against the card. He could feel Mr. Granger watching him from behind, but he shunted the feeling aside and concentrated on his work.

Once the entry doors were completed, he made his way to the interior of the house, to the safe room that he had picked out. Again, he inscribed the door, and then added inscriptions to the doorframe. He knew that Mr. Granger had followed and was still observing, but ignored it. Harry couldn’t stand inside the room without imagining Dobby making some sort of last stand against a pack of Death Eaters intent on getting at Hermione’s parents. The thought made him flush with heat; he quickly left the room as soon as his quill drew the last rune.

He climbed the stairs until he reached the small tower atop the vault of the manor’s great hall. The floor inside the tower was opened at the centre; it exposed the top of the keystone to the central support arch. The stone was covered with evidence of runes – there were faint traces of ink here and there. Dumbledore had explained that the property’s wards would radiate from the keystone – they were far more complex than both the warding on the bothy and the warding that he had placed on his rooms in Hogsmeade. Harry carefully wrote the protective runes associated with the Fidelius charm across the curve of the keystone. Dumbledore believed that this would shape the result of the charm like a bubble over the entire property, and had presented evidence from various tomes and scrolls to support his belief. Harry hoped that he was right.

When Harry returned – with Mr. Granger close behind – he found Mrs. Granger reading the spines of the books in the study. She turned and asked, “Is it time?”

Harry nodded. He made his way to Dumbledore’s kit, and tucked away the quill and the inkbottle and the card. There were two envelopes inside; Harry was sure he hadn’t seen them there before. One was marked “For the Grangers”. The other said “Read Me”; the gold ink suddenly twinkled at Harry as he touched the envelope, and he let out a soft snort. He handed the first envelope to Mr. Granger, and opened the second himself.

Dear Harry,

There is no doubt that you have inscribed the necessary runes in exactly the fashion that I have described and depicted for you. I have not entered into your mind, but you remain unaware of the potency with which you on occasion project your emotions. Thusly, it is important that we dispense with the balance of your doubts.

Firstly, you possess far more than the necessary power to cast the charm.

Secondly, you possess in ample measure the necessary disposition. I have no doubt that you care for all three of the Grangers, and the depth of your care for the youngest Granger strengthens your bond with the elders.

Thirdly, Voldemort will be unable to penetrate the protections of the charm; it is truly safe for you to be the caster. Once you cast it, the charm may only be circumvented by accident or by your own willingness to allow it to fail. I know you will be unwilling to do so until such time as it is safe.

Finally, some flotsam from an old man’s mind –

There can be no active secrets between yourself and the Grangers at the time you cast the charm. Secrets will prey upon you; they will obstruct trust and may obstruct the casting. Unburden yourself if necessary. When you do cast the charm, allow your magic to flow freely. You may feel strange or uncomfortable during the casting; this is normal, and you should pay it no mind.

I am already rather fiercely proud of you, and I shall be made even more proud when you return after succeeding in this important – nay, sacred – task.

Fondly,

Albus Dumbledore

Harry re-read the last bit once, and finished just as the parchment fell to dust in his hands. He looked to the envelope; the paper faded away, leaving the golden words “Read Me” floating just above the desk top for a moment. The second “e” winked at him, then spun and fizzed like a Catherine wheel and disappeared with a loud pop.

What’s an ‘active secret’? he wondered. Was withholding something the same as keeping a secret? Did he have to tell the Grangers everything about himself? There was only one thing that seemed a bit like a secret, in that the Grangers were quite possibly the last people on Earth who he intended to tell about it.

Mr. Granger had passed the other letter to Mrs. Granger, and it too fell to dust. The Grangers shared an anxious look before Mr. Granger blurted out, “I’m glad you killed them!” Mrs. Granger’s eyebrows shot up even as Mr. Granger let out a sigh of relief and added, “I’ve wanted to say that for a month. They tried to kill us all, and I’m bloody well glad that they’re dead.”

Harry shuddered; sometimes he felt as if he would find the Grangers’ dining room through the next door, and it was one of those times just then. His chest tightened. “I didn’t have to kill them; it wasn’t right,” he said with difficulty. “I can still see it, all the blood… I could have left them for the Aurors, but after what they…” He couldn’t manage to say any more.

“I wish you hadn’t been the one to do it, Harry,” Mr. Granger said. “This shouldn’t fall to children – I’m sorry, but you’re sixteen years old! It shouldn’t fall to you and H-Hermione and the Weasley children and the others – it’s not right!” His jaw tightened as he fell silent.

Mrs. Granger went on, “We’re doing this because Hermione can’t afford to be distracted, not when she’s likely to be at the centre of things. She asked this of us, and we’re doing it, but we’d hold her here if it was possible.”

“I tried,” Harry said quietly. “Just today, I told her everyone would understand if she needed to be with you. I tried, honestly – she wouldn’t hear of it.”

Mrs. Granger gently elbowed her husband. “I think that something else needs to be said, don’t you?” She mouthed the word ‘wine’ so clearly that Harry couldn’t possibly mistake it.

Mr. Granger gave a small frown. “Harry… I shouldn’t have filled your glass more than once, and I was certainly not on my best behaviour when you joined us. I apologise for, um, getting you soused.”

“I was in a bad way the next morning, but nothing awful happened,” Harry allowed. “I don’t think an apology is needed…” Mrs. Granger rolled her eyes, and Harry added, “… but consider it accepted.”

Mr. Granger slowly let out a long breath. “It’s good to have all that in the clear,” he said. “The old man was right about that, at least.”

Harry didn’t realise that he was fidgeting until after he’d begun. “Well, then…” he said.

The Grangers shared another look. Mrs. Granger asked, “Is there something you need to tell us?”

Harry tugged at his collar. “Erm… just one thing, I suppose… um… small thing, really…”

“You’ve gone pale… surely it can’t be that bad?” Mrs. Granger offered hesitantly. For his part, Mr. Granger appeared to be bracing for horrid news.

Harry squeaked, “It’s just… um… ikissedhermione.”

Mrs. Granger crooked an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, what was that?” Mr. Granger’s mouth twitched oddly and Mrs. Granger covered the lower part of her face with her hands.

Harry winced as he said more clearly, “I kissed Hermione.”

“You kissed my daughter,” Mr. Granger confirmed. Harry nodded, and Mr. Granger’s mouth quirked into a grin.

Mrs. Granger let her hands drop. “You’ve gone pale over that?” she laughed.

“Yes!” Harry said defensively. “She wasn’t expecting it and I think I’ve upset her, and if I’ve gone and fouled five years’ worth of… what’s so funny?” Mrs. Granger let out a snort and Harry suppressed a growl.

Mr. Granger tried to summon a serious expression but couldn’t seem to manage it, which only raised Harry closer to a boil. He said, “Don’t mistake this for encouragement, exactly. Frankly, I’d prefer that Hermione seek out a religious community… you know, we could have taken her to that priory in Begbroke…”

Mrs. Granger snorted again. “Oh, that would have been brilliant! The prioress wouldn’t have survived the first ten seconds with her… honestly, Thomas.”

Mr. Granger laughed, and then said, “The fact of the matter is that Cordelia and me… well, we both assumed that a fair bit of kissing went on at that house in London. Given that you’re showing signs of imminent cardiac arrest, I’d say we were well off the mark!” Mrs. Granger began to laugh, and covered her mouth again.

“It’s not funny – not at all,” Harry said flatly.

“It’s a bloody relief!” Mr. Granger said jovially. “I had something a lot more involved than kissing fixed in my head when you started to panic, let me tell you!”

Harry’s eyebrows nearly shot off his forehead. “We would never… she would never… that’s not it at all!”

Mr. Granger clapped him on the shoulder. “My daughter’s boyfriend is afraid he’ll push her too far with just kissing and will literally kill to protect her. I’m having a difficult time finding fault! I am having one hell of a time getting the word ‘boyfriend’ out of my mouth, but I think righteous anger’s out of the question here – ”

Harry finally managed to cut him off. “I’m not Hermione’s boyfriend.”

Mr. and Mrs. Granger traded another look. “I see,” Mrs. Granger said. “Of course, Harry,” Mr. Granger added. Harry let a growl free.

Mr. Granger held up his hands in surrender. “We’re done stirring you up,” he promised.

Harry calmed himself and struggled to find the right words. “Hermione’s very important to me – that goes without saying, right? I’ll do my best to keep her safe – this much I can promise you.”

“We know that, Harry,” Mrs. Granger said.

Hermione’s parents were both smiling at him; part of Harry figured they should be flushing purple and frothing at him like Uncle Vernon, simply for putting their daughter in danger. Hermione was lucky enough to have two parents, both of whom obviously cared for her, but Harry wasn’t jealous or envious – he was just happy that she had what he didn’t.

“I’ve lost my parents and I can’t get them back,” Harry said. “That isn’t going to happen to Hermione, not as long as I can help it.” A draft ran through the study and stirred his hair, and it occurred to him that he could feel magic flowing around him. Mrs. Granger’s eyes were filled with unshed tears. Harry raised his wand, waved it as he had been shown, and said, “Fidelius.

The draft turned into a gale, and the room around them shimmered in a white light. Harry blinked against the light and struggled to hold his ground. He blinked again, and swore that the house was slowly disappearing. The light receded, and the house was gone, the land was gone – he and the Grangers and Dobby and Winky seemed to be standing there in nothingness. A dull clanging came, as much felt as heard; first the grounds reappeared, and then the manor around them. When the clanging stopped, books and papers fell throughout the study. Thankfully, the Grangers were spared somehow from the falling debris; a tome entitled Historical Lineages in the English-Speaking Wizarding World landed on Harry’s head.

His next clear awareness was of Mrs. Granger sitting on an armchair beside him; he was on a sofa in a room that he didn’t recall. I really have to apologise to Shacklebolt, he thought as he tried to move and was rewarded with a crushing headache. He shook it off and glanced at his watch.

“Are you all right, Harry? Do you know where you are?” Mrs. Granger asked.

“Very near to the Pacific Ocean,” Harry said thickly.

Mrs. Granger’s brow furrowed. “Harry…?”

Harry slowly sat up. “We’re in British Columbia, Mrs. Granger. You’re on the western side of a very big island, and Fawkes returns for me in… half an hour.” He tested his footing and, finding it adequate, made his way down a corridor to a staircase and into the entry hall.

Dobby and Winky had already begun the process of enlarging the Grangers’ belongings; the hall was lined with trunks and crates of all sizes. Harry spirited Dobby into a side room, where Dobby happily performed some sort of elfish magic that relieved Harry’s headache in moments.

“Dobby, are you clear on all the contingency plans?” Harry asked.

The house-elf nodded furiously. “If the charm falls, Dobby will pop Master Granger and Mistress Granger to one of the other locations and Winky will come to Harry Potter. If Dobby and Winky are prevented from popping, Dobby will lead Master Granger and Mistress Granger to the safe room and Winky will fight.”

“Did you say Winky will fight?” Harry confirmed.

“Winky understands that Master Granger and Mistress Granger are family to Harry Potter,” Dobby said. “Dobby and Winky are both ready to follow Harry Potter’s command; Dobby and Winky will… will kill if we must. Dobby knows that Winky can be vicious, so Winky will fight first; Dobby will fight if Dobby must.”

“Dobby, you are my friend,” Harry said earnestly. “Winky is my friend, too. I want you to protect the Grangers, but I don’t want either of you to do anything foolish. I want you both to get out of here along with the Grangers, unless it’s impossible. Do you understand?”

Dobby sniffed twice, then reached inside his patchwork tuxedo and drew out a handkerchief. He blew his nose loudly and dramatically; it sounded like the horn on Dudley’s old bicycle, Harry thought. As Dobby tucked the handkerchief away, Harry spotted a blue monogram on it – A.B.W.P.D.

“How did you get that handkerchief?” Harry laughed.

“Headmaster Dumbledore gave it to Dobby when Dobby left Hogwarts,” Dobby squeaked. “He wasn’t needing to give Dobby clothes, since Dobby was hired. Dobby thinks it was one of Headmaster Dumbledore’s little jokes, but Dobby kept it just the same.”

Harry moved to leave, but Dobby flung himself around Harry’s legs. “Dobby is Harry Potter’s friend,” he cried. “Dobby is the luckiest elf!”

Harry managed to tug Dobby free. He lowered himself to his knees and moved to shake hands; he wanted to look Dobby in the eyes as Mrs. Granger had done with Winky. Instead he found himself gripped in a surprisingly powerful hug.

“Dobby will not fail Harry Potter,” the house elf said fiercely.

“I know,” Harry said. “Thank you.” Dobby was still twittering about being thanked by Harry Potter as Harry made his way to bid farewell to the Grangers. He left them one last thing – a wrapped package about the size of a shoebox. He told them it was from Dumbledore. He left to meet Fawkes before they could open it.

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