Mr Weasley got up to stretch his legs again, unlike Uncle Arnie, who appeared to be growing roots into his chair. "Fortunately, she had no way of finding out that you and your father had moved out," he continued, "or – once she realised the house was abandoned – where you had gone."

Hannah's eyes were round with shock. "I have you to thank for that, Mr Weasley …" For a moment, her grip on Neville's hand tightened convulsively. "And you and Augusta of course." Then she took a deep breath. "Go on, please."

"Noone still had various acquaintances – I would scarcely call them friends – acquired during her years at the Ministry. She kept herself informed after the inquest, made sure that the Ministry were no longer interested in investigating your mother's death, and the case remained closed. She was aware of your father's letter-writing for many months, although I understand it didn't particularly trouble her. As a Muggle, she did not see him as any threat to her. In fact, in some ways, she was quite remarkably careless."

"If you can call it that," muttered Uncle Arnie.

Hannah's lips were pressed tightly together, and Neville could feel her trembling, so he spoke on her behalf. "What do you mean, Uncle Arnie?" However, it was Mr Weasley who explained.

"For one thing, she knew for several weeks earlier this summer that Mr Harding had sent his son one of the water pistols, but she did nothing to try and get it back. It's almost as if she wanted the object to be discovered, and for it to end up at the Ministry. It was also at that time she discovered the daughter of the woman she had used so callously was now employed in her old position in Misuse of Muggle Artefacts. I'm shocked to say the discovery amused her." He sighed deeply, shaking his head.

"Attacking you was intended to be a hint to the Ministry that Alcina Noone was back on the scene, and was now a force to be reckoned with. When she didn't find you, the potion she left on the carpet was her signature. If she had succeeded in entrapping you with it, she would not have cared, although it would not have advanced her ultimate plan. She had her eye on the bigger picture. You see, it was that day she had attained her prize goal. Her experiments had finally proven entirely successful, and she had reached the stage of needing a test case for her new invention."

"The torch …" breathed Hannah.

"Yes. So far she had evaded capture, no suspicion had been cast upon her. That was no longer what she wanted. Now, she wanted to be noticed. Targeting a wizard would create a bigger splash, attract more attention than another Muggle. For it to be someone from her old department meant the wheel would be turning full circle. She relished the irony. She failed in her first attempt, but did not give up. I think she would have preferred me as her final victim, but an opportunity presented itself that she could not pass up."

"You mean she never intended …?"

"To kill Mr Harding? The Aurors have been unable to establish that for certain. She learned that he had been taken into St. Mungo's, and when she found out it was old Perkins minding him, she decided to pay both of them a visit. To some extent, it seems she was playing things by ear. You two youngsters may consider yourselves fortunate that she did not decide to open fire with that malignant little device when she met you in the corridor. In the end, she was not distracted. Perkins was the intended victim that day, her principal one in any case, rather than the defenceless Muggle, as my old friend believed when he tried to avert her murderous intentions."

"But that's just crazy though, Mr Weasley," said Neville, incredulity getting the better of diffidence at last. "She must've known that if she killed someone out in the open, in the middle of St. Mungo's, with this weapon, that Magical Law Enforcement wouldn't be able to sweep that one under the carpet. It's not like a Muggle car accident."

"Wouldn't they?" asked Hannah grimly. "Isn't that exactly what they've done?"

"I'm afraid the young lady has the gist of it, Neville lad," said Uncle Arnie.

Mr Weasley inclined his head in agreement. "Noone believed herself untouchable. She was convinced that – once the ex-Head of the Auror Office had a demonstration of the potential of the weapon she had developed – she would be all but immune from the legal consequences of her crimes. The events of the last three weeks have proved her confidence well-founded."

Neville absorbed this. It seemed impossible, but when he remembered the eager way the Head Auror had examined the torch, the fascination with which he'd turned it over in his hands, he found he could believe it after all. "Mr Weasley …?" he began again, more hesitantly this time.

"Speak up, lad," grunted his godfather.

"I once suggested that you call me by my first name," said Mr Weasley, smiling a little.

"Oh – er – OK. Erm, Arthur, do you know why your son – Percy – was at St. Mungo's that day? He was hanging around in the corridor when we met that woman." The older wizard's face darkened, and Neville worried for a second that he was going to get his head bitten off. However, while his mouth settled into a grim line, Mr Weasley's voice remained even and polite.

"I can't be altogether sure, but I have a pretty good idea. The Minister is concerned about the death of your mother, Hannah, only as far as it may impact on the way his administration is perceived by the world at large. Following the embarrassing incidents of the potion at your house, and Neville's discovery of the lorry driver's condition, I suspect the Ministry has become somewhat concerned about the possibility of the less – er – supportive branches of the press finding out about the inadequacy of their investigation."

That would figure, thought Neville bitterly.

"Therefore, I would guess Rufus Scrimgeour appointed his own babysitter for the lorry driver, and that my son was eavesdropping your conversation in the Hester Truelove ward to ensure that you did not hear anything regarding Mr Harding's true memory of the accident. Now that they wish to cover up the entire Noone affair, the Minister will be congratulating himself that you and Neville left St. Mungo's well before the murder took place."

"Even though we didn't in the end," said Neville. "We didn't see much, though, just the Aurors come to talk to Mr Harding, so we thought."

"The murder. That's the point, isn't it?" said Hannah, abject misery again apparent in her voice. Neville's handkerchief was screwed up in a soggy ball and she was kneading it with her fist. "And now nothing is going to happen to her. She'll just get away with it? What sort of world is this we're living in?"

To this, Mr Weasley didn't seem to have an answer. After a lengthy pause, Uncle Arnie took up the question instead. "Scrimgeour would argue one of expediency, my dear," he said gently. "As we are all only too aware, there is a grave threat hanging over the whole of the wizarding world. We are in the middle of a fight for our very existence. The Minister may truly feel he is acting for the best."

"I'm beginning to wonder if any of us – or our way of life – is worth saving," Hannah replied. The strain of the afternoon appeared to be telling at last. A sob escaped her, and Neville made an involuntary movement towards her. She leaned forward, dropping her head onto his shoulder, and he stroked her hair as tears soaked into his t-shirt.

While Uncle Arnie had taken refuge in his tumbler again, Mr Weasley appeared unembarrassed by this display of affection. After a moment, he went on. "He and his closest advisors would argue that if the knowledge of how to create such weapons is in the world, it should be in Ministry control, and no one else's. According to him, having Noone continue her research, and allowing her to oversee the continued development and manufacture of her inventions is in the 'interest' of all who reside under his protection."

"That's a load of rubbish though, Mr – Arthur." Neville looked up, his shyness evaporating completely as his anger took hold. "Is – isn't it?" he finshed, more doubtfully, looking round at Uncle Arnie for support.

"It's what the effects might be should these devices be produced in large quantities that worries me," said his godfather, addressing his colleague.

Mr Weasley regarded him steadily. "That's why, Arnie, you and I must be ever-watchful from now on. You know I didn't really drag you along to those Muggle shops earlier because I was concerned about shaking my son off our tail. If anything I hoped he would follow us. I want him to be aware …" He ground to a halt. His friend's eyes crinkled in understanding.

"Fair enough, Arthur. I take your point. Constant vigilance then, like that mad old stick Moody used to say." He smiled reminiscently. "Your dad did a cracking impression of him, y'know." Neville, who was still holding Hannah although her shudders had subsided somewhat, felt something close to impatience with his godfather.

"Noone should stand trial," he said firmly. "Everyone should know what she's done."

"Yes, they should," agreed Hannah in a thick, tear-clogged voice.

"She is not to be tried by the Wizengamot," Mr Weasley's voice was harsh. "Noone has been stripped of her wand for the crime of using an Unforgivable Curse on Mr Harding, for how long, I do not know. For the time being, she has been placed under armed Auror guard with the additional protection of constantly renewed Cooperation Spells. As long as this remains the case, she is, at least, not a danger to anyone. I am sorry, Hannah. It must be small comfort." He lapsed into silence.

Hannah lifted her head from Neville's shoulder. Her eyes, dry once more, blazed into the fireplace. "Maybe I was right after Mum died, when I thought I was better off in the Muggle world."

Mr Weasley roused himself again. "Hannah, no one could blame you for asking yourself these questions, considering what you have been through. I understand myself how difficult it can be to hold onto what is right – in this world where brute pragmatism and corruption appear to hold complete sway."

His words seemed to be getting through. Hannah lifted her head and listened intently as Mr Weasley went on. "I would ask you to consider another young person of our acquaintance, someone who has also had one or two unpleasant brushes with Rufus Scrimgeour. I think it might help remind you what's important …" He paused thoughtfully before continuing. "It is vital that those of us who believe that we could be – should be – living in a better world stand together to fight in whatever way we can. As you can probably guess, Hannah, I'm talking about Harry Potter. He's a friend of yours, I believe?"

"Well – sort of," she mumbled. "More Neville's than mine, really. I don't know him that well."

Mr Weasley gave a small shrug. "I understand you were part of – er –Dumbledore's Army, against Dolores Umbridge in your fifth year?" She nodded, looking a little taken aback. "That in itself is something to be proud of, Hannah."

She blushed. "I never did anything, I just learned enough to pass Defence Against the Dark Arts."

"Well,that's not to be sneezed at either," said Uncle Arnie gruffly, looking at Hannah with respect. Neville's annoyance with his godfather dissipated instantly.

Mr Weasley took another sip of his brandy, seeming to choose his words carefully. "Listen to me, Hannah. You asked me earlier if you had done a good job in Misuse of Muggle Artefacts. To most of our kind, it is not exciting work, but it is necessary, and has value. There is one thing in that letter from the Minister that is perfectly true. You have a decided talent for Liaison work. According to my friend and colleague of twenty-five years standing, you have the combination of subtlety, empathy and integrity required to make you a perfect fit for the Assistant job."

Hannah blushed again, and Neville felt a warm glow of pride on her behalf.

"That's not to say," Mr Weasley went on, "I think it entirely wise for an operative of your age and relative lack of field experience to take over as Head of Department … but given the current state of affairs, I would rather see you in the post than have Misuse disappear entirely, which is the most likely scenario otherwise. If you decide to accept this deal the Minister has offered you and your father …" He paused, as Hannah frowned, looking troubled, then pressed on. "Rest assured, I will do everything in my power to assist and advise you, although I'm afraid the extent of my help may be limited to the odd five minutes here and there."

"Thank you," said Hannah soberly. "I appreciate that, Mr Weasley." However, Neville could tell that she remained uneasy. She pulled the Minister's letter out of her pocket and began to look it over, this time bypassing the letter itself to study the terms of the magical contract enclosed with it. Mustering all his courage, Neville spoke up.

"Mr Weasley? You never really said why you gave us back the glass with the curse traces on it. Are we really going to let the Ministry cover this up? I know it's your job on the line … and yours too, Uncle Arnie. But I'd risk Azkaban, if it means bringing Noone to justice."

His godfather broke in impatiently. "It's not about Arthur and I saving our skins, you daft lad."

"Calm down, Arnie," said Mr Weasley. "Neville, your sentiment is a commendable one but …"

"No more is it about our pathetic careers, what's left of 'em." Uncle Arnie seemed to remember where he was and lowered his voice a little. "Do you really think that we want the two of you ruining your lives over this before they've even begun? See the pair of you being dragged through the mud of the gutter press, or dumped in Azkaban and left to rot if Scrimgeour really chooses to flex his muscles?"

Mr Weasley's quieter, but no less urgent voice interrupted his excitable friend. "I think you've seen, Neville, some of the effects of unwanted celebrity at close hand?"

About to protest again, Neville checked himself, and began to listen as attentively as Hannah had a few minutes before.

"I'm sure that isn't the kind of spotlight you desire for yourself, or for Hannah, particularly in times like these. Think of your grandmother. No one who puts a value on their life and wishes to survive should be eager to attract unwanted attention in the current climate, even those who elect to be on the front line. Your friend Harry understands the importance these days of choosing his words, and making his decisions carefully. It's part of growing older, knowing which battles to pick."

Behind his glasses, Mr Weasley's eyes glinted fiercely. "This isn't one you can win. The glass is Hannah's insurance policy for the future. There may come time when she has greater power, and the strength to test it against a man like Rufus Scrimgeour."

Neville had no arguments left, but the thought of letting Noone – and Scrimgeour – win made him feel sick to his stomach. Several steps ahead of him as usual, Hannah didn't appear to have listened to Mr Weasley's final few words. Now, she looked up from her contemplation of the sheets of closely written parchment. "I didn't notice before, but he's already got to Dad. He's agreed to be paid off. It says here 'compensation for pain and suffering to the value of 50,000 Galleons.' And Dad's signed it."

"Don't be too hard on your father, Hannah," said Mr Weasley gently. "He has no reason to disbelieve that justice has been served. And he has suffered greatly."

"I know," said Hannah soberly. "I've made my decision. I'm going to sign it too. No, listen Neville. It's best for everyone. At least now I know the truth, that's the main thing. And you know what they say about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. If I'm at the Ministry, and I work as hard as I can to learn how the whole rotten system works, I might just have a chance to do something about it one day."

"Spoken like a true Hufflepuff," said Mr Weasley, smiling.

"There does appear to be one possible get-out clause in this contract," Hannah went on. "As far as I can tell, it's keeping the money that's conditional on my silence, not taking it in the first place. The same with accepting this job. I'll have to get a good lawyer to look it over, but I think if I can eventually pay back the money they're giving Dad and resign from the Ministry, the contract can be broken, and I'll be able to talk about it. It'll take years of course, but I'd want to give it back anyway." Her eyes flashed and her face wore its fiercest expression, as she looked around to check that they had all heard her last words.

Neville felt ferociously proud of her. He was still furious at the Minister for what he was doing to Hannah. Not just to her, he reminded himself, but to other honest people as well. It was just as wrong to force his godfather and Mr Weasley to bury the truth about Noone and her involvement in kind old Mr Perkins' death. The stinking money had blood all over it. He determined to do everything in his power to help Hannah break the contract as fast as humanly possible.

"If that's everything, I really must be getting on home." Mr Weasley's voice was more cheerful than it had been all afternoon. "The house is rather too quiet for my wife's liking just at the moment. I must not deny her an additional stomach to feed."

Hannah decided not to go with Neville to King's Cross on the first of September. She said it was because she didn't want to face all her friends' questions about whether she was coming back to school after all. Really, it was because she knew it would be difficult enough to say goodbye to him without having to watch the Hogwarts Express pull out of platform nine and three quarters. For days, her heart had felt like it was slowly tearing into two separate pieces.

"I'll let Augusta enjoy showing you off for the last time," she said teasingly, as they finished breakfast, their final leisurely morning before the frantic, last-minute rush that Neville's grandmother had assured her the following day would bring. "Head Boy. I think her head might explode. And if it doesn't, Ernie's will when he sees you."

"I still think McGonagall's finally lost her marbles." Neville looked frankly terrified, as he stared at the red and gold badge in his hand for the hundredth time since it had arrived, the day after they'd learned the truth from Mr Weasley. "I really don't think I can handle this. Thank Merlin Luna and Ginny are going to be on the train." He put it back on the kitchen counter. He'd been sorry, but for some reason not particularly surprised to learn, in the letter enclosed from the Headmistress along with his seventh year booklist, that his three closest friends in his year were not coming back to school.

"Make sure you don't let that Parvati Patil go all soft on you, now that you're a man of status." Hannah continued to tease him, as she wondered again who would be Head Girl alongside her boyfriend. She realised she'd be perfectly happy if, in Hermione Granger's absence, one of the remaining Gryffindor or Ravenclaw girls were given the honour. Mind you, she thought, forcing herself to be honest, she wouldn't even mind too much if it turned out to be awful Pansy Parkinson, although she doubted Neville would agree with her. Hannah was finding, to her shame, that she couldn't suppress a nasty little hope that it would be anyone other than her best friend Susan. To know that it should, by rights, have been hers … she would find that difficult to bear.

"Status and experience," said Neville with a grin, holding out his arms for another cuddle.

"I know her sort," giggled Hannah, seizing him around the waist and squeezing tight. "She'd only be after your body."

For this bit of cheek, Hannah's punishment was to be lifted bodily into the air and carried over the threshold of the back door into the garden of Hill House. "I could hex you, you know," she said, making no attempt to go for her wand.

"I'd like to see you try." He struggled up the steep slope of the lawn, a destination in mind.

"Put medown, Neville. I must weigh a ton."

Neville considered. About the same as Hermione, give or take ... He smiled to himself, wise enough by now to know exactly how much of a bad idea it would be to mention another girl's name at this particular moment.

The air was heavy with the scent of late summer. He'd miss this place when he left the next morning. Hannah was now chuntering about how he should make friends with Ernie and Susan and the other 'Puffs, and how pleased they'd all be if he and Luna and Ginny Weasley did manage to reinstate the DA. "Especially Zach," she said. "He used to talk about it all the time."

Yeah, right, thought Neville, not feeling the least bit inclined to go on talking. Make friends with Zacharias Smith? Like that was going to happen. He might try and get to know Ernie a bit better though, he mused, thinking of Hannah's words the other day about keeping friends close and enemies closer …

He finally lowered his girlfriend to the ground again when they reached the camomile lawn at the top of the garden. He'd reseeded it the week before and with the Acceleration Spells, it was already looking and smelling pretty good. By next summer it would be perfect. Shouldn't be walking on it yet, really, he thought vaguely. Or lying on it, for that matter. Oh well, he said to himself, as he finally managed to shut Hannah up with a kiss. You only live once.