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Chapter 38

It was after midnight and the party was starting to wind down when Harry saw a very familiar head of hair, brushed back like the mane of a grizzled lion. It took considerable willpower on his part not to flinch or show any other overt reaction.

Rufus Scrimgeour, Fudge’s successor as Minister of Magic, could have been a great aid in their quest to rid the world of Voldemort, “could” being the operative word. Unfortunately, in Harry’s opinion, he’d been so wrapped up in dealing with the turmoil after inheriting Fudge’s messes that he never effectively addressed the growing threat of Voldemort. He never took Harry seriously, and they were at odds practically until his death when the Ministry was destroyed.

But, from Scrimgeour’s perspective, it would have been hard not to see Harry as little more than Dumbledore’s pawn. The two had disagreed on a number of issues, and it was inevitable that would spill over onto Harry. It didn’t help that Harry himself hadn’t trusted the man with the details of Voldemort’s immortality. Even if he hadn’t wanted to become a Ministry mouthpiece, it grieved Harry to think how much disunity amongst his enemies had benefited Voldemort in his rise to power.

It seemed fate, not to mention Augusta Longbottom, was giving Harry a chance to make a different first impression, and he wasn’t about to waste it.

“Rufus,” Madam Longbottom said in a firm tone, “you know my grandson, Neville. He’s here with some of his friends from Hogwarts, Luna Lovegood, Ronald and Ginevra Weasley, Hermione Granger, and Harry Potter. This is Rufus Scrimgeour, an old friend of the family.”

Each of his friends smiled or nodded as they were introduced, but Harry turned his nod into a short bow, something he hadn’t done previously that night. It only made sense that Scrimgeour would know the Longbottoms – Frank and Alice had been Aurors during the war.

“Pleased to meet all of you,” Scrimgeour replied in a slightly gruff tone, but his eyes lingered on Harry. They seemed to be weighing him.

“Auror Scrimgeour, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” Harry said in a very sincere voice as he stepped forward.

The man’s greying eyebrows went up a notch. “Have we met before?” he asked. Harry thought he detected just a hint of anger under the man’s voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Neville frowning, so he didn’t think it was his imagination either.

Harry shook his head. “No, but I read about you when I was catching up on recent history when I returned to the Wizarding world. I believe you are the Head of the Auror Office, correct?”

Scrimgeour nodded. “I still hold that honour, Mr. Potter. You are rather well informed.” The man’s steely gaze seemed to pin Harry to the floor, and he actually had to resist the urge to step back.

Harry smiled slightly, looking up at the tall man, but trying not to sound like he was sucking up either. “I was curious about what happened after my family was attacked,” he said. “I can’t say I’m entirely pleased by what I discovered.”

“Yes,” Scrimgeour replied. “I read about that in the Prophet,” he added dryly.

Harry shrugged with what he hoped didn’t look like false humility. “I think it must have been a slow news day.”

“Not to everyone, Mr. Potter,” Scrimgeour shot back. “My people found it quite interesting. What is your opinion of the Aurors and their role in this… miscarriage of justice?”

Harry’s stomach settled down a little, now that he could understand the source of the man’s ire. He could see where someone in his position might think Harry was laying the blame at his door. “I think the Aurors perform a vital service in our society, protecting the innocent from those who would victimize them. It’s a very difficult job, and most people don’t appreciate them as much as they should.”

Scrimgeour nodded slowly, almost in spite of himself. “Yet you say they didn’t do their jobs after the fall of Voldemort,” he accused.

“That’s because the Aurors are still part of the Ministry and subject to the chain of command. It doesn’t matter how many Dark Wizards you catch if they get pardoned or found innocent by ’extenuating circumstances’ – such as being obscenely wealthy,” Harry said. He shook his head. “The sharpest sword is still useless in the hands of a coward,” he added.

Scrimgeour wasn’t nodding any more, but his eyes were very sharp as they bored into Harry. “Do you know what you are implying?” he asked in a mild tone.

“I know that it’s almost impossible to protect people who don’t want to be protected. The Aurors alone can’t save a society from itself,” Harry said.

“And you are saying society wanted He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?” Scrimgeour demanded.

Harry fought down a surge of irritation. Working at the Ministry, the man would cause too many problems if he didn’t use the pseudonym – no matter how irritating it was. “Voldemort,” he said, proving his point when several people around them jumped and one let out a small scream, “is little more than a catalyst. He’s just a symptom of the disease.”

Scrimgeour looked around at the pale faces. He nodded toward an alcove that had been set up with a small buffet, long since depleted. Harry followed him over there, and his friends drifted in the general direction.

“Better not to disturb them anymore,” the man said, shaking his head. “Augusta is likely to have my head for talking shop as it is.”

Harry nodded, though he was secretly pleased that he’d at least made an impression.

“Now, what disease is this?” Scrimgeour asked in a sour tone. Despite the signs of ire, Harry thought the man seemed a little intrigued. “Most people consider Dark Lords quite enough of a problem.”

“A Dark Lord by himself is just a man with a wand. No matter how vicious, a lone killer is not a threat to society. But when he accumulates dozens of followers, who bring with them wealth, supplies, logistics, and manpower… then that aggregate becomes a dagger pointed at the heart of the Wizarding World.” Harry shook his head. “It’s even worse when those in positions of power are suborned by the movement and betray the public trust, either for ideology or greed.”

“So you think it’s his followers that are the real threat,” Scrimgeour summarized. “But it’s useless to try and fight human nature. There will always be those hungry for power who will follow anyone that promises them more.” He scowled. “Merlin knows I’ve seen enough of them.”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t think it’s just that. It’s fear as well.”

“Fear of what?” the man snapped.

“Fear of change. Fear of the Muggles and, by extension, the Muggle-born. Muggle technology is advancing faster and faster, and in some areas, it has surpassed what we can do with magic. The Muggle population grows larger and larger while ours stagnates. More and more Muggle-borns enter Hogwarts every generation, and some of the pure-bloods are afraid of them.”

“Boy, do you realize that I’m a pure-blood, as well as nearly everyone else in this building?”

“I said some of them. I live with a pure-blood family, but they don’t feel threatened by Muggles. It’s the ones that are afraid of change, that hold onto past glories as proof of their worth that I’m talking about. They seize upon blood purity as their cause because that’s something they will always have that the newcomers will always lack. If that’s what truly matters, then they never have to worry about being supplanted or surpassed. Voldemort told them that every problem in the Wizarding World can be traced back to the “Mudbloods”, and so they flocked to his banner. They gave him their power in exchange for a few lies – words he doesn’t believe himself since he was born a Half-blood.” Harry took a deep breath. “And I don’t think, after what happened to her son, that Madam Longbottom would invite that kind of pure-blood to her party.”

Scrimgeour just stared at Harry for a long moment. “Where did you come up with that, Mr. Potter?”

Harry shook his head. “That’s just it. I read about what happened and it seems so obvious to me… I can’t really understand how someone could not come to that conclusion.”

Hermione tentatively cleared her throat, “Harry was pretty much raised as a Muggle-born, like myself,” she offered, “and I came to much the same conclusions after reading Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts. Perhaps the Muggle primary education predisposes us to see it that way, especially given the parallels with the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany.”

Scrimgeour frowned. “Hitler? Wasn’t he Grindlewald’s Muggle cat’s paw?”

Harry nodded, biting back his irritation. Most wizards wouldn’t have recognized the name at all, so Rufus was doing better than most. “Yes, he also seized most of Europe and killed more people than there are living wizards in the world.” Harry wasn’t sure if that was strictly accurate, but if it wasn’t, it was close enough.

Scrimgeour nodded slowly as he digested this. “I can tell you’ve given this a lot of thought, something I wouldn’t have guessed an hour ago.” His eyes narrowed as they swept over Harry and his friends. “I don’t imagine the subject would be given this much thought if you didn’t intend to do something about it when you get older.”

Harry shrugged helplessly. “I don’t think I’m going to have much choice. I’m already a lightning-rod for Voldemort’s former followers, as well as those that oppose them. I’d rather take an active role than be used by anyone.”

“And the rest of you?” Scrimgeour asked, nodding towards Harry’s friends, most of whom were in a loose line across the mouth of the alcove. The corner of the man’s mouth twitched and Harry wondered if he’d made note of their formation.

“We’re with Harry,” Ron said simply.

“To the end,” Ginny added. The others nodded.

“If the Longbottoms are not in a formal alliance with the Potters by the time I reach my majority,” Neville said with some force, “that will be the first thing I correct.”

Scrimgeour’s eyes widened a little. “You seem to be collecting followers of your own, Mr. Potter,” he said with some asperity. Harry wondered if he’d been in Gryffindor under Professor McGonagall, because he had that crisp tone just right.

“Friends, sir,” he corrected, even as the others visibly bristled. “Friends don’t have to be branded like cattle, and they don’t hesitate to tell me where to get off.”

“No matter how often it needs to be done,” Ginny added, then reddened as Ron gave her a smug grin.

“Well said,” Scrimgeour allowed, “but I will be keeping an eye on all of you. It’s not often a group of third-year students give me something to think about.” His eyes moved over them, pausing on Ron. “I’ve worked with your father on occasion,” he said, “He too, is underappreciated for the work he does.”

Ron smiled. “Thank you, sir, I’ll tell him you said so.”

Scrimgeour glanced out toward the ballroom. “I need to convey my compliments to your grandmother for an interesting evening, Neville.” With that, he returned to the party.

Harry blew out a shaky breath after the man left. He jumped a little when Ginny nudged his elbow and handed him a small goblet of cordial. Harry accepted it gratefully, only now realizing how dry his throat had become.

“That’s the most you’ve talked to anyone this evening,” Hermione noted, and Harry didn’t have to be told it wasn’t just an idle observation.

Harry lowered his voice, making sure he was turned away from the ballroom.

“He’s important. A man like that might become Minister some day.”

Hermione’s eyes widened and she nodded. Then she smiled, and Harry relaxed a bit.

OoOoO

A strangely tired group made their way back to The Burrow. The sustained tension of the evening had drained them even more than a Slug Club party, but the nervous tension, as well as the realization that what they were doing was actually important, had left them almost vibrating with energy.

Harry couldn’t suppress his grin as he thanked Madam Longbottom “for a wonderful time”, which seemed to unnerve her a little. But that was nothing compared to what happened next, when Luna hugged the formidable old woman around the waist as she thanked her for her invitation. Augusta patted her, once, on the exact centre of Luna’s back, and told her to think nothing of it. The stern witch’s expression was puzzled, and she barely even noticed when Luna hugged Neville before stepping over to the Floo.

Molly, of course, had stayed up until they returned. Most of the rest of the house was still awake as well, only Percy having turned in early. She didn’t seem terribly surprised to hear how the ‘simple gathering’ had changed, and Harry wondered if Augusta had hinted at the possibility.

In any event, they were up nearly an hour longer, relating what had occurred. Arthur seemed both surprised and a little pleased at Scrimgeour’s words, saying that the Head Auror was quite a serious person at the Ministry, with a no-nonsense reputation as well known as Bartemius Crouch’s “before that business with his son”.

Harry scowled a bit, but the time wasn’t yet right to deal with that. He had plans, but if they didn’t work out, he’d find another way to get the job done.

OoOoO

The ride back to King’s Cross was both quiet and uneventful. Harry found himself in the odd position of wanting to get back to school so he could relax a bit. The Burrow still felt like home, but normally his hols weren’t quite so packed full of work, odd jobs, and unexpected stress.

He wasn’t about to start whinging to his friends, but sometimes he felt like the entire wizarding world was resting on his shoulders. The fact that it wasn’t a complete exaggeration just made it worse. Sometimes he just wanted to have a bit of a lie in, to take things easy for a bit. But he knew Voldemort was out there somewhere, with at least one servant likely helping him. He couldn’t relax his guard for an instant. He needed to keep pushing himself and the others, so they could be ready for whatever came.

He glanced over at Ginny, who had dozed off leaning against Ron’s shoulder. There would be plenty of time to relax when Voldemort was dead forever.

OoOoO

They boarded the Hogwarts Express a little earlier than usual, reserving their usual compartment near the back. Harry just stared out the window, still lost in his brown study.

His friends were a little subdued as well, talking quietly, reading, or, in Ron’s case, fast asleep. Harry supposed it was the enforced socializing they’d done at Augusta’s party. While ‘Slug Club’ meetings weren’t quite as wearing, they could become so, and he decided to make sure he didn’t commit to attending too many during the term.

His eyes were drawn to motion, and Harry saw a bulky figure in black robes trudging toward the train. She was leaning forward, and moving quickly, but he still recognized Millicent Bulstrode. There was no sign of her father, so he supposed she’d already said goodbye. He sighed. He doubted she’d had a good holiday, not so soon after her sister’s death.

Still, something about the way she moved bothered him, just a little. He’d make a point of checking up on her if he had an opportunity. It wasn’t much, but he’d do what he could for Melissa’s sake.

OoOoO

Harry’s concerns grew stronger after Millicent missed the first Gryffindor/Slytherin Potions class. He lingered after class, but didn’t get an opportunity to speak privately with Professor Slughorn.

Instead, he finished his dinner in a hurry and slipped out of the Great Hall to visit Madame Pomfrey. Ginny insisted on going with him, while Ron began eating even faster so he could accompany them. Persuading his friends to let him out of their sight took Harry longer than he anticipated, and even then Ginny insisted on going with him.

Finally, he gave up trying to convince her and made his way to the hospital wing.

As expected, Madam Pomfrey was there, even though the beds were mostly empty. However, a back corner was fenced off with a couple of panels, so Harry didn’t completely relax.

“Did you have a good holiday, Madam Pomfrey?” Harry asked politely.

“Yes,” she replied absently, and Harry thought she seemed distracted. “Are you all right, Mr. Potter, Ms. Weasley? I don’t usually see you when you’re healthy.”

“I know,” Harry said, “and that’s a bit rude on my part. I just wanted to thank you for taking such good care of me when I’ve been hurt. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll try not to make so much work for you in the future.”

The school nurse’s eyes widened a little. “That’s very nice of you, but I was just doing my job,” she said modestly.

Harry smiled. “I know, but you do it so well. I think you’re one of the few people Mrs. Weasley trusts to look after me, besides herself.”

Ginny let out a little snort at that, but she was smiling as she nodded ruefully.

“I see,” Madam Pomfrey murmured. “Well, it’s good to know that one is appreciated. And I do hope that any future visits of yours will be social ones, Mr. Potter.”

Harry grinned. “I’ll try my best.”

“Good,” she nodded. “Well, I have some first-year records to go over, and I believe you two have curfew soon…”

“We’ll be going now,” Ginny said, taking Harry’s hand. “It’s bad enough that my big brother is Head Boy, I don’t want him assigning me a detention. I’d never hear the end of it…”

Harry chuckled as she pulled him out into the hallway. But as soon as the door closed, the smile fell off his face. Even if it was just an excuse to visit the hospital wing, Madam Pomfrey deserved a little recognition from one of her more frequent customers. But he could also tell that something was bothering her. There was a temptation to use Legilimency to find out exactly what it was, but Harry also knew that was a very slippery slope to tread. He couldn’t very well resent Dumbledore and Snape, and then turn around and do it himself without being an enormous hypocrite.

On the other hand, it was clear something was bothering her, and that closed off section of the wing suggested that she had a patient back there. Harry just hoped his suspicions were incorrect.

OoOoO

Of course, Harry’s ethics were a bit more flexible when it came to known enemies. Pansy Parkinson had participated in that nasty little ambush at the end of last year, so Harry didn’t really give a damn about violating the witch’s privacy. He managed to get a seat at his next Potions class that had a good view of the Slytherin’s bench. When she returned with a handful of Shrivelfigs to dice, Harry managed to look up suddenly enough to make her glance his way.

Eye contact wasn’t strictly necessary for practitioners of the mind arts, but it did make it a bit easier – especially when one was in a hurry. Pansy frowned a bit at Harry’s intent glare, but he was already turning back toward Neville before she could do more than sneer.

It took more self control than Harry honestly thought he had to keep from drawing his wand. He’d just done a quick scan for recent memories related to Bulstrode, but he’d seen more than enough. He saw Pansy conspiring with other members of her house. He saw her nudge Millicent on the stairs as an older boy tripped her. He saw a prefect give Crabbe and Goyle the password to disable the alarms on the girls’ wing of the Slytherin dormitories. Worse, he saw hints of what would happen if Millicent went to Slughorn or anyone else.

For the remainder of the class, Harry was abnormally quiet, causing Neville to shoot him several questioning looks. Harry was wondering how many ‘accidental deaths’ he could manage before Dumbledore caught on.

In the end, he didn’t figure he could manage enough to make a difference. There was also the matter of weakening Dumbledore’s position and maybe enabling Lucius Malfoy or someone like him to gain control over the school.

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to do something.

OoOoO

It wasn’t that hard to slip out of Gryffindor Tower after curfew, especially when you had an Invisibility Cloak. Harry didn’t have the Marauder’s Map, but he still knew the castle like the back of his hand. Better, maybe, when he considered some of the scars he’d acquired on the back of his hand during the war. Every so often, the unmarked skin would look odd to him, though that happened rarely these days.

He made it down to the hospital wing without incident and slipped inside with no one the wiser. There was no sign of Madam Pomfrey, so he supposed any patients were resting peacefully. He also managed to slip between the partitions without jostling them, but he stumbled a little when he saw the mass of bruises covering the patient’s face.

Harry supposed Millicent had learned to become a bloody light sleeper recently. He’d barely scuffed his foot on the floor of the hospital wing before she was sitting up, having snatched the wand out from under her pillow.

“Quiet,” Harry snapped in little more than a whisper. “Wake Madam Pomfrey and we’ll never hear the end of the gossip.”

Millicent blinked, and then snorted. She winced. Harry wondered how bad she’d been hurt if she was still this sore after being treated. “What the hell are you doing here, Potter?” she whispered, the words sounding odd coming past swollen lips.

“I thought I’d check up on one of my favourite Slytherins,” Harry said. He knew she’d hate any sort of pity, so he went for flippant. In retrospect, he supposed that was less than wise.

“If anyone hears you say that, there’ll be twice as much Bulstrode blood on your hands,” she hissed.

Harry winced himself, and then eased back the hood of his Cloak. “Seriously, what the hell happened to you? I can guess, but I’d like to know for sure.”

She glared at him. “So you can ride in and rescue me? I don’t need anymore Gryffindor theatrics.”

“I still owe your sister a debt,” Harry insisted stubbornly. “The more I know, the more likely I am to do something constructive, rather than ‘theatrical’.”

Bulstrode sighed. “Word got around, I don’t know from where. Someone found out my sister helped you. There’s a mark on the Bulstrodes now. No one will help me because they don’t want to cross the Malfoys, the Parkinsons, the Flints and the rest. Some of the major pure-blood families are aligning their interests, and I am thoroughly screwed. Almost literally, if I hadn’t got away from Crabbe and Goyle. Pomfrey knows I’m well enough to return to my quarters but she doesn’t say anything, other than asking if I’d like to make a report.”

“Why don’t you?” Harry asked, trying to control the shaking in his hands.

“Because I’m not an idiot,” Bulstrode spat. “I don’t have any friendly witnesses. A dozen people will testify that they saw me trip, or flirt with Goyle.” She made a face.

“Why don’t you withdraw from school if it’s that bad?” Harry asked, feeling mildly nauseous himself.

“Because I’d have to tell my father why,” Millicent said slowly, “and I’ve had it explained to me by Pansy. His business interests are tied up with the others. The only reason he hasn’t been eliminated is because they think you had some kind of blackmail on my sister, and because they can use me as a hostage to guarantee his good behaviour. If he tried to pull me out of Hogwarts, they’d see that as a sign of treachery and eliminate him.”

Harry swallowed. “That’s sick,” was all he could say.

“I don’t need your pity,” Millicent snarled. “Just get out of here and stay out of my life, damn you!” He voice was rising above a whisper, so Harry backed away before she roused Madam Pomfrey.

But as he paused before opening the door to the castle corridor, Harry thought he heard faint sounds of weeping.

OoOoO

Harry realized later that he wasn’t a lot of fun to be around the following day. He didn’t say anything at first, but he supposed he was abnormally quiet as he tried to come up with a way to get Millicent out of danger. Worse, the longer he thought about the situation, the more frustrated he became, and the harder it became to keep his magic completely under control.

Of course, he was so preoccupied with his thoughts that Harry didn’t realize how obvious it was that something was bothering him. At least, not until Ginny pulled away the book he’d been pretending to read in the common room.

“Do you want to talk about it, or were you planning to sulk all night?” she asked in a low whisper.

Harry sighed and looked around. There were only a few students in the Gryffindor common room at this hour, and most of them were quite engrossed in their schoolwork. He hefted his Transfiguration book and ducked his head down a little. “We were right about her,” he said. “It’s a bloody mess.”

Ginny muttered something under her breath that Harry couldn’t quite make out. He had no doubt Molly would have washed her mouth out if she heard it. “So what are we going to do about it?” she asked after a moment.

“We?” Harry asked, smiling a little. Her… proprietary… mannerisms always made him want to grin. She grew more and more confident, the more they’d talked about… things… and it showed the most in their private conversations.

“Yes, ‘we’,” she growled. “The rest of us benefited from that warning her sister gave you, so we owe her as well. And you don’t have to hide your secrets from us any longer, Harry, so you don’t have any excuses for trying to do everything yourself.” She paused. “Or do you really think one of us is going to go carrying tales to the Headmaster?” she asked.

Harry scowled back at her. “Of course not,” he snapped. And then he sighed. “Sorry. It’s just more of a habit now.”

“It must be,” Ginny replied quietly, shaking her head, “especially if you haven’t asked Hermione for ideas.”

Harry tried not to be distracted by the way the light played through her hair. He made a face, more amused really, than offended. “She doesn’t have to do all my thinking for me, you know.”

“I didn’t say she did,” Ginny whispered with a smile of her own. “But three heads are better than two, right?”

“Or six,” Harry agreed.

The next day, right before curfew, Hedwig left Hogwarts with three letters.

OoOoO

Beauxbatons Offers Scholarship to Surviving Bulstrode Heir
-Reported by Rita Skeeter for the Daily Prophet
In a surprise move, Beauxbatons Academy of Magic has offered a five-year scholarship to Millicent Bulstrode, the younger sister of Melissa Bulstrode, who our gentle readers will remember was killed in a tragic accident at Hogwarts last term.
“When I learned of the young witch’s situation,” Madam Maxime, Headmistress of Beauxbatons confided, “I was shocked that her father would have her continue to learn at a place with such bad memories. However, I was contacted by a group of people who explained that it would be difficult for her to find an education of comparable worth elsewhere within England.”
Your correspondent blushes to admit that she herself was approached by a group of faithful readers who wished to remain anonymous. Moved by the story of her sister’s tragic death, they wished to help young Millicent make a fresh start abroad. These generous subscribers donated funds sufficient to cover Beauxbatons’ tuition, even if the gracious Madam Maxime had not offered the grieving young witch’s family a substantial discount.
“It is nothing,” Madam Maxime said, blushing a little, “I too had a sister who passed on when I was very young. It still saddens me to think of little Marie. I only hope that, what do you call it? A change of scenery? Yes? I hope that will make it easier for her to get on with her life.”
Your faithful correspondent is glad that we can derive some measure of comfort from the aftermath of this tragedy. We are pleasantly surprised by the graciousness and hospitality of our neighbours across the Channel at Beauxbatons. We are humbled by the generosity of our readers, and their willingness to reach out and help the survivors of a tragic accident. And we are hopeful that Ms. Bulstrode will be able to make a fresh start at Beauxbatons.

Harry put the Daily Prophet down, a wry grin playing across his lips.

“Admit it, Harry,” Hermione said, just a trifle smugly, “it worked, didn’t it?”

Harry nodded. “I’ll admit it,” he whispered, “I didn’t think it would come together quite as smoothly as it did. But you were right.” His eyes flickered toward the Slytherin table. Pansy looked downright murderous this morning, and Millicent and Professor Slughorn were nowhere to be seen. With any luck, she was already gone. Even if she wasn’t, there was far too much attention on her for them to try anything.

“Getting Rita involved was really the key,” Hermione replied in a low voice. “With her providing a public explanation of everything, no one will really question how this happened. It just looks like she’s blowing her own horn over how influential she is.”

“I noticed how she kind of backed off on blaming the Ministry for what happened,” Ron added.

“Yes, but she was writing for the Prophet,” Hermione explained, “they have a strong pro-ministry stance. But this story is high-profile enough that they still printed it, which helps, since more of the people we are concerned about read the Prophet than The Quibbler.” She gave Luna an apologetic look.

Luna just smiled. “We’ll see how they feel when the Rotfang Conspiracy is finally revealed.”

Harry suppressed a grin. It was a little ironic though. Everything Rita wrote for The Quibbler was true, but her first bit of deliberate misinformation was printed in the Daily Prophet. Most people considered The Quibbler to be the fabricated publication.

Goldfarb had no issue fronting the initial funds, especially since Harry’s share of the recent salvage expedition had amply demonstrated that he knew how to amass wealth. Hermione’s idea to use Rita to front the idea to Madam Maxime had been pure genius though. No matter that she’d seen plenty of crusading Muggle reporters doing similar things on the telly. It was a fairly novel practice in the Wizarding World, and looked to be enhancing Rita’s reputation even more than expected. Of course, that gave greater credence to the articles that she’d already published on Harry’s behalf.

Okay, so maybe Hermione did have a right to a smug grin or two. And Harry owed her for taking care of one of his more recent worries.

OoOoO

While Harry and Remus had stopped trying to see exactly how far Harry could push his magic, the Defence Professor’s work with the Duelling Association had been far more productive. This was evident on a chilly March evening when Hermione and Ginny each produced a semi-corporeal Patronus.

While the forms were a bit wobbly, Harry easily recognized Hermione’s faithful otter. Ginny’s Patronus, on the other hand, was a large, vaguely feline-looking form. Even hazy, it seemed rather menacing.

Of course, this spurred the others on, for various reasons. Try as he might to sincerely congratulate them, Harry could tell Ron was a little perturbed that his sister had succeeded before he did. After a week of late nights practicing until he nearly dropped, he finally made his own. But instead of the terrier Harry remembered, Ron produced what was unmistakably a lion with a full mane.

Of course, this only made all the others in the DA work even harder. It was one thing if the Boy Who Lived could produce a giant stag that made the professors’ eyes bulge. But the others were getting the charm to work as well, “proving” that they could do it if they tried hard enough. This was made even more apparent two weeks later, when Neville and Luna finally made it.

Of course, this produced a bit of controversy. Harry smiled at Neville’s bear. He’d taken longer than most of his friends, but now that he’d made it, his Patronus was easily as solid and well-defined as any. Luna, on the other hand…

Ron’s mouth had fallen open. He looked over at Professor Lupin. “I thought you could only make a Patronus of a normal animal?”

The genial man’s eyes had gone wide. Luna’s Patronus was small, but exceedingly well-defined. Harry suspected that she might have held back, just a little, not wanting to get hers to work before Neville. Or maybe seeing the smile on his face gave her just the boost she needed. It wasn’t like he was ever going to ask her.

But that sharp definition meant that Harry could see every detail of the odd silvery creature she’d produced, from the odd beak to the weirdly-shaped tail.

Ron shook his head. “Trust Luna to have a Patronus that takes the form of some imaginary creature.” He smiled fondly at the blonde girl, clearly not wanting her to think he was making fun of her.

Rather than look hurt, Luna instead looked expectantly at Hermione. The latter reluctantly cleared her throat. “Um, Ronald, that’s not an imaginary creature.”

Ron spun toward the bushy-haired witch. “Wot? Hermione, have you looked at that thing?” he asked, gesturing at Luna’s Patronus.

Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. If he didn’t know better, Harry would swear Luna had planned this all along. “Yes, Ron,” she said. “It’s a marsupial.”

“I’ve never seen a marsupial, or anything else that looks like that, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” Ron declared.

“That’s because Newt Scamander only wrote about magical animals,” Hermione replied in an aggrieved tone. “The duck-billed platypus is a rare, but normal animal, found in Australia. I’ve seen them on the telly.”

Ron scowled. “A duck-what? Now I know you’re putting me on.”

At this, Harry couldn’t hold back any longer, and began squeaking as he tried to restrain his laughter.

“You can learn a lot from television,” Luna said calmly. Hermione shot her a filthy look.

Harry burst out laughing and didn’t stop until he saw black spots in front of his eyes.

OoOoO

Spring brought some good news, in the form of a grinning Professor Slughorn. The portly professor was in such a good mood one morning that he gave both his Slytherins and the Gryffindors over two hundred house points each in Potions. Harry was pretty sure he knew what the man was so happy about, and this was confirmed when Professor Slughorn asked him to stay after class to discuss the essay he’d turned in last week.

As he approached the man’s desk, Slughorn slid a parchment across to where Harry could read it. It wasn’t his essay – rather, it was a detailed receipt from the apothecary wholesaler on the continent that had been chosen to liquidate the Basilisk remains. Harry’s eyes scanned over the figures, only to get stuck on the total at the bottom.

That was a very long number.

Split six ways, he still didn’t think Hermione would have any trouble funding an extended stay at Oxford, even if she didn’t get a scholarship.

Horace’s commission would also keep him in assorted sweets and luxuries for a very long time.

Harry swallowed. “That’s a lot of dosh,” he murmured.

“Yes, yes, it is, young Harry,” Slughorn replied in an avuncular tone. “Seems there was a bit of a bidding war over some of the more, er, dangerous substances. Word got around and several governments began bidding as well. Even if they only wanted to keep things out of private hands, it still drove up the bidding in a spectacular manner.”

Harry frowned. “If they were trying that hard to keep them off the market, maybe we shouldn’t have been selling those substances at all…”

“Nonsense, my boy,” Slughorn said grandly, “most of those parts have perfectly legitimate uses as well.” He gestured at the storage cabinets lining the walls of the laboratory. “Look around you. Almost every legitimate ingredient can also be used for less, ah, reputable brews. It’s the intent that matters, just like with magic and a wand.”

“I suppose,” Harry said. “I just feel like we are taking advantage of the situation, that’s all.”

“Don’t you worry about that one bit,” Slughorn said comfortingly. “That’s what free enterprise is all about!”

Harry left the classroom with oddly mixed feelings.

OoOoO

His friends’ reactions varied as he shared the good news while cleaning up after a Duelling Association meeting. Ron’s eyes went wide, but he was utterly silent. Hermione frowned, closing her eyes with her lips moving silently. Harry guessed she was mentally converting her share into pounds to get a better handle on it. He received confirmation when her eyes shot open and she let out a strangled squeak.

Neville just let out a relieved sigh. Harry looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. “Now I don’t have to worry about Gran saying I’ll never contribute to the family fortunes,” Neville murmured.

“Yeah, that would fund a modest greenhouse for a few years,” Harry chuckled.

“A few years?” Hermione demanded. “Harry, that’s, that’s…”

“Not really going to change anything,” Ginny finished for her.

Harry turned toward the youngest Weasley. She and Luna seemed the least affected by the news, though Luna seemed happy for Neville. The redheaded girl sighed. “Do you remember what we still have to deal with?” she nodded toward Harry. “After all that is taken care of, then I’ll worry about money and what we’re going to do with it.”

“At least we know we’ll have this for the future,” Hermione insisted in a low tone. From the gleam in her eyes, Harry didn’t think going to Oxford was a joke.

“Yes,” Ginny agreed, “but our future is likely going to be five years or less if we don’t stay focused on important things.”

That brought Hermione and the others up short. Ron gave his sister a glare as Harry felt a chill go down his spine.

After they gathered their things and headed back toward the Gryffindor common room, it was Harry’s turn to pull Ginny aside in the hallway nearby. “What was that all about?” he asked, a little angry, but mostly concerned.

“What was all what?” she demanded.

“Going off on Hermione like that,” Harry said, a little more frustration leaking into his voice. “Is it wrong for her to feel good about the money for a moment?”

“No,” Ginny said stubbornly, “but it still doesn’t change anything, does it?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Harry replied. “But this is something that happened differently, so I’m thinking it’s all to the good. Why were you so down on her?”

Ginny’s brown eyes hardened. “Maybe she needed to be reminded that this isn’t a game. Maybe she needs to hear you tell her how she died.”

That brought Harry up short. “Yeah, I can tell her how she got her throat ripped open in an ambush, and how her last act was to ask Ron to take care of me, which, incidentally, he died doing,” he added in a harsh whisper.

Ginny flinched like she’d been slapped. Her face reddened as her expression crumbled. She started to turn away, but Harry grabbed her shoulders first, seriously contemplating ripping out his own tongue.

“Let… me… go!” Ginny said between harsh gasps and Harry realized she was trying not to cry.

“Not a chance,” Harry murmured as he edged them into a darkened alcove. He glanced around, but thankfully the hallway was empty this close to curfew. He waited until Ginny seemed to subside a little, her hands still fisted in the front of his robes. “How long have you been bottling that up?” he asked.

“A while,” she finally admitted. “It’s just so stupid. I know. And you know. And she knows. And we keep pretending that nothing’s different. And everything is different…”

“And it’s a lot to deal with,” Harry finished. “Why didn’t you say something?” he asked, still kicking himself. He’d dumped his whole nightmare on her, and she acted like she was okay and he just accepted that at face value. How stupid could he be?

“You don’t need more problems,” she grumbled. “You have enough to deal with.’

“Bollocks,” Harry said. “I need your problems. Talking to you helped me a lot. It was selfish not to offer after you had a chance to think it all through.”

“You still don’t sleep well.”

“I may never sleep completely well, but I’m better than I was,” Harry said. “And talking to you, to all of you, helped with that. The same way it might help you. That… the future can be a scary thing under normal circumstances. And these circumstances are not normal. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I do know one thing...” He paused.

“What’s that?” she whispered.

“…that if we are going to be anything to each other, then we need to help each other,” Harry insisted. He took a deep breath. “I need to help you as much as I need you to help me.” He shook his head. “Does that make sense?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said slowly. Then she shook her head. “This is… weird,” she finally said.

“What is?” Harry asked.

“Just… us. Talking like this.” She shrugged. “I don’t think anything’s been the same really, not since the Chamber. Not since we talked.”

Harry felt his stomach drop. “Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut then.”

Ginny shook her head. “No, because trying to figure out what was going on would have driven us all mad. And it’s not a bad weird, not really.”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked.

Ginny looked up at him for a long moment, slowly stepping back and releasing his robes. Harry reluctantly let her go, wondering what, if anything, he was doing wrong. “Because… because what we are doing matters, Harry,” she finally said. “I heard Hermione’s dorm mates talking the other day. I swear I never heard anyone so obsessed with hair and cosmetics…” She shook her head. “I felt sort of cut off, but also…” She swallowed. “We’re working toward making sure we survive to finish Hogwarts. All of us. Not whether we’re wearing the latest fashions or not. Or who is trying to date whom. It’s just… it feels so unreal at times.”

“I’m sorry,” was all Harry could say.

“Don’t be,” Ginny replied. “I’m not. Not really. I feel… more alive, I guess. More… focused. I know what’s really important, and I’m working towards it every day. Two years ago I wouldn’t be able to even think of talking to you like this. Knowing about… everything… it’s made me grow up, a lot. Sometimes I feel more mature than Fred and George put together.”

“You are more mature than both of them, combined,” Harry added with a grin.

“That’s not really saying much, is it?” Ginny responded with a wan smile. “I like this new me… most of the time. It’s sort of weird, but I like being more mature. It’s just that sometimes… well, sometimes it gets a little too much.”

“Fair enough,” Harry replied, looking into her eyes. Her words made sense, but part of him still felt like he’d just been absolved of something that merited punishment. “Just… promise you’ll talk to me. When it gets bad. Before it gets bad. You know what I mean.”

Ginny nodded. “And I’ll talk to Hermione before bedtime. She didn’t deserve that.”

Harry’s smile grew more genuine, a mixture of admiration and pride. She was more mature than he was, most of the time. He felt a fleeting urge to lean forward and kiss her, but instead stepped back so they could proceed to the common room.

She was really more than he deserved, he mused.

OoOoO

Harry’s good mood lasted several days, until he saw the title of an article in the Daily Prophet. At that point, his half-eaten breakfast was thoroughly forgotten.

‘Search Called Off for Missing Durmstrang Headmaster!’ Harry read.

“Shite,” he murmured under his breath.

“Language, Harry!” Hermione admonished him.

Harry just turned the paper so she could read the headline.

Her eyes widened. “That’s…” her voice trailed off as she glanced around at the other students eating breakfast.

“Unexpected,” Harry replied. More like early, actually. In the original timeline, Karkaroff hadn’t disappeared until after Voldemort’s return. Harry racked his brains, his breakfast cooling, as he tried to think of what he could have done that would have caused this to happen years earlier than in the original timeline. Was Voldemort already back?

Ron scowled in confusion as he read the article over Harry’s shoulder. Harry didn’t think his friend was quite as conversant with the timeline he’d detailed for Hermione, but he clearly wanted to know why they were so surprised.

Then it was Ron’s turn to make everyone jump, snarling something that had made Hermione’s head snap round. She opened her mouth to admonish him when Ron shook his head.

“Don’t see why it’s so unexpected,” he said in a disgusted voice.

Harry blinked. “What do you mean?” he asked carefully.

“Look down at the bottom of the second column,” Ron grumbled as he turned back to his plate.

Harry reread the paragraph. Then he sighed. “Acting Headmaster Severus Snape assured Durmstrang alumni…”

“Trust that greasy bastard to land on his feet,” Ron snarled as he stabbed at a sausage. “And now with this Karkaroff disappeared, he’s suddenly running the whole school. Fancy that!”

Harry looked over at Hermione, whose mouth was hanging slightly open. Try as they might, they couldn’t really fault Ron’s logic.

OoOoO

Sean shifted uneasily as they passed through customs. Their documents were of the highest quality, even if they were complete fabrications. For this mission, expense was no object. It was that important.

Fortunately, none of the underpaid and overworked civil servants found anything amiss with their passports. Things might have got messy if they had. This was one operation that had to succeed. Padraig was adamant about that.

If the technology the cursed British were developing could be mass-produced... well, it would spell the death of their movement. It all seemed so fantastic, but Padraig said he’d been shown proof, and he was nobody’s fool.

It was just lucky that one of the paper-pushers read the wrong report and had an attack of conscience. That Peter chap didn’t look like much, but you had to respect someone willing to stand up for what was right. Of course, given what he’d revealed, you couldn’t really blame him for being a bit jumpy. Her Majesty’s Government tended to frown on people that broke the Official Secrets Act, attack of conscience or not. If they were able to stop the horror he’d discovered, his name would go down in history next to that Schindler bloke.

Sean and his mates moved out into the city toward their rendezvous point. Their gear was being smuggled in by lorry and they’d be picking it up on the way to Scotland to rendezvous with Padraig and the others. Unfortunately, Sean wasn’t one of the drivers, so he had far too much time to dwell on why they were on the wrong side of the Irish Sea.

He’d never admit it, but he was glad Old Paddy was taking command of the operation. The whole setup sounded like something out of a James Bond movie. An underground laboratory experimenting with mind-control technology, hidden under an abandoned castle? Maybe those movies weren’t as far-fetched as folks would have you believe.

It all made Sean’s head hurt, but it was simple enough. Padraig O’Connor had seen Peter’s proof and believed him. He and the others would gladly follow him into hell itself if they had to, let alone a musty old ruin with an odd name.  What was it again?  Hogsmount?  Hogswatch? Ah, right, Hogwarts.

Author Notes:

Many thanks to Runsamok, Kokopelli, and Sherylyn for awesome beta work.

As you can no doubt guess, the new job has sharply curtailed my writing time, but I’m still at it. You can find a progress bar for the latest chapter I’m working on at the Viridian Dreams website, as well as multiple tangential discussions on the forums.

I hope everyone has a happy and joyous holiday season.

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