And still on a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,

When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

When the road is a gypsy's ribbon looping the purple moor,

The highwayman comes riding-


The highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard,

He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred,

He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there

But the landlord's black-eyed daughter-

Bess, the landlord's daughter-

Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Alfred Noyes – The Highwayman

Chapter 25: Unexpected circumstances

As he looked at the old, brightly painted and clearly welcoming building in front of him, Harry tried not to wince. He had nothing but shady, half-formed memories of the last time he had been inside, but it was definitely something he didn't want to remember, or even think about. It was a pity Madam Puddyfoot's had no private rooms – he would have been happy never to put his feet inside the Three Broomsticks again.

He let out a breath, trying to steady his nerves, and shoved his hands inside his pockets. No point in making a spectacle of his stress, after all. He took a quick glance at his two companions, and frowned slightly when he saw Ginny watching him worriedly. She knew he hadn't slept well that night, since she had caught him in the common room studying at tree in the morning and he hadn't been able to come up with any sort of plausible excuse. It was humiliating enough that he was having trouble with this so many months after the fact, he didn't want her to worry – she had problems enough of her own to handle, and her reason for being there wasn't exactly stress-free, either. When she had shown him the letter from her mother, addressed to both herself and Ron, he couldn't quite believe it came from bubbly, mild-mannered Mrs Weasley. Obviously, family history was a very sore subject. But Ginny didn't want to give up, and said she would rather face her mother's wrath than be ignorant of her origins – particularly when said origins could become a huge asset in the war effort. So here she was, ready to take the first steps towards claiming her blood rights.

She took his arm as they crossed the threshold, and he felt an absurd wave of gratitude for the simple warmth of her touch. They made their way into the Tree Broomsticks, Neville following behind. He waved to Madam Rosemetra, and went up the stairs to one of the private rooms on the second floor, focussing on what he was doing, counting the number of steps, making a concentrated effort to ignore his surroundings. He was glad to get to the second floor corridor, and tried to shake off the waves of unease he had felt since coming in.

He'd made sure they would have privacy for this meeting, and soon found the room he had booked. He glanced at Ginny standing beside him, and gave her a small smile. Behind him, Neville was struggling out of his outer robes, and seemed slightly flushed by the exertion. They were the only ones there, having decided that since this meeting would deal only with the next Wizengamot session, there was no point in making a big deal out of it, and forcing people who wouldn't be present to lose an afternoon of freedom with matters of protocol and strategy. Hermione had protested, since everything was an opportunity for further learning in her mind, but the others had prevailed, and she was even at this moment strolling through the village with Ron and Luna.

He knocked lightly on the door, announcing their presence, and walked in. The man sitting in the small sitting room was every inch the severe and imposing figure he remembered. Still grey eyes, sharp features – he was the sort of person who could command the attention of a room with no effort. John Hellington stood up as they entered the room, and smiled slightly at Harry as he extended his hand.

"Hello John, I hope we haven't kept you waiting long," Harry said pleasantly, exchanging handshakes. Then motioning towards his companions continued, "Allow me to make the introductions. This is Ginevra Weasley, and Neville Longbottom. Neville, Ginny, John Hellington. I hope that between the four of us we can manage to prepare for the winter session of the Wizengamot with some hope of success."

"I'm delighted to make your acquaintance," John said quietly. "I know both of you by reputation, of course, and through Harry's correspondence."

"Reputation?" Neville asked in surprise.

Raising an eyebrow inquisitively, John answered, "Of course, Mister Longbottom. You are the Heir to a powerful family, as I'm sure you are acutely aware. Among the right circles, this is the sort of thing that is well known. There aren't that many attorneys who have knowledge of Council Law and we are a tight knit group."

Neville blushed slightly, but seemed to gather his composure quickly, and with a small nod, said quietly, "Of course."

Harry made his way towards the window, leaning against the sill, but turned towards the others as they took seats around a simple wooden table that dominated the centre of the room.

Ginny leaned back on her chair, and angled an inquiring glance at their barrister. "That does not account for my reputation," she said archly. "I do so hope you haven't heard anything too bad."

Harry hid a small smile at the momentary silence that greeted this statement, before John could gather his composure. "Of course not, Miss Weasley. The Prewett seat is vacant for the time being, but if any of the Weasleys manifest a talent, a claim could be made quite easily - and probably be accepted - regardless of the state of affairs between your parents and grandparents. As I said, people who deal with the Wizengamot tend to keep abreast of such things."

This was obviously news to Ginny, who had come precisely to ask for more information regarding her family history - particularly the legal aspects surrounding the inheritance and the transmission of the title to the House.

"Is it that simple, then? But we don't even know what our talent is supposed to be – my mother has refused to speak about it, and I have no idea where the family library is, or even if we could gain access to it," she asked in a much more serious voice, leaning forward to rest her arms on the table.

"I'm sorry, Miss Weasley, I don't have such precise information, but I could look into it, if you give me leave. I would need your power of attorney to have access to Family records, but once I have those, it should be fairly simple to find the information you are after." With a quick glance at Harry and Neville, he added, "One more vote in the Council wouldn't hurt us, either."

"Well, I'm the youngest, so it probably won't be my vote, but I agree, one more vote would be useful," Ginny said. She drummed her fingers on the table, and exchanged a sideways glance with Harry. He knew this was something she wasn't absolutely comfortable doing – openly defying her mother's wishes was a difficult thing to do, and even Ron's curiosity had curbed when faced with her displeasure. But Ginny wasn't so easily cowed, and with a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and asked, "What do I need to do?"

John produced a suitcase from under the table, and opened it to reveal neatly stacked piles of parchment. He extracted a form and slid in towards Ginny, along with a self-inking quill. "Just sign the form, Miss Weasley, and I can start working on that for you. I should have some answers fairly quickly – Wills and such are usually public records, and you certainly have the right to access the family records, since you are a concerned party. Afterwards we'll see if you have the right to claim a part of the inheritance, and just who is the Heir Presumptive."

Ginny nodded slightly, taking care to read the whole parchment before signing at the bottom. She was well aware of the seriousness of contracts in the magical words, and that a willing signature could bring unpleasant consequences.

John took back the form, and put it back inside his case, where it disappeared into one of the compartments.

With a slight smirk and a glance towards Harry that the latter didn't appreciate, John said, in a deceptively mild voice "Maybe we could go over wardrobe and protocol so we can get it over with?"

Harry glared at Neville as the other boy started sniggering, and moved towards the table, leaning his forearms against the back of a chair.

Rolling his eyes, he asked caustically, "Could someone tell me just what the problem is?"

At this, Neville couldn't hold back his amusement and exploded into peals of laughter, so much so that there were tears streaming down his face.

John, obviously used to controlling his reactions in worst situations, had suspiciously bright eyes. He took out a package from his suitcase, but didn't open it, choosing instead to explain matters a little before delivering the blow.

"So, Harry," he said, "I explained that the Wizengamot, particularly when in full session, is a very hierarchical institution – "

"What he means, Harry," Neville interrupted, between fits of giggles, "is that they are a bunch of old coots frozen in time, and that protocol hasn't changed since the Middle Ages. That means that the clothing requirements haven't either."

At this, Ginny started laughing as well, and Harry blanched slightly, eyes opening wide. "What?"

"Oh, don't worry Harry, it's not as if you have to wear tights of anything!" Neville exclaimed.

John unfolded the package in front of him, and Harry stared transfixed at the object that made its appearance, before frowning in distaste. "I am not wearing that!"

"Oh, come on, Harry, it will match your eyes!" Ginny got out.

"I am sorry to say it is required, Mister Potter. There are certain matters where the Wizengamot doesn't compromise, and wardrobe is one of them," John said, more seriously. "I promise I chose the least objectionable one from among your family's collection."

"I find it rather beautiful, Harry," Ginny said, not hiding her smile, even if she had managed to control her laughter.

Harry shot her a glare, and took the item to examine it more closely. It was a thin, delicate coronet, no wider than one of his fingers, made of silver with a beautiful, flowing filigree running around it. There were tiny emeralds and rubies details spaced around it, and Harry realised with a start that the whole thing matched his family ring. The reality of his position hit him all at once, and he moved once more to the window, his fingers caressing the jewel in his hands almost absently. It was all becoming so real – up to that moment, all his plans, his responsibilities, had been more an intellectual problem than reality. But holding a piece of family history in his hands, preparing to make his presence and his intentions known to the world, the tangible aspects of it all pressed down on him. He looked out, watching the usual bustle of Hogsmeade on a Hogwarts weekend, students running wild, shops flurrying with activity and felt disconnected from that simple, mundane world, as if his life had taken a turn somewhere, or somewhen, he thought whimsically, and he had left it behind. Giving himself an internal shake, he realised now was not the time to indulge in so much contemplation.

Returning to the table, he asked quietly, "Anything else I need to know?"

John pushed the rest of the packet to him, saying, "Formal dress robes in your colours. Also a requirement, I'm afraid."

"Don't worry, Harry, you won't be the only one in the ridiculous to-do," Neville said encouragingly.

With a mischievous smile, Ginny added, "And misery loved company."

Harry put the coronet back inside de folds of the rich dark crimson fabric, and put the whole package away, before taking a seat at the table, and turning his mind back to business. "Okay then, lets go over our strategy then."

John took over at this point. "We have a tentative majority in the Council right now, with four sure votes. It gives us an edge since there are vacancies among the thirteen seats and Heirs we know won't be present, but it is not a true majority."

At this, Neville interfered. "We might have five, I've been corresponding with the Abbotsford Heir, trying to convince him to go to this meeting, or at least send someone with his proxy. Considering what I know about him, I'm nearly certain he would vote with us."

John had taken out quill and parchment as the conversation became more serious and said, "We have the Longbottom seat, the Potter seat and the Black seat in this room. We know Thornthon will vote with us, and maybe Abbotsford. Dumbledore has one, and McGonagall always follows his lead – "

"McGonagall?" Harry asked abruptly. "Our professor?"

"Oh, no," John answered absently, "An uncle. She's from a cadet branch of the family."

"That's a relief," Ginny whispered, and Harry flashed her a quick smile of unrestrained amusement. He could hardly deny her point – it would be much more difficult to do what they had to if they were faced with someone to whom deference was such an ingrained response.

"Malfoy will be voting against us, obviously," John continued.

"Will Lucius be there, do you think?" Neville asked.

"Probably his son. Lucius has escaped Azkaban on account of his lineage, but he's not in the Ministry's good graces. He might not want to risk arrest."

"Then he might not vote against us in the important things," Harry said quietly. "I'll have a talk with Draco. He really isn't his father, and many of the things we are trying to do can be justified as forwarding his Family's power."

"I agree with Harry on this – returning the High Council to its rightful place is something Malfoy would probably perceive as a good thing – and since this will be a surprise vote, his father won't have given him clear instructions. It will have to be Draco's vote," Neville added.

There was a thoughtful frown on John's face, and he answered carefully, "You obviously know the boy better than me, but we would be foolish to take it for granted."

"Of course."

"Lestrange will not be present, for obvious reasons." Harry gave a quiet snort at that - the whole family was completely insane. "The Gaunt seat has been empty for generations, and I can't imagine the actual Heir showing his face."

Neville shuddered at the thought, and said earnestly, "I should hope not!"

"Yaxley votes with Malfoy,"

"Horrible little man," whispered Neville.

"And that leaves us with Arbuthnot, who does as she pleases, when she is even there."

Neville gave a small nod that indicated he was in complete agreement with the summary of the council, and then asked. "So, what will be our strategy?"

"I think our first and most important object will be to validate Sirius Black's will, and therefore give you, Harry, your votes, your emancipation and your inheritance. Your parents left you more than money. There is a family Seat that has been empty for more than a decade. I believe it's high time a Potter lived there again," John said, a fierce light appearing in his light grey eyes.

Harry straitened in his chair at this pronouncement, realizing the truth of it. He wasn't just any orphan, homeless and penniless. His parents had looked out for him, and tried to make sure he had a comfortable life. It was so absurdly ironic that everything had gone so badly wrong.

"My concern is that since this is a full session of the Wizengatmot, the Ministry might ask for a full vote," said Neville seriously, the quiet authority that appeared in his voice when he was talking about a subject he grasped perfectly apparent in his voice.

"I agree, Mr. Longbottom –"

"Neville," the other boy interrupted.

John nodded gracefully. "Neville. A full vote could throw us. Between the heads of all the Lesser Houses and the Heads of Department, there are too many votes we cannot control."

Harry interjected at this point, "Let me see if I grasp this correctly – the only solid position to try to invalidate Sirius' will is the fact that he was considered a criminal when he died, and therefore all that was his would devolve to the ministry if the Goblins weren't so serious about their reputation, am I right?"

"As far as I know," said John. "He was the rightful Heir, and your legal guardian. Both those things remain true."

"So we argue that he was not a criminal. And we challenge the Ministry to show us the results of his trial," Harry said with a careless shrug. "He was an Heir, he had the right under Council Law to be tried by his peers – that is the whole assembled Council, not just a three judge panel from the Wizengamot. He didn't even have that. Therefore, under the law, he was not a criminal and no one can say otherwise." He leaned forward, and continued earnestly. "I'm actually awfully curious about just how that happened, it suggests Ministry corruption at the highest levels, and an awful amount of power over the Council they really shouldn't have. But anyway, the fact is, without a trial, Sirius is not legally a criminal."

"That's a technicality, Harry. It might have worked if it was only a strict Council meeting, but with the full Wizengamot- " Neville paused, thinking. "There are too many votes from people who know nothing of Council Law, and the public perception is that Sirius was the worst kind of Death Eater. People on our side who don't know the truth won't want to follow the wishes of such a man, and those against us who do know the truth might vote against us simply out of spite. It's not a favourable position all around."

"If this whole thing will play on emotion," Ginny stepped into the discussion, "then we need to tell them the true story, and find a way to make them believe us. I'd suggest giving Harry veritasserum if I wasn't so afraid of people abusing it."

Harry was already shaking his head, "Wouldn't work, I can resist it."

A predatory gleam appeared in John's eyes. "You're immune? To the three drops dose?"

Harry nodded, "Anymore and it's toxic."

"That is such a rare feat that no one would suspect, maybe we could do that…"

"Well," Harry drawled sarcastically, "the Death Eaters in the room would know, but I suppose they wouldn't want to explain why they know."

Ginny rolled her eyes at him, and Neville strangled a bark of laughter. John continued to frown thoughtfully, but finally shook his head. "You'd have to be a tremendous actor to pull it off, so we really should only try if all other avenues are exhausted."

Neville had been frowning thoughtfully, and proposed quietly, "I think we need two plans. The first, following the law, that will give Harry his votes and his inheritance. The second a trial that proves Sirius' innocence."

"One sort of depends on the other, Neville," John answered.

"Not necessarily. The question of validation of an Heir is strictly a Council matter. If we can force the Wizengamot to resolve it that way, we are almost sure of success. The evidence of Sirius' innocence won't need to be paraded to the whole Wizengamot, and everything should be resolved quickly and lawfully. It is only if they manage to make it a general concern that we might be in trouble."

"Just what happens if none of this works?" Ginny asked in concern.

"We have to wait till I'm 17 before I can get control of my inheritance. The Black seat will stay empty because under no circumstance will I allow anything to be done to it before I can have a say in the matter. That means that there will be two more empty seats in the Council and Nev here won't have any sort of majority." A dark shadow crossed his eyes. "I'm not sure what it means for me personally, since I won't be considered an adult any longer…"

"Lets hope it doesn't come to that," John said forcefully. "I think Longbottoms' suggestion has merit. We must not start by asking for validation of the will, but for validation of the seats. In that context, the Will will be questioned, but with no legal foundation to make it a general concern."

Neville nodded, seeming slightly surprised that his suggestion had received so much support. "However, we still don't have a solid plan B. The Council's power has been declining these last few decades, we can't rule out the Minister managing to have its way, especially if Professor Dumbledore is backing him. So we need to have an idea about how to deal with the issue of Sirius' innocence."

Ginny frowned thoughtfully, and said, "The problem is that we have no solid proof."

Harry got up then, and moved to the window. He didn't have an answer to the problem, and this whole discussion was bringing back horribly painful memories. Every time he heard the story, and thought about what had been done to Sirius after his parents were murdered, he felt like screaming at the sky and cursing the whole Ministry. It seemed that incompetence and small-mindedness was a prerequisite for any bureaucrat in the magical world.

That blazing, barely contained anger he felt for the Headmaster seemed to flare at the mere thought of what he had allowed to happen. For all his talk about justice and greater good, he had done very little real good to the world, in Harry own meagre opinion. Hogwarts is a mess, the wizarding world is a never ending well of prejudice and petty cruelty, and the ministry doesn't even bear thinking about. All in all, the Headmaster, in his self-proclaimed capacity of leader of the light, had allowed much evil to go unpunished, had allowed actual criminal behaviour to go unstopped, for very little result in the opposite direction.

Suddenly coming to a decision, he squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and marched back to the table. "It's very simple, people. If they want to fight, we fight. If the ministry raises the least objection – and I do mean the least – " he said fiercely, "we put them on trial. There is a reason we allow Azkaban to exist, and that is because wizarding justice is supposed to be infallible." His eyes flashed angrily. "Well, it's not, and it's high time people became aware of that fact, don't you think? I believe that Rufus Scrimgeour was in charge of Magical Law Enforcement at the time Sirius was arrested. I propose that we start with him, treat him like a hostile witness, and ask for veritaserum all around. The truth is bound to appear!"

Neville raised an amused eyebrow, and said, "Well, Harry, I see you are not one for Slytherin deviousness. You go strait for the jugular."

"I believe that there is a time for everything, Neville, and now is not the time for subtlety."

John frowned, not seeming convinced. "We might be able to prove that the Ministry acted unlawfully – I believe that will be very easy, all things considered. But I'm not sure it will be the same as proving innocence."

"Then we call Remus, Ron, Hermione, even Snape – they all saw Pettigrew confess to all of Sirius' crimes. Not only the switch in secret keepers, but also the explosion that killed all the muggles." Harry smiled, a slow, dangerous thing that showed just how eager he was for the fight. "And I will be testifying, too, if it comes to that. I assure you, no one, will believe Sirius is guilty when I am done."

They made their way down the stairs after the meeting together. John had decided to apparate directly to his office to start filling paperwork on his new assignments, and the three teenagers determined it was time they started enjoying their free weekend in Hogsmead. They had a few hours left of daylight before they had to return to the castle for the Halloween feast.

As they made their way towards the doors, Harry stopped abruptly as they were crossing the main room, his eyes roaming the bar, a thoughtful frown in his brow.

"What is it, Harry?" Ginny asked softly.

"Go on ahead, Gin. I'll meet you outside. There's something I must do," he answered softly, turning towards her.

She had noticed him tense as they came downstairs, and could see he was keeping a tight hold on his emotions, but there was also that crazy determined look in his eyes that meant he would finish whatever he had decided to do, no matter who stood in his way.

She bit her lip, an unconscious gesture of unease, but nodded slightly.

She noticed the moment he became aware of her worry. He turned towards her more fully, and brought one hand to cup her cheek, his thumb brushing against her lips until she let go.

He gave her a small smile, and said softly, "It's nothing bad, Gin, I just want to thank Madam Rosemetra…" He paused, his earlier tension coming back, the light in his eyes dimming ever so slightly as he remembered something painful.

Her eyes opened wide in sudden comprehension. He wanted to thank the person who had made sure he was able to get to safety in those final moments after his escape, when he had felt as if he couldn't possibly go one step further, but had to anyway.

"Of course, Harry. Do you want me to come with you?" she asked softly, grabbing his free hand and stepping just a little closer, in an unconscious desire to bring him some comfort.

"No, I have to do this… Go on, I'll only be a minute."

She nodded, with more confidence this time, and made her way to the door Neville was holding open for her. She smiled in thanks, and they stepped outside, waiting.

"Is everything all right?" Neville asked worriedly when Harry failed to follow them.

She smiled reassuringly, warmed by his concern, and said, "Yes, Harry just needed a few words with Madam Rosemetra. He'll be outside in a minute."

"He seems a little scattered today, is all," Neville mumbled.

"It's Halloween, " Ginny stated sombrely. "He hates Halloween."

Neville snorted, and said emphatically, "With good reason."

Ginny grinned at his tone and nodded, keeping a concerned eye on the door. She hoped fervently that this day would prove the exception to the rule, and end with them having a pleasant dinner at Hogwarts after an afternoon window-shopping in the village. She could use the break.

Harry came out as they were talking, putting on his light overcoat and giving her a small smile, communicating that everything had gone fine. Obviously, Madam Rosemetra had been gracious, he seemed much more relaxed than even a few moments ago.

They walked down Main Street leisurely until Neville spied Luna through a shop window and ditched his two companions. Left by themselves Ginny felt Harry's gaze on her, and that comfortable warmth that seemed to fill her whole being when they were together. She stepped closer to him, and he seemed to understand her sudden need for comfort, because he dropped one of his arms around her shoulder, and held her close.

"Could we go to the Shack, Gin?" Harry asked her tentatively, "I wanted to see it again, and it's a good place to talk."

"Yes, sure," she answered, grateful he seemed to be as little in the mood for a crowd as she.

The old building was looming in front of them in no time, and once again she noticed Harry's tension, but also a certain wistful longing she had never seen in him before.

"You know, Gin, this is where I met Sirius for the first time. He was fresh out of Azkaban, half out of his mind with anger and thirst for revenge, but still he thought about me. He offered me a family, he offered me a home… It's so bloody unfair we never got to have that."

She gave him a light squeeze, and dragged them both towards the door, checking to make sure they weren't followed. There was dust and cobwebs covering every surface, and the house was dreadfully cold in the late autumn chill, but she found an old couch in a room with a fireplace. A quick reparo and scourgify later, and they had a place to cuddle. Harry took care of the fireplace, and soon a cheery magical fire was burning bright blue, even if they had no wood.

She grinned at his choice of colour, and sat down, patting the space beside her. Instead of sitting down, as she half expected him to, he grinned mischievously and stretched out with his head on her lap, letting out a contented sigh. She laughed at his unrepentant look, and dropped a hand to play with his hair, happy to lose herself in the warmth and affection of the moment, not thinking about everything that was going on outside their little room.

At length, she felt the need to break the silence, her soft, tentative voice still sounding somehow harsh in the silence, "Do you think I did the right thing?"

Harry turned on his back, looking up at her face, and answered seriously, "I think it was the right thing for you, Ginny. It might not be the right thing for your mom, but I think it was something you needed to do. I might have a biased opinion, but for me, there was no choice to be made – you had to discover where you came from."

She sighed, the tight knot that had appeared in the pit of her stomach since she had received her mother's letter not abating in the least.

"I don't know if she'll ever forgive me, Harry. She ordered us to leave it alone!"

"I wonder why she's so adamant on the subject. It has to be more than just pain at her brothers' murder. I know how important family is to your mom, she couldn't have just abandoned hers."

"But that's the thing. She didn't abandon anyone; they abandoned her. Maybe that is why she clings to us so much – she couldn't bear to lose us too." She sighed deeply, thinking about the awkward reunion that would certainly take place during Christmas break, but not quite regretting the steps she had taken to learn her family's history. "I can't even imagine, Harry. Growing up with wealth and privilege…"

Harry gave a strangled sort of laugh, and brought a hand up to rub at his eyes. "You and me both, Gin. You and me both."

There was a long moment of silence, where Harry seemed to loose himself in the brightly dancing flames and the soft movements of her hand on his hair. She knew what those small touches meant to him, even if he couldn't bring himself to say it aloud. The more time they spent together, the more Harry seemed to appreciate the importance of a caress, and how a hug could bring comfort and show affection.

"Did you ever imagine anything else when you were growing up, Harry?" she asked softly.

"Constantly. I always had a vivid imagination, and I loved to read. It was one of the things the Dursleys tried to make me dislike. If they found novels or comic books - even creative writing exercises from school where I would fantasise too much - it would mean worlds of trouble for me. But I couldn't give it up, and pretty soon I learned to hide stuff that made them mad," he gave her a quick look, and she saw that proud – a less kind person might even call it arrogant – light in his eyes that meant he was sure of what he was doing, and no force on heaven or earth would turn him from his course, and the reason why became apparent as he continued his, "and anyway, they had no right to tell me what to think." There was a hint of long buried anger in his voice, and she reached down to squeeze his hand, feeling a twinge of regret for having ruined the moment with bad memories, but also glad that Harry wasn't prevaricating or turning the conversation as he had done in the past when his childhood had come up.

He continued softy, "It's one of the things that has helped me with magic, you know? So much of it is about being able to visualise objects, results and processes, and having the will to make it happen. Once I realized that, most of what we do in school became so much easier." He gave a rueful laugh. "It's really the only useful thing I brought back with me from Privet Drive, a healthy imagination."

"I can't pretend to understand what you went through, Harry. The Burrow was always a loving home, and if I didn't have so many brothers I might have risked becoming a pampered brat. But even if we never wanted for food or affection, we realized pretty soon that money would always be a problem. It's a bit of a sore spot for us, so I can't understand how mom could turn away an inheritance if she could have had one."

"That's something you'll have to ask her, I think. Maybe now she'll start taking you and Ron more seriously, and might be open to an honest conversation on the subject. I think you all deserve some answers."

Ginny sighed, and let the silence stretch out. Harry was right, in some aspects. They did deserve answers. But his upbringing and everything he had been forced to go through alone had also hardened him, and he was very unyielding with people he felt had disappointed him. None of the headmaster's nonsense about endless second chances with Harry – he expected people's best, or nothing at all. There was no middle ground, and his respect, once lost, was difficult to win back – as Ron and Hermione had learned during all those months. And he had a very solid basis of affection with Ron and Hermione that had made him wish for reconciliation and friendship. There was nothing of the kind with most people…

"Why did you want to come here, Harry?" she asked, trying to stop her thoughts running in circles.

He didn't answer for a long moment, but finally said, "I wanted to see… All that talk about the Wizengamot and Sirius… I guess I wanted to feel closer to him, and to my parents. This was the scene of many of their good moments in school." He paused for a long moment, just watching the fire crackle in the grate, wiggling his fingers now and then to make shapes and creatures appear in the flames. "And it's Halloween, I didn't feel up to the crowds of Hogsmead today. I hope you don't mind too much, Gin?" He gazed up at her, an endearing little flutter of uncertainty and fear flashing in his eyes. She was the only one that could do that to him, she realized. The only one that could hurt him with a word or a look.

"I think this was just what we needed, Harry," she said softly, leaning down to kiss his brow. "You don't have to worry about me, if I don't like something, you'll be made aware of the fact."

He smiled up at her, his eyes glowing, but only muttered softly, "Good."

They were silent for a long moment more. One of the things she liked about Harry's company was his ability to stay quiet, to appreciate the silence and not let it become uncomfortable. Growing up in such a noisy, overcrowded environment, Ginny had learned to appreciate peace and privacy very early in her life. She could be as boisterous as the next person, but she needed someone who could appreciate silence as well.

Harry broke it this time, shifting in his slouch so he could have a better view of her face, and asking, "Are you curious?"

"About what?" she asked distractedly.

"Your talent," he said, a definite note of excitement in his voice. "I've been talking to Nev about that, and I think I almost have him convinced to try the ritual. I wonder what you could do?"

"Why wouldn't Neville want to try for his talent?" she asked, deflecting the main question.

Harry rolled his eyes good naturedly, and said, "Neville doesn't see himself very clearly. He still feels like the lost first year who couldn't hold his wand right and never remembered anything. He's afraid… I'm not even sure what he's afraid of, but obviously of disappointing his family somehow. I just pointed out to him that he's been doing what should have been his father's job very credibly for the last two years, and that anyone who says otherwise obviously doesn't have his best interests at heart." He frowned softly. "Neville hasn't said anything, but I think there might be some internal tension in his family – maybe people who don't think he's up to the task of running the Seat. You remember that story about his uncle dangling him from the window?"

She nodded, frowning slightly. "If he hadn't bounced he might have died. It always shocked me that there were no consequences – it's practically attempted murder."

"Exactly. Mind you, this is all speculation, but it's made me uneasy since I heard it. Even more since I discovered this mess that is wizarding society."

"And what does his talent have to do with anything?"

He looked at her with that slightly chiding look that seemed to say, use your brain, which she was sure he had learned from Hermione. She rolled her eyes and slapped him in the arm playfully, before threatening to roll him out of the sofa, to see just how comfortable he felt the ground to be.

Harry laughed softly, before saying, "Okay, okay, sorry. It just seems obvious to me, since I've been gobbling down all these books on the subject. But a strongly talented Heir is harder to disqualify. And I'm convinced unlocking his talent will make him an all round better wizard – it certainly helped me a lot. I don't know why, there isn't much research on the subject, but I think that if we keep our talents locked we block access to part of our magic."

She felt her eyes widen slightly at the thought. "Since when have you thought this, Harry? It's not as if you were not powerful before you unlocked your talent."

"It's hard to explain, Gin – so much of it is about how magic feels, and how it flows… There are just things I can do now with a thought that required tones of effort before. Transfiguration, for instance – I always had trouble in that class, but now it's like a light switched inside my brain, and I just get everything McGonagall says in class. It's quite a heady feeling," he added with a small smile. "I think my father started working to unlock his talent while he was still in school, and maybe Sirius as well. It might explain why they were such good students. So, you see, I'm nearly certain I'm right."

"And if you are, and I do indeed have a talent buried, it would mean the same to me."

He nodded seriously, seating up and taking her hands, meeting her eyes squarely. "This is one of the reasons I brought the subject up. I thought you should know, and maybe you should tell your brothers too, if it comes to that. It's something you should all know."

Ginny closed her eyes briefly, laying her head on Harry's shoulder. She was grateful he had told her, but it was the kind of thing she wanted to push to the back of her mind for the time being, at least until she had more information and could actually do something about it. In the interest of her peace of mind, the less said about it for the time being, the better.

"I'll think about it, Harry. But for now there's no point in rehashing the subject, right?"

"Of course," he said quietly. "I just thought – "

She felt Harry freeze and tense beside her, then quickly stand up.

"Did you feel that?" he asked in an urgent whisper.

Ginny frowned, and opened her senses, only to feel the strong wave of magic that was making its way slowly over the village. She jumped up as well, and asked softly, "What is that?"

"Some sort of ward or shield. I've never felt anything of the kind. It will block the village in the next few minutes, if it keeps going," he said distractedly, his eyes unfocused, obviously keeping track of the advancement of the barrier.

He shook his head a few moments later, and looked at her worriedly, "How could this happen? I didn't feel anything, Gin!" he exclaimed. "Not a twinge!"

"You've become awfully good at Occlumency, Harry. This just proves it's working," she said reasonably. She was peering through the dirty window trying to see what was going on in the main square, but other buildings blocked the view.

"But it makes no sense! I was sure he would hit another muggle village, like last time! What does he want here? He must have known security would be tight during a Hogsmeade weekend! The village is full of teachers and Order members!"

"What does he ever want? You, me, the Prophecy," she grinned at Harry's worried frown, and continued in the same vein, "I'm sure he wouldn't say no to a little havoc and panic either." She walked back towards the centre of the room, and added, "I doubt he'll come in person, Harry. I'd wager this will be strictly a Death Eater shebang, to try and weaken Hogwarts' reputation."

"And just at the right time, too. Right before the Winter Session of the Wizengamot. It will strengthen the opposition to Dumbledore," Harry added.

"Which just might work in our favour, as horrible as it sounds," Ginny sighed. "We need to do something, Harry. We need to discover how many Death Eaters are out there, who they are targeting, how to evacuate the kids back to the castle…"

Harry nodded thoughtfully, making his own way towards the window. "The road will be blocked by this shield, we might need to use the secret passages."

"Only as a last resort, Harry. Can you imagine the stampede in those small tunnels – people will get hurt for sure."

"Yes, but it's an option if worse comes to worse."

"We'd have to herd people into Honeydukes and the Shack – won't be easy with a running battle in the streets."

Harry was frowning, obviously trying to work out the logistics of the operation and just as obviously failing.

"It's no use, we need more information," he said in frustration. "We need to know if the Floo is working, if this thing only blocks apparition, or Portkeys as well, and if there's someone here who knows how to make one… We also need to get out there and try to help. Maybe find the D.A. and someplace to hunker down until the Professors or the Ministry get this barrier down." Under his breath he added, "If they can manage that much."

Ginny nodded, kneeling to fasten a boot, pulling her hair up in a secure knot, and taking out her wand in quick succession.

"Let's go."

Ginny's eyes were very wide, Harry thought. All their calm, measured, composure had disappeared in the face of the reality they had found in Hogsmead's main square. They had climbed to the rooftops, and walked, jumped and scaled as required until they reached the square, hoping that their dark clothing and the twilight that had descended on the town with the shield would keep them hidden from prying eyes.

From their vantage point they could see most of the village, and realised that the situation was troubling – to put it mildly. The barrier had obviously been construed to hold everyone prisoner until the massacre – or the hostage situation, Harry was not sure – was over. Death Eaters had approached the village from all sides, and were making their way towards the central, heavily populated areas, wrecking havoc, burning down buildings, herding fleeing witches, wizards and most worrying, students, towards the centre of town.

"Where are the Professors? The Order?" Ginny whispered beside him. "Why is no one fighting them?"

"I think they are trying to fortify their positions – look, McGonagall is in the Three Broomsticks, you see?"

"Yes, she's warding the whole place. I hope they hold." There was tightly controlled fear in her voice, but also, Harry noted, a slight excitement. He understood – his magic was singing to him, ready for a fight, and he had no doubt Ginny felt at least a measure of the same thing.

"Okay," Harry said, crawling back from the edge of the roof. "We need to be rational about this, Gin. We couldn't in good conscience escape while all these people stayed here, but we're just two against that horde. We can't just throw ourselves away into the fight."

Ginny nodded beside him – indeed, if there was one thing they had learned during their training, it was their own incompetence. No matter how much they had improved, and no matter how much better than their classmates the Tractus made them, against serious and experienced duellists in much larger numbers, they were in trouble.

"I think we need to marshal our resources – attack only to protect people in danger, and then run. Save as many lives as possible, and harass them as best we can," Harry continued.

"We should grab wands, and do worse than a simple Stupefy – it would be ridiculous to fight one Death Muncher only to have him revived and hexing us in the back," Ginny jumped in.

Harry smiled a tight, contained smile, and nodded. "I'm all for that – snap them if you must. These people don't deserve common courtesy."

Ginny's eyes had opened a little at his suggestion. It was considered the height of bad form to snap an opponent's wand – a more clear insult during a duel was hard to find. But he didn't think anyone wearing a white mask and a Mark, here to terrorize children, deserved any mark of respect from him. And wands were replaceable, even if a wizard always felt its passing. Lives were not. All in all, he still felt the other guys were doing worse.

"Harry," Ginny said softly, looking up at the slightly visible grey barrier masking the sky. "We're trapped here – there's nowhere to go." Her voice was controlled, but she was obviously worried.

Harry nodded, still observing the black robbed figures advancing towards them, he couldn't see any logic in their movements, or understand what their purpose was. They were trapped as well, what did they think, that people would be so afraid they would roll over and die? This whole thing had the possibility to turn very ugly, very fast. He glanced up at the barrier trapping everyone inside, and let his eyes relax, opening his senses, sending small tendrils of his magic questing, trying to understand the nature of the construct around them. A few moments later, he blinked, and let out a breath, turning to look at Ginny, waiting patiently beside him.

"It's worse than that, Ginny. This thing doesn't stop at the ground; it's a real sphere. Which means all the tunnels are also closed off. We missed our only chance of getting out."

Ginny blinked a little at his pronouncement, but then a preternatural calm seemed to settle on her, and she nodded a little. "What did you find out about this big bloody thing over our heads?" she asked.

"It's pretty complex magic – I think there must be at least half a dozen people working together to keep it going. And they're all outside the circle, so there's nothing we can do from in here. But the weird thing is, it seems to be accumulating magic, gathering it inside this area, and I have no idea why." He looked down at his hands, feeling the slight tension in the air that he had come to associate with highly magical buildings or objects. He glanced up, "Can you feel it?"

Ginny looked down at her own wand hand, and said, "Yep, it's like the air is vibrating."

They heard a shout from the alley beneath them, the high-pitched yell of a young and panicked child. Without another word, they jumped down from the roof of the low building, casting cushioning and levitation charms to soften the impact on the ground with practised ease. It was a very useful manoeuvre they had practised extensively while duelling on Hogwarts grounds, where trees were a useful hiding place and a strategic position from which to attack. A few meters in front of them, two masked and burly forms were herding two small children, smaller and younger than any Hogwarts student, towards the main street and the centre of the village. The two heard the impact of their boots on the street, and one of them turned around in alarm, shouting out a warning even as Harry's stunner hit him in the chest and he fell down like a log, hitting his head on a loose cobblestone. His companion turned around, shooting cutting hexes as he approached, but Ginny got him with an impedimenta followed a second later by a thick set of ropes that tripped the man and made him fall down. They stood up from their deep crouches, and moved carefully to the still conscious Death Eater. Harry squatted down next to his face and lifted his mask, not recognising the young, angry face underneath. Voldemort was recruiting.

"What are you doing here? What is your mission?" he asked quietly, wand pointed at the bound man, in case he tried to scream.

The man only glared and looked away. Harry sighed and stunned him, grabbing the wands and stuffing them in his pocket. Ginny was kneeling in front of two small children, one scarcely larger than a toddler, faces tearstained and terrified.

She stood up as he approached and said quietly, "Their mother told them to hide, and tried to stop the Death Eaters, they don't know where she is. We have to take them somewhere safe, Harry."

She was slightly flushed, her eyes flashing angrily, and Harry thought he'd never seen a more beautiful sight. Shaking off inappropriate thoughts from his mind, he glanced at the two snivelling children, wondering what in Merlin's name he was supposed to do with them, when a commotion in the street that led to the alley drew his attention. He motioned for the children to hide and approached the crossroads, taking a careful peak that turned to open-mouthed admiration as he looked.

"Sweet Circe," muttered Ginny beside him, and Harry could do nothing but nod in reply. He had known, in an intellectual level, that Michael was an exceptional duellist, but there had been no chance to ever watch him in action, no opportunity to showcase his skills. Until now.

He stood in the centre of a group of robed opponents, his dark robes grimy, his hair in disarray, and he was cutting down opponents with a frightening and single-minded ruthlessness. His wand was a blur in front of him, and even as they watched, he took a step forward and another two dark robed figures dropped to the ground – unconscious, bleeding, or dead.

A moment later, he twisted out of the way of a curse, snarled something inaudible from where Harry and Ginny were standing, and whirled around, snapping his wand in the direction of the latest threat, dropping the man with calm efficiency. And so it went – he never seemed to slow, always moving with steady, deceptively lazy-looking gestures that dropped opponents and took him out of the path of curses in equal measure. Nothing seemed to touch him; in the space of ten or twenty seconds, half a dozen Death Eaters were completely incapacitated. The others pressed forward to mob him, but they didn't stand a chance, as he kicked his way out of the group, dropping enemies with contemptuous ease and striding down the street to give himself more space to move.

Soon he was standing alone – some of the Death Eaters had fled, some were incapacitated, groaning, others were completely motionless on the ground.

Michael didn't spare them a second glance as he quickly and efficiently collected wands and emergency portkeys. As soon as he was done, he made his way towards Harry and Ginny, his eyes flashing angrily, his wand held tightly in one hand.

"I'm glad I found the two of you. What have you found out?" he said brusquely.

"This thing," Ginny motioned towards the greyish barrier, "is a sphere designed to keep people prisoner and gather magical power. And the Death Eaters are herding everyone they can find towards the town centre."

Michael nodded, adding, "They're working some sort of ritual, but not something I'm familiar with. I wish Elektra were here – she would know. Or maybe it's better she be outside and trying to get this thrice forsaken shield down." He glared at the offending construct, and Harry thought that if it had been alive, it would have cowered and run off from the heat of that gaze alone. "Minerva and Flitwick are in the Three Broomsticks, and I think some townies are hunkered down in Honeydukes. But no one is actively fighting this bunch of morons. And I'm afraid of just what they are trying to do- " He seemed to notice their two young charges for the first time, and raised an amused eyebrow, "And just what do the two of you have here?"

"We stopped the two of them," Ginny pointed at the two Death Eaters behind them, "from taking them away."

Michael smiled slightly and hunkered down in front of the two children, asking quietly, "What are your names?"

The older of the two, a black haired boy who might be eight of nine, answered, "I'm Augustus – people call me Augie - and this is my brother Jonathan. Mum told us to hide, but the two men found us." His younger and fairer brother had stuck his thumb in his mouth, and was watching them with huge dark eyes.

Michael nodded, and answered cheerfully, "We'll make sure the two of you get someplace safe, Augie. You were lucky these two rascals found you."

The little boy nodded, draped a protective arm around his still quiet brother, and said quietly, "Thank you. We're ready to go."

"Good. We'll be moving soon. Don't worry too much!" Michael said with a wink, before standing once more and joining Harry and Ginny who had been keeping watch near the mouth of the alley.

"What are we going to do with them?" Harry asked. "Ginny and I were thinking about staying up on the roofs, and helping who we could, but we didn't factor in children in our plan."

Michael nodded, "We need to get them to the Three Broomsticks. Harry, you take the lead, boys, you stay in the middle, Ginny, you and I will take the rear. Look sharp and stay together."

Harry led them up the street towards the centre of town, where the consequences of the attack were even more visible, people screamed and shouted, rushing back and forth, and every now and then some sort of curse or hex would fly from the adjoining roads, downing passers by. He tried not to notice the figures of some of the villagers, sprawled on the ground, and far too still. It was reassuring to have a mission, and people to protect; it kept his mind from wandering.

They arrived at the pub after a few minutes of fast paced walking, without too much trouble. Harry had come across another pair of Death Eaters, but they were obviously not ready to face any kind of resistance and had gone down within seconds from stunning spells and full body binds.

"Where are they, Michael?" Ginny asked. They were pressed against one of the sides of the Three Broomsticks, and still hadn't found any great concentration of Death Eaters. "I thought they would all be around here."

"They're making their way here, and forcing people to run towards this block. But as I said, I don't know why. The only reason I had so many on my tail is that I made a lot of noise to draw them in and get them away from a few villagers who were trying to hide. Now go on, knock on the door."

"But they won't let anyone in!" she exclaimed.

"The professors put up exclusion wards – an enemy would never get this far without having to take down the wards. They'll open. Get the children inside, and then come out. We have work to do."

She glanced at Harry, a slow, dangerous smile lighting her face, as she knocked on the side door of the bar. In that one glance, he felt all the fierce delight she felt at finally being able to fight back, to have an objective in this thrice forsaken war they had been forced to fight. He understood the feeling perfectly, and grinned back, twirling his wand through his fingers, and letting his magic curse through him, ready to be used.

As Michael had said, they had work to do.