A/N: Well, here it is: the final chapter of TC. It's been one hell of a long journey for me. About three years, to be exact. Three years and half a million words later, and here we are. I'd like to thank those who have helped me along the way. Christine, Maggie, and Ruby: thank you for your help. You've helped shape this story into what it is and helped me grow as an author along the way. And thank you to everyone who's left me a review along the way, whether offering encouragement, advice, or criticisms. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know what you think of the story. And also thank you to everyone who's still reading, just for sticking with me. Hopefully you'll stick with me for round two as well, which will be picking up right where this leaves off. And without further ado, I give to you…

Chapter 28: Out of the Shadows

Sending one last glare, Harry turned on his heel and strode toward the door, which slammed shut before he could reach it. "We are not finished here, Mr. Potter."

Dumbledore's voice radiated with power.

Very slowly, Harry turned to face his headmaster, who was now standing behind his desk. He said nothing as he met the man's stare. Any hint of the headmaster's genial, grandfatherly image was gone, replaced by the powerful persona that could invoke fear in the heart of even a Dark Lord.

"I need your word that you will cease any attempts to involve yourself in fighting the Death Eaters," the headmaster demanded in a steady voice.

Harry narrowed his eyes. "No."

"Perhaps you misunderstand me," Dumbledore responded. "I was not asking."

"Perhaps you misunderstand me, Headmaster," Harry replied evenly, though it was a struggle to keep the contempt out of his voice. "I am not your puppet. You don't have to like the choices I make, but you will learn to respect that they are my choices to make."

"That's where you are mistaken, Mr. Potter," the man countered, visibly calming himself. "You are still underage. Thus your choices are not your own."

Harry let out a bark-like laugh that held no humour. "You think the Dursleys will try to stop me? If they think it might get me killed, they'll be all for it. Might be the first thing we actually agree upon."

"Your aunt and uncle are your guardians in the Muggle World," Dumbledore replied. "In magical society, however, Hogwarts, and by extension the Headmaster, is granted a form of stewardship over the affairs of Muggle-raised students in the Wizarding World. Given that the Death Eaters are part of the Wizarding World, involving yourself in battles against them falls under my jurisdiction."

"Funny, I just can't bring myself to give a damn," Harry stated.

"Please think this through, Harry," Dumbledore said, walking around the desk. "I do not wish to force you to do anything."

Harry arched one eyebrow in disbelief. "You certainly have a funny way of showing it."

"But I will," Dumbledore continued, not acknowledging Harry's interjection. "If you leave me no other option."

"There are plenty of options," Harry retorted, clenching his fists tightly. "You just won't acknowledge any other than the one you've already chosen. Of course, you never consulted me in that choice, even though it's my life you're playing with."

"Your behaviour right now only serves to reinforce that you are not ready for that responsibility," the Headmaster reprimanded.

"Oh? So let me get this straight: I'm angry that you're trying to dictate my life to me, and to you this means that I'm not ready to make my own decisions?" Harry questioned.

Dumbledore ignored his question and stated, "Your word, Mr. Potter. That is all I ask, and then you may leave."

"I'm afraid I can't do that," Harry replied.

"I granted you a lot of freedom," the headmaster stated. Harry failed to stifle a snort, but Dumbledore continued on as if Harry never made a sound. "I did not wish for you to feel as if you were trapped in a cage. Your guards at Privet Drive were always invisible. In the castle, I've allowed you absolute free reign. So long as you remained within the safety of Hogwarts, I saw no reason to add unnecessary restrictions. Now I am left with no other alternative."

"What do you intend to do?" Harry scoffed. "Lock me up?"

The headmaster shook his head. "I am not this tyrant you seem to view me as. I have no desire to lock you up, but you must be protected – even from yourself."

Harry shook his head sadly. "I had hoped I was wrong about you," he said. "I hated lying to you, and I always felt that sense of doubt, wondering if you might accept me and the choices I made. Looks like I wasn't just being paranoid."

"You lied because you knew I and others would disapprove of your actions," Dumbledore countered. "That is why even Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger have remained ignorant of your actions over the past year. Miss Granger, in fact, has become so worried for you that she saw fit to seek my aid last night prior to your disappearance."

Harry's eyes widened, and he hesitated at that revelation before shaking it off. He would deal with Hermione later. "Do you honestly expect to be able to fool me into doubting my actions?" Harry asked with a humourless chuckle. "I've made some mistakes over the past year, I'll grant you that, but I've also done a lot of good – saved lives. I will never regret that."

"It would seem that we are at an impasse," Dumbledore stated rather unnecessarily. "If you will not give me your word, I'm afraid you may not like the consequences."

Harry gave absolutely no reaction to this statement – verbally or otherwise. His face was a blank mask.

"Very well," Dumbledore continued after a moment of silence. With a haggard look upon his face, he waved his hand, and the door to his office reopened. "I am sure you wish to visit Miss Weasley in the hospital wing. I shall not keep you any longer."

Harry stared at him for a moment longer before turning and walking away, his senses on high alert until he had made his way out the door and all the way down the spiral, stone staircase and into the corridor. Dumbledore had not made any move to follow him, so Harry made his way to the infirmary, already dreading the confrontation he was sure to have with the Weasleys and Hermione and probably Madam Pomfrey – and whoever else might happen to be around.

As he came upon the entrance, he paused in front of the double doors and took a deep breath before pushing them open and stepping inside.


It was with a great sense of dread that Ginny allowed herself to be led out of Dumbledore's office by her mother. She had no doubts as to the headmaster's intentions, and, despite Harry's insistence that it was his battle to fight, she did not feel right leaving him to fight it alone. Looking at her mum, though, she knew that even trying to go back to the headmaster's office was out of the question. After the worry her mother had been through, a visit to the hospital wing was the least she could do if it helped put her at ease. And if she was honest with herself, Ginny knew she could use some pain relieving potions.

She sighed as they entered the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey hustled out of her office and did not hesitate to rush her into a bed. Her mum and the matron were talking back and forth about her as if she was not even there, which was rather annoying. It was not as if she was a child unable to speak for herself. She met Ron's eyes for a moment, and he showed his agreement with a roll of his eyes. "I am right here, you know," Ginny interrupted the two women. "Seeing as I was the only one there, maybe you should be asking me what's wrong."

Her mum frowned and opened her mouth, but Madam Pomfrey beat her to the punch. "All right, Miss Weasley. What's wrong?"

"I'm just sore," Ginny evasively replied.

"Sore from what, specifically?" the matron demanded.

She swallowed the memory of the torture she had endured and responded in a matter-of-fact tone, "The Cruciatus Curse." Her mum made a sound like a sob causing Ginny to nearly lose the tight grip she held on her emotions, but she refused to allow just the memory of pain to hold any sway over her.

Madam Pomfrey frowned and asked, "How long were you held under the curse?"

Ginny suppressed a shudder and shrugged her shoulders. "I have no idea." Her father put a comforting hand on her shoulder, and she looked up at him with a small smile.

"Multiple times?" the medi-witch questioned.

Ginny nodded. "Yeah, a few." Her mum gave a small whimper and walked to the head of the bed. She then began running her fingers through Ginny's hair while holding her other hand to her mouth – presumably trying to prevent herself from crying.

Madam Pomfrey clucked her tongue and walked over to a cabinet full of various vials of potions. She selected one and brought it to her.

"Drink this," Pomfrey demanded. "All of it."

Ginny gave her a dubious looks before nodding in acceptance. She downed the potion quickly and gratefully accepted the goblet of water passed into her hands to wash away the foul taste.

"I want you to remain in that bed for the next hour while those potions take effect," Madam Pomfrey instructed.

Ginny could only nod her agreement, the matron's tone brooking no room for argument. Madam Pomfrey walked away, and Ginny was left with her parents and brother. Ron looked slightly uncomfortable at the foot of her bed, while her mother continued to run one hand through Ginny's hair. Her father's hand remained a comforting weight on her shoulder.

"Er – maybe I should Floo the others," Ron stated suddenly. "Let them know…" his voice trailed off.

"That's an excellent idea Ron," her father stated. "Why don't you ask Madam Pomfrey if you can use her Floo?"

Ron nodded and followed after the matron to her office. As Ginny watched him walk away, her mind drifted back to Harry, left alone in Dumbledore's office. She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach and knew that things were not going well for him right now. She hated that, in a way, it was her fault he was in that position. She knew it was illogical to blame herself for it, but she did all the same. She wished she could at least stand beside him and give him her support; instead, she was sitting in bed being fussed over.

She shook herself from her musings as, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the fire turn green and Ron's head disappear in the flames. She would learn what transpired between Harry and the headmaster soon enough.

As if on cue, the doors to the hospital wing opened, and Harry walked in. She could tell from his stiff movements that he was upset, but as soon as his eyes connected with her, a smile lit up his face. He walked over to her and stood on the side of her bed opposite her parents. His hand grasped hers as he asked, "So how long are you in for?"

"An hour," Ginny replied.

"Is that all?" Harry joked. "I don't think I've ever had a visit as short as that."

"Indeed," Madam Pomfrey agreed as she approached the foot of her bed. "Unlike yourself, Miss Weasley, it seems, has enough sense not to do her body too much damage." Ginny squeezed Harry's hand as he shrugged in response. "And how are you feeling, Miss Weasley?"

"Fine," she replied.

Pomfrey clucked her tongue once in response and gave her a long once over as though expecting some new wounds to sprout over her body. Apparently satisfied that no such thing would occur, she nodded and moved on. By that time, Ron had removed himself from the fireplace and came to stand at the foot of the bed. "Fred and George are on their way. Bill's tied up, but he said he'd stop by later. I couldn't get hold of Charlie."

No one commented on the name he failed to mention. Ginny forced herself to swallow the sudden burst of both sadness and anger she felt at her wayward brother. It was times like this that his absence struck her the hardest. She was never particularly close to Percy, but he was her brother. With how he was acting, though, he might as well be a complete stranger.

The silence stretched on, but she could think of nothing to say to break it. It was Ron who finally spoke up. "So what happened?"

Ginny eyed her brother apprehensively. She was dreading the moment one of them would ask that question. She dared not even look at her parents, whom she knew would be just as impatient to hear about it. She glanced briefly at Harry and saw her own feelings mirrored there, though he tried to hide it. Shifting her gaze back to her brother she said, "I'd rather not talk about it right now."

Ron looked as if he was about to protest, but then he seemed to think better of it and nodded his head. She knew that would only give her a brief respite from their questions, but she would gladly take all the time they were willing to give her.

An awkward silence settled over the small group. Ginny tilted her head back to look up at her parents before shifting her gaze onto Harry. She wanted to ask him how things went with Dumbledore, but she dared not even mention it in front of her family. As if he could read her thoughts, Harry nearly imperceptibly shook his head and mouthed the word, "Later." She held his gaze for a moment longer before turning her head towards the sudden flash of green in her peripheral vision.

A smile tugged at her lips as she watched first Fred and then George emerge from the fireplace. "Look there, brother o' mine," George began the moment he stepped out of the grate.

"Our lost sister," Fred continued.

"And her very own personal saviour," George finished.

"I need to get me one of those," Fred commented.

"Right handy with oldie Voldie on the loose again," George inserted.

"Well stated, Fred," Fred complimented.

"Thanks, George," George responded.

Ginny chuckled as she replied, "You'll have to find your own. This one's all mine, and I won't share." She squeezed Harry's hand as she said this, sneaking a glance to see his eyes sparkling in mirth.

"Sorry, Gents," Harry added. "You heard the lady."

The twins emitted simultaneous sighs, lifting their hands to their foreheads in perfect unison. "I can't help but wonder…" Fred started a moment later.

"What's that, my favourite brother?" George asked.

"Your favourite, really?" Fred practically swooned. "You flatter me so. I didn't want to make the others jealous, but you're my favourite too."

Ginny rolled her eyes and noticed Ron doing the same.

"Of course. Handsome as I am, how could I not be?" George haughtily proclaimed. "But back to your wondering, brother."

"Ah yes, I can't help but wonder how curious the whole situation seems."

"Curious, George?" George rejoined.

"Indeed, Fred," Fred continued. "You see, word is that our darling sister here was kidnapped."

"The news nearly broke my heart."

"Same here, my brother, but what strikes me is that the only one with any knowledge of this supposed kidnapping is her darling Harry here."

Ginny was looking back and forth between the two as they continued their duologue, trying to figure out where they were going with it.

George nodded seriously. "Yes, a true hero he is, dashing into danger to rescue our beloved sister."

"So it seems," Fred agreed. "From the sound of it, he was in and out with his damsel on his arm, yet we, her poor family, heard nothing from the two of them until just now."

Ginny frowned. Of all her brothers, Fred and George were the last she expected to hear any grief from on that particular subject. She opened her mouth but could not think of what to say to shut the two up. Most likely anything she did say would only spur them on, so she clamped her mouth shut and continued to warily watch the two.

"Whatever are you thinking, my brother?" George queried.

"What if the kidnapping was all a ruse?" Fred asked.

George gasped dramatically. "Why would they do such a thing as that?"

Fred shook his head as he continued. "You know as I do how difficult it can be to find a good place for a snog in this musty, old castle."

Ginny's draw dropped.

"Too right I do," George agreed.

"So if two young love-birds…"

"That's enough!" her mum screeched. "Your sister has just been through a horrible ordeal. And you have the nerve to – to – insinuate such trash. Apologize to your sister and Harry this instant."

Ginny could not help the smile that tugged at her lips as her brothers simultaneously winked at her. Only Fred and George. "Our apologies," they both intoned solemnly, the tone clashing horribly with the smiles on their faces.

Ginny headed off another tirade from her mum by bringing up her need of a new wand. Her parents promised they would talk to the professors about taking her to Ollivander's the next day. Seeing that their mum's ire had faded, Fred and George resumed their bantering. If nothing else they were always good for keeping a conversation going, even if the two were just speaking back and forth about various inanities.

It was not long before Madam Pomfrey returned to give her another once-over. "Well, you appear to be no worse for the wear," she declared. "I expect you to take it easy for a few days. Avoid anything strenuous, and no broom flying for a week. Patients sometimes suffer delayed side-effects from the Cruciatus Curse that can include sudden jolts of pain or temporary loss of feeling to limbs. If you encounter any suspicious symptoms, I expect you to return to be treated. Is that understood?"

Ginny nodded seriously at the mediwitch before turning back to her family. With a smile on her face, she swung her feet off the bed when the doors to the wing opened and in walked Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall. She felt Harry tense at her side at the headmaster's appearance.

"Ah, I see Madam Pomfrey has pronounced you to be of fit health, Miss Weasley," Dumbledore stated. "A fact which has us all quite relieved."

She forced a smile onto her face and nodded in reply as her Head of House input, "I'm glad to see you safe and sound, Miss Weasley." Her eyes flicked to Harry briefly as she said this, and she offered a small smile. "And the same goes for you, Mr. Potter." She nodded her head at Harry and said, "Might I have a word with you briefly?"

"Of course, Professor," Harry responded, his voice completely casual. Ginny squeezed his hand before letting it go, and he turned and gave her a smile before walking out with Professor McGonagall. Dumbledore watched the two of them as they left before turning back to face the crowd around her bed.

"Messrs. Frederick and George, it's good to see you in this old castle again," Dumbledore said, nodding to each twin – the correct one as he said each name. "You are welcome to stay for the day, so long as you leave by curfew. I dare say the house-elves can manage enough food for the two of you, as well as clean up whatever mayhem you leave in your wake." His eyes twinkled madly as her mum harrumphed. "If you need to use the Floo, feel free to stop by my office."

"Molly, Arthur," he said, turning towards her parents. "Might I have a moment of your time?"

"Of course, Albus," her mum replied as her father nodded his agreement.

Her parents each gave her a hug goodbye before exiting with the headmaster. Ginny turned towards her brothers when she noticed a figure rush into the room in her peripheral vision. "Ginny!"

Turning, she let out a startled "Oomph," as someone collided with her. She found herself with a head of bushy hair in her face and the arms of a heavily-breathing Hermione wrapped around her.

After regaining her balance, Ginny returned the hug. Hermione pulled back, still breathing harder than normal, and gasped out, "I just heard the rumours and had to see for myself. I'm so glad you're okay."

"Thanks," Ginny replied.

Hermione turned her head back and forth in confusion. "Where's Harry? He's not…"

"He's fine," Ginny interrupted. "Professor McGonagall just pulled him away for a word."

Hermione nodded as if giving her agreement to her Head of House for having a word with Harry. What surprised Ginny the most was that Ron and Hermione made no move to be near each other. She had not made the connection earlier, but it was odd that Ron would have been by himself that morning. Looking back and forth between them, she noticed that they were both doing all they could to avoid each others' eyes. Ginny wondered what happened between the two of them but thought it best to keep her questions and observations to herself for the moment.

She noticed Fred and George both giving the two curious looks as well and hoped that they would not draw attention to it. They loved to push people's buttons, and, while they usually knew where to draw the line before things became hurtful, there was just no telling what the two of them would do or say.

The silence began to stretch on when Fred and George starting walking towards Ginny. "It's been such a long time since we've graced these halls with our presence," George stated in a wistful tone.

"Indeed, my good brother. Far too long," Fred agreed.

"I'm afraid we may need some help reacquainting myself to the layout," George continued as they both approached on opposite sides of her, each slinging his arm over her shoulders.

Fred inserted, "No doubt, George. Sign of old age, you know? The memory is the first to go."

George nodded mournfully, and Ginny rolled her eyes as she interjected, "Like you two ever remembered anyway. You needed a map to find your way around."

"You wound us, sister, dear," George stated dramatically holding a hand to his heart.

"I'm sure," Ginny responded. "Well come on then. Lunch should be served soon. Let's see if we can find the Great Hall."


Harry walked silently beside his Head of House as she led him to her office. Part of him was annoyed with her for having spilled his secrets to the headmaster, but his more rational side knew that he could not hold her responsible for her actions. He had promised, after all, that he would not do anything foolishly reckless again, or else she would have no other choice than to divulge what she knew of his secrets. Of course, he had not foreseen Ginny disappearing right before his eyes.

In any case, he knew being upset with her would accomplish nothing. What was done was done. He snuck a glance at her trying to gauge her thoughts, but her expression was as stoic as ever. He could not glean anything from her demeanour. He had a feeling she was not incredibly happy with him at the moment.

As they entered her office, she gestured for him to take a seat as she shut the door and strode around her desk and seated herself, her posture perfectly straight. "Before you start," Harry said, "I just want to apologize to you. I know I promised you that I wouldn't do anything stupid or reckless, and I know I put you in an absolutely horrible position. I'm sorry for that. However, I'm not sorry for my actions. Foolish and reckless they may have been, but if I hadn't done it, Ginny would be – she'd still be with them."

She nodded slowly in reply as she appeared to think over his words before formulating her response. "I am pleased that you were able to rescue Miss Weasley from harm. Truly, I know I speak for many people when I say thank you for finding her and bringing her back." She paused, and Harry nodded, not wanting to speak up as he felt that she had more to say. "However, I am very disappointed in the manner in which you went about it. I had hoped that by placing my trust in you, that you would do the same to me and at least extend me the courtesy of informing me before you ran off."

Harry nodded again as he pondered her words. Her expectation was completely reasonable. He owed it to her, in a way, for agreeing to keep his secret in the first place, and had he been thinking clearly – or had he had any time to spare – he likely would have done so. "I'm sorry. I don't really know what to say. I know what I did was stupid, but I wasn't thinking clearly at the time. Ginny had just disappeared right in front of my eyes, and I didn't really stop to think about anything. I just – I had to get her back."

"You have a good head on your shoulders, Harry," she told him. "When you choose to use it. I cannot condemn you for your actions. I cannot say how I would have acted in your place. However, it would be remiss of me to condone your actions. You've asked to be treated as an adult, and as an adult, you must be prepared to bear the full responsibility of your actions – which means you must learn to consider the possible repercussions before acting."

Harry nodded, considering her words carefully as she continued. "It may be that you would not have done anything different – though I would hope you would have chosen to do more than shout to Mr. Weasley that his sister had been kidnapped before promptly disappearing from the castle. At the very least, someone could have helped you or actually been aware of your situation."

"As it was, I was left in the very difficult and uncomfortable position of explaining to the headmaster what I knew of your exploits outside the school's grounds, as well as why I saw fit to keep that information to myself." She fixed him with a baleful stare. "I did not appreciate being put in that untenable position. What you must learn to understand is that while you may have the maturity to make your own decisions, this school and its professors are still responsible for you while you are here. Had anything happened to you, it would have been on our heads – mine particularly."

Harry bowed his head, knowing that she was right. He felt awful for the way his actions had affected her, but he would never regret his actions. He agreed that he should attempt to alert her to his actions before rushing into danger, given the trust she placed in him, but Ginny's capture was an exception to the rule. He did not have the time to hunt her down. He very nearly missed his window of opportunity as it was. He could not tell her that, though, without potentially revealing more than he wished to.

"I understand, and I am sorry for putting you in that position," Harry stated.

"But you do not regret your actions," she finished for him. "And I would not ask you to." She paused momentarily before adding, "Truth be told I do not entirely regret your actions. The important thing is that you and Miss Weasley are now safe, but with that said I expect better from you in the future."

Harry nodded his understanding. He could not and would not guarantee anything, but he would try to alert her in the future if he found himself in a similar situation.

"I have not spoken to the headmaster since last night," she said after a long moment of silence. "I dare say he is not pleased with either of us at the moment."

Harry nodded. "He held me back in his office while the Weasleys all left for the hospital wing." He grimaced as he recalled that encounter. "It was not pretty. He tried to force me to give him my word that I would not put myself into danger like that again. I don't know what he is planning, but I have a feeling he will be keeping a much closer eye on me from now on."

"That is the understatement of the century," McGonagall interjected. "Albus has always had an uncanny ability to know everything that goes on in this castle. I'm surprised you were able to go so long without drawing his attention."

Harry grew pensive for a moment before responding. "I think he was very much aware of all the training I've been doing throughout the year. He alluded to that earlier. I think he was trying to make up for last year by giving me the space and freedom I desired."

She nodded. "You are probably correct, but he will likely begin interfering with that space and freedom." Harry nodded; he had assumed as much. What he was most curious about, at the moment, was where she now stood in all of this. Prior to Ginny's disappearance, she had tentatively given him her word to allow him to continue as he had been – excepting that any trips to battle Death Eaters be done with the Order in some way, shape, or form. Now that he had broken his end of the bargain on that point, he had no idea what to expect of her, and he was afraid to ask.

A silence descended over the pair. Harry sat silently regarding her, while she did the same to him. Finally, she leaned forward, placing her hands palm-down on her desktop. "I have been thinking long and hard about you, Mr. Potter. Ever since I first learned your secret, I have been thinking. In your first five years here, you did not display much effort in your studies or much maturity in your actions. You were a child as you should have been."

"That child never came back for his sixth year," she continued, leaning back in her chair. "I could see the difference in you immediately. It was not simply the fact that you were named an Assistant Professor that I treated you as a colleague. Had the Harry Potter of the past five years shown up, I would never have blurred that boundary between student and professor. When my students complete their seventh year here, I always insist on being called Minerva in any subsequent dealings. It is important, I believe, for people to recognise that I am no longer in a position of authority over them – that we are equals."

"You are the first student whom I have ever offered that courtesy to while still attending Hogwarts. It is not due only to your status here, as I already stated, but because I sensed that you had already reached that point of maturity. Though I may not agree with your actions, my opinion on the matter remains unchanged. You are a very determined young man, Harry. Regardless of what others or I say, you will follow your own path, but I would rather you do so with an adult from whom you trust enough to seek counsel or assistance as needed."

Harry's eyebrows rose into his hairline. "Thank you, Minerva," he stated, still recovering from his surprise. "That means a lot to me." She nodded in response while his thoughts went into overdrive. He knew that this would be a defining moment for any future interaction he had with his Head of House and potentially the entire Order, including the headmaster. If he could get Minerva McGonagall fully on his side, it would go a long way towards bridging the gap currently in place between Harry and the adults currently fighting the war against Voldemort. But he knew he would not truly gain her full support unless he was honest and straightforward with her, and that meant revealing at least one of his biggest secrets to her. There was some risk involved, but given her statement just now, he felt confident that he could trust her.

"There is something I think you should know," he stated. He cleared his throat as one of her eyebrows arched up in silent inquiry. "I – uh – don't plan on spending my summer with my relatives this year."

Minerva nodded thoughtfully and replied, "That is not entirely unexpected. Might I inquire as to where you intend to spend the break?"

Harry frowned and cast his eyes down to her desktop. He was reluctant to let her in on the Fidelius just yet, so he hoped she would settle for his guarantees that the place was adequately protected. "I won't say where right now," he explained, "but you can rest assured that it is a perfectly safe location."

"How safe, exactly?" she questioned briskly.

"As safe as Grimmauld Place," he returned, meeting her gaze.

Her eyes widened in response. "You are certain?"

He nodded.

"And who holds your secret?"

"Someone I trust implicitly," he answered vaguely.

She studied him critically for a long moment before replying, "I do not believe that your trust is so easily given anymore, Harry, so that leaves only one possibility."

He smiled in response.

"You are certain it was cast correctly?" she asked.

"It has been tested, yes," he answered.

"Who else is aware of this?"

Harry shifted in his seat as he considered how to respond. He was hesitant to name any names. Their involvement in his activities was not entirely his secret to divulge; however, if Minerva was to become an ally, she would need to know whom she could trust with his secrets. Besides, he planned on telling both Ginny and Remus of these developments with his Head of House, so it was only fair that he extend to her the same courtesy. After all, she had possibly the most to lose of any of them for throwing her lot in with Harry. "There are only two others. Ginny and Remus."

"Remus Lupin?" she asked in surprise. Harry nodded as she asked, "How long has he known?"

Harry scrunched his face a bit as he made a see-sawing gesture with his hand. "Depends on how you look at it. He's known about my Animagus training since the summer. I've been spending the full moons with him at the Shrieking Shack." Both her eyebrows rose at this admission, and Harry hastily added, "It was the least I could do. With Sirius gone, I hated that he had to go through that alone again."

She nodded and said, "Like father like son. I was never given the chance to tell him, but I was never more proud of your father or Sirius when I learned what they went through to help their friend. It was foolishly dangerous and reckless," she amended in a strict tone, "but spoke volumes to their characters."

Harry held a half-smile as he thought of his father and godfather. "I never told him I was Jim. He confronted me during the battle at St. Mungo's. He was not happy with me, but I was able to convince him to keep my secrets and to help me."

"And Miss Weasley?" Minerva asked.

"Oh, she figured me out right away," Harry stated with a fond smile. "I was a bit sloppy. When I rescued her in Diagon Alley over the summer, I used my Jim disguise but with my hair the same length and style as I had it when term first started. She made the connection on the train."

"And has Miss Weasley been accompanying you on your adventures?" she questioned.

Harry shook his head. "No. Not yet at least." At her inquiring look, he continued, "She has been training with me for several months now. She didn't pick up on wandless magic quite as easily as I did, and since she's still underage, she can't go about using her wand just anywhere."

"Indeed," she replied. Harry's stomach rumbled suddenly, and Minerva glanced at her watch. "Look at the time. We've missed the start of lunch, so we had best hurry if we want to eat."

Harry smiled and nodded his agreement. As they began walking towards the door, Harry stopped her and said, "Thank you. I know you don't entirely like what I've been doing, but it means a lot to me that you're willing to leave the decision in my hands."

"There are no more capable hands, Harry."

And with that, the two proceeded to the Great Hall.

Harry smiled as he noticed Fred and George seated at the Gryffindor table. He was glad they had stuck around as he did not get much of a chance to talk to them earlier. There was a large crowd around them, and the twins seemed to be entirely in their element as they gestured wildly, presumably telling one wild story or another. As he approached, he caught their eyes, and the two of them stood up as one. "Here he is, the man of the hour," one started loudly.

"He single-handedly tracked down and found our darling sister," the other continued.

"His girlfriend, you know," the first interjected.

"He forced his way into a den of Death Eaters."

"Barrelled straight through their forces."

"Emerged victorious with our sister and not a scratch on him."

"Let's have a big cheer for…"

Together they finished, "Harry Potter!"

The crowd gathered around the twins – and a fair bit of students at the nearby Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables – burst into a raucous applause facing Harry.

Harry shook his head at their antics, amused more than annoyed at the attention. He met Ginny's gaze in the crowd and noticed her eyes twinkling in mirth. He winked at her and then made a big show of shaking his head dramatically as he held out his hands to quiet the crowd. "No, no, you're telling it all wrong. I don't know where you guys get your facts, honestly."

He smirked as he noticed the entire hall fall silent at his words. If he was going to be thrust into the spotlight, he would at least see that it was done right. "First I had to find the place, which was no small feat in and of itself. Then I had to navigate through a maze – no, a…" he hesitated, searching for the word he was looking for.

"A labyrinth," Ginny inserted helpfully.

"Yes, a labyrinth," Harry agreed, getting into the story-teller role. "Filled with more dangerous obstacles than you can imagine. It made the maze in the Tri-Wizard Tournament seem like a stroll through Hogsmeade. Then I battled through a legion of Death Eaters, trolls, giants, and vampires, guarding the entrance to the dungeon in which my fair maiden was held."

"I hesitate to even speak of the horrors that lurked in the shadows of this place. Dementors could not inspire such fear." He shuddered theatrically. "Creatures fouler than the most terrifying nightmares – abominations – stalking me as I searched frantically. I finally found her, a pile of bodies, both human and creature, surrounding her as she wielded an unfamiliar wand. There was no damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. Oh no. This damsel breathes fire, and together we fought our way through impossible odds to escape that hellish place that would make even the residents of Azkaban cower in fear."

He smirked at his captive audience as he drew himself up to his full height and finished, "And all that without a scratch on me."

Fred and George both leapt onto their seats and began clapping loudly and shouting, "Bravo!" The crowd around them took their cue to join in, and soon the applause rang anew with loud whistles thrown in for good measure.

Harry took his bow and held out his hand to Ginny for her to join him. She curtseyed for the crowd as Harry bowed again. Eventually, the noise died down, and Harry led Ginny back to her spot at the table. They had to squeeze in tightly, but managed to seat themselves across from her twin brothers.

He intertwined his fingers with hers and ducked his head down to give her a swift kiss on her cheek. She gave him a smile as she turned back to her brothers, and Harry began loading up his plate with his free hand. As he began to fill his belly, he could not help but be grateful for the company of the twins. While they only added to the spotlight already on Harry and Ginny, particularly with the introduction they gave him, they did it with a light-heartedness that made it so much easier to bear. Plus, they were quite good at drawing and keeping everyone's attention onto themselves.

Harry looked back and forth down the table, suddenly noticing that both Ron and Hermione were missing. When he asked Ginny about it, she shook her head and said only, "Later."

His curiosity was piqued, but he nodded his head and went back to his meal. As he finished eating, he found his eyes scanning the Slytherin table. He could not prove that Malfoy was involved in Ginny's disappearance, but he would be willing to stake a small fortune on it. The pit of anger that had faded into relief reignited as his eyes swept back and forth along the table searching for his target. He was frustrated to find the tell-tale blond hair missing. When Ginny gave him a questioning glance, he shook his head and used his Occlumency to push out the emotions as he refocused his attention on his own table.

After the food was cleared, he and Ginny walked hand-in-hand to Gryffindor Tower with the twins trailing behind them. Shortly after climbing the stairs to the third floor, her two brothers suddenly pulled them into an abandoned classroom.

"Harry, mate," one started – Fred, he thought – as soon as the door closed.

"Seems you've been keeping quite a few secrets."

Harry held up a hand to stop them, "Hold on one second." Deliberately forsaking the use of his wand, Harry waved the same hand casually towards the door to ensure their privacy. Once he was finished, he nodded at the pair with a smirk and said, "Continue."

The twins looked at each other for a long moment before turning back to Harry and Ginny. She had seated herself at one of the desk chairs, and Harry sat on the desk behind her, his hands on her shoulders.

"Right. That answers one question then," Fred stated.

Harry quirked an eyebrow. "You didn't know?"

"How would we?" George asked.

"Didn't Dumbledore tell the Order?" Harry queried.

"Bloody hell if we know."

"Not like we're allowed to sit on the bloody Order meetings."

"Even when our sister's involved," George muttered bitterly.

Harry frowned. "You mean they still won't let you in?" Ginny looked up at him, and they shared a short look. "We assumed since they were using your products that you'd become members."

"Nope," Fred spat in disgust.

"Oh, they're happy enough using all our products," George explained.

"But we're still too young and inexperienced to become Order members."

"'I shall keep you appraised of any matters relating to you or your family,' Dumbledore told us."

"And of course Mum agrees," Fred added resentfully.

"Any talk comes up about it, and she starts breathing fire."

"Won't hear a word of it."

"And Dumbledore is happy to oblige."

"We were only told that Ginny had been kidnapped last night."

"And that Harry here had gone missing."

"That's not all we heard though," George interjected mischievously.

"Mum and Dad were pretty worked up last night."

"They weren't as careful as they normally are."

"And word is that you've gone a bit rogue, Harrykins."

They paused and looked expectantly at him. Harry felt one of Ginny's hands squeeze his lightly, and he squeezed her shoulder in reply. "I guess you could put it that way."

"We heard you had McGonagall on your side."

Harry eyed the two of them, trying to figure out where this was all going. "She figured me out about a week ago and agreed to keep my secret – so long as I didn't do anything too reckless."

"Like rush out to rescue Ginny on your own," George finished for him, nodding seriously.

"Something like that, yes," Harry agreed.

"Fred and I are tired of waiting for the Order to come around," the one Harry thought was Fred stated.

"But we don't have the resources or information to work on our own."

Harry nodded as understanding dawned on him. The twins were as sick of being kept out of things as he was. "You want to work with me," Harry stated, interrupting them.

"Precisely," they said in unison.

Harry furrowed his brow in concentration as he thought over the proposition. He was not certain how he felt involving them in battle. They were of age and capable of making their own choices, but Harry would not take them with him unless he was confident that they could hold their own without taking unnecessary risks. "Have you been practicing at all since last year?"

They glanced at each other briefly before turning back to him. "Not really," Fred admitted.

"We were preoccupied with the shop."

"And then with the stuff for the Order."

Harry frowned. "Are you two still making all your own stock at the shop?"

They both nodded.

"Not any more," Harry stated. "Hire a couple people to do it for you – you should have done that already anyway. You'll be training with me over the summer, and you'll need the extra time," he said. Their faces both lit up, but Harry continued before they could interrupt. "You do not fight with me until I say you're ready, and you follow my orders. If I say retreat, you do so without question. I need to know I can trust the both of you to do as you're told and remain safe; otherwise you'll only be in the way."

"Aye aye, captain," they saluted him.

Harry nodded, though he was worried that they had given in too easily. He only hoped the gravity of the situation was enough to temper their penchant for ignoring authority. "We should be going before anyone starts to wonder where we've disappeared to." Waving his hand at the door, he removed the charms and wards he had put in place. He waited for Ginny to stand before doing the same and intertwining his fingers with hers as Fred and George led them to Gryffindor Tower.


Fred and George only stuck around a little while longer before leaving Hogwarts. They said they had some things to do at the shop, but what that actually meant was anybody's guess. In the common room, Harry was subjected to all manner of questions and comments from his house-mates. Many urged him to regale them with the tale of his flight from the castle and subsequent adventure. They rather tactlessly asked Ginny for her account of events as well. Needless to say, any such requests were summarily dismissed, and the requesters primarily ignored.

He did not see much of his closest friends. He spoke to Neville briefly. He had given Harry and Ginny a warm smile and stated that he was glad they were both safe before disappearing amongst the masses vying for their attention. Ron finally showed up shortly after Fred and George had departed, but he said little. It was clear that Ron wanted as badly as the others to know what had happened, but he was restraining himself from asking, for which Harry was thankful. Most notable in her absence was Hermione, whom Harry had not even seen since his return.

When he asked Ron, his red-haired friend simply shook his head and muttered, "I don't know," effectively ending the line of inquiry. It was obvious from his body language that he did not wish to talk about Hermione. Clearly something must have happened between the two. Though they argued all the time, their arguments were rarely serious in nature. He looked to Ginny questioningly, and she nodded pointedly to his unasked question letting him know that she had noticed the same thing. Harry frowned and wondered just what had come between his two oldest friends.

Desiring a distraction, Harry suggested a game of chess which Ron eagerly agreed to. While they began to set up the game, Ginny departed briefly to fetch some of her books. She still had a few exams left in the upcoming week.

Before he knew it, Harry had lost spectacularly in two out of three matches. The other match he had actually won somehow, much to Ron's consternation. When he had rather astonishedly pronounced Checkmate – he had honestly stumbled into it – Harry pumped his fist and whooped in joy. It was not the first time he had ever beaten Ron, but it occurred so rarely that it required a bit of a celebration.

Ginny smiled indulgently at him and patted him lightly on the head saying, "Good job, Harry." He stuck his tongue out at her as she returned her nose to her books.

After their third game, it was about time for supper, so the three packed up to head down to the Great Hall. As they were walking into the entrance hall, Ginny yelled, "Bill!" and dropped his hand as she rushed forward.

Harry scanned the hall and quickly spotted her eldest brother approaching from another hallway. He watched as Ginny leapt into his embrace as Bill strode into the entrance hall. Harry and Ron approached the two as Bill let Ginny to the ground. Bill held his hand out first to Ron, but was interrupted by a gasp from Ginny. "Bill! What happened to your face?"

Bill turned his head and Harry noticed the vicious looking scar that had caught Ginny's attention. He wore a half-smile as he responded, "Oh, just a little souvenir. Believe me, I'm quite pleased this is all I was left with," he commented with a quick, purposeful glance to Harry. "Besides, I kind of like it. Makes me look roguish, don't you think?"

He gave her a wink and, without waiting for a reply, held his hand out to Ron again, saying, "Good to see you, Ron." He then held his hand to Harry, who shook it firmly as Bill stated, "Thank you, Harry. For both of us." Harry met his eyes and nodded in recognition.

A moment of silence followed but was broken as Ginny decreed that Bill would be staying for supper and then proceeded to lead him by the hand into the Great Hall with Ron and Harry following behind. Harry knew that Ginny felt a special sort of bond to her brother Bill. He had been close to her before leaving for Egypt and had been the one to truly help her through her nightmares following her first year. The smile on her face alone was testament to the affection she felt for her brother.

Harry was content to watch her interacting with Bill and to a lesser extent Ron. Bill talked a bit about his job and how different things were working at Gringotts as opposed to out in the tombs in Egypt. Harry could tell from his tone that he missed his former position, but he knew better than anyone that sometimes circumstances forced you into less than ideal situations.

As the meal came to a close, Bill hugged his sister again and bid his goodbyes to Harry and Ron. They retired to the common room where Ron convinced Harry and a few others into playing a few games of Exploding Snap. After their fourth or fifth game – Harry had lost count – he left to visit his office. He wanted to ask Ginny if she would like to accompany him, but she was revising with some of her mates, and he did not want to interrupt. Harry climbed out the portrait hole and made his way down the hall. As he came to the first corner, he bumped into Hermione.

"Harry!" she exclaimed and wrapped her arms around him. Harry stiffly returned the hug as she whispered, "I'm glad you're safe." Noticing his tense stance, she let go and took a step back, asking, "What's wrong?"

"I know what you did," Harry stated simply.

Hermione frowned in confusion.

"You went behind my back to Dumbledore," Harry tersely explained.

"I went to the headmaster with my concerns for you, yes," she admitted unrepentantly.

"Suspicions, you mean?" Harry retorted.

"If that is how you choose to phrase it, then yes, my suspicions about you." She sighed and reached a hand out to him before seeming to think better of it and dropping the hand back at her side. "I was worried about you. I still am."

Harry snorted derisively. "Worried about what? That I was training in secret? That you didn't know every little thing I was working on? That you weren't able to spy on me in my office or the Room of Requirement?"

Hermione's mouth dropped open, and Harry scowled. "Did you think I hadn't noticed? How stupid do you think I am?"

"I'm worried for your safety," she answered after finding her voice. "I was worried about just what you felt you needed to keep secret from your best friends. I was worried that you were taking the responsibility of this whole bloody war all onto your own shoulders!"

"Of course, poor Harry can't take care of himself," he rejoined.

"Do you have to turn everything I say into an argument?" Hermione snapped in frustration. "I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, Harry. I just want to help. That's what friends do; they help each other."

"We have different ideas of what exactly constitutes help," Harry replied. "Rather than help me in what I've been doing, you'd deter me and, when that failed to work, run off to the professors for my own good. I think I'm perfectly capable of deciding what's good for me, thank you."

"And if you found me doing something you could not agree with, what would you do?" Hermione demanded. "Encourage me along and offer a helping hand? Or would you try to convince me to your way of thinking? Would you try to stop me?"

Harry opened his mouth to fire off a retort but thought better of it and paused, trying to imagine such a scenario. "That would depend," he admitted. "If you were doing something to hurt yourself or someone else, then yes I would try to convince you to stop. If that failed, I might have to try to stop you myself."

"So how is that different than this situation?" Hermione asked. "What gives you the right to interfere but nobody else?"

"I'm not trying to hurt anybody," Harry responded in exasperation. "I can't believe you'd think I would."

"Of course I don't think that, but for all I know what you were doing had the potential to hurt you. Given your actions last night – running off and fighting Death Eaters on your own – I can't say my suspicions were far off the mark," Hermione returned triumphantly.

Harry narrowed his eyes. "It's not as if I'm going out and picking fights. In case you hadn't noticed, we're at war. Only it's not being fought on battle fields but in homes and schools. Would you have rather I had just left Ginny to Voldemort? Would you really want me to have to watch as Voldemort tortured her over and over again, knowing I could have done something?"

"Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that you were able to save Ginny, but don't you see how dangerous it was? We're still students," she protested. "You should have gone straight to Professor Dumbledore and let him and the Order handle things. If nothing else, you should not have gone alone. What if something had happened to you? Then both you and Ginny would be lost, and we would have had no clue where to even start looking for you."

"And what would the Order have done?" Harry demanded. "Called a meeting? By the time they even decided what they were going to do, it would have been too late."

"You could have come to me or Ron," she returned. "We've always stood with you in the past. Why won't you let us now?"

"Do you think you're prepared to face down Death Eaters?" Harry snapped. "Can you stand up to three, four, five or even more at a time? Can you defeat even one in a straight duel? Yes, you were with me last June in the Ministry, and we were all out of our league. If those Death Eaters had taken us seriously, we'd all be dead. It was only their arrogance and a whole lot of luck that kept us alive."

"Isn't that what we've all been training for?" she asked. "What else is the HA for but teaching us how to fight and survive the Death Eaters?"

"The HA is to give you a fighting chance - to give you and your families a chance to escape an attack," Harry fired back. "Do you honestly think a few hours a week is enough to prepare you to actually fight in this war? Don't be naïve, Hermione."

"But you're ready?" she questioned. "You're a student just like the rest of us. What makes you so special?"

Harry bit back the reply he wanted to give. It all came back to that stupid prophecy, but he was not prepared to share that with her. She may have made some decent arguments, but the fact remained that she chose to go behind his back to Dumbledore, and she would do so again in a heartbeat. He would not give his trust to her when she so obviously did not trust his judgment enough to make his own decisions. "What makes me special is a lot of hard work. What makes me special are the reflexes gained from a hard life. What makes me special is the fact that I'm not content to just sit around and pretend like nothing is wrong. There is a war going on, and we're losing. The Ministry is a joke. The Order is only reactionary. They do nothing to try to stop Voldemort or the Death Eaters, only try to minimize the damage. That's not good enough for me."

"And you call me naïve," Hermione retorted. "You think you can make a difference in the war on your own, Harry? A war is not fought by one man. You can't do this alone. Stop pushing us away. Let us help you. Let me help you. We'll go to Dumbledore and talk things through."

Harry emitted a harsh laugh. "What do you think Dumbledore will do? It's already clear he has no plans to help prepare us for the war. He would have us simply waste our time on childish pursuits in this castle while the country crumbles around us. We would leave Hogwarts wholly unprepared for what would face us. We might manage to survive a few attacks, but that is all we would manage – to survive from one attack to the next. I respect the man for what he has accomplished, but he has lost sight of what is important. Forced to choose between giving us the tools we need to survive or preserving our innocence, he chooses the route that will lead us all to our deaths. He would rather we have a couple more years as children than take what little time we have to help prepare us for this war, and you and so many others would blindly follow him."

Hermione was shaking her head fervently. "No, you're wrong," she insisted. "This isn't just anybody you're talking about. What makes you think you know better than the man who is considered by most to be the wisest wizard in the British Wizarding World?"

"Dumbledore is a wise man," Harry conceded. "It would be foolish to dismiss what he says out of hand, but that does not mean that you should blindly follow what he says. You pride yourself on being intelligent; it's time you start using that intelligence for more than just academics. You have only one year left at Hogwarts, then what? How will you survive the war? Have you even given thought to how you will survive the summer? Or are you placing your trust in Dumbledore and the Order to ensure your safety? Then again, they've done such a wonderful job protecting us from life-threatening situations in the past."

"So that's it then?" Hermione questioned. "Dumbledore and the Order make a few mistakes and you abandon them? They may not be perfect, but they've kept you alive this long, haven't they?"

"I've not abandoned anyone," Harry stated, shaking his head. "The only thing the Order has done to keep any of us alive is when they showed up in the Department of Mysteries last year. They spent the last two summers guarding outside Privet Drive when it is supposedly the safest place for me to be. Why? If Dumbledore's magnificent blood wards fail, what is one Order member going to do to protect me? They guard Privet Drive not to keep Death Eaters out but to keep me in. Rather than explain the situation to me and ask that I remain, they post a guard to ensure it. They treat me like some child acting out against authority." Unspoken, Harry added, They treat me like a weapon.

"So to prove you are not a child acting out against them, you act out against them?" Hermione asked in obvious disapproval.

"Think of my actions what you will," Harry commented with a sigh. "I do not have to answer to you, Hermione, when my actions do not affect you."

"But they do affect me," Hermione insisted pleadingly, grabbing onto his arm as he moved to walk past her. "Can't you see, Harry? I love you like a brother, and I could not bear to lose you. Please, you have to listen to me."

"You've been like a sister to me since I entered the Wizarding World," Harry agreed. "And while I recognise that anything that happens to me would affect you, I cannot let fear rule my life. If I am to die, at least I will die knowing that I have done all I can. I can die without regrets. Better than to place my trust in the Order to keep me safe and die wishing I had only stepped out from their shadow and moved to take responsibility for my own life."

Looking directly into her eyes, Harry placed his hand over hers where she still gripped his arm. "I am sorry, Hermione, but my mind is made up. I would ask that you respect my decision, but I know that you will do what you think is right, as I do the same. Keep in mind, though, that this is my life, not yours." With that, he pried her hand off his arm and continued on to his office.

His conversation with Hermione was playing over in the back of his mind even as he tried to focus on the book in front of him. He hated the way their friendship had deteriorated over the course of the year, but he knew that there was nothing for it. He could not go back to being the way he was, and he knew she would not accept him for who he now was – at least not at present. He wondered if she still hoped to get the old Harry back – the one who was lazy and unmotivated and constantly going to her with his assignments for her to look over, constantly asking to borrow her notes with Ron the night before some exam.

Shaking his head he used Occlumency to push those thoughts to the back of his mind and resumed his reading. It was useless worrying about Hermione right now. There was nothing that could be done. Either she would come around and accept the choices he had made or she would not. It was not a pleasant thought, but he would not hide himself from stark reality.

He eventually left his office and re-entered the common room right around curfew. His eyes immediately sought out Ginny, finding her in the exact spot where he had left her. Sighing silently to himself, Harry made his way over and walked up behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders and lightly kneading her tense muscles.

"Merlin, that feels wonderful," Ginny practically purred as she lifted her head from her book and leaned back in her chair.

"Well, how about you take a break, and we continue this over by the fire?" Harry suggested in a gravelly tone.

Ginny slammed her book shut and led him by the hand to an armchair by the fire. She waited until he had seated himself before sitting directly in front of him on the chair. She reached back and gathered her hair over her shoulder, giving Harry unfettered access to her shoulders and back.

"Eager, are you?" Harry teasingly asked.

"I remember what those fingers of yours can do," she answered seriously. "I don't think I'd ever say no to a massage from you."

Harry chuckled as his hands started working. "I'll have to remember that, then."

"Please do," Ginny responded moaning softly as his thumb found a knot. "Right there," she encouraged.

Harry smiled and continued rubbing over the spot, concentrating on trying to relieve the tension. He glanced down and stopped, staring at his fingers. That was peculiar.

"Harry?" Ginny asked in confusion.

"Hmm?" Harry responded. "Oh, sorry, got lost in my mind for a second," he said as he continued his ministrations, still staring at the soft blue glow on his fingertips. When he concentrated, he could feel the thin strand of magic flowing through each finger as he continued to rub her back and shoulders. He could not honestly recall having called up his magic, but he must have done so subconsciously. It was odd. As he focused on it, the magic felt like healing magic, though it was slightly different than any healing spells he knew. If Ginny's moans – or the lessening of tension in her muscles – were any indication, he would say that the magic was definitely helping. Curious. He would have to pay closer attention to his magic in the future. He wondered if there were any other times he had performed magic without being aware of it.

After a short time, Ginny sighed and leaned back into his chest. Harry wrapped his arms around her stomach and looked down at her as she said, "Much as I wish we could continue, I really need to get back to my studies." Harry nodded with a half-smile. "Thank you, Harry."

"Any time," he whispered.

"I'll hold you to that."

With that, she grabbed his hands and gently pried them apart so that she could stand. He quickly followed suit. "I think I'll head off to bed," he told her.

"Sleep well, Harry," she responded, leaning up to give him a kiss. Harry brought one hand up to her cheek, sliding it back into her hair as the other sought out her hand and intertwined their fingers. Much too quickly by Harry's reckoning, Ginny broke the kiss and leaned her forehead against his. "Good night."

"Good night, Ginny," Harry murmured his reply. Stealing one last brief kiss, he drew his hand back from her hair and took a step away, not releasing her hand until she began to walk back towards her study group, their fingers lingering against each other for as long as possible before the distance separated them. Harry released a heavy sigh and turned towards the stairs, unable to resist glancing over his shoulder for one last glimpse of her before ascending to his dorm. After quickly preparing for bed, he crawled onto his four-poster and shut the curtains as he ran through his Occlumency exercises, organizing his thoughts from the last couple days.

With the task completed, Harry turned onto his side and closed his eyes as he waited for sleep to claim him. He was a long time waiting, his body refusing to succumb to sleep. Some time into the night, well after his dorm-mates had retired to their own beds, the sounds of their snores filling the air, Harry quit his fruitless tossing and turning and lay still on his back, staring wearily at the canopy of his bed. Sleep, he could see, would not be coming to him. Sighing, he sat up and threw on a robe and shoes before silently padding out of the dorm and down to the common room. Thinking over his options, he elected to head down to his office. It would not be long before the term ended, and he wished to finish his Portkey project for the HA as soon as possible.

Upon entering the office, Harry had a suspicious thought and used his magical senses to do a quick sweep of the room. Frowning, Harry performed a thorough search through the office. It was all for naught. Harry was certain the headmaster would have tried something, but unless he had found some way to completely mask a magical presence, the office was completely clean of any monitoring spells or devices.

Settling in at his desk, Harry resumed his work with Portkeys. He decided that he was at a point where he could begin creating them en masse for his students. He was unable to test whether or not the Portkeys would last for a few months, but he was confident in his abilities and knew that he needed to trust his instincts on this. He conjured up a rather simple looking pendant on a black cord with no real distinguishing features to it. It was small and – he hoped – inconspicuous. The students could easily keep it on them, either by wearing it as a necklace or simply keeping it in a pocket. Satisfied, Harry set to work creating the first of many Portkeys.

He was surprised when after a relatively short time he began to feel the drain on his magic. Frowning to himself, he pushed on. Portkeys were advanced magic, well beyond anything taught in Hogwarts, but after a solid year of pushing himself to his limits and expanding his boundaries, they should not be so taxing on him. As he pondered this, he began to wonder just how much of his magic the flame travel must have exhausted. There was no other explanation he could see for it. Perhaps he just needed a few days rest to regain his strength, but his inability to sleep would no doubt compound the problem.

He shook his head in an attempt to clear it and resume work when his eye caught the portrait of the Gryffindor common room, and he paused. Thoughts of the charms placed into his improved Marauders map flashed through his brain, and Harry had a sudden epiphany. He pulled out his trunk and dug out the notes he had made on the map, pushing aside the Portkeys he had been working on, lost inside his whirling thoughts.

He was rather surprised some time later when he noted the time. He had not realised how long he had been working. Standing, he began to stretch in an attempt to work the kinks out of his neck and back. Harry packed up his notes, both old and new, and vowed to return to them soon. He was onto something, but it needed a lot more work if he wanted to finish in time. Once everything was in place and secure, he left the office and ascended back to Gryffindor Tower. He was a few minutes early, so he settled into a chair to wait. A short time later he heard the soft patter of feet coming from the girls' staircase and turned as Ginny appeared at the base.

He stood and strode towards her, capturing her in a tight embrace. He felt a knot of tension that he had not been fully aware of dissolve at the contact, and he uttered a sigh of contentment.

"Good morning, Harry," Ginny greeted with a trace of amusement tingeing her tone.

"Morning," Harry whispered in reply.

When they released each other a moment later, Ginny eyed him critically and said, "You look like shite."

He snorted. "Thanks."

"Did you sleep at all?" she questioned.

Harry shrugged. "Couldn't get my mind to settle, I guess," he mumbled.

"Do you want to skip training today?" she asked. "I can sit with you while you lie down."

Harry was mightily tempted to take her up on the offer, but he shook his head. "We should really get back into our routine. I can rest later."

"When?" she queried. "You have HA classes before and after lunch. If you want the extra workout, then let everyone try to hex you for the whole class. Right now we're going to your office, and you are lying down for a nap."

Harry tiredly smirked at her tone which brooked no room for any argument. He nodded his head and said, "Yes, dear."

She scowled at him. "Good. Now let me run up to grab some books quickly."

A short walk later, the two settled onto the sofa in his office. She transfigured the arm of the sofa into the table-top she needed to hold her books while Harry settled down with his head in her lap. He was asleep nearly the moment his eyes closed.

By the time Ginny woke him, they were too late for breakfast, but a quick trip to the kitchens solved that problem as Dobby and the other house elves were only too pleased to throw together a modest banquet for the two of them. Afterwards, Harry headed to the Room of Requirement while Ginny made her way to the grounds where she was due to meet her parents shortly.

While he did not take her advice to the letter, Harry chose a very active approach to lessons that day. As promised he did not introduce any new spells to his classes; instead they reviewed some spells they had learned over the year. They spent most of the lessons in various duelling exercises, of which Harry kept himself at the centre. He did spend a fair amount of time dodging throughout the two classes, but he also had the students working out strategies for getting around seemingly impenetrable shields. He felt normal physically throughout the exercises, but found that he could not hold his shields up quite as long as he was accustomed to. He tried not to let the matter bother him, though, knowing that he would work his way back to full strength quickly enough. He would settle for nothing less.

Ginny, meanwhile, confessed the exact opposite to him, though Harry thought it had more to do with her new wand than anything else. Her old wand had been a hand-me-down and not attuned to her magic, so it was no surprise that her new wand would work so much better for her, and he could easily see that this was the case even without hearing it from Ginny. Her spells during the HA were noticeably stronger than usual.

Harry and Ginny both received short notes at dinner that evening requesting their presence in the headmaster's office following the meal. There was little doubt in Harry's mind what the upcoming meeting would be concerning. He was marginally surprised it had taken this long. Dumbledore and the Order would no doubt want details about what occurred. To be honest, Harry was curious about Ginny's experiences. She had not shared much with him of her time in captivity, and he was almost afraid to ask for details, knowing he would likely not want to hear them.

Shortly after they witnessed Dumbledore and McGonagall leaving the Great Hall, Harry and Ginny by unspoken agreement followed suit. Hand-in-hand they walked to the headmaster's office, a walk that seemed suspiciously short by Harry's reckoning. He uttered the password to the gargoyle, which promptly sprung aside to reveal the spiral stairs. At the top of the steps, Dumbledore called out, "Enter," without any prompting. Unsurprised, Harry opened the door and followed Ginny into the room.

Three faces greeted their entrance, two smiling and one scowling. Harry frowned, not expecting Snape to be present for this meeting. He looked around the room and was mildly surprised to find that Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were absent. He had expected that Mrs. Weasley, at least, would have insisted on being present for this – if she was even told of it, of course.

"Good evening, Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley," the headmaster greeted.

Both Harry and Ginny echoed his greeting as Dumbledore swept his hand towards a pair of chairs and said, "Please, have a seat."

Four chairs were arrayed in front of the headmaster's desk. Harry sat next to Minerva with Ginny on the other side of him. The fourth seat was unoccupied as Snape stood in the corner of the room glaring at him. Harry ignored the man and returned Minerva's warm smile before turning his attention to the headmaster.

"I trust you are both recovered and well-rested from your ordeal?" Dumbledore asked them.

He caught Ginny nodding her head as he verbally responded, "Yes, sir."

"Excellent," he replied. "I realise that what I am about to ask of you may be rather difficult, but it is imperative that we know exactly what occurred the night before last from both of your perspectives. Perhaps you could begin, Miss Weasley, with where and how you disappeared?"

Ginny nodded and took a deep breath as she seemed to gather herself. Harry reached out and gripped her hand, which was resting on her armrest. She gave him a small smile before turning back to Dumbledore and beginning her tale. Harry beamed with pride as she described her short duel with Malfoy. But the smile quickly vanished as her tale continued. At Dumbledore's urging she described what she could recall of the building's layout in her desperate attempt to escape. As they had discussed, she skirted certain details. Voldemort's Legilimency attacks, for one, were omitted from her tale; instead he had used the Cruciatus Curse to try to break Ginny and force her to reveal her secrets of her own volition. Her wandless magic in the cell was subtly changed into an uncontrolled burst of accidental magic. When she got to Harry's arrival Dumbledore stopped and thanked her before turning to Harry and asking him to describe his own part.

Harry wore a blank mask as his tale began. He told the professors of how he had Summoned his Firebolt and run up to the Owlery, recruiting Hedwig's assistance in tracking Ginny. He followed his owl to the manor and snuck inside. Harry then asked her to find someone from the Order and bring them there. After getting the drop on Malfoy and using Legilimency to find Ginny's location, he fell victim to Malfoy's deception and tripped the alarms while breaking into the dungeon.

After reuniting with Ginny, he explained how he set up two illusions to look like Ginny and him before sneaking out underneath his Invisibility Cloak and riding his broom to one of the properties Harry had inherited over the summer. He explained how they were both drained and in no condition to return to the castle, so they spent the night and returned to Hogwarts first thing in the morning.

Harry was pretty pleased with their story. It was not perfect and would probably not withstand much scrutiny, but by the time Dumbledore and the Order managed to find anything concrete to refute the story, Harry hoped to be holed away in his home for the summer. Dumbledore had several clarifying questions but none that probed into their fabrications. The other two professors remained mostly silent throughout the whole ordeal, Snape with a permanent scowl.

As they walked through the corridors leading back to Gryffindor Tower, Harry turned his head and met Ginny's gaze, offering a small smile.

"I think that went as well as we could have expected," she said softly.

"Yeah, let's just hope that story lasts through the end of term," he responded. He hesitated as he considered whether or not to ask his next question before pushing ahead. "Are you okay? I know it must have been hard…"

"I'm fine," she answered a little too quickly, her lips forming a smile unmatched by her eyes. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Harry frowned and lifted his hand to her shoulder drawing her to a stop. As she turned towards him and he got a good look at her, his suspicions were confirmed. "Come here," he whispered gently, pulling her into a hug.

She came willingly after only the slightest hesitation, wrapping her arms around him and laying her head on his shoulder. He rubbed comforting circles over her back with one hand as the other held her tightly against him. "It's okay," he cooed softly as she fought against her emotions. "You're all right now."

They remained that way for some time before she finally took a step back, her eyes a little red. She opened her mouth to speak but hesitated, and Harry spoke up. "It's okay. You don't need to say anything. I'm here for you any time you need me, whatever you need me for."

"Thanks, Harry," she murmured, reaching out to cup his cheek. "I love you."

He smiled and replied, "I love you too." Leaning in, he gave her a brief kiss before claiming her hand in his and resuming their trek.

Harry found it nearly impossible to sleep again that night, a trend which unfortunately continued for the rest of the week. He was forced to rely on the naps in his office with Ginny to get any sleep at all. Ginny had exams Monday through Wednesday that occupied much of her time, and though Harry tried to nap while she was in exams, he quickly found the action mostly futile. He managed with only a couple hours of sleep a day through Wednesday and eagerly took Ginny up on her offer of her lap for a pillow following her last exam.

It was with a bit of shock that he realised at the end of the week that he had not once seen Malfoy since returning to the castle. After failing to find him in the Great Hall the day of his return, the Slytherin had slipped from Harry's mind, but now that he thought about it, he was certain that the blond had been absent from every subsequent meal. Was he expelled? Did that mean he had been the one responsible for Ginny's disappearance? When he asked Professor McGonagall about it, she was not terribly helpful. She confirmed that Malfoy was no longer in the castle but either did not know or could not tell him more than that, and Harry could not ask the headmaster given the state of things between them – not that he expected he would get a straight answer out of the man.

That was another thing that surprised Harry when he stopped to think about it - the seeming lack of action on the headmaster's part. He had expected the man to begin tracking his every move and restrict him from all his privileges, but for all Harry could tell, Dumbledore had done absolutely nothing to even keep tabs on him. Perhaps he had had a change of heart? Harry was not holding his breath but rather waiting for the axe to drop.

So lost was Harry in thoughts of Malfoy, Dumbledore, and his Portkey project that he nearly forgot about the final Quidditch match of the year, which was scheduled for Saturday. It was only Ron's insistence that they hold a few extra practices that week that saved Harry. He quickly disabused Ron of that notion, and the team practiced only twice that week. They were playing Hufflepuff and, given the standings, would have to lose by a wide margin to forfeit the Quidditch cup, so Harry was untroubled.

The match and following end of the year feast provided what Harry could only describe as an anti-climactic, normal end to one of the least normal years of his life – and that was saying something. Gryffindor won the match, securing the Quidditch Cup and putting them in the lead for the House Cup. It was only through Snape's supreme efforts that Slytherin overtook that lead shortly before the Leaving Feast. Somehow Harry did not expect Dumbledore to be charitable enough to award Gryffindor the points it needed to regain the Cup.

Harry scheduled a special meeting combining both HA groups following the feast. He was literally jittery at the meal in nervous anticipation; what he was about to do was risky and quite illegal. It was easy to make the decision to create and distribute Portkeys to his students, but now that he was about to hand them out, he could not help but worry about all the ways this could come back to haunt him. Yet no matter what repercussions he might face, he knew that he would never regret his decision. He stood a very good chance of being caught out by Dumbledore at the least and quite possibly the Ministry as well, and he knew neither would look kindly upon his casual dismissal of the law. Dumbledore, he imagined, would simply lecture Harry if given the opportunity, but there was no telling what Fudge would try to do with any charges levelled against Harry.

Having spent most of his free time since that first night back working out the different spells he wanted to add to the Portkeys, Harry had only finished mass-producing them the previous night. As he laid out the Portkeys on a table, his mind wandered over the inspiration for his additions. The Marauders really were geniuses, but there were so many more ways their skills could have been applied, it was almost a shame that their talent was wasted solely on pranks. Not that Harry did not understand the value of a good laugh, but even Fred and George were now directing their creative genius onto war-related projects. Nevertheless, even if they never applied their particular brand of talents to the war, the Marauders' ideas were proving to be an invaluable tool in his fight against Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

The students arrived en masse, presumably all coming straight from the Great Hall. Harry shut the door and used the contract to verify that nobody was present that should not be. When he was satisfied, Harry turned to a table behind him and picked up one of many identical pendants. "Each and every one of you is a target," he began matter-of-factly. "You all know this by now. Over the course of the year, I've done what I can to give you the tools to survive. Please understand that the training you've done here is not enough to go out and fight the Death Eaters. There are Aurors who have gone through years of intense training who regularly fall to them. I've given you these tools so that you can remain living long enough to escape."

He paused as he allowed his students to truly grasp what he was saying. "To that end, I have something for each of you." He held up the pendant. "This is a Portkey," he explained. "In the event of a Death Eater attack, I want you to collect your family and use this to escape. Do not try to be a hero. Death Eaters do not fight fairly, and they do not work alone. They always attack in numbers that will all but ensure their success."

"To activate the Portkey, simply make sure that every member of your family is touching either you or the Portkey and say the keyword." Putting the Portkey down, he continued, "The keyword is Sanctuary, and the Portkey will deposit you at the gates of Hogwarts. From there, I would advise that you take your family onto the grounds and request help from the headmaster or whatever professor you meet first."

"I hope you all take my warnings seriously," Harry stated imploringly. "I do not wish to read the Daily Prophet one morning to find any of your names added to the list of victims of this war. Use what I've taught you to survive and to fight long enough to give yourselves and your families the time you need to escape."

He called the students to come up and each collect a Portkey. Many stopped off to shake Harry's hand and thank him for all he had taught them, but, as the general mood was a sombre one, Harry hoped that it meant the students had taken his words to heart. Of course, not all the students left after picking up a Portkey.

When all but his five friends who had accompanied him to the Department of Mysteries a year ago had left, Hermione turned to him. "How did you get so many Portkeys?"

Harry shrugged as he casually replied, "I'm not supposed to talk about it." It was not technically a lie; of course, he had no plans to inform her that this edict was self-imposed.

"Portkeys are regulated by the Ministry," Hermione continued. "You could get into a lot of trouble for supplying unsanctioned Portkeys."

"I'm aware of the laws governing Portkey creation and distribution," Harry responded.

"Then you're aware that you will likely serve time in Azkaban in addition to the large fine you'll be levelled with?" Hermione asked bitingly.

"As I said, I'm aware of the laws," Harry repeated.

"Fine," Hermione answered, and she left without another word to anyone.

Silence stretched over the group following her abrupt exit.

"Thank you for the Portkey, Harry," Luna spoke into the silence. Harry smiled at the blonde girl as she continued, "They should be very useful." Harry nodded his agreement as she added, "The Quailing Blognites Daddy and I are investigating over the holidays are attracted to the magic in Portkeys. Daddy's been trying to acquire one from the Ministry, but they refused. He'll be so happy."

"Er – you're welcome, Luna," Harry replied. "I'm glad I could help."

Luna suddenly stepped towards him and encircled him in a hug, saying, "Thank you for being my friend, Harry. It's been fun. Will I see you next term?"

Harry returned the hug for a moment before letting the girl go and frowning. "You'll see me tomorrow on the train, Luna, as well as next year."

"Oh, will I?" she inquired, staring straight into his eyes. Harry nodded. "All right then. See you all tomorrow then." She smiled at all of them before leaving.

As she trailed out the door, Ron could be heard muttering, "Absolutely barmy." Given how much consideration he had given to skipping the train ride entirely, Harry had to disagree with him – not that he said so aloud. Ron shook his head abruptly before looking up at Harry. "I'm not going to ask," he stated. "Whether you can't talk about it or just don't want to, that's fine. Just thanks."

Harry stood frozen in shock as he stared at Ron. "Same goes for me," Neville input, clapping Harry on the shoulder. "Something tells me you've just put your neck out on the line for all of us, and I, for one, am not going to scold you for it. Thanks, Harry."

Harry nodded his head, a smile forming on his lips as he regained his bearings. "I appreciate that, guys. Thanks." As he looked past Neville, his eyes caught Ginny's who had a smile mirroring his own. She gave him a wink, and Harry's smile stretched even wider.

"Listen," Harry said a moment later. "I'll catch you guys up in the common room. I have a few things I need to do first."

They took their cue, leaving Harry alone. Once they had left, he cancelled the disillusionment and sticking charm he had cast over the parchment on the table. He pulled out and enlarged his trunk and then rolled up the parchment and tucked it inside. Slipping his re-shrunken trunk back into his pocket, Harry descended to his office. He made quick work of packing up all his things – most importantly his revised Marauder's Map. He gazed fondly at the room as he stood in the doorway, hoping he would still have it in the coming year.

Closing the door he ascended back to the seventh floor. He bumped into Hermione on the stairs, and she did not seem pleased to see him.

"Why can't I talk about the Portkeys you gave us?" she demanded.

"Were you trying to discuss them with someone outside of the HA?" he asked.

"I was trying to talk to Professor McGonagall about them," she stated bitingly. "I don't know where you got all these, but someone in authority needs to know before you get in too much trouble. Only, when I tried to talk about them, I ended up saying something else entirely."

Harry had to suppress a smirk. "Oh. The contract you signed prevents you from talking about it to non-members. I must have forgotten to exclude the staff in that."

"Don't give me that act," she spat. "I know you're just trying to keep everyone safe, but you could get in serious trouble for this. The professors need to know, and if I have to find a way around the contract, I will."

Harry frowned at his long-time friend. "Be careful with that, Hermione," he stated both in concern and warning. "The penalties for breaking the contract were meant for my enemies, not my friends."

"Is that a threat?" she questioned in a low tone.

"No," Harry answered, shaking his head. "I just don't want to see you get hurt."

"Then absolve me from the contract," she challenged.

Again, Harry shook his head. "I can't do that."

"Then don't feign concern for my well-being." She stalked away with a huff leaving Harry still standing on the steps wondering how their friendship had spiralled so far out of control.

By the time he reached the common room, Hermione was nowhere to be seen – presumably already up in her dorm. Since he still struggled to sleep at night, Harry decided to forgo his usual early bedtime and spent the night playing Exploding Snap with Ron and Neville. Ginny joined in for a couple games, but she spent most of the evening in the company of her friends. Finally, well after most had already retired, Harry and his friends traipsed upstairs to their beds.

The following morning, after a night filled with tossing and turning and restless sleep, Harry jogged around the lake one last time before the holidays, enjoying the serenity of the lake and Hogwarts grounds. There had not been many constants for him throughout the year save for this well-worn path and the witch jogging beside him, and he was loathe to leave either even for just a couple months. After stretching a bit, he and Ginny headed back up to the castle. On their way up the steps, the doors opened revealing the headmaster standing in florid, purple robes. "Ah, Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley, I thought I might find you here."

Harry raised an eyebrow as Ginny greeted, "Good morning, Headmaster." Harry mirrored her sentiments.

"Good morning to you both," Dumbledore said. "I do not mean to intrude upon your morning exercises, but I was wondering if I might borrow Mr. Potter for a moment. There are some things we must discuss prior to your departure."

Harry shared a glance with Ginny before turning back to the headmaster and nodding his head. "All right." Turning back to Ginny, he gave her a chaste kiss and said, "I'll see you later."

Ginny reached over and gave his hand a squeeze before nodding to the headmaster and walking into the entrance hall ahead of them.

"Shall we, Mr. Potter?" Harry walked with the man in silence as they ascended to his office. As Harry followed Dumbledore into the room, he felt a weight settle in the pit of his stomach. He had been waiting for the headmaster to make his next move, and he had a strong feeling that this was far from just a friendly meeting.

At least there was one welcome presence to greet him in the office. "Hello, Fawkes," Harry called as he walked over to his perch. The phoenix leaned into his touch and trilled in pleasure as Harry stroked the plumage behind his neck. Giving Fawkes one last scratch, Harry turned to the headmaster. "What did you want to talk to me about, sir?"

"Straight to the point, I see," Dumbledore commented. "Please, feel free to take a seat."

Harry walked behind the offered chair shaking his head. "No thanks. I don't like to sit still just after I've run. My legs will get stiff," he dissembled.

The headmaster smiled. "Ah, the troubles of youth. You'll find as you grow older that your legs will remain stiff no matter what you do."

Harry shrugged.

"I wonder if you've given any further thought to our unfinished discussion the morning you and Miss Weasley returned," Dumbledore stated conversationally.

Harry frowned. "To be frank, yes."


"My opinion remains unchanged," Harry answered bluntly. "I understand your concerns for my safety both as a student as well as the subject of the prophecy, but I will be seventeen in a month, leaving one of your points moot. As for the other, I reiterate the need for experience if I ever hope to stand a chance against Voldemort. As much as I have progressed over the past year, I know I am still outclassed."

"Have you given consideration to the fact that the power he knows not may not require you to duel with Tom?" Dumbledore countered.

Harry considered this for a moment. "I suppose it's a possibility, but how many lives are you willing to stake on it?"

The headmaster sighed deeply. "I do not think the prophecy mandates that you must be the one to deal the killing blow to Tom," he stated. Stroking the long length of his beard, he added, "Tom has taken many steps down the road to immortality, as his resurrection two years ago proves. I believe your part in this war will be to make Tom mortal once again."

Though he did not entirely agree with the man's words, he knew the headmaster had over a century's worth of knowledge. Ignoring his words entirely would be foolish. "Assuming this is the case, do you not think I may need to be on the battlefield to accomplish this goal?"

"Perhaps you may," Dumbledore agreed. "But in that case, you would not be alone. There are many out there willing to give their lives to bring about the fall of Voldemort."

"And I am one of them," Harry inserted, doing his best to keep his voice level.

"That is exactly what concerns me most," the headmaster answered softly. "You are a brave and selfless young man, and I do not doubt that you would trade your life so that others might live. You must understand, however, that you cannot save every life. You cannot win every battle. You are too important to this war to risk losing your life before you have fulfilled your task. These are realities that one your age should never have to realise, but this war will force many to mature far too quickly. I beg of you, Mr. Potter – Harry – to heed my words. I know your desire is only to help – to do something to help bring about Voldemort's fall, but you will have your time. Until then, please, allow me to arrange your safety as we work out a way to strip Tom of his immortality."

Harry bowed his head. His headmaster's voice was thick with emotion, and Harry knew deep down that the man was being completely genuine. He knew that Dumbledore cared for him, and Harry could not help but feel that Dumbledore's feelings were clouding his judgment. If the headmaster had been this open with Harry a year ago, he probably would have taken the man at his word and followed whatever he prescribed. In the past year, however, Harry had seen and experienced too much to blindly trust the headmaster's interpretation of the prophecy and his course of action.

The more he thought about it, the more he believed in his own course. Had Voldemort never heard the prophecy, he would never have targeted Harry and thus would not have fulfilled a part of the prophecy, marking Harry as 'his equal'. Had Harry not heard the prophecy last year after his godfather's death, he would never have done half the things he did over the year. The prophecy was a catalyst that spurred its subjects into fulfilling it. Harry had no idea where this idea sprang from, but as soon as he thought it, he knew it to be true.

"I'm sorry, Headmaster," Harry stated after a long moment of reflection. He almost surprised himself with the amount of emotion conveyed in his voice. "I wish I could share in your vision, but I cannot. I know you may think my actions foolish and rash, but I could not live doing anything other than what I know to be right, and I know that I've been doing right."

Silence stretched over the pair as the headmaster hung his head. Sighing, Dumbledore looked up at Harry and said, "Then it is as I feared. Are you certain you cannot be swayed from this path?"

Harry nodded with a frown on his face as he puzzled over how the headmaster would respond.

"I had hoped it would not come to this."

That was all the warning he received before the headmaster's wand was pointed at him and a spell fired. One of the very few benefits to growing up with the Dursleys was that a lifetime spent dodging surprise attacks gave Harry incredible reflexes. He ducked and rolled to the side, bringing up a shield against the next onslaught of spells sent by the usually calm and kindly man. Distantly he heard the door slam shut and felt a wave of magic pass through the room; he recognised anti-Portkey wards, among others. Dumbledore was not taking any chances.

The headmaster began pouring more power into his spells, forcing Harry to push more power into his shield as he considered his options. He needed to get out of there fast. His magic was still not fully replenished; Harry would not be able to hold off the headmaster for long. Holding the shield in front of him with one hand as spells continued to dissipate against it, Harry slowly stood to his feet, meeting the headmaster's eyes.

Fawkes gave a mournful cry, and Dumbledore paused, flicking his eyes to the phoenix and then back to him. Harry used the moment of distraction to jut one of his hands towards the window. A blasting curse shattered the glass, and a moment later, Harry vaulted through the opening.

He leaned forward into a dive and silently cast Arresto Momentum to slow his fall. Transforming into his panther form, Harry landed, setting off at a sprint the moment his paws touched the ground. He began some evasive manoeuvres as he felt spells hurled in his direction. As he felt a Summoning Spell attempt to draw him back towards the castle, he unleashed a burst of magic to dispel the charm.

He quickly made it to the gates at the edge of the wards. After he crossed, he reverted back to human form and turned around. He could just barely see the silhouette of the headmaster standing at his office window as Harry Disapparated with barely a whisper of displaced air.