Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or any other character, location or whatever mentioned in the works of J. K. Rowling.

Credits: Thanks as always to my patient and helpful writing buddies.

Chapter 36: It Takes A Village

July 29, 1995

Molly Weasley headed for the Leaky Cauldron's main staircase with determination, ready to Stupefy one Harry Potter and drag him back upstairs if necessary. Huffing crossly she drew her wand out of her robe pocket and cast a dim Lumos so she wouldn't trip. At least he had sense enough to leave a note. That and the ridiculously early hour were the only things saving him from a proper dressing down.

Dear Mrs. Weasley or whoever wakes up first:

Thanks for letting me come up to visit last night. I'm sorry I fell asleep on you, but I feel loads better this morning.

I can't get back to sleep so I'm off to the kitchen now. I didn't get a chance to talk to Tom about my schedule, so I reckon I should carry on the way I have been. See you when you come down for breakfast.


'Loads better' are you? Well, we'll just see about that, young man, Molly thought, shaking her head, as she hurried down the stairs. According to those Muggles he'd

been well enough to meet yesterday and they could all see how that had turned out! If she'd had her way, Harry would have been tucked into bed the instant the meeting ended. The poor thing had gone from peaky to outright pale and was clearly dead on his feet. She couldn't believe Tom had agreed without even a token protest when the children asked him to allow Harry a short visit.

Still, she hadn't argued the fact. Tom had been named as one of Harry's guardians after all. Besides, she and Arthur were perfectly capable of looking after Harry, and they did owe the old innkeeper a great deal. Since they were facing a longer than average stay while the Burrow was repaired, Tom had transfigured two of the Leaky Cauldron's larger adjoining rooms into a suite of sorts to save her family a bit of money and give them a modicum of privacy.

Molly hadn't been happy about the way the meeting had turned out, of course. The bit at the end had been too quick and confused for her liking, and Harry's guardianship wasn't something she was willing to take chances on. Not this time. As the evening went on, she began picking up hints that Harry's situation might not be as dire as she initially assessed.

The first eye opener had come after the kids clattered up the stairs. She and Arthur had lingered in the dining room, ordering dinner to eat upstairs later, and waiting for Tom to wrap it up. She supposed she shouldn't have been-Tom had been keeping an eye on Harry all summer after all-but Molly had found herself moderately surprised when he pressed their supper order into Arthur's hands and a pillow and folded blanket into her own.

"He won't last long," the old innkeeper had predicted, proving he had noticed Harry's sorry state. "He's knackered, poor lad, but he's missed his friends dreadfully the last few weeks. I suppose I can indulge him a bit," he said, nodding at the stairs the children had just climbed. "If you don't mind, he can kip on your couch tonight, or I can fetch him during a lull if you prefer."

Molly and Arthur had quickly assured Tom they didn't mind, but the old wizard's words put her on her guard. After returning upstairs she had watched the children carefully, ready to intercede if they became too rambunctious. Her caution hadn't been necessary as it turned out. After dinner the children gathered on the big "L" shaped couch Tom had provided, talking and playing Exploding Snap while she and Arthur cleared the table and stacked the dinner dishes for Tom to pick up later. It had been a familiar, domestic scene, and Molly had felt her lingering homesickness ease a bit. Tom's wandwork was always first rate, but he'd really outdone himself when he charmed and transfigured their suite. The room to the left was the dining and living area with ample seating and a sturdy oak dining set that would seat twelve. The room on the right had been carved into a modest master suite for Arthur and herself and bedrooms for the twins, Ron, and Ginny. It had almost all the comforts of home, really. All that was missing was a kitchen.

I'm off to the kitchen now...

Molly raised a considering eyebrow. If he wasn't too bad off, perhaps she'd ask Harry for a cuppa before they went back upstairs. Making the last turn into the dining area she whispered "Nox!" then stood in the shadowed doorway and stared.

Harry had evidently visited his own room to shower and change because he was wearing different clothing than he had been last night, his hair was damp, and his glasses were absent. As Molly watched he gave the dining room floor a few last scrubs with a mop, then dropped it in a bucket before moving to the table nearest him and beginning the business of setting the chairs on the floor.

Gobsmacked, Molly tried to reconcile the sight in front of her with the scene last night. Harry was clearly "loads better" judging by the energetic briskness of his movements and the easy, practiced way he hefted the benches and chairs. The unnaturally still and fragile-looking boy from the night before was nowhere in sight.

Too bad he can't bottle that. Molly shook her head again marveling at the change, then recalled Madam Pomfrey had mentioned a healing state the night before. She and Stephen Wright had come back to the Leaky Cauldron wanting a quick word with Harry, but they'd never gotten the chance to talk to him. Things had been a little pear-shaped at the time.

Since Harry was obviously still recovering from his illness and tired from the day's events, it hadn't really surprised anyone when he'd nodded off during a hand of Exploding Snap. What had been surprising was the unusual depth of his slumber. He hadn't even twitched when one of the trick cards exploded in his hand-a fact that immediately had all the children on high alert. Harry's tendency toward light, restless sleep was well-known to Hermione and the Weasley household.

By the time she and Arthur hurried over, attracted by the children's frantic attempts to call Harry back to wakefulness, they'd all been in a right state. Arthur, always the practical one, had muttered something about calling Poppy before vanishing into the hall, leaving her to assess Harry's condition and soothe the childrens' distress. She'd managed, but it hadn't been easy. The necessity of staying calm for their sake was probably the only reason she hadn't given in to a mad urge to grab Harry by the shoulders and shake the life back into him.

Mercifully for all concerned, Arthur had returned almost immediately with Madam Pomfrey and Stephen Wright hurrying along behind him.

"Madam Pomfrey and Mr. Wright wanted a word with Harry," Arthur explained when she'd looked up at him. "They were on the way up when I ran into them."

Her guests' reactions to the unconscious boy on the couch couldn't have been more dissimilar. Molly took her cue from Poppy Pomfrey who was wearing a "Well, finally!" look of satisfaction and relief. Mr. Wright, by contrast, looked rather worried-almost frightened. Molly hadn't quite known what to make of him when he'd muttered "Damn!" then hurried over to Harry, seating himself on the couch, and hovering a hand over the boy's forehead. She'd wondered for a second or two if the man was daft, before Poppy's next words put her quite firmly in her place.

"It's all right, Steve, Harry isn't connected to You Know Who. This is the healing state I told you and Janet to watch out for. He's finally mending. When he wakes he'll be as good as new." Mr. Wright had nodded absently, but didn't seem completely convinced.

"Are you sure, Poppy? The air over his scar isn't tingly but he's all floppy and unresponsive like before. Are you sure he's still in there?" he asked, while Poppy nodded patiently.

"He's in there, dear. I've seen him in this condition more times than I'd like. I know it's a bit off-putting, but it's also normal...well, normal for Harry," she'd clarified, smiling as Mr. Wright finally relaxed a bit, heaving a big sigh and patting Harry on the shoulder.

"Harry, you knucklehead, what are we going to do with you?" he'd wondered aloud with a warmth and genuine fondness that both surprised and disarmed Molly. Rising from his seat, he'd become all business, thanking Arthur and herself for their hospitality and requesting Poppy's help in getting Harry home to bed.

Molly smiled, thinking of Ron as Harry finished setting the chairs in place and began gathering some of the emptier condiment containers. He and Hermione would be pleased to see how much Harry had improved overnight. They had both been dreadfully worried and quite unwilling to let Harry out of their sight, but it had been Ron who'd gotten Mr. Wright's attention and asked, "Can he just stay here tonight? Please?"

Mr. Wright hadn't seemed too keen to leave Harry behind at first, but relented when she and Arthur waved away his concerns at imposition and Poppy Pomfrey assured them all that Harry would likely sleep like one who had ingested the Draught of the Living Death but nothing else. "There shouldn't be any adventures tonight, Steve, and the Weasleys are more than capable of caring for him or summoning help if necessary." Mr. Wright appeared to argue with himself for a minute or two, then he sighed and looked up at Arthur and herself.

"I don't mean to imply that Jannie and I can look after Harry better than you, and it's obvious he thinks the world of your family. It's just a few nights ago was...intense. He scared the hell out of all three of us," he confided, nodding in Poppy's direction, then offering a rueful smile. "Now that I think of it, his staying here is probably best. It's still pretty crowded downstairs. I doubt we could get him up to his room or out of the building without attracting attention-and we all know how Harry loves attention."

That said, he hunkered down by Harry who had been divested of a few accessories and arranged comfortably on the couch. "Harry? Buddy? This is Steve," he said, before reaching out and grasping Harry's hand. "You're going to spend the night with the Weasleys. Your glasses, belt, and shoes are on the table to your left. Now I expect you to be on your best behavior. If you follow your connection or let old what's his name draw you out of your body again I will put you on Dolly Dressing Duty until you leave for school. Do we understand each other?"

Molly shook her head again, recalling how Harry had shocked the lot of them when he made a tiny amused sound and roused enough to manage a weak hand-squeeze and a badly slurred "Yessir" before becoming still and silent once more. Poppy and Mr. Wright traded smiles before promising to chat with Tom on the way out and taking their leave.

"Amazing," she whispered, watching as Harry bustled back out of the kitchen, depositing a large basket full of cutlery and serviettes on the first table he passed, then replacing the half dozen or so condiment containers he'd topped off. When he finally seated himself at the table he'd left the basket on and began assembling place settings, Molly nodded decisively and stepped through the door. "Harry?" she called softly, trying not to alarm him, but Harry started violently in spite of her caution. He swung around at the sound of her voice, looking rather like an owl in daylight.

"Mrs. Weasley," he managed, then bit his lip and looked up at her. "Erm, did Pig give you my note?" he asked uncertainly. Molly got the distinct impression he was testing her mood.

Molly smiled and nodded, trying to put him at ease. "Thank you for telling us where you were," she said, taking a leaf out of Arthur's book and striving for patience. Harry was looking much better, true, but he also looked like he might take to his heels at the first sign of strife.

The tactic paid off. Harry seemed to relax a bit, and gave her a small smile while his nimble fingers kept sorting and wrapping Tom's silverware. "I couldn't sleep anymore so I reckoned I should get started down here," he explained before frowning again. "Pig didn't wake you, did he? I asked him not to."

Molly shook her head. "No, dear, he didn't wake me. I've been getting up every few hours to check on you. Madam Pomfrey assured us you were only mending, but Mr. Wright seemed concerned when they stopped by last night."

Harry looked like he wasn't sure whether to be touched or mortified. "You didn't have to...I mean, thank you but you didn't have to."

"I know, dear. I wanted to. I was worried, and so were the others. No one was sitting with you because Madam Pomfrey didn't think you'd stir until at least midmorning." She had to swallow a smile when Harry huffed in exasperation and rolled his eyes.

"I wasn't as bad off as all that," he said, then seemed to register the other part of her statement. "Why did Steve and Madam Pomfrey stop by?"

Molly lifted her hands. They'd never had a chance to explain. "I don't know. They said they wanted a word with you, but you were already in your healing state when they arrived."

"I'm sorry about that," Harry said, looking uncomfortable. "I would have left before I got pulled under but I didn't realize what was happening at first-with the healing thing," he clarified glancing up at her before returning his attention to his task. Molly slid into the chair next to Harry's as he twisted together a few more place settings, then stilled his hands with her own.

"Harry, are you all right? Really all right with everything?" she asked very seriously. Harry seemed to consider her question then nodded.

"I'm all right. Really. It's just...things are going to change today, and I rather liked things the way they were." Harry hesitated a moment then added softly, "I was hoping to stay hidden until school started and just take my punishment then."

The admission that he had intended to stay hidden stung more than Molly thought it would. Why would he do that? Didn't he know he was considered family? Didn't he understand they only wanted to be there for him? She bit back her hurt and angry words with difficulty, wondering again how Arthur managed to keep his temper in check so often. Then the second half of his statement registered. "No, Harry. I know several people want to talk to you-reassure you-but no one wants to punish you. We're all just happy you're safe. We were worried about you," she insisted, but Harry shook his head.

"I know how it works, Mrs. Weasley. Accusation means punishment. At least this time I know I did what I was accused of."

"We understand there were extenuating circumstances, dear," Molly offered, sensing she was on delicate ground. "Those things are taken into account," she insisted when Harry shook his head again and absently resumed sorting and wrapping the silverware.

"It doesn't matter. It never has. This should be okay, though. Professor Dumbledore said he wasn't going to expel me, and that was the only thing I was really afraid of. He'll likely give me detention with Filch or Snape once term starts," he said, in a matter-of-fact way that exacerbated Molly's helpless horror. She didn't even bother to correct his manner of address.

"Then again he might talk to Steve and Janet. That would be best, I think-just get on with it. I don't fancy having this hanging over my head until September," Harry speculated, almost startling a laugh out of Molly. She sincerely hoped the headmaster had better sense than to dictate Harry's discipline to his new guardians. She doubted they'd take it well-she certainly wouldn't. Shaking her head, she forced herself back on track.

"No, Harry," she repeated firmly, recalling all the times she and Arthur had considered Ron's enigmatic best friend and wondered what went on behind those watchful green eyes of his. She was getting an idea now and not liking it at all. As if proving her point, Harry chose that moment to notice her upset and graced her with a reassuring smile. "I knew I was risking consequences when I chose to stay hidden, but no matter what happens it was worth it."

And there it was. The mystery none of them could decipher. Harry's refusal to divulge his location, even to the point of turning down a visit at the Burrow. Harry seemed to appreciate honesty so Molly firmly set aside her own frustration and continued down that route. Reassuring Harry was the first order of business. Everything else could wait.

"I don't understand, Harry. Why did you hide from us?" she asked as gently as she could. "I know what Professor Dumbledore and the others think, but I'd really like to hear it from you."

Harry hesitated for a long while, his expression changing from uncomfortable to rather pained, even as the pile of finished place settings continued to grow. Molly wondered if she's ever get used to his "Jim" disguise as unfamiliar brown eyes met hers before dropping again. "It's stupid," he finally mumbled. "It's stupid and...I really should start setting the tables now."

Nice try, Harry, Molly thought, retrieving her wand. "That won't be a problem, dear," she said aloud, sending the finished place settings flying onto several empty tabletops with a perfunctory swish and flick. "You make more while we're talking and I'll put them in place for you," she said, looking him firmly in the eye until Harry sighed and his shoulders drooped.

"Do you mind if I make a pot of tea first? The kettle should be ready now."

Molly smiled as she thought about her earlier plans. "Tea sounds heavenly," she agreed watching fondly as Harry nipped into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with one of Tom's Brown Betty teapots, two cups, milk, sugar, and a plate of scones balanced on a tray. Harry unloaded the tray and poured their tea with a practiced hand before sliding gingerly back into his seat and staring intently at his cup.

"There isn't a good answer to your question," he finally said, just as Molly was wondering if a prompt would be in order. "I know everyone expects me to be brave, but I just wasn't ready. I found out Professor Dumbledore was looking for me and panicked."

Molly didn't bother to hide her befuddlement. "You didn't want us to find you?" she asked, seeking clarification. Harry nodded.

"That's right. I wasn't ready to give it up yet and I knew I'd have to." He glanced up at her again before returning his attention to assembling place settings. "I'm still not, really."

Determined to keep her calm, Molly took a deep breath and blew it out. "Have pity on a confused witch and back up a bit. What do you not want to give up?"

"You know," Harry said, looking over both shoulders, then leaning forward and lowering his voice. "Being normal."

If he hadn't been so clearly serious, Molly would have laughed aloud. As it was she really didn't know what to do or say to that. Harry watched her carefully, then mercifully decided she needed additional information.

"I wasn't daft enough to expect a warm welcome, but I never thought they'd just leave." He paused to take a sip of tea, then began assembling place settings again.

"I imagine it was a shock," Molly commented honestly, sending more place settings flying toward empty tabletops as Harry finished rolling them. She'd almost said, I understand but stopped herself. For all her blustering and threats when her children drove her to distraction she didn't. Not really.

That seemed to be the right move because Harry gave her a rueful smile. "Shouldn't have been, I suppose, but yeah, it was." Molly noted with amusement that serious conversations with Harry went much better when the boy had something to do with his hands.

"You know the first bit. After a going to Surrey I wound up here. Tom saw I was dead tired and told me I could register the next day. I thought about contacting someone the next morning if that's what you want to know, but I couldn't."

That part Molly was aware of. Sirius had mentioned Harry had felt ashamed of his abandonment. Shaking her head, she hurried to reassure him. "Harry, you aren't to blame for your relatives' actions."

Harry shrugged. "I suppose, but at the time I didn't want anyone to know. That seemed very important-and not just because what would have happened if the Prophet had gotten wind of it. I reckoned I could hide my circumstances until school started if I tried hard enough. And don't take this the wrong way, but I really didn't want to be shuffled off to the Burrow or Hermione's house. Not just then. I didn't want to be around normal family interaction-not when mine hated me so much." Harry trailed off, drawing in a deep breath and closing his eyes.

Her own heart aching, Molly bit her lip and waited for his inevitable tears. To her surprise they didn't come. When Harry released the breath a few seconds later he was still dry-eyed and remarkably calm, considering. His hands stilled in the basket of flatware so she reached out and grabbed the one nearest to her.

"You shouldn't have been alone, Harry," she said, anger and frustration making tears prick her eyes. "We could have helped you. We still want to help you if you'll let us." She half expected him to tug his hand away as Ron generally did, but he surprised her, shaking his head and taking her hand between both of his.

"I know, and I appreciate it, really," he said with a sincerity that soothed her tattered feelings. "I didn't intend to be a bother or frighten anyone, but the Dursleys leaving brought up a load of personal rubbish. I needed some time alone to sort myself out. Tom gave me that time when he started me working nights. Later, when he thought I should get out, "Jimmy" started doing odd jobs for the Alley merchants. For the first time people dealt with me. No Worthless Freak. No Boy Who Lived. I'm sorry I worried you, I truly am, but it's a brilliant thing, being normal. Very freeing. I suppose I got caught up in it." Harry released her hand then looked at the tabletop. "You can think me selfish or stupid if you like, but I didn't want to give it up until I absolutely had to. I wish there was a better explanation, but that's all I have."

There was little Molly could say to that, so she sat in silence sipping her tea, while Harry returned his attention to the cutlery basket. "Remus was more right than we gave him credit for," she finally offered. "He insisted you were staying away to protect yourself-that you'd found some measure of peace this summer. I guess the rest of us were feeling too frightened and left out to see that." She paused and considered Harry over the rim of her teacup. "You seem to have things figured out now."

"I'm getting there," Harry said agreeably. All the tables were set now, so he began stacking the place settings beside the basket. "My aunt and uncle always told me how awful I was. Once I rejoined the Wizarding World, well, you know how that's been. Either way, I was always judged and nothing I did was good enough," he confided quietly. "I knew it was unfair of course. I just didn't realize how much of an impression it had made on me. Janet helped me figure a few things out."

Intrigued in spite of herself, Molly raised her eyebrows. "Oh?"

"Indirectly, but yeah. She was out of sorts a few nights ago after her weekly phone chat with her mum." Harry paused there, considering her carefully.

"Go on," she encouraged, feeling giddily delighted when his expression softened and she knew he'd decided to trust her.

"They'll probably tell you themselves at some point. They do that with people who are around a lot so they don't get surprised. I'll just hit the high points in the meantime." Harry thought a minute as though trying to find the words to start, then finally decided on the bald truth. "Janet has a minor brain injury."

Molly's face must have showed her shock and concern because he gave her a little smile and nod. "I reckon that was my reaction too, but Steve and Janet both claim it could be much worse. Anyway, it happened when she was a baby. She survived, obviously, and leads a fairly normal life, but the incident scared the pants off her mum and dad. Made them a bit...protective."

"I can imagine," Molly said, empathizing easily with Mrs. Wright's parents. Lord knew her children had given her some scares over the years. The worst by far was the black period during Ginny's first year when she and Arthur believed their only daughter was lost to them forever. "So, she made a full recovery, then?" Molly didn't know Janet Wright very well yet, or what Muggle healers were capable of for that matter, but the other witch seemed perfectly normal the day before.

"Mostly. She takes tablets and has to make some allowances, but it doesn't slow her down a lot. Growing up, her parents loved and encouraged her, even insisted she attend university, but they were sure her condition would prevent her from holding a job or managing on her own. Janet understands its their fear talking, even now, but when she was younger...well, they're her parents, right? You're supposed to believe what your parents tell you. Steve says she's come a long way, but sometimes something brings up the old insecurities-especially when she's tired or stressed."

"Like a few nights ago?" Molly guessed, seeing where he was headed. Harry nodded.

"Yeah, she was dead tired from looking after Kitty, Becky, and me. I told her not to be a nutter, but I knew where she was coming from. Then she laughed a little and said, 'if I'm the product of fearful but well meaning parents, I don't even want to think about the damage a guardian could do if they were deliberately trying to be cruel.' That gave me something to think about that I hadn't considered before." He shrugged then and returned his attention to the last few pieces of silver in the basket.

"Arthur found the bars from your window when we were warding the shed." Molly watched Harry's fork knife spoon wrap twist rhythm falter slightly, but pushed on. "I'm sorry we didn't take it seriously at the time. I thought Fred and George were telling tales again."

Harry pursed his lips, then chuckled. "Can't imagine why. We all know what sensible, sober chaps they are. Please, don't," he said, when she would have protested. "I understand, really, and I'm not angry. I was quite glad it all blew over. Even then, I didn't want anyone to know. Still don't," he confessed with a rueful shrug, "but we don't always get what we want."

Molly looked at him over the rim of her teacup. "No, I suppose we don't," she agreed, watching as he wrapped up the last fork, knife, and spoon and began stacking the finished place settings in the basket. "I just can't believe no one noticed, even if you didn't tell anyone."

Harry shrugged again. "Besides my clothes there wasn't much to notice. Do you remember when I turned my ankle on the way back from the pond the summer before my second year?"

"Yes," Molly said, thinking the question was rather off the subject, but willing to go along. Casting back, she recalled how Harry had limped in, and how red and swollen his ankle had been by dinnertime. "I was going to take you to the local healer the next day but-" She broke off and blinked. Perhaps this was not as off topic as she'd originally thought.

Harry nodded. "But the next morning it was okay again," he finished for her. "I don't know what caused the delay this time, but yeah. That's how the healing thing usually works. I get hurt or start to get sick, sleep, and within the next day or two I'm better. Sort of tied my teachers' hands, you know? Even when they noticed something was off they couldn't prove anything." He looked up at the sound of a door opening and closing off to their left. "That'll be Tom," he observed, nodding in the direction the noise had come. "Pity I couldn't tell him to sleep a bit longer without waking him," he went on, making Molly chuckle.

"I daresay he'll be glad to see you looking so much better," she said, her smile broadening when a sleepy Tom came into view. The old innkeeper appeared to be moving by rote at first, but it didn't take him long to notice the two of them and hurry over.

"Molly! Is everything quite all right?" he asked, before pausing and taking in the 'ready for business' condition of the dining room. "Harry?"

"I'm okay, Tom," Harry assured, rising when the old wizard neared and peered worriedly at him. "I woke up a bit ago and felt much better."

"Yes, so rather than wait until a decent hour to get up, he decided to nip down here and ready the dining room," Molly added, smiling as Harry fidgeted under the older wizard's concerned stare. "At least he had the sense to leave a note so I didn't panic when I found him missing."

"Oh, I have no trouble at all believing that," Tom said, pulling Harry into a brief hug then stepping back and holding him at arm's length. "Merlin's beard, boy, it's good to see you on your feet again! I was sure you still had a bit of mending to do when you arrived yesterday, and now look at you!" Harry smiled in pleased embarrassment.

"Thanks, Tom," he said, then indicated the teapot. "Fancy a cuppa?"

Tom nodded, but stopped Harry when he turned toward the kitchen. "I'll get it, lad," he said, sending Harry's basket of place settings into the kitchen and summoning a teacup out of it. "Seems we don't have to get right to it, with you setting the place up already. Have you seen Hedwig this morning?" he asked as he poured. "I sent her home with Steve last night in case he needed to get in touch." Harry shook his head.

"I haven't seen her since yesterday. She wasn't in my room when I went up for a wash," Harry said, then nodded at Molly and reclaimed his chair. "Mrs. Weasley mentioned Steve and Madam Pomfrey came by when we were talking. Is everything all right? Why did they want to see me?" Tom sighed and sat on Harry's other side.

"We have a bit of a problem, son, and Madam Pomfrey isn't sure how to sort it," Tom admitted, holding up his hands in a placating gesture when Harry stiffened. "Now, now, Steve promised to send Hedwig to us if anything worsened, and if I know that owl of yours she'd have come on her own even if he hesitated."

Molly nodded from Harry's other side. "Trite as it sounds, no news really is good news sometimes." Harry nodded and gave her a little smile of thanks before turning back to Tom.

"So what is the situation, exactly?"

Tom sighed. "Something we should have caught onto or at least considered yesterday. The short of it is, when Janet and I became your guardians, your folder stopped using you as its primary power source. Madam Pomfrey was able to verify that last night."

"So it's stopped hiding them then? Is that what you mean?" Molly asked, grimacing inwardly as Harry paled beside her. Tom shook his head and laid a reassuring hand on Harry's arm.

"No, dear, it hasn't stopped hiding them. It's just stopped using Harry here as a living wand core." Shifting his focus to Harry he continued. "There was some alarm system tied to your folder that went unanswered for a very long time. Madam Pomfrey can fill in the details later, but for now she thinks your folder has been augmenting itself with your magic since you were a small child. Ah, well look who it is."

Surprised by Tom's sudden change of subject, Molly turned and saw Hedwig winging their way from the direction of the Leaky Cauldron's small owlery. She dropped the folded paper in her beak in front of Tom then turned to Harry. Molly smiled as the owl accepted a piece of scone and leaned contentedly into Harry's hand while he stroked her feathers.

Harry smiled at Hedwig, but there was an edge of worry in his eyes. "What did he say, Tom?"

Tom opened his mouth, then hesitated and closed it again. Oh dear, Molly thought. Bad news. Harry, it seemed, picked up the same vibe.

"Please, Tom. Just tell me. What's happened?" The old innkeeper sighed.

"As near as we can tell, after Janet signed the papers your folder gradually decreased its pull on your magic and started using hers instead. Madam Pomfrey and Steve came by last night to see if you and I were all right. The folder is pulling a little from me, but not a lot. I reckon it's holding me in reserve, as secondary, you see." He paused and handed Harry the folded paper. Harry wasn't trying to hide it from her, so Molly shamelessly read the terse note along with him.


Poppy wants us to go to the hospital wing. (Precautionary.)

Options presently unknown.

More as I know it.

Fill Harry in when he wakes up. Poppy wants to look him over too. She says to send him by flue or port-key.


"That can't be good," Harry muttered, glancing between Tom and Molly while getting to his feet. "I have to go. This isn't right. Everything's ready for breakfast. Tell Ron-tell Ron and Hermione I'll be back later."

Before Molly could offer to accompany him, Harry drew a surprisingly familiar Phoenix pendant out of his collar and disappeared with a whispered word.

Harry landed in an unfamiliar part of the hospital wing, and took a second to get his bearings. He was in an empty 10-bed ward off the main one. Harry frowned, trying to recall the area, then finally decided it must be charmed to camouflage itself, rather like the Leaky Cauldron. It made a certain amount of sense if injured Order members used the Hogwarts hospital wing for assistance year round.

He took a step forward, then stopped, suddenly unsure of what his reception would be. Madam Pomfrey wouldn't have moved the Wrights to Hogwarts on a whim. Then again Steve had said "precaution." Perhaps she simply wanted the hospital resources available to her.

Feeling approximately equal parts hope and trepidation, Harry peeked out into the main ward and blinked in surprise at the incongruous sight of the Wright family cuddled together on their sofa. Steve was sandwiched between Janet and Kitty with Becky on his lap and all of them appeared to be sleeping. Creeping closer, Harry felt a smile tug at his lips in spite of his worry and fright. During the time he and the girls had been ill he'd spent a fair amount of time in a similar position. Only then Janet had typically been between Kitty and himself with Becky on her lap. Steve had been about of course, generally seated next to Kitty or himself, or else standing over the lot of them and asking Janet what she'd done to deserve "all that love and attention."

Madam Pomfrey didn't seem to be about. Harry found that odd, but didn't dwell on it. After all his dealings with the school mediwitch he was quite sure she wouldn't leave the Wrights alone if anyone was in immediate danger. Harry glanced around for a visiting chair but the beds were stripped down and the chairs nowhere in sight. He was just contemplating taking a seat on the couch when Madam Pomfrey came flying through the main doors. She headed for the little ward initially, but stopped short at the sight of him and bustled over to the couch.

"Harry! I wasn't expecting to see you this early!" she said, wand already out and weaving the familiar motions of a diagnostic spell. She paused to look at the results then smiled at him. "Feeling a spot better, I'd wager?"

That's an understatement, Harry thought, as he smiled and nodded. Now that he was rid of it he could fully appreciate how the pull on his magic had worn him down. Aloud he said, "I feel much better. Brilliant, really."

"And how was Tom when you left the Leaky Cauldron?" Poppy asked, casting the charm that queried Harry's vital signs.

"He seemed fine," Harry reported. "Bit tired, maybe, but that's not unusual this time of day." He looked over at the the still somnolent Wrights, feeling a little worried that no one had so much as twitched. "Madam Pomfrey, what's wrong with them?"

"I put them in a magical sleep to make the trip easier, and kept it on long enough to update the headmaster and Professor Flitwick," the mediwitch said, casting Finite Incantatem at the end of her statement. "Portkey was the tidiest way to get everyone here," she went on, tapping the sofa with another Finite as Steve shifted his shoulders and yawned.

"Are we there yet?" he mumbled sleepily, then caught sight of Harry and became more alert. Frowning, he tried to free a hand to consult his watch. "What time is it? How long have we been out?"

"You haven't been out long at all, Steve. Less than half an hour," Madam Pomfrey reassured, stopping his restless movements. "Harry wasn't mending as long as I thought he might. As a matter of fact, he must have come almost immediately after receiving your owl." Steve nodded and slumped back into the cushions, looking at Harry with tired blue eyes.

"Sorry...long night," he said, after another jaw-popping yawn. "Poppy wasn't expecting you until late morning and the whole sleep spell thing made me nervous," he said, glancing at his family before looking up at Harry again. "Wow. You weren't kidding about the healing state, were you?" he commented, nodding at the mediwitch before addressing Harry again. "Seriously, kid, you look like a million bucks! Any chance you can share some of that with Jannie and the girls?"

"Share?" Harry glanced at his own hands distractedly, then refocused on Janet, Kitty, and Becky with growing dismay. Steve had come around almost immediately but no one else was stirring. "What's wrong? Why aren't they waking?" he asked, fright making his voice sharp. His tension cranked up another notch when Madam Pomfrey sighed.

"Did you get a chance to chat with Tom at all?" she asked.

Harry nodded. "A bit. He said the folder had been drawing on my magic for ages because of some alarm, and after yesterday it stopped using me as its main power source, and-" Harry cut off and stared at Janet and her daughters with slowly dawning horror. "No..." he whispered as Tom's words came back. We have a bit of a situation and Madam Pomfrey isn't sure how to sort it...

Oh, no. Oh, nonono. Harry shook his head feeling his pulse and breath quicken. His relatives had always been rather irrational about to magic in general and him in particular. Learning the truth about his heritage had always been source of comfort, especially the bit about them bringing most of his accidental magic on themselves.

This was different. This was a nightmare. I can't believe this! It's been what...less than a day? And things are already messed up? Harry squeezed his eyes shut when his vision began to take on an odd tunneling effect, remotely aware of glass rattling and shattering somewhere to the side. Janet and her girls had every right to fear magic now and Steve must surely be furious...

"Mr. Potter! Control yourself at once!"

Brought up short, Harry opened his eyes and found himself face to face with a very stern Madam Pomfrey. "Come now, it's not as bad as all that. Breathe with me now, deep and slow," she encouraged, making Harry aware of his own shallow panting as she Accio'd one of the visiting chairs from somewhere and pushed him gently into it.

"I'm quite aware that the situation is untenable as it stands," she continued, wand out and waving again, "but Janet and her daughters, are in no immediate danger."

"Poppy and your headmaster tried to modify the magic last night once we realized something was up but it didn't work," Steve added, absently shifting Becky. Harry noted with cautious optimism that while the older man was obviously worried and not at all happy, he didn't seem angry or afraid.

"What happened?" he asked, feeling brave enough to risk a question.

Madam Pomfrey repeated the test she'd just performed, then put her wand back in her apron pocket. "The transfer process was gradual, so at first we didn't notice anything. I understand it caught you by surprise as well." She waited for Harry's nod, then went on.

"The folder seems to know how much energy it can draw without causing injury, hence the spillover from Janet to Kitty, and finally Becky. Janet is much better now that the load is balanced between the three of them."

Appalled, Harry glanced at Janet who was leaning limply against Steve's shoulder, then his stress and fear got the better of him. "Better? This is better?" he asked, looking between Steve and Madam Pomfrey. "Why are you letting this go on? End the charms! No protection is worth this!"

"They wake up now and then and Janet's stopped having breakthrough seizures so yeah, this is better," Steve retorted, making Harry instinctively flinch back. He watched warily as the older man visibly cut himself off, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, he steadied Becky, and reached out a hand. Harry hesitated, then leaned forward to take it.

"You're where I was a few hours ago, son. I pestered this poor woman to death even after she and two of your teachers determined your folder was going to have to be tinkered with," he admitted with a rueful nod in Madam Pomfrey's direction. "It's a wonder she didn't slap me silly."

"It was tempting," the mediwitch returned dryly, "Fortunately I have ample experience dealing with hysterical loved ones."

"I'm sure," Steve agreed easily, giving Harry's hand a squeeze before releasing it. "I don't like this any more than you do, kid, but the girls are okay for now and everything that could have been done has been. Your headmaster even contacted some friends of his on the night shift, but the Archive doesn't have any after hours contacts or access procedures. Short of a break-in, which I was all for incidentally, there's no way to get your folder until they open for business."

"The folder's magic was studied while you were missing. That's when we realized it was hiding you," Madam Pomfrey added, retrieving her wand from her pocket and waving it in Harry's direction. "Professor Flitwick and Professor Dumbledore have been researching the problem and preparing strategies all night to save time. As soon as your folder is available, they will try to modify the existing charms and preserve the protection. If that can't be done in a reasonable amount of time, the existing charms will be ended and alternatives will be considered. Clearly the magic can be divided among several people, so efforts are currently focused along that route," she continued, absently running her test again.

"What is it, Poppy?" Steve asked, gesturing at her wand. "You've done that six times in the last ten minutes."

The mediwitch sighed, huffing out a little laugh at the end of it. "Actually, this situation may have solved a puzzle that has baffled the Hogwarts teaching staff for the last four years. No one could adequately explain how Harry here could struggle with the simplest spells one day, then be a veritable powerhouse the next. Given what's come to light, I suspect the folder's pull on his magic was a contributing factor if not the main cause."

Harry nodded, considering the matron's words. His difficulty with the Summoning Charm last year had been doubly frustrating in light of his success with his Patronus. When he glanced at Madam Pomfrey again he found her eyeing him speculatively.

"Do you have your wand with you, dear?" she asked. "Very good, You know the Repair Charm, yes?" she continued when he answered affirmatively and produced the item in question.

"Yes, ma'am," Harry agreed, thinking of the Burrow. The spell was something of a staple in the Weasley household. He'd lost count of the times he'd seen Ron's parents and older siblings cast it during his visits, even before he learned to cast it himself.

"Very well." Madam Pomfrey gestured at the broken glass with her own wand. "Give it a go then."

"Okay," Harry said with a shrug, standing and surveying the mess he'd made earlier. The damage went further back than he originally thought, radiating out in a circular pattern from where he'd been standing. Madam Pomfrey was being uncommonly kind about it, but it was clear to him that he was to clean up the mess he'd made. Best get on with it so he could get back to sitting with the Wrights.

Turning to the right first, Harry executed the required wand motion and cast the spell, putting his back into it so he could get as much as possible in one go. Realistically he expected to cast the spell several times put things to rights. What he didn't expect was the invisible but palpable wave of magic that swirled from his wand and filled the Hospital Wing. Glass containers instantly reassembled and leapt to their places on tables and shelves. The mattresses on the beds grew visibly fluffier, all signs of wear and tear disappearing. Even Madam Pomfrey who was looking a little rumpled after her overnight stay with the Wrights was suddenly standing in attire that looked freshly pressed.

Harry tried to reign in the spell, but it wasn't finished yet. Little imperfections in the Wright's couch vanished. Minute cracks in the ancient walls and floor sealed themselves, and the potions and medical supplies the mediwitch had evidently been sorting jumped into the rubbish bin or flew back into her supply cabinet. Only after everything was put away and the Hospital Wing gleamed like new did the Reparo fade and disperse.

Gobsmacked, Harry turned in a full circle, stopping when he saw Remus Lupin, Padfoot, and Professors Dumbledore and Flitwick standing just inside the door. Remus' attention was diverted by the like-new robes he was sporting, but the two Hogwarts professors and Sirius were staring straight at him. Harry turned back to Madam Pomfrey. "What's happening? I cast wide but..." Harry trailed off indicating the Hospital Wing with a frustrated wave of his non-casting hand before anger surged in again. "My magic has never been like this, never!"

"Harry, please try to calm yourself," Madam Pomfrey begged, watching as some nearby dosage vials began to vibrate ominously. "Your magic has always been this way, this is just the first time in quite a while that you have had full access to it."

"How do you know? Did I do something to my relatives? Is that why they were always so afraid?" Harry asked, taking the last seat on the couch at Steve's wordless invitation. On a whim he reached out and grasped one of Janet's hands, some of his worry dissipating at the healthy warmth of her skin.

Madam Pomfrey hesitated, her expression suddenly grave. "Harry, when you were very small, probably about three years old, there was an incident involving magic. Magic," she stressed, "not accidental magic. You were using wandless magic to entertain your cousin and it frightened your aunt and uncle. In the confusion of the moment, your uncle accidentally injured you." She paused a moment nodding at the headmaster's group as they approached. "Professor Dumbledore explained the basics of the folder to you, yes?"

Harry nodded, recalling the previous day's meeting. "Yes."

"From the day of your injury your folder alarmed, trying to alert someone." Harry frowned and started to argue, but subsided when she held up a hand in a "let me finish" way. "I don't know the why of it, but Professors Dumbledore and Flitwick found a silencing charm on your folder when they went to the Ministry a few days ago. There was also a request in to have your folder's charms adjusted so the silencing charm wasn't necessarily a malicious gesture."

"I mentioned the alarm failed, but didn't go into specifics. Our uninterrupted time at the Leaky Cauldron was growing short," Professor Dumbledore supplied. Harry nodded his agreement as as disjointed snatches of shouting, confusion, and pain teased his memory.

Madam Pomfrey seated herself in the visitor's chair across from Harry, while Padfoot walked over and laid his head in Harry's lap. Harry absently stroked the dog's black fur with his free hand as Professor Flitwick took up the story.

"The longer your folder's summons went unanswered-and the more offenses against your person it tallied-the more forcefully it alarmed. I'm not certain why a simple Silencing Charm held. There was more than enough power to break it."

"You mentioned a rudimentary intelligence yesterday," Steve offered. "Maybe that was something it didn't know how to deal with. No one could hear it, so all it knew to do was ring louder." Professor Flitwick mulled that over, then nodded his agreement.

"A sound possibility," he approved, then quietened as Madam Pomfrey addressed Harry again.

"Charm theory aside, your folder began augmenting itself with your magic when you were a child. You have clearly experienced a certain unpredictability with regard to your magic, but the drain was never enough to prevent you from casting spells or cause any physical side effects..."

"...until it decided to hide me," Harry finished for her, catching on. Madam Pomfrey nodded her agreement.

"That's right. When it made you untrackable, it began siphoning off an enormous amount of magic. Enough that your body could no longer compensate. That's why you couldn't heal properly when you fell ill, and Janet and her daughters are in their current state." Madam Pomfrey paused and pointed her wand at Harry's midsection again, eyebrows raising sharply at the result.

Her behavior was beginning to make Harry anxious. "What is it?" he asked, frowning a bit when she sighed.

"One of my duties as Hogwarts Mediwitch is to monitor the students' core magic levels. Magical surges and depletion are serious business, and core magic baselines can fluctuate a great deal during adolescence," she explained, glancing between Steve and Harry. "The core stabilizes once a young witch or wizard stops growing and no longer requires such careful monitoring." She grimaced at her wand, then went on.

"I'm wandering from the point. Succinctly, an accurate baseline is essential in determining when things are out of balance. It seems the folder was drawing more power than I realized-even before this hiding business. Harry's core readings are higher than they've ever been and still increasing."

Harry looked up at Madam Pomfrey when she addressed him directly again. "I'll have to establish a new baseline once you even out again. As demonstrated, you will have to relearn how to gauge your spellcasting strength, and you will need to remain as calm as possible to minimize accidental magic until you adjust."

"We will organize some practice sessions for you once everything is sorted," Professor Dumbedore assured. Harry thanked the headmaster, then noticed Madam Pomfrey was looking out of sorts.

"What is it?" he asked, having never seen this side of her. The mediwitch looked down as though ashamed.

"You were showing classic symptoms of magical exhaustion while you were ill, but I didn't investigate it-I even looked for another cause. Your core level was lower than normal but shouldn't have caused that degree of distress, and everyone insisted your magic usage since the end of term had been negligible. I apologize for not catching on sooner."

Harry blinked at her in disbelief, then closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to process all the information he'd been given over the last two days. Yesterday he'd been too tired and out of sorts to fully appreciate what the headmaster had imparted. Now, as he considered the folder, his upbringing, the alarm, the protection, and his own capricious magic the saying "he didn't know whether to laugh or cry" took on new clarity and meaning. Harry took a deep breath and let it out, anger and resentment warring with a kind of fatalistic amusement. His entire life, it seemed, was a comedy of errors. Brilliant.

When he finally glanced up, he noticed everyone was watching him carefully. Most were simply waiting for him to gather himself, but Harry had been in the hospital wing enough times to catch the unusual hesitation in Madam Pomfrey's demeanor. She'd always been kind to him in her no-nonsense way, so he hurried to reassure her. "I'm not happy my folder was tampered with and all that, but it seems to me you did the best you could with what you had," he said, making the older witch smile gratefully. "No apologies necessary. I am curious, though..." Harry trailed off and frowned. "Tom said the folder was drawing a bit from him?" Madam Pomfrey nodded.

"The folder's technique is very subtle but I can detect it now that I know what to look for. It isn't drawing significant power from Tom, although it might have had Kitty and Becky's magic proved insufficient."

Mention of the girls drew Harry's attention back to the couch. "I don't understand. Why did it hit her so hard?" he asked sadly, looking at Janet's hand, still held in his own. "I've never been anything special." Padfoot chuffed in obvious disagreement, but Harry just shook his head. "Why could I do it when she couldn't?" he asked, looking up at Madam Pomfrey.

The mediwitch paused, once again choosing her words carefully before speaking. "In the first place, Harry, you are something special. The finesse and control you demonstrated as a toddler was phenomenal. In the second place, your body and magic have had years to adapt and compensate to the folder's pull. Your magic may have even grown to meet the ever-increasing demands on it. In the third place, Janet is untrained. She was also hit with a lot all at once. I doubt there are more than a handful of witches and wizards who have sufficient magical strength to fuel the folder's protection alone, and I'm not sure there are any who could manage with no side effects. In Janet's case it compensated by drawing supplemental energy from those closest to her." Seeming curious, she waved her wand in a different pattern, then nodded. "Including you."

Harry latched onto that at once, tightening his grip on Janet's hand. "It could draw a bit more," he said, looking between Steve and Madam Pomfrey. "It can draw all it wants! I can take it, really!" he insisted. Steve gave him a sad smile, but shook his head.

"I know you can, Harry, and I appreciate the offer more than you know, but we just got you back on your feet." When Harry started to object, Madam Pomfrey cut him off with a stern look then began addressing him in her best "I-am-your-Mediwitch-and-you-will-do-this-or-else" voice.

"Quite so. The magic it's currently drawing from you isn't interfering with your recovery, but you will likely need a few days to level off. Besides, the goal here is for no one to be worn down to the point of illness. As you pointed out earlier, no protection is worth that."

Defeated, Harry slouched back into the sofa cushions, only to look up a few seconds later when Madam Pomfrey's alarm sounded and the pink-haired witch he'd seen at Mrs. Figg's house the night the Burrow was damaged emerged from the secondary ward with his archive folder in hand.

"Wotcher!" she said with a smile as Professors Dumbledore and Flitwick hurried over to her. "Fudge has evidently ordered an audit of the archive so I caught Gainsley when he came in for an early cuppa in the tea room," she explained, handing the folder to Professor Flitwick. "I promised I'd get this back as soon as possible."

"If what we have in mind works, you'll likely be able to get it back before the Archive opens," Professor Flitwick replied, trying without success to open Harry's folder before trotting over to the sofa. "If you would, Mr. Potter," he requested, handing the folder to Harry to open.

"What are you going to do?" Harry wondered, watching as the pink-haired witch, Madam Pomfrey, Remus, and Padfoot stepped forward and the headmaster and Professor Flitwick began a complex series of wand movements.

"Let's see if our theories are correct before summoning everyone," Professor Flitwick said, prodding experimentally at the folder with his wand and getting a rude jolt for his trouble. As Harry watched, the two Hogwarts professors ran through a series of trials utilizing advanced Charm Theories that were beyond his experience and in some cases, comprehension. He was so engrossed in the procedure he almost missed it when Janet stirred beside him.

"Jannie?" Steve questioned, as his wife lifted her head from his shoulder and blinked, looking as if she'd been wakened prematurely and would really rather drop off again

Janet favored her husband with a wan smile before turning to the professors. "I'd stop that if I were you," she advised, then laid her head down again.

"What? Why? Oh, Janet do try to stay awake!" Professor Flitwick encouraged. "You're our best chance of communicating with it!" Janet nodded vaguely, but already seemed on the verge of sleep.

Up to now he'd been too busy watching the professors to notice, but now that they'd stopped Harry realized the folder was holding itself quite rigid in his hands. It's bracing! he thought, instinctively recognizing the posture. Bracing for the next round!

"Wait!" he warned when the professors raised their wands to continue. "Look," he said, demonstrating how plank like the folder was holding itself by propping it on one hand like a tray. "It's resisting...frightened, maybe. I think that's what Janet was trying to tell you."

"Can you communicate with it?" the pink haired witch asked, coming forward to kneel in front of the couch. "Sorry, we haven't been properly introduced," she said at Steve and Harry's quizzical looks. "I'm Tonks, Magical Law Enforcement. I'm a friend of the professor'," she explained, gesturing over her shoulder toward the headmaster. "Have you tried to communicate with it?" she asked again.

Harry shook his head. "It didn't occur to me."

Professor Dumbledore chuckled. "Neither have we, for much the same reason I might add," he admitted hunkering down in front of Harry. "I suppose gaining its cooperation would yield better results," he mused. "My sincere apologies," he began, then briefly laid out the situation and proposed solution, Harry privately thought that Dumbledore was perhaps the only person on the planet who could address a stack of paper without sounding stupid. "Your protection is excellent, but unfortunately too much for a single witch or wizard to bear," Dumbledore finished. "Will you please allow us to assist?"

The folder loosened up during the headmaster's speech, Harry noticed. By the end, he had to use both hands to hold it as it was behaving like a normal stack of paper again. Harry jumped but managed not to drop the folder when the fingers of his right hand tingled and a new piece of parchment sparkled into being under them.

"What have we here?" Professor Dumbledore said, adjusting Harry's hand slightly, then reading aloud. "(Touch wand here.) I (state your name) freely agree to share a portion of my magic to aid in the protection of Harry Potter from Tom Marvolo Riddle (AKA Lord Voldemort) his followers, and any other individual or entity who may wish Mr. Potter harm. I understand this protection extends not only to Harry Potter but to those who reside under the same roof he does. I am willing to share up to (state numeric percentage) percent of my total magical power in support of this endeavor. I understand that I may withdraw my assistance at any time by re-reading this paragraph and stating zero as my percentage of shared magic." The headmaster paused, then nodded. "Yes, I think that will do just fine," he said, touching his wand to the indicated place on the parchment. "I, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore..."