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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Author Notes:

If you have questions about 'shipping in Years of Rebellion, please visit the relevant thread at the FFA.net Forum.

Cheers,

Mike [FP]

Chapter Eight
 
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME 
 

A dartboard hung on the inside of one of the two doors opened to the outside of the Shrieking Shack.  Fred and George were taking on Bill and Charlie, and Professor Flitwick looked on.  Flitwick greeted Mr. Weasley warmly.  “Is it true that they’re not supposed to guide the darts?  With those two –” the professor said, gesturing at the twins, “– one never knows what to believe!”

Mr. Weasley launched into an earnest dissertation on Muggle games and hand-eye coordination, and Harry quietly took his leave.  Hagrid was engaged in animated conversation with Mr. Granger and Lupin, who waved cheerfully at him.  Kingsley Shacklebolt sat on the end of a bench next to Tonks; both of them nursed glasses of something.  Shacklebolt gestured sternly for Harry to approach.

“Tonks, shouldn’t you be…?” Harry began.

She snorted loudly.  “What, up there with the hens?  Nattering on ‘bout recipes and home remedies an’ that rot?  Not – bloody – likely!

Harry sniffed.  “Is that firewhisky?”

“ ’S been a long week, Harry.  They ’jus keep getting’ longer,” she said, “an’ besides – I’m old, remember?  I can drink what I want, where I want, when I want, how I want, why I want…” Tonks’ hair kept shifting from red to pink to orange and back again.

“Harry and I need to talk,” Shacklebolt rumbled.

“ ’Sno problem, Kingsley.  I’ll jus’ humble those boys at darts.”  Tonks slid from the bench to her feet and her eyes crossed for a moment.

“We’ll take a walk, Tonks,” Shacklebolt said.  “Hold up the bench, would you?”  Tonks gave a ragged salute.  Shacklebolt swept by Harry, leaving him to assume that he should follow.  They strolled out the doors and stopped at the barricade.  Hogsmeade was bathed in orange light streaming from the western horizon.

“I’m not the proper tutor for you,” Shacklebolt said.  “I feel bound by Black’s wishes, but you can find a better fit.”

Harry said, “I don’t understand.”

Shacklebolt turned on him.  “When you went running into the Ministry, did you think for a moment about the consequences?”

“I didn’t –” Harry began.

“No, you didn’t,” Shacklebolt finished for him, “and the results speak for themselves!  The Lovegood girl got by with a concussion, but the Longbottom boy broke his nose and Arthur’s daughter broke an ankle.  Who knows what really happened to her brother?  Granger is still recovering – were you aware of that?  Were you aware that Tonks almost died?  It’s a matter of dumb luck that the lot of you aren’t dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry whispered.

“That’s not enough!  The Department put Tonks and me on leave.  They want us to sign a loyalty oath! It would have happened eventually, I can see that – but you forced everyone’s hand, Harry,” scolded Shacklebolt.  “The Ministry knows that Dumbledore reactivated the Order, so they recalled the Dark Force Defence League – the bloody twits!  It’s obviously a purge in the making.  Fudge wants to keep in power, so he wants Dumbledore kept in the dark.”

“Not sure how I was supposed to know all of that...” Harry said.

Shacklebolt scowled.  “An angry tutor will do you no good.  Sirius be damned; I’m leaving it in Dumbledore’s hands.  If he insists, then I’ll take you on.”  He turned away and it was abundantly clear that the conversation was over. 

Harry returned toward the doors.  He heard a whizz! and saw a blur from the corner of his eye.  His head whipped to one side, and the blur shot past him to strike the barricade.

“Wotcher, Harry!  ’Sa good thing you’re a Seeker!” Tonks cried out.  Harry recovered the dart.

“Enough for you, Tonks,” Bill said.

“Aww, but I’m still thirsty,” Tonks complained, holding her empty glass upside down.

Bill laughed.  “That’s yours to reckon with.  I was referring to the darts.”

“What were you thinking, giving Tonks something that sharp?” Fred snapped, and waggled his index finger at Bill.

Harry handed the stray dart to Bill and guided Tonks away by the arm.  “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked her.

“Wha’d’ya mean – oh!”  Tonks shrugged.  “Things happen for a reason. ‘Sides, you’ve enough to worry about.”

“Shacklebolt said you almost died,” Harry told her.

“He’s dramatic,” Tonks insisted.  “I need to sit.”

Harry reached out for a chair; he managed to put it behind Tonks an instant before she began to sit down.  He brought a second chair over for himself.  Lupin was watching him intently but Harry didn’t know why.

“I’ve cost you your position,” Harry said, “and now you’re stuck minding Hermione and me.”

Tonks’ eyes fluttered closed.  “I like Hermione - always wanted a little sister, right?  You’re not bad either, Harry.”  She laughed, and added very loudly, “Every witch in England wants to mother you or shag you, ’course.”

“Which is it for you, Tonks?” Charlie teased.

“What’d’ya take me for, a cradle robber?” Tonks bellowed.  “He’s sixteen and I’m twenty-three, for Merlin’s sake!  Mothering, thank you.”  She opened her eyes, tried to focus on Harry, and added, “’Course if you were twenty-three, then I'd be - what - thirty?  Who could say, then?”  Harry looked around nervously.

Her eyes closed again.  “Don’t like being sized up, eh?  ’Sall right, Harry.  Jus’ mind you leave a drawbridge in those walls of yours, ‘kay?”  She stopped talking for a few moments, and Harry wondered if she’d fallen asleep.

Tonks’ eyes opened into slits.  “Right, the career thing?  Don’t fret - overrated.  ’Sides, saving the world … ’snot a bad gig.”  Her eyes closed again.  When she started snoring, Harry moved to sit next to Lupin. 

“...yeh need ter know it’s not as dangerous as yeh might be thinkin’, Mr. Granger,” Hagrid said.

“The great majority of wizards and witches are licensed by their early twenties,” Lupin added.  “It’s an advanced skill, but quite attainable.”

Mr. Weasley, who had sat down next to Mr. Granger, said, “Fred and George passed at 17.  George, be a good lad and Apparate over here.”  With a loud crack, George disappeared and reappeared behind his father.

Lupin told Harry, “Tom’s a little apprehensive about Hermione learning to Apparate.  It seems she’s worked out the underlying mechanics on her own.”

Harry laughed.  “That’s not surprising.”

Mr. Granger eyed him curiously.  “Why not?”

Harry suddenly felt nervous.  He stammered, “Well – surely you know that she’s first in our class, erm, by a wide margin.  She’s well beyond me in Charms and Transfiguration, and … and she just understands how everything works.  Amazing, really.  She’s brilliant.”

Mr. Granger said, “From what I’ve been told about you, I would have guessed that you’d be first.”

Lupin said, “Harry is better at practical demonstrations of his ability.  Hermione, on the other hand, is the most capable student Hogwarts has seen in a very long time.”

Professor Flitwick, who had left the game of darts, agreed.  “I would rank your daughter among the more capable students that I have ever taught.”

Harry was very surprised when Mr. Granger asked Professor Flitwick, “How does she compare to Harry, then?”

Flitwick hesitated, his ever-present smile fading.  “Mr. Granger, how old do you think that I am?” he asked

Mr. Granger looked at the professor closely.  “Hermione told us that magic folk are generally longer-lived than the rest of us … if you were my neighbour, I’d place you in your sixties.”

“Sixty years ago I was instructing Aurors in the art of duelling.  I graduated from Hogwarts in 1916, sir.”  Flitwick waited for Mr. Granger’s reaction to pass before continuing.  “I have taught thousands of students.  Hermione’s ability to acquire and retain knowledge is among the greatest I have seen.  Harry possesses a different kind of potential.”  The professor looked at Harry and blushed.  “There have been times that I have literally felt Harry’s power.  I have only experienced that with a handful of people, students or otherwise.  Hermione and Harry both perform well above their level of training, and that is the only comparison I can offer.  Their abilities are quite different from one another.”  Mr. Granger contemplated Harry with his arms crossed. 

Mr. Weasley cut in, and Harry marvelled at his sense of timing.  “Harry, I’m dying to see that motorbike.”

Fred threw his last dart and fetched Harry’s saddlebags.  “See, Harry, I didn’t make off with it,” he said.  Harry took the reduced Bonneville from the bag, palmed it, and whispered the appropriate words.

“Sweet Lord…” Mr. Granger whispered.

“Goodness, that’s Sirius Black’s motorbike!” exclaimed Professor Flitwick.  “Where on Earth…?”

Hagrid said, “I’ve had it stashed away fer years.  Sirius wanted Harry ter have the bike.”

Mr. Granger let out a low whistle.  “A Bonnie… a mint condition Bonnie.  It’s a ’69, isn’t it?  You can tell by the fairings.”

Harry nodded.  “That’s what Whitehorn said it was supposed to look like – a 1969 Triumph Bonneville.”

“Supposed to…?  Obviously I’m missing something,” Mr. Granger said.

Harry made the Bonneville revert to its true form.  “I thought you should see it like this, Mr. Weasley.  It’s not an enchanted artefact; technically it’s a broomstick.”

Mr. Weasley ran his hand along the horizontal stick, shaking his head.  “Unbelievable,” he said.  “So that’s how Sirius got away with it.  I never knew.”

“What’d Whitehorn do ‘ta fancy ‘er up, Harry?” Hagrid asked.

Harry shrugged.  “I don’t know what it was like before.  Whitehorn said it’s a twin Nimbus 2001 now.”  Hagrid’s bushy eyebrows shot up.

Professor Flitwick smiled devilishly and asked, “How fast can you travel on it?”

“I don’t know yet, but I aim to find out,” Harry said.  He nervously watched Mr. Granger for evidence of disapproval and was surprised to see none.

“That will be positively thrilling!” Flitwick said, clapping his hands.  “I had a Vespa for a time, a number of years ago – this was in the days when one was allowed to charm a Muggle vehicle without special permits.”  He frowned slightly, and added, “I’m afraid it wasn’t nearly as fast as a Nimbus broom.”  Lupin stifled a laugh.

Harry pulled the manual out of the saddlebag, glanced at a particular passage, and touched the handles.  “Have a seat,” he said, gesturing to the professor.

“I couldn’t, Harry!” Flitwick protested.  “It’s far too big for me!”

Harry said, “Give it a go, Professor.”

Flitwick eyed him dubiously.  He stood on a chair to swing his leg over the seat.  As soon as he was seated, the Bonneville began to shrink.  “Oh, my – a dynamic reducing charm!  Smashing work!”  he exclaimed.  The motorbike lost over a third of its length and half its height.  Flitwick still looked small on the seat but was no longer dwarfed.

The professor grasped the handles, which swept back to reach him more comfortably.  “Did Devlin Whitehorn do this himself?” Flitwick asked.

“He told me that he convinced a jinni to help,” Harry replied.

Professor Flitwick paled and said, “I shudder to think what this cost.”  He stepped off and onto the chair, and the Bonneville returned to the proper size for Harry.

Mr. Granger’s fingers gently traced the nameplate on the fuel tank.  “It feels so real,” he gasped.

“Go ahead,” Harry said, motioning to the seat.

“May I?”  Mr. Granger’s glee was evident as he settled onto the Bonneville.  It adjusted to him slightly, and he did his best to avoid a startled expression.

Harry touched the handle and whispered “Veho Triumph”.  The motorbike did a credible imitation of starting.  Mr. Granger held the handbrake and lightly turned the throttle, which generated a satisfying rumble.  He let out the brake and the Bonneville immediately rolled forward.

“What the – ?” he said, squeezing the brake tightly.  “No clutch!”

“There's no engine at all, sir,” Harry reminded him.  “The harder you turn the throttle, the faster you go.  You squeeze the brakes to stop and turn the handlebars to manoeuvre – that’s about it.”

“I take it that she… flies?” Mr. Granger asked quietly.  Harry nodded.

Mr. Granger took a deep breath, and asked impulsively, “Any chance you’d take me up?”

Harry froze.  “I don’t have helmets,” he said, hoping that might provide a plausible excuse.

“Well…” began George.

Fred said, “We were saving these for later.  Shall we?”

“Good enough,” George said; he produced a large wrapped box.

Harry took the box gingerly.  “Dobby and Winky weren’t fond of that last box of yours,” he muttered.

“This one’s safe to open,” Mr. Weasley said, adding hastily, “unless you two have made changes?”

“No pranks – we promise,” George said firmly.

Harry tore off the paper and opened the box.  Inside were two matching motorbike helmets – black with red and gold flames, and clear shields.

“They’re, erm, a little adjustable,” Fred said sheepishly.

“Not enough to spook a Muggle, even if he were to put one on,” George added.

“Any other modifications that you lads care to disclose?” Mr. Weasley asked, trying to sound stern.

Fred fidgeted, and George said, “There’s a variation on the charm behind the Extendable Ears, that’s all.”  He took one of the helmets, and put it on.  “Put on the other, Harry, and lower the shield.”

“How does it feel?” George asked.  Harry thought it sounded like George was in the helmet with him.

“Brilliant,” Harry answered.

“This way, you can talk to whoever’s riding with you,” George told him.  “Happy birthday, mate.”

Harry pulled off the helmet and earnestly shook hands first with Fred and then with George.  “Thanks, they’re amazing.  Still, I don’t know about a ride just now.  We must be warded in; I assume the party’s here on account of security?”

Lupin looked up from the manual for the Bonnie.  “It appears that the bike has an invisibility charm.  You’re already keyed to the wards, so it shouldn’t be much of a bother.”

Mr. Granger was still sitting on the Bonneville.  Harry resisted a sigh.  “If you’re up for it…?” Harry offered, holding out the helmet in his hand.

Harry had his answer when Mr. Granger immediately donned the helmet.  He took the other helmet from George, and slid onto the Bonneville in front of Mr. Granger.

“Can you hear me?” Harry asked.

“Outstanding,” Mr. Granger said.  “That would have come in handy.”

“Any fear of heights?” Harry asked him.

“No,” Mr. Granger replied, “that’s Cordelia’s cross to bear.”

Harry pressed.  “What about speed, or sudden turns?”

“I used to ride a lot – on the ground, of course,” Mr. Granger told Harry.  “I liked it very, very fast.  Don’t tell that to Hermione, by the way.  Why all the questions?  Are you intending to spook me?”

“Certainly not!” Harry insisted.  “It’s just that Hermione’s a very, um, nervous flier.  I thought that I should check first.  Hang on, then.”  The motorbike lifted off the floor and began to drift slightly.  He gathered in the handlebars and edged forward out of the doors.  The bike was back-heavy but felt more or less as a broom was intended.  “I’m going to use an invisibility charm,” he explained.  “It wouldn’t do for anyone to see us flying about.  You won’t be able to see yourself or me or the motorbike.  Just mind your grasp, and we’ll be fine.”

“Right then – let’s do this,” Mr. Granger resolved. 

Harry allowed the Bonneville to slowly rise above the barricades.  Soon they could see the lamps of Hogsmeade.  He felt Mr. Granger tense.  “Everything all right?” he asked.

“I’ve never actually seen Hermione perform any, um, you know?” Mr. Granger said.  “Some of her books are passing strange, but this… goodness, you’re her schoolmate.  This brings it home, somehow.”

Harry checked in with Mr. Granger once more and then gunned the throttle.  Mr. Granger shouted, but it was the sort of joyful shout that Harry associated with children at play.  They covered the mile to the village in just less than thirty seconds.  Harry climbed higher to be certain that no one on the ground would hear them; then he slowed to a crawl, and slowly drifted five hundred feet above the rooftops.

“The game you play on the broomsticks – Quidditch, is it?  Do you fly that fast during a game?” Mr. Granger asked.

“I play the Seeker position,” Harry explained.  “I can spend a lot of time just watching and drifting.  When I’m in play, though, I’m going as fast as the broom will allow.  The top speed on a Firebolt’s better than 140.”

“It sounds dangerous,” Mr. Granger observed.

“I’ve been to the hospital wing a time or two,” Harry admitted.  “Hermione doesn’t care much for Quidditch.”  Mr. Granger didn’t say anything.

Harry continued to drift over the village.  “Everything still all right, sir?” he asked.

Mr. Granger said quietly, “Fine, Harry.  Just fine.”

“Let’s have a look at Hogwarts, then,” Harry said.  “If you feel a sudden need to leave, let me know, right?”

As the Bonnie passed over the Quidditch pitch, Mr. Granger shuddered slightly and then tightened his grip.  “Good Lord, will you look at that?” he said in awe.  “It looked like a ruin before, but now… it’s magnificent…”

“I was hoping that the aversion charms might not affect you if you were with me,” Harry said.  “Let’s have a closer look, but do let me know if anything changes.”

Harry took a slow loop around the castle, pointing out the Great Hall and the tower that held Gryffindor House.  Mr. Granger marvelled all the while, and Harry was glad to be able to show him the place where Hermione spent most of her time.  Harry moved on to the Lake and let the Bonnie drift slowly along its length. 

He started to talk out of nervousness.  “You used to ride a motorbike, then?” he asked.

“I had a ’67 Bonnie, actually,” Mr. Granger said, “and a BMW later on.  Cordelia had me sell it when we knew Hermione was on the way.”

“Do you miss it?” Harry wondered.

Mr. Granger chuckled.  “Not until just now,” he said.

Harry blurted out, “Are you seriously thinking of taking Hermione to Canada or wherever?  Erm, not that it’s any of my business, of course…”

"I don’t know; we just want what’s best,” Mr. Granger said.  “That’s what parents are supposed to want for their children.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” Harry said.

There was silence before Mr. Granger said, “I’m sorry, Harry, I wasn’t thinking.”

“I’m sure you meant nothing by it,” said Harry.

Mr. Granger told him, “She tells us about her friends, obviously, and bits about the classes.  If we didn’t know better, we’d almost believe that she was attending a regular school.  This little ride gives the lie to that, I suppose.  Of course, the last month took away most of the illusions we’ve harboured.  It sounds as if she’s doing so well here, you know? She’s at the top of her class, well respected by her teachers – I don’t understand why she won’t talk to us about it.”

Harry shrugged.  “I don’t understand it either.  If I could be with my mum and dad, I don’t think I’d stop talking again for the rest of my life.”

Mr. Granger patted him on the shoulder.  “You seem to be a decent young man,” he said.  Harry chuckled.

“Is something amusing in that?” Mr. Granger asked.

“I wish that you’d share your opinion with Mrs. Granger,” Harry suggested.

“Arthur said he saved you from her for the moment,” Mr. Granger laughed.  “She’s concerned because Hermione thinks so highly of you.  Acquiescence, Harry – it’s the best course with Cordelia.  I tried to resist her once.”

“How did that work out?” Harry asked.

“It was twenty-six years ago,” Mr. Granger explained.  “I ended up with a ring, a degree in dentistry and a daughter in the bargain.  How do you think it turned out?”

“I want to thank you for – well, you know – being –” Harry began.

“What, civil?” Mr. Granger asked.

“Well, after last night I didn’t expect – I mean –”

“I was angry with you last night,” Mr. Granger said firmly.  “I hope that you can understand my concern.  After talking with Arthur a bit, I saw that my anger was misplaced.  I should have been angry with this Sirius Black for playing games.  I should be angry with this villain of yours, and not you.”

“His name is Voldemort,” Harry said, “and I would die to protect Hermione from him.  I mean that sincerely, sir.”

“That was very upsetting to Cordelia,” Mr. Granger said.

“Why?” Harry asked.  “I suppose I thought it would be comforting.”

“She never believed that it could come to that,” Mr. Granger explained.  “Even with the guards and all the precautions this summer, she never believed it – nor did I.”

“I’m not planning on it, believe me,” Harry said glumly.  “It’s just that I couldn’t live with myself if Hermione were hurt again because of me.”  He hesitated, and then added, “Perhaps a move would be for the best.”

Neither Harry nor Mr. Granger said a word as Harry cruised back to the Shrieking Shack.  Harry disengaged the invisibility charm, and swooped down over the top of the barricade.

“Slow down, Harry,” Mr. Granger said.  “What’s that about?”

They crossed through the wards just in time to see Hermione pull from Ron’s grasp and dash across the protected area behind the barricade.  Ron quickly dashed back inside.  Harry instinctively made for a landing between Hermione and the doors to the Shack.  He turned and took Mr. Granger’s helmet. 

Mr. Granger dismounted, confused.  “I had thought… aren’t you…?” he began.

“I’ll speak to her later, I’m sure,” Harry said. 

 Mrs. Granger came rushing from the doors.  She stopped abruptly and scowled at the motorbike, then closed in on Harry; it was clear she was furious about something.  Harry extended one hand to quiet her and gestured to where Hermione stood sobbing in her father’s embrace.  Mrs. Granger took a step toward her husband and daughter, before catching a glance from Mr. Granger.  She turned to Harry as if to say something but instead turned away.

Harry flew the Bonnie away from the Grangers and set down beside the doors to the Shrieking Shack.  He dismounted, reduced the bike and stuck it in one of the pockets of his aviator jacket. 

Tonks was still snoring in her chair.  Her father had arrived; Harry wondered if he had been called.  Mr. Tonks was seated with Mr. Weasley, Hagrid, Lupin, Professor Flitwick and another man that Harry didn’t know.

Harry heard Ron bellow, “It’s none of your business!”  He spun around to see Ron at the foot of the stairs, berating Luna Lovegood.  Ron’s brothers had set down their darts and approached crossly.  Mr. Weasley rose from his seat.

Luna looked at the floor and shuffled her feet.  “I wasn’t suggesting business of any kind, Ronald.  I apologise for taking an interest in your feelings.”

“You should apologise!” Ron screeched, wild-eyed.  “If Ginny wants to put up with you, that’s her affair.  I think you’re a nutter, and I try to think even that as little as possible!”

Luna sniffed, “I didn’t mean to presume… I promise to avoid you, if that’s your wish.” 

“Ron!” Harry exclaimed.

Ron shook his head, as though he were just waking.  “Wha –?” he started.

Harry strode toward him so forcefully that Ron’s brothers backed off.  “Are you enjoying this?  What’s wrong with you?” he demanded.

Ron tried to explain, “Look… I shouldn’t have been so…”

“Don’t say it to me – you say it to Luna,” Harry insisted.

Ron began to fuss with his shirtsleeves.  “I shouldn’t have said those things,” he managed.

“Try it again, with conviction,” warned Bill.  Arms crossed, Charlie glowered at Ron; Fred and George looked no friendlier.

Luna shook her head and twirled at her necklace of butterbeer caps.  “No apologies are expected and none are required.  I understand completely, Ronald.  I know what loss feels like.”  She looked to Harry and added, “It’s the worst feeling in the world, isn’t it?”

Ron fumed, “How can you lose something that you never had in the first place?  I get what Ginny meant about being free.  Life’s too bloody short to waste.”  He waved off his brothers.  “I’m going back to the party and I intend to enjoy myself,” he said before trudging away.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked Luna.

She sniffed and smiled.  “Of course, Harry; I don’t hold onto things.  I’m happy to be here – my daddy’s bubbling to meet you.”  She gestured toward the man seated next to Professor Flitwick.

The man bounded to his feet as Harry approached.  He was tall and rail-thin.  His hair was light brown with wisps of white, and strewn wildly about his head.  Luna had his eyes.  He grasped Harry’s hand and pumped madly.  “What a great pleasure to meet you, Harry!  Goodness me, that interview was quite a coup for us!  You’ve been terribly beneficial for my daughter and me, all the way around!  Lovegood’s the name, of course – Oddment Lovegood.  Friends call me Odd.”

“Of course they do,” Harry said without thinking.  It was another several seconds before Mr. Lovegood stopped shaking his hand and Harry took a seat.

“Mr. Lovegood was just about to tell us about the story he’s been chasing,” Lupin explained.  A silly grin brewed beneath Hagrid’s bushy beard. 

“Was it something about Fudge selling his soul to druids?” Harry asked casually.  Mr. Weasley coughed furiously and turned away. 

Mr. Lovegood smiled.  “Oh, that’s old news; Fudge’s soul was bought and paid for years ago.  Now it appears that the Daily Prophet’s about to be bought and paid for, as well.”

Ted Tonks raised an eyebrow.  “You have this on good authority?” he asked.

Mr. Lovegood looked very satisfied.  “I have registered copies of purchase agreements, two witnesses to the Muggle filings, and a solid confirmation on background from within the Ministry.  Good enough for you, Ted?”

“Sorry,” Mr. Tonks said, “but you have to admit that some of the stories you’ve run… take the Stubby Boardman thing as an example; that was rather absurd, wasn’t it?”

Mr. Lovegood frowned.  “Some things are more than they seem.  As for the Prophet, this is a serious story and one worthy of concern.  I’m hoping that Dumbledore will come around here tonight, actually.”

Mr. Tonks said gently, “Odd… do you honestly think he’ll take you seriously?” 

Mr. Lovegood drew himself up in his seat.  “He and I have had our moments but I’m certain he’ll be interested in this.  I’m no fan of the Prophet, but the thought of it in the hands of Keith MacLeish gives me pause.”  Harry thought Ted Tonks’ eyes were going to pop out.  Mr. Weasley shook his head, and even Professor Flitwick managed a disapproving look. 

The name was familiar to Harry, and he sifted through memories of Uncle Vernon blathering on at the dinner table until it came to him.  “Keith MacLeish – he owns some of the Muggle papers, doesn’t he?” he asked.

Mr. Tonks looked as though he’d tasted something sour.  “MacLeish owns half the papers in England, satellite television in Europe… seems like he holds half of Australia altogether,” he explained. 

Mr. Weasley shook his head.  “You should hear my Australian counterpart talk about him,” he said.  “He owns the Quill – that’s the paper there – and uses it like a Quidditch bat, apparently.”

Harry still wondered if this wasn’t another of the Quibbler’s wild hares; perhaps all the men were having him on, he thought.  “How would this fellow know about wizarding papers in the first place… is he a squib?” he asked.

“MacLeish is no squib; he’s a wizard, Harry,” Hagrid spat.  “Yer lookin’ at one of his ol’ housemates, not that he gave a tinker’s damn ‘bout any of us.  Should have gone straight ‘ta Slytherin, if yeh ask me.”

Professor Flitwick nodded in agreement with Hagrid, causing his cap to slip off.  “The Sorting Hat does miss on occasion,” he observed.  “Conniving, self-serving, rule-flouting, destructive… some think that he simply doesn’t care if the Muggles find us out.”

Flitwick’s tone convinced Harry that this was no joke, and he asked, “MacLeish isn’t a Death Eater, is he?”

“I rather doubt that,” Mr. Tonks said.  “MacLeish has one agenda, as far as I can see: his own.”

“Harry,” Lupin reminded him, “a person can be evil without necessarily being in league with darkness.”

“Like Umbridge,” Harry said under his breath.

Mr. Weasley obviously heard him; he said, “There’s also a difference between being evil and being amoral.  I wouldn’t have believed it until Ginny and the boys spoke with us, but I’d say that describes Dolores perfectly.”

“That Umbridge is as evil as they come, and MacLeish weren’t no different.  He chose ta run wit’ the Slytherins, an’ mind yeh tha’ most of ‘em were with Grindelwald at the time.  I remember he followed ol’ Tom Riddle ‘round like a chick to a hen,” Hagrid warned. 

Mr. Lovegood said, “There’s also a partner involved who I’ve not been able to tease out.”

Mr. Tonks scowled.  “I can’t imagine MacLeish partnering with anyone.  I’ll make some enquiries, if you like,” he said.

From the dartboard, Fred Weasley asked aloud, “If this fellow takes over the Prophet, do you think they’ll put in Page Three girls?”  Mr. Tonks, Mr. Lovegood and Lupin sniggered, while Mr. Weasley and Hagrid looked clueless.  Harry knew perfectly well what Fred meant, thanks to Dudley.  He turned away to hide his laughter, and saw that Luna was quietly tending to Tonks.

Responding to Harry’s glance, Luna asked, “Did no one cast a sobering charm?”

Ted Tonks shook his head and said, “Look on it as a life lesson for her; she’s old enough to know better.”  Mr. Weasley began to tell a story about Charlie and a party that quickly drew the attention of the Weasley brothers away from their darts.

Harry slipped away to kneel next to Luna and the sleeping Tonks.  Luna said quietly, “I don’t think she’s well.  There are better ways to teach someone a lesson.”

Harry said, “I’d take care of it, but I’ve never even heard of a sobering charm.  It’s not something Flitwick’s likely to teach fifth-years, eh?”

Luna managed a slight smile.  “The incantation is finite crapulam, if you care to try it.”

“Why would you…?” Harry began, but trailed off as his gaze shifted toward Mr. Lovegood.

“It’s not like that,” Luna insisted.  “My daddy had a very difficult time after my mum died.  He stopped drinking before I left for Hogwarts.”

“Wouldn’t it be dangerous to cast a sobering charm on yourself when you’re the one in need of it?” Harry asked.  “That’s how you heard of it, right?  Your father cast it?”

“I learned how to cast it myself when I was nine,” Luna said.  “It worked if I put my hands on him.  Underage magic isn’t closely tracked until a witch is accepted to Hogwarts.”

“You taught yourself wandless magic when you were nine years old?”  Harry asked, to be sure of what he was hearing.  Luna nodded in silence.

Harry fished out his wand.  “You’re full of surprises,” he said with a grin.

“What a lovely thing to say!” Luna cooed in a singsong voice as Harry cast the sobering charm.  Tonks stirred, and then resumed snoring.

“She should feel better in a few minutes.  Thank you, Harry,” Luna said.

Harry shrugged.  “It was the right thing to do.  I’m glad that you spoke out.”  He stood up.  “I’m going upstairs for a bit, then.  Are you all right – you know, with what Ron said?”

Luna smiled and her large eyes twinkled.  “Eventually Ronald will offer me food.  It’s a strange way to apologise, but I find it endearing.”

Someone upstairs had tuned a wireless to the WWN music service.  Harry cringed; most wizarding music sounded to him like the cries of a caged animal.  A number of young people were dancing.  Ginny was practically dragging a visibly exhausted Colin Creevey.  Harry considered it appropriate punishment for his hand in the Teen Witch Weekly article.  Several women were seated around a table near the door to the adjacent kitchen.  Harry saw Professor McGonagall at the near end; she was watching one couple with evident disapproval. 

Harry looked closer at the couple and realised that it was Ron and Lavender Brown.  Enchanted lanterns backlit the room, and Harry couldn’t see any light shining between the two as they wriggled together.  Harry looked for Mrs. Weasley and eventually spotted her sitting very stiffly at the far end of the table; he saw no sign of Mrs. Granger.  Harry became angrier each time his eyes passed over Ron and Lavender.

“Oi, Harry!” said Neville as he tapped Harry on the shoulder.

Harry forcibly exhaled.  “Hello, Neville.  I expected you’d be with Ginny,” he said.

“With Ginny?  No, I did my bit – you know, sympathetic ear and all?  I thought I’d leave the rest to Colin.”  Neville gestured toward the elder Creevey, who was sweat-soaked and trembling.

“That looks to have been a good choice,” Harry observed.

“I’ve got something for you… it’s in here somewhere,” Neville said as he felt around the inside of his cloak.  “Ah!”  He produced a small box wrapped in red paper.

“You didn’t need to bring anything,” Harry said, tugging at the paper.  Inside was a very slender and wicked-looking contraption. 

“It’s a –” Neville began.

“It’s a wand holster,” Harry realised.  “I think I saw this sort at Ollivanders.”

“Then you know how they work?” Neville asked.  “Gran and Great-Uncle Algie both think they’re dead useful.” 

“It’s a brilliant gift, really,” Harry assured him, “but it must have been expensive.”

“Gran covered most of it,” admitted Neville.  “It’s her way of thanking you for putting up with me.  Happy birthday, Harry.”

“Thank you,” Harry said.  “I’ll put it to good use, I’m sure of that.  I would have brought you something if I’d known you would be here.  It’s your birthday, too, after all,” Harry said.

“It was yesterday, actually,” Neville said.  “How did you know?”

“Erm… you must have said something once,” Harry covered.

Neville nodded.  “I suppose I must have.  Hermione brought me a gift – it’s a book on memory charms… Harry?”

Harry absently shook Neville’s hand.  “Listen… thanks again; it’s really smashing.  I just need to… I’ll see you soon, right?”  He walked briskly down the stairs and out the doors toward the barricade.

He could barely make out Hermione and Mr. Granger, leaning against the low wall.  He didn’t notice Mrs. Granger sitting on the ground until he had passed her.

“Hello, Harry,” she said quietly.

Harry froze.  “Hello, Mrs. Granger.  I was just checking –”

“They’ve been sitting like that for the longest time,” Mrs. Granger said.

Harry took a deep breath and sat beside her.  “Is that good?” he asked.

“They haven’t spent this much time together all summer,” she said.

“Then it’s good,” he decided.

Mrs. Granger asked, “What did you say to Tom?”

“I don’t know… a lot of things,” Harry answered.

“He used to have a motorbike.  Now I suppose I’ll have to talk him out of picking up a new one,” she complained.

“I didn’t mean anything by it, ma’am,” Harry explained.  “He asked me for a ride, and I gave it to him.  He said… flying seemed to change his perspective, I thought.  He said that Hermione didn’t tell either of you much about Hogwarts, and that he didn’t understand why.”

“But what did you say?” she asked again.

“I said I didn’t understand it either,” Harry answered her.  “I told him that if I could have my parents back, I’d never stop talking.  I told him that I would die to protect Hermione.  I told him that you should move away, if that would keep her safe.”

Mrs. Granger’s expression changed.  “I’m sorry?” she said.  Harry wished that he could read her face, but he couldn’t; she was more guarded than Hermione. 

Harry shrugged and quietly repeated, “I told him that you should move, if it would keep her safe.”

Mrs. Granger fired questions at him.  “You actually told him that?  Were you just trying to be gallant?  Do you believe you could accept that, should that be our decision?”

His arms suddenly felt heavy, as though he needed to think in order to breathe in and out.  “I don’t… I’m not certain… I really can’t say…”

Mrs. Granger looked at him with sad eyes that, for a moment, became the eyes of her daughter.  “Tell me – it’s important that I know,” she insisted.

It seemed like forever before he said, “She’s my best friend.  It would be like giving up a part of myself.”

“I see,” Mrs. Granger said.  She let her hand rest on his shoulder for a moment and then returned to the Shack.

Hermione and Mr. Granger stood and embraced.  She caught sight of Harry and raised her hand in greeting.  Mr. Granger strode toward him.

Upon reaching Harry, Mr. Granger took his hand.  “She talked to me,” he said.  “It was long overdue… you look a bit off, Harry.  Are you…?”  He caught sight of Mrs. Granger walking away. 

“Cordelia and I are going to have words, I suspect,” Mr. Granger said.  “I think that Hermione could use a friend just now instead of her father.  Take over, would you?”

The light of the half-moon dappled the surface of the pond and highlighted Hermione’s hair.  She was wearing jeans, a plain white shirt, and a necklace that made him notice the way her hair draped over her shoulders.  Harry thought a hundred thoughts, and many felt inappropriate between two friends.  They were quelled when moonlight flickered off the moisture pooled at the corners of her eyes.

He stood before her.  Her head dipped, but not before he saw one corner of her mouth turn upward a bit.  “You dropped out of the sky to bring me my father… I know you won’t like me to say this, but it was a very heroic moment,” she said.

“Ron’s an arse,” Harry said matter-of-factly.

The other corner of her mouth turned upward.  “You don’t even know what was said.”

“I don’t have to know.  You ran away from him and he made you cry,” Harry said.  “Then he said horrible things to Luna, and he’s making a fool of himself as we speak –”

She looked up at him and asked, “What did Ron say to her?”  He decided that he had to avoid her eyes.

“Luna tried to be nice to him and he began yelling,” Harry explained.  “His own brothers actually stuck up for her.”

“Aren’t you interested in what he said to me?” Hermione asked.

“I can imagine it.  Ron’s fancied you for a long time,” Harry said.

“I suppose I’ve known for quite a while,” she told Harry.  “It’s just that he was so formal about it.  It didn’t feel like being asked for a date; it felt almost as if he was proposing marriage.  I suppose that I did react rather badly.”

“Would it have been different if he hadn’t pushed?” he asked.

“I can’t say, really.  He’s just so… so… I don’t know, he’s just Ron,” she tried to explain.  “I should have taken Ginny more seriously; at least I would have been prepared.  Speaking of proposals, Ginny didn’t by any chance…?”

Harry frowned.  “Let’s move on, shall we?”

Hermione rolled her eyes.  “It went that well, did it?”

“The twins stirred her up, I tried to make her feel better about everything that’s happened, and she kissed me.  After that, she decided she was over me,” he said.

“She kissed… wait, she’s over you?”  Hermione’s brow furrowed.  “Just like that, after five years of crushing?  That’s peculiar…”

Harry shrugged.  “She tried to convince me to chase after you, just before Ron showed up.  I asked her what she was playing at, and she said that you and I should go and get over each other.”

Hermione hesitated.  “Each other?  She said that?”

“Exactly like that,” Harry repeated.  “‘Go and get over each other’, she said.”

Hermione looked around furtively.  “I see,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.  “You’re a bit flushed.”

She looked past him and her eyes widened.  “Who is that?” she asked.

“Where?”  Harry looked around, his wand already drawn.

“Over there,” she said, pointing at the far side of the protected area.  “It looks like someone trying to sneak off.  Of all the foolish things to do… don’t they understand the danger?”

Harry squinted and then hesitated.  “I… can’t tell – too far away,” he lied.

Hermione peered into the twilight and her mouth formed a silent ‘O’ as she recognised Ron and Lavender.

Harry made a show of looking again, and then exclaimed, “What is he thinking?  I told you he was making an arse of himself.”

“He said he wanted to take me off to the woods – not that I would have gone anywhere – but he said that’s what he wanted!  How could he do this to me?” Hermione cried.  “And with her, of all people – not an hour later, and he’s trading me off for a silly Essex girl!”

Harry wasn’t certain of what to do, so he reached out and pulled her into an embrace.  She pounded at one of his shoulders with her fist and buried her head against his neck.  She shouted obscenities into his ear.  He held her tighter and she winced; the obscenities dissolved into loud sobbing.  He quickly softened his hold, cursing himself for hurting her.  His urge to rip out Ron’s throat was muted by the desire to comfort his friend.

He spied more movement along the barricade and told her, “I see something that might give you a lift.”

“What, did that stupid cow take a fall?” she asked between sniffs.

Harry saw a few white sparks near the point where Ron was attempting to climb out.  “No, but I think that ickle Ronnie’s in for a treat,” he offered.

“You’re honestly furious with him, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Of course I am!  He must have known you’d be hurt, and I don’t know if I can forgive him that.  You seem surprised,” he said.

“I don’t know that he meant it, really, but I wasn’t sure where you would stand,” she admitted.  “Ron’s your best friend.”

“No, he isn’t,” said Harry.  “I meant what I told you last night.”  He heard a crackle and turned to follow the sound.  “Ah, here it comes.”

Hermione could only manage to say, “Wha…?” before the top of the barricade erupted; silent bright-white fireworks seemed to consume it.  Ron and Lavender sat rigidly at the epicentre.  Hermione gaped at the display.  Fred and George quickly emerged from the doors and cried out a round of huzzahs.  They gave an elaborate bow and Hermione began to laugh; she went on until fresh tears were running down her cheeks.

“I almost feel sorry,” she choked out.

“Don’t,” Harry said firmly.

“I said ‘almost’,” Hermione managed.  Bill Weasley stopped short of the display, shook his head, and began to cast counter-curses. 

Mr. Weasley stormed out of the Shack; for the first time that Harry could recall, the man was visibly angry.  “Fred!  George!  You’ll help Bill to set this right!” he shouted.  “We asked that you create proximity warnings, not a fireworks display!  Why did we even bother to cast obscuring wards?  As for you, Ron, I’ve had quite enough!  Are you trying to discover how many girls you can humiliate in a single night?  Perhaps I should leave you to your mother?”    

The twins’ display still illuminated the entire protected area.  Ron looked directly at Hermione, silently pleading.  She turned and walked away. 

Harry quickly followed.  “Did you still want to talk with me about last night?” he asked.

“I’ve had enough for one evening,” Hermione told him.  “Have you moved to Grimmauld Place yet?  Could I come there tomorrow, perhaps?”

“It may have to be the following day,” Harry said.  “This wouldn’t be to look over the library, would it?”

She lit up.  “I saw it over Christmas!  There must be over a thousand volumes and another two to three hundred scrolls!”

“That should keep you busy for a week or two,” Harry teased. 

Hermione smiled and continued to walk along the barricade.  “Do you honestly consider me your best friend?” she asked.  He was weighing an answer when he heard a quiet pop!  His wand was in hand and he faced the source of the sound even before Hermione began to react. 

Dumbledore stood before them, hat in hand, bemusement playing across his features.  “Good evening, Harry; and good evening to you, Miss Granger.  Please accept my birthday wishes.  Ah, a fireworks display – splendid!”

“You’re looking for me, then?” Harry grumbled.

“As much as I hate to interrupt the festivities, Harry, might we discuss important matters?” asked Dumbledore.

Hermione squeezed Harry’s hand and said, “I’ll find Mrs. Weasley and see about the cake.  You have presents to open, you know?”

Harry nodded and then turned his attention to Dumbledore.  “Let’s get this over with,” he said flatly.

Dumbledore led him back inside the Shrieking Shack.  He whispered something to Lupin and then led Harry up the stairs until they reached the room that Ginny had used earlier in the evening.  He closed the door and then flicked his wand to and fro; Harry watched with great interest as the background din from the guests below faded away.

There was no sign of a twinkle in Dumbledore’s eye.  “I have been with the Board of Governors since the morning,” he sighed. 

Harry thought that Dumbledore looked terribly old, and he’d never before truly considered the Headmaster in that way.  His blue robes seemed too large for his frame, his hands were gnarled, and he leant into his ornate walking stick. 

“We will be joined shortly.  Perhaps we should dispense with your questions first?” Dumbledore suggested.  “You still harbour concerns about what Professor Snape and I did or did not know in regard to Sirius fifteen years ago.”

“’Dispense’, is it?  You think this is a trifle?” Harry snapped.  “I’ve had my fill for the day, so let’s get on with this.”

Dumbledore bowed his head.  “Must it be this way, Harry?  Must we fight each time that we come together?  I grow weary of it.”

Harry refused to look at him.  “I’m weary of the lies,” he said.

“What lies do you believe that you have been told?” asked Dumbledore.

Harry was prepared to shout, but he felt Dumbledore’s pain and regret and saw it in the man’s eyes and on his face.  Harry saw an old man withering away.  He knew Dumbledore had bent the rules for him and had even supported him, other than his placement with the Dursleys.  He knew all of that in his head, but the rest of his being raged on.  “How could you let Sirius rot in that place fortwelveyearsYou let it happen, didn’t you?” he seethed, fists clenched.

Dumbledore very slowly let out his breath.  After an uncomfortably long pause, he asked, “Why was Sirius sent to Azkaban, Harry?”

“He didn’t betray my parents!  He didn’t!” Harry shouted.

“You are correct; he did not betray your parents,” Dumbledore acknowledged before he asked again, “Why was Sirius sent to Azkaban?”

Harry said firmly, “He didn’t kill Wormtail, and he didn’t kill those Muggles – Wormtail did.”

“Harry, I am going to describe something in hypothetical terms,” Dumbledore said.  “I would like you to listen carefully.  When I am finished, I would like you to explain how you would deal with the situation.  Will you allow me that much?”  Harry gave a reluctant nod, his arms tightly crossed.

“Very well,” Dumbledore began.  “Suppose for a moment that your friends Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger were in grave danger from Voldemort … is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure that ‘Ron’ and ‘friend’ belongs in the same sentence,” Harry fumed.

“I fervently hope you do not mean that, Harry,” Dumbledore said.  “In any case, I am only using names to make a point.  May I continue?”

When Harry again nodded, Dumbledore went on, “As I was saying, Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger are in great danger from Voldemort.  It is necessary for them to go into hiding.  You believe that Mr. Neville Longbottom is their secret keeper.  You do not know that they have changed secret keepers from Mr. Longbottom to… Mr. Dean Thomas, let us say.  Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger are subsequently found out and killed.  Mr. Longbottom finds out what happened.  He attempts to involve himself in the aftermath and then briefly disappears.  When he reappears, it is in a public confrontation with Mr. Thomas.  It appears that Mr. Longbottom murders Mr. Thomas and a dozen innocent Muggles in the process.  What would you conclude, Harry? What would you do?”

“But Neville wasn’t the secret-keeper,” Harry protested. 

“You do not know that this was the case, and Mr. Longbottom is not particularly helpful in his own defence,” Dumbledore added.  “Furthermore, you are told plainly by the authorities not to interfere.  Veiled threats are made against a dozen other of your friends.  In the end, Mr. Longbottom is not judged to have been responsible for the deaths of Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger.  It is the deaths of Mr. Thomas and the Muggles that are deemed of concern, and the evidence points strongly to Mr. Longbottom’s responsibility in the matter.”

“You could have stood up for Sirius.  He wasn’t charged with anything; he didn’t even have a trial,” Harry said quietly.

“He was in fact charged, but yes, there was no trial,” Dumbledore acknowledged.  “There were terrible abuses at the end – retributions, lies, calumny… it was nearly as dark as the War itself in some ways.”

“Why didn’t you become Minister then, after Voldemort disappeared?” Harry asked.

Dumbledore said, “Because of the prophecy, I felt that I needed to remain at Hogwarts.”

“You could have been the Minister for ten years,” Harry said.  “You could have forced a trial.  You could have done so many things.”

“The Board of Governors would not have welcomed my return to Hogwarts,” Dumbledore pointed out.

“You would have been a good Minister.  They would have let you come back,” Harry insisted.

“Do not assume that the Board conducts itself honourably; consider that Mr. Malfoy was a member for quite some time.  In any case, what is done is done,” Dumbledore sighed.  “I am nearly ten times your age, Harry, and lost count of my regrets long ago.  Let us return to my scenario, however.  What would you do in this case?  What decisions would you take?”

Harry hesitated.  “I think… well, I suppose… oh, I don’t know!  Right, let’s assume this isn’t real; that should make it easier… steady on – this is a ‘greater good’ problem, isn’t it?”

“What do you mean by that?” Dumbledore asked.

“Hermione was telling us once about a book she’d read – not surprising, I suppose,” Harry explained.  “It was about balancing the good of the individual against the greater good.  Your best friend is in the path of the Killing Curse, next to twenty people who are about to be crushed by a boulder – whom do you save?  It boils down to that, doesn’t it?  You could have fought for Sirius, but you couldn’t see a way to help Sirius and others would have been hurt along the way.”

The familiar twinkle flashed in Dumbledore’s eyes for a moment.  “Very well – using your scenario, which do you save?” he asked.

“There’s always a way.  Deflect the boulder, and then jump in front of the curse,” Harry said immediately.  “You save everyone.”

Dumbledore frowned, and he asked, “Did you share that solution with Miss Granger?”

“I did,” Harry recalled.

Dumbledore asked, “What was her reaction to your solution?”

“Funny, I never gave it a thought at the time…” Harry began.  Dumbledore looked at him curiously, and Harry completed his thought.  “She said ‘almost everyone’, and ran out of the common room.”

“I was thinking much the same.  Your solution saves everyone but yourself,” Dumbledore pointed out.

Harry felt a twinge of rage return.  “When has that mattered before?  I’m not supposed to do that, am I?” he fumed.

“Harry –”

“Here’s a cracking scenario for you,” Harry snapped; “A schoolboy faces off against, what, the worst dark wizard in a century?  There are two choices, aren’t there?  He wins, or I take him with me.”

“There is a third alternative, without question,” Dumbledore insisted, “and you shan’t be a schoolboy.  You will be a fully trained and well prepared wizard.”

“What else do you know that I don’t?” Harry asked with acid in his voice.  “Do you honestly believe he’ll wait two years?”

Dumbledore reached out and clasped Harry’s right hand with his own.  Harry resisted, but was surprised by the power of his grip.  “I cannot say how long it will be before you confront him.  I can promise that you will be fully trained, no matter what happens,” Dumbledore said.

“What do you mean, ‘no matter what happens’?” Harry asked.

“As I said, Harry, the Board of Governors as a whole does not always conduct itself honourably,” Dumbledore answered.  The door shimmered and he added, “Ah, I see we are joined.”  He waggled his wand twice, and Madam Bones entered.

“Good evening, ma’am,” Harry said reflexively.

“Happy birthday, Mr. Potter,” she said.  “Nothing comes easily for you, does it?”  Her voice was laced with fatigue.  “I am in the custody of two letters, Albus.  The first provides Mr. Potter’s OWL results.  The Board of Governors issued the second not an hour ago.  I wish both of you to know that I am deeply opposed to this action, but am honour-bound to bear it.”

She passed the letters to Dumbledore, who held them out for Harry and said,  “Harry, the Board has voted by a bare majority to place you on probation.  This is an inappropriate action on their part.  In the event that this situation worsens for any reason, I do have a –”

Harry didn’t hear the rest.  The world stopped and Dumbledore’s voice echoed in his frozen ears.  The only thing he could feel for a moment was the rapid pounding of his heart.  Motion returned abruptly, and he seized the letters.  He let the first fall to the ground and tore open the second.  Only bits and pieces of the contents registered as he read.



repeated instances in which you have endangered the lives of your fellow students …
while not always of your own volition, the Board cannot overlook …
heroism is creditable, but does not outweigh the responsibility of the Governors and the Headmaster to all of our students and staff …
Therefore, the Board of Governors orders the Headmaster to place you on probation, effective immediately upon receipt of this notice …



Harry let the letter fall free.

“This was calculated – of that there is no doubt,” Dumbledore said.

“There were Galleons behind the vote,” Madam Bones said, “and I am beginning to wonder if the same Galleons might have been behind the decision to restore Sirius Black’s legal and property rights.  Both the restoration of Black’s rights and the decision to place you on probation took place in the hands of persons whose interests are questionable at best.  With one exception, this was a vote based upon blood –”

“I can’t… I can’t hear this right now.  I’ve had enough,” Harry bit out.  “Lupin blames me, Shacklebolt blames me, now the sodding Board blames me… I’ve had enough.” 

He wrested his hand away from Dumbledore and bumped into an invisible barrier.  It dawned on Harry that Dumbledore had cast more than a silencing charm.  He growled, “Finite incantatum!” and flung the door open; it collided with the wall and nearly came loose.

Dumbledore asked, “Harry, where is your wand?”

“In my back… pocket…” Harry’s voice trailed off.

“You did not use your wand to destroy the Dursleys’ cellar.  You were on the telephone with Miss Granger immediately prior to her frightening episode, were you not?” said Dumbledore.  “You are not experiencing a control problem; it is something rather different.  We must discuss –”

Harry whirled around.  “There’s nothing to discuss.  If I’m not wanted at Hogwarts, so be it!  If I got Sirius killed, so be it!  I’m leaving!”

“Harry, please –”

“I wonder if you’re able to stop me?” Harry asked coldly.

"Mr. Potter!” Madam Bones scolded.  “You will show your Headmaster the respect appropriate to his office!”

“He’s not my Headmaster until the first of September,” Harry fired back.

“That may be so, but a wise man doesn’t push away what allies he has,” Madam Bones snapped in return.

“This action by the Board is a grievous but manageable disruption, Harry.  I am merely trying to keep you well informed,” Dumbledore said.

“Oh, don’t worry about me – I’ll still do what I have to do!” Harry shouted.  Madam Bones and Dumbledore began to argue behind him, but were cut off by the telltale squelch of an Imperturbable charm.

Harry pushed past a bewildered Mrs. Weasley and Professor McGonagall and stopped at the large kitchen hearth.  There was no Floo powder to be seen.  “Of course – it must be blocked,” he muttered to himself, then said loudly, “Dobby!”

The house-elf popped noisily into the kitchen.  “Harry Potter, sir!  Can Dobby help you?”

“I want you to disconnect Grimmauld Place from the Floo Network and seal the doors.  No one besides me is to enter the house – no one.  Do you understand?” Harry ordered.

“But Harry Potter, sir –”

Harry grimaced.  “Dobby, I don’t have time for this.  Do you understand?”

“Dobby understands what Harry Potter wants, but does not understand why Harry Potter wants it done,” Dobby squeaked.

“I need a bolt-hole.  Just do it, please?” Harry said. 

“It shall be done as you request,” Dobby said.  He gave a modest bow and disappeared.

Harry burst out of the kitchen and nearly tripped over Mrs. Weasley.  “Why did you have Dobby seal off… that house?  Why were you yelling at Professor Dumbledore?  What’s happening?” she asked.

“I have to go,” he said flatly.

She clutched at his arm.  “Harry, explain yourself,” she insisted.

“I’m leaving.  I’ve been put on probation at Hogwarts,” he growled, looking toward the stairs.  The entire room went quiet – even the wireless stopped.

Mrs. Weasley loosed her grip.  “Probation...?” she said blankly. 

Professor McGonagall was a few feet away and looked to be in shock.  “What could Albus possibly be thinking?” she wondered aloud.

“It wasn’t him; it was the Board of Governors,” Harry said.  “Dumbledore thinks it was planned.  It doesn’t matter to me.  I’m leaving.”

“Leaving?  You – you can’t just leave,” Mrs. Weasley said.

“Er… Fred told me that the portkeys are set for midnight,” Neville spoke up.

“I have my own ride,” Harry said, even as he pushed through the stunned partygoers and made for the stairs.

“You mustn’t do that, Harry.  It’s not safe,” Mrs. Weasley called out. 

“I’m no longer a child, Mrs. Weasley.  Thank you for the party, but I am leaving,” Harry said firmly.  It seemed as if everyone had come into the main room now.  He pushed past questioner after questioner, answering none.

“You said you were leaving, but you didn’t say that you were going home,” Hermione said quietly from his right.  Harry continued on without a word.  He ignored the thump-thumping of the stairs behind him, and fished for the motorbike.  By the time he reached the doors to the barricaded area, he was once again surrounded.   

“Talk to me – please?” Hermione asked.  Harry enlarged the Bonnie and then the saddlebags.

Madam Bones held out the parchment and the unopened envelope.  “These belong to you, Harry, like it or not,” she said.

“Why are they doing this, Albus?” Mrs. Weasley asked.

“Regrettably, politics and malice have trumped common sense yet again,” Dumbledore answered.

“This is madness,” Mrs. Granger said.  “This magical world of yours isn’t always like this, is it?”

“Where are you heading?” Mr. Granger asked.

“There are a few different places,” Harry muttered as he lashed the saddlebags to his bike.  “There’s a house in London, another to the west, another – ”

“We must be five hundred miles from London!” Mr. Granger said.  “Are you in a state to ride any sort of distance at all?”

“I’ll manage,” Harry said.  He enlarged one of the helmets, and mounted the motorbike.

“Harry, I strongly urge you to wait here and then to return with Remus,” Dumbledore said firmly.

“No, thank you,” Harry returned as he tugged on the helmet.  Hermione abruptly hopped onto the Bonneville behind Harry.

He looked over his shoulder.  “Wha –”

“You’re not leaving here by yourself,” she said.

“Please get off,” Harry said politely.

“I agree!” Mrs. Granger added; Mr. Granger shot her a cross look.

“Mother, let it drop.  Harry, you’re not going anywhere without me,” Hermione decreed.

“Hermione!” Mrs. Granger exclaimed.

“Get off the bike,” Harry ordered.

“No,” Hermione insisted.

“You’ll freeze in that shirt,” Harry protested.

“I don’t care,” Hermione said.

“Get off or I’ll remove you,” Harry warned her.

“You wouldn’t dare,” she wagered.  Harry looked at Mr. Granger imploringly.  He didn’t get what he’d hoped for in return.

“I know that you’ll take no chances with Hermione riding pillion,” Mr. Granger said.  “If you’re set on such a long ride, then she can direct you to our home.  It’s at the outskirts of Winchester; we’ll await you there.  I expect you’ll travel at a reasonable speed and make frequent stops – that should put you there in about eight hours, I expect.  Now if it proves too far, Hermione does have a credit card.  I’m sure she won’t allow you to take any chances with her safety.” 

“Winchester’s a fair option,” said Lupin.  “It’s not far from where we’re staying, actually.”     

Mrs. Granger protested with her posture, but said nothing.  It was clear to Harry that he was expected to acquiesce. 

“You’ll need two helmets,” Mr. Granger reminded him, “and take this at least, would you?”  Mr. Granger removed his jumper and slipped it over Hermione’s head against her mild fussing.

“Perhaps Bill and Charlie should follow?” Mrs. Weasley offered.  “That might offer you a margin of protection.”

“I’m not taking a broom from here to London,” Bill said.  “You should take a rest in the Midlands at least, Harry.  If you see anyone or anything out of the ordinary, the best way to defend yourselves is to make a run for it.”

Defend yourselves?” Mrs. Granger snapped.  Mr. Granger said nothing.

“You insist on coming, then?” Harry asked once more.  Hermione nodded, and Harry presented her with the other helmet.

Dumbledore moved directly in front of the Bonnie.  “Harry, I must forbid this.”

“Madam Bones, is he able to forbid anything I choose to do?” asked Harry.

With obvious reluctance, Madam Bones said, “He cannot forbid any action on your part that falls within the law.”

“That is not entirely correct,” said Dumbledore.  “If I must –”

Harry’s response was to take the Bonnie straight upward.  Hermione clutched at Harry.  He let the Bonnie slow until it drifted high above Hogsmeade, much higher than he had taken her father.

“You’re shaking,” he said.

She shrieked and nearly lost her grip on Harry; once she regained her hold, she clung to him as if he was a life preserver.  “You should have told me that the helmets were charmed!” she cried.

Harry started to slip off his aviator jacket.  The motorbike rocked from side to side as he pulled at the sleeves. 

“What are you doing?” Hermione shouted.  “Stop moving about!”

“I’m taking off my jacket, and we’re only moving around a bit,” Harry said.  “Can’t you see what I’m doing?”

“I haven’t opened my eyes since we lifted off,” Hermione snapped.  “Why are you taking off your jacket?  It’s freezing up here!”

“A warming charm’s out, I think,” Harry admitted.  “I’ve not cast one in a while and I’m a bit on edge, so unless you’d rather I set you afire…?”  He turned, swinging his legs around until he was facing her.  She protested through the entire manoeuvre, grabbing at his arms and torso and pulling at his shirtsleeves.

“Open your eyes,” Harry said.

“I can’t,” Hermione insisted; “I’ll lose my balance and fall.”

“You’re not clumsy.  Are you afraid of heights like your mother?” Harry asked.

She clutched his forearms; her eyes were squeezed shut.  “How did you know that?” Hermione wondered aloud.

“Your father told me,” Harry explained.  “I’m guessing at the rest from your love for brooms and the grip you have on me.”

“I’m not afraid of heights,” Hermione said.  “I’m fine in the Owlery, or the Astronomy Tower.  I walked the steps at the Eiffel Tower.  I’ve skied in Switzerland.  What I’m afraid of is flying.  Not just brooms – I don’t care for airplanes, either.”

“You seemed fine riding with me on Buckbeak,” Harry recalled.

“That was a life-or-death situation,” Hermione reminded him.  “I set aside my fear.”

Harry said, “Just set it aside all the time, then.  Everything with us is a life-or-death situation.”

“That’s a comforting thought,” Hermione said.

Harry wrapped his jacket around her.  He looked around at the skies, now mostly dark.  “Just try opening your eyes,” he suggested.  “What if I need your help watching out for, I don’t know, oncoming birds or something?”

“You won’t let go of me?”

“I’d never let you fall,” Harry promised.

Hermione scowled.  “I know that!  I still want you to hang on.” 

“You’re the one digging your fingers into me,” Harry pointed out.  “I promise I won’t pry off your hands – is that enough?”

“You don’t have to be a prat,” Hermione protested.  “What’s so important about opening – oh!”

Hermione looked all around; the wonder on her face was clear even through the helmet shield.  It was a crystal-clear night, with a quarter-moon and a scattering of lights from the village casting a faint glow.  The last of the twilight was disappearing to the west.  The sky had exploded with stars. 

She flipped up her helmet shield and bubbled, “I’m not certain that I’ve ever seen things this clearly, even from the Astronomy Tower.  You can make out all the major constellations so easily – there’s Scorpius, and Sagittarius, and… what?”

Harry shook his head.  “Stop thinking for one minute, would you?  Don’t think – just look.”

“What’s wrong with thinking?” Hermione protested.  “Fine, then.  No thinking, just looking…” She slowly took in the star field from east to west.  “What am I looking for?” she asked.

“You’re a hopeless case, aren’t you?” Harry said, exasperated.  “How does it make you feel?”

“What, seeing the stars like this?  I don’t know – I’ve never considered it,” Hermione said.

“Don’t consider it – just say something,” Harry insisted.

“It makes me feel small,” she decided, “and very glad that I’m not alone.  You?”

“It makes me feel a part of something bigger, in a good way,” Harry said.

She continued to watch the skies.  “I like your answer better,” she said. 

Harry said, “Put the jacket on properly, while I swing back around.”

“I think not!” Hermione squeaked.  She pulled tightly against him, which made turning difficult.  When he was back in place, her helmet settled against the back of his shoulder.  The jacket lay squashed between them.

He decided to follow the motorways because Hermione seemed to have a fair idea of the directions.  They flew fairly low – no more than a few hundred feet above the traffic.  Even against the moon, Harry doubted anyone would think them to be more than a bird.  He thought about asking her to relax her hold on him, but it helped to keep him warm and it was a pleasant feeling.

Neither of them said much for quite a while.  Hermione spotted something called a Welcome Break just off the M74; Harry swooped down to a clear spot on the motorway and rode normally until they arrived.  He was cold and she was shivering.  He bought her hot chocolate and stretched his legs.  Before they left, he slipped his aviator jacket onto her and she didn’t protest.  With Hermione ensconced in the jacket, Harry flew higher and far faster – so fast that the Bonnie shook in protest a time or two.  After a tiring and bracing ninety minutes in flight, he returned to the motorway and exited at another Welcome Break.  They stopped to look at a motorway map in the entry; they had covered somewhat more than three hundred miles in three hours.

Harry reviewed the food options warily.  “Are you familiar with any of this?” he asked.  “I haven’t eaten since this morning.”

“Most of it will make you feel full, at any rate,” she said.  “Get one of these sandwiches… the soup is passable, and it’s warm… and hot chocolate.  You don’t want the tea – trust me on that.”

Harry did as she said, and they found a table.  “Are you certain that you don’t want anything?” he asked.

She glanced around.  “I do see one thing that looks interesting.  Do you mind?  I’m good for it when we reach my parents' house.”

He said, “I’m not worried.  Here – this should cover it.”

Hermione looked at the 50-pound note.  “I should say so,” she said; “I’ll be back shortly.”  Harry wolfed down the sandwich and the soup; his stomach was left growling but full. 

Hermione said from behind him, “Happy birthday, Harry.”  She walked around the table with a large piece of cake on a small plate.  Two lit candles were stuck in the icing.

She set the plate in front of him.  “It wasn’t much of a birthday party, was it?” she said.  “For that matter, this isn’t exactly a splendid birthday cake.”

“I haven’t had many of them,” Harry told her, “and Hagrid made the first – you can imagine what that was like.  I think it’s wonderful, but I don’t understand why there are two candles, though.  Don’t the candles represent years – you know, sixteen candles for sixteen years?”

“Adults don’t get a candle for every year – it would be impractical,” Hermione pointed out.  “You’d need a bucket of water to douse Professor Dumbledore’s cake.”  Harry chuckled at the image. 

“Blow them out, then, and make a birthday wish,” Hermione instructed.

Harry looked at the cake blankly.  “Pardon?”

“A birthday wish – that’s the Muggle… erm, I mean, the folklore behind candles on birthday cakes.  When you blow out your candles, you’re supposed to make a wish,” she explained.

Harry quickly blew out the candles and then plucked them from the cake.  “Would you like some?” he asked.

“No, thank you,” she said.  “What did you wish?”

“Im dursnt muddr kurz ins wohn habbin,” Harry muttered through a mouth full of cake.  Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Sorry,” Harry said.  “It doesn’t matter because it won’t happen.”

“You shouldn’t waste a wish,” Hermione said.  “I’ll help make it happen, if I can.”

Harry choked on a second mouthful of cake.  Between fits of coughing, he managed, “I won’t let you.”

Hermione lit into him.  “Stop talking in riddles, Harry!  What happened to you this summer?  What are you hiding from me?”

“What about you?” Harry asked.  “You didn’t tell me that you’re still injured from the Ministry.  I had to hear it from Shacklebolt.”

She shook her head.  “It was a deep wound, so I’m still a bit sore.  Don’t avoid my questions.” 

Harry said nothing, and impassively ate his birthday cake.  Hermione pleaded, “Tell me what you’re thinking – please?”

Harry stacked his plates, bowl and cup on a plastic tray.  “You know what I’m thinking?” he asked.  “I’m thinking ‘happy birthday to me’.  Happy bloody birthday! We should move along.  Your parents will worry.”

“My dad’s expecting we’ll keep at motorway speeds and stop regularly.  We’ve plenty of time,” Hermione insisted.

“Your mother’s probably expecting that I’ll keep over 100, never stop, and stop somewhere that I shouldn’t before I take you home,” Harry groused.

“That’s an excellent suggestion,” Hermione said, in the tone she used when she knew that she had the upper hand.  “Either way, I’m not expected for hours.  We’re going to the place you’ve been staying, then.”

“We can’t do that; I’m not even certain I could find it,” said Harry.

“Then we’re going to Grimmauld Place first.  I know how to get there by road,” she said.  “We can make that in well under two hours at the rate you’re flying.  It would be well under an hour from there to Winchester.   That would leave ample time for you to explain yourself.”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Harry snapped.  “Besides, I had Dobby seal off the place,” he said. 

“Then Dobby can open it for you,” Hermione said.  “Besides, you can’t find my parents’ house unless I direct you there.”

“That’s blackmail!” Harry protested.

“I suppose it is,” Hermione admitted.  “You’re going to talk to me, Harry.  You’re going to talk to me, or I’ll keep us out the entire night and let you explain that to my parents in the morning.”

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