Chapter 45

You'll Never Be Normal

Harry insisted that he buy Hermione a birthday present, despite Hermione's protests that this day already won the prize of best birthday ever. Her boyfriend, however, had a gift in mind.

"Why are we coming here?" Hermione asked, as Harry happily dragged his girlfriend towards a formal dress store, "I don't need a dress."

"Of course you do," Harry responded, "because of the . . . . Wait a minute, I have to ask you first, don't I?" Hermione's eyes betrayed her confusion. Harry cleared his throat. "Hermione, would you like to go to the Halloween Ball with me?"

The shocked witch laughed, "Of course I do, Harry."

"Great! That means you need a gown. Let's go."

Hermione's resistence finally evaporated, and she enthusiastically entered the store, taking a good hour before deciding on a colorful blue and red gown. Perhaps austere colors would have been more appropriate for a formal ball, but the bright colors matched her mood. The quick kisses between the rows of dresses did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm.

Hunger may have been delayed by the morning activities, but by two in the afternoon, the pair made their way to The Three Broomsticks for a late lunch. Hermione placed her Daily Prophet on the table while they ate. She had not had an opportunity to read it at breakfast and placed it in the pocket of her robe for later. Harry glanced at a headline upside-down, and then turned the paper towards him to make sure he read it correctly.

HOUSE ELF LAW FACING DEFEAT

The two read the article quietly, moving their chairs next to each other, their fingers intertwined under the table. Hermione could sense the anger rising inside of the young wizard. Remus Lupin's proposed revision to the law regulating house elves faced opposition in the Wizengamot and appeared destined to result in embarrassing defeat for the werewolf. According to the article, the law would add protections for house elves, including the right to demand freedom under certain circumstances and sanctions against mistreatment of the creatures. Members of the Wizengamot argued that no reason to revise existing law existed now that their world had returned to normal. Instead a public relations campaign could be initiated encouraging the humane treatment of house elves. Hermione could almost see steam escape from Harry's ears as his jaw tightened.

"I can't believe this!" he finally muttered, squeezing the blood out of Hermione's hand, "How can they do that? A public relations campaign! Who do they think they're fooling?"

"They're not fooling anyone, Harry," Hermione explained, "It's just politics. It's their way to kill the law without seeming insensitive to house elves. The bottom line is that they don't want the Ministry to have anything to do with how they treat their own slaves." The disdain in her voice matched Harry's anger.

"We have to talk to Remus," Harry decided, and he moved his chair back, intending to leave right away.

"OK, Harry, but we can't go to the Ministry now. We only have a pass for Hogsmeade."

"So what!" Harry, now standing, retorted furiously, "What's McGonagall going to do? Expel me? Give me detention? I don't care. I can't just sit here when . . . Not after everything Dobby has done for me. I owe it him, and to Winky, and Lefty, and to all the elves who fought at Godric's Hollow. We need to talk to Remus!"

"Let's think this through for a minute, Harry. Sit down." Harry paused but reluctantly complied. "If we just show up at the Ministry now, we'll cause a huge scene. Remember Diagon Alley last year? Multiply that by ten. We'll never even come close to finding Remus. Let's send him an owl right now. He'll receive it in an hour or so. We'll tell him to meet us here, before we have to head back to the castle."

Harry's scowl slowly softened into a sheepish smile, and he admitted, "I hate it when you're right." Hermione returned a victorious smile, but a second later it vanished.

"You're right to be upset, Harry. This is outrageous. Let's go and send that owl."

They spent two hours nervously walking hand in hand about the nearly vacant streets of Hogsmeade hoping that Remus would be able to honor their request to meet them by the Shrieking Shack. Harry's shaky emotional state took a severe hit by the Prophet article, and he had rarely felt this jumble of emotions. He still experienced the thrill and relief of his morning session with Hermione, but the failure of the house elf law, of which he knew nothing prior to this day, angered him deeply. Too deeply, he thought, not sure why this affected him so profoundly. Eventually they strolled quietly over to the shack, waiting under a tree where Harry wrapped his arm around his girlfriend.

At the appointed time, they heard the tell-tale crack announcing the arrival of Remus Lupin. Harry and Hermione jumped to their feet, and they saw that Remus appeared by the other end of the structure.

"Over here," called Hermione, and Remus waved. They decided to chat among some trees up the hill from the shack, as Remus preferred not to be seen in Hogsmeade at a time when he should be at the Ministry. The Daily Prophet had not treated him especially kindly, and he learned to take measures to control its access to him.

"I'm sorry to bring you here on such short notice," Harry apologized, "I know you must be terribly busy, but I just couldn't believe what I read about the house elf law. Is it really going to fail?"

"Don't apologize, Harry, seeing you two is the highlight of my day. Of my week, to tell you the truth," Remus responded kindly. Despite the pressures of his job, Harry noticed that the appearance of his father's last living friend had improved since the days before Voldemort's demise. He had a steady income and clearly ate more regularly, having added a few pounds. Some of the lines on his face had vanished, and he seemed to have lost ten years. In the pleasant weather, he slipped off his robe, which Harry noted had been recently purchased and bore little resemblance to Remus' threadbare garments of the past.

"We saw the Prophet article today, Remus," Hermione explained, "and we couldn't believe that the reforms won't pass, after everything that house elves did to defeat Voldemort. Doesn't everyone know what Dobby and the others did?"

"The Wizengamot knows, " Remus responded, "because we have informed them. It's in all of our reports. But the Daily Prophet and other magazines have not followed up on the story, probably on purpose. The old guard just wants it all to fade away quietly. They'll agree to a 'public relations' campaign, which will amount to a couple of advertisements in the Prophet." The werewolf shook his head, clearly disgusted. "I've tried my best, Harry, but I don't have a lot of pull with the Wizengamot, being what I am. We will lose this battle, but we will not give up. We have plans to introduce a similar proposal in the next session."

Harry knew little of the political process, but instinctively he realized the futility of Remus' plan.

"That will never work, Remus. If the law is not passed now, there's no chance that it will be approved later. This is just wrong! I didn't fight Voldemort so that everything could go back to the way it was." Remus gazed with satisfaction at the young man. He had regained his health and vigor, and now he seemed to have recovered his spirit as well.

"You may very well be right, Harry, but this is how the system works. It's messy and the right thing does not always happen. This is the real world, not a fairy tale."

"What if I write a letter to the Prophet supporting the law. Would that do any good? I'm famous and they'd have to listen to me, right?" Harry asked, not willing to let go.

Remus considered the idea for a moment and opined, "The Prophet might not publish it, or if it did, would write that you are young and impressionable and don't understand these things. Remember, Harry, the Prophet has argued against the law since the beginning. It's owner is a conservative pure blood, not a Voldemort supporter, but not in favor of change either." Remus paused, considering whether he should add a concluding thought, unsure of Harry's psychological condition. Finally he added, "The only thing that might help is if you testified before the Wizengamot. That would put tremendous pressure on them, because all of the press would report your appearance, not only the Prophet. You are still a tremendously popular figure, Harry. But I don't want to ask you to do this; I don't know if you are up to it yet."

Harry shivered at the thought of it. Yes, he had improved greatly over the past few weeks, able to stand in front of a Charms class, but surely not to testify before the Wizengamot. A letter would have been easy; Hermione would have helped him, and that would be that. A personal appearance by him would turn into a circus. He had not addressed the press or appeared in public since he woke from his coma, so a first appearance at the Ministry before the Wizengamot would cause a sensation. Which was exactly what they needed to have a chance to pass the house elf law. Harry paced nervously while Hermione and Remus allowed him to ponder the matter.

He turned away from the others and looked out across the lake towards Hogwarts Castle. Three house elves, all of them his slaves, currently worked there. Though he detested one, he loved the other two, especially Dobby. Harry never would have acquired the veritaserum, never would have located Amelda Barlow or Narcissa Malfoy, never would have defeated Voldemort without Dobby's aid. Even more, Dobby organized a small army of house elves in three minutes to save his life and the lives of the Weasleys and Hermione at Godric's Hollow.

"Only I can do something about this," he thought to himself, "Even if it doesn't work, I have to try. Dobby and Winky deserve it." He turned around and faced Remus and Hermione.

"I'll do it. I have to."

A huge grin formed on Hermione's face, and without thinking, she wrapped her arms around Harry and kissed him passionately. Harry happily reciprocated, but he recalled the presence of Remus Lupin and broke off the kiss more quickly than he preferred. The two teens reddened slightly, but did not care that Remus now knew. They had nothing to hide. Remus merely smiled indulgently and decided to remain on topic.

"Are you sure, Harry? You know that your appearance will create quite a commotion. In fact, I'll do everything I can to cause the commotion. The more the better if we want to pass this law."

Harry and Hermione had wrapped their arms around each other, and after Remus' words, they looked into each other's eyes.

"You'll go with me, won't you?" Harry asked in a worried whisper.

"Of course I will, Harry. I be right next to you the whole time." They smiled at each other and then turned back to the government minister.

"We'll do it!"

Much later that night, after spending additional "quality time" with Harry, a buoyant Hermione entered her dormitory. Her roommates instinctively sensed her happiness, and they examined her closely for a few seconds.

"Well?" asked Melissa.

"Well what?" Hermione responded with a sly grin, knowing exactly what the "what" was.

"You know what!" Michele insisted anxiously, "We can tell just by looking at you. How is he?"

Hermione could not repress a huge smile, and she finally admitted, "Harry's a pretty good kisser, but I think he needs lots of continuing instruction."

The squeals could be heard all the way to the common room.

Two days after the meeting with Remus Lupin, a headline splashed across the front page of the Monday Daily Prophet: HARRY POTTER TO TESTIFY BEFORE WIZENGAMOT. Harry ate his breakfast self-consciously, hearing the murmur of students reading the article. Remus previously sent an owl informing Harry of the date of the hearing, in two days time. Many students bore expressions of surprise that Harry Potter would appear before the highest governmental body over, of all things, the subject of house elf rights. Other than those Gryffindors who witnessed Harry's performance in the common room, most students had never given a second thought to house elves.

While finishing their scrambled eggs, Professor McGonagall quietly but sternly whispered between Harry and Hermione, "Please come to my office after you finish your breakfast." The two Gryffindors glanced at each other and nodded their heads.

"Mr. Potter," the headmistress grumbled, "I believe I should have been consulted about your plans." The frown on her face displayed her displeasure as she pointed to the Prophet article. "You need my permission, of course, to leave the grounds. Our agreement of last term no longer applies, as you are well aware."

Harry and Hermione never considered this. They looked at each other silently, neither knowing how to respond. Even if McGonagall denied him permission, Harry would go anyway, regardless of the consequences. Hermione knew this, and her brain busily attempted to formulate a response. Fortunately the headmistress' next words removed that necessity.

"Given the purpose of your absence, however, I believe that my consent will not be withheld." She smiled at her little trick, and her expression turned to one of pride. "What you are planning is most admirable, Harry. Do you feel up to it?" The two students both sighed with relief.

"I think so, Professor. At least I hope so. I will give it my best."

"Of course you will, Harry, and I am going to assist you. Sit! Both of you. Let us think this through."

The headmistress educated the two students on the workings of the Wizengamot, and Professor Dumbledore's portrait added tidbits of information about the sensibilities of various members of that body. After two hours, Harry and Hermione left the office, pleased to have the support of the Hogwarts administration and a better idea of what they faced.

After his last class of the afternoon that day, Harry and Hermione walked quietly towards the Gryffindor common room, where they would part temporarily until dinner as Harry made his way to his rooms. On this day, however, a voice interrupted Harry's normal routine.

"Mr. Potter," asked the high-pitched voice of a young boy, "Mr. Potter, may I speak with you."

Harry turned towards the voice but for a second saw nothing until he lowered his eyes to the short second-year Gryffindor waiting by the common room portrait. Eyeing the boy for a few moments, Harry recognized him.

"You name is David, right?" The boy smiled nervously, pleased that a person such as Harry Potter would know his name.

"Yes, Mr. Potter, David Simons. I was hoping I could talk with you for a minute. . . . If you aren't too busy."

"Sure I can, but first off, my name is Harry. I remember you from last year. You're an excellent flier. We saw you a few times, real natural. A few of us bet that you'd be our seeker some day."

"Thank you, Harry," the boy responded politely, "I love to fly, and that's why I wanted to talk to you. I tried out for the team, and I made it. I'm the new seeker, and I'm terribly nervous about it. I saw the way you flew last year, and I couldn't believe my eyes. So I wondered if maybe you could help me a little. I know I can fly, but I don't know how to be a seeker."

Though twelve years old, the boy had not had his growth spurt and easily could have passed for ten. He reminded Harry of himself a little, messy hair, brown not black, and extremely skinny. Even his face bore a resemblance, except that he wore no glasses. Harry could not help but take a liking to David Simons. He glanced at Hermione, who had listened intently to the conversation, and his girlfriend smiled and motioned with her eyes for Harry to go.

"Meet me by the dressing room in fifteen minutes," Harry instructed the earnest second year, "I'll get my broom."

For an hour, Harry and David flew through the air effortlessly, and Harry found himself even more impressed by his new friend. In fact, David outflew Harry easily for the first ten minutes, given that Harry had not even touched his broom since before Hogwarts closed the previous November. After warming up, however, Harry felt like he had not missed a beat, and he dove, soared, twirled, and rolled, all the while competing with the younger boy to catch the snitch. Most of the time Harry beat David to it, but David grabbed a few and always kept up, even though he had an inferior broom. He flew fearlessly.

The two Gryffindors retired to the dressing room where they downed several glasses of water after their workout, agreeing to more workouts in the future.

"You're already a good seeker, David," Harry encouraged his successor, "There's not a lot I can teach you as far as technique is concerned. I think you could use a better broom. How about I let you use my Firebolt for your practices and games, as long as you promise to take good care of it."

The boy gradually relaxed during their session, and he could not help but smile at Harry's offer, which he quickly accepted.

"What do I need to work on, Harry?"

"Not much. More than anything, catching the snitch is a matter of concentration and desire. When you see that snitch appear, catching it must become the most important thing in your life, like nothing else matters. Afterwards, you can remember that it's just a game, but in the heat of battle, you have to do whatever you have to do."

The younger boy nodded and confidently asserted, "I won't have any problem with that. I'm going to be as great a seeker as you were, and Gryffindor is going to win the Cup again!"

Harry smiled at David's enthusiasm and single-mindedness. A wave of satisfaction passed through him as he realized that the defeat of Voldemort allowed this to happen. David no longer had to worry about dark lords or death eaters; he could concentrate on Quidditch. In a few years he could worry about OWLS and NEWTS and girls. He could be normal. Ginny's sacrifice had not been in vain. David and hundreds of boys and girls like him could lead normal lives again.

"You'll be better than I was," Harry responded, "and I want to see that Cup in the common room."

"Thank you for flying with me, Harry," David said politely, "I didn't think that you would want to." Harry shook his head.

"I know people are a little afraid of me, but there's no need. I've just been through a lot lately. In fact I'm a pretty normal, boring person."

David shook his head vigorously, "You are not normal, Harry. Not after what you've done. You'll never be normal, at least not to all of us younger boys. You are our hero, after killing Voldemort and all."

Something about the young seeker's words hit Harry between the eyes. You'll never be normal. He knew this to be true, but for the first time he understood what it meant. People would always listen to him, always be deferential to him, always look to him to be their leader. Harry had two choices. He could run away from it, or he could accept it.

"I don't run away!" he thought to himself, and stood up to make his way to dinner.

Late in the evening of the day before Harry's appearance at the Ministry, Dobby popped into Harry's sitting room as he did every evening. Purportedly the house elf appeared every evening to clean Harry's living space and to inquire of any needs that the wizard may have. In reality, this routine started so that the two friends could meet and discuss anything on their minds. Dobby easily could clean the small rooms in one minute, given the limited damage that Harry could do to them in a day's time.

On this night, Harry held his throbbing head in his hands while seated on the sofa.

"Good evening, Harry Potter," Dobby announced as usual, "Is Harry Potter ill?"

"No Dobby, I'm fine. I'm just exhausted," Harry explained. All that evening, he met with Remus Lupin, Professor McGonagall, and Hermione in the headmistress' office, reviewing the plans for the testimony. The three acted as interrogators, asking Harry every difficult question that they could anticipate, and if Harry's response seemed lacking, the four together fashioned a more adequate answer. "Tomorrow will be a big day. I had to prepare."

"Harry Potter does not need to talk to Dobby tonight. Harry Potter needs to sleep." Dobby quickly straightened up the room, planning an early exit.

"No, Dobby. I need to speak with you tonight. And with Winky too. Winky!" Harry called, and a second house elf appeared.

"Good evening, Harry Potter," squeaked the tiny elf, "Is there anything that Harry Potter needs?"

"Yes, Winky, I need to speak with the two of you," Harry replied. He intended the ask them to sit, but the sitting room contained no chair suitable for an elf. He figured that they would prefer to stand anyway. "You know that tomorrow I testify before the Wizengamot about the house elf reforms."

"All the house elves know, Harry Potter," exclaimed Dobby proudly, "All the house elves now know that Harry Potter is a great wizard. Only Harry Potter would do something like this for house elves."

"Thank you, Dobby, but I have to tell you something that you may not like," Harry stammered, suddenly extremely nervous. He tried his best to smile, but only managed a grimace. "I never wanted to have a slave, and somehow I ended up with three. Slavery is something I do not believe in, for any reason. These past days, I've had to rethink everything I've ever thought about house elves and slavery, and I've come to a decision."

Winky immediately understood Harry's intention and began to cry.

"Not clothes, Harry Potter! Not clothes! Winky does not want to be free. Winky likes being a slave. Harry Potter is a great master. Please no clothes!"

Harry gulped, his resolve shaken, but he quickly recovered. He HAD to do this.

"I'm sorry, Winky, but I must free both of you. I wanted to free Kreacher, but Professor McGonagall and Mr. Lupin convinced me that he would die. So instead, I transferred ownership of him to Hogwarts. But I do not want to transfer either of you to Hogwarts or another witch or wizard. I want you to continue to be my friends, to continue to work for me, just like you are now." His voice pleaded with the elves to understand him. "But I want you to work for me because you WANT to, not because you are my slaves."

Both elves swayed nervously as Dobby countered, "If Dobby and Winky will do the same work, then why does Harry Potter need to free his slaves? Dobby and Winky are happy as Harry Potter's slaves."

"Because I can't go before the Wizengamot tomorrow knowing that I own two slaves. I can't speak to the entire wizarding world about the injustice of the system, if I am a part of it, even if I have never abused you. A slave is a slave, and it is wrong!" Harry exclaimed, and the two elves cast their eyes to the floor. Winky still cried softly.

Dobby, however, straightened his back and responded proudly, "Dobby will be honored to be Harry Potter's friend as a free elf. Dobby will help Winky. Winky has helped Dobby since Miss Ginny died. Harry Potter knows that Dobby suffered after Miss Ginny died and Harry Potter almost died. Winky helped Dobby to go back to work and to be happy. Now Dobby will help Winky to be happy as a free elf." Harry smiled at his friend.

"You are the true hero, Dobby," he averred softly, "You don't know how much I admire you. And Winky, you have served both Dobby and me extremely well when we needed it most. I would very much like you to stay with Dobby and me as a free elf. But if you prefer, I will transfer ownership of you to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. They would be kind masters."

Winky continued to sniff, now confused as well as sad. She looked back and forth between Dobby and Harry, clearly undecided.
Dobby spoke to her in their elvish tongue, and soon the two had what appeared to Harry to be a heartfelt conversation Though nervous, he enjoyed the soft lilting quality of their words, and remained silent. Finally the two elves smiled at each other.

"Winky will stay with Harry Potter and with Dobby. Winky will try to be a good free elf." She looked at Dobby again, and the larger elf smiled broadly and let out a sigh of relief.

Harry smiled broadly too. He stood and moved to his small bedroom where he pulled out a pair of socks from his dresser. Undoing the rolled-up socks, he stood before the two elves.

"May you always be my friends," the wizard wished, handing one sock to each elf.

The next morning, Harry Potter found himself seated at a long polished wooden table in between his "advisors," Minerva McGonagall and Hermione Granger. In front of him, a row of elderly witches and wizards paraded to their seats in the front of the huge chamber, used infrequently by the Wizengamot for events attracting large crowds. The testimony of Harry Potter most certainly met this definition.

Hermione and he already ran the gauntlet of photographers, well-wishers, and admirers from the apparation area of the Ministry to the Wizengamot chamber. They self-consciously waved for the cameras and the on-lookers, following Remus' instructions. The government minister orchestrated as wild a scene as he could, all to enhance the media pressure on the Wizengamot. As he sat at the table waiting for the proceedings to begin, he asked himself once again how he ever put himself into this mess.

From the moment he appeared out of thin air at the Ministry, the entire building buzzed with excitement. The last two images that the wizarding world saw of Harry Potter were the photographs taken by Benjamin Duval, the iconic image in front of Gringotts, and the haunting portrait taken in St. Mungo's after Harry awoke from his coma. Both images portrayed a gaunt, mysterious, dangerous young man. The Harry Potter which appeared before them today seemed like a pussycat by comparison. His hair, though still unruly, did not even reach below his neck, and several months of proper eating removed the gauntness from his face. McGonagall provided him with a silky formal black robe with deep red embroidery, and his face lacked any sign of facial hair.

Finally the Minister of Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, entered the large hearing room from a back door, resplendent in the Minister's black, red and green robe, the crossed-wands emblem of the Ministry sewn onto each sleeve. Kingsley appeared more or less the same as the last time Harry saw him, but he carried an air of authority after nine months as the head of government. Though not a voting member of the Wizengamot, Shacklebolt as Minister of Magic possessed the right to preside over the governing body's meetings. Often the Minister did not attend routine sessions, but Shacklebolt would not have dreamed of missing today's event.
"Today we have the great pleasure and honor of welcoming Harry Potter to this special session of the Wizengamot," boomed the voice of the Minister of Magic, the murmur of the crowd immediately dying down. "Generally I would recite the resume of an important guest to this body, but in this instance, no such need exists. Instead, I would like to exercise a point of personal privilege, on behalf of the entire magical population of Great Britain, to thank Harry Potter for his selfless sacrifice on our behalf. I do not exaggerate by claiming that Mr. Potter, by defeating the dark lord Voldemort, has saved our world. I ask that all of us in this chamber express our appreciation to Harry Potter."

As soon as the final word left the Minister's mouth, the giant chamber erupted in applause and shouts of thanks to Harry. Everyone but Harry stood, even the fifteen elderly members of the Wizengamot. Hermione and Professor McGonagall arose as well with their applause, and Harry never felt so embarrassed in his life. Nobody warned him about this, and he did his best to remain calm. The panic that he felt back at the opening feast reignited in his stomach, and he felt his arms start to shake. He considered bolting for the door through which he entered, but instead he remained bolted to his chair.

Hermione immediately sensed Harry's panic, and she knew she needed to end this scene as quickly as possible. Instinctively, she realized that the raucous noise would not die down anytime soon unless Harry acknowledged it. She gently placed her hand on Harry's and bent down so that her mouth moved to an inch from his ear. The noise echoed so loudly, however, that she almost had to shout for Harry to hear her.

"Stand up, Harry, and wave to them. Then they'll stop."

Harry remained glued in his seat, so Hermione slid a hand under his shoulder, and gently lifted. The slight pressure loosed Harry from the chair, and he slowly followed Hermione's lead until he stood straight up. Finally acting on his own, he turned towards the assemblage and witnessed the hundreds of cheering and adoring faces.

In his head he heard the voice of David Simons. You are not normal, Harry. Not after what you've done. You'll never be normal, at least not to all of us younger boys. You are our hero, after killing Voldemort and all.

"Accept it!" he ordered himself, and a moment later he raised his hand to his supporters, waving it back and forth several times, flash bulbs erupting every second. In response, the cheering of the crowd intensified, but after a short time, Harry raised both hands, signaling the on-lookers to calm themselves so that the session could begin. Within seconds, the noise level decreased, and perhaps twenty seconds later, Harry took his seat to a virtually silent chamber.

Minister Shacklebolt spoke the words sincerely, but he knew the effect the wild ovation would have on the members of the Wizengamot. The questioning began, but each successive member dared not directly challenge Harry's position in favor of the reforms to the house elf laws. At first, Harry answered the questions briefly and nervously, but as each member who supported the law took his or her turn, they deftly asked questions allowing Harry to relate how he had been assisted by house elves throughout his adventures. Over and over, Harry emphasized that Voldemort would have prevailed but for the assistance and loyalty of house elves.

Only Randolph Nelson, the primary opponent to the law, attempted to trip up Harry in a last-ditch attempt to halt the momentum building in favor of passage. A traditionalist, Nelson earned a richly deserved reputation as a skillful politician, and he more than any other person locked horns with Remus Lupin over the house elf reforms. A slight wiry man, Nelson gained popularity with the public by his long-time and vocal opposition to Voldemort, and he alone among the Wizengamot actively supported the Order of the Phoenix. Moreover, as a childhood friend and philosophical twin of the owner of the Daily Prophet, he received more than his share of positive press.

"We are all aware, of course, of your unfortunate upbringing in a muggle household, Mr. Potter. Obviously you had no knowledge of the existence of house elves during your early childhood. Wouldn't you agree that you have had extremely little contact with house elves during your lifetime?"

Harry wavered a moment before answering, "Well, you could say that. I have learned much about house elves these past couple of years, as I have explained earlier. But I knew nothing about them before I went to Hogwarts."

"Thus it is true that you have never seen how house elves are truly treated in a typical wizard's home, correct Mr. Potter?" Nelson asked immediately, cutting off Harry's attempt to explain his answer further.

Again, Harry paused before responding, "Not a lot, I admit, but I have seen and heard enough to know of their mistreatment. I know that . . . ."

Nelson again cut him off, starting a new question, "Therefore, you may not be the best judge . . . ."

"Mr. Nelson," interrupted Minister Shacklebolt boldly, exercising his power as presiding officer, "Please allow Mr. Potter to complete his answer." The two men glared momentarily at one another, and Harry sensed that this was but a small skirmish in their larger political war. Nelson had no choice but to cede the floor to the young wizard. "Please complete your answer, Mr. Potter."

Harry suddenly felt a warmth inside of him, the same warmth that he felt when he lay on the grave of Albus Dumbledore after he buried the professor. The young man breathed in deeply, enjoying the presence of his mentor, whether real or perceived. He would never know if he imagined it or if somehow the old man placed the words in his head, but Harry distinctly heard the voice of Dumbledore inside his ears.

"Let him have it, Harry!"

Words appeared in Harry's brain and transferred to his mouth almost magically, and Harry could not help but believe that Dumbledore himself came down from above to dictate Harry's response, the response that would make its way into all of the newspapers and magazines and ultimately assure passage of the reform law.

"Mr. Nelson, though I did not lead a privileged life as a child, I nevertheless believe I have the right and duty to advocate on behalf of house elves. My own eyes have seen Lucius Malfoy, an esteemed member of society for many years, physically abuse his house elf, in public. I have seen house elves required to punish themselves for perceived errors, ironing their ears or pounding their heads against a wall. As you well know, Mr. Nelson, current law permits a wizard to punish a house elf in any way, and they are routinely flogged, beaten, burned and kicked. WE DO NOT EVEN TREAT OUR DOGS SO CRUELLY."

Harry's raised voice shocked the crowd into absolute silence, the only sound in the chamber being the scratching of charmed quills taking down every word of the proceeding. By now, the thrill of battle rushed through Harry's veins, and he felt much like he did when he appeared before Nagini several floors below where he currently sat.

"Yet despite our centuries of mistreatment of house elves, they have not turned against us. When treated well, house elves will do ANYTHING for a witch or wizard. I know better than anyone. My great friend, Dobby, the same elf abused by Lucius Malfoy, is as much responsible for the defeat of Lord Voldemort as I am, as I have already related. Without him, Harry Potter would be dead, Lord Voldemort would be your ruler, and we would not be seated here today having this discussion."

Harry paused for effect, and glanced at Hermione, whose lips curled into a barely noticeable smirk.

"I am not without fault. My great friend, Hermione Granger, seated next to me, first brought the plight of house elves to my attention, several years ago. I am ashamed to admit that though I did not disagree with her, neither did I take her seriously. We are all guilty in our willful neglect of an obviously unjust institution. When we demean house elves, we demean ourselves. This proposed reform is a first step towards our redemption. We must not let this moment pass!"

The chamber remained in complete silence as soon as the quills scratched Harry's final words. Randolph Nelson knew defeat when he smelled it and asked no further questions. No use digging a deeper hole for himself.

At last, in the mid-afternoon, the proceeding ended, and again Harry and Hermione had to pass through a gauntlet of cameras and reporters. They held hands openly, resulting in dozens of photographs of the couple, which would appear little by little in every wizarding publication in Britain and beyond. No hiding it now. Hermione truly had become that headline of so many months before, "The Chosen One's Chosen One."

"Professor, may Hermione and I have permission to come back to Hogwarts in a couple of hours. If you don't mind, I'd like a little time to calm down."

"Certainly, Harry," Professor McGonagall consented, her eyes still full of pride for the boy that she left at the front door of those terrible muggles so many years ago. Dumbledore told her the truth. Harry Potter would become a great wizard. He already was.

"Where are we going, Harry? " Hermione asked, but Harry merely placed his hand on her shoulder in the apparation area of the Ministry. After one last wave to the photographers, they disappeared. A few seconds later, they reappeared on top of the hill at Godric's Hollow, a few feet in front of the graves of James and Lily Potter. At almost four in the afternoon, the sun had started its descent, but still shone brightly in the western sky.

The couple immediately embraced and kissed each other passionately, releasing all of the pent up emotions of the day. The awkwardness of the first kiss had long since passed, and the two felt this to be the most natural thing in the world to do, as easy as slipping on a shirt or drinking a glass of water. Finally they parted and stared into each other's eyes.

"I've never been so proud of you, Harry," Hermione declared, "This was so hard for you to do, but you did it anyway. Even when you didn't have to. That makes you not only a great wizard, but a great person."

Harry looked past Hermione's ear at the hills in the distance. A great person? I'm anything but a great person. The name "Ginny Weasley" proved it. Her death would always be his responsibility, more than any of the others who died for him. He could have prevented her death so easily, if he had only been strong enough. Hermione could feel the change in Harry's body, the tension in his muscles.

"What's wrong, Harry?" she asked with a worried voice, "Did I say something wrong?" He shook his head. "Then what are you thinking about?" The young man opened his mouth twice, but he could not decide exactly what to say.

Finally he confessed, "I was thinking about Ginny. I'm not a great person, Hermione. Ginny died because of my weakness. Right here on this hill. I should have finished it right here. Instead of trusting the power of love, I panicked. If I had continued to possess Voldemort, if I didn't stab him. . . ." He did not finish the thought, but Hermione understood. She tried to think of some way to console him, but before she could respond, Harry spoke again.

"Once I realized my failure, I should have done it. I should have killed myself. There was no other way, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it." Tears slowly formed in his eyes and gently trickled down his cheeks, but Harry did not notice. He continued to stare vacantly at the hills. "Maybe there is a way, I kept telling myself, but deep down I knew it could not be done. Sacrificial love. It never occurred to me. So many people have sacrificed themselves for me: my mum and dad, Sirius, Dumbledore, Ginny. I could even add Ron to the list. I'll never be able to accept it."

Hermione turned Harry towards her and wiped the tears off his face. Carefully she chose her words.

"It's not a crime to want to live, Harry. You acted like a normal person. I know it's hard to remember that you are a normal person, because in so many ways you are not. But you need to sleep at night, eat breakfast in the morning, put on your clothes and take a shower like everyone else. Just like all of us, you wanted to live. You had hope. That's not a bad thing; it's a good thing. It just didn't work out the way we wanted. The way Ginny wanted."

Harry nodded his head, understanding Hermione's point, and he wrapped an arm around her back. The two of them gazed out to the countryside, the red and yellow flowers still adorning the rolling hills of the Hollow.

To his left, he heard a rustling in the shrubs along the edge of the hill, and Harry sensed the presence of snakes.

"Show yourself," he hissed in Parseltongue, causing Hermione to shiver, "I am your friend."

Four serpents emerged from their shelter, among them a slender grey snake that had shared in Harry's greatest adventures. Harry pulled a reluctant Hermione towards the snakes.

"It's Issamir!" he told her excitedly, "He's still here."

"You have survived, Harry Potter," hissed the slender serpent, sliding a few feet in front of the others, "I had faith that you would survive and return to the burial ground of your ancestors."

"I have suffered much, Issamir, but indeed I have survived. Often have I thought of you, hopeful that you found a new life here. I have missed our conversations."

"As have I, Harry Potter. The clan of these hills has accepted me into its fold. I have found my place in this world. Do not worry for your serpent friend."

"Nor should you worry for your human friend. I believe I am finding my place in this world as well. I have found the person I love, which is important for humans. The time may come when I can be a happy man."

"I can feel you contentment, Harry Potter. The female is a great comfort to you. I will interrupt you no further, for I sense that you have much to discuss with her. These hills are my home, Harry Potter. Come visit me when you are able." And with that, the four serpents disappeared among the branches of the nearby bushes.

I forgot Hashashis, Harry realized, having omitted the unknown snake from his list of those who died for him. But for a serpent's sacrifice, I would be dead. So many have sacrificed themselves for me. How can I ever repay them?"

"I have to live a good life," Harry muttered to Hermione while the breeze played with his hair, "That's what I've decided. All these people died for me. And a serpent. The only way I can repay them is to be a good person."

"You've always been a good person, Harry," Hermione responded, snuggling closer to him, "Today you proved it. And you've proved it for the last seven years. We've all made mistakes, but your heart has always been in the right place. You sacrificed so much to kill Voldemort. Hufflepuff's cup, Slytherin's locket, the wolf bite, your fight right here with Voldemort. Don't just focus on your mistakes. You've accomplished more than anyone else could have."

Standing atop the hillock, contemplating the events of the day, Harry realized that he had returned to normal, or as close to normal as he would come. Facing his fears by testifying before the Wizengamut and measuring up to the task somehow healed the last wounds of his ordeal. He could not change the past, but he could make the best of his future. They reached the edge of the hill, gazing down upon the ruins of his first home.

"This is where I'm going to live," he declared without thinking, "I'm going to build where my parent's house stood. I'll sell Grimmauld Place. It's too big and depressing anyway. But I want a muggle house, with electric lights and a refrigerator and central heating. The kitchen will face to the west so that I can watch the sunset over those hills like my mum did."

Surprised by Harry's change of topic, Hermione gazed down on the ruins of the house and then at the sun setting over the hills to the west.

"That sounds wonderful, Harry."

At first, Harry did not recognize the significance of these words, but after a few seconds, he turned towards Hermione and looked her in the eyes.

"Do you really mean that? I mean, would you like that too?"

Hermione smiled broadly at Harry's nervous question, and the smile caused Harry to relax. He knew the answer before she said it.

"Yes, Harry, I really mean it."

Harry returned her smile. For the first time in his life, he realized that he had a future. True, he did not know what career he would pursue or where fate would lead him, but he knew where he would live. And with whom. He could never be normal, but after the events of the day, he knew he could deal with that. Within his abnormal life, this would be his oasis of normality. Here he could just be Harry Potter.

Harry and Hermione kissed again, slowly and lovingly, as the meaning of their conversation sunk in. They looked into each other's eyes, and Hermione ran her hand along Harry's smoothly shaven cheeks, full of emotion that the real Harry Potter had finally returned. She could think of only one more thing that she desired.

"Could you do me a favor, Harry?" she whispered in his ear. Harry nodded his assent. Hermione again ran her hand along his cheek.

"Don't shave for a couple of days."

xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx

So ends A Serpent's Sacrifice. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much I as enjoyed writing it. Much has been left to your imagination. At the age of 18, I had no idea what to do with my life, and I see no reason why Harry should be any different. Hermione and he will finish their Hogwarts education, and then, who knows? However, Harry and Hermione will always be important people in the wizarding world. I can see them returning to Hogwarts some day as professors, but surely they would leave the castle for some years after graduation. His destiny fulfilled, there is no reason why Harry cannot live a happy and fulfilling life.

I also think that Ron will recover from his issues, and Harry and he will meet again. Rarely do the friendships of youth survive untouched into adulthood, so I think we do not need to mourn the end of their friendship too much. I like to think that they will be friends again, though never the best mates of the past.

No, I will not write a sequel to this story; however, I have been busy writing a new seventh-year story, The Bottom of the Lake, which I will start posting in the next couple of days. I have much of it already written, and I will post the entire new story before Deathly Hallows comes out in a month. It will be an entirely different story from A Serpent's Sacrifice, filled with much intrigue. I hope you will give it a try.

Thanks to all of you who have read and reviewed. Your comments were most helpful.

Gabilian (6-19-07)