Chapter 8

Snape's Reward

Harry walked into Snape's office, the door already open. He sat in his usual chair. Frustrated, he said, "I wanted to come in here ranting about how murder is wrong, and how could you kill someone just like that, and so on."

Again, Snape seemed to be trying hard to keep his emotions in check. "I half expected you to," he said evenly.

Harry grunted. "It's nice to be able to exceed your expectations. I won't pretend I'm not upset, but obviously you expected that as well." Snape nodded slightly, saying nothing. Harry continued, "I've talked to McGonagall, and Hermione and Ginny. I know what you did, and I understand why you did it. I understand all the arguments for killing her, and there'd be no point debating it with you. But you did a Memory Charm on me without my consent, and you manipulated me to go to the restaurant. What I want to know is, how am I supposed to sit here in the future and trust you? How do I know you won't do something similar in the future? I have to be able to trust you, to do this."

Snape seemed to repress a reaction, then paused a few seconds before answering Harry's question. "What you may trust, Professor, is that I will take any and all actions necessary to ensure the defeat of the Dark Lord. There is nothing more than that which I can tell you, and nothing more which is important."

Harry didn't respond directly, as Snape's response, again, was expected. "I also thought that you would consider what you learned from us doing this as something not to be repeated, or acted on. Do you not think of it that way, or did you just consider this situation an exception?"

"I accept it as a general principle," responded Snape, "but of course circumstances may force actions different from generally accepted ones. As the headmistress has already told you, it was highly negligent of you not to report Skeeter's threats immediately. Every day that passed was another day containing a risk that Skeeter would reveal what she knew, or be abducted by the Dark Lord. I am surprised that that did not occur to you as a possibility."

"Ginny just made that argument a few minutes ago," Harry acknowledged. "She said that from your point of view, there simply wasn't any choice but to do what you did."

Snape raised his eyebrows. "It seems that Miss Weasley is more intelligent and perceptive than I gave her credit for. Yes, there was no choice. It was difficult enough to wait for the two days required to arrange circumstances so that there would be no doubt of your lack of involvement; I was greatly concerned that the Dark Lord would take action before your visit to the restaurant. I reluctantly took that risk, understanding that your standing in the community is important in its own way to our cause.

"I knew you would be dismayed by my actions, but I felt that you would at some level understand the necessity of it, and would eventually 'get past' your emotional reaction. In any event, I could not allow that to be a consideration in what I did. I asked you that 'hypothetical' question about Mr. Shacklebolt in the hope that you would think carefully about the issues involved, in anticipation of the day you discovered what had been done."

"Well, that worked too," said Harry, making no attempt to hide his annoyance. "I would probably have had a worse reaction than this if I hadn't thought about it so much."

"You do have the capacity to learn, if you apply yourself," said Snape. Harry looked at him sharply, wondering if he was being mocked. Deciding he wasn't, he settled down as Snape continued. "Your moral concerns still prevent you from seeing the necessity more clearly. I strongly suspect that Miss Weasley sees it more clearly because she quite properly equates the success of the struggle against the Dark Lord with your personal survival, and would take or authorize any action necessary to your survival, placing that ahead of her notions of morality. If you lost one of your group of friends to this fight, as you nearly lost Miss Granger and Mr. Longbottom, your attitudes regarding this might change."

Harry found himself wondering if that was true, and whether he should change his attitudes now in the hopes of preventing it from happening, or try harder not to condone killing even if it did happen. He wondered if Snape knew that was his worst fear; Snape had not yet seen the boggart assume Pansy's form in his memories.

"Maybe I shouldn't ask this," said Harry, "but I will anyway, I feel like I have to know. Did you enjoy killing her?"

Snape's first reaction was a smirk, which went away quickly; Harry wondered if that was on purpose. "You wish to judge me, or to decide whether to judge me. Lacking the ability to judge me against a standard of morality, and knowing that my decision was a rational one, you look for other ways to judge my behavior."

"Maybe I am," Harry admitted, "but I want to make a positive judgment. I want to be able to say, he did it only because he thought he had to, there was nothing else in it for him, nothing else that made him lean toward killing her."

"I am doing my best to be tolerant, Professor, but my patience is wearing thin," said Snape, tone still even. "The fact that my decision was rationally correct should be sufficient to assuage whatever concerns you may have. However, I will indulge you, and answer your question.

"Did I enjoy it? Of course I did. I might as well ask you if you enjoyed yourself after a session of sexual activity with Miss Weasley. For one who has been... modified as I have, to kill is the greatest pleasure one can experience; it is somewhat analogous to sexual release. Now, would I have wished to kill her, or anyone, even without a good reason? No, I would not. Even though it is pleasurable in the moment, it exacts a toll on someone such as myself who resists such pleasures. You may recall that I requested your presence for five consecutive days after Skeeter was killed. This was because such a thing... leads me further into temptation, one could say. My daily life is a continuing effort to resist such pleasures, all the more difficult as they are the only ones available to me. I prefer not to kill, though obviously not as a matter of morality. It is more in the way that an alcoholic resists alcohol.

"Now, before I continue, there is something else I should inform you of, as it has a connection to your question. You assumed, correctly, that the Dark Lord commissioned the murder of Fudge. What you did not know was that it was I who was selected to carry out the act."

Harry gaped. Killing someone like Skeeter was bad enough, but Fudge hadn't been a threat, or done anything immoral as Skeeter had. "And you did it?" Snape nodded. "You couldn't have avoided it somehow..." As he said it, Harry knew it sounded stupid, but he was still shocked.

"Oh, yes," said Snape airily, "I am sure the Dark Lord would have listened to a well-reasoned argument. Perhaps I could have persuaded him that Fudge wasn't such a bad fellow. Think!" Snape nearly shouted. "The moment the Dark Lord decided to have him killed, Fudge was as good as dead. Were it not I, it would have been someone else. Moreover, any reluctance of my part to do as he asked would have been highly suspicious, and endangered my status as having his confidence. You can surely understand that; you correctly judged Fudge's importance to be so low as to not be worth even a small risk to the lives of your friends. Equally, it was not worth the greater risk to my services to the Order for me to do anything but what he asked.

"Now, Professor... here is the irony, though I do not know whether you will be able to appreciate it. The Dark Lord chose me to kill Fudge as a reward." Harry's eyes went wide as Snape continued. "He had been pleased with my recent services, such as 'stealing' the false prophecy from the headmaster's Pensieve, and informing him of Miss Granger's being involved in a plot against him. Obviously, the events connected with that did not go well for him, but he did not hold me responsible. He considered that I had done my job well, and events beyond my control–his sudden unconsciousness–were responsible for the less than satisfactory end to that sequence of events. Considering that it was the Minister of Magic who was to be killed, it was a plum assignment, to be given only to one who was greatly in favor."

Harry had gotten over his shock, understanding that the situation that Snape was in didn't allow for much flexibility of action. "I bet they'd love to kill me."

"Indeed, it is understood that the one who manages it will achieve an exalted status," confirmed Snape. "In fact, the Dark Lord has made an exception to his usual policy of not allowing actions not previously approved; if someone feels they have a good chance to kill you, they need not seek his specific approval to attempt it."

Harry rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I suppose that's a compliment."

"A high compliment," said Snape, "and a measure of the Dark Lord's desperation. In any case, the irony is that of all Death Eaters, I was the only one who would have actually preferred not to carry out the act. However, I did, because there was no real alternative. If you search your recollections, you will find that I requested your presence for five consecutive days at that time as well, starting with the night Fudge died. It had been my intention to call on you as little as possible during the Apparation struggle, but after having killed, I could not hold off. The headmaster explained to you that any such action on my part means that I require the support you provide all the more, to offset the impulses such actions cause."

Harry gazed ahead, his thoughts jumbled. "I guess it's just hard for me to understand. It's such a different world that you live in when you deal with Death Eaters, what you have to deal with every day. I know I can't use normal standards of moral behavior with you. I don't know what to think."

Snape nodded. "Understandable, as my experience is substantially different from anything you know, or are used to. The headmaster told you that he did Legilimens on me from time to time, to check on my emotional state; I think the time has come that it is a good idea for you to do so."

"Why?" asked Harry, very surprised.

"Because it is my emotional state that is of particular interest to you right now," Snape explained. "Because he did so, the headmaster understood my emotional state, and I believe this was helpful to him. Especially in circumstances such as this, I believe it will be helpful to you as well."

Harry could see Snape's point, but he was still surprised. "Okay. What should I look for?"

"It will assist you if I actively recollect the memory as you cast the spell," said Snape. "The first one will be from this morning, as I read the Prophet over breakfast. I suggest it because it is very ordinary; it will give you a baseline, a point for comparison to anything else you see."

Nodding, Harry took out his wand. He cast the Legilimens spell, and focused on trying to access Snape's mind. He got in effortlessly, and found the memory immediately, due to Snape's help, he was sure.

Snape was sitting at a table in his quarters, which were as spartan as his office. His breakfast was sausage, eggs, toast, and orange juice. He was reading an article about who would be the next Minister of Magic, titled "Bright Future For Rudolphus Seen As Field of Contenders Narrows To Two." Harry recognized the article as the one Hermione had read him a little of that morning.

What Harry noticed most of all, however, was the emotional atmosphere that pervaded the scene. 'Dismal' was the first word to come to Harry's mind. Harry imagined that this would be how he would feel if nothing good had happened for years and years, and never would again. He remembered feeling something similar sometimes when he was a child living at 4 Privet Drive, but nowhere near this strongly. The breakfast felt the same, the newspaper, the plans for the day... even if something interesting happened, it wouldn't be anything good. Good things weren't possible, because they interfered with what needed to be done: the Dark Lord had to be defeated.

Harry viewed the memory for about a minute before withdrawing. His eyes widened a little as he looked at Snape. That's what it's like for you? asked Harry silently. That's normal? Harry associated the feelings he had experienced with profound... it felt like being depressed; different, but similar. Worse, in the sense that it would never go away.

"The next one is ready, when you are," said Snape. "It is a week ago Saturday, in the afternoon, just after my session with you. It was the first time I saw the Dark Lord after Skeeter's death."

Harry waved his wand, and saw Snape standing in front of a door. Harry could feel Snape organize his thoughts, asserting total control of his mind. He felt Snape feel adrenaline rushing through him. Snape concentrated, then opened the door and entered the room.

Voldemort was standing in the middle of the room, his expression as Harry remembered it: haughty and cold, as if the presence of others was a thing to barely be tolerated. Snape stopped a few feet away from Voldemort, knelt, and kissed the hem of Voldemort's robes. He then retreated a step and stood. "My Lord," he said; Harry wondered if the words were part of the ritual that included kissing the robes.

"Snape," said Voldemort casually, with an air of indifference. "Have you heard about the death of the Skeeter woman?"

"Yes, my Lord. McGonagall informed me this morning."

Voldemort looked at Snape, seemingly looking through him. "It must have been very annoying that she managed to escape you when you dispatched Fudge."

"Yes, my Lord, it was. I apologize again for my failure–"

Voldemort waved a hand magnanimously. "You did not know she was an Animagus, nor did most of us. The young Malfoy should have been more forthcoming with information he should have known would be of assistance. 'Oh, I forgot,'" said Voldemort mockingly, rolling his eyes. "He will not forget next time, I am sure, once he returns to us. I will have to be more careful about accepting those who are too young." He looked at Snape again with the same penetrating gaze. "It would be understandable, Snape, if you decided to take a little initiative regarding the Skeeter woman. One does not like to leave loose ends."

"Indeed not, my Lord. I would have been pleased to do so, but of course I would not–"

"Have done so without my instructions, yes," interrupted Voldemort lazily. "It is at times like this that it occurs to me what a skilled Occlumens you are." The last was said casually, with an undercurrent of threat.

The meaning was obviously not lost on Snape. "My mind is always open to you, my Lord."

"Yes, it is," said Voldemort, as if conceding a point. "Her death was certainly made to appear as though done by a Death Eater. What is your speculation?"

"My best guess, my Lord, is an Auror, acting without authorization. Likely one of those who is close to Potter. I recall that Potter disliked Skeeter, and his friend Granger even more so. I know that is insufficient motive; there may be more that I do not know. Also pointing to an Auror is that the perpetrator Apparated and reached a Portkey without being caught, indicating some Apparation skill, and the fact that Aurors would have enough access to Potter to use some of him to make Polyjuice Potion."

Voldemort looked thoughtful. "If it was done on Potter's behalf, do you think he authorized or sanctioned it?"

"No, my Lord. He is far too squeamish about such things; recall that he stopped Black and Lupin from killing Wormtail."

"Yes, very true. I never did properly thank him for that. Well, one day. Speaking of which, I am considering the possibility of taking more direct action against Potter. There may come a time when I ask you to do it yourself, to find a way to take him by surprise and eliminate him, then leave Hogwarts. What do you think?"

Surprise showed on Snape's face. "I would be pleased, my–"

"Yes, I know, Snape, we all would be," said Voldemort in exasperation. "Perhaps I should have been more specific. I would like your opinion of the idea, strategically."

Snape thought for a moment. "It comes down to the assessment of him as a future threat, my Lord. If he is truly dangerous, then it might be worth it. If he is a mere annoyance, then it is not. My opinion, on balance, leans slightly in the direction of the idea that it should not be done. I could easily become the Hogwarts headmaster, and so could be highly useful. Surely there is someone else who could kill him."

"One would think so, but apparently not," said Voldemort, annoyed. "The mere fact of his continued survival does speak to his being a future threat. However, your point about being headmaster is well taken; I probably would have already decided to have you do it if not for that. Very well, Snape. You may withdraw."

"Thank you, my Lord," said Snape, and turned and left the room. Harry could feel Snape's mind relaxing, no longer intently focused on concentrating. His own concentration lessening, Harry withdrew from Snape's mind, refocusing on his current physical surroundings.

"Why did you show me that?" asked Harry. "It was interesting, but I don't see what it has to do with understanding your emotional state."

"As you saw in the first memory, my life is usually not all that interesting," explained Snape with dry understatement. "An encounter with the Dark Lord is the highlight of my day, of my week. Not because it is enjoyable, obviously, but because it is a challenge, and it is what I endure the rest of the time to be able to do. It requires my full effort and concentration, and reminds me of my usefulness and importance. Perhaps you could see it as analogous to a Quidditch match, or the Triwizard tasks."

"And so, for you, that's as close as anything can come to being enjoyable," Harry surmised.

"Yes, exactly. Except for those things I would find truly enjoyable–violence, Schadenfreude, and so forth–that I must do my best to eschew, as you know. The emotional atmosphere you saw in the first memory was largely absent in the second, as all aspects of my consciousness were focused on the task."

Harry now understood Snape's purpose in showing him the memory, but he wondered about something else. "You said that your mind was open to him, and he seemed to agree. How do you keep all this from him, but still have him think that he can look at anything in your mind?"

"Occlumency is a skill at which I truly excel," said Snape, as Harry wondered if Snape could feel an emotion such as pride. "I am able to separate different types of memories into... sections of my mind, if you will. When I am in the Dark Lord's presence, I place those memories I do not wish him to see in one particular area, and wall it off, in a sense, with Occlumency; it becomes like a false wall which looks like the true one. He can see any memory I choose to allow him to see, and he believes there are no others."

Harry was impressed. "And he has no idea that you can do... well, I guess not, since you'd be dead otherwise. Did you show me that particular memory because of the parts that had to do with me?"

Snape nodded. "Yes, and to show you that I took a certain risk vis-à-vis the Dark Lord in killing Skeeter; he would have been most displeased had he discovered that I had done it, his mention of it being 'understandable' notwithstanding."

"He was sort of trying to lure you into admitting it, if you had done it," guessed Harry.

"To an extent, but he also did it to call up any potential memory I might have of having done it; he was searching me with Legilimens as he said it," said Snape. "But as to that which had to do with you, here we see the first benefits of my having been named deputy headmaster. If he gave me the instruction to kill you and leave Hogwarts, I could only put him off for so long. It would be necessary to stage an attempt on your life, fail, be arrested, and then 'escape.' I could still function as a spy for the Order, though with more difficulty. As I am so close to becoming headmaster, however, he is reluctant to use me in such a manner. Even so, he is seriously considering it, and he knows there is a time limit; after you graduate, I will not have access to you as I do now unless you stay on as Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, which he cannot afford to assume you will. As you saw, I am trying to discourage him without being too obvious. I have discussed this with the headmistress; if it appears that he will do this, she will feign a serious illness in the hope that this will dissuade him."

"Because it would make it more likely that you'd be headmaster," Harry said, thinking aloud.

"There are two more memories I wish to show you," said Snape, as Harry had almost forgotten Snape's original reason for showing him what he had just seen. Harry nodded, and cast Legilimens again.

He saw Snape sitting in the chair opposite Harry, as he currently was; Harry realized that he was seeing the memory which Snape had covered with the Memory Charm, from Snape's point of view. He saw Snape viewing Harry's recollection of the meeting with Skeeter. When Skeeter mentioned the possibility of revealing Harry's relationship with Snape, Harry felt Snape experience a start, then a thrill of anticipation. Snape had realized instantly that he would have to kill Skeeter; he did not even debate it in his mind, so obvious a conclusion was it. Snape felt a rush of fear; Harry didn't understand why at first. Exploring the feeling, he suddenly understood: Snape had already killed Fudge, experiencing both the thrill of the kill, then the aftereffects as he tried to recover from the impulse to continue along that path. Snape knew it would be very difficult to recover from that again, coming so soon after the other one, but he also knew he had no choice.

Snape viewed the memory again, formulating a plan as he did so. Harry felt Snape's disdain and frustration with him at his not having reported the information to McGonagall immediately, and the realization that it had an unintended benefit: Snape would not have to get McGonagall's prior approval to do what he knew needed to be done. Harry then felt Snape's annoyance in advance at Harry's predictable reaction upon finding out: he would be angry, self-righteous about having been manipulated to facilitate a murder, feel betrayed and moralistic without a proper understanding of the larger issues. Harry would be ruled by his immediate emotions, Snape knew. But he felt Snape also realize that Harry could not help it, being only seventeen, and Snape understood that he himself would not have done much better at controlling his emotions at that age. Snape did not have sympathy for Harry, but a rational understanding that Harry was often pushed to his limits emotionally, as he was simply by doing what he did to help Snape, and that Harry was doing the best he could. This did not mitigate Snape's annoyance, but it added a perspective to it.

Harry withdrew from Snape's mind again, and thought for a minute, Snape remaining silent. "You let me see that so I'd know that when you decided to do that, you weren't saying to yourself, 'Oh, good, I get to kill someone,'" Harry speculated.

"Crudely put, but accurate," Snape agreed. "I knew it would be a trial. Are you ready to view the last memory?" Harry nodded. "This occurs shortly after I awoke last Saturday morning, the day after I killed Skeeter."

Casting the spell, Harry saw and felt Snape lying in bed, in his quarters. Emotions overwhelmed him; Harry felt Snape feel a powerful need, a longing. He wanted to kill, he wanted to cause someone to suffer; not to do so was almost physically painful. He saw an image in Snape's mind; for a second, Snape was fantasizing about torturing a house-elf. He could see the elf screaming in Snape's mind's eye. With a conscious, painful effort, Snape shut off the thought. I must focus, Snape thought. Harry saw images of Dumbledore, echoes of past sessions in Dumbledore's mind. Harry felt Snape need to call him, but decide not to for fear that Harry would find a morning session so unusual that he would wonder why, and perhaps piece together that Snape had killed Skeeter. Harry realized that Snape knew that if Harry figured it out, his emotional reaction would be such that he would be unable to help Snape, and Snape desperately needed his help. Snape knew he had to wait until the afternoon, at a more normal time. It was important that Harry not find out until Snape had recovered from this. From this thought Snape momentarily slipped into another fantasy of cruelty, then came out of it after a few seconds. It was almost a continual, constant effort not to have such thoughts. Snape looked at a clock on the wall. Six hours, he thought, six hours until I can safely call Potter. I must hold on...

Filling up with emotion, Harry put away his wand. This is what he would go through all the time, thought Harry, if I wasn't helping him. He wouldn't be able to do it, he couldn't withstand that kind of pressure indefinitely. He'd eventually let go, sink into the fantasies, and his personality would be so different that he couldn't be a professor, he couldn't deal with people correctly. He knew this would happen when he killed Skeeter; he would rather not have, but he did it because it had to be done. What must it be like, thought Harry in despair, to live like that all the time.

Harry looked up to see Snape looking at him, apparently understanding what was going on in his head. "The first time the headmaster saw me in that state, he wept openly." Harry found that he could easily believe it. "It is usually not nearly that acute, of course; that is almost as bad as it has ever been. I had not killed for a very long time, and to have to do so twice in one week was... very stressful."

There's an understatement, thought Harry. He sat silently for a minute, trying to process all he had seen and felt. "You showed me all that because you wanted me to know how it looks from your perspective," said Harry.

"Yes, that is right," agreed Snape. "You were inclined to judge me, and if you were going to, it was better that you had more information with which to do so. The headmaster once related to me a Muggle saying: 'Do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.' It seems appropriate to this situation."

Harry found it hard to argue with that. He was still convinced that killing was wrong, and still wouldn't have condoned Skeeter's murder, but he found that his conviction was starting to waver. He knew that Snape was right about Ginny being willing to put morality aside to save his life, as she had said as much, and he wondered if he would for her. He suspected he would.

"Well... I guess I have a lot to think about," said Harry, not quite sure that he knew what to say, but feeling that he should leave. "I feel like I need some time to deal with all this. If you don't mind, I mean, if you'll be all right, I wondered–"

"I expected that you would require some time to process what has happened," said Snape. "I have recovered now, and my need is no more than usual. Take what time you feel necessary, though more than a week would not be advisable. Signal me when you feel ready to resume."

Harry nodded, stood, and left Snape's office, heading for his quarters. His mind was such a blur of thoughts that he barely noticed where he was going, and looked up to see that he was in front of his quarters. He entered, and Ginny and Hermione got up and turned to face him. He walked to Ginny and hugged her, holding her tightly. He continued holding her for far longer than he usually would. Over her shoulder, he saw Hermione looking at him with sympathy. He finally released Ginny, and they walked over to the sofa and sat down together, his arm still around her, as Hermione resumed her seat in the chair.

He told them what had happened, taking about ten minutes. Finishing, he said, "It's just amazing, the way he lives his life. I really felt like crying. It's so... barren, I guess. I guess that's why I hugged you like that when I got here," he added, looking at Ginny. "It just made me feel so lucky to have you, and you," looking at Hermione, "and the rest. I'm very lucky, I just usually don't think about that so much."

Ginny pulled him into another hug, which he returned gratefully. "I love you," she said. "We all do. I suppose you are lucky, we all are, to have each other. But keep in mind, everyone's lucky compared to him. He lives in worse circumstances than... is possible to imagine, I'd think. But I see your point. Just a little while of seeing how he lives made you need a hug, but he has to deal with it all the time."

"Did it affect how you feel about what he did?" asked Hermione.

"That's the big question, isn't it," said Harry. "In some ways, yes, and in some ways, I'm not sure. I still wouldn't support Skeeter's murder, but seeing the situation from his perspective made it seem less like a murder and more like... something unpleasant that needed to be done. But it definitely makes me feel differently about how I feel about him doing it, and its connection with my relationship with him. When I first realized he did it, I think I felt like, he's a cold-blooded killer, and I'm helping him, how can I do that? Now it doesn't seem like that. In some ways that's not right, because I wouldn't see it that way if he'd killed someone close to me. But... I don't know, the whole thing's so confusing sometimes. I'm not sure what to think."

"Maybe the best thing is not to think too much about it right now," suggested Hermione. "You should probably let it rest for a while, your unconscious will work on it. It'll seem clearer at some point."

"Is that the way it worked for you, with your thing?" asked Harry, curious.

"I don't know, since I wasn't able to stop thinking about it," responded Hermione with a self-deprecating smile. "Do as I say, not as I did. Neville did manage to distract me sometimes, though."

"Good point, I was just thinking of distracting Harry," said Ginny with a grin at Harry, one whose meaning he had come to understand clearly.

"Oh, speaking of that," said Hermione, suddenly uncomfortable, "I thought you should know... you know I finally got into Harry's mind, that's how I found the Memory Charm. Before that happened, I, um..."

"You saw something," Ginny supplied, not sounding bothered. "What?"

"Jumping in the deep end," said Harry. "The robes."

"Ah," said Ginny. "What did you think?"

"It was very nice," said Hermione sincerely.

"Really?" asked Ginny, sounding very pleased. "To be honest, I've never thought my body was all that great, but I'm really glad that you like it."

"No, um, what I meant was..." started a flustered Hermione, who stopped speaking upon seeing Ginny's wide, mischievous smile. Harry burst out laughing as Hermione smiled, recognizing that she'd been had. Shaking her head humorously, she stood and said, "Well, I think I'd better go, so you can use that nice body of yours to distract Harry."

"Definitely one of its best uses," agreed Ginny.

Still smiling, Hermione said, "See you later," and left their quarters.

Harry leaned over to kiss Ginny, then chuckled. "That was so great... thanks, I really needed a good laugh."

"I love to make you happy," she said. She stood and took his hand, pulling him up. "Come on, I'll make you even happier."

"When you first mentioned that, my first thought was, I'm not sure if I'm in the right frame of mind for that sort of thing," he replied, but let himself be pulled up.

She started leading him to the bedroom. "Of course, that's part of the whole point of distraction," she explained, as if it were obvious. "It's to get you out of this frame of mind and into a different, better one."

"Ah, I see," he replied, again feeling very lucky to have her.

Back at the Burrow, the six gathered in the living room. Harry told them that Snape had killed Skeeter, but explained that he couldn't tell them how he had found out. He decided it was best not to mention the Memory Charm as well. Ron, Neville, and Pansy were surprised. "I thought he was ruled out as a suspect because he couldn't have known what she was threatening," said Ron. "How did he find out?"

"I'm sorry, but I can't tell you that, either," said Harry.

Ron tried to rein in annoyance. "How about if you just mime it for us?"

Harry chuckled at the idea, but Pansy responded, "Ron, he tells us what he can. You know he would tell us all of it if he could."

"I know, I didn't mean anything like that," said Ron defensively. "It's just..."

"Hard to know some things, but not everything," finished Harry. "I understand, I know how you feel. Not much I can do, unfortunately. At least now we know who did it and why, we don't have to wonder anymore."

"Seems kind of strange, though," mused Pansy. "My Head of House is someone who kills people..."

"Only if he has to, though, and he felt he had to," clarified Harry. "And remember, McGonagall said that she would have done it if she was convinced that Skeeter would talk about what she'd seen. He just wasn't willing to take as many chances as her."

Ron looked thoughtful. "D'you suppose Dumbledore ever killed?"

"I don't know," said Harry. "I should ask him. I doubt it, though. You saw the chances he was willing to take to respect Malfoy's rights. It's hard to imagine circumstances where he'd kill."

"Who knows, maybe he did kill, and that's why he became like he was, not willing to take even a tiny step towards doing the wrong thing," suggested Pansy.

"Is that the kind of thing you can just ask him, though?" wondered Ron. "Say, Albus, did you ever kill anyone?"

"It would have been harder to do when he was still alive, or as he would say, when he was still physical," said Harry. "But even then, he would have answered, because it's an important question. Now, especially, he has no embarrassment or hesitation in talking about anything. Of course, I don't have to ask him, because we're talking about him, so he's watching, and he'll answer the question without my asking again."

"So, is it not only people where Albus is, but also people who've moved on," asked Ron, "who can–"

Ron was cut off by a face suddenly appearing in the fireplace; it was Dentus. "Archibald!" exclaimed Harry in surprise.

"Hello, Harry, everyone," said Dentus. "Sorry to interrupt. Harry, there are a few things that I'd like to discuss with you, if you have a few minutes. Could you come over here for a bit?"

"Sure," agreed Harry. "I'm not busy."

"You're welcome too, Hermione, if you're free," suggested Dentus. She nodded. "Okay, I'll be expecting you." His head vanished from the fireplace.

"Wonder if it's about Minister of Magic-related news," said Harry to Hermione.

"Wait, is this such a good idea?" asked Ron, concerned.

"What do you mean?" asked Harry.

"I'm sorry, Neville," said Ron, "but let's remember what happened the last time one of us got an unexpected request to go to someone else's fireplace."

Looking somber at the reminder, Neville nonetheless said, "It's okay, Ron, I understand. You have a good point. We have to be careful."

"They just did that a few weeks ago," Harry said dismissively. "I don't think they're going to do the same thing again so soon. I'm sure it'll be fine."

"Yeah, I think the last time you said something like that was when Pansy signaled you to warn you about Goyle," retorted Ron.

Harry's eyebrows went up, as did a few others'. "So, just because of that, all of a sudden my judgment is suspect?"

Raising his voice, Ron responded, "When it comes to your safety, yes, your judgment is highly suspect, as far as I'm concerned."

Harry stared at Ron, who glared back, defiant. It suddenly occurred to Harry what motivated Ron's attitude; he remembered their conversation on Ron's birthday after they had discovered that Snape had searched the Slytherins' belongings. His expression softening, he nodded. He looked at the still-angry Ron with affection. "Thank you, Ron. I love you, too."

The girls smiled, and Ron looked at Harry as if trying to be sure that Harry wasn't being sarcastic. "Now you're just trying to butter me up, make up with me," said Ron in the same vein, calming down.

"I get your point, my track record with this isn't so great," Harry conceded. "But it's not going to happen. It's not common knowledge that Archibald talks to me, I think only one of his contacts knows. It's not the kind of thing that could get back to Death Eaters. Really, it'll be all right."

Ron was obviously not satisfied. "Look, tell you what. You go ahead and go, but we'll have the same system the Aurors do when they go out on calls. The second you arrive, look at your hand; if you don't, we'll be there in as long as it takes to grab Fawkes' tail. And even if it looks okay, be on guard. Don't let him get behind you, and check him out with Legilimens."

Harry looked unhappy. "I don't know for sure that I'm good enough yet to check like that without the person knowing I'm doing it."

"He knows what happened to Neville and me," pointed out Hermione. "I think he'd understand why you were being extra careful."

"Okay," Harry sighed. "Ready, Hermione?" She nodded, and he approached the fireplace. He went through, and before he could regain his balance coming out of Dentus's fireplace, he was hit with a Stunning Spell.

The first thing Harry saw upon regaining consciousness was a Killing Curse shield flicking off around him. Reflexively reaching for his wand, Harry took in what was happening. His five friends were in the center of the room, dueling with Death Eaters. Harry looked up to see Voldemort send Neville flying across the room as Harry's other friends started to crumple and fall to the ground, obviously victims of a Voldemort area-effect spell. Singing, Fawkes flew around from Death Eater to Death Eater, harassing them and obstructing their vision.

Not sure why he was doing it, Harry pointed his wand at Voldemort and sent out an energy beam, the same one he had used to disrupt Voldemort's wall of energy in their encounter a month ago. Voldemort looked up in surprise and tried to block the beam, but it continued its progress, and hit its target. Voldemort crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Harry Summoned Voldemort's wand and cast the spell that would wrap him in ropes. As the ropes started to whirl around the prone Voldemort, to Harry's shock, Voldemort simply vanished.

"Dammit!" Harry yelled in frustration, then turned his attention to the rest of the room. He ran to the center, where his friends were starting to recover from the effects of Voldemort's spell, doing their best to defend themselves from incoming spells as they did so. Focusing intently, Harry shot off Stunning Spells, taking down two Death Eaters in quick succession before being forced to ward off incoming spells as the remaining Death Eaters focused their attention on him. Popping noises filled the air as Aurors started Apparating in; Harry realized that they had probably been trying, but had been stopped by a Voldemort anti-Apparation field, which was now gone, since Voldemort was. Vastly relieved–his friends were still on the ground, and he knew he couldn't have held off six Death Eaters for more than a few more seconds–Harry put down an anti-Disapparation field, then turned his attention back to the fight. He got off two more Stunning Spells before there was no one left to fight, as the Aurors had quickly overwhelmed the Death Eaters with superior numbers; there were now twelve Aurors, and more continued to arrive.

"Fan out!" shouted Kingsley, and groups of two Aurors raced into adjacent rooms. Harry checked his friends, struggling to their feet, but all were all right. He asked them, "Where's Archibald? Is he all right?"

"We don't know," said Neville, rubbing his shoulder. "All we saw when we got here was Death Eaters."

"In here!" shouted an Auror from the kitchen. Harry ran in behind Kingsley to see a dazed-looking Dentus sitting at the kitchen table. Kingsley waved his wand, and Dentus blinked, appearing to come out of whatever haze he had been in. He looked around the room and saw something that Harry hadn't seen yet: his wife on the floor, face up. Dentus got up and moved quickly to her, as did Kingsley, who checked for a pulse at her neck. He looked at Dentus sadly and shook his head. Sitting on the floor, Dentus took his wife's hand and bowed his head; Harry could not see his face.

Grief overwhelming him, Harry stepped forward. Kingsley stood and walked toward Harry. He took Harry's arm, steering him away from Dentus, to the other side of the large kitchen. Their backs to Dentus, Kingsley whispered to Harry. "I know what you want to say to him. That you're sorry, that it's your fault, that it wouldn't have happened if not for you." Kingsley could obviously tell from Harry's face that he was right. "He doesn't need to hear that right now, Harry. It's not going to do him any good. He's in shock, anyway, he wouldn't be able to process much of anything you said. Remember how you were after Sirius died, nobody could have talked to you, especially right away. He needs time. But even after he recovers, it's not going to help him for you to tell him it was your fault. Both of them had to have known the risks. This is because of Voldemort, not you." He steered Harry again, toward the living room.

They met a group of six Aurors and Harry's friends. "Dentus is all right," said Kingsley. "His wife is dead." Harry's friends looked at him with intense sorrow as he struggled not to lose his composure. He felt Ginny take his hand and Fawkes settle on his shoulder. Kingsley spoke to another Auror quietly, then turned to Harry. "I'd like you all to come with me to the Auror area at the Ministry, the room you went to after the department store attack. It has a Pensieve. Is everyone okay to do that?" Staring straight ahead, Harry nodded numbly. Kingsley Disapparated, and then his friends did, one by one, then finally he did as well.

Memories of the department store attack flooded into Harry as he looked around the room. Ginny stepped over to him and hugged him tightly, and he felt the tears start to come. He sobbed into her shoulder as she held him. "It's not your fault," she said quietly but firmly. "It's not, it's not." He didn't respond; after a few seconds, he stopped, and was handed tissues by Hermione. Pansy took his hand for a few seconds, giving him a look that reinforced what Ginny had said.

"Who should give the memory?" asked Kingsley.

The others exchanged glances. "It should be one of you four," said Hermione. "You got there before I did, or about the same time."

"I'll do it, I've used it before," said Pansy. She walked over and put her memories into the Pensieve. Harry forced himself to put aside his grief long enough to watch what had happened. He put a finger into the Pensieve, as did the others.

They were in the Burrow living room, and Harry saw himself enter the fireplace. Hermione threw in the Floo powder, said the name of her destination, and stepped in. As she did so, Ron whirled his wand and said, "Fawkes." Fawkes appeared; Ginny stared at her left hand. Neville and Ron grabbed the tail feathers while Pansy held onto Ron, and Ginny, Neville. A look of panic and alarm suddenly came to Ginny's face. "Go!" she shouted.

They were in Dentus's living room. A Killing Curse was on the way to Harry's unconscious form, on the floor near the fireplace. Ron instantly pointed his wand at Harry, and the green shield went up. Watching, Harry thought that the Curse was so close to him that the shield should have been too late, but obviously it wasn't. A half-second later Hermione stepped out of the fireplace, and immediately ran to the center of the room to join the others, who were already engaging the Death Eaters; Harry could now see that there were six Death Eaters and Voldemort. Neville engaged Voldemort, and the others took on individual Death Eaters, none of whom Harry recognized. The Killing Curse shield lingered for a few seconds, and Harry saw himself awaken just as it disappeared. Then he saw himself point the wand at Voldemort and send out the energy beam, and wondered again why he had done it. He felt Fawkes trying to send him impressions, and tried to clear his mind so he could make sense of them. He saw an image of Dumbledore, in the phoenix place as he usually saw Dumbledore in his sleep. Is Fawkes trying to tell me that Albus caused Voldemort's unconsciousness? he wondered. He waited for further impressions.

Kingsley played the memory again, but Harry barely paid attention; he was more interested in what Fawkes was trying to tell him. They all left the Pensieve.

"Well, I have several questions, but let's start with the big one," said Kingsley. "Harry, what did you do to Voldemort? What was that beam?"

"I don't know why I did it," said Harry, trying to concentrate. "I just did it. Can you give me a minute? Fawkes is trying to tell me something." Kingsley nodded, and the room was silent. As Harry finally understood what Fawkes was trying to communicate, Harry's mouth opened in astonishment. The others looked at him with anticipation.

"I think... I'll know for sure later, when Fawkes can tell me in a way that takes longer and is more accurate, but... I'm pretty sure he's trying to tell me that he's in communication with Albus!"

The others gaped in amazement. "Are you sure?" asked Kingsley.

"Pretty sure," said Harry. "I'll know for certain tonight, of course. Here's what I think happened, from what I got from Fawkes. Albus communicated to Fawkes that he wanted me, as soon as I regained consciousness, to do what I ended up doing. Fawkes sent me the impression that it would be a good thing to do, as strongly as he could. When I awoke, the feeling was in my mind so strongly that I just did it, I didn't even think about it. What I don't know is how Albus managed to communicate with Fawkes."

"And he communicated a way for you to knock out Voldemort?" asked Kingsley.

"No, that's the strange thing. If I'm understanding Fawkes correctly, and I'm pretty sure I am–if I was wrong, I'd be getting feelings telling me I was–what I did, that beam, had nothing to do with what happened to Voldemort. That was Albus, the same as last time. The reason he wanted me to do that is that he wants Voldemort to think I was the one who did it to him last time, that I can do that to him any time I want to, if I get close enough."

Kingsley shook his head in awe. "And that is what he'll think, for sure," he said, half to himself. "Amazing. I don't suppose you know why Voldemort disappeared."

Harry shook his head. "Not exactly, but Albus did predict it. He said that since he incapacitated Voldemort in June, Voldemort would always be certain to have a way to get out of the situation, even if he was made unconscious. It looks like he was right, and that was what we saw."

"One thing I was wondering about," asked Ginny, "was that after Voldemort disappeared, we were fighting those Death Eaters, and Harry came over and started blowing them away, just one Stunning Spell each, I think he ended up getting three like that. Why didn't they have their Protection Shields up, if they were dueling?"

"Yes, I noticed that too," said Kingsley. "I'm pretty sure they did have their shields up. Harry is just very, very strong, and they probably weren't the strongest Death Eaters in the world. A first year can put up a Protection Shield, but if even an average wizard hits them with a Stunning Spell, the shield won't help much."

There was a silence for a few seconds, then Harry asked, "Had they done the Imperius Curse on Archibald?"

Kingsley nodded. "They obviously killed his wife because she wasn't necessary, but they didn't kill him right away, in case they needed him later. When we found him in the kitchen he was still under the Imperius Curse, but just unfocused, because Voldemort was no longer giving him instructions. I was able to bring him out of it."

"I don't understand how they knew," said Harry. "Archibald said that he only told one other person that he talked to me."

"Remember, Harry, you told me that he does this to politicians and other high-ranking people," said Hermione, "where he goes over their memories and then kills them, blackmails them, or does a Memory Charm. He must have done it either to whoever Archibald told, or Archibald himself. He just... got lucky, and found the connection to you. And he probably decided to do this quickly, since the Hogwarts term starts in a few weeks."

"That makes sense," agreed Kingsley. "Harry, what happened when you arrived at Dentus's fireplace? We didn't see that in this memory."

"I'm not sure, I wasn't really even out yet, but I think it was a Stunning Spell. I think they chose that rather than a Killing Curse because the Killing Curse shield kind of comes on automatically. They must have decided to get me unconscious, then do the Killing Curse. They were probably planning to do the same to Hermione, the other four just got there before they could."

"What made you come, anyway?" asked Kingsley. Neville gave a recap of the conversation that had taken place after Dentus had called. Kingsley nodded and said, "Well done, Ron. The rest of you keep that up, and Harry'll get through this all right. I guess I don't need to tell you at this point that you should consider no fireplace secure. Well, ours, you can. But you should still go out in public, Harry. In fact, you should think about doing it tomorrow, or soon. I'd rather they knew that you weren't going to hide every time something like this happens.

"Also, I was going to tell you tomorrow, you and Neville, we're ready to start your training again. Same schedule as before. Think you'll be ready for Monday?" Neville and Harry exchanged a glance and a nod. "Okay, I'll see you then. I'm going to follow up on this situation, you all should just take the fireplace home." Kingsley Disapparated, and Harry followed his friends to the nearest Ministry fireplace.

Harry was the last through the Burrow fireplace, and as he walked out, he saw Molly already hugging those who had come first. He saw Arthur and, to his surprise McGonagall, sitting in the living room. Molly hugged him and resumed her seat on the sofa; Harry and his friends remained standing, as there weren't enough chairs for everyone to sit.

"One of the Aurors on the scene came directly to me and told me what had happened while Kingsley was debriefing you," explained McGonagall. "Only the broad details, of course, since the action was finished by the time they got there. If one of you would be so good as to relate the details..."

Harry's expression clearly conveyed that he did not want to be the one to do so. Hermione volunteered, and took only a few minutes to tell the story. Ginny put an arm around Harry, and held him tightly.

As Hermione finished, McGonagall was shaking her head in amazement. "Albus is still full of surprises, I see. Harry, it would be helpful if you would meet Kingsley and I, perhaps at the Auror training area tomorrow, to let us know what Albus tells you about this." Harry nodded. "And, before I leave... Harry, would you sit for a moment?" She indicated an empty spot on the sofa near her chair. Harry sat and faced her, his face expressionless.

"Unless I am very wrong, Harry, you are holding yourself responsible for this, because Voldemort would have had little interest in Dentus but for his connection to you. I assume this connection goes back to March, when the ARA was being debated. At that point, it had been six months since you had defied Voldemort in the loudest and most public way possible, and he had ordered three attempts on your life. I think it is very safe to say that both Dentus and his wife were well aware of any possible risks of being associated with you.

"Voldemort does not target people because of their association with you per se, Harry. He targets them because in working with you, they are working against him. Your only causal connection to this is that you are doing what you should be doing, and you have annoyed him considerably by surviving. I believe Mr. Finch-Fletchley said it very well in the interview after Hogsmeade: that in helping you, one is working against Voldemort, and that is what we all should be doing. There are risks to doing that, as you know very well, as do those who choose to take them. They do so anyway, because they wish to do the right thing. Grieve for them, by all means, but place the blame squarely where it belongs. You know where that is, and it is not with you." She stood, said goodbye to Arthur and Molly, and exited through the fireplace.

Ginny sat on the sofa next to Harry and hugged him, and he hugged her back. He felt as though he should feel self-conscious because there were so many people in the room, but he didn't, because he felt so close to all of them. Still holding Ginny, he said to everyone, "Part of me understands she's right... it's just really hard right now. I mean, first Neville's grandmother, now this..."

Neville took a few steps to where Harry could see him while holding Ginny. "Harry, I think you know this, but I'm going to remind you anyway. My grandmother was very proud that I helped save you in Hogsmeade, and that I stood by you while you were Voldemort's number one target. She would have rather died the way she did than lived while keeping her head down and telling me to do the same. A lot of people are going to feel that way, and some are going to die. Some people are going to keep their heads down, and they're probably going to live. It's a choice everyone makes. But let me tell you this: if I die helping you, and you so much as blame yourself once, I'll come to that place where you talk to Dumbledore and kick your ass."

Despite how bad Harry felt, he couldn't help but laugh. Even though Neville had shed most of his old shyness, Harry felt there was still something funny about him saying that kind of thing. Feeling very grateful, Harry got up, walked over to Neville, and hugged him. Shoving aside embarrassment, he said, "I love you, Neville."

"I love you too, Harry," said Neville as he patted Harry's back and released him. With the barest hint of a smile, he added, "And thank you for saying that. You had said it to everyone else except me, I was starting to feel bad."

Harry laughed again, along with the others. "Didn't mean to exclude you, Neville, believe me." He sat again, now smiling. "That's the second time now that you've really made me laugh after almost getting killed. Thank you."

"We all do what we can," said Neville, sitting in a chair next to Hermione and taking her hand.

Harry's smile faded, as it came back to him that unlike that occasion, someone had died this time. "I guess this is a little like Hogsmeade, except that in this case, the people knew the risks they were taking. But Albus said it didn't get any easier, and I suppose he's right."

"He also said you'd get through it with our help," said Ginny. "He was right about that, too."

* * * * *

Harry found himself standing in the phoenix place, which was as beautiful as ever. "Another difficult day," said Dumbledore. "You seem to have more than your share of them. Fortunately, you also have more than your share of friends, and love."

"I need it, that's for sure," Harry agreed. "Especially after what I saw today, and what I went through, sometimes I wonder how Professor Snape gets along without that, without anything like that."

"It is very difficult for him, as you now understand better than ever," agreed Dumbledore. "There are several things we should discuss; do you have a preference as to which one is first?"

"Not really, so I guess I'll say, the one about Professor Snape first." Before Harry could ask, Snape's 'other half' appeared. Harry greeted him, then asked, "The first thing I'm wondering about is, how do you feel about what he did?"

"I try, as do all of us who inhabit this place for whatever length of time, not to make judgments about those in physical form," explained Snape. "It would be so easy for us; this is a highly pleasant environment, free of stress of any kind. For us to point and say 'you should do this' or 'you shouldn't do that' would be demeaning to those whom we would judge."

"You wouldn't even judge murder?" asked Harry, surprised.

"If one observes the principle, no," answered Snape. "One thing which is clearer from where Albus and I reside is that there is no such thing as right and wrong, there are no absolutes. You are experiencing that now, in a way; you are sure that murder is wrong, but it troubles you that there might be reasonable justifications for it in certain circumstances. What if one murder saves a thousand? This is one of the points of life, that we are forced to make such judgments. We must decide what is right and what is wrong. Some things may seem obvious, such as that torturing another for pleasure is wrong. I am not saying it is not wrong, just that there is no universal law that says it is. We decide such things. Some seem quite obvious; some, such as killing Rita, seem less so. I know you would like an opinion to help you decide, but we cannot give it to you. You must simply decide for yourself."

"It's a bit like when you wouldn't give me your opinion on the ARA, isn't it," Harry asked Dumbledore.

"Except that in that situation, I had an opinion; I simply declined to tell you what it was," said Dumbledore. "In this situation, we truly have no opinion. But otherwise, it is similar, yes. It is important for us to make our own judgments. And as was the case in that situation, you have all the information necessary to make your judgment. I sympathize; some such judgments are very difficult."

Harry thought for a minute, then asked, "Did you ever kill, Albus?"

Dumbledore nodded. "Yes, Harry, I did. On one occasion. No doubt you are familiar with my defeat of the Dark wizard Grindelwald, as it is mentioned on my Chocolate Frog card. It was he who I killed."

"Did you regret doing it?"

"Yes, I did," said Dumbledore calmly, as if he were discussing any ordinary subject. "I did not wish to kill, but I ended up deciding to do so, for what I felt was the greater good. Influencing my decision was the fact that six months before his final defeat, I at one point had him in my power. I could have killed him then, but I attempted to capture him instead, and he escaped me. He went on to kill twenty-two more wizards, and perhaps over a hundred Muggles, before I finally defeated him. Needless to say, those deaths weighed heavily on my conscience." Harry's heart went out to Dumbledore. He could put himself in Dumbledore's place all too easily.

"Killing him was one of the hardest things I ever did," Dumbledore continued. "One needs a strong feeling of hate to use the Killing Curse effectively, and that did not come naturally to me. Also highly unpleasant were the aftereffects of having done so. Ironically, though I was hailed as a hero and honored greatly, the six months after I killed him were the most miserable of my life. The scene replayed in my mind many times over, and the sure knowledge that I had saved lives was of little solace. Despite the twenty-two deaths, after that experience I promised myself that I would never kill again, no matter what the reason or circumstances. Pansy was quite correct in her speculation yesterday; that experience greatly informed my future judgments regarding what was right or wrong.

"In addition to the mental stress of my having killed, I also experienced a severe degradation of my magical abilities. I suddenly could not do difficult spells that I had before, and normal spells less effectively. I was very discouraged by this, and at first attributed it to depression over what I had done; later, I took it as a sign from whatever greater power existed that I should not kill. Of course, after your experience, I realized that I had been using the energy of love, and that putting myself in the proper frame of mind to kill made me unable to use the energy of love, resulting in my abilities becoming far more... ordinary, one could say.

"I developed a set of principles as to how people should be treated, and decided to follow them unwaveringly, no matter the consequences. I knew that this would be quite painful at times, as the twenty-two deaths had been, but I felt it was the right thing to do. Now, I hasten to emphasize that this was simply a judgment I reached, and not necessarily better than anyone else's. One could easily argue that it was less than morally sound, because it led to people suffering when it could have been avoided. For example, Pansy was violently assaulted and tortured when it could have been prevented by my doing what seemed to most to be common sense. You were very nearly killed."

Dumbledore regarded Harry seriously, as if hoping to make sure that Harry took his next words to heart. "You may well reach a different judgment than I did, Harry. You should not think for a moment that any judgment you reach is flawed if you do so. It may be that if you follow my principles, you may lose one or more of your close friends, while if you do not, they will live. Whatever you choose will be something you must live with, and the consequences could be bad no matter what you choose. Lives will be affected by what you do. As you know, it is a terrible burden. I sympathize with you greatly, and I wish I could give you easy answers. Unfortunately, there are none."

Harry was silent for a minute, thinking. "I understand. I should have known it wouldn't be that easy." He paused again, then said, "I'll have to think about that some more." Turning to Snape, he asked, "Was it hard for him to show me what he did?"

"I do not know if 'hard' would be the right word exactly," said Snape, "but it represented a further deepening of his relationship with you. He could not have done it, say, in the first week after you began. It has now been seven weeks, which while not a long time, is long enough for him to get a very good sense of who you are. He still finds you immature, which was his main concern when this began, but he is very impressed with the emotional resiliency you have shown. Of course he is aware that before your sessions you spend a few minutes developing a state of mind consistent with the use of the energy of love, and he has come to see the similarity of that to the state of mind that Albus almost always had; by that age, it came to Albus naturally, effortlessly. With you it requires an effort, but you do it, and it is a state of mind that he needs you to have, though he did not know this at first. He now realizes that no one but you could have replaced Albus, no matter how willing, as the emotional environment would not have been the same. Never having done it with anyone but Albus, it did not occur to him that it would be such a different experience with a different person. As to what happened yesterday, he knew that it was important that you see things from his perspective, and he has become comfortable enough with you in this role to do so."

Harry nodded. "Well, I guess that's as much as I could have hoped for, by this time."

"It is quite impressive, really, on his part as well as yours," said Snape. "He had an adjustment to make, and he made it."

"I guess it's easy not to think about how this is for him... or at least it was, until yesterday. I should ask about other stuff, I know we don't have all the time in the world. Albus, did you really communicate with Fawkes?"

Dumbledore smiled. "Yes, I did. It was very nice, like talking to an old friend again after an absence. It simply had not occurred to me that I might be able to do so. It takes a very specific, focused effort, but it can be done. He was very surprised to hear from me, but of course he knew who it was immediately. He was able to quickly convey to you what I hoped you would do."

"That's great," said Harry, happy for Dumbledore. "I'm glad that you'll be able to talk to... well, I guess it's more like, commune with him again."

"Yes, we are both very pleased," agreed Dumbledore. "I will be able to send you messages of a sort, of the same type that Fawkes can convey to you. Detailed communication will have to wait until you are asleep, though it will rarely be necessary to communicate through him in any case. It is good to have this option, of course."

"Why was it so important for me to do that? He already thought I was the one who knocked him unconscious, in June."

"He suspected it, but now he knows, or thinks he does. It was my hope that this will cause him to cease personal participation in any such attacks on you in the future, and perhaps cease participating in any attacks which may draw the attention of the Aurors, since he knows that you are on call for emergencies. He will now be quite frightened of you, the first time in many years he has been frightened of anything. This could very well save lives.

"To respond to the question you are forming, yes, I would have incapacitated him anyway, even if Fawkes had been unable to receive my message. It was very necessary, as you saw that your friends were losing the battle. They would have been rendered unconscious, then shortly killed, as would you have. I had to do it, so I hoped that we could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. As for the experience itself, it was no less unpleasant than last time, just more familiar."

"I'm really sorry to hear that," said Harry. "I appreciate it, we all do. You saved our lives."

Dumbledore nodded his acknowledgment. "I am pleased to be able to do so, even from where I am. With any luck, events such as yesterday's will slow down or stop entirely."

Harry looked down and shook his head. "A little too late for Archibald," he said.

"Very true," said Dumbledore solemnly. "Which brings me to the next topic." Snape had disappeared about a minute ago; another form appeared, and he quickly recognized it as Sarah Dentus.

She approached him, and he felt emotion rising again. "I'm so sorry–"

She took his hand. "People have been telling you since this happened that it was not your fault. Perhaps if I tell you as well, you will take it more seriously. Harry, we knew very well what risks we were taking, even before you became involved. Archibald knew that the ARA could save lives, but nobody at the Ministry was actively and publicly advocating it, because they were afraid of attracting Voldemort's attention. We were concerned as well, but in the end we decided to take the risk. Later, we knew there was a further risk in his helping you, even if very few people knew, but that decision was a little easier. As Archibald put it at the time, 'He's setting himself up as Voldemort's main target, practically daring Voldemort to try to kill him. How can I decide not to help him when he takes risks like that?' I agreed. We went into this with our eyes wide open. We were simply unlucky. I am very glad that Archibald survived, and that you and your friends did as well. Archibald will miss me greatly, of course, but he will be comforted to know that I am here. We had heard of people communicating from places like this, and wondered whether we would be able to. Now, I will say what I wish to say to him." As she spoke, Harry again felt as though he were intruding on a personal conversation, but was pleased that Dentus's grief would probably be lessened, even if only a little.

The next day, Harry sat down with the others for lunch, just having finished visiting with Dentus for an hour. "How did it go?" asked Molly.

"He was very happy to see Sarah again, of course," said Harry, "but it's so soon that he's still in a bad way about it. I would have given him a few days before trying to talk to him, but I wanted him to see it right away."

"Understandable," said Arthur. "I assume he also told you that it wasn't your fault."

Harry nodded. "Yes, he was really firm about that. I'm beginning to accept it, but... it's like, the good thing about helping me is that when your loved ones die, you get a message from them after they're gone. The bad thing is, your loved ones die."

"A lot of people died sixteen years ago," said Arthur. "A lot were helping Dumbledore, but that doesn't make it his fault. I know you've heard this before, but we're going to keep telling you."

Harry nodded, wondering if they felt that he was wallowing in self-pity by making comments like the one he had just made; he then wondered if he actually was. All he knew was that it was how he felt. Part of him understood that they were right, and part felt that they couldn't understand how he felt. "I know, it's just hard seeing that happen to people you care about."

"It makes sense," said Ginny sympathetically. "You just spent an hour with someone who's still really grieving, it's bound to affect you."

"Well, I was thinking we would go do something this afternoon," suggested Molly. "Kingsley said Harry should get out more anyway, and this would be a good thing to distract him."

Harry and Ginny exchanged a smile. He glanced over at Hermione, who was smiling as well, and looking down, apparently hoping not to be seen. Seeing their expressions, Molly looked at them suspiciously, but offered no comment. "What did you have in mind?" asked Arthur.

"Just a trip to Diagon Alley," said Molly. "Walk around, look in the shops, have a snack at Florean Fortescue's, that sort of thing. We could get Ginny's N.E.W.T. books while we're there."

"You guys don't need books?" asked Ginny, surprised.

"The N.E.W.T. books cover years six and seven," explained Hermione.

Ginny raised her eyebrows. "Funny how I have lots of older brothers and I didn't know that." She paused slightly before the word 'lots,' and Harry wondered if she was going to say 'six' and changed her mind.

"Well, most of us don't pay attention to that kind of thing," remarked Ron. "I didn't know either, until I got the books. Now, Hermione, on the other hand, probably knew that when she was a first year."

"Third year, actually," said Hermione casually, apparently deciding not to reward Ron with a reaction.

"Oh, right, third year," said Ron, just as casually. "That was when you were taking eighteen classes, right?"

She sighed and gave him an annoyed look. "Yes, Ron. I was taking eighteen classes. Hogwarts only offers twelve, but I was taking eighteen."

Ron shrugged. "Well, you were using a Time-Turner to put more hours into the day. Maybe you were using a Dimension-Door to also go to a different version of Hogwarts where they teach different classes."

Harry failed in his effort not to laugh, as did Neville, Pansy, and Ginny. "Yes, I did, and the Ron in that dimension was much nicer than you," Hermione retorted.

"Ah," said Ron, nodding. "Fancied him, did you?"

"I'm not sure I like the direction this conversation is taking," said Hermione with mock nervousness, as the others laughed again. "Besides, the Dimensional Door doesn't work that way."

"There is such a thing?" asked Ron, surprised. "I was only making it up. Or are you pulling my leg?"

"There is something called a Dimensional Door, yes, or at least there's reputed to be," said Hermione. "I've only heard it mentioned once, in a book I once read about wizarding myths and legends, so it could just be a... well, a myth or a legend. It's supposed to be like, there are two portals, or doors. One is constant, in our dimension, and one moves around to random dimensions, coming back to ours once every X number of months or years. But you couldn't use it like you said, since you can't control where it goes, or how often it goes there."

"Who would have made something like that?" wondered Neville ."Or could have, for that matter?"

"If it's true, it would probably be one of those big mysteries, like who built the Veil of Mystery," suggested Hermione. "But it's probably not true anyway. The book was entertaining, but most of the stuff in it was really dubious. It's stuff that I don't think even Luna's father would publish."

"Really?" asked Ginny. "More dubious than the idea that Cornelius Fudge crushed goblins and had them baked in pies?"

"Okay, I take that back," replied Hermione, conceding the point. "He would publish it."

"Say, now that Fudge is gone, I wonder who gets to use his army of heliopaths," joked Ron.

Not having been present for the meeting at the Hog's Head, Pansy didn't laugh, and neither did Harry, though the others did. "I know she can be strange, but I really do like Luna," said Harry. "I don't know if I want to be making fun of her."

Ron looked chagrined and defensive. "I think we're making fun of the idea of an army of heliopaths and Cornelius 'Goblin-Crusher' Fudge, rather than Luna exactly," he said. "I like her too, I think we all do."

"Did I tell you that she was one of the ones who came to see me, that day in the infirmary?" asked Pansy. The others shook their heads. "I had always made fun of her a lot–she was a pretty easy target–but she was really nice. I apologized for what I had done, and she just brushed it off, saying, 'Oh, don't feel bad, everyone does it,' which made me feel worse. She certainly doesn't hold a grudge."

"No, she definitely has a... serenity, I guess you could say," agreed Hermione.

After a short pause, Molly asked, "So, is everyone all right to go to Diagon Alley?" Harry wondered if the question was directed mostly at him; he nodded along with the others. "Good. I've already told Kingsley we might go, so I'll let him know before we do, and the Aurors will be ready."

As they finished their lunch, they heard a voice coming from the fireplace. Arthur got up to respond, then came back to the table. "Harry, it's for you. Something to do with Quidditch, apparently." Shrugging, Harry got up to answer. The mention of Quidditch having piqued Ron's interest, he too went to the living room, standing in a spot which couldn't be seen from the fireplace.

"Ah, Professor Potter, thank you," said the man, who appeared to be in his fifties, balding, with short brown hair. "I am Alan Woodridge, chairman of the English Quidditch Association. I wonder if I could have a word with you."

Surprised, Harry wondered what it was about. "Sure, go ahead."

"Would it be possible for you to pop over here? I'd prefer to say what I want to say in person, it wouldn't take long."

Harry wondered if he would have seen the potential danger in such a thing twenty-four hours ago. "I'm sorry, Mr. Woodridge, but I really can't be going to anyone's fireplace right now. The Aurors don't want me going to any fireplace that I, or they, don't personally know is secure." He shrugged in apology.

Woodridge looked slightly taken aback, but recovered. "Yes, I see. Ah, well, then... I suppose I can ask you what I want to from here. You probably know, Professor, that–"

"Please, call me 'Harry.'"

"Yes, thank you, Harry. You probably know that as it's held every four years, the Quidditch World Cup is coming around again next summer. As the chairman of the EQA, assembling the team is my responsibility. Qualifying matches begin in a few months, and the process of team member selection will be starting very soon. Most players are chosen from the ranks of professional teams, but we always want to keep our eyes open for players who might help us. My purpose in contacting you is to tell you that we would be interested in considering you to be a member of this year's team."

Harry felt his heart leap, and gaped in surprise. "You want me to be on the English Quidditch World Cup team?" He involuntarily glanced at Ron, who wore an equally stunned look.

"Well, not exactly; we would like you to try out for the team," clarified Woodridge. "You might very well not make it; I don't want to raise your hopes." Harry was suddenly struck by a feeling that Woodridge wasn't being completely honest, and he reached out with Legilimens. "It's simply that our information is that you are an outstanding Seeker, considering your age. I have talked with your former captain, Oliver Wood, who believes that you would match up well with the Seekers on our professional teams. I would not want to pass up a chance to recruit the best players possible."

Harry could detect nothing in the last few sentences that was untruthful, and wondered if he had imagined it before. He decided to ask a question to determine whether he had. "So you think there's a good chance I might not make the team."

Woodridge shrugged. "I don't know if I'd say, a 'good' chance, but obviously it will be highly competitive. There are twelve highly skilled, professional Seekers in competition, all of whom needless to say would very much like to play on the team. But from what I've heard, you have as good a chance as any of them."

As Woodridge spoke, Harry detected a memory contradicting what he was saying: Woodridge clearly felt that Harry was a certainty to make the team if he tried out. Harry didn't know why, but he had a suspicion. "Mr. Woodridge–"

"Alan, please."

Harry nodded. "Alan, I'm sorry to ask this, but... all my life, a lot of things have happened to me because I'm famous. Is that part of why you're asking me?"

"No, it is not," Woodridge assured him, and Harry knew instantly that it was a lie; he detected a memory of Woodridge's excitement when Wood had suggested to him that Harry be given a tryout, and Woodridge's understanding that it would be a great publicity coup for English Quidditch to have Harry Potter on the team. "As I said, Oliver Wood felt that you would have as good a chance of making the team as anyone else. I do not want to leave any stone unturned in order to put the best team on the field. And there will be reserves, of course. Even if you were not the starting Seeker, we will have at least one and possibly two reserve Seekers; you know very well how dangerous it can be to be a Seeker."

Harry detected that Woodridge did not necessarily plan to make him the starting Seeker; having him on the team would be good enough, though he would get the nod if he was fairly close in ability to the best of the professional players. He wondered if his disappointment showed on his face, which he tried to keep expressionless. "Yes, I do know that. It just seems like I'm awfully young to play at that level."

"You will be eighteen by the time of the finals, assuming we make it that far; you may recall that Viktor Krum was only seventeen when he played, brilliantly, for Bulgaria in the final three years ago. Your age is obviously no impediment, as there is precedent for one so young to play at that level."

Harry had to concede that that was true. "I guess so. Well, obviously, it would be fantastic to play on the English team. But I'd have to think about whether it's something I could do or not. As you may know, I'm going to be both a teacher and a student this year, and I'd have very little free time to join team practices; I assume there'd be a lot of them. Also, I'm concerned about security. You probably know that being around me isn't exactly safe, and I hate to think about the danger that my being around could bring to the team."

Woodridge nodded sympathetically. "It's good of you to be concerned about that. But we do have private security arrangements; we would have them anyway, as the team will be very high-profile, and for that reason a possible target even if you were not on it. As for the time situation, Wood did explain that to me, and it is a concern. But you do practice quite a bit at Hogwarts, he tells me, and it's more important that you practice at all than where you do it, exactly. You know that for Chasers and Beaters it's important to practice with the rest of the team, but Keepers and Seekers mostly operate alone. You would practice with us when you could, but what would be more important would be simply that you keep in practice."

Harry doubted that such arrangements would be made for any other player, no matter how skilled. He also doubted that whatever 'private' security wizards Woodridge used would be anywhere near as competent as Aurors, and he still felt he would bring a great deal of danger to the team if he joined. "I understand. When would the tryouts be?"

"The first weekend of September," replied Woodridge. He looked at Harry intently. "Is this not something you want to do, Harry? You seem hesitant, and most Quidditch players would be jumping at the chance."

"I would love to do it," said Harry truthfully. "If Voldemort weren't around, and if I weren't both a teacher and a student, then I would probably be jumping at it. But there's just so much going on... I just have to think about it a bit."

"I understand," said Woodridge, and Harry detected that he didn't really understand, but was saying it to be polite. "Well, you think it over, then, and let me know what you decide." He said goodbye, and withdrew from the fireplace.

Harry looked across the room and saw that the others, including Molly and Arthur, were standing near the kitchen so they could hear the conversation, no doubt having been alerted by Ron. Ron walked up to Harry as Harry approached the others. "Are you crazy?" asked Ron incredulously. "Why wasn't your answer 'yes, yes, thank you, tell me where to go and I'll be there?'"

Harry's face and tone now reflected his frustration. "He was lying, Ron. About my chances of making the team. He wants me on the team, badly, because of the publicity. If I don't fall off my broom repeatedly during tryouts, I'm sure to make the team."

"Well, then, what's the..." Ron trailed off as he suddenly understood.

"You want to be on the team, but you don't want to make it like that," said Ginny.

Harry nodded. "He lied about making the team, and he lied about it not mattering that I'm famous. And he lied a little when I brought up the danger; he knows I'd increase the danger, but he just doesn't care; he's willing to risk it to have me on the team."

"But you're good, Harry!" protested Ron. "You might make the team anyway! You know very well that Wood didn't suggest you because you're famous. He plays professionally, and if he says you're good enough to compete for the position, then you are."

"But what if I was the seventh or eighth-best Seeker, and they chose me anyway? I'd be taking a spot from someone who deserved it more. And if I weren't the famous Harry Potter, he wouldn't even be asking me, I'm sure of that."

"That doesn't mean you wouldn't deserve it, though," pointed out Ron. "Look at Krum, he hadn't played professionally before he played for Bulgaria, and he was their starter and led them to the finals! Who's to say you couldn't do the same?"

"I wish you wouldn't say that," responded Harry, sounding more annoyed and louder than he meant to. "I'm tempted enough as it is, to just say yes, to take something I might not deserve."

Ron gave Harry a 'what's wrong with you?' look. "Well, I guess I should just shut up, then, because I don't know what to say except for that." He turned and walked into the kitchen.

Harry was even more frustrated, because he'd managed to upset Ron. He wanted to follow Ron into the kitchen, but felt that it wouldn't be a good idea right then. Embarrassed, he looked at the others, who looked concerned and sympathetic. He headed for the stairs. "I just need to..." He trailed off, and walked upstairs to the boys' bedroom.

He sat on the bed, frustrated and angry with himself. As he thought, he realized he was even more angry with Woodridge. Why couldn't he just take me if I'm good enough and not take me if I'm not?, thought Harry. Do they really need me to make Quidditch more popular? What if I am good enough, and I don't do it, I could miss a chance I'll never get again. But what if I'm not good enough, get on the team anyway, have to play, and embarrass myself or let down the team? Not to mention that I wouldn't have hardly any time, I'm going to be busy enough as it is, with everything else, plus Snape too... Snape would laugh, if he could laugh, he would when he sees this... poor Harry Potter, already with a wonderful partner, great friends, a good job, whining and feeling sorry for himself because he might get yet another good thing for the wrong reason, while Snape has to struggle to get by every day, no friends, nothing good in his life... yes, he chose the Cleansing, but he's stuck with it now, and there'll be times when he needs me and I'll be off chasing this dream... oh, I envy Krum, he didn't have all this to worry about, he could just be a player, not a teacher, not someone with responsibilities to the Order... he probably didn't have to do hardly any schoolwork anyway, I'm sure Karkaroff didn't make him... wonder what happened to Karkaroff, if Voldemort ever found him, probably got a really nasty death if he was caught...

Harry's thoughts occupied him until he heard the sound of a toilet flushing from the nearby bathroom; he saw Ron walk past the bedroom door on his way back downstairs. "Ron, wait," he said; Ron stopped as Harry stood. "Could you come in here for a minute?" Ron nodded, came in, and sat on his bed, next to Harry's.

"I'm sorry, Ron," said Harry, embarrassed. "I shouldn't have been like that, I know you were just trying to be nice. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Well, there was an attempt on your life yesterday, and the wife of a friend got killed," Ron pointed out. "I know that has nothing to do with this, but it would be pretty strange if it didn't affect your mood, how you react to things. But I admit, I was like, 'what's with him?' You know how sensitivity's one of my real strong points." Ron grinned, and Harry did too, starting to feel better. "But, Hermione was there to explain it to me, as usual. She said she thinks this is something you always have a problem with, maybe getting things you don't deserve because you're Harry Potter. She reminded me of that conversation we had last year about you not feeling deserving. She thinks this is extra-frustrating for you because it's not clear; you could make the team because of talent or your name, and you wouldn't know which it was, which would taint it for you even if it was really because of talent; you would always wonder."

"Sounds about right. I would never argue with Hermione. And I guess what you said made it worse, because it reminded me of what it could be, if I could just be sure it wasn't because of my name. But I can't be sure, and I feel like it's already tainted, so I just didn't want to hear what you were saying."

Ron nodded sadly. "I didn't get that, of course, but I kind of understand it now. And the worst part is, you are good. If you weren't that good, you could just think, they wanted me for my name but I'll say no because I don't want to embarrass myself. You have to wonder what would have happened if you had this talent but your name wasn't Harry Potter."

Harry shrugged. "I suppose I can console myself with the idea that he never would have asked in the first place if I weren't Harry Potter, so I never would have had the chance to find out." He sighed, then continued, "Hugo once told me that people envy his abilities, but they can be a curse; he gets to see the bad sides of people, the stuff they don't let people see. Lies, anger, desperation, all kinds of stuff like that, stuff he'd rather not see or know, but he can't help it. I just saw a tiny bit of what he was talking about. If I weren't a Legilimens, I would have believed Woodridge, I would have never known he was lying. I could have tried out, made the team, been really happy and blissfully unaware of the real reason. But no, I have to know the truth."

"So, you're definitely going to say no?" asked Ron, looking as though he was sad in advance at the answer he expected to hear.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure. And it's not only just that stuff, but what I said to him was true, too. I'm going to be so busy anyway; I really shouldn't be on the team unless I can devote full time to it, which I can't. So, I'll just have to be satisfied with doing things like figuring out a way to defeat Voldemort, and helping hundreds of young wizards defend themselves and eventually learn how to use the energy of love."

Ron smiled. "Just the usual stuff."

"And being saved by my friends," Harry added. "Which reminds me, I managed to not even thank you for saving my life. Which you actually did twice, in five minutes. That's pretty impressive."

Ron nodded his acknowledgment. "And the second one, ironically, I couldn't have done if you weren't a Legilimens. So I guess there was a good thing about it after all."

"Yeah, I know there are good things about it, too," Harry admitted. "But that doesn't mean I can't whine about the bad things occasionally." He paused, then chuckled. At Ron's inquiring look, he said, "Eighteen classes..."

Ron chuckled as well. "One of my better ones, I admit. It's funny because it's true, she would've done that if she could've. By the way, Harry, we make fun of Hermione, even though we..." Ron paused, then sighed, "Oh, all right, even though we love her... it really is hard to get used to saying that... anyway, that bit about the heliopaths–"

"No, I'm sorry about that, too, I didn't mean to say that you were being nasty. I guess I just felt guilty, because unlike with Hermione, it's not the kind of thing we'd say to her face, we don't quite know her that well. I guess one thing I got out of the Skeeter experience is the idea that it's better not to do or say things outside someone's presence that you wouldn't with them around, because they could find out, and it's probably just a better way to be anyway."

"It'd be kind of hard to do that all the time, you couldn't really talk about anybody," pointed out Ron. "But with friends, yeah, I see the point." Ron stopped talking as Hugo peeked into the room. "Hey, Hugo, come on in," said Ron, who gestured Hugo to sit next to him on his bed, and Hugo did.

"Thanks. How are you guys doing?"

"You just ask that to be polite, right?" asked Harry, smiling. "I mean, you know exactly how we're doing."

Hugo shrugged lightly. "True. I guess I just say it because most people do, it's more of a greeting, really. A lot of people say 'how are you?' when they don't really care how you are. Also, in my case, it's interesting to see the answers. A lot of people say 'fine' even when I know they're very far from fine."

"I guess that makes sense," said Harry. "By the way, I wondered about something. Does your ability to detect moods work through walls, or do you have to be on a line of sight, like with Legilimens?"

Hugo looked impressed. "Most people don't think to ask that question, but it's a good one. Strangely, I need a line of sight to tell if someone's lying, but telling a mood works through walls. I have no idea why. I assume you asked because you wondered how I knew it was okay to come up here." Harry nodded. "Yes, when I first got here, I saw that the mood up here was serious, and they told me downstairs what had happened. I am sorry, Harry. Probably there's no one better equipped than me to understand what that feels like for you. I can't tell you how many times I've wished I didn't have this ability. People often react to me in ways that would be equivalent to someone just coming out and saying to you, 'I don't like being around you, Harry, you make me nervous. I wish you would go away.' It's that clear to me. So while I've never been considered for the English Quidditch World Cup team, I have had very similar experiences to what you just had."

"I can believe that," said Harry sympathetically. "Do you mind if I ask, Hugo, are you married?"

"No, I'm not, and it's partly for the reason you're obviously thinking," replied Hugo. "I know you're trying not to use Legilimency on Ginny, or your friends, and let me tell you, it's a very good idea. I have had relationships, but I can't turn my ability off, and it always causes problems. I haven't found a woman yet who can deal with my knowing exactly what she's feeling, all the time. I haven't given up, but it is difficult.

"But I see there's another reason you asked, and that's part of why I came over here. You wondered if I was married because of what happened to Dentus yesterday, you're worried about it happening to me. I really appreciate it, but you needn't worry. You know I know about all kinds of Order stuff, and obviously that makes me a prime target for Voldemort, if he knew I knew this kind of thing, which he might be able to guess. I have jewelry of the same kind as you do, with a few different properties. For example, mine can detect a Memory Charm being done, and the Aurors would be there right away. Rest assured that I'm very well protected, and I live alone, so there's no one who's likely to suffer from their association with me."

"Thanks for letting me know," said Harry. "Last night I was lying in bed, trying to figure out who this was likely to happen to. All I could think of was you, and Pansy's parents."

"They're already protected, Harry," said Ron. "After Neville's grandmother was killed, her parents were given jewelry too."

"Have you met them, by the way?" asked Harry.

Ron's face reflected that it hadn't been a great experience. "Yes, and they're pretty much like she described them. Not rude, but definitely not friendly. Turns out they don't like her living here, but she's seventeen and she can live where she wants. They're lukewarm on me, though at one point when I was coming back into the room, when they thought I couldn't hear them, her mother said, 'well, at least he's a pure-blood.'"

Harry shook his head in sympathy. "I bet Pansy was pretty embarrassed."

"Yeah, she was, she kept apologizing after we got back. Probably kind of like what would happen if Ginny met your aunt and uncle, only not nearly so bad."

"Best if that never happens," agreed Harry. "So, Hugo, you're not doing an article about what happened to Archibald?"

Hugo's eyebrows went up. "You didn't see the paper this morning? I already did one."

"Hermione mentioned it later in the morning," said Ron. "She didn't say anything about it at the table because she figured you didn't need to be reminded of it."

"Very thoughtful," commented Hugo. "I talked to Kingsley, of course, and he said that you were pretty bad off, which I could have figured out anyway. I saw what happened, and I didn't really need quotes from you." Smiling, he added, "I would really love a few quotes from Dumbledore, though."

Harry and Ron laughed. "Yes, Ron saved me, then he saved all of us. I'm sure he would give you quotes, too, if it wasn't a security issue. Of course, it would all be about mysticism, the afterlife, that kind of stuff."

"Can you tell me, Harry, what does he say it is?" asked Hugo. "That's not the kind of perspective I can get from most people, even with my abilities."

Harry spent five minutes giving Hugo and Ron an overview of Dumbledore's accounts of the afterlife. "Of course, he doesn't know everything, because he hasn't moved on to the spiritual realm, as he calls it," concluded Harry. "He says there's all kinds of... 'systems of reality', he called them, that he doesn't know anything about, just that they exist, and are different places for spirits to go to have experiences. He says the whole... of everything, I don't know what to call it, is so vast we can't imagine it, but that our universe is like a drop of water in a huge ocean compared to what else exists."

Hugo and Ron exchanged impressed looks. "I must say, Harry, I do envy you that," said Hugo.

"I feel bad sometimes, because he tells me stuff, and a lot of it I don't really understand so well," admitted Harry. "He knows I don't understand, and he's really patient. He just finds a different way to tell me, or he tells me that I'll understand it with time. Some of it is just really difficult to wrap your mind around."

"I'll bet," said Hugo as he stood. "I should get going, I mainly wanted to reassure you that I'd be all right, because I had a feeling you'd be worried."

"Say, why don't you come to Diagon Alley with us?" asked Harry impulsively.

Hugo chuckled. "Thank you, Harry, it's nice of you to ask. But it's probably not a good idea for me to be seen socializing with you. People might think my articles about you had a 'point of view.'"

Harry rolled his eyes at being reminded of Skeeter. "I remember her saying that your articles about me had a 'point of view,' and it seemed like she was saying it just because you didn't write anything nasty about me."

Hugo nodded. "I disagree with her, of course; that was just a bit of projecting and self-justification on her part. I mean, you're not perfect, obviously, but you were chosen by a phoenix, which says a lot about the kind of person you are. She had to put a negative spin on you so she could justify to herself what she was doing. It wasn't as though I had to try very hard to not write much that was negative about you. I mean, I like you, and I can't pretend to be objective about that. But I do try very hard to keep my articles objective.

"By the way, there was another reason I came over here. Ron, the Prophet wants an article on you. A profile, more or less."

Ron's eyebrows shot up. "Me? Why?"

"Well, you did save Harry's life—"

"Twice," interjected Harry humorously, enjoying Ron's reaction.

"Yes, thank you," continued Hugo. "And everyone else in your group has had at least one article pretty much about them. Neville, after his grandmother was killed, Ginny and Pansy, after what happened when Malfoy left Hogwarts, and of course Hermione at the Veil of Mystery. So, it's your turn. Would this afternoon be okay, maybe after you get back from Diagon Alley?"

Harry adopted a deadpan tone. "I don't know, Hugo. Would it be page one?"

Hugo laughed as Ron gave Harry a friendly shove. "Depends on what news there is tomorrow, but probably, yes."

"Anyway, yeah, later is fine," said Ron. With a thoughtful expression, he added, "Funny, two or three years ago, I'd have been excited about this. Now… I don't mind, but…"

"Things are a bit more grim these days," suggested Harry. Ron nodded.

"Okay, I'll be over later," said Hugo. "Have a good time at Diagon Alley." They exchanged goodbyes, and Hugo left.

"So, you want to be my publicist now, do you?" Ron teased Harry.

Harry chuckled. "Well, you guys make fun of me often enough for not wanting to be in the papers. And like you said to Hermione once—"

"Save Harry's life enough, you're bound to get famous, I remember. I took the risk, I knew it could happen. Well, Mum'll be pleased, anyway."

"The twins'll have a massive go at you, though," Harry pointed out.

Ron rolled his eyes, then suddenly chuckled. "Not if I mention their shop, they won't. So, ready to go?" Harry nodded, and they stood. "Oh, by the way," Ron added, "we're not going straight to Diagon Alley. Apparently Kingsley wants to see all six of us, so we're going there first, then from there to Diagon Alley. Maybe there's new arrangements for being on call or something."

In a meeting room at the Auror training center, Kingsley gestured for the six to sit, then did so himself. "The new term starts in two weeks, so I wanted to discuss what we're going to do once that happens. Harry, of course, can Disapparate out of Hogwarts, so he can be on call like before. The rest of you... first, let me make sure, are you all okay to be on call, to the extent possible?" They nodded. "Thank you... I thought so, but I just wanted to be sure. Which of you go depends on where you are. If you're sleeping, Fawkes should get Ron and Neville, since they're in the same dormitory and can go together, whereas the girls are all split up. If whatever situation it is still isn't settled by then, he can get the girls one by one. If you're in classes or in the common room, most of you will be together; for example, if you're in classes, Ginny won't be there, and if you're in the common room, Pansy won't be there; with Harry's approval, Fawkes will go to wherever there are the most of you."

"That's fine, of course," confirmed Harry.

"Good. Bear in mind, we think calls will be very unlikely, especially now that Voldemort's going to be pretty spooked by Harry. But obviously, we still need to know what to do if something does happen. Harry, Ron, Ginny, if you're doing Quidditch practice when a call comes, Harry should stay on his broom, stop, and Apparate to the detection room while still on it, since as you know, you can't be moving when you Apparate. Ron and Ginny would take Fawkes, of course, and from there to the spot of the call. Being on brooms is an advantage in some kinds of combat situations because it gives you more maneuverability. Any questions?"

No one had any. "Okay, one more thing, then I'll let you go. I've already told all of you how much we appreciate what you've done, both in being on call and during the Apparation crisis. It's been extremely helpful, in both practical and morale-related ways, to know that we have you around if we need you. And we know that risking your lives isn't new to any of you, but you have done that in helping us as well. So, in addition to our thanks, we wanted you to have a more... substantial token of our appreciation.

"The crisis lasted a week, and some of you weren't there for all of it, but it could have lasted longer, and we know you all would have stayed on as long as it took." As he spoke, a chest in the corner opened, and well-crafted wooden boxes hovered out, one coming to rest in front of each of the six. "In recognition of that fact, we persuaded the Ministry to disburse to each of you one month of an Auror's salary, which is four hundred Galleons." Harry looked around to see his friends gaping, especially Ron, as they opened their boxes. He opened his, and saw the Galleons neatly arranged: twenty stacks of twenty, five across and four down, fitting exactly into the space of the box.

Obviously having noted their expressions, Kingsley added, "Let me be clear, this is not a gift. You earned this, all of you. We were going to give it to you at the end of the month, but that's when you're going back to Hogwarts. We thought you should have the chance to spend a bit of it, and since you're going to Diagon Alley today... well, have a good time, all of you." He left the room.

Harry's friends exchanged amazed looks; Harry was sure he was the only one to have ever had that much gold at once before. It wasn't so amazing for him, but he was very happy for them. I definitely have a feeling we're going to have a good time in Diagon Alley, he thought.

* * * * *

Next: Chapter 9, The Last Car of the Hogwarts Express: As the school year begins, Harry meets the new Minister, and finds to his great surprise that they have something in common.

From Chapter 9: "I said, 'You know, nobody knows you're here but Aurors. I could kill you if I wanted. I could do to you what you did to my parents.' She just looked at me with this expression of, go ahead, do it."