by Silver Phoenix

Chapter 19: Harry

A few days after the attack on Arbour Glen, a cold spell swept through the country. The sky turned dark and ominous for several days, and any leaves remaining on the trees were blasted off by strong, bitterly cold winds. The weather wizards on the wireless kept repeating the words "freak storm" in menacing voices, but it never came. Still, the threat of it and the unseasonably cold weather kept everyone indoors for a bit, which was just fine by Harry. It gave him an excuse to stay in and work through several of the things that had happened over the past few months, culminating in the battle that had raged upon his doorstep.

One of the things that he had to work out was what to do about Kreacher and the powers that he had stumbled upon. The house-elf had quietly gone back to his household duties, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had been instrumental in subduing Dolohov and turning the tide of the battle. Harry was still not quite sure what had happened, or what it could mean for Kreacher specifically and house-elves in general.

Only a few people understood what had happened that night – and of the Aurors, only The Foot understood that it was a mere house-elf who had subdued the new leader of the Death Eaters. Proudfoot had taken Harry aside that night after things with the Somervilles had been sorted out. Slowly, calmly, the usually brisk Auror had asked Harry about Kreacher and what had happened to Dolohov – how was it that a powerful Dark wizard had found himself helpless, suddenly sapped of his magic? Of note was the fact that Proudfoot had asked for answers, not demanded them. Which was probably why Harry had ended up telling him everything.

Proudfoot had been quiet and pensive after Harry had finished. "I think, Potter," he had finally said slowly, "that it's best we keep this to ourselves for now. Something like this has to be handled very delicately…imagine what could happen, should the wrong people find out about this…"

"What do you mean?" Harry had asked.

Proudfoot had sighed. "Two things. One, that wizards everywhere are not going to take kindly to the idea that the creatures who have been doing their washing and making their beds are capable of taking their magic away," he had explained. "And two – imagine if the wrong people found out about this…what if they tried to use this magic as a weapon? I need to speak to some people…find out if it's safe to bring this out now, and who should know about it. Frankly, there are still some people at the Ministry who are not, shall we say, very progressive in their thinking when it comes to house elves. And there are others, still…even now…I question where their loyalties lie."

He had looked Harry in the eye then and had said, to Harry's surprise, "This is your choice, of course. I just recommend that you use caution."

Soon after this Harry had also had a very interesting conversation with Hermione. It seemed that she, too, had discovered something significant about the house-elves. There were wild house-elves out there somewhere; or at least, there had been. This revelation gave Harry even more to deliberate over – there were elves, then, who were capable of functioning on their own, without wizards. There were elves that had lived free and had enjoyed doing so. There could be elves out there who were capable of the same magic that Kreacher was – but who did not need to wait for a wizard's commands to use it. The week of the storm-that-wasn't gave Harry some time to process all this, to share his thoughts and bounce his ideas off of Ginny, who had happily shut herself up with him at Arbour Glen while they waited out the supposed storm.

After the year they had just gone through and the tumultuous summer that had followed, it felt too good to be true - he and Ginny spending quiet, cozy nights by the fire, waiting for a storm to come. In fact, they had found that being cooped up in the house was not nearly bad as anyone said it was, especially with no one else around and Kreacher tactfully disappearing for hours on end whenever Ginny came round. Harry was cautious at first, half-expecting Mr Weasley to turn up in the fireplace and demand that Ginny return home at a reasonable hour. But it soon became apparent that Ginny had made some sort of arrangement with her parents; on a few occasions, she had vaguely alluded to a row that seemed to have been won with the 'I'm an adult now' argument. Harry did not press for details. He was simply happy to have her with him – Ginny curled into him on the couch, her hair smelling of the fire, her lips on his as they made up for lost time.

The week of the storm-that-wasn't also gave Harry some time to mentally prepare for his official Auror debriefing of the Death Eater attack. He found it odd that his first official act as an Auror trainee would be to participate in a debriefing. Technically, Harry should not have had anything to debrief yet; normally, trainees were not permitted in the field during the first year of training. But the field had sort of forced itself upon Harry, so very soon after the attack on Arbour Glen he had found an official-looking Ministry owl at his kitchen window, with a summons to Auror Headquarters on the twentieth of October.

The morning of the debriefing dawned cold but sunny; the threat of the storm had finally passed. Ginny came round and Kreacher made a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs for both of them. Harry politely accepted his plate even though he felt as though his stomach had somehow managed to tie itself into a giant knot. After spooning scrambled eggs into Ginny's plate, Kreacher bowed and then left the two of them alone in the kitchen, muttering something vaguely about having a 'project' to work on. (Harry had spotted something scarlet and knitted tucked away with the rest of Kreacher's private things in his bedroom; he suspected that this project was to be some sort of Christmas present for him eventually, and marvelled that a being who could take away a wizard's magic with a snap of his fingers was spending his free time knitting what appeared to be a scarf.)

"Why are you so nervous, anyway?" Ginny asked as she tucked into her eggs and bacon. "You seem more agitated for this debriefing than you were when we were actually fighting the Death Eaters."

"I just don't know what to expect," Harry sighed, putting his fork down and pushing his plate away. "What if I had to put together a report, or something? I haven't even started training yet, I've no idea how to put together a report…"

Ginny rolled her eyes. "You won't have to do a report," she said reassuringly. "They're just going to ask you what happened, that's all."

"And what do I say," Harry asked, "when they ask me about…?" he trailed off and nodded in the direction that Kreacher had gone.

They had discussed this several times over the past week. Ginny sighed. "I don't know, Harry. Honestly, I don't think it's something that we're going to be able to keep to ourselves forever. What does Hermione think?"

"You know Hermione, she's ready to change the world right at this minute."

Ginny did not respond at first; she was staring at Harry's full breakfast plate, seemingly lost in thought. She suddenly roused herself and looked back up at him.

"See how things go," she advised him. "You'll know what the right thing to do is when the moment comes." She glanced down at her wristwatch, a delicate silver thing that her parents had gotten her for her seventeenth birthday. "You'd better hurry, it's already half past eight. I'll come round here afterwards?"

"Er…I told Ron and Hermione I'd meet up with them, actually," Harry said, feeling a bit guilty. "I was going to go by the shop…Ron said he had some ideas he wanted to show me…"

Ginny looked crestfallen for only the briefest of seconds, then got up and started clearing her place at the table. "That's fine, you can tell me about the debriefing tomorrow."

"You can come, if you like," Harry said belatedly.

Ginny placed her dishes in the sink. "It's all right, I hear enough about Ron and his ideas at home."

Harry watched her for a moment as she did her dishes, her back to him. There was something else that he had been turning over in his mind over the past week - something that he had never really considered before from Ginny's perspective, but that was beginning to become apparent to him now.

"Are you ever…I mean, is it…all right?" Harry said uncertainly. "Me and Ron and Hermione. I mean, you don't feel…left out, or anything, do you?"

Ginny paused for a moment. She dried her hands and then turned around, leaning back against the counter. "I did," she said after another moment of consideration. "Last year, when the three of you disappeared and I didn't know if you were alive or dead. It felt stupid, planning little acts of rebellion against the Carrows when the three of you were off doing something important. But now…" she paused a moment, then smiled. "You have two friends who would risk their lives for you. Who have done. How can I possibly begrudge you that?"

Harry smiled, relieved. Ginny put her hands on her hips and suddenly turned serious. "Now, listen - are you or aren't you going to finish that breakfast?"

Harry glanced down at his full plate, bewildered by the sudden change in topic.

Ginny sighed heavily. "I've been sitting here for the past few minutes listening to this little Mum voice in my head…it keeps telling me to make sure you've eaten a proper breakfast before you go off to the Ministry. I've been trying to ignore it, but it's no good…I think it's hereditary," she said gloomily. "Now eat your stupid bacon."

Harry stared at her incredulously for a moment, then a grin slowly spread over his face and he burst out laughing. Ginny grinned back and walked towards him; Harry pulled her into his lap and they managed to distract each other for enough time that Ginny forgot about the bacon and Harry was nearly late for the debriefing. When he finally did Disapparate, the tied-up knot feeling in his stomach was gone.

Things at the Ministry were continuing to improve. The lifts were actually working now, and Harry only stumbled upon one cursed doorknob on his way into Auror Headquarters.

He was swiftly admitted into an empty wood-panelled room when he arrived. Most of the space in the room was taken up by a long, rectangular table. A large blackboard completely covered one wall. There were quills floating in front of every place at the table; as other people began to file in and sit down, they immediately grabbed the quill and then took out a little white notebook from their robes or shirt pockets. No one had told Harry to bring a little white notebook, or perhaps they would give it to him when he officially started training. So he sat there and just stared at the floating quill for a bit. Finally he grabbed it and started twirling it around in his fingers, just for something to do.

The table eventually filled with people; some Harry knew by name, and the rest he knew by sight. All of them had been there during the battle at Arbour Glen. There was Sri, and Williamson, who was now sporting an eye patch (he looked even more like a pirate now, with the patch, the dragonskin boots, and the ponytail); Brigs, Proudfoot, several Aurors whose names Harry did not know, and the Head of the Order of Aurors, Gawain Robards. Robards was a big, barrel-chested man with a thick red beard. He seemed to be frowning a lot as he flipped through several official-looking documents. Harry did not know much about him, other than the fact that he had agreed to let Harry begin the training program while he completed his N.E.W.T.s. He felt a sense of gratitude towards the Head, but he also felt slightly intimidated by him.

"Right. So," Robards suddenly said, looking up from the documents in front of him. "I've heard the side of the story from our lot, but I'd like to know first-hand from you what exactly happened at that house, Potter."

Harry opened his mouth and then closed it, feeling foolish. His palms were beginning to sweat; the knot was back in his stomach. "Sorry, from….from the beginning?"

Robards looked at him for a moment and his expression softened. "This is your first day, isn't it Potter?"

"Yes, sir. Uh…technically."

"Bit much, I'm sure, to be having a debriefing on your first day," said Robards, not unkindly. Harry glanced around the room and a few of the Aurors smiled at him. "Guess we should take this opportunity to welcome you to the Auror trainee program and to wish you good luck." He grinned. "Not that you'll need it."

"'Course not, he's Harry bloody Potter!" said one of the Aurors Harry did not know, a man with grey spiky hair, and the rest of them laughed. Harry smiled weakly.

"Let's start from when Brigs turned up," Robards suggested.

"Yeah, and the lot of you Stunned me sky-high," grumbled Brigs, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Whenever you're ready, son," Robards said to Harry. "Take your time."

Harry began uncertainly, but once he started the story poured out of him easily enough. The rest of the Aurors listened raptly; there was quite a lot of scratching on those white notepads. He told them everything - the names of the Death Eaters whom he had recognized and everything that Dolohov had said, as best he could remember it. He told them how his friends had come to his aid, how brilliant they had been. He went on for a bit longer than was necessary about how Ginny had duelled a Death Eater into the ground, and then trailed off stupidly when he realized he was carrying on a bit. He described the torture of the Somervilles and how the Death Eaters had managed to work around the Fidelius charm they had placed on them. The only thing Harry left out, catching Proudfoot's eye, was Kreacher. Without telling the Aurors about Kreacher's prison, the ending of the story was a bit vague. Harry caught Robards frowning and shooting questioning looks at certain Aurors – Proudfoot, whose face revealed nothing and Brigs, who was uncharacteristically quiet. Harry had the distinct impression that, amongst the chaos, Brigs was the only other Auror besides Proudfoot who had witnessed Kreacher's magic. But Brigs kept silent, and Harry found himself liking the man even more. Despite their best efforts, however, Robards picked up on the inconsistencies in Harry's tale.

"So how was Dolohov subdued?" Robards asked bluntly. He glanced at one of the parchments in front of him. "When we picked him up he was ranting about his magic being gone…"

Harry caught Proudfoot's eye again. He had suggested – not ordered– for Harry to keep quiet and so he had. Harry looked at him now - The Foot, his unlikely ally - and waited. If Proudfoot thought it was safe for this to come out now, it would come out…and things would start to change.

Proudfoot cleared his throat. "It seems, sir, that Potter has discovered something rather incredible."

"Well, if it allowed several civilians and a half-giant to somehow keep a group of Death Eaters at bay until the rest of you sorry lot showed up," said Robards, "I'm all ears."

Proudfoot looked at Harry again and nodded. They were among people who could be trusted, who were open-minded. It was safe. Harry took a deep breath. "It was my…uh…house-elf, sir."

Robards blinked. "Your house-elf."

"Yes, sir," said Harry, and he explained what had happened. The room was silent when he was finished; the scratching of quills on those white notepads had completely ceased. Robards sat back in his chair, an expression of disbelief on his face. Brigs was smiling.

"Angus," Robards said to Proudfoot, "find Percy Weasley and tell him to set up an appointment for me with the Minister. Williamson, get Mathilda Van der Kerk from Magical Creatures in here right away. Smythe, get Suarez from Magical Law Enforcement. And Potter," he said, turning to Harry, "you'd best bring in this house-elf." He gave an incredulous laugh. "Merlin's beard, Potter. After everything else you've done…I think you've started something, here, son."

They went back to visit Hogwarts on a beautiful, sunny day at the end of October. The cold spell was a memory; now there was only a pleasant crispness to the air that reminded Harry of back-to-school and Hogwarts and home. It had not been that long since Harry, Ron and Hermione had last been to Hogsmeade – only a few months, in fact – but so much in their lives had changed since then. Hogsmeade, however, had not changed perceptibly since the summer. The ice cream stands were gone and the trees that lined the streets were nearly bare, but the town was as busy and lively as it had been a few months ago.

The trio stopped into the Hog's Head to say hello to Aberforth and Lavender and found that the pub was cleaner and busier than ever. Harry politely complimented the unlikely pair on the nice state of the place and their increased business. Lavender seemed thrilled about it, while Aberforth's surly comments about chasing away all the interesting customers weren't enough to disguise how pleased he really was.

"Parvarti's finally been released from St. Mungo's, did you hear?" Lavender said excitedly. "She's still weak sometimes but she's recovering really well…she might even come to help out here a couple of days a week!"

"There'll be two of them," muttered Aberforth with a groan.

"Well maybe the two of us combined will be able to get you to take a bath," Lavender said lightly. Ron snickered. Harry felt a small weight lift from him though, hearing about Parvarti's recovery. Another person for whom life was continuing, pieced back together after the Battle of Hogwarts.

They also stopped into Country Gardens, just as they had last time, to see Willy Peet. He seemed as indefatigable as ever, snapping their photograph again and chattering a mile a minute. This was another relief for Harry, another weight lifted; Peet had been questioned by the Death Eaters, after all, in their search for Arbour Glen. Another life touched and changed but not damaged, not irreparably. Peet even tried to show Ron and Hermione some houses. Hermione flushed and started asking very technical questions about Peet's special Proproculars, but interestingly, Harry caught Ron absently paging through some flyers with phrases like 3+1 bedroom family home in good neighbourhood…

They briefly popped into the Three Broomsticks just to see if anyone they knew was in there (no one they knew was, although everyone in there seemed to know them) and Zonko's (Ron warned them to act casual and try not to draw attention to themselves as he 'checked out the competition', then promptly tripped over a display of Dungbombs and set a dozen of the things off). Finally, the trio found themselves on that same walk they had taken a few short months ago.

As they walked up the path towards the gates, Harry watched the castle loom up before them, familiar and yet changed. The rubble littering the grounds and the scorch marks on the stones were gone. There were places where repairs had obviously been made, subtle differences in the colour and texture of the castle stone. Harry wasn't sure what they would find inside; it would be changed as well, he knew, but perhaps not enough. He still was not sure that he could see the Great Hall without seeing the neat lines of bodies lying there, that he could walk past the place where it had all ended without being assailed by memories. But he had his new beginning and so did Hogwarts, and he was glad that the school would have a place in his new life, if only a small one.

Hermione, to his surprise, had elected to make arrangements similar to his own. In fact, that was the reason for their visit; both she and Harry had come to speak to their professors and make final arrangements for classes. The two of them would be taking their N.E.W.T. classes privately at night or on weekends, while Harry completed his Auror training and Hermione began her internship at the Ministry. Ron, on the other hand, was putting off his N.E.W.T's for now (or indefinitely) while he continued to manage the ever-expanding joke shop with George. In addition, Harry knew that both Ron and Hermione would be working on important side projects, and he also knew that he was going to be a part of them both.

"They're not back yet?" Hermione asked, breaking the silence. "The students?"

"Ginny's letter says November the first," Harry said. "It's all ours, for today."

"We haven't been inside, you know," said Ron, echoing Harry's earlier thoughts, "since…that night." He took a deep breath and looked first at Harry, then at Hermione. "But I think I'm ready. To go back."

"It's not really going back, though," Harry said. "More like…moving forward."

Harry, Ron, and Hermione approached the gates. To their surprise, the gates silently swung open for them, as if Hogwarts was expecting them, was welcoming them back.

They moved forward.

Author's Notes: This is the final chapter, but not to worry - an epilogue is on its way! It's sort of an essential resolution of the story, so please check back soon to read it. Thank you so much for everyone who has continued reading and reviewing this story over the years...after nearly 5 long years of writing this (!) I'll finally be finished.

Thank you as always to my beta, Michael Ho, to whom I owe the entire beginning scene of this chapter.