Well, here we are. The end of the line, the tail end of our tale, the checkered flag in our race to read. And still, I don't own Harry Potter. Geez. Anyway, thanks so much for taking the time to read my first fanfic. Maybe I'll do this again sometime.

Hey, here's an idea. If you enjoyed this story, why not give me a quick review and let me know what you liked. It turns out, I like reviews. Who knew?

And to my 'regulars' – thanks for your encouragement.

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Chapter 38. One short year

Harry had returned to the Gryffindor common room just after dinner. He'd had a peaceful nap on Albus' couch, followed by a much-appreciated trip to see his favorite Doctor. Albus stayed for the entire appointment so he would only have to give the gut-wrenching details of his capture and subsequent escape one time. Harry had been horrified to learn that the Death Eater he had cursed had died. Intellectually, he had already known – 'so much blood!' – but to hear it said aloud, that he had killed someone; well, let's just say it was a good thing he wasn't going to be shuffled off to suffer alone this summer. It had been agreed that he would go back to weekly appointments for the time being, but he considered that a small price to pay for his sanity.

He and Ginny had just settled onto a chair by the window, enjoying the slight breeze as he held her on his lap, when someone walked up behind them and asked, "So Harry, now that it's over, can you explain exactly how you saved Snape? I saw him at lunch, so I know whatever it was, it worked."

Harry recognized Neville's voice, but was startled when he looked up to see that Hermione and Ron had also arrived. As his friends pulled chairs around Ginny slid from his lap to the floor, leaning back on one of his legs. His right hand moved down to her shoulder as if touching her gave him support. Hermione explained that she had already told Ron the basics, but like everyone else, he wanted to hear the details.

Taking a deep breath, Harry began his tale by explaining that the plan had actually started the night before, when he'd went to visit the Professor in his office. Or should he say, Draco Malfoy had visited the Professor. Seeing several confused faced, he described how he had used Polyjuice Potion – which Hermione had acquired for him – to turn himself into the blonde Slytherin and barge his way into Snape's office, demanding the man accompany him to the Chamber of Secrets. He admitted that he thought he had given himself away a few times; once right at the beginning when he'd reflexively reached up and tried to smooth his hair, and again when he'd almost called Ginny by name. Luckily Snape had missed the clues. (He didn't add about taunting the man with nearly quoting the prophecy; he was sure Hermione would not have approved, and Neville didn't even know the prophecy.) Everyone laughed at the idea of Harry, as Malfoy, using the potion to become Harry again. With a grin, Harry confessed he had rather enjoyed pretending to be himself, especially when Snape had compared Harry to Malfoy, with Harry coming out on top.

"Wait," Ron practically shouted, "so you were pretending to be Malfoy pretending to be you? That's mad! How did you possibly pull it off?" Ron, it appeared, was understandably in awe at the audacity of the plan. Listening to Hermione earlier, it had struck him that he should have been a part of the planning as he had been every other year. And listening now, he came to the sharp realization that Hermione had been right – that he hadn't really been there for his best friend since Christmas.

Ignorant of Ron's internal turmoil, Harry just shrugged as he replied, "Wasn't that hard, really, all I had to do was be an arrogant arse, put myself down a bit, and slander Dumbledore."

"You're forgetting the sneering and strutting," Hermione laughed, adding, "You guys should have seen him practice. It was so funny. Harry was really good at being Malfoy."

Neville cracked into a big grin at the image even as he asked, "I understand why you had to be Malfoy, but tell me again why he then had to be you?"

It was Ron who answered, "Oh, come on man! Even I've got that one figured out. Harry's the parselmouth, so Harry had to open the chamber." He turned to Hermione, hoping to have impressed her, which it appeared he had, and continued, "but one thing I don't get – "

And Harry predictably cut in, "'just the one, Ron?"

"Shove it, you. I was asking Hermione" (and he turned his attention back to her) "why Polyjuice again? I didn't even know you could use it twice in one hour."

Hermione excitedly explained about the research she had done, and finding out that there was no antidote for Polyjuice, and so Harry's only option had been to use it twice. She started to tell about an eighteenth century witch who had once turned into no less than eight other people in one hour, when the others cut her off asking for more details of his time as Malfoy. It was when he got to the part about claiming to poison the Headmaster that Hermione stopped him. This had been one of the details he hadn't shared with anyone.

"Wait a minute. You told Professor Snape, the resident potions master, that you had used Bauer's Friend?" As Harry grinned and nodded, she had to continue, "Bauer's Friend … as in the super secret potion the Americans supposedly use to kill their enemies?" Again, Harry nodded, his grin even bigger this time. "But Harry … Bauer's Friend doesn't exist. It's a myth … an urban legend. How could Snape of all people fall for that?"

"You've got me, but I'm bloody well glad he did. Otherwise, the whole plan would have fallen apart, and he would have died."

Neville looked like he was still confused, and he wasn't the only one. "But why, Harry? That's the one thing I've never understood. How exactly did you save him, if he made an Unbreakable Vow to kill Dumbledore, but didn't do it." Neville visibly shuttered as he said this, clearly uncomfortable with vows of death. He was looking to Hermione for an answer, but she shook her head as she told him that it had been Harry who had figured out the key to saving the Professor.

Harry cleared his throat, hoping he could explain this clearly. "It all came down to the vow itself. He agreed that, quote … 'should it prove necessary, if it seems Draco will fail' … end quote, he would carry out the deed. The key words being if it seems he will fail. You see, Snape only had to act if he thought Malfoy would fail. If he truly believed that Malfoy would succeed – in other words, if it seemed to him that Malfoy would succeed – the Vow was satisfied without him doing a thing. It all depended on Snape's perception ... on what he believed. That's why I had to tell him I'd poisoned Dumbledore – so he would believe Draco had in fact succeeded. And by locking him in the Chamber, I assured that he couldn't know what was happening ... couldn't know that Dumbledore did not in fact die at lunchtime ... so he had no basis to change his opinion … no reason to believe Draco would fail. And trust me, he really did believe me, I saw it in his eyes."

Hermione, predictably, still had questions. "But why such an elaborate plan? And why the Chamber, Harry? Why not just turn him into that side table you kept talking about?"

"Mostly, because I was never convinced that would work. I mean, if it was that easy to get out of an Unbreakable Vow, wouldn't everyone know about it? And … well," Harry shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant as he added, "someone had suggested that Snape might find that dead basilisk useful for ingredients, so I figured, why not kill two birds with one stone. Besides … this was more fun," he added with a wicked grin.

After talking a bit more about Harry's grand performance, his friends excused themselves one by one, leaving just him and his girlfriend. Once the two were alone again, he let his happy façade crumble. Ginny climbed back onto his lap and wrapped her arms around her boyfriend, knowing he was in pain. She knew that he had watched as Draco Malfoy had been ruthlessly killed by his own uncle; that he himself had killed someone to save the life of his own uncle, a man that didn't even like him. The Ministry may be claiming it didn't know the identity of the wizard that fought two Death Eaters in Surrey, but she had known it was him. She also knew that he hadn't spent the entire day in the castle, that he'd taken a trip to see a 'friend'. She cuddled closer, and they spent the rest of the evening in silent comfort.

They were able to stay like that well into the night, as classes had been cancelled for the rest of the week. While relatively few students had been involved in any of the fight, and even fewer had been injured, the excitement of the invasion made teaching, let alone learning, near impossible. Oddly, very few students seemed to be affected by Draco Malfoy's death. Harry supposed it was because Malfoy, unlike Cedric Diggory, hadn't been well liked. And too, the rumor mill had been hard at work, so most knew that he had been somehow involved in the invasion. Theories on exactly how ranged from almost truthful to downright impossible. Harry was only really surprised by the Slytherins, who for the most part were as indifferent as the rest of the school. Perhaps because Malfoy had been killed as a known traitor to Voldemort? He decided he didn't care why; trying to sort out his own jumbled feelings regarding his short-lived ally was quite enough to deal with.

So, while Narcissa Malfoy quietly arranged for her son's burial, the Hogwarts students enjoyed their unexpected break by hanging out with friends and spending time outside. And Harry and his friends were no exception. There was, for instance, the impromptu tournament on Friday. What had started as a simple contest between Harry and Neville to see who could skip a stone the furthest across the lake had turned into a real competition when a large faction of the DA joined in. Surprisingly, Hannah Abbott had taken an early lead, although Neville was a close second. Harry had ducked out after the second round, preferring to sit back and cheer on his girlfriend, who was currently in third place. Ron wasn't faring well, but at least he had come along, and appeared to be having a good time. Lavender, Harry noticed, was nowhere in sight. Hermione and Terry Boot were also competing, but as a team, which had started an argument when someone suggested teams weren't allowed. For some reason, everyone had turned to Harry to have the final say, and he had declared it permissible, so long as they were touching somehow. He smirked as he caught Hermione's eye, noticing her blushing face.

Another popular pastime, though only in the Gryffindor common room, was tricking each other into eating Weasley candies. Fred and George had sent a large variety box to Harry in an attempt to cheer him up, and Ron had quickly come up with the plan – get as many people as possible to eat as many treats as possible. It didn't take long for Harry to figure out that his best friend and his girl friend were plotting a sneak attack. He decided to beat them to the punch, so to speak, and stood in the middle of the Common Room and voluntarily ate a Canary Cream. Moulting, he found, was a liberating experience; he couldn't remember when he'd felt so carefree when not on a broom. Now, if only he could trick Hermione into trying one.

By the next week it was back to classes, and back to studying as final exams (O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. included) would soon be upon them. Harry was caught by surprise when he'd been given an extra exam schedule. With the demands of preparing for the invasion and then its aftermath, he had nearly forgotten he was taking the Care of Magical Creatures N.E.W.T. McGonagall had asked him if he was certain he would be ready, and he had assured her he would be. In the last few months, he had all but memorized Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and was confident he could pass the exam in his sleep. He saw very little of Ginny that week, wanting to give her plenty of study time for her O.W.L.s, but Ron was filling in some of his free time, sometimes with chess, but also just flying or goofing around. Ron confessed that he had broken up with Lavender, not going into much detail except to say that without her around he felt like his old self, which Harry was pleased to hear.

Harry was glad that his training sessions had been suspended for rest of the school year as he was able to spend those hours on some last-minute cramming for his one N.E.W.T. Finally, exam week had arrived, and as he headed to the Great Hall with the four Seventh Years that had taken Hagrid's N.E.W.T. class, he was confident he would pass. The other students gave him odd looks, one outright asking if he realized this was the N.E.W.T. exam, but he just nodded and quietly took a seat. The written exam was a breeze, and when he got outside to take the practical, he nearly laughed out loud. The entire thing consisted of greeting a hippogriff ('nice to see you, Buckbeak'), shaking hands with a particularly friendly merperson (Harry thought the merman recognized him), and identifying dragon breeds by their pictures, which were labeled in tiny print if you were smart enough to look.

It was a hectic week, as Harry had his regular exams as well, but he had something on his mind other than schoolwork that couldn't wait any longer. After dinner one evening, he and Ginny went to the owlery together so he could send off a message. Sure, he could have sent it via a house-elf, but he figured his owl would enjoy the work. When they entered, Hedwig swooped down to greet her boy so fast that Harry swore she had known he was coming. After greeting him with an affectionate nip on the ear, she settled on his shoulder and allowed the two to pet her feathers, standing proudly when Ginny called her a 'pretty girl'. After a few minutes she presented her leg, letting Harry know she was ready for business, and he attached the letter and watched as she flew off and made her way around the castle.

Knowing she wouldn't be long, Harry and Ginny opted to stay and wait for her return. They were enjoying a quick snog under his cloak when the owl reappeared, but she waited patiently on the windowsill (as if hesitant to interrupt) until they finally emerged. Ginny was the first to notice the owl's eyes upon them, and swore that she had known exactly where they were and what they were doing, much to Harry's protests.

Unrolling the reply, Harry let Ginny know that he had a meeting with the Headmaster in twenty minutes, so they best get a move on. He escorted her back to Gryffindor tower, kissing her hand like he'd read a gentleman was supposed to do, and headed for his meeting.

He arrived to find that Albus was seated in a chair near the fire, another chair positioned nearby and a tea service on the table between them. After the usual pleasantries and treats, Harry stood from his seat and drifted over to Fawkes. Stroking the fire bird, he was gifted with a few peaceful notes. After thanking the phoenix for the song, Harry turned to face the patiently waiting Albus.

"I need to know something, Sir." The formal address wasn't lost on Albus, who realized that this talk was going to be more serious than he had first expected. "That potion's book you gave me … the one with all the notes. I asked you about it once, and you just told me it was safe. But you didn't tell me whose book it was."

Albus nodded, saying he did indeed remember that discussion. He braced himself, knowing what Harry was about to ask; no, demand. How would he react to knowing it had been his most hated professor's notes that had been coaching him all school year? So deep was he in his own thoughts, he was certain he had heard Harry's question wrong, and had to ask him to repeat himself.

"I said, it was Tom Riddle's book, wasn't it?"

Albus paled. Did Harry really think … yes, it appeared he did. "I assure you, it most certainly was not Riddle's book. Why ever would you think such a think?"

"Mostly because of that spell – Sectumsempra. It's the same spell Bellatrix used on Luna, I heard her cast it myself. I think it's the spell she got me with back in Diagon Alley, as well. I might not have figured it out had I not made the mistake of using that spell myself. I got it from th-that book, and it was pretty clear to me that the original owner had made the spell up. So how did the Death Eaters know it, or any of the other spells in the book ... like that one that hangs people upside down? They couldn't have found them in the book; at least not after it came into your possession. So it had to have been in their possession first. And Tom Riddle seems the most likely candidate. That spell seems like something a young Riddle would have come up with. And then there's what's written inside – property of the half-blood prince. Riddle's a half-blood, and he certainly thinks he's some kind of Wizarding royalty."

Albus stood and moved over to Harry, reaching out and putting his hand on the boy's shoulder, turning him so they could see eye-to-eye. "I see. ... I must say, you certainly make a good argument. For the most part your logic is sound, as is your assessment of a young Tom Riddle. But Harry, I assure you, the book was never Riddle's. The person who created those spells was not connected to Voldemort, at least not then."

As Harry processed what he had heard, his disbelief revealed itself on his face and left him speechless.

Albus guided Harry back to his seat, settling himself as he began. "I confess, Harry, that I purposely gave you that book for several reasons. Certainly, I believed that the notations would help you in potions, which they most certainly have. And not just because they gave you hints to perfecting your projects. You have begun to understand why things are done, as opposed to simply what is done. This is a lesson that carries over into other aspects of your life, and I am glad to see you learning it. Also, I was aware of the spells written in the book, and I believed that you might find some of them useful."

He paused for a moment, considering how to continue. "Perhaps I, like so many others, underestimated you," he confessed. "I knew all too well the destructive nature of that particular spell, but I did not think you would be able to cast it so … forcefully, shall we say? An absurd assumption on my part, given your extraordinary Patronus at the young age of thirteen. I consider what occurred in Surrey to be as much my fault as yours, for I encouraged you to use the book, even when you questioned it."

"No Seba," Harry asserted. "I didn't even know exactly what it would do, and I used it anyway. It was all my fault."

"And I thank you for saying so, but you will pardon me if I hold onto my guilt as tightly as you hold onto yours?" Seeing the slight smile on Harry's face, he continued, "But back to my reasons for giving you the book in the first place. Ultimately, I had hoped that you might come to respect its previous owner. Perhaps even understand him."

"Understand?" Harry repeated. "How could I? I don't even know who he is."

"Don't you, Harry?" Albus asked, employing his 'over the glasses' technique as he looked at the boy.

Harry turned to gaze out the window as he thought about this. A student who was clearly brilliant at potions. A teenager who created spells 'for enemies'. Spells that found their way into the hands of the Death Eaters. It had to be … "Professor Snape." Harry groaned, "and all year long, while I've been going on and on about what a horrible teacher he is, he's been the one I was actually learning from. He really was teaching me, he just didn't know it." Harry started to snicker as the truth of the situation sank in. "And he's been accusing me of cheating all year, but I haven't really. I've been following his instructions to the letter, he just didn't know he'd given them to me."

Harry carried on for several more minutes, to the point where Albus wondered if Dobby hadn't just slipped some of the Weasley twins' Giddy Goo into Harry's drink. The devoted house-elf was forever trying to help Harry in his own special way. Eventually the boy settled down, and the two of them were able to continue their discussion. Harry felt much lighter, knowing that he hadn't been 'taken in' by Voldemort again, and begrudgingly admitted that he did in fact have a new-found respect for his Professor. At least as far as his intellect was concerned; Harry privately felt Snape's people skills still needed work. The discussion eventually strayed to other, more pleasant topics until eventually Harry noticed the time, and excused himself to get back to his dormitory before curfew. Albus knew Harry really wanted to get back to his girlfriend, but he allowed the excuse to stand.

However, for all his desire to return to Ginny, Harry unknowingly meandered through the halls as he lost himself in thought. It had been a few days since his latest appointment with Dr. Tony. As much as he'd wanted to stop those appointments all together a month ago, he begrudgingly admitted they were still necessary. He couldn't afford to go all mental right now, and with Dr. Tony (and Albus) helping him face his demons head-on, he was doing alright.

If he was being totally honest, he would admit there were some issues. Nothing serious; he wasn't going crazy like he had last summer. No feeling numb or wanting to feel pain. 'thank God' But he had noticed that at the strangest times, his mind would conjure up images of a fallen and bleeding Professor Fortescue, or the surprise on Malfoy's face when he could no longer breathe, and even Lestrange falling to his knees as he hopelessly clutched his bleeding body. At other times his stomach would feel so unsettled that he had trouble eating, a bit like last summer, only not as often or as severe. He had even vomited once, but that was probably only because of the graphic description someone had been giving of their father's infected boils, and not because said description had reminded him of the sight of Lestrange's blood oozing from his split body.

Also bothersome were the nightmares that he'd started having again. Not Voldemort-induced visions thankfully, and not every night, but he had seen twisted versions of Malfoy's death a few times. As if dealing with the contents of the dreams, and the lack of sleep they brought with them wasn't bad enough, the dreams themselves were cause for concern. He hadn't had a real, bona-fide nightmare since he'd started taking his sleeping pills. Clearly they were losing their effectiveness, and Harry feared it was only a matter of time before Voldemort started getting through.

He wondered if it had been a mistake not to mention these things to his guardian; but no, the man had so much on his plate already. And really, so did Harry. He was still trying to come to terms with the fact that he had seen his school-yard rival murdered and had himself killed a man – a bad man, yes, but a man nonetheless – all on the same night. Dr. Tony said it was normal for him to be calmly accepting of these events. Of course, he had used normal in the context of 'it's normal for some to experience a delayed response', implying that he fully expected Harry to crack at some point. He suspected his guardian did as well.

Blinking, he realized that he was now standing in front of a rather impatient painting. He's been so wrapped in his thoughts that he hadn't even noticed his arrival. As the Fat Lady tapped her foot in annoyance, Harry decided he had made the right choice in keeping quiet. He made a conscious decision to push these little annoyances aside to focus on his real problems. That decided, he politely gave the password and entered the common room.

-0000-

The day before school was to let out, Harry and Ginny visited their tower room one last time. Harry had once again channeled his 'inner-Marauder', and had convinced the kindly old wizard in the portrait down the hall to invite the Lady of the Lounge (as Ginny referred to her) to join a card game. She'd accepted, and the portrait was mercifully empty when they arrived.

Settling into their usual spots on the couch, Harry nervously took Ginny's hand, which immediately put Ginny on high-alert. Watching her boyfriend as he struggled to speak she reached out with her other hand and softly caressed his cheek. Her action gave him the strength he needed, and he grasped her hand more confidently as he began speaking.

"I love you Ginny … I really do. I like to think that some day we can have a little house with a couple of dogs and lots of kids – you know, the fairy tale ending. The problem is, Voldemort is going to do everything in his power to keep that from happening." Ginny looked like she wanted to interrupt, by Harry held up his hand to stop her. "Hear me out, Gin. I said he would try to stop it; I didn't say I would make it easy for him. But you have to accept that, as much as we both want me to survive – and I'll do everything I can to survive – the fact remains that I might not. … I've thought about this a lot. Despite all our careful planning, they got me out of the castle. They could do it again, and next time I might not be lucky enough to get away." He looked down at their clasped hands, rubbing her hand with his thumb. "He may not want me dead right now, but in a way I think what he has planned could be worse. Imagine … to be stuck in limbo for eternity … not living, but not being allowed to die. I would never be reunited with Sirius, never be with my Mum and Dad, never see you again."

He continued, "Of course, that assumed that he never figures out that I'm not a Horcrux, because if he does, all bets are off. For all we know, he may decide to kill me even if he still believes I'm a Horcrux, just for the fun of it." Harry reached forward and gently touched Ginny's cheek. "I don't mean to upset you, and I really do have a point, so smile for me. Please?" He didn't continue until Ginny had given him a feeble attempt at smiling. "So, my point then. Until he's gone, it's really hard for me to plan for a future, but I've decided that's not going to stop me from living."

Ginny suddenly threw herself at her boyfriend, holding him in a tight embrace. "Thank you" she whispered into her ear. "Thank you for telling me, because I want that dream too."

Harry pulled back, so he could see her face. He moved his left hand to her shoulder, his fingers playing in her hair. "I'm glad to hear that, because I have plan. A way to guarantee that we can have that dream. Marry me, Ginny. Marry me now. 'Cause if we wait, who knows what can happen. But if we get married now, we can have that dream, or at least a part of it, right now, and he can never take that away from us."

Her happiness turned to confusion, and she couldn't stop herself from parroting, "Marry you? Now?"

"Well, not right this very minute, obviously," he tittered, "I was thinking this summer we could sneak away."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, a big smile spreading across her face. "You mean elope."

"Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. Look ... I know that you would prefer to have your family there, and mine too, but I think we can both agree that they would never agree to it if we asked them. So let's just do it. What do you say ... will you marry me?"

"Yes," she gushed, pleasantly surprised at this turn of events. "I'll marry you, as soon as possible. Oh, but Harry … how? In our world you have to be an adult, and I'm not seventeen for another year. And I don't think I actually exist in the Muggle world, so that wouldn't work either."

"Actually, you're wrong. I read in this book about a place here in Scotland called Gretna Green, where young people run to and elope. It was quite popular in the last century."

"Oh, and what book was that?" Ginny too had read about it once in a book, but surely it wasn't the same kind of book.

"It was a, ah, historical book, but that's not important right now. The point is, I did some checking and although the Wizengamot passed a law requiring parental permission for anyone under age, Gretna Green demanded and received a special dispensation. Anyone over the age of fourteen can be legally wed there, they're just not allowed to advertise it. So, will you sneak away and marry me this summer?

Instead of answering verbally, Ginny launched herself at Harry, kissing him as if life depended on it. Harry took this as a 'yes' and joined her in the celebration. When they eventually pulled apart, each wearing a goofy grin, the two began to make tentative plans for their elopement. Harry gave a few ideas for sneaking away undetected while Ginny focused on clothes and flowers. They soon lost themselves to their excitement, and it was only when Harry's stomach growled that they realized they had missed dinner. After sneaking to the kitchens for a bite to eat they returned to Gryffindor tower. Their friends immediately rounded on them – they had missed the leaving feast after all – when they noticed their pre-occupation with each other. Incorrectly attributing it to their impending separation, Hermione insisted they leave the couple undisturbed.

Harry awoke the next morning having had very little sleep. It had been so late (or early, depending on how you looked at it) when he had gone to bed that he had had to skip his sleeping pill or else risk drastically oversleeping. That was a risk he hadn't been willing to take because he had convinced Albus to let him ride the train with this friends. Unfortunately, his gamble failed when he was pulled into Voldemort's mind. He hesitated to call it a vision, since there had been nothing much to actually see; there had been no activity of any kind in the dark and gloomy stone room. He knew this, for he had again seen through Voldemort's eyes, and he had been sitting on his throne, completely alone and surrounded by darkness. Harry had been nearly overwhelmed by the raw emotion he felt. Voldemort was sad. He knew how absurd it sounded, for he would have bet anything the monster was incapable of basic human emotion, but there was no other word to describe what Harry felt. Voldemort was sad … and more so, he was alone. Not even Nagini was with him, Harry knew for certain.

Making a mental note to discuss this with Albus tonight, he hurried through his morning before joining his friends for the trip to the station. While they waited to board one of the carriages, Ron was sharing an off-color story from the twins when Harry saw Ron's face freeze. He followed Ron's gaze over his own shoulder, and found Professor Snape standing behind him.

"Ten points for foul language, Weasley," he practically purred, obviously having heard at least part of Ron's story. He smirked as he added, "Oh, but the year is over, isn't it? I guess I shall have to settle for sending a missive to your parents."

Ron groaned, knowing how such a note would be received, while Snape turned his attention to Hermione. "And perhaps a letter to your parents as well, Miss Granger. As a fellow prefect, you should have reprimanded Mister Weasley for his atrocious communication skills."

Hermione choose not to respond, knowing it would be pointless. She turned helplessly to Harry, who was bracing himself for whatever was about to come. Snape looked him over, head to toe, while sneering in a way that clearly showed Snape had found him lacking. And then, just as Harry started mentally counting in hopes of keeping his temper, Snape turned and strode away, leaving three dumbfounded Gryffindors in his wake.

The trio snapped out of it when Ginny joined them, and they discussed the strange encounter on the entire trip to the train. Once settled in a compartment, Harry and Ginny suffered some good-natured teasing from Neville and Hannah (who was visiting) while Ron and Hermione left to check in at the Prefect's car. Apparently their absence the night before had been missed by more than just the Gryffindor table. Harry hadn't been surprised when he found out he'd missed Gryffindor winning the House Cup. While he'd been left out of the points bonanza in the aftermath of the invasion (at his own insistence), his friends in the DA hadn't. Sure, non-Gryffindors had also received points; but Gryffindor had the most DA members involved, and that combined with their boost from winning the Quidditch Cup had done the trick.

Ron and Hermione returned just after the train pulled out, having signed up for later rounds, and joined the discussion of final grades and summer plans. Hermione reached into her bag and pulled out a bundle of parchment, which she tossed at Harry. At his questioning look, she explain, "we never got around to your project, but I did find a few spells that I think will work. Since you'll be seventeen this summer, I figured you could finish the research yourself. I mean, you're this big academic marvel now."

"Hey!" Harry shot back, "I worked real hard for those grades, and even then I think you beat me in most classes."

Hermione blushed at the complement, and Ron teased that Harry knew 'just what to say to a woman', advising Ginny not to fall for his smooth talk. Harry pointedly ignored his friend as he leafed through the papers, piecing together from the spells and diagrams that this would help immensely in his plans to update the Marauder's Map. He was thanking Hermione profusely when a yapping noise from the basket at Ginny's feet interrupted him. Harry reached down and pulled the now medium-sized brown puppy from under the blanket, setting it on his lap as he scratched behind its ears. All three girls present began fawning over the pup, which Harry said was named Norbert, earning him a thumbs-up from Ron. When asked, he explained that the puppy wasn't really his, saying only that it was a gift for a friend.

Neville and Hannah continued to play with the puppy as Ron got ready and left for his rounds. Hermione excused herself to find Terry Boot (supposedly to discuss an Ancient Runes assignment), and Harry cheerfully waved her off. Watching out the window, he allowed his mind to drift to last year's ride home, and how hopeless everything had seemed back then, what with Sirius' unexpected death and the truth of the prophecy heavy in his mind. He had felt so alone, so detached. Now, he knew he wasn't alone. That he had friends and family that loved him. 'And an incredible fiancé.' Sighing, Harry pulled Ginny into his arms, amazed at how much his life had changed in one short year.

** end story **

Notes: So, Bauer's Friend – is Hermione right about it being a myth, or is Snape right that it does exist? Honestly, I don't know. I couldn't find it anywhere on snopes.

Well, that's the end of this year, but obviously not the end of the tale. Year Seven, in which Harry most definitely does return to Hogwarts – like Albus would let him do otherwise – promises to be as interesting as this one was. The story, titled Advance the Phoenix, picks up right where this one left off. Same bat time, same bat channel! Um, I mean, I've posted the first chapter along with this one, so you can start reading it right now.

TTFN!