Chapter 20: Tests and Trials

Harry drifted in the void.

A searing, blinding light hit him, and he recoiled in alarm. But as the white glow washed over him, he felt warmth and caring, and the ghost of familiar music…

Notes of phoenix song danced through his mind, banishing the cold and the dark, and he followed them upwards, reaching for the light…

Harry awoke with a start, jerking violently. He retched, rolling onto his side, then felt a pair of hands on his shoulders. He stiffened before he heard a muttered, "Be still, Potter, for Merlin's sake." The unmistakable voice of his Head of House brought him back to reality, and he became aware that Snape was leaning across his bed, staring into his eyes with serious concern.

Harry's stomach roiled, and he twisted himself to get an angle. The Potions Master stepped back as he recognized the signs, and watched impassively as Harry lost his battle with nausea on the dungeon floor. He waved his wand impatiently, and the sick was gone. "Are you alright, Harry?" he asked.

He used my first name, Harry thought. He never does that.

"Well enough, sir," Harry replied, though it was more of a croak.

"Potter, what you just experienced is well beyond my knowledge. Professor Dumbledore is aware of your situation. Do you require assistance?"

Harry, still shaking a bit, swung his legs out of his damp sheets and touched down on the cold stone. Snape put an arm around him, a curiously warm gesture from the man who had made his life a living hell just four years earlier. He looked up into the older man's haunted eyes, and saw genuine worry. It was shocking, in a way. "Thank you," Harry breathed.

"Come," he said, and led Harry through the silent corridors of the Slytherin Dormitory, mercifully empty of other students. This was not something Harry was terribly inclined to explain to any curious onlookers.

They continued out through the Common Room. "Where are you taking me, sir?"

Snape glanced down at him. "The Headmaster is aware of your ordeal. It was he who informed me to retrieve you. I do not make a habit of loitering around the dormitories without cause."

Harry quietly doubted that. He felt his strength slowly returning to him, even as the cold air of the dungeons chilled his sweat-drenched body. He took up more of his own weight in his steps and felt Snape's arm let go. He was still touched by his one-time adversary's gesture, but the arrangement seemed to suit both of them better.

Filch scowled at them as he stood in a corner with Mrs. Norris, but said nothing. Even to Harry's addled mind, the loathing between the Caretaker and the Potions Master was blatantly oblivious. Snape threw a disdainful half-smirk, half-sneer at the Squib, and Mrs. Norris hissed loudly.

After another couple of winding staircases and corridors, they finally found themselves at the gargoyle who guarded the entrance to the Headmaster's office. Frederick, as Daphne had called him a lifetime ago, seemed to smile faintly at Harry as he approached, and then moved aside without a word.

Harry preferred to support himself once they reached the top of the stair, though his Head of House had offered a bit of welcome assistance during the climb itself. Still reeling, his muscles feeling fatigued and weak, Harry knocked on the great oak doors. They slid open of their own accord. Albus Dumbledore stood in front of his desk, wearing midnight blue robes and a nightcap. "My dear Harry, are you alright?"

"I will be," he replied. "Just a bit shaken up." He looked up to meet the old man's eyes. "You knew?"

Dumbledore smiled slightly, but his eyes showed nothing of mirth, devoid of their usual amused twinkle. "Of course. I knew the risk that Lord Voldemort might soon attempt to exploit your mental connection, and so I was prepared. While you made a good account of yourself, Harry, you were not without help on this night. I must admit, however, that I was not entirely expecting what I saw."

Harry parsed the man's words. "Entirely expecting?"

"Indeed," Dumbledore replied, looking thoughtful. "I have suspected for some time that Tom would attempt to access the Prophecy. Do you know where he took you, in the beginning?"

Harry didn't, but he could guess. "The Ministry…the Department of Mysteries?"

The Headmaster nodded. "Precisely. You are aware of what can be found there."

"Prophecies. All of those that the Ministry has on record. Including the one that concerns myself and Voldemort."

"To be entirely accurate, it concerns Lord Voldemort and a young boy who meets a specific set of criteria, but given the way events unfolded, yes, it is you that the Prophecy speaks of."

"Daphne told me a few years ago, but blocked the words from my mind."

Snape looked horrified. "Had that woman lost her last grip on sanity?" he hissed.

"As Daphne explained it, she no longer wished to keep the knowledge of Harry's destiny from him," Dumbledore replied. "I did not agree with her course of action. Fortunately, events of the past few years have strengthened your magic such that you are able to resist any long-range attempts by Lord Voldemort to enter your mind. Face-to-face, however, I am not so certain that you would be successful. Your mental abilities are extremely potent, Harry, but quite raw and unfocused."

"Despite my best efforts," his Head of House said pointedly.

"I am aware of your difficulties," Dumbledore replied. "I had been considering taking you on as a pupil, Harry, until it became evident to me that I do not have the sort of training that would be required."

"I don't understand," Harry replied. "Professor, I've heard it said that you are one of the most powerful wielders of mind magic alive today."

"And so it is. However, Harry, I developed my skills as an extension of my own power, a separate gift. Since your encounter with Riddle at the end of your second year, your magic has grown by such leaps and bounds that it works by different rules. You are granted abilities simply because you reach the magical threshold necessary to force them into existence. This is how you are capable of wandless magic, despite your lack of formal instruction or and no signs of a remarkable gift for it before Riddle's power merged with yours."

Harry felt his strength finally returning to him, and with it, his senses. "You hadn't told me any of this before."

Dumbledore nodded, looking over his half-moon glasses. "Harry, simply because we have not spoken frequently in the last few months, do not assume that I have been idle with regards to your situation. I have many friends, scattered widely across this world, who have delved into the workings and properties of magic far deeper than time has ever allowed me. An Iranian wizard, Abu Bakr, provided most of the information that I just gave you. I do hope you have a chance to meet him someday – he's a truly brilliant individual, quite unrecognized - and a fantastic cook."

Dumbledore smiled lazily in the way he did when he was trying to defuse the tension of a situation. His blue eyes twinkled. Somehow, that calmed Harry just as seeing the Headmaster so utterly serious had unnerved him.

"I appreciate your efforts, Professor. I realize that the special circumstances of my life present some major…difficulties."

"Quite, Harry. However, I would ask that you come to my office next week at a time of your choosing, and we can explore the extent and limitations of your mental magic. It is of utmost importance that you hone these particular skills, Harry, or you will find yourself at a severe disadvantage when you next encounter Lord Voldemort."

Snape had stood silent for some time, something that was unusual in itself. His shoulder were slumped, his eyes lowered, almost…submissive, resigned. He looked…defeated, somehow. "Professor, is everything alright?"

His Head of House raised an eyebrow. "Not at all, Potter, but only some of that has anything to do with you. I must admit to being frustrated by encountering magic of which I lack any understanding. The Headmaster's theories may help to explain some of the…oddities, for lack of a better term, that I encountered during our Occlumency sessions." He turned to Dumbledore, the fire back in his eyes. "Perhaps it would be wise, Headmaster, to explain to Potter the frankly terrifying dangers that the nature of his power pose to his mental stability."

That was worrying. Harry heard a bit of fear creep into his voice as he asked, "Professor?"

Dumbledore sighed deeply, the lines on his face deepening. "Harry, I know you have been hiding certain developments from me, and be certain that I do understand your reasons. But past events, as well as my own observations and a bit of guesswork lead me to believe that you are already suffering some ill-effects from your magic. Unless I am mistaken, you have…experienced your magic…taking on a life of its own, so to say? An alternate consciousness, one that feeds upon baser emotions?"

"Yes," Harry replied softly.

Snape cut in. "The Headmaster and I have discussed this matter, mostly for the purpose of determining if there are any potions that might aid you. There are a few possibilities I am researching with interest, but bare in mind that all potions are, at best, temporary solutions."

Harry nodded, then finally asked the question that had been eating at him. "Professor, is it possible that I shouldn't be fighting against this…entity? I…I admit what I've seen has been rather frightening, but is it not possible that I should accept it as a part of myself?"

What little mirth had lingered in Dumbledore's eyes during this discussion promptly vanished. "It is a part of you, Harry. You cannot escape it…As for your question, I cannot answer that for you. You alone know your own strength, your own capabilities."

"It is possible that by embracing your darker alter ego, you may gain access to magical power otherwise denied you," Snape said curtly. "But it is also possible that in so doing, you would be…damaged." He paused, and locked his gaze with Harry's. "Potter, what research exists on the subject suggests that wizards and witches are born with an inherent power threshold, a capacity for wielding magic that exists at birth and cannot be significantly exceeded, regardless of training. By absorbing the power contained Dark Lord's diary, itself an early and somewhat primitive attempt to create an alternate...soul, I suppose would be the word, you have doubled or tripled the amount of magic your body would have given you naturally. You would have been a perfectly competent wizard, but it would not have been your power that you were remembered for. That has changed."

"Thank you, Severus. If you would, Harry, allow me to test a theory?"

Keeping his gaze locked with the Headmaster's, Harry cautiously nodded.

Dumbledore produced a crystal orb with four ornately carved points mounted on a polished stone base. "I will need you to relax. This will allow me to measure your magical potential. I have been trying to acquire one of these for several years, and finally succeeded a month ago after a dear friend from South Africa passed on. When he learned of your situation, he bequeathed it to me without hesitation."

Harry closed his eyes, and felt tendrils of magic reaching out, washing over his torso, penetrating through his skin. He felt a burning sensation near the back of his neck, and fought to remain still. Then it was gone. He opened his eyes expectantly.

The orb glowed a brilliant scarlet with waves of violent light arcing around the edges. Dumbledore looked impressed. "Your magical power is significantly higher than it should be. As I suspected, that has had some serious consequences. You have a double magical core."

"And what does that mean?" Harry asked, feeling a lump in his throat and a nervous sweat breaking out on his forehead. Snape's lips were pressed together tightly; he looked worried, which was never a good sign.

Dumbledore shook his head. "I wish I could give you a more complete explanation, Harry, but this is beyond my realm of experience. Make no mistake, the magic is all yours, both that with which you were born and that which you acquired unnaturally. However, you are over capacity, to put it in simple terms. Your original core is saturated with magical power, but the excess power must be anchored somewhere. Hence, an additional nexus of magical energy within your body."

Harry nodded. "Is this a sustainable arrangement? Are these two cores mutually co-existent?"

"Possibly," Dumbledore said. "Although the magic within us is alive, to some extent, and having a separate entity may well…" he shook his head. "I cannot be certain, but you seem stable…magically, at least, at this time. Severus may be able to help you… but again, I know little of this subject. Nonetheless, I believe it can only be to your advantage if you learn to discipline your mind and control your emotions. Do you consent to additional work with myself or Professor Snape?"

Harry paused for longer than he expected. "I do. Teach me what you can, please."

Dumbledore nodded, looking content. Still, there was an uneasiness in his smile, as if he knew all too well that he might have set himself the challenge of a lifetime.

"Harry, I will not allow myself to be strung along like a poodle on a lead."

"…I don't understand."

"Of course you don't understand, that's the problem."

Giselle Reisor's words were still ringing in his ears a day later, an unwelcome and probably unneeded complication in his already difficult existence. Another letter from Aiden had been somewhat encouraging, as the man had sworn the continued support of his family, and his daughter had made the gesture of delivering it herself. She was still very cool towards him, but he was certainly not alone in feeling that peculiar chill of her affections. The only time she ever seemed to smile was around Theodore Nott.

All of that aside, Harry felt a building pressure to get out of Hogwarts and actually do something. There was a war on, though Voldemort and his forces had been quiet since the attack on Azkaban, and the later attempt on Harry's own life. The only conclusion that could be reached was that the Dark Lord was biding his time, gathering his own allies, and any moment now, he might set the wizarding world alight.

But that conversation with Giselle was bothering him pretty badly. He thought he had been clear that he was not interested in any kind of romantic entanglement. Apparently he was mistaken.

She sounded really jealous of Ginny, Harry mused.

How Harry was supposed to deal with the emotional complications and drama that came with being fifteen years old was completely beyond him. A part of him wanted to go back to Ginny and see if anything might be salvaged from the mess that he had made of things. Her words at the Three Broomsticks had astounded him. It was testament to Ginny's character that she had done anything but avoid him since he had nearly killed her in a fit of unbridled rage.

He would never forgive himself for that.

And all over Daphne. It was always about Daphne.

His guardian had vanished entirely. Aiden's sources indicated that she had been tracked to the North, but had then evaded further efforts at surveillance or apprehension by the Aurors. It came as somewhat a relief to know that Scrimgeour had vetoed the use of Hit-Wizards, even with Capture-Only orders.

Harry asked himself what Daphne could possibly mean to accomplish. It seemed as though she had been on the move, even though it might not have been necessary. Surely she could have laid low at one place or another? Daphne was engaged in some quest, but to what end, only she knew.

Harry felt a familiar tug on his mind when he exited Snape's office two days later. In his bag were two potions, both normally used to reduce symptoms of mental instability, only slightly modified by the castle Potions Master.

"I cannot promise these will work, Potter, but I assure you that I will continue to research this problem. I ask in return that you submit to me in writing a report of any unusual or unexpected symptoms, as well as a self-evaluation of your mental state. And if you do happen to have any more early morning visitations with the Dark Lord, well, I needn't tell you that you should not keep them to yourself."

Harry moved towards his dormitory, intent on a badly-needed lie-down.

The familiar voice came again into his mind.

Come play with me, Harry Potter.

He smiled despite himself, and gathering his thoughts, headed out onto the grounds, crossing the wooden covered bridge and descending one of the steep hills that surrounded the castle. He found Luna exactly where he expected her, at the base of a small cliff, surrounded by trees and creatures that few others could see.

"Do you ask the house-elves for that?" he queried, gesturing to the bucket at the petite Ravenclaw's feet, containing small chunks of raw meat. A Thestral eagerly snatched up the one she was holding in her hand.

"Hagrid, actually," Luna replied with her back turned, wiping her hands on her robes. She turned, smiling at his approach. "I have missed you, Harry." She skipped up to him and wrapped her slender arms around him, resting her dirty blond head against his chest, purring contentedly. Laughing a bit, Harry leaned into her, squeezing gently.

Luna let go and skipped away before sitting down on a moss-covered boulder. "You're troubled, Harry."

"It's nothing important."

"Of course it's important," she replied softly. "Everything is important to some degree," she told him, smiling faintly. "Else we wouldn't bother thinking about it. There's a difference between what is important, and what we feel should be important. You feel that you should be thinking about fighting a war. But that isn't what's bothering you, is it, Harry?"

He shook his head. "I wish you wouldn't do that."

"I know, which is why I didn't," she said matter-of-factly.

Harry looked up at her. "Truly?"

Luna sighed and giggled slightly. "You really are a bit daft sometimes. I don't always need to look into your thoughts to know what's bothering you. You are who you are, Harry, for better or worse. You let yourself be defined by the expectations placed upon you, but inside, you are still the lost and confused boy. But you don't like to think about it that way, do you?"

"I'm not a boy," Harry sighed. "I stopped being a boy years ago."

"That's what you tell yourself, and what others tell you. But it's not really true, is it?" Luna's pale blue eyes seemed to pierce every defense he had. "It's okay to be scared, Harry. And to be confused. Because you are just a boy."

"Giselle said that I had to renounce Daphne," he said bitterly. "That unless I could free myself from the shadow of the Grey Maiden, I could never reach my fullest potential. She said that I had to confront her, to say to her face that I did not condone her actions, that I could not."

Luna said nothing.

"I don't know if I should abhor what's she's done," Harry continued. "Sure, she's broken the rules, she's committed crimes – but she's rid this world of Death Eaters, of evil and ruthless men who will stop at nothing to see their Lord triumph."

"The world cannot be divided up into good and evil, Harry," Luna said.

"Do you think I don't know that?" Harry snapped. "But what is a man like Thomas Avery if not evil? He killed a pair of Muggleborn boys, four and six, in order to send a message to a team of Aurors. He slit their throats and branded them like cattle with the world 'Mudblood,' left them naked for the authorities to find in a backstreet of Diagon Alley. He and Lucius Malfoy raped and murdered Marlene McKinnon, tortured her husband half to death, and hung their two-month old child from the rafters like some sort of sick piñata. And then he escaped justice, buying off a prosecutorial team, and flawlessly rehabilitating his image by buying St. Mungo's a new wing. He acted like he'd changed, but he hadn't. What's so wrong about Daphne giving him what he's had coming: an agonizing death of his own?"

Luna stared blankly. "I can't answer that question. But I can tell you that the idea still frightens you. Just like the idea that your friends might get closer than you would like."

"And what if I can't afford that?" Harry asked, bit sharply. "What if I can't afford any kind of immaturity, fear, or emotional complications? There's a war on, Luna. I can't afford to be distracted by uncertainty, not even concerning the woman who I called a mother, much less petty teenage drama." He sighed. "I'm under enough pressure as it is. Did you know that Giselle accused me of leading her on, and then when I told her I didn't want that, she said I was just hung up on Ginny? I felt something for Ginny…hell, I suppose I still do feel something for her. But that was another time. That was before this world began to go straight to hell."

"Before Voldemort came back from the dead as you watched, helpless," Luna finished. She cocked her head and blinked. "That's all very admirable, Harry. Did you know that Yaddlygors spend their entire lives celibate, and then mate just before they die? They are very curious creatures, and rare, as you'd expect – father says he would spend our entire fortune for one chance to see two of them mating. Is that the life that you want, Harry? A life of passionless duty and emotional detachment, until you've just about run out of time?"

"I don't know that I can choose anything else," Harry said softly.

The Ravenclaw hopped off her perch and walked over to him.

"I do love you, you know," Luna said brightly. "Always have, and always will."

Harry started. "What do you mean?"

She giggled again. "Oh gods, but you are suspicious, aren't you? How can I help but love you…" Her voice was gentle and soothing, and she reached out to touch his face with a delicate, pale hand, running her fingers over the half-grown stubble at his jaw. A shiver coursed through his entire body, and for an instant, his entire purpose slipped. "…when no one else can understand me the way that you do?"

"Luna," he hissed between clenched teeth, seething. "Did you not just hear what I was saying?"

Luna stroked his cheek and smiled lazily. "I did. But you misunderstand. It happens, you should not fret about that."

Harry took a deep breath. "So what were you saying?"

"That I love you," she said simply. "Nothing more, nothing less. That's alright, isn't it?"

Deep breaths, Harry told himself. Alright, so Luna hadn't just confessed her love for him…in that way, at least. He supposed that he ought to be grateful. Luna returned to her stump, giving him the space that she surely knew he needed at that moment.

Harry closed his eyes. "I don't want to hurt anyone. Certainly not the way I hurt Ginny. I'm dangerous." He looked straight at her now, trying to burn through her dazed exterior by sheer force of will. "When people are around me, they get burned. I nearly killed Ginny, and then nearly got her killed just a few weeks ago, just by her being with me at the wrong moment."

"So you would drive away all your friends?" Luna asked softly. "You would fight on your own? Then you would lose, Harry Potter. And we would lose. And you know that, which is why you will never cast us aside."

"I suppose I do," he said, nearly in a whisper. He thought of Hermione, everything she had been through. She had been anxious, she had been frightened. But she had never refused him when he needed her. Not really. Ginny had been given fewer opportunities to prove herself, but though she might have flinched, she had never fallen down.

"But friends…"

"Is there really a difference, in the end, between friends and lovers?" Luna asked. "Certainly, there are some things that can only be shared with lovers, but is it not also true that there are things that can only be shared with friends? Where does one draw the line, Harry Potter? If a friend is devoted and caring, but does not share a passionate kiss with you, does that make them less important?"

"Of course not," Harry said defensively. "Luna, its not that simple. There are certain…ties, bindings between two people that love one another in body and soul."

Luna stared blankly at him. "And how would you know that, Harry?" Her tone suggested she knew the truth of that statement no more than him.

I wouldn't, his mind echoed back at him. He had shared something deep and special with Ginevra Molly Weasley? Had he loved her? Probably. Had be been in love with her? Probably not. Theirs had been the love of the young, innocent in its curiosity, even its lust for intimacies forbidden but not dared. But by shared kisses, by letting him hold her during long, cold nights in the Slytherin Common Room, had Ginny surpassed someone like Hermione, who had been there from the beginning, from the darkest days of his First Year, in the depths of his heart? That was madness, he knew. Hermione would never be his lover. They were too different now, too divided upon moral quandaries and principles. And he had never felt anything resembling lust for the Gryffindor. She was pretty, of course; her teenage years (and the removal of her braces) had been kind to her.

"You're confused," Luna said, smiling. "That's good."

"How is that good?" Harry asked, genuinely frustrated.

"Because when we are certain of things, we become arrogant. It is not necessary to doubt, just to realize that, even just rarely, we might be wrong."

There was wisdom in that, Harry could see. He smiled bitterly. "That's good advice."

Luna shrugged. "I get lucky once in a while."

"You're far too modest," he said. He closed his eyes again. Luna's gaze had a way of knocking him off kilter when he was trying to say something difficult. "Giselle's right, though. Sooner or later, Daphne is going to come back into my life. And I need to be ready for that moment. And whether I condemn her or congratulate her, I cannot let that chance escape." He opened his eyes and met Luna's. "I owe her that much, at least."

Luna tilted her head. "It would seem you have made that decision, then."

"After a fashion."

"I will be there for you, if you want me."

Harry looked at the girl opposite him, sitting leisurely on a stump, leaning back with her hands braced beneath her, her blue eyes gazing upon him with an insistent curiosity. Luna was one of the strangest people he had ever met. And yet she was, of the many he had spoken to at length, possibly the one he related the most to, as barmy as it sounded.

"I would like that," he said at last, his mouth suddenly a bit dry. "That's very kind of you."

"You are my friend, Harry Potter. Friends are there for each other in times of difficulty. I think this is probably one of those times."

Harry nodded.

"You must know what you are going to say, you know. Daphne knows you better than anyone, and she is very good at showing you what you want to see. And you are very good at seeing only what you desire. If you are unsure, you will be silent. You may speak at length, but you won't be saying anything."

"How can I do that?"

Luna hopped off her perch, and skipped towards him. She stopped and placed her hand on his chest. "Look here, Harry, and you will know."

With one last smile, she turned back towards the Thestrals. "They are always so quiet. And yet they say everything that they need to." She turned back to him. "Would that we were all like that."

"Pass the toast, would you?"

Hermione complied, her eyes still fixed upon the unrolled scroll in front of her, nearly every inch of it covered in notes, formulas, incantations, and diagrams.

Ginny sat opposite them, the Daily Prophet open and her breakfast untouched. Blaise sat beside her, glancing at his Potions textbook as he scooped up his breakfast potatoes. Neville was not even bothering to eat, frantically scribbling notes from the Transfiguration text. Luna was reading the Quibbler upside down. As he watched, she flipped it clockwise, holding it above the table with one hand while she gulped down her juice with the other. Peter Lowry sat sullenly next to the Ravenclaw, picking at his food. Ginny had threatened to hex him if he didn't start eating regularly. A little way down the Ravenclaw table where they were all assembled, Mandy Brocklehurst, Terry Boot, Lisa Turpin, Padma Patil, and Anthony Goldstein were consulting in excited whispers.

Today was the day. The beginning of their Ordinary Wizarding Examinations, and a day that Hermione had been preparing for since her first class at Hogwarts. Long ago, Harry had competed with Hermione for the best marks in the class. A combination of harder curriculums, more focus on events beyond the walls of the castle, and sheer exhaustion had put an end to that. Hermione had plowed on, her scholarly zeal entirely unaffected by the world-shaking events swirling about them.

The last month had passed in a flurry of getting caught up on schoolwork, writing letters to Aiden, working with Dumbledore, and worrying about his guardian. Somehow, these examinations had sneaked up on him, and he was less prepared than he might have liked.

"How are you feeling about your exams?" Hermione asked, for the eighth time in the last week. She glanced at her sheet, bit her lip, and then whispered something entirely inaudible under her breath.

Harry suppressed a yawn. He had not slept well the past few nights. There had been more dreams of the corridors of the Department of Mysteries, more whispers of what might be found there. He was actively trying to keep Voldemort out of his mind, but their connection, mysterious as it was, was such that that was never entirely possible. Voldemort could show him what he wished, when he wished. But if Harry fought back, he could drive him away. It was a game, now, cat-and-mouse in the landscape of dreams.

He turned his attention back to the matter at hand. "Well enough, I reckon. I've got the Charms material down, I'd reached NEWT-level Potions before Snape said I should stop, and as scattered as our Defense education has been so far…"

"…I don't think you'll need to worry too much," Hermione finished. "It's Potions and Transfiguration I'm most worried about."

"Hermione, you are first in the class in Transfiguration, and only beyond Elisha Moon in Potions. You're better than me right now."

"That doesn't mean anything," Hermione insisted. "I could excel in all of my classes and still forget enough to do poorly on one of my examinations! This determines what upper-level classes we'll be allowed to take, Harry! You can't seriously be suggesting that I put anything less than my greatest effort into these!" She was almost hysterical at this point.

"I don't think Harry is, Hermione," Ginny said wryly.

"Thanks, dear," he said, throwing her a glare. Ginny flinched, and he instantly regretted it. She's still frightened of me. Well, going by what Dumbledore said, she's got good reason.

He knew why "Kalas" existed now. He was no closer to understanding what he might do with that knowledge.

"You know yourself, Harry," Luna muttered. "Ooh, I knew I was doing that wrong." She laid the Quibbler open on the table and scratched out something frantically. Then she took her wand from behind her ear and tapped it on the page. It glowed with a flash of brilliant yellow, and she smiled widely.

Hermione had frowned at the Ravenclaw's first words, but was then occupied trying to blink away the spots that had probably just appeared in her vision.

"…that can't be good," Ginny said softly.

"What?" Harry and Hermione asked at once.

"Take a look," she said, offering them the Prophet with a unhappy expression.

Hermione grabbed the paper, and Harry glanced over her shoulder. The item in question was buried six pages back, in a small box of text with no accompanying image. But Harry immediately understood what had Ginny so worried.

Break-In at the British Museum: Darvish Strikes Again?

London, UK

Aurors and Security personnel alike are baffled by the disappearance of several magical items of great antiquity held in the country's largest magical collection of historic artifacts. Rumors persist that at least one of the objects taken has connections to one or more of the legendary Founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but authorities have not issue any further information. It is further suspected that the burglary, which was detected a full two days after the event, was perpetrated by notorious thief and suspected ally of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Mole, Wesley Darvish. Mr. Darvish was one of many prisoners missing after a shocking attack on the island prison of Azkaban late last year, and had been serving a 40-year sentence following his third conviction for grand larceny and trespassing.

"Well, that could mean a lot of things," Hermione said slowly. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions."

The corner of Ginny's mouth twitched. "Any time that something associated with the Founders ends up in You-Know-Who's hands, it's probably safe to worry. Any idea what it could be?"

"Not a clue," Harry admitted.

"The Library ought to have a fairly recent copy of the Museum catalog," Hermione said. "I'll do some digging and see what I can come up with. After OWLs, of course."


"Well, not after all of them," she clarified, sounding agitated. "I won't leave this sitting for two weeks."

"I'll do it," Ginny volunteered. "I've just got my regular end of term exams coming up, and I've got little else to do."

"Your studies are important as well, Ginny," Hermione insisted.

"I know that," Ginny replied, looking somewhat mutinous. "But how I do on my exams in a few weeks won't be determining my future studies at Hogwarts. It makes sense that I should take the risks. Plus, I've always wanted to do more digging in the library. Between Quidditch and everything else, I so rarely have cause or opportunity."

That was another thing. Gryffindor and Slytherin had finished the year tied, though Slytherin held the tiebreaker after their close win in the late January snows. But the Chasers of Gryffindor had just finished a season for the ages, where they broke nearly every scoring record on the books. The end result was that Slytherin's lead was within the point window, and a rare event, a Slytherin-Gryffindor winner-take-all championship match, was scheduled for the Sunday after their last OWL. Pucey was all over him about his failure to show up for the previous two practices, going so far as threatening to bench him and replace him with Ginny. The redhead told him privately that if Pucey did that, she would refuse to fly at any position.

Years ago, Quidditch had been damn near everything, one of his few chances to distinguish himself except in unwanted ways and quite possibly his only chance to win the respect and affection of his Housemates. Now, with the war and everything else, the game felt increasingly like yet another luxury he couldn't afford. Harry had spent the time he gained from missing those practices discussing the werewolf situation with Remus – which had deteriorated, due in no small part to re-emergence of the infamous Morrigan Kane, better known as 'Fiacre' or, the Welsh translated, 'Kin-Slayer' and what appeared to be a small pack of her own.

The pieces were beginning to move on the great chessboard, some in the open, some in the shadows. And here Harry was, stuck in school, struggling to keep up with his studies, increasingly neglecting his friends and teammates. The events around him screamed for him to grow up, to mature on the spot, to make the flawless and rapid transition from fifteen-year old Hogwarts student to the fabled leader who would unite Light and Dark, and, by the way, defeat the greatest Dark Lord in centuries.

He caught Ginny looking at him, concern in her warm brown eyes. In the past she might have reached out for a reassuring hand clasp, or given him a kiss on the cheek when they left for classes, or joked about the latest news from her harried mother, now forced to deal with the entrepreneurial-minded Weasley twins.

She said nothing, and began to eat her porridge.

Harry would have felt the pain in his soul if he had the time.

"This is hopeless," Neville muttered.

"Of course it isn't!" Hermione insisted, turning to her Housemate with an exasperated expression on her face. "Neville, we've been over this. Did you make a review sheet like I told you?"

"Yes, but…"

"And do you feel comfortable with most of the material on that piece of parchment?"

"Most of it, but…"

"Then you are going to be alright." She laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Really, Neville, I don't know what to do with you sometimes…and don't you dare apologize! You're my friend, possibly my only real friend in Gryffindor, and I'm going to get you through these exams if it kills you. Or me," she finished, emphatically taking a bite of toast.

Neville had something akin to awe in his eyes. He nodded quickly. Hermione smiled, and let go. She pointed at the book he was reading. "Put that away, Neville, you don't have time to re-read the entire book, and everything you need to know you've already written down."

"But what if the examiner asks me something that isn't here? I think one of them is Griselda Marshbanks, and she knows my Gran, and probably thinks that I'm a whole lot better at everything than I really am. What if she asks me something that I didn't think to study?"

Hermione frowned. The was something pained in her voice when she said gently, "Well, if that happens, you admit defeat, say or write as much as you can, move on, and do better on the next one."

Ginny raised on eyebrow. "I swear I just heard Hermione say it was alright to not answer a question fully. I think my hearing is going."

The Muggleborn sighed. "Even I am capable of being realistic once in a while."

"I know, just winding you up," Ginny said, winking.

Harry mentally reviewed his own schedule. O.W.L.s would start with Charms, first the written examination and then the practical. They might be asked to perform anything from basic Levitation Charms to a self-applied Glamour if the examiner was particularly tough. Harry ran through a short-list of incantations, spells, and wand movements. He grinned slightly when Hermione insisted he properly 'swish and flick,' for an instant reminded of the class which had set up their friendship, when Hermione had been driven to tears by Ronald Weasley. Later that night, Harry had nearly died saving Hermione from a troll. The rest was history.

Later in the week would be Transfiguration, Herbology, Defense, and Ancient Runes, which had proved to be increasingly interesting as the year had worn on. They had not gotten far beyond basic concepts and alphabets yet, but Professor Ogola assured them that they would begin studying rune circles and talismans in her advanced class. The oldest magic relied upon the written, not the spoken, word, and a mastery of runes (and in some cases, Arithmancy) was absolutely essential for understanding and manipulating magical wards, cooperative spellcasting, and other potentially vital skills.

The exams went as well as could be expected. Charms was relatively easy, all things considered – the most difficult thing he was asked to do was a Cheering Charm, which was only a hardship because Harry had flat out forgotten the incantation and wand movement. After a couple of tries, Harry had remembered enough to cast a decent one. Transfiguration was, as always, a challenge. The written was not a terrible ordeal, with his only problem being his inability to remember the third of Louis Chamelionis's laws of Transfiguration. He performed a basic switching spell with a minimum of effort, earning a pleasant smile from Professor Tofty. Herbology was not his best subject, and he found himself wishing he had studied more as he ground through the written exam. During the practical portion, he was able to prune and feed the Fanged Geranium with only a pair of small bites.

Defense, of course, was his strongest subject. The only moment of uncertainty came when the aged Tofty asked if he might be able to see Harry's Patronus. It had been some time since Harry had cast that spell, and the last time he had, an enormous silver asp had emerged. Summoning a happy memory that was not somehow compromised by the events of this year proved to be a challenge as well. He focused hard on his utter joy at gaining a friend in Hermione during his first year, gently flicked his wrist, and spoke the words, "Expecto Patronum."

At first, there was no clear shape, and then, abruptly - and somewhat to his surprise - the gaseous cloud of magic coalesced into a hulking grey wolf with a long snout and its tail up in an expression of dominance, which bounded about the room as Harry did his best to act unworried. Where had that come from? One's Patronus could take many forms, frequently an animal associated with one close to the spell-caster's heart. His father had been a stag animagus, Sirius a shaggy dog, he heard that Lily had a doe patronus, and he had never seen Daphne's, though he believe it was some sort of bird of prey - appropriate with Artemis as a middle name.

As Tofty applauded enthusiastically, Harry pondered what this could mean, if anything. Wolves are pack animals, territorial, dangerous when roused, and possessed of great cunning and deception according to a variety of folk traditions…

"I am very impressed, Mr. Potter. Many tales have been told of your abilities, each of them likely taller and more absurd as they go, but I have never seen one your age cast such a successful patronus. Does the shape it takes have a particular importance to you? I do not mean to pry, of course."

"I'm not entirely sure."

Tofty blinked at that, and then nodded smugly, suggesting that he suspected Harry was indeed hiding something. "Ah hah. Well then, you have been a pleasure to work with, Mr. Potter. Good luck on the reminder of your examinations."

Harry was still catching his breath with he called a halt to the latest meeting of the Hogwarts Defense Association. For the first time in a while, he had participated in some duels after spending time showing the younger students how to cast and hold Shielding Spells against a mild barrage of Striking Curses. It was somewhat encouraging. Any witch or wizard that had a chance to repel or at least reduce a hostile spell had a much higher chance of survival.

He had then announced that he would be taking challengers. Today offered a brief respite from the never-ending parade of O.W.L.'s and other classwork that had put a stranglehold on his existence for the past week. He was not above the urge to beat something (or someone) up to get a little of the tension out. He had to be careful, of course. Though his magic was slowly coming under his control, even without his emotions involved his grasp would slip, and a spell would emerge from his wand over, or under, powered. He focused on the meditation exercises that Dumbledore had shown him, letting the anxiety and stress of his situation roll off him as he focused entirely on the matter at hand.

After rather easily besting Dean Thomas and Terry Boot, he had fought a much more challenging contest with the very well-trained Fourth year Zacharias Smith, who had openly challenged Harry as he was helping Terry off the ground. The surprise was that it hadn't happened sooner. Zacharias was the scion of Alexander Smith, one of Scrimgeour's most important allies in the Ministry, and a key figure in the Light families, who would generally less organized and connected than their Dark counterparts.

Zacharias had been the beneficiary of personal training by an ex-Auror tutor since he was eleven (just like Harry), and it showed. Smith danced around Harry's opening blows, winging him with a Cutting Hex to end the first phase of their battle. Harry had pulled back, allowing the younger Hufflepuff to wear himself out trying to break Harry's shield. As arrogant as he was capable, Zacharias had taken the bait, and became visibly frustrated by his inability to get past Harry's defenses after his initial success. He soon overextended himself, and Harry sent him sprawling. Smith refused the Slytherin's offered hand. Harry sighed. Alexander was a reasonable man, but it seemed his eldest son had a bit of maturation left to accomplish.

It was then that Benjamin Sinclair, a quiet but respected Gryffindor a year ahead of Harry, had calmly suggested that they should match wands. Harry, suffering from increasingly chronic sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion due to his exams and his work with Dumbledore, had only reluctantly agreed. It was stupid, perhaps, but he refused to allow one of his erstwhile pupils to get the best of him that easily.

Sinclair was a few inches taller than Harry, lean and hard-featured, with a mop of straw-blond hair and fearless hazel eyes. They bowed, and the duel began. Four minutes later, Harry had to frantically overpower Ben's shield just to earn himself a respite from the Gryffindor's erratic but aggressive attacks. Unlike his previous opponent, Sinclair was being careful not to exhaust himself, although when he thought he saw a weakness, he hammered at it relentlessly. Harry's victory came when he let his shield weaken visibly, then sidestepped a flurry of hexes and hit the Gryffindor right under his guard, ruining his balance with a Numbing Hex to the left knee, and finishing him with a powerful Disarming Spell that blew him off his feet.

Harry had bent over, hands on knees, sweat dripping down his forehead. When he looked up, the Gryffindor was smiling. "That was a hell of a duel, Potter. You won by trickery, as you Slytherins are wont, but you won nonetheless. Well fought."

"Well fought," Harry gasped, taking his hand. "You almost had me."

"I know," he said with a smile. "Maybe next time." He turned to go, then stopped. "By the way, Potter, I will make sure that my father hears of this. I assure you he'll be pleased; he's been hoping for somebody without years of combat experience to knock me on my arse for years now. Now that I know the bitter sting of defeat, I'll do my best to prevent it happening again."

"Glad I could be of service."

"Even you Slytherins are useful once in a while. Until next time, Potter."

Hermione came over to him as the rest of the D.A. was leaving, most of the fifth years moaning about their upcoming exams and their lack of preparedness. Hermione herself had spent most of her time reading over notes, though she had fought and lost a duel with Susan Bones, who had some of the nastiest physical curses (Striking, Hurling, and Bludgeoning, among others) that he had seen yet. The tall auburn-haired girl was quiet most of the time, and had been all the more so since her aunt had been arrested. Even though Amelia Bones was now Scrimgeour's right-hand woman in addition to being Head of the Department for Magical Law Enforcement, her niece had yet to fully regain the energy and vivacity she once had. Harry sympathized with Susan, as he too had had his world fall down around him before. In fact, although he wouldn't admit it to himself, he envied the Hufflepuff. At least her world only collapsed once; it seemed as it Harry's crumbled monthly.

"So what was that about?" Hermione asked, as she slung her bookbag over her shoulder.

Harry smiled tiredly. "It might have been nothing. Or I might have just impressed the heir of one of the oldest and most powerful Light families in the whole of Scotland."

"That's good news, is it?"

"I'd think so," Harry said, knowing that Hermione was only half-joking. She didn't like his political games any more than his continued insistence on creating his own inner circle of students and closest adult allies. Ben Sinclair might have to be added to that list, he mused. And Zacharias, unfortunately. It depended on how visible this cadre, that Harry had tentatively named his 'Shadow Guard,' would end up being.

It was then that he noticed another possible member of that group lingering in the corner. Hermione noticed her too, and, with only the slightest hint of a scowl, excused herself.

Daphne Greengrass moved to stand before him before Hermione was even out the door. "To what do I owe this honor?" he asked, still breathing a bit raggedly.

It was then he noticed something he had thought impossible. Daphne's pale blue eyes glistened with unshed tears, and her mouth was held in a painfully firm line. "Daphne, are you alright?"

Daphne's almost silver-blonde hair was tied into a severe bun above her neck. Her skin was pale, and though it was barely perceptible, her petite hands were shaking ever so slightly. "No, not really. Of course, I so rarely am these days."

Harry's blood ran cold. "Has something happened to your father?" Aiden's loss could be absolutely crippling. He was the glue that held the unholy alliance of a handful of important Dark families and Scrimgeour's ministry together. Without him…well, Harry had only met a few of his other erstwhile allies, and he did not like his chance of swaying the likes of Grigory Ivanov or Lucretia Bulstrode without considerable help. He'd probably still have Edwin Burke, but Harry wasn't sure he even wanted the support of the borderline psychotic ex-Death Eater.

He'd gotten a Christmas present from him this year: a mummified finger. The note said it belonged to one of his ancestors, and was a well-used good luck charm that no Burke had ever been killed carrying. With Hermione's all-too-understandably reluctant help, he had come to the unsettling realization that whoever it had belonged to, they had still been alive when it was cut off. That object rested in the depths of his trunk, and would probably never see the light of day if Harry had anything to say about it. Remus had advised him to burn it. Harry had declined to send a body part in return. He'd sent the daggers from the room of Regulus Black that had tried to kill him earlier that year. Sirius had seemed surprisingly remiss, but ultimately, he had consented. Kreacher had thrown a fit.

To be fair, he probably also had the support of Edwin's younger brother Gavin, who had married a Light witch named Gwendolin O'Leary. Those two were rather more desirable as allies.

"Not yet," Greengrass said, her voice hard. "But several men tried to breach the wards of our safe-house two days ago, and nearly succeeded. My father is a target, Potter, and it is your fault."

"I'm sorry to be exposing him to harm, but I cannot do this without him, and he pledged his support freely."

Daphne seemed to swallow a laugh. "For now. Potter, I'm going to be blunt with you, even though I rarely have been in the past. Because of my father's actions, you have become the second most important person in my life, very much against my wishes. I think you're a fool sometimes, Potter, and sooner or later you are going to trust the wrong person, make one assumption to many, and get all of us killed."

At this point, Harry lacked the energy to lash out in response. And a part of him rather agreed with her assessment. He simply nodded.

Daphne seemed to respect that, strangely enough. "I want to be your friend."

Harry blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I'm pretty certain you heard me, Potter. If my life and the life of my father are tied to your fate, I will not stand in the shadows and watch you foul things up. If you'll have me, I'll sit with you at meals, be polite as I can manage to your Gryffindors, and maybe, just maybe, we might come to like one another." She smiled oddly at the last part.

"Only in Slytherin would such a desire be communicated by a formal request."

"Well, we are in Slytherin, in case you hadn't noticed," Daphne said needlessly. "Pot…Harry," she said, trying out the name, "I don't open up to many people. Well, no one, really. Not even Theodore, not beyond how I'm feeling on a day-to-day basis. My father has misgivings about him, due to his family, though I've repeatedly assured him that Theodore has not chosen his side, and is reasonable enough to listen."

As opposed to, say, being a good person, a cynical part of Harry's mind whispered. He didn't dare vocalize the thought.

"Daphne," he said, returning the favor. The name tasted strange on his lips. But the young woman before him was most certainly not his guardian. "I see no reason why you couldn't. I should warn you that my friends might not be so receptive."

"I will deal with them," she said confidently. "I've dealt with you all this time, haven't I?"

Harry had to laugh a bit at that. "Yes, I suppose you have. Though I would warn you, I don't keep them around because they echo my thoughts."

Daphne shrugged. "You've been skiving your Prefect duties, Potter."

"I have other things on my mind."

"As do I," she said, tipping her head up and looking down at him. "I still do my duty."

"No one is perfect."

"Least of all you."

Harry stared at her. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Daphne smiled crookedly. "I thought I would take on a new challenge – getting to know the Boy-Who-Lived without driving my wand through his eye." Her expression turned more serious. Harry had seen Slytherin's ice princess express a wider range of emotion in the past five minutes than in the five years he had known her, combined.

His surprise must have shown. "I do have feelings, you know," she said sharply.

"It is easy to forget."

Her smile was a bit predatory. "I'm pleased to hear that."

He sighed, gathering himself. "I won't betray your trust, Daphne. I try to be a good friend to those that treat me well."

Daphne stared at him for a long, hard moment. "Who said anything about trust, Harry?"

A/N: Hey look, I'm back! After another really lengthy delay, I know, and I am sorry about that, unfortunately neither my life nor my creativity tends to run on a decent schedule.

This is the final set-up chapter before what is going to be a two-part finale and then an epilogue. Everything has been building, more slowly in some areas, true, but all directed toward what is about to happen. It won't be an enormous diversion from the canon, at least in terms of events, but the how, why, and what will all differ rather greatly, and at the end will be a revelation that ought to make it clear, both to you, my audience, and the very characters themselves, that fate has set a rather different game than the one they were expecting.

What it comes down to is that a single event, at the end of Slytherin's Heir, changed everything. Something that was not 'supposed' to happen, and has had a chain reaction of consequences and implications that have gone a long way towards making Harry's journey different from that which Rowling wrote.

And remember, for you Who fans out there, I'm rather a fan of Steven Moffat. We saw the implications of time-travel explored canonically in PoA. I might bend Jo's rules a bit, but I've always thought that non-linear time and cause and effect was absolutely fascinating, and could not resist the urge to add it to this massive undertaking of mine. So we'll see how that goes.

A few very important little moments in this chapter, setting up relationships that will be key as the story progresses. It's my hope that Luna's character is becoming more clear, or, at least, that Harry perception of Luna's character is becoming more clear. It's a fine line to play with between God/Suehood and making Luna different in powerful and important ways. Obviously her mental abilities are not canon, though they were certainly inspired by Luna's terrific powers of observation and wisdom in human affairs (of others more so than her own). It all has a purpose.

Given that Harry has observed or experienced feelings for or from a number of women (and quite possibly one man) at this point, it seems like a good idea to address the always-lurking question of shipping. Right now, there is one pairing that matter's in Harry's mind: himself and Ginny. That doesn't mean they are going to be together throughout even the majority of the remainder of this story, it just means that right now, that's with whom Harry's heart lies, and likewise for Ginevra. I do end up ship-teasing rather a lot, which is occasionally intentional, but not always. The reason so many of Harry's peers are captivated by him is plot and story based, and it would do well to think back to how Remus reacted when he first learned of Harry's ability. In any case, the 'Harry has a lot of girls (and guys) chasing him' thing will be explored and addressed further. And not all attention is good attention.

It's also possible that Harry completely and utterly missed what Luna was trying to say. But he's not the perfect observer of others, as much as he likes to think otherwise.

The next chapter (In Harm's Way, Part I) gets the action going again, laying the final pieces of the groundwork for the climax and then getting it started. The second is intended and written to be one of the most gut-wrenching and devastating series of events ever to befall Harry and his companions, one in particular. It's still being worked out, but the most horrific part of it has been written, and I'm not afraid to say I somewhat disturbed myself with what my mind was capable of imagining and writing. Really, only one word is required: Bellatrix.

It's dark. It's also dealing with some rather terrible themes, so there will be a trigger warning at the start of part II. But I feel that I need to go here, because if things are going to be at all realistic, certain characters need to be thoroughly and terribly broken.

War is hell. And Harry and his friends are about to discover that in some of the most horrific ways imaginable. One of them, who thinks they have seen it all, is going to realize the error of that assumption., you've got that to look forward to.

Until next time,

-Chris Widger