Harry could feel the brightness even before he opened his eyes. He didn't know how long he had slept but he knew it was no longer night.
He heard birds chirping and pages turning, and as he contemplated whether he should open his eyes or not, it all came rushing back: the grotesque visage that was Voldemort, the way he returned, the agony of being tortured, the certainty that he was going to die, the way the snake sank its fangs into Crouch, the vacant look in Winky's eyes when he closed them… how cold she was.
Wanting to push away the memories, he reached for his glasses, his hand finding them instinctively on the nightstand next to him.
Harry smiled inwardly at Hermione's voice as he put on his glasses and turned to her. She was sitting in the chair next to his bedside. She straightened as he sat up, surveying him, an anxious look on her face.
"How are you feeling?" Hermione asked.
Ron, who had been flipping through Which Broomstick next to her, stared at him intently, too.
"All right," Harry said, simply because it seemed like the thing to say. He didn't really want to talk about it.
He looked around. The hospital wing was very quiet and very bright.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"Almost two," Ron said. "You've been out for ages."
"Neville was with us this morning, but he had his Muggle Studies exam this afternoon," Hermione informed him, and from her tone, Harry wondered if there'd been a bit of a debate in which Hermione had to convince Neville to go to his exam.
To be honest, Harry had completely forgotten that exams were still happening.
"Where's Sirius?" Harry asked.
"He, er, went to his hearing," Hermione said.
"He what?" Harry practically shouted, moving to get out of bed. "Without us? Don't they need us there to testify? What if they—"
Hermione held up her hands to pacify him.
"They said they wouldn't need us on account of Pettigrew's confession," Hermione explained.
"And, you know, the fact that Pettigrew's alive," Ron added.
"Plus, Professor McGonagall, Professor Moody and Amos Diggory heard Pettigrew's confession last night when he told it to Fudge and Umbridge," Hermione reasoned, "and they all make better witnesses than us. Professor McGonagall said it's really all a formality at this point, and Sirius wanted us to tell you he'd be back as soon as he could."
Harry sat back down on his bed, but he still didn't like it. What if Fudge tried to do something underhanded? Dumbledore and Madam Bones were on Sirius' side, but Harry still didn't trust Fudge.
And Fudge wouldn't have been happy this morning when he read The Daily Prophet. What if he took it out on Sirius? Why hadn't they thought of that last night?
"Have you got The Prophet?" he asked, looking between them both. Ron reached to the bed behind him and handed Harry the paper.
Harry glanced through the article to see if anything was amiss.
"It's exactly what we approved last night," Hermione confirmed with a satisfied look on her face, as Harry paged through it.
Last night, Harry had told his story for a second time to Rita Skeeter. It had been exhausting and painful and horrible, unburdening himself while Rita surveyed him with cool eyes, and Neville and Hermione watched, their compassion and fear for him evident.
He had omitted the part about the wands connecting and his parents talking to him. When he'd told Dumbledore that part last night, Dumbledore had explained about priori incantatem and what happened when brother wands met. He didn't think that was something the entire world needed to know.
And he definitely didn't want to share the only conversation he'd ever had with his parents with the world—if it even was them. He still wasn't entirely sure how priori incantatem worked.
But he'd told Rita Skeeter everything else, and afterward, they'd all read her story carefully to approve it. He could see now that she'd held up her end of the bargain; the story was exactly the same.
Still, it was a shock to see Rita Skeeter's byline on something so…factual. Oh sure, there were a few snide digs at Fudge—she was Rita Skeeter, after all—but Hermione had thought it best not to draw too big of a line between them and Fudge. If enough people believed them, Fudge would see that his best course of action was to join them—the man liked being liked, after all—and she wanted to make it easier for him to do so.
"I still don't understand how you got Rita Skeeter to not twist your words around," Ron commented, and then with an annoyed glance at Hermione added, "Course, that's because Hermione won't tell me."
Hermione grimaced, and her voice was a little high when she said, "I told you, Ron, I—"
"You don't trust me," Ron said flatly. "Think I'll go blabbing it around."
"I know you wouldn't blab it, but the fewer people who know, the better," Hermione insisted.
They'd clearly had a fight about it this morning. Ron looked grumpy and Hermione was sitting even straighter in her chair, twisting her hands around, as she darted her eyes to Harry's, seeming to silently plead with him to understand.
Ron also turned to look at him.
Harry didn't think Ron would go blabbing it around, but this was Hermione's secret—she was the one who figured out what Rita was and she was the one who came up with the idea to use her. If Hermione didn't want Ron to know, he'd back her play the way she always backed his.
"Look," Harry started to say, and Ron seemed to sense that Harry had taken Hermione's side because he interrupted Harry.
"Oh, come on!" he blurted. "How are things supposed to go back to normal if you two won't trust me?"
Harry wasn't entirely sure of the answer to that. Neither was Hermione, apparently, because the three of them all stared at each other awkwardly.
"But things aren't back to normal yet," Hermione finally said, glancing furtively at Ron. "I know you don't want to hear it, and I know you and Harry can joke around and have fun, but the two of us aren't there yet."
The yet in her sentence weighed heavily on them. Hermione and Ron were nowhere near joking around—this was the most normal conversation they'd had in ages.
Ron looked between the two of them and seemed to see the solidarity there, and slumped back in his chair.
"Well, maybe you two can come stay for a bit this summer?" he suggested, clearly thinking that a week or two playing quidditch at the Burrow would help things along.
"Maybe," Harry said hesitantly, which Ron seemed to pick up on.
"If you'd rather go somewhere else, back to Neville's—"
"No, it's not that," Harry said hastily, wanting to avoid any jealousy issues, "it's just that…Well, I can go live with Sirius, right? If everything goes all right today? So maybe…I'll have a house you all can come visit instead."
Ron seemed to brighten at that. "Yeah," he agreed, smiling. "That would be brilliant!"
"Plus," he added offhandedly, "I bet Sirius will be loads more fun than mum!"
Harry wasn't entirely sure of that. Oh, he knew living with Sirius would be a thousand times better than the Dursleys—an infinite amount, really—but Sirius hadn't exactly had it easy the past decade and normal life would probably be an adjustment for him. And, if how protective he'd been over Harry this entire year was any indication, Harry didn't know how lenient Sirius would be.
Still, Harry couldn't wait for them to have their own place.
"I thought you were only inviting Crookshanks?" Hermione teased, and Harry grinned at the memory of their conversation in the secret garden, feeling once again like he was soaring on his firebolt.
"I suppose it'd be all right if you came, too," Harry told her. "Crookshanks will probably drop me for Sirius anyway."
Hermione laughed, and Harry felt better than he had since before this whole nightmare had started last night. Ron glanced between them, looking completely lost.
Wanting to avoid anymore fighting and hurt feelings, Harry asked a question they could both answer.
"So what are people saying?" he asked. "Now that they've read it?"
"We went down to breakfast so we could get the mail," Hermione explained, "and there was plenty of talk about it, but most people were still in too much shock to really have an opinion, I think."
"And we've been up here ever since," Ron supplied.
"Well, what happened when you went back to Gryffindor Tower last night?" Harry asked. "I'm sure you got loads of questions."
Ron snorted. "I went back to Gryffindor Tower with mum. And she made it very clear to everyone that you were perfectly fine, but they weren't to ask about what happened to you, and to give you your privacy. And, well, everyone's heard her howlers, so…"
He trailed off, but the expression on his face was clear: Mrs. Weasley frightened most of Gryffindor Tower.
"So no one asked you anything at all?" Harry asked skeptically.
"Oh no, Fred and George followed me to the dorm," Ron laughed. "They're not afraid of mum. I told them a bit—not all of it mind you, but they wouldn't have let me alone if I didn't tell them something. Of course, it doesn't much matter now since everyone's read the article."
Harry felt his stomach rumble, and a quick glance at Hermione and Ron showed that they had heard it, too.
"You should probably eat something," Hermione said, frowning. "You haven't had anything since dinner last night—and even that wasn't much."
"I could go for a bite, too. We haven't had lunch either," Ron said, standing up. "I can nick down to the kitchens. Fred and George told me how to get in there. I'm sure the house elves have something we can eat."
He studiously avoided Hermione's gaze when he said "house elves."
Harry smiled at Ron appreciatively. "That would be great, Ron," he said. "Thank you."
For the first time since the graveyard, Harry was alone with Hermione. Without Ron sitting there, the mood had shifted. She was watching him, her sharp eyes missing nothing, and he felt very exposed.
Not wanting to talk about how he was feeling, or have to even think about what he was feeling, he stood and went to the loo, busying himself with washing his face and brushing his teeth. When he returned, Hermione eyed him speculatively.
"How are you really?" she asked, undeterred from her mission.
"I'm fine," he said automatically, sitting back down in his bed. He didn't want to dissect it or discuss it; he just wanted to be here with her.
Hermione narrowed her eyes, and then shifted swiftly from the chair to sit on the edge of his bed, so they were facing each other.
"You can't possibly be fine," she said softly, reaching for his hand.
Harry let her take it, watched the way her delicate fingers intertwined with his, clasping him gently. He closed his eyes briefly at the touch, but remained fixed on their hands. If he looked her in the eyes, she'd know.
"I'm not fine," she added quietly. He heard the tremor in her voice and his eyes flew up to meet hers. They were full of tears.
"I felt so useless," she whispered, as a tear slipped down her cheek. "And I know it's not about me—that what I went through is nothing compared to what happened to you—so if I feel like this, I can't imagine what you're going through."
"Useless?" Harry asked stupidly. How could she possibly have felt useless?
"You were just gone," she said, and now she was staring intently at their intertwined hands, as if reminding herself that he was here. "All of that planning, all of that preparation, everything we did, and You-Know-Who's plan still worked. I completely failed."
Her voice broke on the last word, and he felt a fierce surge of protectiveness, like he wanted to punch out anything that made her feel bad about herself.
"Hermione, weren't you listening to anything I said last night?" Harry asked. "Voldemort's plan didn't work. Yes, he's back, but I wasn't supposed to survive. But I did—because of you. If I didn't have your wand, I never would've been able to fight back. I never would've been able to get rid of that gag and call for Dumbledore's help. If it hadn't been for that training schedule, Fleur never would've had the time to teach me nonverbal magic. You didn't fail at all. You were incredible."
She looked back up at him and gave him a watery smile.
Words weren't enough.
On an impulse he leaned in, capturing her lips in a gentle yet solid kiss, bringing his hands up to frame her face, wanting her to feel everything he was feeling. He felt the softness of her hair, felt her hands reach up tentatively to touch his stomach and his back, but mostly he just felt her: her kiss, her warmth, her presence. It was exactly what he needed.
They broke apart, and he leaned his forehead against hers, not quite wanting to lose contact yet, as his thumbs gently brushed away the remnants of her tears.
"You're pretty wonderful," Hermione whispered.
"You're…" Harry started to say, but he wasn't good with words, and they couldn't describe what he wanted to say anyway. He kissed her again, hoping she'd understand the message.
When he eased back, her eyes had cleared up and there was a soft smile on her face. He felt comforted by it. Then she bit her lip, her face turning serious again.
"You can talk to me, Harry," she said. "You can tell me anything."
"I know," Harry said, and his hand slipped down to find hers again. "But after the graveyard last night, and telling everything to Dumbledore, and then telling everything to Rita… I'm a bit talked out."
"But I'm glad you're here," Harry said, still looking at their hands. He shifted to the side of the bed, and then motioned for her to sit next to him. They leaned back against his pillow, his arm around her shoulder, her head resting against him.
In any other situation, he might've felt self-conscious about it—he still wasn't exactly sure how to do any of this—but he'd had one of the worst nights imaginable, and all he knew was this made him feel better. Sitting in comfortable silence with Hermione was exactly what he wanted.
He reached for one of her curls, absentmindedly playing with it.
They sat like that for a while, finding comfort in each other's presence, feeling the rhythm of their breaths, and it lulled Harry into a weird state of peace. He didn't want to talk about himself, but there were things he was struggling to understand.
"I don't think she wanted to do it," he finally said, his voice quiet but sure. "Winky. When she looked up at me and said she was sorry, I believed her. And in the graveyard, before he… she was rocking back and forth like Dobby used to when he knew he'd done something wrong."
"But Crouch gave her clothes," Hermione responded. "So do you think there's something more to the bond—that Winky needed more than clothes for freedom? Or was it just… she'd been conditioned to obey and so she did?"
She sounded angry and frustrated and determined all the same.
"I don't know. I don't know if she had no choice or she only thought she did or…but she didn't deserve the life she got. No choices, just some puppet on a string," he answered angrily.
Now that he was talking, it appeared he couldn't stop. It helped that they were both staring at the wall and not each other.
"Why didn't Dumbledore tell me he suspected Voldemort wanted to take me out of Hogwarts?" Harry asked. "Dumbledore told me how to get him there, so he clearly thought it was still a possibility. Why wouldn't he tell me everything?"
"I don't know," Hermione said slowly. "Maybe he didn't want to worry you. Or maybe… He does seem to compartmentalize a lot, doesn't he? Keeping things close to the vest? He didn't tell you about the deluminator or why he sent you to the Dursleys, and he refuses to tell anyone why he trusts Snape."
Harry felt the pit return to his stomach. Voldemort was back and Snape was a former Death Eater. He had the dark mark tattoo, the same as Peter Pettigrew.
"He's going to trust Snape now more than ever, isn't he?" Harry pondered. "Now that Voldemort's back."
Hermione shivered. "I suppose so," she said quietly. "It'll probably make Professor Dumbledore try even harder to keep Snape around next year."
That prospect made Harry feel even worse.
"I just wish he didn't keep so many secrets," Harry said. If he only knew why Dumbledore trusted Snape, maybe he could, too.
"I'd still rather have Dumbledore on our side, though," Hermione whispered. "Even with his secrets. If he hadn't gone to the graveyard…"
She trailed off, but Harry felt the ragged hitch in her breathing.
"At the very least, I deserved to know what he thought Voldemort was planning," Harry added.
Hermione was quiet. He looked down and saw she was playing with a piece of thread on the edge of her robes.
"Do you think I'm wrong for keeping secrets?" she asked. "For not telling Ron about Rita Skeeter?"
Harry thought about it.
"Well, it's different, isn't it?" Harry asked. "Dumbledore didn't tell me about something that affected me. But Ron doesn't need to know the Rita secret. It's not like we're keeping something from him about Fred or George or his mum."
"Would you have told him?" she asked. "About Rita?"
A year ago, the answer would have been yes without any hesitation. But now? If it was just Harry, maybe. But it wasn't just Harry.
"Not if you weren't comfortable with it," Harry said, and he felt Hermione lean her head in a little closer.
"But even still," he said, "with Voldemort back…we need all the help we can get."
He felt Hermione nod.
"It's just that there's the Imperius curse and polyjuice potion and veritaserum," she said. "There are all sorts of ways to get information out of someone. Our hold over Rita is safer if fewer people know."
He watched her tug on the errant thread, snapping it off. Harry had the distinct feeling that there was something more to it that she wasn't saying. He waited quietly for her to gather her thoughts.
"I think… I think maybe it's also that this is the one thing I can control," she confessed. "I can't do anything about You-Know-Who or what he's planning, I can't organize the Order of the Phoenix, I can't force the Board of Governors to sack Snape, but I can make sure that Rita helps us."
Hermione liked being in control. Harry couldn't blame her—he hated nothing more than feeling helpless. It's why he'd hated the dementors so much before he learned his patronus. Having to relive his worst memories, knowing there was nothing he could do to stop it, had been agony.
But he knew it wasn't just that.
"But you also don't trust him," he said quietly.
Hermione stilled. "It's not like I think he'd betray us," she finally said, "but no, I suppose I don't. Not like I used to anyway."
His head hurt again, so he focused on the weight of Hermione's head on his shoulder, the slight scent of citrus in her shampoo, and pushed all other thoughts away.
They were still in the bed, Hermione nestled into his side, when the door to the hospital wing opened and Sirius and Dumbledore strode inside. Upon seeing them, Sirius grinned, while Dumbledore appeared merely curious.
Hermione shot out of the bed, quickly adjusting her robes, her face turning beet red at having been caught in any sort of intimate moment by their headmaster. She fluffed her hair back nervously, running her hands over it to smooth it down.
Sirius cocked his eyebrow at Harry, as if he were wondering if Harry were similarly embarrassed. But Harry wasn't paying any attention to that. Sirius was here, and not in any sort of restraints, which had to mean…
"Are you free?" Harry asked, standing up.
"I'm free," Sirius nodded, his grin brightening his whole face, making him appear younger than Harry had ever seen him.
Harry felt a lump in his throat; he could only imagine how it must feel for Sirius. He nodded, and then he was caught up in a bear hug, Sirius crushing him to his chest. When they broke apart, Dumbledore and Hermione were both smiling, and Hermione had tears in her eyes again.
"Yes, it was all a rather quick affair once Pettigrew was brought into the room," Dumbledore said. "Sirius can't exactly be blamed for the death of a man who isn't dead. And Pettigrew told the truth when it came to the explosion that killed the others."
Harry looked at Sirius sharply. "You saw him?" he asked.
Sirius grimaced, and anger and hatred and a need for vengeance flashed through his eyes. "Yes," he said curtly.
"What's happened to him now?" Harry asked, looking between Sirius and Dumbledore.
"Amelia has taken him to her office to question him some more," Dumbledore answered. "To see if she can get him to tell the truth about what happened last night."
"So he's still sticking to that, is he?" Harry asked darkly.
"He is," Dumbledore said, eyeing Harry closely. "Although I had a number of interesting conversations with the other members of the Wizengamot—not to mention several Ministry officials I met along the way who had read the most unusual piece of news in The Daily Prophet...unusual, of course, because Rita Skeeter actually told the truth for once and somehow forgot to insult me. It seems you were quite busy after I left last night."
Harry and Hermione glanced at each other.
"What did they say?" Harry asked, too interested in the news to wonder if they were in trouble. Hermione, having recovered from her embarrassment, looked equally ready to burst.
Dumbledore smiled. "Some clearly wanted to stick their heads in the sand," he said, "though many believed it without question."
"So do you think the Minister will come around then?" Hermione asked eagerly.
Dumbledore contemplated that. "I'm not sure," he answered. "Fudge studiously avoided answering anything outright, and, as far as I know, he hadn't had a chance to talk to Lucius Malfoy yet."
"What's he got to do with it?" Harry asked, confused.
"Malfoy's one of Voldemort's Death Eaters," Sirius growled. "And he's got the ear of the Minister."
"We know Voldemort called for his Death Eaters last night," Dumbledore said, "but not the instructions he's given them."
"Was that Snape's secret mission—returning to Voldemort?" Harry blurted. Dumbledore did not answer, but from the disgust on Sirius' face, Harry knew the answer was yes.
"So if Lucius Malfoy convinces Fudge to deny You-Know-Who's return, what do you think will happen?" Hermione asked.
"There will be chaos at the Ministry," Dumbledore answered. "From the reception I got today, many won't take denial easily. And if Fudge digs his heels in, Voldemort will be able to use the disorder and confusion to his advantage. But even that chaos is preferable to outright denial by everyone."
Harry half-expected Dumbledore to ask them how they got Rita to tell the truth—or even how they contacted her so quickly—but to his surprise, Dumbledore didn't. He merely smiled at them all and told them not to celebrate too loudly, lest Madam Pomfrey get cross with them, and left.
And then Harry was left alone with Hermione and Sirius, two of his favorite people in the world. Harry studied Sirius. His hair was still long but he looked cleaner than Harry had ever seen him—even with the modifications Remus had made to the cave, nothing was better than a shower at Hogwarts—and he was wearing expensive-looking charcoal-grey robes.
"Where did you get those?" Harry asked, pointing to Sirius' clothes.
Sirius looked down and grinned. "McGonagall brought them to me this morning," he said. "Seems she and Flitwick went down to Hogsmeade and woke up the owner of Gladrags so they could get them for me."
"And the hearing really went all right?" Harry asked anxiously.
"Aside from having to see that piece of filth?" Sirius replied. "Yes. It's amazing how quickly they all changed their tune."
He smiled bitterly.
"What'll you do now?" Hermione asked, sitting down in her chair. Harry and Sirius also sat.
Sirius looked at her and blinked. "I don't know," he said slowly. "I never really…thought that far. I'll have to figure out a place for us to live, I suppose."
He glanced at Harry, and Harry saw a smidge of hesitancy in his eyes. "That is… if you still want to—"
"Of course I want to!" Harry said quickly.
Sirius smiled. "Then I'd better figure out something quick," he said. "Your end of term will be here before we know it."
Harry had a fleeting vision of a house in the countryside, of racing brooms with Sirius and making treacle tart and playing exploding snap all night. Except he knew it couldn't be like that exactly—not with Voldemort back.
He remembered the pain and panic he felt in the graveyard, and then he remembered his parents' words.
"Sirius," Harry said, "when I was in the graveyard, I… I saw my parents."
Neither Sirius nor Hermione had heard this part of the story, and so Harry quickly told them about priori incantatem.
"My dad said something," Harry explained.
"About the Pride of Portree?" Sirius asked, and at Harry's surprised expression, he added, "You mentioned it before you fell asleep last night."
"Well… what does it mean?" Harry asked.
Sirius leaned back in his chair, a faraway look in his eye, and smiled sadly.
"Your dad was a huge quidditch fanatic," he explained. "He loved playing it, and he loved watching Puddlemere United play."
Harry leaned forward, devouring this new information about his dad.
"Well, third year, we were in the Three Broomsticks having a few butterbeers the day after Puddlemere had played Portree," Sirius explained. "Portree trounced them; it was a truly embarrassing loss. All three of Puddlemere's regular chasers came down with spattergroit and the reserves weren't up to scratch. They lost the game 640-70. Your dad was absolutely distraught."
Then why had his father said it would be Portree's year?
"He's consoling himself with his fourth butterbeer when in walks McGonagall," Sirius continued. "Portree's her team, you know. And she's going on and on and on to Kettleburn and Flitwick about it—and the entire time, your dad is listening and just getting angrier and angrier. Finally, he just blows up at McGonagall, and they get into a bit of a screaming match."
"What did Professor McGonagall do to him?" Hermione whispered, her eyes wide.
"Nothing," Sirius said, shooting her a confused glance. "She wasn't about to take points off for being passionate about quidditch, after all. If she understands anything, it's that."
Hermione looked like she thought that was a particularly dumb thing to think, but Harry knew precisely how much Professor McGonagall loved the game.
"In any case, before he stormed out, your dad yelled that the day the Pride of Portree actually won the league, ostriches in yellow tutus would tap dance around the great hall," Sirius said, grinning. "So naturally, from that day on, your dad—while he still remained a staunch Puddlemere supporter—desperately hoped that Portree would win the league."
Harry and Hermione exchanged confused glances.
"So he could make ostriches dance around the great hall," Sirius replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "He spent the rest of third year and half of fourth teaching himself how to transfigure our trunks into ostriches, and then another few months working on the charm to make them dance."
"Trunks into ostriches? That's really advanced Transfiguration for a fourth year," Hermione exclaimed, the admiration evident on her face.
"Well, we were fairly good at it," Sirius responded ruefully. "If you recall, we became animagi just one year later."
Hermione had a dreamy smile on her face, and Harry thought perhaps it would be a good idea to get Sirius to teach them more advanced Transfiguration this summer. Hermione had always seemed particularly pleased when he accomplished a complex spell, and if he could transfigure a table and chairs into a horde of elephants, he could only imagine how impressed she'd be.
And it didn't hurt that a bunch of elephants might come in handy if they needed to keep some Death Eaters busy.
"So what happened?" Hermione asked. "Did he ever do it?"
"No," Sirius said sadly, shaking his head. "Portree never did win after that. At least not while we were around… but James never stopped hoping."
Harry smiled fondly at Sirius' memory, then felt his heart pounding as the reality of what Sirius' story meant sank in: It had all been real. He had wondered…
"What are you thinking, Harry?" Hermione asked, eyeing him closely.
"I didn't know if it was really them," he said quietly, "or if it was just some magic that looked like them because Voldemort had killed them with that wand. But… only my actual dad would know to say that, right? It couldn't have just been some sort of spell echo?"
Sirius frowned. "It's a very specific thing to know," he said. "I'd think it had to be your dad—or, at least, some true version of him."
His dad hadn't just been giving him a message for Sirius; he'd been letting Harry know that they were real.
"So then it was really them," Harry continued. "And that means that everything they said to me was real. That they meant it."
They'd meant it when they said that he was just like them, and they'd meant it when they'd said that they'd loved him. He knew that, of course—they'd died for him—but now he knew their entire conversation—their first conversation, their only conversation—hadn't just been some trick of magic.
Neither Sirius nor Hermione asked him what else his parents had said, but judging from the looks on their faces, they both seemed to know anyway.
There was a banging on the door—like someone was kicking it—and they all jumped. Hermione ran to open it, and when she did, Ron was standing there, laden down with trays of food.
"Sorry it took so long," Ron muttered, as Hermione moved aside so he could enter. "They sort of didn't want me to leave—kept trying to feed me there."
Judging by the crumbs on the front of Ron's robes, the house elves had been at least partially successful.
"And then they loaded me up with stuff; I could barely carry all of it," Ron said, as they worked to unpack the food. Harry surveyed the loot, and felt his stomach rumble again.
As he bit into a chicken leg, listening to Sirius tell another story about his time at Hogwarts, Harry rather thought that he could get used to more afternoons like this.
If Harry thought the rest of the school had treated him strangely when he was accused of being the heir of Slytherin, or when his name came out of the goblet of fire, he was sorely mistaken. Those times had nothing on the days between him leaving the hospital wing and end of term.
There were those who avoided looking him in the eyes, always followed by whispers when he walked by, and there were the awed, astonished faces. Some, he knew, thought he was a total nutter. Others seemed to believe him—and that scared them more than anything because believing him meant Voldemort was back.
Gryffindor Tower was more subdued than ever. Dean, Seamus, Lavender and Parvati watched Harry and his friends carefully their first night back. It was Dean who hesitantly asked Harry about Rita's article.
"So it's true then?" he asked, and at Harry's affirmative response, he nodded his head awkwardly and said, "We weren't sure… Her last few articles about you haven't exactly been…accurate."
"Love potions, honestly," Lavender muttered, but her eyes were very wide.
"Well, this one's true," Hermione insisted.
Everyone—from Dennis Creevey to Cormac McLaggen—had been hanging on their every word, and from that moment on, it was like all of Gryffindor Tower was waiting for something, for any sign or indication that things were changing in the world at large.
Cedric, Fleur and Viktor were similarly pensive. None of them seemed to know what to say, and when Harry thanked them for their help, especially Fleur's help with nonverbal spells, she smiled grimly and said, "Eet was nothing… 'Ou saved my sister, and zat means ze world."
Harry had been in far more danger in Voldemort's hands than Gabrielle had ever been in at Hogwarts, but Fleur didn't quite seem to see the distinction—or maybe this was just another thing about siblings and families that he just didn't understand.
But mostly, Harry just liked sitting quietly with his friends, not talking at all or talking about something other than Voldemort. The day before the Leaving Feast, Luna gave him the best distraction of all.
He, Hermione and Neville were holed up in the library—he felt like he was in a fishbowl even in Gryffindor Tower, and with exams over, the library was deserted—when she meandered in, looking like she'd been walking in a daydream.
"Hello," she greeted them, her voice floating over as she sat at their table.
Harry expected her to ask him about the article—she seemed to be one of the few people not afraid to ask him direct questions—but to his surprise, she didn't.
"Did you still want to go and talk to the Gray Lady?" Luna asked.
"Why?" Harry responded, completely confused, but from Neville and Hermione's expressions, they knew exactly what she was talking about.
"We talked about it before… before the task," Neville explained. "We think she might know something about house elves."
"She's more than a thousand years old," Luna added.
"We don't have to go right now," Hermione said uncertainly. "If you don't feel like talking, I mean."
He hadn't felt like talking, but Harry felt himself pushing to his feet.
"No, I think we should go," he declared. "If we don't figure it out then what happened to Winky could happen to any of the house elves."
Hermione's expression when he said that was so affectionate he felt his face grow hotter and had to look away.
And so it was decided. Luna knew the Ravenclaw ghost preferred haunting one of the corridors on the fifth floor this time of day—it had some paintings she quite liked—and sure enough, when they got there, a young woman with long hair was gazing upon a portrait of a forest, inspecting it thoroughly. She had a regal presence, her long neck straight, her expression snooty. Luna went to stand beside her.
"You've brought friends this time," the ghost murmured, never taking her eyes from the trees before her.
"Yes," Luna beamed, almost proudly, as if this were the first time anyone had ever accused her of having friends.
They talked quietly for a while about brush strokes and lighting and use of color, and Harry found himself getting antsy.
The Gray Lady noticed because she commented, "Your friend doesn't appear to like art."
"I like it just fine," Harry answered, although the truth was he hadn't spent much time looking at the paintings at Hogwarts unless they were conversing with him—or, in the case of Sir Cadogan, attempting to quarrel with him.
The Gray Lady turned, leveling her haughty expression on them.
"It's not that we don't like art," Hermione explained hastily. "My dad and I actually go to museums quite regularly, though he prefers modern art to… Well, in any case, it's just that we have some important questions to ask you."
"About what?" the Gray Lady asked, her expression guarded.
"About house elves," Hermione answered eagerly. "About how they came to be enslaved—"
"Enslaved?" the ghost asked, her tone incredulous. "You do not sound like most of the witches and wizards who have walked through these halls."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Hermione said stiffly, and Harry could see her temper rising.
"We were curious if they'd always served wizards," Neville interrupted. "Or if, perhaps, some magic made them wish to serve."
The Gray Lady surveyed them. "And why would you wish to know about that?" she asked.
"Who wouldn't want to understand the boundaries and capabilities of magic?" Luna asked, her face unassuming, her expression open and honest.
The Gray Lady smiled. "A true Ravenclaw," she said fondly.
"So, is there something there, then?" Harry asked. "Do you know something?"
The Gray Lady was quiet for a while. Harry and his friends waited, and it felt to Harry as if they were on the edge of something.
"Even in my time, house elves served wizards. It was the way it was then, as it is now," she said.
"But what about before?" Hermione pressed. "Was there ever any talk of anything, any rumors, any—"
"If magic that bound a race ever existed, it's not magic children should be playing with," the Gray Lady said sharply. "There are some things—some magic—that are not yours to touch. You pay a high price if you do not learn that lesson."
She spoke as if from experience.
"We don't want to enslave any more creatures," Hermione said testily. "We want to help the house elves if we can—"
"We want to stop Voldemort," Harry interrupted her, earning a jolt from Hermione and Luna and a squeak from Neville. "But I suppose a ghost wouldn't care about that."
"Well, I—what?" the Gray Lady sputtered, and for the first time she didn't appear composed.
"Lord Voldemort," Harry repeated. "He returned to full power a few days ago, and the only reason he accomplished it was because he had a house elf to do his bidding. She's dead now because of it, but since most old pureblood families have house elves, and most of his followers come from those families, then that means he's got countless more house elves at his disposal to wage war on the rest of us. How many of them will die? How many people will get killed because those house elves are forced to do what he wants? If you care about that at all, then you'll help us."
If ghosts could blush, Harry was certain she would have. Her cheeks, however, did turn more opaque.
"Well, of course I care!" she responded heatedly. "Of course I—"
She stopped abruptly. Harry stared back.
"I do not know what magic was used," she said finally. "I only know that they were not always wizards' servants."
"How do you know that?" Harry asked.
"You knew the founders?" Harry asked, but even as he said it, he did the math in his head. If she lived more than a thousand years ago and she went to Hogwarts, there was a good chance she knew the founders.
"Yes," the Gray Lady answered, her eyes guarded. "And Helga Hufflepuff thought house-elf servitude was cruel. She sought to end it—though she did not get much help from her fellow founders."
"Not even Gryffindor?" Hermione asked, her dismay evident.
"Not even him," the Gray Lady answered. "When Helga Hufflepuff could not free them, she did the next best thing—she brought as many house elves to Hogwarts as she could find, ensuring they would at least have fair and benevolent masters. The house elves would answer to the headmasters of Hogwarts—and she believed they would be just and kind."
"But if they're still working at Hogwarts, then that means Helga Hufflepuff never found a way to free them, doesn't it?" Luna asked.
"I would not know," the Gray Lady answered. "I know she never stopped looking for answers. And whatever research she did would likely still be in her office."
"Her what?" Harry asked. He'd never heard of the founders having offices. It could be any of the rooms by now.
The Gray Lady smiled haughtily. "You did not think Salazar Slytherin was the only one who hid his secrets in Hogwarts, did you?" she asked. "They all left their marks in their own way."
"Where could we find this room?" Harry asked eagerly.
"I don't know," the Gray Lady said, her eyes clouding over. "I was never deemed worthy enough to enter. The only secret hideaway I know about belonged to my own house—a room that provides all that you require."
Harry and Hermione glanced at each other nervously. If you had to be a Hufflepuff to enter, none of them were getting in even if they did find this office.
"Well," Hermione said, and Harry could see her wheels turning, "where can we find this room of requirement?"