Yes, I am writing again. After reading some enthralling work by my longtime correspondents and personal messages from old fans, I have decided to put aside my real life difficulties and take another shot at finishing this story.

Chapter 35: The Road Ahead

As the new term got underway, it seemed to Harry like Hogwarts had become something completely different, like a child who has just stepped into adulthood unawares and is not quite sure how to proceed with only itself to rely upon; Harry could definitely sympathize with that. Dumbledore's absence shook the school to its core, especially when Professor McGonagall broke the news to the students at the beginning of term. Harry thought the tremors of uncertainty and anguish that ran through them would never cease.

The entire school seemed to exist on a razor's edge now. Fights and squabbles broke out in the halls over the most trivial of things and Filch broke them up with such viciousness he was temporarily relieved by Professor McGonagall until he could regain what little equilibrium he'd had before. The teachers became a bit stricter, a little less tolerant and a little more watchful. This was bad because difficult tasks such as non-verbal spells were now expected in every class and the teachers were less inclined to give extra help.

Harry had no clue how he was ever going to pass his N.E.W.T.s at this rate; despite his status as the savior of the wizarding world who was going to defeat the greatest dark wizard ever known he barely comprehended the basic gist of what most of the Professors taught these days. Not that he was alone in this sentiment; the whole group of D.A. members who were in seventh year was looking more and more strained after every lesson.

This building pressure of academics combined with the loss of the secure feeling Dumbledore's presence had given them all manifested itself in a kind of nervous hyper-alertness, making everyone seem as though they were constantly ready to run from or attack anything that made a loud noise. Ron remarked that it must have been what Mad-Eye Moody felt like all the time, everyone else promptly told him to shut up while looking inwardly disturbed.

The complexities of their current lessons were even giving Hermione trouble. Harry felt guilty when he found he took secret pleasure in knowing that her normal superiority only got her to the point where she was struggling, not bogged down like the rest of them, but struggling. However, at least Hogwarts was still open, Harry had heard that the school governors, acting on heavy public pressure from concerned parents, were a hairsbreadth from closing the school, or at least giving parents much wider latitude to withdraw their children if they saw fit. Several students either did not show up for the beginning of term, or left with their parents soon after. To his gratification, Harry found that all of the D.A. (Even the pathologically nervous Hannah Abbot and the abrasive Michael Corner.) had opted to stay, some over the vehement objections of their parents. However, Hermione had overheard Professor McGonagall telling the other heads of house that the school governors were watching like hawks, ready to shut Hogwarts down at the slightest hint of Death Eater activity.

Harry wondered if he should feel grateful or scared that this was the least of his problems.

Hagrid practically canceled Care of Magical Creatures altogether, spending long hours in the protected parts of the forest with Grawp. He was talkative enough when Harry, Ron and Hermione went down to visit him in the second week of term. But his attention would waver constantly and he seemed to stare off into space at odd moments. Harry thought that perhaps Dumbledore's death had hit the half-giant the hardest of all.

"T'ain't right," Hagrid muttered into his bucket-sized mug of tea, "I don' hold with it. It jest ain't right, Dumbledore'd never approve." He glowered out the cabin window in the direction of the gates where the sun was blazing.

Harry and Ron looked at one another in confusion; Hagrid had been saying that all during their visit but neither had any idea what he meant. They were both seated at the table while Hermione sat on the edge of Hagrid's massive bed. (Ginny had been unable to come, saying she had to go do some work in the hospital wing but not saying what.) Naturally Hermione seemed to know exactly what Hagrid meant by this cryptic mumbling and nodded in her bossiest fashion. "I think it's deplorable too Hagrid, can't anything be done about it?"

"Nope," Hagrid said heavily, "not now that the ruddy vow's been taken. Can't change it. He's the boss o' them."

Harry sighed deeply, that's what they were talking about. Darius and his new "followers". He hadn't stopped kicking himself since he'd seen Darius' reaction to being put in charge of the vampires. But as Hagrid had said there wasn't anything that could be done, by definition the vow was unbreakable. Now he wished he hadn't handed command over to Darius so quickly, but he'd just been desperate to not have the vampires as his direct responsibility. The whole affair just made him angry and disgusted.

However, despite the unsettling scene when Darius had taken control of the vampires, so far they'd been the model of good behavior. Not a single one of the lesser vampires had been seen by anyone since the night of their binding. Harry himself had only glimpsed the two remaining master vampires Krause and Alexei Dolohov in deep conference with Darius once. None of the rest of the population of Hogwarts were even aware of the existence of the grim guards of the school borders. However, disturbing rumors of half-glimpsed dark figures outside the walls in the shadows or prowling through Hogsmeade after nightfall had begun to circulate.

The conversation had just arrived at this topic as Harry pulled himself out of his thoughts. "Yeah, they bin crawlin' around Hogsmeade at night the rotters." Hagrid rumbled while Hermione looked serious and Ron looked bored. "Raider says they're jes 'familiarizin' themselves with the area,' but I don' think they ought ter be anywhere near the place. Never know when one o' them ruddy bloodsuckers is gonna have at some poor soul."

"But they can't Hagrid," Hermione responded, though her body language indicated she agreed with him, "the vow says they can't hurt anyone not…"

"D'yeh think that's goin' ter hold 'em long?" Hagrid roared in a sudden fury, spraying tea across the table. "They're vampires Hermione! And they're goin' ter betray us as soon as they can! That's what they are and don' yeh forget it!"

He was in such a terrible mood that they left soon afterward, hurrying out into the noonday sunlight. The snowfall of Christmas had briefly disappeared, but the cold wind cut through the sun's warmth and low clouds on the horizon promised more winter weather to come. As they came in the front doors Ginny ran up to them with a harried look on her face. "Where have you been? Professor Raider found me and called class early! We have to be there right now! I've been running myself ragged tracking down the D.A. members I couldn't reach with the trick galleons!"

"What's he calling class early for?" Ron griped, "It doesn't start for another two hours!"

"How should I know?" Ginny snapped back irritably as she seized Harry's hand and began pulling him down the hall. "Has he ever explained himself to you?" Ron growled but couldn't seem to come up with an adequate answer for that one. "I thought not. Now hurry up and we'll only be a little late."

The remainder of the D.A. was milling around in front of the Defense classroom when they arrived. As usual Harry immediately found himself bombarded by questions. "Keep it down!" He yelled and the noise subsided. "Okay, does anyone know why he's called class early?" He was met with a panorama of blank looks.

"He's probably angry about something," Luna said in her dreamy voice from where she was standing in the back with Neville, "he usually does something unexpected when he's unhappy about something we've done."

Luna's bluntness had its usual effect. "Oh no, not again!" Parvati and Padma seized each other nervously.

"We'll be running laps 'til doomsday, mark me words lads!" Seamus said loudly.

"Hmph, as if physical training weren't already worthless!" Hermione snorted in response, though she looked slightly anxious as well.

"Now really that's hardly the right attitude to have…!" Ernie Macmillan started pompously, his usual beginning to long winded speeches.

"Oh shut it you!" Snarled Michael Corner, jostling Ernie. "You don't know anything about the right attitude!"

Harry raised his wand, intending to shoot out some sparks and restore order, when the door to the Defense classroom opened silently and of its own accord as it had done ever since Darius had taken up residence. This had a far greater effect then any of Harry's sparks might have had, a deafening apprehensive silence fell immediately. Everyone stared at the open doorway to the shadowed room, none wanting to be first through. Sighing inwardly, Harry moved to the front of the group and walked into the room with as much confidence as he could muster, the D.A. followed him like skittish ducklings.

He didn't see Darius when he went in, but he knew from long experience that the vampire had the uncanny ability to hide in the shadows, Ron had sworn that Darius could even hide in the shadow cast by a broomstick if he chose to. Spreading out, the D.A. cautiously moved to their seats to sit down. The place was as sparsely furnished as ever with nothing on the walls and just the quill, inkpot, and raven perched on the large wooden desk. Harry glanced at the bird unable to suppress a chill at the memory of how the Reaper had used them to deliver his sadistic messages. Hermione shivered upon seeing it, the Reaper had delivered a particularly terrifying message to her last year using them. However, it appeared to be either asleep or completely uninterested in the students, Harry couldn't tell in the dim light.

As he looked at it his eyes were drawn upward and he saw a new addition to the room, two small, ornate glass urns sat on the shelf behind the desk. Harry peered at them, taking a few steps closer to confirm it. They were both full of fine grey dust. This struck him as odd and he was just about to take a closer look when a voice spoke at his elbow. "They're vampire dust Mr. Potter."

Having expected the ensouled vampire to appear at the most inopportune moment as he always did, Harry managed not to jump, Darius did indeed have a flair for the melodramatic. Next to him Ginny managed only a slight twitch, both Ron and Hermione did as well. "Good morning Professor Raider."

"It stopped being morning four minutes ago Mr. Potter, pay better attention." Darius said in his usual brusque voice that chastened without sounding as though it really mattered to him.

"Sir," Hermione was still looking at the two urns behind the desk, "I er… Who are they?" She sounded like she didn't really want to know.

Darius glided past her and tapped a finger on the rightmost jar. "This is Legion Tartarus. And this…" He then tapped the leftmost jar. "Is the rest of Legion Tartarus."

Hermione gasped, Ron cocked his head as if wondering he had heard right. Harry found himself lost for words, it seemed a little more extreme form of trophy taking than Darius had ever displayed before. Ginny was the practical one and asked. "Why do you have that Professor?"

"Because I'd rather not have to fight him sometime when his attention's not diverted elsewhere, he's actually facing me, and when I'm not expecting it." Darius replied bluntly.

Although Harry had no idea what he was talking about, Hermione seemed to grasp it because her hand flew to her mouth. "You mean…?"

"How many witches, wizards or muggles claim to have killed Dracula?" Darius said in answer. "Tons over the years have claimed to do it, and the thing is a lot of them actually have killed him. However, something a lot of people don't know about these old master vampires is that they're not impossible to kill; it's getting them to stay dead that's the hard part. If I had left him like that, he'd have recollected himself after a while, being so close to the Hogwarts wards it might have taken him decades, but he'd have done it. I'd rather he stayed in these." He tapped the urns again. "And there's no need to sit down Mr. Finch-Fletchley." Justin leapt out of his chair and everyone else who was moving towards desks immediately stopped.

His heart sinking Harry shook his head, usually when Darius didn't want them to sit down it meant something very physically strenuous. "Should we head to the grounds Professor?"

"No, that won't be necessary." Darius replied, and his voice suddenly got very hard, everyone heard it in his tone and the tension level in the room immediately thickened. The vampire gestured and Emmeline Vance abruptly stepped forward from the shadows, waving her wand over the desk. It was abruptly covered with objects.

Harry examined them and found his picture of Sirius Darius had confiscated. All of the objects were the D.A.'s precious objects taken as ransom for the task of taking Darius' pendant. As one the D.A. surged forward with a sudden upsurge in glad chatter and smiles. They crowded around the desk sorting through the pile and pulling out their objects. Darius simply folded his arms and watched impassively until everyone had retreated with their belongings.

"Does everyone have their possessions?" He asked calmly and received a chorus of nods. "Very well, you've all failed my class, good day." Without further preamble he and Emmeline headed out the door. Harry looked wildly around at a sea of horrified faces for a moment, and then hurried out of the room as it erupted in a cacophony of cries and shouts; everyone seemed to want to yell at everyone else at the same time. As he headed out the door he could have sworn he heard Hermione faint, or perhaps it was Ron.

Darius and Emmeline were walking slowly down the hallway when Harry burst through the door and ran after them. Harry had time to note through the shock and desperation the offhand comment had inspired in him that they appeared to be arguing, he hoped it was about the decision to fail the whole D.A. "Professor wait!"

The dark-clad vampire turned languidly and before Harry could think of what to say he had the silver pendant dangling in front of his face. "You see this Mr. Potter? Months ago I gave you the task of taking it from me. In all that time it has never left my possession for more than a moment and it has never been in any of your people's possession for a moment or otherwise. You yourself and those closest to you have never even attempted to retrieve it as instructed and from the other members I have been subjected to nothing but multiple slightly inconvenient assaults, few of which were well-planned and none of which were even remotely effective. As far as I am concerned you and your D.A. have not acquitted yourselves as I had hoped. Therefore I have no choice but to fail all of you as I warned would happen."

Harry took note that Emmeline had shifted when he said this, and she looked unhappy with the situation. If he could just push it a little… "But Professor we've… Well we've just had more…"

"More important things to do than what your teacher has instructed you to do?" Darius interrupted critically.

"Yes!" Harry said before he could stop himself, his mouth seemed to run away with his good sense. "With everything that's been happening with the Chamber, and Ginny, and Dumbledore what makes you think I've had the time to devote serious thought and effort to your instruction? That doesn't mean I won't do it and that doesn't mean I don't care about what we're learning from you here! But I don't think you can fail us for that!"

He finally clamped a lid on his outburst and inwardly cringed; waiting for Darius to respond with some viciously sarcastic words or worse, just flatten him with a roundhouse. However, the ensouled vampire was watching him with a contemplative expression rather than a wrathful one. "I've never heard you speak to me like that Mr. Potter…" He glanced at Emmeline, who said nothing but simply arched an eyebrow at him. Harry had no idea what that meant but apparently Darius did; he scowled a bit but nodded somewhat petulantly and turned back to Harry

"All right, you have one chance." He held out the pendant once more. "Get this from me by the end of the day, and that means that one second after midnight is too late. I fully expect to see not only your best but everyone in the D.A.'s best as well. If I don't, my judgment stands and you still fail. Agreed?" There was something in his voice that was different. Harry couldn't quite place it but he somehow felt an equality arising between them, a leveling of the playing field. Perhaps, he should treat this as Darius had thrown down a challenge not teacher-to-pupil, but man-to-man.

Harry thought about this for a moment. He wasn't so sure about the stakes of this little deal. However, he could hardly afford to refuse; the entire D.A. failing Defense Against the Dark Arts was something he couldn't even begin to live with. If passing meant he had to fulfill Darius' seemingly purposeless directives, then he would do it. Facing the vampire squarely he nodded. "Agreed." On a whim he stretched out his hand, Darius stared at it, his grey eyes clouded. "Know this Mr. Potter, this is for keeps. I will not hold back in my efforts to prevent you from succeeding, I expect the same from you." The vampire strode off without another word, leaving Harry alone in the hallway with his empty hand extended.

Unsurprisingly, when he returned to the room it was in a state of the unruliest chaos. Ginny was engaged in a furious shouting match with Michael Corner while Ron held onto a pale and groggy-looking Hermione as they both tried to restore order using their authority as Head Boy and Girl. Hannah Abbot was hyperventilating in one corner, while Susan Bones tried to calm her down; as soon as he came in the door everyone immediately focused on him and began shouting again.

"Shut it!" Harry roared at the top of his lungs, his mind was already racing at top speed and he didn't have time to deal with panic or hysteria. "Shut it all of you!" A sickening silence fell but for the sound of Hannah's gasps. "Okay now listen to me, I talked him into giving us one more chance to prove to him we've got what it takes. If we use everything we've got against everything he's got and get that silver thing from him by the end of the day he won't fail us."

"Oh is that all?" Seamus asked sarcastically, though the sarcasm was not directed at Harry. "He's barking, do you really think we can do that by the end of the day? Some of us have been trying for months and it's ruddy impossible! He's stopped us dead without even trying and you say now he's going to be in top form? No matter what it's impossible!"

"Nothing's impossible." Hermione replied with a little of her old bossy grit, Harry was glad to see her face had regained its color at the prospect of finding a way out of the failing grade.

Neville immediately chipped in with his agreement. "We're all going to do it this time, there's no way he can stop all of us."

"But this time he's watching for it." Susan Bones remarked from the corner. "He knows we're coming and he knows when. That gives him a decided advantage."

Everyone else in the room immediately looked expectantly at Harry. He felt his skin crawl at their scrutiny, but he ignored it. They expected a solution from him so he would have to deliver it. Slowly a grin spread over his face. "Yes he's going to be ready for it, so we give him something he couldn't possibly prepare for." He looked up at the D.A., "Anyone who's got one, go get your brooms…"

The bright afternoon sun was being swallowed up by evening shadows and low clouds when Darius made his way out of the front doors of the castle and down towards the Forbidden Forest and Hagrid's cabin. The cold wind cut like a knife and the frosted grass crunched underfoot. He walked with the same deliberate pace he normally did seemingly at complete ease. However, as he drew near to Hagrid's abode his pace slowed. An outside observer would have seen his expression change slightly. Suddenly he halted, whipped his arm around behind him and snatched at the air. There was a squeak of surprise and the master vampire hauled some indistinct shape back around him. Raising his scythe he tapped near his hand with the handle. The indistinct object in his hand coalesced into the struggling form of Colin Creevey.

Darius shook his head as the small boy struggled in his grip, his feet kicking at the air. "And here I was thinking I wouldn't be able to see it coming. Not a particularly good effort Mr. Creevey, even with the Disillusionment charm. I expected better, and I thought I told Mr. Potter to work with all of you, not let you go it alone."

Colin abruptly stopped struggling and actually smiled at the taller man. "Well you see Professor, I'm not actually alone." A vague shimmer in the air rose to the left and shifting forms coalesced into Susan Bones, Hannah Abbot, Michael Corner and Lavender Brown all aiming their wands at the ensouled vampire.

Darius reacted with his usual speed, shifting his weight he swung his arm around and hurled Colin bodily at the group of students. He'd timed it well and Colin crashed horizontally into Hannah and Michael and then rebounded into Lavender, sending all four to the ground with enough force to completely wind them. Susan neither hesitated nor glanced at her fallen comrades but sent a stunner flashing at Darius nonverbally. Darius leaned backward and whipped his scythe blade across his body in time to reflect it back at her. Susan was quick with her dodge but still took the stunner in her side.

The second Darius had turned fully towards the group to block the stunner a second patch of air shimmered and Neville, Luna, Ernie Macmillan, and Terry Boot appeared as their disillusionment charms were removed. Darius was caught unawares with four wands at his back until Ernie let out a shout of triumph as he (unnecessarily) whirled his wand. At the sound, Darius fell completely flat on the ground and the spells whistled over his head. Without pausing the vampire struck the ground with his scythe and with a rumble the earth shuddered violently and seemed to ripple out from the point of impact, the ground quivered heavily under the four standing students, making it impossible to aim correctly.

Luna and Neville tried anyway, both sending disarming spells in Darius' general direction. Neville's hissed by, a clean miss, but Luna's struck him high on the shoulder as he got to his feet. In typical Luna fashion it didn't do what it was supposed to do but had a helpful effect anyway. Darius' long coat abruptly flipped up and over his head, tugging him off balance and blinding him. Instead of wasting time struggling with the rebellious garment, the vampire dropped his scythe, put both arms up and fell to his knees, snatching up his fallen weapon almost as soon as it hit the ground. The black coat continued to hang in the air, twisting itself so violently it was almost in knots.

Despite their upset footing both Ernie and Terry tried for summoning charms on the pendant, but Darius was much faster and dropped them both with a pair of spells that hit so hard it practically knocked them out of their shoes. Both went down and stayed there. Darius turned to face Neville and Luna, but suddenly froze as if some sixth sense had warned him of something. Abruptly he pointed his scythe behind him and roared, "Obstructus!"

Harry felt the disillusionment charm, which had thus far allowed him to observe the entire fracas unnoticed, melt back from his body and dissipate. Next to him Hermione, Parvati, and Padma all appeared as their charms failed. They had been perfectly positioned to attack Darius from behind just like Neville's group. However, Darius didn't seem inclined to fall for the same trick twice. Parvati and Padma seemed momentarily confounded by their early unveiling, but true to form Hermione did not hesitate. Her wand flicked out and a spell whipped towards Darius so fast Harry could barely see it.

Nevertheless, Darius' enhanced reflexes served him better and he seized Luna by the front of her robes and yanked her into the path of the spell an instant before it struck his face. Luna's expression was momentarily surprised but then her luminous eyes rolled up and she seemed to fall into a deep sleep.

Hermione squeaked in dismay. "Oh no! Luna I'm…"

Shoving the comatose Ravenclaw into Neville with enough force to flatten him, Darius whirled his scythe and sent a return spell at Hermione. The leg-locker curse caught her unprepared and she tottered and fell to the ground.

The twins Parvati and Padma were next as the vampire didn't even slow down. A disarming spell robbed them of their wands, which a well placed kick sent flying off into the grass. Harry leapt forward to meet the attack, the sole member of the group still able to fight effectively. Knowing the vampire's primary advantage was his speed Harry moved quickly to level the playing field.

Using a spell he had found while thumbing through one of Hermione's books combining Herbology and Charms, He bent over while running and touched his wandtip to the long, frosted grass around himself and the vampire, muttering the incantation as he hadn't yet mastered it nonverbally. "Twistan." The grass abruptly writhed like a sea of eels, grasping and sticking to whatever moved through them. With the use of this charm, Darius could not disentangle his legs fast enough to do any fancy footwork, Harry couldn't either, but he was less hampered than the vampire as he was used to being the slower one.

However the spell did have an unpleasant side effect that Harry had not anticipated. Anyone who was down on the grass, which included the vast majority of the D.A., could not move very well in the grasping plants, much less rise and fight. Harry found himself facing off against a somewhat battered and extremely hacked off looking Darius Raider. As soon as the first tendrils of grass wrapped around his ankles the ensouled vampire began sweeping his scythe in great swipes, cutting large swathes of grass in front of him and allowing himself better movement. Harry retaliated by casting trip jinxes all over the cut areas, forcing careful movement. He managed to keep his shield up and strong enough to deflect the first two curses Darius sent his way and they barely rocked him back on his heels.

They circled like that for perhaps a minute, each trying to get the upper hand, when Darius abruptly slammed his scythe down on the ground and a jet of fire burned its way along the grass toward Harry like a torpedo. Harry met it with a jet of water that stalled the blaze long enough for him to throw himself out of its path; the move cost him dearly though as he fell over one of his own trip jinxes Darius had maneuvered him into. Whipping his wand around Harry severed the tendrils of grass which tried to latch on to him and shoved himself to his knee, trying for one last spell.

He felt a slight pressure on the front of his chest and looked down to see the point of the curved scythe blade resting lightly over his heart. He followed it up the handle and the arm to the face of Darius Raider. The vampire's eyes had swirls of yellow cutting through the normal grey and he was breathing heavily. For a moment they just stared at one another then Darius said, "A worthy effort, but not enough. Checkmate Mr. Potter."

Harry looked fully into the vampire's eyes and grinned like a pirate. "Not quite, Professor."

On cue, six brooms descended from the sky like striking hawks, Ginny and Ron in the lead, flanked by Dean and Seamus on one side and Anthony Goldstein and Justin Finch-Fletchley on the other. Dean and Seamus pulled up sharply and began hurling spells from about ten meters up while Justin and Anthony swooped directly at the earthbound vampire. Darius managed a wild shockwave spell that upset Anthony and Justin into crashing, but the other fliers easily dodged the attack. Whirling with a growl Darius tried again but was disrupted in the middle of it as Hermione, stubbornly refusing to give up despite the leg lock and the difficult angle, seized her wand and hit him with a leg locker curse of her own that sent him to the ground.

Harry thought he heard the vampire snarl a word that Professors probably shouldn't use in front of students, even when said students were attacking him furiously with minor spells. Darius clawed at the earth where his scythe had fallen, seized a sizable oval-shaped stone and flicked it at the hovering attackers. The makeshift missile skipped off of the top of Seamus' head and he toppled from his perch, forcing Dean to make a dive to catch him. Ron, skimming low over the grass, snatched up Hermione out of the way of the next stone.

Harry raised his wand and jumped forward to attack, but the vampire had snatched up his scythe, undid the leg lock, and was rising to meet him. He tried to dodge but the strike was unexpected and the scythe handle hit him a solid blow to the midriff that blasted the air from his lungs. He fell backwards and was treated to the sight of Darius, his eyes blazing yellow, raise the scythe over him. But the vampire stopped suddenly and a curious expression came over his face as he turned around. Craning his neck Harry saw Ginny hovering on her broom, her feet dangling inches from the ground. She wore a very insolent smile on her face, her wand in one hand, and twirling the silver pendant around the other.

Utter silence reigned for about ten seconds.

For a moment Darius tensed and Harry thought something was about to go wrong, but when the vampire turned back toward him his eyes were grey again and his face was calm. He extended his hand and Harry took it without hesitation, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. They stared at one another for a moment, then Darius nodded once. "Well done Dumbledore's Army, and without the use of the more severe spells I've taught." The D.A. members stumbled up, in some cases supporting one another, but more or less intact. "You have earned your success. I have nothing more to teach you. Mr. Potter…" Harry straightened up, though his bruises gave him a twinge as he did so. "The D.A. is once again in your hands. Lead them wisely, I have no doubt you will need them for what is to come." He turned to Ginny and extended his hand, still smiling she flipped the pendant towards him and he caught it. "I suggest you see Madame Pomfrey if you feel the need."

Without another word, Darius calmly walked back to where his coat was still floating, jerked it down to him and subdued it with a tap of his scythe. As he put it on and retreated towards Hagrid's cabin Harry stared after him, wondering about what he had seen during the fight. Carefully, wary of what had happened with Legion Tartarus, he stretched out with his legilimency. Strangely he could discern almost nothing from the vampire's thoughts; he merely felt a sense of careful, deliberate control. He was about to close his mind again when he abruptly felt a hot sting, a kind of mental pinprick. He twitched involuntarily and withdrew with a jerk. He found himself standing amid the D.A. with the distant noise of the Reaper's laughter ringing in his ears.

For a moment he was disoriented, then he looked around at everyone grinning at him, Ron hovered close on his Cleansweep with Hermione sitting in his lap, both looking quite content with their situation. Lastly Harry met Ginny's eyes, which sparkled with mischief and joy at what they had just accomplished. Slowly they both smiled at each other and the D.A., bruised, bloodied and stained but victorious raised a heartfelt cheer.

The wild party that followed would live in Harry's memory for a long time. They had begun with a triumphant but disorderly rush into the Great Hall, upsetting Theodore Nott, Crabbe, Goyle, and his other Slytherin cronies who were having some sort of discussion in a corner. The jubilant D.A. had immediately sent Harry to the kitchens for food and drink and Dobby had practically hit the roof at the prospect of catering another party. He kept insisting that everything he brought up have Harry's picture on it, but Harry finally persuaded him that their victory had been a group effort and not completely and utterly due to his talent, heroism, and dashing good looks.

After several hours they finally retired to their respective common rooms with much backslapping and jocularity between the Houses when Professor McGonagall arrived in her dressing gown and chased them out with threats of double detentions with Snape and Professor Trelawney every day for a month for violating curfew. Once installed back in their common room, the Gryffindors began their own little party when Seamus broke out two massive bottles, one of firewhiskey for those of age and one of butterbeer for the younger element. Hermione grew stone faced at the sight of the alcohol, but Ron persuaded her to let it lie for tonight. "After all love," He stated with his most winning smile, "you only live once." He poured two glasses of whiskey for either of them despite her dubious look.

Harry surprised even himself by taking a long pull from the bottle and actually having a fairly decent tolerance for the alcohol contained within. He wondered idly if his dad had been much of a drinker, or perhaps his mum had been. Either way he was feeling pretty good when Ginny dragged him up the stairs to the boy's dormitory amid hoots and catcalls from the other students. He was fairly sure he wasn't drunk, but he wouldn't have cared if he was. It had been quite a good day and he pushed what had happened with the legilimency into the recesses of his mind for the duration.

Ginny was giggling too as she shoved him through the door and secured it behind them. "That went well. I still don't understand why you weren't the one flying though. You're the best flyer with the best broom, much as I hate to admit it."

"Tactics woman!" Harry said with a falsely superior tone. "He'd have never thought it was the actual attack if I hadn't been on the ground! He'd have been watching for something else, not focusing on telling me how badly I'd failed!"

Ginny frowned at him mock seriously, but said, "Well irregardless of your 'tactics', I think that this day was a smashing success don't you love?"

Harry smiled crookedly, "Well I don't know, that depends on how it's going to end doesn't it?"

Ginny shook her head, but was smiling as she did so. "Blokes, all you ever think about is mmphh…" Harry didn't see any particular reason to let her finish that sentence so he pulled her against him and kissed her soundly. Ginny didn't seem to mind at all and leaned into him so eagerly they stumbled backward and landed on his bed with a thump. That didn't seem so bad either so he held her tighter, rolling over so she was beneath him. Feeling her emotions so strongly and kissing her face and neck heavily for several long minutes, he thought the heat and bliss of their love would kill him.

Abruptly his mind seemed to snap at his raging hormones and he pulled back a little. "We…uh… We'd better slow down."

Ginny smiled languidly up at him. "And why is that?"

"Because I…" Well he was rather ashamed to admit it but it was important. "Because I might not be able to stop if we don't."

To his surprise Ginny seemed to expect this for all she did was keep smiling and tweak his nose in a fashion that was both interesting and somewhat painful. "Yes you will hero, I'll be sure of that. I'm the only daughter in the Weasley family you know."

That sure sounded like a mood-killer to Harry so he sat up a little more. "We'd better get going." Ginny frowned at him. "I mean Seamus or Dean or, God-forbid, Ron could be up here at any moment."

Ginny made a purring noise that was not at all unlike a cat. "No they won't, I've persuaded the female denizens of this particular common room to arrange other sleeping quarters for them for the time being."

This sounded a little dodgy to Harry so he asked, "Where?"

"Oh the common room, other dormitories…" Her smile grew mischievous. "The girl's dormitory."

"You're joking right?" She cocked an eyebrow at him. "No way. No way, that's impossible. We can't go up to the…"

"I told you before Potter," Ginny leaned back against his pillow with a satisfied smirk. "Nothing's impossible if you want it enough." She looked at him invitingly. "Now the question is; what do you want?"

Harry grinned in a feral fashion. "Well there was some treacle tart still left over from the party…" Laughing he barely ducked the alarm clock she hurled at him from a nearby bedside table. Bounding forward he trapped her arms as she reached for a heavy book and pulled her to him again. As he released her arm she reached up and turned out the light.

The following morning dawned a cold, cheerless cloudy Saturday, Harry was rudely awakened from confusing dreams about black circles on the floor and swirling green flames by an impossibly loud pounding on his door. He sat up in bed and thrust on his glasses. He was alone, Ginny must have slipped out after they had fallen asleep together, (Following a snogging session that had been much heavier with meaning than it had ever been before.) because he was alone and the annoyed snorts and groans from the other beds showed that most of his normal roommates had returned.

"Whuzzat? Whaz goin' on?" Mumbled Neville blearily, raising his head and blinking at the door.

Harry shoved himself more or less upright and stumbled to see who was making the terrible din. "What?" He asked irritably as he swung the door open. Alastor Moody stared down at him with his mismatched eyes and an inscrutable look on his scarred face. "Good morning Potter."

Harry abruptly straightened up and self-consciously tried to flatten his horribly unruly hair. "Ummm… Good morning sir. I uh…"

"I see you've had a busy night," Moody actually seemed to be grinning a little, which Harry found annoying. "Old Raider just couldn't get enough of telling us about it."

"Er…" Harry seriously doubted this was the case but wasn't about to argue. "Can I help you with something sir?"

"I'm here to take you up to a meeting with the Headmistress and others," Moody growled, suddenly all business again, "I'll be downstairs, when you're ready come along, bring your two friends."

"Oh!" The sudden spike of curiosity and concern allowed Harry to shake off the bleariness of sleep. "Of course sir! I'll be down in a moment!" He slammed the door to a chorus of curses from Seamus and Dean's beds and hurried to find his clothes.

Ten minutes later he bounded down the stairs to find Ron and Hermione sitting on one of the couches, still dressed in their same rumpled clothing from last night. He looked at them searchingly but all he got was a self-conscious blush from Hermione and a slight reddening of Ron's ears. "Busy night?" he asked suggestively.

"Don't start with me Harry," Ron grumbled, "you're not one to talk anyway." This was true so Harry decided to let it go for now.

They climbed out of the portrait hole in silence and followed the grizzled Auror down the mostly empty hallways and passages to the Headmaster's office. "Discipline!" Barked Moody to the gargoyle and it sprang aside for him. Harry was momentarily taken aback, but after a minute he figured it would be unrealistic for Professor McGonagall to continue with the trend of passwords chosen by Dumbledore now that she was Headmistress. He fought against a wave of sadness as he trailed Moody up the stairs.

He heard raised voices that cut off as Moody pushed open the door at the top. He stepped into the office, trying not to look at the place where Fawkes and Dumbledore's various other oddities had once sat, or the picture that now sat with the other former Headmasters and mistresses of Hogwarts. Inside gathered around a large table were Remus Lupin, Hagrid, Tonks, Snape, Darius, the Auror Professor Carth, and Bill. Professor McGonagall was behind the desk and appeared to have just leapt to her feet because her chair was overturned. Remus, Tonks, and Bill sat or stood on one side, all looked unhappy about something. Snape was standing slightly back from the table, his expression sour. Hagrid had wedged himself into a corner of the office and just looked despondent. Darius was leaning back in his chair and smirking in an almost Malfoy-ish way. Professors McGonagall and Carth were both slightly flushed and looked as though they had just been shouting.

"Well what took so long?" Demanded Professor Carth.

"Hello." Remus smiled his kindly smile, Snape sneered behind him. Hagrid waved at them but did not seem to want to speak.

"Wotcher gang!" Tonks winked at them, though her smile did not reach her eyes. Harry glanced over his shoulder, Hermione looked concerned, her eyes flicking from face to face. Ron looked suspicious, glaring at Snape when the Potions Master wasn't looking.

Moody ignored the reception and stumped up to the table. "We're meeting here today to talk about my plan to deal with a group of Death Eaters I think we have to take care of. And you're here Potter because we need your help to get it done." Professor McGonagall looked even more severe at this, if possible Snape's expression grew even more sour and Ms. Carth snorted just slightly.

All of this fell on Harry like a wet blanket. "We're going out after some Death Eaters?"

"No Potter," Moody growled, his magical eye spinning crazily, "we're going to invite them here."