Disclaimer – I solemnly swear that JKR owns everything Harry Potter. Whether or not I am up to no good with her characters is for you to decide.

-oOoOo-

Potter Haven

Chapter 31

The Atrium of the Ministry of Magic erupted the instant that the lift containing Harry and Julius rose into sight. Even before the doors had opened, Harry was being peppered with questions.

"Where have you been hiding out?"

"What do you think of the fines?"

"Is it true that you battled with Lucius Malfoy?"

"How did you survive another killing curse?"

"Are you going back to Hogwarts now that your name is cleared?"

"What are you real feelings towards Albus Dumbledore and the way he tried to force you to return to your relatives?"

Harry tentatively stepped forward, keeping so close to Julius that his shoulder was basically rubbing against the elderly man's shoulder. Flashes blossomed around him and gusts of purple smoke billowed out above the crowd. To one side, the man with the microphone from the Wizarding Wireless Network was holding it out, obviously hoping to have Harry's voice transmitted over the airwaves.

"If you'll all kindly step back and allow Mister Potter some space, we'll issue a short statement before Mister Potter answers a few questions," Julius stated.

Immediately, the dozen or so journalists shuffled backwards, providing a small half-circle of clearance away from the lift.

Harry'd known that this was coming – Julius had warned him that the 'vultures were sure to be waiting' – but it was still incredibly unnerving to be surrounded so tightly by so many people. Especially after living for so long with just Dobby around for company.

Julius cleared his throat, causing instant silence.

"Mister Potter is extremely pleased that the drama of the past eight months has finally been put to rest. Today's trial was the chance for him to set the record straight. Yes, he performed accidental magic in a muggle area, but it was only in defence of himself. Albus Dumbledore was threatening Mister Potter's very magic and we are extremely pleased that the court realised this fact and voted him non-guilty. As for the truancy charge, it was a mere technicality that caused Mister Potter to fall afoul of the Ministry's directives, a technicality that we will be rectifying before we leave the Ministry today."

The instant that he paused, the first question was sent Harry's way.

"Mister Potter, Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter," a green-robed woman with horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose identified herself. "What do you think of the exorbitant fines that were levelled at you today?"

"Um," Harry began, sneaking a glance up at Julius' face, "I know I was guilty and deserved a fine, but I didn't think it'd be quite that much."

"Markus Waynesbury, also from the Daily Prophet," the man beside Rita Skeeter said. "It was revealed that you were awarded an Outstanding OWL in Muggle Studies. It's obvious that you've been putting a lot of work into continuing your magical education. Is it your intention to return to Hogwarts or to continue studying on your own?"

"I'd rather not answer that question just yet," Harry replied.

"Just where have you been hiding out?" one of the men in the back called.

Harry looked up to see Julius give him a slight nod. "My place is called Potter Haven but I'm afraid that its location has to stay secret."

"Harry, is it true that you fought Lucius Malfoy and survived another killing curse?"

"Yes," he nodded simply, not giving away any extra information, just as he'd been coached.

"How did you survive it?" Rita Skeeter purred. "Do you have some extra special powers that the rest of us don't?"

Harry shrugged. "I honestly don't know and neither do the Healers at St. Mungo's."

"Harry, I understand that you gathered a number of exotic creatures to study at your hideaway. Is there any truth to the rumour that you've got a crumple-horned snorkack hidden away there?"

Looking to his left, Harry smiled at the tall man with the slightly crossed eyes. "Sorry, Mister Lovegood. I didn't come across any of those when I was out looking for magical creatures."

"I think that we'll have to leave it there, ladies and gentlemen," Julius interrupted. "We've still got a number of things that we have to do before Mister Potter is allowed to leave the Ministry."

Ignoring the extra questions still being thrown at them, Harry felt Julius grasp his shoulder and guide him through the crowd and across the large marble floor.

"Well done, Harry," Julius murmured as they were walking. "Give them a little and make them feel that you've answered their questions and they're more likely to leave you alone than if you simply ignore them."

Harry nodded at the advice, fervently hoping – while knowing that he was deluding himself – that he'd never have to deal with journalists again in his life.

Finally they approached a door emblazoned with Department of Magical Education in gold letters above it. Julius opened the door for him and he entered, only to pull up short at the sight of the man waiting inside.

"Ah, Harry, my boy," Albus Dumbledore smiled, peering over his half-moon spectacles at the location of Harry's rapidly fading scar.

"Headmaster," Harry returned with a stiff nod before attempting to sidle around the flamboyantly dressed wizard.

"I trust that you're here to re-enrol in Hogwarts now that that silly misunderstanding has been cleared up?" Dumbledore inquired airily.

Harry felt Julius' hand settle on his shoulder and squeeze slightly. Theoretically, he knew that this was a signal to leave the talking to the older man, but after what the long-bearded jerk had tried to do to him, Harry couldn't resist answering.

"Don't be ridiculous," he retorted. "I've been doing just fine on my own. Why would I want to return to that musty old castle?"

"Ah, but Harry, you know that there's no substitute for learning with one's peers," Dumbledore pointed out.

Harry nodded in reluctant agreement. "True, I do miss my friends, but you've got to admit that getting an Outstanding OWL in third year in one subject, being nearly nine months ahead of my Hogwarts peers in another subject and three months ahead in a bunch of others, means that I'm getting a better education my way. Not to mention that I'm learning subjects that your school doesn't even teach anymore."

"Regardless of your successes so far, which I congratulate you most heartily on by the way, I'm certain that you will find that a more structured program will be most beneficial for your education." When Harry failed to respond, he continued. "Well, if we cannot entice you back to our hallowed halls now, perhaps September would be a better time, hmm?"

"We'll see," Harry muttered, more than eager to finish the conversation.

"Come along, Harry, we've some business that needs completing," Julius interrupted smoothly.

With twin nods at the old man, Julius and Harry stepped around him and ventured up the corridor where they knew Sirius and Minerva should be waiting for them.

-oOoOo-

"Harry! Sirius! Come in, come in."

Harry smiled nervously up at Emma Granger as he stepped through the front door. Just inside the entry, he stopped and looked back at her.

"Is … is Hermione here?" he asked.

"Of course, just let me go and get her for you," Emma smiled, leading the two towards the front sitting room.

"Hello there, Harry. Sirius," Dan Granger greeted, laying aside his book and standing up, hand outstretched.

Sirius immediately strode forth and clasped hands with the man. "Good to see you, Dan. Harry here wanted a word with Hermione. Emma's gone to get her."

Dan's eyes turned on Harry. "I'm glad you're here, Harry. Maybe you can get through to her."

Harry's mouth dropped open and he frowned in puzzlement. So there was something wrong with Hermione. He'd thought so after the strange way that she'd avoided even looking at him during the trial. Not to mention that comment. And that, combined with the way that she'd disappeared without even seeing him afterwards, simply screamed that there was something wrong with his best friend.

Faint sounds of an argument drifted down the staircase, catching Harry's attention.

"She doesn't usually come home for the Easter holidays," Dan continued as Harry's eyes turned upwards. "But with that farce of a trial being the day before Good Friday, it was the perfect chance for us to get her home for a few days."

The sound of steps on the stairs drew Harry's attention, only to be disappointed to find Emma coming back down alone. He noted a look pass between the elder Grangers, a look that he couldn't identify.

"Where's Hermione?" he asked tentatively.

"She'd upstairs in her room," Emma said gently. "She says that she's too tired to come down."

Something in her voice narrowed Harry's eyes. "I really do need to talk to her. Would you mind if I went up to her?"

"That'd be wonderful, Harry," Emma beamed. "Upstairs, second door on the left."

"Leave the door open," Dan called as his foot touched the first step.

Looking back, Harry gave a nod before focussing ahead.

He hesitated in front of the appropriate door for an instant before gathering his courage and knocking.

"I said, 'no'!" Hermione yelled through the closed door.

"Hermione?" he called.

Silence reigned from the room for a long time, causing him to shift nervously from one foot to the other.

"Hermione?" he tried, knocking a second time.

And then, after another minute's silence. "What's wrong, Hermione? Why won't you talk to me?"

"Just … just go away, Harry," a small voice that he could hardly make out eventually replied.

"I don't know what's wrong, but I'm not leaving here until you talk to me," he told her.

A small click indicated the door unlocking before it eased open a fraction. When nothing else happened, Harry placed his hand on the handle.

"I'm coming in, Hermione."

Harry pushed on the door, his eyes taking in the Hermione-ness of the room. The walls were painted a soft cream, helping to highlight the deep green curtains. A large desk bracketed by floor to ceiling bookshelves stuffed full of books and knickknacks took up the wall to the right, while against the opposite wall, there was a double bed filled with dozens of comfy cushions in a rainbow of colours. Half hidden amongst those pillows, a face peeked out at him.

Harry smiled nervously at his best friend. Her knees were pulled up to her chest, a pile of pillows in front of her. Her wonderful brown hair seemed to be inexplicitly bushier than ever.

"Hi," he said softly.

When she didn't return the greeting, Harry turned around, snagged the chair at her desk and rolled it across the room.

"What's up, Hermione?" he asked, sitting in front of her.

Now that he was closer, he could see that her chocolate eyes were almost lost in the puffiness around them. He leant forward and reached out, only to have her shy away from him.

"Hermione?" he questioned.

A small sigh escaped her. "You … you should go, Harry."

Harry's eyes rounded. "Why? What's the matter, Hermione? You know that we can tell each other anything."

At this she shook her head. "Just go, Harry."

"I'm not leaving my best friend when something's obviously really wrong," he retorted stubbornly.

"No, Harry, I'm not worth being friends with," she replied, shaking her head violently.

Harry frowned at her. "What? Why in the world would you say something stupid like that?"

"It's not stupid, Harry!" she all but yelled. "I'm not good enough to be your friend. I'm stupid and selfish and a good-for-nothing bossy know-it-all."

"You are not!" Harry argued. "You're a wonderfully caring person and my best friend."

Once again, Hermione shook her head. "Harry, because of me, Lucius Malfoy found you and killed you."

Harry spread his arms wide. "Sorry to disappoint, Hermione, but I'm not dead. And as for Malfoy, well, someone was bound to find me eventually."

"But it was my stupid idea to come and see you," she retorted. "I was too bloody selfish. All I was thinking about was my need to see you. I didn't stop to think about what could happen. I told others where you were and led Malfoy straight to you. If I'd simply left things alone, you'd never have been put into danger."

Finally, Harry understood what was going on. Hermione was blaming herself for everything.

"Okay, okay, I'll admit that it probably wasn't the best idea for you guys to come to Potter Haven," he began hesitantly, "but do you have any idea how much it meant to me that you wanted to see me? I've missed you … all of you, so very much and, even though things went a bit … pear-shaped there the second time, I wouldn't change the fact that you came to see me for anything."

Harry studied her face, but her blank mask was impossible to read.

"And if you want to blame someone," he continued, "then you can blame me, too. I'm the one who said that it was alright for you guys to come that second time."

"Only because I guilted you into it."

"Do you really think that you can manipulate me that easily?" he smiled.

The corners of Hermione's lips twitched. "Of course."

"Well, I hate to break it to you, Hermione, but it didn't take that much persuasion. I really, really wanted to see you and spend the day with you again as well."

"Really?" she asked, the barest hint of hope in her voice.

"Of course. You're my best friend. I like spending time with you, and getting to talk to you face to face is so much better than simply writing to each other."

"But Malfoy …" she began.

Harry waved her argument away. "Doesn't matter. It was less than two weeks until the trial when I would have had to leave Potter Haven anyway."

"You really … you really don't blame me?" Hermione asked.

"You're my best friend, Hermione. Let's just say that we both made mistakes and leave it at that, okay?" he replied.

Slowly a smile spread across her face even as her eyes seemed to clear and begin to sparkle again. Then, without warning, Harry found himself toppling off of the chair, her arms wrapped around him, her face buried in his neck.

Chuckling together, the two untangled themselves and sat up on the floor.

"Now what's this about getting an OWL already?" Hermione asked intently, squeezing the hand that she'd latched on to for emphasis.

Harry rubbed the back of his neck. "It was Muggle Studies, Hermione, a first year muggleborn could get an OWL in that."

Neither noticed Emma's smiling face peeking through the door a short while later at the two teens still holding hands and talking away animatedly, comparing notes on their experiences with the day's trial.

-oOoOo-

Minister's Conspiracy: Just What Is He Hiding?
By Rita Skeeter

For the past eight months, the Wizarding community has been repeatedly assured that Harry Potter was a menace to our way of life and a danger to the Statute of Secrecy. The Minister for Magic himself, Cornelius Fudge, in conjunction with his Undersecretary, Delores Umbridge, have been almost weekly calling for the arrest of The-Boy-Who-Lived, Harry Potter. And more than that, they have been advocating for Harry Potter to have his wand snapped, his magic bound and his memories of our world erased.

And if this wasn't enough, at the very trial that cleared our young hero of all wrong-doing, the Minister for Magic took the opportunity to fine Harry Potter the heaviest that anyone in our community has been fined for the past thirteen years. And what was the crime that Harry Potter was fined for? Why simply for failing to surrender himself to the Ministry, a Ministry that was advocating for his magical death.

Nearly twenty thousand galleons is a not so small fortune for most of us and even for the Scion of the Most Ancient and Noble House of Potter, it must surely put a sizeable dent into the inheritance left to young Harry by his heroic parents who tragically fell to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, leaving the boy orphaned in the world.

For any other person guilty of this crime, a fine one tenth would have been expected, but not so for Harry Potter. No, Cornelius Fudge imposed a much harsher penalty. And what would have happened to Harry if he couldn't pay that exorbitant amount? Why, simply gaol time. If I was the one who had been treated this way, I would be fleeing for the hills, never to return to magical Britain as long as I live.

The question must be asked: what does the Minister for Magic have against The-Boy-Who-Lived? Why call for having his magic bound and the boy obliviated? And why such a ridiculous fine?

Dropping the newspaper onto his desk, Cornelius Fudge buried his face in his hands.

"Tea, Cornelius?" Delores' simpering voice asked as she waltzed into his office.

Fudge looked up and scowled at her. "No! No, I don't want tea. We're facing the hounds at the moment, Delores. We don't have time for tea!"

He saw her glance at the Daily Prophet on his desk before dismissing it.

"Don't worry about it, Cornelius, it'll all blow over in a week or two."

Fudge stared unbelievingly at her. "How do you figure that? Even now, Amelia is sniffing around, Black and Longbottom are gathering supporters for a vote of no-confidence and Greengrass is allowing Rita Skeeter to print whatever she wants about us."

"We've survived worse," Umbridge sniffed. "A few donations in the right places and their plots will come to nothing."

"And exactly where will these 'donations' come from?" Fudge asked.

"The usual places, I'm sure," Umbridge simpered.

"The usual places? The usual places!" Fudge spluttered. "There are no more 'usual places'! Most of that money came from Lucius, but that well's dried up."

"I'm sure that once that misunderstanding's been cleared up …"

Fudge slammed his fists onto his desk, cutting her off. "There's no 'misunderstanding', Delores! Lucius cast a killing curse – and hit, mind you – at The-Boy-Who-Lived in front of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. There's no coming back from that. Once he's caught, the only question that there'll be about Lucius is whether he'll be spending the rest of his life in Azkaban or if he'll be Kissed instead."

Umbridge blinked at him and Fudge seriously wondered whether she was even capable of understanding something not going the way she expected.

"But with a little well-placed money," she began again.

"There is no more money! Why do you think I fined Potter as much as I did? I'd have even upped the amounts if I thought that I could get away with it," Fudge admitted.

"Cornelius …"

"No, Delores," he interrupted before dropping his head, bringing that Merlin-be-damned article into his eyesight.

This, he knew, would only be the start. And with Umbridge the way she was, he doubted that he'd be able to survive politically.

"We're going to have to do something if we want to stay in office," he said slowly. "Some … restructuring."

Lifting his head, he took in the short, squat woman standing on the other side of his desk.

"Delores. We're going to have to lie low if we want to survive this. I think that it'd be best if, at least for a while, we weren't in the same office," Fudge stated.

"Whatever do you mean, Cornelius?" she asked in her high girly voice.

"I mean … I mean that I'm going to transfer you to the Department of International Magical Cooperation," he explained. "Work with Barty Crouch. You know that he's got a lot going on at the moment, coordinating between the French and the Bulgarians while pacifying the Spanish and Germans. He could use someone of your talents, helping him manage our special project. And, if we can pull the Tournament off, it'll help shore up our political position."

Delores stared at him before slowly blinking. "Of course, Cornelius. Whatever you think is best."

-oOoOo-

Hermione had barely stepped down from the carriage that had brought her back to Hogwarts when she was surrounded by a large group of people. Most were Gryffindors, although there were a sprinkling of each of the other Houses as well in the crowd.

"You're finally back!" Lavender exclaimed.

"But where's Harry?" Parvati asked, peering past her into the carriage.

Hermione sighed. She guessed that she should have expected this. She was considered the expert on all things Harry Potter.

"He's not coming," she said.

"What do ya mean he's not coming?" Seamus asked. "We've cleared out his old space ready for his bed and everything."

"I'm sorry guys, but Harry's not coming back to Hogwarts," she repeated.

"What? Just now or ever?" Justin asked.

Hermione bit her lip. She suspected that she knew the answer to that, but until Harry had actually made up his mind and told her, then she wasn't going to announce her suspicions.

"I don't know. I'm sorry," she told the group.

"Well, it's not unexpected now, is it?" Luna pointed out. "And after everything he's been learning at Potter Haven, why would he want to come back?"

"But what about us?" Susan asked in a small voice. "I thought that he'd come back to be with us, his friends."

And that, Hermione suspected, was going to be the topic of conversation and speculation around Hogwarts for the rest of the year.

-oOoOo-

A cool breeze billowed the dark cloak that had been wrapped around the man just moments before. In disgust, he grasped the edges of it and pulled it tight as he stared over the sea before him. His once long platinum blonde hair, his distinctive trademark, had been cut short leaving him almost unrecognisable. Worse still was the long cut that was certain to heal into an ugly scar along his left cheek. The top third of his ear on the same side was also missing although it was hard to tell under the bandage.

Hunger pains gnawed at his stomach and he grimaced. It seemed it was time to venture into the world of the muggles once more to procure sustenance. He knew that he'd need it before he started his journey – the forests of Albania were a long way off, after all.

-oOoOo-

Author's Note – Although there are still 3 months of term left for the year, this marks the end of my recounting of Harry, Hermione and co.'s. third year of magical education. And at a little over 100,000 words, with the trial now over, it just feels right to stop there. To all of you who have read, I hope that you've enjoyed. Thank you so very much for all of the hundreds of reviews, favourites and follows. It's totally blown me away and has helped spur me on to keep writing.

For those interested (and I hope that many of you are), the first chapter of the sequel and fourth book in the series, The Fourth School, is now up for your reading pleasure. Hope to see you all over there. And once again, my heartfelt thanks to you all for your loyal reading of my drabbles.