Here it is.  The final completed chapter in my abandoned Harry Potter Book 8. And, since I’m sadistic that way, I will probably do a post describing, in extremely vague detail, some of the exciting chapters that I will, in all likelihood, never write.

Still, thank you to everyone who had commented about the story.  It is far from my best writing, but I had great fun working on it and it taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  In addition, I met my best friend through this story, which counts as a win to me any day.

(NOTE:  Posting from my phone again, so pardon any mistakes or formatting problems.)

Chapter 12—The Missing Chapter

The three of them appeared on a hill overlooking the Burrow. It was still some distance to the Lovegood house, but Ron insisted on stopping by his parents’ home to pick up something he claimed would be vital to answering the riddle of the ankh. He rushed off, disappearing a few minutes later through the kitchen door.

“I wonder if it’s a book,” Hermione said after Ron had entered the house. “Maybe he saw an ankh somewhere while he was studying for the N.E.W.T.’s.”

Harry raised an eyebrow and looked at her.

“Okay,” Hermione said. “Not a book, then.”

They waited in silence at the top of the hill. Hermione seemed lost in thought, still apparently trying to decide what Ron thought was so important. Harry stared at the grounds surrounding the Weasley house, recalling the times he had spent there. His mind wandered from Bill’s and Fleur’s wedding to two-on-two Quidditch matches in the orchard to amusing hours spent degnoming the garden. A wry grin stretched curled the corners of his mouth as he could almost see his twelve-year-old self, slinging little gnomes over the fence into the field beyond.

As he was studying the garden, though, he saw movement that was not from his own imagination. He squinted, but could not see clearly what had caught his attention. Taking his wand out, he held it the point to the bridge of his nose.

“Binoculus!”

He felt a slight wave of vertigo as the garden seemed to sweep toward him. Soon, he was eyeing the overgrown flower beds as though from a few feet away instead of nearly half a mile. Taking a moment to orient himself, he tried to find the place where he had seen the movement and saw a mane of red hair amidst a mass of begonias.

Ginny sat alone among the flowers. Harry could not see her face from where he stood, but her head looked bowed as though in prayer. Next, he scanned the scene for some sign of Dean Thomas, but saw no one around Ginny and breathed a sigh of relief that he did not have to see her with him again. He knew the blame for her going with Dean was all his, but he could not help but feel angry when he saw the two of them together, their relationship reminding him so much of the feelings he had harbored for her during his sixth year.

A flash of light caught his attention and drew him away from his reminiscing. Focusing on the source of the illumination, he increased the magnification of the spell, turning his wand like he might adjust a pair of binoculars, until he saw her hand holding something shiny and knew at once what it was–the diamond necklace he had given her, the one he had thrown at her feet in a fit of anger.

Ending the spell, he started to go down the hill to the garden to see her, to tell her that she should be with him and not Dean Thomas, but a hand on his arm halted his progress.

“Oh, not yet, Harry.”

Hermione was holding his upper arm, gently pulling him away from the Burrow. He jerked his arm away, and scowled at her.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s not ready to deal with you,” she explained. Her voice reminded him of times at Hogwarts when she had to distill a complex lesson into simpler terms that he and Ron could understand. The patience in her voice, something he had grown so accustomed to over the years, only made him angrier.

“Oh, but she’s ready to deal with Dean?”

“I’ll wager that she’s not dealing with Dean right now either,” Hermione said, her voice rising to match Harry’s. “She’s very confused and your confronting her would not make things any better for either of you.”

“What’s there to be confused about?” Harry asked. “There’s me and there’s Dean. It’s as simple as that.”

“No, it’s not,” Hermione said, the patient tone returning to her voice. “It’s not simple at all.”

She opened her mouth to explain, but a sound from the house made them both turn. Ron had emerged through the kitchen door, holding a large parcel in his hands, the door slamming shut behind him.

Harry looked back toward the garden for some glimpse of Ginny’s hair, but she was nowhere to be seen. She had either left the spot where she was sitting or had blended in with the surrounding flowers.

Harry and Hermione remained silent as Ron walked to rejoin them. When at last he reached the top of the hill, he eyed both of them as though knowing of the exchange that took place between them.

“Everything okay?” he asked. His voice was muffled and bits of food flew out as he expelled the words.

“Fine,” Harry said.

“Fine,” Hermione echoed.

Ron gave them both an unconvinced look, then shrugged and held out the bundle. “Muffin?”

Hermione turned on him and, for a moment, Harry thought she was going to hex him.

“You came here for food? The vital something for helping us solve the riddle of the ankh is . . . a muffin?” she said.

Ron took an involuntary step back, drawing the muffins in closer to his chest. “I don’t solve riddles very well on an empty stomach.”

Hermione’s wand hand twitched as though she was fighting the urge to attack him, then it relaxed. When she spoke, her voice slid out through clenched teeth.

“Can we please go, now?”

“Well, yeah,” Ron said. “I mean, Kreacher’s come a long way, but you just can’t beat home cooking.”

They Disapparated to within a mile of the Lovegood home and continued on foot. Harry and Ron, feeling the anger coming from her like heat waves and being quite familiar with its possible consequences, allowed her to move some distance ahead of them.

“You two get into a row while I was inside?” Ron asked

Harry took a long time in answering. “It was nothing,” he said finally. “How was your family?”

Ron looked for a moment like he might pursue the matter further, but shrugged instead and took another bite of a muffin in his hand. “They’re good,” he said, swallowing hard. “Should’ve grabbed something to drink.”

Pulling out his wand, he gave it a quick flick and a glass of white liquid appeared in midair before him.

“Milk?” he offered, holding the glass out to Harry. “Straight from the Burrow’s kitchen.”

“No, thanks.”

Ron shrugged again and turned the glass up, taking a long drink. When he finished, his face contorted into a look of disgust.

“Skim,” he said, using the same tone that he might use to describe Draco Malfoy. “I can’t believe she went to skim. Said she wants to lose a little weight now that Ginny’s about to finish school.”

Harry let his mind wander back to Ginny for a moment, then Ron grabbed his attention again.

“Dad wants to move,” he said, taking another bite of muffin.

Harry stopped walking and spun on Ron. “What? What do you mean? Leave the Burrow?”

Ron took a step back and swallowed. “Yeah. Dad says now that he’s Undersecretary to the Minister, he can afford a better home for his family.”

“He can’t do that,” Harry protested. “The Burrow is . . . the Burrow is . . . it’s . . . it’s home.”

As the words came out, Harry could hardly believe he was saying them, but there was no dissention in his mind as he spoke them. The Burrow had been the first place outside of Hogwarts where he had truly felt welcome and the thought of the Weasleys abandoning a place he thought they held sacred, more sacred than he himself, seemed blasphemous. A chilling thought of the house empty—furniture gone, dust on every surface, garden gnomes running rampant, the ghoul moving away—left him almost nauseous.

“Mom’s against it,” Ron said, sensing Harry’s distress. “She’s told him that it’s too much trouble to move and that she doesn’t want to seem pretentious by purchasing some fancy new house.”

Harry sensed an unspoken “but” at the end of Ron’s words. He raised an eyebrow, waiting for it.

“But,” Ron began slowly, “I think Dad’s starting to win her over. He’s promising her a bigger kitchen.”

Harry, seeing that Hermione was now some distance ahead and waiting for them to catch up, started forward again. “They can’t sell the Burrow,” he said. When Ron failed to respond, Harry asked him, “What do you think about it?”

Ron hesitated, then said, “I think Dad has a legitimate argument.” Harry started to sputter a protest, but Ron cut him off. “Look, Ginny’s the last one of us to leave the house. Once she’s gone, it’ll just be Mum and Dad in that big house. They don’t need all that space—even a house elf couldn’t keep the dust out of so many unoccupied rooms—so I think they should get something smaller and closer to London so Dad can be closer to work.”

“He can Apparate,” Harry argued. They had nearly reached Hermione now, whose impatience showed in the form of gold sparks that showered the tip of her wand as she tapped it against her forearm. “It doesn’t matter where he lives.”

“Yeah, but it’s the idea of being close to the city,” Ron said. “Surely the Muggles get that or else there wouldn’t be so damn many of them around London.”

Harry started to argue further, but could think of nothing to say against Ron’s logic. He had lived outside of London for his entire Muggle life, but had never seen the charm of living so close to everyone else. For the most part, he preferred the solitude he rarely found since had entered the wizarding community, the solitude he found, in part, at—

“I’ll buy it,” Harry said.

Ron choked on his last bite of muffin, then washed it down with a drink of milk before saying, “What?”

“I’ll buy the Burrow,” Harry said. “If you’re parents want to move, I’ll buy it from them.”

“You’re mental,” Ron said. “You have Grimmauld Place and—“

“I can sell it,” Harry said, parrying Ron’s protest.

“No, you can’t,” Ron shot back. “Sirius left you that house.”

He grew up there.

“He walked away from it,” Harry said. “So can I.”

They reached Hermione, who glared at them.

“What are you two going on about?” she asked them, stowing her wand

“Harry wants to buy the Burrow,” Ron said before Harry could answer.

Hermione’s look changed from angry to confused to excited. “You—really, Harry?”

“Yeah,” Harry said with a pointed glance at Ron. “Really.”

“I knew they were talking about selling it,” Hermione said. “But I can’t see them selling it to someone who wouldn’t appreciate its . . . its charm.”

Ron looked at Hermione, then at Harry, then back at Hermione.

“You’re both mental,” he said, shaking his head and walking past them both.

They topped a hill and looked at the Lovegood residence perched atop the next one, resembling a chess rook struck by some engorgement charm. The large hole made by an exploding Erumpent horn the previous winter had mostly been repaired, although the ivy reaching up on the side that had been destroyed stopped short of the rebuilt walls, its ends blackened and dead.

Harry had mixed feelings upon seeing the castle-like house again. The three of them had come to this house not many months ago seeking help from Xenophilius and, though he had provided them vital information that ultimately led to their defeat of Voldemort, Lovegood had also betrayed them, attempting to give them over to the Death Eaters in exchange for his daughter. On one hand, Harry could understand that kind of love, but on another, he still harbored a certain amount of bitterness against Lovegood, bitterness that had not faded with their ultimate victory against the Dark Lord.

They passed the signs in the front yard alerting them of whose home they were approaching, encouraging them to pick their own mistletoe, and reminding them to keep off the dirigible plums, and a new one that had not been there on their last visit the previous winter. This sign was much larger than the others, standing nearly tall as the three shocked friends looking at it. In a large, neat hand, someone had painted in glittery gold letters.

Luna Lovegood, Close Personal Friend of Harry Potter

As they watched, the letters changed shape, jumbling together into a reflective mass before stretching out again, forming new letters.

Very close. Really.

“Don’t even say it,” Harry said, cutting Ron off before he could unleash some witty remark.

Ron chuckled. “You have to admit it’s a nice touch.”

They made their way through the garden, overgrown with an odd assortment of plants, some of which Hermione could not even recognize. In full summer, flowers in a dizzying array of colors bloomed everywhere and fruit of various varieties budded out from several short trees. What looked like a sapling Whomping Willow stood near the house, it’s boughs banging on the side of the castle-like building as though demanding entrance. All around, garden gnomes ran unchecked and a few even stopped to make rude gestures at the newcomers.

Ron pulled out his wand to hex a particularly brave gnome, but Hermione stopped him.

“Better not,” she warned. “Lovegood probably thinks they’re baby Crumple-Horned Snorkacks.”

“No, said a dreamy voice from the side of the house, “they’re garden gnomes.”

Luna Lovegood stood up from a thick knot of brush. Her blonde hair was tied back in a bun by what looked like a dried squid tentacle, her wand stuck through the knot of hair. Her face was covered in black soil and she held a trowel in her gloved hand. Bright turquoise coveralls, a few sizes too large, draped her thin frame, making Harry wonder how he could have missed her, even ducked down in the thick growth of the garden.

They were about to greet Luna when another figure stood up beside her. Expecting it to be Luna’s father, they were all surprised to see a stocky young man, perhaps a few years older than themselves, his face as dirty as Luna’s. Instead of a trowel, he held a wispy plant with long fibrous leaves that looped over toward the ground. The leaves swirled, braiding themselves in intricate patterns, then unwinding, only to do it again in another complex weave.

“These garden gnomes, though,” Luna continued, “are actually spies from the Daily Prophet that have been planted here to spy on Father.”

Harry was so used to Luna’s outlandish statements that he did not even both to share a knowing glance with Ron and Hermione. “Who’s your friend,” Harry asked her instead, forgetting for a moment the bad memories he had of the place while in the presence of his dear friend.

Rather than waiting for introductions, the young man walked forward and held out his gloved hand.

“Iguana Scamander,” he said. His voice was boisterous, brimming with energy that was reflected in his large, dancing eyes. His clothing was a simple counterpoint to Luna’s—plain brown coveralls and a matching shirt, the long sleeves rolled up past the elbows. “Call me Iggy.”

Harry reached out and took the gloved hand, feeling a thick layer of soil, along with what he thought might be an earthworm, pressed into the skin of his palm. He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but Iggy cut him off.

“I know who you are.” He looked at Ron and Hermione. “I know who all of you are. Luna’s told me so much about you.”

Harry looked over at Ron, trying to decipher his friend’s unreadable expression. He knew Ron had a soft spot for Luna, but had been deliberately vague on how soft that spot was. Hermione was apparently wondering the same thing, if the glare she was giving Ron was any indication.

“She has, has she?” Ron said. He held his own hand out and gave Iggy’s a hard squeeze when it was offered. “Funny, she hasn’t told us anything about you.”

“Then again,” Hermione said, giving Ron a sour look, “we’ve all been rather busy and haven’t seen Luna as much as we would like.”

“I know,” Iggy answered, staring at them with such intensity that Harry felt a growing need to take a step back. “I’ve read all about it in the Quibbler and then Luna’s filled in the gaps. I have to say I’m honored to meet you at last.”

Luna walked up beside Iggy and smiled. “When I told Iggy that I met you at school, he didn’t believe me. Then, when I told him that we were friends and that I fought with you at the Ministry, we almost had a fight about it. I had to get Daddy to tell him before he would believe me.”

“How long have you known each other?” Ron asked, still eyeing Iggy.

“Practically since birth,” Iggy said. “Our fathers were friends at Hogwarts and have been ever since.”

“Is your father–?” Hermione began, but Iggy cut her off.

“Newt Scamander, yeah,” he said, as though as used to answering this question as Harry was to inquiries about his own identity. Harry knew he had seen the name before, but could not quite place it, nor did he need to with Hermione Granger as his friend.

“Newt Scamander,” she said. “He wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We used it as a text at school.”

“Oh, yeah,” Harry said, recalling the name now in slightly less vague terms.

“My dad travels all over the world looking for rare magical beasts,” Iggy explained. “It’s no wonder that he and Xeno are such good friends. Common interests.”

“Speaking of your father, Luna,” Harry said, feeling an impatience to ask about the ankh and a strong desire not to see the man who betrayed them, “is yours home?”

“Yes,” Luna answered. “He’s inside now doing some research on Naked Mammoths.”

“You mean elephants?” Hermione asked.

Luna gave her a blank look. “Let’s go inside. Daddy will be so happy to see you.”

Behind Harry, Ron faked a cough to hide a snicker.

Luna turned to lead them into the house. Harry followed Hermione in step behind Luna and Iggy, but felt Ron grab his upper arm and hold him back.

“What do you think about this Iggy character?” Ron whispered. By his tone, Harry knew the answer his friend was looking for, but he was not prepared to give it.

“Um,” he stuttered, “I guess if Luna likes him, that’s good enough for me.”

Ron grunted his disapproval of Harry’s opinion, but said nothing, releasing Harry’s arm and following him toward the door of the odd Lovegood house. The two aged crab apple trees that had stood sentry by the front entrance during their last visit, leafless and covered in mistletoe, were now in full foliage, their green, waxy leaves rustling in the slight breeze. The garden all around was as full of life as it had been empty of it in winter, but the infusion of vibrant greens, yellows, and oranges only managed to further disconcert Harry, who felt as though he was walking through some surreal dream where he walked the same path he had walked before, heading to the same near-capture by the Death Eaters.

Harry followed Luna and Iggy into the kitchen and here the feeling of déjà vu faded. The room—circular and brightly painted the last time—was now perfectly square and decorated in a diagonal black and white checkerboard pattern that made Harry feel dizzy until he closed his eyes and sought to balance himself on the counter. Obviously, the room had the same effect on Ron and Hermione, who gasped upon entering and both sought their own means of determining which way was down.

Luna, taking their distress as a sign of appreciation, smiled and waved her small hand in an arc around the room. “Daddy and I decided to redecorate after the unfortunate incident with the Snorkack horn.”

“Erumpent,” Harry heard Hermione whisper from behind him.

“It’s . . . it’s brilliant,” Ron managed, clutching onto the back of Harry’s shirt to keep from falling over.

Slowly, the three of them made their way to the center of the house and up the spiral staircase that led to the upper floors. The room was much as it had been during their last visit, with teetering stacks of books and papers everywhere, but instead of the models of creatures hanging from the ceiling, now models of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and many others involved in the downfall of Voldemort spun on silken strings, some waving wands, some flying brooms, some just standing. Harry was particularly drawn to one large figure of Ginny, flying on a broom near a figure of himself wielding what looked like a tiny holly wand. The attention to detail was striking and even Hermione could not hide her admiration.

“Luna, these are wonderful,” she said, eyeing a rather overly muscular figure of Ron near the window.

“I like having my friends around,” Luna said, smiling at the expressions of awe she was seeing, “even when they’re not.”

Harry looked around the room, admiring the models, but still unable to shake his feelings of unease. He felt as though something was missing from the room and, with a slow turn around, he realized what it was.

“Luna,” he said, “where’s the printing press?”

“Oh,” Luna said, “it survived the explosion and Daddy moved it to the new Quibbler offices in London. He’s expanding. Hired on several new reporters.”

“Yeah,” Iggy said, standing directly beneath a model of himself. “I’m actually going to work for him writing a column on magical beasts around the world.”

“Sounds great,” Ron said, sounding as though it was anything but great. “I’ll have to be sure to check that out.”

Led by Luna, they continued on up the stairs, past Luna’s bedroom with its painted faces of Harry and the others surrounded by the golden chains made up of the word “friends.” Harry felt another mixed set of emotions here. The affection he felt for Luna rushed in at once, followed by the slow seeping anxiety that came from memory. This was where the betrayal had been discovered. Here, in his daughter’s bedroom, Xenophilius had admitted to attempting to sacrifice them to Voldemort. Harry looked out the window, half-expecting to see Death Eaters again, flying on brooms just outside.

Finally, they reached a closed door, which Luna opened and they found themselves in the largest library any of them had seen outside of Hogwarts. Row upon row of leather-bound volumes stretched away into darkness, the only light in the windowless room provided by a few torches that flickered in wall sconces near where they stood.

“Luna?” came a voice from the darkness. “Who’s that with you?”

Harry recognized the voice and his stomach lurched. A moment later, Luna’s father came into sight, wearing robes in alternating chevrons of orange and brown, the colors adding to the distress of seeing the man again. Even though the rational part of his mind told him to forgive Xenophilius Lovegood for what he had done, the irrational part still burned as the slightly cross-eyed wizard emerged into the light, a pair of reading glasses perched on his short, pointed nose.

“Potter?” Lovegood asked, squinting in the gloom. “Harry Potter?”

“That’s right,” Harry answered.

Xenophilius moved forward cautiously, as though afraid Harry might pull his wand on him at any moment. Everyone else seemed to sense the tension in the room, as well. He could feel Hermione and Ron stepping away from him. The only person who seemed blissfully unaware was Luna, who looked on with her usual calm smile. Even Iggy backed away a few steps.

Xenophilius drew within a few feet and, just as Harry thought he was about to stop, he threw himself at Harry’s feet and began sobbing wildly, clutching the bottoms of his jeans.

“I’m so sorry, Harry,” Lovegood moaned in between sobs. “So sorry . . . Luna . . . they had my Luna . . . I couldn’t . . . her mother . . . . “ He stopped talking, unable to control himself any further, and lay crying and shaking on the floor.

The irrational part that held onto the bitterness against the man shattered, destroyed as surely as the Erumpent horn had been. Kneeling down, he helped Xenophilius to his feet and held him up as Luna’s father collapsed into him, drenching his shoulder in what Harry hoped was only tears. Behind him, over the muffled Lovegood, he heard Hermione crying as well, overwhelmed by the emotional reunion.

“It’s okay, Mr. Lovegood,” Harry said. “It’s nothing, really. I know you only did what you had to do for Luna. I . . . I would’ve done the same thing.”

Xenophilius pulled back from him, but refused to let go of his shoulders. Despite his still flowing tears, he smiled. “You . . . you are great for many more things than defeating You-Know-Who, Harry Potter.”

“Uh, thanks,” Harry said.

Xenophilius stepped back and pulled a painfully pink handkerchief from a pocket inside his robes. He dabbed at his wet eyes and surveyed Hermione and Ron as though seeing them for the first time.

“Daddy,” Luna said, her smile wider than ever, “you remember Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley?”

Xenophilius looked at them and Harry thought he might burst into tears again. His bleary eyes darted from them to Harry, then back before he said, “And to you, as well, I apologize for my mistakes.”

Behind him, Harry heard Hermione bawl. She rushed forward, nearly knocking Harry over a she passed, and wrapped her arms around Lovegood’s shoulders.

“Yeah,” Ron added, barely audible over the renewed crying. “What she said.”

After nearly a quarter of an hour, everyone had composed themselves enough for Harry to explain the reason for their visit.

“We found this,” Harry said to Xenophilius, holding out the ankh to him. “We were hoping you could tell us what it is.”

“Yes,” Hermione said, “you were such wonderful help with the Deathly Hallows that we thought you might know something about this, as well.”

Harry fought the urge to mention that Hermione had been the strongest voice against believing the tale of the Deathly Hallows, that she had argued for weeks against pursuing that line of information as a possible means of defeating Voldemort. From Ron’s small cough just behind him, he knew that he was not alone in suppressing that impulse.

Xenophilius took the ankh from Harry’s hand and examined it with a look of wonder etched on his face. He turned the golden object over in his hands, looking closely at every inch of it. He held it at various distances from his nose, at one point allowing his eyes to cross as he studied it.

Finally, he pulled out his wand and cast a series of charms on the ankh, all of which had no visible effect.

“Ah, yes,” he said at last.

“You know what it is?” Harry and Hermione asked together.

“No idea,” Lovegood admitted, although his demeanor seemed unaffected by his lack of insight. “Still, I believe I have a book here that may answer your questions.”

Xenophilius turned and sped down one shelf-lined corridor, lighting torches overhead as he went. Harry and the others dashed after him, afraid of losing him in the library that, they knew, was entirely too large to be contained in the small upstairs of the Lovegood house. Where cases were full in many places, books had been stacked in piles nearby, some taller than Ron and balanced so precariously that they all had to slow down to ensure they did not even brush the leather bindings. Barely able to keep up with Lovegood, they hurried along as best they could until they found him standing atop a rickety ladder, examining the uppermost shelf of one of the bookcases. He blew hard on the books, sending a cloud of dust downward like reversed smoke and ran his fingers over the spines until he found the one he was searching for, which he pulled out with a flourish and slid down the ladder, landing hard on the floor.

“It should be in here,” Xenophilius said, smiling.

“How did you remember which book it was in?” Hermione asked, gazing around at the thousands of volumes surrounding them.

“Well,” Xenophilius explained, “I put it there, now didn’t I? Wouldn’t be much use if I didn’t know where my own books were.”

Hermione stared at him in what Harry could only describe as awe. Even with all the hours she had spent in the Hogwarts library, she could not even begin to say where each particular title rested on the shelves. Here, Xenophilius Lovegood was displaying evidence of a memory far greater than any of them could have guessed from their limited contact with him.

Harry took the book and read the title–Magical Artifacts of Ancient Egypt–before opening the creaky leather cover. More dust fell from the pages as he looked for a contents page, along with a folded piece of paper from somewhere in the middle. Harry disregarded the paper and, finding the list of contents, looked for any reference to ankhs.

Chapter Twelve, the book said, dealt with the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the tome used by ancient priests to prepare pharaohs and their chosen for the afterlife. Chapter Fourteen, he read on, dealt with a particular pharaoh’s mask which supposedly gave its owner the ability to speak to the living from beyond the grave. Chapter Thirteen, however, was not listed. No space existed between the surrounding chapters, as though the missing one had not even been listed in the book. Harry flipped the book open, looking for the page numbers where he thought Chapter Thirteen should be, but found only a few blank pages, completely devoid of ink.

Bewildered, he showed the pages to Hermione and Ron.

“It appears to be some sort of concealment charm,” Hermione said. She took out her wand, tapped the first blank page, and said, “Aparecium!”

Nothing happened.

“Hmm,” Hermione said, her face twisted in thought. She tried several more spells, none of which produced so much as a faint line on the pages.

“Let me give it a go,” Xenophilius said. He repeated many of the same spells Hermione had already tried, in some cases pronouncing them completely different. He then tried a few spells that, based on the sour look on Hermione’s face, he made up on the spot, all with no effect.

As they discussed different methods of reading the erased passages, Ron bent over and picked up the folded piece of paper from the floor. Opening it, he read the few words, his eyes growing wide.

“Blimey!” he said. “Harry, take a look at this and tell me if you recognize the handwriting.”

Harry took the note and recognized the letters at once, even if the words made no sense.

Xeno, I have taken the liberty of removing the content of these pages. Should Harry Potter ever come to you seeking this book, please tell him that the best place to hide something is often in plain sight.

The note was signed in the unmistakable, spidery hand of Albus Dumbledore.

The next to last finished chapter.  Sadly, we have almost reached the point where I must leave you hanging, but I am thinking of posting more of my fiction on here–stories that I can’t find a home for, including, perhaps, my first completed novel manuscript in all its amateur glory.

But in the meantime, here is Chapter 11–Much That Is Hidden

“And so,” Harry said. “I threw the box at her and left.”

It sounded childish when he said it out loud, but he would not let the small flicker of guilt he felt drown out his indignation. He could still hear the waves pounding on the shore. The pain was too fresh.

Sitting on a wooden stool he had conjured from nothing, he stared at the engraved names of his parents as though he expected them to speak, to offer words of comfort. He had sat on the stool for over an hour, the dark cemetery around him growing still as the daylight waned. Far off in the distance, he could hear the sounds of people enjoying themselves at the pubs, something he missed during his first visit to Godric’s Hollow. To Harry, it seemed as though his defeat of Voldemort had turned the volume back up on the wizarding world, allowing people to speak without fear for the first time in years. Any thoughts of revelry, though, were as far from him as the fear was from the pubgoers.

“I thought things would be easier with Voldemort gone,” Harry said. He bowed his head, not wanting to look at the headstone, a reminder that his parents were not there to listen to him. “I thought I could have a normal life–get a job, fall in love, have children. Now, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have that. I don’t want to be famous Harry Potter. I just want to be Harry Potter–an Auror, a husband, maybe a dad. Someday.”

He sat quiet for a long time, embarrassed at being so sentimental even with his dead parents. After a while, he stood up and vanished the stool.

“I’ll come back soon.” He turned and walked back through the cemetery toward the gates. The white marble grave markers rose up from the dark grass like uneven teeth, the names and dates on each blurred in shadow. Lost in his own thoughts, he failed to notice the two shapes coming toward him until he heard a familiar, drawling voice. Harry ducked behind a large tombstone carved to resemble an owl, hoping he was not spotted.

“Do you have to follow me everywhere I go?” Draco Malfoy asked.

At first, Harry thought that Malfoy had, indeed, seen him hiding and was about to answer before another familiar voice answered instead.

“Until you tell me where you’ve been going and what you’ve been doing,” Lucius Malfoy answered, “yes.” The Malfoys walked closer to where Harry lurked behind the stone owl, forcing him to move around it to remain hidden. His feet padded noiselessly in the grass as Draco and his father moved deeper among the graves.

“I’ve already told you,” Draco said, scorn evident in his voice. “I’m just meeting with some old friends. Discussing old times. Nothing . . . sinister.”

Harry strained his ears to hear as they walked away from him. Abandoning caution, he crouched and skittered to the next grave marker large enough to hide him that would bring him closer to the Malfoys.

“I know your old friends, Draco,” Lucius answered. “You will remember, they are mostly the children of my old friends.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem,” Lucius answered with equal venom, “is that in order to stay out of Azkaban, we must steer clear of those old friendships. The only way for us to survive is to build a new life away from those old allegiances.”

For the first time, Harry noticed how similar their voices sounded. Lucius’s remained an octave or so lower, but Draco’s nearly matched his in adulthood.

They had stopped before an ornate marble tombstone. Even in the gloom, Harry recognized it as the one Ron had pointed out on their previous visit as belonging to the Malfoys. Further back, he could see the faint outline of his parents’ stone barely a dozen yards away.

“No, Father,” Draco said. They were both looking at the Malfoy stone now, not looking at each other as they spoke. “The only way for us to survive is to form new allegiances.”

Harry saw Lucius turn his head quickly at his son’s words, but no response came for a long while. When it did, Draco’s father sounded unsettled.

“You can’t mean what Zabini came to you about.”

Now, it was Draco’s turn to look sharply at his father. “Did Mother tell you about that?”

“She did, and it’s lucky for all of us that she had the good sense to,” Lucius said.

Draco turned his attention back to the grave. When he spoke, his voice was calm.

“I guess I will have to keep my secrets from her, as well.”

“You will keep nothing from us,” Lucius said. His voice rose as the words spilled out from his mouth. “You will stop jeopardizing your family and end whatever foolishness you have gotten yourself into.”

“I used to think you were so brave,” Draco said, his voice retaining his preternatural calm. To Harry, it sounded like the same tone Malfoy had used for years to taunt him and his friends. He got the impression that Draco was enjoying seeing his father so disturbed. “I used to think you were the greatest man alive after the Dark Lord. Now, I see you are just a coward. All the glory you said would be mine, all the promises you made and never kept . . . well, Father, that glory will be mine and I’ll keep my own promises from now on. And . . . my own secrets.”

Lucius sputtered for an answer, but Draco cut him off.

“Grandfather tried to warn me. On his deathbed, old Abraxas told me to follow my own path and avoid your schemes. He knew his son had no backbone. It just took me a little longer to figure it out for myself.”

Before Lucius could respond, Draco bent low over the Malfoy grave, stood, and walked away. He had made it nearly halfway to the cemetery gates before Lucius moved to catch up.

Harry tried to move into a better position to hear their conversation as they moved away, but as he turned, his feet tangled in the long grass and he nearly fell forward. To save himself from toppling into sight of the Malfoys, he clutched at the marble gravestone, his hand meeting the hard surface with a loud slap.

Light immediately shone from Lucius Malfoy’s wand, illuminated the stone above Harry in a stark corona. Harry waited for a few seconds, sure that he had been spotted or that Malfoy would invesitage the sound, but the light only moved this way and that, then went out. As Harry’s eyes adjusted, he heard receding footsteps as Lucius hurried toward the cemetery gates.

“I forbid–” Lucius began when he reached his son, but was interrupted when Draco turned on him, wand in hand.

“You’ll forbid me nothing,” Draco said, a trace of threat in his voice. “I don’t need you.”

Lucius shrank back a step, but did not go for his own wand. “Think of your mother.”

Draco laughed. The sound was cold and empty, almost chilling the balmy summer air that lay on the cemetery like a blanket. “Mother! What about her? She has never denied me anything. Do you think she will start now?” He turned again and continued on toward the gates of the cemetery. Lucius followed, slower now, not even trying to catch up. His head was slumped in a posture of defeat, something Harry never thought he would live to see, even with the fall of the Dark Lord.

When Draco and his father were gone for several minutes, Harry emerged from his hiding place. His knees blazed in pain from his crouching and he had to take a few experimental steps to see if he could walk without toppling over. Gripping the tombstones for support, he made his way to the Malfoy monument. He bent low again, ignoring the protests from his legs, and looked to see what Draco had left.

A black rose lay on the low mound beneath the marble stone. He touched the petals and, to his surprise, found them soft and supple instead of wilted, as they appeared. A memory flooded into his mind, one of himself going through the wreckage of his parents’ home in Godric’s Hollow, and for a brief moment he felt a bond between himself and Draco Malfoy. The reaction disturbed him, but he could not dispell it. He had felt many things toward Malfoy over the years–hatred, loathing, even pity–but at no time had he ever felt they might share certain things in common. He looked up at the engraved name on the tombstone. Abraxas Malfoy. Draco’s grandfather. He had only heard mention of the man once and had no idea how close he and his grandson had been. Now, Harry knew that they had at least had enough of relationship for Draco to leave a token behind in his memory, a token that now reminded Harry of all the people he had lost, as well.

Leaving the black rose atop the grave, Harry returned once more to stand before the stone marking his parents’ final resting place. He tried to return his thoughts to his mother and father, but the conversation between the Malfoys kept replaying in his mind. He wanted to think about it later, to not have it intrude on this one place he considered sacred. Still, he could not block out Lucius’s pleas and the cryptic answers that Draco gave him. He again wondered if Draco had fallen back in with the Death Eaters, had perhaps even become their leader. For several frustrating minutes, he tried to recall the conversation word for word, but what he heard kept getting confused with what he wanted to hear until he could no longer say for sure what Malfoy had admitted to his father. Finally, he was forced to give up and, with some difficulty, pushed the whole affair to the back of his mind to spend a few more minutes with his parents.

He stood there in silence for some time, still unable to quiet the drawling voices, then followed the same path the Malfoys had taken in their departure.

With a huge headache from the day’s adventures, Harry arrived back at Grimmauld Place and let himself in. He slammed the door without thinking, setting off the portrait of Sirius’s mother in the hall. Her bellows only added more fuel to his headache and his weariness and he walked over to stand in front of the large hanging.

“Blood-traitor scum! Friend of Mudbloods! Filth and slime invading the Noble House of Black!” the portrait wailed.

“THE HOUSE OF BLACK IS DEAD!” Harry roared. “YOUR FAMILY IS DEAD!”

To his shock, the portrait went silent. Her voice still echoing down the corridors, her mouth clamped shut and she stared at Harry with eyes so wide that he thought they might pop off the canvas and roll about on the floor.

“Dead?” Sirius’s mother whispered. Harry thought that he had gone partially deaf, having never heard her speak in anything other than full volume before. The rosy color of her cheeks drained away, literally bubbling up and running down the painting. “All of them?”

“All of them.”

Sirius’s mother buried her face in her hands and began to sob. Her crying was accompanied by a loud squelching noise and then the frame holding her portrait, held in place for years by unbreakable charms, pitched forward onto the floor at Harry’s feet. Down the hall, another portrait made the same noise and fell to the carpet. On down the hall into the sitting room, more pictures repeated this process and soon, every picture in sight was tumbling from the walls, knocking over lamps and decorations in their wake. Harry could hear more paintings falling above him on the upper floors and the intermittent sound of breaking glass.

“Well, that’s just great!” Harry spewed. He drew his wand, preparing to make a round about the house and repair everything that had broken, but a metallic glint from the wall in front of him caught his eye.

In the wall behind where the portrait of Warburga Black had long hung, a small space was open in the wall. Something giving off a golden reflection sat deep within the shadows and Harry moved in for a closer look. Reaching his hand into the opening, he almost touched it before caution took hold of his senses and made him pull his hand back. He raised his wand and cast a spell to reveal any enchantments that may be present on the object, but the object remained shrouded in darkness, giving nothing away of its nature. Taking a chance, he stuck his wand in and touched the object, feeling it give way before him. He prodded a bit more and found a golden chain which he managed to loop over his wand. Slowly, he pulled his wand out, drawing from the hole a golden chain and, attached to it, a symbol that Harry had seen before, but did not recognize. It resembled a cross except that the top was rounded, forming a loop that resembled an inverted teardrop. In the center, a stone the color of blood was set within the gold.

As the amulet slid out, it pulled a folded piece of paper out with it, sending it fluttering to the floor. Careful not to touch the golden object, he held his wand out and bent over to pick up the paper. He took both paper and amulet to the kitchen, slid the golden chain off onto the table, and sat down to read the note.

He unfolded the small scrap of paper and nearly dropped it when he saw the handwriting. Like the amulet, he had seen it before, but the blocked print he recognized immediately, the words bringing back terrible memories and a sharp pang of loss.

I am hiding this ankh so the Dark Lord will not acquire it. May it never fall into his hands. RAB

“Regulus,” Harry breathed. His eyes darted up from the note to the ankh and back. He thought for a moment, trying in vain to puzzle out why Regulus Black would hide such an object from Voldemort, then decided to get help.

“Kreacher!” he called.

At once, there was a loud crack and the house elf was beside him.

“Master Harry calls?” Kreacher asked in his croaking voice.

Harry pointed to the ankh on the table. “Have you ever seen that before?”

With some difficulty, Kreacher climbed atop a kitchen chair to take a closer look. He leaned over the table, his nose nearly touching wood as he studied the ankh. His eyes narrowed for a time, then he shook his head.

“No, Master Harry,” he answered finally. “Kreacher has never seen that object before.”

“You never saw Regulus with it?”

“No, Master Harry.”

Harry sat back, disappointed. “Do you know what it is?”

Kreacher turned and leaned down to evaluate the amulet again. “Kreacher believes it is an ankh, sir.”

“Does that mean anything to you?”

The house elf rose and blinked at Harry. “Kreacher knows little about the magic of humans.”

Harry sat for a moment, trying to decide what to do next. For one wild moment, he thought of having Kreacher touch the ankh to see if anything would happen, then he imagined what Hermione’s reaction would be if something went wrong.

Hermione . . . .

“Kreacher,” Harry said, sitting up suddenly. “I want you to go to the Burrow and have Ron and Hermione come here right away.”

“Yes, Master Harry.” There was another loud crack and the house elf was gone.

Less than five minutes later, another crack announced Kreacher’s return and was immediately followed by the front door opening as Ron and Hermione entered.

“We told you not to go, but you decided to be a git instead,” Ron said as he entered the kitchen. He looked at Harry for a moment, then grinned. “At least you didn’t call us over to fix where she’d hexed you or something.”

“What?” Harry asked.

Ron’s brow furrowed. “Ginny. Her and Dean. Shell Cottage. What? Did she Obliviate you?” He turned to Hermione, standing next to him. “It’s worse than we imagined.”

Hermione did not respond. She was focused not on Harry, but on the golden ankh lying atop the kitchen table.

“Where did you get that?” she asked.

“That’s why I called you,” Harry said. “I found it behind the painting of Sirius’s mother.”

“Found it where?” Ron asked. He disappeared down the hall where Harry could hear him say “Blimey!” as he discovered the space where the portrait had previously hung.

“How’d you figure out how to counter that Sticking Charm?” Ron asked as he reentered the kitchen.

“I told her the Black family was dead,” Harry answered, his eyes still on Hermione, who had taken a seat across the table from him, her gaze fixed on the ankh. “Then all the paintings just fell off.”

“Well, I guess that was quite a blow for her,” Ron said. “Almost true, except for Andromeda, of course, and she might as well be dead as far as that old bat’s concerned. Maybe now you can throw a party or something here and not have to worry about her screaming her head off.”

Ron stopped talking when he noticed that Harry was not paying attention. Instead, he was watching Hermione as she drew her wand and whispered a few spells over the ankh.

“Care to share, Hermione?” Harry asked.

Hermione finished her incantation, but did not look up at him. “Well, it doesn’t seem to be cursed.” She reached out slowly and touched the golden chain. Nothing happened. Reaching a little further, she grasped the ankh and picked it up off the table. “There does seem to be some sort of latent enchantment, though.”

“Late what?” Ron asked.

“Latent,” she repeated. “Magic that lies dormant until it is activated.”

“How do we activate it?” Harry asked.

“Do we want to activate it?” Ron asked.

Hermione turned the ankh in her hand and studied it before answering. “I have no idea. There are no markings at all to tell what it might be used for.”

Harry slid the note he had found across the table and Hermione snatched it up before Ron could touch it. Leaning over her shoulder, he narrowed his eyes at her, then read the note at the same time.

“Very curious,” Hermione said, placing the note back on the table.

Ron shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “Still doesn’t tell us much, does it? I mean, he could have at least told us what it was used for.”

“I don’t know what it is used for, but I know someone who might,” Hermione said.

Harry and Ron both looked at her, at first confused, but then with looks of shocked disbelief.

“Surely you don’t mean–” Ron began.

Hermione interrupted him. “I do.”

“You said he was a nutter,” Harry reminded her. “You said–“

“Nevermind what I said before,” Hermione snapped. “It turned out that he was right, or at least partially right, wasn’t he?” She reached out and picked up the ankh again. “I think we should take this to Xenophilius Lovegood and see what he can tell us.”

Before anyone else could respond, Hermione left the kitchen, leaving Harry and Ron staring after her.

“Well,” Ron said, turning back to Harry with a smug grin, “there really is a first time for everything.”

I’m sitting with my family having some homemade butterbeer and thought, “Hey, I didn’t post chapter 10 yesterday.”  Oops!  Still, thanks to everyone who had read so far, even knowing that I’m going to leave you hanging.

Chapter 10–Give and Take

Mafalda Hopkirk rubbed her eyes across the table. “Harry,” her voice was hoarse, weary. “Is there anything else you can think of?”

Harry shook his head.

Beside Hopkirk, Dawlish sat leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. His narrowed eyes stared at Harry as though looking for some inconsistency that would link him to the attempted bombing, some small shred of evidence that would allow him the opportunity to end Harry’s ambitions of becoming an Auror once and for all.

Hopkirk turned and looked at Dawlish. “Unless you can think of anything we might have missed, I think we can let Mr. Potter go.”

Dawlish took a long time in answering. His eyes never moved, still waiting for something that would allow him to detain Harry for further questioning.

“No,” he said at last, sounding as though Christmas had been cancelled. “I suppose not.”

Mafalda Hopkirk nodded. “Well, then, Mr. Potter. We thank you again for your bravery and quick thinking. If you remember anything else that might be of use to us, please come by the Ministry or send an owl.”

“I’ll do that.”

Harry scooted his chair back, the legs sliding along the hardwood floor obscenely loud in the small Harrods office. He passed Dawlish without looking at him and entered the ornately furnished hall. A few Harrods employees milled about, confused about the recent excitement, and they eyed Harry suspiciously as he made his way through the labyrinth of corridors. Fifteen minutes and several wrong turns later, he found himself facing the door leading back to the sales floor, but before he could go through, someone called his name.

“Harry.” It was Cecelia. She ran down the hall toward him, arriving flushed and out of breath. “I–I just wanted to say thank you.”

“It was nothing.” He tried to sound calm, but the words came out in a breathy whisper, as though all sound was being sucked into her luminous, brown eyes.

“You’re so modest,” she said.

Harry felt blood rushing to his cheeks and fought hard, without success, to diffuse it.

Cecelia raised a small green bag and handed it to Harry. “Father said you were here to get a gift for your . . . your girlfriend.” She forced smile. “Here you go. Compliments of Harrods.”

“Uh . . . thanks.”

She turned without another word, her long black hair waving behind her, and started back down the corridor. Harry took a quick glance into the bag and saw a small, black case. Reaching in, he pried it open and saw a brilliant twinkle from the diamond necklace within. He stifled a gasp, knowing the jewelry must be worth considerably more than anything he would have purchased there. Looking up again, he saw that Cecelia had nearly reached the end of the hall.

“Maybe,” Harry started without thinking, and before he could stop himself, the rest of it was out. “we could have lunch together some time.”

Cecelia did not turn, but glanced back at him over her shoulder. “I’d like that.”

Harry nodded and, before he could say anything else to embarrass himself, whirled and rushed out the door . . . into the waiting arms of Rita Skeeter.

“Harry,” Rita breathed as Harry squirmed out of her embrace. “Who is that lovely girl? New love interest?”

“No, she’s just an employee here,” Harry muttered, stepping around her. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Rita did not excuse him. Instead, she followed him as he walked in between displays of expensive wares, whispering in his ear with every step. “Come on, Harry. We’re old friends. Something happened here today, the Ministry isn’t talking, and here you are.”

“We’re not old friends and it’s only a coincidence that I’m here.”

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Rita purred.

They had reached the large Egyptian-style escalator. Harry stepped on and Rita came right behind. Her perfume seemed to form a toxic cloud around her, nearly smothering Harry and leaving his thoughts sluggish. He shook his head and took a step down the escalator in hopes of finding fresh air.

“While we’re talking Harry,” Rita said, matching his step down and bringing her perfume cloud with her. “I think we should talk about the new book I’m writing.”

Harry turned and faced her. “What book?”

Rita offered him a smug grin. “Why, your biography, of course. After the record-breaking performance of my book on Dumbledore, how could I not follow it up by describing your life? A classic tale of triumph from tragedy that–“

Harry pulled his wand out. “If you harass any of my friends–“

“No need to get violent.” Her voice remained calm, but she took a step back. “I have a right to report the truth, Harry, and you can’t stop me.”

They reached the bottom of the escalator and Harry almost fell over backward. Regaining his balance, he kept his gaze leveled on Rita Skeeter.

“I can stop you,” Harry said. “You don’t want the Ministry to find out that you’ve been ‘bugging’ me.”

Rita smiled, an almost reptilian look that made Harry’s heart sink. Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out a laminated card and held it out toward him.

“Tsk, tsk, Harry. While you were out saving the world, I registered as an animagus with the Ministry.”

Harry felt as if he had just been checkmated in a game of wizard’s chess. He mustered what fire he had left and said, “Stay away from me and my friends.” Turning, he walked away before he gave in to his urge to hex Rita.

“I’ll be seeing you, Harry,” Rita called as Harry reached the door to the outside.

By the time Harry arrived at the Burrow, night had fallen. Sitting through hours of questioning by officials from the Ministry had widdled away his patience to a splinter and he wanted nothing more than to go home and climb into bed. He knew that such was not an option, however. He had amends to make with Ginny.

Ron and Hermione were standing near the fence when he appeared just outside the boundaries of the Weasley residence. They both jumped as he popped into being before them, both their faces showing a mixture of relief and annoyance in the moonlight.

“Where the hell have you been?” Ron said, opening the gate for him to enter.

Hermione slapped Ron on the shoulder, then turned her attention to Harry. “We went to Grimmauld Place and you weren’t there. We’ve been so worried.”

Harry walked past them without looking up. “I don’t want to tell it twice, so you’ll just have to hear it inside.”

The three of them made their way into the house. Once inside, Harry plopped down into a kitchen chair and was greeted immediately by a plate of steaming food placed in front of him. He placed the Harrods bag on the table and saw Hermione’s eyebrow raise in interest.

“There you are, Harry, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said. Her voice did not carry the relief that Ron’s and Hermione’s had. Instead, Harry thought he heard a sour note of disapproval that stole his appetite from him. She added a glass of pumpkin juice, then left the kitchen without another word.

Ron and Hermione sat down across from him and for a long time no one spoke. Harry nibbled at his food, mindful of the sets of eyes watching him.

“Well?” Ron asked finally.

Harry stared down at his plate and began to recount his day at Harrods. He had barely begun, however, when Hermione interrupted him.

“Harry, is that . . . blood?” She pointed at Harry’s face and he raised his hand up involuntarily to the spot. When he drew his fingers away, they were smudged with red. He wiped his lips, seeing more of the red substance coming off.

“Lipstick,” he answered, and before he could explain further Hermione had whipped out her wand. Harry fell backward, nearly tumbling out of his chair, thoughts of his own birthday flashing in his mind.

“Hold still so I can clean it off before Mrs. Weasley sees,” Hermione whispered, her voice frantic.

Harry moved toward her, wary of any treachery that might leave him stunned once again. Hermione flicked her wand and Harry felt a slight tingle from his lips as Cecelia’s lipstick was siphoned away. When the job was done, she did not put away her wand and her face eased into a scowl that Harry could feel from across the table. Beside her, Ron’s eyes were also narrowed, his freckles lost in the angry flush that had risen from his neck and now threatened to set his ears ablaze.

“Will you let me explain before you two hex me?” Harry said, irritated. “I’ve had a very long, very bad day and the last thing I need is you lot giving me a hard time.”

A long moment of silence passed before Ron and Hermione both nodded. Their faces, though, still spoke loudly of their skepticism.

Harry finished his retelling of the day’s events, the words spilling out in a fast monotone from his weariness. By the time he had finished, the hostility had faded from Ron’s and Hermione’s faces, replaced this time by shocked disbelief. He left out any mention of his encounter with Rita Skeeter, deciding that nearly being blown up was more important.

“That must be what your Dad was called out for,” Hermione said to Ron. She turned back to Harry, her voice dropping so as not to be heard outside the kitchen. “Someone from the Ministry came this afternoon and asked to see Ron’s dad. He seemed awfully excited about something, but we couldn’t hear what. Then, they both left, right in the middle of the part, and haven’t been back since. Now, I guess we know why.”

Harry did not remember seeing Mr. Weasley at Harrods, but he did not doubt that the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister would be present at such a near-catastrophe. A virtual army of officials from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had asked him questions in the small room where Mr. Fahad had taken him after his battle with Stan Shunpike. Several Aurors besides Dawlish had also come, but had pointedly avoided any contact with Harry as though he was suffering from spattergroit. When he had finally been allowed to leave, he saw the store and all its merchandise had been restored to their former grandeur, leaving no mark of the wizard he had killed.

“So, you’re telling me that Stan Shunpike was the criminal mastermind behind all the bombings?” Ron asked. “I’d have figured he have a hard time masterminding his way out of a paper sack.”

“I don’t think he’s behind it,” Harry said. For the first time, he was able to think about the days events without some Ministry official asking him the same question a dozen times. “He seemed to be just an agent for someone else.”

“‘Not for long,'” Hermione mused. She leaned back in her chair, her eyes sliding out of focus as she analyzed the details of Harry’s story. “What do you think he meant by that?”

“No idea,” Harry answered. Now that he had a moment to think without having to rescue elderly ladies from being hurled over balconies, he found Stan’s cryptic words very disturbing. They implied that someone knew of a way to bring the Dark Lord back to life, even after his fall at Hogwarts. That thought, the idea of Voldemort rising yet again, made him feel sick. If only Stan could have been questioned before . . . before he died, Harry thought.

Above everything else, the fact that he had slain another person weighed heavily upon Harry. He had slain Voldemort, yes, but he considered the Dark Lord barely human, more of a magical construct than anything of true flesh and blood. Besides, had it not been his destiny to defeat Voldemort? To kill him? Even in the cool aftermath of the Battle of Hogwarts, he felt no guilt over emerging triumphant over the Dark Lord. Having slain Stan Shunpike, though, regardless of his initial misconceptions about the former Knight Bus conductor, made him feel as though a shadow had crawled inside him and would not be evicted from his tired body. He recognized that, as an Auror, he would likely be called upon to slay dark wizards, but he was not an Auror yet and had received no training in how to cope with the results of a fatal battle. Not sure of what he should be feeling, he decided the best thing he could do was to feel nothing.

“Where’s Ginny?” Harry asked, trying to push thoughts of Stan Shunpike from his mind.

Ron and Hermione shared an uncomfortable glance.

“Well, you have to understand,” Hermione began, “that we didn’t know about all that happened to you and–“

“Where is she?” Harry repeated, dreading the answer.

They exchanged another troubled look, then Ron spoke. “She’s at Bill’s. She waited for you until everyone else had left, then she went back with Bill and Fleur.”

“To Shell Cottage?”

“Yeah.”

Harry stood up. “Then I guess I’ll go there and then go back to Grimmauld Place. I need to explain to her–“

“Don’t go there,” Hermione said.

Harry looked confused. “Why not?”

Ron shook his head and wrapped his arm around Hermione. “Trust us, mate. You don’t want to see her right now.”

Anger flared in Harry again and he leaned over the table toward them. “Why not?” he repeated.

“Go then,” Hermione said, exasperated. “But don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

Harry, pressed now as much by curiosity as by his desire to set things right with Ginny, picked up the Harrods bag and stormed out of the kitchen into the garden. He made his way to the gate, threw it open with more force than was necessary, and Disapparated.

When Harry popped into existence, he found himself just beyond the bounds of Shell Cottage. The moon was high overhead, casting a silver glow on the many trees surrounding the house and he could hear the sea crashing upon the rocks just beyond his line of sight. Opening the gate, he walked into the garden and a sight to his left caught his eyes.

Dobby’s grave, fully illuminated in a gap between two trees, lay in a near corner of the grounds. He walked to it, remembering with a dull sense of loss how it came to be there, how he had dug it himself without magic in honor of his friend’s sacrifice. The mound of earth had settled since he had last seen it, evidenced only by a slight roll in the earth that, now fully cloaked in grass, would be easy to miss on a darker night. Dotting the blanket of green, several small yellow flowers weaved in amongst the grass and seemed to twinkle in the moonlight. The headstone still bore the words he had carved the night of Dobby’s death.

Here Lies Dobby, A Free Elf

Harry stared down at the grave and particularly at one word on the headstone. To him, it seemed to grow, almost drowning out the others until it was all he could see. Free. He had thought that ridding the world of Voldemort would free him from the troubles and fear he had lived with since he had reentered the wizarding world, but they seemed greater now than ever before. While he waited anxiously for N.E.W.T. scores to determine if he could become an Auror, worried about what the Death Eaters were planning, felt confused over the death of Stan Shunpike, and fretted over his relationship with Ginny, he felt weary of the world. Dobby had died a hero, had done his work and was now more free than even he could have imagined. Bearing the weights of his past, his present, and his future, Harry found himself, for a moment, envying the liberated house elf.

The muffled sound of voices, a male and a female, drifted to him, borne on the salty breeze coming in from the sea. He pulled his wand and ducked into the shadows beneath the trees next to Dobby’s grave. Working his way quietly through the underbrush, hoping that the slapping waves would mask his footsteps, he made his way to the rocky shore and saw two figures sitting with their backs to him. In the well-lit night, he could make out Ginny’s red hair. Sitting next to her, he saw a thin body with short, dark hair and Harry’s hopes that Ginny was sitting with her brother were dashed at once. When the dark-haired head turned toward him, he saw the familiar face of Dean Thomas. He was smiling, his white teeth luminous in the semi-darkness. Then, he leaned toward Ginny, kissing her on the ear.

Anger flared in Harry as he stepped from the shadows. In a far corner of his mind, he recalled Ron and Hermione warning him not to come here, but his growing fury pushed their voices away.

Ginny and Dean both turned at his approach, surprise evident on both their faces. Harry saw both of them reach for their wands, then relax as they recognized him. His own hand, still holding his wand, however, did not relax. He did not point it at them, but he raised it in a manner that made them both flinch as though they expected him to hex them at any moment.

“Moving on, are we?” Harry asked Ginny, stopping a few feet away from her. “Going back to recycle your old boyfriends?” A tiny voice inside him told Harry that he was jumping to conclusions, but again his anger pushed it away, banishing it to the same corner as Ron’s and Hermione’s warnings.

Ginny stood quickly and when she turned to face him, he could see her face had gone scarlet. “What’s it to you? Dean came to my birthday party and you didn’t? Who do you think makes me feel more important right now?”

Rather than withering beneath her stern gaze, Harry took a step closer to her. “I guess you don’t even want to hear why I didn’t make it, how I’ve been tied up in London all day after nearly getting blown up finding your birthday present?”

“It’s always something, isn’t it?” she asked, equally standing her ground. “That’s the way it is with Famous Harry Potter. Everything–” he saw a tear fall from each eye, glistening on her cheek, “everything is more important than me.”

Dean moved around Ginny, aligning himself between her and Harry with his hands held up before him. “Harry, we’re just talking. That’s all.”

Harry blinked at him. “Talking? I guess you were whispering in her ear a moment ago.”

“Harry–“

“Save it,” Harry said. He took a step back and rummaged in the mokeskin bag. He pulled out Ginny’s gift, the small box he had received at Harrods. He could imagine the diamond necklace inside glittering like a string of stars as he fastened it around her neck, standing right where they now stood, with no Dean. Instead, he saw only himself and Ginny, alone on one perfect, romantic night.

He threw the box in the grass at Ginny’s feet.

“Happy Birthday.” Turning, he walked back across the garden toward the gate and let himself out, Disapparating as soon as he was beyond Shell Cottage’s boundaries.

About to become the last person in the free world to see the movie, but not before….

Chapter 9–Harrods

Harry returned to Grimmauld Place alone following the N.E.W.T.’s, citing an undefined illness to avoid the dinner promised by Mrs. Weasley earlier in the day. Despite an upturn in Ron’s mood that took place as soon as the exams were over, Harry was not ready to answer for his actions toward Ginny at his birthday party and hoped to postpone a confrontation as long as possible. Should she share her feelings with him again and find that he could not deliver the expected response, he feared the results may be worse, and longer lasting, than a stunning spell. As it stood, he held on to some hope that their relationship could be salvaged, though he had no idea how.

Sitting in the parlor late into the evening, Harry tried to think of what he could do to appease Ginny while steering clear of any discussion of his deepest feelings. Having faced Dark Lords and Death Eaters, Basilisks and Blast-Ended Skrewts, he knew a great deal about fear, but nothing terrified him as much as the prospect of hearing the words “I love you” falling from his tongue. For as long as he could remember, true feelings were what he pushed aside in order to do what needed to be done. Now, with his threats behind him and finally at peace, he should be able to share his inner emotions, but those long years of denial could not be overcome easily, even by the strength of his feelings for Ginny.

And then there was Cecelia. Harry knew nothing about her, but whenever he closed his eyes, he saw hers, dark and luminous. They seemed to have a gravity of their own, as though they might suck him inside their dark shimmering depths. He marveled that objects did not float in circles around, caught in her irresistible orbit. When she had stood before him at the Ministry, Harry had felt a similar sensation to that of a Portkey, a strong tugging sensation in his abdomen, drawing him closer to her.

His hand acted of its own volition, pulling the folded piece of paper from his pocket. He unfolded it slowly, his finger fumbling as though attempting to stop him from doing something he’d regret, and read the words on it:

Cecelia Fahad 2 Lampton Circle London

Expecting a phone number at first, it took Harry a moment to realize that, as a member of the magical community, she would likely have no need for a telephone. With her address, however, he could use the Floo Network to accomplish the same task–instantaneous communication with someone halfway across the country. Even better, he could Apparate . . . .

He folded the paper again and pulled it back to hurl into the fire, but held off at the last moment. His hand lowered and, with some effort, slid Cecelia’s information back into his pocket. Confused and agitated, he went to bed.

Harry’s sleep, unlike that of the previous night, was troubled by odd dreams in which he stood facing Ginny, eyeing him with unwavering adoration. He leaned in to kiss her, only to find her red hair had turned dark brown, and her eyes had shifted from their normal green to almost black. Instead of Ginny, Cecelia now stood before him, lips ready, waiting. Harry closed his eyes and, when he reopened them, found Ginny once again standing in front of him, ready for his kiss.

When he woke, Harry was struck with inspiration and dressed quickly in order to act upon it before he had second thoughts. He met Kreacher, holding a platter of food, at the bottom of the stairs and grabbed a muffin on his way out the door.

He arrived at Diagon Alley just as the shops were opening. The street was as empty as Harry had ever seen it, with only a few witches and wizards milling about and waiting outside certain stores. He received friendly waves from the likes of Madam Malkin, levitating a rack of clearance robes out to the sidewalk, and Mister Ollivander, his shop reopened after his long captivity by the Dark Lord. Only when he reached the building housing the wizarding bank of Gringotts did he hesitate. He stood with his hand on the wooden door handle for a long moment, then opened it and went inside.

The last time he had visited the bank, he had entered through the front door under his invisibility cloak and left on the back of a dragon that had been chained in one of the lowest levels of the vault, causing a great deal of chaos and destruction in the process. Now, as all eyes settled upon him and all sound in the normally bustling lobby stopped, he realized that the goblins had not forgotten.

He stood for some time by the door, ready to flee back into Diagon Alley should the goblins seek retribution for his actions of a few months before. The lobby looked like a Muggle photograph for some time, no one making the slightest movement, until a little figure, one that Harry recognized, skittered out from behind a counter and approached Harry.

“Well, Harry Potter,” Griphook said, “this is . . . unexpected.”

“I still have an account here,” Harry said, keeping his voice even to hide his discomfort.

“Yes, and you will find your vault safe and sound, unlike some of the others here.” Griphook winked, the gesture giving his pointed features a sinister look. “If you will follow me, I will take you there myself.”

Harry followed Griphook across the lobby of Gringotts, careful not to look to either side at the other goblins he could feel staring at him. Only when he was clear of their view did he dare breathe.

“So,” he said, trying to sound casual, “how have you been, Griphook?”

The goblin laughed, a cruel, high sound that made him shiver in its resemblance to Voldemort’s. “Despite my involvement in your law-breaking scheme, I have been accepted back on staff. Promoted even, to Director of Lower Vault Security. As my superiors put it, ‘This is your mess, you sort it out.'”

“That’s . . . great,” Harry stammered. To him, it seemed as though Griphook had forgotten that it was he, not Harry, who had devised the plan to break into LeStrange vault to steal the cup of Helga Hufflepuff. Bill Weasley’s warnings about goblins whispered in his mind and he made a point to be on his guard, particularly with Griphook.

“I’ve installed remarkable new measures to prevent you wizards from penetrating the lowest levels, measures that have been adopted throughout the bank. I think, should you try to steal from us again, that you would barely penetrate beyond the entrance to the vaults before you were killed.”

“Glad I didn’t plan on doing that today, then,” Harry said. He wanted to stick a barb into the goblin, just for spite, and went for the obvious. “More dragons, I suppose?”

“No,” Griphook said. They had reached the rail car that would take them down through the lower levels of the bank. “You and your criminal friends showed us how unreliable the beasts can be. However, you also showed us where our weaknesses lie, and for that, we owe you some measure of gratitude. Gringotts is stronger and safer now than ever before.”

They got into the rail car, but instead of setting off, Griphook muttered a few words in his own language. The car shuttered, then started slowly down the rail.

“One of our protections,” Griphook explained. “Should anyone besides an authorized representative of Gringotts try to use a rail car, the car will roll . . . straight into our incinerator.”

Harry said nothing, instead focusing on the vault doors sliding past them at increasing speeds. Griphook also remained silent until they reached his vault, but then could hold his tongue no more.

“Without me accompanying you,” the goblin said proudly, “you would have been killed seven times over before you reached this point.”

“That’s great,” Harry said, losing patience with Griphook’s boasting. “Now if we can just do what we need to and get out of here–“

“Of course, Mr. Potter.”

Harry entered the vault as soon as Griphook opened the door. Everything looked the same since the last time he entered, so he scooped a fair amount of gold galleons into a bag and returned to the door.

“There was some talk of charging you for the damages done to the bank,” Griphook told him, “but, in a measure of good faith and gratitude for your defeat of the Dark Lord, we decided against it.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, not sounding thankful.

They returned to the surface, Griphook watching him with a smug grin as though hoping Harry would ask more questions about the security measures protecting the bank. When they reached the end of their trip back up and got out, Griphook led him back to the lobby.

“Griphook,” Harry said before the goblin could walk off, “I need this changed to Muggle money.”

Griphook eyed him suspiciously, then motioned for him to follow him to a counter where another goblin took the bag from him and placed it on a golden set of scales. The side the gold sat upon sank immediately, but bills began appearing on the other side, balancing out the weight. Before long, the bag was balanced against a stack of British Pound notes which went into another bag and was slid across the counter to Harry.

“Will there be anything else, Mr. Potter?” Griphook asked, obviously hoping there wasn’t.

For a wild moment, Harry thought of asking about the sword of Godric Gryffindor, the one the goblins thought safe within Gringotts until Neville had drawn it from the Sorting Hat during the Battle of Hogwarts. Caution prevailed, however, and he shook his head. “No, that’s it.”

“Good day, then,” Griphook returned. The goblin turned and walked away.

Harry, longing to be somewhere without dozens of goblins staring at him, did the same.

Brompton Road in Knightsbridge was already busy, even at such an early hour. People commuting to work blending into the steady stream of tourists in a tide of Muggles that flowed around Harry as he walked toward his destination.

Harrods, the massive department store and bastion of Victorian excess, rose at an odd angle to the street, it’s long edifice marked at street level by a series of green awnings. As he reached the nearest of these, he saw that the store had just opened, allowing a throng of people past the security officer posted at the door, examining the wardrobe of each passerby to ensure no dressed inappropriately would enter.

Harry merged with the entering crowd and made his way inside. He found himself surrounded by names he had only heard from Aunt Petunia, and only then well out of earshot of Uncle Vernon. Gucci. Louis Vitton. He had no idea why a purse would cost thousands of dollars considering the mokeskin bag he kept at his side held so much more, but he had learned never to discount the madness of people like his aunt and uncle. Still, Ginny has shown an interest in the expensive Muggle wares during their one previous visit to the store and Harry wanted to buy her something extravagant for her birthday, something that would show her how he felt, hoping that it would erase the memory of his own birthday party.

He made his way through the crowd of morning shoppers and entered the next room. Rising through the building like a great chimney, this part of Harrods had been designed to resemble an Egyptian temple. Sandstone monoliths stretched high above him, heiroglyphics dancing across their rough surfaces. He envisioned Hermione standing beside him, deciphering them from her Ancient Runes textbook, pointing out every mistake made by the artist who designed them. He was about to press on through the mass of people, when a familiar face made him stop in mid-stride.

Stan Shunpike stood at the base of an elaborate escalator, his pimply face looking nervously about, his eyes darting back and forth as though he stood watching a tennis match at Wimbledon rather than in a store full of shopping Muggles. His arms, concealed by long sleeves, held a green bag with the Harrods logo in gold print similar to those held by a few others in the store. Still, the way Stan hugged the bag to his chest made Harry uncomfortable and he approached slowly. In his mind, he replayed the scene from the previous summer when Stan had flown with the Death Eaters in pursuit of Harry as he fled Privet Drive. Harry’s pity for Stan Shunpike had nearly gotten him killed and he had no intention of repeating his mistake.

Wand in hand, he emerged from the crowd a few feet from the escalator.

“Stan?” Harry said, trying not to sound threatening.

Stan jumped as though Harry had stung him and grabbed an elderly lady passing by him on her way to the escalator. The bag hung on his arm as he pulled her in front of him and his other hand pulled out his wand. “Stay back, Potter,” he yelled. “Stay back or I’ll do’er.”

Stan backed onto the escalator, dragging the protesting lady with him. She struggled against her captor, but Stan’s wiry arms held her taut between himself and Harry. Around them, a few people pointed and a few called out in surprise.

Harry, wand leveled at Stan, stepped onto the escalator. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, Stan, but you need to stop before someone gets hurt.”

“Before someone gets hurt?” Stan scoffed. “That’s the whole idea, idn’t it, Potter? Muggles getting hurt?”

“What are you talking about?” Harry asked, he looked past Stan to the top of the escalator, hoping for a stumble that would leave him an opening to do something to help the elderly lady. A pair of younger ladies passing on the down escalator laughed and pointed at him as they passed, but Harry dared not avert his attention from the wand in Stan’s hand.

“I’m talking about these scum,” he answered, waving his wand hand in a short circle to indicate the Muggles surrounding them. “These vermin the Dark Lord wished to eliminate. Yeah, someone’s gonna get hurt, Potter, and it’s them.”

Stan and his captive reached the top of the escalator and, to Harry’s disappointment, stepped off with no trouble, him dragging her along with him beside the balcony overlooking the ground floor. Harry followed, never taking his eyes off of them. The floor around them was mostly clear of shoppers, and for that Harry was thankful.

“Stay back,” Stan repeated. “I’ve got a job to do here and I’m not gonna let you stop me.”

Something clicked in Harry’s mind, the revelation shocking him so much that he almost lowered his wand. “You’re the one who planted the bomb at the Leaky Cauldron.”

Stan chuckled, increasing his grip on the old lady, who had gone limp. He shook the bag a bit without loosening his hold. “That’s right. And that’s not all we have planned.”

“We who?”

“Those of us who support the Dark Lord.”

“The Dark Lord is dead,” Harry said, growing impatient.

Stan grinned. “Not for long.”

With a grunt, Stan forced the elderly lady over the railing of the balcony.

“Accio!” Harry bellowed, pointing his wand toward the falling woman. Instead of hitting the hardwood floor, she shot back upward toward him like a yo-yo.

“Avada–” Harry heard Stan say just as the woman soared over the railing.

Harry fell backward, avoiding the jet of green light and the flying woman by inches. He guided her trajectory onto a table of women’s sweaters and rolled to the side to avoid another green jet. Raising his wand, he shot a Stunning Spell at the spot where Stan had been only a moment before and missed.

Scrambling behind a rack of dresses, he stood up in time to see Stan running away through the store, knocking aside Muggles as he fled.

Harry took off in pursuit, ignoring the shouts of protest and calls for security that followed him. He followed Stan’s dirty brown hair as it bobbed through several rooms of expensive merchandise, until he reached another escalator.

Stan was charging up the steps three at a time, receiving rude stares from the Muggles he nearly bowled over in his ascent. Harry followed as quickly as he could, apologizing the entire way up, and reached the top in time to see Stan fully across a room of glassware. Knowing he could not catch up by running, Harry turned on the spot and apparated to where he had just seen Stan entering the next room.

This room, too, housed elegant glassware and crystal. Several pieces stood either on tables or in display cases, giving the room a glittering, mirage feeling that Harry found disorienting. In the center of the room, Stan had run into a table, shattering a vase of smoky blue glass.

Hearing Harry behind him, Stan turned and raised his wand.

“Reducto!” he screamed.

Dozens of pieces of glass exploded on the table in front of Harry, sending a shower of multicolored shards soaring at him.

“Protego!” Harry cried, raising his wand just in time to avoid being perforated. The wicked bits of glass, darting toward him a moment before, turned about and screamed in the opposite direction, creating a high keening sound as they pierced the air.

Stan watched the swarm of glass, first with satisfaction, then with shock as it raced forward and struck him like a thousand tiny daggers. All around him, glass exploded as bits of flying debris struck the vases and stemware. He stepped backward, his footstep crunching amidst the remains of the destroyed goods, and toppled onto a table. His hand raised briefly, then went limp, his wand falling to the floor.

Harry took a tentative step forward, his own shoe crackling on the bits of glass. When Stan did not move, he took another step.

“Stan?” he asked, looking for some response.

As he spoke, all sound seemed to return to him, much as it had after the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, as though the outside world had been muted, then turned back to full volume. For the first time, he heard the distant calls of people rushing through the store and the voices of Muggle onlookers, much closer, who had seen the battle. At first, only a few shocked whispers reached him from the people he now saw huddled around the entrances to the room, then screams of horror broke out, accompanied by sobbing from a few women and several children.

Several security officers entered the room and, seeing Stan lying motionless and bloody across one of the tables, drew their weapons on Harry.

“Drop the stick,” one of them ordered.

Two more figures appeared out of the crowd, one of which Harry recognized. Cecelia and a large man with the same dark skin and eyes stood just behind the guards, taking in the scene. When her eyes met Harry’s, they grew wide, as though silently questioning him about what had just happened.

“I said drop it,” the security officer repeated.

Harry hesitated, fearing that Stan would attack him from behind if he let down his guard. To his surprise, it was not Stan Shunpike who acted, but Cecelia.

Drawing her own wand, thin and light-colored, she pointed it discreetly at the guards. Immediately, the eyes of the officer who had spoken slid out of focus, glazing over with a look of pure bewilderment. The remaining guards followed suit, the man beside Cecelia drawing his own wand and copying her movements. Soon, they had all lowered their weapons and stood sagging from the enchantments placed on them.

Three more people appeared out of nowhere, their arrivals announced by slight pops around Harry. A gray-haired wizard in a gray business suit stepped in front of the mass of onlookers and spoke in a loud, authoritative voice that carried over the crying children and excited conversations.

“Please, my name is Mr. Harrison and if you will line up along this wall, we would like to question each of you on what you just saw.” The wizard motioned for everyone watching to enter the room, careful to keep them from the piles of glass dust littering the floor. “That’s it. Right along there. Good. Now, this,” he motioned to a younger wizard who met the front of the line in a shadowed corner of the room, “is Mr. Starr and he’ll be asking you some questions.”

Harry watched as Mr. Starr greeted the first Muggle in line. He asked the young man, not much older than Harry, what he had seen, listened to his rendition of the battle, and flicked his wand. The young man’s eyes slid out of focus, much as the guards’ had done, and Mr. Starr directed him to leave the store by the nearest convenient exit.

“Obliviators,” a voice beside Harry explained. He turned and saw the dark-skinned wizard who had arrived with Cecelia at his shoulder. “Mr. Potter, I’m Mr. Fahad, Cecelia’s father, and if you would come with me–“

“What about Stan?” Harry asked.

“Dead.” Cecelia stood over the table, looking down on the bloody mass that had been Stan Shunpike.

Harry could not believe it. He recalled his first meeting with Stan aboard the Knight Bus. He thought of reading that Stan had been put in Azkaban. He thought of his attempt to stun Stan the previous summer that had nearly gotten him killed. He thought of seeing him downstairs, only a few minutes before, holding . . . .

“The bag!” Harry gasped. He looked around for the green Harrods bag that Stan had been holding downstairs and did not see it. “Where’s the shopping bag he was holding?”

“Well,” Mr. Fahad said. “There are a lot of shopping bags here. This is Harrods, after all.”

Harry fought the urge to scream his reply, instead rushing up to the man and looking directly up into his face. “His had a bomb in it. Like the one that destroyed the Leaky Cauldron.”

Mr. Fahad paled. Cecelia, standing at his side, did the same, her dark eyes widening until Harry thought they might pop out of her head. Before either of them could move, however, Harry was already running toward the door. In his mind, he could already picture the headlines declaring that the Princess of Wales had been slain in a terrorist bomb attack and the state of grief her death would cause, not only for Britain, but also for the world.

Wand in hand, he followed in reverse the path he had seen Stan take through the lavishly decorated rooms. His eyes searched frantically for the discarded bag, hoping to see it lying below a table or clothes rack. He worked his way back to the top of the escalator, the last place he could remember seeing the bag as it dangled on Stan’s arm, and found nothing.

Cecelia and her father followed him, conducting their own search to either side of him to cover a wider area. They, too, turned up nothing.

“Where the hell is it?” Harry said through gritted teeth.

“Maybe someone picked it up by mistake,” Cecelia offered.

“Maybe,” Harry said, barely listening. “Maybe . . . Accio bomb!”

He waved his wand and from the floor below heard a cry of surprise. A moment later, a green Harrods shopping bag soared up the escalator into his waiting hand.

A young woman, well-dressed and pretty, came into view below him. “Hey, that’s mine! I don’t know how you did that, but . . . .”

Mr. Fahad flashed his wand. The young woman, her face going slack, turned around and walked off.

Harry held the bag out in front of him, as though bringing it any closer would cause the bomb inside to go off. He set it on the floor, gently, and had to admire the courage of Mr. Fahad and Cecelia, who both stepped closer to take a look.

An ordinary-looking stuffed bear sat alone in the bottom of the bag. It bore no sign of its deadly intent and, for a moment, Harry wondered if he had been wrong about the bag’s contents. Then, the bear started to emit a bluish glow that pulsed like a heartbeat.

Or a timer.

Harry thought of the most isolated place he had ever known. Images of his eleventh birthday, the day he had learned of his destiny, rushed into his mind, particularly the decrepit island shack where Hagrid had found him, sleeping on the floor during his last day as a Muggle.

The blue light grew stronger and pulsed more rapidly, telling Harry that he had to act now. With a wave of his wand, he banished the bag and it furry contents away to that shack, hoping that no one would be close enough to be harmed when the bear exploded.

Just as Harry started to breathe again, a dark shape appeared in front of him. Cecelia wrapped her arms around him and, pressing her lips hard to his, made him forget all about exploding toys.

Chapter Eight–N.E.W.T.’s

If the weeks leading up to Harry’s birthday had been busy, the days leading up to the exams were pandemonium. Lessons doubled, not only the time spent, but also the intensity and amount of magic covered. Starting now before dawn, the professors and other instructors came at all hours of the day and night, the last not leaving sometimes until after midnight. To Harry and Ron, it seemed as though someone had installed a revolving door at Grimmauld Place, one that never stopped spinning from the steady flow of people preparing them for their N.E.W.T.’s.

Harry spent every waking moment making himself ready for the exams. He had not seen Ginny since his birthday party, but he had no time to think about how he might repair his relationship with her. To avoid getting behind, he pushed all thoughts except for those concerned with magic from his mind and at the end of each day he felt as though he had swallowed a double Draught of Living Death, often collapsing in his bed fully clothed. Even at night, he dreamed of incantations and potion instructions, robbing him of even a few hours respite from the incessant demands of learning.

As bad as the weeks were for Harry, though, they were hellish for Ron. Already behind by Harry’s birthday, he sank even faster in the accelerated schedule that preceded the exams. He struggled to remember incantations, forgot potion ingredients, and, on one occasion, could not even recall Hermione’s name.

“It starts with ‘H’,” Ron muttered one evening after the last lesson of the day, slumped over the dining room table, his head resting on his forearms. “Definitely an ‘H’.” A moment later, he was snoring.

Helpless, Harry watched as Ron fell further behind. Having all he could handle with his own studying, he still asked if he could help, perhaps staying up later to work on the things Ron was finding most difficult.

“It’s no use,” Ron answered, shaking his head. “If we get any less sleep, they’ll put us in St. Mungo’s instead of letting us take the exams. I’ll just take the damn tests and see what happens. At this point, I don’t care any more.”

The night before they were scheduled to take the exams, Professor McGonagall was the last to arrive. She looked nearly as weary as Harry and Ron felt, great dark shadows occupying the space between her eyes. She spent an hour going over the testing procedures, then conducted a comprehensive review of what they had learned, asking them both to perform the complex spells they would be required to know to pass their Transfiguration test.

Harry, when asked, successfully performed a Disillusionment Charm on himself, disappearing completely on the first try. Ron, on the other hand, only managed to turn himself an opaque, smoky color that Professor McGonagall had to fix.

“Mr. Weasley,” she said, collapsing into a kitchen chair. “You’ve made considerable progress over the past few weeks, but you will need to Disillusion yourself to achieve the necessary marks to be an Auror.”

“I know, Professor,” Ron said. He sounded defeated, already seeing his low marks.

McGonagall stood, retrieved her cloak, and made her way to the door.

“All I ask of each of you is to do your best,” she said, her words softened by her extreme weariness. “Regardless of what happens tomorrow, I will see you on the first for your Order of Merlin ceremony.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Harry said, opening the door for her. “Thank you for everything. You don’t know how much we appreciate what you and the others have done for us.”

Professor McGonagall waved off his thanks. “Don’t worry about it, Potter. Just pass your exams tomorrow. That will be thanks enough for all of us.”

Harry started to shut the door behind her, but another figure appeared on the doorstep before he could. Hermione, her bushy hair sticking up in all directions and dark circles beneath her eyes matching McGonagall’s, entered as Harry opened the door for her.

“How’s Ron?” she asked, her concern obvious in her voice.

“Go see for yourself.”

He followed her to the kitchen and found Ron staring into the fire. She sat in the floor at his feet, her troubled gaze fixed on his.

“I can’t do it,” Ron whispered, never taking his eyes off the fire. “I’m going to fail.”

Hermione took his hand in both of hers, the gesture making Harry think of Ginny for the first time since the birthday party. “No, you’re not,” she said. Her voice trembled as though she was on the verge of tears. “You’re going to do fine.”

“I think I’ll do okay,” Ron said. “Just not good enough to be an Auror.”

“Then, that’s okay. I don’t care if you’re an Auror.”

Ron turned and looked at Harry, his already bloodshot eyes rimmed with tears. “It’s what we wanted. Aurors. Together.”

“I know,” Harry said. He couldn’t think of anything else that would help the situation , so he said nothing.

Harry slept better than he expected to that night, due in large part to the exhaustion he was feeling from the near-constant lessons. He rose before dawn, however, feeling an unexpected calm now that the day of reckoning was upon him. He dressed quickly and went downstairs, hoping Kreacher would have breakfast ready early. To his delight, he smelled bacon and coffee and heard the light rattling of pans from the kitchen.

Making his way downstairs, he heard snoring from the drawing room and found Ron asleep on the sofa, his head resting in Hermione’s lap. Also asleep, she lay with her head back and mouth open, her right hand lost in Ron’s red mane. A copy of Advanced Defensive Magic rested on the floor beside her bare feet, having slid from her lap at some point during the night. Harry smiled and, again, allowed himself to think of Ginny. The image of her sent an uncomfortable pang to his stomach that competed with his hunger. Thinking of his own hand weaving through her red hair, he entered the kitchen.

Expecting to find Kreacher preparing breakfast, Harry was surprised to find Mrs. Weasley standing at the stove, flipping strips of bacon with slight movements of her wand.

“Good morning, Harry, dear,” she said as he entered and sat down. “I asked Kreacher to go out for some pastries. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, not at all, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, unable to stifle a yawn. “But what are you doing here?”

“It’s a big day for you,” she said. “Taking your N.E.W.T.’s. Your future as an Auror depends on what you do today, so you should have a good breakfast before you set out.”

Harry, repeating Mrs. Weasley’s words in his head, suddenly felt much less hungry than before. Watching her back as she tended to the bacon, he thought of Ginny again and, for a moment, envisioned her standing there instead of her and Ron’s mother.

“How’s Ginny?” he heard himself ask. His voice sounded as though it came from some other part of the room as though he was practicing ventriloquism.

Mrs. Weasley removed the sizzling pan from the stove and removed the bacon to a towel-covered plate to cool. Then, taking a seat across the table from Harry, she forced a smile.

“She’s fine,” she said. “The first couple of weeks were the hardest, but she’s almost back to her old self again.”

“Couple of weeks?” Harry asked.

Mrs. Weasley sighed. “Sometimes we hurt those around us more by what we don’t say than what we do.”

“I–it was only a moment of hesitation,” Harry protested, feeling as though he was shrinking in his chair. “It just took my be surprise.”

“What took you by surprise? That she told you she loved you or realizing that you love her?”

Mrs. Weasley’s question, put so directly, rendered him speechless for a long time while he considered.

“Both, I suppose,” he answered finally. “I’ve never had anyone to say it to before and–“

“I understand,” Mrs. Weasley said. “Those are powerful words if you’ve never used them before. It’s like trying an advanced spell that you’ve only read about in a textbook. Sometimes it takes practice, but when the time is right, it will come out on its own.”

Harry thought back to his third year at Hogwarts. Standing at the edge of the lake, watching Dementors swarming around himself and Sirius, he had conjured a Patronus for the first time, using a spell far beyond most students that age, one that he had attempted and failed at many times before. The Patronus had risen from him out of necessity. Would his feelings for Ginny do the same thing? Would he have an opportunity to find out?

“I’m sorry,” he said to her. “For upsetting Ginny. I never–“

Mrs. Weasley waved him off. “You can only do what your capable of, Harry. The time wasn’t right for you to tell her how you feel . . . and I know how you feel about her. You look at her the same way Arthur looked at me when we first fell in love.”

Harry felt a bit awkward discussing his feelings for Ginny with her mother and was thankful when Ron entered the kitchen, Hermione in tow. His red hair stuck out from his head where her hand had rested through the night.

“What are you doing here?” Ron asked, his voice hoarse.

Mrs. Weasley ignored her son’s rude tone and stood up. “I thought I would set you lot off with breakfast before your exams. You’ll need all the strength you can get.”

Hermione brushed past Ron, scowling at him as she did, and hugged his mother. Then, collapsing in the chair Mrs. Weasley had vacated, she loaded a plate with hot bacon and buttered toast.

Ron looked at Harry and rolled his eyes. Then, leaning over to compensate for his considerable height advantage, hugged his mother, as well.

“Thanks, Mum,” he said. “I’m starving.” He took the chair next to Hermione and, copying her, fixed a plate of his own.

“You three be sure to come by after the exams,” Mrs. Weasley said, moving toward the kitchen door. “And don’t forget, Ron, that tomorrow is Ginny’s birthday.”

Mrs. Weasley spoke to her son, but looked at Harry as she said the words, giving him an almost imperceptible nod. There’s your chance, she seemed to be saying to him.

“I won’t,” Ron said, his mouth full of food.

Mrs. Weasley left, leaving the three of them in the kitchen, silent except for the sounds of forks on plates and chewing.

Hermione reached into the chair beside her and pulled out the morning’s copy of the Daily Prophet. Unfolding it, she stared at the front page and gasped.

“There’s been another bombing,” she said.

Harry, lost in contemplation over Ginny, bolted upright in his chair. “What? Where? When?”

“Yesterday,” she answered, her eyes darting back and forth as she scanned the print. “A Muggle market in Cardiff. Seven people killed.” She handed the paper over to Harry, who scanned the article himself, then flipped it to search for any more information relevant to the bombing.

“Here’s an interview with Dawlish,” he said. A picture showing the Head Auror talking to reporters, his silently moving mouth drawn up into a mild sneer as he spoke, took up a good deal of space on the front page. “He says the Aurors are doing everything within their power to find those responsible for the killings.”

“Yeah,” growled Ron. “I bet he is.”

Harry agreed with Ron’s sarcasm, but did not answer. “Dawlish says the bombers are enchanting ordinary Muggle items and setting them to explode after a certain amount of time,” he said, still reading. “They could see someone leaving an umbrella at the Muggle shop that exploded a few weeks ago, right before it blew up and killed four people. Video cameras.”

Ron gave Hermione a puzzled look.

“Muggle devices that . . . oh, never mind,” she said, waving her hand. She turned back to Harry. “They must be using some sort of delayed form of Expulso or Confrigo, only more powerful. It’s something that would take a very skilled wizard to perform properly.”

“Speaking of very skilled wizards,” Ron said, looking at his watch. “We better hurry or we’ll miss our exams.”

Harry checked his watch as though he doubted the accuracy of Ron’s. “Yeah, if we’re late and miss the exams, Dawlish wins.”

When they arrived at the Ministry, painted signs, their words flashing in different eye-catching colors, directed the three of them to the area of the building where the exams were being conducted. The corridor leading to the testing facility had a musty, unused smell to it that matched the uncommonly dim lighting. Harry got the sense that few people passed this way and those that did came rarely.

They came to a small table with a solitary, young wizard sitting sullenly behind it. Holding a copy of the Quibbler in his hands, he did not even look up at the three people approaching. Before him lay an open registration book and a trio of nametags.

“Sign in and find your nametag. Then proceed through the doors for your examination,” he said, his voice a bored monotone.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione did as they were instructed and entered through a pair of double doors behind the wizard. The hall beyond was set up much like the Great Hall at Hogwarts had been for their O.W.L. exams, except that this room was slightly smaller and had no windows, giving it, despite its considerable size, a cramped feeling. The only illumination in the room was provided by amorphous balls of light suspended above the rows of tables along the stone floor.

“Very good,” said a familiar voice as they entered. Griselda Marchbanks, the head of the Wizarding Examinations Authority, tottered up to them. “Potter, Weasley, and Granger. Please follow me.”

They followed Professor Marchbanks to the center of the room where another dozen students stood gathered around a central table. Harry recognized a few of them from Hogwarts, including Dean Thomas, their fellow Gryffindor who had missed most of his seventh year, as well.

Ron started to greet Dean, but Marchbanks cleared her throat and, except for the thumping hearts of those about to take the exams, brought absolute silence to the room.

“Now,” Professor Marchbanks began, her voice echoing in the dim chamber. “all of you have passed your O.W.L. examinations and the process for the N.E.W.T. is very similar. You will have two exams for each subject except for those subjects like History of Magic where one will suffice to determine your grasp of the content. As there are sixteen of you here, you will be rotated in groups of two from station to station, first completing the written exam, then the practical exam, until you have completed all the exams you have registered for. Again, any attempt at cheating will result in automatic failure of all your exams We will take an hour-long break for lunch at noon before returning here to complete the exams. Any questions?”

No one had any questions or if they did, they were too close to vomiting to ask. Satisfied, Professor Marchbanks set about dividing the test-takers into pairs according to which exams they were taking and sent them off to begin.

Harry was paired with a pretty, dark-haired young witch and sent to a table in the far corner to begin his Potions examination. He could feel the eyes of the witch upon him as he sat down and, though he was used to being stared at, found her steady gaze unsettling. Still, he blocked out all else except his lessons with Professor Slughorn and, at a word from the examiner, turned his booklet over and read the first question.

The morning passed in a haze of bubbling cauldrons, difficult questions, and complex spells. From Potions, Harry went to Charms and from there to Transfiguration. Having only his examinations to worry about instead of the constant threat of Lord Voldemort or, as during his O.W.L.’s, Dolores Umbridge, Harry grew more confident as the day wore on, performing most of his attempted spells with a precision that surprised even him. Even those he felt less sure about, those he felt he had to pry from his exhausted memory, performed adequately well to at least keep him from being disgraced in front of his attractive partner.

At noon, the exams halted for lunch. Professor Marchbanks made picnic tables appear out of thin air in the middle of the spacious room and the test takers collapsed onto the benches for a brief reprieve from their strenuous schedules. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were joined by Dean at one table as plates full of sandwiches materialized between them.

“I thought I might see you three here,” Dean said, taking one of the sandwiches from the pile. “You spent about as much time at Hogwarts last year as I did.”

Ron pulled a sandwich onto his own plate, stared at it, and sighed. “I think I should have gone back.”

“Don’t be absurd, Ron,” Hermione said, her voice buoyant. Hermione had already taken two more tests than the rest of them and Harry could tell she felt she was doing well. He had seen her racing back and forth across the room all morning, sitting down and writing furiously on the written exams, and flashing her wand with blurry precision for the practical tests. “I’m sure you’re doing fine.”

Ron picked up his sandwich, stared harder at it, sighed again, and put it back down. To Harry, this served as a bad omen–he had rarely seen Ron turn down an opportunity to eat.

“Who’s that girl you’re testing with?” Dean asked Harry, leaning forward and lowering his voice so they would not be overheard. “Did you get her name?”

Harry turned involuntarily and found the dark-haired witch staring at him. She sat with a few other students, but slightly apart, it seemed, so that she could better see Harry.

“She’s staring at you, Harry,” Dean added, following Harry’s gaze. “Maybe you should go over and talk with her.”

“Maybe he shouldn’t,” Hermione said, her voice carrying almost as much venom as the glare she gave Harry. “He’s still dating Ginny.”

“Yeah, well,” Dean said, sitting back, “good luck with that. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great girl and all,” he said, nodding to Ron, who took no notice, “but she has quite a temper on her.”

“Yeah, I–” Harry began.

“He knows first hand,” Hermione said, her narrowed eyes still fixed on him. “But she only shows her temper when someone really deserves it, right Harry?”

Harry felt himself blushing and turned his attention to his own sandwich. He tried to focus on Ginny, to take advantage of his few moments of exam-free time to consider the error he had made on his birthday, but he could feel the eyes of the dark-haired witch upon him from behind and had to force himself not to turn around to look at her.

Dean turned the conversation once again, this time to Quidditch. “Ron, did you hear that the Cannons have a new seeker.”

At this, Ron showed the first signs of life in days. “Really?” he asked, his mouth half-full of ham and cheese. “They replaced Warren?”

“They did,” Dean confirmed, “but they won’t say who they’ve signed to replace him. They say it’s a big secret, but word has it they might be contenders for the Cup this year.”

Ron snorted. “They have about as much chance of winning the Cup as I have of gaining an Outstanding on all these exams.”

“Oh, Ron,” Hermione sighed, her glare at Harry fading into exasperation as she turned to Ron.

Ron opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by Professor Marchbanks. “All right, everyone. Please finish so we can begin the second half of your examinations.”

Slowly, the students all stood, stretching and yawning from their meals. Ron took a final look at his half-eaten sandwich, and set it down on his plate just as the plate and sandwich both disappeared. Closing his eyes and grimacing, he stood up from the bench, pulled out his wand, and joined the others.

Harry watched Ron shuffle off toward the station for Charms, wishing he could do more to help his friend. The main difference between Ron achieving the necessary scores and not, he knew, lay more with his confidence than with his ability. Sighing, he made his way over to the testing station for Herbology and found the dark-haired girl waiting for him.

“You’re Harry Potter.” Her words, spoken in a melodious Irish accent, formed a statement rather than a question, but Harry felt compelled to answer.

“That’s right.” He peeled his eyes off her and tried to clear his mind to focus on the upcoming test. The Herbology examiner stood a few feet away amidst a forest of exotic plants, some waving menacing, barbed fronds perilously close to the old wizard’s hat.

He expected the young witch to say more, but she did not and, for that, Harry was relieved. The examiner turned to the two of them and smiled, waving his hand in a beckoning motion toward two desks before him. Harry sat down, giving Ron a glance over his shoulder as he did. He saw the red head leaned down over hunched shoulders and the top of a quill bobbing furiously as Ron answered questions.

Herbology proved, for Harry, to be the most difficult subject of the day. He felt the written test went well, but when the time came for the practical exam, his confidence sank. In the process of repotting a sapling Whomping Willow, he took a nasty uppercut to the chin and was nearly knocked unconscious. Still, he managed to perform all of the necessary tasks with some level of success and received a hardy handshake from the examiner at the conclusion of the test.

Finally, Harry moved to the station for Defense Against the Dark Arts. Waiting for him, he saw, was Professor Tofty, the aged wizard who had performed his O.W.L exam in the same subject. He reached out with his knotted hand and shook Harry’s.

“I realize this is just a formality, Mr. Potter,” Professor Tofty said in his high voice, “but we must follow protocol.”

Harry had waited the entire day for this exam and was glad that he was taking it at the end of the day. He felt as though his brain had turned to bubotuber pus and taking the Defense Against the Dark Arts exams were comfortable, like meeting an old friend. He answered every question on the written part with such strong, concise responses that he thought Hermione would have been impressed. During the practical exam, he thought of Dawlish’s expression as he denied his and Ron’s entry into the ministry, and performed all his spells with an exactness that impressed even the venerable Professor Tofty.

“Well, I see that your Patronus from two years ago was not a fluke,” he said, smiling at Harry. Harry had again cast forth his stag Patronus to canter around the room, this time as part of the exam instead of as an added bonus.

Relieved that the exams were over, Harry sat off to the side as the dark-haired witch followed him with her practical test and he was surprised to see how she struggled with some of the spells. In her previous tests, she had performed as well as Harry or better, but now she had difficulties performing the counterjinxes and defensive spells necessary to pass. In particular, her attempts at producing a Patronus proved ineffective, producing only a thin, white mist.

Looking about the room, Harry found Ron across the room finishing his Transfiguration exams. He looked ill, even from such a distance, and Harry could tell by the slow wand movements and poor posture that test was not going well. When it ended, Ron shook hands with Professor Marchbanks and walked over to where Harry sat waiting.

“You think anyone would notice if I through myself off the building?” Ron asked, collapsing into a chair beside him.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Harry said, hearing a trace of Hermione in his voice.

Ron apparently heard it as well, looking up to see the bushy brown mane of hair stirring rapidly at the Potions station. With a flourish, she removed her wooden spoon, checked her results, and slid the result toward the examiner, who smiled and nodded. Hermione jumped up and down in place, then spun around looking for Ron.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, gasping for breath in her excitement. She sat down next to Ron. “I never managed to get that one to work in practice. I guess I just needed the pressure of N.E.W.T.’s to inspire me.”

Ron sighed and studied his lap.

“Ron, I–” Hermione began, but could not finish before she looked up and saw Professor Tofty beckoning for her. She leaned forward and kissed Ron’s cheek, drawing no response whatever from him. “Wait for me.” She hurried off for her Defense Against the Dark Arts test.

“Wait for her?” Ron asked without looking up. “Does she want to jump off the building with me?”

It was early evening before Hermione finished, arriving in the waiting area outside out of breath, but jubilant. She wrapped her arms around Ron and kissed him on the cheek again. “I’m sure you did fine.”

Ron shrugged and said nothing, but the look on his face told Harry that he was sure of the opposite.

They turned to leave, but someone called out Harry’s name. When he turned, he saw the dark-haired witch hurrying toward him. He stopped and waited for her to approach.

“Harry?” Hermione whispered, her voice thick with warning. “Think about Ginny.”

Harry tried to think about Ginny, but as he looked into the almost-black eyes of this strange girl, he felt himself drawn into them, as though they were expanding to fill every bit of his vision.

“I’m Cecelia,” she said, sounding as though Harry had asked. “I saw your Patronus and . . . was . . . hoping you might show me how to do one sometime.” She held a folded slip of paper and placed it in Harry’s hand, never taking her luminous eyes off his. Then, she slipped away, breaking the connection between them, and went back into the exam room.

Harry stood limp for a minute, then shook his head as though waking from a Stunning Spell. He looked at the paper in his hand and stuck it in his pocket.

“I know you are not keeping that,” Hermione hissed at him.

“What?” Harry asked, falling back from Hermione’s anger. “No!” He reached back in his pocket and found the folded paper amidst a few pages of notes he had brought with the intention of studying during lunch. Instead of retrieving it, though, he grabbed a page of his notes, folded it inside his pocket, and pulled it out.

“See?” he said, flashing it before Hermione. “Going into the trash.”

Hermione studied him for a moment, then turned back toward Ron. “If another girl ever hits on you, you better do the same thing.”

Ron looked at Harry, his eyes widening as he recognized the deceit. Instead of the explosion of rage he expected, a tiny grin curled the corner of his mouth.

“Don’t worry,” he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders, “I’d do exactly what Harry just did.”

Only five more chapters to go, so I apologize now to everyone who has gotten into this story only to realize that it is unfinished.  You were warned in the beginning, though.

So, we continue today with chapter seven, “A Long, Hard Summer”:

In the week that followed the blast at the Leaky Cauldron, Harry and Ron spent most of their time at Grimmauld Place. Mr. Weasley had taken steps to ensure they were not mentioned in the coverage of the bombing, but he advised them to keep a low profile until the hysteria faded.

Coming in from a trip to the market, dripping from the driving rain outside, Ron entered the kitchen and undid the buttons on his jacket. Reaching into an inside pocket, he pulled out a copy of the Daily Prophet and dropped it on the table.

“Anything in there?” Harry asked, repeating the same question they had been asking for two weeks.

“No,” answered Ron, placing the bag on the counter. Kreacher appeared at Ron’s side and began taking the groceries as he pulled them from the bag. “They still don’t know who did it and there weren’t any survivors inside to say if they saw anything.”

Harry picked up the paper and looked at the headlines. Beneath an article about the upcoming Quidditch World Cup, being held this year in Japan, was a small article about the Leaky Cauldron. Tom’s brother had taken ownership of the property and was hoping to reopen by Christmas if the extensive structural damage to the building could be repaired. Other clippings over the previous weeks detailed the increasingly futile investigation, led by Dawlish, which had turned up no information regarding who was responsible for the seven deaths caused by the blast.

The lack of progress by the Auror office did nothing to improve Harry’s mood. Every moment he spent in Grimmauld Place while the Ministry failed solve the bombing reminded him of the conversation with Dawlish and the knowledge that he had been denied entry into Auror training.

“Master Ron forgot the peas,” Kreacher said, taking an armful of cans to the pantry.

Ron leaned toward Harry. “I didn’t forget them,” he said. “I just don’t like peas.”

Harry chuckled, but his laugh was cut short by a knock on the door.

“You expecting company?” Ron asked.

“No,” Harry answered, taking out his wand. “You?”

“Not me. Hermione’s spending the week at her gran’s.”

Harry walked from the kitchen to the entry hall and peered around the corner at the front door. He could see nothing through the windowless wood, but the soft rapping came again. Shrugging at Ron, he inched toward the door, wand held at chest level.

“Who is it?” he called when he reached the door. He knew the Fidelius Charm still held some of its effect, but so many people, friend and foe, had entered the house that he no longer counted on it for security.

The voice that answered was familiar, though unexpected.

“It’s me, Potter. Professor McGonagall.”

Harry looked back at Ron, who looked as bewildered as he felt.

“How do I know it’s you, Professor?” Harry called through the door.

“I chose you to play seeker for Gryffindor after watching you catch Neville Longbottom’s Remembrall during your first broom lesson. I introduced you to Oliver Wood–“

Harry opened the door. Professor McGonagall stood dressed in a long coat adorned with the Hogwarts coat of arms, her severe face shielded against the rain by her wide-brimmed witch’s hat. She swept into the house, passing Harry and continuing on towards the kitchen.

“Professor–?”

“I trust you still have your copy of Advanced Transfiguration?” Professor McGonagall asked. She nodded to Ron as she walked past his gaping form. “You, too, Mr. Weasley?”

“Yes, but–“Ron began.

“Then get them,” she said. “We don’t have much time.”

Professor McGonagall entered the kitchen, hung her raincoat and hat on a rack she conjured from thin air, and took a seat at the head of the table. A large bag hung suspended from a strap over her shoulder, its sides bulging with unseen items.

“Professor, what do you mean about not having much time? Much time for what?” Harry asked.

For a moment, the penetrating gaze of his former teacher made Harry feel as though he had taken a Portkey back to her classroom at Hogwarts. The furrowed brow and stern eyes he had seen so many times surrounded by fellow students made him more uncomfortable in his own home.

“Miss Granger sent me an owl describing how you were treated by Dawlish at the Ministry. Having taught him myself, I know that he barely met the requirements to become an Auror himself, and for him to deny the two of you based on a technicality is ludicrous.”

Harry’s heart sank as he considered that Professor McGonagall might have come to tell them that they would have to return Hogwarts to complete their education, to convince them that it was the right thing to do if they wanted to work at the Ministry, but he doubted she would come to them personally to share such news when an owl would suffice.

“That’s great to hear, Professor,” Ron said. “But what can we do about it? It may be a technicality like you say, but how do we get around it.”

“You don’t,” she answered, reaching into the bag.

“Well,” Ron said, frustrated, “that’s great for us. Another year at Hogwarts.”

Professor McGonagall pulled a large book from her bag. Several loose pages were crammed in at various intervals as though marking important places in the volume.

“No, Mr. Weasley, that’s why I’m here,” she said. “As much as I think you would benefit from another full year of school, I think you and Mr. Potter would be too distracting to the other students.”

“So where does that leave us?” Harry asked. He was beginning to share Ron’s frustration and his voice carried more venom that he had ever before dared use with his former teacher.

McGonagall looked up at him, the stern look returning with such force that Harry took an involuntary step backward. When she spoke, however, her voice was calm and patient, the same voice she used with her students. “The Ministry offers students who miss part or all of the N.E.W.T.’s an opportunity to take the test later. This is only awarded in extreme circumstances, but I’ve never heard of any student who has been allowed this privilege who had more challenges to overcome than the two of you and Miss Granger.”

Harry and Ron looked at each other, shocked. Dawlish, keen on them not entering the Ministry right away, had conveniently forgotten to mention this valuable piece of information.

“So, we can take the exams?” Ron asked.

“Yes, Mr. Weasley,” Professor McGonagall answered, her patience starting to wear thin. “The last date to take the N.E.W.T.’s before you would be forced to wait another year–either at home or at Hogwarts–is the tenth of August, giving us less than two months to get you ready, which is why you need to find your textbooks so we can begin your lessons and–“

“You’re going to teach us here?” Harry asked, not yet ready to believe what Professor McGonagall was proposing.

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” she sighed. “The rest of the faculty and I have committed ourselves this summer to seeing the three of you pass your N.E.W.T. exams. I’ve already visited Miss Granger and recommended that she do her studies independently so as to avoid–“

“When you say “the rest” you mean that–” Ron asked, also not moving from his spot by the kitchen door.

“Yes, Mr. Weasley,” McGonagall answered, the agitation in her voice growing with every syllable. “Professor Flitwick, Professor Slughorn, and all the rest will be stopping by on regular intervals to give you private instruction on the grounds that you treat them with the same respect that you treated them with during your time at Hogwarts. Now, if you will PLEASE get your copies of Advanced Transfiguration so we can begin today’s lesson.”

Harry and Ron, still full of questions, fled upstairs to find the textbooks. Harry found his in one of the boxes he had picked up from his last visit to the Dursley’s and met Ron on the second floor landing, blowing the dust off his own book.

“What do you think about this?” Ron asked him, holding his own battered textbook in his hand. “Pretty cool, huh? Although I don’t fancy the idea of having professors here day and night.”

“If it will help us get around Dawlish,” Harry said, starting down the stairs toward the kitchen. “I don’t care if the whole lot of them move in.”

For the next few weeks, it felt to Harry and Ron as though the staff from Hogwarts had moved in to Grimmauld Place. Lessons started most mornings before dawn, usually with Professor McGonagall rapping sharply on the door. The noise would wake the portrait of Sirius’s mother downstairs, which would wail until Harry and Ron came down to close the curtain cutting her off in mid-scream. After two hours of Transfiguration, they had time for a short breakfast before Professor Flitwick arrived to spend two hours on Charms. Flitwick’s departure meant another short break, then Professor Sprout would arrive for two hours of Herbology before lunch. Following lunch, Professor Slughorn would arrive for two hours of Potions lessons in one of the upstairs bedrooms, then another hour of telling stories about his famous acquaintances or roaming the former house of the Black family looking for valuable items he might persuade Harry to part with. During these meanderings, Kreacher would follow the stocky professor around to ensure that nothing found its way accidentally into one of Slughorn’s hidden vest pockets.

Some days, other people would arrive to give special lessons in which they had particular expertise. Madame Pomfrey came twice a week to instruct Harry and Ron in basic healing magic, including incantations to heal wounds and potions to cure various maladies. Volunteers from different departments of the Ministry and medi-wizards from St. Mungo’s came some evenings to provide lessons on skills specific to Auror training.

The only group noticeably absent from Harry’s and Ron’s summer school were the Aurors themselves. Though several had volunteered to help them prepare for their exams, Dawlish had given specific instructions that anyone assisting in these lessons would be sacked for what he called “reasons of integrity.”

Only on Sunday did Harry and Ron find any rest from the constant bombardment of professors and guests helping them get ready. On these nights, Hermione would take a break from her own, self-guided study to have dinner with them, often staying up with Ron until all hours of the night, huddled on the sofa until they fell asleep propped against each other.

Ginny would also come on Sunday, usually arriving with George, and would spend the day out with Harry. They walked about London, taking in all the Muggle sights that she, raised in a wizarding family, had missed. Harry enjoyed seeing the wonder in Ginny’s eyes as she admired the solemn grace of Westminster Abbey, the sinister past of the Tower of London, and the luxurious Muggle wares at Harrods.

Sunday dinner reminded Harry of his days at the Burrow. Along with Ginny, George, and Hermione, several others often showed up to take advantage of the few hours of freedom granted to Harry and Ron. Former members of the Order of the Phoenix such as Daedelus Diggle and Hestia Jones stopped by to share stories of their mutual friends, those still alive and those departed. Their tales were always humorous, sometimes bittersweet, and made Harry glad to have such wonderful friends.

At the end of July, they were allowed three days off to celebrate Harry’s birthday. Even these came at a price, though, as homework had been assigned to them both, to be completed around the planned party at the Burrow.

On the morning of Harry’s birthday, Ron sat at the kitchen table as Harry, rising late from bed, entered. Wand out, his red eyebrows knotted in concentration, Ron stared at a cut on his arm, dripping blood onto a towel spread across the table. He looked up to see Harry enter the room, then looked back at the bleeding wound.

“This is harder than I thought it would be,” Ron said. “Mom always fixed us right up when we hurt ourselves, so I always thought it would be a breeze. Episkey!”

Harry watched as the cut on Ron’s arm started to seal itself, then reopened with a bright red spurt of blood.

“You’re getting a bit pale,” Harry said as Ron wiped the blood from his cheek. “Maybe you should try again later.”

Ron frowned at the cut and nodded. Then, he sighed and held his injured arm out toward Harry.

“Episkey!” Harry said, tapping the cut with his own wand. The cut sealed itself immediately, leaving no sign that the arm had been injured.

Ron sat back in his chair and sighed. “I’m just not getting that one.”

Harry did not reply. Over the weeks of intense instruction, Ron had struggled with several of the spells they would be required to perform to achieve the necessary N.E.W.T. scores to be Aurors. He had offered what help he could, careful not to sound patronizing or glib. Even Hermione, usually so adept in helping them understand their lessons while at Hogwarts, found herself unable to help Ron perform the complex magic they would soon be tested on.

Harry found, without the pressure of prophecies and Dark Lords looming over him, that he could concentrate harder on his lessons and surprised himself with his mastery of spells that so recently had been beyond his ability. The comfortable surroundings of Grimmauld Place, the individual instruction from the professors, and, more than anything, the desire to become an Auror drove him to heights he never expected.

“Happy Birthday, by the way,” Ron said, making an effort to sound cheerful. He reached into an empty seat beside him and pulled out a wrapped present. “It’s not much, but I think you’ll like it.”

Harry took the gift and sat down. Removing the paper, he opened the box and found a framed photograph of himself, Ron, and Hermione, sitting in the grass at Hogwarts. The three friends, engaged in silent conversation, looked much younger and Harry guessed that the picture had been taken in their first or second year at school. The lake shimmered in the background, a solitary tentacle of the giant squid waving lazily upward.

“Like I said,” Ron said, “it’s not much, but I thought you would like it. Percy took the picture and when he showed it to me, I thought it might make a nice gift to, you know, remind you of where we came from.”

Harry stared at the photograph, a flood of memories rising in him. He recalled the early days of his time at Hogwarts, the innocence and dreams that were so soon to be replaced by war and loss.

“Ron . . . I . . . it’s amazing.”

Ron beamed. “Really? I know it’s not–“

“Really,” Harry interrupted. “It’s wonderful.”

They left for the Burrow after breakfast and found the Weasley home decorated for Harry’s party. Golden streamers glittered in the breeze and a large cake in the shape of Hogwarts castle sat on one of the picnic tables in the garden. A long banner, its letters flashing in rainbow colors said, “Happy Birthday Harry.”

“You know,” Ron said, eyeing the decorations. “I think they do more for your birthday than they do mine.”

Harry laughed. “Maybe they like me better.”

“Well,” Ron said after taking a moment too long to consider. “Ginny does anyway. It’s probably a draw with Mum.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

The party passed in a whirlwind of friends and presents. Hermione, arriving first, gave Harry a wrapped object he immediately recognized as a book. Tearing through the paper, he read the title–The Auror’s Path: A Guide to Catching Dark Wizards–and gaped in wonder.

“Hermione–“

Hermione seized the book and shook it at him. “All I ask is that you actually read this one.”

A steady procession of people joined the party throughout the afternoon. Many bore housewarming gifts for the house at Grimmauld Place. Some brought magical devices that he might use as an Auror, which he accepted with all necessary gratitude while feeling an uncomfortable tightness in his stomach. The entire Weasley family had gone together to purchase a Firebolt Mark Two racing broom, something they never would have considered before Mr. Weasley’s promotion.

“We know you lost your old broom last summer,” Mrs. Weasley explained as Harry stood speechless over the gift, alluding to his flight from Privet Drive in which he lost his old Firebolt while fleeing Voldemort and dozens of Death Eaters. “It’s something to show you how much we appreciate everything you’ve done for us.”

As dusk fell over the Burrow, Hagrid arrived with one final gift. His large figure crossed the garden carrying a large object draped in what looked like a bedsheet.

“‘appy Birthday, ‘arry!” the half-giant boomed.

“Thanks, Hagrid,” Harry replied, shaking the huge hand.

Hagrid held up his gift and seemed to vibrate with excitement. “I don’t know if your ready for this, but I figured since I got you your first one . . .” He pulled the cover off the thing in his hand, revealing a wire cage and, inside, a young snowy owl.

“Oh, Hagrid,” Harry said. Confronted with such a strong reminder of losing Hedwig on the same night he lost his old broom, he could not say for sure how he felt about being offered another owl.

Hagrid seemed to sense Harry’s discomfort. “If it’s too soon–if you’re not ready for a new one–I can keep it for you until . . .”

Harry reached out slowly and took the cage from Hagrid. Without a word, he opened the door and reached in. The small owl regarded his hand with curiosity for a moment, then stepped forward with its taloned feet and settled in Harry’s palm.

“Hagrid,” Harry said, staring at the owl. It looked so much like Hedwig that he felt guilty for being so pleased at the gift. “I–thank you.”

“She’s a smart one,” Hagrid said, obviously relieved at Harry’s acceptance of his present. “Just like ‘edwig.”

Everyone looked at the owl as she studied her surroundings. At first, she found nothing of interest, then she spotted the gnomes watching from the fence row. Spreading her wings, she took to the air to give chase, sending the little figures racing for cover.

“What are you going to name her?” Hermione asked.

All eyes now turned to Harry, who stood watching the white owl swooping down toward the hedge.

“I think I’ll name her . . . Bellatrix.”

A collective gasp rose from those in attendance.

“Just kidding,” Harry said quickly, not wanting to stretch out the joke any longer in the face of such ferocious stares. He watched the snowy owl soaring over the Weasley garden and said the first thing that came to his mind. “How does Sophia sound?”

There was a general murmur of consensus, though several of the guests still eyed Harry for his reference to the late Death Eater.

“Thanks, Hagrid,” Harry said, turning back to the half-giant. “She’s great.”

“I’m glad you like her,” Hagrid beamed. He pulled a pocket watch from his moleskin jacket and checked the time. “Well, it’s time for me to get back. I’ve left Grawpie in charge of the grounds while I’m out.”

Harry raised his eyebrows in concern, but Hagrid shook off his concern.

“Don’t you worry about Grawp,” he said. “Come a long way since I’ve been workin’ with ‘im. Professor McGonagall says that ‘e can stay on the grounds and ‘elp me out with my duties, seein’ as how I’m the new Head of Gryffindor.”

Harry gaped. He knew no professor at Hogwarts was more dedicated to the school than Hagrid, but he had never expected the gamekeeper to be given such an honor. He turned to see if Ron, Hermione, and Ginny had heard the announcement and, seeing their open-mouthed stares, he guessed they had.

Hermione was the first capable of speech. “Hagrid, that’s wonderful! You must be thrilled.”

Hagrid nodded his shaggy head. His beady eyes, nearly lost beneath the bushy eyebrows, were glistening and red. “Thrilled don’t even begin to cover it, ‘ermione. This is something I’ve dreamed about me whole life.”

They talked with Hagrid a few minutes more before the new Head of Gryffindor checked his watch again, begged their pardon, and left for Hogwarts.

“Whatcha think about that?” Ron asked. “They must be really desperate for Gryffindor faculty.”

“Ron!” Hermione and Ginny cried together.

“Well, Hagrid’s great and all, but . . . I mean . . . Head of Gryffindor?”

“I think he’ll do a great job,” Hermione said, “and he’s earned it.”

Harry watched Ron and Hermione argue over Hagrid’s promotion in amused silence, then a gentle tug on his sleeve drew his attention away. He turned to see Ginny motioning for him to follow her.

She led him around to the deserted far side of the house, away from the party. The garden here was overgrown, the majority of the family’s attention reserved for the part where the dozens of guests were probably wondering where the guest of honor went. Harry looked back to see if anyone had noticed them sneaking off, had followed them in hopes of breaking up their moment alone. Ginny, seeing him distracted, put her hand against his cheek and turned his face back toward hers.

“Do you want your present now?”

Harry felt the heat from her, even over that of the late-summer evening. He marveled that her red hair was not glowing like a banked coal.

“Whenever you’re ready for me to have it,” he said, his voice breaking.

She leaned in and kissed him. Now the heat seemed to flood into him, passing through his lips until he thought he would spontaneously combust. In some distant, detached part of his mind, he wondered what the party guests would say if they rounded the corner of the house and found he had turned into a smoking pile of ash.

Ginny pulled back just enough to use her mouth for speech.

“I love you.”

The words seemed to douse the heat she had transferred into him. Cold fear, from origins unknown, rushed through his body, extinguishing every trace of the fire he thought would consume him only a moment before. In his entire life with the Dursleys, through six years at Hogwarts and another year fighting Lord Voldemort, he had never heard those three words directed at himself.

Unable to think of any response, he leaned in to kiss her again, desperate to rekindle that pleasant flame. Ginny turned her head to avoid his approaching lips, then turned back to stare into his eyes.

“I said I love you.”

Panic filled him. His mind recognized that some reply was expected, that every passing second brought him closer to disaster, but the proper words seemed as elusive as a Golden Snitch in a rainstorm. Then, his mouth acted of its own volition, despite the silent screams of protest inside his head.

“I know.”

Ginny’s face darkened as though a cloud had just passed overhead. She took two steps backward, placing herself just out of his reach, her face taking on a dark red color that he had never seen and already hoped that he would never see again.

“You know?” she hissed, her voice low and deadly. “You know what?”

Harry fought for control over his mouth and lost. “I know what you said.”

“But you didn’t say it back.”

He stammered for some answer that would smooth things over, some conciliatory phrase or gesture that would diffuse the situation before . . .

Too late.

Ginny’s wand appeared in her hand so fast that Harry did not see her move.

“Stupefy!”

The last things Harry saw before the flash of red light were the tears on Ginny’s cheeks.

Harry dreamed that he was surrounded by hundreds of Rons and Hermiones, all asking him why he did not tell Ginny how he felt about her. Their familiar faces, usually friendly, glared at him with anger and, worse, disappointment. He tried to avert his eyes from their accusatory gaze, but even when he closed his eyes, he could see them.

“I wanted to tell her,” he told them. “She knows I do. I just panicked.”

“I know, mate,” came Ron’s voice in a tone that did not match the many faces of Ron in his dream. “It’s a hard thing to say.”

Harry opened his eyes. He lay on Ron’s bed surrounded by the newspaper clippings. The faces in each remained congenial, bearing none of the contempt that he had seen in his dream. The real Ron, newspaper in hand, sat in a chair by the darkened window, reading by lamplight. Seeing Harry awake, he folded the paper and laid it in his lap.

“What happened?” Harry asked.

Ron smiled, amused. “You mean after my sister stunned you?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “After that.”

Ron folded his hand behind his head and leaned the chair back. “Well, we heard the bang, came around the house, and there you were, lying on the ground. Ginny burst into tears and ran into the house. Mum and Hermione followed her. She’s been in her room ever since, crying her eyes out, even when she got the warning letter from Hopkirk about using magic out of school.”

Harry groaned. If he had only said it back, had only told her how he felt about her, he could have avoided all of it.

“George and I brought you up here,” Ron continued. “Thought it might be the safest place in the house in case Ginny comes out and wants another go.”

The door to the room burst open and Harry cringed, expecting another Stunning Spell. When no spell came, he looked up over his upraised arms and saw Hermione standing in the doorway. She, too, appeared to have been crying, though her face now was contorted with rage.

“Harry Potter,” she bellowed. “You are the most insensitive, most pig-headed, most unbearably stupid boy I’ve ever met.”

From his chair by the window, Ron snickered, obviously thankful to see Hermione direct her wrath toward someone else.

Her wand was out as quickly as Ginny’s had appeared before stunning Harry. With a flick she upended Ron’s chair, sending him tumbling to the floor in a heap of lanky arms and legs. Then, she pointed it at Harry, who knew he was about to be stunned again.

Hermione’s wand tip trembled for a moment, then she put it away and stormed back out, slamming the door behind her.

Ron, cowering behind his overturned chair, stared wide-eyed at the door until Hermione’s steps faded away down the stairs.

“See what I mean,” he said. “They’re all mental.”

I realize that some people are watching DH2 at this moment.  I also wish I was one of them, but my work schedule won’t allow me to see it until Monday or Tuesday.  And, yes, that sucks.

So, we grumblingly continue on with my unfinished attempt at book 8 with chapter 6, Aurors Alone.

Nearly an hour passed before Harry and the others made their way through the throng of well-wishers to Mr. Weasley. When they finally reached him, he stood amidst a small group of people including Mafalda Hopkirk, Reg Cattermole of the Magical Maintenance Department, and Perkins, Mr. Weasley’s former assistant. Arthur’s face had taken on a red hue in place of the green one from earlier and his relaxed manner had returned with him no longer on display in front of the entire Ministry.

All around, people were exiting the hall, talking about the work they needed to catch up on and where they would be having lunch. Harry scanned the departing witches and wizards again, hoping to see the blonde hair of Draco Malfoy, but failing to do so.

As they descended the stairs, Ron tugged on his sleeve and pointed over his shoulder. Thinking he had found Malfoy, he looked up quickly.

“Did you find him?”

“Find who?” Ron asked.

“Malfoy.”

“No,” Ron pointed again and this time Harry saw what he was pointing at.

“What’s Dawlish doing?”

Dawlish stood on the stage engaged in a heated conversation with Kingsley. The Minister stood, his arms folded across his chest, listening to his former colleague’s outrage with a dour expression on his normally jovial face. Dawlish waved his arms and walked in tight circles, speaking all the while, and finally gave Kingsley an imploring look to which Kingsley said a few short, calm words and walked away.

“What do you think that was about?” Ron asked Harry as they moved through the queue toward the stage.

“I don’t know and I don’t think I want to,” Harry answered.

They reached Mr. Weasley at last as the last of the Ministry officials went off to resume their duties.

“Well, Molly,” Mr. Weasley said, beaming at his wife. “How about that?”

Mrs. Weasley, holding on to George’s arm for support, rushed forward and threw herself into her husband’s arms. The embraced and shared a kiss of such passion that Harry considered taking notes. He turned to Ginny, who looked back at him and smiled, apparently reading his mind.

“Oh, Arthur,” Mrs. Weasley gasped. “Did you know about this?”

“Not really, at least not until right before we came out here,” Mr. Weasley said, wiping a glistening line of sweat from his forehead. “I told Kingsley I had too much to do this morning, but he insisted I come to the meeting. Now, I’m glad I did.”

He turned and seemed to notice the rest of his family and Harry for the first time. In a flurry of movement, they all rushed in to offer their congratulations.

“Congratulations, Mr. Weasley,” Harry said, shaking his hand. “They couldn’t have picked a better person for the job.”

“Thank you, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said. “I–“

Mr. Weasley stopped and blinked at Harry. “I told you I would take you and Ron to meet with Dawlish after the meeting. I’m so sorry, I–“

“It’s all right,” Harry said. “You’ve had a bit going on here.”

“Well, let’s go right now,” Mr. Weasley said. “I’m sure we can catch him before he leaves for lunch.”

Harry knew the way to the Auror office, recounting in his memory turn for turn from when he had visited the Ministry for the first time before his fifth year at Hogwarts. Then, Kingsley Shacklebolt had been the head of the department and pictures of Death Eaters papered every cubicle wall.

Now, with so many Death Eaters captured or killed and the Dark Lord fallen, the Auror office had a much more mundane appearance. Gone were the scowling pictures of Voldemort’s supporters. In their place, new clippings hung tacked to the fabric covered walls describing events that Harry barely remembered reading about in the Daily Prophet. In one, several Japanese Muggles had been found dead on the top level of a double decker bus. In another, a Muggle train had been derailed over a gorge in Scotland, the tracks turned to glass that shattered beneath the weight of the engine.

“Good, he’s in his office,” Mr. Weasley said, peering over the low cubicle walls. “Harry, Ron, the rest of us will wait in the atrium. Come up there when you’re finished and we’ll all head to the Leaky Cauldron for lunch.”

Harry wanted to ask Mr. Weasley about the articles he had seen on the cubicle walls, but decided it could wait.

The office of the Head of the Auror Department was in a corner past the last of the cubicles the other Aurors used as work space. Through the windows and open blinds, Harry could see Dawlish sitting at his desk, speaking to an empty room. He still looked upset over the conversation with the Minister and appeared to be venting it to his office. As they drew closer, still unnoticed through the window, they caught pieces of what he was saying.

” . . . too valuable where I am . . . not the right candidate . . . not ready for that kind of power . . .”

Ron gave Harry a troubled look and asked, “Do we really want to do this now?”

Harry thought it over for only a moment before answering.

“We’ve waited years for this and we’re not waiting any longer.”

They had nearly reached the office door when Dawlish looked up and saw them. He stopped in mid-rant, looking at them as thought they might be Blast-Ended Skrewts about to enter his office, then stood as they reached the door.

“Hello, Mr. Dawlish,” Harry said from the doorway. Part of him was reluctant to enter the domain of someone so obviously angry, but he forced himself inside and held out his hand. “May we speak with you for a moment?”

Dawlish looked at Harry’s hand as though it carried some sort of disease. When he looked back up, his face bore a sneer that reminded him forcibly of Severus Snape. “Please sit down.”

Harry and Ron sat down in two chairs that Dawlish conjured for them. The Auror sat back down behind his desk and stared down at its shiny mahogany surface for a long while before speaking.

“Well, Potter, what do you want? I’m very busy, you know.”

“Well, sir,” Harry began. “Ron and I came to discuss our desire to join your office.”

Dawlish gave an almost imperceptible flinch and looked up from Harry to Ron. His eyes lingered on Ron’s red hair and freckled face for a long time, giving Harry the sense that their roles had been reversed. For years, he had been the one everyone stared at. Now, he felt Ron undergoing the same scrutiny that he had endured every day since entering the wizarding world.

“I was told the two of you would be applying,” Dawlish said, snatching a paper from a tray on his desk and pretending to read it to avoid making eye contact with them. “What makes you think you can become Aurors?”

Harry and Ron looked at each other. They had imagined several questions that might accompany their meeting with the Head of the Auror Office, but this was not one of them. Surely, they thought, bringing about the defeat of Lord Voldemort, the most terrible dark wizard in ages, made them good candidates for chasing other dark wizards.

“Well, sir,” Ron said. “We’ve been fighting Death Eaters since we were about eleven years old.”

Dawlish slapped the paper down on his desk. “And you think that alone qualifies you for my office,” he said, his voice too loud for the small room. “You think your recent great deeds make you fit to be Aurors? That an Order of Merlin is a free pass into the Ministry?”

Ron looked at Harry, then turned back to Dawlish. “Yeah, something like that.”

Dawlish stood up, knocking his chair over backward. He glared at Ron, then at Harry, then at Ron again, his nostrils flaring. His face had gone a vicious shade of red and Harry’s hand crept toward the pocket in his jacket where he stored his wand.

“Let me inform you gentlemen of something,” Dawlish hissed. “There is much more to being an Auror than luck and Disarmament Charms. There are necessary skills that you need not only to survive yourself, but also to avoid getting everyone around you killed. Being an Auror means being a team member. It means working with the Ministry to accomplish our mutual goals. Above all, it means discipline and following orders, something I’ve heard you both have a great deal of trouble with.”

Harry started to respond, but Dawlish raised his hand to silence him. He stared at them a moment longer, then sat back down in his chair, breathing hard.

“If you understand all that,” he continued, the sneer spreading to his voice, “then we can move on. I understand that you missed your seventh years at Hogwarts. Is that correct?”

Harry answered first, his own anger rising to match Dawlish’s. “That’s right, but we learned a great deal while we were fleeing the Ministry and you were being stunned and confunded left and right.”

Dawlish drew his wand and pointed it at Harry, who stood still, knowing that drawing his own wand might land him in Azkaban, or worse. Instead of hexing him, however, the Auror flashed the wand toward the window, snapping the blinds shut. With another flick of Dawlish’s wand, the office door slammed shut.

“How dare you!” Dawlish spat. “You think you can outdo me, little boy? I’m the top Auror the Ministry has left–“

This time, it was Ron’s anger that cut into Dawlish. “Looks like you need us, then, if you’re the best they’ve got.”

Dawlish turned his wand on Ron and for a moment, Harry felt sure that he was about to see his best friend struck down by an Auror. The tip of the wand vibrated as though itching to release some spell that would teach Ron a measure of respect.

With great effort, Dawlish sat back down, retracting his outstretched wand, though not removing it from sight.

“So it’s like that, is it?” Dawlish said, his voice suddenly calm. The even tone frightened Harry more than the obvious show of anger had. “Very well, let’s continue.”

Ron looked at Harry, his eyes wide. Droplets of sweat beaded on his brow and his hands, white-knuckled as they gripped the arms of the chair, trembled.

“Tell me, gentlemen,” the Auror said. “Do your N.E.W.T. scores meet the requirements for admission to this office?”

Harry looked at Ron, stunned. For a long moment, they sat in silence, feeling as though they had just been checkmated in a life-or-death game of Wizard’s Chess.

“No, sir,” Harry said, trying to keep the tone of bitterness out of his voice, “but in light of recent events we thought–“

“Apparently you didn’t think,” Dawlish said, giving them a wicked grin. “I’m sure you are aware that all interested persons applying to the Ministry must meet the N.E.W.T. requirements before being considered for a position.”

“Yes, but–“

“Well, if you haven’t taken your N.E.W.T.’s, then you obviously can’t come work for the Ministry in any capacity, much less in my office.” Dawlish sat back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head, knowing he had won. “I recommend that you go back to Hogwarts for another year and try again next summer if,” he placed a large emphasis on the word, “you meet our requirements. Until then, I bid you goodbye.”

Harry and Ron turned to each other. At a loss for words, they stood and left the office.

Harry walked down the hall, completely unaware of his surroundings. From somewhere far away, it seemed, passing witches and wizards greeted him, but he did not, could not, answer them. He felt vacated from existence, as though Dawlish had performed a Dementor’s Kiss on him, sucking out his and Ron’s souls and crushing their dreams.

On their way to the atrium, they stopped in a deserted corridor and collapsed against opposite walls. Sliding down to a sitting position, they both stared at their knees, unable to move.

“What do we do now?” Ron asked.

Harry continued to stare at his knees as though the answer would appear etched in his skin like the words “I will not tell lies” was on the back of his hand. “He can’t do this,” Harry said. “We’ll go to Kingsley. Tell him what Dawlish told us. Or your Dad.”

“No way,” Ron said. “Do you think I’m going to ruin the best day of my dad’s life by telling him that I’m not going to be an Auror. That I have to go back to school.”

Harry saw his point. The last thing he wanted to do now was dampen the celebration that was, no doubt, already beginning with the Weasley family. He imagined them all sitting around a table at the Leaky Cauldron and explaining to them how he and Ron were being denied positions to the Ministry because they had been out trying to defeat Voldemort. He thought of the light dimming in Ginny’s eyes at his failure, the disappointment plain on her lovely face.

“At least if we go back to Hogwarts,” Ron said, chagrined. “You can spend the whole year with Ginny. Of course, I’ll only see Hermione if she goes back with us–“

“I said I wasn’t going back and I meant it,” Harry interrupted. He stood, drawing strength from his anger. “We’ll find some way around this.”

Ron stood, rising much slower than Harry. “I hope you’re right. I don’t fancy another year with Peeves. In the meantime, though, let’s not tell my family.”

Harry agreed and they set off for the foyer and the celebration that they would have to pretend to enjoy.

When they reached the atrium, the Weasley family was waiting for them, as was someone they did not expect.

“Hermione?” Ron asked as they exited the lift.

A mane of bushy hair turned and Hermione’s face glittered with excitement. With a girlish squeal, she bolted for Ron and wrapped her arms around him.

“The Order of Merlin,” she said, her voice muffled by Ron’s chest. “Can you believe it? My parents are so proud of us.”

Ron looked at Harry, who saw the pained look in his friend’s face, a look that not even a reunion with Hermione would help. He buried his face into the brown curls, hugged her tightly, and kissed the top of her head.

After a long moment, Hermione disengaged herself from Ron’s arms and hugged Harry. He hugged her back, feeling awkward to be so depressed while she was so ecstatic.

“And your Dad, Ron?” Hermione continued, taking Ron’s hand and leading him toward the rest of his family at the far end of the atrium. “Senior Undersecretary? Umbridge in Azkaban?” She stopped and smiled, doing a very un-Hermione-ish twirl on the black marble floor. “This may be the best week of our lives.”

“Doubt it,” Harry muttered.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione followed the rest of the Weasley’s out of the Ministry building, Mr. Weasley deciding they should walk the few blocks to the Leaky Cauldron. Once they were outside, George and Ginny began improvising a song in praise of their father’s promotion, forming a verse at a time to the tune of Celestina Warbeck’s “A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love.” Even Mrs. Weasley, her arm interlocked with her husband’s and her head resting on his shoulder, mouthed a few lines as they walked.

Hermione, walking with her hand in Ron’s, looked hard into his face.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “Aren’t you happy that your dad got promoted?”

“Wha-?” Ron said. His thoughts had obviously been far away from promotions and impromptu songs. “Oh, yeah. It’s great. How was Australia?”

Hermione held her suspicious glare for a moment, then relaxed. “It was amazing,” she said. “I got to go to their Ministry. You know Ayer’s Rock in the Outback? It’s underneath Ayer’s Rock. I couldn’t believe it.”

Hermione, lost in her narrative, missed the bewildered glance Ron gave Harry over his shoulder.

“Their government seems a lot more relaxed than the one here. Maybe that will change with Kingsley and your dad in charge, but their Ministry is so easy going,” she continued. She stopped abruptly, nearly causing Harry to run over her. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, along with George and Ginny, walked on ahead without noticing that the rest of their party had stopped. “And Harry! They’ve heard all about you down there. When they heard we were friends, they didn’t believe me at first, but when the stories from the papers started circulating and they saw our pictures, I was swarmed with people asking questions about you.”

“Great,” Harry said. He looked up ahead at the distance between them and the rest of the Weasleys. With nearly a half block between them, he turned to Ron.

“Should we tell her now?”

Ron considered. “I guess so. Better tell her now so she doesn’t hex me later for not doing it.”

Hermione looked from Harry to Ron, then back to Harry. When she spoke, all the joy had drained out of her voice.

“Tell me what?”

Harry swallowed. To say it for the first time made it undeniable, a true event. “We’re not going to be Aurors. At least, not yet.”

Hermione’s jaw dropped open. “Why not? What happened?”

Checking again to see if their absence was noticed, Harry gave a rapid retelling of what had occurred in Dawlish’s office. When he finished, Hermione’s face was red and she was trembling with anger.

“He can’t do this,” she hissed. “You should go to Kingsley. Or your dad, Ron.”

“No,” Ron said, “that’ll just make things worse when we do get in.”

Hermione looked shocked. “Well, you’re not just going to give up, are you?”

“Of course not,” Harry replied. “But, until we figure out what to do–“

Harry was interrupted by George calling from the corner. “You lot coming or do you have some other Dark Lord to chase down?”

Ron made a rude gesture to his brother and the three of them resumed walking.

They reached the corner and saw the sign for the Leaky Cauldron halfway down the alley. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, waiting for the rest of the family to catch up, stood face to face, whispering to each other a little ways down the sidewalk.

“Stop that,” George told them, “or I won’t have any appetite left.”

“If we’d have stopped this,” Mr. Weasley said to his son, “you wouldn’t be here.”

Back together in one group, they all turned to walk down the alley, but before they could take more than three steps, the door of the Leaky Cauldron and a large portion of the wall around it, exploded in a ball of hellish, orange flame. The force of the blast threw everyone off their feet and a wave of intense heat flowed over them where they lay on the pavement. As the rushing roar of the flames died away, they could hear agonized screams coming from the hole left by the explosion. Great billowing plumes of black smoke poured into the alley, making it impossible to see more than a few feet.

Harry was the first to his feet. He started to rush forward, but a figure emerged from the smoke and ran into him, nearly knocking him back down. As he regained his balance, he saw the face of Tom, the barman from the Leaky Cauldron, except that even in his worst nightmares he could not imagine him looking so wretched. Every bit of exposed skin on the man’s face and arms was black and smoking.

Tom clung to Harry, not knowing where he was or who was supporting him. He opened his mouth and let out a wheezy breath. Then, his hands going slack, he fell at Harry’s feet and moved no more.

Behind him, Harry heard Ginny and Hermione crying with fear and revulsion. Mr. Weasley led them back the way they came to get clear of the smoke. Mrs. Weasley stood behind him and Harry could hear her crying as well.

“Dear God,” she breathed, coughing in the smoke. “Who–who would do this?”

“I don’t know,” Harry answered. “I don’t know.”

Sorry I didn’t post this yesterday, but today we’re back on track with a new chapter and looking forward to this Friday.  Again, I am posting from my phone (I’m on lunch at work), so please forgive any misspellings or mistakes.

Chapter 5–Dinner and a Show

The following days at the Burrow were as blissful as any Harry could remember in his life. Without the threat of Voldemort hanging over him like a perpetual shadow, he felt liberated of the guilt that had plagued him any time he had stayed in the Weasley home. Through the menace of the Dark Lord, through Harry’s infamy in the wizarding world, through the extreme sacrifices they had made for him, the Weasleys had remained the only true family he had ever known.

He also delighted in the stolen moments with Ginny. Taking up Ron’s suggestion, they met often in secret where they could hide away from the prying eyes of the others. Everywhere Harry looked around the Burrow ignited memories of times spent with Ginny. They took long walks through the fields surrounding Ottery St. Catchpole, even venturing into the village itself–a foray than wound up on the front page of the Daily Prophet. All the attention from the outside world, though, meant little to Harry, absorbed in his own contentment and the soft touch of Ginny’s hand.

The other Weasleys, having accepted Harry as a fixture in their family for years, made efforts to stay clear of his and Ginny’s marathon kissing sessions. On several occasions, Mrs. Weasley had intruded upon them–behind the broom shed, in the tall grass near the garden, on the top landing of the stairs–and apologized profusely as she hurried away.

“Guess that means I have her blessing,” Harry remarked after one such interruption.

Ginny, her head nestled against his chest, took a deep smell of his t-shirt and sighed.

“I’d say so.”

Ron, despite his earlier threats, overlooked the bond between his sister and his best friend. The three of them spent a great deal of time together playing Exploding Snap or teaching Ginny the finer points of Wizard’s Chess, but the time Harry and Ginny spent alone, Ron could usually be found in his room, writing to Hermione. Some days, he would not be seen for hours, instead sitting alone in his room, staring at the news clippings of Hermione that surrounded his bed.

At first, Harry felt guilty for being so involved with Ginny while Ron waited for Hermione to return from Australia, but Ron stayed in good spirits.

“Well, we have the rest of our lives, don’t we?” Ron explained one evening when Harry admitted his guilt. “She’ll be back soon and then you’ll think someone’s cast a Sticking Charm on our faces.”

Harry spent his days lost in Ginny and his nights enjoying the benefits of being a Weasley–the food, the friends, and the conversation. George’s spirits had lifted since the night Harry visited him at Fred’s grave and, though prone to long periods of brooding silence, he began to show signs of the old, fun-loving George Weasley that Harry had come to know. During dinner, he told tales of experiments he and Fred had conducted, often with disastrous, but hilarious, results.

Even Percy, so long estranged from his family, came to dine with them. During his three years apart from his family, he had continued to see Penelope Clearwater and, to his mother’s shock, had proposed following the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry, who found Penelope rather quiet and shy, still appreciated the effect she had on Percy, who could often be boastful of his accomplishments.

“Penelope keeps me grounded,” Percy explained one evening, causing his fiancée to blush nearly as red as his hair. “She’s my better half in every way.”

One evening, as Harry was beginning to think of returning to Grimmauld Place, the family poured into the kitchen for dinner, accompanied by George reliving one of his and Fred’s experiments gone awry.

” . . . and the pixie picked the lock on the cage and got out!” he said to the peels of laughter from Harry, Ron, and Ginny. “Fred told me not to leave my lock picks so close to the cage, but I didn’t listen . . .” He stopped and looked at the table, where an extra setting had been placed. “Percy coming tonight?” he asked his mother.

“No,” Mrs. Weasley said, sounding flustered. “Arthur’s bringing the Minister for dinner.”

“Oh, Mum,” Ron snorted. “It’s just Kingsley. It’s not like he hasn’t been here dozens of times before.”

“I know,” Mrs. Weasley said. “But this is the first time since he was elected Minister and I want everything to be perfect.”

“That means go wash your hands, Ginny,” George said, waving his wand at his sister. A layer of soot appeared on her hands, so thick that it looked like a pair of black gloves on her dainty hands.

Ginny roared in frustration, mumbling under her breath all the things she would do to George once she turned seventeen.

Harry, to avoid trouble himself, waited until Ginny was out of the room before bursting into renewed gales of laughter.

Used to the routine of preparing a Weasley family dinner, everyone, including Harry, pitched in to get ready for Kingsley’s arrival. Plates, cups, and silverware floated this way and that, landing in their appropriate spots on the long table. Sumptuous dishes followed, forming a queue from the counter to the table, landing and sliding across the wood to settle where they would be most accessible. Ginny, the only one unable to use magic to assist the preparations, stood by and watched with her newly scrubbed hands, staring hard at George.

As the last of the food, a steaming bowl of lima beans, slid into place, Mrs. Weasley looked out the window and gave a squeak of surprise.

“They’re here!” she gasped.

Arthur Weasley, his red hair aflame in the evening light, walked beside Kingsley Shacklebolt, the two of them engaged in conversation as they crossed the garden. To Harry, Kingsley looked the same as he always had, but the title of Minister of Magic made him even more formidable than the Auror he had been. An aura of power and confidence seemed to surround him as he walked toward the back door with his long strides.

When they entered, however, Harry’s gaze was drawn by Mr. Weasley, not the newly-appointed Minister of Magic. As though seeking to match his red hair, Arthur’s eyes were bloodshot and rimmed in bright red. He looked around quickly, trying to avoid his wife’s gaze and failing spectacularly.

Mrs. Weasley walked over and greeted Kingsley, then stared hard at her husband. “Arthur? What is it?” she asked, fear dripping from her voice.

Mr. Weasley ignored the question and moved toward the table. “Oh, good, dinner’s ready. Kingsley, sit anywhere you like.”

Kingsley shook hands with Harry, Ron, George, and Ginny before sitting down at a corner of the table. When Harry looked back up, Mrs. Weasley was holding the chair her husband was trying to sit in, her wand out.

“You tell me what has upset you, Arthur, or so help me, you’ll not eat.”

Arthur looked down at the gorgeous array of food on the table and sighed. “Molly,” he started, “sit down so we can have dinner. Kingsley will explain everything once we’re done.”

Mrs. Weasley turned and regarded Kingsley, who looked up as though he had not heard the brief exchange. As Molly took her seat across from Kingsley, though, Harry saw him turn to Arthur and wink.

The dinner passed as so many at the Burrow had in recent weeks. Kingsley and Mr. Weasley discussed matters at the Ministry since the fall of Voldemort, including the rounding up of several more Death Eaters who had not been present at the Battle of Hogwarts.

“They’ve gone into hiding,” Kingsley said in his deep, slow voice. “Thanks to Harry, the head’s been cut off the snake, quite literally, and now the body is dying.”

“I still think there’s something going on,” Mr. Weasley said. “Rumor has it they’ve found a new leader and are organizing again.”

Kingsley looked at Harry. “The two you and Ron captured told us that someone has been contacting the Death Eaters that are left, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell us who. You have any idea, Harry?”

Harry, savoring a bite of pudding, tried to speak, choked, and shook his head. “No, but they seemed to be looking for something,” he said after he managed to swallow.

Kingsley nodded. “They told us that, too. Trouble is, they didn’t know what they were looking for. Whoever sent them told them they would know if they found something valuable.”

“If they don’t know this new leader is,” Ginny asked, “who sent them?”

This time, it was Mr. Weasley that answered. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Kingsley, but didn’t they say that they never saw who sent them, that he was wearing a Death Eater mask.”

Kingsley nodded again. “They said they had heard the voice before, but they couldn’t place it. We tried every spell we could think of to get them to remember, but we found out nothing.”

Harry suddenly remembered the letter he had found in his parent’s ruined bedroom. “Wait a second,” he said, retrieving the letter from his jeans pocket where he had been carrying it around since returning to the Burrow, “take a look at this.”

He handed the letter to Kingsley, who unfolded and read it. Mr. Weasley leaned over the corner of the table and read it, as well, his brows furrowing as he drew near the end.

“Golden Sepulcher?” Arthur asked Kingsley. “Have you heard of that before?”

“No,” Kingsley said, refolding the letter and handing it back. “But, Harry, you’re parents were given a lot of tasks by Dumbledore that none of the rest of us knew about. He suspected someone in the Order was a spy, so he told us all only what he felt we needed to know.

I know the feeling, Harry thought, having been given the same treatment by Dumbledore during his years at Hogwarts.

“Speaking of Dumbledore,” Kingsley said, pointedly looking at Mr. Weasley, “there’s another reason I came here besides to enjoy Molly’s superb culinary skill.”

Mrs. Weasley flushed and looked at Arthur, whose eyes started to go red again.

Kingsley stood, his tall frame towering over those seated at the table. “On behalf of the Ministry of Magic and the entire wizarding community, I would like to congratulate you, Harry, and you, Ron, and Hermione on being selected to receive the Order of Merlin, First Class, for your involvement–“

The rest of Kingsley’s words were drowned out by Mrs. Weasley, who burst into a thunderstorm of tears and buried her face into her husband’s chest. Mr. Weasley, sobbing just as hard as his wife, buried his face in her red hair.

Harry and Ron looked at each other, stunned. While they understood, better than anyone, what they had accomplished, neither of them had given thought to such an honor.

“I’ve got to write to Hermione,” Ron whispered. He stood and disapparated, only to reapparate in the same spot, reach across the table to shake Kingsley’s hand, and disapparate again.

Harry felt numb until Ginny kissed him, and even then the only sensation in his whole body was confined to his lips, warm and quivering against hers.

Kingsley, still standing, looked at the scene around him with a wide smile stretching across his handsome face. “Congratulations, Harry,” he said, reaching across and shaking Harry’s hand. “We’re planning on holding the ceremony at Hogwarts on the first day of term. We couldn’t think of anywhere more appropriate.”

“That’ll be great,” Harry replied. His voice sounded, to him, as though it was coming from the end of a long tunnel.

Kingsley turned then to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, patting them both on the back. “Congratulations, Arthur, Molly. I’ll leave you alone now.”

Mr. Weasley, his face still buried in the mass of red hair, waved his hand. Mrs. Weasley did not even look up, apparently leaning on her husband to keep from collapsing into the floor.

Kingsley waved to them as he left through the back door into the garden.

Harry, awakened from his daze by the sound of the door closing, hurried after the Minister, hoping to catch him before he disapparated.

“Kingsley!” Harry yelled as he ran out the door. “Can I have a word with you?”

The Minister stopped and turned, the wide smile still on his face. “Sure, Harry.”

Harry had been wondering how to word his question, but all thoughts of tact had fled in the face of being offered the Order of Merlin. “I want to be an Auror.”

Even though Harry would not have thought it possible, Kingsley’s smile widened. “I’ve heard that and I have to say that I don’t know anyone with better qualifications than you.”

“What do I need to do?”

“Tell you what,” Kingsley said, dropping his voice so that only Harry could hear. “Come to the Ministry on Thursday. You can talk to Dawlish–he’s running the office now–and we’ll go from there.” He paused and looked back at the house. “And bring as many Weasleys as you can, especially Molly.”

“Why?” Harry thought bringing his adopted family to a meeting about his becoming an Auror seemed inappropriate, but he doubted Kingsley would do anything to sabotage his chances. “I mean, why do they need to be there.”

“Just trust me,” Kingsley answered, giving Harry another wink. “Remember, especially Molly.”

Harry watched as the Minister of Magic walked through the garden gate and vanished into the night.

Harry spent the next few days figuring out how he would convince Mrs. Weasley and the rest of the family to accompany him to the Ministry. Through meals, games of Exploding Snap, and even his time alone with Ginny, he ran through hypothetical conversations where he had them all agreeing to go without knowing any more than he did about why they were needed.

Finally, in a fit of desperation, Harry decided to tell the truth.

He found Mrs. Weasley outside hanging laundry to dry and, after hexing a group of garden gnomes pulling on a wet sheet, he pitched in to help. For a long time, neither of them said anything, focusing on their work. Harry waited until all the laundry was hung before plunging into what he wanted to say.

“Mrs. Weasley,” he started. “Kingsley said he wanted you and the others to come with me to the Ministry tomorrow.”

Mrs. Weasley gathered up the empty basket and looked at him, her face red from the heat of the day. “Did he say why?”

“No, but he said it was important.”

Mrs. Weasley looked away out over the fields near the Burrow as though she could see into the future. “I don’t know,” she said, more to herself than to Harry. “I have so much to do here. I’m just starting to get caught up on housework.”

Harry waited, not daring to breathe. He wondered what impression it would make to be given what seemed like a simple assignment by the Minister and failing to complete it.

Mrs. Weasley looked back at Harry and smiled. “I guess if Kingsley says it’s important, then we should be there.”

Harry breathed a sigh of relief as Mrs. Weasley went back into the house, calling for her children to find good clothes for their trip to the Ministry.

“What do you think he wants Mum there for?” Ron asked Harry after dinner that evening.

“No idea,” Harry replied. “Maybe he wants to discuss the Order of Merlin ceremony.”

Thinking of the night when Kingsley announced that he and Ron would receive their honors, they had approached Mr. Weasley about this new development. Ron’ s dad, however, had been just as perplexed as they had. He offered to ask the Minister himself, but could not find Kingsley over the next few days to ask him.

“That’s not for another two months,” Ron said. “Besides, what can he tell us at the Ministry that he can’t tell us here?”

“Maybe it has something to do with our wanting to be Aurors.”

Again, Ron shook his head. “Does he think we need my Mum to hold our hands while we talk to Dawlish?”

Thursday morning came and they still had no idea why there were all being summoned to the Ministry. Up and dressed before dawn, they ate a quick breakfast and left at the same time as Mr. Weasley, just before the sun peaked over the eastern horizon.

At such an early hour, very few witches and wizards were at the Ministry. The few that did pass them in the large foyer stopped to greet Mr. Weasley, then, seeing Harry and Ron, greeted them also, congratulating them on their Orders of Merlin. They crowded into one of the lifts at the far end of the hall and soon found themselves waiting outside Mr. Weasley’s office.

“There’s a Ministry-wide meeting at ten,” Mr. Weasley said, tidying the massive stack of papers teetering on his desk. He looked at Harry and Ron “Dawlish said he could meet with the two of you after the meeting.”

The morning passed slowly. Mr. Weasley composed several responses to inquiries he had received, read a number of reports, and made frequent trips for coffee. Mrs. Weasley spent the time reading a book titled Witches in Love: Romantic Tales for Hopeless Romantics. Ginny, her nose stuck in Harry’s copy of Flying with the Cannons, looked like a smaller copy of her mother. Ron slept, leaning against the wall, his snores echoing down the long hallway.

Harry wished he could be as relaxed as Ron. Instead of sleeping, he paced the tile floor, hoping the movement would shake some answers to his questions out of his brain. The back and forth finally got to Ginny, who looked up at him over her book.

“You keep doing that,” she said, “you’re going to wear a hole in the floor.”

“Okay, Weasleys,” Mr. Weasley said, emerging from his office before Harry could answer. “Let’s go see about this meeting so Harry and Ron can go see Dawlish.”

Ginny slapped her book shut in front of Ron’s face, causing her brother to jerk awake.

“Bloody hell,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Don’t do that.”

“I have to go see Kingsley a moment before the meeting, so you lot go on to the meeting hall,” Mr. Weasley said, waving to them as he moved down a side hall.

They made their way back to the lift and saw the halls were more crowded than they had been earlier in the day. Harry had been in the Ministry a few times, but until seeing this mass exodus, he had no idea how many witches and wizards worked in the Ministry of Magic. Hundreds of people lined up for the lifts, piling in a dozen or so at a time, most engaged in quiet speculation as to what the meeting was about.

“This must be important for the Minister to call everyone together,” a middle-aged witch said from beside Harry. “Practically shutting down the whole place.”

Another witch, this one only a few years older than Harry, shrugged in front of the one who had spoken. “Fine by me,” she said. “As busy as I’ve been, I could use a little break.”

Another figure in the line beside him caught Harry’s eye. Though the wizard’s back was turned, Harry immediately recognized the short blonde hair and thin frame. He tapped Ron on the shoulder, who yawned and looked in the direction that Harry pointed.

“Malfoy?” Ron said, his voice loud enough to carry some distance over the crowd.

Draco Malfoy turned and looked for who had called his name. Seeing Harry and Ron, he sneered and turned back away from them without a word.

“What’s he doing here?” Ron whispered to Harry. “Does he work for the Ministry now?”

“If so,” Harry said, “it’ll be easier to catch him when we’re Aurors.”

Ron laughed as they watched Malfoy enter one of the gated lifts and disappear from sight.

Harry stared after Malfoy long after the blonde young man was gone from sight. In truth, he did wonder why Malfoy was at the Ministry. If Ron’s suspicions were correct and Malfoy had gained employment here, where did he work? In what department? He had heard nothing of Draco or his family since he had given testimony as to their role in the defeat of the Dark Lord. He knew that, because of him, the Malfoys had avoided Azkaban. Then, the image of the two Death Eaters in his parents’ house returned to him, as did their conversation.

Could Lucius Malfoy be the one rallying the Death Eaters? Could Draco?

As he entered the lift with the Weasleys, he thought of the possibility of a Malfoy leading the remnants of the Dark Lord’s supporters. They certainly seemed like good candidates with their long involvement with the Dark Arts and their former status as favorites of Voldemort.

Still, something inside Harry railed against the idea of Draco or his father leading a revival of the Death Eaters. The two of them had almost as much to lose from Voldemort’s followers returning to power as he did. Had they somehow convinced their old comrades that they had not been involved in the Dark Lord’s fall?

The lift stopped and Harry led the Weasley’s down the hall toward two large double doors. As the wizards and witches poured in, they spread out across the large room which, Harry saw with some awe, was easily the largest room he had ever seen. The room more resembled a stadium than a meeting hall, reminding him a great deal of the stadium where he had seen the Quidditch World Cup four years before. The buzz of conversation here grew louder, with several shouts of people greeting each other from across the expansive space.

“We’ll sit over there,” Mrs. Weasley said, pointing to a nearly deserted section near the top of the hall.

Harry agreed with this decision and followed Molly through the mass of people. A few people, recognizing him, offered Harry a seat closer to the front, but he preferred to stay with Ron and Ginny, waving his apologies to the disappointed parties.

They took their seats and Harry studied his surroundings for the first time since they had entered through the double doors. The seats formed a semicircle, faced on the opposite side by large banners representing the different departments within the Ministry. Harry’s throat constricted when he saw the banner for the Aurors, reminding him of what he would be doing following the meeting. In the center of the room, a stone dais rose level with the front row of seats and a few members of the Ministry sat there. Kingsley sat in the middle, leaned over the arm of his chair speaking to a witch with flyaway gray hair that Harry recognized as Mafalda Hopkirk of the Improper Use of Magic Office. With a flush of embarrassment, Harry recalled how Hermione had used Polyjuice Potion to impersonate Hopkirk so they could break into the Ministry and steal one of Voldemort’s horcruxes, then in the possession of Dolores Umbridge.

Harry looked on the stage for Umbridge, expecting to see her toad-like form filling one of the plush chairs, but did not see her. Instead, he saw several witches and wizards he did not recognize and a few more he did. Dawlish sat to Kingsley’s right on the opposite side of the Minister from Hopkirk. Slouching in his chair, he stared at Kingsley like a date who had been dumped at the dance. Arthur Weasley sat on one end, looking uncomfortably up toward the crowd.

“There’s Arthur,” Mrs. Weasley cried, waving at her husband.

Mr. Weasley saw his wife and gave a weak wave. He looked ill.

“I guess they wanted the heads of the departments down there and since Arthur was the Head of Muggle Artifacts Office, he was asked to be there,” Mrs. Weasley said.

Harry then turned his attention to finding Draco Malfoy in the crowd. He wanted to know who Malfoy was sitting with, who he was talking to, hoping that it would give him some idea of why Malfoy was at the Ministry. He scanned those in attendance, seeking the recognizable white-blonde hair, but after four passes over the audience, he conceded that Malfoy was not in the crowd.

“Where’s Malfoy?” he asked Ron, who teetered on the edge of sleep again.

Ron opened his eyes and looked around much as Harry had done. “Dunno,” he said. “Maybe he’s in the loo.”

Harry wanted to get up and look for Malfoy, but before he could, Kingsley stood up and the crowd of wizards and witches drew silent.

Kingsley waved his wand and a podium appeared before him. He stepped forward and spoke, his deep voice magically enhanced so that, even in the upper reaches of the hall, Harry could hear him perfectly.

“I know there has been a lot of speculation as to why we’re all here today,” he began. “And the time has come to answer those questions.”

An excited buzz rose from the audience, but stopped as the Minister spoke again.

“As some of you know, Dolores Jane Umbridge, former Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, was taken into custody last week and, following her trial before the Wizengamot for crimes against Muggle-borns, has been sentenced to Azkaban.”

Numerous cheers rose from the audience, the loudest of which coming from Ron and Ginny.

“Did you know about that?” Ron asked Harry.

“No,” Harry answered. “It wasn’t in the papers.”

Kingsley cleared his throat and silence fell once again. “That said, we have a decision to make here today. It seems we are in need of another Senior Undersecretary.”

The buzz rose again, making the assembly sound like an angry swarm of bees.

“Over the past few days, I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Kingsley said. He walked along the stage, all eyes captivated by the powerful presence of the Minister. “And I would like to nominate the person I think would be best for the job. This person is someone almost all of you know, someone who has long been a supporter of everything the Ministry stands for while opposing many of the practices of the previous administration.”

“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said from beside Harry. Looking over, he saw that she had gone pale, her hands on either side of her white face.

“This person risked much through the recent dark times. Perhaps no one here risked more. Throughout the past few years, he and his family have faced constant threat from Voldemort and his followers, but never failed to do what was needed for the good of the Ministry.”

“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Weasley repeated, growing paler still.

“Finally, this person, who has always been fond of Muggles, will repair the damage caused by Dolores and help the Ministry regain the confidence of the wizarding world. In short, I would like to nominate Arthur Weasley for the post of Senior Undersecretary to the Minister and hope you will appreciate the sacrifices he and his family have made by confirming my choice.”

All around, the audience erupted.

“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Weasley whispered. She stood and started to clap, but fainted before her hands could meet. Harry and George, sitting to either side of her, dove in to catch her and returned her to her seat.

“All in favor,” Kingsley said over the cacophony of voices. “Please raise your wands and vote now.”

Harry watched in awe as nearly every wand in the room pointed toward the domed ceiling above them. Points of light shot from each wand tip, flying to a large sign above the departmental banners. As the lights struck the sign, numbers appeared and tallied the votes.

Even George and Ron stuck their wands in the air, though no lights jumped from theirs as they were not Ministry members.

“I don’t think it’ll matter,” Harry said, pointing to the crowd.

“All opposed,” Kingsley said, having to shout over the tumult.

Less than a dozen wands rose to oppose the nomination. George stood, hoping to recognize the people voting against his father.

“Is that Bernie Sanks?” he asked, pointing out one young wizard near the front. “I know where that git lives. Guess I’ll have to pay him a little visit.”

“Then it’s confirmed,” Kingsley said. “Congratulations to the new Senior Undersecretary.”

The crowd broke into a chorus of cheers and cat calls as Mr. Weasley stood and staggered forward. Even from such a distance, Harry could see that he was an unpleasant shade of green. He gripped the sides of the podium and looked out over the assembly.

“On behalf of my family and myself, I thank you all for your vote of confidence and–“

Mr. Weasley stopped speaking. A person was approaching the stage and all eyes in the meeting hall turned to watch his progress. Like the new Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, the young man was tall and thin, with bright red hair.

Percy Weasley leapt onto the stage and walked up to his father, all sound in the room dying until Harry could hear his own heart pounding in his chest. For a long moment, the two Weasleys looked at each other, then, to the surprise of everyone, Percy clasped his arms around his father as though the rift between them had never existed.

Mrs. Weasley, coming around just in time to see her husband and her son embrace, sank back in her chair and cried with joy.

As an aside, there is an article in this week’s Time magazine about fan fiction, particularly involving Harry Potter.  It’s a good read.

Now, on to Chapter 4–The Lost Twin

Harry appeared at the Burrow and was attacked immediately. The Weasley house rose before him for just a second and then he found himself on his back, staring up at the blue sky. Soon, even the sky disappeared, lost in a mass of long red hair that fell over his face.

“It’s about time you got here,” Ginny said. Sitting on top of him, she leaned down until her nose touched his. “I’ve been waiting all morning.”

They kissed, their lips pressing together with practiced familiarity. Enclosed in the cascade of her fragrant hair, Harry felt like he was levitating above the ground, lost in Ginny’s gravity.

“Levicorpus!”

Ginny flew upward away from him, their lips straining to hold the contact. Harry’s sense of floating vanished, the weight of him seeming to double in her absence. The sky reappeared and brilliant sunlight momentarily blinded him. He blinked, trying to clear the sudden wetness from his eyes.

“Ron,” Ginny steamed. “If I was seventeen–“

“But you’re not, are you?” Ron laughed. “And until then . . .”

Ron waved his wand in a circle, causing Ginny to spin upside down in the air above Harry.

“Are you going to let him do this to me?” Ginny asked Harry during one rotation. Her face was deep red, as much from anger as from the blood rushing to her head.

Harry tried hard not to laugh, but the sight of Ginny spinning above him like a disco ball was too much. He snorted, his last ounce of resolve breaking down, then lay back in the grass and laughed aloud.

Ginny folded her arms. “See if I kiss you again.”

Harry, still laughing, waved at Ron. “You should probably let her down before she really gets mad.”

Ron cocked his head sideways. The slight movement, completely innocent on Ron’s part, made Harry shiver. It was the same look that Voldemort had given him just before attempting to kill him in the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts.

“Just a few more turns, I think.”

“Wait until I tell Hermione,” Ginny hissed at her brother. “She’ll put you in your place.”

Ron’s smug grin faltered. With a flick of his wand, he released Ginny from the spell, causing her to tumble back on top of Harry. “Come off it, you don’t need to get Hermione involved. I’m sure when you turn seventeen, the first thing you’ll do is hit me with a Bat-Bogey Hex or something.”

“You better believe I will,” Ginny said, rubbing her head. When Harry started to giggle again, she punched him hard on the shoulder.

“And you’ll get worse than he will.”

Harry leaned forward and kissed her before she could back away.

“I’m looking forward to it.”

Still angry, Ginny stood, shook the grass out of her hair, and stomped back to the house.

Harry watched her walk away, a dreamy smile turning up one corner of his mouth. Ron no longer existed for him as he watched the auburn-haired young woman striding through the grass.

“Levicorpus!”

Harry found himself watching Ginny upside down, his own feet pulled out from under him by Ron’s spell.

Ron bent over and turned his head so he could look Harry in the face. “Stop looking that way at my sister.”

“Levicorpus!”

Now, Ron stared at Harry without having to bend over. Both of them hung in mid-air, suspended as though by ropes around their ankles. They looked at each other in silence for several seconds, then erupted into renewed roars of laughter.

They both released their spells at the same time and came tumbling to the earth in a heap of lanky arms and legs. Standing, they dusted themselves off and started for the house.

Mrs. Weasley stood in the kitchen when they entered. On the counter before her, a large pot held a pork roast ready to go into the oven. The house smelled of freshly baked bread and Harry noticed a pan on the stove covered by a kitchen cloth.

Mrs. Weasley did not look up as they came in. “Ronald, you are asking for trouble by tormenting your sister.”

Ron ignored his mother’s comment, instead focusing on the bread pan. He walked to it and started to lift the cloth, but dropped it at once with a yelp of pain as a loud snap came from the bread loaf.

Mrs. Weasley, her wand pointed at Ron from beneath her arm, still did not look away from the roast she was preparing. “Don’t touch that. It’s for dinner.”

Ron gave his mother a rude glare and was rewarded with another flick of her wand, another snap, and another yelp.

“I saw that.”

Now, Ron’s expression toward his mother had changed to confused fear. He backed away from the stove and motioned for Harry to follow him out of the kitchen.

“I’ll never understand how she does that,” Ron said when they had left the kitchen. They walked up the stairs toward Ron’s room, passing Ginny’s closed door on the way. Harry paused, deciding whether or not he should knock and say something conciliatory after her angry departure.

The decision was made for him as Ginny opened the door. Harry stood gaping as she stepped out, kissed him hard on the mouth, then retreated back into her room, slamming the door behind her.

Ron, a few steps up from Harry, shook his head. “You know, with Dad and the others always working and me being the only male around the house, you start to learn just how mental women can be.”

Harry nodded his agreement, a look of pure bewilderment still on his face, and followed Ron on up the steps. When they reached his room, Ron flopped down on the bed which groaned beneath his long frame. The room had undergone radical changes since Ron had returned home from their quest to defeat Voldemort. All the posters depicting the Chudley Cannons had been taken down from the walls, replaced instead by news clippings about their exploits of the previous year. Dozens of Harries, Rons, and Hermiones stared at them from all directions beneath headlines that read “POTTER KILLS VOLDEMORT” and “THE CHOSEN ONE WINS!” Other articles focused solely on Ron, saying such things as “WEASLEY PIVOTAL IN DEFEAT OF VOLDEMORT” and “RON WEASLEY–POTTER’S NUMBER TWO.” As numerous as the ones of Ron were the ones describing Hermione’s role in the Dark Lord’s fall. The bulk of these, including a large feature declaring “MUGGLE-BORN GRANGER HELPS TOPPLE YOU-KNOW-WHO” in large type, were clustered around Ron’s bed where he could see them before drifting off to sleep.

Ron, realizing that Harry had not been in his room since the previous summer, raised an eyebrow. “What do you think? Is it too much?”

Harry turned and gazed at all the moving pictures of himself, Ron, and Hermione. He could not imagine anyone, aside from Ginny, that he would rather be surrounded by than his closest friends. Still, Harry felt closed in by all the eyes blinking along every wall, as though he stood facing judgment by a jury of his dearest friends.

“It’s . . . brilliant,” Harry said, smiling to hide his discomfort.

“You’re lying,” Ron said, “but that’s okay. Not all of us have a whole house to decorate, you know.”

Harry sat down in the chair beside the window. Looking out, he saw the garden below. Several gnomes scampered up and down the fence row, their chaotic comings and goings giving them the appearance of great industry. The gnomes were one more thing about the Burrow that Harry loved, making it harder to ask Ron what he intended to ask.

“Would you like to come live with me?” he said, the words coming out in a rush. “At Grimmauld Place?”

Ron turned his head to look at him. Brows furrowed beneath his red bangs, he gave Harry the impression that the question offended him.

“I’m sorry. I was just thinking–“

Ron interrupted him. “Thinking that we could have our own place? Two bachelors just starting out in the world? Something like that?”

“Well, yeah, something like–“

“When can I move in?”

Harry stopped and replayed the question in his head. He expected Ron to protest, to want to stay close to his family after being away from them for so long during their years at school and the past year in hiding. He knew that, were their roles reversed, it would be hard to leave Mrs. Weasley’s cooking, the warm family atmosphere, and even the garden gnomes of the Burrow.

“Well, when can I?” Ron asked again. “I can be packed by tomorrow. I’d say tonight, but Mum makes an excellent roast.”

Harry’s mind, finally realizing that Ron had accepted his offer to become his roommate, hurried to catch up with the conversation.

“I thought we might stay here for a few days and rest up.”

“You mean,” Ron said, sitting up, “you thought we might stay here for a few days so you can snog my sister.”

Harry flushed, but did not disagree.

Ron leaned back on the bed and shrugged into his pillow. “Fine by me. As long as I don’t have to watch. Keep it in the broom shed or the chicken coup so you don’t make me sick.”

“I’ll try, but no promises,” Harry said, imagining the possibilities.

Dinner at the Burrow was always a crowded affair, even if the family dined alone. Lately, however, meals often included members of the Order of the Phoenix, officials from the Ministry of Magic, and family friends so that on several occasions, some of the Weasley’s were forced to eat outside in the garden. Harry, Ron, and Ginny preferred this arrangement, hoping to avoid the steady stream of questions and praise that came from the guests who joined them.

As Harry and Ron went down to partake of Mrs. Weasley’s pork roast, however, they saw very few people in attendance. The long table stood surrounded by chairs as always, but the only occupant was Ginny, who sat in her usual spot reading a battered book on Quidditch strategy. She barely looked up as Harry and Ron entered.

“Big crowd tonight,” Ginny said. “Good luck finding a seat.”

“I love to entertain,” Mrs. Weasley said, directing the roast onto the table with her wand, “but I’ll be glad when things get back to normal and its just the family.”

Ron raised an eyebrow at Harry.

“Oh, not you, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said to Harry. “You’re as much a part of this family as Ron or Ginny.”

Ginny looked up at Harry and smiled.

They sat down, helping themselves to generous portions of everything, something they had been unable to do with the multitude of daily guests. After a second helping of roast, Ron dove back in for thirds before Mrs. Weasley yanked the meat away from him.

“Save some for George and your father,” she told Ron.

“Where is George?” Harry asked as Mrs. Weasley put the remaining roast in the oven.

Mrs. Weasley took a long time in answering. “He’s . . . he’s talking to Fred.”

Harry sat stunned for a moment before Ron explained.

“He’s down at the village,” Ron’s voice faltered. His face contorted for a moment as though something had just poked him in the eyes, then smoothed again. “We . . . we buried Fred down there.”

Mrs. Weasley sobbed quietly into a kitchen towel, making Harry feel as though the entire roast, iron pot and all, had fallen into his stomach. Following the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry had been confined to St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies from sheer exhaustion. After three days, he was released and fled the press to Grimmauld Place and stayed there, away from the world until he felt ready to move on with his life. Now, reminded that he had missed the funerals of those he had lost, had missed the opportunity to say goodbye to those who had sacrificed themselves to save him, he felt as though he had taken their deaths for granted.

When Ginny looked up again, her eyes were watery, but the tears refused to fall down her freckled cheeks.

“He goes down there and just talks,” she added. “Talks for hours and hours. We’ve stopped going down there because he says he wants to be alone.”

Ron stood up from the table and Harry, feeling sick, followed him through the kitchen door into the garden.

Harry pretended to look away as Ron faked a yawn and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

“You think he’d mind if I went down there?” he asked Ron.

Ron stared off in the direction of Ottery St. Catchpole. “I don’t know. He hasn’t wanted any of us around, but who knows how he’ll react to you. He might turn you into a turnip or something.”

Harry started toward the garden gate. “I’ll take my chances.”

A short walk brought Harry to the Otter River, its muddy waters flowing alongside the village. Crossing the bridge, he entered Ottery St. Catchpole for the first time, a fact that struck Harry as odd considering his frequent trips to the nearby Burrow over the previous six years.

The village was similar to Godric’s Hollow in that it was home to a significant population of wizards living alongside a scattering of Muggle families, but there the comparison ended. Ottery St. Catchpole had a shabby, ramshackle appearance that contrasted sharply with the picturesque Godric’s Hollow. The buildings stood in uneven rows, their sagging eves and chipped masonry giving them a melancholy look. Everything in the village, from the houses to the shops to the robes of the few people on the streets, was either brown or gray, making the village look much darker than it should have been, even in the fading daylight.

Harry walked down the main street from the bridge, taking in his surroundings. On the sides of the houses nearest the river, he could see lines of debris on the walls where the river had crested its banks and invaded the town, ignored and forgotten when the water receded. Each of the homes had a small lawn full of brown grass, discarded toys, and rubbish. He saw a few animals–ragged dogs and cats, mostly–that added to the downtrodden feel of the village.

As he made his way into the center of the town, the houses gave way to various shops and pubs. A grocer on his right looked like every Muggle one he had ever seen except for the sign on the front door that read “We accept Galleons or Pounds” in flashing red letters. Across from that, he saw a music shop, the instruments in the window playing ragtime of their own accord when Harry passed. Several more windows advertised an apothecary, a used book store, and furniture store, the small tables inside following his progress along the store front like puppies in a pet store display.

Harry heard loud voices ahead as the shops yielded to a row of pubs on the street leading out of town. Over the door of the first, a sign depicting a large round ball and a wooden bat read “Ye Olde Bludger.” Overwhelmed with curiosity, Harry went inside.

The pub was dimly lit, smelling of smoke and fire whiskey. All around him, from the decorations on the walls to the large mirror over the bar designed to resemble a golden snitch, he saw things related to Quidditch. Several sets of framed robes from various British teams hung in frames around the room alongside pictures of famous players on their brooms, zooming in and out of view. Several old articles from the Daily Prophet praised the English National Team for their World Cup victory, which Harry remembered had been decades ago. In one corner, a few men stood around a small table with several wooden handles sticking out in a row on either side. Two men faced these handles, spinning, pushing, and pulling them with rapid movements of their hands. As Harry drew closer, he saw the table was laid out like a Quidditch pitch and the handles were manipulating small figures on it. A tiny ball, meant to be a miniature quaffle, passed back and forth between the tiny, wooden players until, with a wild spin of one of the handles, it flew through one of the three tiny goalposts on the end closest to Harry.

“That’s seventy for me,” the man who had scored said, “and twenty for you.”

“The snitch isn’t out yet,” the other man replied, his tone sour.

One of the men watching looked up and saw Harry. He blinked and looked again, apparently thinking that he was hallucinating.

“Harry Potter?” he asked, coming closer for a better look. “Are you Harry Potter?”

At the sound of his name, Harry saw the other men clustered around the table look up at him. In a mass, they moved forward.

“Can you believe this?” the first man who had spotted him said. “Harry Potter. In my pub. Where’s my camera?” He shook Harry’s hand and turned back toward the bar, allowing the others to crowd in.

Harry shook hands with everyone in the pub, listening to them all describing at once how much it meant to them personally that he had defeated the Dark Lord. All of them seemed to have lost a loved one to Voldemort and they all offered to buy Harry a drink to show their appreciation.

“Harry Potter will not pay for a damn thing in my pub,” the man behind the bar said, still looking for his camera. “Anything you want, Mr. Potter. On the house.”

Harry continued to shake hands, sometimes with the same person four or five times, all the while backing towards the door. The pub owner, camera in hand, blocked his way out, insisting that Harry pose for a picture with everyone in attendance, which he did. The camera belched out purple smoke as it flashed and immediately the pub owner grabbed it to develop the picture.

In the aftermath of the picture taking, Harry slipped back out through the door and hurried down the street. He thought of putting on the Invisibility Cloak to ensure his escape, but when no one followed him, he relaxed and slowed his gait to a casual walk.

He passed a few more pubs, but did not go inside any of them for fear of repeated his experience in “Ye Olde Bludger.”

At the end of the street, apart from all the other buildings in Ottery St. Catchpole, stood the small church. Like the rest of the village, the church looked derelict and sad. Great chunks of masonry, fallen from the once-ornate sculptures lining the roof, lay scattered in the grass near the walls. The roof itself was patched, in some places by copper plates and in others by tile of different colors that the rest of the roof. Several of the stained glass windows had panes missing, replaced by boards or pieces of faded fabric.

Beyond the church, Harry saw the cemetery in the last of the day’s sunlight. The oncoming night hid much of the disrepair suffered by the tombstones that stood in rows among the tall grass, but he could see several with large pieces broken off and some that had split in two, the halves pulling away from each other like estranged lovers.

Harry looked around in the semi-darkness and saw a lone person seated in one corner of the cemetery. He walked toward the hunched figure, trying to determine if it was George. At first, seeing an ear instead of a hole on the right side of the person’s head, he thought it was someone else, but when the figure turned, Harry saw the red hair reflected in the light from the village and recognized the surviving Weasley twin. George was seated on a marble bench in front of a grave that looked very recent. Looking beyond, he saw the name on the headstone: Frederick Lamar Weasley.

“Harry?” George asked, his voice sounding as though he had just been roused from sleep.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

He walked over and sat down beside George. For a long time, neither of them said anything, content to stare down at the recently turned earth that covered the remains of Fred Weasley. Knowing that, beneath that pile of earth, someone identical to the person sitting next to him lay dead made Harry shiver.

“How ya’ been?” George asked him.

Harry looked at George, studying the normal looking ear sticking out from beneath the red hair where no ear should have been.

“All right. You?”

“Wonderful.” He did not sound wonderful.

Another long silence followed until Harry spoke again.

“You got your ear back?”

George turned and looked at him, a hint of amusement, of the old George Weasley, on his face. As Harry watched, the ear twitched and came off the side of George’s head, winding out on a long thread attached inside the hole left in its absence.

“Modified an extendable ear,” George explained. “Fred and I discussed the possibility before . . .”

Another silence, the longest yet, settled upon them like fog. Overhead, stars blinked on in the heavens and an occasional owl, silhouetted by the moon, soared through the night.

“I miss him,” Harry said, speaking aloud. “He was great fun.”

“Yes, he was that,” George replied, his voice hollow. “Great fun.”

Harry had never seen either of the Weasley twins so depressed and the idea that one could be scared him.

“Why don’t we go back to the Burrow?” he asked. “Your Mum saved you some dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.” The extendable ear floated on its tether out in front of them until it came to rest on the upturned earth. “I keep thinking I’ll hear him. That he’ll Apparate out of there and say it was all a great joke. I don’t know what to do without him.”

Harry worried about saying the wrong thing, but spoke anyway. “I’m sure Fred would want you to carry on. Reopen the joke shop. All those things you did together, I don’t think he’d want you to stop.”

George looked at him and, to Harry’s shock, he was crying. The thought of George Weasley, or Fred, crying seemed surreal, like something from a strange dream.

“Carry on?” he asked. “How can I carry on?” He pointed to his brother’s grave. “Part of me is buried down there.”

Harry could think of no answer. He turned back toward the grave and watched the extendable ear move along the mound of dirt like a Muggle metal detector. Finally, fearing that he would say something to upset George even more, he stood, patted his friend on the back, and started to walk away. As he took a step, he felt a sharp pull on one foot, as though an unseen hand had grabbed his shoe, and tumbled into the grass. When he looked down, he saw that his shoelaces were tied together in a complex knot.

“Fred told me to do it,” George said with a thin smile, the tears drying on his cheeks. The extendable ear, now reattached to the side of his head, twitched. “I hope Ron doesn’t eat the leftovers before I get there.” He stood and walked away, leaving Harry to undo the knot.

My internet being temporarily down, I am having to post tonight’s chapter from my phone, so please pardon any misspellings or mistakes in this chapter.  Thank you to those who have commented so far and thank you also to those who have read and not commented.  I know you’re out there.

And so, Chapter Three–A Hollow Feeling

The morning after his visit to the Dursleys, Harry apparated to Godric’s Hollow. Appearing on a hill overlooking the village, he took in the scene before him.

The last time he had been to the site of his parents’ murder was the night of Christmas Eve. The quaint, country houses scattered about the rolling hills, covered in snow last winter, looked like a painted landscape amidst the green foliage of summer. Red tiled roofs broke through the canopy of leaves in places and an occasional thin line of smoke, even in the heat of summer, drifted upward in the still air. When he had visited with Hermione, both fleeing for their lives, the village was full of death and reminders of death. Now, people milled about in the streets, colorful pennants flapped in front of the various shops, and great banners stretched from house to house celebrating the fall of Voldemort.

Harry started down the hill toward the village, smiling despite himself. The transformation of Godric’s Hollow mirrored that around the country. The cold mist that clung to Britain for so long during the Dark Lord’s revival was gone, replaced by the bright sunshine and the heat of summer. Even in a place that had seen so much tragedy-the death of his parents, the loss of Albus Dumbledore’s sister in an unfortunate accident, the murder of Bathilda Bagshot-happiness was rekindled.

Harry walked down the street towards the center of the village, marveling at the number of wizards and witches that went about conducting their business. No one noticed him as he meandered through the street, everyone absorbed in his or her own pursuits, and he reveled in the anonymity. He reached the center of town where a tall, redheaded young man was staring at a statue of three people.

“I wonder how many statues they’ll build of you now,” Ron said as Harry stepped beside him. At times in their friendship, these words might have been steeped with jealousy. Now, Ron sounded amused.

“I don’t care,” Harry answered. He reached into the mokeskin purse he carried at his side and pulled out the Deluminator. Handing the silver object over to Ron, he glanced back up at the statue. “As long as the rest don’t show me in nappies.”

They both laughed and looked up at the stone figures. James and Lily Potter, infant Harry between them, looked out over their upturned heads. Harry compared the statue of his broken family with those he had seen around London and noticed, with some surprise, that not a single bird dropping marred the granite surface. He thought of the great care that must have gone into ensuring that nothing such as a passing sparrow would leave its mark. Then he remembered that the statue stood in the middle of a village full of wizards who would certainly know a spell to repel bird dung.

“Let’s go to the cemetery,” Harry said.

Ron said nothing, but walked beside Harry down the street. Despite the solemn reason for their visit, he could not help but look around, having missed the chance to visit the previous winter.

“It’s a lot like Hogsmeade,” Ron said, “only without the students.”

Harry saw Ron’s point. Several of the names they were familiar with from Hogsmeade-Flourish and Blotts, Dervish and Banges, The Three Broomsticks-had locations in Godric’s Hollow. The wizard bank, Gringotts, operated a small branch dug into the side of one of the larger hills. All about, witches and wizards strolled carrying shopping bags or hand in hand with their children. The very air around the village pulsed with magic and, more obvious, a sense of relief and joy that Harry knew resulted from the defeat of Voldemort.

They circled around the small church and entered the cemetery. The previous Christmas, the place had been dark and solemn, but now, in the summer light, Harry felt profound peace as he walked through the gates. The snow that had been on the ground was gone, replaced by startling green grass as cared for as the Dursley’s lawn. Several of the tombstones bore flowers or wreaths. Next to some, other mementos lay leaning against the marble slabs-teddy bears, flasks, and framed photographs, faded by the sun.

One headstone, in particular, caught Harry’s attention as they moved toward the grave of his parents. He remembered the location of the Dumbledore monument precisely, even in a different season and under different circumstances. He knew the entire night in Godric’s Hollow, including his and Hermione’s narrow escape from Voldemort and the breaking of his wand, would be locked in his memory forever.

“Is that . . . ?” Ron started to ask.

“Yeah,” Harry answered.

The stone marking the final resting place of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore was exactly as Harry remembered it. Nearby, the grave of Ignotus Peverell stood, its engraved lettering nearly eroded away by the centuries. The triangular mark they had first associated with Grindlewald, the curious symbol that had, in part, led them to the knowledge of the Hallows they had used to defeat Voldemort, was barely visible near the bottom of the stone.

“What’s that?” Ron asked from the Dumbldore grave, pointing to a small gray dot half-concealed in the grass.

Harry bent down and picked up the object, so small that he feared it might break. When he held it in the palm of his hand, Harry could not suppress the chuckle of sad amusement the toy-a figurine of a goat-drew out of him.

“Aberforth,” Harry thought aloud. “He’s fond of goats.”

Harry set the goat back in the grass. They lingered at the Dumbledore grave for a few minutes, discussing the lost lives that had so shaped their former headmaster’s life. Then, they moved on among the rows of white marble and granite. As Ron walked, he gave Harry a continuous commentary about the various names he recognized from spending his entire life in the wizarding world.

“Splendis Chuckput,” Ron said, pointing out one elaborately carved stone. “He was Minister of Magic. And Rodney Thiffle. He married my parents. I didn’t know he was buried here.”

Harry half-listened to Ron’s description of the various witches and wizards who shared a final resting place with his parents, but he had come here for one reason and, as he drew closer to the grave, he heard less and less of what Ron was saying. Finally, he reached the tombstone marked with the names of his parents and stopped.

Ron was still talking. ” . . . Bowman Wright, inventor of the Golden Snitch. And . . .” Ron saw the name on the stone in front of Harry and grew quiet.

Harry looked at him and grinned. “You’re starting to sound like Hermione.”

Ron flushed. “Well, this stuff’s all common knowledge if you grew up in a wizarding family. It’s not like I’ve been reading my History of Magic textbook or anything.”

For several minutes, they stood quiet, shoulder to shoulder, looking at the grave of Harry’s parents. Harry broke the silence finally, clearing his throat and speaking, not to Ron, but to James and Lily Potter.

“We did it,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “He’s gone.”

Harry thought that he would feel awkward speaking to his dead parents in Ron’s presence, but once he started talking any thought of embarrassment vanished.

“This is Ron,” he said to the stone. “I’m sure you’ve seen him or heard about him from Sirius. He and Hermione were with me all the way and I couldn’t have done it without them.” He paused, feeling an odd stinging sensation in his eyes. “Or without you.”

The stinging sensation grew stronger and for a moment Harry thought he would bawl like a baby mandrake. “Tell . . . tell Sirius and Fred and Remus and Tonks and Mad-Eye and Professor Dumbledore . . .” He took a deep breath. ” . . . thank you.”

Harry turned and found that Ron was no longer beside him. Either out of convenient curiosity or respect for Harry’s emotional state, he had drifted off to look at more of the tombstones. He had stopped in front of one particularly large stone and was glaring at it with narrowed eyes.

“There are Malfoys buried here,” Ron said, anger evident in his voice. “And this close to your parents.”

Harry, who owed his defeat of Voldemort to Narcissa Malfoy, said nothing.

Ron bellowed about the Malfoys for a few minutes, then stopped, out of breath.

“You hungry?” he asked Harry when he calmed down.

“Starving.”

They found a café near the square and ordered lunch. The place was nearly deserted in between breakfast and lunch and they sat at a table in a shadowed corner in the hopes of going unnoticed. However, when the young witch came to take their order, her eyes went directly to Harry’s forehead, then to Ron’s red hair.

“You . . . you’re . . . Harry Potter?” she stammered. “And you . . . you’re Ron Weasley?”

Harry smiled, and the smile widened when he saw Ron’s face had gone bright scarlet. Over the years, Ron had grown used to being in Harry’s shadow, but now that word of his role in the defeat of Voldemort had been printed in the papers, Ron had gained a measure of celebrity that nearly rivaled his best friend’s.

The food was brought promptly and, though Harry offered several times to pay, the witch insisted their meal was on the house if they agreed to sign autographs for her and the cook. By the time they finished their meal and left, their signatures, on white napkins, were framed above the cash register. Harry left enough silver sickles to cover both their meals and to leave a generous tip before he and Ron reentered the street.

“Where to?” Ron asked.

“Let’s go to the house,” Harry said.

They walked to the end of a lane that led out of the village. Just as Harry remembered, his parents’ house stood at the end of the row. The large hole in the upper floor remained, but the unruly growth of grass and ivy had been trimmed. As Ron touched the front gate, the sign rose from the grass describing the violent history of the house and the fate of it’s occupants. However, instead of graffiti cheering the fugitive Harry in his quest to defeat the Dark Lord, the words scrawled on the sign said such things as “God bless you, Harry!” and “All Hail the Chosen One!” Harry heard Ron snickering behind him.

“Better watch it, mate,” Ron said. “They’ll have you as Minister of Magic before your birthday.”

Harry gave Ron a bemused look, then looked back at the house. “Let’s go in.”

Ron raised an eyebrow as he looked at the damaged building. “You think it’s safe.”

“I don’t care,” Harry said. “I want to see where my parents lived. Where I lived.”

Ron shrugged and followed him through the gate. The lawn gave Harry a strange sense of déjà vu, as though long-forgotten memories were struggling to the surface of his mind like fish approaching the shallows of a lake. He could almost see himself, a toddler with no scar on his forehead, learning to scamper across the lawn, chasing butterflies. He could imagine his father sitting on the front step while his mother encouraged him to keep taking his wobbly steps through the short grass.

They stopped at the front door. Harry grasped the knob and hesitated, though he could not say exactly what was holding him back. He wanted to see inside the house where he had lived, where his parents had died, but part of him knew that going through the door would make their deaths more real than anything he had yet experienced. Even seeing their grave, now only names etched on stone, had not made the violent ends of his parents as real as seeing where they had drawn their last breath.

“You want to leave?” Ron asked.

“No,” Harry said, turning the knob.

To his mild surprise, he found the door unlocked. As it swung back on silent hinges, sunlight fell on the sitting room, showing an assortment of old, moth-eaten furniture. A sofa, flanked by two chintz arm chairs, sat in the center of the room. Around the walls, lamps stood on tables, all coated with a thick layer of dust. Harry saw on one table a large picture frame rested on its back between two small lamps. He could not see the picture inside through the dust.

“You could use a good maid,” Ron said, his voice low. “Mum would break out in spattergroit at all this dust.”

Harry barely heard him. He picked up the picture frame and wiped the dust from the glass.

Staring up at him were his parents seated on a sofa, the very sofa that now sat a few feet away, its red fabric lost beneath a brown layer of dirt. In between them, waving his hands as though hoping to take flight, was Harry himself, his sparse locks of dark hair sticking out in all directions.

“What’s th-” Ron started, but was interrupted by a sound above them, as though someone was walking on the second floor.

Harry and Ron both pulled their wands out and Harry motioned for the archway that led from the sitting room. The reached the hall and saw straight ahead a kitchen, dishes still in the sink and flower stems, the petals long wilted to dust, in a vase on the windowsill. To their right, the hall continued on to three doors at the opposite end, but not before passing a set of stairs.

Another sound came from upstairs and this time it sounded like human speech. They could not make out the words, but it confirmed that the first sound had not been their imagination.

Harry turned back to Ron, the freckled face hovering just over his shoulder. Ron nodded and, together, they started up the stairs.

When they reached the middle of the steps, they could hear the voice more clearly. The speaker was talking in a hoarse whisper, but the words carried through the empty house.

” . . . thought that marketplace explosion was some terrorist group,” the voice said, chuckling. “Muggles are so stupid. They’ll believe anything their government tells them.”

Another voice answered, this one higher and sharper than the first. “Just shut up and keep looking.” Harry moved closer to the source of the voices, keeping his eyes focused on the landing. Only when he put his weight down on one step and it creaked loudly did he shift his eyes.

“Wha’ was that?” the sharp voice asked. Harry reached again into the mokeskin bag and pulled out his Invisibility Cloak. Working fast to beat the approaching footsteps, he threw the cloak over himself and Ron, the two of them crouching down to hide their feet.

A dark silhouette appeared at the top of the stairs, its features hidden by the lit wand tip that shone down the stairwell. The wand tip moved back and forth as its owner searched for the source of the sound. The figure took a step down toward Harry and Ron, then another. After another step down, the wand was only inches from Harry’s face beneath the cloak.

“What is it, Plough?” The sharp voice asked from above them.

The wand tip passed directly in front of Harry’s eyes, who refused to move unless contact was made. He gripped his own wand and prepared to take advantage of the confusion he knew would come in the moment after the man felt the cloak as he scanned the stairs.

“I guess it’s nothing,” Plough said, darkening his wand. He turned and went back up the stairs.

Harry heard Ron exhale behind him. “That was close,” he whispered.

Staying beneath the cloak, Harry and Ron moved up the step, testing each as they ascended for fear of alerting the men to their presence. When the reached the landing, they saw brilliant sunlight streaming in through the gaping hole in the roof and two men walking about as though searching for something.

“What are we looking for, anyway?” Plough asked. He was a wide, wild-looking man with greasy brown hair that he had combed over a vast patch of exposed scalp. He wore black robes, patched in several places, and a perpetual sneer that made him look rather mad.

“He just told us to look for anything that we might be able to use,” the other man said. This man was smaller, with steel gray hair and a matching, wire-thin moustache. His robes were clean and looked expensive. His wide eyes scanned the wreckage of the Potter home, moving piles of debris with his boot and clearing away the dust and leaves with his wand. “He said we might see some sign, but I’ll be damned if I know what he’s talking about. I think the whole affair is rubbish, but all the other Death Eaters have rallied to him. What are we supposed to do except what he wants?”

Harry felt Ron tense behind him and realized that he had done the same. Death Eaters. The idea of Voldemort’s supporters rummaging through the house where his parents died to save him made him furious. He wanted to hear more about their plans before revealing himself, but could not hold back the tide of anger that was swelling within him.

“Ready?” Harry whispered over his shoulder.

Ron nodded and Harry threw off the Invisibility Cloak.

“Stupefy!” Harry and Ron shouted at once. Two red jets of light shot from their wands and hit the two men squarely in the chest. Ron’s struck Plough and sent him back against the front wall where he collided and slid down, unconscious. Harry’s curse hit the gray-haired man and blasted him backward through the gaping hole in the building and out of sight.

“Go take care of him,” Harry said to Ron, pointing to where the gray-haired man had just disappeared. “Don’t let him wake up and escape.”

Ron, rather than bristling at being ordered around by his friend, nodded and darted back down the stairs. Harry pointed his wand at Plough.

“Incarcero!” Harry said. Ropes flew from the end of his wand and wrapped itself around the fallen Death Eater. Plough’s wand lay a few feet away from its master and Harry picked it up, tucking it inside his jacket. Then, he made his way to the missing wall and looked down. Ron had bound the gray-haired Death Eater, entangled in a holly bush, in similar fashion to Plough. He looked up at Harry and waved. “Damn lucky this bush was here or else he might not make to Azkaban.”

“Go to the Ministry and let them know what’s going on.”

Ron nodded again, turned, and was gone.

Harry, alone now with the two stunned Death Eaters, looked around for the first time since he had come upstairs. The room where he stood was actually two rooms, the dividing wall blasted away by the force of Voldemort’s failed curse. On the side where Plough lay against the wall, border depicting unicorns and dragons ran around what was left of the room, the primary-colored figures dancing upon the paper. A few pieces of furniture, broken and charred, lay scattered about the floor. Beneath one unidentifiable pile of wood in a corner, something caught his eye, reflecting the sunlight streaming in from the missing roof. He went to the corner and knelt down, reaching under the wood with a trembling hand, and felt something soft, though caked with dirt. He pulled and the object came free.

Looking in his hand, Harry saw a teddy bear. The rounded legs were caked with years of mud from being exposed to the elements, but the rest of the toy appeared only mildly dusty from being beneath the wood for so long. He studied the pile of wood and guessed, with its narrow wooden slats and two broken end pieces, that it had once been his crib.

He looked at the bear and the stinging sensation he had felt in the cemetery returned, though now he attributed it to the dust he had roiled in freeing the toy. With his wand, he cleaned off the dirt and grime to reveal the orange fur, the stitched mouth, and the glittering glass eyes. Looking around to see if anyone was watching, he tucked the bear into his mokeskin sack and stepped through the broken wall to the adjacent room.

This room, he knew, was his parents’ bedroom. A large bed lay toppled against the far wall, the frame leaning against a mattress that had decayed to no more than a few shreds of fabric and a number of rusted springs. A dresser lay in pieces in one corner and in the other a table lay on its top, looking with its wooden legs pointing upward like an overturned turtle. Everything was covered with plaster dust from the wall that had been destroyed by Voldemort’s curse, but the white coating that had been there had long ago turned to a dull, weathered gray. Here, too, piles of leaves formed drifts in the crevasses among the ruined furniture.

As Harry explored the room, he saw a few personal items scattered about the devastation. A broken picture frame, only two corners still intact, held a discolored photograph that had been mostly burned away by the curse. In the remaining corner, he could see his father’s head, looking pleasantly surprised by whatever he was seeing in the missing part of the picture.

Returning the broken frame with its damaged photograph to the dusty floor, Harry looked around for more evidence of his parents’ life in the house. He rummaged through the splintered remains of the dresser, found a dry and brittle piece of parchment, and removed it, careful not to catch it on anything as he pulled it free.

Harry recognized the handwriting on the parchment immediately. The thin, slanting script of Albus Dumbledore seemed to give Harry another sharp poke in the chest, reminding him again of someone he had lost. The ink was faded, but still legible in the bright light streaming in through the open roof.

Dearest James and Lily,

I write to congratulate you on your successful mission to retrieve the Golden Sepulcher before Lord Voldemort could acquire it. It has been safely hidden as we discussed and should pose no further threat to our side. That said, there are other artifacts that the Dark Lord may wish to acquire should he learn of them and we must maintain constant vigilance (to borrow Alastor’s phrase) to see that he does not succeed.

I hope that your accommodations suit you and that you are enjoying your life in hiding as much as possible. Having beaten Lord Voldemort to three powerful magical items, now, you have more than earned a peaceful repose. Please give my regards to young Harry and stay safe.

Affectionately Yours,

Albus

Harry read the letter again. A third time. Once again, he felt anger boiling up inside him. Why had no one ever spoken to him about any of this? He had heard in the prophecy that his parents had “thrice defied the Dark Lord,” but no one had ever explained how they had done so. To Harry, every question about his parents that he found an answer to only opened up more questions.

Absorbed in his own thoughts, Harry jumped at the sound of voices from downstairs. He cast a spell to protect the brittle parchment, folded the letter carefully, and tucked it inside his pocket.

Running footsteps came up the stairs and Ron emerged into the bright daylight. Behind him, three Aurors-Dawlish and two others Harry did not recognize-came up the stairs, their wands drawn.

“There’s the other one,” Ron said, pointing to Plough.

The Aurors worked quickly. After a brief exchange, Dawlish sent the other two back to the ministry, apparating with the unconscious Death Eaters in tow.

“Well done, Harry,” Dawlish said after the other two had left. “Although I wish you had left them to us. You could have been hurt.”

The patronizing tone in the Auror’s voice rankled Harry, but he said nothing. It was he, not Dawlish, who had defeated Voldemort and he felt qualified to disable two rogue Death Eaters.

“I’m sorry,” he lied. “I thought they might get away.”

Dawlish smirked at Harry. “We’ve known about these two for a while. It was only a matter of time before we tracked them down.”

Harry doubted this, but again said nothing. After another remonstration and a reluctant word of thanks, Dawlish, too, disapparated. Harry was glad to see him go and worried that he should have such negative feelings about someone who would soon, he hoped, be helping him become an Auror.

“You hear that?” Ron asked in mock surprise when they were alone again. “We could’ve been hurt.”

Harry laughed despite his lingering bitterness. He looked around, the room again as though to regain his bearings, then pulled the frail letter from his pocket. He gave the parchment to Ron, who read it twice before looking up from the slanting script.

“Well, that explains part of the prophecy, at least,” Ron said. “A little late, though.”

Harry agreed. Finding the letter after the fulfillment of the prophecy felt like finding an extra piece after the puzzle lay complete on the table.

“What do you think these magical artifacts are? The one’s your parents got to before You-Voldemort?” Ron asked. He, like the rest of the wizarding world, struggled with the name, but had begun to use it with greater confidence in the days since the Dark Lord’s fall.

Harry stepped over and picked up his Invisibility Cloak from the floor. “This might be one of them.”

How his father had acquired one of the Deathly Hallows, powerful items supposedly bestowed by Death to three brothers centuries ago, was another question about his parents that remained unanswered. He assumed the Cloak had been passed down through his family for generations, but he could not remember anyone actually telling him this.

“What about this Golden Sepulcher?” Ron asked.

“What?” Harry, lost in reflection, snapped back to the present.

“The Golden Sepulcher,” Ron repeated. “The artifact Dumbledore mentions in the letter. Sounds a bit spooky, doesn’t it?”

To Harry, it sounded like nothing. After chasing Horcruxes, Elder Wands, and Resurrection Stones, he wanted nothing to do with magical artifacts. He shrugged and looked at the watch Ron’s parents had given him the previous summer. “We should probably be getting back to the Burrow.”

Ron also checked the time and nodded. “Yeah, Mum will be wondering if we’ve been fighting Death Eaters or something.”

They both chuckled, their laughter muted by the oppressive silence and evidence of devastation around them.

“You go on,” Harry said. “I’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

Ron’s eyes narrowed in a look of skepticism, then he shrugged. “I’ll tell Mum and Ginny that you’re on the way.” “Thanks.”

Ron disapparated with a pop.

Alone, Harry looked around the ruined upstairs of his parents’ house. The sunlight, streaming in through the gaping hole in the wall, reflected on the dust motes stirred up by the unaccustomed foot traffic in the room. In the corners, though, the shadows still clung, holding their secrets against the encroaching light. Searching the floor, he tried to imagine the scene as it had been seventeen years before. Where his mother had stood. Where she had died. Where he had survived.

Harry waved his wand and two red roses appeared from nothing. Taking them in hand, he flinched as a thorn stung deep into his finger. He kneeled down where he guessed his mother had stood in her final moments and placed the roses on the matted floor. As he stood, a single drop of blood fell from his finger, landing at the place where the two stems crossed.

Imitating Ron’s movement, Harry turned on the spot and was gone.