A/N: Hello all. It's been a long time, but as you can see I haven't completely disappeared nor have I given up on the story. I'll leave a more comprehensive AN after the chapter, but I just wanted to say thanks to Christine for beta-ing the chapter, and thank you to Maggie for not only beta-ing but also constantly encouraging - and occasionally pestering - me to write. And thank you to everyone who has reviewed and offered me encouragement as I worked through my writing drought. I've really appreciated all your support. Now, without further ado, on with the chapter.
Chapter 6: Necessity Unites
Albus stared at the spot where two of his students had disappeared, frowning in worry. Given their actions, it was clear something had just occurred; perhaps another student was under attack. Harry obviously had some means of knowing when his students were in trouble. He had noticed the boy grabbing at the cord of a necklace before leaving in a rush. Glancing to the side, he noticed Remus and Nymphadora speaking quietly but urgently to one another. He suspected they were deciding whether leaving to help was worth giving themselves away. He intended to help make up their minds.
Two quick, soft pops sounded, and Harry and Ginny reappeared. "Diagon Alley," Harry called, looking first to Remus and Tonks and then turning to meet his gaze. "I don't know how many there are," Harry confessed, "but I'd rather come with more force than necessary."
Albus nodded his agreement even as he stifled his rising objections to the teens' involvement in any fighting. They were well past the point where any of his arguments would do any good. Best to go along and do what he could to ensure they came to no harm. Turning to the gathering crowd of Order members, he ordered, "You heard the boy. Hestia and Sturgis," he picked out, "please remain here in case any other unwanted guests arrive." He glanced pointedly to the Stunned trio by the gravesite to emphasize his intent. "The rest of you, to Diagon Alley, and be prepared for anything."
Harry and Ginny were already gone as were Remus and Nymphadora. Without wasting another moment, Albus Disapparated. He felt the wards blocking his intended destination and redirected the magic at the last instant, taking him to the alley outside the Leaky Cauldron. He strode purposely through the entrance to the pub and had to fight his way against the tide of people streaming in from Diagon Alley. Some used the Floo to escape, while others Disapparated as soon as they crossed the threshold out the door.
The Alley itself was not any less chaotic. People were running everywhere from the several groups of Death Eaters, each at least five strong. But what drew his attention was the figure standing amidst the chaos completely unaffected. Wand in hand but pointed casually toward the ground stood Tom Riddle, the self-appointed Dark Lord Voldemort.
A series of small explosions drew his gaze to the side where, under the storefront proclaiming the sign, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, dozens of spells erupted in every direction. Amidst the lights of the spells stood a group of eight Death Eaters unprepared for the sudden onslaught. None of the spells were debilitating, but they would prove suitably distracting for the moment.
Turning his attention back to more immediate concerns, he followed along the shadows of the storefronts towards a nearby group of Death Eaters. As long as Tom was abstaining from the battle, it would be best to take care of some of his underlings before he became aware of Albus' presence.
An upward flick and jab of his wand brought some rubble off the ground surrounding the mob of dark wizards. He circled his wand around, forming a ring of steel that, with a sharp pull of his wand, contracted around the group, pulling them together into a knot and stealing their breath away. The moment of distraction was all he needed to Summon their wands away. A red burst of light followed, and they summarily collapsed to the ground.
Satisfied, he turned back to track Tom and startled upon finding that he had moved. A quick sweep of the Alley showed numerous battles breaking out between newly arrived Order members and the Death Eaters, but he could not allow himself to be distracted by these skirmishes. Finally, he located his target standing out of the way in the mouth of an alley across from the Weasleys' store where a battle was taking place.
His eyes widened as he realized exactly who was involved in that particular skirmish. Harry largely blended in with his surroundings, but the Weasley red stood out. Not only was Ginny present at his side, but Messrs. Fred and George were as well. Fear growing in the pit of his stomach, he began marching down the Alley towards the teens. He did not trust Tom to remain inactive for long.
His gaze alternated between the teens and Tom as he strode down the Alley. He had never seen any of them in battle before save for Pensieve memories of a young man he had only recently learned was, in fact, Harry. Somehow it was entirely different seeing for oneself the proficiency with which the young man wielded his magic without even the aid of a wand.
His distraction was so complete that he nearly failed to react in time to the Killing Curse approaching at his side. A quick flick of his wand to raise a block of cement into the path of the spell saved his life while a quick burst of wind prevented the shrapnel from tearing into his flesh. A negligent wand jab turned his attacker's robes to lead, and he distantly noted the thump of metal meeting the ground as he turned his focus back where it belonged.
Too late; Tom was already approaching the battling teens. Pointing his wand to the ground, he released his magic as he traced his wand forward. A crack split the ground in front of him and followed the path of his wand as it spread under Tom's feet, halting his approach. The Dark Lord turned his head, and Albus met his crimson-eyed gaze. A malevolent smirk lit Tom's face as he dismissively turned away towards a nearby group of Death Eaters.
Albus could just hear the order. "Keep the fossil busy while I attend to other matters."
They immediately fanned out as they approached, preventing him from being able to target them as a group. Without any delay, he started on the offensive. He had to get to Tom before he could do any harm to Harry.
"Harry Potter," a hissing voice addressed him as he knocked out another Death Eater. He froze in midstride for just a moment before turning to meet the hateful red glare of Voldemort and bit back a gasp as his already throbbing scar erupted in searing pain. He gritted his teeth as he glared at the façade of a man before him.
This was not good.
Fighting Death Eaters was one thing, but he knew he was not ready to face their master. But neither was he prepared to flee and leave innocents to suffer in his wake. "I'm surprised to see you, Tom," he finally responded, glancing quickly to each side. Ginny and the twins were still fighting a pair of Death Eaters on one side of him, and he noticed Dumbledore engaged with eight or ten of them a short distance down the Alley on his other side. Guess that just leaves me.
He slipped his wand out of its holster on his arm. He had not used it in weeks, but he kept it strapped to his forearm out of sheer habit. While it would only slow him down in a normal duel, it was a weapon of a different sort against Voldemort, and he was grateful to have it with him. "That wand will not help you today, Harry," Voldemort dismissed with a sneer. "I expected I might run into you today and made the proper arrangements."
Harry's eyes slid to the wand clasped in his enemy's hand. It was sad that he could spot immediately that it was not his usual wand – once he knew to look for it. Sighing, he slid his wand back up his forearm until it locked back into its holster. There was no sense using it since it was not a brother to Voldemort's new wand.
"You have been very busy this summer," Voldemort noted casually.
"Only as busy as your minions," Harry retorted, only too happy to continue the repartee if it gave Dumbledore a chance to finish off those Death Eaters and help.
Voldemort laughed. "Yes, you've been surprisingly effective against even my experienced Death Eaters, but it is not they you must defeat, Harry. Come, boy, and meet your destiny." He raised his wand and quickly sent a Crucio.
Harry was prepared for it and sidestepped easily, responding with a series of Stunners and Blasting Hexes in reply. Voldemort laughed as he flicked each one out of the air with the tip of his wand. "Surely the Prophesized One can do better than that?"
He was alarmed at how disturbingly easy it seemed for Voldemort to counter each of his spells, not even needing to rely upon a shield to stop them. Harry knew he was being baited, yet he also knew the longer he held Voldemort from truly attacking, the more time that would give Dumbledore to arrive, so he obliged.
He kept up a constant stream of hexes and curses, varying them but not digging into anything too powerful. His aim was only to keep Voldemort distracted. It would not do to tempt him to attack. The rate of spells was quick enough that Voldemort was unable to dispel them one at a time. Instead, he idly raised a shield and stood behind it, staring impassively at Harry.
"It is a neat trick," Voldemort stated even as Harry continued his relentless assault. "But you must realize you have no hope to harm me with mere schoolyard curses." His eyes slid past Harry, and his mouth quirked up into the semblance of a smile. "Look who has decided to join us. So lovely to see you again, my dear."
Harry could feel Ginny's approach from behind him but kept his gaze on Voldemort. He was hesitant to warn her away as he did not want to call attention to her, but when he saw Voldemort's eyes slide past him he knew it was already too late. "Stay back," Harry yelled at her, futilely hoping in spite of everything he knew about her that she would listen.
"I am not letting you do this alone," Ginny fired back.
Voldemort laughed derisively. "Such a devoted lover, Potter – so willing to die at your side. I don't know what I shall ever do now that I must face the both of you. Do I use her to break you? Or do I force her to watch as I kill you once and for all. It's so difficult to choose."
As Ginny continued her approach, Harry felt the pain in his scar begin to fade. When she stood level with Harry, he stepped in front of her, using one arm to hold her back while the other remained levelled at Voldemort. The moment his hand made contact with her the last vestiges of pain in his scar vanished completely, and Harry felt almost light-headed at its absence. Shaking his head, he glanced briefly at Ginny before turning his full attention back to Voldemort.
"If you're not here to kill me, then what do you want, Tom?" he demanded.
"Do not call me by that name!" Voldemort hissed, raising his wand menacingly.
"My apologies," Harry responded with a slight bow of his head. "I was under the impression we were on a first name basis."
He met Voldemort's glare as he waited, poised to spring aside and drag Ginny behind him the moment he struck, but, instead, the Dark Lord only laughed. "That's what I admire most about you, Harry. Defiant to the very end." He punctuated his last word with a jab of his wand, sending an unknown curse at him.
Harry sidestepped, feeling Ginny move with him. He let go of her arm as he turned to face Voldemort fully. As soon as he let go, he felt the thrum of pain re-emerge in his scar. He pushed the pain and his confusion over it to the back of his mind as he concentrated on the spells being shot at him. He did not recognize a single one, and so he dodged out of the way as each curse approached.
He sent some of the strongest curses he knew in return, but Voldemort seemed wholly unaffected by any of them. He swiped them out of the air with his wand even as he continued casting more and more curses. "How disgustingly Muggle of you, Potter! Stand still, and fight me like a wizard."
Harry did not dignify him with a response. He continued his casting and added some Transfiguration into the mix. A pair of wolves were incinerated before they could even manage to get near the Dark Lord. He sent bricks and blocks of concrete flying at Voldemort, but the Dark Lord stopped the projectiles in midair with ease and redirected them back at Harry. He quickly spelled the ground in front of him to rise up to shield him from the onslaught and darted out from behind the barrier not a moment too soon as it exploded behind him.
"If you won't fight me properly, Potter, perhaps I'll have to find another to do battle with," Voldemort threatened as he turned his wand to Ginny, who had been ineffectively trying to curse Voldemort from his side.
"No," Harry snarled, pushing his rage and fear into his magic as he cursed the Dark Lord.
A pulse of white light left his outstretched hands and sped towards Voldemort, who quickly raised a shield. As the spell connected, there was a moment where he was sure the shield would fail, but it seemed as if Voldemort pulled magic from the very air around him to strengthen his shield and repel his spell out into the sky. And then he laughed as Harry sunk to a knee, suddenly feeling utterly drained.
"Now that was impressive," he complimented, and Harry actually believed that he was truly impressed. "But it would appear you have overextended yourself, Harry. A valiant attempt to save your girlfriend, but you are no match for Lord Voldemort. I tire of these games. Rise, Harry, and meet your end."
"I'm afraid I cannot allow that, Tom," another voice chimed in. Harry did not think he would ever be more pleased to hear Dumbledore's voice.
"So, the old fool has finally decided to join the festivities," Voldemort mocked. "You are slipping in your old age, Dumbledore. Potter could have died many times over by now, and then where would you be without a saviour to pin your hopes on?"
Harry wearily rose to his feet as Dumbledore calmly replied, "It would appear that Harry has managed just fine to this point, Tom. With a little more time and the proper training, I dare say he might even be your equal." Harry did not miss the prophetic reference. Ginny approached from his side and reached for his hand. As soon as she made contact, the pain in his scar once again vanished.
"Nobody is my equal! Not you or this boy!"
"Perhaps," Dumbledore responded noncommittally. "You'll forgive me if I do not simply surrender my wand now, but I'll require you to prove that theory." He held his wand aloft, prepared to strike.
"I already have what I came for," Voldemort spat. "I've taken the measure of your Chosen One and found him lacking. Take your petty victory today; I've as good as won the war." With that he, as well as all his Death Eaters in the alley, disappeared with a whoosh of displaced air.
The sudden silence of the alley was deafening. He turned to Ginny and looked her over carefully to confirm she was uninjured before facing the headmaster. Harry found himself at a loss as to what to say. Their avoidance of the issues earlier in the day seemed silly now in the wake of the destruction of the Alley. Before he could come up with anything to say, Dumbledore beat him to the punch.
"Thank you for the warning, Harry," he stated gravely. "I daresay even a delay of mere minutes would have left us with hardly an Alley to salvage. Once again I find myself lagging sorely behind your efforts this summer."
Harry nodded uneasily, swallowing his pride as he briefly surveyed the carnage surrounding them. "I'm glad you were here. There were far too many Death Eaters let alone Voldemort for us to handle on our own."
"I believe, as you so ably put it, that it is high past time we began working with one another. We cannot afford to continue diverting our efforts away from our mutual objective."
Harry nodded his head and refrained from pointing out that only one of them was wasting resources working against the other.
"I believe, before we can begin down that road, that I must apologize to the both of you for my treatment of you over the past months. As virtuous as my intentions may have been, my actions were misguided and reprehensible."
Harry squeezed Ginny's hand in his, knowing she may not be ready to dole out any forgiveness just yet. "I appreciate that, but now is probably not the best time for this conversation. We could meet tomorrow after things have calmed down some."
Dumbledore frowned as his eyes swept through the Alley. "Yes, perhaps, you are right."
"Hogwarts, around lunch-time?" Harry suggested.
"Yes, that would be agreeable."
"See you then," Harry confirmed, turning towards Ginny and jerking his head towards the twins who were standing outside the front of their shop surveying the damage.
As they walked over to the pair, a nagging question he had been unable to ask in the heat of battle suddenly resurfaced in his mind. "If you guys are both still here, then who used the Portkey?"
The duo turned as one to regard them. "Our customers."
"Everyone that was in the shop…"
"When the first spell struck."
"Figured it would be bad for business…"
"If we just let paying customers perish in our very store."
"Quite sensible," Harry agreed.
"Almost too sensible," Ginny inserted suspiciously.
"That's because it wasn't their idea," Angelina stated as she walked out of the store. "They just wanted to take credit by using one of their own Portkeys."
"You wound us!"
"Our sole concern…"
"Was with your own safety."
"If things went pear-shaped…"
"We wanted to know that you'd have the means to escape."
"A fine way to repay our selfless act."
"I think you mean my selfless act, George. You still have your Portkey."
"Touché, brother mine."
"I'm glad to see not even an attack by Voldemort himself can dampen your spirits," Ginny commented, and he thought he detected a hint of warning in her tone. Levity was all well and good, but the current situation was not one to treat so lightly.
"So that was him then?" Fred asked, all traces of humour gone.
"I reckon you two fared all right against him," George added, a hesitantly hopeful note to his voice.
"He was playing with us," Ginny spat.
Fred, George, and Angelina all turned to Harry, and he nodded seriously. Their expressions all soured.
"Let's go see if anyone needs any immediate help," Harry stated into the sudden sombre silence. "Then we can see about getting this place fixed up."
By the time they finished up at Diagon Alley, picked Neville up, and returned home, Harry was about ready to drop. His fight with Voldemort, particularly that last spell, had really taken a lot out of him. After helping the wounded, cleaning up, and restoring the twins' shop, he had nothing left. He barely kicked his shoes off before collapsing into bed.
When he awoke Harry found a pair of brown eyes only inches away from his face. "Morning," Ginny greeted him with a dazzling smile.
"Mmm. Morning," Harry answered, his voice gruff and groggy from sleep.
As he began to take stock of himself, he realized that he was wearing nothing but his boxers. Glancing down, he found Ginny in a t-shirt – one of his t-shirts. Not that he minded one bit.
"You undressed me," he stated as much to himself as to her.
"Well, you were pretty much dead to the world as soon as you collapsed on the bed, and I figured you'd be more comfortable this way," she replied, running her fingers through his hair.
"You didn't have your wicked way with me, did you?" he asked, mock-defensively. "Because if you plan to sully my honour, I'd like to at least be conscious to properly enjoy the experience."
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, you caught me. Or at least I tried. Seems Little Harry was as dead to the world as Big Harry."
"Well he's as awake as 'Big Harry' now," he answered with a waggle of his eyebrows.
She slapped him lightly on the arm. "You know, as reluctant as you were the first few times, you're sure getting pretty bold nowadays." Her exasperated tone did not match her eyes. She hesitated a moment, and Harry grew hopeful. "But if we start that now, we may never get out of bed, and you've already slept in very late."
Harry frowned grumpily. "What time is it?"
"And as I recall you have a meeting with Dumbledore today," she added, and Harry nodded, having suddenly remembered the same.
He let loose a long-suffering sigh, eliciting a snort of laughter from Ginny. He sat up and looked at her, waiting for her to stop laughing before asking, "Are you coming with?"
She frowned and worried her bottom lip between her teeth. "I guess I probably should. It's just every time I see him, I still remember him trying to break into my mind, and it makes me so angry all over again."
She huffed and turned away, her hands tightening at her sides. Harry rose and walked to her, wrapping his arms around her. "It's all right if you're not ready," he whispered into her hair.
"No, it's not," she stated defiantly, spinning around in his embrace. "I'm in this every bit as much as you. The last thing I need is to give anyone any reasons to treat me like a child."
"You're probably right," he agreed.
"Of course I'm right."
By the time the two of them had showered and dressed, they had time for only a quick bite to eat before leaving for their meeting. Apparating to the gate of the school, they set off down the path. After a few minutes, Harry caught sight of Hagrid just inside the tree-line of the Forbidden Forest.
"Hagrid!" he called out, waving over his head as the half-giant looked in their direction.
"'Arry! Ginny!" Hagrid called back, trotting in their direction. "Good ter see you two!"
"You too, Hagrid," Ginny agreed.
"How's your summer?" Harry asked.
"Been ah-right. Two of you gave us a bit of a scare fer a bit, dis'pearin' the way you did," the half-giant replied, a hint of reproach in his tone.
Harry shrugged. "Guess I just needed to strike out on my own for once."
"Aye, ev'ry-un goes through it, I s'pose. Part of growin' up," Hagrid agreed. "Bu' tha' don' mean yeh gotta leave ev'ry-un in the dark 'bout it either."
Harry gave a sheepish shrug as he replied, "Given my rather unique circumstances, no amount of asking would have gotten me anywhere. I needed to prove I could not only keep myself safe from Voldemort but also hidden from Dumbledore and the Order as well. If I couldn't do that, then I probably wouldn't have been ready to be on my own anyway."
"True 'nuff. True 'nuff," Hagrid stated. "And hidin' from Dumbledore's no easy trick either. Jus' so long as yeh don' forgeh who yer friends 'nd enemies are." He paused for a moment before taking a deep breath and adding, "Well, I've got work ter be done. Don't be strangers now, 'ere?"
"You got it, Hagrid," Harry said.
"Bye Hagrid," Ginny added.
"G'bye 'Arry, Ginny. You take care of 'im for me, eh?" he added to the latter.
"Of course," Ginny replied with a wide grin. "Someone has to."
The half-giant bounded back to the forest with a booming chuckle.
As they ascended the steps rising up to the main entrance, the massive doors opened for them. As they strode into the entrance hall, they came face to face with their head of house.
"Minerva," Harry greeted with a smile.
"Professor," Ginny added.
"Harry, Miss Weasley. I trust you two are well?"
"Still a little tired from yesterday," Harry said with a casual shrug of his shoulders.
"Yes, quite an eventful day," McGonagall agreed as they began to walk towards the staircases. "How is Mr. Longbottom doing?"
"He's holding up," Harry answered. "As well as can be expected, really."
After a brief silence, Ginny spoke up. "Are you going to be joining us, Professor?"
"If that is all right with the two of you?" she queried, to which they both nodded. "Someone has to ensure Albus does not continue his rather impressive streak of colossal mistakes in his treatment of you two."
"Have you talked with him about us?" Harry questioned.
"Yes, several times since the letter you sent and several more since his reply and several more since yesterday," she replied with only the slightest bit of exasperation leaking into her tone. "Needless to say he is quite anxious to speak with you both."
Harry frowned. "I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing."
Ginny shrugged. "It's hardly surprising. He's been desperate to find you ever since you left."
"Then it may surprise you that he is nearly as anxious about speaking to you as to Harry," Minerva added.
Ginny shot the professor a confused glance before frowning and turning her head down in contemplation.
They made the rest of the trip in silence until they reached the gargoyle guarding the entrance to Dumbledore's office. "Saltwater taffy," the deputy headmistress spoke, causing the stone sentinel to spring aside. Harry shook his head at the headmaster's quirky passwords as they rode the rising spiral stairs to the top.
"Come in," Dumbledore's voice called through the door. Harry followed Minerva into the office which showed no signs of the abuse the room suffered during his last visit.
"Harry, Ginny," he greeted each in turn. "Thank you for coming. I know my recent transgressions against the both of you have given you little reason to trust me, so I thank you for giving me this opportunity to begin on the road to making amends." He paused briefly, and Harry met the headmaster's gaze squarely before the wizened wizard turned his eyes to Ginny. After another moment of silence, he swept his hand towards the chairs in front of his desk, saying, "Please, make yourselves comfortable."
After they had seated themselves, Dumbledore spoke again, "I would like to start by apologizing to the both of you. My actions against you both were appalling. Harry, I had neither right nor even a valid reason to assault you. While my intent was merely to quickly subdue you before any drastic actions were taken, I see now that my own actions were rather drastic themselves. As your headmaster, casting any offensive spell at you is an appalling transgression, one that I will never repeat."
He held Harry's gaze for a long moment before turning his attention to Ginny. "Miss Weasley. As horrible as my actions towards Harry were in this school, what I attempted to do to you in your own home far outstrips them. The mind magics are a delicate and dangerous art, and any abuse of them is not to be taken lightly. My actions were inexcusable regardless of my intentions, and for that you have my sincerest apology."
A heavy silence followed filled only with the deep breath released by the headmaster following his apologies. With his head down, he appeared to collect himself for a moment before looking up at his guests. "If I might begin with a question that has been niggling at my brain all summer?" Harry nodded. "I'll not ask where you learned to make Portkeys as, while their creation is restricted by the Ministry, the method of their creation is no great secret. But I must know, how do you keep track of when and where each Portkey is activated?"
Harry amusedly noted the eagerness in the headmaster's voice as he sat at attention awaiting his response. "You're familiar with the Marauder's Map?" he queried.
Dumbledore nodded. "A most excellent bit of magic – I daresay the Marauders' crowning achievement."
Harry smiled. "I couldn't agree more. Over the school year, I studied the map and recreated it, even added additional features to it. It was the map that gave me the idea. I tied the Portkeys into a map of Great Britain. The name on each Portkey was locked in as soon as each student first touched theirs which seemed to be the largest hurdle in applying the Marauder's Map to a larger scale. At the start of summer, I scouted out the locations of each Portkey on the map so that if and when the time came, I would know where to go. When a Portkey is activated, an alarm goes off on the map, and I tied my necklace into the alarm using a derivation of the Protean Charm so I'll know as soon as it goes off even when I'm out."
"Marvellous," Dumbledore commented. "Might I have a look at this map of yours? Several members of the Order have been quite vocal in their desire to adopt your methods. I've just recently been convinced to supply all members with emergency Portkeys, but we were unaware of how exactly you were tracking their use."
"I'll make you a copy," Harry stated, "and show you how to add new Portkeys."
"You have my gratitude and that of the entire Order," Dumbledore softly intoned. He paused a moment, seeming to build himself up to something, before continuing, "While we are on the subject of the Order, a meeting was held last night following the attack on Diagon Alley. You were one of the main topics of discussion of the meeting, and, after consulting the other members, I would like to take this opportunity to offer you – the both of you – membership into the Order of the Phoenix."
Harry stared at the headmaster a moment and deliberately blinked his eyes. "Umm, thank you sir, but no thanks," he said into the silence.
Ginny nodded, adding, "I'm with Harry."
Dumbledore appeared gobsmacked. "Surely you don't mean…"
"With all due respect, Headmaster," Harry cut in, "you don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to your dealings with either one of us. Do you honestly think we intend to join up with an organization you run so that you can go back to trying to keep us in the dark and out of the war?"
Harry had never seen the headmaster so perplexed. "I'm afraid you have me at a loss. In your letter you explicitly stated that we need to be united to win this war. That is a sentiment I share whole-heartedly, which is why I do not understand..."
"I said we needed to work together," Harry corrected. "And I meant it. I'd like to work with the Order, pool our resources, share information. But I will not put myself in a position where you or anyone else can decide what my role in this war will be."
"I see," Dumbledore stated. "This changes things."
"And while we're on the subject," Harry added, waiting for Dumbledore to nod before continuing, "I've been training Fred and George as well as Lee Jordan, Katie Bell, and Angelina Johnson. And now Neville is joining in as well. They're not battle-ready yet, but I would reserve the right to include them in any meetings we attend and, when I deem them ready, battles."
"Do you believe yourself ready for that responsibility?" Dumbledore asked and held up a hand when Harry moved to respond. "Please, think about it for a moment. I can respect that you want to help your friends train and that they may wish to involve themselves in the war, but are you personally ready for the consequences should harm befall any of them? Leading soldiers into battle is difficult enough, but when those soldiers are your friends... It is not a fate I would wish upon you."
"To be honest, it terrifies me," Harry admitted. "That my decisions could cost them their lives. I have no idea what I would do with myself, but I can't refuse them. I've been in their shoes. I've been pushed to the side, told to be a good boy and let the adults handle it. I've seen where that leads. If they are determined to fight in the war, they will do so with or without my help. I would much rather teach them all I can and be in a position to stop them from going into battle until they are more capable of helping and, more importantly, surviving."
"Perhaps you could reach a compromise," Minerva interjected. Harry turned to her, his eyebrow lifted in question. "Harry has proven himself to be an excellent instructor. Allow him to train his own people, but before they participate in battle, have them participate in mock-duels against members of the Order to determine their levels of ability."
Harry shared a quick smile with Ginny whom he had forced to duel both Tonks and Remus before he was willing to take her into battle.
"A wonderful suggestion, Professor McGonagall," Dumbledore praised before turning his attention to Harry. "What say you, Harry?"
"I agree," Harry said. "In fact, I think it would be beneficial if we could occasionally borrow different Order members to practice against. It always helps to get different people with different skill sets, so they can learn to adapt to different styles of duelling."
The headmaster's tense posture seemed to relax at his agreement, and some of the light returned to his usually bright-eyed gaze as he responded, "Excellent. Am I correct in assuming you would like to continue their training into the school year?"
"Would you like to include them in your existing classes, or will you be needing to make additional time for them?" Dumbledore queried. "I fear any additions could have a detrimental effect on your studies as your schedule was already full as it was last year."
"Actually," Harry stated, glancing briefly to Ginny, "that's another thing I wanted to talk to you about. I don't really think the standard Hogwarts curriculum has anything left to offer us."
For the second time in as many minutes, Dumbledore's face froze into an expression of abject surprise and confusion. Professor McGonagall, meanwhile, leaned forward in her chair and exclaimed, "You can't mean to drop out of Hogwarts!"
"I - we - would still like to stay in the castle over the term," Harry added into the silence. "And I want to continue teaching, both my students from last year as well as several sessions a week with Fred and George and the others. But to be honest, I did not get much of anything out of classes last year and don't think they will be any more beneficial to me this year. Ginny's not quite at my level, but she's beyond where I was when I started the term last year. The way we use magic is just too different from the rest of the students for classes to offer us anything. Using a wand and incantation can help us in learning new spells, but magic for us is much more instinctive and... I really don't have the words for it. Using a wand becomes a hindrance for spells I'm familiar with. I have to consciously try to channel my magic through the wand rather than just channelling the spell on my own. And learning new spells is a completely different experience. We can feel our magic reacting, feel when it begins to struggle with a new spell. It makes learning new spells so much more intuitive."
"I see," the headmaster replied in a distant tone. "It is not unprecedented for a student to take certain NEWT examinations early over the summer. Typically it is only a single class that the student is far ahead in and wishes to remove it from his or her course-load." He paused and surveyed the two of them. "Do you feel you would be able to pass your NEWT examinations at this time?"
Harry frowned. "If given a list of topics covered on the exams, I think I could probably be ready by the end of summer," he finally stated.
"And what of Miss Weasley?" Dumbledore queried.
Harry turned to Ginny. She met his gaze and shrugged. "You'd probably know better than I would," she told him.
"She could probably be ready for the spell-centric courses: Defence, Transfiguration, and Charms," Harry finally decided. "She'll need to cram the theory heavily this summer, but she could probably ace the practicals with only a week of preparation."
"You do realize, Harry, that if you are no longer taking courses, you will need to move out of the dorms and will not be eligible to play Quidditch," Minerva inserted.
Harry turned to her. "As much as I love Quidditch, there are too many other more important things going on right now. Missing Quidditch is the least of my concerns. As for the dorms," he turned his attention back to the headmaster, "I was rather hoping I could take you up on your offer from last year of my own quarters."
"And I was hoping I could join him," Ginny added with a small smirk.
Minerva deliberately cleared her throat at that but kept silent at a look from the headmaster. "Again, it is not unheard of for two students to share quarters. It has been done in the past with two students who are of age and married. You, however, are not married, and Miss Weasley is not of age. I'm afraid there is nothing I can do to help you. Miss Weasley will still be taking courses, and as such will remain a student."
"You could make her another assistant professor," Harry interjected. "Give us both our own quarters."
"So that you may ignore them and sleep together?" Minerva questioned. "I am not at all comfortable endorsing such behaviour, and I guarantee Molly Weasley will share the sentiment."
"It's not what you think," Harry stated. At their unconvinced looks he added, "Well, there is that too, but it's much more than that. I don't think I can actually sleep without Ginny."
"What do you mean you cannot sleep without her?" Minerva demanded.
"I had a lot of trouble sleeping last term. I rarely made it through a full night of sleep without being interrupted by a vision from Voldemort. I made a habit of taking naps in my office with Ginny. She would read or do her homework, and I'd rest my head in her lap while I slept. It was the only time I slept soundly. Things got worse this summer. I was barely sleeping at all, and it was beginning to take its toll. I even snuck into the Burrow one night to sleep with Ginny. But ever since she came to live with me, I haven't had a single vision. I've slept soundly every single night."
Harry shared a brief smile with Ginny and reached out for her hand. Intertwining their fingers, he turned his attention back to the headmaster. "When you told me the prophecy, you said that the power I have that Voldemort 'knows not' is love. I thought you were crazy at first, but now I think I'm starting to believe. In Diagon Alley yesterday, my scar flared up in pain as usual whenever Voldemort is near, but the closer Ginny was to me, the less my scar hurt." He paused and shared a lingering glance with Ginny. He had briefly mentioned the occurrence to her yesterday, but with all that had been going on they had not had a chance to sit down and talk about it. He shook himself out of his reverie and refocused on the headmaster as he continued, "When she touched me, even just as simple as this," he held up their joined hands, "the pain vanished completely. I don't know how, but Ginny shields me from him, from my connection to him."
For the first time during their meeting, the customary twinkle in the headmaster's eyes returned in full force. "This is most certainly heartening news; however, I fear it is not as simple as you would like to believe. All assistant professors must be approved by the Board of Governors, and your appointment last year was difficult enough to manage. It was only Professor Caldwell's request for an assistant that gave me the additional leverage needed to make it a reality. With you intending to continue your role, I'm afraid there is no pressing need for another assistant and therefore no reason for the Board of Governors to approve Miss Weasley's appointment."
"Isn't there any way to justify having her own rooms without being an assistant professor?" Harry queried.
A heavy silence fell over the room for a long moment as all occupants were lost in their own thoughts.
"What about independent study?" Ginny suddenly posed into the silence. Harry and the two professors turned their attention to her as she continued. "We were hoping to convince a few professors to give us private lessons, and even though I won't be taking all my NEWTs this summer, I think my time might be better served putting those other courses on hold and concentrating on more important things. Has there ever been a graduate who returned to school to study privately?"
The two professors shared a pointed look before the headmaster returned his attention and responded, "As a matter of fact, yes, there is a precedent for such situations, and those students were considered separate from the house system and were given private quarters. If you are certain about this decision, and assuming you do receive passing NEWT results in at least three courses this summer, I perceive no problems with granting your request. You will, however, require parental permission due to your status as a minor."
Harry shared a look with Ginny, glad that they had already made some strides towards reconciliation with her parents. Their upcoming dinner at the Burrow would serve as a prime opportunity for Ginny to broach the topic. He could only hope that her parents would be agreeable towards the request, though he would be sure not to mention the underlying reason for Ginny needing her own quarters.
The headmaster cleared his throat, and, after Harry had returned his attention to the man, he added, "Appearances must be kept, of course. Officially, the two of you will have separate quarters. Discretion will also be required. However, if I am not mistaken, I believe there are two adjacent guest quarters on the sixth floor which contain a hidden passage connecting them."
"We will expect the two of you to be responsible," Minerva inserted pointedly. It was clear from her expression that she was still not entirely comfortable with the situation. "And if word gets out to the student body of your situation, these privileges can and will be revoked."
Harry nodded his head. It was not as though he would be bragging about it in the corridors.
"Then it is settled," the headmaster stated.
If Harry and Ginny thought their summers had been busy already, they were in for a rude awakening. Revising for NEWTs on top of all their other training left little to no time for leisure.
It was several days before Ginny finally sat down to write her parents about having supper at the Burrow. She suggested they have the supper on her birthday which was less than a week away. She knew it would mean a lot to her parents to celebrate with the whole family. While part of her just wanted to spend the day alone with Harry, she also missed her family and genuinely wanted to see everyone again. She just hoped they were ready to accept her living situation with Harry; otherwise, it would not be a pleasant evening.
It felt like she barely blinked before the day arrived. She woke up to the smell of breakfast as Harry walked into the room with a tray full of all her favourites. It was only after she was halfway through the meal that she noticed she had overslept. When she questioned Harry about it, he explained, "I thought I'd let you sleep in on your birthday. In fact, I insist that you take the whole day off. We can just relax and do whatever you'd like with the afternoon before heading to the Burrow this evening."
She was hardly going to complain at that. Truth be told, they both really needed the day off, though Harry confessed that he did go through his usual morning ritual before showering and cooking her breakfast. Still, it was nice just to be normal for a little while, without worrying about training and fighting and Death Eaters and Voldemort.
It was with a fair bit of trepidation that Harry and Ginny Apparated into the yard of the Burrow. The house looked as it always did, strange and lopsided and seemingly standing due only to the magic holding it all together. And yet, for all that the building remained the same, the feel of the place had changed completely. Since Harry first arrived in Mr. Weasley's flying Ford Anglia during the summer after first year, the Burrow had always been a place of wonder. It was filled with some of the most odd and downright whimsical things he had ever seen in his life, but more than that, the home had always been full of family and love.
The events of the summer had tarnished those feelings. The Burrow had always been somewhat of an ideal to him, a window into what his life could have been like had Voldemort never killed his parents. It had filled him with a pang of heartache accompanied by a sense of wonder that, while he may not have been given the chance to grow up with his parents or with brothers and sisters, he was a part of a family. They did not share blood or even a name, but never had he ever felt like an outsider at the Burrow.
Until this summer.
As they approached the back door, Harry shook these thoughts from his head. What happened earlier this summer was terrible, but it was also in the past. This visit was meant to be about putting all that behind them. Dwelling about it now would certainly be no help in that.
As they reached the door, Harry shared a lingering, uncomfortable glance with Ginny. Here they were standing outside the door to her home - his surrogate home - and they were unsure how to proceed. Should they knock or just let themselves in?
Shrugging his shoulders, Harry lifted his hand and rapped his knuckles against the solid wood door. Not two seconds later the door was flung open, and in the frame of the doorway stood the force of nature known as Molly Weasley. Her eyes lit up upon seeing them and she descended upon them, grabbing each in one arm and pressing them into a tight three-way hug.
"You never need to knock at this house," she said to them, kissing the top of her head and his cheek. "Both of you. This is your home, and it always will be, no matter how much time may pass or how far away life takes you. This door is always open to you."
And with a statement as simple as that, all those feelings that had been startlingly vacant upon their arrival began creeping back in. There was still some awkwardness as the greetings went around. Bill and Charlie, particularly, were less than warm when addressing Harry, though he could certainly see where they were coming from. Had he a younger sister who had run off to live with her boyfriend, Harry could not say he would be entirely friendly to the bloke either.
Conversation was not entirely natural and flowing. The big erumpent in the room was being carefully avoided by all parties, though some were better at ignoring its existence than others. Every time someone - usually her mother, Bill, or Charlie - would encroach on the subject only to suddenly, awkwardly change gears, he could see Ginny repressing the urge to act - whether to yell or curse he could not say. But with the twins, Arthur, and surprisingly Ron all doing their best to keep conversation moving along, those awkward moments were easily forgotten. For his part, Harry tried not to let any of it get to him. It was past time that the Weasleys were reunited, and he was certainly not going to do anything to get in the way.
Harry was still unsure what to make of the new Ron, but what he had seen so far certainly seemed a vast improvement. There was no jealousy or irritation - expressed or repressed - from what he could tell. Ron, for once, seemed to be at peace with himself and his life. For the first time, Harry began to see some of his father's calm, affable nature emerge in him. He knew not exactly what brought about the change, but Harry began to hope that just maybe he would not end up losing the first friendship he had ever made.
Ginny asked to speak with her parents alone after supper, and Harry helped herd her brothers out into the backyard to enjoy what little sunshine remained in the day while she explained her plans to take three of her NEWTs this summer and sought permission to drop the rest of her courses to study independently. When she came out into the backyard several minutes later with a large smile on her face, Harry knew the conversation had gone well and could not help but smile widely in return.
Harry relaxed into his chair as Ron stared down at the chess board contemplating his next move. He watched Ginny as she laughed at something Charlie had said. He knew she had been worried about how the night would go, and while everything was not sunshine and roses, he was immeasurably pleased to see her like this, at ease with her family.
His reverie was interrupted when Ron said, "I'm glad, you know."
Harry shifted his attention from Ginny to Ron. "Huh?"
"You and Ginny," he explained. "I know I was a bit of a prat about it at first, but I'm glad you're there for her. And she for you. You guys are good for each other."
Harry could not help but catch the wistful tone in his voice. "I heard that things didn't work out between you and Hermione," he stated, wondering whether or not it was wise to bring up the subject. It was odd to think that they had not spoken of it. He had not even known about it until Ginny told him during the summer, though even she was unsure of the cause of their split.
Ron met his gaze for a long moment before shrugging his shoulders. "Your move," he pointed out, inclining his head towards the board where he saw that one of his bishops had been taken. Harry decided to take the hint and drop the subject as he focused on his next move and was therefore surprised when Ron spoke. "I don't think we ever would have worked."
There was no hint of sadness in his tone, just a frankness that Harry rarely heard from his friend. His curiosity nearly led him to asking Ron why he thought that, but in the end he held his tongue and picked up his other bishop and took one of Ron's rooks.
He immediately dropped his head into his hands, shaking it back and forth as his bishop fell to a pawn he had somehow overlooked. Ron smirked. "I think it was the fact that she seemed so unattainable," he stated matter-of-factly. "I think a lot of my problems stem from that. I always want what I can't have - or think I can't have, at any rate. I look at what others have, and I decide I want it. I didn't even really start to like Hermione that way until she went out with Krum. I just get so focused on what I don't have, that I lose sight of what's right in front of my face."
At that, he cast his gaze around the room, taking in his family. He turned back to Harry with a sober look on his face. "You're a good friend, Harry. More than that. You're family, my brother. I'm sorry that I've lost sight of that at times."
The chess board lay forgotten as Harry regarded the gangly redhead sitting across him. "I'm sorry too," he said thickly. "I'm sorry for keeping everything from you over the past year. I wanted so badly to tell you..."
"You don't need to do that," Ron interrupted with a wave of his hand. "You could have told me, yes, but I wasn't ready then. I don't know how I would have handled it all, but I know now that I wasn't ready. I think had I known the full extent of what you could do, how much you had accomplished - no matter how hard you had to work for it - I just would have seen one more thing someone else had that I didn't. I realize now that I'm the lucky one. You've told me before, but it never really registered until recently. I was born to all of this." He waved his hand around the room. "I've had this all my life. You haven't. You didn't have any of this for a long time. But you do now. And if that girl you can't seem to tear your eyes away from for more than two minutes has anything to say about it, I imagine you'll never have to live without this again."
Harry's eyes snapped back from where they had briefly wandered of their own accord back to Ginny and could not help the smile that stretched across his face. He stood up and clasped Ron on the shoulder and looked him in the eye as he stated, "You are a good friend, Ron. Never doubt that."
A moment of silence passed as Harry let go of Ron's shoulder and turned his attention back to Ginny. "Whoa there, Romeo. Don't think you're getting out of this so easily; we've got a game to finish."
Harry glanced back to the forgotten chess board and heaved a sigh as he retook his seat. This should not take long. Chess had never been his strong suit, least of all when a stunning distraction lay mere meters away. Shaking his head, he refocused on the game board and proceeded to get his arse kicked.
AN:So there you finally have it. I could try to give a myriad of reasons as to why it's taken so long to get this chapter finished and posted, but any time you take more than a year to update, it's inevitably more than just the usual 'real life' circumstances interfering with writing. I'd be lying if I said I haven't lost a lot of my passion for the story. That's not to say I don't still get enjoyment out of writing it, but it takes much more for me to really get into the process, and it's not something constantly on my mind as it was when I was still writing TC.
So with that in mind, I certainly can't make any promises that you won't see long waits like this in the future. I'll certainly try to complete the chapters much more quickly, but writing is a difficult process to force, and the results are rarely as good that way. All that said, what I can promise you is that the story will not ever be abandoned. I do have some big plans for it, and I will write them. I hope you'll all stick with me.
Thank you, as always, for reading, and thank you, again, for your continued support.
-Matt / fake a smile