"So, what you are saying is…"
Harry looked at the gathered group. His gaze was directed at Dumbledore. Sirius was sitting next to Harry. Susan was on his other side. The other students who had fought were also present, except Ginny, who had begged to be taken home to her mother, and Percy had gone with her. Arthur Weasley, Remus Lupin, Severus Snape, Ludo Bagman, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Gawain Robards and two Aurors called Nymphadora Tonks and Hestia Jones were present. Harry looked at Dumbledore.
"To summarise," said Dumbledore, in the most tired and sad expression he had ever been heard by everyone present. "Lord Voldemort is back. He killed the Minister before I could reach him. Eventually, I fought him and drew him to retreat."
"But you couldn't save my auntie," Susan said vacantly. There had been a blank expression on her face while Dumbledore had been speaking to them.
"Alas." Dumbledore lowered his face. "It is always the innocent who are the first victims in any war."
Harry didn't know what anyone could have in response to Susan's not-angry but matter-of-fact accusation. But Dumbledore's response seemed to assuage Susan somewhat because she nodded and didn't shy from Harry's hand.
"It begins again," said Robards. He looked disturbed. "It was the exact same the last time. A terrorizing blow to the Ministry, murdering the Minister, and spreading chaos amongst those who would oppose him."
"The Wizengamot is calling for Scrimgeour to become Minister," said Arthur. "He will bring a swift and ruthless response."
"If only he could restrict the swift and ruthless towards the enemy," Dumbledore sighed.
"Dumbledore is correct," said Bagman. "Scrimgeour will first spend his energies consolidating his position and removing all political opposition. Only then will he move to address the problem of… You Know Who."
Dumbledore looked slightly annoyed at Bagman for not calling Voldemort by his name, which surprised Harry, since the Headmaster usually tolerated that from others. "Most of the older generation know why I have called you here. The younger generation – and I certainly include you Nymphadora – will be confused." He stood up and looked outside the window from his office. "It was the same situation during the last rise of Voldemort. The Ministry was unwilling to open its eyes to the situation until it was too late. Under those circumstances, I and a few others… I include your grandfather Charlus Potter here, Harry, started an organisation called the Order of the Phoenix. It was a vigilante group, illegal by the laws of the Wizengamot and a dangerous venture."
"You are reforming it?" Neville asked.
"Yes," said Dumbledore. He looked at Neville with pride. "You stood up to her, Neville. Take pride in that." Neville flushed. "This is completely voluntary, save that I ask all those who decide not to join it to take an oath not to reveal our presence. Anyone who wishes to leave may do so now."
"Albus," Arthur Weasley spoke out. "The children… is this wise?"
Dumbledore looked troubled. "Sometimes I ask myself when was the last occasion I could call my actions to have been wise… perhaps when I was twelve and brought lemon candy for my sister against our father's wishes, that may have been a wise thing to do. This most certainly is not wise. Nor is the alternative. But we must make do with what he have. Will you have me tell these five young people, and your daughter, of course, to pretend as if nothing happened tonight?"
"You have a good heart, Arthur, that you want to protect them for as long as you can," said Dumbledore. "I myself am guilty of that charge." He turned to Harry.
"I know," said Harry simply. "What you're going to say, or perhaps you weren't going to say it yet… I know it, as certainly as the fact that I was born at the end of the seventh month. And I'd rather you not mention it to others as yet."
Dumbledore looked surprised for a moment. He nodded. "I have said this before, you keep surprising me, Harry." He turned to Arthur. "They are nearly adults. But until they are of age, the Order will not send them on missions, nor will they be asked to risk their lives. However, if they are willing, there might be other tasks they can do for us that will relieve the others for more dangerous missions."
Harry looked at his friends. Neville looked determined. Ron looked determined. Hermione looked determined. Susan… he didn't want to assess her expressions yet. "I'm ready," he said. "I wasn't, earlier this year… but I think I am… now." He didn't say it, but he conveyed the message to his friends. They all nodded.
Dumbledore smiled at him. "Then let us begin this meeting properly. Harry, report. What was your group doing in the Department of Mysteries?"
Harry frowned. He saw Hermione about to open her mouth but shook his head. This wasn't a classroom. This was war, and Dumbledore was their general. "I was with Professor Snape in Hogwarts when Kingsley sent him a message about my friends being trapped by Death Eaters in Hogwarts. I came to help them."
Dumbledore regarded Ron and Neville. "Ron, I want you to explain why you were there."
Ron was slightly flustered. "I… What I made out of the situation was… Susan received an owl from Lucius Malfoy, claiming he was holding her aunt hostage and would kill her unless she brought Harry Potter to him. Susan tried finding Harry to ask for help but then decided to go alone. Ginny wouldn't let her; Neville overheard them and came to look for Harry but found Hermione and me instead."
"Hermione, continue from there."
"Sir, we took thestrals to the Ministry and made our way to the Department of Mysteries," said Hermione. "It was a trap, Madam Bones was not there. We had acted foolishly. But we tried to make the best of the situation. The Death Eaters were angry that Harry hadn't come with us, but Lucius Malfoy told them to wait and be patient. We tried to fight but we were easily defeated. Then Harry came and he handled them until the Order and the Aurors joined the scene."
Dumbledore turned to Harry. "How did you manage to get there?"
"I uh…" Harry had hoped not to be required to answer this question. He saw Snape glaring at him. "Professor Snape petrified me and locked me in the dungeons." Harry saw Sirius about to erupt. "For my safety, Sirius… I had gone to speak to him."
"Clearly, the next time I need to apply stronger force," Snape remarked. "Continue, Potter."
"Uh…" Harry fidgeted, not looking at Dumbledore. "I called Dobby the house-elf."
With a popping noise, Dobby appeared again. "Harry Potter called Dobby? Harry Potter wants Dobby to fetch Dumbly's Fox to take him somewhere again?"
Harry blinked. "Uh… no, thanks, Dobby. Sorry, I didn't mean to call you." He looked at Dumbledore sheepishly when Dobby left. "Yeah, so that's what happened."
"So," Dumbledore said gravely. "You summoned a house-elf in my employ to abduct my familiar in order to coerce him to take you to the Ministry."
Harry fidgeted. Susan chuckled. Harry turned to her in surprise. She had been devastated all this while. She looked at him tenderly. Harry nodded. "I did that," he said. "And I don't regret it."
"Of course," Dumbledore moved on. "We will see your memory of what happened in the Ministry since your arrival, Harry, and from one of the rest of you before that."
"Albus," said Gawain. "The Unspeakables will want to get their hands on Harry, after what happened with the Veil. It might be worth considering them." Everyone else was shocked by his statement. "Scrimgeour will try to do the same; but while the Unspeakables will help Harry grow in magic, Scrimgeour will have Harry put on makeup and pose for pictures with him."
Dumbledore thought about it for a moment before turning to Harry. "I will leave the choice open to you. Not even the Ministry or the Wizengamot has any jurisdiction in the Department of Mysteries. It will be a safe place for you during the summer, especially as they will take the threat of Voldemort seriously now and put up appropriate defences."
Harry wasn't happy with that. "What about Susan and the rest?"
"The Unspeakables will stretch their offer to a maximum of two others, but that's about it," said Bagman, and everyone was shocked at his confident guarantee. "Of course… I might be mistaken. Unspeakables are, after all, a rather unknown quantity."
"Thank you, Ludo," Dumbledore was unfazed, as if he had always known Ludo Bagman was an undercover Unspeakable.
"The Aurors will gladly extend an invitation to train the others," said Robards. "And perhaps some other friends of yours who will be involved in this war on our side."
Harry thought for a while. He turned to Susan. She nodded. "I'll go to the Department of Mysteries if Susan is allowed to come with me."
Soon, the adults viewed the memories and discussed some logistical issues and the meeting came to an end. Dumbledore asked Harry to stay behind. On seeing the consternation on his face, Dumbledore requested Susan to also stay behind.
"Well done, Harry," said Dumbledore. "Once again, you performed admirably."
"I was lucky again," said Harry, sounding angry with himself. "That the others came when they did. And that the Patronus thing worked. I hadn't even thought about it. I need to train harder."
Dumbledore nodded. "Do you remember, Harry, of our last conversation where I spoke to you of two paths which diverged?"
"Those paths indeed did diverge and now they have collided again," said Dumbledore. "Therefore, I find myself about to, how do you say it, eat my words, and offer you untainted, if you will, advice."
Harry instantly became wary.
"But I doubt you will accept it for its full sincerity," Dumbledore sighed. "You will not fulfil the prophecy by learning more and advanced magic, but rather by understanding your enemy."
"What's to understand?" Harry said sharply. He wanted to spend time with Susan alone and didn't understand why Dumbledore couldn't just say things outright and stop talking in riddles. "Voldemort is back… He's targeting my friends… I have to kill him… I need to train myself."
"Ah. If only it were so simple," Dumbledore said. "Let's dissect each phrase slowly. Voldemort is back. How is he back? What is to say he will not return yet again if you do manage to ah… kill him?"
Harry was at a loss.
"What does the word Voldemort mean anyways?" Dumbledore continued.
"I know," said Susan. "It's French for flight from death, or something similar."
"Exactly." Dumbledore looked pleased. "How has he flown from death?" Again, Harry was quiet. "Next phrase… He's targeting my friends… How do you know who your friends are?"
"And I do not speak of the younger generation," said Dumbledore. "Most of them are still… uncorrupted. Take, for instance, Ludo Bagman. You have been close to him for a while now. Do you consider him a friend?"
Harry's frown deepened. "Of course," he stated. "Bagman helped me survive the Tournament. He… He can't be a Death Eater, can he?"
"He most certainly is not," Dumbledore asserted. "So, by your logic, there are two sides in this war… ours and theirs… Death Eaters and their sympathisers fall on their side, and everyone else on ours?"
Harry considered that. Slowly, he shook his head. "Scrimgeour and his lot."
"Everyone has their agenda," said Dumbledore. "So does Bagman. I must admit I know less about Bagman's agenda than anyone else's. He is somewhat of a… mixed bag. His only agenda might be a bet placed with the goblins."
Harry chuckled. "It most likely is."
"Be wary of him. Bagman is capable of a lot more than he appears," Dumbledore warned. A troubled expression passed through his face for a brief moment. "I have never feared or respected anyone like I fear Ludo Bagman."
Harry was shocked.
But Dumbledore continued unfazed, "Then you said 'I have to kill him'. How? How will you kill someone who has defied death? And Harry… can you kill someone?"
Harry's eyes became distant. He had thought of that same question in depth since he had first read the prophecy. He had been confused and uncertain, but Susan's presence now changed everything. He nodded resolutely. "I must, otherwise he will hurt everyone I care for."
Dumbledore let that pass. "And finally, you said 'I have to train myself'. In what? Even if you spent the next decade in intensive Auror training, you will only reach a shadow of Voldemort's abilities. He had been a powerful sorcerer for over half a century, adding to his strength with the darkest of rituals."
Harry looked away.
"Certainly, you must train," said Dumbledore. "But for survival, not for victory. To win, you must understand your enemy and find the weakest chink in his armour."
"The prophecy says I have a power that the Dark Lord knows not," said Harry.
"True." Dumbledore nodded. "But prophecies are notorious for misdirecting those who look at it for guidance. Certainly, it will be good for our side if you acquire a mysterious power that will put you on an even footing with Voldemort. But we must prepare for the eventuality that the power which the prophecy speaks of may not be one that can be used to defeat the Dark Lord."
Harry sighed. It infuriated him that Dumbledore was always correct.
"And finally, Harry," Dumbledore said, in a mild rebuke. "This is from someone who knew your parents and grandparents and speaks in their stead. Do not push your friends away."
Harry got up with that dismissal. He walked quietly, holding Susan's hand, and neither seemed able to find any words to say. He led her towards the Come and Go room, deciding to let of his private sanctuary.
Susan gasped when she saw entered the room and saw it was a complete replica of the living room of her home. "I… I wanted to be somewhere familiar."
"This is where I have been hiding most of this year," Harry admitted. He looked apologetic.
Susan beat him to it. "Why do we keep having these silly fights?" she was tearful.
"Because I'm a prat," said Harry. He saw Susan about to contradict him. "But you still like me."
Susan's lips quivered but she shook her head. "It's a bit more than that now," she wrapped her arms around him. "I'm quite sure I love you too."
Hearing those words was like a giant albatross being removed from Harry's neck. He was frozen for a few moments, with his jaws fallen to the ground, and a loopy grin on his face.
"So…" Susan looked at him seriously. "Are we good again?"
Harry looked at her face. He felt conflicted. He so desperately wanted to be with her. But how could he? "There's a prophecy," he said. "It says I must fight Voldemort and kill him… I'm the only one who can…"
Susan considered that. "So that's what you meant when you sounded doubtful about us in front of Peeves?"
Harry frowned at her. "I thought I saw you there. How were you invisible?"
"Two can play the avoiding game," Susan said. "Ginny referred to your notes and made me an invisibility ring."
"Ginny made one?" Harry was surprised. Suddenly, he shuddered. "Do you think something happened to her when she fell through the Veil? She looked so…"
"Confused and lost," said Susan. She looked sad too. "I shouldn't have taken her with me… I'm sorry…"
"Shh." Harry pulled her closer and kissed her forehead. "I don't want to hear you apologise for the work of Death Eaters and Voldemort. Do you understand?"
Susan looked at him affectionately. But then her smile faded. "I don't have anywhere to go," she said quietly. "Aunt Amelia was all I had… I'm alone now."
"And what am I?" said Harry. "A peanut?"
"I'd say you are a nut, yes," Susan responded.
And so they bickered playfully for the remainder of the day. The next morning Harry received a letter from Ginny, which made him very upset.
I am writing to you and Neville first so you guys hear this from me before anyone else. I won't be returning to Hogwarts this year, and I'm not sure if I'll be back after summer. I need some time away from magic.
Okay, stop thinking that. It's not your fault, you self-obsessed prat.
Good. Here are the reasons, so you'll understand why I have to leave: when I fell through the Veil, I was there for a bit longer than the time that passed outside. There were things there – demons and monsters; I was scared and I was losing myself. I'm not saying this to anyone else, even Neville, so please keep it to yourself. They hunted me. I had my wand to fight them but they were more powerful. They had nearly got to me when Norberta burst through.
You saved me again, Harry, but I need some time to get used to things. Janna, she goes by the name Jenny Calendar in the muggle world, has invited me to a small town in California, and mum has agreed to let me go there for a while. Coincidentally, mum's second cousin, Cousin Rupert, is taking a job as librarian there, and I'll be leaving with him.
I'll miss you a lot and I want you to know you'll always be my best friend, and my hero.
Lots of love
Harry felt conflicted on reading her letter. He felt hurt that she was leaving them but very relieved that she would be away from the war. What she said about being in the Veil for longer than just two seconds bothered him, but he knew she wouldn't write more than what she had on paper. There was nothing for him to do but hope that she'd return after the summer, so he could talk personally to her.
But there was a lot to do. The school year was fast coming to an end, and despite the war, the professors were not making any relaxation on the OWL examinations.
"Life must go on," Dumbledore had spoken to the whole school. "If your parents would like to withdraw you from Hogwarts, they are fully within their rights. However, this school is one of the safest places in the country, and as students of this school, you will be required to sit for the end of year examinations."
Harry was quite confident for some of his OWLs and less so for others. Divination, Herbology and Astronomy were his worst. History was average. He was surprised to find that the Care of Magical Creatures theory exam for him was filled with questions on dragon handling, and he was given the impression that he might have surpassed the previous record. Potions and Transfiguration were not so bad, he was hoping for a healthy grade that would hold its own in front of Hermione's top marks.
In Defence, he was asked to show his stag Patronus, and the examiner was startled to see the dragon. When Harry told him why the stag wasn't there and his confirmation of an age-old hypothesis that the Patronus was a manifestation of the soul's utmost need, and so, if the original Patronus was trapped and could not come to one's aid, then the soul could create another.
The examiner was excitedly taking notes and requested Harry for permission to add this new development in magic to a defence book he was writing, with due credit, of course. Harry agreed.
Charms was the easiest of the lot. The examiner simply glossed through the prescribed questions and demanded to see Harry's project, having read the report in advance.
"This is the Invisibility Ring," said Harry. He gave the ring to the examiner. "The activation code is Abeo Hominis. To deactivate it, the code is Appareo Hominis, or just remove the ring."
The examiner tried it out and was satisfied by the results. "Well done," said she, placing the ring on her desk. "Did you try with other objects as a focus?"
Harry shook his head.
"So you relied completely on the previous researcher's results?" she asked, slightly disappointed.
The examiner looked at him kindly. "I can understand why you would do that, but a proper researcher conducts at least a few experiments of his own. Your mother, for instance, carried out nearly a hundred different experiments in total."
Harry frowned. "And that's why I didn't want to waste time doing it again."
"Of course, nobody expects you to replicate the results already achieved," said the examiner. "But perhaps you could have picked two other foci for the first one and established that your mother's results were accurate. That would have objectively justified your reliance on her table of results. But regardless, you still deserve a high Outstanding just by this ring itself."
Harry held out the next object. It was a small pebble. "This only works for me," he said apologetically. "In my report, I mentioned an area of development would be to find a way for others to use my Patronus Stone."
The examiner nodded excitedly. "Go on. Let's see it."
"Prongs," Harry whispered, and the stag sprang into existence, galloped around the room, and then bowed its head before Harry and the examiner.
"Excellent," said the examiner. "And most useful… given the defection of the Dementors." She looked piercingly at Harry. "Do you mind if I conduct a small experiment to test the utility of this Patronus Stone?" Harry nodded. "Don't be alarmed," she said, raising her wand, and cast a spell on Harry.
Harry's mood dampened. He didn't know why, but he had a sudden urge to burst into tears.
"The stone, Mr Potter," the examiner said.
"Prongs." The stag appeared again.
"Finite," the examiner ended her depression charm on Harry. "Absolutely unbelievable. Fighting Dementors could become an easy task if it is made mandatory for Aurors to carry a Patronus Stone each."
Harry nodded. "Gawain Robards has asked me to work with the Aurors in doing just that the first week of summer. I have a lot of stones being infused with Professor Snape's potion currently."
The examiner's eyes misted. "It is a shame this wasn't done in the previous war. So many innocents could have been saved."
Harry didn't look at her. His mother had decided against continuing her project with Snape. That was why they didn't have it in the previous war. Nobody was perfect.
"The final one," said Harry. He took out the small wooden object. There was a black thread through it, and Harry put it around his neck. "This one is activated automatically when around something with life, and it makes the person, animal or plant imperturbable."
The examiner experimented to her heart's content to determine whether it worked. Finally, after she was satisfied, Harry was allowed to leave. He saw Hermione also leave her Arithmancy exam. She looked close to tears.
"Hermione," Harry walked to her in concern. "What's wrong?"
"The examiner laughed at my project," she said. "Everything I did… is wrong."
"What do you mean?" asked Harry. "Let's go get a Butterbeer. My treat."
Hermione hesitated, but then she nodded. "Thanks."
A few minutes later, she explained. "My theory was that every time magic is done in an apparent breach of Newton's Third Law, there is actually residual magical energy around the area, which can be converted to other forms of energy."
"You mean, like if we vanish something, there's untapped magical energy left behind?" Harry asked. "That sounds logical."
"It's not," Hermione wailed. "The examiner had brought a lot of equipment to test just that and showed very clearly that there was no magical residue left behind."
Harry took a sip of his Butterbeer.
"He then told me that just as pureblood extremists try to force their culture on muggleborns, I, like many muggleborns before me, was trying to force muggle science on magic," Hermione sounded distraught. "Is that what I'm doing?"
"What do you think?" asked Harry.
"No… there must be something," Hermione persisted. "Perhaps the magical residue theory was wrong… but there must be an action-reaction pair… there must…"
"Perhaps you need to look at it from a different angle," said Harry.
Hermione blinked. She raised her fingers and moved them in front of her, thinking furiously, completely oblivious to Harry. "Different angle," she repeated. "Of course, my whole thinking was wrong…"
"Care to explain?"
Hermione turned to Harry excitedly. "It's like this: if a body A exerts force on a body B, then B simultaneously exerts force on A." She pressed her hand against Harry's shoulder. "I am pressing your shoulder, but you are also pressing my hand."
"I get it," Harry said. "I'm not an idiot, you know."
"Of course, not," said Hermione distractedly. "All along I have been seeing from the perspective of the spell-caster – that it's the air around the object that makes it vanish… or banishes it, or summons it… But if you look at it from a bird's eye angle, that's wrong… it's the spell-caster's magical core, the primary focus, that exerts the force on the object." She frowned. "It sounds so obvious when I say it like that."
"So," said Hermione. "The reactionary force exerted back is on the spell-caster herself!" She got up. "Harry, thanks for the drink. I have to get back and do some experiments…"
"Hermione, we just finished our exams!" Harry looked at her incredulously
Hermione looked reluctant to stay.
"Stay," Harry said firmly. "The others will join us here soon. We have to discuss our summer plans."
Hermione sighed and sat down.
"And there's something I've been meaning to ask you." Harry's eyes were narrowed, Hermione looked at him. "Is Ron treating you well?"
Hermione burst out laughing.
"Oh, Harry," Hermione looked very happy. "Never mind. You're the best."
"That doesn't answer my question," he was confused.
"I know it doesn't," said Hermione. She patted his shoulder. "Ron's trying his best."
Harry frowned. "I suppose you can't ask for more." He looked troubled. "At least, he can't be as bad as I've been to Susan."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Hermione. "Half the girls in Hogwarts would kill to have you as a boyfriend after seeing how you treat Susan."
"You sure that's not just because of the big red arrow that points here," said Harry, touching his scar.
"I'm sure," said Hermione. "That's an interesting phrase. Big red arrow that points to your scar."
"Ginny came up with it," said Harry, fighting the sorrow that came with thinking of Ginny. "In the dragon reserve last summer."
"That must have been so fun," said Hermione. "Being in the dragon reserve."
Harry felt his stomach drop a few inches. "I didn't send you any pictures, did I?"
"I have Ian Hathaway's book," said Hermione, trying to keep her voice level. "There are pictures of you and Norberta in it."
Harry looked glum. "It's not the same."
"No," Hermione agreed. "But let's move on."
Harry turned to her with surprise.
"What?" Hermione challenged his surprise. "Nobody's perfect. Not even you."
"I think I see that now," said Harry.
Soon, the others arrived. Harry felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach. They were a bunch of nearly sixteen year olds. But they were all caught in the middle of the war due to their connection to him. Harry knew better than to voice it out in front of them, but he couldn't deny the guilt he felt.
"I've decided to accept Mr Robards' offer," said Neville. "Hannah, as well."
"Me too," said Ron.
Harry nodded. The Aurors and Unspeakables were on their side, having witnessed the Death Eaters and Voldemort, and not wishing to be involved in Scrimgeour's politics. The Order of the Phoenix had made plans for all of them who wanted it to receive Auror training in Sirius' family house, which had a large basement converted into a training facility.
But Harry didn't have that choice. The moment he left Hogwarts, Scrimgeour would pounce on him like a wounded jungle cat. Harry had forced Scrimgeour to resign as Minister and now he was back. There was only one choice left for him.
Harry waved at Ludo Bagman, inviting him to join their group. The time had come.
Dumbledore's warning came to his mind. Bagman had an agenda of his own, unknown to everyone including Dumbledore. But it was clear that, where Voldemort was concerned, Bagman was on their side.
"Harry?" Hermione said uncertainly.
"The reason I asked you all to come here was to say goodbye," said Harry. "Susan and I are leaving now. We had to keep this quiet so the Minister wouldn't try to head us off. I'll see you in a few weeks, Hermione. Good luck, rest of you."
The Department of Mysteries was as sombre as ever. Bagman didn't stay with them; it was an unnecessary risk to his secret. They were left under the care of another Order sympathiser, Broderick Bode.
"Croaker's working on the Minister now," said Bode, as he led Harry and Susan for a tour of the Department of Mysteries. "Scrimgeour may visit you here but he cannot force you to do anything until the summer ends. You are both Trainee Unspeakables now."
The Department of Mysteries had six main chambers, where they uncovered the deepest mysteries of the universe.
The Thought Chamber was where they studied the concept of thought and imagination by creating human brains. The Space Chamber had a replica of the known universe. The Love Chamber had a fountain of Amortentia that induced the effect of love. The Time Chamber was where they made Time Turners and studied how the flow of time could be disturbed. The Death Chamber had the Veil through which Ginny had fallen and been rescued. The Hall of Prophecies recorded all known prophecies.
They were each given a small room in the back of the Department, as all Unspeakables had quarters provided in the Department itself.
"There is a reason for that," said Bode. "It is the same reason why Unspeakables will not join the war against Voldemort actively."
"The Veil," Bode said ominously. "It is a portal to another world, a fearsome place not conducive to life as we know it, what others call a hell dimension."
Harry paled, remembering Ginny's letter. "You mean… Ginny was in hell?"
Bode sighed. "Not hell in the biblical sense of it. There are many dimensions, realities or worlds, if you will, and you will understand all of this better after the summer is over. Your friend went through to a dimension considerably… less docile… than ours. We had her visit us in the Thought Chamber and learn Occlumency to protect her sanity, but it was our recommendation that she move away from the magical world for a while."
Harry looked away.
"We dare not close the Veil or destroy it, for another one might spring into existence somewhere outside of our knowledge," said Bode. "Instead, we keep vigil."
Harry understood it then. "The Department of Mysteries is warded to keep things from getting out… not from coming in…"
"Exactly." Bode looked grim. "We do not expect you to become a full Unspeakable until you are much older but we will appreciate your help in studying the Veil in greater depth. No one has come back from the other side before. In return, we will provide a full training to you and Miss Bones."
Training wasn't easy.
His mornings began in the Thought Chamber. Occlumency was the hardest for Harry to learn. He simply couldn't let go of his emotions; and it was after finally realising that, the Unspeakable in charge of the Thought Chamber used alternate means to teach him to shield his mind, often using the intensity of his emotions itself.
Then, he would swap places with Susan and go to Time Chamber and study the intricacies of time. For instance, the disastrous consequences of trying to alter the past and the futility of that task.
After lunch, he would be loaned to the Auror Department for a few hours, where either Kingsley or Nymphadora would work with him in combat and stealth techniques. They had a huge simulation area where Harry could train in real-life settings.
But it was the evenings that Harry most looked forward to, because he would finally be allowed to spend time with Susan. They would sit in front of the Veil and the Unspeakables would do their work, until someone or other required Harry to send his Patronus through, to retrieve something they had dropped.
Harry soon discovered that none of the other Patroni could go through the veil, not even Prongs. Norberta, however, had no such qualms, and he had a theory.
"A Patronus identifies the need of one's soul," said Harry to the Unspeakables. "None of you need to send yours through the Veil, therefore they cannot pierce through the dimensions. When I summoned Norberta for the first time, it was solely for the purpose of bringing Ginny back. That might explain why Norberta is different."
"That is the best explanation we have," said Croaker. At that moment, Norberta returned, fetching back the bag which had been sent through.
They opened the bag and gasped in shock.
"The flowers have withered," said Bode. "Life sustainability is low. The time stamp on battery-operated clocks is the point-of-entry, so they stopped working on hitting the veil. The sand-clock is exhausted, so more than twenty-four hours have passed. We will have to conduct more experiments to find out how much more."
Harry gasped. Ginny had said that but he had thought she meant a few minutes or a few hours.
"Harry," Susan leaned against him. "She's safe now, in California… in the beach and water…"
A month passed and Harry couldn't believe how much he had learnt about magic during this time. He had been exposed to Amortentia and knew how to identify its effects. More importantly, he learnt how to use Amortentia in small doses, and in different forms, vaporous forms especially, to get things done for him.
"Good morning, Minister," said Harry, squeezing an Amortentia capsule in his fist before shaking hands with Rufus Scrimgeour. In all previous meetings, Bode or Croaker had been present. But they decided it was time for Harry to learn how to convince the Minister of Magic as a proper Unspeakable should.
"Good morning, Harry," Scrimgeour regarded Harry. "You look fine today. Been exercising, have you?"
"Yes, Minister," said Harry. "Gawain keeps me in shape in the simulator."
"That's nice," said Scrimgeour. "Have you considered my proposal. You do owe it to me, what with your little mischief last year."
"I don't think I should be spending so much time giving press conferences," said Harry apologetically. "I owe it to the public to train myself to the best capability."
"Indeed, indeed," said Scrimgeour, suddenly ashamed of having doubted Harry's sincerity or trying to make him change his plans. "What a remarkable sentiment… I suppose that's that… I'll be off them…"
Croaked approved. "Just the right quantity," he said. "Any more and Scrimgeour would either have become a simpering idiot or suspicious of his own behaviour. Any less… he wouldn't have been so amenable to our decision."
"I can't believe you've been using Amortentia to get your way all this while," Harry was amused more than anything else.
"Only a fool fails to make use of all his tools to achieve his goals," said Croaker. "There is no margin for error as an Unspeakable."
"But what if I had messed up?" Harry asked. "Scrimgeour would have discovered your secret."
"That reminds me," he said. "Report to Emmeline in the Space Chamber. I have to make a visit to the past and tell myself it is safe to test you with Scrimgeour today. No margin for error, Potter."
The Space Chamber was, without doubt, the most fascinating of the lot.
"Our magic only extends to chart out the galaxy," said Emmeline Vance. "But muggle astronomers have done a lot more than us… sometimes, one wonders the heights humanity could have reached if muggle science and magic worked together."
"You sound like Hermione. She's trying to prove magic follows Newton's Laws," he said. "She's joining us in August."
Emmeline was contemplative. "Then, I suppose I should write to her to study the basics of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity before coming here." She shook herself on seeing Harry's amused look. "One of these planets here… or perhaps in another galaxy not shown here… is where the Veil leads to if it is merely a rift in space. If it is a rift in space and time, well, we still don't know much about the multiverse. But assuming it is just a rift in space, if we knew exactly where, and if we find out how to make Veils to other worlds on our own… Do you see what I mean? The universe is open to us."
Harry was flabbergasted. He looked at the floating planets and stars in the huge chamber. Suddenly, Voldemort and the magical world of Britain seemed so small. The universe was large. Even the vast galaxy before him was such a tiny spot of the universe. And if Emmeline and the Unspeakables were successful in unearthing this mystery, the whole universe was open to them.
"So… the demons Ginny spoke of… they were aliens?" Harry asked her.
"Harry," Emmeline looked at him seriously. "What do you think goblins are? And Dementors? Vampires, trolls… They all came through this Veil or one of its predecessors before the sorcerers of that age realised it and were able to destroy the former Veils and finally put wards around this one."
Harry nodded, as it began to make sense. "But what about us? Wizards… humans… couldn't we have come through the Veil as well?"
"It is more than a possibility," said Emmeline. "If fact, I personally believe there are very few species of animals, including man, native to this planet."
"What about merfolk and sea creatures?" Harry asked curiously.
"You're assuming there can't be a Veil underwater somewhere," Emmeline grinned at his expression.
"There are more?" he was stunned.
"Seven," said Emmeline. "That's what we believe. There are seven veils connecting earth to seven other places in the vast universe around us, at any given time."
"Seven." Harry frowned. "Magical symmetry. That does make sense."
He returned to his quarters, mulling over all that he had learnt that day, when he saw Susan in an equally pensieve mood. He walked to her and held her in his arms.
"Mm." Susan moaned.
"What's bothering you?" he asked.
"Dumbledore came to visit," she said. "He told me some things… about the war…"
Harry frowned. The war had slowly moved to a distant corner of his mind. There was so much more to do, so much to see, learn and… Harry pushed those thoughts aside on seeing Susan's worried face. Dumbledore and his ulterior motives.
"What did he tell you?" asked Harry.
Susan looked slightly troubled. "Do you trust me, Harry?"
"Then, don't ask me again," she said. She touched his hand comfortingly. "We will win and we will be happy."
Harry opened his mouth to repeat his question, but seeing her determination, he faltered.
"I uh…" Susan began, her face turned red. "I want to stay."
Harry waited for her to elaborate.
"I want to stay with you tonight," said Susan.
All thoughts of wars, demons, aliens and veils instantly evaporated from his mind, and a wide grin came on his face. He closed his mouth over Susan's.
The next morning, Harry woke up to the most pleasant sight and feeling, holding Susan in his arms. His eyes shot open immediately and he saw Susan was gazing at him lovingly.
"That was so good," said Harry.
"We've got to do it again," Susan agreed.
"As often as we can," Harry added.
"No, not without silencing charms."
Both Harry and Susan turned to the door and were mortified. Emmeline Vance was glaring at the two of them, although her lips quivered with amusement, when Susan grabbed the sheets and covered their exposed bodies.
"You're supposed to knock!" Harry glared at her.
Emmeline rolled her eyes. "Your friend Hermione came this morning and is waiting for you to join her. She's got your OWL results."
"We'll be out in ten minutes," said Harry.
"Take a shower first," Emmeline advised. "Separately, please. That'll be faster."
Soon, there was a meeting in Croaker's office. Broderick Bode and Emmeline Vance were there; along with Harry, Susan and Hermione. There were only, at any time, three Unspeakables in the Department of Mysteries, which is why they could only take a total of three trainees. The other Unspeakables, such as Ludo Bagman, were undercover agents elsewhere. So far, Harry wasn't told of other undercover Unspeakables and doubted he would be until he took the oath of service.
But Hermione had some ideas.
"McGonagall or Flitwick," said Hermione. "One of them is an Unspeakable."
Croaker was shocked. "Why do you say so?"
"Just a hunch," said Hermione. "The Ministry has a strict policy against loaning Time Turners to civilians, which means an Unspeakable got me one in my third year. Only those two and Dumbledore knew of my Time Turner."
"Flitwick," said Croaker. "He is stationed in Hogwarts." He looked slightly irritated. "This isn't good. You kids have discovered two of our best-placed undercover agents – Bagman and Flitwick."
"They may well be the future generation of Unspeakables," said Emmeline. She looked at Harry with a pointed look.
"Sir," Harry spoke to Croaker. "I'd like to join fulltime."
Bode looked worried. "We gave Dumbledore our word to keep you free until after the war is over."
"To keep me free," said Harry. "Not to keep me from becoming an Unspeakable."
"He's got a point," said Croaker. "If Potter is not given any active mission and allowed to stay undercover, he will, in all effect, be a free agent. Should a free agent decide, of his own volition, to aid us in our tasks… well… there's nothing wrong in that. Which area do you want to specialise in, Potter?"
"The Veil and the Space Chamber," said Harry. "I'd like to study the link to other worlds."
Croaked sighed. "The allure of dancing amongst the stars falls on us all… But I am shutting all access to the Veil until the war is over. We cannot risk new creatures coming through during the war."
Harry nodded. "Besides, I still have two years in Hogwarts."
"Miss Bones?" Croaker asked.
Susan nodded. "But I'd like to study the Love Chamber."
"Is there a reason?" Croaker asked.
Susan smiled without responding. But Croaker accepted her silence and looked sad and disturbed.
OWL results had arrived, and it was more or less as expected, for Harry. He had scored more points than the previous all-time high in Care of Magical Creatures and Defence; had secured a high Outstanding in Charms; a healthy Outstanding in Transfiguration; Exceeds Expectations in Potions and History; Pass in Astronomy and Herbology; and a Dreadful in Divination. Moreover, his project had received a high Outstanding, and the examiner hoped he would develop it further for his NEWT.
But there was some bad news too.
"The latest wave of attacks was on the homes of all, so-called, Blood Traitors," said Hermione. "The Burrow was one of the first to be hit. Everyone survived, fortunately, but the house was destroyed. Mrs Weasley is distraught."
"They're staying in Sirius' house and have told Ginny to remain with their cousin until Hogwarts starts," said Hermione.
"She's definitely coming back then?" asked Harry.
Hermione was surprised by the question. "I haven't heard anyone talk, or even think, otherwise."
"Then, she's keeping it a secret from her family," said Harry. "Ginny's considering staying in California and go to a muggle school this year."
"What? Why?" Hermione was shocked. "And what about magic?"
"She demanded me to send her as many books on conjuration as I could find in Flourish & Botts for her birthday," said Harry. "So, I guess she's not giving up magic. And the US is more lenient on underage magic."
"That's because it's impossible to keep track of it in a country as big as that," said Hermione. "Are you in frequent touch with her?"
"A letter every fortnight," said Harry proudly.
Hermione winced. "Poor Hedwig."
Harry wasn't too sympathetic towards his owl. "Poor Hedwig nearly bit my thumb off when I tried to send my third letter with another owl to save her the journey. Honestly, I bet she loves Ginny more than me, her owner!"
So the summer carried on with Harry either in the Department of Mysteries or the Auror simulation area. When summer came to an end, Harry and his friends sneaked out of the Ministry before Rufus Scrimgeour could get them. The Aurors who were to keep an eye on Harry very conveniently decided to ignore the fact that the three teenagers walked to the Apparition area and left.
"Welcome back," Dumbledore greeted the three students when they appeared through the floo in his office. "Sirius sends his love, Harry."
"How's he doing, professor?"
"He is well," said Dumbledore. "He has gone on a mission for me with Remus Lupin."
"To sway the werewolves to our side?" Harry enquired.
"Or at the very least to keep them from joining Voldemort," said Dumbledore.
Harry frowned. "Is there a serious risk of that?"
"Fenrir Greyback holds a lot of influence in the werewolf communities of Europe, and he is firmly in Voldemort's camp," said Dumbledore.
Harry frowned. "So, if Fenrir Greyback were taken out of the picture…"
"I'm afraid it's not that simple," said Dumbledore. "If Greyback disappears, suspicion will certainly fall on us. The werewolf communities will not like to deal with someone who killed one of their kind just to improve their bargaining power."
Harry was thinking hard. "So… if something appears to happen to Remus Lupin and he disappears for a few weeks?"
Dumbledore observed Harry for a moment.
"If Remus suddenly disappears," said Harry, "then they won't be very happy with the side that had most reasons to make Remus disappear. I could give one of my invisibility rings to help Remus."
Dumbledore kept observing Harry. "To make that work," he said gravely, "we will have to keep this secret from Sirius. His natural despair and fear will be vital in convincing the werewolves that this isn't our plot. Can you do that, Harry?"
Harry's good humour vanished. He hadn't thought of that.
"I told you, Harry, this path you are walking on has no clearly defined right and wrong answers," said Dumbledore. "Only many facets of the same issue. It is essential to keep the werewolf communities from joining the war, but at what cost…"
"Do it," said Harry finally. "If more werewolves go to Voldemort's side, more innocents will die… Sirius' grief will only be temporary. He'll understand… and I'll take the blame." He tried not to look at Susan's face, sure that she would be disappointed with him.
"I hope you're happy, Dumbledore," said Susan simply, and she took Harry's hand. "Let's go."
They walked to the place behind Hagrid's hut where they had spent their first Valentine's Day as a couple.
"You are disappointed in me?" asked Harry.
Susan sighed. "I am not… You made a tough choice, but the alternative was worse, and I'm proud you had the strength to make it when Dumbledore himself wouldn't… That's what he was testing both of us on, you know, to see whether we can make tough choices. I am just annoyed that this whole thing had to happen during our lifetime…"
"That's one way of looking at it," said Harry, not wholly convinced.
"That's the only way I will look at it," said Susan. "And that's the only way I want you to look at it… Sometimes, you have to take the burden of hurting those you love when the alternative is much worse…"
Harry looked at her with a frown. "Is this coming from the conversation between you and Dumbledore that you haven't told me about?"
Susan nodded, not trying to deny it. "If someday I hurt you, Harry…" she looked close to tears. "Please believe me, it's only because the alternative would be much worse. Just trust me."
Harry remained quiet for a minute. But Susan's distress was troubling. He reached for her.
"Harry!" she squealed, when Harry swung her around.
"Remember that song you love to hum?"
Susan nodded. She started humming it, as Harry slowly swayed their bodies to the rhythm.