Chapter Twenty-Four

Something soft tickled his cheek. He didn't open his eyes. He could smell something nice, some kind of flower, and a whiff of ink, and he knew the soft sensation was just her hair. He couldn't move his arm, since she was laying on it, and he didn't try to move away, even though his hand was tingling and going numb. She stirred slightly, and he knew she was waking up. He opened his eyes when she turned to face him, and felt his heart breaking all over again at the sight of her delicate face raised toward his with a sleepy smile. No one else could hold her like this. Just him.

He waited for her to kiss him good morning. He always waited for her to move first. Sometimes it was hard to hold back, but didn't you have to work hard for everything worth having? And this girl, he thought as she shifted higher to reach his face and he smelled that flower-and-ink smell again, was worth having.

The first kiss was gentle, the perfect way to show someone you were glad to be waking up with them. Then she moved with shocking speed and aggression, and he could only be glad he'd woken up a couple of minutes ago so he could move to meet her quickly enough to please her. The look on her face was confident and teasing, and he grinned, ready to sit back, as it were, and let her run the show.

Then someone tugged on his brain. The only way to describe it was that someone had laid their hands on his thoughts and tried to drag them away. There was only one reason for that, and only one person who'd be trying, and he was forced to start thinking. He was disappointed to realise he was having a dream and this wasn't real, of course, but he had to ignore that and make a decision. The vigorous Occlumency exercises ensured he couldn't be dragged away against his will, but would he go willingly, to see what waited at the end of that persistent tugging?

No, he decided. He wasn't stupid. Voldemort had only seen him acting like a brash teenager, and he couldn't know Harry's motivations for showing up at the Ministry, so he was banking on Harry being the kind of person who'd respond to the tugging, who'd rush in without thought. It was a desperate effort to get his attention after all the other things he'd tried this summer had failed. He wasn't going to respond to it. He couldn't afford to. Despite a burning desire to meet his enemy face-to-face, this was all about protecting Sirius, at least for now. He couldn't give in.

So he shoved back. "Leave me alone!"

"You think you can stand against me?" whispered the silken voice.

Despite himself, he listened, and he answered. "I already have."

"Only because I have allowed it. I can afford it. There can only be one victor between us, and I cannot die."

"I never said I wanted to kill you."

"Did you hear me? I am immortal. Surrender now, and I may be lenient to your friends."

Harry forced laughter. "Lenient? You couldn't hurt them if you wanted to, not without your cronies to back you up. Now sod off!"

Harry threw up his barriers as strongly as possible, so hard that . . .

He stared at his ceiling. He'd woken himself up. He rolled on his side and tried to go back to sleep (because he'd be damned if he'd be tired in the morning because of Voldemort tried to whisper to him in his dreams) but he was too disgusted with himself to sleep. He should never have listened to that first whisper, he should have reinforced his mental barriers the minute he felt the tug. He'd allowed himself to be goaded into having the conversation, just like Voldemort had wanted. He was just trying to intimidate Harry, and the more Harry responded, the more it was obviously working.

The dream he'd been having before Voldemort started in on him caught his attention, and he didn't know whether to just enjoy the dream or feel ashamed of himself. She was his friend, his best friend, he shouldn't think about her like that . . .

Harry rolled out of bed, knowing he wasn't going back to sleep, and went to Sirius' door. He knocked softly, not wanting to wake up Remus who was sleeping in the room two doors down. Sirius opened the door with his wand, standing a few feet back in the room in a dueling stance. Harry laughed softly.

"Just me."

"Merlin, Harry, it's the middle of the night. What's going on?"

"I'll tell you if you'll put the wand down."

"Oh, right. What are you doing up?"

Harry grimaced. "Dreaming. It wasn't much fun, and now I can't go back to sleep. I'm going out for a bit."

Sirius frowned, scrubbing his face to wake himself up and trying to grasp the conversation. "Where are you going?"

Harry held out his arms and waved them. "You know, flying. I just wanted to let you know in case I wasn't back when you woke up."

"Be careful," Sirius said, stepping forward and putting a firm hand on his shoulder. "I know you've practised carrying your wand in your talons, so take it with you. Just in case."

"Okay," Harry said, "but only if you relax. No one could possibly know it's me."

Sirius just frowned.

"Sirius, I'm all right. You're the one who nearly died."

Sirius let him go and sighed. "Fine, I'm going back to bed. You tell me as soon as you get home."

"I will. I'll even cook breakfast if you promise you'll come to the table looking a bit less like you're painfully constipated."

Sirius blinked. He was too sleepy to appreciate it right away, but he finally chuckled. "I'll try to stop being such a pain in the arse. If you haven't learned safety by now, you never will."

"That's right."

"We're going to have a talk about your dream when you get home."

Harry nodded. "Actually, I want to have a quick word with Dumbledore about it as well."

Sirius had been ready to crawl back into bed, but he shot back up at that. "Why?"

"Sirius, we'll talk about it when you wake up. I need to get out and clear my head. You've barely let me out of the house all summer. I need to fly."


Harry left Sirius to his sleep, feeling a bit jealous that Sirius could. He went to his bedroom window, and made sure to put a book on the sill just in case the window fell shut. Then he transformed. It was always the strangest sensation, this shrinking, this sprouting feathers, but there was more to it than that. It was nearly the same feeling that he'd gotten from saying, "My name is Evan Rivers." It was freedom that coursed through him with the magic. As an owl, he was nothing. Just another bird in the sky at best, and some wizard's pet at worst. He would never be noticed, and he didn't have to worry. He could revel in the feeling of soaring, of wind rushing by him, of the stars and the cool air and the darkness. There was nothing but him and sky.

He was practicing quick transformations, and he was having a great deal of fun taking risks. So instead of soaring right away, he just found the tallest building possible, landed atop it, and transformed back into himself. He crouched on top of the building, gathering his courage. He backed away from the edge, took several deep breaths, then took a running leap and flung himself off. He gritted his teeth to keep from screaming, and transformed again. His wings sprouted and he spread them and flapped madly. He arrested his freefall seven feet in the air and climbed back into the sky. He was also testing his endurance. He'd find other buildings and do this at least twice more tonight, until he could no longer be sure he'd have the strength to transform again. If he was going to be out, he'd take the opportunity to train himself a bit. His jokes and attitude with Sirius aside, he knew it was important. Even as an owl, he was part of a war. He had to be ready for anything.

Harry was glad he'd put the book in the windowsill, since the window had slipped down while he was away. He didn't want to come in and out the front door since transforming on the front walk would get a bit conspicuous, but this business with the window was a little ridiculous. He was small enough as an owl to slip in under the upright book, and he transformed without bothering with clothes. He needed a shower. A shower in which he would not, not even once, think about his dream about Hermione.

He came downstairs and started breakfast after his shower, just as he'd promised. His hair, which he'd chopped off the minute his identity was out and his scar went on proud display, was spiky with water and sticking straight up. He was enjoying having his own glasses again, since he'd never really liked the contacts, but he was having to readjust to the feeling of them on the bridge of his nose, and he kept rubbing there as he cooked the eggs.

Remus appeared in the kitchen first, looking bleary-eyed and oblivious, intent on coffee to the exclusion of everything else. Harry liked to joke that it was possible Remus and Lily had something going back when his mother had married James, with the way Harry and Remus shared a caffeine dependence (not to mention book dependence). Remus got all the way to the pot and was two sips into his first cup before he even noticed there was anyone else in the kitchen. He jumped, almost spilling his coffee.

"James?" he muttered. Then he shook his head. "Merlin, sorry, Harry, I didn't know you were in here."

Okay, I'm definitely the son of James Potter, Harry thought to himself, but he just grinned. "I'm standing right here cooking breakfast, you know. Who did you think started the coffee?"

"How long have you been up? It's six o'clock in the morning."

"Since about two-thirty," Harry answered, his voice dry.

Remus made a face. "Couldn't sleep, then?"

"Yeah, I went out."

"Well, well, Archie, how was it?" Remus looked around at the breakfast fixings. "How do you have this much energy?"

Harry shrugged, and felt the shivering weakness in his shoulders. He'd worked himself hard the last few hours, and the hot water in the shower was all that stood between him and severely sore muscles. "Like I said, flying is good for me."

Remus only had one response. More coffee. "You make me feel like such an old man," he grumbled. "I thought you and Sirius had got me in great shape, but there's no way I could stay up all night like that."

"Well, I am only fifteen."

"Not for much longer, though," Remus reminded him. "We ought to throw you a party, when was the last time you had a birthday party?"

"Uh, never," he muttered. "I don't want one, please, please, please, don't do it," he begged as he saw the look on Remus' face.

"I'm going to talk to Sirius."

"No, you're not."

"Why not?" Sirius asked in a croaky voice as he shuffled into the kitchen.

"I'm not having a birthday party," Harry said firmly.

Sirius shrugged. "Okay, if you don't want one." He ignored Remus' consternation. "What do you want for your birthday, if not a party?"

"Nothing. I hate birthdays, they're stupid."

Remus looked like he was going to argue this point, but Sirius had other concerns on his mind.

"We need to talk about what happened last night, Harry."

"Okay," Harry said. "After we eat. I need to go see Dumbledore, okay?"

"Right, you said that. Fine, we'll eat, then we'll talk."

"Harry, come in," Dumbledore said pleasantly, holding open his office door. "Sirius told me you'd be coming by soon, but he didn't say what you needed. Is there anything wrong, my boy?"

Harry sat down in his favourite chair in the office. He took a deep breath and braced his hands on his knees before he asked the question he was certain he wouldn't like the answer to. Even if the answer was "I don't know," that wouldn't be a good thing.

"Do you know of any reason for Voldemort to think he was invincible?"

Dumbledore immediately lost the pleasant look and gave Harry a sharp look. "What's happened?"

Not, "Has something happened?" or "What makes you ask such a thing?" Harry noticed. He did know something.

"He tried to get into my head again. He hasn't ever since Snape said he warned him I would be able to get into his head, but he did last night. I think he's getting desperate."

"You have not responded to the number of people he has been killing the last few months. He does not take kindly to the idea that the person he considers his destined enemy ignores him."

Harry nodded. "He was trying to goad me into a fight. He said he was the only possible victor, because he is immortal. He actually said, 'I cannot die.' What would make him say that, sir?"

Dumbledore looked stricken. He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a small, wrinkled, ink-spattered book. "This is the diary that took possession of Neville during his second year here at Hogwarts."

Harry wasn't sure where this was going, but he reached out his hand. "May I?"

Dumbledore passed him the diary, and Harry examined it. It looked pretty thoroughly destroyed, but there wasn't much else to see. He handed it back, and just raised his eyebrows and waited.

"I have kept this diary for the past several years because of what happened to Neville, and what it took to destroy it. I had to use basilisk venom to remove the risk of the diary possessing anyone else. Because of that, I believe that Voldemort infused this diary with a piece of himself, a branch of Dark magic that has been deeply buried in recent years. I have spent most of this summer gathering information concerning my suspicions on this subject. I am not yet ready to share that information, but you will be the first person I speak to when I have discovered enough to form a clear opinion."

Harry gaped at Dumbledore. "Sir, you don't mean he was serious. That he really is immortal."

Dumbledore's face became guarded. "As I said, Harry, you will be the first person I speak to when I gather more information."

Harry sighed with frustration. Dumbledore was probably right not to speculate without any evidence, but this was a topic that he would really like to have settled, even if the answer was "yes, he's immortal." He wasn't sure how he was supposed to not worry himself to death over this idea. Of course, Dumbledore didn't say he shouldn't. The headmaster was obviously pretty worried. Although it did convince Harry that if Voldemort ever so much as accidentally shared an emotion again, Harry was going to build actual walls to supplement his mental walls. Preferably in Antarctica.

Yeah, this war was going to suck.

There was a brief knock on the door, and Snape stepped in. He saw Harry and stopped, surprised to see him and giving him a sneering look.

"Mr. Potter," he said quietly. "It was not my intention to interrupt. Headmaster, I will return later."

He was carrying some kind of potion.

"Nonsense, Severus," Dumbledore said, and waved him forward. "Is that the Polyjuice?"

"It is."

"Very good. Have you informed Mr. Malfoy to make his way to my office?"

"I have. He will be here shortly."

"Well, then, Harry, I'm afraid I have other business to attend to."

"Yes, sir," Harry said, standing up. "Sorry to bother you."

"Do not ever think so," Dumbledore said, finally able to smile again. "You may come to me any time you have a concern. I appreciate that you shared this information with me, and I hope that you will continue to come to me when such incidents occur."

"Hah, I'm kind of hoping they won't occur."

"If you do not need me any further, Headmaster," Snape interrupted, bowing a little and backing toward the door.

"Thank you, Severus. I will keep you informed about this situation."

After Snape had gone, Harry felt free to ask, "What's the Polyjuice for, sir? For Draco? You have some kind of plan for him?"

"Ah, yes, I had forgotten his refusal to speak to you ever again. I had almost hoped he would inform you himself. I do not feel it would be good for him to hide himself at the school all summer, alone, but we are afraid that Death Eaters would target him. So I have found a place for him to go, and he will be using the Polyjuice Potion to avoid being found by his father or any of Voldemort's other supporters."

"He would really have to stay at the school otherwise?" Harry asked skeptically. "I don't think his father would kill him, Headmaster."

"I do not think he would, no. But he has banned him from their family home and removed his financial support. I think that if Draco had gone to him directly following the incident in the Department of Mysteries, his father may have accepted his apology, but things were complicated by his stay in the infirmary here." Dumbledore had a sad little smile. "We may even hope that Draco no longer wishes to return to his father and side with Voldemort. He has not yet chosen to confide in anyone here, but perhaps you may speak to him when he has had a little more time to accept his position."

Harry shrugged. "I'll talk to him right now if he feels like it, but you're probably right, he'd probably try to kill me. I'll give him a few more weeks."

"Thank you, Harry."

"And so I'd better get out of here before he comes, huh?" Harry said with a smile. "Thanks for talking to me, sir."

"Anytime, Harry."

Harry made a quick escape. He wasn't worried about Draco killing him, but he didn't much want to fight with him, either. The longer they went without having their final argument, the longer it would be before Draco tried once again to join Voldemort's cause.

As had become normal over the last few weeks, Harry rose first, his mind too plagued by his worries to sleep in, and began breakfast. Remus would be down for coffee soon, they would chat for a few minutes before Sirius got up, then they would probably do some jiu jitsu practice before Sirius spent a few hours working on amazing lesson plans for the upcoming school year. At first, Kreacher had resented that Harry cooked breakfast every morning, since this was, along with lunch, dinner, and keeping house, his job, but he'd gotten used to it. He even seemed to like Harry again. Harry had the feeling that Kreacher just got lonely when they were all gone for school and work, and he liked having them here making noise to fill the house and messes for him to clean.

Pancakes, Harry decided after surveying what was in the pantry and the icebox. Pancakes with fresh fruit and berries on top, that would be fantastic. He'd only just gotten everything out onto the countertop before Remus came in and poured his first cup.

"Morning," he said cheerfully, knowing it was too early to get a coherent response out of Remus, but that was half the fun.

"Morning," he yawned back. "Mmm, pancakes," he muttered appreciatively. He eyed Harry over the rim of his mug. "You know, you look more like your father every time I see you. That includes the bad hair."

"Says the man who didn't comb his yet. The gray is showing."

Remus made a face at him. "We can't all be fifteen."

"None of are fifteen, actually."

"You're— oh, right. That's today. Hey, wait a minute, what are you doing cooking breakfast, it's your birthday," Remus said in a scolding tone, shoving Harry away with his shoulder and removing the little paring knife he was using on the fruit. "I'll do it. You sit down and celebrate."

"I never really understood why people throw parties on birthdays. It's kind of like, 'congratulations, you managed to keep your heart beating another year.'"

Remus gave him a sort of grim smile as he took over the breakfast preparation. "Well, Harry, I hate to tell you this, but congratulations on keeping your heart beating another year. Here's to another."

Harry laughed darkly as he took a seat at the kitchen table and started nursing his own cup of coffee. He hadn't really thought about it until he said it, but he supposed congratulations were in order. Come Sirius' birthday, Harry was going to have to throw him a truly amazing party. In fact, if birthdays were about celebrating the fact that a person had struggled through and not died, there were a lot of birthdays he needed to start taking more seriously, including the man cooking him breakfast. It could have been him hit with that spell from Lestrange. It could have been Neville or Fred or Hermione, as well. Maybe he ought to enjoy his birthday, after all.

"Well, Remus, in that case, feel free to cook me breakfast."

"Aren't you going out to meet your friend Hermione later?"

"Yes. We promised we'd open our OWL results together today."

Sirius shuffled into the room right then. "You already have them?" he asked in a scratchy voice.

"Yeah, they came yesterday."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"You'd have made me open them. I promised to wait for Hermione."

The look the two men gave him made him blush. Then he remembered the dream he'd started out having before Voldemort interrupted a few weeks ago, and he had to duck his head and concentrate on his coffee because he felt like his face was on fire.

"Harry, I know you said you weren't, um, well you weren't, but . . . were you lying?" Sirius asked, raising his eyebrow at his godson as he adopted the task of mixing the pancake batter.

"No," Harry snapped. Ducking even further over his mug, he mumbled, "Doesn't mean I don't want to."

Both men snickered, then they took pity on him and changed the subject. It was his birthday, after all. But it hardly bore thinking about, anyway. This was Hermione Granger they were talking about. Beautifully thick and shiny brown hair aside (and beautiful face, and beautiful smile, and beautiful eyes, and a body delicate as a bird's, not to mention a beautiful and courageous soul), she was not ready for a physical relationship. But hey, it was his birthday. It was a good day to wish that when she was ready, she'd pick him.

When Harry greeted Hermione in Diagon Alley, the awkward feeling he'd been having about seeing her melted away. She was smiling with happiness to see him, and she ran forward to hug him, and it was easy to remember that they were friends and they didn't have to worry about that kind of thing. Harry's private thoughts about how attractive she was becoming didn't have to be an issue.

"Are you ready?" she asked, brimming with excitement and clutching his arm.

Merlin, it was going to be harder to forget about than he'd thought.

"Yeah, I am. I thought Sirius was going to kill me when he found out I'd already gotten my results and I hadn't shown them to him. But I made a promise, after all."

"Well, let's do it! Do you know how hard it's been to wait?"

"Where do you want to go?"

She linked her arm through his. "It's your birthday, Harry. Let's get some ice cream."

So they sat down at Florean Fortescue's and pulled out their envelopes, embossed with unbroken Hogwarts seals, and grinned at one another.

"Okay. Go!"

They tore into them. Hermione squealed.

"Harry, I got an 'O' in Defense! I got an 'O'!"

"I got an 'E' in Ancient Runes, Hermione!"

"Thank you!" they both said to one another simultaneously, then laughed. They traded papers, exclaimed some more, and realised that neither of them had gotten anything less than an 'E' in any subject. It was great news for them in any case, but Harry decided than turning sixteen was a great thing entirely. After the summer he'd been having, he needed today. Ice cream with his best friend to celebrate being one of Hogwarts' top students? That beat counting Voldemort's death toll.

"It's nice to be able to call you Harry, now," Hermione said when they had finally stopped studying their results papers. "It got to be hard to remember to do it toward the end of the school year, when I kept seeing the real you showing through."

"What do you mean, the real me? I was being the real me."

"Mostly. But Evan Rivers tried to keep his head down. The real you showed up that night when you stood up to Umbridge and You-Know-Who."

"Voldemort," he prompted. He'd told her his feelings about that name.

"All right, Voldemort then." But that made her smile. "That's just like you. It's not that you're not afraid. It's that you won't let yourself be afraid, and certainly not intimidated. When you make up your mind to do something, you throw your heart and soul into it, Harry. Even being Harry Potter, which you've finally decided to do."

He blushed. "I guess I have."

"I'm so proud of you," she said, sounding shy.

He smiled. "Thanks. I'm pretty proud of you, too."

"Me? Why?" Now she was blushing.

"You're not the same person you were when I met you last year," he said. "You're stronger, now. You're amazing, actually."

"Thanks to you."

"No. Not really. I'm glad I could help, but you're strong in yourself. You didn't need me."

Hermione lost her smile, but not her blush. "But I do. I don't know what I would do without you."

"Then we have something else to agree on."

"You know, most guys think girls are supposed to be tiny and delicate little hothouse flowers," Hermione said. Her voice said she was testing him. "They're not supposed to be strong, they're supposed to need protection."

Harry just grinned. "You certainly are tiny and delicate, and I'd love to protect you, but I know I don't have to. You ought to meet some of the women I knew when I was younger."

"What women?" she asked suspiciously.

"Sirius' women, mostly. Mona, she was a single mother who'd pretty much single-handedly chased off her son's deadbeat dad. And there was a whole string of women in Japan who were very strong. Survivors. Then Catalina. There hasn't really been anyone after her. She's the closest thing to a mother I've ever really had, and boy does she exemplify self-empowered women. She was always cooking and cleaning, but don't get any ideas that she was doing it to serve you. She loved to dance, and she was beautiful. Sirius was totally under her power. She and her brother Miguel were our family. Miguel's the one who taught me everything I know about fighting without a wand."

"What happened?"

Harry shrugged. "Sirius wanted to marry her, but he was too committed to raising me. Catalina's a Muggle, and I wasn't getting any wizardry training. We had to move. Sirius said she'd be better off with a Muggle man who wouldn't put her in danger. When Voldemort was looking for me, he found Miguel and Catalina, and they fled in the middle of the night. We'll never find them again without a lot of effort, and Sirius says we can't, that we need to let them have their new life."

"You both have had such a hard life, but I feel sorry for her, too" Hermione said softly. She gave him a quirky smile. "At least I'll never have to worry about getting dumped because I can't defend myself."

Harry smiled. "No, don't worry about that."

"Assuming I ever . . ."

"You will," Harry assured her. "One day, you'll meet a great guy, and right at that minute, you'll be ready for a boyfriend."

"That's not true," she said glumly.

"Sure it is."

She looked down at the table. "I already met a great guy, and I wasn't ready right then. Sometimes I still wonder if I'm ready." She looked at him, but without lifting her head, so she could hide behind her hair again if she had to.

Harry felt his heart start to thump, and the confusion he'd been feeling was back full-force. She was trying to tell him exactly what he wanted to hear, but maybe he was just imagining it. Maybe this was just light-hearted conversation for her, maybe she meant someone else. But he still put his hand, palm up, on top of the table.

"Hermione?" he said softly.

She looked at his hand.

"I understand that you'd want to take it slow. And I don't mind. So long as you don't mind that my hand comes with all kinds of death threats attached."

Hermione just kept looking at his hand. He started chewing on his lip, and any second he was going to take his hand back and hope they could forget about this.

"You always do that when you're nervous," she whispered, and carefully laid her hand over his. "It's very cute."

"I'll have to work on that. I can't have a tell." He said it seriously, but he was grinning and squeezing her hand, and working on having a better poker face was something for the distant future, because this moment was going to last forever. This was not someone he was planning to walk away from. He knew that teenage romances usually didn't work out, but this wasn't exactly a romance and the painful breakup, if there was one, was still far away. He was holding her hand, and it was different this time. This time, it meant something else, something special. He wanted more, but he could wait. This was what she was ready for.

"Isn't this adorable?" drawled an unfamiliar voice.

They turned around sharply, but Harry kept a firm grip on her hand. He wasn't embarrassed, no matter who it was. But he didn't know the guy. It was just a young guy, a few pimples, not much older than they were. He was wearing a half-apron tied around his waist, so he worked as a server here. Dark hair, thick shoulders. Not handsome or ugly, just sort of average.

It was the sneer that gave him away. No one else had that haughty look.

"Draco?" Harry said softly.

"In the flesh," he smirked.

"This is the disguise Dumbledore set up for you?"

"No need to sound so surprised, Potter. I moved fast enough to get the money from my personal account, but that's my tuition money for school. Now I have to work for a living."

"How tragic," Harry said dryly. "You've fallen on low times, indeed."

"I've been disowned," Draco hissed. It sounded so weird, coming from this stranger, but Harry could tell how much pain and worry lurked behind his anger. "This is your fault."

"I know it is," Harry said softly. "This wasn't what I wanted to happen, and I'm sorry. I said I would protect you, and I meant it. I made the Weasleys miss their NEWTs, so I helped them get their shop set up. Have you been to it, by the way? It's just down the street, and it's brilliant."

"I wouldn't go there for the world."

"What I'm saying is, Draco, your association with me has made things difficult, and I feel responsible. If you need money . . ."

"I'm not a charity case like your friend Lupin," he responded.

"Yet another man who has a job and works for a living," Harry said. "Not a charity case. And it's not charity, it's payment for services rendered. That's not even the issue. The issue is that you're right, this is my fault. I want to help you."

Draco threw their check on the table with disgust. "I don't need anything more from you. You'll just make it worse." He stalked away.

Harry left a big tip.

"You're not adding insult to injury or anything," Hermione murmured.

Harry grinned. "If he can be like that, so can I. Come on, let's not sit here and make it worse."

"Where do you want to go?"

"Let's just go for a walk. Have you seen Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes yet?"


"Let's head that way, then. But first, I have something to show you."

Harry pulled the letter out of his pocket. He'd read it three times in the past couple of days, ever since it had come. It was a response to the letter he'd written Sascha, his old Potions tutor. Sascha knew all kinds of strange and arcane bits of magic, and he'd been Harry's only hope, aside from months of research.

"I wrote to an old friend of mine about something Dumbledore and I talked about. We were talking about Voldemort. Voldemort interrupted my sleep a few weeks ago to tell me, very smugly, that he's immortal. I didn't believe him, of course, but when I talked to Dumbledore, he said that it confirmed suspicions he'd had about the diary that Neville got possessed by. So I asked my friend if he knew anything about this topic. This is what my friend wrote back."

Dear Evan,

It is wonderful to hear from my old student! I hope that you have not neglected your Potions studies, and that you are still looking for perfection in your art. I can see that you are as scholarly as ever, and I am glad to know it. But the subject you are studying concerns me. Your question, about how one could infuse an object with a piece of oneself to make oneself immortal, this is a dangerous area of study. I know of only one way to do this, and it is the Darkest magic, called a Horcrux. Only an evil man could divide his soul so that he could put it into something else, a violent and murderous man. I will not tell you more, because I refuse to encourage this course of study. Find another project, I beg of you. You have too much potential to go down such a road.

I hope that you will continue to study with such effort, of course, but only choose more appropriate subjects. I am sure that your father can direct you to much better projects for your classes.

I am happy to hear from you and know you are doing well, but you neglected to mention where you currently reside. Are you still in Australia? Tell me all about what you and your father are up to.

Best wishes,


"I don't want him to know who he was really tutoring, since he hasn't figured it out on his own," Harry said when Hermione reached the end of the letter. "The more people that I can protect from being targets of Voldemort, the better."

"You think that Voldemort did this Horcrux thing to that diary?" Hermione asked, keeping her voice quiet.

"I don't know, but probably."

"We should tell Dumbledore."

"I think he already knows. But he promised to talk to me soon, anyway. We'll compare notes. What I'm really afraid of is that it's not just the diary."

"You think he has more than one?"

"The diary was destroyed years ago. He must."

Hermione shivered. Harry snaked an arm around her waist.

"Harry," she said.

"I'll be good," he promised. He left his arm in place, and she made no protests. They strolled slowly toward the flashy windows of Fred and George's shop. It was the most eye-catching thing on the street.

Things were getting dark, Harry thought. People were dying, and it was only getting worse with time. Voldemort wouldn't give up. He had heard and believed the whole of the prophecy. And if he had truly infused objects with his soul so that he could not die, however that was achieved, then their stance against him seemed hopeless. The war was all they could afford to think about.

But Hermione was at his side, and it was his birthday, and they were heading toward the only thing Harry could look at and say he helped to create. Things were getting dark, but there was still enough light to see by.

A/N: First of all, I would like to thank everyone for their sympathy about the burglary. No news on catching the people responsible, but we've changed all the locks and we feel like we're safe. Thank God they didn't take the computer, that's all I really need to say!

Now, then, on to business. This is the final chapter of Book Two. I hope you enjoyed this installment of the tale. I truly enjoyed writing it, and I loved having you all along for the ride. I have a full outline for Book Three, but I need to take a little break. I will probably not begin posting the final installment in the trilogy until the first week of December. If you have me on your author alert list, you'll know when it starts up. I will probably also post an announcement on my profile page.

Because I appreciate all my reviewers so much, I want to thank you all individually. This is a huge list of people, so if you don't feel like reading it, you don't have to, this is the end of the note and the chapter. But I wanted everyone who reviewed to know that I appreciate you. Even if I didn't respond, I read it, and I remembered you. It took me a long time to make this list, so know that you were taken seriously. Thanks to the following 183 people who took the time to let me know what they were thinking:









Allen Pitt








Ashleyia Days

Athena Hermione Ravett

Autumn Aremega





Boudicca's Revolt



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Hounder of Horcruxes


Hysteria and Chaos





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Lady of the Hunt

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Like A Clockwork Orange

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Lord of All

Love is the key to the world

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You guys are amazing!