Chapter 30 -- Special preface A/N:

During part of this chapter, the characters discuss some of the realities of war, including describing methods of torture and murder. The descriptions are drawn from real-life examples of war. Clarification for the exact content reference is at the end of the chapter. If this discussion will bother you, skip the third scene, which is a discussion between Remus and Ginny.

oOo oOo

. . .

Level Two Occlumency

Passive shielding is a natural refinement to the active shielding of Level One Occlumency. For many, the transition into Level Two is nearly automatic with sufficient practice of Level One, yet that does not invalidate its status as a unique stage in mental defence preparation.

Recall that in the early development of Occlumency skill, the battle for mental control begins with the successful recognition of attempts at entry into one's mind. Through extensive practice or exposure to invasion, the student should become adept at recognising fleeting thoughts of material primarily learned to be a fringe barrier as a sign of attack. This in turn will lead to the battle of mental focus and willpower, where the defender concentrates on a sole memory to limit the invader's ability to access memories with impunity.

Once the defender has attained the strength of willpower to withstand focused attacks, the problem becomes the inability of the defender to do anything beyond locking that one memory in place to the exclusion of all other conscious thought. This leaves the defender in an unsound position, susceptible to further outside attacks of a physical or magical nature. The key to moving beyond the limitation of Level One is an understanding that the human brain is capable of an information overload.

Rather than focusing on a single memory to the exclusion of all else, the defender instead constructs a careful "loop" of memories seamlessly tied together. The construction of this memory loop is the primary hurdle in learning Level Two as a successful defensive mechanism. The goal is to overwhelm the capacity of the invader to fully process what is being discerned through Legilimency by throwing a very fast string of memories into the invasion's focal point. The invader then becomes encumbered by the effort of understanding and sorting the images, but will quickly realise the false nature when the loop begins to repeat. Therefore, the maximum gain must be achieved in a single pass of the loop, inundating the recipient with vivid moments. Thus the optimal mix of memories will oscillate between extreme settings of love, hate, kindness, cruelty, and so forth.

When the invasion is recognised, the defender exerts less willpower to present a stream of memories than with the static setting. This in turn enables the defender to secure their physical defences as rapidly as possible. This could be achieved by breaking visual contact with the invader, moving toward physical barriers, or even Apparating away. The primary aim is to overwhelm the invader with too much information, thereby creating a window of opportunity to escape or neutralise the attacker as he tries to process the deluge of data.

The principle drawback of Level Two shielding comes from the fact that it is easier for the invader to redirect the moving scenes of memory, precisely because they are not a static image. Attempting to hold an invader inside a memory loop requires more mental focus and willpower than a Level One defence would. Redirecting physical objects in motion is less effort than putting an object into motion, modulated by the degree of redirection based on the original trajectory. In similar vein, if the memory loop sequence is too near the underlying thoughts sought by the invader, it becomes a high-risk scenario that . . .

. . . Excerpt from Theory of Magic, Volume IV: Skills, Gifts, and Legacies, Section I: Mind Arts, edited by R.J.L.

oOo oOo

Sat, 31 Aug 1991

"Do you understand your instructions?"

Draco Malfoy paused to consider the question. His father had been unbearable for the past several days and then had abruptly shipped Draco and his mother to France for the entire week before his first year at Hogwarts was to begin. It had been entirely unexpected. His father had offered no explanations, and his mother's reaction made it clear that no questions were to be asked. As soon as they returned, the half-wit Dobby had summoned Draco to his father's study, where nothing made sense any more. All of the things he had been led to believe would be his at Hogwarts were now changed, again without rationalisation, and only the strangeness of the situation kept his tongue at bay.

"I apologise, Father. I have understood your instructions and will carry them out, but I do not understand the reasoning for them." Draco bent his head, firmly expecting his father's customary rebuke. Draco hated hearing the tone of disgust that would creep into his father's voice, as though he were unworthy of bearing the name Malfoy, let alone standing to inherit the family empire.

"Look at me, Draco," his father commanded. There was, thankfully, no recrimination, only calm control and the firm hand of authority. "You are not old enough to see the bigger picture properly, though you are finally showing some signs of maturity. Until I am convinced you will see things appropriately, these changes are the way things will be. The explanation is beyond my confidence in your understanding. I will try to convey some of the logic, however, until you are prepared and trustworthy enough for the complete explanation. Ask what you will."

"I see, Father," Draco said while keeping his eyes forward as demanded. It was rare that his father was so open on any topic, so this must be something that his father desired very strongly. Draco was not sure whether his instructions were related to the events that had precipitated Draco's abrupt removal to France, but only a fool would think anything that happened in this room was unrelated to every other event his father handled. "Will this not cause problems with the other Families? It appears to me that we are breaking prior verbal agreements."

Lucius sighed, and Draco winced internally. He had failed to make a connection somewhere, and his father was not a patient man, willing to explain things repeatedly. "No, Draco, we are not breaking any agreements. It is vital to our family interests that we secure this change. We are not committing to anything more than claiming her as a secured asset bound to our Family. Nothing more or less is promised, though time will show what other options may exist."

"But why a Weasley? They are too many mouths and have no status, though their blood is pure enough," Draco asked.

"That is one of the two options we have, Draco. Bonds and debts are not common enough to warrant this situation."

"So you are not proposing a suiting contract?"

"No, Draco. It is exactly as I told you." Lucius tapped the edge of the desk with his cane briefly. "That would be false pretence and far above her station. You will have many choices for a future bride. Today, it is necessary to secure her as an extension of this family. The debt does not allow us to dictate which Weasley child, only that the heir of the Weasley Family is not eligible to satisfy the weregeld. They lack the wherewithal to do anything but endower for servitude. We are offering better than servitude but requiring the obligation be met."

"And it has to be the girl, Father?" Truly, it made no difference to Draco, but if they needed manual labour about the manor, then surely one of the boys would be a better fit. "Would not one of the boys do, given the issue of serving?"

"Would you like a competitor to the inheritance of this family?" Draco paled at the thought. He had assumed the transfer would be of literal service, much like that of a house-elf, not as a member with rights in the Family. "All of the boys are older than you, Draco. I will do whatever is necessary to ensure that only you inherit the Malfoy estates."

Draco was only too happy to return to the idea of securing the girl. He agreed with his father; any steps necessary would be taken so that no usurper came between him and his destiny. "So you want me to talk to Ginevra, in private, and explain the Debt Laws. Then I am to hint at what would happen if her parents picked one of her brothers, but that if she were to volunteer, we would swear an oath to her living in comfort and security?"

"After the various Family Bonding rituals performed on her first day with us are complete, yes. You must also make clear that as a member of this Family, her capacity to be an asset mandates she retain her virginal state. If that is lost, any oath ensuring her comfort and safety would be broken."

"Is it, err, truly necessary for me to explain that, Father?" Draco knew his face was flushed with blood, but the idea of talking to a girl about her status was very disconcerting.

"Draco, put aside your childish views. This is a critical thing to remember for your own future. Powerful magic may be put in place when male or female virgins are involved. Do not cast aside such value in your adolescent awkwardness. We do not know what morals she was taught in that blood-traitor household, so we cannot assume she will act as a proper pure-blood witch should. It must be explicit so that she does not misunderstand."

"Yes, Father," Draco said as contritely as he could. "I'm sorry, Father." He was unsure how he could find a way to broach the topic and not receive a slap, let alone worse, but he supposed he might discuss it with his mother. She would be informed of these plans regardless, and her insight into how to handle the topic could be quite useful.

"While I have always considered the Weasley family to be inferior due to their lack of blood ambition, if the girl were raised with us, it is hard to tell what might change. Perhaps the two of you would find a mutual attraction as you age. If her inner nature showed promise after several years, I would not necessarily be against a pairing of the heart. You may intimate this possibility as well, if you think it appropriate."

Draco thought any attraction between a blood-traitor child and himself was unlikely, let alone from almost peasant stock for pure-bloods. But if his father was willing to entertain such ideas about the girl, then there must be some value involved beyond Draco's knowledge. That suggested he should not reject anything until everything became clearer. "And your demand of her silence or else no security will be offered?"

"Think of her parents, Draco. They are not without connections. Should our plan be revealed, you can be assured that some means to block the transfer would be found. Once we file the petition, however, it will be too late to block. There is no need to rush, however. You have some few years to secure her cooperation, even her interest. It will be within her power to persuade her parents to choose her, not one of her brothers. Given the proper assurances, I believe they would come to see the logic of her argument."

"I see." And to a large extent, he did understand more of the picture. What he still did not understand was the real reason for the entire exchange.

"Your job, Draco, is to train her in preparation for that future argument with her family. We are offering to treat her almost like a queen for the rest of her life, and all for ensuring that one of her brothers does not suffer a most painful and protracted death in her place. For now, you must plant the seed, see to her silence, and be sure she understands the limits of her freedom while she considers her choices."

Draco understood that his freedom to inquire had expired. His father would move on to other things now, so Draco bowed his submission to the plan and quietly left the study. As he headed toward the suite his mother would most likely be resting in, he tried to grasp the pieces that were in play. What was it about the Weasley girl that made her of such sudden importance? Why would his father go to such lengths and risks to bond her into the Malfoy line? Was he being told the truth or being carefully groomed to deliver a false message? And yet, if oaths were involved, how false could the message truly be? Ultimately, he was a Malfoy and would some day be The Malfoy. Family came first, and eventually he would learn why this manoeuvring was necessary. Until then, he would obey and continue to learn from his father.

oOo oOo

Wed, 20 Sep 1995

Remus shifted slightly at the question, brushing knees with the questioner, unsure exactly how to answer what would at best be a very personal yet complicated issue. More importantly, he was not sure precisely what right he had to answer the question at all. With a sigh, he decided the best tactic for the moment would be to provide sufficient contextual information that it might help guide and refine the thoughts behind the query.

"To be fair, Ginny," Remus said as gently as he could, "I'm not sure even Harry truly knows why he agreed to train you. Are you perhaps aware of the idea that surprise limits choice?"

Ginny's appearance, in Remus' view, was one he had seen several times on Harry through the years. A mixture of struggle for understanding, fear, anger, and a desperate desire for balance in a world that had abruptly removed it were all etched into the shadows of her eyes, the furrows on her brow, and her increasingly dishevelled appearance. That she was sitting so close to him tonight was either a subconscious reflection of her insecurity or a direct sign of her fatigue.

"You mean that if someone surprises you, that you don't have time to think about alternatives? You sort of just react?"

"Yes," Remus agreed. "That's an accurate, if simple, answer. It's a principle that applies to duels, wars between nations, and even conflict among friends. The surprised side has fewer options than the attacking side, and it's only with time and thought that the imbalance can be redressed. But for your question, I would suggest that, in some ways, Harry may have simply yielded to the moment."

Ginny frowned further at that answer as she stared around the living room of the Shrieking Shack. Remus tried to follow her gaze, knowing the dichotomy of a ramshackle exterior compared to the somewhat plush, refined interior had to be a source of curiosity for her. They had been renovating the interior off and on for years, preparing for contingencies. So far in her visits, she had avoided asking, but he was uncertain that her resistance would continue much longer. The Shack was still a work in progress, in many respects, but it was home enough for the people who spent time there.

After a long moment, during which the furrow between her brows became even more pronounced, she turned back to him and almost palpably burned a hole in his head with her stare. "But I asked him several times, so there couldn't have been much surprise at the question when he actually did agree."

"True, but to my mind, the surprise is that he didn't refuse you outright." When she appeared to be puzzled at his answer, Remus surmised that Harry had been his usual forthcoming self. "He's told other people no to the same request before, always on the first asking. The two that I know of who asked were too afraid to ask a second time." Of course, there were good reasons for Harry's answer, but that was a different topic.

She remained silent for a while, though her gaze lessened in intensity to a passive unrest. Eventually she looked away from the boards covering the outside of the windows, charmed to be translucent from the inside, and back at him again. That was when he could tell the evasion of his earlier answer had failed. "You said 'some ways' . . . so how am I different, then?"

Picking absently at a piece of lint on the knee of his brown trousers, he noted the similarity in their clothing. Both were wearing serviceable garments, yet there was the tell-tale sign of heavy use indicative of rough living or weak finances. They rarely were in close enough proximity that such little details were made apparent, and he was reminded again of how the exterior could hide what the interior could not.

Remus tried to think of a way to redirect her query along one of the right paths. Nothing was ever simple with Harry, but giving her an obvious answer would hopefully avoid showing his unwillingness to explore the other answers. "Let me explain that with a tangent, if you will. How many of the so-called pure-blood families were firmly opposed to Voldemort's cause in the last war?"

"A dozen or so, I'd guess."

Remus smiled briefly, her answer amusing for reasons she probably would not appreciate. "Yes, well, let's assume that's a correct answer. Do you think that Harry is unaware of the names of those families?"

Ginny shrugged slightly. "I hadn't thought of it. I don't know all of them, so I wouldn't think he would know all of them, but . . . from what I understand of him, he probably knows the majority."

"Fair enough. Now how many of those blood-traitors, as they were labelled, were also friendly with Muggles?"

Ginny paused, and Remus could tell she was doubtful of the answer or what might come of it. "I don't know. I'd like to believe all of them are."

Remus shook his head briefly, thinking that life was seldom so simple as she assumed it was. "Sadly, it wasn't all of them. That fact might reduce the list of names he could want to be particularly familiar with. Now, to start bringing it back to your question, do you know what the Death Eaters did to pure-blood or half-blood wizards or witches who married Muggles?"

"Err, no." She hesitated for a heartbeat before she said much more quietly, "I'm not sure I want to."

"If you're asking these kinds of questions, Ginny, then you're ready to hear at least part of the answers. I believe your father was called in to support handling several of these events where Muggles were involved. I'll give you the highlights, but you could ask him for details, I suppose, if you desire. What ultimately happened was largely dependent upon the context when they were discovered."

Remus waited until Ginny nodded for him to continue, as he wanted to be absolutely certain he had her attention. "Any young children that were found living at home were generally tortured with the Cruciatus in front of the parents, then killed. Older children were tortured but usually left alive. The magical spouse was always tortured, while their Muggle counterpart was usually destroyed. That almost goes without saying, doesn't it?" It would be hard enough to talk about with his first-hand memories of witnessing events; he was not about to willingly repeat this if she were meandering mentally.

Ginny nodded slowly, and Remus could tell that the answer was far from surprising. He doubted that anyone who knew even the barest of rumours would be surprised by the routine of torture and death. His problem would be avoiding the memories this discussion would stir up. He needed to keep his mind tightly leashed to the facts alone.

"The more haunting events that I know of had to do with pregnant women, however. That displeased Voldemort's followers very, very much. They wanted to ensure that the magical blood-lines remained as pure as possible. A witch pregnant from a Muggle would be given a forced magical abortion on the spot – after the spouse had been killed, of course. In and of itself, that is supposed to be a very painful process physically, let alone emotionally. Then a round of Cruciatus torture would follow the abortion. It was meant to be an abject lesson in the proper choice of a mate, you see, but it left the witch 'reproductively useful' to their cause."

Watching Ginny, he could tell that the idea was not beyond the realm of her acceptance, though her slightly widened eyes told him that she had not previously heard of such details. Remus waited for Ginny to nod again, striving for the steady breathing techniques that Master Gata had shared previously with all of them. Centring his breathing let him keep a firmer control over his own mental images.

"The worst were the pregnant Muggles, however. They all received the same fate. It was supposed to be symbolic of the Death Eaters' mission to stamp out impurities, the ultimate punishment for non-compliance with their demands. As the wizard was forced to watch, the Death Eaters would hang the woman from a tree, usually with an improperly placed noose that would choke but not snap the neck. With her secured and slowly suffocating, they would then use a knife to carve the foetus from her body. As the poor woman suffered this double assault, they would brutally murder the foetus. Sometimes they would stay to watch the woman, so they could wager on what would kill the woman first – either asphyxiation or bleeding to death."

From her complexion, it was clear that Ginny was completely horrified by what Remus had just told her. She was not reacting physically beyond her face's ghastly pallor, but her eyes said everything. His own mind flashed half-remembered details at him, and his own stomach roiled at the raw cruelty that had been so common at that time. Partially formed fingers flailing. Blood everywhere. Emotionally crushed fathers, shattered dreams, eternal nightmares.

"You can understand why so many people went into hiding and would do anything to avoid being caught. Harry's own parents barely evaded capture twice while Lily was pregnant. Harry knows all of this, of course, in quite a bit more detail than I've described. Perhaps you're not old enough right now for these particular issues to directly impact you, but you're also on the cusp of the ten-year span during which most magical humans get married. On top of that, you're from a family that is well known to have opposed Voldemort's views, while being solicitous and encouraging of Muggles to the point that your father passed legislation protecting them."

Ginny was slowly shaking her head side to side, and Remus could tell she was overwhelmed with sympathetic feelings when her hands clutched at her stomach. For his part, he tried to keep the visions at bay, concentrating solely on her trembling hands. The smell of it all had been overpowering, and the aftermath of cleaning and Obliviating was nothing short of hell on earth. Repeated exposure left him feeling faintly sclerotic, that such things simply were and dwelling therein pointless.

"And now . . . well, now you know that Voldemort is back, despite what anyone else may claim. And Harry is very much aware of everything I've just told you. But to make this fully relate to the question you asked me, Ginny, let me ask you one final question. Do you know how many years Voldemort's first war spanned?"

Different faces flickered through his mind as he recalled the scenes he had witnessed. And he had not even begun to scratch the surface of what they did to random Muggles for 'fun' and sport, ones that had no knowledge of magic at all. The werewolves made magical abortion look like a clean, gentle, safe medical procedure.

Remus conjured a basin on the floor just in time as Ginny became ill. He was hard pressed not to join her.

oOo oOo

Sun, 24 Sep 1995

Dear Howler,

Your dulcet missive really made everyone happy. In fact, were your words any more endearing, I fear we would all need new teeth. Delivered in person, I'm quite certain we would instead need new ears in lieu of teeth.

The Librarian's comments aren't exactly surprising, now are they? It's a positive sign that at least you're going to start learning from him. I was wondering if that was ever going to happen. To try to answer some of your queries:

Handy hasn't been heard from in a while. We suspect he's working with his clients, currently relocated to sunny Oz. I hope the new residents find it as pleasurable as I did.

Eagle was happy for the letter but has been putting in longer hours. He won't have a chance to write back until this eve. The man's about to collapse, but he won't hear a word about it from us. But he also said he'd see what he could worm out of Handy when the bat shows up again.

Moony said he'd talk to Strawberry about her little skill. He suggested that you might want to distract her with something to see if it helps her any. He's said that he's becoming a bit worried about her. Regardless, you seem to spend an awful lot of time with this one. Aren't you going to bring her home so we can meet her properly?

Moony also wants me to remind you that McLaggen is still out there, which is his usual subtle hint. Speaking of Moony and subtle, we need to come up with a better name for your buddy, kiddo. If it were up to him, we'd all be named after a fruit. If it were based on hair colour, you'd be Yucky Old Banana, or Yob for short.

Speaking further of cranky old Moony, I can't say that he has been gloating or particularly smug lately. From the inquiry, is it safe to assume you've been pranked? If so, I expect to hear the details soon. Related, your package will arrive this evening. You know the drill.

I found a lovely curse in my family's private library. It basically melts your eyeballs, and it seems to go through any of the first-level shields. Only the high-level barriers will stop it. Quite the nasty bit of work, that one. Think we ought to try it out on old man Riddle? When I can figure out how to get the book past the wards on the house, I'll send it to you. In the meantime, it's tethered to the Grim Den. One of these days we're going to have to burn that place down.

Keep looking up,



Harry chuckled to himself as he finished Sirius' latest missive. It was not the same as talking in person, but it was a good bit better than the prior week's avoidance. Reading between the lines, Sirius was still dodging the root cause of isolation in some respects, but enough hints had previously been conveyed to paint the basic picture. After a hard morning workout, solo for once, Harry was feeling a bit more of his normal self. It appeared that Sirius was in a similar mood.

His godfather's more subtle digs regarding casual pleasantries and name-calling were par for the course. The ritualistic exchange of insults and sarcasm was one of the cornerstones in their relationship. Being on the run from inane legal authorities or psychotic sociopaths created a natural bridge, which was further enhanced through mutual treaties to torment all comers. The idea that Ginny should be properly indoctrinated into the family mayhem, thus earning a proper name for herself, however, was one that would require some negotiation.

True, she was a friend of sorts, though more by force than choice at the moment. She had a personality that was not quite willing to be labelled or categorised, but that was all right by his view. Very few people he remained friends with could be categorised at all, or if they were, their labels kept shifting. Tonks was the perfect example, and in some ways, Harry could see Ginny becoming as close a friend as Tonks. The problem with that line of thinking, of course, was that time and circumstances were not well-suited to see that outcome as plausible. Trust was a dicey state to assume, and building plans or agendas based on assumptions was tantamount to stabbing yourself in the back – or at least, the latter was quicker and more certain to heal.

Regardless, the suggestion of a distraction for her – ignoring the other barbs, at least – was worth consideration. While Ginny seemed to be in a mental holding pattern, it was less than the progress that was needed. He would not, by any means, hold her to a standard that was unattainable. The fact that she was functional in the main was impressive, but her zeal and vigour still remained a thing of the past. Perhaps a distraction would be sufficient to free her from the burden long enough that she could remember what it was to be normal. If that could be attained a few times, she might begin to self-correct and move past the shadows. Then again, given how well his handling of Ron's arachnophobia had gone, perhaps she would just as easily wind up catatonic or begging for mental scrubbing.

What Harry needed was an expert on Ginny to discuss the idea with, or rather someone he could extract ideas from as to what would be most useful as a distraction. The best source was always the definitive one, and for a human, that meant engaging the target. With the other boys still in the facilities getting ready for the day, the odds were fair that he could find Ginny either in the common room or soon appearing there. Securing his possessions again, Harry climbed down to the commons but failed to see any redheads.

"D'you know where Ginny is?" Harry asked a girl sitting by the fire. He was unsure of her name but thought it might be Romilda-something.

The girl in question looked up at him with wide eyes and crouched back into her seat as far as she could go. She shook her head briefly, before pointing one finger at the girls' dormitory.

"Still sleeping, then?" Harry tried again, doing his best to project the image of an innocent mouse.

"Y-y-yes," the girl replied, clearly uncomfortable at Harry's proximity.

"Right, thanks," Harry said by way of reply. He moved across to the other side of the common room and the second fireplace, dropping into a seat. As time ticked by and people went past his seat, Ginny still failed to materialise. He did receive several glares from Hermione, though she said nothing beyond a muttered deprecation or two before she left. It was after Ron trooped through several moments later that Harry realised he was missing an opportunity to get ideas by focusing on just one candidate, no matter how definitive she might be on the issue.

Harry jumped to his feet and followed the path out the portrait and toward the Great Hall. He could hear a faint echo of footsteps, but he could not see anyone around. After a quick jog on the main thoroughfare, Harry spotted Ron Weasley walking by himself in the corridor, most likely en route to breakfast. Deciding to throw caution to the wind, Harry surveyed the hallway closely, ensuring their relative solitude. With the coast clear, he jogged the final distance to catch up to the redhead.

"Hey, Ron," Harry said as he fell into step with him. "Wait up a moment, please."

Ron stopped and regarded Harry warily. He remained silent just long enough to check the corridor for himself before turning back to him. "Hermione doesn't want me talking solo with you. Make it quick, eh?"

"Right," Harry said. He opted not to mention that Hermione had already preceded her boyfriend. "I, err, need to apologise. You asked me to help you a bit, and my idea didn't work so well."

"Yeah, I heard about that." Ron levelled a moderate frown at Harry for a very long moment. "The thing is, I don't remember it."

"I'm still sorry for it."

"Noted, Potter," Ron said sharply. "Is that all, then?"

Harry could not particularly blame Ron for being short with him and rather thought he was being a good sport about it, all things considered. "Actually, there is one other thing. Remember how you asked me to fix things with Ginny? Well, I need a bit of help with that. I need to know what makes her happiest."

Ron snorted briefly before he turned to scan the corridor again. "Happiest? How should I know? Maybe it's knitting a tea cosy or scarves or something."

The redhead's sarcasm was quite clear, though Harry ignored it. He already expected to have tense relations with any of Ron's close friends, given the required Obliviate. "Be real, Ron. What makes her happy?"

"Well, as long as it's not happiest." Ron sighed and scrubbed one fist through his hair and around his chin briefly. "You're an odd one, Potter. Let me think. Quidditch, obviously. Flying in general, I'd say. Chocolates during the hols, so there's one. Causing mischief. Kittens. That sort of thing."

Harry paused to consider the stated items. Aside from the Quidditch bit, it sounded like Ginny was much like many other girls, should Tonks be believed. The bit about mischief could go either way, but the theme was there. "Right, chocolate and brooms. Just what I needed to know."

Ron eyed him closely before he barked out, "You're not going to start buying her chocolate brooms, are you?"

The question surprised Harry. Did they make some kind of little chocolate broom that swept through the sky? It might be like the Chocolate Frogs that had only one good jump in them – perhaps they had one good aerial lap. "Why? Do they make them?"

"You keep telling us you're not together, but then you're asking about this stuff," Ron muttered. "How are we supposed to know why you're asking? But yeah, most teams sell Chocolate Brooms at games. Might be able to order some via owl if you tried."

Harry nodded briefly and considered that a rather obvious venue for selling things to broom-nuts and player fans. "Well, if they don't make you fly, I suspect I'll stick with the ordinary stuff."

Ron shrugged his indifference to the notion before again checking the hall. "Right. Anything else, then?"

Harry gave Ron a half-smile before replying. "Nah. Thanks for helping, reluctantly or otherwise."

Harry turned and started to head back to the Gryffindor common room to wait for Ginny, but Ron's voice stopped him. "Harry?"


"Just don't make it worse." There was a hint of a plea in the redhead's voice. "You didn't mean to with me, but you did."

Harry paused to consider the request. Had it been someone else, he would probably run his mouth off and cause a scene. Considering the source of the comment, he tried to think of some way to affirm his recognition of the serious issue while also bridging the gap a bit. "Right," he offered finally. "No love potions, then?"

Ron's eyes shot wide for a moment before a grimace settled over his features. "I didn't hear that, Potter."

Harry smirked briefly before returning to the common room. Things would still be tense and strained with Ron, but at least a small bridge had been constructed. He had apologised, and Ron had apparently understood the real reason for Harry's questions about Ginny. Ron's friends and girlfriend would probably still be hostile, but Harry thought Ron would be okay with him – eventually. Right now, however, he had an idea for a distraction and another letter to write. He needed a touch of help arranging a few minor details, and by sheer principle, he was unwilling to let Sirius have the last word on anything. Yob, indeed.

oOo oOo

Harry had spent the better part of the afternoon following Mrs Figg's cats about the castle, as she had requested. Students were still giving him a bit of space as he passed, but on two occasions they just gave him a terse nod and carried on. It was a small step, perhaps, but his pariah status might be transitioning to just avoidance.

Since he was allowed to use as much magic as he liked in cleaning, everywhere the cats went, a trail of perfectly scoured and highly polished corridors, furniture, and painting frames remained. Harry was too cautious to try using magic on some of the paintings directly, no matter how dark the picture or irritating the commentary. That was one area of magic he had close to zero knowledge of, but he thought it safe enough to ignore as the act of making a painting was far from likely to be a viable battle magic.

Given that he had already cleaned at least fifty percent of the public regions of the castle, he thought it was a fairly simple strategy on Mrs Figg's part for detention handling. Whether the animals took a random path or not was too hard to guess, but their path served as well as any other arbitrary "go clean there" command. By the time his dues were paid to the rounds of cleaning the next weekend, it was almost certain the entire castle interior would be gleaming. Should Filch ever return, the poor man might have a dearth of projects for students to not use their magic on. Then again, from the rumours and stories he had heard, it was equally likely the man might deliberately grime a room or twelve just to have something for students to clean.

Since he still had several items of business to conduct as soon as his detention was up, he ignored the mewing of the Kneazles in their quest for things in corners and started his return journey to the Gryffindor area, thankful to be leaving the rather dark and boring dungeons behind. At least on the upper levels there were windows, while in the two dungeon levels the best you could hope for was an impressive spider or vindictive painting. Whether that particular subterranean atmosphere was cultivated by the prior head of Slytherin or if it was a much older tradition mattered little to Harry – all he really wanted was to feel the open skies and be outside for a bit. Of course, that had to wait as well, but looking at the world beyond the walls of cold granite was at least a step in the right direction.

The thought of flying jogged loose Ron's commentary from earlier in the day, and Harry had to smirk at his planned "distraction" – assuming the supplies came through that night. As he passed the kitchens en route to the secret of the sleeping dragon elevator, he heard the unmistakable clanking nearby.

"Oh, come on," Harry muttered. "What the hell is this thing's problem?"

Stepping to the centre of the corridor, Harry turned to face the approaching armour and waited, right wand in hand. He hardly required any patience, for the same suit of armour he had dealt with repeatedly was already bearing down on him. With a sigh, Harry noted that the thing was carrying a spear this time and was already lowering it as though preparing to charge.

"Look," Harry said while holding up one hand. "What's it going to take to get over this? I've offered to apologise, I've offered to –"

His attempt to negotiate came to an abrupt halt as the spear completed its descent and was levelled more or less at his chest. The armour had yet to slow down, and if he stood his ground, Harry was going to be impaled in short order. Dodging to the side, he let the armour clatter past him, bits of the torchlight shining through the empty interior and giving a surreal halo effect to the seams. It turned with some effort and was obviously preparing to charge again.

"All right, then," Harry said calmly. "War it is."

Seven strong cutting curses later, the armour, the spear, and the nearby tapestry were in several pieces. One gauntlet, not buried under other bits of armour, was slowly trying to crawl his way, the fingers scrabbling for purchase on the stone floor.

"Who the bloody hell keeps fixing you, that's what I'd like to know," Harry told it as he conjured a giant burlap sack. "I'd like to have a nice, long chat with them." Of course, with his luck, it was equally likely the armour was enchanted to reassemble itself. "With sharp objects. Or even blunt ones."

The last encounter had ended with a Permanent Sticking Charm on the ceiling for the pieces. Clearly, that was not going to work to keep the bits separated. His mistake probably lay in the fact that it was a public corridor, and sooner or later somebody was bound to look up. That, of course, made him think of Sirius' constant lectures on the same topic.

This time, Harry decided, he would exploit how rarely the kitchen hallway was visited by any living entity with normal locomotive function. Levitating the bag of pieces, which were already starting to clank and squirm on their own, giving an impression of a bag full of metal kittens, he walked to the nearest broom cupboard. A quick visual inspection showed that it was barren of anything except dust and insects, so he patiently re-applied the Permanent Sticking Charm to each piece of armour, attaching it at least a foot away from any other piece. When the whole operation was complete, Harry closed the door, locked it, and then cast an Impervius Charm on it followed by a Notice-Me-Not Charm. The faint lingering image of wriggling fingers and toes as the door shut would hopefully be the last image he had of that bit of scrap iron.

"Get out of that one, you arse," Harry told the door as he headed back to the lift. The whole thing was baffling. In a school of children, surely someone at some point had knocked down some armour before. Were they hounded throughout the castle on a witch-hunt, or rather, a wizard-hunt? Efforts at apologies ignored in favour of a spot of blood-letting? Or maybe those rare critical injuries sustained at the school were object lessons from the guardians to the less-than-careful students?

Reaching the sleeping dragon tapestry, Harry tapped the dragon between the eyes while focusing on the number seven and then pushed it aside, stepping into the elevator. One heart-lurching moment later, he stepped out onto the seventh floor and finally completed his trek to the common room.

A few students were scattered about, some doing homework but most socialising from what he could tell. As there was no one he needed to talk to, nor anyone likely to want his company, Harry continued directly to his dormitory, hopeful that his fellow scoundrels would have delivered everything. Neville was on his bed, reading something, when Harry entered.

With a nod, Harry asked, "How's life today, Neville?"

Neville glanced up, gave him a shrug, and went back to the book. "S'all right, I suppose." The voice was muffled a bit by the book. "Hermione has the twins and Ron up to something. Might want to watch your back."

"Yeah, yeah," Harry said by way of reply, not really paying full attention. "They can join the queue." Harry systematically went through the protections on his trunk and transporter box before he cracked the lid and found two small packages. There was no note, but that was not surprising. Everyone was busy with tasks, so witty banter sometimes had to wait.

Tossing both bundles onto his bed, Harry resealed the box and then his trunk, turning all the protections back on. Peeves would be quite pleased with the form of payment, all things considered. Harry chuckled briefly at the thought of what mischief might be coming from an old threat with new toys. Bribery had its place in life, no matter what anyone else said.

"Harry?" Neville's voice surprised him, so he turned and saw his friend regarding him seriously, the book cast aside.


"Do you really think you need all those protections on your trunk?"

Harry supposed it was a fair question, after a fashion, but it was hard to answer in an honest manner, since it would almost beg the question why. There were far too many things in his trunk that he would never admit to having, no matter who asked, let alone the things he might admit to but only under direct orders from someone like Vencil. The simplest answer would perhaps be to allude to ideas that might be possible, yet support the right conclusion.

"Sort of, I suppose. Do you know what a gun is, Neville?"

Neville nodded briefly. "Sure, I've heard of them. Never seen one, though."

"Okay," Harry said after a moment. "Do you know how dangerous they are?"

"A little bit, I think," Neville replied slowly. "Wars and such, right?"

"Among other uses, yes. In the Muggle world, when you have something that's so potentially dangerous if used incorrectly, you need to keep it secured – from thieves, yes, but also from innocents like kids. That way they don't hurt themselves or others. It's a law, really."

"You have a gun, then?"

Harry shook his head. "Not in there, no. But I have other things just as dangerous, and while I trust you not to rummage, I can't honestly say the same for everyone else in the castle – especially the first years and so on."

"So it's less about trusting us and more about not taking chances?"

"Exactly," Harry agreed. Neville came to the right conclusion, with the right understanding, and nothing sensitive had been given away. "Of course I have ordinary stuff too, like you've seen – clothes, books, things I've collected over the years. But it's easier to lock down the whole trunk than it is to protect each item."

"Hmmm." Neville looked thoughtful for a moment before he grinned slowly. "I guessed as much, and I warned Hermione. She tried to see if she could figure out what you used to protect it and got surprised for her efforts."

Harry groaned silently, thinking it was one more straw on that camel's back, regardless of whether this one was properly earned or not. "How bad was it?"

"Madam Pomfrey said she could straighten it out, but we didn't see her again until lunch. I thought the glowing archery target centred on her nose was pretty funny, but she didn't."

Harry exhaled slowly, thankful she had only been thwarted at the first layer. "Do me a favour, will you? Next time you talk to her, tell her I asked you to tell her this: the protections on my things can cause serious, even fatal, injuries if you're not authorised. They're benign until you try to get around them, but the repercussions are increasingly dire as more attempts are made. Will you tell her that for me?"

Neville's smile faded a bit, but he nodded anyway. "Do you really need that stuff here if it's so dangerous you can kill people over it?"

Harry shrugged for a moment, thinking that it was turning back around to territory he was unwilling to explain. "Let me put it this way. People have already died over it, and I'm not going to leave it somewhere I don't have convenient access to. Nor am I going to leave it unprotected. Even Gringotts and Azkaban can be breached, if you really want to, so where is it safer than here?"

Neville was silent for a while before he nodded slowly. "I trust you, Harry. If you think this is the best place for it, and we're not at risk over it, then all right. I'll tell the others to avoid your trunk."

The words were unexpected and all the richer for it. Again Harry felt that there were ties he had with Neville that were stronger than with anyone else in the castle, whether it be by design or coincidence mattered not. But the simple, painfully honest utterance of truth and trust was better than anything he could think of at the moment. At least one person in this castle understood part of his life, and that was a strange sort of relief.

"Thanks, Neville. That . . . well, it means a lot to me."

Neville gave him a half-smile, and Harry could tell the sentiment was received properly. "You already explained things to me, remember? You should do that with the others, you know."

Harry snorted at the idea. "Yeah, sure. They're still focused on how dangerous or Dark I must be."

"You don't give them anything else to see, do you?" Neville countered. "You're bored in class, you disappear all the time, and only rumour follows you around. Everyone's looking sideways at Ginny now, too, and they wonder what you're doing that makes her so listless."

"Oh, come on, Neville, that's not my fault. I didn't do anything to her."

Neville held up both hands in silent supplication. "I know that, but they don't know that. They just see what anyone can see, so what other conclusion can they make? Like I said, you don't help matters."

"They're sheep!" Harry all but shouted, slumping onto his bed beside the shrunken packages. "They believe whatever the Ministry or the Prophet spouts, which is pure shit in the first place. If I explained myself today, tomorrow some jackass would say something contrary, and then it's right back to where we started. It's not worth the effort."

Neville remained quiet but fiddled with the book he had been reading. Harry could see the title, No Analogue Ecosystems, and was surprised by how non-magical the entire thing looked. When Neville spoke again, it brought Harry's attention back to the moment.

"That's true to a point, Harry. But if you showed by act that things aren't like they're being told, it might help them to stop being sheep, as you put it."

It was an idea that Remus had advocated some time prior to his arrival at Hogwarts, but Harry was in firm agreement with Sirius – any society that would treat its own citizens the way Magical Britain did would never believe the truth when delusions and lies were set by indoctrination.

"Cho doesn't think badly of you," Neville said after the silence had stretched out. "She said that you were a bit scary but seemed to be trying to do the right thing."

Harry could only raise one eyebrow in surprise, Ginny's words coming back to him regarding the budding romance between Neville and the Asian girl. "Oh?"

Neville shrugged again before he started pushing his book around a bit more. "Said you were cute, too, when you weren't scary."


Neville's half-smile was back, and Harry was having a hard time telling whether his friend was twisting his tail or being honest.

"Neville, I thought that the two of you were, err, together or somewhat."

Neville sighed deeply before he flopped backwards on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Harry had the impression that he had just put his foot on some sort of emotional landmine.

"Yeah, maybe. I can't really tell." Neville was quiet again, so Harry let him have his space to articulate whatever was on his mind. "We've, uh, kissed once, but mostly she's still really torn up about Cedric, you know? I don't know if she likes me for me, or if I'm just . . . the rebound, I think that's what Ginny called it. I've found that I genuinely like her, though, and don't know what to do. I mean, if I get attached and she's just unintentionally using me, then I'll be a mess. But if she really wants to be with me and I put her off, maybe she'll give up and move on."

Harry thought about the problem and then thought of Remus. Perhaps sharing a bit of real history would help give Neville an example that things can work, though there was little enough certainty in any relationship.

"An older friend of mine," Harry offered, "a very, very close friend . . . he was seriously in love with a woman. He thought she was everything, and, after a time, he wanted to get engaged. He kept some big secrets from her, since she was a Muggle, and decided to come clean with her before he asked her to marry him. He'd been agonising over it for a while, but when he finally decided, well . . . it was kind of full-steam ahead. But when he talked to her that night, she told him she wanted to see other people. Some of her friends told her she already acted like a married lady with him, and she decided she 'wanted no regrets' and wanted to spend some time apart 'for a while' so they could 'spend more time with other people' and then decide how they felt with some distance."

Neville sat up and just stared at Harry, his face creased in consternation. "That's stupid."

"Yeah, well, you and I might think so, but everyone's entitled to their own opinion, you know?"

"Maybe. Doesn't make it meaningful, though."

Harry laughed hard for a brief moment, surprised at Neville's clever word choice. "And this from the guy that wants me to suck up to the sheep?"

Neville shrugged faintly. "I thought it might make your life easier, not theirs."

"Message delivered, Neville. I'll think about it. Anyway, back to the story, my friend sort of crashed and burned really hard. He kept seeing her with a different guy on her arm, since they lived in the same town and frequented the same places. I guess you'd say he became misogynistic when dating and what not, but it never became generalised because he still had trustworthy and solid female friends. But one of those friends really wanted to be with him, so she did the right thing. She was there for him, helped him pick up the pieces, and showed him he could trust someone again. I kind of suspect they had a few one-night stands before they wound up together, but now they're very happy and probably will get married. She might have to do the asking, though."

Neville stared at the floor for a while before he flopped back onto the bed again. "So I can see what you're saying, Harry, but where does this leave me?"

"I don't know, Neville," Harry said after a moment to ponder the issue. "I think I'd say it this way. I believe in you, and I believe you'll do the right thing. You won't take advantage of her, but you don't have to refuse her, either. Based on my other friend, I'd say that as long as you go slow and you're sure she's with you for the right reasons at any moment, then see if you can make it work. If things are off kilter, then just wait and hope for the best."

"Wow, that almost makes you sound mature," Neville said with a laugh. "Aren't you the guy that confessed to being clueless?"

"I did, and I am," Harry agreed with a chuckle. "Here's a simpler way of looking at it. Think of what I'd do during a normal encounter. Then do the exact opposite. It's bound to be safer and have a happier ending."

oOo oOo

Mon, 25 Sep 1995

The early morning hours – particularly the very early morning hours – were clearly not her most favoured. Given that Harry had been forcing her to keep an early morning schedule for only a little while, it was less than surprising that she had yet to fully adjust to it. Then again, this morning was even earlier than normal, and Harry would prefer to get up much later than five o'clock as well.

"C'mon, Ginny. You keep complaining about training in the castle, so we're going out."

"Out?" She cracked a massive yawn that made Harry's own jaw ache in sympathy. "It's not even dawn. And it's bloody cold out there."

Harry led the way through the portrait hole, ignoring the grunts and snores from the Fat Lady. "Do you treat all your dates with such enthusiasm?"

Ginny sounded just like the Fat Lady with her utterances as they made it to the first staircase down. "I expect more on a date than just a night sky."

"Would you rather run around outside or on the stairs?" Harry tried to put on his best smile, but the scowl he was rewarded with showed the futility of it.

"Don't pretend like you're doing me a favour, here, Harry," she retorted. "No one would believe you."

"Favours?" Harry's eyebrows shot up and the mere thought of it. "Now, Ginny, when have you ever seen me do a favour for anyone?"

Ginny was silent all the way to the doors exiting the castle before she spoke up. "Twice."

"What?" Harry tried to think of what she could possibly be considering as a favour, and he realised that almost none of his acts would be seen as favours to the students in the castle, regardless of whether they actually were. Maybe Neville had a point after all. "Twice? No way."

As they stepped outside, Ginny shuddered briefly and drew her scarf more firmly around her neck. "Harry, it's freezing out here. Where are we going?"

"That way," Harry offered with a negligent wave toward the depths of the night as he closed the door with his other hand. Since the new moon was only two days prior, pitch-black was an appropriate description away from the torches outside the castle, given the usual highland cloud cover blocking the Milky Way or any false dawn radiance. "Now what do you mean, 'twice'?"

Ginny's sigh easily carried over the slight wind. "Twice, Harry, as in, two times have I seen you do something as a favour. You tried to help Ron with his arachnophobia."

Harry almost stopped in surprise but managed to catch himself and keep pace as they headed down the path toward the lake. It was a surprising connection to him, for he doubted any rational person would use that incident as an example of a favour. He certainly did not think of it as a favour, and it was unlikely Ron did either. "Do you think Ron considers that a favour?"

"It's not the results in this case, Harry, it's the intention."

Harry had to laugh at that logic, even if the event was somewhat in the direction of a favour – with that qualifier. "D'you know the meaning of the word 'sophistry' by any chance?"

Ginny's own chuckle came back to him. "Yes, and it doesn't apply. The second time, well, you helped me . . . rest . . . last week."

Harry thought about her second choice as they reached the lake. In the dark, he was unable to make out her face to guess at her mood, but he interpreted the hesitation and softness of her words as a continuing sign that she was still uncomfortable with the recent developments in her life. As they reached the edge of the lake, he almost immediately guided her to a tangential path that led up into the hills around the castle. Having previously left small disillusioned pebbles on the path which practically glowed in his aura vision, he knew he could guide them both to their destination without light, and the spells would fade in another day or two.

When the incline began to pitch a bit sharper, and the path began weaving toward the side of the first small mountain, Harry cast a faint Lumos Charm to ensure they would not stumble on the walk. With the increased effort required to go up and around the hill, Harry decided to return to the banter. The mission of the morning was to provide a distraction, after all, and not to dwell on reality. Loading as much humour as he could into his tone, he asked, "Are you sure that was a favour?"

Ginny's breathing was showing the effect of walking briskly uphill, but she still managed to laugh after a moment. "Why? Worried about people looking at you as though you might have a heart after all?"

"Who said such a foul thing?"

Ginny's chuckle said as much as her words. "I did."

"I'm wounded," Harry moaned. Really, Harry thought, it was one thing to divert someone from their troubles, but to be accused of such things was uncalled for. He felt his entire image of indifference was at stake. "You should have realised I don't have one. I have a lump of tar."

"Funny boy, Potter."

Harry could almost hear her smile, which was the point of it all. "I just call it like it is, Weasley."

They continued on in silence, side by side, as Harry kept up the walking tempo. Normally, he would have met her a bit before breakfast to do some light training and discussion of magic, but today was starting much earlier. He could have taken a shortcut and flown them to their destination, but the walk of some thirty minutes would wake them up fully and get their bodies warm. They would need both aspects, too.

"While we're being candid, then," Ginny's voice interrupted his musings, "I've wanted to ask you a few questions for a while. It never seems like the right time, though, so I'm just going to ask as I'm pretty sure we're alone out here."

"All right," Harry agreed as they started back down, edging around the back of the small mountain they had just skirted. "Fire away then."

The length of the pause before she spoke again was odd until her words registered. "How do you live with the things you've done?"

Harry kept his eyes on the path in front of them and avoided looking over at her. Surely she was not asking what he thought she was. "Errr… Given the lack of context, d'you mind elaborating?"

"Harry," she offered very slowly, "you've really caused a lot of pain to people. And you've, well . . ." The silence stretched out before she finished in a rush, "you've killed people. How are you . . . not bothered by that?"

She was asking what he feared she was. Harry briefly recalled a very similar conversation in reverse, when he was asking Master Gata whether the man had ever taken another person's life. It had felt different, though, because Harry had killed someone – his own adoptive mother – before that conversation took place. At the time, he had been struggling to face the fear that he would hurt someone like that again. Learning martial arts had proven to be a boon in many respects, but his initial qualms and the long discussions with Master Gata had helped him find his own sense of understanding with respect to bushido. It was clearly not for everyone, but for those that either chose to be a warrior or were forced into it, he could not see any other way to keep your sanity than to find that balance with something beyond the ordinary. Of course, that ignored the open questions of his personal sanity and stability.

In this, however, the tables were turned in one sense – she was asking him about the taking of life without having done so herself, as far as he knew – and yet, he did not know the why of her question. Was part of her problem with the Malfoy family rooted in violence already past? Or was it the future she was struggling to come to terms with? Or was it simply morbid curiosity, a desire to know what it was like to feel someone die? He might be able to find a way to discuss it if it was one of the first two, but any other pretext would be . . . wrong, somehow, or demeaning.

"Look, Ginny," Harry finally offered, "I like you well enough . . . but that's a very personal question. You know that."

"Yeah," her voice was faint, as though she had drawn in on herself. "I know. And I don't like asking, but . . . that's partly why I haven't asked before."

Her answer provided no hints as to her motivations, but her understanding the vague inappropriateness of the query suggested it was more than just idle curiosity at work. Perhaps, he thought, the best answer was to counter with an obvious target. "D'you think I enjoy doing . . . those things?"

"I really don't know, Harry."

They trudged on in silence, and he found himself annoyed with her. She was asking an intensely personal question, while she continued to hold herself aloof from explaining her own issues. She was asking for more than he was already giving without any semblance of exchange.

Before his irritation could grow into a sharp retort, her voice gave him pause. "That's why I'm asking, Harry. It doesn't appear to bother you. But no, I don't think you enjoy it. Yet at the same time, you do like practicing it . . . teaching it . . . so it leaves me . . . wondering."

There was some level of logic there. Harry could admit that much, even though he thought it was rather tenuous. It felt like she was being honest, or as honest as she could be. "Do you think I started any of this? The fighting, the killing?"

"No, of course not." Her tone was firm and decisive, the words almost sharp. "But you don't walk away from it, either."

Harry guided them onto a connecting trail, this one much more narrow and less even. It would take them further from Hogwarts and wind around the base of a second small mountain, removing them from the ability to even see a glimmer from the castle's torches. His low-powered light spell was the only thing illuminating the area before them as they walked.

As the ground began sloping up again, Harry felt he might have found the right type of answer. "Sometimes, Ginny, you aren't given a choice to walk away."

Ginny exhaled sharply, and he turned enough to see her tossing her head from side to side. "It's just . . ." Her hands waved about for a moment before she jammed them into her trouser pockets. She looked over at him and seemed surprised that he was watching her. Meeting his gaze, she almost challenged him with her words. "Harry, your lack of reaction to what's been done here, at the castle . . . it says you've . . . done that before."

"Done what?" Harry held her gaze, accepting the challenge, and came to a stop. He would ignore the path they were on for the moment, as well as where they were headed. "Killed people?"

She flinched slightly and then nodded. "Yes."

"I have."

She continued to hold his gaze for a long moment, and then she looked down. When she failed to say anything else after a bit, Harry gestured toward the path and resumed walking. She fell in beside him, and he was puzzled about her reaction. Or rather, he was puzzled by her lack of reaction. He was also annoyed with himself for wanting her to have an immediate, clear response. His conversation years before with Master Gata had been drawn out over weeks, and that was after they had been training together for almost a year. How much harder would it be for her to come to grips with the same ideas, given how very different their experiences were? What difference did it make to him whether she understood his actions or not? Harry was unsettled all around, but that could be expected from the topic of discussion before you tossed in the reactions of third parties.

"How do you stand it?" Ginny was speaking quietly again, her voice drained of life. "How does it not bother you?"

"I never said it didn't." He knew his own response was a bit harsh, a little too strong in tone and brusque in enunciation. But he honestly was confused as to whether he was annoyed with her or himself in the greater measure.

"These things you're trying to teach me . . . you know they work." Her words had the ring of conviction, not accusation. That was something, at least, though he was unsure what. "You've used them for it."

"I've used some of them in life-or-death situations, yes. I haven't necessarily used them for what you're thinking of, you know." He probably should have expected this conversation to come up at some point, but hindsight was ever better than foresight. Harry hoped she could see the difference in the two ideas – using techniques to kill, or using them because it was kill-or-be-killed, though it had not always been his life in the most immediate danger.

"And you're even calm talking about this! Look at me!" Harry did glance at her in the weak reflected light from his wand. "I'm shaking just thinking about it." He thought she looked about as pale as normal and could not see a literal palsy, but he understood the statement was intended far more emotionally than literally.

"Ginny . . ." Harry let the words and ideas drift away, trying to find his own natural centre and balance. He let the effort of walking carry the preconceived ideas away, so he could just focus on what she was asking and not worry about what it might mean in the broader context. Did she expect to have to use these techniques to such an end? Was she morbidly curious how to live with the results of violent self-defence? Or was there something else he had yet to discover underlying everything? Once he thought he was calm enough, he made no effort to sculpt or censor and only tried to speak honestly and directly. "I don't know what to tell you. I could answer your question, but . . . it wouldn't make any sense. It would just be . . . empty words. I have regrets – more than you could ever imagine, I have regrets. I've hurt people I love, and I've hurt people I hate. But . . . until you've walked in my shoes . . . you won't truly understand an answer that only words convey."

Maybe she would be annoyed with him for dodging the answer or equivocating behind a perceived excuse, but he really had no idea how to fairly answer the question she was really trying to ask. Until she deeply, profoundly hurt someone else, words would only be an illusion, a sugar coating on reality. If she decided to think him mealy-mouthed because of that, he would accept it and try not to let it bother him.

Her eventual words were blunt yet soft. "I don't want to walk in your shoes."

Harry could not help but chuckle with dark humour at the idea. "I fervently hope you never have to." Taking a deep breath, Harry plunged on, feeling obligated to repeat his prior offer. "Look, if being around me is going to make you this miserable, we'll stop. I told you before, I'll find a way to get you out of this mess if you want to. You don't have to train; you don't have to learn these things. You don't have to be around me."

"That won't work. You and I both know it, Harry. For better or worse, I have to do this."

Her statement brought his mind to a halt, wondering at the word choice. They both knew she had to train? Not strictly true, nor entirely false. She clearly had her own thoughts on the topic, and as already established, she would not be sharing them anytime soon. He doubted, however, that she understood his views fully, if at all. Then again, she had displayed a certain level of acumen regarding people in general, let alone his own mental state, so perhaps she did understand some of his reasons for agreeing to train her in the first place.

With a sigh, Harry nodded slightly. "To be honest, that is one of my regrets. That is, it didn't start out with you having to do any of this, but it does seem to be necessary now."

"You can stop pretending, Harry," Ginny said after the silence had settled again. It was clear she was feeling more open, more playful, to some degree. "You care more than you'll admit."

"Them's fighting words, Weasley."

She really did laugh that time, her voice clear of worry. "You're going to beat me up anyway, Potter. Might as well get in what wounds I can."

"If that's the best you can do, I need to make your lessons longer."

"Ugh," she whined. "Me and my big mouth."

Harry chuckled a bit at her admission. It was rather late to be realising as much, but wisdom learned should always be appreciated. "Big? Not really. Mouthy? Seems like a Weasley trait."

They were finally getting close to their destination, having wound around the base of the second mountain. Harry kept the pace brisk, though, as they still needed to walk down into the small bowl-shaped valley that was surrounded by the hills. The grey light of a true dawn was just becoming strong enough to make out shapes, so they should arrive at their destination at exactly the right moment.

"You're not really going to make me train more than I am, are you?" Ginny sounded wistful, hopeful even, though her tone made it clear she was unwilling to bet on his response.

Harry let her stew in silence for a bit before answering. "Maybe I will. Maybe I won't. Depends on how good you are, really."

Harry did his best not to laugh at her 'muttered' threats, clearly just audible enough for him to hear them but soft enough that she could deny the intent of it. Perhaps he ought to deliberately twist her tail a bit less, but the problem was he found it too tempting to wind her up rather than simply sit back and let things be. Her entire personality woke up a bit more when there was something vexing at hand – a challenge, a contest, something that pushed her outside of the everyday boundaries other people accepted. At first, he had pushed her just to see what she would do. Now, he simply liked pushing her. Of course, he was also honest enough with himself to realise that pushing someone's buttons was not a particularly healthy activity to engage in, more so with a last name such as Weasley. His thoughts came to an end, however, when they reached the bottom of the valley floor.

"We're here," he announced while putting away his wand. The dawn was bright enough to make it no longer completely necessary.

Ginny glanced around and then frowned at him. "Harry, it's barely twilight, and we just climbed around two small mountains. Where are we?"

"Look around," Harry offered with a shrug. "What do you see?"


He had to smirk at her tart manner. "Anything else?"

"No. Is this some kind of trick question?"

"Excellent," Harry replied as he dug around in his trouser pocket. Finding the over-sized coin, he pulled it out and let it rest in his left palm. Then he drew his wand out again. "Ever heard the phrase 'out of sight, out of mind'?"

"Yeeeesss . . . "

"That's what we're doing. No castles, no students, no reminders. Just us, and as it so happens . . ." Harry tapped the false coin with his wand, and it materialised into a rather large, thin, round box. "As it so happens, we also have two Firebolts."

"What?!" Ginny's eyes shot wide, and her eyebrows rocketed into her hairline. "Firebolts?!"

Harry opened the dimensional box and extracted two full-sized Firebolts – his own and Sirius' – and then set the box on the ground. Holding out his own broom for Ginny, Harry shot her the wolf-grin. "Care to go for a fly?"

Before Harry could blink, the broom was ripped from his hand and Ginny was a fading image on his retina. Glancing up, he saw her shooting into the sky at what appeared to be full acceleration. While the sky had enough light to make out shapes and avoid collisions, it was insufficient for him to see her face clearly. When he heard her let out a whoop of glee, he was content to stand there and let her have the sky to herself for a while. Sirius' prodding to provide a distraction, coupled with Ron's input, was apparently a very successful combination if her shouts and laughs were any metric to go by.

After some time watching her fly, Harry put Sirius' broom away and conjured a chair to sit on. They had almost an hour to burn before they would need to head back, and he still had the backup Plan B shrunken in his pocket – an extravagant variety pack of Honeyduke's Most Popular. If Ron was as accurate on the chocolate issue as he was about flying – especially as Ginny went screaming over his head, close enough that he was buffeted by the forced airstream of her passage – then he was sure that this morning would count as a good distraction and not a therapy-inducing one.

When Ginny went streaking by again with another shout of glee, Harry decided that he might as well get comfortable. He put the box of sweets on the ground, then expanded it to full size – all things considered, he might be forced to distract her with chocolate before she would willingly return to the castle. Then he expanded the chair, making it more comfortable and with a high back so he could rest while keeping a loose eye out on the surroundings. While he felt the area was safe, there was no reason to tempt his fickle fate with a free shot.

"That's three, Harry."

"What?" Harry had no idea what she was talking about, struggling back into consciousness. He had apparently drifted off sometime while she was doing aerobatics, and as he opened his eyes, she was squatting by his side, calmly eating a bar of chocolate. He was annoyed with himself for falling asleep in an open location, but his sluggish brain was telling him the end result was all right regardless. Her grin was almost intimidating, the way it reshaped her entire face with a possessive glee.

"Three times you've done a favour. And for the record, if this is your idea of a date – flying and chocolate – I'll take back my earlier comments. I'll do this with you anytime you want."

"Oh, is that how it is?" Harry asked, his brain functioning at last. He loaded in the sarcasm for his response. "A pretty face, a fast broom, and some congealed sugar-cocoa mixture are all it takes to win your heart?"

"Harry, Harry, Harry . . . I don't see a pretty face around here."

Harry groaned theatrically for a moment. "I walked into that one, didn't I?"

She just smiled at him before taking another bite of her chocolate bar. "Maybe," she said after clearly relishing the morsel, "you ought not to try trading insults when you're so sleepy."

"Yeah, maybe," Harry said around a yawn. "Then again, given that you're on the Quidditch team, maybe I should have expected you to go crazy over the broom."

Ginny laughed, and Harry paused to consider the girl in front of him. Her eyes were shining, and her grin was still one shy step from disturbing. Yet there was a sense of life and presence in her that he had never seen before. It was more than when she had been harassing him during his first public days in the castle, and it made her radiant. If what he was seeing was what her brothers had complained about missing, he could understand their perspective more clearly.

"If I thought there was any way I could pinch this from you, Harry, I would," she agreed openly. "As it is, I'll just have to pester you frequently to find out when you can borrow the Firebolt from the owner again. This was fantastic. Thank you."

Harry shrugged, feeling slightly uncomfortable at her effusive pleasure. It had not been his idea in the first place to drag her out for a distraction, nor for the flying or chocolates. "Actually," he offered after thinking about it briefly, "that one is mine. You can borrow it when you like, considering they're verboten inside the castle now. This one has to go back, though."

"What?! I thought you had a Nimbus!"

"Nah," Harry said with a vague wave. "I usually keep it under a glamour to make it look like a decent broom but nothing fantastic. You're seeing it without the charms for the first time."

"Really?" Ginny's eyebrows shot up even further. "And you'd let me just nick your broom like that?"

Harry shrugged half-heartedly. "I can always find some other way to fly, you know," he said. "Worst-case, I'll just use your old broom. I'm not on the team. But you're a natural, Ginny, and I trust you with my broom."

"Thanks, Harry," she said with her smile growing less feral and more open at the same time. "All the same, I wouldn't feel right about it."

"That's up to you, I suppose. I'm just telling you I'm all right with it if you want to – games, stress relief, boredom, whatever."

In what appeared to be an impulsive move, Ginny's hand shot out and squeezed his own for a moment. She stopped there and looked down at his hand, before looking up and holding his gaze. "You're not angry right now, are you?"

Harry had to stop and think about it, given how out-of-the-blue the query was. "No, I suppose not," he admitted. "Then, I don't really think I am normally, either."

Ginny smiled again, though it was much smaller than the prior ones. She took her hand back and then stood up. "All the same, I'll think about the broom issue. I really do appreciate this morning, Harry."

Harry shrugged and stood up himself, dispelling the chair with a silent Finite! before stretching out his frozen muscles and joints. "I'm hungry, and it's time for breakfast. Shall we?"

"What about the chocolate? You're not seriously going to leave it here, are you?"

"Well," Harry said in a playful frown, "I don't want to bother with carrying it around, so I'd thought the birds might like to try it. I suppose you could just keep the box for me, unless you don't want to monkey with it either?"

He was still in mid-sentence when she pounced on the box, shrank it down, and scooped it into her pocket. She gave him a bright, cheery smile, and asked, "What box?"

Laughing, Harry simply shrugged and pointed in the direction of the castle. "Breakfast?" Without waiting for a reply, Harry leapt onto Sirius' broom and shot toward the low valley pass between the hills. He was certain he could fly low, around the hills, faster than he could fly over the tops of them. Just as the broom really picked up the speed and the wind pressure became rather intense, he heard a whoop and Ginny shot past him. She was crouched down low over the broom, her red hair streaming behind her with the plait barely holding form. From then on she easily led the way back to the castle. By the time he hopped off his broom, she was leaning against the doors, inspecting her fingernails.

"A bit slow today, aren't you, Potter?"

"Yeah, yeah," Harry muttered. "Have pity on a bloke that flies brooms but rarely, would you?"

"Pity? You? Ha!" Her short bark of laughter was followed by a mimicry of his own string of commentary when he was pushing her to train harder. She had the tone about right, but her voice would never match his. Her mini-tirade was cut short, though, when the castle doors opened.

"Good morning Miss Weasley, Mr Potter," Albus Dumbledore said as he joined them by moving onto the front steps. "I rather thought I might find you out here at this hour."

Ginny seemed a bit embarrassed and uncertain at being caught outside before breakfast by the headmaster, but Harry merely snorted slightly. The headmaster had known exactly where they were all along, for Harry had left a 'note' with Rocky the previous night regarding his intentions and plans for the morning. He was unsure that taking Ginny out of the castle required it but thought it prudent to at least try to build a higher trust level between the man and himself.

"If you don't mind, Miss Weasley, I'd like to speak to Mr Potter for a moment. I do believe the elves have already laid out breakfast if you're hungry. I promise not to keep him more than a few minutes."

Ginny nodded quickly, clearly recognising the 'request' for what it was, and held up Harry's broom in silent query. Harry shook his head and waved her on, to which he received an echo of her possessive grin before she scurried inside. Harry all but jumped out of his skin when the crack! of Apparition occurred next to him. Within a heartbeat, Cyril was half-kneeling on the ground, a glowing shield having barely deflected Harry's Stunner into the grass. The large burned area was mute testimony to how Harry reacted to unanticipated dangerous settings.

"Hmm, yes, I believe that is something I warned him about," Dumbledore said quietly. "He was certain he could stop you before you could get your first spell off."

"Does everyone bet on my life around here?" Harry asked with some annoyance, putting his wand away as Cyril stood up slowly. "It seems like everything I do is subject to speculation and the laying of odds."

"It passes the time, Harry," Albus quipped. Harry did a double-take, surprised at the blatant humour coming from the man, and stopped staring only when Cyril coughed a couple of times.

"You've been idle for some time now, Harry," Cyril said with far more calm than Harry's instant adrenaline high would agree with. "I wanted to test your reflexes. I'm glad that was a spell to disable, not kill."

While Harry wanted to snap and snarl at his Mentor, instead he exhaled slowly and tried to study the two people in front of him. Dumbledore appeared older in some ineffable way, much as he had since the Gaunt House event. While at present there was a twinkle to his eyes and his humour seemed intact, there was a faint sensation of façade and deliberate presentation rather than genuine feeling. Cyril, too, appeared nothing so much as exhausted to the limits of endurance. Harry knew from his last discussion with Dumbledore that both had been spending their free time trying to prepare for the inevitable conflict coming; seeing the first-hand evidence of the cost on such powerful and experienced wizards was humbling. Harry spent his own time annoying others, cleaning the castle, and trying to work through concepts that Dumbledore somehow managed to find the time to explain.

"All right," Harry agreed with as neutral a tone as he could manage under the combination of fight response and mental recognition of reality. "Assuming I passed the test, may I inquire as to what brings the two of you to track me down this morning?"

"Let's walk," Cyril said, by way of answer, and began walking toward the Quidditch pitch.

Harry fell in step with his Mentor, and Dumbledore joined them on Harry's other side. Under other conditions, Harry would be concerned for the development of being stuck between the two, but given their clear fatigue, he was not overly concerned.

Dumbledore waved his wand about briefly before stowing it in his sleeve. "We may now talk freely. Harry, Cyril and I have come across some information, but the source of the information presents a problem. We wish to discuss the issue with you."

"I get the immediate impression I'm really not going to like this," Harry observed while raising his eyes to the sky. It held the promise of being a gloriously boring, grey day, and that was undoubtedly going to be more comfort than what he heard next.

"What is your root problem with Severus Snape?" Cyril asked point blank.

"Other than the fact the man's an abusive prick?" Harry asked, keeping his eyes on the sky. He would not let his emotions come out uncontrolled on this topic. "Other than he ignores proper behaviour, such as when he rapes the minds of children? How about how he encourages wanton brutality among 'his' Slytherins? The fact that he can't teach? That he tries to spy on every conversation, regardless of a lack of invitation?"

"Harry," Dumbledore said slowly, "let us be honest here. You have almost no direct experience with Severus, so at best, many of these things you state are hearsay."

Harry laughed without mirth. "Right. Tell me, Headmaster, since you keep tabs on me so closely, how is it that I've managed to get round this castle so easily? At least one person has noticed it without your extra tools for insight."

They continued on in silence for some distance before Cyril broke the slight tension. "You're saying you've spent time inside Hogwarts before this academic year began, obviously. That no one knew shows several things, but the most important is that others could do the same."

"Indeed," Dumbledore pointed out. "I have never tried to ward the castle from outsiders, for it seemed pointless. It is almost impossible to seal the campus while retaining any function as a school. Be that as it may, Harry, you did not answer the question."

Harry aimed for a tone best suited for a casual chat about the weather. "Oh?"

"I am sure those reasons seem to justify your attitude in some degree, Harry," Dumbledore offered. "I have already conceded to not paying close enough attention to the problem with the students. However, based on how you treat others, I would expect you to treat Severus with contempt or to challenge him over his acts were this all that was at stake. Instead, you seemed to almost hate him from the instant you met and, even now, clearly wish him harm."

Harry knew he was not going to get out of answering their question on some tangible level, efforts at misdirection aside. With a sigh, he brought his eyes back to the horizon and decided to turn the tables on the inquisitors. It would be easier than dwelling on why he felt what he did. "Headmaster, you previously said you trust Snape completely. Will you still state the same?"

That a moment of hesitation was extant said everything as far as Harry was concerned, regardless of what words came. "I still trust him, yes," Dumbledore stated. "I admit to more caution in looking for alternate explanations for his information, however, and try to be sure I have as complete a picture as I may."

"That's another way of saying 'no', I believe," Harry offered without pleasure. The breaking of trust was never a pleasant topic for him, but why the headmaster had any lingering feelings for such with Snape was beyond him.

"In the strictest sense, I will accept that," Dumbledore said. They were entering the empty Quidditch pitch, and the three of them began to walk toward the centre of the field.

"Did Snape ever justify the issue with his Dark Mark?" Harry asked, switching the line of reasoning. He needed to be sure the inconsistencies were fully evident so that even a casual observer would have to sit up and pay attention. "That he failed to disclose its change to you?"

"Yes," Dumbledore replied immediately. "I had a long conversation with him regarding that topic, and I am satisfied with his answers. You are still not answering my question, however."

"Please follow along for a moment, I'll get there in the end." Harry waited until both Cyril and Dumbledore nodded their acquiescence to the request. "Next question. Do you both know the specifics of the Rite of Rebirth as well as the Golem Ritual?"

Cyril's "no" was spoken at the same time as Dumbledore's "yes," which caused the two older men to exchange surprised looks before they both turned to Harry. "I would like to know how you know, Harry," Cyril said sharply. "I know only the general history and should think that particular knowledge would be better left lost."

"Nicolas found a text," Dumbledore answered before Harry could. "He sent me a summary of the rituals, with the requirements laid out. He asked that I keep my eyes open for indicators of . . . movement, shall we say, that either was being planned or executed."

"And he shared this text with you, Harry? Or just the summary?" Cyril's question made it clear that no deviation from strict truth would be tolerated.

"I have the text in my library, actually," Harry replied. "I've had it for years." Both men stared at Harry, surprise and more evident on their faces. Harry waved them off before they could digress into a rat-hole of debate. "It's safely secured. But that's not the point. Since you're aware of the details, Headmaster, I have one very specific question for you. Would you please name all the people who have the skill, the history, and the connections to make either of the potion bases required? It takes months of preparation, specialised ingredients, and a certain gift for potions. I wouldn't even be willing to risk an attempt due to what would happen if it wasn't handled properly at all times."

No one spoke again, even when their little group reached the centre of the pitch and stood in a loose circle facing each other. Cyril was watching Dumbledore very closely, and Harry wondered at what the man was doing. Harry had all but spelled out what Wormtail muttered before Riddle's reincarnation ritual began, but it was up to the headmaster to admit that the answer that was self-evident.

"I see two problems," Dumbledore said finally. "First, it is clear that Tom did not use either of those rituals for his reincarnation. Second, there are people outside of Britain that have the skill and would be willing to make anything for the right price."

"Everyone has a price," Harry agreed readily, "especially people like Snape. You know what Ockham's Razor indicates just as well as I do, though I have one extra bit of information. Wormtail was whinging about Snape leaving him to finish the potion by himself, which makes it clear that Snape made the potion for Riddle. While I wouldn't normally trust his word, at the time I was recovering from the Cruciatus. He expected me to be dead within moments, so he had no real reason to shield the truth." Harry tried to focus on his breathing and not remember the day or events at hand. It was still raw in many respects, and he could feel his pulse quicken slightly as he battled for control over his anger.

"He identified Severus by name? That was not in the memory you shared with me."

"It was before the ritual was used. If you want to see that, I'll provide the memory." Harry turned again to look at the sky and tried to think about flying. Chasing Hedwig around, or zipping about on a broomstick solo, both were good thoughts and far from the events of the recent summer. "But yes, he said Severus by name, unless you know of another with the same name, inclinations, prior history, and sufficient skill."

"I see." Dumbledore turned his gaze toward the stands and absently stroked his beard while staring into space. Cyril faced Harry and raised one eyebrow. Harry thought he was asking if his personal certainty was sufficient to warrant a removal of doubt, to which Harry simply nodded his acceptance. He was still focusing on clouds and the feeling of the wind on his body when the headmaster's voice interrupted him. "What about the ritual used?"

"When we first analysed those rituals, Nicolas and Remus both agreed that they were formulaic patterns of existing magics. Anyone sufficiently skilled could modify them or even substitute other magic to the templates," Harry offered, trying to keep the memories that were crowding closer at bay. He did not want to think about those times now; he wanted to remain calm and rational. "At the time, it made no sense to me. Today, I can see what they were saying, but I wouldn't dream of trying to make any changes. It's far beyond my level."

"Yes," Dumbledore said faintly. "I can imagine as much, though I daresay it would be clearer if I were to read the material in question. He was able to do the rebirth but borrowed from the golem pattern to skip the period of maturation. He was reborn an adult."

"That's what we understand happened, yes," Harry said. Clouds, brooms, birds, flying through the rain. Memories of happier discoveries and adventure, they were a buffer from the raw feelings the conversation was raising. "And given that Snape was instrumental in all of that, just how d'you think I'll feel about the bastard? Or how much trust I'll extend to him? I can't blame him for what happened to Nicolas in full, but if he'd been working for you in truth, you'd have known all of this, and we never would've fallen into that trap."

"You must admit, the evidence is circumstantial at this point," Dumbledore said most cautiously.

Harry had to applaud the man internally for his care, as it had to be apparent that the topic of Severus Snape around Harry Potter would always be one of a minefield. "Let me be clear, then, and answer your original question. If you weren't adamant that he has value, I'd just as soon see him dead. Should I ever get real proof he was involved beyond the mutterings of a coward, trust me, you'll never see or hear from him again, his supposed value not withstanding. And that does follow part of my instructions from Vencil, for the record."

"Thank you for making it clear, Harry," Cyril said. "Why don't you get some breakfast now, while we re-evaluate things."

Recognising the command for what it was, Harry was all too happy to leave the duo behind. They could argue back and forth until they were blue in the face, but as far as Harry was concerned, Snape's value in life had expired years ago. It was only a matter of time before Snape made a mistake and let slip evidence, at which point Harry and his allies would conduct their standard sweep and collect everything there was to be collected. Not even a mouse would be left behind.

The walk back to the castle was time for him to sink into the meditation on his breathing, letting the calm back in and pushing the anger down. Life had nothing to do with fairness, and he would not expect anything from it he could not secure with his own hands. His future, his family's future, was within his hands to shape and focus. He had to keep control as he could afford no more mistakes. Too many people died when he made mistakes.

Walking into the Great Hall, he saw Ginny sitting by herself at the farthest end of the Gryffindor table from where he was standing. Exhaling to keep his rhythm of calm, Harry headed down the aisle to sit across from her. He paused briefly, however, when he saw Hermione frowning at him.

"I hear congratulations are in order, Hermione," he said as pleasantly as he could manage. "You made a breakthrough with your understanding of magic."

She said nothing for a moment before giving him a curt nod.

"For what it's worth," Harry began, careful to enunciate each word, "I'm sorry for the chaos the other night."

"Pride, Harry Potter, goes before the fall."

Her gaze told him clearly that he was not forgiven for past acts, let alone the damage from the Transfiguration experiment, so he did the only thing he could: he nodded his acceptance and moved on. When he reached the last seat, he sank into it and gave a wry smile to Ginny.

"It's a start, Harry," was all she said as she continued to butter her toast.

oOo oOo

Tue, 26 Sep 1995

There was a sensation just there, on the edge of consciousness, as Harry woke abruptly. It was altogether unpleasant in form and function, and he raised one hand to wearily scratch at the back of an ear. Trying to grasp exactly why he was awake before his alarm, he faintly understood that scratching his ear had been a form of intense relief. But that only made him more cognizant of the intense sensation of ancillary itches about his body and how raw he felt everywhere, as though he had been furiously scratching in his sleep. Within moments, he was frantically scratching all over, luxuriating in the fierce pleasure and wondering how anyone could become so itchy so quickly.

That trailing thought brought his mental gears into play, and he realised he had been had. Something was definitely abnormal about the situation. He knew he had crawled into bed early, just after nine with the common room still packed full of people, and a quick glance at Dean's phosphorescent analogue clock hands showed him he had been asleep not even twenty minutes. Throwing off his blankets, Harry rose and studied the bed closely, fighting the urge to scratch himself bloody. He could find nothing out of the ordinary, for there was not a trace of magic on the bed anywhere other than the ambient environment.

Doing his best to minimise wiggling and scratching himself raw, since he clearly could not stop, Harry drew a wand and illuminated the surface of the sheets. Looking as closely as he could, he saw faint silvery hairs bunched in spots where he had obviously moved about while sleeping – or scratching. His bed was coated in them, and since he had fallen asleep in just boxers and pyjama bottoms, it was no wonder he was scratching like mad.

The twins had clearly changed tactics, and moved from magical to Muggle delivery methods. Annoyed at having been caught out, Harry pulled one of his wands from under the pillow and used Scourgify vigorously over his body, the sheets, and everything else he could see. Thankful for the incessant feeling of itchy-itchy-itchy to finally begin abating, Harry tried to decide on a course of action. Payback, of course, was essential. The question remained as to how he could verify the twins were the actual culprits.

They tended not to be overly subtle with their eyes when they were up to something, so the best bet would be to return to the common room and pay attention to who was watching him more than usual. It was almost certain the twins would be behind it, but there was a slight chance that Ginny – feeling a bit more normal since The Distraction – had staged a bit of her payback plans.

Swapping his pyjamas for some clean clothing, Harry rapidly descended the stairs to begin an effort at watching the watchers.

Or rather, until he reached the last step, at which point he tripped over something and shot his hands out to catch himself. In the process of his hands hitting the ground, he felt something give way underneath his palms, and he was promptly doused in a thick, sticky substance. As he looked up toward a common room full of people watching him with open grins and money coming out of pockets, a cloud of white material that smelled – and tasted – like flour followed the sticky soup he had previously been doused with.

"All right there, Harry?" George asked around his laughter.

"Looking like you've seen a ghost, old chap!" Fred called while taking money from several people.

Somehow, Harry knew that Hermione was behind the switch to Muggle tactics. He just needed to prove it. But her triumphant grin was sufficient evidence for now. The stakes had been raised.


The description of what Death Eaters did to pregnant Muggle women is not mine to claim as fully original. It is very close to what actually happened to at least some of the forced "comfort women" who became pregnant during the Japanese occupation of China (and other areas). Rather horrific, isn't it?

Thanks as always to the beta team . . .