Chapter Fifty-Two: Morsmordre
"I have seen a sky."
Bare, dead-white toes spread across splintered and cold black granite which had once been polished smooth as glass, finding tiny crevices and flaws, stretched out imperceptibly from the great crack that had rent the floor in twain. It was a ruined place. No matter how bright his star might shine, some wounds could never be made whole again. Stepping forward out of the dull grey light of a dying night pregnant with an unborn new day, the shadows swallowed up the sad pain of loss.
The crack had split the wall behind, and through it came an insistent tug of air, teasing and drawing out old ideas and ancient dreams of wisdom. He turned his face upward. Little to nothing now remained of the great, vaulted ceiling that had surmounted this lower chamber- one crumbling arch reached up tentatively towards the heavens- but fell back, unfinished, its broken stonework tip like a fingernail, dark and diseased, pointing accusingly at the fading stars overhead.
"I have seen a sky with two moons," he spoke again, moving through the shattered circle of the lower hall with a slow and sinuous gait that did not falter with his footsteps but rather seemed to glide across the ground. "One waxing, flawed and imperfect, a pale mirror of what it should be; the other waning, a pitiful mockery of its former glory- and yet, when they stood in the sky together, they outshone the brightest star."
None spoke. None dared to do so- for they could follow the path of his words well enough. A thin smile formed.
"You would do better, perhaps," his voice grew quiet, so that the robed figures that stood in rigid form about the chamber were forced to strain to catch his words, "To fear the waxing moon, rather than to live in trepidation of a dead star."
He could feel the consternation among them as he took up his ancient place, astride the very gulf of the crack itself, unwilling to yield to the memory of old failure. It was well that none of them had learned a safe path to approach their Lord in this mood. He reached up with slow and careful hands, pulling back his cowl to let the faint light touch his hairless scalp, and turned his head to and fro. "Well, Avery?" he asked the man, mute and inscrutable behind his pale mask of metal and bone. "Do you fear Harry Potter?" The question flicked out with sudden, savage delight, and his hands clasped across the rich garment of his robes.
The Death Eater's stance did not change, and no hint of his expression or thought was betrayed through the skull-mask of Walpurgis- but the deep thrill of fear was tangible in the chamber, and, all around it, the balancing tint of relief, as twelve more wizards and witches felt the eyes of their Lord leave them, and knew that Avery's answer to that deadly question- and more, his interrogator's reply to that answer, would give them enough light to see their way forward.
"No, I do not." Avery said, sharply and suddenly, cutting across the whisper of escaping breath from his Master's thin lips. "The boy has been lucky- but he doesn't know what he's dealing with. When we cut out his heart--"
"Enough." A white hand was elevated, and Avery's voice silenced without pause. "A loyal answer, my friend. Yes, loyal indeed." The pale man came forward, his serpentine visage sober and approving. He lifted his hand once more. "You put your trust in your Lord, for his greater darkness will shroud all the moons that wax and wane in time, do you not?"
The hooded Death Eater bowed his head in acquiescence. The man with the face of a snake's expression did not change, but his fingers clasped once more, then unlaced, right hand dipping into the fold of his robes. Avery's breathing caught in his throat, the faintest of gasps of fright carrying around the chamber- but he remained still, unmoving, as the long-fingered hand of his Lord and Master slid once more from the cloak, a pale grey wand held in his curling fingers.
"What price loyalty- Peter?" His wand still levelled at Avery, Lord Voldemort turned his head, singling out one smaller shape, squat and nervous. "Oh yes, I think this question is most suited for you to answer…"
"My Lord- we are yours heart and soul-" Pettigrew stammered- and the wand flashed round to focus on him.
"Blood, flesh, and bone," the Dark Lord intoned calmly, taking heed of the pitiful creature's flinch of pain at the second word. "Heart and soul, mind and magic, you are mine, Pettigrew, for only I can save you from the darkness- and yet it is poor service I receive, if you withhold those from me." His feet took him to the centre of the circle of Death Eaters, where, like a ray of inverted sunlight, a shaft of shadow fell upon the stone plinth laid across the narrow chasm in the floor. His eye turned back on Avery once again. "Think you that I am so very much a simpleton, Avery? Is my grip on reality so very slack that I need turn to my Death Eaters for mindless flattery in my desperate efforts to shore up a failing belief in myself and my destiny?" The Dark Lord shook his head. "So we see that after all, perhaps your answer is not so very loyal. A more honest and less flattering reply would have been of greater utility." His tongue flickered viciously over his lips, and, behind him in the dark corners of the room, where broken walls held back the pre-dawn light, scale slithered against scale. "The serpent is a practical animal, Avery," Voldemort told him, keenly aware of the terror in his quaking subject's mind as, behind the mask, Avery's eyes fixed desperately on the tip of the Dark Lord's wand, as if longing for the curse to come- for then, of course, once it had begun, the true nightmare, the fear, would be ended.
"The serpent lives and thrives in the world of what is, not of what it would prefer the world to be," his Master went on, drawing in the thoughts of all his Death Eaters, drinking in their fear and love, hearing them as clearly in his mind as he heard the sound of the shifting snake. The flat head of Nagini reared in the darkness, eyes glittering, and then lowered, her loops and coils sliding forward as she drew closer to him. "Or perhaps you truly have no fear of Harry Potter- or of Albus Dumbledore?" The wand swept down, and the beleaguered Death Eater flinched back- but there was no strike of pain. Wand-tip tapped against the shallow bowl, so very close to empty, which stood upon the right-hand end of the plinth. "And yet… can that be so?" Once again, the Dark Lord raised his hand, and pushed back his sleeve. "For I tell you, they are terrible." He held up his bared arm. "Have you so easily forgotten the lesson I have learned for you," the tone of sorrow rose into his voice, and he looked sadly at Avery. "The lesson I bought with such pain?"
"N-no, my Lord-" Avery stepped backwards, involuntarily, repelled by the mournful grief on his Lord's face- and contorted, a choking scream coming from behind the mask, holding his left arm out, away from his body, feebly grasping for it with his right hand, then flinching away, pulling back.
"Do not think to retreat from me, Thomas," Voldemort crooned softly. "Oh, but I see that you do understand the true way of things. He clicked his fingers gently, and Avery's head lifted, eyes twisting and turning this way and that behind the blank sockets of his mask. The Death Eater began to moan, a low, purring note that was echoed in the whispering path of Nagini as she rose up, her great body lifting and twisting around the servant who had displeased his master. "The root of wizardry lies in wisdom, not in mere strength. It is the path of folly to grow so consumed with one's own glory that one forgets the powers of others. Far better, far, far better, to allow them to wax as they must- but to take great care that they do so to one's own design." He turned his back on the man, even as the weight of the serpent pulled Avery to his knees, and leapt lightly across the chasm, landing close to the other side of the plinth, where a few fragments of broken broomstick lay, carefully preserved. "What is the strength of Harry Potter?"
"Compassion, my Lord." Bellatrix alone dared to speak- all other eyes which should have followed their Lord lingered traitorously on Thomas Avery, wavering on his knees before the zig-zag crack of the chasm in the floor, the serpent entwined treacherously around his legs, awaiting his fate. "The very same which gave such strength to Dumbledore before him."
"A wise answer," the Dark Lord spoke still more quietly, his audience hanging on his words- for each knew that to miss a question, an order, directed at them and them alone would mean punishment or death. A bare sibilant hiss escaped his lips as he slid to her side, his hand stealing from his robes to caress the cartilaginous cheek-bones of his lieutenant's skull mask. He could scent the fear on the air, hear her pulse quicken in terror in her breast- but, with Bellatrix, yes, with Bellatrix there was more- for she knew her fear, and knew the pain that would follow, and some small part of her would exult in it even as her screams rang out. "Compassion- that which we have struck aside from our law and code for its dangers, for the rank obscenity of it. You are beholden to none but me… and yet… and yet for the boy…" he let his hand fall, turning away to once again regard the small remnants of wood. Pettigrew had brought them to him- a trophy, a sign, nothing more. "For the boy," he mused, pacing slowly around the circle of dark wizards, "That passion- that love for those dear to him and the fear lest they perish in his stead was a force mighty enough to drive back all of us." He halted, before a tall and slender robed figure. "Curious… was it not you, Severus, who assured me that compassion was the boy's greatest weakness?" Lips parted, tongue flickering in amusement, Voldemort turned to face the masked figure, red eyes boring into the sockets of the mask.
"It was, my Lord." Snape's voice was stiff and careful beneath the mask. The Dark Lord leant closer. Severus had not been pleased, indeed, almost seemed resentful that the attack at Hogwarts which had involved his young protégé, Lucius' son, had been perpetrated without his knowledge or participation. Voldemort knew well that both Lucius and Bellatrix had challenged him over his apparent audacity in daring to visibly disapprove of the Dark Lord's actions; he himself had remained silent. It was better to retain that hold over Severus Snape, to know that, one day, should it be needful, it was another sin he could lay at the door of his favourite spy and demand payment.
"Indeed, Severus." Voldemort's hand grasped the thin man's left arm, gripping it firmly through the black cloth of his robes, feeling the prickling chill of the Dark Mark as it reached out towards its master. "Oh, indeed it was… and it was that weakness, that compassion, that led the boy to the Department of Mysteries as you had predicted- where many failures took place, none of them your own." His grip shifted, travelling slowly up the Death Eater's arm to the shoulder. "Yet weakness and strength all too often are but two aspects of the same. This should have been foreseen." His hand uncurled, releasing Snape, and slowly flexed in front of the man's implacable mask.
"Perhaps…" Lord Voldemort breathed softly, stretching forth his hand until his fingers splayed across the forehead of Snape's mask, the heel of his hand pressing down upon the bridge of the man's nose, thumb and smallest finger resting upon the orbital ridges of the eye sockets. Snape's fear was like a thing alive, now, pinned beneath the weight of his self-control, but writhing, lashing, yearning to be free. The Dark Lord's fingers squeezed inward slightly, and he felt the mask buckle, pressing uncomfortably hard against the Death Eater's face beneath. "It may be that I should seek out the source of this weakness, and crush it?" His grip tightened, and he felt the servant's pain, heard the click of teeth as Snape's jaw set.
"Indeed, it should have been foreseen." His eyes burned red, and he moved forward, bringing his face close to Snape's own, crimson eyes locking gaze with beetle-black as the hidden Death Eater stared out from between Lord Voldemort's pale fingers. The Dark Lord smiled. "Well?" he asked, magnanimously awaiting Snape's response.
"My Lord- if I have displeased you- I apologise- but if you destroy me, dispense with my services, then you will lose your eyes within the Order of the Phoenix-" He stopped, as the Dark Lord began to chuckle, a dry, hissing sound. Those self-same eyes hardened with steely resignation within the crushing grip of Voldemort's hand, as Snape awaited the final act.
"A transparent and self-serving reply, my old friend- but an honestly craven counsel. Yes-" he released the Death Eater, gliding past him and returning to his own position within the circle's rim. "It should have been foreseen. It should have been foreseen by me," he turned, meeting the eyes of each of his loyal flock in turn. "Does that surprise you? Do you ask for infallible wisdom?" The wand flicked out once more, ancient wood with the texture of stone, and pointed unwaveringly at the pathetic wreckage of a Nimbus 2000 broomstick where it lay on the plinth. "I tell you that I underestimated Harry Potter, and that folly was almost the ruin of all for which we have worked. In striking at the boy through those he is foolish enough to still believe he loves, I unleashed a power fully as strong- and alike- to that which once destroyed me so many years ago." Again, he sought out the eyes of his Death Eaters. "Well?" The voice carried a mocking, gleeful tone. "Which of you will turn and leave? Which of you has the courage to face me with equal candour?"
Not one met his eyes. Not Bella. Not Lucius. Not Severus. Not Thomas, still cowering beneath Nagini. With a thought and one word of command, Lord Voldemort summoned the snake to his side. "Not one?" he enquired, with civil disappointment. "A pity." Again the dry chuckle spilled forth from his throat, and this time the wand of Slytherin followed the path of his eyes as he looked about the circle. "Then we shall go on together, my friends- for Lord Voldemort is wise, and this is the true measure of wisdom- he does not make the same mistake more than once." The wand lashed down, and a spark kindled, sudden and incandescent, within the broken broom, roaring, crackling, spitting through the bone-dry wood, smoke spiralling up to hang heavy over the cliff tops and the broken room. As the Nimbus burned, pale flames reaching up high into the dawn, the heat haze wavering amid the circle of Dark, once again Voldemort stepped across the jagged crack in the rock, and pointed a bloodless finger at Fate's Crucible, now standing alone.
A sound like the sea roaring in his ears, Harry felt himself pulling up and back, all sense of up and down, left and right, outward and inward spinning wildly around his head until the back of his skull jarred painfully against the sandstone wall of the little folly, and his feet rocked as he sat heavily down on the bench.
Harry licked his lips, swallowing his acrid nausea and looking in Ginny's direction with eyes that seemed as willing to focus as if hit by two dozen Conjunctivitis curses. Two girls, seeming to flare and bubble before his eyes, wavered in and out of one another, sparking and trailing light as they finally merged into one.
"Did we get it?" he meant to say, but what came from his throat was a wheezing, voiceless creak.
She had wedged herself in one corner, her arms wrapped with clasped hands around her drawn-up knees, and looked from Harry to the little pensieve on the bench. With a sharp inhalation of breath, she gave him a shaky nod.
"Closer," she managed, after a moment. "Let's see…" The girl coughed, rubbing her arms and standing up quickly. "I hope so. Ow. The inside of your head is too loud." Ginny sat down again beside him- on the opposite side to the small golden dish, her arm curled around his back, and he pulled her to him, sharing some warmth with her as her head tilted sideways to rest on his shoulders. "Better than last time, anyway."
Harry snorted quietly, pushing his glasses up on to his forehead to rub at his eyes with one hand, holding her shoulders gently with the other. "Couldn't have been much worse." He looked down at her in concern as she drew her wand with a shaky hand. "Are you ready?"
"Of course not." Ginny sniped back, with one weary eyebrow lifted, as Harry, with an equally weak and wavering arm, lifted his own wand hand to parallel hers. "Are you?" she asked him in return.
He considered this for a moment, and then spoke the incantation. They watched.
After a moment, Harry leant his head back against the wall again, keeping his eyes closed and his body still, and allowing his sense of balance to come to its own conclusions in its own good time. For four days it seemed to him, the two of them had spent every waking minute that was free from the petty tyrannies of timetable and bodily necessities of sleep and food in this place, battling their way through Harry's memories in search of what they sought. It had not gone unnoticed- indeed, had Hermione and Ron not been amply distracted by concerns of their own, he very much doubted that it would have gone unchallenged. People less close to them might have felt that the periodic disappearances of the young couple could be easily explained for reasons far from sinister, but best not elaborated upon- but Harry was quite well aware that the pale exhaustion that showed on his face as clearly as it showed on Ginny's was not an expression which suggested time spent in the exchange of social niceties.
Now, still, after all that- he stifled a sudden urge to beat his skull against the back of the wall in frustration. Still, it would not work.
"Closer." Ginny repeated, drawing her legs up under her and leaning back against him. "That's the closest it's been, Harry," she mused on the thought, closing her tired eyes for a moment.
"It's still not enough," he groaned, half to himself, snatching his spectacles from his face with one spasmodic, irritable movement of the hand, savage anger boiling up towards- he was not sure what- his own enfeebled memories, towards his lack of speed, towards the knowledge that he was going to have to ask her to do this again- and again- and again, until they finished what they had set out to do--
It would have been useless, though, to try to attempt what they had attempted at a slower or a faster pace. Once begun, there was a certain rhythm to their work, a steady progression, building on what had gone before, that had caught them up and led them on. He rubbed his hand furiously through his hair. Perhaps- what, a few weeks, to refine the spell. Then- how long, to plan and prepare everything else that needed to be done… but that wasn't the heart of it.
He growled, settling his glasses back on his nose.
"Do you think Hermione's notes might help?" he asked, suddenly. It wasn't the crux of the problem by any means- but any way forward was a comfort, a release valve for the prickling mass of frustration that seemed to surround them on every side.
"Right now I'll take any help I can get," Ginny muttered.
"Well, she has managed to cast something like it before- last year, remember?" Harry fumbled in his pocket, but Ginny nodded.
"It's all right- I know what you mean-" she frowned, adding, critically, "I can't say I like the idea of just rummaging through her notes without telling her, though, Harry." She drew away from him slightly, and Harry nodded, his own irritation fading to a grim unhappiness.
"Me neither." He bit his lip. "It's just… I don't know. Maybe Snape's just getting to me. What they don't know they can't give away."
"It's the same for me, though, isn't it?" she looked hard at him. "Isn't it?"
The truth was, Harry knew, it wasn't. Not exactly. Since he'd spoken to Snape- no, before that, but Snape's words at Christmas and after had driven the thought closer to the forefront of his mind, the worry had been growing within him. He knew- he'd told the Potions Master as much- that Voldemort couldn't easily read his thoughts- or, at least, couldn't easily make sense of them. Then, too, he knew that he could, if need be, fight the Imperius Curse. Ginny had faced the curse, just as she'd faced Voldemort with him- twice now, and he told himself that was the reason he had been prepared to trust her with something he was reluctant to share with his two old friends- but in his heart, he was well aware there was another reason, a less noble one.
If Voldemort took her, I don't know if I'd care any more- not about plans, not about the world…
He shook his head abruptly. She was still looking at him, a challenge in her gaze. He needed her, then. That was it. The spell was in his memories- but only as an effect, an echo, a remembrance. Ginny's instincts- her intuition when it came to the make-up of spells and magic, were the only way he could see to turn that memory into something he could touch, and cast, and use to work his own will- and given the nature of what they were doing, he could hardly ask her to work in the dark.
Besides, he realised, with a sudden chill, quite apart from the practical need for her to know where she was going- there was something else, something that was behind her vehement anger now.
He groaned, massaging his forehead with both hands. Had he forgotten the lessons of Grimmauld Place so easily?
"It's like you said," her hand had returned the wand to her sleeve, and she rubbed her knuckles stiffly, as if a little pained by the power that had passed through them. "This is dark. We're going to need them to help us-"
"Not without knowing what they're getting in to." Harry offered her his hand. "I know- and maybe that's it," he added, gratefully receiving her hand into his none the less, and screwing his eyes up tightly for a moment to try to clear his head. "I'm making excuses for myself," he told her, with a slight, feeble effort at a smile. "That might be at the bottom of it, though," he admitted regretfully. "I mean- I can't see another way. She's got to be stopped- I honestly can't see any other way that isn't going to be worse in the long run… but…" He looked sharply at her, her brown eyes meeting his green. The thing was, Harry's brain pointedly informed him, there was a world of difference between telling himself that, or telling Ginny, who had seen enough of the darkness in his personal world to understand, he'd hoped, and trying to justify it to someone else- especially when he still found it a struggle to justify his plan to himself.
"Second thoughts?" he asked her quickly, recognising his own concerns with a chill. His mind might revolt in anger at the thought that they were only close to the answer- but he knew suddenly rather well that his heart's concern was more that they were too close- too close to a decision he was far from eager to make.
Ginny mulled this over. She seemed about to deny it, and then looked away into the middle distance, her brow crinkled in thought.
"More like fifth or sixth, by now," she admitted, wryly, "- but…" she sat up straighter, lifting one hand to her forehead and massaging her temples between thumb and forefinger. "We can do this, Harry," she said again, her tone careful, reasoning out. "We can do it- and she deserves it-" her eyes, almost unbidden, flicked for one moment towards his hand, then slipped back to their distant contemplation. Her thoughts trailed off into silence.
"Voldemort deserves to receive pain, but we do not deserve to have to give it." Harry's voice was low and bitter as he recalled the words to his tongue The girl's eyes widened at the words, and met his own. Harry realised- they had never, none of them, ever spoken aloud of what had passed between their four minds that day. There had been no need- until now.
A nod from Ginny, and a long silence.
"That's what I meant," she agreed, after a time, and then fell silent once more, lost in something deeper than communication now, wordless or otherwise.
"You know-" she said, finally, haltingly. "Milner said something in Defence the other day. We were talking about the Unforgivables- I'd forgotten until you said that…" she reflected. "He said that, unless you were really far gone, it was a lot worse to have to cast an Unforgivable Curse on someone you cared about than it was to have it cast on you."
"I wouldn't say I exactly cared about Umbridge," Harry retorted, a little sharply- but his anger was with himself, not with her. Nor, then, did he plan to cast an Unforgivable Curse on her, his thoughts reminded him coldly… but perhaps it wasn't that far off. Neither he nor Ginny would have disputed that the plan he had offered- almost without thinking- to Dumbledore that day, now close on a week in the past, drew in itself perilously close to the line Harry had forbidden himself to ever step across- but how close? It had just seemed… right. At the moment the Headmaster had asked him the question, he had felt the answer assembling itself in his mind. A half-dozen conversations, half-forgotten comments, old threads of thought had slipped together, and, before he'd even consciously known what that plan was- but, he guessed, a good few seconds after Dumbledore had known his answer and received it in the depths of those eyes of his, Harry had replied.
"Yes. I've got an idea."
Yes, I can do it.
Yes, I told him I could do it. I made a promise- and I made it without thinking.
He turned his thoughts inward, trying to draw upon that reserve of calm and clinical detachment that had sustained him in the past- but now he knew the very crux of the problem was in his heart- it was not what he planned to do- but why he planned to do it- that vexed him.
I wouldn't say I exactly cared about Umbridge.
Maybe that would make it- paradoxically- easier for him. If it were someone he cared for- then at least, however painful it would be, he would know his own mind. Now, though, he was plagued with the nagging and unpleasant thought that, just perhaps, what he planned to do was as much a matter of revenge as it was of necessity.
Except that lack of concern wasn't true, was it? Not entirely. For one thing, he hated her- and for another, she was still a living human being. What was that worth? Ginny had saved Draco Malfoy's life, saying that she would gladly see Malfoy dead- but that she knew Harry would not- and then, he remembered, she had retracted the statement, doubt and confusion in her eyes, dark in the shadows of the Hospital Wing at night.
Beneath the winter sun, shining in through the windows of their secret place, he looked into those eyes again- and she looked into his, remembering.
He would fight. He might even kill.
But he would kill to save those he loved and wished to keep alive,
Not to damn those he hated and wished dead.
"Another thing someone said," he whispered, closer now, holding her tight. "I meant Voldemort then too- but she's turning into something just as bad."
"You talk about turning the other cheek- but what if someone with that sort of power- magical, political, whatever, was going to do- was already doing- terrible things, and only you had the power to stop him. Should you do it?"
"Well, of course, Harry." The vicar had looked slightly surprised, but not for the reasons Harry had expected. "The nature of power- whether it is 'normal' or fanciful, does not change the moral obligations which go with it. Power breeds responsibility. The ability to help others and the moral obligation to do so- especially where fewer or no other people can, which is where we come back to your idea about a rare 'magical' gift, go hand in hand."
The words tumbled up out of his memory, rising into his mind at their need, and her grip tightened on his hand.
"There's nothing particularly 'dark' about dark magic, is there?" He addressed the question to her honestly. "In itself, I mean. Really? Even the Unforgivables… it's what they do that's evil- and what they were designed for. It's not the fact that they're magic that makes them horrible. Killing someone with the Avada's no worse than killing them with a knife- it's just that when you start, it's difficult to stop."
Ginny hesitated. She moved her lips, moistening them for a moment before answering.
"It's not the charm," she told him. "It's more… I don't know. You're right- she's got to be stopped somehow… but when we do this- when you do it," she amended, and then stopped, frowning intently. "We can't turn back, then, can we?"
How much closer would it push them to the edge? There it was. Harry knew well enough the likely consequences of what he was planning to do- but how far ahead could he see? Once he moved against Umbridge- how would she- and how would Voldemort- respond? That, he could perhaps guess- but how would he react to them? Then, what would the next move be- and the next, and the next- where would this first move take them, a year or so into the future?
Even as that dark and frightening thought crept to the front of his brain, another occurred to him. It was not the first move. All of it- the Registration Act, the raid on the Ministry, his duel with Voldemort… it had all been in response to some earlier action, an endless dance stretching back- how far? In all that time, no one had halted the chain, refused to react… except one person- Cornelius Fudge. Harry swore. There was no choice to not act. Even burying his head in the sand, refusing to cross the line out of his acceptable world, like Fudge, like Vernon Dursley- that was a decision, a choice, in itself. He had demanded to join the Order of the Phoenix, insisted on his right to choose…and now he was afraid to do it, afraid to cross his into his own particular forbidden world.
He would rather that people hated him, than that they feared him, he'd said. He looked at Ginny, and, for just a moment, saw a frightened twelve-year old below the young woman he loved. A child who had felt hatred flowing, burning out through her, whose throat had given orders to seek and kill, in a language she did not know.
"Could you let it go?" he asked, looking hard at both of her. "Just say 'No, we can't go that far', and let her carry on?"
Ginny shook her head, with little pause.
"Speak," her lips moved, voiceless, her word a breath on the air, not moving her eyes from his own. She nodded. "It's true, isn't it? The very fact that it hurts- that's the one thing we need to keep feeling, whatever else happens- because the moment we start to want to do this, it becomes the wrong decision- but we can't stay silent. We have to do something." Ginny finished, and breathed in, slow, long, and deep. "I suppose- if that means going close to the brink… well, we'll have to keep an eye on each other."
The Oath had been sworn to keep them back, because Harry had known that the temptation to use those curses that he must not use would only grow stronger as the days grew darker ahead- but in the end, he realised, with a sudden thrill of shock, the magical binding had only been the smallest part of that contract. A greater power, one with no particular connection with magic, had been that agreed between the four of them on that day- to stand together, and, if necessary, to be able to risk the darkness because each knew that the others would stand ready to draw them back from the edge.
"All right," Harry sighed. "If one of us turns into the next Dark Lord- or Lady, savin' yer grace's honourable presence," he added, by way of a Milnerism, "Then it's up to whichever one of us hasn't gone and stolen Tommy's job to put a stop to them as well." He rubbed the back of his neck, and Ginny took his hand, shaking it firmly.
"Done. I'll try not to hurt you too much.""
Then she laughed- a difficult, sudden spasm of a chuckle at first, and then again, a longer laugh which lifted the corners of her lips, and then a third, which reached her eyes and lit them up in his vision.
He looked at her in surprise- of all the reactions he'd expected, that had not been one of them, and the thought occurred to him- both startling and pleasurable in equal measure that perhaps he did not yet fully know the entire mind of Ginny Weasley. With that thought, another came, and he stifled a laugh of his own, eyes widening in realisation.
"When did 'watch my back' get so complicated?" he burst out, shaking his head as another laugh escaped him, and embraced her, his arms meeting around her waist and holding her to him, his eyes screwed tight shut, luxuriating in the feel of her, close to him, the scent of her hair in his nostrils. The colour seemed to flow back into the world. It was a painful decision- it was a decision he knew would almost certainly bring its own regrets- but it was their decision, and it was made. He felt her arms around him, holding him to her fiercely, her hand cupped to the back of his neck, and turned his head against hers, kissing her with an intensity that seemed to somehow sidestep the contact of flesh on flesh.
Yes, probably with this sort of thing,
The comment from an older and more jaded part of his mind answered his earlier question. He felt Ginny's lips pull into a grin, and her arms unlocked, sliding back. Wise- any longer and both knew rather well that the knowledge of imminent and scheduled education, concrete and certain as it might be, would no longer be persuasive enough an argument to assure them of the necessity for a hasty departure.
"I wonder what we'll do when there aren't any classes to go to any more?" he asked rhetorically, swinging his bag on to his back. Ginny's face coloured.
"I'm sure Ron'll be happy to defend my virtue," she observed, primly straightening her robes, but avoiding Harry's eye as she did so. "Although if I know my brother, that shouldn't pose too much of a problem."
"Should I ask?" He stepped aside to allow her to precede him out of the Nest, feeling somehow invigorated by that moment of decision. The ends might not justify the means- but still, the meaning of Dark Magic was tied into the use to which that magic was set, more than to the spells themselves. The strains and the weary work still hung upon them- but the weight was somehow less. "After you."
"Well, you're the one he was warning about the birds and the bees," Ginny murmured, linking her arm in his as they climbed back towards the castle. "He may not be too keen on the practical aspect of it- but trust me, Harry,"
"Yes, Professor Milner," -he received a look which spoke quite eloquently of revenge delayed until a more appropriate moment in reply to that particular interjection,
"Trust me, there's a little proud bit of Ron's mind that can't wait for the day someone small runs up to him and calls him 'Uncle Ron'," Ginny told him rather quickly, keeping her eyes on the path ahead. Harry found himself doing likewise, even as he responded.
"If that's all he wants, we could always bribe a first year."
"A use for the Potter fortune," she grinned, tickling him suddenly. "I knew there was a reason I loved you that wasn't about the meddling in things witches weren't meant to know- or all the violence-"
However, Harry's brain had stalled several words ago, and he stopped mid-step, turning to face her.
"-- Not that those aren't fun in themselves," she added, taking advantage of his silence, although her eyes told a different, deeper story.
Harry regarded her for a long moment, whilst he noticed, quite calmly, that somehow they appeared to have become entangled in one another's arms once more. Strange. He opened his mouth.
"I have Potions, now," he told her, only moderately inconvenienced by the way his body seemed to find it necessary to kiss her between alternate words. "If I'm late, Snape'll probably fillet me."
Ginny offered a rather muffled solution. Harry was unsure, but he thought he heard the phrases 'Snape can go hang' and 'Just get some Skele-gro'.
"Besides," he added, moving one of his hands, "You're supposed to be learning Defence Against the Dark Arts," he tickled her suddenly and unexpectedly, making her jump back with a stifled and high-pitched hiss of breath.
"I seem to get plenty of practice," Ginny regarded him with an old-fashioned look. "Go on, then- if you must leave me for Snape," she pushed him away with an imperious expression when he tried to kiss her again, "I'll see you at lunchtime."
"Done and done," Harry nodded, approvingly, and set off up the slope.
It might have been worth being five minutes late for Potions, Harry speculated. Or ten. Possibly ten.
"Fifteen?" his thoughts were forced sharply into words without meandering through the inconvenient path of reason as someone's elbow caught him in the stomach.
"Fifteen?" Snape's tones oozed glee. "Fifteen minutes, Mr Potter feels would be adequate to brew the Elixir of Brevity. Incidentally, Zabini, I am quite capable of drawing Mr Potter's attention myself- kindly do not resort to such vulgar antics again or I shall be forced to remove points from you- and, as Head of your House, I am well aware that Slytherin can afford to lose no further points this academic year."
Blaise started to speak.
"Your period of convalescence is over, Miss Zabini," her teacher went on, turning and striding back up to the front of the classroom, lightly flexing his wand between one hand and the other as he did so. Harry idly formulated the theory that, possibly, Severus Snape had heard some rumour that, somewhere in the depths of Hogwarts, some student had perhaps ventured the opinion that the Potions Master might be a human being, with compassion and pity somewhere in his emotional make-up. Certainly, Snape's manner in recent days had seemed to indicate a determination to disabuse anyone of any such notion- generally with all the grace and subtlety of a small and pungent chemical explosion.
"Unless you feel it necessary to return yourself to the hospital wing, in which case I shall expect to see a signed note of excuse from Madam Pomfrey when you are fit to resume your studies," the Professor continued, coldly, "You will otherwise conduct yourself in my classes in a manner appropriate to a Sixth Year Slytherin; rather than some form of surrogate Weasley to cover Potter's many deficiencies. Well-" he turned again, sharply tapping his wand on the desk of Millicent Bulstrode, currently busily employed in trying to accidentally push Richard George's exercise books into his bubbling cauldron. Millicent, abashed, hurriedly pulled her hand back to her own side of the desk. "Since it appears from the oscillating jawbone and sullen cast of the features that Potter has finally deigned to return his mind to the class at hand, I shall give him one more opportunity to answer the question."
Harry's mouth closed. He flicked a pleading look at Blaise, but, already having felt Snape's ire, she was plainly in no mood to risk further antagonising him by taking Harry's part.
Something to do with an Elixir of Brevity… how long it takes to brew it? He glanced at his textbook- but saw nothing of any especial relevance. Snape's mouth creased into a thin smile.
Harry looked up at the ceiling, trying to remember things he must have heard, somewhere at the back of his mind.
"The answer is not engraved on the stonework, Mr Potter." The Potions Master leant forward slightly, regarding Harry through lidded eyes. The faint discolouration of bruising made his eyes seem more hollow than ever. Harry wondered where he'd come by that. "Forty-three and a half minutes, exactly. Any less, and the potion will be entirely ineffective. Any more, and the cauldron will begin to oxidise, rendering the mixture toxic. I had thought," Snape went on, with no great regret or disappointment in his voice, "That since it is your intention to miss the next lesson, in which Professor Grubbly-Plank will take the rest of the class through my lesson plan on the subject of the Ten Golden Tinctures, you might choose to favour us with a little more of your intellect and capability on this occasion- or, at the least, with a certain amount of your attention… or is it your intention in Wednesday's class to be absent in body but present in spirit, in order to redress the balance? To see this classroom haunted by your ghost, Mr Potter, would quite possibly manage to be simultaneously the most cheering and dispiriting revelation I have yet witnessed." He swung about, striding back to the head of the classroom.
Harry wondered if Snape was looking forward to seeing his former favourite wrung through the judicial hearing. He rather suspected, from the man's demeanour- no more pleasant than usual, but with a certain vicious mercurialism in his temperament that suggested to Harry that he was watching the Professor running at slightly too fast a speed, like one of Dudley's mangled video cassettes- that Snape was not- no more than Harry was himself.
He felt a sort of sad amusement at that, and picked at a hole in his exercise book with the nib of his quill, lost in thought. The idea of sympathising with Snape was not a pleasant one- especially as it came so swiftly on the heels of his conversation with Ginny about trust. He looked up again at the pale-faced man, wondering for a moment if that same train of thought had ever run through the head of Severus Snape.
"Fifteen points from Gryffindor," the man growled, his hand slapping down on the edge of Harry's desk with a fervour that, for a moment, made the youth fear that Snape had not only thought those thoughts- but plucked them out of Harry's mind into the bargain. "Mr Potter, this is the second time I have had cause to rebuke you for your lack of attention in this class today. You will kindly moderate your attitude, or else not return. We are all well aware of your indubitable and ever eagerly demonstrated talents in certain more basic subjects," he turned dismissively away, "But if you lack the skill and finesse to deal with chemical matters then it would be best if you depart now, before rather than after your carelessness causes anyone significant illness or injury." He gripped the sides of his desk, head lowered, and his beetle-like gaze bored into the boy. "I trust I make myself clear?"
"Oh yes," Harry replied, in a low voice, the edges of sympathy flickering and fading in a moment. "Sir," he added, after a suitably insulting pause. "Of course, Professor Snape."
Standing upright, Snape snapped his book closed with a sharp crack, and returned it to the shelf.
"George," his flat tones whipped out, as Richard George failed to tip a live slug down the back of Millicent's blouse, "Don't do that."
The giant squid appeared to be feeling much refreshed by its holiday, Ginny was pleased to note, and was evidently beginning to reach that restless stage at the end of any lengthy illness when most of the symptoms and weakness have departed, and the erstwhile sufferer finds themselves increasingly irked by tedium and the confines of the sick room, and ever more eager to get out and return to the comparatively zestful and entertaining routine of everyday life; such normally mundane and yet, when denied, longed-for activities as a little light exercise, preparing and gathering one's own food, chasing down one's prey and rending them limb from limb and fin from fin before gorging oneself upon the still wriggling remnants.
Hagrid had added several additional courses of stonework to the wall of the Convalescence Pond over Christmas, raising its flat, uneven parapet about a foot proud of the water's surface most of the way around, in order to encourage his recuperating charge to enjoy a few weeks more well-earned rest, and the squid coursed back and forth across its small domain, tentacles occasionally threshing fretfully at the surface. Ron, observing one such ill-tempered sortie a few yards from their perch, seated out near to the centre of the wall's arc, carefully swung his legs up on to the top of the wall and turned, dangling his feet over the other side.
"Merpeople that side," Hermione remarked, without looking up. Ginny saw her brother's eyes widen slightly, and he hastily lifted his legs again, sitting with them in front of him parallel to the wall, resting his hands on his knees.
"You'll lose your balance when you try to get up," Ginny told him, putting a hand out to steady Ron as a gust of wind made him wobble slightly.
"I'm not a complete moron, thanks," Ron muttered, but lay back flat on the parapet none the less, safely balanced and looking up at the sky. He shaded his eyes with one hand. The dark clouds had passed over for now, and, though low in the sky, the winter sun was piercingly bright. He closed his eyes.
"Don't fall asleep," Hermione nudged him, warningly. "I know what you're like for tossing and turning-"
Ron gave a long, frustrated growl, and scrambled ill-humouredly to his feet.
Ginny quirked an eyebrow, giving the older girl an interested and quizzical look. Hermione made a rather startled indrawn noise, and found something fascinating to study on the palm of one hand.
"I have seen your brother asleep in the hospital wing," she informed Ginny, a little coolly, "On any number of occasions."
"What does he want to meet us all out here for anyway?" the subject of their conversation interrupted, finding some apparently exceedingly interesting insect to look at as it scurried across the stones. "It's perishing." He cast a long shadow. It was a cold, clear day, the very opposite of the storm-tossed tumult of the previous week, and the sun seemed to burn low in the sky with a ferocity that belied the bitter chill in the air. The shadow fell across Hermione's transfiguration textbook, and she drummed her ballpoint- school rules still required all essays to be submitted in quill-pen, but she preferred to save time by making notes in biro, and copying them to quill later- on the stones, until Ron moved again.
"For goodness sake, don't jump about like that, Ron- you'll fall in!" Harry called warningly, picking his way down through the driftwood and dead leaves that floated, mat-like, around the lake's perimeter in this season and scrambling on to the southern end of the wall, picking his way out over the white stones to join them.
Ron bit off an angry comment, and closed his eyes, lips moving faintly. Ginny rather thought he was counting up to ten. Or possibly to ten thousand.
"How was Potions?" she asked Harry, as he lowered himself into a sitting position alongside.
"I might have created an invincible army of slug-monsters," he mused. "It was hard to tell through all the smoke."
"Before you two start making me ill," Ron folded his arms, "What's the big idea?" He gestured out across the lake.
"I needed somewhere we could talk privately," Harry told him, unfurling the Marauders' Map and spreading it across the stonework. "Too many people are getting to know about the Room of Requirements now- and this is something we really aren't going to want spread around, trust me."
"Have you been getting my baby sister in trouble again, Potter?"
"Well, we try, but you and Little Tommy keep interrupting us," Ginny replied quickly.
Hermione had been watching them quietly. Now she folded her book gently, and set it to one side, using a light sticking charm to adhere the back cover to the parapet, in order to avoid accidents.
"Go on, Harry," she said, seriously. Harry looked up. Potions had not been a success, one way or another, and he'd barely had time to dash to the kitchens to beg a slice of bread and butter from Dobby before coming out here. It would have been nice- just to sit and relax out here for a while, with his friends. Perhaps another day. Perhaps a warmer day, a less maudlin corner of his mind interjected sourly. He took a deep breath, uncomfortably aware that he was likely to be about to deliver the first strike in a long and bitter war of words.
"Ginny and I've been… working on something," he admitted. Hermione's brow furrowed- but she said nothing, only glanced at Ron, who met her look with a nod.
"We thought it was something like that," Ron sighed. "I mean- not that I like to actually speculate on what the two of you are up to when you're sneaking off- or where you go-" he added, with a slight narrowing of his eyes, "But this last week- well, you've hardly been speaking to each other in the common room, you know-" it was true enough, Harry realised. Most evenings, by the time the light failed and they returned to Gryffindor Tower, the young couple were so weary of their work, and had said so much that needed to be said, that they'd simply sat in silence, watching the fire and listening to Dean and Seamus arguing about Seamus' performance as Chaser last term, or Hermione reading from the Daily Prophet. "To be honest, I wondered if you'd had a fight or something--"
"Several," Harry interjected. "She started it," he nodded at his girlfriend, who started to jab him in the stomach, and stopped, bearing in mind his closeness to the water's edge, catching her elbow and holding it back with her other hand.
"Deferred," she told him, with a grin, "Because I don't fancy fishing you out of the lake in this weather."
"Anyway- what is it?" Ron squatted down in front of them.
Harry swallowed hard. This was the point.
"We're going to put a stop to Umbridge." Ron's face brightened at once, but Hermione leant forward.
"Define 'put a stop to'," she said, a slightly dangerous tone in her voice.
Harry held up a hand.
"In a minute, Hermione- please- let me talk you through this my way?" He looked at her. She returned the look, her face worried, seeming to be searching for something in his eyes- but nodded.
"All right- although I hope you're going to talk to Professor Dumbledore first. He wasn't joking, you know, Harry- he does have a lot better chance of dealing with her than you do."
"Him and whose army?" Harry asked. Hermione bridled.
"Harry, if you're going to--"
"I'm serious," Harry told her. "We're Dumbledore's army, in case you've forgotten."
"Of course I haven't forgotten--"
"We're also members of the Order of the Phoenix." He breathed for a moment. The anger on her face had faded a little at that- but he chided himself for being so short with her. It hadn't been necessary- and it hadn't been fair, either.
"Dumbledore came to see me," he admitted, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, 'Mione- mainly I'm sorry about actually having to do it, because although I don't expect you to believe me after everything I've been saying since the attack on the Ministry I really don't like the idea- but I didn't mean to snap at you. It's not been a good week."
"Wasn't the best of months."
"I've had better years." Ron added.
"Anyway- the point is- this is Dumbledore dealing with it."
"Then why…?" Hermione frowned at him- more puzzled than angry now. He could understand her confusion. It was out of character for the Headmaster to involve Harry so directly in such a matter.
"It's the only way," Harry said, before adding, in deference to a thoughtful look from Ginny, "At least, it's the only way I can see, and he can't think of anything else either. Not now things are moving as fast as this."
"But what are you going to do?" Ron exclaimed, sitting down heavily. "Walk in and blow Umbridge's bloody office doors off and hex her to kingdom come?"
"That was plan B," Ginny admitted. "Plan A is to set her up."
Hermione's tongue clicked at the back of her throat, and she shifted in her seat, tucked between two slightly taller stones on the uneven wall.
"That could actually work," she mused, "Although it'd be an awful risk, Ginny."
"You don't know the half of it," Harry went on. "Listen- Hermione- Dumbledore sort of tried to talk me through this the other day… but I want to hear it from you. You're quite bright- a few people have noticed." He exchanged another look with Ginny, and took her hand. "Is Umbridge a Death Eater? Yes or no."
Hermione started, her lips pursed in thought. She looked absently across the shoreline for a minute, then back at Ron, then across at Ginny, before finally turning her face back to Harry, and took a deep breath.
Out there, a little further around the lake, Hagrid was trying to clear some of the driftwood and scum from the little jetty where the first year's boats were moored, struggling with a long wooden pole which seemed to have become firmly anchored in a mass of peculiar, viscous foam like frogspawn several months too early and several sizes too large. As Harry watched, he tugged hard at it, then, in a sudden burst of anger, broke the pole across his knee, flinging the handle out in a wide arc into the water, following it with his eyes as it flew. His eyes met Harry's own, and the massive figure blanched, unmoving, as he saw the witness to his burst of bad temper. Then, without a word or greeting, Hagrid turned abruptly on his heel, stomping back away along the shore, Fang prancing excitedly and ignored at his heels. His great head bowed, and Harry saw a large hand reach up, and wipe a grimy sleeve across his eyes.
Hermione was speaking.
"No," she said, certainty forming in her voice as she spoke. "Of course she isn't- she couldn't be."
"How do you mean?" Ron frowned.
"Think about it," his girlfriend half-whispered in her urgency, grabbing his hand. "Remember the prophecy? Umbridge knew about it, didn't she?" Her eyes were wide, and an almost fanatical gleam shone in them- the same look, the same certainty of logic and reasoning, rather than of blind faith, that Harry had seen in her face in Gryffindor Tower, when she had revealed the true nature of another enemy to him.
Hermione shook her head again, bushy curls bobbing around her shoulders.
"I don't pretend to be convinced that Percy was right about everything- but there's no other way Blaise could have known about that prophecy- she knew the exact words. That means that Umbridge knew about it- and she'd known about it since the day Dumbledore had it recorded in the Department of Mysteries." She fidgeted in her makeshift perch, shifting her weight. "Harry- you of all people know how much Voldemort went through to try and get hold of that prophecy last year." He nodded, Hermione's words clearing the fog. It was obvious, now, what Dumbledore had meant. "If she were a Death Eater," the girl went on, securing the coup de grace, "She'd be a complete traitor to Voldemort- and no offence to you two," she favoured Ron and Ginny with a sudden grin, "But I don't think anyone who can be outwitted by Fred and George on a couple of old brooms is a good enough Legilimens to pull off being a double agent against him- not to mention that she was going to have to use Veritaserum to try to get a confession out of us last year." Hermione sighed, sitting back- so that Ginny, fearful that her friend might have forgotten her precarious position, hurriedly put out a hand to support the other girl's back and stop her sliding back into the water. "She still might be involved, though," Hermione added, perhaps a little reluctantly, her eyes on Harry's face again, the same wary look in them as before. "I know- just because she's not a Death Eater doesn't mean that she wouldn't help them if it suited her- but she can't be one of them. It just wouldn't make sense."
"I agree." With a sudden lightening of the heart which went paradoxically against most of the other emotions in his chest, Harry felt an urge to shake his head vigorously, to try and shake out one of the annoying pieces of the endlessly fractured jigsaw that had been plaguing him. No, Delores Umbridge was not a Death Eater. Like Malfoy's guilt, that was settled- and, unlike Malfoy's guilt, he firmly hoped no one was going to come along and muddy the issue once again- with the possible exception of himself.
"Right- Ron first." Harry looked at him, his tone brisk, shouldering aside the doubts and concerns for a moment. First, the practicalities. "Do you think you can smuggle something into the Ministry for me?"
"Me?" Ron gaped at him.
"You won last week, remember? Low-down cunning and deceit. This is the prize."
"I thought I'd already won that," Ron muttered, unable to avoid a slight flicker of his eyes towards Hermione. He half-stood up again, shifting from foot to foot evasively. "I- I dunno, Harry- maybe," he nodded. "Dad says stuff's been sneaked in and out before. What kind of thing is it?"
"Not very big. About a foot long. The trouble is, if I tried to take it in through the front entrance it'd set off every Dark Detector in the building. I wondered about getting Dobby to--"
"House Elves aren't allowed in the building during working hours," Ron interrupted. "They have to clean up after everyone's gone home- security." Hermione gave a distant, derisive grumble. "Still, there might be a way…" he sank into thought. "Let me think about it."
Harry nodded, and turned to his girlfriend.
She drew herself up, tucking her knees in between her arms, and steepled her hands in front of her nose. "Last year," she began, keeping her voice calm, "Do you remember those Galleons you charmed for the DA meetings?"
Hermione agreed, looking perplexed at the sudden change of enquiry.
"The Protean Charm," she confirmed. "It's not that difficult- to be honest, Professor Flitwick said the only reason they normally restrict it to the NEWT syllabus is because some of the teachers are worried that people would use it to play tricks on younger students- making textbooks that changed between lessons, that sort of thing…" she began to tail off, regarding Ginny a little suspiciously.
"Could you teach me how to do it?" Ginny asked. "The theory as well, I mean." She held up one golden galleon in the palm of her hand, and licked her lip thoughtfully. "It feels…" she glanced at Harry, "Well, similar. Not quite the same- but if I could get a feel for that, then I might get close. Close enough, anyway."
"Close enough to what?" Hermione turned, her eyes moving between them once more.
Harry looked away.
"We've taken a spell- a charm, I suppose," he touched his forehead lightly, and heard her faint gasp of understanding as she realised just where Harry meant that that spell had come from.
"Luna said it would be a lot easier if Umbridge were a Death Eater," he commented sadly. "We could just gather them all up together and deal with them all at once." He set his jaw. "Only, the thing is- in a way she is a Death Eater. She might not be working for Voldemort- but it's the same thing. You said it yourself, Hermione," he appealed to her, seeing her face slowly beginning to set, a hard, half-scared, half-grim expression forming on it. "What she wants and what the Death Eaters are trying to do are pretty much the same thing. They just use different names, there are just different people at the top of their lists." His throat seemed dry, but he knew better than to willingly drink the lake water. He needed to make them understand.
"I'm… I'm going to give Umbridge exactly what she deserves," he told Hermione.
"Harry- Ginny, I mean it." She stood up suddenly, a note of decision in her voice. "I want her stopped every bit as much as you do- you've read the Prophey- you've seen Hagrid's face every morning at breakfast- I'd… I'd like to…" she stopped, abruptly, and then stepped forward, "But you're beginning to frighten me, and trust me, after six years being friends with you two, I don't frighten quite as easily as I used to just because I bumped into a troll in the toilets. You're going to tell me here and now just what you're planning, or else you can count me out." She took a deep breath. "I won't help you commit murder, Harry," Hermione's eyes bored into him, as hard as knives. "If we start to behave like that, then we're no better than she is- no better than Voldemort."
"I'm not going to kill her!" Harry was on his feet in a moment, his face white with anger. "What kind of monster do you think--" he closed his eyes, and sat down again in a hurry. "Never mind." He shook his head. "You're right- I know how I sound… but I'm not too keen on the idea of killing anyone either, 'Mione, funnily enough."
"What I said. I'm going to give her just what she deserves." He licked his lips. "Remember the revelation charm- I used it on Milner at the start of the year? 'Revelos Morsmor," he cast, flicking out his wand. White light flashed from his wand-tip, enveloping Ginny in that same nimbus of colourless luminescence that had indicated Milner's innocence of any formal connection with Voldemort. "I know- it's not infallible," he admitted, holding up a hand to ward off Hermione's protests. "I know a strong enough Death Eater might be able to make it show negative anyway- but, if it does show up positive- then it'd be the end of her- and she won't know how to hide it."
He looked out across the lake again, not wanting to meet her eyes. He'd goaded her on purpose, he realised- on one level he'd known it all along- on another he'd not realised it fully until she'd made her accusation, and he'd jumped to his feet to refute in anger. He'd led her to expect the very worst- so that the truth would not seem as bad by comparison. The anger turned on himself then, and he spoke grimly, as he told the truth without art or embellishment. He owed that to them. He would need to ask so much from them in the months ahead.
"It's a hold on her- that's all, but it's enough. It'd only take one wizard, one member of the Order to cast that on her in a public place and she'd be finished- and she'd know it. The Acting Minister of Magic a Death Eater? They'd have her in Azkaban by the end of the day."
"Even if she was cleared, it'd be the end of her career," Ginny elaborated. "The accusation would be enough. She wouldn't dare take the risk."
"But she's not a Death Eater!" Hermione shook her head emphatically. "Harry, what have we just been talking about, for Merlin's sake? She can't be a Death Eater…"
"I didn't say she was." Harry turned his face back to her, and his eyes were cold and flat. "That charm doesn't detect Death Eaters- it detects the Mark- and that's what I'm going to do." He drew the wand with which he and Ginny had been working in Helena's Nest. It was thirteen-and-a-half inches long, and made from dark yew. "I'm going to give Delores Umbridge the Dark Mark."
Author's Note: The next few chapters may take a bit of time to do, because there's going to be a fair bit of legal business going on in them, and the logistics may get complicated. I'm going to try to get the whole of the Draco-enquiry sequence written up before I post any of it- just in case I get to near the end and realise I'm going to have to change something at the beginning to make it fit. So, there will be a scheduled delay (we're talking weeks, not years, as I've already written the ending), and then either two or three chapters, depending on how it pans out, at once.
Jedimacewindu: The chapters have got longer as time's gone on, I think. I sometimes update multiple chapters at once (see above), although not that often- I'm too fond of cliffhangers. There will be one rather short chapter though- a sort of Alice Through the Looking Glass type chapter- but it'll almost certainly get updated with another one. I assume saying that 'everything up to chapter 50 is really good' in a review of chapter 51 means you didn't like "Jinx": )
Wolf's Scream: In answer to an earlier comment of yours that I neglected to mention at the time, yes, I am enjoying this. Unfortunately I've gone from one extreme to the other now- from having no idea where I was going a while ago, I've now got too much idea- so while I'm supposed to be writing about Harry and the Mark, my brain keeps jumping ahead to next term and suggesting evil things to make happen to the Dursleys.
Sadly, it's unlikely that the pupils of Hogwarts will be able to chant in delight when Umbridge is squashed- well, not en masse, anyway. As for Mr Potter- yes, education and life are beginning to pay off now. He's still capable of one or two rather large errors of judgement- the first being that he really hasn't got the hang of delegating responsibility, and the second that he occasionally lets his tongue and temper get the better of him. However, the Diagon Alley battle appeared to teach him that, yes, actually, command does occasionally mean that you do have to let other people do dangerous things as well.