Chapter 13

Ginny's Birthday

Realizing what day it was, Harry climbed out of bed with a little more energy than usual. It wasn't because it was Friday, though that was still his favorite day of the week, because of his seventh year Defense Against the Dark Arts class and his class with Dentus. His anticipation was because it was the twenty-eighth of September, and Ginny's sixteenth birthday. He reflected that though she was more than a year younger than the rest of the group, he didn't tend to think of her that way. She's mature for her age, thought Harry, and definitely more mature than I am. Despite all he'd been through, he still felt at times that he didn't know how to handle some aspects of his life. Thank goodness she's the one I fell in love with, he thought, not for the first time.

The curtains on Ron's bed were still drawn. Chuckling at what he was about to do, Harry conjured his dog, giving it instructions to lick Ron's face. The dog came into view, and only had to take a few steps to reach Ron's bed and jump through the curtains. Harry was soon rewarded, hearing Ron yell, "Hey!" followed a few seconds later by, "Very funny, Harry."

"I thought so," replied Harry, as Ron pulled back the curtains in annoyance.

"It's a very nice and friendly dog," said Ron sarcastically, in a T-shirt and trousers. "Now, would you please get rid of it? It's kind of hard to get my robe over my head with that licking my face all the time." The dog vanished. "And the dog may disappear, but the slobber doesn't," Ron continued complaining. "How do you get it to do that, anyway?"

Harry had no idea, but wasn't about to admit it. "Part of the energy of love, Ron."

"The energy of spit, you mean," retorted Ron, wiping his face on his robe's sleeve.

"Well, whatever you want to call it," said Harry. Noting Ron's robe, he had a sudden thought. "So, do you miss wearing the Aurors' robes?"

Ron raised his eyebrows a little, as if wondering what had made Harry think of it. "Not especially. I mean, of course it was extra cool to wear them, but them saying it was okay was almost as good as actually wearing them. Also, my little bit of lifting a few weeks ago got me lots of attention, more than I need for a while. Quite a few first years, and a few second years, have looked at me like... I don't know, like I was you, I guess. Kind of hard to get used to, made me understand a bit how you must feel."

"But not enough to persuade you to stop making fun of me about it," said Harry, his tone making it a statement rather than a question.

Ron chuckled. "Yeah, right. No, not much chance of that. Of course, there's so much to make fun of you about, I don't really need any one particular thing."

"That's what I thought," agreed Harry. "But I didn't mean that getting attention was the reason to wear the robes, exactly, it's more the pride in being allowed to, like you said."

"'Morning," said Neville, walking up to them. "Yes, I know what you mean. In the summer, sometimes I wore them just for that reason, even during the time when I couldn't do the energy-of-love spells. It just felt good to wear them."

They started to head out of the dormitory. "But that's not so much a big deal for you, Neville," said Ron. "You're going to be one, anyway. That could have been my only chance to wear them."

"Well, first of all, we don't know that–"

Harry and Ron chuckled. "Yes, we do, Neville," said Harry. "They started training you because you were the son of two Aurors, but they wouldn't still be doing it unless they were pretty sure you'd make it."

"Yeah, Neville, none of this being overly modest business," Ron chided him. "That's Harry's thing."

"Sorry, I forgot," said Neville, going along with the joke. "Anyway, the other thing I was going to say was..." He paused for a few seconds. "Now I've forgotten it." Harry and Ron laughed. "Give me a second, it had to do with... oh, yes, I remember. I was going to say, Ron, that it may not have been your only chance. There's no reason you couldn't become one if you really wanted to. I mean, if I could, you certainly could."

"Yes, there's a point," said Ron, pretending to agree. "Why don't I just go and say those exact words to Hermione, see what she thinks."

Neville shrugged. "Well, if you really want to suffer like that..." All three laughed as they climbed through the portrait hole one by one. "You know what I mean."

"They'd have to make the same exception for me for Potions that they've made for you," pointed out Ron. "I know you said they said it's possible, but I wouldn't want to assume they would. Besides, after you and Harry, are they going to have any openings?"

"They will," said Neville confidently. "Kingsley has said that they want there to be as many Aurors as there are qualified people. Apparently there have been over fifty at times before, though there are less than forty now. That's not a problem. Combining how Harry's taught you a lot of the stuff we've learned, and your experience at helping keep Harry alive, I think you'd be considered qualified."

"Hadn't thought of it that way, but I suppose I see your point," conceded Ron. "It's probably more rigorous than their training program. I'll think about it. And if I do it, I could study Potions with you, however you end up studying it."

"I assume they have contacts with private experts who teach people for them," said Neville. "Private experts who are, you know, friendly people. Or at least not determined to make their students' lives as difficult as possible."

"Are there any Potions masters like that?" asked Ron facetiously.

"I think there are a few," said Neville as they entered the Great Hall. Or, at least, who haven't been Cleansed, thought Harry.

They walked to their usual spots and sat down, the girls already there. Harry reached over and took Ginny's hand. "Happy Birthday," he said, communicating much more with his eyes.

"Thanks," she replied, looking happy. "You know what's the best thing about turning sixteen?" Pansy started to speak, but Ginny cut her off. "Not you, I know you know. I want to know if they know." Harry and Ron exchanged a blank look, while Neville smiled. "All right, Neville, what is it?"

"Only one more year until you and Harry can get legally married."

"Yes, very good. Harry, I'm disappointed in you for not thinking of that." Her expression made clear, however, that she was joking.

"Sorry, I thought we were already," he teased back. "Feels like that to me, anyway."

"Good answer," said Pansy.

"That's sweet of you, but it won't really feel like we're married until we can sleep in the same bed every night," said Ginny wistfully. "So I guess the birthday doesn't mean that much, just for that reason. I mean, legally, we could get married a year from today, but it wouldn't do us much good."

"I don't know, I kind of like the idea that we got married as soon as we possibly could," said Harry. "Probably not many people get married on their seventeenth birthday."

"Oh, some do, Harry," said Hermione, putting down the Prophet for a moment. "Not so many nowadays, but it used to be fairly common. Of course, that was in the days of arranged marriages. But still now, it does happen. I read about it in one of the books I looked at when I was helping you research the Joining of Hands."

Ron looked amused. "I guess we all know by now that if Hermione picks up a book, she has to read the whole thing."

"You say that like it's a bad thing," she retorted. "By the way, Harry, there's something that might interest you in today's Prophet. There's an editorial about the subject of keeping Death Eaters locked up, or the difficulty in doing so. You remember we discussed this subject a bit before Christmas last year. Since more have escaped since then, especially the thirteen on the night the magic went out, the editorial questions the ability of the Ministry to hold onto them. It suggests that stronger measures might be necessary; that's been talked about a lot before. But it hints... listen: 'If such efforts still prove unequal to the task, if Death Eaters still manage to escape despite our best efforts to hold them, we must face the fact that extreme measures may be called for.' Do you see what they're trying to say?"

"The Imperius Curse?" asked Harry.

"No, that was discussed last year," she reminded him. "That's one of the 'stronger measures' they're considering now."

Neville spoke solemnly. "It refers to killing them."

The others all looked startled, as Hermione nodded. "Is that something they might actually do?" asked Ron. "Who wrote the editorial, anyway?"

"We don't know, the editorials are unsigned," explained Hermione. "Professor Dentus has told me that Ministry people sometimes use Prophet editorials to float ideas anonymously, get a reaction to them, start a debate. This one will definitely get a reaction, at least from people who read between the lines. As for your first question, it sounds unlikely. It would be a pretty radical idea, which is why it's couched in such vague language. There hasn't been an official death penalty for quite a few years. I mean, letting Aurors kill people in the line of duty is one thing, but the state committing the equivalent of cold-blooded murder is really another.

"Also, it's kind of problematical, image-wise. The Muggle government of Britain doesn't have the death penalty, and most, I think maybe all, European Muggle governments don't either. The Americans do, but the Europeans kind of look down on them for it, like they're uncivilized. Now, it's not that the wizarding community is going to worry about what European Muggles think, since they don't know about the magical world anyway, but it's just the idea that it looks that bad. Not to mention that it's like an admission of defeat, that we're so incompetent at keeping people locked up that we have to resort to this. It's really unlikely that this'll happen. I'll have to check in with Professor Dentus, maybe ask him in History of Magic today."

Ginny shook her head. "I'm all for strong action, but I think even I'd draw the line at this. I think it's safe to say, Harry, that you couldn't imagine supporting this."

"More like, I'd speak out against it," agreed Harry. "If we do that, are we really any better than they are? Well, okay, we are, but you know what I mean."

"Bit of a difference between killing killers and killing innocent people," pointed out Ron. "But of course, I understand the point, that it's just wrong. I couldn't disagree. I wonder how other countries' wizards keep them locked up."

"Other countries' wizards don't have to deal with Voldemort trying to free their magical convicts all the time," pointed out Hermione.

"I can see the reason for suggesting it, of course," said Neville thoughtfully. "You kill them, and they can't be broken out and then kill other people anymore. And anyone who's a Death Eater is a killer, that's just a given." Harry's thoughts flashed to Snape. "Of course I'd oppose this too, I'd hate to think we'd stoop that low. We just have to do better at holding onto them."

"How does Voldemort find out where they're being kept, anyway?" asked Ron. "I know you said that thing about him finding people and raiding their memories, but I thought only the Aurors knew about Malfoy, Lestrange, and the others they're holding, but Voldemort found out and tried to rescue them."

"Apparently a few people in the Ministry knew that the Aurors were holding people, just not who," said Harry. "Kingsley's told Neville and I that since then, they've moved the people they're holding and keeping the location very tightly held, even most of the Aurors themselves don't know. He implied, but didn't say, that they did Memory Charms on the few Ministry people that did know, to make sure that they didn't tell anyone."

"Which is illegal," pointed out Hermione, "but Aurors seem to be exempt from laws like that. Well, we shouldn't worry about it anyway, it's just a hint from an editorial. We should think about other things, like Ginny being sixteen today. I'm sorry, Ginny, that we couldn't get for you the gift we know you'd most want."

Grinning, Ginny replied, "You mean, to be in a room alone with Harry?"

"I couldn't think of much you'd want more than that," said Hermione. "I actually considered asking all the Gryffindors to stay out of Gryffindor Tower between six and seven tonight, and changing the password for that time. Everybody would have had to agree, which they probably would have, and it wouldn't have been against the school rules. But the problem was that the whole school would have known, and Harry would have been mortified at everyone knowing."

Ginny feigned puzzlement. "And you let that stop you because...?" The others, except Harry, laughed as she continued, "I mean, it's my birthday, after all, not his. I should get what I want."

"I'm sorry, Ginny," said Harry, half-serious. "I know you'd want me to have Fawkes take us to my quarters–"

She waved him off. "No, I know how you feel about that, and you're right, much as I hate to admit it. We can't just go and decide the rules don't apply to me just because you're a teacher. But boy, I hate being noble about this kind of thing."

"I can understand that," agreed Hermione. "I've heard that the lack of privacy is a common complaint especially of seventh years, who by this age are often in serious relationships." With a sympathetic look, she added, "I guess it's best to fall in love right before you graduate."

"I wouldn't change a thing," said Ginny, squeezing Harry's hand.

He squeezed back, then let go so he could continue his breakfast. "So, Neville, how's it going with Blaise?"

Neville shrugged. "Well, you can see in class, he's getting a little better, at least."

"Sorry, I kind of meant, how you're getting along, his personality."

"That's a harder question," mused Neville. "He's pretty quiet, obviously. When he talks, it's mainly because he has to. I've tried asking him a few casual questions about things, and he mostly gives one-word answers. I think it's just going to take time for him to get comfortable talking to people, if he ever does. I mean, it took me some time, and I had much better circumstances than him."

Harry nodded. "I guess that's not surprising. Obviously, I wanted you to help him because he needs it, but I suppose I was also hoping that it would bring him out a bit."

"It still may, it just might take more time," said Neville.

The owls flew into the Hall, and dropped their mail, as usual. Five pieces of mail dropped in front of Ginny, which was not usual. "Wow, five, that's more than usual even for my birthday. One'll be from Mum, of course, but I wonder about the other four," she said as she opened one. "Ah, this one is the same as you got, Hermione, signed by all the Aurors. That was nice of them. Here's Mum's, and these two..." She opened one envelope, then another, and reported, "These are from people I don't even know! Wow, my first fan mail!"

The others laughed at the idea that she would be excited about it, though they knew she was exaggerating for effect. "Won't be your last, I have a feeling," said Harry.

"I'll have to write back to them and say 'thank you,'" she said with raised eyebrows at Harry, who disliked doing that kind of thing. As she opened the fifth one, she glanced at the return address, and her eyes went wide. "This is from Dudley!"

The others were equally surprised. "Why would he..." wondered Harry, who then added, "And how did he know it was your birthday?"

"Mum," suggested Ron. "Either that, or that internet thing. I think those pages about us had our birthdays."

"Probably the internet," put in Hermione. "Remember, I got a few cards from people I didn't know as well. That must have been where these two got Ginny's birthday."

Ginny opened the card, took out what Harry could tell from the back was a picture, and looked at it in puzzlement. "It's just a picture of him, sitting on... Oh," she added as she started laughing. She looked up at Harry and said, "It's a little joke. He's wearing steel-toed shoes."

Now Harry chuckled as well, and explained the reference to the others. "Wonder if he bought them, or just borrowed them from a friend or something. It is funny, but at the same time, I don't fancy the idea of him owning steel-toed shoes. You know he's been the leader of a gang that bullies people, I'd hate to think he'd get tempted to use them on someone other than Malfoy."

"He may be growing out of that, Harry," suggested Hermione hopefully. "People can be like that when they're teenagers, but grow up, and realize it's not something they should be doing."

"She's right, I should know," added Pansy solemnly. "And he didn't seem bad at all when I met him."

"I hope so," said Harry. He wondered whether Hermione had been obliquely referring to his father, which only she and Ginny knew about. "It was nice of him, anyway. I wonder if it's partly because you're now more like a family member to him, since he knows we'll be married in the future."

"One interesting aspect of that, Harry," pointed out Hermione, "is that it means he thinks of you as a family member."

He nodded. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I guess he has changed, at least in that way."

After lunch, Harry went to the staff room, as usual. As he sat, John asked him to wish Ginny a happy birthday for him. Harry said he would, then wondered, "How did you happen to know it was her birthday, anyway?"

"I like to know when it's everybody's birthday who takes my class," John explained. "I asked the school to put it on my roll sheets so I can mention it to students whose birthday it is, or is coming up, but won't fall on a day they have my class. It's nice, because it lets their friends know, who may not have otherwise."

Harry nodded, impressed. "That's a good idea. Too bad we can't have parties, but we'd be having one a day if we did it for everybody."

"How's it going with your classes?" asked Sprout.

"I assume you mean, the energy-of-love parts," clarified Harry. "It's way too early to tell, really. We probably won't start to know anything for a few months at least, more like half a year is more likely."

"I asked because I've heard that in Hufflepuff, a few 'study groups' have started," explained Sprout. "I think a group of fifth-year girls started one, and another one was started by third-year girls. They're letting the boys join them, or at least those who seem to take it seriously."

"I haven't seen anyone not taking it seriously," said Harry. "Maybe not everyone does, but there hasn't been any smirking or joking. You know how it would normally be for people this age, they'd be making all kinds of jokes. But in each class's first lesson, I asked them not to, and I told them it would be much less likely to work if they did. They seem to be taking what I said seriously."

"Well, you are the expert," Sprout half-joked. "People wouldn't be trying to do this in their free time if they weren't serious about it, so I'm not surprised that they're doing what you tell them. It'll be interesting to see how it works."

"Oh, Harry," said Dentus, "I don't know if Hermione saw the editorial in–"

"She saw it, and understood what they were talking about. She said she might ask you about it in class."

Dentus nodded. "I could easily do several classes just on the history of capital punishment. I mentioned it because it seems like the kind of thing you'd have a strong opinion about."

"I'd think most people would," said Harry.

"Yes, but maybe not the one you'd think," said Dentus. "Especially at a time like this, that kind of thing has a certain appeal. As Bright said to you, you tend to operate on a rather strong sense of what's right and wrong. You may find that for many people at least, that can be flexible, depending on the situation. It may turn out that you are one of those people, and there would be nothing wrong if you were. Albus wasn't flexible about this kind of thing, as you know; we both think he disapproved of the ARA despite the obvious advantages because he felt it could lead to abuse. In other words, that it was wrong for the government to take away people's liberties in any way. If it was wrong, it was wrong, and that was that. Now, capital punishment seems like, and is, a very different issue, but as the situation becomes more dire, more and more people may be open to it. Whoever is responsible for the editorial is anticipating a time when people will be open to it, and softening the ground for it."

Harry shook his head. "I obviously can be a little flexible, since I wasn't ready to risk my friends over principle last year. But I know I can't be this flexible. We just have to do a better job of keeping them locked up. I'd do something to help if I could."

"Ah, but there's the problem," pointed out Dentus. "You're far too valuable to use like that, even if you didn't have responsibilities at Hogwarts. That's why the Aurors don't want to guard prisoners, and they have an excellent point." As Dentus spoke, Harry realized that he was one of the very few who knew that the Aurors did in fact guard some prisoners. "It's just a waste of their talent to use them for that, except when someone manages to break a dozen out. And if they use ordinary wizards, even well-trained ones, there's a much greater risk that an assault can get them out. Part of the problem is that no one really wants to guard prisoners. It's an incredibly boring job, not to mention dangerous and highly stressful. It's not going to attract the best possible people, to put it mildly."

Harry pondered this for a minute. "If I pushed Bright to devote more resources to the problem, do you think he'd do it?"

"Honestly, Harry, I don't know. Strictly from a political point of view, this is always a hard thing to get politicians to do. They'd always rather spend resources where it'll get them the most political support, and things like that are way down on their list. But it is a security issue, and that has a lot of resonance right now. It partly depends on whether you pushed him publicly or privately. He wouldn't mind if you did it publicly, provided you gave him advance notice so he could be ready."

"But wouldn't that just give him a better opportunity to obstruct what Harry wants, if that's what he's inclined to do?" wondered Sprout.

"If he's inclined to obstruct Harry, there's little chance Harry would succeed anyway, for something like this," responded Dentus. "But to answer your question, it's a question of what kind of relationship Harry wants to have with him. Letting him know is a kind of political courtesy, and Bright would respond with the courtesy of letting Harry know his intentions. If you want to have a working relationship, there are rules, and these are some of them. But also, Harry, you're going to want to talk to Kingsley about this, find out where the Aurors stand. They could be more flexible than you, and you're probably not going to want to get out too far ahead of them, at least publicly."

"I can't imagine they'd approve of this," said Harry.

"Probably not, but at least you're going to want to find out, make sure."

Harry sighed. "Yes, I suppose that's a good idea. It's just that... well, never mind, you know what I'm going to say anyway."

Dentus nodded sympathetically. "Yes, you don't like the idea of having to have meetings with people you like to work out political strategy, or your response to an issue. The problem is, of course, that that's the price of influence. You could just stay out of it, but then you couldn't affect what happens, and something you don't like might happen."

"I guess... tell me, Archibald, what do you think Albus would have done in this situation?"

"You could always ask him," said Dentus humorously, "but I'm pretty sure I know. If asked, he'd have just said publicly what he thought, and not concerned himself with whatever result it had. As a result of that, of course, his influence was less than it could have been. One could even argue that if he had hoarded his influence and worked more within the system than outside of it, more people would have taken him seriously when he said that Voldemort was back. The rest of the Ministry wouldn't have been so quick to attack him, even if Fudge was. Albus consistently stood on principle, though, even when it would have served him better over the long term to be a bit flexible on things that weren't so important. Maybe he just felt that once you got caught up in compromising, there was no end to it. I don't know, maybe you should ask him."

"I'm pretty sure he's way past caring about politics now, but he'll answer my questions about why he did stuff, what he was thinking. I probably will ask him, thanks."

"I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know what he says," added Dentus. Harry assured him that he would.

"Okay, that's good," said Harry to his seventh year class an hour later, having nearly finished the part of the class devoted to the energy of love. "The last thing I want to talk about before we move on today is hugging. The impression I got when I was developing this was that hugging was very helpful. Of course, I got hugged out of the Cruciatus Curse every morning while it happened, but even besides that, I was hugged during that time by Hermione, Ginny, Pansy, and Professor Dumbledore. And I also hugged Professor McGonagall." To his amusement, there were impressed and astonished looks from most of the class.

"How did that happen?" asked an amazed Parvati.

"I don't think she wants me relating the details," Harry replied. "It was only very reluctantly that she allowed me to tell you this at all."

"That, I believe," said Dean. "How did she react when you did? I have this mental image of her slapping you..." Most students laughed.

Smiling, Harry said, "She was kind of taken aback, but after a second, she hugged me back. I'm sure she would want me to tell you, though, that the circumstances were extremely unusual, and nobody should get the idea that they can walk up to her and hug her."

"I don't think she has anything to worry about," cracked Seamus.

"Anyway, getting back to what I was saying, I really think it helped. I feel like... I don't know if I can put it into words well, but it encourages the feeling that we're trying to work towards here. But a word of caution, you should only do it if you feel comfortable. I don't want people hugging people because they feel like they should. It has to be because you want to. Now, if you have affection for the person but just feel embarrassed about hugging, then I would suggest you do it anyway, if you can overcome your embarrassment. If you don't feel like you can, don't worry about it, just give it some time. Anyway, if anyone would like to hug someone to get used to the idea, I'd be happy to hug anyone who would like one."

There was some nervous laughing. "This has to be the strangest in-class activity ever at Hogwarts," said Seamus.

"It may not be, by the time the year is over," responded Harry, drawing a few chuckles. Hannah stood, saying, "I'll take one." Harry smiled as he walked over to hug her tightly. As he did, Susan asked, "Ginny has approved of all this?"

Harry responded, "She said she was fine with anything that didn't involve kissing on the lips." He let go of Hannah, who smiled at him and sat.

To Harry's surprise, Mandy stood. She met him halfway for her hug; as she returned to her seat, Ernie said, "So, this is mainly for the female students, right?"

"Stand up, Ernie, and you'll find out," responded Harry, to laughter. Ernie blushed and remained in his seat. "No, anyone is welcome. I can understand why the guys would be reluctant, though. It's a bit hard to get used to, and I don't expect everyone to–" He interrupted himself as Justin stood up. "Justin! Great, it's good to have a male volunteer."

He walked over and hugged Justin, who said, "I know you said not to make jokes, but it's kind of difficult right now."

Harry chuckled as he let go of Justin. "I know how you feel; in the first Charms class, Neville and I were making all kinds of jokes about holding hands. Now, I don't expect everyone to run around hugging everyone, and that might be taking it too far anyway. It should be someone you at least like, not just someone you barely know as a class exercise. The main point is, it's a good thing to get in the habit of doing, as far as helping getting the energy of love going. And the offer stands, even if we're not in class.

"Okay, now we're going to resume working on dueling. First of all, I want to demonstrate a few things. Neville, would you come up here, please?" Neville stood and walked toward Harry, but instead of stopping at the normal dueling distance, he continued approaching Harry. He wrapped Harry in a hug, to loud laughter from the class. Laughing, Harry hugged Neville back, and said, "That's fine too, Neville, but I wanted to demonstrate dueling," as Neville released him.

"Oh, dueling," said Neville innocently. "Sorry, I must not have been paying attention for a minute."

"Actually, that could be a nice dueling custom," joked Harry. "We hug before we duel. Anyway, everyone watch carefully what happens at the end of the duel." They did their demonstration, and Neville sat back down with Harry's other friends on the right side of the room, from Harry's perspective.

"Now, as you saw, I–ow!" Harry exclaimed as he felt a sharp pain in his neck. "What was that?" he asked no one in particular as he looked around. He suddenly saw what looked like a small swarm of insects, perhaps wasps, on his left heading towards him; they seemed to be moving incredibly fast. Reflexively, he moved to his right, away from them, but they were almost on top of him. He suddenly felt very weak, and started to topple over. As he did, he saw Hermione reach for her neck...

* * * * *

Hermione moved the toggle on the small device around her neck. From her seat three rows back, the pocket of time extended to the front row of students, but not to Harry. "Thank goodness," she breathed. "I was afraid he'd be caught in this as well, and it wouldn't do any good."

Half of the class was caught in the pocket; the other half seemed frozen at their desks, like statues. Harry was frozen, in mid-fall. Hermione could hear startled exclamations of "What's going on?" from a few people.

"Listen to me," announced Hermione in a loud voice as she stood. "I just used a device Harry and I took from Voldemort when we faced him in June. It stops time everywhere except within a certain distance of the device. Harry's life is under threat. He's already been bitten, or stung, by whatever those things are. The fact that there's so many of them, and they all seem to be after him, can't be a coincidence. This is an attempt on his life, and so those things are probably deadly. We have to figure out what to do, and quickly."

Hermione ignored the startled gasps as Ron turned in his seat toward her. "Voldemort said that lasted two hours, right?"

"Yes, but I don't want to bet Harry's life on him being right. We have to act as if every second counts, that this could stop at any time. First, we need to figure out exactly what these things are. Can anyone get a good look?"

Justin turned in his seat at the front of the class. "They look like wasps, but not any kind I've seen before. They have this greenish tint to them. They also moved really fast, but in a strange way. I don't know how to explain it, it just seemed... unnatural."

"I wish I could get closer, for a better look," said Hermione, frustrated, "but if I do, the field will move with me and activate all the wasps, not to mention Harry if I'm not careful."

"Couldn't you leave the device at the desk, move forward without it?" asked Ron.

She shook her head. "We don't know anything about how the device works. For all I know, it could require the person to be wearing it, and time could start again if I took it off. I can't risk that." She paused for a second, thinking. "I'm going to have to move to the center of the room, and then forward very slowly, until one of the wasps comes within the field. Then we have to capture it, so we can figure out exactly what it is."

"Wait a minute," protested Padma. "You're going to let a deadly wasp come at us? Does anyone else see the flaw in this plan?"

"We need one!" Hermione almost shouted. "The rest of you, stay back. Ron, Pansy, Neville and I will stay here. If it attacks anyone, it'll be one of us."

"We don't know that," countered Padma. "Justin said it moved really fast. It could be on any of us before we know it."

"All right, then," said Hermione, getting angry despite the presence of Flora on her shoulder. "Everyone who doesn't want to be around for this, move to the back of the field. Then I'll move back, you move back with me, and I'll move forward again. You'll be out of the field, frozen in time, and at no risk from what I'm about to do."

Hesitation appeared on a few faces, but no one moved. Abashed, Padma said, "Look, Hermione, it's not like we're all a bunch of cowards just because we're not Gryffindors. I just wanted to be sure you understood the risk to everyone of what you're going to do."

Hermione nodded. "Believe me, I do. There's just no other choice. Harry's the one who's going to defeat Voldemort, he can't die. But the rest of you should get behind the four of us anyway, I'd rather we had a clear field of vision."

"The three of us," corrected Ron. "We need to be in front of you, Hermione. You can't be risked right now, you're the one with the thing around your neck. If you go down, we could lose the field, and Harry."

She thought for a second. "All right, much as I hate to admit it, you're right. Whoever sees it should do the Full-Body Bind on it, no reason it shouldn't work on an insect." Ron, Neville, and Pansy stepped in front of Hermione, who then slowly moved to her right; Justin and Padma moved chairs out of her way, and explained what was happening to the startled students Hermione was activating as she moved. "Neville, how far forward do I have to go to activate the nearest one?"

Neville took a few steps forward. "Hard to say for sure, since we can't see the border of the effect, but I think about six inches should be safe, so you wouldn't activate Harry or any other insects. Just go forward at about an inch a second, very slowly." He stepped back, resuming his place between Ron and Pansy.

"Okay, I'm going to start moving. Be ready." The other three affirmed their readiness, and Hermione started forward ever so slowly. After she had moved forward four inches, suddenly there was movement. One of the wasps moved toward them, then seemingly instantaneously, was almost on top of Neville, an inch from his face. Ron and Pansy's wands flashed within less than a second of each other, Ron's first. The wasp went still and fell to the floor, after which Neville's arms went to his sides and his legs came together. He started to topple forward as Pansy caught him.

"Oh, Neville!" she cried. "Oh, no..."

Being careful not to move, Hermione waved her wand, and Neville returned to normal. Off balance from having been about to fall forward, he reflexively grabbed Pansy's shoulders. "Neville, I'm so sorry," said Pansy, holding his shoulders and steadying him.

"Ah, yes, I hadn't forgotten what that's like," said Neville wryly. "Thankfully, it was for a much shorter time, this time. Don't worry about it, Pansy. I could see it was really close to me, it would be easy to miss."

As Pansy let go of Neville, Hermione handed Ron a tissue. "Pick it up, as carefully as you can." With slightly raised eyebrows, he took the tissue, then pointed his wand at the wasp on the floor; it rose up to Ron's eye level, and he let it fall onto the tissue. "Or, you could do that," Hermione said, annoyed that she hadn't thought of it.

"It really is green, isn't it," remarked Ron. "I've never seen that before, either."

"All right, we have to know what we're dealing with," said Hermione. "The next step is to go to the library and do some research, as fast as we possibly can. Let's see..." She looked around the room. "Mandy, Anthony, I want you to come with me."

"Why them?" asked Ron, seemingly hoping to have gone with her.

"Time is critical, Ron," she replied. "We need to find out about this as fast as possible. We could take him to St. Mungo's and hope they know what this is, but I won't take that chance. I need people who can look through unfamiliar books and find information very quickly. But before we go, everyone but Ron, Pansy, and Neville should leave, in case the device fails and time starts again unexpectedly. Everyone stay around me, I'll move closer to the door and gather in the people frozen now, though there'll be no time to explain it to them, we just have to move them out, tell them it's urgent. Mandy, Anthony, stay with the others for a second."

After Hermione finished evacuating the class, she came back in, activating the five remaining students. "Weird sensation," commented Ron. "It's like everybody just disappeared."

"Okay," said Hermione. "You three... if time starts again while I'm gone, which I pray it won't, react as fast as you can, grab him, summon Fawkes, and get him to St. Mungo's. Ron, you're the strongest, you should be the one to actually grab him. If everything goes all right, I'll be back in what'll be an instant to you, with a better idea of what to do. After we finish, I'll take Mandy and Anthony to McGonagall's office, they can tell her what happened when time starts again. I'll be right back."

Mandy and Anthony held onto Hermione, who grabbed Flora's tail and was off. Sure enough, to the others' eyes an instant later, Hermione was back, now with Ginny in tow. Ginny looked at Harry's frozen form with obvious dread.

Hermione filled Ginny in on what had happened until she had gone to the library, then continued for the others' benefit as well, speaking briskly. "Fortunately, we found it in the library pretty quickly, less than five minutes. It's a rare type of insect that's the result of violations of the Ban on Experimental Breeding: a wasp that has a few very nasty qualities. One is that not only does it fly, but it also teleports very short distances, like a few feet. Enough to get from room to room, which is why they got in here without the door being open, and that's why they seemed so fast. Also, and this is what they were bred for, if they get a whiff of someone's blood they go for that person, to the exclusion of others. That's why they were all going for Harry, they were primed to home in on him. How they managed to smell his blood is something we'll have to worry about later.

"The worst part is that it's fatal, at least so far as is known. The books we saw related cases where a person got exposed to this kind of venom and survived, but only because they got medical care instantly, and blood transfusions from a brother or close relative with the same blood type. Family connections usually don't matter when it comes to blood in this way, but for some reason, it matters with this. Now, the problem is, Harry obviously doesn't have anyone like that, so we need the person most closely connected to him by blood and who has the same blood type. And that would be..." She trailed off unhappily.

"His Aunt Petunia," groaned Ron. "Peachy. She'll be thrilled."

"And that's assuming she's the same type as him, which isn't so likely," said Hermione. "After that is Dudley, who would do it, but it wouldn't be as good as his mother, since his blood connection to Harry is only half of hers. But we need to try to get her, if her blood type is the same."

"Is that something we can find out?" asked Pansy. "And how will we knew hers?"

"I found out his, it's type A. After I took Anthony and Mandy to McGonagall I went to the infirmary, and had Madam Pomfrey look it up. As for hers, I'll have to ask her.

"The other part of this plan is that as soon as time resumes, we get Fawkes to where Harry is, and he'll drop a tear or two onto where Harry got stung. That should help, even for something that's normally deadly. I'm praying that the combination of that and a fast blood transfusion will do it. Once time resumes, Harry will have very little time. Normally, he wouldn't have a chance at this point. Before we go, though, we have to get him to St. Mungo's. I'll get just close enough to him to activate him, then Flora will take us there. I'll get away from him fast, find a Healer, and explain it to them. Then I'll come back here." Flora took flight, ready to go. "Ron, Neville, grab Harry and throw him onto me. I'll be back in a flash."

They did, and she was. "They have him, and two Healers are there and know what to do. They'll be ready as fast as they can for whoever we bring. Hold on, Ginny. Next stop, Privet Drive."

"We're all going," countered Ron.

"No," said Hermione urgently. "Ron, Petunia's going to react very badly to this. The more people 'invade' her home, the worse she'll react, we have to do this with the minimum number of people. Me, because I'm wearing this, and Ginny because..." Hermione paused, clearly trying to hold back potential tears, "...because Petunia needs to see the face of the person who'll be hurt the worst if Harry dies."

Ginny nodded somberly. "I'm ready."

Hermione turned to her. "Whatever you do, don't yell, don't argue, no matter what awful things she says about us or Harry. She's not going to like this, we need to persuade her."

Ginny nodded again. "I understand."

"Okay, where do you three want to be when time starts again? I should get you there now, wherever that is."

"We should stay here," offered Ron. "Get rid of the rest of these." Neville and Pansy nodded in agreement.

"That's awfully risky," pointed out Hermione. "Just because they were looking for Harry doesn't mean they won't sting anyone else once he's gone. We didn't find that information in the books, we stopped reading when we got what we wanted."

"And if we're not here, what's going to happen?" asked Neville. "They're just going to spread though the school, randomly stinging people. Dozens could be killed. If things go right and that thing lasts long enough, after Harry's set up, you can go to the Ministry and get some people here who're experienced in this kind of thing. We can probably take out all of them, but... I admit I don't like it, but it's better than the alternative. We'd just better hope that thing lasts long enough."

With obvious and deep reluctance, Hermione nodded. "Okay, get ready. If all goes well, the next thing you'll see is me with people experienced with dealing with dangerous insects. Ginny, let's go." Ginny held onto Hermione, who grabbed Flora's tail.

They were immediately transported to the living room of four Privet Drive. They looked around as Flora settled on Hermione's shoulder, and they saw that Petunia was in the kitchen, apparently putting something away, frozen. Hermione took Ginny's hand and slowly approached Petunia until she activated, her back to Hermione and Ginny. "Mrs. Dursley?" said Hermione in a normal tone of voice.

Petunia shrieked and turned to face them, startled. "Who are you? What are you..." She trailed off as she apparently recognized them.

Partly to be polite, Hermione answered her question anyway. "I'm Hermione Granger, one of Harry's group. This is Ginny Weasley, she's his... the one he's going to marry. If he–"

"And you come barging into my home like this? You people don't know about knocking on doors?" Anger was taking the place of fright on Petunia's face.

"Yes, Mrs. Dursley, I was raised in a normal home, my parents are dentists. I thought you wouldn't want the neighbors seeing people dressed like us knocking at your door, and we didn't have time to change. We're in an urgent, desperate situation, and we need your help. Harry's been stung by something and is close to death. He will die unless he gets a blood transfusion, from as close a living relative as possible, and that's you."

Petunia looked bewildered, as though she hadn't understood what Hermione had said. "Stung? Doesn't he know enough to stay away from bees? And that's not deadly, anyway."

Trying very hard to be patient, Hermione replied, "It was a magical wasp, Mrs. Dursley, and they were after him. It's another attempt on his life by Voldemort."

"And he wants my help? After what he said in that article? He hates us so much, I'm surprised he wouldn't rather die than ask for my help."

"He might," said Ginny intensely. "We're the ones who are asking, partly because he can't, and partly because he's far more important to us than he is to himself. You know he didn't talk to that reporter, you know he didn't want the article written. Are you really going to let him die when you could prevent it because he said things to friends that upset you?"

"You try raising someone for fifteen years and then having them turn on you like that!" yelled Petunia.

"I'll never raise a child in a cupboard, I know that much!" responded Ginny at equal volume and greater intensity. "I'll never raise a child to make them feel like they're no good, to never be loved or cared for..." Feeling tears coming on, Ginny turned around and took deep breaths, obviously making a supreme effort to keep her emotions in check.

"Mrs. Dursley," said Hermione quietly, "we just don't have time to argue about that article, or Harry's childhood. You know how important he is to us, not to mention the entire wizarding community. But even if he wasn't, he's still a person. You may have the power to help save his life, and there's no risk to you whatsoever. The only reason not to do it would be that you're completely indifferent to whether he lives or dies."

"No, that's not right," said Ginny to Hermione. Still intense, she looked at Petunia. "Even if you're indifferent, you'd still do it, because he's a human being whose life is in danger. If you don't do it, it means that you'd prefer him dead than alive."

Petunia looked back at them angrily; what they were saying was apparently starting to sink in. "Is that what you think? Is that what he thinks, what he's told you?"

"He thinks you'd prefer never to see him again," said Hermione levelly. "I don't think he thinks that you'd prefer him dead. As for us, we don't think any particular thing. All I know is, you know it's urgent, you know his life is in danger, and you're still arguing with us. Most people would have said 'okay, let's go' by now. So, I don't know."

Petunia stared at Hermione. "It would never occur to you..." She stopped herself in mid-sentence, then said, "Never mind. You said I 'may' be able to save his life. Why 'may?'"

"It'll only work if you have the same blood type as he does," said Hermione. "What is your blood type, Mrs. Dursley?"

"You obviously assume that I don't know his blood type; it may surprise you to know that I took enough of an interest in his welfare to know that. We have the same type."

Hermione stared at Petunia, eyebrows raised slightly with an expression of 'well, then?' Petunia sighed. "How do we get there?"

Hermione produced from her robes a small box of tissues she had taken from St. Mungo's. "We'll take what's called a Portkey. Ginny, you take Flora. Mrs. Dursley, if you'll hold this box, we'll be there in an instant." Flora and Ginny disappeared as Petunia hesitated, then gingerly held the proffered box. "Portus," said Hermione, pointing her wand at the box.

A few seconds later, they were in the emergency care area of St. Mungo's. She had been careful to set up the Portkey destination far enough from Harry that he wouldn't be brought into time again. Petunia gasped at the change in scenery.

"Here she is," said Hermione to a Healer who she activated by walking near her, Ginny right behind, Flora re-settling on her shoulder.

The Healer walked over to Petunia, took her arm, and started to gently steer her away. "This way, ma'am," she said. With a suspicious look, Petunia allowed herself to be guided away.

Hermione followed them to make sure they stayed within the device's influence. The Healer asked Petunia to lie on a padded table, and she did, asking, "Why isn't anyone moving?" Hermione took a minute to explain it as they started taking Petunia's blood; Petunia just shook her head, as if thinking that she shouldn't be surprised by anything she was told by these people.

"Are you going to go to the Ministry, get the people to deal with the insects back at Hogwarts?" asked Ginny.

Somber, Hermione shook her head. "This thing might have only two minutes left on it, for all I know. Until Harry has to be activated to receive the blood, he's going to get whatever few minutes this has left. After that, I'll go do that."

Ginny walked to the other side of the table, the direction in which Petunia's head was turned. Trying to hold back emotion, she said, "Mrs. Dursley, this is how important Harry is, to all of us. The person she wants to marry, and two of her best friends, are back at Hogwarts in the same room with a few dozen of those wasps. If that device stops working, their lives are at serious risk. She could get them help, but she won't until everything's been done for Harry that can be."

"I'm sure he'll be pleased," said Petunia, a bit sullenly.

Ginny shook her head sadly. "You really don't know him, do you. He'll be really angry. If he were able, he'd be demanding that she go help them, even though it increased the risk that he'd die. He faces danger every day, Mrs. Dursley, danger that something like this will happen, because he refuses to back down from Voldemort. He could keep his head down, and Voldemort would leave him alone. But he won't, because it's the right thing to do.

"And speaking of which," added Ginny, now on a roll and with a captive audience, "The things he said in that last article, about the childhood article... I'm sure you know he was speaking directly to you, and it wasn't to try to get on your good side. He has no hope that that'll ever happen. He can't let himself hope for it, because when he has–"

"I know," Petunia interrupted, expressionless. "Dudley told me he said that."

"Oh," said Ginny, obviously surprised, and obviously taking Petunia's failure to contradict the statement as an implicit acknowledgment of its truth. "Well, he just felt that the article made you and your husband look worse than you deserved to, so he said what he said. He just thought it was the right thing to do. If you think it was easy for him to do that, you're wrong. But he doesn't hate you. He just has... issues. I would think you could understand why." Ginny paused. "I wish you could know him like we do. I don't know if you ever can, because so much has happened. But I wish you could." She turned and walked to the foot of the bed, her head down.

Hermione approached Ginny from behind, and put a hand on her shoulder. "It'll be all right, Ginny. It'll work."

Ginny turned and hugged Hermione, clinging to her. "Sometimes I feel like I just can't deal with this. It's so stressful, I feel like I want to just walk out of that thing's range and be frozen in time, and find out what happened when we know. And I feel bad for feeling that way, because he's the one it's happening to, not me."

Hermione patted her back reassuringly. "It's harder on us than him, because we worry about him more than he does. It's hardest on you, obviously. You shouldn't feel bad. Can you imagine how he'd be reacting if someone was trying to kill you once a month? He'd be beside himself, he'd go crazy. You do very well, considering what you have to deal with. You have nothing to feel bad about."

Ginny dissolved in tears, sobbing into Hermione's shoulder. Hermione just held her. As Ginny's tears were winding down, she said, "I just have this blind faith that he'll always live, because he always does. And probably because I'd go crazy if I let myself think anything different."

Nodding, Hermione took one hand away to find tissues in her robes while holding Ginny with the other. Producing a packet, she offered it to Ginny, who chuckled and took it. "I can always count on you for that." She looked at Hermione gratefully, and added, "And for lots of other stuff, including saving his life." Ginny withdrew from the hug to blow her nose.

With a small smile, Hermione replied, "Like Ron said in August, you spend enough time around Harry, you're bound to end up saving his life sooner or later." She shook her head. "What a thing to make jokes about. But at the same time, it's almost true. And who would know better than us."

The Healer, who had been pretending she hadn't been listening but obviously had, announced that she had all she needed. "I'm ready for you to start the clocks going again," she said to Hermione.

"Okay, now it's off to the Ministry," said Hermione. To Ginny, she added, "Just stay right here, you'll never know I was gone."

"I think this is the only time that's literally true," said Ginny. Hermione nodded, and an instant later, was standing a few feet to the left, releasing Flora's tail.

"The Ministry people are in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and Ron, Pansy, and Neville are upset with me for not taking them here," reported Hermione. "They're safe, they're in the Great Hall."

"Thank goodness," said Ginny. "Now, one more thing to hope for, the biggest one."

The Healer moved a tray containing supplies to the edge of the field. "Any time," she said to Hermione. Nodding, Hermione moved the toggle of the device, and time started again.

* * * * *

In his hospital bed, Harry put down his wand. "Well, that was the first time I ever tried to view such a long memory, I'm surprised that it worked."

"It's all that practice we've been doing," said Hermione.

"I felt so bad for Ginny," he said sadly. "You're right, I would be going crazy if it was her that this was happening to."

"She'll be all right. But yes, obviously this is enormously difficult for her. Anyway, after what you saw, there was nothing else worth seeing especially. Fawkes came immediately after time started and dropped two tears on where the wasp stung you, and they gave you the blood transfusion. We still didn't know anything for a half an hour. At one point McGonagall showed up, and I told her the story. She'll probably be back as soon as she knows you're up. Soon after that, they told us that you'd be okay, which they seemed pretty impressed by. Then McGonagall made Ginny and I go back to Hogwarts. I have a feeling she wanted to tell us to go back as soon as she got here, but knew we wouldn't until we found out about you."

"Why didn't you bring her with you?"

"I didn't want this to be any more conspicuous than it was. I'm sure McGonagall will let her see you soon. Also, I wanted you to see the memory of what happened, and I was the only one who could show you."

"When did you take Petunia back?"

"Soon after time started again. When we got back and I was about to leave, she talked to me for a minute. She asked me to tell you that she doesn't want you treating her any differently than you otherwise would because of what happened. She doesn't want there to be any feeling of obligation on your part. I told her I'd tell you."

"I wonder why she said that," mused Harry. "I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have said that to a 'normal' relative. I suppose it probably means that she still doesn't like me, and doesn't want me to think that her agreeing to do this meant that she did, so I wouldn't get a wrong impression. You did have to twist her arm pretty hard to get her to come. It's funny, part of me is surprised that it took her so long to agree, and part is surprised that she did it at all."

"I don't think it was a matter of me twisting her arm. I think it just took a certain... adjustment on her part to be willing to do anything in the magical world, even something this important. She has this visceral negative feeling about it, and she just had to take a minute to accept the idea. It's a good thing time was stopped. I actually considered taking her by force if she wouldn't agree, but I realized that the people at St. Mungo's probably wouldn't have taken her blood if I brought her in unconscious, unless I lied and said she fainted or something."

"Not to mention, you'd have been up on serious charges of violence against a Muggle, probably got your wand broken," pointed out Harry.

"I think, considering the circumstances, I'd have been forgiven." She gave him a gently chiding look, then added, "But even if not, you know very well I'd have done it anyway, regardless of that, and my ethical reluctance."

"I know," he said. "And thank you. For that, and for everything."

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "You're very welcome. I'm going to have to go in a minute, Flora's telling me that McGonagall is coming."

"Are you going to go now, before she gets here?"

Hermione shook her head. "You'd have to lie about my having been here, and she'd probably know anyway. Who knows, maybe she'll let me stay for a bit."

"I doubt it," said Harry. "It'll probably be security stuff. But I hope so."

The door to the private room opened, and McGonagall and Snape walked in. "Miss Granger," said McGonagall sternly, "I should advise you that while having a phoenix allows you to go anywhere you choose, there are rules to be considered."

"I'm sorry, Professor," said Hermione sincerely. "Harry woke up and wanted someone to visit. He didn't actually ask, but Fawkes knew, and he told Flora, who told me. So I came. I also wanted to show him what happened, which I just got finished doing."

"Very well, it is better that he knows. Normally, I would ask you to leave, but part of what we have to talk to Harry about involves you, so you may stay." Hermione got up from her chair; as she sat in it, McGonagall conjured two more, and Snape and Hermione took seats.

"I have just returned from a meeting with the Dark Lord," said Snape. "It will please you to know that he is most unhappy that this latest attempt has failed, and even more unhappy that you received crucial assistance from the device you took from him in June. He is very surprised that the headmistress never confiscated it."

"I just assumed that you figured we'd need it more than you would," said Harry.

McGonagall nodded. "It seemed a rather obvious conclusion."

"There are two significant unanswered questions about this operation," continued Snape. "One is the question of how the wasps were induced to seek out you in particular. Blood is required for that, and a larger amount than would have remained in the vial from two years ago. The other is the question of how the wasps were brought into Hogwarts. No doubt Miss Granger did not have time to discover every last detail about this particular variety of wasp, but the target must be within a certain range of the wasp; that range is thought to be roughly fifty meters. There is no spot within a hundred meters of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom which is outside Hogwarts, so they had to have been released within the school."

"So the question is, who got them in, and how," filled in Harry. "I'm worried that the first thing people are going to do once they find out is assume it was Marcus."

"It is not impossible that it could have been him, but it would have been a difficult operation for an adult to carry off, never mind an eleven-year-old," said Snape. "The best reason not to suspect him is that if he had brought them with him at the beginning of the year, they would have had to be contained in some sort of magical apparatus, which would have failed to function when the magic was disrupted, resulting in the wasps' premature release. Since that did not happen, we may reasonably assume that Mr. Avery had nothing to do with it. There are other ways it could have been done, but all involve the use of artifacts, and therefore can barely be guessed at."

"Does that mean that we pretty much have to conclude that it was an artifact?" asked Harry.

Snape seemed to be trying to rein in impatience with Harry's unsophisticated outlook on such things. "No, Professor, it is simply the best guess at the moment. We can conclude nothing, for lack of evidence. Any further deductions would simply be conjecture."

"I understand," said Harry. "As far as the blood, the only thing I can think of is that he used his own, which has some of mine in it. Would that work?"

"I would not have thought so," replied Snape, "but I see no other way he could have procured your blood. The potion he used to return to physical form is ancient and extremely seldom used, so we can only guess about its effects on his physicality. For all we know, his blood could be an exact match for yours."

"With any luck, we'll get a chance to find out someday," said Harry, his expression one of determination.

"I hope it will not solely be a matter of luck," replied Snape, though Harry could tell Snape understood his meaning. "To move on, there is another topic to discuss, which involves Miss Granger. The purpose of my meeting with the Dark Lord today was not solely for him to vent his displeasure. The combination of the failure of this recent effort and your development of the ability to incapacitate him has motivated him to take measures that I would have preferred he avoided."

Snape appeared to be about to continue, but Harry cut in. "He wants you to kill me."

Annoyed, Snape nodded. "Yes, though fortunately he still hopes that my viability can be salvaged, which gives me some leeway. He would ideally like me to find a way to dispose of you without being considered as a suspect, though he has also said that if I can find a way to do it that I am sure will not fail, and am able to escape, I have his permission to do so."

"Considering how badly he wants me dead, I'm surprised he doesn't just tell you to do it anyway, whether you get caught or not," commented Harry.

"The Dark Lord does not instruct Death Eaters to go on missions that are certain to result in death or capture," Snape explained. "Their loyalty to him is not based on ideology, or devotion to a cause. Rather, it is based on self-interest, the notion that they serve themselves by serving him; that is the basis on which he recruited them. He knows he would quickly lose their loyalty by sending them on suicide missions."

I should have thought of that, thought Harry. "Is there a deadline?"

"Not exactly, except for the obvious one, the end of June. He would like it done sooner rather than later, of course, but since he hopes to maintain my viability as a future Hogwarts headmaster, he is giving me flexibility in developing the plans.

"Needless to say, we wish to encourage him to show restraint in his instructions to me. That is where you come in, Miss Granger."

Hermione's eyebrows rose high. "Me? What can I do about this?"

Giving Hermione an unusually serious look, McGonagall spoke. "The more likely it is that Professor Snape will become headmaster, the more restraint in this area Voldemort will show. We need, therefore, to give him more reason to think that what he wishes will happen.

"Since I just became headmistress this year, it is obviously not plausible that I would consider retirement. The only way that I might be removed from the picture is my sudden death, or a serious illness. He will be led to believe that the latter is the case."

"Will he believe it, if Professor Snape tells him you told him that?" asked Harry. "It would seem too convenient."

"Yes," agreed McGonagall, "which is why it will not be done that way. I will give the appearance of illness through my actions. I will cut back on my teaching schedule, and you, Hermione, will fill in for me. You will teach all of my first and second year classes, as well as the seventh year class in which you are currently a student. I will say publicly that my reason is to devote more time to being headmistress, as well as give you teaching practice in view of your taking over full-time next year. Professor Snape will tell Voldemort that I am saying the same thing privately, but that he has noted a number of small clues which suggest what we wish him to believe. This will not seem suspicious, since fortunately it would be perfectly in character for me to tell no one if I did in fact develop such an illness. Obviously, we wish him to believe that the reason for my reducing my schedule is my illness."

"I understand," said Hermione, very serious. "Will this work with my schedule? I'd be willing to drop a class or two if I had to."

Despite the gravity of the situation, a small smile crossed McGonagall's face. "No doubt you are the only student for whom that would be a true concession. Fortunately, the possibility of this occurring was foreseen, and part of what made the schedule so difficult for Professor Snape to assemble. The Transfiguration classes for the first and second years were deliberately scheduled where there are gaps in your schedule. You could take over the sixth year classes without having to drop any of your own, and you could teach the fourth year classes if you dropped Ancient Runes and Arithmancy. Those steps will be kept in reserve for the time being, to provide the potential for the appearance of a progression of the illness, should it become desirable."

"When will I start teaching?" asked Hermione, clearly excited despite trying not to seem so.

With a hint of amusement in her eyes, McGonagall replied, "Monday, so I would suggest you spend part of your weekend refreshing your knowledge of first- and second-year Transfiguration."

"Oh, I will, Professor. Thank you."

Harry couldn't resist a smile. "You know what's best about this, Hermione... you'll be able to come into the staff room now."

"That will be nice," she agreed. "Professor, it's not important in view of all this, but I'm just wondering... I'll have to give up the position of Head Girl, won't I?"

"Yes, you will. You will have more than enough on your plate, and as was the case with Harry, it is not appropriate for one functioning as a teacher to hold the position. I will offer the position to Miss Parkinson.

"There is one thing I would like to impress on the both of you," continued McGonagall sternly. "No one outside this room is to know about this. Not Mr. Longbottom, not Miss Weasley, not the other staff members, no one. This must remain as closely held as possible. Do you understand?"

Harry and Hermione both gave their acknowledgment. "Good. Professor Snape and I will be going. Harry, after we leave, you may call Miss Weasley and have Fawkes bring her here, and the other three after you are finished visiting with her." Turning to Hermione, McGonagall added, "I will meet with you later this evening to discuss the details of this change, Professor Granger."

Hermione beamed with pleasure at being addressed that way for the first time. "Thank you, Professor." Flora took flight, and Hermione was gone.

Snape and McGonagall then left, and Harry decided to simply send Fawkes for Ginny rather than call her on his hand. He showed up about five seconds later, Ginny holding on. She let go of him, and quickly leaned over and gave Harry a long kiss. "Now, that felt very... healing," he said with a smile as she took his hand and sat down.

"How do you feel?"

He thought for a second. "Not that bad, given what happened. Kind of tired, which I guess is my body trying to fight off the poison. But I know I'll be all right."

"Thanks to Hermione," said Ginny. "She was great."

He nodded. "I never thought I'd have my life saved by research skill, but that's pretty much what happened. Snape and McGonagall were just in here, and Hermione showed me the memory of what happened; I was able to view it with Legilimens. I felt so bad for you, what you have to go through every time this happens..."

"I knew what I was signing up for, Harry," she said earnestly. "I know that doesn't make it any easier when it happens, but I knew. I'll deal with it. But I feel bad that I wasn't able to hold it together any better with your aunt. I could have messed everything up, you could have died..."

"Considering the situation, I think you did well," said Harry, squeezing her hand. "I mean, look at how she was being... I'm sure there was a lot more you wanted to say, but didn't."

"Oh, you have no idea," she said fervently. Then sighing, she added, "But it wouldn't do any good. At least she ended up doing it."

"I think maybe what you said helped," said Harry. "I mean, she hadn't done anything remotely nice to me in my whole life, except let me stay there. I have a feeling that what she did was like letting me stay there, something she couldn't quite live with herself if she didn't do. Anyway, I think what you said nudged her towards doing it."

"I hope so," said Ginny. "I wasn't exactly thinking really clearly. Hermione, again, was terrific. Knowing how emotional she can be, she was amazingly calm." With a wry smile, she added, "I guess she knew one of us had to stay calm, and that it wasn't going to be me."

"It could also be Flora's influence, at least partly," suggested Harry. "Phoenixes do have that effect. It'll be interesting over this year to see if we can see Hermione changing at all. Funny how you wouldn't have been able to tell with me, because Fawkes joined me when I was changing anyway. He obviously helped, it was just hard to see how much was him and how much was the energy of love."

They were silent for a minute, focusing on holding hands and looking into each other's eyes. Ginny said, "It's funny, just now, thinking about phoenixes made me think that I wished I could be connected to you like Fawkes is, that I could feel what you're feeling, feel your love for me. But I can see it in your eyes, and it's really almost the same thing."

He felt a surge of love as he spoke, and wondered if it was reflected equally strongly in his eyes. "I know what you mean. I love you so much, Ginny. I wish I had the words to say it properly, but I don't."

"It's all right," she assured him. "Like I said, it's in your eyes." They looked at each other in silence again for a few minutes, then she ran a hand up his arm, smiling mischievously. "Oh, what I could do to you now, now that you're too weak to resist."

He chuckled. "I don't recall that I normally do any resisting."

"I mean in semi-public places, which is what this is. If I did what I'd like to do, you'd be trying to stop me, but you wouldn't be able to."

"If you did what I assume you'd like to do, not only would they throw you out, but it would be in the Prophet tomorrow," countered Harry.

"It might be worth it. I wouldn't mind having that device right now, that would help. Thanks goodness it worked for as long as it did."

"Voldemort did say two hours, and he was probably right, but I can see why Hermione didn't want to take any chances. He was so smug back in June, he didn't care about telling us something useful like that because he thought she and I would never live to take advantage of it. I have a feeling that if he had me in his power again, he'd just kill me, and resist the temptation to find out what I know."

"I don't think he's ever going to get you in his power again," said Ginny confidently. "He's not going to be able to get your wand away, and you can do the Imperius Charm. The next time you face him, he'll be the one who has to worry, not you."

Harry didn't quite feel that confident, but he could see why she said it. "I hope you're right. I guess we'll find out at some point, probably late June."

"Why then?" she asked.

"Don't know, that's just when these things always seem to happen. The first three times I saw him–in person, that is, not in dreams–were all at the end of June in the last three years."

She shrugged. "It's just coincidence."

"Maybe. Anyway, how have things been at Hogwarts since this happened? And how long has it been?

"Four hours, I think they thought you'd be out for longer than that. I assume the others told you that the Ministry people rounded up the rest of the wasps, at least they're pretty sure they did. It turns out that the rest of the school was in danger; if their main target is out of range, they go for whoever's nearest. Apparently they were bred for assassination, which makes sense. So, people were pretty nervous, and talking about it a lot. Obviously, people were really relieved to hear that you made it, which I know since I was the one to tell most people. I wouldn't leave the hospital until I knew you were going to be all right." She chuckled at the memory she was about to relate. "McGonagall suggested I go back to the school before then, which of course I wouldn't. I think she made it a suggestion instead of an order because she figured I'd refuse the order, and didn't want to have to punish me for it, or have me defy her and not be punished."

"I don't see why she'd even suggest it," said Harry. "She must have had some idea of how you felt. I know that logically it doesn't matter whether you waited here or at Hogwarts, but it's the idea."

"Sometimes I think that she still doesn't really accept the idea that I'm your wife, or partner, or whatever you want to call it, because I'm not seventeen yet. At least now I'm sixteen, which is probably close enough to make it seem different to a lot of people."

"I'm sorry this had to happen on your birthday," he said.

"I have a feeling Voldemort didn't know. I doubt he celebrates birthdays. Anyway, having you be all right after that happened is a pretty good gift."

"I'm glad," he said, as he reached into his robes and pulled out a small, felt-covered box. "But I hope you'll like this one too." He handed it to her.

She looked pleased but slightly puzzled, so Harry assumed that a small, felt-covered box didn't signify in the wizarding world what it did in the Muggle world. She opened it and gasped; it was a silver ring with a small diamond. "Oh, Harry, it's beautiful..."

Smiling at her reaction, he said, "I'm glad you like it. I kind of wanted to get you one of the ones with bigger diamonds, but they seemed kind of... too much, like something you'd feel strange about wearing every day. I don't know much about rings."

She put it on her finger, and to Harry's further pleasure, it fit perfectly. "It's wonderful," she assured him as she stood to lean over and kiss him again. "Thank you, thank you so much. I love you."

"I love you too," he said. "Do they have engagement rings in the wizarding world?"

"Yes, they do. Not everything is different, I guess."

"Well," he said, "maybe now McGonagall will accept the idea that it's like we're married, now that you have a ring and everything."

She smiled and touched his face. "I'm sure she'll be really impressed. Okay, no, she won't. But I am, and that's the important thing." She looked at the ring again, then leaned over and kissed him again. "Do you want to have Fawkes bring the others?"

"Are you sure?" he asked.

Her smile grew even wider. "Well, I have to show this to someone."

* * * * *

He returned to Hogwarts the next day, though the St. Mungo's Healers strongly recommended that he do nothing strenuous for the next few days. As he entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, having returned from his quarters after lunch, he reflected that he would have to ignore the recommendation at least once.

The desks were away from the center of the room, but the other five were all standing. "Harry, good," said Hermione as he walked in. "You have to do the carpet. I tried one, but it wasn't very good. I still have to work on it a bit." Harry waved his wand, and a thick, red carpet was suddenly on the floor. "Thanks," said Hermione as they all sat on it.

"You should do one for the common room," suggested Ron, half-seriously. "A big, red carpet with the Gryffindor crest on it."

Harry shook his head. "I think that would take some artistic ability, which I don't have. I think a carpet like this is about the best I can do."

"Okay, now I get to do my new spell," said Hermione, seeming slightly excited.

"She called it a 'do-not-disturb' sign," added Pansy, amused at Hermione's attitude. "She said you'd understand the reference."

Harry explained it to the others, then asked Hermione, "So, what kind of spell is it exactly? Does it tell people not to come in here?"

"No, it's better than that," she said enthusiastically. "It gives anybody passing by the impression that the room is empty; it's like a smaller version of the spell that hides Hogwarts from Muggles. If someone tries to walk in, they'll see what's going on, but this'll discourage people from seeing that we're in here and coming in to chat, or to ask a question. Not that that would be such a terrible thing, since we'll just be talking and doing homework, but I'd rather that people didn't notice."

"It's a good idea," agreed Pansy. "And I appreciate that you do this with me in mind, since the rest of you could just stay in the Gryffindor common room."

"It's no problem, obviously," Ginny assured her. "We want to. So, Hermione, we won't notice anything from this?"

"No, it'll look the same to us. The door will be closed, and we'll see it as closed, but anyone passing by will see it as open, since the classroom doors are always supposed to be open if there's no class going on." She raised her wand and pointed it at the door, which closed. "Okay, it's done. Just so you know, I did tell McGonagall I was going to do this, I didn't think it was right for her not to know. Of course, if she sent for one of us with the cat, the spell wouldn't fool the cat anyway." She opened her bag and started pulling out books, finally placing ten on the carpet next to her, in two stacks of five.

Ron raised his eyebrows a little, but said nothing. Noticing, Hermione asked, "What, no jokes?"

"It's kind of like Harry with the first years a few weeks ago," explained Ron. "The joke is already there, no point in saying anything."

Hermione rolled her eyes fleetingly. "Obviously I'm not going to read all these, they're just for reference. But I'm going to be teaching. I need to be able to look things up."

"Yes, I remember all the times we saw Harry carrying ten books around, when he was going to be a teacher," responded Ron with amusement.

"Transfiguration is different from Defense Against the Dark Arts," she protested.

"No, I think you're just different from Harry," retorted Ron. "Or are you going to tell us that you wouldn't have cracked ten books if you were going to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts?"

"You can think what you want," she said defensively, in what Harry assumed was an implicit concession that he was right.

Ron turned his attention to Harry. "So, how are you feeling today?"

Harry shrugged. "A night of sleep really helped, but still a bit off, nothing I can really put into words. Not bad, though, considering I was a minute away from death less than twenty-four hours ago."

"Well, anything's going to look pretty good, compared to that," said Neville.

"That's true," conceded Harry.

"I wondered, Harry," asked Neville, "how do you feel about your aunt right now?"

Harry sighed. "That's a tough question. On the one hand, what she did saved my life. On the other hand, any reasonably moral person would have done the same thing, and with far less hesitation. So, I'm not sure."

"I kind of hate to say this, but you may not be giving her enough credit," said Hermione. "I know she's really far from Molly on the being nice scale, but for her, the magical world is a scary place. Awful things happen there, she can even read about them in the papers Molly sends her. Suddenly two people appear in her living room, in a way that Muggles would consider like breaking in, and tell her she has to go to somewhere and give blood, right away. I think some people would hesitate."

"I think you're being a little too understanding about it," said Ron. "She mentioned that article, which she knew by then he had nothing to do with. It was as if that was a reason not to do anything."

"I have a feeling that after she found out that Harry had nothing to do with it," said Hermione, "she shifted her focus from the article in general to the specific things that Harry said, and didn't deny having said. Of course, he didn't say anything that she didn't deserve, but this is looking at it from her viewpoint. If she denies to herself that she was that bad to Harry, then she could feel pretty put upon that he said those things. It shouldn't affect her willingness to save his life, of course, and I definitely wouldn't defend what she did. I'm just saying there may be reasons that she didn't do it immediately other than that she's a horrible person."

"You mean, 'in addition to,'" countered Ron. "Come on, Hermione, she is a... okay, maybe not 'horrible,' let's keep that in reserve for Death Eaters, but she and her husband are just bad people, that's all there is to it. You may want to think the best of people, and that's nice, but they were just awful to Harry when he hadn't done anything to deserve it. I don't think anybody could look at what she did and say she's not a bad person."

"So, you don't think it's worth it to try to look at it from her point of view?" pressed Hermione.

"Not if her point of view is a total delusion, no," shot back Ron. "If she's focusing on the quotes, she knows they're true, and she should be apologizing to Harry for what they did to him. I'm not interested in her point of view any more than I'm interested in Voldemort's point of view."

Hermione sighed in frustration. "Why do you have to be like this, Ron, so... hard and unforgiving?"

Pansy gave Hermione a serious look. "I guess we're well matched, then, because I agree with him. She doesn't deserve any kind of consideration at all, as far as I'm concerned."

Hermione turned to Pansy, still frustrated. "People can change, Pansy. You–" Hermione abruptly stopped speaking, suddenly looking uncomfortable.

An unreadable look came to Pansy's face as she stared at Hermione. "'I should know that better than anyone' is what you were going to say."

"I'm sorry, Pansy, I–"

"No, you're right, I do. Look... first of all, Hermione, don't feel bad. I'm not angry with you, you shouldn't have to walk on eggshells around me about this for the rest of your life. It would only really bother me if you were trying to be nasty, and I know you're not. And it's a good point.

"But Ron is right, she is a bad person. Now, you might say, 'yes, Pansy, but someone could have said the same thing about you.' Yes, they could. And you know what? They'd be right! I was a bad person! I should know that better than anyone, and I do." Pansy's voice was only slightly raised, her tone emphatic, her emotion obvious. "I didn't know it at the time, of course. I had my own 'point of view,' my ways of justifying it to myself, like I'm sure Harry's aunt does. She had her perfect, tidy, little life messed up by finding Harry on her doorstep, and she took it out on him. And I think that same part of her–I think we could call it 'being a bad person'–was what caused her to hesitate and complain when Harry's life could have been slipping away as she did, for all she knew."

She paused, and thought for a few seconds as the others waited in silence. "I've had a chance to think about this a lot, over the past year. I don't think anybody decides to be a bad person, like you wake up and say to yourself, 'I think I'll be bad today.' I think it happens in little bits, little choices you make every day. You do what makes you feel good, or less bad, and manage not to think about who you're hurting, or think they somehow deserve it. You do what's easy instead of what's right, like Professor Dumbledore said when Voldemort came back. In my case, I just wanted to feel good about myself and discovered I could do it by making other people feel bad, though I didn't even really think about what I was doing. With her, some part of her had to know that it was wrong to vent her frustrations on an innocent child, but she did it anyway.

"Yes, people can change. I did, and she could. But you have to decide to do it, to realize that what you were doing was wrong. If she did, I'm sure Harry would be... well, he'd do his best to forgive her, though it wouldn't be easy. He forgave me easily, but I hadn't hurt him nearly as badly as she had. Anyway, she hasn't done that yet, taken a painful look in the mirror, like I did. Maybe I'm unforgiving because I suffered a lot to get to where I am. But until she shows any interest in recognizing what she did, I don't think she deserves to have anyone go out of their way to understand her 'point of view.'"

There was another silence. Harry looked at Pansy and saw determination; he understood it hadn't been easy for her to say what she said, and he was sure that talking about her past would never be easy for her. Hermione looked abashed, but not convinced. "Pansy," she said softly, "I couldn't argue with you. And I wasn't trying to excuse what she did, either yesterday or when Harry was a child. Just explain it."

Pansy's tone was still hard, but managed to get across that she wasn't upset at Hermione. "I think Ron explained it pretty well when he said she was a bad person. She's a bad person who doesn't want to see herself as a bad person, and she gave the blood because she couldn't find a good enough reason to avoid doing it. I don't want Harry thinking that what she did means anything other than that. There's simply no reason to think it does."

Hermione looked at Pansy, as if trying to understand her more clearly. "Do you think I'm trying to pick up where Molly left off? Trying to reconcile him and his aunt?"

"No, Hermione, I don't. I know you're just trying to think of people in the best possible way. But Harry's going to get hurt if he starts thinking like that and it turns out his aunt's attitude hasn't changed."

"Don't worry, that's not going to happen," said Harry, speaking for the first time in several minutes as his situation was being discussed. "I'll write a letter, be polite, express gratitude. But I won't say anything that's not true, and I won't have any expectations of any kind of response. Like I said to Ginny and Dudley that day, that's too well ingrained in me to forget."

"I was actually pretty surprised that Dudley told her that," said Ginny. "I wouldn't have thought that would come up in a conversation between them. When she said that at St. Mungo's, I could tell that she knew it was true, she wasn't denying it. Anyway, Harry, that sounds like a good thing to do."

"Yes, it does," agreed Hermione. "Harry, I want you to know that I wasn't trying to do what Molly did."

"It's all right, I know. Well, Neville, I guess the answer to your question is that I don't feel a lot different about her. For that to happen, she'd have to do something she didn't feel utterly compelled to do."

"Wow, did I start this? Sorry about that," said Neville innocently, as the others chuckled. "I'd forgotten."

"It's an interesting question to think about, though," commented Ginny. "It's like, if we think about evil, we think about Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Harry's aunt isn't what we'd call evil, but... there's different degrees, I suppose."

"The interesting thing is," said Pansy, "I'm sure she wants to think of herself as good. That was what you and Hermione were speaking to when you were talking to her. If she didn't care whether she saw herself that way, you probably couldn't have convinced her."

"Thank goodness for that, then," said Ron. "But is there anybody, really–okay, besides Death Eaters–who doesn't think of himself as good, or at least, wanting to be?"

"Probably, people who life's beaten up a bit," suggested Harry. "I remember Albus suggesting that Tom Riddle's childhood probably had a lot to do with what happened to him. But even from my own experience, there have been plenty of times I felt really put upon, and at those times I'm not sure I cared about whether I was 'good,' whether I was doing the right thing. Not only the time when Sirius died, but other times too. At that moment, you just feel like you don't care, like whatever you do is okay because you're so angry, or in pain. If somebody's life was really awful, I could imagine them developing that kind of attitude."

"When you say that," said Neville, with a sad expression, "the first thing I think of is Blaise. I mean, I don't know what his home life is like, but until last year, his school life had to have been horrible. You always looked forward to coming to Hogwarts, but I bet he dreaded it. I wonder what his attitude is like now, but he's so shy, it's hard to know."

"Oh, that reminds me, I was going to tell you," said Harry. "I ran into him on the way here. He was kind of nervous, as usual, and said he wanted to talk to me in private. I figured it was about how the class was going. We went to the nearest classroom, and then it took him a minute to tell me what he wanted, because he got even more nervous. I soon found out why; it turned out he was taking me up on my offer from class, and wanted a hug."

All five gaped at him. "You must be kidding," said Ron.

Harry shook his head. "Nope. He could barely get the words out, but that was what he wanted to ask."

"Oh, that's so sweet," said a smiling Hermione. "How did he react when you hugged him?"

"It was almost like he'd never been hugged before," said Harry, "or that he was really nervous, but he didn't hold on very tight. I had to tell him he should hold on harder, and then he did. I hugged him for longer than I normally would, because he didn't seem to have the hang of it. When I let him go, it was almost like he was surprised, like he thought it was supposed to go on longer or something. I asked him if he'd like to try it again, but he got kind of embarrassed and shook his head. I just said, 'Okay, then, if you change your mind, let me know, see you later,' and left. He seemed uncomfortable, and I didn't know what I should say. I guess it's usually awkward talking to him, because he doesn't know how to really relate to people. But I was glad he asked, it just seems like a good sign."

"A very surprising one," added Neville. "I would never have thought he'd do that. I mean, I've been helping him twice a week for three weeks, and he hasn't quite managed to be comfortable talking to me. This had to be a big deal for him."

"I hope it helps him come out of his shell a bit," said Harry. "Anyway, it wasn't only him. I got two other hugs this morning before lunch, from Lavender and Susan. Susan was pretty funny, she said, 'I figured if Justin can hug you, then it's all right if I do.' I think with them, it was that they were happy that I survived yesterday, and just picked that way to show it because of what I said in class."

Ginny smiled. "Soon half the school will be running around hugging each other, and McGonagall won't know what to do."

"Well, I only plan on saying this to the sixth and seventh years. I'm not sure I want first and second years feeling like they should hug each other; I mean, it's awkward enough for the seventh years."

"Somehow, I have a feeling that word will filter down," said Ginny, with a tone that teased Harry for not having thought of it.

"The Slytherin seconds will do it for sure, you know how they are about anything you say," said Pansy. "Actually, it may really help them. That young, they won't be so comfortable hugging each other, but they'll do it. Doing something that makes them overcome embarrassment could be helpful."

"That is kind of the idea, at least partly," agreed Harry, "but I don't want to push too hard. This could be kind of a sensitive issue. What if someone asks someone else for a hug, but they say no? Feelings could get hurt, so I want to be careful."

"Of course, that's true, but–"

Pansy was interrupted by a knock at the door; the six looked at each other in surprise. "I thought you said the door appeared open to anyone outside," whispered Ron.

"It does," answered Hermione. "Whoever knocked knows we're in here, and about the spell. It has to be McGonagall. I'll open the door and withdraw the spell." The door opened, and to Harry's great surprise, in walked Rudolphus Bright.

Harry leaped to his feet, the others not far behind. Smiling, Bright surveyed the room. "Very nice, it's like a private little study area."

"Minister," said Harry as he shook Bright's outstretched hand. "Let me introduce you to the others–"

"Hardly necessary," said Bright as he offered Ron his hand, then the others, in turn. "Ron... Neville... Pansy... Ginny, I'm sorry you didn't have a very nice birthday yesterday... and Hermione, congratulations on becoming a teacher. It's a pleasure to meet you all. 'I've heard a lot about you' is one of those things you just normally say, but in this case, it's quite true. All one needs to do is read the Prophet."

He turned to face Harry. "Harry, apart from expressing relief that you recovered from what happened yesterday, there are a few things I came to discuss with you. I was thinking we could go into your office, but if you'd just prefer to discuss it here, with the others, that's fine too. I know that what concerns you concerns them too. Whatever you'd like."

Harry wondered whether Bright had a preference, and why he suggested staying in the classroom at all; perhaps he would ask something that Harry wouldn't want to do but his friends would want? He knew his friends probably wouldn't be offended if he wanted to have the meeting privately, but he decided that having them there would save him the time of telling them about it later. "Here is good," he said. "Should I conjure some chairs, or..."

Bright shook his head as he bent over and sat on the carpet. "I spend most days in meetings in straight-backed chairs, so sitting on the floor is a nice change of pace."

Harry sat opposite Bright, and his friends sat nearby, facing them. "Hermione, could you..." asked Bright. Nodding, she pointed her wand at the door and resumed the spell which gave the impression of an empty room.

"You know, Minister," started Harry, who interrupted himself when Bright glanced at him with an unspoken correction. "Rudolphus," he continued, "you really don't have to come out here every time you want to talk to me. You know I can be at the Ministry in a few seconds, with a lot less trouble than it takes you to come here."

Bright nodded. "I know. Did Dentus explain why I came to see you last time?"

"Yes, he said it was a show of respect. I appreciate it, but you're vulnerable from the Owl Office to the Hogsmeade gate." With a small smile, he added, "We could just agree that I understand that you respect me, and meet at the Ministry anyway."

"I suppose we could," agreed Bright, seemingly amused at Harry's practical outlook. "I'll think about it in the future. But it's really not that dangerous. I have two Aurors with me, and I don't tell anyone my plans in advance, even the Aurors. It's always nice to see Hogwarts again, but probably my reason for coming will be plain soon.

"First of all, Harry, I wanted to talk to you about what you and Hermione did at the end of June. I was just briefed earlier this week on those events, and I was shown the memory that Kingsley had of seeing it. Before I go on, I have to say that even though I'm well aware of all you've done, I was still amazed that you could stay that focused, both of you. It was extremely impressive."

"We wouldn't have gotten out of there without Albus, though," Harry pointed out.

"That was the most amazing thing," said Bright. "I wasn't sure whether to believe Kingsley when he told me; he said he could barely believe it himself. And he's done it a few times since then?"

"The most recent one was the night the magic went out, when Voldemort attacked the Aurors. But fortunately, I can do that now, so I hope he won't have to."

"The reason I brought it up is that I wanted to discuss what you, the two of you," said Bright, glancing at Hermione, "accomplished in terms of detecting his whereabouts. As you know, for him to be able to be detected, relays have to be set up in such a way that no point can be farther than two miles from a relay. For Britain to be totally covered, several hundred relays will have to be manufactured and set up. Unfortunately, while they're not terribly expensive to make, they aren't cheap either. I mention this because just a few days ago I approved funding for their manufacture, and it should be starting any time."

Harry frowned. "Why did it take so long? I would have thought they'd have been doing it already. It's been almost three months."

Bright nodded sympathetically. "Unfortunately, there are sometimes practical obstacles to doing what needs to be done. The precise knowledge of what happened at the Veil of Mystery was very closely held. Kingsley decided not to tell Fudge, limiting him to information barely exceeding what was made public. One effect this had was to delay the production of the relays. Kingsley tried to get it funded in back-channel ways, which wouldn't come to the Minister's attention, but with limited success."

"Why didn't he tell Fudge?" asked Harry.

Hermione spoke up. "He must have decided that Fudge couldn't be trusted with anything so confidential. I didn't know Fudge at all, so I don't know whether he could keep a secret, but Kingsley must have thought he couldn't. Also, telling him would mean telling him the whole story, including what Albus did, and I don't think Fudge would have believed it."

Bright nodded at Hermione, impressed. "Exactly right. You have to keep in mind, Harry, that Fudge felt very threatened by Dumbledore, which is ironic, since Dumbledore was the least threatening person you could imagine. But Dumbledore passed on the Minister's job, as you know, and Fudge probably always wondered if Dumbledore would decide he made a mistake, and try to take it after all. It's kind of like if you married a woman who was turned down by another man before ending up with you; you'd always wonder if she'd go to him if he decided he wanted her. Since Fudge wanted the job so much, he couldn't understand why Dumbledore didn't.

"Getting back to the point, even if he had been shown the memory, Fudge probably wouldn't have believed that Dumbledore caused Voldemort's collapse, since there was no hard evidence to support it. Also, you might not have known this, but it was understood in the Ministry that Fudge talked about things to his friends a little too much, and with Voldemort back, one can never know who could be subverted, or have their memories raided. Kingsley decided it was better to go slow than to take that kind of risk."

"But he told you," said Harry.

"Fortunately, he decided I could be trusted." With a wry smile, he added, "It seems I have a reputation for discretion. Also, I had no issues with Dumbledore. Needless to say, I'm completely on board with this, and I pushed through the funding earlier this week. No one is going to know the purpose except a few Aurors and the people manufacturing the relays, and even they won't know what it's for.

"Even doing that much, however, has attracted attention. Two days ago, I received an owl marked 'Minister's Eyes Only,' with the correct code for such correspondence. Obviously, most owls I get are screened by my staff, and not only because I don't have time to read them all. A very few people know the code that will ensure that a letter will be opened by me. This particular owl, however, was clearly sent by a Death Eater. It said that if I continued what I had done that week, I would end up like Fudge." Harry exchanged startled glances with his friends, which Bright noted. "Yes, my reaction was a lot like that, only more so. And then less than a minute later, the owl that brought it fell over, dead. A nice touch, that," he added sarcastically.

"Did the letter mention the relays specifically, or just the idea that you were doing something that opposed them?" asked Harry.

"The latter. So, whoever they got the information from knows that the money was disbursed to do something to fight Voldemort, just not what exactly. It's pretty hard to keep a secret these days at the Ministry, since the only way to make sure that Voldemort or Death Eaters who can do Legilimency don't get to people is to have them never be alone. And even that wouldn't be foolproof."

"Certainly Voldemort could take care of two or three people at once," agreed Harry. "I assume the Aurors agree that this is genuine, and that your life is in danger?"

Bright smiled grimly. "The Aurors made it clear from the day I took this office that my life was in great danger, not that I needed to be told. But I take your meaning, and yes, they agree that this specific threat is genuine. And for high-security situations like this, when I say 'they,' I'm generally referring to just Kingsley and Dawlish; it's not as though every Auror knows this kind of thing.

"So, that brings me to why I'm here. Security for the Minister was tightened after Fudge was killed, and even more so a few days ago. Except for unusual situations such as this, I am only ever in two places: my home, and my suite of offices at the Ministry. No casual walks around Diagon Alley chatting with the public, much as I enjoy that kind of thing. The Aurors are pretty sure that what happened to Fudge won't happen to me, at least not quite the same way; anyone who gets into my presence is magically checked to make sure they are who they appear to be. They also told me that Fudge didn't take his security seriously enough, and wasn't careful about who he allowed to get near him. So, I'm sort of living in a cocoon. I'm safe, but Kingsley and Dawlish concede that if Voldemort were to attack personally, with the help of Death Eaters, he could succeed. There's not much they can do about him, unless they outnumber him ten to one."

Harry new felt he understood why Bright had come to see him, but he wanted to wait for Bright to say the words. As if having read Harry's mind, Bright continued, "You've probably worked out by now what I'm here to ask. I'm very reluctant to do it–and please feel free to check me–partly because I have so much respect for what you've done, and partly because I know you turned down Fudge. Of course, I'm not asking for the same thing he did. I don't want you standing around me all the time, even if you could do it, which you can't. What I would ask is that there be a way I could signal you, say, by touching a ring, very simple. I would do it only if I were under attack. There would be two signals: one for my office, one for my home. You would simply Apparate to my office or my home."

Harry nodded his understanding. "Do both places allow for Apparation?"

"My office doesn't, and they're putting a plot around my home now. The one around the office is similar to the Hogwarts one, so you'd be able to defeat it, but Voldemort probably wouldn't. They think Voldemort might be able to defeat the one around my home. They could have you do it, but then the problem would be that you couldn't Apparate in either." Bright was silent, waiting for either an answer or more questions.

Harry thought for a few seconds, and found that his mind was largely made up. He turned to face his friends. He thought about asking Bright to leave the room while they discussed it, but decided to let him stay. "I'm inclined to do it, but I want to know what you think."

"I don't like it," said Ginny, "but I admit my reasons have more to do with you being my partner than anything else. I just don't want you in any avoidable danger. You get enough as it is."

"It is different from what Fudge wanted," said Hermione, "it's still the same basic problem. You're..." She turned to Bright, solemn. "I'm sorry to be so blunt, Minister, but you're not as important as Harry."

Equally solemn, he nodded. "I know. I know about the prophecy, though even if I didn't, it would still be very clear. But I'm not simply asking out of fear for my life, though I admit I do feel that. There are other considerations as well."

Neville spoke. "It shouldn't be done by Harry, he's too valuable. It should be one of us."

"You couldn't Apparate in," pointed out Harry.

"We could take Fawkes or Flora."

"You couldn't deal with Voldemort if it was him. I assume that's why you asked me, and not them," he added to Bright, who nodded.

"Albus could take care of him," countered Neville.

"No, we can't plan for that," insisted Harry. "He's there to do that for emergencies and for when there's a real chance to catch Voldemort, not as a resource that we can plan to use. You know what it's like for him. I know what it was like when Voldemort possessed me, it was horrible, and I think it's worse for him. We simply can't make plans on the assumption that he'll do it."

"You could ask him," suggested Ginny.

"No, I won't ask him that," said Harry emphatically. "That's out of the question."

"But the whole point of this is to keep you safe!"

"No, the point is to defeat Voldemort. I understand that keeping me safe is a part of that, but we have to do what we would do if he wasn't around. Remember, he said in July that he couldn't do more than what he planned to do when he went through the Veil."

"Why can't he, anyway?" asked Ron, curious.

"Because they're not supposed to interfere in physical matters from there. Not that they're not allowed to, he said, just that they don't. It's not like a rule, but it's a guideline he intends to follow. He'll do exactly what he planned when he was alive, and no more than that, you know how he always was about principle. Once he starts doing that, he says, it starts interfering with how we're supposed to live our lives. It's kind of complicated. I pretty much understood it when he told me–this was when I asked him to tell me who killed Skeeter, and he wouldn't–but it's hard for me to explain any more than that. But I know what he'd say."

Harry had glanced at Bright a few times during the conversation, and noticed a slowly deepening look of shock on Bright's face. At first he didn't understand the reason, but suddenly he did. "I'm guessing that when the Aurors told you about this, they didn't mention that I'm in communication with Albus."

Bright's mouth hung open slightly. "Yes, that would be a good guess," he said with understatement. "How in the world..."

Harry smiled in sympathy. "The same way he does the rest of what he does. In other words, we don't know. But it was part of what he planned before he left. It's part of why he taught me Legilimency; he said it helped make a connection to my mind. We talk when I'm asleep."

"Amazing... just amazing, just as much as what he does to Voldemort," said an obviously astonished Bright.

"Yes, it is," agreed Harry, who then turned back to his friends. "Anyway, if anyone does it, it has to be me. I'm the only one who can."

"Well," said Neville reluctantly, "it should be done, much as I hate to say it now. Especially after what happened to Fudge. I mean, you're right, Hermione, about Harry being too important to risk. But the problem is, they've already killed Fudge. What if they kill him?" he asked, gesturing to Bright. "Someone else takes the job, and they kill him too? It could get to a point where nobody would take the job, or whoever did would be too petrified to do anything to fight Voldemort, and I'm sure that's part of what Voldemort has in mind. We tease Harry about being made Minister of Magic someday, but it could come to that now, just because he'd be the only one who could survive the job. Not to mention that the Minister being killed would be bad for the community's morale. One Minister of Magic being killed, well, they got lucky. But two, it seems like we can't protect people, and if the Minister isn't safe, who is? It would make everyone feel like they're not safe."

Unhappy, Hermione nodded. "Yes, I see your point. I assume that's part of the reason you came to ask this," she said to Bright.

"Yes, and thank you, Neville, for making the point so I didn't have to. It is true, but I don't want to have to make that argument, since I have an ulterior motive... that is, wanting to stay alive," said Bright with a self-deprecating air.

"I don't think anyone would blame you for that," said Hermione quietly.

"No, I suppose not," agreed Bright, "but I did choose to pursue this job, I knew the risks. I knew Fudge had asked something like this of you, and I planned not to. It just seems... different, in the face of a specific threat, one made in retaliation for my doing what I should be doing."

"To tell you the truth," said Harry, both to Bright and the others, "I hadn't thought of what Neville said, though I think he's right. I was looking at it in another way." A determined expression came to his face. "I feel like it could be an opportunity."

"Kingsley brought up this point; I was wondering if you would. I see you have quite a competitive spirit." To the others, Bright said, "Harry is thinking of me as bait. If Voldemort attacks, Harry's hoping not just to save me, but to have a chance at catching Voldemort."

"But he can always just disappear, with that device he has," pointed out Ron.

"Then before I do my thing on him, I'll try to find a way to get the device off. If I can do that, then knock him out, we've got him. I just need to figure out where he keeps it. Hermione, maybe you can research magical ways to get things off of people."

"We do have people at the Ministry who can do that kind of research," Bright pointed out. "Not that you wouldn't be equally good," he added to Hermione.

"Yes, but I don't want him to know I'm thinking about doing that, and you know that security's a problem. Maybe Professor McGonagall would research it too if I asked her."

"Harry," asked Pansy with obvious concern, "are you sure you want to go looking for a confrontation with him?"

"Yes, I am," he said fervently, more strongly than he meant to. "I'm sick of this, Pansy. Sick of waiting for the next attempt, wondering if it's going to get one of you instead of me. Sick of how it affects Ginny, and the rest of you. And just... angry in general, because people keep dying while he's out there. I'm waiting for the day that Kingsley calls me and says, we've got the relays in place, we know where he is. Then I'll say, let's go get him. I'm sick of fighting a defensive fight, I want to go on the offensive." He paused as the others looked at him with varying degrees of surprise. With a sheepish expression, he added, "Sorry, Pansy, I didn't mean to be saying that to you especially. I guess I just needed to get it off my chest."

"That's okay, I understand," she said "I can see how you'd feel that way."

He nodded his thanks, then turned to Bright. "I want you to know, Rudolphus, that I'm not saying that we should deliberately risk your safety so I can have a chance at Voldemort. It's just that–"

Bright waved him off. "I know, Harry. If he's going to be there anyway, you'd rather face him than not face him. I was using the word 'bait' loosely, I know that isn't really how you think of it.

"I guess you'll be working out the details of how it'll work with Kingsley. You'll need a tour of my office and my home, of course; whenever you two decide is convenient is fine."

"Just so you know, Minister," said Neville, "that wherever he goes, the rest of us will be within seconds, on the next available phoenix."

With a momentary grin at Neville's phrasing, Bright nodded. "I know. Your job is keeping him alive, and judging from yesterday, you do it very well. I don't want anything happening to him, either." Bright stood, and Harry and the others did as well. "Well, Harry, I'm not sure what I can say except 'thank you.' The politician in me wants to offer you something in return, but I know that isn't the way you work."

With a small smile, Harry responded, "Maybe you can do the right thing for me sometime."

Bright laughed. "I hope so. It was good to meet all of you. Thanks again." He turned, walked to the door, and left.

The six sat back down. "I hope nobody held anything back because he was there," said Harry. "I just felt like if we were going to say no to him, we should do it to his face, because unlike Fudge, he asked to my face."

Ron shook his head. "No, I wasn't bothered. I wasn't thrilled with it, obviously, and I felt a lot like Ginny and Hermione did. But I could see Neville's point, too. I also felt like, and I didn't want to say this in front of him, but it was like, we finally seem to have a decent Minister of Magic, let's see if we can keep him alive."

"Yes, I was impressed, too," agreed Hermione. "I read about him a fair bit in the Prophet, of course, but he's more impressive in person. He doesn't take himself any more seriously than he should. I said that thing about Harry being more important partly because I wanted to see how he would react. From what I've heard, Fudge would have gotten all upset and defensive, even though it was true. And yes, Neville, you were right. After you said that, I felt like I should have thought of it myself. Thank goodness he isn't like Fudge, the decision would have been a bit harder."

"Do you really think we should consider how good a Minister he is when making that kind of decision?" asked Pansy, surprised. "Neville's argument doesn't consider whether he's competent or not."

"I suppose," conceded Hermione. "It's just harder to contemplate risking Harry's life for someone like Fudge. I think I meant it would be harder emotionally, not logically."

"I don't feel like this is risking my life, though," said Harry, still with a determined look. "Not that nothing could happen, I know it could. I won't be overconfident. But the next time I face him will be the first time I do knowing that I can do this to him. That gives me quite a bit of confidence. I don't have to worry about dueling him, I can just do this. The only thing I have to worry about with him is walking into a trap, and that won't happen with this, because the places I'll be going are Bright's home and office, which will already be protected; he'll have a hard enough time getting in, never mind setting up something nasty waiting for me."

"That makes sense," agreed Hermione. "A good rule of thumb would be to try never to go anywhere that he's had a chance to be at for a while. Of course, that's not always possible. They can do a huge Apparation ambush, for example, and we don't have much choice but to go there. At least if we do, forty Aurors will be around."

Harry moved over to near Ginny, who looked unhappy. He took her hand and asked, "Are you upset?"

She shrugged. "Not upset exactly, definitely not at you. I know why you want to get him, and I don't blame you. It's just what I said before, I hate the idea of you being in any danger at all."

"But if he attacks, he'll be in more danger than me–"

"I know, Harry. It's not rational. I know you have to face him sooner or later, and he'll be on the defensive if he's at Bright's home or office. He probably won't do it at all, for that reason. It's just the idea. I haven't forgotten that cry I had at St. Mungo's yesterday. The reasons for doing this are good, which is why I didn't argue against it when he was here. Believe me, if I was dead set against it, I'd have let you know. This is an emotional reaction."

He moved next to her and put an arm around her. "I can understand that. Funny, I have an emotional reaction too, mine is just to go after him. But I'm sure Hermione was right yesterday, this is harder for you than it is for me. I'm sorry."

She kissed him on the cheek. "There's nothing for you to be sorry about," she assured him.

"I know. I just meant I'm sorry that you have to go through all this. But there is something I have to tell you that might cheer you up."

"You got me another ring?" she asked, feigning excitement.

Harry smiled. "No, I think this is better than that."

Her eyebrows rose, as did some of the others'. "What would be better than that?"

"Something that Albus talked to me about last night," he explained. "I thought about telling you alone, but the rest of you would find out soon enough, and I'd rather you heard it from me." He saw that Ginny and the others were now quite curious as to what he would say. "First of all, you know how I've said that if you think of Albus in a focused way, he'll hear what you're saying. Apparently Professor McGonagall took advantage of that to let me know something she didn't want to say directly to me, or through anyone living.

"Part of the memory Hermione showed her in the Pensieve of what happened yesterday included your cry that you just mentioned. Albus said that she felt awful for you too, and understands how hard this is for you. She also knows that we haven't used my quarters for what we used it for in the summer, even though it wasn't clear whether she'd mind if we did or not. I don't know how she knows, but she does. He said she appreciates the fact that we didn't push that. So, in view of all the stuff we have to go through, and probably will, she had Albus tell me that once a week, for an hour, we can go there if we want to." He smiled as he saw surprise and pleasure quickly appear on Ginny's face. "The only conditions are that we're discreet enough that no one outside the six of us knows, and that we never mention it or refer to it to her. She wants to be able to pretend that it isn't happening."

Ginny was now grinning broadly. "I can do that."

The others chuckled. "I bet you can," said Pansy.

"You're right, this is better than another ring," said Ginny, still very happy. "I wish I could thank her, but I'll live with the fact that I can't. It's so funny how she's like that, that she can't manage to say that to your face."

Harry had had the same thought. "Yeah, I got the feeling Albus was kind of amused, too. Well, it was nice of her to do it, she didn't have to."

"Yes, definitely," agreed Ginny. "Well, everyone, Harry and I have to go. We'll be back in an hour."

The others laughed. "No, let's wait until we would have been done here anyway," suggested Harry. "There's no hurry."

"I was kidding, of course," replied Ginny, "but we do have to think about not being interrupted. You've got the Aurors tomorrow, right?"

Neville nodded. "Yeah, I talked to them last night, they're going to do the training tomorrow instead of today, give Harry a bit of time to recover. Of course, he'll need more time to recover after you're done with him."

Everyone laughed, even Harry a little. "I don't know, Neville, it's only an hour," joked Ginny. "It's good for him, anyway."

"Yes, they do want us to be in good physical condition," agreed Neville. "I don't think they care exactly how we go about doing it. Say," he added, turning to Hermione, "won't you be getting teachers' quarters, now that you're a teacher?"

"From next year, for sure. I assume there are empty quarters somewhere, waiting for me, but I'm not going to ask her about it. Harry was a teacher for all of last year and didn't have quarters. But she's not–and yes, I know you were joking–she wouldn't let us do it anyway."

"I felt kind of bad about that," admitted Harry. "I'd like you guys to be able to do it, too."

"Harry, you're a special case," said Pansy. "You and Ginny have all this stress. I know we do too, but it's much worse for you. I think this is why McGonagall is keeping it so unofficial, she doesn't want the whole 'if they can do it why can't we' thing. We don't begrudge you this."

"Obviously not, don't worry about it," agreed Ron. "Well, we should get to our studying, I'm sure Hermione can't wait to get at all those books. I'll bet there's all kinds of things I've forgotten from first-year Transfiguration."

"I'll be sure to call on you in our next class, then," teased Hermione.

"You'd better not," warned Ron. "No more often than McGonagall did, anyway."

"She never called on you," pointed out Hermione.

Ron looked at the others with a put-on impressed expression. "See, there's that quick mind of hers again. She grasped my point instantly."

Hermione's response was pre-empted by a knock on the door. The others looked at each other in surprise again. "McGonagall this time?" wondered Neville. With a shrug, Hermione pointed her wand at the door, which opened to reveal Hedrick and Helen.

They gaped, as Harry realized that they had been looking into a previously empty classroom which suddenly had six people in it. "Cool!" enthused Hedrick.

"I'd love to learn that spell," said Helen as they walked into the room.

"I'll teach you when you're a seventh year," joked Hermione. "I only just learned it myself."

"How did you know we were here?" asked Neville.

Hedrick held up the Marauders' Map. "Professor Potter gave us this last year, after Hermione made you your maps; we used it to keep track of Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle. We don't have that much use for it these days, but now we're afraid we might."

"You mean, the wasps," said Pansy.

Helen nodded. "Of course, we're worried that Marcus might have done it. We're sure you've thought of that, but we still wanted to check."

"We don't think it was him," said Harry. "Professor McGonagall doesn't either, because they would have escaped when the magic went out, if he had brought them into Hogwarts. Don't tell anyone outside the ten of you that she said that, by the way. Anyway, we don't know how they got in, and we probably won't be able to find out easily, but we're pretty sure it wasn't him."

"Have you talked to him, gotten to know him at all?" asked Hermione.

"A little bit," said Helen. "We don't get too many chances to talk to first years, we kind of have to go out of our way to do it. But we talked to him a little the night the magic went away, and the next day, because of the idea that it was already decided that he was a Slytherin. He seemed all right, a little quiet, maybe. He didn't seem that different from anyone else, and he was really impressed with what you guys did that night. Which, obviously, everyone was. We didn't ask him about his family, of course. At least, he doesn't act like the other sons of Death Eaters. So, we hope he'll be okay."

"I think he will be," said Harry encouragingly. "He's been like that in my classes too, just a normal student. Also, I discovered–and please don't repeat this either–that his father hasn't lived at home since Voldemort came back, and his mother doesn't like Death Eaters. So, we really think he'll be all right."

"We'll check the map sometimes, just to be sure," said Hedrick. "Not only him, just anyone really out of place."

Ginny glanced at Harry, then spoke to Hedrick. "Um, speaking of that, there will be times when Harry and I are out of place, in Harry's living quarters. It's important that you not mention that to other people outside the ten of you."

"Okay, but why not?" asked Hedrick innocently.

Smiling, Helen rolled her eyes. "I'll explain it when we tell the others about this."

"So," said Ron, "have you heard about our last Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson, at least until Harry was attacked?" Harry wondered if he was trying to distract Hedrick from asking further questions.

"Of course, we always ask Pansy to tell us what happened after every lesson," said Helen. Looking at Ron's face, she added, "Oh, you mean the hugging thing. Well, we all hugged Pansy, so that was a good start. But I think it's going to be hard for the boys."

"Why us especially?" asked Hedrick defensively.

"Because boys are more uncomfortable with that than girls, everyone knows that," said Helen, with a mild air of superiority.

Harry decided he'd better nip that sort of attitude in the bud. "Helen, if anyone's uncomfortable with it–boy or girl–you should try to be understanding and encouraging, not criticize them. It would have been really hard for me when I was your age."

Abashed, she nodded. She was about to say something when Hedrick tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to face him, and he quickly stepped up to her and hugged her, obviously taking her by surprise. She gave a mild start, then slowly put her arms around him. Harry and his friends all exchanged smiles. He couldn't see Hedrick's face, but he could tell that Helen seemed genuinely pleased.

The hug lasted a few seconds longer than Harry expected, then they broke off from each other. "See, that wasn't so hard," said Hedrick, smiling in mild embarrassment.

"No, it wasn't," agreed Helen.

"It gets easier the more you do it," said Pansy, with a wide smile. "We can work on it some more this weekend."

"Okay," said Hedrick. "Ron, could you do some flying with us this weekend, too?"

"Sure," agreed Ron. "How about tomorrow morning at ten?"

"Okay, we'll tell the others. Thanks." Hedrick and Helen left, and anticipating no further interruptions, Harry and his friends took out their books and started studying.

Harry and Hermione left the Great Hall on Monday immediately after finishing lunch, heading for the staff room. He glanced at her as they walked; he could see excitement and anticipation on her face. He felt like teasing her, but just decided to let her enjoy the moment. As they approached the staff room, Flora suddenly appeared, and settled on Hermione's shoulder; Hermione smiled and reached up to pet her. Fawkes appeared a few seconds later, and perched on Harry's shoulder as he opened the door.

He entered, followed by Hermione. The only staff members missing from the room were Trelawney, Svengard, and of course, Hagrid. Upon seeing Hermione, everyone except Snape broke into applause, which a smiling Harry quickly joined. McGonagall stepped forward and extended a hand. "Welcome to the staff room, Professor Granger."

Beaming, Hermione shook it. "Thank you, Professor, and thank you, everyone. I'm so happy to be here."

Sprout walked up to Hermione and took both of Hermione's hands in hers. "We're very pleased to have you, dear. I imagine we all thought at one time or another we'd see you in here one day. It's just sooner than we thought, due to Minerva's desire to take it easy."

Harry and a few other teachers chuckled. "I would explain in detail how much work is involved in being headmistress," said McGonagall casually, "if I thought you were serious. Professor Dumbledore simply made it look easy."

"Did you have any classes this morning?" asked John, as Harry sat on the sofa, Hermione next to him.

"Yes, I had second year Hufflepuff/Slytherin. It went fine. I was a little nervous, but it helped that they were Harry's Slytherins, so they knew me, and were being nice." Harry couldn't help but glance at Snape when she referred to the Slytherins as being his, but Snape had no visible reaction.

"How did they become 'Harry's'?" wondered Dentus.

"It's just what we call them," explained Hermione. "Harry sort of bonded with them at the beginning of last year, when he showed them how they could overthrow Malfoy."

John chuckled. "You make it sound like a coup d'etat."

"It was, really," said Hermione, as Harry wondered what the phrase meant. "Malfoy ruled the Slytherin common room because no one dared to stand up to him. Harry explained that it was a matter of them sticking together, like we have to stick together to fight Voldemort. They did, and it worked. They've been a very tight group ever since."

"From adversity comes strength," commented Dentus. "I assume that he was roughly the local bully. What made them do it? First years are usually kind of timid, especially at first."

"They liked Harry, and his class," said Hermione. "You don't know this, but the other teachers would. Malfoy always hated Harry, and he couldn't deal with anyone in Slytherin contradicting him. He tried to bully them into silence, but it didn't work, and the other students started resisting once they saw it could be done."

"Very interesting," mused Dentus. "It's like a microcosm of what was happening in the real world. Thanks, I'll keep that in mind when teaching the second years. I may be able to give them some historical examples that'll remind them of what they did."

"And so, Harry became their hero even before he became everyone else's," said Sprout, with an amused glance at Harry.

"Professor Sprout," said Harry to Hermione, "does in here what Pansy usually does with the six of us, she's the most likely to tease me about my status and my reactions to it."

"What status do you mean, Harry?" asked Sprout perfectly innocently, as if she wasn't sure what Harry was talking about.

Harry chuckled. "Yeah, right." To Hermione, he said, "Now she's trying to embarrass me by getting me to say what it is."

Sprout shrugged, as if to suggest she couldn't be blamed for trying. "He's getting smarter," she said to Hermione. "Last year, he'd have fallen for that. Of course, last year he'd have fallen for almost anything. They grow up so fast."

"Kingsley said the same thing a few months ago, the first time I beat him dueling."

Flitwick whistled. "That really is impressive, beating the strongest Auror before your seventeenth birthday. How do you do against him now?"

"I win about a quarter of the time, I guess. He says I've still got a few years until I catch up to him on skill."

"Really, Harry," said McGonagall, deadpan, "it's so unlike you to boast."

Harry looked at Hermione to see her grinning; she obviously enjoyed seeing McGonagall tease Harry. "I mentioned it because it's funny that both she and Kingsley would say the same thing. It's as if I'm a child, with you and with the Aurors." His tone made clear that he wasn't bothered, just making an observation.

"In a way you are," said John. "You're a prodigy, really, manifesting far-above-adult-average abilities when not yet an adult, not only with your courage, but with your strength and the energy of love, which aren't the same but are related. Prodigies get thrust into the adult world before they're ready for it, in most cases. You weren't quite ready for it, but weren't far from it, and you've adapted well. It doesn't mean you're a child, of course, just as close to one as will ever be in this room. Fortunately, if you're a child, you're a cuddly one, not a bratty one."

Harry chuckled. "Thanks. Good thing this didn't happen in fifth year, though. I'd have been pretty bratty."

"I confess, Harry," said McGonagall seriously, "that I questioned Professor Dumbledore's decision to make you a teacher even when he did. I did not doubt your ability to do the job well, but was concerned about your maturity. He responded that he was confident that you would grow into the job, and as usual, he was correct." With a small smile at her own expense, she continued, "Most of the times I questioned his judgment I was wrong, but he preferred that I do so anyway. He said it 'kept him on his toes.'"

"I always felt," said Flitwick, "that he was very much on his toes, all the time."

"Not always," said Sprout. "There was that unpleasantness two years ago..."

"Could he really be blamed for that?" asked Hermione.

"He thought so," said Harry. "He said he shouldn't have let it come to that."

"Unfortunately, he was correct," put in Dentus. "Had he stayed better connected politically, he would have had sufficient warning, and avoided what happened. He was somewhat complacent, though, having run Hogwarts for so many years without outside interference, and we all know he preferred to stay away from the muck that politics often is. Instead, he got caught with his wand in his pocket."

"What?" asked Harry.

"The Muggle equivalent," explained John, "would be, 'he got caught with his pants down.'"

"Ah," said Harry.

"What a lovely metaphor," said McGonagall dryly. "It is fortunate that wizards need not wear pants."

"Anyway, Harry," said Dentus, "there was a little object lesson for you in that, if you hadn't noticed."

"No, I actually noticed. It's the kind of thing you usually say, just with a very clear illustration of the dangers."

"Well," said McGonagall, "fortunately I have the same political advisor that Harry does, so we may hope that such a thing will not happen again for quite some time. Not to mention a Minister of Magic who knows which way is up."

"Yes, it does seem as though this one's a keeper," agreed Sprout. "Is he as good as he seems, Professor Dentus? You know him, after all."

"It depends on whether you mean, good person, or good politician," said Dentus. "A good politician, definitely. A good person... that's a lot harder to tell, in a politician. I don't know him well enough to know that."

Sprout nodded. "I suppose it's not always easy to know that, even in someone who's not a politician." After a pause, she glanced at Harry and Hermione on the sofa, phoenixes on their shoulders. "I'm just wondering, is there some reason you have them with you like this? Or is one here because the other is?"

"Well, most of the time when they're with us like this, it's because they decided, not us," explained Harry. "But I do know why they're here now." Hermione glanced at him in surprise; clearly she didn't know. "Flora is here because Hermione is very excited to come into the staff room. The feeling attracts her, she wants to be closer to Hermione while Hermione feels it. Fawkes came partly because he and Flora like to be together while Hermione and I are together, and partly because he likes it when Flora feels like she feels because of Hermione."

"Spreading joy throughout the phoenix world," joked Sprout. "So, does any of this spill over onto you, Harry?"

"I wondered that myself, actually," said McGonagall seriously.

Harry thought about it. "It's hard to say, because I'd know that Hermione was excited even without them, and I'm happy for her. So, it's spilling over onto me in the way normal for humans. It's not easy to tell if the phoenixes are affecting it or not."

"Do they ever interact physically when they're together?" asked John. "Like, engage in grooming behavior, things like that?"

"Not really, no," answered Hermione. "Their interaction is more mental than physical. The closest they get to that is that sometimes they stand right next to each other."

"How's your communication coming along?" asked Sprout.

"Slowly but surely," said Hermione. "I don't think it's as good as it's going to get, but it's good. For me, it's just a matter of getting used to it. It helps to have Harry and Fawkes around, though. A few times we've done this thing where we tested my ability to get things from Flora. Harry comes up with something–an image or an impression, the kind of thing he knows phoenixes communicate. He sends it to Fawkes, who sends it to Flora. She sends it to me, and we see if I get the same thing Harry sent. Usually I do, and I know it's from Harry. Flora sends an image of Harry, a particular one with Fawkes on his shoulder, that's her way of letting me know it's from him. Lately, Harry's been doing it partly as a way of teaching me phoenix shorthand, the kind he learned from Fawkes. It also teaches Flora, which is nice, since I'm her first companion."

"That sounds fascinating," said Sprout. "Would you do one for us? Harry, whisper to me and Minerva what you're going to try to communicate before you do it."

He did, then focused on what he wanted Fawkes to relay. There was silence in the room for a minute, then Hermione spoke. "I think it's just that we have Potions with Professor Snape on Wednesday."

Harry nodded to her, as McGonagall and Sprout looked impressed. To the others, he explained, "I sent the shorthand for two days, which is two sunsets, and an image of Professor Snape in the Potions dungeon."

"Could you have done it by sending only the image of the Potions dungeon," wondered Flitwick, "or only an image of Professor Snape?"

"Yes, it would just be a different emphasis. The first one would have emphasized the class, and the second, that it was Professor Snape who was teaching it. The way I sent it, they're kind of equally emphasized. But the second could also have meant that I, she, or we would meet Professor Snape in two days; it's only the fact that we know we have him for Potions that would make it mean what it does."

"Would you do another one?" asked Sprout. "Something… less specific, less factual."

"Okay," agreed Harry. He thought for a minute, then walked over to Sprout and McGonagall and whispered to them. They looked surprised as he took his seat and began focusing.

This one took a little less than a minute; Hermione looked at him with surprise. "Are you saying that I shouldn't worry about the Ravenclaws in tomorrow's seventh year Transfiguration class?"

Again, Harry nodded. "That was what he said, almost exactly," said McGonagall.

"But how did you know that I was worried about that?" she asked, in mild disbelief. "Not only didn't I tell you that, I didn't tell anyone!"

"Well, Flora knows," pointed out Harry. "Of course, phoenixes don't understand things in the same terms we do. She doesn't know exactly what it is you're concerned about, she just knows you're concerned. Very recently, I think while we were eating lunch, I got an image of you in front of a class, with lots of the Ravenclaw students in it, and a feeling of anxiety. I assume it means that you're worried that the Ravenclaws won't necessarily respect you as a teacher, or look for ways to test you, prove to them that you're qualified."

"I'm impressed that you worked that out," said Hermione. Harry chuckled, as did a few teachers. "I don't mean that, that you're so slow you couldn't have," she protested. "It just doesn't seem like that much information."

"I should understand, I felt that way a bit when you roped me into doing the D.A. in fifth year. There were a few students who were older than I was, so it's no surprise that I'd feel like that."

McGonagall nodded understandingly. "I think most of us have felt that way when we started, Hermione. Well, except Archibald, perhaps. Most of us don't start in our sixties."

"No, I was actually worried that Hermione would poke holes in my historical knowledge," said Dentus, with a small grin.

"I think most of us have felt that way about Hermione," agreed Sprout. "I don't think you have much to worry about from the Ravenclaws, dear. Harry, how did you send the message you did?"

"I just sent back the same image, with emotional impressions of calm and confidence."

"Fascinating," marveled Sprout, as a few others nodded. "But it does raise some privacy issues, doesn't it?"

Harry and Hermione exchanged a knowing smile. "I became his Legilimency practice partner shortly before Professor Dumbledore died," said Hermione. "So there aren't many privacy issues with us anyway."

Harry noted many teachers' surprised looks. "Besides, it's not like they're going to be exchanging information on us all the time. I think Flora sent that one along because she recognized it as something I might be able to help her with, maybe make her feel better about. She definitely wasn't gossiping."

"I don't think Professor Sprout was suggesting that either Fawkes or Flora acted inappropriately," pointed out Flitwick. "Just that as a general matter, such a close connection could cause complications. Then again, given that only one out of every how many thousand wizards become phoenix companions, the chances that two people as close as you would be chosen must not be high. I wonder if there have ever been any married companions."

"Or, as this situation is close to, partnered phoenixes companioning married people," suggested Sprout.

Hermione shook her head. Harry had read this in Reborn From the Ashes as well, but he decided to let her answer the question. "The only companions who have ever been married were ones who met after they became companions, usually much later in life. There's nothing in the literature about how closely connected the phoenixes themselves were. But yes, our situation is probably as close as it gets to that. It should be interesting."

As McGonagall changed the subject, asking Hermione more detailed questions about the class she'd taught, he imagined himself and Hermione fifty years older, sitting in the headmaster's office talking, phoenixes on their shoulders. A few seconds later, she glanced over at him with a slightly surprised look, and he wondered if Fawkes had sent that image over. Then he wondered how Fawkes would decide what to send and not to send, and he understood that he had to trust Fawkes's judgment. He knew he trusted it a lot more than he did his own.

* * * * *

Next: Chapter 14, The Empty Dormitory: Pansy and Thomas bring Harry a problem he fervently wishes they hadn't, as it triggers such aggressive behavior in Snape that Harry's ability to help him is threatened.

From Chapter 14: "You are correct when you say that Severus violated the understanding you had regarding how information obtained from you was to be used, but you may wish to consider that he did not do so willfully, in a sense. This subject is so sensitive for him that one could almost say he was not in control of his actions. Even so, it is understandable that you found it necessary to have the Memory Charm done."