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Free Life Posted on 8/16/2014 1:03:46 AM
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Disclaimer: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling and Warner Bros. I in no way claim ownership of any rights to the Harry Potter Universe.

Author's Note:

Chapter 25: Disappearing Act
With a full week of May already under their belts, Hermione absolutely insisted that Harry buckle down and study for the upcoming exams. Knowing how much exams meant to her, Harry decided to give in to her pleas. After all, it would be good to review all the material they had covered over the past year. When she proceeded to hand him a schedule that would basically take up every free moment he had up until the exams, however, Harry balked.

“I’m sorry, Hermione, but there is absolutely no way I’m going to follow this schedule,” Harry told her. His eyes flicked momentarily to Ron who was nodding emphatically in agreement.

With her hands on her hips and her eyes narrowed, Hermione said, “You can’t expect to pass your exams if you’re not willing to put in the work. If you had agreed earlier, I could have spread it all out for you, but, as it is, we have to just cram as much in as we can.”

Harry had to resist the strong urge to roll his eyes. “Hermione,” he started, pausing to make sure she was listening to him. “I don’t need to cram. I already know the material. Some extra time to refresh that knowledge would be nice, but I don’t need all this.” He waved the parchment holding her schedule back and forth.

She glared at him for a moment and took a deep breath as if she was going to start on a rant. Instead, she exhaled and shook her head. “All right,” she said, and the words looked as though they pained her. “When would you like to revise then?”

Harry noticed out of the corner of his eye that Ron’s eyes bulged out when Hermione backed down. Then, just as swiftly, his eyes narrowed into a calculating gaze focused on his girlfriend. Did Ron know something?

Harry put the matter out of his mind as he put his head together with Hermione to work out a schedule that he found to be much more reasonable. After they had finished, Ron leaned over and glanced through it briefly before sitting back and looking at Harry. “Much better. Can’t have our seeker too tired to get on his broom, can we?”

“How can you be worried about Quidditch with exams coming up?” Hermione demanded threateningly. “You should really consider having fewer practices to give everyone more time to study.”

“Are you barmy, woman?” Ron retorted. “We can’t cut down on practices. The cup is almost ours.”

“Oh, who cares about a silly cup?” Hermione protested.

“Silly?” Ron gasped. “Silly?!”

“Yes, silly!” Hermione returned. “Honestly, Ron, what is a silly little cup going to do for you? You need to learn the material so that you’re not behind next year. Your N.E.W.T. results will determine what jobs you can get after school.”

“Quidditch is not silly!” Ron nearly shouted. Harry was just starting to back away when Ron turned to him and said, “Help me out here, Harry.”

Harry shook his head, not wanting to get involved in their argument, but it was too late.

“Tell him that exams are more important,” Hermione insisted.

Harry sighed, looking back and forth between them. “You’re both right. Exams are important which is why we are not adding any extra practices; however, Quidditch is also important, and we will not be cutting back on practices either.” With a mischievous smirk he added, “Now kiss and make up, or whatever it is you do nowadays.”

They both stared open-mouthed at him for a moment before coming to their senses. Ron turned to Hermione and quirked an eyebrow, but she just harrumphed, stuffed her books in her bag, and stormed out of the common room.

Harry clapped his friend on the shoulder and said, “Sorry, mate. I tried.” Ron turned away and walked up the boys’ staircase without saying a word.

******

Harry settled very quickly into his new routine. Not only did his revision schedule change, but he began taking regular naps during the day. It was funny, he thought, the way unfortunate circumstances could sometimes work in your favour. Now that he had come out to his friends and Head of House about his visions, taking regular daytime naps was seen as a perfectly ordinary occurrence for Harry. Not only this, but when Ron or any of his roommates awoke in the middle of the night and found Harry’s bed empty, they assumed he had had another vision and was unable to get back to sleep. A few times, Ron or Neville had even wandered down into the common room on such an occasion to see how he was doing. They would talk to him for a bit before heading back up to bed.

One such time, Ron had found the common room empty and questioned Harry as to his whereabouts during breakfast that morning. Harry had calmly stated that he was feeling a bit stir-crazy and needed to go for a walk. Harry had the perfect excuse to be missing at any given moment in the middle of the night, and no one thought it odd to find him making up for the lack of sleep during the day.

Harry’s daytime sleep was mostly uninterrupted. He had experienced only one vision during the day since starting his naps. Luckily, he had not been witness to any of the acts he usually saw at night, but what he did see was just as ominous. Lucius Malfoy had just finished giving a report to Voldemort that seemed to have piqued the Dark Lord’s interest. Unfortunately, Voldemort was keeping a tight leash on his thoughts, so Harry was unable to glean any details. Something about Voldemort’s feelings had Harry on edge, but he could not quite place his finger on it.

Even though he was regularly getting a good amount of sleep, the change to his sleeping habits left Harry feeling constantly drowsy, as if his body did not know when it should grow tired and demand more sleep, but it was such an improvement over his previous exhaustion that, so long as he kept himself occupied, he hardly even noticed.

Harry used the privacy afforded to him in the middle of the night to his advantage. Not even Hermione made any attempt to track him at night. Harry guessed she was unwilling to break curfew by following him around the castle, or perhaps she merely needed her sleep. He tried not to become too relaxed, however. ‘Constant Vigilance,’ was one motto he could fully embrace. He had begun instinctively searching for any magical sources around him rather than doing it consciously, so he was sure that he was never being followed at night.

He often made his way to the Owlery in order to sneak off the grounds. He had wards to practice, after all. There were only a few days left until the house would be his. Harry had visited the house a few times in the middle of the night. He had not gone inside yet but had walked around the property to make some notes on the placement of the wards. He had already finished his calculations and was anxious to begin the casting.

In addition, Harry had tried and successfully cast the Fidelius Charm several times now. He started small, hiding just a small one metre by one metre section of land, but his last two attempts had hidden an enormous oak tree and a derelict Muggle play park. The charm was very draining, but he was confident now that he could cast it over his new property without issue. He made sure to dispel the charms after several days. After all, there was no sense hiding a tree and a run-down play park. Following his success with the Fidelius Charm, his preparations were complete.

As fast as most of May seemed to pass by, the last few days leading to the day of his house-closing were agonizing. The fact that he was so well-prepared was working against Harry. He had been so busy the past several weeks that he had hardly noticed the passage of time, but now that the day was almost upon him, there was nothing left to divert him – at least nothing relating to the warding of his new home.

As a result, Harry found something else to occupy his time. It was something he had been mulling over for the past few weeks but had not had the time or opportunity to look into until now. The speech he had given to his HA class about the realities of the war had enacted quite a change in attitude among his IHA students, but it had affected him at least as much as it had his class. He had never before admitted to himself that their association with him would likely paint targets on all their backs. Their membership in his class was not a secret. No doubt Malfoy or one of the other Death Eaters’ children had already sent out a list of all Harry’s students. Now, with the end of term rapidly approaching, Harry worried what that would mean for his students over the summer.

Yes, he had been training them to fight so that they could survive such encounters, but they were not prepared. There was not enough time, and there never would be. No amount of training would guarantee their survival. He needed to give them a backup plan. After all, when Death Eaters attacked, it was in mass numbers. Some of his best students might be able to hold their own against one or even two Death Eaters, depending on who they were, but any more than that was certain doom.

When the answer hit him, Harry could not believe it had taken him so long to think of it. After all, the Death Eaters had their own backup escape plan. While they used anti-Apparation wards to prevent their victims from escaping during an attack, they relied on Portkeys to avoid capture in an emergency. He had never actually witnessed the Death Eaters using anti-Portkey wards, so he would take a page out of their book.

Portkey creation was regulated by the Ministry, so instructional books were not exactly commonplace. Luckily, Harry happened to be in possession of just such a book. He had nicked it from his vault that summer but had never found the time to peruse it. Harry wondered how he could have let it slip from his mind. He decided that the first thing he would do was to make a Portkey for himself as a precaution, in case he ever found himself in a sticky situation and needed a quick escape. Assuming he was successful, he would then work on creating Portkeys for all of his HA students that would take them to the gates of Hogwarts – he did not trust the Ministry and was sure Dumbledore would take care of them from there. If the Ministry found out about his illegal Portkey creation, Harry would be in serious trouble. Luckily, the contract he had insisted the HA members sign at the start of term prevented them from talking about anything related to the HA to non-members, so there was little chance of anyone finding him out. If they did, Harry knew that it would be worth the consequences just to save a single life.

As he delved into the book, Harry quickly learned about the different types of Portkeys. The magic behind the actual Portkey was pretty much the same across all the different variations, but there were different triggers that it could be tied to. The trigger could be any number of things: touch, a specific time, or a key word. For his purposes, a key word was best. He would not want the Portkeys to activate at an accidental touch, and he did not possess a timetable of future Death Eater attacks.

He occupied the final days leading up to his house-closing reading up on Portkey theory. It sounded like a complex bit of magic, but Harry knew it was only a matter of time and practice before he got it down. By the time he finished the book, the evening of the 21st had arrived and with it a full moon. Harry retired for bed early with hardly any notice and, after casting his illusion, aversion, and confounding charms on his four-poster, he transformed into an owl and took off out the window.

Ginny had informed him earlier that she was going to skive off of meeting Remus that night. Not only did she have a lot of revision to work on, but she commented that she had received some questioning stares from Hermione after the last full moon. Rather than risk tipping her off, it was safer for Harry to go it alone this time. He could not deny that he would miss her presence, but neither could he fault her reasoning.

So it was that Harry traversed the long tunnel underneath the Whomping Willow alone. Upon arriving, he opened the trap door and climbed up into the Shrieking Shack. “Hey, Remus,” he greeted upon spotting the werewolf.

“Hello, Harry,” Remus replied. His eyebrow rose in question a moment later as he asked, “No Ginny?”

“Nah, she’s a bit busy with O.W.L.s,” Harry explained. “Plus, she thinks Hermione might be catching on to the fact that something is up with us on the full moons.”

“Oh?” Remus queried. “I would have expected Hermione to catch on long before now.”

Harry chuckled dryly. “I think she’s been a bit busy trying to figure everything else out. This was just too low on the radar, I guess.”

“I had wondered,” Remus started contemplatively. “You were always so close with Ron and Hermione. It surprises me that you continue to keep everything secret from them. More than that, it surprises me that they haven’t tied you down and demanded the truth out of you.”

Harry laughed outright at that. “You know, I don’t think Hermione’s far from that point. She’s been following me lately. If she hadn’t been convinced everything was about Sirius at first, I think she would have really got on my case a long time ago. She was really thrown off by that, I think.”

“That’s hardly surprising,” Remus replied. “To be honest, I was surprised at how well you were managing over the summer. I was just so relieved at the fact that I didn’t dare question it.”

“If not for my rather unique circumstances, I probably would have been a mess,” Harry admitted with a slight pang of both pain and embarrassment. Shaking his head at himself, he added, “Hell, I was a bloody mess before Sirius popped up in my dreams.”

“You know, I can’t help but think that he’s having a great laugh right now,” Remus stated. “Just knowing that he helped set you on this path, fooling Dumbledore and the entire Order, not to mention screwing up Voldemort’s plans on multiple occasions. And all from beyond the grave. He would find it all to be rather hilarious.”

Harry smiled. “I hope so. He and my dad.”

“Oh yes, definitely,” Remus agreed. “James would most certainly approve of how you’ve managed to fool everybody from right under their noses.” They both laughed lightly, and a comfortable silence descended over the pair as they were both immersed in their thoughts of loved ones lost. After a couple minutes, it was Remus who finally broke the silence. “So, tomorrow is the big day, huh?”

A wide smile stretched across Harry’s face. “Yep. I cannot wait. The last few days have been practically unbearable.”

“I can only imagine,” he responded with a warm smile. “And how are the preparations?”

“All done,” Harry answered, smiling. “I finished the last of the calculations several days ago. That’s why things have been so unbearable the last few days; I haven’t had anything to do.”

Remus laughed. “Nothing passes the time more than keeping occupied.”

“Don’t I know it,” Harry grumbled. “I threw myself into studying Portkeys just to stay sane.”

“Portkeys?” Remus questioned. “Where did you…?”

“Potter vault,” Harry interrupted. “Otherwise I wouldn’t even know where to look since it’s Ministry regulated.”

“Ah, I should have guessed,” Remus responded. He looked as though he would have continued, but then his body tensed. Even before he opened his mouth, Harry knew what he was about to say. “You’d better transform, Harry.”

Harry nodded his head at the man and stood, immediately shifting into his panther form. He padded back and forth as he watched his friend go through the painful transformation. On top of the usual wrestling around, their ability to mindspeak provided an entirely new dynamic to their time together. They settled down after a bit, talking about Harry’s new house, the war, and whatever else happened to come up. His scar started to burn after a little while, but he did his best to block out the sensation, glad to avoid the vision that surely would have accompanied it had he been asleep at the time.

When Harry asked about his relationship with Tonks, he was surprised when Remus paused and seemed almost unsure of his answer. Are things not going well? Harry questioned in concern.

It’s not that, Remus assured him. Things are actually great. It’s just – it’s hard to explain.

Harry remained silent, sensing that the man just needed a moment to think. He was almost convinced that Remus had said all he intended to say on the topic, when the werewolf spoke again. Everything just seems to be happening so fast. She’s so young, and we’ve only been together a few months now. I’m worried that the war might be influencing us a little. I don’t want this to be something we rush into.

What exactly are we talking about here, Remus? Harry asked. He knew that there was a part of the conversation that he was missing. There was obviously something more to their relationship than was evident to him, but he did not know what that was.

I love her, Harry, Remus responded, seeming almost surprised at his own words.

Oh. To say Harry was caught off guard by the candid reply would be an understatement. Love was not exactly within his realm of experience. Have you told her?

The werewolf shook his head. No.

Why not? Harry asked.

It’s nothing. Forget I said anything, Remus stated, the firm tone coming through strongly even through mindspeak.

Harry frowned. It obviously was not nothing, but he did not want to push the issue. Finally, he said, Well it’s obviously something, but you don’t have to tell me if you’d rather not.

It’s not that, Remus replied. It’s just – hard, I guess. I haven’t quite worked it all out myself.

Harry eyed the werewolf speculatively but let the matter drop. This was something Remus would have to process on his own. The pain in his scar had faded, so Harry told the werewolf he was going to have a bit of a lie in. He curled up and closed his eyes, but, no matter how tired he was, sleep would not come. Hearing Remus talk so plainly about his feelings for Tonks forced Harry to examine his own relationship with Ginny, his own feelings. The words, “I love her, Harry,” kept repeating over and over in his mind.

As he lay there in the Shrieking Shack, Harry thought over all that had happened over the last year. His life had turned upside down. Between coping with Sirius’s death, the prophecy, all his training, fights with his friends, keeping secrets from everyone, and battling Death Eaters, there had been only one constant. He knew how much he depended on Ginny and how much he cared for her, but it had never occurred to him that what he was feeling could be love. It seemed like such a foreign concept, yet now that Remus had brought it up, he could think of nothing else. Did he love Ginny?

Somewhere in his pondering, Harry much have fallen asleep, for he was shaken awake quite suddenly by Remus. Looking exhausted, Remus urged him to head off back to the castle, which he did. The sun rose on the day without fanfare. As he saw Ginny that morning, his thoughts from the night before came back to him, and he had to swallow the sudden lump that had appeared in his throat. He was not quite ready to declare it love, but he knew his feelings for her were unlike anything he had ever experienced before.

She seemed to sense his internal struggle, for she frowned and asked, “Is everything all right, Harry?”

Smiling and trying his best to keep the blood from rushing to his face, Harry answered, “Yes, everything’s fine. Just a little tired is all. Are you ready?”

Ginny gave him a speculative look but nodded her head. The workout helped to take his mind off his earlier thoughts, though he found his eyes glancing in Ginny’s direction more often than he had ever noticed them doing so in the past. There was something about her, dressed in her simple workout gear with her hair in a pony and a thin sheen of sweat glistening on her skin, that Harry just found altogether appealing. More than once he had to forcibly tear his eyes away from her in order to continue with his own exercises.

As they were heading towards the showers, Harry caught her hand in his and, as she turned towards him, he tugged her into his chest and leaned down to capture her lips in his. After a brief, demanding kiss, he let her go and walked off to take a shower – a cold one. As he was entering the shower room, he glanced over his shoulder to find Ginny standing right where he had left her with a glazed look in her eyes, causing Harry to smirk. Make that ice cold.

The freezing water seemed to do the trick. As Harry finished getting dressed, he found he could not keep his mind off the monumental occasion taking place that day. His solicitors were closing on his house. By the end of the day, it would be his. Despite the magnitude of that event, nothing about his day was any different than an ordinary day. Indeed, it was a struggle to go through his day as if there was absolutely nothing extraordinary about it. He had to school his features to keep from grinning for seemingly no reason at all.

He noticed Hermione giving him speculative looks during breakfast, so he was not sure how successful he had been. Then again, she often gave him probing looks nowadays, so that in and of itself did not say much. During lunch that day, she asked him how he was adjusting to his new sleeping schedule, so perhaps she was only worried that he was not getting enough sleep.

He made it through the rest of the day without drawing any intrusive questions, so he called his efforts a success. He was reluctant to go to sleep that night as he was too anxious to begin the work on his wards, but he knew he had to maintain appearances. So, well before any of his roommates were even contemplating sleep, Harry bid his friends good night, gave Ginny a kiss, and then headed up the boys’ staircase. After preparing for bed, Harry slid under his covers and, after shutting the curtains, immediately began sorting out his memories of the day. He then relied on his Occlumency skills to shield off his anxiety about the house to allow himself to fall to sleep.

Harry was thankful when his alarm – charmed so only he would hear it – woke him a few hours later. It was not the most pleasant noise to wake up to, but it was always a relief to avoid being awoken by a vision. He silently parted his curtains and slid out of bed. After throwing on some clothes he walked out of the room and down the stairs to the common room. Harry’s magical sense confirmed what his eyes and ears were telling him. The room was empty.

Harry exited the common room, glancing over his head to find the Fat Lady asleep in her portrait. She was rarely awake at this hour. While most of the portraits appeared to be asleep, he would not put it past them to be secretly keeping an eye out, so Harry quickly made his way to his office. He opened the door and stepped inside, keeping the door open while he donned his Invisibility Cloak. Stepping outside, he shut the door with a short wave of his hand. He had made this a habit whenever leaving the castle at night. It was unlikely that anyone would be able to track his movements, but, just in case, he wanted any and all evidence pointing towards his office.

He snuck out of the castle through the Owlery, chatting briefly with Hedwig in his owl form before taking flight for Hogsmeade. Landing in his usual, secluded spot, he reverted to human form and promptly Disapparated, reappearing just outside his new home. That was going to take some getting used to. He had a home now. It was not just a place that felt like home, as Hogwarts and the Burrow did, but an actual home to call his own. He spent a few minutes just staring at it in wonder. It was nothing all that special to look at, just a simple one-story home with white siding, a black roof, and a brick chimney, but it was his.

He finally shook himself out of his stupor and walked to the front door. Before constructing the wards, he wanted to take a tour. He had been wary of doing so before now since it was still technically owned by somebody else, but now that it was his, he was free to do as he pleased. The door was locked, but he hardly had to even think Alohamora before the bolt clicked. Turning the handle, Harry opened the door and stepped inside. Feeling the wall to the side of the door, Harry found the light switch and flicked it on.

His circuit through the house was quick. He had work to do, after all. He made special note of all the white walls and knew immediately he would have to do something about them, but that would come later. After checking out the final room – his new bedroom – Harry turned out all the lights and went back outside. He nearly jumped out of his own skin when he opened the front door and came face to face with Remus.

“Merlin! Don’t do that to me,” Harry exclaimed in his shock.

“Sorry,” Remus replied. “I saw the lights on and was planning to find you inside, but you beat me to that.”

Harry raised an eyebrow speculatively. “What are you doing here?”

Remus shrugged. “I was curious, I guess, and was hoping you wouldn’t mind me watching as you set up the wards.”

It was Harry’s turn to shrug. “Suit yourself, but it won’t be very exciting, and it will take more than tonight to finish.”

That statement turned out to be quite true. Five nights in a row, Harry snuck out of the castle to his new home. He had only a few solid hours of work before he would be forced to go back to the castle, so the progress was a bit slower than he would have liked. Progress, however, was progress. What surprised him the most out of the whole process was how draining the wards were on his magic. After a month’s practice, he had known they would affect him, but he had not been prepared for the full impact.

After five nights of placing wards over his property and carefully tying them together, the strain was pronounced on his body and his magic. After the second night, Harry ceased any and all training during the day, save for his morning workout with Ginny, until the warding process was complete. The move proved wise as Harry was quite certain the strain would otherwise have been too much. He finished the last wards on the fifth night and decided to wait to cast the Fidelius Charm. It was easily more powerful and more draining than any of the wards, and he did not want to risk bollixing it up.

Remus watched him for the entirety of the first night, but after that he made only short appearances to check in on the progress. On the sixth night, when Harry arrived to cast the Fidelius Charm, Remus was already there and waiting, looking rather anxious. Harry smiled reassuringly. “Relax, Remus. This will work.”

“I know that. It’s just…” the werewolf trailed off.

“You’ve seen it fail before,” Harry finished quietly. There was a brief moment of silence as they both reflected on the past before Harry shook himself out of his musings. “But we’ve learned from their mistakes, and I’m not taking any chances.”

Remus nodded. “But you will tell me…”

“Of course I will,” Harry interrupted. “Tonight, if you stick around long enough. And I’ll tell Ginny first thing tomorrow morning. You’ll know where to find me if you need to, and you’ll always be welcome here.”

Remus stepped forward and gripped Harry’s shoulder firmly. Harry met his eyes for a long moment before Remus nodded once and let go, stepping back.

“You should probably wait down by the street or something,” Harry suggested. “I don’t think it would be wise for you to be on the property for this one.” Once Remus was clear, Harry set to work. The property was larger than any of his trial runs had been, and the drain on his magic was more than Harry had anticipated. He was determined, though, to see this through, and he pushed through the pain and exhaustion. When it was finished, he slumped to the ground and took a long minute to breathe and relax his body and magic.

Finally, Harry stood and walked back to where he had left Remus. As he approached, Harry saw that the werewolf’s brow was furrowed in confusion, and he knew immediately that the charm had worked to perfection. He knew he had exited the property boundaries when he saw Remus’s eyes widen and lock onto him.

“You’re finished, then?”

Harry nodded and softly, yet clearly, spoke, “Harry Potter lives at 165 Magpie Lane.”

Remus stared at the house for a long moment before turning back to Harry and frowning. “You look exhausted,” he commented.

“Thanks,” Harry replied dryly. “You look smashing as well.” When Remus narrowed his eyes, Harry added, “Honestly, Remus, it’s nothing some sleep won’t cure.”

“As I understand it,” Remus inserted, “sleep is not something you’ve been coming by easily as of late.”

“Ever since I started taking naps during the day, things have been a lot better,” Harry amended. “I don’t particularly like it, but it’s working.”

Remus laid his hand on Harry’s shoulder and gripped him lightly. “Sometimes life throws you into a situation where there is no great solution, and you just have to accept it and make the best of it you can.”

Harry smiled wryly in reply. “Don’t I know it.”

Remus winced and let go of his shoulder. “Yeah, I guess that’s one lesson you know all too well, isn’t it?”

Harry shrugged. “You and I both.”

They stood in silence for a long moment facing the house before Remus turned and asked, “So what are your plans now? You have to sit your exams, but will you stick around the castle after that?”

Harry, brow furrowed, replied, “Yeah, I think so. I hadn’t really thought about it. I just planned on Apparating here after the train ride.”

Remus nodded. “That’s good. I think it would only complicate things unnecessarily if you were to leave early.” Harry raised a hand to his mouth to cover a yawn. “All right, you should get back to the castle and try to get some sleep before morning.”

“Good night Remus,” Harry said. “And thanks again for everything.”

“You’re welcome, Harry. Good night.”

******

Harry could not stop smiling all morning. Now that the warding was finished on his home, he was fully prepared for the summer. All he had left to do was finish out the term and Apparate home from King’s Cross. His planning and preparation was all coming to fruition, and now he could just relax and enjoy the rest of the time left with his friends – and Ginny.

The smile slipped from his face momentarily as he came face to face with the realisation that he would probably not get to see Ginny much, if at all, over the summer. He had always known in the back of his mind that this would be the case, but he had never fully contemplated the notion before. If he chose to stay with the Dursleys, there was a chance he would eventually be taken to the Burrow or Grimmauld Place where he would get to see her. Instead, he would not be able to show his face at the Burrow without the Weasleys sounding the alarm to Dumbledore and the Order. He would find a way to see her, though. Whether he had to sneak into the Burrow or she had to sneak out, he was not going to resign himself to an entire summer without her.

After their morning workout, Harry told Ginny his address and cautioned her to remember it clearly in her mind in order to get around the safe guards of the Fidelius. As they walked to the Great Hall for breakfast, Ginny warned him not to smile too much, so Harry did his best to contain his feelings. Shortly after their arrival, Hermione, Ron, and Neville joined them. Hermione, as had become custom lately, immediately flipped open a book and began reading as she first loaded her plate and then began eating her food. Ron, as had been custom for as long as Harry had known him, focused on nothing but his food until he had emptied a few platefuls down his throat.

It was after clearing his third helping that Ron put down his fork and turned to face Harry. “So Harry, I’ve noticed….” He stopped with a short yelp and looked sharply at Neville, who returned his look for a moment before quickly cutting his eyes to Hermione and back to Ron. Harry noticed Hermione’s eyes were no longer moving back and forth behind her book as she was no doubt paying attention to what was going on around her. Ron rolled his eyes at Neville and continued. “I’ve noticed you’ve been disappearing at night a lot.”

Harry just arched an eyebrow at Ron and said nothing, so Ron continued. “I woke up the past few nights and wandered down to the common room to find you missing.”

“I’ve just been feeling a bit restless and needed to get out of there and stretch my legs,” Harry replied smoothly.

“Oh,” Ron answered. “Well, if you ever need company, you can feel free to wake me.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, a bit taken aback at the offer. He knew how much Ron loved his sleep. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione frown for a moment before rededicating her focus to her tome.

******

With exams approaching so quickly, Harry decided to give both his HA classes a bit of a break. He did not cancel any of their lessons, but he decided not to teach any new material. Instead, he focused solely on the practical applications of his teachings. That is to say, he had all of his students duelling each other in one form or another. In a way, it was a good change of pace, as the constant practice would improve their endurance. He could attest from personal experience that duels could last anywhere from several seconds to – well they could last a long time. It was best that they be prepared for such an occasion. If he could, he would have each of them running every morning just like him, but he knew such an edict would not hold well with the students. Pushing that on them with exams and the end of term around the corner seemed more than a bit silly.

Following such a session, he was cornered by the seven advanced students in his BHA class. “We were wondering if we could ask you a favour,” Sarah stated.

Harry quirked an eyebrow at the normally shy Hufflepuff girl. “Sure.”

“Well, we were hoping…” she trailed off.

“We were hoping you would give us another shot against you,” Ryan inserted.

“Feeling a bit confident, are you?” Harry teasingly responded.

“Not particularly,” Jennifer answered.

“Well, fighting each other is good practice and all,” Mary-Jo stated. “But it’s not quite the same thing, is it? The Death Eaters are going to be more experienced than us, so we need more practice against someone beyond our skill level.”

“A very good point,” Harry replied. “All right, you’ve got yourselves your duel. A week from today, so come prepared.”

“We will,” Nicholas answered.

“Thanks, Harry,” Sarah added.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Harry said. “I don’t plan on taking it easy on you.”

“Nor do we,” Quinn remarked.

Harry just smiled in reply, already looking forward to next Sunday. It was the last day before exams began and would hopefully provide the students an opportunity to loosen up a bit before exams began. In fact, he liked the idea so much, he thought he might do the same for his IHA class. There were so many students, though, that he would have to just take on a small group of them. How would he choose the group? The answer came to him at the start of the lesson Wednesday evening.

Harry informed his IHA class that they would be having a tournament of sorts. The groups would be randomly selected, and the winning group would get the opportunity to face him. He found their reactions rather comical. It was clear they thought him quite daft to be volunteering to single-handedly take on an entire group of them. With a smirk, Harry conjured a list of all their names and cast a spell to randomly split them into four groups. After revealing the teams, he announced which two teams would be squaring off first and led the rest of the students to the observation area.

By the time the second match was finished, they had already gone slightly over the allotted time for the lesson, so Harry called the class to a halt. He congratulated the two winning teams and informed them that they would face off first thing on Sunday. The winning team would then face him shortly afterwards. As the students all filed out, Harry received more funny looks, but most were content to leave without a word.

A few, however, hung around. Among them were Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, Luna, and, surprisingly, Blaise. It was Blaise who spoke first. “What are you playing at with this?”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked, wanting to be sure of the question before he answered.

“I mean having the winning team face off against you,” Blaise tossed back impatiently.

“Well, I could use some practice too, don’t you think?” Harry asked with an innocent smile. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the corner of Ginny’s lips curve upward.

Blaise raised an eyebrow while Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “You think you can take on a group of almost ten of us? Don’t you think you’re being overconfident?” she countered.

“I think it will be fun,” Harry answered evasively.

“I’m going to enjoy having a go at you,” Blaise remarked.

“You have one more battle to win yet,” Harry cautioned.

“Oh, I’m not going to let this prize pass me by,” Blaise assured him. “And I expect you to put up a good fight.”

“No worries,” Harry replied.

“Good,” Blaise said with a smile. “See you Sunday.”

Harry nodded his goodbye to Blaise and turned to the rest of his friends with an expectant look. “Well?”

“You’re barmy, mate,” Ron stated in a deadpan.

“He’s not crazy,” Luna inserted, stepping up next to Ron. “He just knows something we don’t.”

“What’s that?” Ron asked in confusion.

“Well, if I knew, then it wouldn’t be anything I didn’t know, would it?” she responded dreamily, while determinedly inspecting the cuff of Ron’s robes to the consternation of both Ron and Hermione.

Harry smirked at Ginny, who had stuffed her fist in her mouth to keep from laughing, and then he turned and caught Neville’s calculating gaze. “I reckon you’re right, Luna,” Neville agreed. “I guess we’ll just have to wait for Sunday to find out.”

******

After his Transfiguration lesson the following afternoon, Harry informed Professor McGonagall of his plans for both HA classes, inviting her to observe the battles as she had previously requested. She informed Harry that she would not miss it. With that settled Harry left the classroom and made his way up to his office to take his daily nap. He was awoken a couple hours later by a soft kiss on his lips and blearily blinked his eyes open to find Ginny hovering over him, a small smile on her face.

“I almost didn’t want to wake you,” she informed him softly. “You looked so peaceful.”

Harry smiled crookedly in return as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “There’s no better way to wake up,” he replied, earning him another kiss. When Ginny moved to stand back up, Harry stopped her with his hand behind her head and pulled her back down for another.

When Ginny pulled away again, she lingered over him and gazed speculatively down at him. “What’s going on in that head of yours?” she asked him.

“What do you mean?” Harry answered in confusion.

Ginny shook her head slightly as she responded, “I can’t pin it down exactly. There’s just something different about you. The way you look at me and the way you kiss me.”

“Er – there is?” Harry asked thickly, wondering how she could sense such a difference. There was little doubt in his mind where the difference came from, though he had no idea he had changed in any way. Remus’s words had never left him since that night, and he found himself contemplating them more often than he would ever care to admit. He was sure of one thing: if he ever loved anyone in his life, it was Ginny.

She nodded slightly. “Yep. I thought I was imagining things at first, but there is definitely something different.”

“That’s not a bad thing, is it?” he asked, as he struggled in his mind over what to do. A part of him was ready to just blurt out his feelings for her, but another part of him was doing it’s best to beat that part into silence.

Ginny frowned. “No. I don’t think I’d call it bad,” she said. “If anything, I’d say the opposite.”

“Oh?” Harry replied, his warring mind preventing him from saying more.

Her eyes were searching his as she explained. “The way you look at me, I feel almost like I’m the only thing you see. The way you kiss me… well, let’s just say I love the way you kiss me.”

Harry smiled widely and sat up slightly to put that statement to the test. He did not pull away until his abs began to burn from the improvised crunch.

“It’ll take a lot more than that if you’re trying to get off the hook,” Ginny teased.

Harry chuckled and replied, “As you wish.” Grabbing her around the waist, he dragged her bodily on top of him and then turned to pin her to the back of the sofa. His lips seemed to reclaim hers of their own volition. When he pulled back from her some time later, he hesitantly asked, “You know I’m not trying to avoid your question, right?”

She leaned back as much as her position allowed and frowned slightly as her eyes surveyed him. “I know. I was only teasing. But you do know that you can talk to me about anything, right?”

“I do. You’re the only one I’ve ever really felt comfortable talking about a lot of things with,” he admitted. “And I want to tell you this too; it’s just not easy.”

She cupped his face in her hand, rubbing her thumb over his cheek bone. “Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”

Harry smiled, feeling both grateful for the easy way out and guilty for taking it. They laid there in a comfortable silence for a long moment before Harry sighed and said, “We’re really late for our training.”

“Yeah, I guess we are,” she agreed.

Leaning in for one more brief kiss, Harry added, “It was worth it though.” With that, he rolled off the sofa and onto his feet, then turned to give her a hand up. After straightening out their clothes a bit, the two began their trek up to the Room of Requirement. It quickly became clear to Harry that the two of them were being followed, so Harry leaned in close to Ginny’s ear to inform her that Hermione was on their tail. When he leaned back, she turned her head to the side and cocked an eyebrow at him. “I know.”

Harry furrowed his brow, wondering how it was she knew. Perhaps she had noticed Hermione following her to his office? Had she picked up on something that he had missed? The question was left unasked and unanswered as they quickly arrived at their destination. As soon as the door shut behind them, Harry quickly set up the wards and cast the extra charm to allow them to see and hear through the door as if it were open.

Not a full minute passed before Hermione sidled up to the door. She began tracing her wand over the door, presumably looking for something that would tell her precisely where she would need to tap in order to gain entrance. Even if she did manage to find the points, which she had as of yet failed to do, she would still need to decipher the correct order, and there were a couple surprises Harry had slipped into the mix to throw her off as well. After Hermione had started snooping around, Harry had done some extra research himself. He found a way to duplicate the magical signature of the points on the door one would need to touch and had added a few extra points that would make Hermione’s life miserable as she tried to find the proper pattern. Not only that, but he discovered a way to dampen the magical signature of the actual points, so it was likely she would not even find all of the correct points.

Needless to say, Hermione had her work cut out for her. Not for the first time, Harry wondered exactly what it was she hoped to accomplish by busting in on one of his training sessions. What did she expect to find? How would she attempt to explain breaking in on what they both knew to be a warded door? Answers were not forthcoming, but Harry was not terribly worried. The term was almost over, and Hermione was still far enough away from breaking his wards that he should be able to coast through to the end of the term without issue. That did not mean he would become complacent, only that he was not overly concerned over the matter.

After watching for a minute, Harry turned and set to work. He was focusing more of his time on Ginny lately as the approach of the summer holidays loomed over their heads. He knew it was unlikely she would find herself in mortal peril with all the safeguards her family would no doubt have in place, but he wanted her to be prepared for any danger that might cross her path. That meant improving both her duelling skills and her proficiency in wandless magic. He had her holding back her full potential in the HA classes so as not to completely outclass the other students, but in their private training sessions, he forced her to work her arse off in duels against him and the training dummies.

He was the one taking it easy now as he put Ginny through her paces. She was getting much better now. She had more control over her wandless abilities, but she was still not nearly as proficient as she was with a wand. Her reflexes were improving constantly. She was moving faster and more fluidly, dodging his curses and adding a few of her own, but she had a long way to go yet. He had a huge head start over her, and she seemed to be progressing more slowly than he had – though the fact that she did not have as much free time to dedicate to training probably had a lot to do with it.

On the other hand, her Occlumency skills seemed to be progressing much more quickly than his had. Three weeks ago Harry had begun prying into her mind in two places at once, and she was meeting with some success in her attempts to block him out. At this rate, she might even be completely caught up to him before the start of the summer break.

Their time was up before long, and the two of them had to get cleaned up before heading down for supper. Hermione was long gone by the time they called it quits. Harry was not certain exactly when she had left, but he knew she had stayed for at least ten or fifteen minutes. By the time Harry and Ginny arrived in the Great Hall, Hermione was already seated at the Gryffindor table with a book propped open in front of her and a fork in one hand. It had been a long time since Harry had sat with Ginny and her friends, so he decided to join them for the meal. Most of their conversation was focused on their upcoming exams, which Harry was removed from but could certainly relate to, having gone through O.W.L.s a year ago.

Harry spent the rest of the evening as well as most of the following two days either revising for exams or working on Portkeys. His training sessions served as a nice break to the monotony of both activities. He had read all the theory he could find on Portkeys. All that was left was for him to practice and master the spell, which basically meant a slew of attempts at casting the spell. He was meeting with some success, but the spell was not as strong as he would like it to be. For one thing, he needed it to last for at least the length of the summer holidays. On top of that, he wanted the Portkey to function for several people at any given moment, in case his students needed to bring family or friends along with them. He had mastered the spell to the point that his Portkeys would all work, but he was not convinced that the spell was strong enough or durable enough for his purposes. Plus, he needed to make sure the Portkeys would work all over the UK, and the further the Portkeys had to take them, the more power they required.

His revisions were monotonous for obvious reasons. It was all material they had covered throughout the year. Granted, he could not remember every minute detail, but he was much more confident going into the exams than he had ever been in his five previous years at Hogwarts. While his marks had never been spectacular, he had always done well in the past. He just wanted to get on with it.

Finally, Sunday arrived, and with it a ball of excitement in the pit of his stomach. He was looking forward to what the day would bring, and he could see on some of the faces in the Great Hall that morning that he was not the only one. His seven advanced BHA members left convention behind as they all huddled together at the end of the Hufflepuff table, presumably discussing battle strategies. Harry noticed more than one pair of curious eyes – and a few malevolent ones – cast in their direction.

Harry could not help the smile that tugged at his lips watching them. For better or worse, he knew he would be seeing them at their absolute best today. He could only hope that they would give him a good fight. His IHA members refrained from anything so dramatic, but Harry could see a gleam in a few of their eyes as the anticipation for the afternoon’s activities built. Luckily, Harry did not have to wait as long to get the festivities underway.

He went straight to the Room of Requirement after breakfast. There was a full hour before his lesson with the BHA was set to begin, but he wanted to get a bit of practice in with his training dummies using his wand conventionally, without any wandless magic at all. He was so accustomed to duelling wandlessly all the time, that he did not want to slip up and accidentally showcase his abilities with an audience present.

It was over a half an hour later, while Harry was engaged in a duel against three training dummies, that the door to the Room of Requirement opened and Professor McGonagall walked in. Harry glanced over at the doorway and nearly paid for the moment of distraction. As it was, he just barely ducked out of the way of the stinging hex headed his way before banishing the dummies with a thought and turning to his visitor.

“My apologies,” Professor McGonagall offered. “I did not mean to interrupt.”

Harry shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I just wanted to get a bit of warm-up in.”

His Head of House arched an eyebrow. “You consider a duel against three opponents to be a warm-up? I shudder to think what you would call a normal match.”

Harry chuckled lightly. “Well, considering the odds I’ll soon be facing. Three on one sounds like child’s play.”

“Indeed,” Minerva replied. “Yet you feel you are up to the task?”

“Only one way to find out,” Harry responded noncommittally.

“Tell me, Harry, how much have you been practicing yourself over the year?” Minerva asked suddenly.

Harry gave her an appraising look. “I train on my own pretty regularly. Have to stay ahead of my students, after all.”

She nodded her head. “Yet to even think of taking on seven or more at once, you must be quite far ahead of them. You have already defeated seven in a duel once before.”

Harry shrugged his shoulders. “That was early on in their training. They should put up a much better fight now.”

“But you still expect to win, do you not?” she questioned him.

Harry could not help but wonder at her goal in this line of questioning. “I hope to lose, actually,” he admitted. “For their sakes, I hope they can beat me.”

Her gaze was penetrating, but she did not question him any further. After a moment of silence, Harry spoke again. “I’d like you to set up the scene for our battle, if you don’t mind. That way I won’t have any prior knowledge to aid me.”

“Certainly,” she agreed. “Did you have anything in particular in mind?”

Harry shook his head. “Surprise me.”

“Very well,” she answered. “And what of the students you are to be fighting?”

“We’ll enter at the same time on opposite ends of the room. Give us about five minutes to become acclimated to the surroundings and to allow them to adjust their plans,” Harry stated.

“And what are to be the rules of this match?”

“Nothing lethal, obviously,” Harry began. “And no healing spells or counter-curses. Whatever you’re hit with, you keep until the end of the match. As soon as you are incapacitated or otherwise unable to participate in the match, you’re out of the match entirely. Beyond that, anything goes. The match is not over until either I am knocked out or their whole team is out.”

McGonagall took all this in and responded with only a curt nod of her head. The door to the room had opened as Harry finished speaking, and the first of his students entered the room. It was not long before the rest of the class filtered in. Professor McGonagall drifted off to the side of the room, away from the crowd of students standing before Harry. When all the students had arrived, Harry stood on the small podium at the front of the room and called his students to attention.

“I have a few announcements to make before we get started,” Harry stated, his voice carrying to every corner of the room without any effort. “First, all lessons following this one will be cancelled until exams are over. We will resume the Sunday following the last day of exams at our normal time. Even though your other classes will all be finished, I expect all of you to be here.”

“For today’s class, I have something special planned. We will not be covering anything new today. In fact, we will not be covering anything at all. Your seven advanced students issued a challenge to me which I have accepted, so today you will watch an exhibition match between those students and myself.” Harry went on to detail the terms of the contest and revealed that Professor McGonagall would be monitoring the match and would serve as referee should one become necessary. “Now, let’s get started. Professor, if you will?”

Professor McGonagall walked briskly to the front of the room and, after a moment’s pause, continued on towards a new door that had appeared in the wall. “Harry, you enter at that end,” she called, pointing towards another door to the right of the one she was standing at. She then pointed to another door to her left and turned towards his opponents. “You seven at that end. The rest of you can enter here.” She opened the door in front of her and ushered the students inside.

With one last look at his Head of House and his seven opponents, Harry opened the door and stepped into what was to be their battleground, a rather dense forest. His mind flashed back to his previous experiences within the Forbidden Forest. This reproduction lacked the eeriness of the real thing, but it was a foreboding setting nonetheless. The darkness made it difficult to see. Harry wondered how McGonagall and the rest of the students would discern the action, but, as they were in the Room of Requirement, perhaps they could see more clearly than Harry or his opponents.

Harry turned around, examining his location in greater detail, and considered different tactics he might employ. He briefly toyed with the idea of levitating himself up to the treetops and attacking from up high but dismissed the idea. He was wary of doing anything too extreme as he ultimately intended this exercise to be for their benefit rather than his own. He wanted this to simulate a confrontation against an actual Death Eater, and no Death Eater would go to those lengths while attacking school children, especially those from unprotected, Muggle families. Their approach would be straightforward as they would not feel the need to prepare for a battle against students.

With that in mind, Harry had his plan set. He would simply advance towards their position and pick them off as he encountered them. He had the added advantage of his ability to sense magic, but he did not want to rely too heavily on it as, to his knowledge, no Death Eaters possessed the ability. Still, it would make it rather hard for the students to use stealth against him.

It was not long before he heard Professor McGonagall’s magically amplified voice announce the start of the exhibition. Harry slid his wand into his hand and steeled himself as he began his slow advance. The dead leaves crunched under his feet as he walked forward, his eyes scanning back and forth, looking for any signs of movement. His senses were all alert, but the room simulated a wind which kept an almost constant rustling all around him. He had been walking for what must have been at least a few minutes, moving from tree to tree, before he detected any sign of his adversaries.

Harry could not help but smirk as he recognised their strategy – and how similar it was to his own thoughts. Were it not for his ability to sense magic, he never would have noticed the two students hidden in the treetops as he passed. Harry was cautious now, waiting for the moment when they would strike, but it did not come. He continued to move slowly forward. The two trees in question were several metres apart, and Harry’s path took him more or less directly between them. He was on edge as he passed, waiting for the strike to begin, but still they waited. As he took a few more steps, he realised why.

He was walking into an ambush. He picked up three more of his students forming a ring around the area he was now entering. These three were all on the ground rather than in the trees like their comrades. And as Harry continued forward, he picked up on the final two, one in a tree directly in his path and another on the ground just off to the side. He was roughly in the centre of their trap when all hell broke loose.

They struck almost as one as seven spells flew at him from all directions. Thinking quickly, Harry threw a shield in front of him and charged forward out of the paths of five of the seven curses. His shield deflected one curse, while he ducked under the one from the student in the tree directly in front of him. Though Harry could tell the exact position of his opponents thanks to his magical senses, he could not actually see any of them. They were disillusioned.

He sent a quick series of four Stunners in an arc in front of him as if he did not know the actual position of those he was attacking. One of his spells forced his opponent on the ground to shift to the side, and Harry’s eyes caught the movement. Before he could act, however, he sensed another series of spells converging on him, and he glanced over his shoulder just before ducking and rolling out of the way. As he completed his roll, he sent another Stunner to the location of where he had seen movement, but the spell impacted a tree. He knew the student had already relocated, but he wanted to keep up appearances.

Harry remained crouched low to the ground, his eyes constantly scanning all around, waiting for the next move, but his students were displaying an incredible amount of patience. They were content to play the waiting game while they had the advantage. He would be forced to make the next move, but what that move would be was a mystery. Since he did not wish to take advantage of his ability to sense magic, he should have no idea where any of the seven were hiding, so he could not directly attack them. Walking back into the centre of their little ring would be asking for trouble. He was more or less right on the edge of their circle now. His best course of action would be to travel around that edge and hope to catch some trace of one of his students.

******

Minerva watched eagerly as Harry crept slowly through the gloomy forest. She was immediately impressed, both with Harry’s speed and reflexes and with his students’ strategy. For a moment she had been certain that the battle would be remarkably short-lived, but Harry had seemed to almost be expecting the ambush, and it was as if he knew just what he needed to do to evade the attack, without having to even see all the spells flying towards him.

She knew roughly where each of the seven BHA students were located, although their Disillusionment Charms made it rather difficult to track them. She wondered, though, how Harry would now face them. It was clear he had entered the fray without any real strategy, though she felt this was a tactical move on his part rather than arrogance. He wanted to give them a fighting chance, but she had no doubts that he would fight with everything he had to emerge the victor.

As Harry continued to work his way around the area of the ambush, she caught the movement of one of his adversaries slowly trying to edge out of his path. She was sure Harry would notice as well, but he showed no signs of having seen or heard a thing and continued on his path. Just as he was passing by the position of the student in question, Harry struck quite suddenly. In the blink of an eye he had sprung at his victim and unleashed a veritable torrent of spells upon his opponent. The first three spells were absorbed by the student’s hastily constructed shield. His comrades all struck at Harry, but none were in a good position to aid their ally.

Harry sidestepped the curses sent his way, never ceasing his spell-fire until his student finally collapsed to what looked like a Disarming Charm, a Jelly-Legs Jinx, and finally a Stunner. He turned back towards the rest of his opponents and effortlessly cast a shield to block the last of the spells zooming towards him. As soon as he had turned, the remaining six students ceased fire and resumed their game of patience. Already she could see that Harry had found the flaw of their strategy. He had to know that a few of their number were in the trees and therefore completely immobile. The ones on the ground appeared to be so committed to their strategy that they were afraid to move – even to come to the aid of their friend. They should have been much more compact for their ambush. They were so far apart that Harry had to be in the centre of their circle in order for all seven combatants to be effective. So long as he remained outside the centre of their trap, he could fight them one or two at a time rather than seven at once.

That was, of course, assuming Harry could find them, which seemed to be proving rather difficult for him. He continued his path along the perimeter of the circle, moving slowly and constantly shifting his head back and forth trying to locate the others. She knew roughly where each of the other six were stationed, but it was difficult to keep tabs on them in their disillusioned states. Just then, though, she noticed a ripple several metres behind Harry. He was being followed.

After a minute, she detected a second figure begin slowly trailing after Harry. It appeared that they too realised that in order to stand a chance, they would need to work closely together. She watched tensely, waiting for the moment when they would strike. Finally, the moment came, and his two stragglers struck in unison with an amplified, “Stupefy.”

Before the tips of their wands had even lit with their curses, Harry already sprang into motion, ducking and rolling to the side, jumping quickly back onto his feet and facing his two stalkers with his wand extended. By the time the two Stunners passed by where Harry had been moments before, Harry had already retaliated. His targets dodged his spell-fire, and Harry was prevented from pressing his advantage as three spells came at him from all different directions.

It seemed as if he knew where the spells were coming from without even looking as he spun out of one curse and ducked under another sent from above and behind him before batting away the third with a shield. But by that time more curses were already headed his way, and he had no time to launch into an offensive of his own. His students had given up the game of hiding. Now that they had him surrounded once more, they pressed their advantage. Minerva noticed a blurry ripple of movement streaking through the forest towards them as all pretences of hiding had vanished.

Meanwhile, Harry ducked, dodged, and rolled out of the way of one curse after another. Two students in the trees were within firing range in addition to the three pressing in on him from the ground. He was well and truly outnumbered, yet looking at him, Minerva never thought he was in over his head. He was in constant motion, abandoning the notion of shielding spells, instead using his wand to fire curses whenever he could. Some of the curses were so close that she could not tell whether or not they actually connected with him. If he was ever struck, Harry showed no reaction to it. After a minute without luck against those on the ground, Harry sent two quick spells up into one of the trees. There was a startled “Oof” and the sound of branches snapping as a blurry figure fell from the tree. With a thought from Minerva, the ground underneath the student softened to cushion the landing, and the student immediately fell to a Stunner from Harry.

Another figure raced across the forest towards the commotion. Her Disillusionment Charm appeared to be fading as Minerva could see her with relative clarity. She had been in a tree on the other side of the circle and must have climbed down, realising that she would never be able to participate in the battle from her position. Harry was in a real bind with five of his students surrounding him – four on the ground, one in a tree. As all five rained curses down upon him, Harry continued to dodge the spells to the best of his ability, only occasionally resorting to using a shield. Suddenly, he raced forward, past a pair of students, Stunning one as he raced by before the student was able to raise a shield.

He darted behind the other, who had become semi-visible, causing the spell-fire from the rest to cease lest they incapacitate their own comrade. Harry began firing curse after curse at his nearby foe, who had erected a shield to block the first and began ducking and dodging to evade the rest. The other two grounded students raced over to get into better positions, but by the time they got a clear shot at Harry, he had already managed to Petrify his opponent.

Minerva sat in awe as she watched the fluidity and grace of Harry’s movements. Only once before in her life had she ever seen someone duel like that. As she realised the only other person she had seen capable of moving and fighting like Harry, she felt her blood freeze. It was impossible! She watched in shocked silence as he systematically knocked out the remaining students. The one student left in the tree climbed down while Harry was occupied with the other two. Or at least, that seemed to be the intended strategy. However, Harry must have noticed the action for he managed to Stun the student before he even reached the ground.

That left two, and even their combined strength was no match for Harry. With the ease at which he cast spells, Minerva would not have been surprised if he could have simply held a shield up to block their curses until they had simply tired themselves out and exhausted all their energy, but it did not come to that. Within a minute, one of the two had also fallen, leaving just one left standing. To his credit, the last student did not back down. He gave it everything he had, but it was not enough, and he, too, fell, ending the exhibition.

Minerva was so lost in her own mind that she barely even noticed as the scene before her faded away. The trees disappeared making it easier for Harry to find and revive his students, yet she could do nothing but stand there and gaze unseeingly forward. Her mind was at war, refusing to accept the logical conclusion it had drawn after watching Harry fight. She was not shaken from her stupor until Harry made his way over to her and asked, “Are you all right, Professor?”

She was startled into awareness, holding a hand to her heart. “What? Yes, yes, I’ll be fine. Just feeling a little dizzy is all.”

“Do you want me to take you up to the Hospital Wing?” he asked, his voice radiating with concern.

“No, I – I think I just need a bit of fresh air. If you’ll excuse me….” And with that, she left. She walked right out of the room and quickly made her way to her office. She sunk down into her chair and leaned forward with her elbows on her desk, resting her head in her hands. Could it be? It had been several months since she had been involved in the battle at Hogsmeade. Could she be making connections where there were none? Was she imagining it? Not for the first time in her life, she wished she had a Pensieve. If she could get an objective view on her memory, perhaps she could make sense of it all.

She rose from her desk, intending to do just that. Albus would not mind allowing her the use of his Pensieve, but he would no doubt want to know for what purpose she needed it. Dare she tell him her suspicions? After all, she had no real proof. Should she really open that can of worms without any evidence? No, there was no sense in that. She sank back down into her chair. She needed to use that Pensieve, but she did not want to air her suspicions just yet – not until she had more to go on, not until she had straightened out her mind.

She knew where he kept the Pensieve in his office. She considered waltzing in and grabbing it, but she did not want to steal it. She just wanted a chance to use it without his knowledge. She would not need much time, only a few minutes. It would have to be a time when Albus was sure to be occupied elsewhere. Glancing down at her watch, she made her decision. It was an odd occurrence for her to miss a meal, but it was not unheard of – particularly around this time of the year. Shortly after the start of lunch, she would simply go into the Headmaster’s office and use the Pensieve.

The time crawled by as she waited. She tried to occupy herself, but nothing could hold her attention. No essays or books could keep her mind from wandering back to what she had seen – to what she suspected. There was nothing for it. It was agony, staring at her watch as the seconds ticked past, but time moves ever forward, even if our perception of it changes. Before too long, lunch time came. She was sure Albus would be in the Great Hall. He rarely ever missed a meal if it could be avoided. She was not sure whether it was the opportunity to be amongst the student body or the House Elves’ cooking that drew him in, but today it did not matter. All that mattered was that he would be there, leaving his office unattended.

She arrived quickly at the gargoyle, which sprung aside as she gave the password. Riding up the stairs, she realised the one flaw in her plan: the portraits. The fact that she was visiting his office while the Headmaster was absent was not in itself uncommon, but she expected that they would inform him of her use of the Pensieve. That was, of course, assuming they noticed what she was up to. The Pensieve was stored in a cabinet whose doors, when opened, would obstruct the portraits’ views of her. So long as she was careful, she could prevent them from seeing her entering the Pensieve, and she could come up with a plausible excuse to give the Headmaster should he ask what she was doing in his office.

Reaching her decision, she pushed open the door and strode purposefully into the office. She immediately made her way to the cabinet in question and opened the doors to a point where they should best hide her activities. Stooping down a bit, she held her wand to her head and extracted the memory of the battle in Hogsmeade and then deposited it into the stone basin. She swirled the contents once with her wand and then dipped a finger inside.

She felt the uncomfortable sensation of falling into the memory and suddenly found herself on the streets of Hogsmeade, spells flying all around her. She ignored the instinct telling her to take cover, knowing that she could not be harmed by the memory. Instead, she turned her attention to the side of the Three Broomsticks just as two jets of red light shot out of the alley and knocked out two Death Eaters.

As Jim walked out of the shadows, Minerva found herself inexplicably drawn closer. She was not aware of her legs moving until she had closed the distance between them in half. He was already a blur of motion, but it was clear that he was fighting a losing battle – until he did something both incredibly brave and foolish. He charged right into the line of Death Eaters, bringing the battle into close proximity. His strategy and his movements were so eerily similar to what she had just seen. When Harry had been confronted with greater numbers, he had engaged them at close range, just like Jim. And the way they both moved, it was as if they were performing a choreographed dance. Were it not for the fact that Jim was fighting Death Eaters and Harry school children, she would have been inclined to say that Harry was the more skilled of the two. But then, if they were one in the same, it would only make sense that after several more months of training, he would become faster and stronger.

Minerva watched as Jim disposed of one Death Eater after another, cringing when she saw him take a pair of Cutting Curses. It was not until after the Death Eaters vanished that she was able to get a good look at him. She was shocked at what she saw. How could she have missed it? His hair and eyes were different, and there was no scar. Everything else about him, however, was exactly the same. How had no one noticed before? Then again, they were not accustomed to seeing a Harry Potter that looked like this. The Harry they all pictured was still the scrawny boy with glasses. He had changed so much this year, and yet she had a feeling they did not even know the half of it.

She lifted herself from the memory and took a moment to steady herself before drawing the memory out of the Pensieve and re-depositing it in her mind. She then shut the cabinet and left the office. Glancing down at her watch she decided to have a quick lunch before going back to the Room of Requirement. She wanted answers, and she would not allow Harry to leave that room until she got them.

******

Harry was all smiles as he woke all of his fallen IHA students following the battle. There had been a few close calls where he had very nearly been beaten, but he had emerged victorious in the end. Part of him was thrilled at his success. His blood was still pumping from the excitement of the battles, and he felt like he could take on just about anyone right then. But then another part of him had wanted to see better from his students. He was happy with the progress they had all made over the course of the year, but he could not help thinking that it was nowhere near enough.

In his BHA battle, after the initial ambush failed, his students stood little chance of success until they abandoned their strategy and unleashed an all-out attack, but Harry’s experience allowed him to systematically defeat each and every one of them. His battle against the IHA had been much different. They had not had the opportunity to see him in action before and had severely underestimated him. The battle was fairly straightforward. They tried to simply overpower him by attacking en masse. Considering their numerical advantage, it was not a horrible tactic, but it had ultimately failed. Having taught them, he knew which students to target first as they were the easiest to eliminate. Once their numbers started dwindling, Harry was able to focus his attention on the stronger duellists until he finally managed to defeat them all.

He offered a hand down to Blaise who appeared a bit groggy after having just been awoken. The Slytherin took the offered hand and was soon hoisted onto his feet. Harry was impressed with the Slytherin. He fought hard throughout all the battles, and he was actually a gifted duellist. If he continued with the training and built up his agility and endurance, he could be great. “Good match,” Harry said as he let go of his hand.

“Easy for you to say since you were the only one left standing,” Blaise replied without any real malice.

Harry smirked and shrugged his shoulders. “I warned you that fighting me would not be easy.”

“That you did,” he replied, a speculative look on his face. He looked as if he wanted to ask something but then thought better of it.

When all the students were up and moving about again, Harry addressed the class as a whole, thanking them all for their hard work over the year and in the tournament and wished them all luck on their exams. As the students all began to exit the room, he noticed a few headed in his direction. Before the rest of the students had even exited the room, Hermione marched up to him and demanded, “Where did you learn to fight like that?”

Harry raised an eyebrow at her. “Here, mostly. You above all people should have realised that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she questioned.

Before he had a chance to respond, another voice cut in, “Miss Granger, perhaps you can continue this line of questioning at a later time. I would like to have a word with Mr. Potter.” Harry looked up to Professor McGonagall gratefully. “Alone,” she added unnecessarily.

Hermione looked as if she had just been told exams had been cancelled. It took a moment for her to compose her voice before she answered, “Certainly Professor.” Without even a glance at him or any of the others, she turned on her heel and marched out of the room.

Harry’s eyes swept over Ginny, Ron, Neville, and Luna as he said, “I’ll see you guys later.”

Professor McGonagall stood stonily until the door shut behind them. She turned to Harry and said, “Have a seat.” Harry half-turned to find a chair behind him. Almost the moment his bum hit the seat, she continued, “You have some explaining to do.”

“Er – I do?” Harry answered thickly, having no idea to what she was referring.

“You have a very unique style of fighting, Harry,” his Head of House commented, her voice strict and controlled. “One I have only ever witnessed once before in my life. Do you know when that one other time was?”

Harry stared wide-eyed at his professor, the wheels in his mind quickly clicking into place and making connections. He felt frozen, unsure what to say or how to react.

“I’ll tell you,” she stated after a short pause. “It was in Hogsmeade last Halloween. Do you know what happened there, Harry?”

“It was attacked,” Harry offered, finally finding his voice.

“Yes, it was attacked,” she continued. “And it would most likely have been destroyed if not for one person – a person we have spent several months trying to identify and locate. Do you know who that person is?”

Harry did not dare answer that question and instead just stared straight back into his professor’s stony gaze.

Her thin lips separated as they formed a single word. “You.”

“Professor…”

“Imagine my surprise,” her voice cut over his, “when I was watching you in a friendly duel against your students, and I’m forcefully reminded of the battle in Hogsmeade, watching a young man, this Jim, duelling a group of Death Eaters and emerging the victor. Impossible, I thought. There is no way that these two people could be one in the same, so I went up to the Headmaster’s office and borrowed his Pensieve, and wouldn’t you know it, the resemblance is uncanny, once you look past the hair, the eyes, and the scar.”

“Dumbledore knows?” Harry asked, feeling like a weight had just dropped in his stomach. If that was true, he would need to get out of the castle now. His home was ready for him. He would not allow Dumbledore to stop him now.

“No. He does not know,” she stated. “Yet.”

Harry let out a breath he had not even realised he was holding. “Professor – Minerva – please, just let me explain,” he began.

“Yes, Potter. Please do explain,” she said. “I’m quite interested to hear what you have to say for yourself.”

Harry took a deep breath. He knew he had only one chance at this. If he could not convince her to keep his secret until the end of the term, he would have little choice but to leave the school before Dumbledore had a chance to stop him. “How much do you know about the prophecy?” he asked. It all came back to the prophecy, so it was as good a place as any to start.

“I do not know the full contents, but I know enough,” she stated grimly.

“So you know what I must do, then?” Harry asked. He received a firm nod in reply. “I didn’t know, not until last June,” Harry continued. “Imagine my surprise, Professor, when immediately after the death of my godfather, I finally learn why – why my parents were murdered when I was a baby – why I was forced to live with relatives who despise me – why Voldemort has been after me since I was a baby – why Voldemort might want to lure me to the Department of Mysteries. And imagine my surprise after learning this, that I was simply dumped back at my relatives. Dumbledore dumped the burdens of this war and of the entire Wizarding World onto my shoulders and then threw me back to people who hate me. He expects me to just twiddle my thumbs and wait until he deems me ready to become involved in the war.”

“Every aspect of my life for as long as I can remember has been outside of my control. I’m sick of it. I couldn’t just wait around for the next bad thing to happen – for Voldemort to make his next move. I can’t just sit around and wait until Dumbledore decides I’m old enough or trustworthy enough or whatever it is he’s really waiting for. People are dying out there, and I’m the only one who can stop it.”

“But surely you must see…” Minerva began.

“See what?” Harry interrupted. “That I’m too young? Am I, Professor? Am I too young to fight Death Eaters? Am I too young to face Voldemort? Because I don’t think Voldemort gives a damn how young I am. He is not going to stop until I’m dead, and nothing you, the Order, or Dumbledore can do will stop him.”

“I understand how you must feel,” she said.

“Do you, Professor?” Harry asked, his voice sounding a lot harsher than he had intended. “Do you understand what it feels like to know that one day you’ll have to fight Voldemort, and only one of you will survive?”

Her lips pursed tightly as her eyes bored into his. Finally, she answered, “No. I suppose I do not. The only person who could possibly understand is the Headmaster.”

Harry smiled grimly. “Yes. He is the only one who can understand, and yet he refuses to. He wants to shield me from it.”

“Surely you cannot blame him for that,” Minerva cut in.

“Oh, it’s an admirable goal, I suppose,” Harry replied. “But can he? Can he shield me from it?” Harry’s gaze was harsh as he waited for her response.

“No. I suppose not.”

“Exactly,” Harry answered. “Don’t you see, Professor? It’s too late for that. Ever since Voldemort returned, it’s been too late for it. Voldemort wants me dead, and he will pursue me. Dumbledore has done everything he can to try to stop it, and yet I’ve already met Voldemort more times than I care to.”

“All right, I see your point,” she admitted. “But there is a difference between preparing for when trouble finds you and going out and looking for trouble.”

Harry nodded, seeing the logic of her observation. “True. I could simply remain in the castle and train on my own.”

“Yet you choose to sneak out of the castle and participate in battles against fully trained Death Eaters,” she added.

“I didn’t start with that intention,” Harry stated, thinking about his various encounters with Death Eaters. “Over the summer I had a vision, and I knew the Weasleys were in trouble. I couldn’t get word to the Order quick enough, so I went and ended up saving Ginny. When I went to Hogsmeade on Halloween, I had planned on staying in the shadows and attacking Death Eaters one or two at a time by surprise, but then I saw you pinned down and knew you needed help. Things just kind of spiralled from there.”

“If you think about it, though,” Harry continued, “if I’m to face Voldemort, I need experience. Sure, training here helps, but it’s impossible to simulate a battle against Death Eaters, let alone Voldemort himself. Nobody - not me, you, or Dumbledore - knows when Voldemort will find me again, and none of us can say when the time will come that the prophecy is fulfilled – for better or worse. Personally, I’d rather be as prepared as possible for when that day comes.”

“But why all the secrecy?” she questioned. “It would be safer for all parties involved if you were to work with us rather than on your own.”

Harry laughed humourlessly. “Right. You think Dumbledore would allow that? He won’t even let me know what the Order is up to, let alone actually participate. I’ve tried to get him to loosen up a bit, but he won’t budge. Not until I’m finished with school, as if another year of lessons will really help prepare me for what’s coming.”

He noticed her lips tighten following his statement, but she said nothing in reply. Swallowing thickly, Harry asked the question he was dreading hearing the answer to. “What will you do now?”

She made no move to respond, nor did she show any indication that she had even heard the question. Harry was considering asking her again when she shifted in her seat and asked, “What do you think I should do?”

Harry opened his mouth to tell her exactly what he would like her to do, but he abruptly shut it and paused to think. If he was in her position, what would he do? After a long moment, he finally spoke. “It’s hard to say. On the one hand, I obviously see my own point and want you to just keep it all a secret for me. But then you have a responsibility as my professor and Head of House to ensure my safety – and to make sure I’m following school rules.”

She nodded her head. “Yes, I do.”

“But,” Harry continued, “while I’m still a student, I’m also an Assistant Professor, so the same rules that apply to other students don’t all apply to me.”

“Don’t think I’ll let you off on a technicality like that,” she stated.

“Think about it a second, Professor,” Harry replied, holding up a hand. “If things were different – no Voldemort or war or anything – and it was some other student who was made an Assistant Professor, what would the rules be? Would they be allowed off school grounds throughout the year, so long as they were in attendance for all their classes?”

Minerva’s lips were so thin following his question that her mouth appeared as just a slit. “I believe there is precedence that states that, yes, you would be allowed to leave the school on a reasonable timeframe. Though to be fair, you are the first underage Assistant Professor, which raises another question.” She paused for a moment before continuing. “How is it that you are able to perform magic outside of Hogwarts? And travel so easily?”

Harry cringed, knowing there was no way to escape this question now that it was asked. He only wished he knew what she intended to do with that information, but seeing no way around it, he answered, “I can do wandless magic.” Minerva raised an eyebrow in reply, prompting Harry to add, “I’m really good with it.”

“How good?” she asked.

“With spells I know, better than with a wand,” Harry stated frankly.

“And spells you are unfamiliar with?” his Head of House inquired.

“I find it easier to learn with a wand,” Harry answered.

“I see,” she responded, neither her voice nor her expression giving away her thoughts. “And how do you move about?”

“I can Apparate – wandlessly,” he admitted.

Minerva scrutinized him for a long moment with her stare. “You must forgive me if I am a bit sceptical,” she finally responded. “Such skill with wandless magic is rare without even taking into account your youth.”

Harry arched an eyebrow and with a wave of his hand conjured a stuffed cat with an uncanny likeness to Minerva’s Animagus form.

Her eyes widened slightly as she surveyed his conjuration and then narrowed as she asked, “How do I know you did not simply have the room create the cat?”

Harry sighed, waving his hand and vanishing the inanimate animal. “Try to Stun me,” he said.

She stared at him for a moment before slowly drawing her wand and levelling it at him. Harry showed no reaction as she began the wand movement and sent the bright red spell at him from close-range. He merely raised a hand and with it a shield, causing the spell to ricochet off to the side.

“Will that be sufficient?” he asked emotionlessly. “Or do you require more of a demonstration?”

“No,” she answered flatly. “That will do for now.”

The two sat in silence for a long few minutes scrutinizing each other. Harry thought she was at least considering his perspective, which was all he could ask of her. If she still decided to tell Dumbledore, it would be a major inconvenience to him but nothing more. He would simply need to push forward his timetable and leave Hogwarts early. It was not something he wanted to do, but he was prepared to should it become necessary.

Finally, Minerva shifted in her seat and broke the silence. “I find myself in somewhat of a precarious position, Mr. Potter. Your argument certainly has merit and would be sufficient to convince me of your need to be part of the Order of the Phoenix; however, that is not what you are asking of me. I have responsibilities both to this school and to the Order to alert the Headmaster of what I have learned here today, but, if I am not mistaken, that could very well make matters much worse. Tell me, Harry, if I were to tell you that I was going directly to the Headmaster’s office to tell him about your abilities, what would you do?”

Harry did not hesitate as he responded, “I’d thank you for at least hearing me out and considering my point of view and let you go.” He struggled to maintain a calm, polite tone.

“Let me?” she asked incredulously. Harry only shrugged in response, and she continued, “What you conveniently left out of your answer is what you would do immediately after I exited the room.”

“I’d rather not answer that question, actually,” he admitted.

She nodded as if expecting his evasion and then asked, “How quickly could you be out of the castle and off school grounds?” she asked.

Harry smirked mischievously. “Faster than you could get to the Headmaster’s office – even in your Animagus form.”

“Which reminds me,” Minerva stated, “I had intended to ask if you wished to study the Animagus transformation next term, but given recent developments, I wonder if you would require my instruction.”

Harry shifted slightly in his seat. “Er – not as such, no.”

“Care to demonstrate?” she asked innocuously.

Harry sighed and considered it for just a moment before deciding his course of action. Given what she knew, she was no doubt already jumping to the conclusion that his form was a panther, so that was exactly what he would show her. He stood up as he allowed his magic to flow and quickly felt the transformation take over his body until he was standing on all fours in front of his Head of House.

As he reverted back to human form, the professor smirked and commented, “I knew you must be a feline.”

Wishing to steer their conversation back to the matter at hand, Harry commented, “It seems we’ve strayed quite a bit off topic.”

“Indeed, I suppose we have,” she stated. “Allow me to be frank. I am wary of talking to the Headmaster about my findings because I have little doubt that doing so will only serve to further alienate you from the Order in general and both myself and the Headmaster in particular. Would you say that is an accurate assessment?”

Harry nodded. “Yes, I would say so.” A smile began to tug at the corners of his lips.

“However, I am not comfortable turning a blind eye to your activities. What you are doing is both dangerous and foolish.” She held up a hand to stem his objection. “I am not saying you are too young or incapable. Quite the contrary. I have seen what you are capable of and do agree that it is unwise to attempt to keep you out of the war at this point, but I cannot advocate your methodology – going into battle alone is foolish to the point of idiocy.”

“I agree with you,” Harry interrupted quickly. “I’ve had a couple close calls that could most likely have been avoided if I had been working with the Order rather than alone. I had already made the decision to try to avoid charging into battle alone and to work more closely with the Order.”

She pursed her lips. “Not all the Order is eager to trust this Jim.”

Harry nodded. “I had gotten that impression. Remus has been willing to work with me from the start, and I think Tonks is starting to come around. We ended up saving each others’ lives in Diagon Alley.”

Her countenance turned speculative, and she opened her mouth but then shut it abruptly, shaking her head. “I hope you realise, though, that this is only a temporary solution. Sooner or later, the truth must come out, and sooner is much more likely than later.”

“I know,” Harry conceded. “I just need a little more time. I promise to talk to Dumbledore at the start of next term if not sooner.” He did not like misleading her, but while she seemed to accept the situation as it was, he was uncertain how she would respond to his summer plans and was unwilling to take the risk of telling her. “So does that mean you will keep my secret?” Harry asked hopefully.

With a sigh, she answered, “I have a feeling I may come to regret this, but, yes, I will keep your secret. However, should the Headmaster ask directly, I will not lie. And also, should you do anything particularly foolish, putting your life at risk, I reserve the right to change my mind.”

Harry smiled. “Thank you, Minerva.”

“You are welcome, Harry,” she responded. “Now you better get back to your friends; I believe that they too have some questions for you.” Harry must not have done a very convincing job of stifling his grimace, for she added, “They do not have any idea, do they? Ron and Hermione, that is.”

Frowning, Harry shook his head. “No. I’d trust either one with my life but not with my freedom.”

“Is that what you consider this?” she asked. “Freedom?”

Harry studied her face for a moment and saw nothing but honest curiosity. “For the first time,” he began, “I feel like I’m actually in control of my own life. It’s not just about the war or a sense of responsibility; it’s my life, and I’m tired of having it dictated for me.”

“Well stated,” she replied, nodding her head. “Very well. For the time being, I shall respect your wishes, and in the future I will do all I can to ensure that you retain your freedom – so long as you treat it responsibly.”

“Thank you,” Harry responded. He smiled at the woman who had long been his professor and Head of House but whom he was considering more and more of a friend. As he walked out of the Room of Requirement, Harry felt as if a huge burden had just been lifted from his shoulders. He could hardly believe the conversation had gone so well. His Head of House had become much more human to him throughout the course of the year, and he could not help but be glad that he had taken this time to really get to know her beyond the face she put on for her students. In class she was so strict and uncompromising, but then again, she was the professor. She was in a position of authority over the class and simply expected her students to respect that. When you took her out of the professorial environment, she was still a strict and stern person but was willing to listen and consider another point of view and compromise. There was no questioning her ability as a teacher, but Harry definitely preferred her outside of class.

His arrival in the Gryffindor common room did not go unnoticed among his circle of friends. Ron, Hermione, Neville, and Ginny all looked up at him as he walked through the portrait hole. Ginny looked relieved to see him while the others mostly appeared eager. Harry took a deep breath before heading over towards them.

Without any preamble, Hermione demanded, “What did you mean that I above all people should know where you learned to fight?”

Harry quirked an eyebrow at her and glanced between the others, “Hey, guys,” he greeted before turning his attention to Hermione. “I think you know exactly what I mean. You’ve been following me around for weeks.”

Hermione’s jaw dropped, and after a moment her mouth began moving without any sound emerging. Finally, she managed to sputter, “You knew?” Harry only nodded. “And you did nothing?”

He shrugged. “Why should I do anything? It’s not like you were interrupting my work. If you want to waste your time following me around, that’s your business.”

She glared at him. “Yet you made no move to invite me in or let me know what you were doing.”

“Why should I go out of my way to invite you in when you took it upon yourself to spy on me?” Harry questioned, keeping his voice calm as if discussing nothing more significant than the weather.

“I wouldn’t have to spy on you if you weren’t keeping so many secrets,” Hermione shrieked.

Harry glanced around and saw several heads turned their way following her exclamation. He turned his gaze back to Hermione and stared at her pointedly for a moment before responding in a quiet tone, “Did it never occur to you that I might like just a bit of privacy? Or is the Boy-Who-Lived not granted that privilege?”

“Oh, quit acting like you’re always the injured party,” Hermione ranted. “You’ve been sneaking around and avoiding our questions all year long, and we’re sick of it.”

“We?” Harry asked.

Hermione nodded forcefully. “Ron agrees with me.”

From the look on Ron’s face it was quite clear to Harry that he had never made any such claim and wanted to stay as far away from this conversation as possible. Unfortunately for him, he was not given a choice in the matter as Hermione turned to him and asked, “Don’t you, Ron?”

Harry looked to Ron curiously, wondering how he would respond to the situation while Hermione glared at him with her foot tapping impatiently. “Er – Well, I do agree that Harry has been keeping to himself a lot this year,” he responded slowly, seeming to take care in choosing each word. It was clear that Hermione was not pleased with his response. “Hermione,” Ron said as he reached out to grip her hand.

Hermione pulled away as if his touch had burned her skin. “Don’t touch me,” she scolded and then spun back on Harry, completely missing both the look of hurt and the subsequent look of anger on Ron’s face. “You may have intimidated some from asking you questions, but I won’t be so easily cowed.”

“That much is obvious,” Neville muttered, causing Harry to smirk.

Before Hermione could turn her ire on Neville, though, Harry responded, “Yes, I have been a lot more private this year. I’ve had a lot on my plate, and, frankly, I’ve needed some time away from you. I know you’re used to being privy to every intimate detail of my life, but you’re going to have to get used to giving me some privacy because that’s not going to change. And frankly, the more you push, the less I feel like sharing. So you can keep on trying to bully me into telling you every little thing in my life, but don’t expect me to just cave into your demands.”

“Of course you’d turn this back around me,” Hermione retorted hotly. “Make me out to be the bad guy while you completely avoid the issue. It only makes it all the more painfully obvious that you’re refusing to answer the question.”

“Does it look like I’m trying to hide that fact?” Harry asked in return, struggling to suppress his anger and frustration. “Yes, I’ve been keeping to myself much more lately. No, I don’t appreciate you trying to butt into every little facet of my life. Yes, I’m refusing to answer your questions. Why? Because, contrary to what you may think, it’s none of your bloody business. You’d think after a year of this something might get through to you, yet you refuse to see reason. You don’t get to know every detail of my life. I decide what to share with you. If and when I’m ready to share something, I’ll come to you. Until then, either keep your questions to yourself or bugger off.”

Before Hermione could reply, Ginny jumped up and held up a hand. “Just don’t, Hermione.”

“Of course you would rush to his defence,” Hermione muttered loud enough for all to hear.

“All right. I’ve had enough of this,” Neville interrupted. “You,” he said, pointing at Hermione, “stop talking.” When Hermione opened her mouth, Neville flicked his wand into his hand and cast a Silencing Charm in the blink of an eye. “There. That’s much better.” Hermione did not appear to agree with that sentiment as her mouth was moving a mile a minute, and Harry had a feeling that, if Hermione had not been silenced, they would be hearing obscenities flying out of her mouth that Harry never thought he would hear coming from Hermione.

Turning his attention to Harry and Ginny, Neville quietly said, “You guys are welcome to all the privacy you want, regardless of what she says.”

“Thanks, Neville,” Harry stated.

Neville waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Now, I don’t know how long that Silencing Charm will last, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want to be around when it’s gone.”

Harry nodded his head. He could already see Hermione with her wand in hand trying to wordlessly cancel the spell. Sitting next to her, Ron was doing absolutely nothing to help and even appeared to be enjoying Hermione’s predicament. Harry was surprised Hermione did not turn to Ron for help. He was certain Ron would probably have removed the spell for her if she only asked. Shrugging the matter off, he turned back to Neville and Ginny. “Want to study in my office?” he asked. “At least there we’re guaranteed some privacy.”

Ginny immediately agreed, and Neville quickly nodded his own assent. After gathering their books, the three retired to Harry’s office and spent most of the afternoon and evening revising. Harry spent more time helping Neville and Ginny than revising himself, but he was not all that concerned with the exams.

The following week was somewhat tense, though not as bad as it could have been. Hermione avoided any sort of interaction with Harry, Ginny, and Neville. She was so engrossed in her revisions that she barely seemed to spare Ron any attention either. Even at mealtimes, though Ron and Hermione sat together, Harry noticed that Hermione always had a book propped open in front of her. Ron did not appear to hold anything of the confrontation against Harry, Neville, or Ginny. In fact, when Hermione was not around, he acted as if nothing had happened. When Hermione was around, though, he kept his distance, though Harry could tell that Ron did not appear pleased with the arrangement. After all, Hermione spent all her time revising, and Ron was always very easily distracted.

Harry breezed through his exams with relative ease. He could not guarantee Outstandings in all of his subjects, but he knew he had done well enough. Potions was the only exception and that was more due to Snape’s bias than Harry’s performance on the exam. He was certain he had done well enough on all of his other exams to continue on into seventh year without any trouble. At the end of the week, Ginny had completed five of her eight O.W.L.s with only Care of Magical Creatures, Muggle Studies, and History of Magic remaining. She seemed to be much more relaxed now that she was nearly finished.

Harry had just finished enjoying a delicious lunch prepared by the Hogwarts house elves on that Saturday when he suddenly felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He felt three people approaching from behind. Without even having to turn around, he knew who it was. Harry glanced across the table and met Neville’s gaze, shaking his head slightly to stop Neville from saying anything. “What do you want, Malfoy?” Harry asked as he turned around to face the Slytherins.

Sneer already in place, Malfoy started, “Can’t hide much longer, Potter. Once you come of age, the whole Wizarding World will see just how worthless you are.”

Harry smirked. “Well, luckily we’re already well aware of how pitiful you are. As for me, I’m not all that concerned with what the Wizarding World thinks. After you’ve gone from saviour to scapegoat and back again a dozen times, you pretty much stop caring. So why don’t you just slither back to the Slytherin table and let us all eat in peace?”

“You think you’re so special, don’t you, Potter?” Malfoy retorted. “All because of that stupid scar on your forehead. Thought you had defeated the Dark Lord, but we all know how that really turned out. You couldn’t defeat him then, and it’s only a matter of time before he….”

“Shove off, Malfoy,” a familiar voice interrupted.

Harry turned his head and saw Ron approaching from the side. Hermione was not far behind him, a frown on her face.

“Don’t worry about it, Ron,” Harry stated. Turning back to the platinum-haired Slytherin, Harry continued, “Draco was just leaving.”

Malfoy glared at Harry for a long moment. “You’ll get yours, Potter. Soon.”

“I’ve been hearing that for six years now,” Harry commented airily. “You’ll forgive me if the words have lost a bit of their meaning.”

With one last sneer, Malfoy spun around and quickly walked away, his two goons lumbering behind him. Harry shook his head and nodded his appreciation to Ron before turning back around. “Well, that was pleasant, as always,” he stated. Turning to Ginny, he asked, “Do you want some help revising?”

“Sure,” she agreed.

“My office?” Harry asked.

“Do you mind if we go to the library?” Ginny requested. “I think a couple of my friends could use some help as well.”

“Sure,” Harry replied. “No problem. You ready?”

“Yeah,” she responded distractedly as she grabbed his goblet and drained the remains of his pumpkin juice. Smacking her lips in an exaggerated fashion, she continued, “I’m ready.”

Harry smirked at her as he leaned in to give her a quick peck on the cheek before rising from the bench. “See you later, Neville,” he said, giving his friend a nod.

“Yeah. Have fun,” he responded.

“Thanks,” Harry said, rolling his eyes rather obviously, earning a quiet chuckle. Turning to Ginny, he held out his arm and said, “Shall we, my Lady?”

“Of course, good Sir,” she replied, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. Together, they set off to Gryffindor Tower so that Ginny could collect her books before heading over to the library.

******

While Harry and Ginny were on their way to the library, Hermione had dragged Ron into an unused classroom on the third floor. Ron had a goofy smile on his face in anticipation for what was to come, but the smile quickly slipped off his face as he noticed Hermione’s expression.

“I know you’ve been trying to ignore everything going on with Harry in order to stay on his good side,” she stated matter-of-factly, as if his thoughts were written on his forehead. He was fairly certain they were not. “But this has gone on for quite long enough. I’ve tried playing nice, but he’s clearly out of control, and Professor Dumbledore needs to know it before it goes too far. So, are you with me?”

Ron frowned in confusion. “Wait, so your plan is to go to Dumbledore and tell him what? That Harry is out of control?”

“Yes,” Hermione said, nodding emphatically. She seemed rather pleased. “He’ll know what to do to get through to Harry.”

“And why do you think Harry is out of control?” Ron asked.

“Honestly, Ron,” she huffed. “He’s been training in secret, hiding from all of us – even the professors. They need to know what he’s doing.”

“Er – why?” Ron asked. He really could not understand why she was so obsessed with what Harry was doing all the time. One might think she was infatuated with him, but Harry was with his sister – and Hermione was with him. Wasn’t she?

“You can be so thick sometimes,” Hermione ranted. “What if something was to happen? He could run off to do something stupid, and we wouldn’t be there to stop him.”

“Or help him,” Ron inserted, finding it annoying that she automatically assumed that whatever Harry decided to do, it would be stupid.

“Right,” she absently agreed. “So you agree with me then?”

“What? No!” Ron exclaimed, vigorously shaking his head. “I won’t go behind his back like that.”

“This is Professor Dumbledore we’re talking about,” Hermione insisted. “It’s for Harry’s own good.”

“How is it for Harry’s good?” Ron questioned. “He seems to be doing just fine.”

“Of course he seems fine,” Hermione retorted. “The point is, we don’t really know what’s going on because he’s completely shut us out. Have you ever asked yourself why? Why would he feel the need to keep things from us?” Ron shook his head, unable to answer that question, but Hermione did not wait for a response. “Unless he was doing something he knew we’d disagree with.”

Ron frowned. There was a certain bit of logic to her statement that he could not deny. Why else would he hide anything from them? Why did Harry do anything? He probably thought he was protecting them. Or maybe he felt guilty about getting them involved in the fight against the Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries and did not want them to be in danger again. That sounded more like the Harry he knew. But what could he do to convince Harry to let him back in? Going to Dumbledore was definitely out of the question. That would only make things worse. He could see that easily enough. He would think more on it later, but right now he needed to make Hermione see sense.

“That’s not Harry at all,” Ron countered. “Trust me, going to Dumbledore is only going to make things worse. We can sit down and talk about how to proceed, but you have to agree not to go telling anyone else.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” Hermione shrieked. “And if you knew what was good for you, you’d come with me.”

“No.” Ron shook his head. “I can’t do that.” He turned away and walked to the door.

“Where are you going?” Hermione demanded.

Turning his head back over his shoulder, he told her, “To warn Harry.”

“Ronald Weasley,” Hermione shouted. “If you walk out that door, we are through.”

Ron was surprised to find that he was not in the least bit upset at her declaration. “Fine by me.”

Without a second thought, he turned back to the door, opened it, and slammed it shut behind him, heading for the library where he heard Harry and Ginny say they were headed following the meal. Seconds after the library doors came in sight, they were thrown open violently and a figured barrelled out of the room. Ron was shocked to see that the figure was in fact Harry. Holding up his hands, he asked, “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”

Harry paused and looked at him. Ron would never forget the look he saw in Harry’s eyes. “Ginny!” he said. “She was just taken by Portkey.”

By the time the words processed in Ron’s ears, Harry had already sprinted past him. “What?” he yelled. “Where are you going?”

“To bring her back!”

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