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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: Many thanks go out to Maggie and Christine for their invaluable assistance on the chapter. Also thank you to all my reviewers. I apologize for the long wait, but I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 2: Constant Vigilance
Harry violently startled awake, taking in a blurry shape looming over him. Flinging a hand out at the figure, Harry shouted, “Stupefy!”

The figure ducked, shouting, “Stop! It’s me, Remus.”

The next curse died on his lips as the words penetrated his sleep befuddled brain. “Remus?” Harry asked, rubbing at his eyes. “What are you doing here?”

“I just came from an Order meeting,” Remus stated gruffly. “Get up and put some clothes on; we need to talk.” He turned and walked out of the room, leaving Harry staring after him in confusion. As his bedroom door clicked shut, Harry swung his legs off the bed and sat up. After a quick trip to the loo, he threw on some trousers and a shirt and walked out to find Remus leaning against the door frame between his kitchen and living room.

“What’s going on?” Harry asked him, starting to worry. What could have happened to cause Remus to come to him like this? “Did something happen?”

Remus forcefully pushed himself off the wall. “Yes, something happened. You stumbled into St. Mungo’s covered in blood carrying an unconscious woman and disappeared without obtaining any medical aid for yourself. You’ve been running around fighting Death Eaters on your own, nearly getting yourself killed.”

“I was fine,” Harry protested. “Just a little scraped up. As you can see, it’s nothing I wasn’t able to take care of myself.”

“That’s not the point,” Remus countered heatedly. “You’ve got to stop trying to do everything yourself. That’s what I’m here for, you know, to help you. That’s why you’re meeting Dora. It’s stupid and irresponsible to keep going out there on your own.”

“What do you want me to say, Remus?” Harry asked, holding his hands out in front of him in supplication. “I didn’t have time to track you down. The only place I know to go to find you is Grimmauld Place, and something tells me I wouldn’t be able to walk in and out of there very easily.”

“If I had known what you had planned, I might have been able to work out some means of communication with you,” Remus rebuked. “As it is, I was as surprised as everyone else to learn what you were up to.”

Before Harry could think of a response, the alarm sounded, and he spun towards the map. “Wait, Harry,” Remus called, grabbing his shoulder as he moved to examine the map. “That’s the other reason I came. Dumbledore is setting a trap.”

Harry stopped, frozen in place for a moment before turning back to Remus. “He set a trap?”

“While your students have been either unable or unwilling to even speak of the Portkeys,” Remus explained, “Dumbledore quickly figured it out and began confiscating the used necklaces to study. He informed the Order that he is reasonably certain you are tracking the use of the Portkeys, so plans were set up to spring a trap on you. The moment you appear he will activate anti-Apparation and anti-Portkey wards.”

Peering at the flashing name on the map, Harry’s anger grew. “I imagine Hermione jumped at the chance to help,” he muttered to himself before turning back to Remus and stating, “If I don’t show, won’t he suspect a leak in the Order?”

Remus nodded his head slowly. “Yes, that is likely.”

“Right, so I’ll be back in a minute then,” Harry said.

“Wait!”

“We need to keep suspicion off you in the Order,” Harry stated exasperatedly. Remus sighed heavily, and Harry knew he had won. “I’ll be careful, I promise. Now just wait right there.” He Apparated into an alley several houses down from Hermione’s and quietly snuck towards the opening to get a look at the Granger house. He felt only one magical presence in the area, and it was one he recognized well. Harry shook his head, not believing that Dumbledore had not brought any backup. Did the old man already forget Harry’s escape from his office?

Harry released a sigh and walked out from the alley and down the sidewalk towards the house. He needed Dumbledore to at least see him here before Harry escaped again. As Harry drew closer, he felt a large concentration of magic surrounding the Granger’s house and property. At the edge of the property he felt what he believed to be a Muggle Obfuscation Charm to deter any Muggles from taking notice of anything going on. The house, however, had a whole bevy of spells around it. Harry paused to get a feel for the magic and realized that Hermione’s home had been warded into a virtual prison. As soon as he strolled in, he had no doubt it would go into lockdown.

Sadly shaking his head, Harry paused outside the front of the house just inside the Obfuscation Charm and stood facing the front doors. “I know you’re in there,” he called loudly. “I’m not walking into your trap, so you might as well come on out.” He waited a long moment, but the headmaster made no move to reply. “I know it’s you, Headmaster.”

“Harry,” he stated while raising both his hands at his side to show they were empty. “Please, I would just like to talk.”

Harry could not believe his audacity. “Oh really? You just want to talk? I suppose you’d just like me to walk on in and sit down for some tea? I expected better from you, Professor. Did you think I wouldn’t notice all the wards just waiting to be activated on the house? I’d ask you to stop wasting both of our time, but I somehow doubt you’ll listen. So I’ll just say good day.” With that stated, he Disapparated.

“How did it go?” Remus immediately asked.

Harry turned towards him and waved him off. “Fine. He didn’t even bring backup. He must have been so sure I’d just run into the house without any thought. I called him out on the trap and politely asked him to stop wasting both of our time, then left.”

Remus shook his head. “Well, I’m glad you’re all right.” Gesturing towards the map on the wall, he said, “When did you put this together?”

“Last couple weeks of term,” Harry stated, walking towards the map. “I told you I was planning on giving all my students Portkeys?” He turned back and, at Remus’s nod, continued. “When I was creating them, I had this idea,” he waved his arm across the map. “It shows me where each Portkey is and who is holding it. I spent the first few days of vacation tracking them down and making note of where I could Apparate in. When a Portkey is used, an alarm goes off to let me know and that name flashes on the map. Tells me where the attack is. Sometimes I make it there on time to find the Death Eaters. Sometimes I don’t.”

Remus heaved a defeated sigh and softly said, “Tell me what happened.”

Harry nodded his head, gestured Remus to have a seat on the sofa, and sank into his armchair. Remus perched himself on the front of the sofa cushion with his elbows on his knees as Harry recounted the attacks that had occurred thus far. When he was finished, Harry asked, “Do you know if she was all right – the woman I took to St. Mungo’s? And the students?”

“Your students are all fine,” Remus quickly assured him. “They and their families are currently staying in guest rooms at the castle. Ms. Clark was both relieved and worried to hear that you had taken her mother to St. Mungo’s. As for her condition, I’m uncertain. From what Albus said, she had not yet woken when he went to check on her. Given the exposure to the Cruciatus Curse, they cannot be certain of her state of mind until she wakes, and they are in no hurry to speed up the process. The more rest she’s allowed, the better her chances.”

Harry nodded his head distractedly, hoping she would be all right. He could not help but wonder how long she had been tortured before his arrival. “You did all you could for her,” Remus said, apparently guessing the direction of his thoughts. “It’s certainly more than any of us were able to do.” He leaned forward and placed his hand on Harry’s knee. “Listen Harry, I want you to know that I’m proud of you, for everything you’ve done. I know it hasn’t been easy for you. You don’t have to do it alone anymore, though. You said you created an alarm on that map; how does that work exactly?

“Well, it makes a loud beeping noise in the house, but I keyed it into this necklace.” He reached into his shirt to pull out the cord. “It heats up when the alarm goes off. Nothing too fancy, but it’s discrete in case I’m around people.”

“I want you to make me one,” Remus said, his voice brooking no room for disagreement.

Harry nodded his head having expected the request. “It’ll only take a moment.” He conjured a necklace and started adding the spells to link it to the alarm. When the last spell was added, he handed it to Remus saying, “It’ll heat up when the alarm is going off. I can take you around to the different houses so that you’re familiar enough to Apparate.”

“Why don’t we wait on that? Tonks is free tomorrow afternoon,” Remus stated as he donned the necklace cord.

“And you want to save me the trouble of doing the rounds twice,” Harry finished for him. “You’re that sure she’s willing to go behind Dumbledore and the Order for me?”

“She’ll do what she thinks is right,” Remus replied. “She joined the Order despite working for the Ministry.”

“I hope you’re right,” Harry muttered, rubbing his hand tiredly down his face. “To be honest it’ll be nice to have you and hopefully Tonks helping. I didn’t expect the attacks to be so frequent and focused. To top it off, I haven’t been sleeping well. At least I wasn’t.”

Remus perked up at this. “What do you mean?” he queried.

“Ah, well, I sort of spent the night with Ginny a couple days back,” Harry sheepishly admitted.

“At the Burrow?” Remus questioned in shock. Harry nodded, and Remus let out a low whistle. “You sure like to play with fire, Harry.”

“I know,” Harry ground out. “I just had to see her, and when she noticed how exhausted I was…”

“She tucked you in,” Remus inserted with a teasing smirk.

“Something like that,” Harry said, smiling wistfully. “It’s the first full night sleep I’ve had in a long time.”

“And here I am interrupting your sleep,” Remus rebuked himself.

Harry waved his hand dismissively. “I slept fairly well last night. The battles just took a bit out of me, so I took a short nap. Had I slept much longer I might not have been able to sleep tonight. Besides, the alarm would have woken me up anyway.”

“I need to get going,” Remus said a moment later. He fingered the charmed necklace cord and added, “If this goes off again before tomorrow, give me at least a couple minutes to try to meet you here before you go running off, will you?”

Harry nodded his head and bid Remus goodbye. As Remus reached the door, however, a thought occurred to Harry. “Remus?”

Remus turned with his hand still on the door knob. “Yes, Harry?”

“You still have that motorcycle Sirius left me?”

******

Harry soared high above Serpentine Lake, reaching out in all directions with his magical senses. He was not due to meet them for another fifteen minutes, yet it appeared as if they had already arrived. That is unless another pair of magical folk had decided to spend a day amongst the Muggles in Hyde Park.

Winging his way towards the two, he focused in his sharp gaze to confirm their identities. Satisfied, Harry flew to the other side of the lake and touched down amidst the cover of a thick set of trees and reverted to human form. Stepping out onto the path, Harry set off at a brisk jog. Though the purpose of this trip was the meeting to come, he was not about to let a beautiful day at an equally beautiful park go to waste.

By the time he made his way around the elongated body of water, he was running a few minutes behind schedule. The two were sitting at a bench seemingly people watching, though Harry suspected they were specifically watching for only one: him. It was Tonks who noticed him first, blue-haired for the occasion. An elbow into the wolf’s side brought his attention to bear on Harry as he slowed down to a walk and approached their bench.

“Fancy meeting the two of you here,” Harry greeted with a warm smile.

“Indeed, what a wonderful coincidence,” Remus agreed, standing up to greet him with a handshake.

“Tonks, you look lovely,” Harry stated as she too stood. “Come give your old friend a hug.” He opened his arms and stepped towards her, only to meet the resistance of her hands on his chest.

“Fat chance, Harry,” she replied cheekily. “You stink.”

“Undone by my thirst for exercise,” he declared dramatically. “What do you say, Tonks? Want to trail after me for another turn around the lake? For old time’s sake?”

The woman rolled her eyes at him as Remus chuckled. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, Harry. I seem to recall having to listen to her complain about having to chase after you underneath that cloak, trying to remain invisible to you and anyone else who might be around.”

“I certainly won’t be missing that job this year,” she readily agreed. In an instant, though, the easy-going smile faded. “You could have told me, you know. Rather than fighting me and letting me think you were just trying to lull us into a false sense of security.”

Harry sighed. “I didn’t like having to lie to you, but I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t tell Dumbledore. It was easier to work around your mistrust than risk him finding me out.”

She nodded. “I know. You’re right, but I don’t have to like it.”

“Fair enough.”

Remus glanced around before turning to Harry. “Should we really be talking in the open like this?”

Harry smirked. “I put up some Notice-Me-Not charms. That should be more than enough for the Muggles. There aren’t any other wizards or witches here.”

“How can you be sure?” Tonks questioned.

Harry’s smile widened. “Trust me.”

She rolled her eyes. “Trust me,” she returned challengingly.

Harry lifted his eyebrows and studied her intently. If he wanted her trust, he would need to show some trust in return. That was fair. Denying her that trust now could very well hurt whatever chance he had in gaining her as an ally. He chanced a glance over at Remus to find the man watching him curiously. Turning back to Tonks he asked, “Can I trust you?” When she opened her mouth to reply, he held up a hand. “Think about it for a second. Can I really trust you? Will you help me, work with me, even if it goes against Dumbledore’s direct orders?”

That brought her up short, and she closed her mouth with a snap. She turned to Remus, her gaze lingering for a long moment. He returned her gaze stoically, seemingly unwilling to influence her decision in any way. Turning back to Harry, she spoke. “I like you Harry. I think you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. When Dumbledore says you’re important to this war, I believe him. He says keeping you safe is critical, and I believe that too.” She paused for a short moment, and Harry barely dared to breathe, wondering what he was going to do when she told him that she would not go against Dumbledore’s orders.

“But then I’ve seen you fight. It always struck me as suspicious that someone so young could handle himself so well in a duel. That’s half the reason I was so apprehensive of Jim – you. Things didn’t add up, and you were clearly hiding something. But Remus trusted you, and you’re good. Too good to refuse help from. If I thought for a second you weren’t taking the threat seriously or that you weren’t ready for it, I’d be the first to drag your arse back to Dumbledore. But now I see what he meant when he told us how important you are to the war.” Her hair shifted to a bright pink as she spoke, making Harry doubly glad for the Notice-Me-Not Charms he had put up. “I think he still sees you as the boy that needs his protection, but seeing you fight, you can clearly handle yourself – better than most of the Order even. You should be working with the Order, not against it, and I think he’ll see that eventually. Until he does, though, you can count on me.”

Harry smiled at her, feeling a knot of tension unclench from his stomach. “Thanks, Tonks. That means a lot to me.” Turning his head back and forth between the two of them, Harry made a quick decision. “Now that we have that squared away, I think a change of venue is in order. Remus, you know the way. Give us a minute while I fill Tonks in.”

Remus’s eyebrows shot up. “You don’t mean…?”

Harry just winked at him as he turned to Tonks and took hold of her arm. Without warning, he dual-Apparated Tonks to a small pocket of his front lawn just outside the Fidelius Charm but still inside most of the wards.

“What the hell?” Tonks swore, as she turned around to survey the area. “Where are we?”

“Tonks, calm down and pay attention,” Harry stated forcefully. He continued more softly, “Harry Potter lives at 165 Magpie Lane.”

“Huh?” She gasped as the knowledge of his secret caused his home to appear before her out of seemingly nothing.

“Welcome to my home,” Harry said, ushering her forward.

“How did you…?” Tonks began but was interrupted by the pop announcing Remus’s arrival. She spun on her heel to face him and demanded, “Did you have something to do with this?”

He rubbed the back of his neck as he responded, “Well, I did help him purchase the house.”

“But where did you learn to do a Fidelius?” she asked in frustration.

“I didn’t,” he said simply. “Like I said, I did all the legwork for the purchase, but Harry did all of the warding including the Fidelius.”

As she turned back to him, she asked in a defeated tone, “How?”

Shrugging, Harry replied. “I’ve been planning for this since last summer. I learned how to do the Fidelius from a book in my parents’ vault. The other wards I got from a variety of sources.” He shrugged again. “Shall we go inside?”

He led them straight to the map. “Is that what I think it is?”

“That would depend on what you think it is,” Remus softly replied from her side.

Walking right up to the map, she traced her fingers over a few of the names before turning to Harry. “How does it work?”

“The charms are tied into the Portkeys I gave all my students,” he explained. “You know about those, I assume?” She nodded. “Well, this,” he gestured to the map, “shows me where they all are. When one of the Portkeys is activated, an alarm sounds, and the name starts flashing. I Apparate nearby and make sure nobody was left behind.”

“And pick fights with Death Eaters,” Remus inserted with just the slightest hint of reproach in his tone.

“Yes, well,” Harry replied. “Can’t just let them walk away, can I?”

Harry glanced back to Tonks who was shaking her head. “This is brilliant,” she said. “I can’t believe we never thought of something like this for the Order. Or the Ministry.”

“Well, I have the Marauders to thank,” Harry informed her. “It was their map that gave me the idea.”

“Remus told me about that,” she commented. “Does it really show you where everyone is in the castle?”

Harry nodded. “It’s a right useful bit of parchment to be sure.”

At Remus’s prompting, Harry explained his mobile addition to the alarm and, rather than make another necklace cord for her, applied the charms to a necklace she already wore. Once the charms were complete, Remus asked, “So how about taking us on the rounds then?”

After he Apparated them outside the first house, Remus pulled a camera out of his robes. “Not all of us have Occlumency to help us recall our memories,” he explained to Harry’s raised brow.

“Oh just admit it; your memory’s failing you, old man,” Tonks interjected playfully.

Harry smirked as Remus feigned outrage and watched the two for a moment before clearing his throat loudly. “If you children are quite finished, we have plenty more houses to visit.” They both stuck their tongues out at him at the exact same moment, and Harry burst out laughing. “What have I gotten myself into?”

They made quick work of it, moving from house to house and staying only long enough for Remus to take his pictures. Harry was surprised to find that it worked much like a Muggle instant camera, immediately expelling the photos, which Remus then marked with the appropriate student’s name. When they arrived back at Harry’s home, the three agreed to meet at the map at the next alarm.

Remus gave him a wan smile before leading Tonks out, who gave Harry a cheery wave saying, “See you – hopefully not too soon.”

******

Albus sighed wearily to himself as he settled in an armchair allowing his gaze to wander around the dark lounge of the Black ancestral home. While Molly and the children had done wonders in cleaning the place, it still retained its grim and gloomy appearance. Pulling out a pocket watch, he confirmed with a glance that he was right on time. Shaking his head to himself, he knew he should not be surprised. When was a Weasley ever not running behind? Except young Percival, of course. Just the same he was anxious to get this meeting under way. He had intended to hold this meeting yesterday after his failed attempt to speak to Harry, but he was unable to make the time for it.

That was not entirely true, though. He had been busy, of course, but this was far more important than any of the other pressing matters that required his attention. Indeed, this meeting was absolutely critical, and he dreaded hearing their response. He could only hope they would see eye to eye with him on this matter. Molly and Arthur were both reasonable people, but when it came to their children…

His thoughts were interrupted as the couple in question tentatively pushed open the door before walking in. “Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Dumbledore stated while surveying the couple before him.

“Of course, Albus,” Molly replied, apprehensive worry etched clearly on her face.

“What is it you wanted to speak with us about?” Arthur asked, his calm demeanour contrasting his wife.

“Please, have a seat,” he replied, gesturing to the pair of chairs in front of him. As the two parents moved to do just that, Dumbledore considered how to broach this very sensitive subject. “As you learned in the Order meeting yesterday, not only has Harry supplied his students with illegal Portkeys, he is also tracking their use in order to initiate confrontations with Death Eaters. Even more disturbingly, he appears to be working completely alone. Regardless of his abilities, I do not think I have to tell you the level of danger this places him in.”

“Have you any leads on where he is?” Molly interjected hopefully.

“Alas, I do not,” he answered. “Which is the reason I asked you here today. What I am about to propose to you, I do with great reluctance. It is not a path I would choose to take if given other options, but after learning of Harry’s appearance in St. Mungo’s yesterday morning, it is clear that time is of the essence. Any avenue available to us must be explored.”

“Of course, Albus,” Arthur inserted. “Nobody wants to see Harry’s safety ensured more than Molly and I.”

Albus nodded his head. “Indeed.” He paused a moment to collect his thoughts before proceeding. “You have raised suspicions that your daughter may know more about Harry’s whereabouts than she has let on, and, in truth, I suspected the same. While she has denied any knowledge of Harry’s summer activities, I believe her loyalty to Harry would preclude any demands we might make of her.” Expelling a long breath, he decided to delve into his request. “Which is why I have asked you here to seek your permission to question your daughter again and, presuming she once again denies any knowledge, perform Legilimency on her to verify the veracity of her claims.”

“You want to what?” Molly demanded hotly, rising from her chair.

Arthur caught her arm and, with only a look, convinced her to return to her seat. “To be clear, Albus, you wish to break into our daughter’s mind to retrieve any information she might have about Harry?”

“Passive Legilimency will allow me to determine whether or not she speaks the truth and would not intrude upon her thoughts,” he replied carefully. “In the event that she is indeed hiding something, then yes, I would need to venture into her mind to retrieve what information she possesses.” Holding up a hand to stall any interruptions, he continued, “Performed by a skilled practitioner, Legilimency is typically undetectable to one without any training in Occlumency. It is likely that your daughter would be completely unaware of any intrusion into her mind.”

“Likely?” Arthur asked. “You mean to tell me you are not sure?”

He tilted his head forward slightly in a nod. “There are some with a natural affinity toward the mental arts who have been able to detect psychic intrusions without any training. Such gifts are uncommon but not unheard-of.”

“Would it hurt her?” Molly asked in a soft yet resolute voice.

“No,” Albus replied. “If she detected the intrusion, it might cause her to panic, but Legilimency does not inflict any physical pain.” He noticed Arthur’s eyes narrow slightly at his words, but he said nothing.

“You have no other leads, Albus?” Molly asked, her voice close to breaking.

For a long moment Albus was silent. He spread his hands open and looked at the two imploringly. “I would not even consider this course of action were there any other avenues available to me. We are no closer to finding him now than when he first disappeared. Our only other option is to stake out the homes of his students, but we would need to allow Death Eater attacks to proceed unhindered to guarantee Harry’s appearance, and that is not something I am willing to do. In all likelihood, even if we managed to confront Harry this way, he would simply return to wherever it is he is currently dwelling the moment he caught wind of any of us. As long as his residence remains hidden from us we have no hope of keeping him safe.”

The couple shared a long look before Arthur turned to him and asked, “May we have a moment to discuss it in private?”

“Of course,” Albus agreed, standing from his seat. “I think I’ll have a cup of tea in the kitchen. Please join me whenever you are ready.” He walked out of the parlour and down to the kitchen, opting not to sit. He poured a steaming cup of tea and took a small sip before placing the cup on the counter and beginning to pace the narrow confines of the room. He was at his wit’s end and was not sure what he would do should the couple refuse his proposal. He was not lying when he said this was their only available option at the moment.

He feared that every minute that Harry remained missing would ruin them. Several members of the Order were impressed with Harry’s proactive approach to the war. Even he had to admit the young man had surprised him, but he held onto no illusions. Tom was a brilliant strategist second to no one. Harry might have won a few battles, but it was only a matter of time before Tom managed to turn that around to spring a trap on Harry. It was absolutely imperative he find Harry immediately.

His thoughts were interrupted as the door opened and the two Weasleys walked into the kitchen. He hardly dared look at their faces fearing what he would find there, but he needed to know. As he looked up, Molly’s face was filled with worry. Arthur’s, on the other hand, was unreadable as he stared at Albus unflinchingly. “I want you to use Legilimency on me,” he stated.

Albus felt his eyebrows rise at the unexpected request and peered over his spectacles at the man. “Pardon?”

“If we are to allow you to use it on our daughter, I would like to ensure that it is something I would find acceptable to be performed on her,” he said unemotionally.

Albus nodded. “If you are sure…” Arthur nodded in reply. “Very well. I will ask you a series of questions. I would like you to lie to me; meanwhile, I shall learn the true responses from your mind. Are you ready?”

At Arthur’s nod, he began. After a series of inconsequential questions, Albus retreated from Arthur’s mind and repeated back what he had learned from the Weasley patriarch’s thoughts.

“Did you detect my intrusion?” Albus asked.

The man shook his head. “Even knowing you were doing it, I couldn’t feel a thing.” He looked over at his wife, and they shared a conversation solely with their eyes before Arthur turned back to him. “Very well. You have our consent.”

Albus released a deep breath. “Thank you, Arthur, Molly.”

******

“Ginny, dear,” her mum’s voice drifted up the stairs. “Can you please come down to the kitchen?”

Sighing, Ginny shut her book and headed down the stairs wondering what her mother wanted now. She was only mildly surprised to find not only her mother and father but also the headmaster gathered in the Burrow’s kitchen. The headmaster was seated at the head of the table while her parents stood closely together at the counter.

“What is it you wanted, Mum?” she asked, though she had a very strong suspicion it was not her mother she was here for. It would appear she was in for another round of interrogations.

“The headmaster wishes to ask you a few questions,” her mother replied.

“Please be as honest as you can be,” her father implored her.

She nodded at her parents before turning her attention to the headmaster. “Please, have a seat,” he said in a kindly voice.

Ginny did as requested, leaving one chair between her and the professor.

“Harry Potter appeared yesterday morning in St. Mungo’s.” Ginny sat rigidly in her seat, fear and worry blossoming in the pit of her stomach. “He was bloody and clearly injured, carrying the unconscious mother of one of your classmates.” The fear that had gripped her eased slightly. If he was well enough to carry someone into the hospital, he could not have been that bad off. “He left the hospital without receiving any medical attention in spite of the pleas from the healers and is once again missing.” Ginny let out a deep breath. She was worried for Harry, of course, but she knew that Harry was capable of healing most normal injuries. She was confident he could take care of himself.

Tilting his head down and looking at her from over his half-moon spectacles, Dumbledore continued, “I was hoping that, in light of Harry’s injured state, you might be more motivated to remember anything Harry may have told you prior to his disappearance that would help us locate him to ensure he receives the medical care he requires.”

Ginny shook her head and adopted her best regretful look. “I’m sorry, Headmaster,” Ginny replied, and as she did so, she felt a presence probing her Occlumency shields. She narrowed her eyes and glared at the headmaster. She reinforced her shield and pushed against the presence until she felt it vanish. The headmaster’s eyes widened in shock. “That’s not very polite, Headmaster,” Ginny commented icily.

“What do you…?” her mother started to ask, but Ginny did not hear the rest, for the headmaster’s presence stabbed suddenly at her mind. She barely flinched in her seat as she poured all of her attention into stopping the attack. She was prepared when she felt a second presence strike at another area of her shields. The headmaster was more skilled at this than Harry, but it had been weeks since Harry had been able to get past her defences.

A moment later she was stupefied when a third presence appeared, and her momentary shock was enough for the headmaster to break through her outer defences. She felt him glance at and discard several memories as he pushed further into her mind. A feeling of rage and fear surged within her, and, without conscious thought, she thrust her hand at the headmaster and blasted the man clear out of his seat. “How dare you!” she screamed. “You’re no better than Voldemort! When he failed he resorted to the Cruciatus Curse; you want to subject me to that too? Because it’s going to take a lot more than that to get me to betray Harry to you.”

She dimly heard her mother gasp at the casual mention of Voldemort and her brief time in captivity, but she was too enraged to pay any attention to it. Dumbledore struggled into a sitting position against the far wall, a wary, defeated look etched into his features. “You said she wouldn’t feel a thing,” her mother muttered.

It took a moment for the words to penetrate into her mind, and as soon as they did, she spun to her parents. “You knew?” she demanded. “You let him try to – to rape my mind?”

“Ginny…” her father began, taking a tentative step forward.

“Please do not blame them,” the headmaster’s voice interrupted sounding weaker than she had ever heard it.

Turning back to the man, she ground out between clenched teeth, “Get out.”

“Ginny,” her mother’s voice took on a pleading quality.

“No!” she shouted, shooting her parent’s a quelling look. “It’s one thing to have a Dark Lord try to force his way into my mind. But you,” she said, turning back to the headmaster. “I should be able to trust you. You…”

A loud bang interrupted her as the back door slammed open. She turned to the source of the noise and immediately lost the train of her thoughts.

“Ginny!” Harry’s voice called wildly as he stormed into the kitchen. Spotting her, he frantically rushed towards her and enveloped her in a tight, desperate embrace. “You’re okay,” he murmured into her hair.

“Harry?” she asked him as she reluctantly separated herself from his arms. “Of course I’m okay. What are you doing here?”

“I don’t know,” he replied seeming to only now become aware of his surroundings and the others in the room. “I just felt like something was wrong, that you were in trouble.” As his eyes locked onto the headmaster, who was slowly rising into a standing position, he took a more defensive stance and held out one arm in front of them as he backed her up until she was against the wall. “What’s going on here?”

“The headmaster decided to try to break into my mind,” Ginny told him, anger and hurt creeping back into her voice. He looked back at her quickly before returning his gaze to the old wizard. “And my parents gave him their permission to do it.”

Harry’s head spun abruptly towards her parents. “How could you?” he asked them, his shock evident. “After everything – the diary and a few weeks ago – how could you do that to her?”

With Harry here, Ginny could feel her anger and energy rapidly depleting. She just wanted out of there. She gripped his shoulders tightly and whispered to him, “Take me home, Harry.”

He kept his eyes on the headmaster as he turned his head toward her as if seeking confirmation. “Please,” she murmured.

Nodding his head, he began to walk slowly toward the door, holding one arm out threateningly towards the headmaster. She turned her gaze to her parents as she followed him, keeping one hand on his shoulder.

“Harry, Miss Weasley,” Dumbledore entreated softly, making no move to stand in their way.

“Where are you going?” her mum asked.

“Home,” she replied simply.

“But you are…” her mother responded, shaking her head in disbelief.

“Doesn’t feel like it at the moment,” she answered starkly.

“Please,” her father and the headmaster both pleaded at the same time.

“I think we’re past the point where either of you has the right to ask anything of me,” she said.

“Young lady,” her mum stated, stepping forward as if to block their path. Ginny whipped her wand out and levelled it at her mother, who froze and backed away into her father, heartbreak clearly etched across her face.

“No, Mum,” she stated simply as they reached the door. “Goodbye.”

As soon as they were out the door a loud meow drew her attention to the side. “Emerald,” she said, scooping up the cat as she trotted over. With Emerald in her arms, they quickened their pace until they passed the threshold of the wards. He drew her into his arms then and, looking up into his questioning gaze, she nodded her head. He squeezed her tightly, and a moment later they appeared outside Harry’s home. Walking inside, Emerald leapt from her arms, and the gravity of the betrayal she felt seemed to fall on her all at once. She knew the headmaster was desperate, but she had not expected…. And her parents – she could not believe….

“Ginny,” Harry whispered, his hand coming to rest on her shoulder. That was all the encouragement she needed to turn into his embrace, the tears finally beginning to fall. His arms once again wrapped around her as he drew her down onto the sofa, and she curled into his embrace, settling on his lap.

******

Harry had no idea how long they stayed there. Ginny had long since run out of tears, but she made no move to get up, and he was content to hold her for as long as she needed. He found he could not quite believe it. He was used to his own family’s constant betrayals, but that was different. They hated him. Her parents loved her, yet they knowingly gave Dumbledore their permission to violate the mind of their own daughter.

He felt guilty. He knew he was not really at fault, but he could not help feeling that way. Had he handled things differently, Ginny would never have been put into that position. He was furious with her parents and Dumbledore. He had not thought Mr. and Mrs. Weasley capable of such a betrayal, regardless of how well-intentioned they may have been. No matter what danger they perceived him to be in, he would never have imagined them doing something like this to their own daughter.

Ginny chose to put him above the demands of her family, and he felt humbled. He knew she loved him, and he did not doubt her love for a moment. When she asked him to take her home, though, and he realized that she meant his home, his heart felt like it would burst. The love he felt and the sadness and anger over what she was going through swirled together almost painfully inside him.

Ginny lifted her head suddenly off his shoulder and leaned back to look into his face. “Can we go for a run?”

“Yes,” Harry replied, the idea immediately taking root in his brain. “That sounds perfect.”

She smiled tremulously and slipped off his lap. As he stood, she looked down at her clothes and then at him. “I don’t have any other clothes.”

“Not to worry,” Harry replied. He waved his hand and transfigured her clothes into what she normally wore during their morning jogs at Hogwarts.

“Thanks,” she replied uneasily. “But you missed something rather important.” Harry frowned at her in confusion as her face began to burn red. “My bra,” she explained. “I can’t run in this one.”

“Oh,” Harry said, feeling the heat in his own face as his eyes glanced down to her chest and then quickly back up to her eyes. “Umm… I don’t know…”

“I should hope not,” she interjected with a short burst of embarrassed laughter. “Unless you’ve been rooting around my drawers.”

Harry could not help the laughter that escaped him as he imagined sneaking into the girls’ dormitory in Hogwarts to rummage through her clothes. “Right, you caught me,” he stated, holding his hands up in supplication. “So which will it be then? The black one? Or maybe the pink?”

“Prat,” she said, swatting at his arm. “Besides, redheads can’t wear pink.”

They stood there for a moment before she sighed and said, “I guess I could give it a shot. I’m going to head into the loo though so that I can see what I’m doing.”

“Okay,” Harry said, nodding. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” she murmured before disappearing behind the closed door.

As the silence pressed around him, Harry felt the mix of emotions once again warring within him. The urge to get out of the house and on the forest path made him fidgety, but it was not long before the door opened and Ginny stepped out. “All set?” he asked hopefully.

“Yep,” she answered. “Let’s go.”

She led him out of this house, but he quickly caught up as they set off in a jog. He led her to the park and set a strong pace which she matched without a word of protest. He focused on the rhythm of his breathing, pushing aside all his anger and resentment. It was surprisingly easy to do. As he looked over at Ginny, he realized that some good had come of it, selfish though it may be to think that way. He hated the way it happened, but he was thrilled to have Ginny there with him. He brushed his arm against hers, and she turned and smiled at him, and it seemed to come easier to her now. He caught and squeezed her hand for just a moment before releasing it.

As they passed a woman jogging in the opposite direction, Harry was suddenly a lot more curious about the bra Ginny was wearing underneath that shirt. Was it like the Muggle sports bra he had just seen that woman wearing? He decided right then and there that he really needed to take Ginny shopping for some Muggle clothes. Well, in reality she would need both wizarding and Muggle clothing if she planned to stay with him for any length of time – or else they would need to pick up her clothes from the Burrow. They would need to talk about that later.

In the meantime Harry picked up his pace a bit, and Ginny sped up to match him. Eventually they slowed down to a cool-down walk, both breathing heavily, though Ginny looked a bit worse off than he felt. “It’s harder to push myself,” she said between deep breaths, “when I’m running on my own.”

“Not getting soft on me, are you?” Harry asked with a grin.

“I thought you liked how soft I am,” Ginny teasingly replied.

Harry was thankful that he was already flushed from their run, but he was even more thankful to see that their run seemed to have helped her as much as it had him. He grasped her hand and brought it to his lips. Placing a kiss on the back of her hand, he said, “I do, and you know that’s not what I meant.”

She smirked and tugged on his hand, forcing Harry to stop and turn towards her. She let his hand go and wound her arms behind his neck as Harry settled his on her hips. As she rose onto her toes, Harry leaned down and captured her lips with his. After only a few seconds, he ended the kiss and leaned his forehead against hers. “If you have enough breath to kiss, then I must not have run you hard enough.”

“Harry?” she asked in a breathy whisper.

“Hmm?”

“Shut up.” With that, she pulled his head back down and recaptured his lips.

A long moment later, a quiet giggle followed by an indistinct voice caused Harry to abruptly pull back. Coming up the path was a woman with two children. Harry felt his face heat up as he found all three faces pointed in their direction. Ginny turned around in his embrace to see what had captured his attention. She gave a slight wave to the onlookers as they walked by, but even as the children waved back, Harry did not move. The children were magical.

It hit him hard that he had let his guard down to the point where two magical people, albeit innocent children, could have snuck within several metres of him without him realizing it. Having Ginny with him was wonderful, but he would need to be extra careful to remain vigilant and not allow himself to be distracted. As the young family passed, Ginny turned around and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” Harry said. When she treated him to a rather stern look, he decided to elaborate. “The two children were magical.”

“Do you think they recognized you?” she asked in alarm.

“I don’t think so,” Harry replied. “The mother was definitely a Muggle, and the older one looked pretty young. Probably hasn’t even started Hogwarts yet. They might not even know they’re magical.”

“Okay,” Ginny responded, drawing out the word. “Then what’s bothering you?”

“It’s just,” Harry began, running a hand through is hair. “I should have noticed them approaching long before they were even visible, but I didn’t. I didn’t realize they were there until I heard one of them laugh.”

Ginny paused with a frown before saying, “And you’re worried that it could just as easily have been Death Eaters or Dumbledore.” It was not a question, and Harry did not respond. “You can’t be perfect, Harry. You can’t expect to be on your guard every second of every day.”

“No,” Harry replied. “But I should be on my guard when we’re out in the open like this. I can relax at home.”

She said nothing else but simply grasped his hand and resumed walking. It was not until they made it back inside the wards of his home that she spoke up. “So what about me?”

“What about you?” Harry asked in confusion.

“Well why should you be the only one responsible?” Ginny queried. “I didn’t notice anybody approaching us either.”

“That’s different,” Harry countered.

“How so?” she challenged.

“I can sense magic and magical people; you can’t,” Harry replied simply.

“True,” she agreed. “But that doesn’t mean you’re the only one responsible for being alert.”

“I know that,” he admitted. “I feel responsible, though. I mean, you wouldn’t be here if not for me. If anything were to happen to you…”

“I can take care of myself, Harry,” Ginny inserted softly. “You’ve seen to that.”

“I know,” he said with a sigh. “It just worried me that I was so easily distracted.”

“You mean I’m a distraction,” she clarified.

“I don’t mean it to sound like that,” Harry said. “I’m happy you’re here. For Merlin’s sake, I couldn’t even last a week without going to see you at the Burrow despite the risk of getting caught. We just need to be careful not to get too carried away out there,” he said, sweeping his arm in a wide arc toward the street. “In here we’re safe. Out there, we need to be more careful. I know I’m being paranoid…”

“No, you’re right,” Ginny interjected, leading him inside the house. “We’re both targets for Death Eaters and the Order now. There’s no telling when or where either might catch up to us.”

“Exactly!” Harry exclaimed, following her into the kitchen. She hopped up and sat on the counter as he grabbed two glasses and filled them with water, handing one to her. “I’m not saying we can’t leave the wards here. We just need to be more careful not to let our guards down when we do.”

“Deal,” she agreed with a sly smirk. “Outside we keep our guards up. Inside we can get carried away all we want.” She plucked his still half-full glass of water out of his hands and put it on the counter beside her. Looking left and right, she said, “Looks like we’re inside the wards now.” Without his realizing it, she had hooked one leg behind his waist and suddenly pulled him towards her.

Harry leaned in, placing his hands on the counter on either side of her. He stopped just a breath away from her lips. “Must be time to get carried away then.”

She pulled his head in and captured his lips in a fiery kiss. Harry soon lost himself in her kiss, his hands wandering up and down her back. He was acutely aware of her leg which was still hooked behind his waist and how close that put them, and he was quite surprised when her other leg wound its way around in kind. Suddenly, he was pulled forward as Ginny lifted her weight onto him, and he stumbled into the counter, bringing him into rather intimate contact with her.

He reluctantly tore his lips away from hers and looked into her eyes. “Ginny…”

She recaptured his lips with hers, effectively silencing him. One arm wound tightly behind his neck as she trailed the other one down his arm. Her legs squeezed tight against him, and he was prepared this time when she pulled herself off the counter again. He straightened up to hold her weight and settled his hands at her hips. Ginny’s hand on his arm had other ideas, however. She took hold of his hand and dragged it down from her hip and placed it directly underneath her, his hand cupping her bum.

Harry’s eyes popped wide open, and his lips stopped moving. Ginny leaned her head back and pointedly glanced down at his other hand which was still resting at her waist and then back to his face with a shy smile. Harry was all too happy to oblige and moved the hand down to her bum, hoisting her back up so that her lips were more or less even with his.

Their eyes met and Harry practically growled as he crushed his lips against hers.

******

Ron shouldered his broom and began walking towards the shed, wondering what had happened to his sister. She was supposed to meet him at the clearing for some Quidditch practice over an hour ago. It was unlike her to miss a chance to get on a broom. He deposited the broom in the shed and proceeded into the house.

“Mum,” he called, frowning when there was no response. He heard a sound in the lounge, so he pushed open the door asking, “Have you seen Gin – what’s wrong?” His parents were sitting together on the sofa, his mum wrapped in his father’s embrace and crying into his shoulder. His mum only sobbed harder at his question, and he felt as if a Bludger suddenly smashed into his stomach as his mind frantically wondered which of his brothers it was. Or Harry. Gods, it could not be Harry. He looked his father dead in the eye and pleaded, “Who is it? Just tell me?”

His father shook his head. “It’s not like that,” he said his voice oddly tight, as if he was barely reining in his own emotions. “It’s your sister. She’s left.”

“Left?” he demanded. “What do you mean left?”

“She’s gone with Harry,” his father answered quietly.

His mum gave another sob and cried, “We practically pushed her out. How could we? My baby, gone!”

Ron stared wide-eyed at his parents, trying to piece together just what had happened in his short absence. “Ginny left to be with Harry?”

“She left with Harry,” his father corrected.

Ron walked over to an armchair and sank down, dropping his head into his hands. After a long moment of silence, he looked back up at his father and asked, “Harry was here?” His father nodded. “Why would he come here? Just what the bloody hell happened?” It was a testament to her preoccupation that his mother did not reprimand him for his language.

“The headmaster came to question Ginny some more about Harry,” his father explained. This was not surprising. Dumbledore had been there several times already for just that purpose. He had questioned Ron a couple times as well, though he knew that Ginny had gotten much worse. “Ginny became…” he paused here for a moment as if searching for the word before continuing, “distressed, and somehow Harry was alerted. He came to check on her, and she left with him.”

Ron frowned at his dad. “That doesn’t make any sense. How would Harry know something was wrong with her, and why would Ginny get so worked up in the first place? Dumbledore’s already questioned her several times.”

“I don’t know how Harry knew,” his dad told him. “The headmaster wasn’t just questioning Ginny.” He paused and ran a weary hand down his face and then let out a heavy sigh. “He was using Legilimency to find out what she knew.”

“And we let him!” his mum shrieked before dissolving into more sobs.

Ron sat back in his chair, stunned. Harry had not talked much about his Occlumency lessons with Snape last year, but from what little Harry had said, having someone in your mind was not a pleasant experience. If Ginny had something to hide, and he assumed she did, it was no wonder she went off. But that did not answer how Harry knew to come, unless Ginny had some way to let him know she was in trouble, perhaps something like the coins they used for the DA.

As the facts of the situation settled in his mind, he nearly swore. He could not believe he had missed the chance to see Harry. There was so much he wanted to say to him. Harry had been so secretive last year, and their friendship had not been the same as it once was. Ron knew he was largely at fault for the distance that grew between them, but he also knew just what it was Harry had been hiding. Part of him resented Harry for hiding it from him. Ron had always stuck by him in the past, so there was no reason for Harry to think he would do otherwise now. But that was Harry for you. He always seemed to think he needed to do things on his own.

Whatever Harry’s reasons, now that Ron knew what it was Harry was keeping from him, he wanted to help Harry and smack him upside the head for thinking Ron would just stand aside while he did all the dirty work. More than anything, though, Ron just wanted his friend back. He only hoped he got a chance to tell Harry that before it was too late.

His dad returned his attention toward comforting his mum, so Ron took the opportunity to slip out of the room. He needed time to think, and more than that he needed someone to talk to. His mind immediately went to Hermione, but he pushed her from his thoughts. She had betrayed Harry and tried to blackmail Ron into joining her. He did not even want to know what she thought about all of this. No doubt she was helping them track Harry down.

He needed someone else to talk to, someone who would understand where Harry was coming from. Grabbing some parchment and a quill, Ron sat down to write.

Fred and George,

You will not believe what’s happened…


******

“Ginny?”

“Mmm?” she murmured sleepily.

“Are you going to stay?” he asked, finding himself dreading the answer more than he had thought he would. “Or will you go back to the Burrow?”

He felt her stir and opened his eyes as she lifted her head off his chest to look into his face. “I’m not going anywhere, Harry.”

“Promise?”

She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his lips. “Promise. Now go to sleep.”

He smiled widely at her as she once again settled against his chest. He squeezed her lightly against him and said, “We’re gonna have to get you some clothes. You can’t keep wearing mine.”

She shifted her head back and peeked up at him with one eye.

“Okay, you can wear my clothes to bed,” Harry conceded, having already admitted how much he enjoyed seeing her in one of his t-shirts and a pair of his boxers. She smirked at him and shifted back into place. “But you are going to need some clothes of your own, and I don’t think going to the Burrow would be wise right now.”

“Don’t have money,” she mumbled sleepily against his chest.

“You do,” Harry argued. “Mine.”

She sighed but said nothing to dispute him.

“I need to meet Fred and George for some training tomorrow,” he told her a moment later. “Do you want to join?”

“’Kay,” was her barely coherent reply.

“I love you, Ginny,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head. Her deep, even breathing was the only sound that met him. He smiled while running a hand through her silky hair and felt sleep begin to tug away his consciousness.

He awoke to find Ginny was already up. He frowned at the empty spot next to him, having looked forward to lingering in bed awhile. Distantly he heard the sound of a pan clanking and could just catch the scent of some sizzling bacon. Rolling out of bed, he stopped by the loo to take care of a few morning ablutions before grabbing a t-shirt and stumbling out of his room while pulling it over his head. Walking into the kitchen, he found Ginny manning the stove.

He leaned against the doorframe and watched her as she moved back and forth between the bacon and an omelette. She was still wearing just his boxers and a t-shirt, and he could not help but admire the view the ensemble provided. She definitely looked much better in them than he did. She turned slightly and nearly jumped out of her skin as she let out a startled yelp. “Merlin, Harry,” she scolded. “You scared me.”

“Sorry,” he apologized as he walked up to her and gave her a quick kiss. “Didn’t know I looked that horrible in the mornings.”

She swatted at him with a nearby towel muttering, “Prat.” Turning back to the stove, she commanded, “Get us something to drink and sit. I’ve got this under control.”

Harry did just that, pouring two glasses of juice and taking a seat, quite content to just sit back and watch her at work, though to be honest he was not paying much mind to what her hands were doing. Instead, his thoughts and eyes were both on her bum and the way it had felt in his hands yesterday. He nearly startled himself with the realization that he could probably touch it all he wanted now. Well, perhaps not all he wanted. But surely after having her place his hands there yesterday, she would not be opposed to him taking the initiative now. She seemed to enjoy it almost as much as he did.

Just as his mind was imagining some other interesting places his hands might eventually be allowed access to, Harry was jolted out of his thoughts with a start as Ginny placed a plate in front of him. “It’s not exactly a culinary masterpiece, but it’ll do,” she stated, looking somewhat fondly at the falling-apart omelette. “What are you smiling about?”

“Huh?” he asked, shaking his head of his earlier thoughts. “Oh, nothing. This looks… well, I’m sure it’ll taste delicious.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re a prat, Harry.” A moment later, she sat across from him at the small table with her own plate and commented, “Keep up that attitude and you’ll see if I ever cook for you again.”

After swallowing a forkful of his omelette, Harry said, “It’s good, really. Thanks for cooking.”

“No problem,” she replied, tucking into her own meal. They ate in silence for a long moment before she asked, “So what have you got planned for the day.”

“Well, I was planning in taking you clothes shopping followed by…”

“Clothes shopping?” Ginny interrupted.

“Yeah,” Harry said in confusion. “We talked about that last night.”

“We did?”

“Mmhmm,” Harry murmured around a mouthful of bacon. Swallowing, he added, “Much as I enjoy you wearing my clothes around the house, you can’t go out in public in that.”

“I don’t remember talking about that,” she muttered to herself.

“Well, you were pretty out of it at the time,” Harry commented. “Must’ve been half asleep.”

“So what else did you have me agreeing to while I was half asleep?” she questioned coyly.

“Oh, nothing much,” Harry stated. “You agreed to join in training with Fred and George today, and you offered me full access to your bum any time I please.”

“I did, did I?” Ginny inquired sceptically.

“Yep,” he replied after swallowing his last bite of food. Sending Ginny a wink, he picked up his plate and brought it over to the sink. He was just turning on the tap when he remembered himself and simply cast a cleaning charm on the dish and his fork. He put them away and turned back to see Ginny had finished her meal. Taking her dish from her, he cleaned it and turned to put it away as well.

“I don’t suppose that deal goes both ways, does it, Mr. Potter?” Ginny asked as he felt her slide right up behind him.

“Hmm?” he asked just as he felt her pinch his bum. “Hey!” he shouted, and the plate made a loud clanging as he dropped it on top of the pile. Turning around, he eyed his smirking girlfriend as she slowly backed away from him and said, “Watch it, Weasley. I may just have to punish you for that.”

“Oh?” she teased. “What did you have in mind?”

Smiling wickedly, Harry slowly walked up to her, their eyes locked together. He reached out with one hand and gripped her waist as he brought his other up to her side and started to tickle.

“No!” she screamed amidst a burst of laughter. Breaking away from his grasp, she ran for the living room.

Harry was in hot pursuit. He leapt over the back of the sofa, managing to catch her around the waist. He dragged her with him as he fell back against the cushions, his hands immediately snaking their way to her sides which were extremely sensitive.

Howling in laughter she protested, “Stop!” He did not. “Harry, please!”

He stopped tickling her but held her down firmly on top of him. “Have you learned your lesson?”

She turned in his arms until she was straddling his waist. “Of course,” she replied.

“And what did you learn?”

She leaned in close so that her lips were a mere breath away. “Never let your guard down.”

With no other warning than that, she attacked his sides. Harry adopted a bored expression as he surveyed her efforts. She looked up at him and frowned, then reached back and tried the back of his knee. He raised his eyebrow in challenge. She dove off him and onto the ground, grabbing his foot and going to work. He had to stifle a slight urge to chuckle but was able to suppress it in time and resumed his blank mask. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“That’s not fair!” she complained, giving his thigh a light slap. “You have to be ticklish somewhere.”

“Do I?” he asked, giving her a wicked grin. “Well, I reckon you’ll have to keep searching then.”

“Who needs to search?” she asked, matching his grin. She raised one hand and pointed it at his chest, intoning, “Rictumsempra!”

He had no time to shield himself as the spell impacted his chest. Harry immediately broke out into a fit of laughter that left him struggling to catch his breath. After a long moment he regained his bearings enough to summon his magic to cancel the spell. “Not fair, Weasley, using tricks I’ve taught you.”

“At least that will work on you,” she said, ignoring his statement. “I’ll just have to slip that spell in any time I try to tickle you. Now all this laughter’s made me have to pee.”

Harry laughed as she jumped up and ran off into the loo. After hearing the toilet flush, she called out. “I’m going to shower.”

Shrugging to himself, Harry settled in with a book until he could have his turn in the shower.

******

“What do you think?” Harry asked.

She regarded her reflection in the mirror critically. It was beyond strange to see the brunette hair and tan complexion. Her freckles were nowhere to be seen. Staring out at her was an entirely foreign woman. “I hardly recognize myself,” she commented barely above a whisper.

“Good,” Harry stated, his voice jarring her out of her musings.

She turned to him and was shocked to see a stranger’s face. “You startled me,” she said, holding a hand to her chest.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said with a quirky smile.

“I thought we’d go shopping for some Muggle clothes first,” Harry said a moment later.

“Then why…?”

“We need to Apparate into Diagon Alley and go through the Leaky Cauldron,” he explained. “We’ll ditch the disguises outside the store,” he continued, “and put them back on before returning to the Alley.”

“Okay,” she agreed as she took his arm. “Let’s do this.”

He smiled at her and led her outside where they Disapparated. They walked through the bustling Leaky Cauldron and stepped out onto a busy sidewalk of Muggle London. “Where to?”

“This way,” Harry said, taking her hand and leading her down the street. “It’s just a few blocks away.”

As they approached the department store, they ducked into an alley to dispel their disguises. As they emerged Ginny asked, “This is where you did your shopping last summer?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s massive and literally has everything you could need.”

“And this is where you met your – er – friend, right?” she inquired, her curiosity getting the better of her.

“Hmm? Oh, you mean Jessica? Yeah, she helped me pick everything out,” he commented. “I was absolutely clueless. I wonder if she’s still working here.”

Ginny could not help but find his frowning face adorable in that moment. She gave his hand a squeeze and interlinked their fingers. She tried to suppress her nervousness at the possibility of meeting the girl he had gone out with last summer. She was just being silly, really. It was not as if she was worried that he would leave her for this Jessica. But he had taken her out on a date, so he must have seen something in her. Ginny could not help but feel gratified that he had not even considered that they might bump into her.

Sure enough, they were in the store no more than two minutes before a female voice exclaimed, “Harry?” As she turned to the voice, she could easily see why Harry had been attracted to her. “It is you!” A very pretty girl gave a bemused-looking Harry a quick hug. Harry barely had time to enclose his free hand around her back before she was pulling back. “How are you? Gosh, it’s been so long. And who is this?” she inquired, setting her sights on Ginny. “Wait, don’t tell me. Ginny, right?”

That nearly stopped her thought processes. How did she…? Shaking herself from her thoughts, Ginny extricated her hand from Harry’s and stuck it out for the girl to shake. “Yes, Ginny Weasley. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

After shaking her hand, Jessica turned back to Harry. “Ha! Just a friend indeed,” she crowed, giving Harry a light punch on his shoulder. She turned back to Ginny and in a softer voice, almost as an aside, said, “I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice, when he told me about that dance he was taking you to. Knew he was over the moon about you.”

Ginny’s discomfort seemed to vanish, and she smiled widely, taking an immediate liking to this girl. They exchanged some small talk as Jessica talked about her university, and Harry provided some vague responses to inquiries about his boarding school. After a few minutes, they turned to business, and Jessica led Ginny by the arm into the women’s clothing section with Harry trailing behind. She was certainly enthusiastic about her job; Ginny had to give her that. It was not long before she was ushered into a changing room.

Jessica was in and out constantly bringing new things or taking back her rejections. Harry lounged in an armchair outside the changing room and provided an occasional opinion, but more often than not he appeared lost as she and Jessica discussed different outfits and accessories. The experience left Ginny a bit giddy. She did not normally get excited about clothes shopping, but she did not normally have such an open budget either. It made her feel slightly guilty for treating Harry’s money so lightly, but she quashed the feeling quickly, knowing that Harry would not want her to feel bad about using his money. He was quite adamant on that fact, actually.

A couple hours later, Jessica was ringing them up, and Harry paid what sounded like an obscene amount of money to her for several bags full of clothes. She kept reminding herself that Galleons were worth a lot more than pounds. Even so, she could hardly imagine spending half that amount on something as simple as clothes, but Harry was insistent.

“It was so great to see you again,” Jessica said to Harry as she pulled him into another embrace.

“And it was wonderful to meet you,” she continued, engulfing Ginny in a hug.

She returned the hug. “It was nice to meet you too. Thank you so much for all your help.”

“Oh, it was nothing,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “I hope Harry appreciates some of the other things we picked out,” she whispered with a conspiratory wink.

Ginny blushed. Jessica had sent Harry away for a bit and all but demanded that Ginny buy a few sets of rather risqué underwear to go with her more conventional selections. Her mother would be scandalized, but just the thought of Harry actually seeing her in them sent a thrill coursing through her body. What her mother did not know would not hurt her.

“Now, I expect to see you two again before you disappear to that school of yours,” Jessica stated.

With promises to make time to see her later in the summer, she and Harry left the store and quickly ducked into an alleyway to shrink the packages and resume their disguises. They shared a quick, light lunch at a restaurant they passed on the way to the Leaky Cauldron before heading into Diagon Alley. Their shopping here was much less of an adventure. She picked up only a couple simple robes before declaring herself finished. To be honest, she was never a big fan of a typical witch’s attire. She much preferred Muggle clothing.

As they approached Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Ginny felt a sudden pang of hurt and regret, remnants of her last encounter with her parents. She suppressed the feeling and took heart as Harry gave her hand a slight squeeze, seeming to understand her silent struggle. Fred and George had nothing to do with what happened, but the reminder of family caused an ache inside of her. Throughout everything in her life, her family had always been there, and while she knew they all still loved her, she also knew that most would not support her living with Harry. Except Fred and George. She knew she could count on Fred and George right now, and that gave her the strength she needed to push away those unwanted emotions and open the door to their shop.

“Greetings, and welcome to – Oh, it’s you,” the female worker said, her eyes on Harry before sliding to Ginny. “I suppose you want the twins, then?”

“Yes, please, Cameron,” Harry responded.

“Hold on.” With that she disappeared into the back, leaving her and Harry on their own.

She lifted an eyebrow at Harry who shrugged in response. It would seem this was normal behaviour for the woman. She re-emerged a moment later followed by Fred. “Well, well, who do we have here?” he asked rhetorically. “Got yourself a girlfriend, did you? And you’re including her in your business, no less. Must be pretty serious.”

She rolled her eyes at his antics but refrained from calling him out with the other girl present. Harry spoke up, “Quite. Shall we?” Verbose as always.

Fred gestured with a flourished bow for them to precede him into the back. As soon as the door shut behind them, he said, “So nice of you to join us, ickle Gin-Gin.”

“Our long lost sister!” George exclaimed, rushing into the hallway and embracing her in a hug reminiscent of her mother’s.

“We’re so happy you’re safe,” Fred proclaimed, wiping fake tears from his eyes.

“Had us worried sick, you did,” George continued.

“That’s enough of that,” Ginny interrupted, shrugging free of George. “I’m here to help Harry put you through your paces.”

Two sets of eyebrows rose in reply. They moved into an empty room that Ginny assumed served as their training area as George responded, “Last I checked you’re still underage, Ginnikins.”

“Unless you’ve turned into a wandless wonder like our Harry, here,” Fred input.

Ginny surveyed them both levelly. “What do you think?” she asked.

“You might want to be careful how you answer that,” Harry interjected. “In fact,” he continued, turning towards her after a moment’s pause, “I want to see you take on the two of them on your own.”

“You’re serious, then?” Fred asked.

“Or do you have a second wand?” George added.

Deciding to try going for broke, Ginny built her magic up and extended both arms, willing Stunners to leap out at the twins. Two jets of red light struck true, and her twin brothers were knocked onto their backs unconscious.

Harry let out a long whistle. “Have you been practicing?” he inquired.

Ginny shook her head to clear it of her own surprise. “No,” she responded. She had not really cut loose without a wand since Malfoy manor. She had been rather busy with O.W.L.s afterwards. Plus, with the extra scrutiny on her and Harry in particular, they had cut back heavily on their extracurricular activities.

“Well,” Harry said, as he walked towards her brothers. “Let’s see if you can do that again.” He revived the two of them and helped them onto their feet saying, “What have I told you guys about always being ready?”

Her brothers groaned as they regarded her with a healthy respect for her abilities. “Did we miss the class on wandless magic?” Fred grumbled.

“Don’t think so, brother o’ mine,” George replied, rubbing his backside theatrically. “Think we would have actually shown up for that one.”

“And taken notes too,” Fred agreed with a nod.

“What gives, kiddies?” George asked.

“Where do we sign up for lessons?”

“You don’t have time for wandless lessons right now,” Harry asserted in his professorial tone. “Let’s get you boys up to speed with your wands before we begin worrying about that.”

“You’re the boss-man,” they replied in unison, surprising her. It was not like Fred and George to give in so easily, especially on something that would appeal to their mischievous nature, and she did not doubt that they were considering all the trouble they could get up to – and get away with – if they learned wandless magic.

“So ickle Gin-Gin,” George said.

“Care to try that again?” Fred finished for him.

“I thought you’d never ask.” The battle was on.

She sent a trio of Stunners at George and spun out of the way of a flurry of curses from Fred. George’s shield absorbed all three spells, and she was put on the defensive as his spell-fire joined Fred’s who continued to press his advantage. She held a shield in front of herself for a moment before dropping it during a slight lull and then countering their attacks. With the two of them attacking her, she was forced into constant movement, ducking one spell and springing aside another.

She concentrated all her fire on Fred, not wanting to get too caught up trying to bring down the two of them at once. She forced herself not to hold a shield up for more than a moment, lest she allow Fred time to regroup. As she continued to dodge their attacks, she managed to slowly manoeuvre them until they were very nearly in line with each other. With their spells coming from practically the same direction, they were much easier to dodge, and she was able to step up her own attacks until Fred was no longer able to counter.

After blocking and dodging several spells, he finally faltered and fell to a Petrificus Totalis. Not knowing the rules of this duel, she did not give George a second of peace to attempt to revive his twin. Her casting speed was significantly better than her brother’s, and it was only a short minute later that he fell to a Stunner.

As the spell connected, Ginny bounced on her toes, the adrenalin coursing through her from the thrill of the fight urging her to more action. And it came in the form of a flash of red light from her side. She caught it with a hasty Protego and responded in kind. She may be fast, but Harry was faster. Even with her adrenalin pumping, she could barely keep up with him. It was not more than a minute before she was placed on the defensive. His spells came so quickly, and it was like he could predict where she was going to be before she did.

She would not give up without a fight, though. She dove to her side and tucked into a roll, springing back onto her feet and launching two Stunners before her world went black.

She let out a groan as her eyes fluttered open.

“Are you all right?” Harry’s voice asked. She could hear a note of concern in his tone.

“Fine,” she grumbled.

“Good,” he said. “Because you were incredible.” He was very nearly gushing.

She sat up quickly. “What do you mean?” she asked. “I could barely even get a spell off against you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said dismissively. “That’s the best I’ve ever seen you without a wand. No, I take that back. That’s the best I’ve ever seen you full-stop.”

His words brought her to a halt, and it was only then that she realized the significance of what she had just done. In the heat of the battle, she had not stopped to think about what she was doing. It had not even occurred to her that she had never been able to cast spells so effortlessly without a wand. She had improved a lot over the months, but it always took all her concentration to wield her magic without a wand. Throw her in an all-out battle, and she had trouble keeping a hold on her magic. Until now.

“Can you do it again?” he asked. It was odd to see him so exuberant, and she could feel herself perking up.

“Yes,” she said, rising onto her feet. “Let’s do it again.” She looked around the room and found her brothers were still unconscious. She walked over and revived each of them, wonder overtaking her at the effortless way she was wielding her magic. “Get up boys,” she commanded. “You’re with me this time. It’s time we give Harry a workout.”

Her brothers fanned out on either side of her as she and Harry locked eyes. He wore a small smirk on his face as he taunted, “Think you can take me, Weasleys?”

She and her brothers thought alike, responding only with spellfire. Harry seemed to expect it and easily danced out of the way of the initial barrage. As she and her brothers kept up their assault, Harry continued to duck, dodge, and weave around their spells. He was playing with them. She brought her other hand up and began firing two spells at a time. She was not yet confident enough to attempt different spells in each hand, but right now the spell was not important. She just wanted to hit him.

She was only slightly satisfied to see him begin using shielding charms. If he was done toying around, that meant the attack was coming. He bolted towards George, who barely managed to sidestep and put up a shield as Harry began rapidly firing at him. She knew George would not last long as Harry continued to fire at him while effortlessly blocking Fred’s and her spells with his off-hand. When it looked like George’s shield was beginning to buckle, she Summoned him away from Harry’s spells.

She let go of the spell and sidestepped his incoming body, reaching an arm out to halt his momentum while she put up a shield in front of them as Harry continued to press his assault with the threat, “I’ll get you for that, Weasley.”

Somehow, even with three of them, she knew who that threat was meant for. He kept true to his word too, focusing his considerable attention on her. She really needed to learn how to hold a shield and attack at the same time. Even with her brothers running interference, she was stuck dodging and shielding, hardly ever getting her own shots in at Harry. He simply weathered the storm, and she wondered just how powerful Harry had become. The constant light from the spells dissipating in the barrier around him cast him in an unearthly glow only adding to the image.

She almost did not even see the small ball flying towards her before it hit her in the thigh. Damn, that hurt. She ducked and felt another ball whiz by her head. She swore and jumped as a ball smacked her foot, and it was not until the red light was already upon her that she realized she had let her shield drop, and then she knew no more.

******

To say that Harry was impressed with her performance would be an understatement. While she hid her true abilities from the rest of the student body, Harry knew she was head and shoulders above any other student save himself with a wand. Without the wand, though, she would have struggled against most of her peers – assuming those peers were allowed the use of their wands.

At least that was the case a few weeks ago. Harry was quite certain that was no longer true. She had performed every bit as well as she ever had with a wand, perhaps better, and that performance was no fluke. She repeated it the next day and the day after as well. Needless to say Fred and George quickly developed a healthy respect for her abilities, although they were working with her as often as against her. Harry may not have access to his training dummies anymore, but the three Weasleys proved to be more than adequate replacements.

The only thing they needed was more space, but he was already working towards that end. Unfortunately, expanding space was turning out to be a rather complex bit of magic. He was beginning to see some success, though, and was confident that in a short amount of time he would be able to create an expanded duelling area for their practice.

It was as he was reading up more on the theory behind such magic that he heard the alarm sound. He stood from his chair and strode toward the map as Ginny rushed in at his side. Two names flashed on top of one another: Parvati and Padma Patil. Going against every instinct in his body, he remained standing at the map staring at those flashing names as he waited for Remus and Tonks.

The seconds ticked by into minutes. He knew the odds were good that with two Portkeys in the house they would be able to get everybody out, but that did not stop his mind from conjuring all manner of scenes of torture for the girls and their family. Shaking his head roughly, he said, “That’s it,” and took a step back.

“You can’t go alone,” Ginny protested, grabbing his arm.

Harry turned to face her, frowning. “Why not? I’ve been working alone since this all started.”

“And you’re lucky you’re still alive,” she fired back.

“I’ve worked my ass off,” he nearly shouted. Taking a deep, calming breath, he continued, “Listen, I’ve given them a chance. If they could, they would have come by now or at least sent word.”

“Then let me come with you,” she retorted.

“No!” he replied, staring her in the eye. “You’re not ready.”

“I can help,” she defended, holding out her hands. “I don’t know why it came so suddenly, but it did. The wand doesn’t matter anymore. I can do as well without one as I can with.”

“You’re not ready,” he repeated.

“Harry,” she protested, holding onto his arm.

“We don’t have time to argue now,” he stated forcefully. “I promise we’ll talk when I get back.”

She stared at him for a long moment before finally letting go of his arm. He leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to her lips and murmured, “I love you.” He straightened up and looked down at her for just a moment before Disapparating, barely hearing her as she quietly echoed his words.

He reappeared outside the large Patil home and immediately took stock of the situation. The front door had been blown in, and he could sense three people still in the house. He hoped none were the Patils but quickly hurried up to the entrance in order to find out. He snuck quietly into the foyer and down the small hall, casting a Disillusionment Charm on himself as he approached the trio.

He peeked into the room to find two of the Death Eaters facing him. “He’s here!” one announced, while the other cast some spell with his wand that had no noticeable effect.

Harry silently cursed and ducked back behind the wall as a spell blew a chunk off the frame of the doorway a moment later. Harry cursed his stupidity; he knew the Disillusionment would distort if he moved too quickly. Crouching down slightly, Harry jumped back into the opening firing curses. No sooner did his first spell impact a shield than he suddenly sensed a number of wizards appear outside the house. A moment later, he felt a ripple of magic wash over the area, originating from the third Death Eater in the room.

A bad feeling overtook Harry, and he ducked back behind the cover of the wall to avoid the retaliatory spells of the Death Eaters. He reached for his emergency Portkey, but, as he had suspected, it failed to activate. He had walked right into an ambush, and now he would have to fight his way outside the wards. He took one step back towards the front door when he was thrown violently forward, the wall behind him exploding in a shower of splinters.

Cursing loudly, Harry blocked out the pain and quickly scrambled away on his hands and knees back into the foyer. He could feel two Death Eaters pursuing him and staggeringly dodged their spellfire even as four more approached the front door.

As he regained his bearings, Harry glanced through the gaping hole where the front door once stood and saw a few of the new arrivals approaching. All but one wore masks hiding their identities. “Can itty-bitty Potter come out and play,” the unmasked Death Eater taunted as she threw a Cruciatus through the opening. Harry dodged the spell, his mind whirling and heart beating rapidly in his chest. He knew he was in trouble. If he tried to fight his way through, he would end up surrounded. Spotting his only other option, he ran to the stairs and took them three at a time. He dove for the landing and rolled to the side as several spells flew past, crashing into the wall.

He stood and returned fire with a pair of Blasting Hexes at the throng of Death Eaters, but the spells were shielded as the first of the Death Eaters reached the base of the stairs. “Poor wittle Potter has nowhere to run,” Bellatrix mocked in her sickly sweet voice. “And no wittle doggie to save ‘im.” Harry’s vision blurred in rage as he sidestepped the sickly orange light of a Cruciatus Curse. The Death Eaters were climbing the stairs after him, but he waited an extra moment for Bellatrix to make it up a couple steps before aiming his strongest Exploding Curse on the stairs themselves.

A loud boom sounded, and he was once again knocked off his feet having been too close to the blast. His head smacked harshly against the wall, and he lay dazed for a moment before the adrenaline of the situation got him moving again.

He struggled to his hands and knees coughing from the dust and debris in the air and looked out into the foyer. He squinted his eyes to see through the dust and spied several black-robed bodies amongst the wreckage. Harry stared out at the scene for a moment, his mind feeling sluggish as the realization dawned on him that he may have just killed several of them. Somehow the remorse he expected to feel just would not rise within him. He was spared deeper thoughts on the subject as more Death Eaters rushed into the house.

One of them spotted him, and Harry moved out of their sights cursing as he looked down and realized that his Disillusionment Charm had failed. When had that happened? He entered a bedroom, Padma’s if he had to guess. The bookshelf overflowing with books and lack of frilly, girly things gave it away. Harry shook his head harshly at himself, wincing at the sharp pain the action caused. Now was not the time to lose himself to his musings; he needed to get out of there. He strode to the window and shot a Reducto which sent a spray of glass out into the lawn.

“He’s coming out the window!” a voice shouted, and Harry had to duck a deep purple curse which destroyed half of the window sill.

He could hear shouts from inside the house as well and knew he had only moments before they would corner him in that room. He was reluctant to make his owl form public, but he knew he was in no shape to continue this fight, and there were still several Death Eaters on the property standing between him and freedom. Just as he was about to change, he felt another two wizards appear nearby and heard another shout from outside.

“Reinforcements!”

Harry cursed his luck, but as he heard spells being fired from outside, he chanced a peek and was surprised and relieved to see Remus and Tonks in the distance trading spells with the pair of Death Eaters outside. While they were otherwise occupied, Harry sent a Stunner at each Death Eater and leapt out the window even as he heard a shouted spell from the doorway. The red light of a Stunner sailed over his head as Harry cast Arresto Momentum on himself to slow his descent. As he fell he sent several more spells toward the only still-standing Death Eater on the lawn. He did not see if any of the spells hit their mark before the ground rushed up to meet him.

When he impacted the ground, he fell to a knee and put down his hands, shouting in pain when he came up with a piece of glass imbedded in the palm of his left hand. Harry staggered to the side before he was even consciously aware of the spells firing from the second story window. Several spells impacted the ground he had just been standing on as Harry stared down at his hand. He yanked out the piece of glass, grunting at the pain as he heard Remus shout, “Harry!”

Ignoring the throbbing of both his hand and head, Harry rushed towards his friends who were throwing spells at the Death Eaters in the window. He kept a shield up at his back and dodged a few spells as he stumbled to Remus who ushered Harry behind the cover of a tree.

“Are you all right?” Remus asked, and Harry could hear the concern even through his fuzzy mind.

“Outside the wards,” Harry stated, staggering farther from the house until he passed the edge of the encompassing magic blocking their escape. He turned around and said, “My place.” Without giving them a chance to respond, he Disapparated.

His living room materialized around him in a blur of colour and motion that ended when he felt the front of the sofa impacting his side. He slowly slid down to the ground and winced in pain as his eyes began to focus on the ceiling, trying to determine what he was doing on the ground.

“Harry! Merlin, are you all right?”

Harry sought out the owner of the voice, but his search proved unnecessary when Ginny crouched down behind him, sliding a pillow underneath his head. Her hair cascaded around him as she leaned over him. “Where are you hurt?” she asked. “Your hand!”

“Yeah,” he replied as she gingerly cupped his injured hand in her own. “And my head hurts. And...” He was interrupted by the sound of two sharp cracks.

“Harry we really need to talk about your – what happened?” Remus’s voice asked.

Harry frowned at the question as Ginny responded. “He just Apparated in and toppled right over. He said his head hurts, and he’s got a hole in his hand.” She sounded worried as she looked down on him. Harry caught her eye and offered a slight smile, though the pounding in his head made the action difficult.

“The hand can be fixed easily enough,” Tonks said, kneeling by his side and taking his hand from Ginny. Harry turned his head slightly to look up at her as she waved her wand at his hand. He felt the wound close and the throbbing in his hand ease. “We didn’t see what happened to his head.”

“The wall hit it,” Harry supplied. “Twice,” he added with a grimace.

“He may have a concussion,” Remus stated, standing at his feet.

“What’s the incantation for that?” Tonks asked quietly. Harry frowned at her. “I know we went over that in first aid.”

“Harry has some books on healing,” Ginny stated, standing up and leaving his field of vision. Harry frowned at her departure and belatedly realized she had been running her fingers through his hair. Now that she had stopped, his head pounded even harder, and he groaned as he lifted his hands to his temples.

“I’ll go help her find it,” Tonks said and also stood and walked away.

Remus took her place, kneeling down at his side. He laid his hand on Harry’s shoulder and asked, “Why did you leave without us, Harry? I thought we agreed to work together.” His words were spoken softly, but there was a hard edge to them just beneath the surface.

“I waited,” Harry murmured. “I didn’t know if you’d be able to get away and help, so I waited a few minutes and then left.”

Remus sighed softly. Harry’s head continued to pound, but his thoughts also began to clear.

“We need to work out a way to communicate,” Remus finally stated.

Harry frowned. “It would need to be something relatively inconspicuous, else you wouldn’t be able to do it if you were stuck around others.”

“Got it,” he dimly heard a voice proclaim followed by the approach of rapid footsteps.

He heard Tonks mutter an incantation but did not catch it. Her wand lightly touched his head, and his thoughts suddenly seemed much clearer as though a fog had been lifted from his mind. The pounding in his head also lessened into a dull ache. He smiled up at everyone and said, “Thanks.”

He moved to stand and grabbed Remus’s hastily offered hand. Once on his feet he was urged back into the sofa despite protesting that he was quite fine. Ginny immediately sank onto the cushion beside him, and he slipped an arm behind her, leaning into her.

A heavy silence hung in the air before Ginny finally looked up at him and asked, “What happened?”

“It was a trap,” Harry responded and proceeded to describe the events that followed. His mouth seemed to work on autopilot as his mind lingered on the image of the cloaked bodies littering the foyer following the explosion of the staircase. He could not help but wonder at the faces he would find behind their masks. Were they older, perhaps from the first war, or were they new, younger recruits? Did they have families – children – who would miss them? Were they all willing servants, or were some under the Imperius or some other form of coercion? Harry’s mind was spinning as he came up with more and more scenarios for the people behind the masks.

He felt Ginny squeeze his hand, breaking him from his spiralling thoughts. As he turned towards her she softly asked, “You okay?”

Harry nodded. “Yeah, fine. Just thinking.”

“We still need to work out a way to send messages,” Remus inserted.

Harry turned back to Remus and Tonks, keeping a grip on Ginny’s hand. “We could tie it into the necklaces,” he said. “They’re already tied to the map with a Protean Charm. I can just add a small pendant and make a few small modifications to the spells to allow us to write messages on them. You write on yours, it will appear on the others. But if one of us clears the message, it will clear on all of them.”

“You could signal that you’ve read the message,” Ginny added. “Just add a small mark. For Harry it could be a lightning bolt. Remus could be a moon. Tonks… I don’t know, a smiley face or something.”

Tonks made a twisted face at the suggestion but did not verbally object. “That could work,” Harry said. “The last person to read the message can clear it. Gimme your necklaces, and I’ll start making the changes.”

“How long will that take?” Tonks asked.

Harry raised a brow in question, and Remus put in, “There’s an Order meeting shortly.”

“It won’t take very long,” Harry responded. “Most of the spells are already in place. Just needs a few tweaks. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes for each necklace.”

******

Stepping out of the fireplace, she swiftly surveyed the occupants of the room before taking her customary seat at the table. The room began to fill around her, but she kept her own counsel and allowed her mind to ponder the purpose of this evening’s meeting. She hoped it would prove more productive than their prior gatherings this summer. It was like being in a classroom again, the way these adults were acting, shouting one another down to make their points heard.

Arthur and Molly were seated a few seats down across from their two eldest sons, and it was their conversation that managed to draw her from her reverie. “Pardon me, Arthur,” she stated. “Did I just hear correctly that your daughter is missing?”

Parents and children alike turned to face her, and Arthur ran a weary hand down his face before answering. “I am afraid so, Minerva. She left with Harry three days ago, and we did not hear from her again until yesterday. She sent a letter telling us she was safe and not to expect her back anytime soon. It was sent via post owl from Diagon Alley, so we couldn’t trace it back to her.”

She frowned to herself. “I would not have expected either of them to show such a blatant disregard for you.” She was unsurprised at the tears gathering in Molly’s eyes as she knew that while Molly loved all her children dearly, she held her only daughter closest to her heart.

Arthur wrapped an arm around his wife and drew her into his chest as he stated, “It is not so simple as that.” He sighed deeply before adding, “I daresay they would not have done so had we not pushed them to it.”

As Arthur went on to describe the set of circumstances leading up to his daughter’s disappearance, Minerva felt herself growing angry. Finally, she interrupted, “Had it not occurred to you that given her experiences in her first year, she might be more sensitive than most to this type of mental intrusion?”

“No,” he answered gravely. “I’m afraid in our zeal to find Harry it did not enter our minds.”

“Perhaps not yours, but I guarantee it entered Albus’s,” she retorted.

All four Weasleys, indeed the entire room went deathly still at her outburst. “Do you mean to assert,” Molly began, her voice oddly devoid of emotion, “that Albus knowingly deceived us?”

At that moment, the hearth flared green, and Albus emerged wiping the soot from his shoulder. He stopped dead in his tracks as he found every eye in the room focused on him, the silence heavy.

“You have some explaining to do, Albus,” Minerva stated.

“I am afraid explanations will not suffice,” he returned cryptically. “Might I presume that news of my encounter with Miss Weasley has already circulated?”

“I believe assault might better categorize the experience,” Minerva retorted.

Albus bowed his head in remorse as he softly responded, “Alas, you are correct, Minerva.”

“You knew, didn’t you?” Molly accused. “You knew she would be more sensitive to Legilimency because of the di – because of her first year!”

“I had only suspicions,” he admitted. “Had she not been taught Occlumency, I truly do not know whether or not she would have detected the intrusion.”

Minerva felt a brief pang of sympathy for him, knowing the hardships and pressures he faced on a daily basis, but that did not excuse his actions. It was past time he started answering to someone.

“If I’m not mistaken, it was your assault on Harry that drove him into hiding in the first place,” Remus put in. Minerva knew the claim to be false or a stretch of the truth at best. Harry had no intentions of spending the summer with his relatives. He had admitted as much to her prior to his disappearance.

“I will be the first to admit that my actions in regards to both Mister Potter and Miss Weasley have been suspect lately,” Albus acknowledged as he walked to his customary place at the head of the table.

“Suspect?” Minerva challenged. “Your actions have been downright criminal, Albus. The headmaster of Hogwarts attacking his own students. I never thought I would see the day.”

“What would you have me say?”

“It is not words we are looking for from you, Albus,” Minerva rebuked. “The Albus Dumbledore that I know would never assault a child, no matter the circumstances. I do not know what has become of you, but I strongly suggest that you take a good long look at your actions of late. I do not care if you are the only wizard You-Know – Voldemort – fears,” she spat. “I will not follow you should you continue down this path.”

Silence rang throughout the room following her pronouncement. Albus sank down into his chair, and Minerva held his gaze until he finally looked down at the table. She did not truly believe it would come to that point, but she could honestly say she had never believed Albus would go as far as he already had.

The fire flared green again, and out stalked her ever-surly colleague. “What has the insolent brat done this time?”

Several voices spoke at once and immediately silenced as the headmaster’s voice rang out, “Now is not the time, Severus. If you have nothing constructive to say, I would ask that you say nothing at all.”

Minerva arched an eyebrow as she looked from Albus to a momentarily shocked Severus. The man was not accustomed to being rebuked in such a matter-of-fact manner. Albus normally allowed him much more leniency to run his tongue. Rather than reply, Severus skulked to the corner of the room and would have blended right into the shadows were it not for the sallow skin of his face.

A long moment of silence descended over the group, and looking at Albus, she decided that he was not likely to raise the issue that truly needed to be raised. “I believe what we need to be asking ourselves is what we plan to do about Mr. Potter. It is my opinion that continuing the as-yet fruitless search would be inadvisable. It is clear that he is suitably well hidden, and if our best efforts have not produced any tangible results, it is unlikely the Death Eaters would have any greater luck.”

“For once I have to agree,” Severus input, stepping out of the corner. “We have wasted enough of our time on him as it is.”

“Mr. Potter’s security is of tantamount priority in this war,” Albus intoned. “While I have chosen not to share with you all the words of the prophecy, you are as aware as I of the role Harry must play. Without him, I fear all may be lost. I ask you all to place your trust in me on this. Harry Potter must be brought to safety.”

“If Harry’s role in this war is so critical,” Remus spoke, “then why is it that you do everything in your power to keep him out of it?”

“He’s just a child!” Molly Weasley shrieked.

“He’s not,” Tonks retorted. “At least not any normal child,” she added. “Just look at all he’s managed to accomplish. Before we learned his true identity, we were all but ready to induct ‘Jim’ into the Order. Granted, there was some worry about his true motives at the time, but I think now that we know it’s Harry any such questions have been answered.”

“Tonks makes a valid point,” Kingsley agreed, nodding at the Metamorphmagus. “I have not fought with him directly, but from what I have seen and heard, he is as capable in a duel as most Aurors.”

“You want to involve a school child in battle?” Molly shouted. “You cannot be serious!”

“Whether we want it or not, he is involving himself,” Minerva stated with a pointed look at the nearly hysterical woman. “He has proven himself more than capable of evading our best efforts to deny him, and our current efforts are only serving to further alienate him from us. Perhaps it is time to consider an alternative approach. If Harry is going to involve himself in the war, would it not be better he do so with us than without us?” She swept her gaze across the entire table, ignoring the derisive snort from Severus.

“Potter is nothing but a spoiled child whose arrogance is exceeded only by his luck,” Snape spat heatedly, stepping forward and banging his fist down on the table. “He flaunts authority at every turn, and you think he will follow instructions? Allow him to work with the Order, and he will put every one of our lives in danger with his foolish stunts!”

Chaos descended following this statement as too many voices argued over each other. For several minutes this went on, and Minerva held her tongue. Slowly the voices began to quiet, but order was far from restored as members continued to quarrel back and forth. She met and held the gaze of Remus Lupin, and, after a long moment, he gave a subtle nod of his head.

She could hardly blame anyone for wanting Harry restricted from involving himself in the war. She felt the same way about him and every other person in the room. What they failed to realize was that Harry would not allow them the option, and they lacked the ability and even the authority to stop him. He was nearly old enough and certainly mature and skilled enough to make the decision for himself. Continuing to alienate him would only serve to drive the wedge between them further. Everyone just assumed that Harry would jump at the first opportunity to join the Order, but if they continued to treat Harry as a child or as a commodity, he may never come around to their side.

She knew Harry already had at least one ally in the Order, and she hoped Remus correctly interpreted her glance. The more allies Harry gained in the Order now, the easier it would be to bridge the gap between them when the time came.

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