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Introduction:

harry potter
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 51 - The Truth Revealed
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With the help of Gabriella, Harry wore a two-piece black pinstripe suit and polished black shoes. Unfortunately his hair, which started out the morning better than normal, was now as disheveled as ever. The manager at Marley’s Men’s Shop had told him that a black handkerchief was a poor idea, but Harry thinking it appropriate for a funeral didn’t listen. Now, he understood why it was a poor idea. It was strange being fitted for a Muggle suit Harry hoped he’d only wear once. It reminded him of his fitting with Madame Malkin and, when he was being pinned, his mind turned to Malfoy. There was Harry, dealing with the results of Voldemort’s Death Eaters, and somewhere Draco was with his father living among them. His thoughts contorted, wondering why he hadn’t let Lucius die. Now, taking back his tear stained black handkerchief from Gabriella as they returned home from Emma’s funeral, he felt he’d made the wrong decision. Lucius Malfoy alive was much worse than Lucius Malfoy dead, and Harry was beginning to strongly reconsider if Draco had betrayed him.

“Harry,” Gabriella sniffed, “are you alright?” Her eyes were red and swollen from her endless tears over the last few days, and yet she was asking how he was. His heart warmed and he held her hand.

“Me?” he whispered, as he started to turn down Privet Drive, the setting sun glaring in his eyes. Grigor’s car was gone, so he pulled into the driveway. He had not said anything to Gabriella about his conversation with her father. Still, it had been haunting him ever since. More than once she had asked him why he was rubbing his right forearm, and more than once he simply shrugged his shoulders pulling his left hand away. He had wanted to wait until Emma’s funeral. And now it was over.

They had paid tribute to a memory, a photograph. There was no Emma to say goodbye to. Her body had been incinerated in the fire and all that remained were the collective thoughts of the many friends she left behind. It was the first time that Harry had met Emma’s parents. They were, understandably, walking zombies throughout the ceremony. Still, they were kind, older than he had imagined, and a bit overwhelmed by the number in attendance. Half of Little Whinging turned out to pay tribute to Emma’s memory, some just because they’d read about her death in the local paper. Her parents shied away from all the attention, but her father delivered an eloquent eulogy, and Duncan mustered up the courage to say a few words. Although, the way Mr. Slate went on about his shy and reserved daughter, Harry wondered if they were talking about the same girl. When Duncan placed his engagement ring on the table in front of her photograph, there wasn’t a dry eye in the church, except for Harry. He was numb, unable to feel much of anything.

Tonight, Todd was staying with Duncan, as he had for the last few nights. Harry was surprised when Grigor contacted one of his colleagues at the university to tell him of Duncan’s suicide attempt. Dr. Phellman, a psychiatrist, came to Duncan’s house and set up a series of counseling sessions with him. Todd had sworn to Gabriella that he would ensure Duncan made every appointment. After having watched Duncan nearly kill himself, Harry was sure that Duncan needed more help than any of his friends could give on their own. He was struggling to come to grips with Grigor’s act of kindness, and the lurching feeling in his stomach that made Harry think his neighbor was a Death Eater.

Harry turned the ignition off and flashed Gabriella a smile. “I’m fine,” he answered, impassively. He began to open the door when she grabbed his arm.

“No, you’re not, Harry,” she said firmly. He didn’t want to look at her, he couldn’t. He knew his eyes would expose his soul, and there were too many things he was holding back. “Look at me!” Against his better judgment, he turned to look into her black eyes.

“I’m… fine,” he muttered weakly.

“I know you cared for Emma, Harry, and I know your heart; and yet… not a tear? Not this whole time? One of your dearest friends lost his fiancé, your girlfriend lost her closest friend, and you, the most sensitive boy I’ve ever met…” She stopped, tears beginning to well in her eyes, pain flashing that was deeper than Harry could fathom. He handed her his handkerchief and again she wiped her face and blew her nose, handing the worn black cloth back to Harry. “I’m sorry; I’m being stupid.”

“No!” Harry instantly shot back. “Don’t ever say that. Don’t ever think that.” He held her left hand in both of his. “In life, you were her truest friend, and now that she’s gone you continue to watch after all those she’s touched. I wish I had half your strength.” He kissed her hand, and lost himself in the pools of black, glistening back at him. It was time she knew. “I… I killed her, Gabriella. As sure as you’re sitting next to me right now, Harry Potter is responsible for Emma Slate’s death.”

“Now you’re sounding like Duncan,” she said dismissively. But Harry held her gaze with his own green eyes. Her disbelief gave way to doubt… gave way to the possibility… and the blood began to drain from her face. Harry wanted to tell her everything. He needed to tell her everything, but not here, not like this.

“Come on,” he breathed, “it’s time you knew.” They both stepped out of the car and started for the Dursleys’. Then Harry remembered the living room, and knew Gabriella would be mad about it. “Er, how about your place?” She nodded, and when they entered the Darbinyan entry, they found Soseh asleep on the couch in the living room. Gabriella quietly beckoned Harry up to her room.

It was the first time he’d ever climbed the stairs and his heart quickened a bit in anticipation. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but when she opened the door, he knew it was perfect. Through the window behind an impressive telescope, Harry could see his own room across the street. He realized that the Dursleys could see this way too, and he wondered how often during the summer his uncle spied on the Darbinyans’ from his own bedroom. Her bed was a large four-poster that reminded him of the beds at Hogwarts, but the colors were a soft pink and a royal purple. There was a desk with a computer, quills next to standard paper, and candles everywhere. About the walls were shelves and shelves of books, and in the corner a large kick-bag hung from the ceiling for punching and kicking. Harry walked over to it and half-heartedly gave it a punch. He hurt his hand and tried not to show it, but Gabriella noticed and snickered. She lit three candles, and they sat arm in arm on the side of her bed.

“When I start,” he whispered, “please, let me finish. If you stop me, I don’t know if I’ll be able to start again.” Gabriella nodded.

Harry took in a large breath and began. He told the story of the Boy Who Lived, at least as best as he knew it; a story she’d heard pieces of in her own country. He spoke of the challenges at Hogwarts and what had happened over the years. He spoke of his dearest friends and deadliest enemies. He explained how Cedric and Sirius had died, and how Neville and Luna had been taken. He even explained his new pact with Draco, and how he’d let him leave the caverns beneath the Forbidden Forest. He told her, not of her father, but of the mark on his arm, and of what powers it seemed to give him. His mouth was dry and hands were shaky. He watched as her face turned from concern to horror, but now it had settled on something more inscrutable. He realized his thumb had been nervously rubbing the back of her hand while he spoke, and stopped. He had told so much to so many, but not what was to follow. The prophecy stuck in his throat like a fur ball. He swallowed hard and told her why anyone who would stand with him was at risk, why her life was most certainly in danger, why either he or Voldemort must die. They sat together in silence for quite some time. He was considering what he should say about her father, when she took advantage of the pause and spoke.

“He’s alive?” she asked with a wavering voice. He was surprised to find that someone so far removed from life in England would be so troubled by the Dark Lord’s name.

“Yes,” Harry answered. “He’s alive. I’ve seen him.” He paused. “I’ve been him.” Gabriella narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t understand.”

“When he tried to kill me, he left a link.” Harry pulled back the hair from about his scar. “We have access into each other’s minds. Every night I fight it, and every day it grows stronger.”

Instantly, she pulled her hand away as if in her eyes he was a criminal all over again. Harry slid off the bed and slumped onto the floor, looking down at his own hands. Her cat sat up, stretched and purred, circling about Harry and begging for affection. He stroked the cat’s soft fur and then he spoke out loud the words that had been repeating in his mind all week.

“Voldemort had them attack Paris and the Ministry in London to pull attention away from Hogwarts. He then attacked Hogwarts to find me… to kill me.” His voice was hollow… empty. “I’ve known. I’ve always known. If I had come when first he called, Neville and Luna would be safe, Fred would have been laughing with his family over Christmas… and Mr. Fudge, and… and Emma would still be alive.” He turned and looked up at Gabriella and she saw for the first time tears pooling in Harry’s eyes. “He calls me every night, but I won’t listen anymore. I won’t watch what he’s doing to my friends, what he’d do to you if he knew. And Gabriella… he knows. He knows.” His body gave a giant shudder, and he dropped his face into his hands and began to cry. But an instant later he stopped, and wiped his face.

“I didn’t want this,” he scowled, looking out her window at the darkening sky. “I didn’t ask for this.” He stood keeping his back to her. “I’m no hero.” He walked toward the door and turned to look at her one final time. “I’m no monster either.” He stepped into the hall only to run headlong into a very tired Soseh, nearly knocking her over. Her eyes grew wide.

“Harry Potter!” she smiled broadly. “Praise Asha for your goodness!” She wrapped her arms around him and held him tight. “Stand straight! The weight of the world lies on the precipice of your shoulders.” Soseh pulled back to look him in the eyes, her own glowing brightly. “She has spoken to me of the one with green eyes who would risk his own life to save the life of an enemy. The tools of victory have been revealed to him, if only he would see.” Soseh reached up and held his face with her hands and pulled him close kissing both his eyes. She let him go, and took a step back.

Before Harry could think, Soseh arched her arm and slapped him across the face. “If I ever find you in my daughter’s room again with the door closed, I will skin you like a rabbit! Do you understand young man?” she said coolly. His mind was swirling, but if there’s one natural instinct every sixteen-year-old boy has, it’s to say ‘yes’ to your girlfriend’s mother.

“Y-yes ma’am,” Harry stumbled, rubbing his cheek.

“Good,” said Soseh. “Let us now eat dinner.”

Harry started to explain why he had to leave when Gabriella grabbed him from behind wrapping her arms around his waist.

“Have I told you I love him, Mama?” she asked brightly.

“Yes, darling,” said Soseh descending the stairs. “But that’s no excuse.” She held a finger in the air waving it in admonition.

“Has he told you he loves me?” At this question, Soseh stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned around. For a moment, Harry saw the same Soseh he had known from summer. A warm glow seemed to radiate from her expression.

“I have painted it so, have I not?” Soseh’s grin had a hint of mischief, and she turned back into the kitchen. Harry spun and squeezed Gabriella hard. He began to shake, and soon the tears that he had stopped earlier began to flow freely and quietly. The sound of pots and pans clanked from the kitchen below as Gabriella held Harry in her arms at the top of the stairs. Finally, Harry let go and looked at his love.

“He’ll take you from me,” he breathed.

“He’ll try,” Gabriella agreed. “And he might succeed.” She wiped his cheek with her hand. “Harry, I come from where there are never any guarantees. Bombs rained down from the heavens, and belched up from the streets. They exploded in churches, in the markets, or on the playgrounds. And the people that sent them cared less about who they killed than the bombs. I was the one who asked to leave, and it was Papa who thought it might be safer here. In many ways, we were both wrong. Sometimes you have to stand firm to make a difference… to stop the death. You know, even if you were to leave me tonight never to return, the Phantom of Death would still strike at my heels. At least I now know the risks. They’re mine to take, not yours, and I take them freely.”

“But—”

“Thank you for being brave enough to tell me the truth. Cho told me that Gryffindors were known for being brash fools, but after meeting a few of your friends, I think perhaps she left a thing or two out.”

“Brash fools?” Harry flared slightly, and Gabriella smiled.

“Come here,” she said leading him by the hand down the stairs. Soseh already had the home smelling warm and inviting. Harry and Gabriella went over to the tree, and they both knelt down among the still unopened gifts. “We said we’d wait and we have. It’s time to move on.” She reached down and picked up a fairly large present. “Here.”

Opening the box he noticed that the large fir tree was standing nailed to wooden boards on the floor. It had been up for weeks without water, and yet it was as fresh and green as ever.

“Gabriella… your tree. Don’t you water it?” Harry asked, slipping off the bow.

“Well, Mama takes care of the tree. Why?” she asked. Harry slipped off the wrapping paper from the box.

“No reason,” he answered, glancing over at Soseh, still busy in the kitchen. He lifted the lid off the box to find a soft grained, leather coat similar to Grigor’s overcoat but not quite as long. Harry stood and slipped it on. Grinning, Gabriella rubbed her hands down his shoulders. “Brilliant. Thank you,” he said kissing her gently on the lips.

“It’s soft,” she said stroking his chest.

“I don’t think I’ll ever take it off,” he said with a smile.

“And it has some… special features.” Her eyes twinkled for the first time since they’d first heard of the bombing in Paris. She reached low around behind him with both hands.

“Nope, it’s never coming off.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, grabbing his wand from his pants pocket and slipping it out. “Here.” She slid the wand in a small compartment in the left sleeve of the jacket. “Now you can tuck your shirt in.”

“Nice,” he said, turning his back to the kitchen and sliding the wand from the compartment much like a quick-draw expert pulling his six-shooter.

“And this,” added Gabriella. She grabbed a blanket hanging over the back of the couch and started to push it into the front pocket of the jacket. The blanket kept going, and going until it fully disappeared into the coat, without the least sign of a bulge.

“I can’t even tell it’s in there,” Harry whispered, realizing that not only had the blanket disappeared into his coat, it was also weightless.

“Dinner!” Soseh called.

Harry pulled the blanket out of his coat, and Gabriella kissed him. “There are some other surprises… you’ll see.”

“I thought you said—”

“Let’s eat. There’ll be time for more later.”

“How much more?” Harry whispered in Gabriella’s ear with a smile.

“Coming, Mama,” Gabriella called back to the kitchen. “Should I open mine now?” she asked Harry reaching down and picking up the modest package that he had placed there earlier in the week.

“You can open it at the table. I’m sure your mum will want to see.” He paused. “I’m sure your dad will want to see too, but we can figure that out later.” They walked over and sat down with Soseh, and Gabriella began to open the gift.

“Great things come in small packages,” Soseh beamed, rubbing her hands together. “I’ve always been fond of jewelry.” She flashed a look at Harry, who looked nervously away. “But some things are more important, aren’t they my child?” He looked up and felt her look right through him again. He hadn’t noticed that Gabriella had already opened the package.

“Tickets? And more tickets? And what’s this… a booklet? Harry, it looks as if—”

“Only if you want to,” he interrupted. “I kinda got everything before I knew… you know. Anyway, it’s this summer. I thought, maybe, we might get out of here. The Mediterranean: Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel. You’ve seen my roots, for what they’re worth; I wanted to learn more about yours. Four weeks we cruise as part of a youth enrichment program to understand the issues facing the Middle East, and then another four weeks volunteering time in Armenia.”

“Armenia?”

“I know… it’s crazy. After what we talked about upstairs, I’d understand if you said no. It’s not the safest part of the world anyway, but I thought maybe I could learn something.

“It’s not crazy,” said Gabriella warmly at Harry. “It’s brilliant.”

“Supervised?” Soseh asked pointedly.

“Actually, it’s organized as part of a collaboration between the various religious groups out of South Benton. So, yes ma’am, very supervised.”

“Let me speak with your father… after Harry leaves for school. I think it may take all spring to convince him, but we will. You’ll see, we will. You’ll have a chance to visit your grandmother again. She’ll like that, and she’ll especially want to be meeting you, Harry.” Smiling brightly, she reached over and squeezed his arm.

“Thank you, Harry,” said Gabriella, hugging him close.

After dinner, the two went for a walk along Privet Drive, Harry wearing his new coat. For being so light, it was spectacularly warm.

“You know,” Harry said softly, “your dad might say no, and then you’d walk away from Christmas with nothing.”

“I’d still have you,” she said. The air was still as she pulled his arm close. They were returning home and Harry was steering her to the Dursley side of the street.

“Well, I thought maybe you’d like something else.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small box. She opened it to reveal a pair of earrings. “I’ve pretty much worn the one I’m wearing through and I thought something in gold might make a nice change.” About an inch long, there was a winged staff made of white gold entwined with two serpents of yellow gold -- the caduceus. “It was the name of my new broom, but now knowing you’re a healer I like them even more.” Harry expected an ooh, or an ahh, but instead the response was something quite different.

“You fly?” she said excitedly, holding the gift in one hand close to her chest.

“Yeah,” said Harry smiling back, “a little.”

“We really must—” She stopped herself. Her face fell slightly and she opened her hand and looked at the earrings. “They’re beautiful, Harry. Thank you.” They continued to walk as Gabriella split the pair, and they each put one on. “Tell me about your broom… a Caduceus? I last had my heart set on a Firebolt.”

Before long they were at the Dursley front door. It was still relatively early and as they held each other’s hands the twinkle flashed in Gabriella’s eyes.

“Will you come in?” Harry asked absentmindedly. Gabriella nodded, glancing across the street.

“Tonight, she seems better somehow. Don’t you think?” she asked.

“She knew more than just my name tonight. That’s a good sign.” Harry opened the door, walked into the living room and cringed. He still hadn’t cleaned the front room, and when Gabriella entered she gasped.

“Harry Potter, you mean to tell me you haven’t picked up one stick this whole time! You swore to me that—”

“I’ve picked up more than one!” he shot back in defense. “At least three, maybe four.” There were dozens of wood splinters scattered all over the room.

“I can’t believe you’ve just left this here all this time!”

“Well you could help, you know. I can’t use magic, but you could just—”

“You know I can’t either,” she said a bit heatedly.

“Oh, you can use it to vanish my scar, and to keep a tree alive,” accused Harry, “but you can’t help me clean up a bit.”

“I’m a healer, not a housekeeper!”

“Fine… fine,” said Harry, trying to calm things down. This was not going like he had imagined. “Look I’ll do it tomorrow, I swear.” He was about to suggest they sit, but the room was too much a mess. Suggesting they go upstairs seemed too forward, especially after just having had a spat. His eyes looked around the room. “What do you say we go to visit the Weasleys? Just for a few minutes. I promised I’d visit and I’ve been ignoring them all vacation.”

“I… I really shouldn’t.”

“It’s not like real magic or anything. It’s just floo powder. Come on, just a few minutes… I swear.”

“Where have I heard that before?” said Gabriella, rolling her eyes. She crossed her arms and looked at the fireplace. “Well, you’d have to pick up at least some of this mess to get the fire started. That’s something.” She paused. “Okay. But just a few minutes!”

Harry beamed as he gathered wood for the fire. Just as it started to roar, he turned to Gabriella. “I need to show you the address. This is a safe-house for the Weasleys and I need your word that you won’t reveal its location to anyone, nor ever say it out loud.” He waited deliberately until after she nodded. “Not even your father.”

“I swear,” she said melodramatically. Harry held her hands and looked deeply into her eyes.

“Gabriella, I know it sounds cloak and dagger, but there are those who would torture you to death to uncover this information. And once they knew, countless lives would be lost. You mustn’t let anyone know that you know.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, standing somewhat taller. “I won’t tell a soul, not even Mama.” He handed her the note with the address on it.

“Think of the location when you enter the fire. Don’t say it. Do you understand?” She handed the paper back to him nodding.

A few minutes later they both emerged from the fireplace at number twelve Grimmauld Place. There was yelling emanating from the kitchen. The two quietly peaked in the door to find Ron and Charlie playing a game of chess at the dinner table. Floating in the air above the sink, the dishes were being scrubbed and put away. Mrs. Weasley stood behind Ron, as did George, Hermione, Ginny and Dean. Behind Charlie stood only Fred who, to Harry’s relief, looked just like Fred always did. Still, Harry wondered why he stood alone behind Charlie. Was he deliberately being isolated? A moment later, Ron said, “Checkmate!” Everyone behind him cheered. George came round the table to his twin brother, holding out his hand, palm open.

“Pay up, Fred,” he said, now holding out both hands.

“Er, double or nothing, next time they play?” Fred asked, as if he’d swallowed a lemon.

“Well, let me see,” said George pensively stroking his chin. “They’ve played every Christmas since Ron was old enough to know how to find the toilet. We’ve been betting on the game since he was old enough to know to pull his pants down first. You’ve always bet on Charlie, you’ve always lost, and you’ve always asked for double-or-nothing.”

“And you’ve always said yes,” encouraged Fred.

“Ah, but tonight we crossed a million galleons, and I’m starting to seriously doubt Charlie’s chess playing abilities. I think you should cut your losses.”

“But—”

“Harry!” Ginny squealed, seeing him at the door. She ran over and gave him a grand hug. “Gabriella! You made it!” She was beaming, but then the smile slipped off her face as she turned to Gabriella. “How are you doing?” she asked solemnly. “Harry told us about your friend. I’m so sorry.”

“We’re all sorry, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley kindly, giving Gabriella a hug. “Harry, it’s good to see you.” There was a coolness in her words that Harry had rarely heard from Mrs. Weasley, and never directed toward him. “Have you two eaten?”

“Yes, but thanks, Mrs. Weasley,” Gabriella responded graciously. She looked around the enormous kitchen. It was immaculate. “You have a lovely home.”

“Thank you, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley. “But we’re just guests. The home belongs to Harry.” Behind Gabriella’s back, Harry was trying to make a hand gesture to stop Mrs. Weasley from saying what she said, but it was too late.

“Harry’s?” Gabriella asked.

“Yes. He inherited it as a small part of his godfather’s estate.”

“Small part? Estate?”

“It… it’s not that much,” Harry jumped in. “Just some old beat up place in London.” But over the last few months, Mrs. Weasley had transformed the household into an elegant home.

“When we met,” said Gabriella, poking Harry in the chest, “you said you didn’t have two pounds to rub together.”

“Well, I didn’t,” Harry shrugged innocently. “Just galleons.”

“Oh!” she puffed, pushing his shoulders. “Well, what if you take me on a tour.” Harry’s face darkened slightly. To Gabriella, it may look like an elegant house, but for Harry it still pulled bitter memories to the surface.

“I’ll show you,” Hermione interjected brightly. “It’s really quite unique in many ways. The Black family goes back for centuries. This house is magically located…” her voice trailed off as she and Ginny took Gabriella by each arm and left the kitchen. Harry was wondering if it might have been better for him to show the house when he turned around to find the rest of the Weasleys looking at him, all but Fred who was eating a slice of cake with Dean, and drinking a hot mug of coffee. It was an awkward moment.

“So, Ron here,” George jumped off, “says you let Lucius Malfoy and his boy slip through your fingers.” Harry’s ears reddened.

“Nobody knows who was with Malfoy,” answered Harry, coolly looking at Ron.

“Yeah,” Fred muttered with a mouthful of cake, “that’s what Hermione told us.”

“And as for letting him slip through my fingers, I was pretty much unconscious when the whole thing happened.”

“Yeah,” Fred added, taking another bite. “Hermione told us that as well.”

“And how are you, aside from hungry?” Harry asked, trying to turn the stares that were fixed on him.

“I don’t know,” Fred’s eyes grew wide. “Since I’ve been bitten, seems I want to wolf everything down.” His brothers and Dean laughed, but his mother did not take the comment well at all.

“Stop it!” Mrs. Weasley spat. “It’s not funny!” The laughter stopped, and she turned on Harry. “And you! How you could let it happen! If I had a galleon for every one of my children that landed in hospital after traipsing along after you on one of your fool adventures…. They would follow you into the abyss if you asked, Harry. All my children adore you.”

“Except Percy,” George corrected.

“And Bill doesn’t much care one way or the other for you, Harry,” Fred added.

“I like you Harry,” chimed in Charlie, “but I’m not sure about the abyss thing. Now if you have a problem with dragons—”

“Do you see?” Mrs. Weasley said exasperated, looking at Harry. “Ron and Ginny, Fred and George, I won’t have you leading them to their deaths! I won’t have you kill my children.” Her voice was shaky and tears were welling in her eyes. Charlie took her by the arm and sat her down.

“It’s war, Mum,” he said softly, sitting at her side. “And, other than Albus Dumbledore, there’s nobody I’d rather have leading the charge than Harry Potter.”

“Face it, Harry,” said George wryly, “he adores you too.”

Seeing her sitting there, Harry’s heart began to ache and huge emotions of guilt began to heave up from inside.

“Mrs. Weasley… Fred… I swear—” The door to the kitchen flung open. Harry expected to see Gabriella and Hermione, but instead it was Mr. Weasley, flanked by Percy and Alastor Moody. Mad-Eye was simply beaming; at least his face looked like it was beaming… sort of.

“We did it!” Mad-Eye yelled out. “Pass out the ale, boys! It’s time for a celebration.”

“What?” Ron asked. “What happened?”

“Dad’s the new Minister of Magic,” Percy said smugly.

“Acting Minister,” Mr. Weasley corrected modestly. “Until we can hold a proper popular election, the council has given me the task.” Mrs. Weasley stood, holding both hands over her mouth.

“I don’t believe it,” she gasped in disbelief. She, along with everyone else, stood and congratulated Mr. Weasley. She hugged him close. “Arthur, that’s wonderful.” But he could tell instantly what she was thinking.

“Yes Molly, the next Death Eater bull’s-eye… as if things weren’t already bad enough.” He kissed her cheek and held her close. “We’ll see it through. I promise.” The door swung open again and in walked Hermione with Ginny.

“Where’s—” Harry began, but Gabriella was next through, holding the arm of Tonks whose hair was a strawberry blonde. Tonks was smiling, but Gabriella was laughing.

“Really?” Gabriella chuckled. “That’s what Hermione said. His first year?” Tonks smiled and nodded her head.

“Wotcher, Harry!” said Tonks. “I’ve finally had the chance to talk with your friend Gabriella. She’s sweet. I can see why you’ve flittered most of the school year away talking about her and ignoring your studies.” Harry could feel the room’s eyes turn on him again, only this time he was blushing. “I’ve tried to convince her she should join us at Hogwarts, but her mind is set against it. Quite stalwart, she is.” Hearing Tonks’ words, Harry smiled with pride. Gabriella was all that and more.

Soon, food was spread about, and even those not yet of age were afforded the opportunity to cheer Mr. Weasley’s new appointment with a glass of mead. Tapping Dean on the shoulder to follow suit, Ron reached to fill his glass again, but Mrs. Weasley slapped his hand. Much to Mad-Eye’s disappointment, the conversation turned to lighter topics like Quidditch and musical groups. Ginny was holding Dean’s hand and Hermione Ron’s. The coolness that Harry felt on his arrival had ebbed away. Gabriella was telling the story about how she first heard Harry was a criminal, when Tonks stood and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Harry,” she said with a soft voice, “might I have a word?”

“Excuse me,” said Hermione standing as well. “I need to use the bathroom.” The three left the kitchen, Hermione turning left to the bathroom, Harry and Tonks turning right towards the Black Family study. Tonks watched as Hermione disappeared from sight and then closed the study door and locked it.

She seemed suddenly tired and shivered a little just before she flicked her wand, starting the flames in the small fireplace in the corner of the room. It filled with a golden glow and the room became instantly more inviting. Of all the rooms at Grimmauld Place, this was the least touched by Mrs. Weasley. It contained almost everything that Harry thought Sirius would want to keep, but as he scanned the room Harry considered getting rid of the lot. It was time to move on.

“So, Harry,” Tonks began as she sat back in one of the leather chairs, “do you have your gift?” Harry nodded. He’d been carrying it with him in his pocket since the day he opened the present. “And the riddle?”

“I’m really not good at riddles, Tonks,” Harry moaned.

“Yes you are,” she said keenly. She leaned forward looking intently at Harry. “I was certain that it would take us longer. I figured maybe we could work on it this summer together, but I underestimated you.” She leaned back in her chair. “Justifiably so, I believe. There was no reason to raise your hopes, only to have them dashed again. Do you have it with you?” Harry pulled the golden rod from his pocket. He wasn’t sure why he carried it with him as if it were something precious. Perhaps because it was from Tonks, but more likely because it was from Tonks and it was not the kind of gift that Tonks would normally give. “Excellent,” said the witch with a smile as she took to her feet. She wandered over to the large mahogany case in which rested the collection of golden instruments, a collection of nefarious objects in the Black house that Harry had elected to keep. Immediately, Harry realized the rod had something to do with one of them, but which one and what it would do he didn’t know. His mind tried putting the riddle in context with what he was now seeing. Tonks stood staring at the golden objects, her back to Harry.

“Why did you save Lucius’ life?” she asked. The question jarred Harry in an unexpected way.

“I-I didn’t. He… he just—”

Tonks turned. “Did you let escape the one student, I thought you despised above all?”

Harry began to perspire, his face reddening, and the small fire feeling suddenly very warm. It required no Legilimens to know he was hiding something. Was Tonks thinking he had switched alliance?

“It’s not what you think, Tonks,” Harry pleaded, taking to his feet. “I swear, I didn’t—”

“Did you save Lucius Malfoy’s life?” she demanded. Her voice was stern, almost accusatory, but her eyes told a different story. What that story was, Harry couldn’t decipher, but he also couldn’t help but answer her honestly.

“Yes,” he replied, looking to the floor. “I-I saved him.”

“They say it almost killed you.”

“I know,” Harry nodded, still looking at his shoes. And then he looked up into her face, feeling as if he were speaking words of betrayal. “I couldn’t let him die. Not like that. Not in front of…”

“Draco?”

Harry couldn’t bring himself to saying yes. He simply nodded his head. Who was it, he wondered, that he was betraying? If Dumbledore were here now, would he see disappointment or pride? Instead he was looking back at Tonks whose eyes were, for a moment, unsure, but then glinted with the slightest of twinkles. She put her arms about Harry and hugged him, chuckling to herself.

“I think we can do it, Harry!” She patted him on the shoulders, and turned back to the mahogany cabinet. “But no one must know.” Carefully she reached in and retrieved one of the larger golden objects. Bowl shaped, it was about the size of a washbasin. Around its thick edge was a moveable ring engraved with about a dozen runes that Harry did not recognize, at least not at first. One did, finally, catch his eye. He had seen it in the classroom at Hogwarts, on the cover of a textbook, two crossed lightning bolts--the Viswa Vajra. The image made him rub his forearm. Gently, Tonks set the heavy instrument on the desk. “I wonder how Lucius will feel if we succeed?” she asked herself.

“Feel?” Harry asked blankly.

“You saved his life, Harry, and now, although he doesn’t know it, he’s going to return the favor, at least we now have hope.” Tonks held out her hand, and Harry placed the golden rod in her palm.

“Hope for what, Tonks?”

“Your compassion, Harry… Lucius Malfoy’s blood… and a little luck,” she slid the rod in an opening on the collar of the bowl and the ring began to rotate, “have given us a chance.” It was like watching a roulette wheel spin. “A chance for my cousin… for your godfather… a chance to bring back Sirius Black.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 52 - Rescue
~~~***~~~


“I don’t know how you can think that!”

“I don’t know how you can think at all! I’m telling you it’s the Patonga Proudsticks! And if you don’t believe it, you’re an idiot!”

“She’s got you there, Ron.”

“Yeah, at least with the idiot part.”

“I am not an idiot! The Cannons are coming back strong next year. With Wegley in as their newest Chaser, they’ll have a shot at—”

“Wegley!? She’s a has-been from the Harpies. Sure she was great in the 80’s, but she hasn’t been able to fly straight since she took that Bludger to the head at the European Championships in Greece.” Gabriella glanced up at the kitchen door, as she had every few minutes since Harry’s departure, to find him standing there not moving. “Harry, what’s wrong?”

She had wondered what was taking him so long. Some twenty minutes after he left with Tonks, all the adults had left to go spread the good news. Gabriella sat at the kitchen table, and before long started talking Quidditch with the Weasley family. Dean was content to sketch with one hand, while he held Ginny’s with the other. All of the Weasleys were agreeing with Gabriella’s keen insight about the game. All, that is, except Ron who, in defending the Cannons, didn’t notice that Hermione had never returned from the bathroom. He was distracted, probably because he was losing his debate and taking it firmly on the chin. Similarly, Harry looked as if he’d been punched in the gut a few times. His eyes were somewhat blank, his complexion extremely pale, and when Gabriella asked him once again how he was, he still didn’t answer.

“Harry?” Gabriella repeated. Just as the question left her mouth, a hand reached up from behind, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me.” It was Hermione, trying to enter the kitchen as he stood in the doorway. “Excuse me, Harry.” Slowly, Harry seemed to come back to reality as if waking from a trance. “Looks like there’s some pie left. Do you want some?”

“Er… yeah,” Harry muttered, trying to clear the thoughts filling his brain. “Pie’s good.”

“You’re not looking well,” Gabriella said taking to her feet. “You were in there quite some time.”

“Merlin, Harry,” said Dean. “You look like you’ve walked through a ghost, maybe two.”

“Let me cut you a slice,” suggested Ginny.

“We probably should think about getting back,” Gabriella said. “I really don’t like leaving Mama alone too long.” Without looking at her, Harry nodded into space.

“Right,” he said blankly. “Home.” Gabriella walked over and took his arm.

“It’s been wonderful to see you all again. Please thank your mother for the dessert.”

“No problem,” replied Ginny. “You’re more than welcome anytime. And don’t think you need Harry at your side to stop by.”

Gabriella offered a pleasant smile. “You’re cold,” she whispered in Harry’s ear. Then she looked over to the twins sitting at the far end of the kitchen table. “Fred, remember what I told you. If you can’t find it, let me know. Mama grows some in the backyard.” And then she sighed. “At least she did.”

Hermione gave Gabriella a hug. “I hope we can talk more later,” she said warmly. Then she turned to Harry and hugged him too, leaning close to his ear. “We need to talk… alone,” she whispered, “and soon.” Gabriella overheard this, and had the sudden realization that Tonks was missing. She looked about the entryway hoping to catch sight of her as they walked to the fireplace, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Ron was the last to say goodbye before the two entered the fireplace. “You really need to set her straight about the Cannons, Harry.” Ron’s face was seriously concerned. “Clearly, she’s been out of touch for far too long.”

“Out of touch?” she exclaimed. “The only person I see who’s out of touch is—” Harry grabbed her by the mouth, and a few moments later they emerged into number four, Privet Drive. It was a bit ironic to think that coming from Grimmauld Place to here, there would be a greater sense of disgust, but the living room was such a disaster. What’s worse, there was a definite odor beginning to build. Harry expected to see a scowl on Gabriella’s face, but instead her eyes bore concern.

“I should get you to bed,” she said sternly, taking Harry by the hand. Harry looked conflicted.

“Well… actually, Gabriella, I’m a bit tired.”

“Of course you’re tired. You’re white as a sheet. What’s wrong, your stomach?” She moved to put her hand to his chest, but Harry pulled away.

“Just very tired. It’s been… well, a full day. I really need to rest.” He scanned the room. “A good night’s sleep and I can clean this place up tomorrow. I swear.”

She narrowed her eyes, trying to bite her tongue about the room. She was also trying to divine what Harry was holding back. It was true, he didn’t look well, but she could sense more.”

“Okay.” She kissed him briskly on the cheek. “But the Dursleys return in five days. And it’s getting harder to clean by the minute.” She pointed at a film of mold now growing on the coffee table.

From the Dursley front door, Harry watched Gabriella cross Privet Drive. She didn’t see his hands begin to tremble as he slowly shut the door; she didn’t see him collapse to his knees on the floor. He had a chance to bring back Sirius, but nobody must know -- nobody, or they’d stop them for sure. His heart began to pound again, his palms began to sweat and his breath grew shallow. Just thinking about the possibility was overwhelming. Slowly, he got to his feet and ascended the stairs. He took off his shirt, tossing it to the floor as he gazed at the dragonhead with the ball of cinnabar in its mouth that now sat on his dresser. Then, turning to his bed, he found a scroll of parchment. Harry had left Hedwig at Hogwarts, and the window was closed. He reached down to pick up the note when Mad-Eye’s voice echoed in his head and he stopped, slipping out his wand. First, he walked to the closet, but it was empty. Then he searched the entire upper floor. Exhausted, he returned to his room, and used the tip of his wand to open the note. It was from Hermione. How it got there, he had no idea -- perhaps the twins. He picked it up and read it under the light of the lamp on his dresser.

Harry,

Please, please, don’t do anything until we can talk alone.

Hermione

He squeezed the parchment in his hands. She knew. She’d been eavesdropping. Anger began to roil up inside. He tore the paper into shreds, the pieces scattering across his bed. She’d ruin everything. He reached out and grabbed the red stone, accidentally slitting his finger on a tooth, and only serving to anger him more. “Damn her,” he hissed, slamming the now glowing ball back and forth between his hands not noticing the blood coating his palms. He wouldn’t let that happen. Still holding the stone, he sat on his bed.

It had been a long day… the funeral… revelations with Gabriella… news from Tonks. His body and his mind were exhausted, and he put head to pillow. If he were lucky, Hermione would be too late. He closed his eyes, his thoughts fixed on a large golden ring, the rune of the Viswa Vajra looking back at him. Perhaps, they had all they needed. Tonks would try soon. He had given her all she asked for, and would have given more if he could. His mind drifted to the film of Sirius falling into the veil, only this time Harry pushed his hand through and pulled him out. “I’ll bring you back, Sirius. I swear.” Soon, his mind still spinning with the day’s events, he was asleep.


He was angry. Furious. The brightest wizards and witches in the world, pure of blood, loyal with fear, and they had achieved nothing. Ten wizards and three witches captured, countless allies dead, and they were no closer to achieving their objectives. “I must have more at my side, and soon I will.” His hand clawed in the shredded upholstery as it had countless times before. He was sick of this place, tired of waiting. But they weren’t ready for the boy, not yet, but soon. “We have time,” he thought to himself, trying unsuccessfully to control his nerves. He noticed silence in the corner.

“Did I tell you to stop, Longbottom?” he slithered in a high, cold voice. “Crucio!” Neville cried out in agony, but his throat had grown hoarse and raw. There were no screams left. In his hand was a paintbrush, in the other a paint can. He was now covered in blue, painting over a red wall. Slowly, Neville reached up and put bristles to board marking another blue swath of paint. “Very good. Tomorrow, I think green again.”

He stood surveying the hellhole he was in. This wasn’t like him. He had always been patient, silently moving among the shadows. His initial downfall was impatience, and he would not let that emotion creep back again. After all, time was on his side. Or was it? From what Lucius said the boy was growing stronger, but Bellatrix refuted the boy’s strengths as simple tricks. “Exploding gum,” he hissed, thinking of the dozen Death Eaters fooled by the childish trick. There was a quiet knock at the door.

“Enter,” he spat. A robed and hooded Death Eater entered the room bowing low, only the robes this Death Eater was wearing were different -- not black, but purple and red. Ignoring the visitor, Neville continued to paint. “Where is the new minister?” he asked coolly.

“The clock shows him at the Ministry, my Lord.”

“A minor inconvenience,” he said silkily. “Soon, there will be a proper minister. I’ll see to that. Already our friends are on their way from the mountains.” He stepped closer, and the Death Eater bowed low to the floor. “You left with purpose and you, for your part, have succeeded. Send this message: ‘With you now at my side the tide will change.’ You know now what to do?”

“Yes, my lord.” The voice was not of a man, but of a woman’s: familiar and comfortable.

“Excellent,” he slowly hissed between his teeth. He watched as the Death Eater walked to the door, but Harry was not interested in this conversation, or the Death Eater. Where was Luna? How was Neville? He wanted to turn to see, and when he tried, Voldemort recognized his presence. “You!” he called without uttering a word, just as the door closed behind the departing cloaked figure. “You think you can visit uninvited?!” Rage began to fill his every thought.

The scene changed. All was dark. Harry felt as if a giant snake was swallowing him head first. He couldn’t see, but he heard Voldemort’s voice.

“Your ability to hide grows stronger. I shall not let it happen again.” Harry felt himself being pulled further into the snake. “I learned many things when I was your age, Harry. I learned about myself and who I was to become… what I was meant to be.” The tone changed to a soft hiss. “Join me, Harry. Let me show you your immortality,” Voldemort beckoned.

“Go to hell!” Harry yelled back with his mind.

“Oh, I’ve been there my boy. I’ve been there,” the voice echoed in his mind. “If I can’t destroy your body, I suppose your mind will do. Your future is finished.”

Harry was being squeezed tighter, digested by the giant snake. He couldn’t breathe and the pain about his chest was unbearable. At that moment, a warmth began to build in his fingertips that quickly spread up into his arms and filled his chest.

“Not-this-time-Tom,” his mind forced back. He focused on the surrounding darkness and reached his mind out to find its strength… its energy. And there it was, flaming bright before him like an inferno raging against the darkness. Harry reached out and held it in his hand, but instead of infusing it with energy, he drew the energy away. It was coursing into his body, his mind, and then… agony. A blinding flash of light, and his forehead split open in tortured pain. He pulled his hands away, and found himself falling from the darkness, falling from the light.

“You have the Heart!” hissed in horror across his mind, as he woke with a thump on the floor of his bedroom. Harry screamed. He screamed from the pain pounding in his head. He screamed from the filth coursing through his body. He gasped for air, and then realized an ultimate truth. Not filth… power! He could rule the world. An evil grin twisted Harry’s face thinking of all those he’d make pay. All the years he’d suffered, all the years of torture and mockery, they would all pay… a fierce retribution! Again, he gasped for air.

“No!” he cried.

Some poison was gripping his mind, consuming his very being. He had to get it out. His body shuddered, heaved, and the power vomited forth. His insides flashed bright, as if the light of a thousand suns burst open from his soul. Still screaming, the energy poured out of his body shattering through the window of his room and sending a beacon into the night sky. The wallpaper of his room peeled, and the paint on his furniture charred. Writhing in agony, the carpet beneath him smoldered, filling the room with an acrid smoke that plumed out his shattered window. It lasted only a few seconds, but the torture felt like hours. Then, suddenly, the power collapsed inward driving back from the sky, back into the window, and plummeting into the ball of cinnabar clutched tightly in his hands. He watched as it glowed red, then white. The muscle spasms in his arms stopped, his hands let go of the stone, and it fell to the floor rolling next to the bottom of his dresser. When it was over, he fell unconscious, eyes open, on the smoking floor. But it was not a dreamless sleep. He was locked in silent battle, staring at two red eyes that looked back, unblinking. But, they were not the eyes of Voldemort; they were his own.

He woke to Gabriella yelling his name. It was distant at first, a soft beckoning from across the horizon, almost imperceptible as the red eyes flamed back at him. But it grew stronger, louder, until finally the red eyes blinked and disappeared. With the sound of her voice, and the withdrawal of his opponent, Harry finally shut his eyes. They burned. Tears began to stream down the sides of his face, and he squinted up to see the darkened ceiling of his bedroom, and Gabriella kneeling over him. He made to sit up, but she stopped him.

“Don’t move,” she said sternly, and then she firmly placed her hands over his face. It was as if his eyes were being washed in a refreshing bath of cool water. She let go, and he opened his eyes, now clearly able to see the devastation. It was fortunate that Hedwig was gone. The papers that had lined her cage were nothing more than ash. Harry sat up, peeling himself away from the melted carpet beneath him. The clouds seemed to open up as the morning sun beamed in through the window. “I thought I’d let you sleep, but when I came out for the paper I saw your window. What happened?” she asked, her voice shaky.

“I’m a lousy Occlumens,” he whispered, rubbing his temples.

“You… you linked again?”

“He was killing me. So I… I don’t know. I guess the opposite of what I did for Professor Dumbledore. Instead of giving him the energy, I—”

“NO!” she yelled sharply.

“He was killing me,” was all Harry could find to say. She grabbed his face and gazed intently into his eyes.

“Give me your hands!” she commanded, now straddling his legs on the floor. He obliged and she examined them as if inspecting pieces of fruit for ripeness. She was whispering something under her breath, and he felt his hands grow cold, and then warm again. Finally, she let go. “Nothing,” she breathed in amazement. “You kept none of it.”

“None of what?” Harry asked, reaching back to hold her hands. The room was a disaster, but his head was clearing, and he kind of liked her on his lap.

“Whoever, or whatever you connected to, you’ve drained it of its life force,” she answered with a voice that now seemed somewhat older. “How much I cannot say.” She placed her hand gently on his face. “But it should have become part of you. Such is the power of the stone.” Still sitting over Harry, she reached over and grabbed the stone from next to the dresser, and looked at it closely. “The temptation to hold such power has destroyed many. It has driven countless men mad with the voices they consume.” She shook her head, but then a smile opened across her face. “But you… you rejected the temptation.” She held her hand over his heart, and smiled. But then she sensed something else. She pressed her hand more firmly against Harry’s chest, but he took her by the wrist and sat up.

“I-I didn’t know that I had any choice,” answered Harry. But inside, he knew he did have the choice, and it was his choice that made him wretch out such power. In that moment of realization, he felt for the first time in some small way he had on his own terms defeated Voldemort. It was not luck, or happenstance, a gift passed down. It was instead his choice, his to take, his to reject. There on the floor, with Gabriella on his lap, Harry Potter took one grand step toward becoming who he was meant to be. He pulled her close, and she wrapped him in her arms.

Holding her there, the cold wind blowing through the broken window of his room, he began to replay the dream. For the first time, he saw in Voldemort’s eyes a look other than arrogance, or cruelty. He saw something akin to fear. Harry also felt that the Dark Lord now lay somewhere, injured. “The clock,” he whispered in Gabriella’s ear. Suddenly flashes of all his dreams came careening into his mind like flashing photos lit by a strobe: the gnomes, the garden, the clock, the upstairs room.

“The Burrow,” he said, looking into Gabriella’s eyes. “He’s taken them to the Burrow.”

In the few minutes it took for Harry to put on fresh clothes, grab his pack, and run downstairs to the fireplace, he had quickly explained all he knew, all he thought he knew to Gabriella. It was the clock, the Weasley family clock that always indicated their location that tied the fragments in his mind together. Luna and Neville were there, they must be. And now… now they had a chance to strike. Voldemort was weak.

“You can’t go there by yourself, Harry!” Gabriella exclaimed, concerned about his sudden zealousness to rescue his friends. “If you’re right, it will be crawling with his… his Death Eaters.” Harry looked at her.

“What did Cho say? Brash idiots?” Harry smiled.

“Fools,” Gabriella corrected, nervously.

“Fools.” Harry nodded. “Not this time. I’m just going to tell Mr. Weasley and I’ll be back.”

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

“No. It’s too…” he hesitated.

“Yes?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. Harry rolled his.

“Alright, but it’ll only be a minute. You’ll see.”

Gabriella cast one more look out the front window at her house across the street, and stepped into the fireplace. They stepped out at Grimmauld Place, the air filled with the smell of browning sausages. Quickly, they ran to the kitchen, only to find Ron and Hermione alone at the table eating breakfast.

“Where is everyone?” Harry cried in disappointment.

“Good to see you too, mate.” Ron smiled, chomping on a slice of toast. “Gabriella,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

“What is it, Harry?” Hermione asked cautiously.

Seeing Hermione there, reminded him of her letter. And that, in-turn, reminded him of the possibility that Sirius might be released today. But that was up to Tonks. His job now was to save Neville and Luna. He felt like saying something nasty, but Gabriella was holding his arm. It had a calming effect.

“I know where they are! I know where he’s keeping them.”

“Who?”

“Neville, and Luna.”

The second the names left Harry’s mouth, Ron and Hermione cast each other a glance then looked away. Harry didn’t understand. Why weren’t they cheering with excitement, or begging to know where? Instead, Hermione simply pushed her plate forward on the table and stood. Harry had to make them understand.

“They’re at the—”

“The Burrow,” Hermione interrupted. Her voice was sad.

Her words hit Harry squarely in the jaw. She knew. They both knew. He staggered backward, and Gabriella held him to keep him from falling over. How could they know and not do anything about it?

Gabriella pulled Harry upright, and faced Hermione. “They… You… are afraid,” she said intuitively.

“Afraid?” Hermione asked with a melancholy tone. “Yes, we’re all afraid. Professor Snape’s known their location for some time, Harry. Since then, Ron’s dad has had everyone brainstorming to find a way in and out of the Burrow that won’t put them in danger.” Her explanation was honest, but Harry was glaring at her, wondering if he really knew the person that was speaking. “Even Professor Dumbledore is afraid that if we go bursting in, he’ll kill Neville and Luna first.”

It took a moment, and then Harry felt as if the floor was turned on its side. Of course, Snape would know, and of course any assault on the Burrow by the Ministry would mean many deaths. The first to die would be Neville and Luna, Voldemort would make sure of that. He was breathing hard, casting glances from Hermione to Ron and back again. Ron just looked down at the kitchen table. It all made sense, but the anger and frustration were welling up again, and he couldn’t stop it. Unable to fix the predicament, he lashed out at his friends.

“YOU KNEW? You knew and you didn’t tell me?” he spat. Then he walked over to Ron, towering over him as he sat. “No more secrets, eh, mate?”

“Stop it, Harry!” It was Gabriella.

“THEY LIED!” he yelled back, begging for indictment. “They had me suffering over how I might find my friends, while they knew all the time!” He kicked over a kitchen chair. Gabriella, however, was unaffected by the outburst. She strode over to him and grabbed his arm.

“Do you have a link with the Phantom or not?” she asked calmly, but with a bit of a bite.

“Yes, but—”

“And if he discovered that you knew about his location, would your friends remain alive?”

“I don’t know,” Harry answered, trying to decipher it all. “He’s wanted me to… I think.”

“And if he found out how you uncovered his location… not by his own doing but by this, Professor Snape, would that not undeniably place the Professor’s life in danger, as well as the lives of your friends?” The fire faded from Harry’s eyes.

“Yes,” he said, dropping down to the bench next to Ron, but facing away from the table. He folded his arms and ground his teeth.

“Ron and I only learned about it the other night. We wanted to tell you, Harry,” Hermione said pleadingly. “We were eavesdropping on Ron’s dad, and when he caught us he swore us to secrecy.” Harry still just glared at Hermione. He hated what she had just said, more than she could possibly know. He was being left out of what was clearly his future. For a long while nobody said a word until Gabriella bent down on one knee next to Harry and adjusted the collar on his new coat, pulling the zipper up.

“You must now save them, Harry.” Her words were even and direct. Ron spun on the bench to face her.

“Didn’t you hear what we just said?” he cracked. “There are Death Eaters crawling all over my house. They’ll kill anything that walks through the door.”

“But Harry now knows all the things you’ve kept hidden. And the same reasoning applies, does it not?” she asked. “If the connection is real, the Phantom may ask how you know, and then your Professor and your friends might lose their lives the next time Harry sleeps.”

“Let’s just wait until Mr. Weasley returns tonight,” said Hermione. “He’ll know—”

“There isn’t time!” Harry shot, standing from the bench. “He’s sick now. I don’t know for how long. This will be our only chance.”

“Who’s sick?” Ron asked.

“Voldemort!”

Ron cringed at the name, but he didn’t ask how Harry knew, nor for that matter did Hermione. For once they were taking him at his word. Hermione folded her arms, and pondered the situation carefully.

“If we tell the Ministry, they’ll want to go in full force. Remus could use stealth, and so could Shacklebolt, but they’re on a mission together somewhere. Dumbledore might—”

“Dumbledore will say, ‘no’,” Harry interrupted.

“Flying’s out. I suppose we go in by floo?” she asked.

“You’re not going anywhere,” said Harry, stepping to the kitchen doors. “I’m not going to let what happened last year happen again. If it’s a trap... if he’s not sick or if he’s recovered we’ll all be dead.”

“You’re not going alone,” Ron said empathically.

Hermione was still steeped in thought. “I’d rather we had a Portkey, to get out quickly if we needed to.”

“I said you’re not going!”

“They’ll be watching the floo, I’d imagine,” said Gabriella, walking over to the stove. “Or have someone close by. If the Phantom has fallen ill, however, it may be enough of a distraction. If only there was a way to see without being seen.”

Harry cast Gabriella a look, and then glanced at his pack. He’d brought his invisibility cloak, with that purpose in mind. He was trying to think of what to tell Gabriella, when Hermione slipped out the kitchen door.

“Hermione,” Harry yelled, pushing the door open himself, “you’re not going, and that’s…” She was gone. “Hermione!” he called, looking in the study.

“She’s probably in the bathroom is all,” said Ron, a bit nervously. “Look, mate, even with your cloak on, it might be trapped. You could stick your head in the fire and have it blasted off your shoulders. It’s too…” He stopped and turned to look at Gabriella. Her eyes were fixed on him, as if examining a strange bug crawling up the side of his head. His eyes just held hers for a moment.

Finally he whispered, “Yes.” There was a pause. “I don’t know.” Harry looked at Ron and then to Gabriella. Ron nodded his head. “Why not,” he shrugged. The redhead walked over to the fireplace, and grabbed some floo powder off the mantle. “Gabriella thinks I can reach out with my mind and see if anyone’s there. Never done it, so I don’t know if it’ll work.”

“If someone is there, Ron,” said Gabriella, “you’ll know their presence -- perhaps just warmth by the fire.”

“Nothing foolish, okay?” Harry added. “Pull your brain out, or whatever, if something goes wrong.”

Ron sprinkled the powder and called for the Burrow, but instead of stepping into the fire he reached out with his mind. “I can’t see anything,” he whispered. Gabriella touched his shoulder. “Whoa! Colours.” Suddenly, his posture changed. It was as if he was channeling all he saw, experienced, back to Grimmauld Place.

“I can see the front room, and,” Ron turned his head as if actually looking to the side, “the kitchen. I feel like I could just walk on in.” He suddenly jerked back. “There’s one, sitting at the kitchen table.” He turned to look up to the right. “One’s coming down the stairs.” Then Ron’s voice changed, taking on the intonation of those speaking.

“Quit crying, and get up here!” he said in a low voice. “If you don’t help me get him down the stairs now, I’LL kill you myself.” Then Ron said in his own voice, “They’re running up the stairs.” There was a silence, and suddenly Ron began to tremble. “They’re l levitating him… through the kitchen.” Then the low voice of the Death Eater said, “Bellatrix says sunlight. Sounds crazy to me. He hasn’t seen the sun since we got here.” A moment later, Ron pulled his thoughts back, and returned to Grimmauld Place. At the same time, Hermione appeared. From where, Harry didn’t notice.

“They’re out the door,” Ron said weakly. He was looking a bit peaked. “We have to go now!” he said, rubbing his temples. “Follow me.” Before anybody could say a word to stop him. Ron and his body were on their way to the Burrow.

“Damn it!” Harry spewed. “I told him that…” he spotted that Hermione had a leather purse about her shoulder that he’d never seen before, just as she reached for some floo powder from the mantle. “You’re not—” But too late. She called to the Burrow and was gone leaving Harry alone with Gabriella. “This is not how it’s supposed to happen!” he yelled.

“Harry,” Gabriella said with a tremor in her voice, “don’t let the Death Eaters know you’re there, or the next time you link, he’ll ask how.” He could tell she was trying to stay calm, but was having troubles. “F-Fight strength with wile.” She kissed him on the lips. “I love you.”

“We’ll get them out safe,” he said. “I swear.” He hugged her quickly, grabbed some floo powder and threw it into the fire. “The Burrow!” There was a flash and immediately he found himself in Ron’s living room. The redhead, wand drawn, was already ascending the stairs. Hermione only a few steps behind. When they looked back at Harry, he pointed up, and mouthed the word ‘attic’.

There were voices outside. Someone was yelling; it was Bellatrix. He heard a wand blast something, and then screaming. Harry felt his innards begin to twist with hatred. He pulled his wand and turned away from the stairs and toward the kitchen.

“Harry,” Hermione breathed. He stopped to look. “We -- need -- you,” she said, under her breath, waiving him over. He looked to the kitchen, hesitated, then went back to help his friends.

The boards on the stairs squeaked and cracked with every step. Harry was sure they’d be overheard, but no one came. More likely, the Death Eaters were all hovering about their leader trying to figure out what might have happened. When he arrived he expected to see the house torn apart, but it wasn’t. In fact, with everyone outside, one would hardly be able to tell it was a Death Eater stronghold. The only clue was a set of dark robes thrown over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. They wanted it to look untouched, he thought, the better to hide. As they climbed to the first level, Hermione suggested that they should check the bedrooms. Harry pointed upstairs, but Ron was already headed down the hallway to his room. Grinding his teeth, Harry followed in silence.

All the doors were opened, the rooms were empty. Here too, everything appeared untouched. The three friends shrugged their shoulders, shook their heads and again Harry pointed upwards. Ron led the way. Just as Harry was leaving Ron’s room he noticed it. On the floor, partially covered by the bedcover was a red hood. Hermione started down the hall after Ron, but Harry walked in and picked up the hood. It was a deep scarlet, and made of silk. Gossamer, there were no holes for eyes. Harry held it in his hand for a moment, then slipped it on. He could see clearly, as if the hood wasn’t even there. He slipped it off ready to join the ascent to the attic, when he noticed a few long strands of blonde hair. He held them in his hand, and rubbed them between thumb and finger. Draco was here. Was that a good thing? There was a crack, and quickly he turned expecting to see Draco in the corner, but found no one; it was Ron’s weight on the stairs above.

Harry wasn’t sure what to think. In some ways he felt he’d led Draco back into his father’s arms… or arm. His emotions began to twist for letting Lucius escape. Where was the Death Eater? Where was Draco? He could feel his heart begin to race, for all the wrong reasons. He took a deep breath trying to regain his composure. Tossing the hood back on the floor he went out into the hall. Ron and Hermione had already disappeared from sight. From upstairs, there was a large squeak as a door opened. From the bottom landing, Harry was immediately hit with the strong smell of paint. And then a familiar voice, faint, but clear.

“I knew you’d be the first,” she said quietly. “I told you Neville, didn’t I? Dad says the Ministry can’t do anything right.” She coughed. “Where’s Harry?”

“I’m right here.” Harry entered the attic. Chained to the wall, her feet not touching the ground, was Luna. It looked as if she’d not eaten in days, but her eyes were clear, and when she saw Harry, a thin smile creased her gaunt face. Hermione was at her side, releasing her from the bonds. There was a lone chair in the middle of the room. Seeing it, a shiver ran down Harry’s back. Huddled in the far corner clutching a blue paintbrush was Neville. His eyes were staring blankly at the wall. Ron had made to walk over to him, but stopped. Turning from Luna to Neville, Harry wondered why Ron wasn’t moving, and then he saw why. Coiled between Neville and Ron was Nagini, her head some four feet off the ground glaring into Ron’s eyes. Her tongue flicked at his nose as she rose higher.

“Fressssh meat,” Harry heard her hiss.

Harry jumped in front of Ron. “Hasheth!” he slithered in parseltongue. “Move aside!” The snake did not strike, but neither did it move. It now glared into Harry’s eyes. Harry glared back, allowing his eyes to transform, to change into the eyes she had always obeyed. “Hasheth!” She lowered her head in something of a bow, and coiled herself about the chair in the middle of the room.

“I wasss worried massster.” She curled and closed her eyes.

Ron ran over to Neville’s side, but when the boy in blue saw him coming, he recoiled in fear.

“No!” he rasped, holding his paintbrush up for protection.

“It’s me Neville. Ron… Ron Weasley.” The redhead held out his hand, but still Neville shook with fear.

“Leave me alone!”

Hermione had Luna down from the wall, but she was unable to stand. “He won’t touch you,” she said. Her voice was weak, but her wits were clear. “His mind is gone. I guess he’ll join his parents at St. Mungo’s.”

“No!” Harry yelled. “It can’t be! He’s… he’s fine.” Hermione shushed him. He walked over to Ron’s side, but his approach only aggravated Neville more. He started to try and strike Harry and Ron with his paintbrush, only his arm was so weak he couldn’t raise it above his shoulders.

“We need to get him to hold the portkey with the rest of us,” Hermione said, reaching into her bag. Harry turned his head.

“Portkey? Where did you—”

“Ron can you just hold his hand?” she interrupted. Ron held out his hand and tried to grab Neville’s arm, but Neville kicked him hard in the stomach. Ron flew back and landed firmly on the floor, knocking over the bucket of paint. The rattling noise was loud, far louder than Harry’s yell, and for a moment nobody moved. Then they heard it, a squeak from below. Someone was climbing the stairs. Neville rose to his feet, and started for the door. Hermione had Luna in her arms, Ron was on the floor, and Harry pulled his wand out ready to attack the ascending Death Eater. Hermione pulled her own wand to paralyze Neville, when he stopped on his own.

“Ron?” Neville rasped. From the floor, Ron was focusing on Neville. Reaching out to his mind with his own. Somehow he pierced the clouds of thought. “Harry?” Neville breathed again.

“Quickly,” Hermione hissed. “Over here!” Ron stood up, and put his arm about Neville. Together they walked over and sat next to Hermione and Luna. “Harry!”

But it was too late. Whoever was climbing the stairs was upon them. In that instant, Harry recalled Gabriella’s advice, and put his hands over his face, and stepped into the doorway, closing the door behind. Just then, not one, but two cloaked and hooded figures appeared before him.

“Master Malfoy?” the Death Eater in front asked. “What’s going on? You know you’re not allowed up here.” They were both advancing toward him, though only the figure in front spoke, the other some four steps behind. “Leave at once, or your father will hear about this.”

“I-I’m sorry,” said Harry, in his best Draco drawl. “I heard screams.” The Death Eater began to laugh. “I heard screams, I swear,” Harry repeated.

“As if that were ever an excuse. Come with me, boy. Now!” The lead Death Eater pulled his wand.

And then something odd happened. The figure following from behind lifted his hand and stroked down hard with a chop onto the lead Death Eater’s neck, and he fell, out cold, at Harry’s feet. The figure stepped over the heap on the stairs and stood before Harry as he held his wand high.

“I like the new coat, but I much prefer green eyes,” she said lightly, but out of breath.

“Gabriella?”

She pulled the hood off her head. Her face was beaming, infused with energy from the fight. “I’ve been watching,” she breathed. “When I saw him climb the stairs, I thought I’d follow.” She held up the hood in her hand. “I picked this up off the table downstairs,” she said, throwing off the cloak onto the floor. “Where are they?”

“In-Inside,” he stammered, looking at her handiwork on the floor, and then he smiled. “You’re brilliant,” he said, kissing Gabriella’s cheek.

“Can I have Harry back?” she asked, not taking the kiss very well.

“Oh, sorry.” Again, the sound of people climbing the stairs echoed through the house. Quickly, Harry transformed back. “Hermione has a Portkey,” he said, opening the door.

“How convenient,” Gabriella answered in a curious tone as she stepped into the attic. She jumped seeing the snake, but Harry put his arm around her and together they stooped down onto the floor with the rest of their friends. Ron and Hermione were both surprised to see Gabriella, but there was no time for questions.

“On three,” said Harry briskly.

He felt his navel being pulled from behind, and when the spinning stopped they had arrived on a black granite floor -- St Mungo’s. They were all still seated on the floor, much as they were in the attic at the Burrow. Neville in Ron’s arms, Luna in Hermione’s. Harry looked up. It was a large empty ward, except for three healers standing over them and one graying wizard… Professor Dumbledore.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 53 - Awakenings
~~~***~~


“Three… Two… One… Happy New Year!”

Champagne glasses clinked and kisses shared with hugs more plentiful than the chocolate frogs under Harry’s floorboards. The kitchen in Grimmauld Place was packed to overflowing with wizards and witches from the Order. Many, Harry had never seen before. There was another pat on Ron’s back. Everyone was grinning from ear to ear, and even Mad-Eye seemed giddy with happiness. Again, another pat on Ron’s back. Though the morning looked destined for disaster, the day had gone spectacularly well. Another pat, and this time Ron winced. Harry knew Ron’s scars were already swollen, and he wondered how much worse they were getting from everyone congratulating him.

It was odd not being the center of attention; a small part of him was jealous. After all, it was his idea. If it weren’t for him, Neville and Luna would still be locked away. But in a day of miracles, the rescue of his classmates was already overcome by events. Mrs. Weasley quickly gathered up the champagne glasses from the youths in the room. When she took the glass out of Harry’s hand, her eyes were quite cool. Once again, Harry had led her son into danger, although he wondered how she could think that, since the story had been told a dozen times of how Ron was the first to enter the Burrow, and how he was first to enter Voldemort’s lair, although he still couldn’t say the name himself.

The room was buzzing with the name Ron. Ron this… Ron that… interspersed with the occasional ‘Frank’ or ‘Alice’, and the redhead seated in the center of the room, still pale from the day’s events, was soaking it up. He had spent the last six years in Harry’s shadow and before that his own brothers’. Now the limelight was brightly shining in his face and Harry hoped he wouldn’t get too sunburned.

“It is a blessing, when we turn our curses into gifts,” whispered Gabriella in Harry’s ear. The room was noisy and it was hard to hear. Harry nodded, but weighed the gift against the curse and wondered which would win in the end.

They had arrived at St Mungo’s, and Neville began screaming madly, but Ron was able to calm him with his mind. Over the course of the morning, Ron could communicate with Neville in a way that no one else was able. By lunch, with Ron’s help Harry was talking to Neville, and soon his mind seemed completely free of the agony placed on it by Voldemort’s Cruciatus curse. It was mid afternoon when a healer in red robes came down and called Ron out into the hallway. A look of fear came across Ron’s face, and at first he said he couldn’t do it.

“Do what?” Harry asked.

“My head’s already pounding, Harry,” he whispered. “I really had to concentrate on Neville. I tell you… my head’s pounding.” Harry looked at the back of his neck, and saw that the scars were raised and red.

“What do they want you to do?”

“The Longbottoms,” Ron swallowed.

“You can’t be serious?”

“Try at least,” Ron shrugged.

“You know what happened when…”

“Yeah, I know,” Ron interrupted. He pulled his fingers through his red hair and sighed. “Will you come? Maybe stop me if I go too far?”

“How ‘bout I stop you right now?” Harry scolded, but Ron looked back with solid eyes. He was going with or without Harry, and so Harry climbed the stairs with his friend and the healer.

It was agony watching Ron contort in pain. The room was silent, as Ron sat holding Alice Longbottom’s hand. Her gray hair hung down about her shoulders, and the lines of her face showed a pain that dared not speak its name. At first, she was frightened when Ron reached to her with his mind, but then she calmed. Then, although Ron seemed to wince every so often, Alice was quiet, occasionally nodding her head and smiling. Her husband Frank was oblivious to what was happening. He was speaking to an imaginary someone or something in a landscape portrait on the wall.

The scars on the nape of Ron’s neck began to stretch about his ears like Morning Glory spreading toward the sun. Again, Ron winced in a silent burst of pain and this time Harry decided enough was enough. He stood and walked over to stop the mind meld… when it happened. Alice opened her eyes and held her hand to the side of Ron’s face.

“Well of course you’re a Weasley, dear,” she said quietly. “Look at that hair. Your father’s was much longer at your age. Where is Arthur anyway?” They were the first cogent sentences she had put together in fifteen years.

The healer gasped. Ron, eyes closed, was still trying to link, his face contorted in distress.

“Ron?” Harry called. There was no answer. “Ron!” he yelled again, shaking his best friend. Finally, he blinked and looked up, not at Harry, but at the Healer.

“You know, I hate the chicken dumplings here, and would you tell Millicent to brush her teeth?” he complained in an affected voice. He let go of Alice’s hand, and fell backwards into Harry’s arms. He was pale, weak, and trembled slightly.

“My god, Vincent!” said Alice Longbottom, looking straight at the healer in red. “You’re a healer, aren’t you? Help the poor lad!”

Flabbergasted, Vincent quickly gave Ron a potion that helped with the pain, and calmed his nerves. Then, he treated his back, bathing it in a blue light. The swelling lessened slightly, but Harry could see that the scars that had taken weeks to reduce were now back worse than ever. Everyone, including Mrs. Longbottom, wanted Ron to wait at least a day before trying to reach into Frank Longbottom’s mind, but he was insistent.

“I can do this,” he said determinedly.

Two hours later, Frank and Alice were holding each other tightly. Their minds weren’t all together clear, but with each passing minute another layer of fog seemed to lift from their memories. It was as if they had been released from a fifteen-year immobulus hex. They remembered all the attempts at treatment, all the visits, all the stories that Gran had told them of the events in the world, all the times Neville—

“Neville…” Alice Longbottom said in a soft voice. “Where’s Neville? He… He’s about your age I believe.” No sooner had she asked, than the door swung open and their son walked in followed by his grandmother and another healer in red.

“Mum?” he asked in disbelief. For the first time that he could remember, he looked up to find blue eyes that looked back with recognition. Her graying hair seemed somewhat darker and healthier, and the lines about her eyes weren’t lines of pain, but of joy. “Mum?” he asked again, stepping cautiously into the room. She smiled broadly, and opened her arms wide, and in an instant Neville was holding her tight.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to her son. “I… I…” she broke down in tears, holding the son she had watched grow into a man, unable to tell him how much she loved him, only able to give him a simple token of how proud she was of the man he was becoming.

Frank Longbottom looked for the longest time at his own mother standing by the door. She was stunned, unable to take in what she was seeing. Frank flashed her the smile that had charmed many a witch and wizard in his youth, and then stepped over to his son. “S-So you’re a G-Gryffindor, eh?” His words were shaky, but his thoughts clear. “I used to s-sneak your mum into the Gryffindor c-common room after hours. C-cost me a month of detentions when I was caught. Did your Gran ever tell you?” Neville looked at his dad and shook his head smiling.

“Of course, I didn’t!” Gran Longbottom puffed. “Why would I fill the boy’s head with such a terrible example of behavior?”

One of the healers tapped Harry on the shoulder. Looking to his side, Ron had fallen asleep. Together, Harry and the healer took Ron out of the room for treatment, as the Longbottoms began a reunion of a lifetime.

They were halfway down the hall when the door burst open and Neville ran down the corridor to meet them.

“Is he okay?” Neville asked with concern.

“Yes, he’s okay,” said Ron smugly, trying to stand taller, tipping, and then holding tightly to Harry’s arm.

“I owe you Ron,” said Neville solemnly. “You too, Harry. On my honor, as long as I live—”

“Get back in there, Neville,” said Harry determinedly.

“That’s right,” Ron added. “You don’t owe us anything.” Then Ron smiled. “Except maybe a nice plant for Mum. She was a bit chafed no one gave her flowers for Christmas.” Neville grinned, and ran back to join his family. Ron slumped the moment Neville left, and for the next few hours the healer became the patient.

Now, he sat in the middle of the kitchen at Grimmauld Place, and whatever fatigue or pain he was experiencing, Harry couldn’t tell. Ron was all smiles, surrounded by the Order of the Phoenix. When word got out about the rescue, nearly all of them, knowing the students were safe, had Apparated en masse to the Burrow to attack. They found the Weasley home empty. Then word came that the Longbottoms, though still at St. Mungo’s for observation, had miraculously recovered. Nearly everyone now in the kitchen had gone by to visit them. Between the clinking of glasses and mugs, all were sharing stories of times past when the Longbottoms and the Potters carried the day for the Order. They were stories Harry had never heard before, stories of defiance and victory over Voldemort and his Death Eaters.

“Three times I tell you!” It was Mad-Eye who turned toward Harry and raised his glass. “To James and Lily Potter!”

“Here-Here!” the room called out, and then drank to his parents’ memory.

Harry tried to smile, but found himself clenching his teeth, and squeezing Gabriella’s hand far too tightly.

“Come on,” she said, pulling him to the door, as the group once again placed their attention upon Ron. The two emerged into the entryway where a handful of members were quietly chatting. It was cooler out here, and Harry took in a deep breath. “You hate that, don’t you?” Gabriella asked. Harry nodded.

“I never knew my parents. I never will.”

“No?” questioned Gabriella. “Mama says when we pass on we leave behind an imprint of ourselves in all those whose lives we’ve touched. I think that, tonight, I’ve met your parents. They were brave, and kind, and most of all, they loved their son very, very much.” Harry said nothing, but nodded ever so slightly. Again, he took a deep breath.

“Neville got his parents back today,” he said. “Mine are gone forever.” Then he took Gabriella by the arm and led her in toward the study. “But, there’s someone I can bring back,” he whispered, excitedly. “I thought I’d hear by now.”

“Bring back?” Gabriella asked, confused.

“Yes,” he said, with a smile that reminded Gabriella of his expression before crashing the motorcycle late last summer. “That’s probably why she’s not here right now.”

“Who?”

“I gave her my blood. I would have thought—”

“Your blood?” she exclaimed.

“She needed it for—”

“Hi, guys.” Hermione walked in through the study doors. “Terribly hot in the kitchen, don’t you think?”

“Hi, Hermione,” Gabriella answered kindly. “It’s a shame we can’t open the front door, and keep it open, don’t you think?”

“That would be nice,” Hermione said, fanning herself, and flopping down in one of the chairs. Harry just glowered, ready to explode, but Gabriella squeezed his arm.

“Do you think any of the Order might be able to find a way to cool the house off? Certainly, one of them would be capable,” Gabriella suggested.

“I don’t think we need the Order,” Hermione replied, a bit put off. “Properly placed, a simple cooling charm would work.”

“Really?” Gabriella replied with interest. “I’ve never seen such a charm.” Hermione rose and pulled her wand.

“Right outside the kitchen will do the trick, you’ll see… just a moment.” The moment Hermione stepped out the doorway, Gabriella unzipped Harry’s sleeve and pulled out his invisibility cloak. When Hermione returned they were gone. “Harry? Gabriella?” She looked about for a bit then turned back toward the door. “Damn,” she hissed, and stepped out.

Gabriella was holding Harry from behind when she pulled him backwards against the wall, and together they quietly slid down to the floor. One hand was against his waist the other against his chest.

“That was brilliant,” he chuckled.

“I thought… last night,” Gabriella began. “I knew something was wrong, but you pulled your hand away.” Her fingers were pressing into his chest and the feeling was not comfortable.

“Hey, that kinda—”

“Tell me who drained your blood,” she said with a fierce edge in her voice. “Hermione?”

“No! Are you kidding? And she didn’t drain me. It’s not like she’s a vampire or something.”

“WHO?” She pressed her fingers further into his skin. There was a nerve there, and a sudden burning sensation spread across his chest.

“Tonks, okay? Tonks.” Gabriella softened the pressure. “She found a way to bring my godfather, her cousin, back from behind the curtain. She said… she said today it would be done, but no one’s seen her. Something must have gone wrong.” Harry relaxed, leaning back against Gabriella.

“There are very few arts that ask for blood, and nearly all of them are dark. Are you sure she can be trusted?” Harry didn’t answer the question. Instead he asked his own.

“Didn’t you hear what I said?” he exclaimed. “She’s going to bring back Sirius.”

There was a distant, but familiar creak, as the front door to Grimmauld Place swung open. A draft of cold air swirled in the study. A voice called, “Harry!” There was banter out in the entranceway.

“Nymphradora, how grand to see you! My you’ve grown.”

“Fine to see you too, sir. Have you seen Harry?”

“I believe he’s in the kitchen.”

Harry pulled to get up, but Gabriella held him fast. He couldn’t move. “Harry, there’s something not right about this.”

“That’s crazy,” he hissed.

“Do you trust me?” she asked quietly. There was no response. “Wait until she comes into the study. She’s looking for you, so she will. When you show yourself, see how she reacts.” Gabriella released her grip, but Harry stayed seated with her on the floor. They listened as Tonks tried the kitchen, called upstairs, then finally walked into the study. Finding it empty, she slammed the door and cursed, turning her back to the two beneath the invisibility cloak and pounding her forehead against the wood of the door.

“No, oh no, oh no,” she muttered to herself over and over. Gabriella poked Harry in the side of the ribs, and he slipped out from under the cloak. Tonks heard the sound and spun wildly, her wand pointed directly at Harry’s eyes.

“Whoa!” he exclaimed holding up his hands. “Bit fast on the draw there, aren’t you Tonks?”

“HARRY!” she breathed. Then she narrowed her eyes looking behind him. “But I’ve been calling.”

“Yeah, people have been hounding me all day. I just curled up under the cloak and took a nap. Sorry,” he said, feigning a yawn, lifting his glasses with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. “So, have you tried yet?”

Tonks was clearly agitated. She had a look of panic in her eyes that Harry had never seen before. It took her some time before she finally lowered her wand. “No. Yes. I… I tried. It didn’t work,” she said completely frustrated. The revelation struck Harry hard, and he fell into the moment.

“It didn’t work? But I thought—”

“I know!” Tonks yelled. She fell into one of the chairs, covering her face with her hands. “I know.”

“I should have been there to help you. I should have—”

“No,” Tonks snapped, standing again. The movement was unnatural. “No. That… that would be too risky.”

“Did you set the right code? I mean, maybe if you—”

“Yes, damn it! Everything was the way it was supposed to be.” She began to pace the room, and at one point Harry thought for sure she would trip over Gabriella hidden in the corner. “Your blood, Malfoy’s blood, the basin, the code… it was perfect. It should have worked, but nothing. Now… now I’m in trouble.”

“Trouble?” Harry asked. “What do you mean? No one knows but me, right? They didn’t see you, did they?”

“What?” Tonks muttered distracted. “No, they didn’t see me.” She took a long deep breath trying to steady her nerves. “Don’t listen to me, Harry. I’m just a bit nervous is all. I thought we would have them… er… him tonight. I thought Sirius would return.” The room was cooling, but still a bit too warm for Harry. Even so, Tonks walked over to the fire. The flames flickered high, and the embers burned hot, but even as she stood next to it to warm herself, she trembled. Harry came over and put his arm about her shoulder.

“We just have to try again, that’s all. I’ll look once more at the riddle. Maybe we missed something.”

“Maybe,” she whispered, staring into the flames. Harry holding her, she gazed into the fire for quite some time. Eventually, the trembling stopped, and the fear holding her eyes captive vanished. She turned placing her hand to his face. “Harry… I-I need… I—” There was a rap at the door, and the two turned. A charm was cast and the door unlocked. Tonks began to reach for her wand just as Hermione entered.

“Harry. Tonks,” she said, smiling. “I thought the room was empty. Where’s Gabriella, is she cooler now?” Tonks suddenly became nervous once more and began scanning the room.

“I think she’s upstairs,” Harry said, clenching his teeth again and looking directly at Hermione with eyes that would burn. “Perhaps you should go check.” Hermione didn’t reply. Instead she nodded and turned to leave, but then stopped.

“Oh, Tonks,” she said. “Hestia was looking for you… something about having to cover your watch at the Ministry. She didn’t seem too happy.” Hermione shrugged, and walked out the door. Stepping to the door herself, Tonks watched her leave then swung around to Harry. Again, Harry thought the movement odd.

“We’ll talk about this again… back at school. We must. Maybe we just rushed things. I-I think we might have time… I hope,” she whispered. “Just… just don’t tell anybody, okay? Especially Hermione, she’ll stop us for sure.”

Harry nodded. “You’re right. We’ll take our time. If there’s any chance at all, we need to do it right.”

Tonks started walking toward the door then stopped looking about the room one last time. “Yes… at school,” she said, heading out the door and toward the kitchen.

With the door open, Harry felt another cool breeze rush past him toward the fire. He turned expecting to see something or someone, but no one was there. A shiver ran down his spine, and he wasn’t sure why. A moment later, Gabriella was out from under the cloak and at his side.

“What do you say we go home and you tell me what this is all about?” she suggested. “In case you didn’t already notice, Hermione is clearly on to you.”

Harry silently nodded, rolling his fingers into a fist.

“She’s your friend, right?” she asked softly. “She’s probably only worried about you.”

“Worried about me?” Harry asked sharply. “She’s up to something, and it’s not just snogging Ron behind the statues in Gryffindor tower.” He shook his head. “If she’s worried, she’s worried I’m breaking the rules, and I don’t think I’m playing by the rules right now. But then, it’s not her godfather, is it?” This time Harry paused a moment and looked about the room. “Yeah, I’m ready to get out of here. If Ron wants to blow a gasket in his noggin, let him; and if Hermione sticks her nose in any further, I’ll just have to nip it off, won’t I?” He pushed the cloak into the sleeve of his jacket, took her by the hand, and quickly walked out of the study to use the floo. They skipped the kitchen, avoiding any pleasantries, but just as Harry reached for some powder, the front door opened. Remus Lupin stepped in wearing a toothy grin, followed by the same scowling and sullen Professor Snape.

“It’s a miracle, I tell you Severus,” Remus said, brushing a dusting of snow off his cloak. He looked for a hook to hang his cloak by, but finding them all full, opted to toss it onto the floor with the many others. “I’ve got to see Ron.”

“Ah, yes,” Professor Snape drawled. “Hogwarts has now replaced Saint Potter with Saint Weasley. Pathetic… truly pathetic.” He too pulled off his cloak. Only, instead of dropping it to the floor he pulled his wand, cast a spell at the wall, and hung the garment there.

“You know that’ll leave a mark, Severus,” scolded Remus.

“I highly doubt that Sirius much cares at this point.”

“It’s Harry’s home now, and you know that Molly will mind.”

Professor Snape rolled his eyes, ignoring the correction in etiquette, and slipping his wand away. As Snape turned more fully into the light, Gabriella let out an almost imperceptible gasp.

“I know him,” she whispered from behind. “Severus Snape. He came to visit Papa, about a month ago.” She took a step backward behind Harry shielding her face behind his hair now hanging wildly about his neck. The move was not like her, and it was as if a switch had been flipped inside Harry. He suddenly disliked Professor Snape much less than normal, and that was saying a lot. Harry’s right arm began to burn, and the powder in his hand slipped through his fingers, scattering to the floor. The two moved away from the fireplace and next to the column by the staircase.

“I don’t understand,” Harry whispered back, as Lupin and Snape continued to argue near entrance. “I thought you severed all ties with—”

“I thought so too,” she said. “And look at me, here with all of you. If Severus sees me, Papa will know that—”

“He won’t see you.” Harry reached in to grab his cloak, but as he did so his elbow hit a candle stand and both Lupin and Snape looked over toward the noise. Swift as a cat, Gabriella swung behind the column. Seeing only Harry but maybe more, Professor Snape’s eyes narrowed.

“Potter,” Snape sneered. “What a shame to find you here. But then, I should have expected such. You have no real home, do you?” Holding Snape’s eyes with contempt in his own, Harry moved away from the staircase and toward the front door. As hoped, the professor kept eye contact and turned with his back to Gabriella. “Still playing the orphaned, unloved, foster child to the Weasleys.” More flame began to pour into Harry’s veins.

“Severus, really,” Remus scolded. “Leave the boy—”

“What’s it like not being the center of attention, Potter?” pressed Professor Snape, turning his lips up in something of a smile as he stepped closer to Harry. “Are you finally fading into the shadows where you’ve always belonged?” Harry’s eyes were raging, and Professor Snape enjoyed the sight he’d missed for so long. He didn’t know why, but he was getting to Harry at last. “No. I think not. You’ll try some new fool stunt and get someone else killed again.”

“Severus!” Remus yelled.

Harry was going to reach for his wand when the choking started in his throat, like a fur-ball needing to be dislodged. When he spat it out, all that emerged was a quavering whistle. Snape began to cackle. Harry had never heard him laugh before, and the sound was revolting. Still whistling, Harry reached for his wand, pointing it at Snape’s two beady eyes, and in an instant the cackle stopped. Snape, still smirking, slowly pointed his own wand back. Harry continued to whistle, his eyes filled with hatred toward the Professor.

“Please, Potter,” he spat. “Make this easy. Or, has the cat got your tongue?”

Angered, Gabriella stepped out, tall and defiant, from behind the column. When Snape saw her, his face contorted with a look of bewilderment and shock. She charged, and Snape cast the first spell at her. Harry didn’t say it, he couldn’t, but his thoughts were focused and even while he whistled, a shield charm burst from his wand and deflected the spell meant for Gabriella. It hit the wall under the staircase, and sprayed wood shards everywhere. Snape gaped in astonishment.

Remus pulled his own wand unsure where to point, but it didn’t matter. On instinct, Snape spun and expelled it. Harry wanted to fire at Snape, but Gabriella was too close, and closing in. Snape’s reflex to expel Remus’ wand, though quick was not quick enough. The distraction gave her but a split second. She needed only half that time. Her foot struck Snape’s forearm, and a loud crack reverberated about the entryway. His wand fell, clattering to the floor. With a sweep of her other leg, Snape lost his footing and was splayed out on his back. In a flash, she was on top of him holding his neck with her left hand, her right ready to strike.

“How do you know my father?” she commanded. She leaned her knee into his broken arm twisted on the floor. Snape winced in pain.

The kitchen was emptying and all stopped, stunned by the sight. Wands were quickly drawn just as Harry stepped between the members of the Order, and Gabriella towering above her prey. His arm ached, the pain beading perspiration on his forehead.

“Put the wand down and step aside, Potter!” Mad-Eye yelled.

“Don’t make another move, Professor,” Harry said stiffly. “This is my home, and some of the guests have been behaving badly.”

Mad-Eye ignored his words and stepped forward reaching for his wand. Harry responded instantly. A tremendous flash of light erupted, not at the group in front of him, but at the ceiling above. The second floor came crashing down sending the members of the Order running for cover, and burying some under the rubble.

“You know my father,” Gabriella yelled at Snape. “How is that?” Again she leaned on Snape’s broken arm, only this time her hand twisted the side of his neck making his legs shake violently. Clenching his teeth, almost smiling, he remained defiantly silent.

“Immobulus!”

Harry spun to find Remus holding his wand. On the floor lay Professor Snape, stiff as a board.

“Murus!” Remus yelled. A shimmering wall appeared between the members of the Order and the four now in the entryway. Remus walked over to Professor Snape as Gabriella stood and slowly backed away. He looked down at the victim on the floor. “You’d kill her if you had the chance, wouldn’t you Severus?” He reached down and pulled a small dagger out of Snape’s good hand. He held it up to his face, examining the silver blade. “Not very sporting of you.” Remus turned toward Harry and Gabriella. Harry half-heartedly held his wand up at Remus, just as Gabriella took his side. Remus simply sighed. He wanted to say something. Harry could see it in his eyes… something important… something wise. “Go home you two,” was all he could muster.

“But…” Harry halted, to the ceiling.

“I don’t know, Harry. Just go home, and stay there. We’ll figure the rest out later.”

“But this man…” said Gabriella fiercely, “he’s been in my home. He knows my father! And now he pulls his wand on Harry. Who is he?”

“This man is Professor Severus Snape, and one of the finest wizards at Hogwarts,” Remus said quite sincerely. “Your father is a Professor as well, is he not?” Gabriella reticently nodded, still having difficulty placing Snape in both worlds. “It does not seem so strange to me. But… if he should come to visit your father again, and I were you, I might stay locked in my room until he leaves. Now go!” Remus flicked his wand and it popped with a loud snap, making them jump. He didn’t need to ask again.

When they emerged into number four, Privet Drive, Gabriella was both confused and furious. Harry, however, was laughing. Not from joy or mirth, but in a sort of nervous release of unspent energy that found no other way to express itself. He felt like rolling on the floor, but it was too disgusting.

“What are you laughing about?” Gabriella yelled.

“That’s it,” said Harry slapping his hands together. “I’m out. Not only did I use magic out of school, I used it to attack the Order.” He laughed again, and pulled her close. “I’m practically a Muggle already. I can feel it!” He kissed her briskly on the lips and walked into the kitchen. “That is, if they don’t send me to Azkaban.” He opened a cupboard and pulled down two glasses. “I wonder if Duncan will give me my old job back. The kid he’s got working at the shop now is a right git.” He filled the glasses with ice then grabbed a chair and slid it next to the icebox. Stepping up and reaching into the back corner of the cupboard above the icebox, he pulled out a bottle of whiskey. “Vernon’s private stash.” He smirked, raising his eyebrows up and down. “Join me?”

“Harry, put that away,” she scolded, but he didn’t listen, and filled both glasses.

He held one up examining the golden liquid. The reflection in the glass seemed to glint two dots of red, and whatever smile Harry was trying to push forward faded away. He wished it could all be over, but wishing didn’t make it so. Was the Dark Lord dead? Had Harry killed him at last? No. He was alive. Weak, but alive. Somehow, inside, Harry knew. He also knew one thing more--Gabriella’s father was a dark wizard. There was no other explanation for Snape’s meeting with him, but he could never tell her that. He could feel the walls closing in around him.

“They’ll take my wand away,” he whispered, and then tossed the contents of the glass down his throat. “Maybe worse,” he rasped. He began to pour again, but Gabriella took his hand.

“Don’t be silly.” She smiled sadly. “Like Atlas, you’ve been dealt a cruel trick and the weight of the world now rests on your shoulders. If something happens to you, we would all fall into oblivion.” She put her arms about him. “Tell me, Harry, how is it that Asha should bring us together? My Titan. My love.” She pulled him close.

There was cheering and the popping of crackers outside in the street, as revelers made their way back to their homes. Where was Harry’s home? Since the moment he first saw the castle, he had always thought Hogwarts, save for the one glimmering moment when he held hope his home would be with Sirius. But now both possibilities would soon be taken away. No, home would be here. Holding her in his arms, he looked at the disastrous living room, and then considered the burnt out shell of a room upstairs. He would definitely have to start cleaning tomorrow. But tonight… tonight he was sure that Dudley wouldn’t mind lending Harry his room. It was a new year, after all, what could possibly happen?

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 54 - Pure Water
~~~***~~~


There was a loud crash.

Suddenly awake, Harry instinctively reached for his wand at the bedside table. Only he couldn’t move. He tried again, and still his body refused to respond.

A clatter and another crash.

He could feel the sheets about his body, his hands under the pillow beneath his face, but he couldn’t see. His eyes were closed, and they would not open. “Gabriella!” he tried to cry out, but no sound came. He was immobilized, but he knew the feeling of an immobulus hex, and this was not it. A car passed by on Privet Drive.

“That’s familiar,” he thought. “I’m still in the house.” Breathing in, he detected a hint of Gabriella’s perfume. “Oh, no, please, no.”

More clattering to either side. Something, not quite human, was moving about the bed in the Dursleys’ master bedroom. The bed jerked violently and there was another crash.

“Be careful! But, be swift. We must not tarry. We must meet the rising star.” The voice was deep and stern.

“If the others learn of our actions…” This voice was softer, and anxious.

“They will learn soon enough.” His words were heavy, filled with a familiar sorrow.

More distant steps and the sound of a door swinging open.

“Is it done?” asked the deep voice.

“She is finished,” said a harsh male voice, also filled with sadness.

Harry could feel himself scream. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He could feel the perspiration build about his face, but still he could not move.

“He is awake,” said the nervous one.

“Then it is time,” said the leader, as if regretting his words.

More clatter, the sound of glass shattering, and a sudden sense of weightlessness. He felt as if he were floating above his bed. A burning red flash filled his gaze, and then all went black again. It was cold, very cold. He would be shivering if his body were able. The feeling of the sheet and pillow had disappeared. He felt nothing, but cold. The sounds too had changed. There was a stillness in the air. The clattering stopped, replaced with a swooshing sound -- footsteps in snow.

“Cover him,” commanded the deep voice. “We don’t need him dying on us before the Cleansing.” A moment later, Harry felt warmth as something was placed around him, and tied about his neck and waist.

“It’s not too late,” pleaded the nervous voice. “When he dies, school’s wizard will—”

“Before you were born, your fate was sealed to this night… this new year… this rebirth.”

“I only wish I could see the stars.”

“They would only reveal the same truths we’ve spoken of…”

They were moving. He felt as if he was floating just in front of the others. Then a scent filled his nostrils: pine, wet, decay. They were in a forest… the Forbidden Forest, he was sure of it. The occasional call of a bird, or scamper of a creature was all he heard.

“… he will die this day, as we have known all along.”

There was a general snort from the other two, and then silence. No one spoke as they continued to make their way into the forest. The smell of death grew stronger, and a sense of foreboding swelled in Harry’s heart. They continued for what seemed like an hour, when finally the youngest broke the silence.

“You have always had the keenest eyes.” There was no response. “And only you have seen its return.” It was clear he was uncomfortable with what they were about to do.

“Tell him to stop!” Harry yelled in his head.

“There is another that has marked its return… at the school. A year hence it will burn as a second sun, and shimmer as a second moon, never dimmed by darkness. Would you have me close my eyes?” The words were scolding.

“But the school’s wizard… surely he will seek retribution.”

“It is not our fate to concern ourselves with the whims of wizards. Tonight, above the clouds, the brightness of Mars dims as Ebyrth returns. Without the Cleansing, their cold emptiness will consume us all. I will not set myself against the heavens.”

Harry began to notice a hint of daylight filtering through his closed lids. The three stopped, and that’s when he noticed it: the sound of birds chirping had disappeared… replaced by the sound of water. It was a small trickling at first. The air was much fresher here, as the odor of decay vanished. He focused his mind, concentrating to move himself, but his bones were held motionless. He had never known an immobulus hex to last this long. Again, he cried out, but there was only silence.

“He grows restless,” said the anxious voice, still tight with anticipation.

“It will be over soon,” answered the dispassionate, deep voice.

“The waters have gone hungry for many years. He will not survive.”

“Yes, I know.”

They continued to move, following the babbling water. As they pressed on, the small stream was met by another, and then another. Eventually, the babble grew into a roar. Harry could feel a gentle breeze against his face that was still cold, but inside, for some reason, he felt warm. Fear, however, was creeping into his heart. He began to imagine Death Eaters, dark goblins, giants. He could hear the crashing of the water move from just ahead to directly beneath him. He knew this sound, and the only place in the Forbidden Forest that could make it. In his mind’s eye, he could see where he was, he had been levitated out over the falls. He’d been here before on his Caduceus, only now he had no broom to support his weight.

“Remove the cloak,” the leader called out over the roar of the falling water. Instantly, the mist and spray blasted Harry’s entire body. He expected cold, but what he felt was pain. A thousand tiny needles plunged inward through his flesh. He tried to cry out, but made no sound.

“Wait! We can’t—”

“Goodbye… Harry Potter -- Savior of our world.”

The spell holding him skyward was released, and with it the spell holding him motionless. Flailing his arms, he began to plummet down, spray splashing against his naked body. With each wave of water washing up against his skin, he felt a deeper sensation of pain. As he tumbled, he tried to see who had thrown him to his death, but everything was a blur; his glasses were still on the table by the bed on Privet Drive. Three figures, one reminiscent of a Weasley, pulled back from the brink and disappeared from view. The water, the rocks, all rose up to greet him. Had it been Voldemort? Was this the end? He closed his eyes, and in that instant, just before his death, he remembered. Instead of clenching in fear, his eyes opened fully to freely meet their fate. He splashed into the pool, just missing jagged edges of stone to either side. His body was on fire, and he heard them call as he continued to sink.

The voices, and there were many, came from everywhere. “Love harbors no enemies… be cleansed.” A tremendous flash of light filled his field of vision, blinding him with its brightness. His lungs were screaming for air, but there was none to be had. His flesh felt as if it were being torn from his bones, and his head… his head erupted in pain. The agony was too great; he wanted to die. But then his spirit to survive welled up within. He couldn’t die, not yet, not like this. He needed to help, at least offer hope against the darkness. In the fractured light, he thought he saw them coming to greet him, coming to take him away from this world.

Mother? Father? I’ve failed; forgive me.

He surrendered to his fate as his vision began to flicker, tunneling to a single point of bright white, only to fade to utter darkness.

He gasped for air, and heaved great gulps of it into his lungs. His eyes sprang open, and he sat bolt upright, the sheet falling to his waist. A dream? It couldn’t have been a dream. Wait; this was wrong… he was in his uncle and aunt’s room, the only room in the Dursleys’ house that hadn’t been damaged. There was a large banging sound downstairs and Harry, his head pounding at a migraine magnitude, reflexively reached for his wand at the tableside, but all he found was a book on how to sell drills. He was feeling disoriented, his whole body ached, and the fact that everything was blurred didn’t help. Someone was coming up the stairs, so Harry took to his feet, his long hair falling down about his face. Still confused, he suddenly realized the bruises that ran up and down his naked body. Quickly, he wrapped himself in the sheet, grabbed the largest weapon he could find, the book on drills, and stepped behind the door. The door swung open, hitting Harry hard in shoulder. He reached up to swing down, when the person grabbed his hand.

“Harry?” he asked. “What the… What are you doin’ in dad’s room dressed like a Greek? You have some sort of toga party last night?”

“Dudley?” Harry asked squinting his eyes.

Dudley tossed his father’s suitcase down and slipped the book out of Harry’s hand, flinging it onto the bed.

“Two weeks alone, and you get a bit jumpy, eh?” He looked over at the bed. “I don’t recall them saying you could sleep here.”

“Well… er…” Harry stammered. “In my room, there was a bit of a fire see, and…”

“Fire?” Dudley exclaimed excitedly, quickly dashing across the hall, and bursting into Harry’s room.

“Wait!” yelled Harry, chasing after him. “I—”

He nearly tripped over Dudley standing in the doorway to his room.

“What fire?” challenged Dudley.

The room was, well, perfect. The carpet looked as it always had. Even the stains beneath the unbroken window were the same. Hedwig’s cage had fresh paper. It was as if nothing had happened. The only unusual thing about his room was that it was clean, and his bed made. His glasses were at his bedside, but his wand was nowhere to be found. Quickly, Harry put his glasses on, pulling Vernon’s sheet tighter about him.

“Glass…” Harry whispered, ignoring Dudley’s question. “I know I heard shattered glass.” Harry dashed into Dudley’s room. It too looked untouched. He was certain he’d heard the lamp from the dresser crash to the floor, but there was absolutely nothing wrong. He heard the heavy footsteps of Vernon climbing the stairs. Holding two suitcases, he met Harry at the top, and his face was furious. He dropped them both, and was pointing back down the stairs but was too winded to say anything. And then Harry remembered the disaster downstairs.

“I-I’m sorry,” Harry said, apologizing for what he’d done to the living room. “I just haven’t had a chance—”

“Sorry?” Vernon screamed. “We trusted you with the safekeeping of our home, and this is how you repay us!? Get out of my sight, boy!” He grabbed the suitcases and trudged into his room.

“You forgot to put the liquor bottle back in the cupboard,” Dudley whispered in Harry’s ear. “Mum found it in the icebox.” Dudley patted Harry on the shoulder. “You know, he keeps a case in the garage. I always swap ‘em out and he never notices.”

Harry hurried down the stairs and Dudley followed. Petunia was putting a few bags worth of groceries away. She scowled silently at Harry as he made his way to the living room. The fireplace was gone, covered by the same wall that was there before. The room was spotless, except for the jacket Gabriella had given him, which now hung over the back of one of the chairs.

“I will not have a drunk that is incapable of picking up after himself under my roof!” Aunt Petunia called from the kitchen. “Take your coat to your room!”

“I guess,” smirked Dudley under his breath, “that means you can drink all you want… as long as you’re neat.” He smiled, kicked off his shoes, and flipped on the television. Befuddled, Harry grabbed his jacket and made his way back up the stairs. Was it all a dream? But these bruises? He had to get dressed, and see if Gabriella was okay.

His head still ached as he returned to his room. Unsure of anything, he began to question everything that happened since he left Hogwarts. Had he slept for over a week? Some enchantment perhaps? He was putting on his clothes, trying to remember his dream from the night before, it had seemed so real, when the doorbell rang; it was Gabriella. Harry’s heart leapt as he heard her voice from downstairs. She was in an animated conversation with Dudley when Harry heard her cry out, “What do you mean he’s here?!”

“Wait! You can’t—” Dudley called, but too late. She was charging up the stairs.

Harry met her outside his door and she nearly tackled him full force driving him back into his room. “Harry! You’re okay!” She held him tight, kissing his neck again and again. “Where have you been? I thought they… I thought they… Asha, Harry, it’s been days.”

“Days?” Harry asked confused. “What do you mean? What day is it?”

“Saturday,” she answered, pushing back the wisps of hair hanging in Harry’s face.

“The fourth?” he asked unsteadily. “That’s not possible. I was only…” Seeing her expression he stopped. Her eyes had drifted upward from his. He was used to this look from most people, but not Gabriella. She wasn’t listening, and that irritated him. “Yeah, it’s my scar. Now would you look at me?” he said, pointing at his own eyes with two fingers.

Gabriella slowly shook her head, and then took her own hand rubbing her thumb against his scar. “It… it’s gone,” she whispered.

“What?” Harry asked. He stood and walked over to the dresser, then lifted back his hair to see the scar on his forehead. Where once was what could be described as a single bolt of lightning, was a normal everyday forehead, free of any mark at all. Seeing that the mark had vanished, his eyes drift down to his arm. Though his arm did not ache, the scar was there, but not as he had seen it before. The mark of the sword and the snake was neither red, nor swollen, but a clear white outline traced its structure. He let his hair drop down about his face.

“No,” Harry muttered, slumping his shoulders. All his life he had looked back at the mark of death that taunted him; now it was gone. He placed both hands on his dresser trying to think. “What’s going on? What’s happening to me?”

“You’re safe,” she answered. “That’s the important thing. But, we need to talk. There are—”

Uncle Vernon burst into the room. “Is this what you’ve been doing while we’ve been gone?” he spat, grabbing Gabriella by the arm. She could have easily snapped his, but made no such move. “You know… NO VISITORS!” He began to drag Gabriella out of the room. “You’ll have to leave.”

Harry on the contrary was furious. “Stop it!” Vernon ignored him, roughly escorting Gabriella to the stairs. Knowing he had no wand, Harry held up his hand, “Expelliarmus!” he yelled. Nothing happened. He looked at the palm of his right hand as if trying to see why it had misfired then raised it again. “Stupefy!” he called, and still nothing happened.

Vernon and Gabriella were halfway down the stairs, with Harry only a step behind, when there was a loud pop from below, then a snap. Aunt Petunia let out a small shriek. There was another pop from above. Wizards, dressed in Ministry robes, were Apparating all over the Dursley home. It sounded like a fresh string of firecrackers had just been lit off. In an instant, over a dozen Ministry witches and wizards surrounded them. Uncle Vernon stopped, petrified by the incursion. He let go of Gabriella, but she too remained frozen. Among the dozens of wizards brandishing wands, there were none that Harry recognized, save one, Arthur Weasley. He was nervous, tense, and the lines on his face were deeper than ever. He looked up at Harry and the tension drained.

“Thank God,” Mr. Weasley breathed in a great sigh as he stepped to the bottom of the stairs. “Mr. Dursley,” he nodded politely. “Sorry for the…er… intrusion, but Harry’s been missing, and I just received word he’d arrived.” He looked up at Gabriella nodding his head in greeting, and then turned to Harry. “I’m glad you decided to return. No worse for the wear I hope.” He tried to muster a smile, but Harry could see at once it was forced. Many of those in Ministry robes began to scuttle about searching for something, or someone.

A wizard on the second floor appeared from inside Harry’s room. “Clear, Minister,” he said in a steely voice. Mr. Weasley nodded, and then looked at another wizard at his side.

“Nothing down here, sir,” the wizard said quietly. Again, Mr. Weasley nodded.

“See here,” said Uncle Vernon, mustering a moment of courage. “This is my home! I’ll not have it crawling with the likes of… of you!”

“I completely understand, sir,” answered Mr. Weasley in a kind, albeit controlled, voice. “This,” he held out his arms and pointed at the wizards searching the house, “was simply a precaution.” He gave the signal and the room exploded with a sudden cracking, then fell quiet. All the wizards had Apparated except for the one that spoke on the top of the stairs and the one on the bottom now at Mr. Weasley’s side. “We needed to be sure that Harry hadn’t run off, and gotten himself into trouble, or brought trouble home with him.”

“Oh, the boy’s good for that,” sneered Uncle Vernon, stepping down to the lower floor followed by Gabriella. Harry began to step down himself.

“Mr. Weasley,” Harry said, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I didn’t run off anywhere.”

“Yes… well,” said Mr. Weasley, not looking Harry directly in the eyes. “Be that as it may, I… er… May I have your wand?” He held out his hand, looking somewhere below Harry’s neck.

“My what?” Harry howled, taking a step backward up the stairs. He looked up the staircase at the wizard now blocking his way. “It’s because of what happened at Grimmauld Place, isn’t it?” There was no answer. “My SAFETY?” Harry yelled. “My bloody well being, is that it?” He took another step back. “Tell me, Mr. Weasley. Have you taken over the Ministry, or has the Ministry taken over you?”

“This is nonsense, Harry,” Mr. Weasley pleaded. “I assure you it’s only temporary. Just hand it to me.”

Aunt Petunia stepped from the kitchen into view. She was enjoying this. There was a smirk on her face, and her eyes were narrowed in anticipation of what was to come. Harry despised that look, but he turned his anger on Mr. Weasley.

“How is it that a dozen Hogwarts students can serve Voldemort and his Death Eaters with their wands, and you come after me?”

“Strictly speaking… they were on school grounds, although—”

“That’s absurd!” Harry spat. “You want my wand?” he yelled looking at the three wizards surrounding him. “You want my wand? I’LL GIVE YOU MY WAND!” He reached toward his back pocket, and remembered too late he had no wand. A stunner hit him squarely in the back. His last thought: “Ooops.” And he crumpled to the floor, tumbling down the stairs, falling unconscious.

A few moments later, Harry began to come to his senses on the couch in the Dursley living room. Gabriella had her hands to his head, and when she whispered something, something he didn’t hear, the fog immediately lifted from his mind. He moved to sit up, but she held him down, which was just as well. His back ached. The stunner packed a bit more wallop than the one Draco had hit him with earlier in the year.

Mr. Weasley sat alone on the coffee table holding his hands together and tapping his index fingers. He was nervous, and aside from Gabriella, they were alone. The Dursleys had retreated to the second floor, and the other Ministry wizards had Disapparated.

“He can speak,” Gabriella said softly, “but I’ll need to work on his back later.”

“I understand, Gabriella,” said Mr. Weasley. She stood and walked over to the window as Mr. Weasley leaned in. “Are you bloody daft, boy?” he asked Harry sharply. “Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t have a wand?”

Harry took a deep breath, and slowly released it, but the anger that was with him before he was taken down still ebbed in his veins. “You thought I ran, didn’t you?” he replied. “Harry Potter Caught Fleeing Ministry Justice… I can see the Daily Prophet now. Am I to go to trial again, then? Or is it just off to Azkaban?”

“Harry, you’re being—”

“Have you searched my room? My pockets? The house? What about my mind?” Harry forced himself up, grimacing, and opened his eyes wide in front of Mr. Weasley’s face in a mocking gesture. “Nope, nothing in there.” He deliberately let his hair fall down his face to hide the change in his scar. “I’m sure Ron can confirm that.”

Mr. Weasley simply closed his eyes, and dropped his head. He rubbed his face with his hands trying to bring some bit of life back to his spirit, but none came. He stood and joined Gabriella at the window. “I thought…” he started, but then stopped. He walked over to the wall that once again was hiding the fireplace on the other side. “Nice work,” he said to Gabriella. “You’re sure you won’t reconsider? Certainly after the hearing, it would be possible with the right recommendation. I am Minister, after all.”

“No, sir,” Gabriella answered with a pleasant smile. “At least… not yet. There are still some things I need to discuss with my parents. Perhaps as Mama recovers…” Mr. Weasley broke out in his first smile.

“That’s the closest you’ve come to saying, ‘yes’! I’ll take it, and I’m sure Professor Dumbledore will too.”

“So I’m to have a hearing then?” Harry asked, not fully comprehending the conversation he’d just heard.

“No, Harry,” Mr. Weasley responded somewhat irritated. “It’s been ruled that you cast your spell in protection of another, and, since it was on your own premises, your efforts at… redecorating warranted a three-day wand suspension. I didn’t think you’d take it so badly.”

“But all the wizards… I thought—”

“I’m sorry I frightened you with so many Ministry members, but frankly, I was worried. We lost you for awhile and no one knew where you were. Then suddenly, plop, we could sense you again.” Mr. Weasley found one of the game controls to Dudley’s games, and his eyes lit for a moment, but then fell as he turned to look at Harry. “And, yes, I thought you ran -- only because you’ve done so in the past,” he quickly added. He came over and sat back down at Harry’s side. “You should know by now you can’t run from family. You should ask Percy,” he said with the first real smile he’d mustered since he arrived, and this time there was a warmth in Mr. Weasley’s eyes that Harry could not resist.

“I didn’t run. It’s just… well, things happened so suddenly. I was gone, then back, and then there were the Dursleys, and the house was back to normal, and then you and the others. My… my mind’s not on straight,” Harry shrugged, rubbing his temples. “I’m sorry.”

“Gone where, Harry?”

“If I told you ‘hell and back’, would you believe me?”

“Very well.” Mr. Weasley sighed with disappointment in his breath. “Perhaps you’ll explain it to Professor Dumbledore upon your return to Hogwarts.” He stood and positioned himself to Disapparate. “Oh, and considering recent events, you may notice a few new neighbors about the street. They’ll be gathering first thing in the morning to take you to the train. Gabriella, I’ll see you Thursday, and as for you Harry, I’d like you to have this.” He handed Harry a scroll. “Take care, both of you.” With a snap he was gone. An instant later Uncle Vernon was strolling down the stairs.

“What?” he sputtered. “You’re not off to jail?”

Harry had neither the energy, nor the inclination to argue. Something was to happen to Gabriella, and he needed to find out what, but not here. Cringing again, he stood, holding the scroll in his hand, and walked silently with Gabriella to the door.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Vernon howled.

Harry simply looked back at him over his shoulder with a scowl. With one hand he slipped back his hair behind his ear revealing a dangling caduceus and his unblemished forehead. Vernon’s eyes blinked with confusion as Harry opened the door, and stepped out. He was about to cross the street, when he thought of the Heart. “The stone!” Harry cried out. He turned to return to the house, when she grabbed his arm.

“I have it,” she said reassuringly. “Come. I need to have a look at your back, and then we can talk.”

When they entered her home, Grigor was, as always, absent. Soseh, however, was reading a magazine on the couch and greeted him warmly. “We missed you these last few days, Harry,” she said with a gentle smile. “Have you not been feeling well? Gabriella wouldn’t say.”

“I’m going to have a look at him, Mama,” Gabriella answered. “I think something to calm his nerves might be in order.”

“Certainly, dear,” said Soseh, standing and walking toward the kitchen. “Give me ten minutes.”

Harry and Gabriella climbed the stairs and entered Gabriella’s room, this time leaving the door open. Her cat was sleeping in the corner under a beam of sunlight that peeked through the window. When she saw Harry, she took to her feet and began to wind her way back and forth about his ankles.

“She belonged to my brother,” Gabriella said sadly. She had Harry take off his shirt and lay down on her bed, when she pulled a wand from inside her sleeve. It was ash, about nine inches long, and had tiny engravings along its shaft, symbols that Harry didn’t recognize.

“Whoa… what’s that?” asked Harry, surprised.

“They really don’t teach you much at that school of yours, do they?” she answered with a smug tone. Harry began to recoil a bit.

“Well, I mean, I know what it is, but I thought—”

“Lay down,” she chided, pushing him back on his stomach. A blue light bathed his back, and there was instant relief. A touch rivaling Madame Pomfrey’s, Harry thought. Still flat on his stomach, he unrolled his scroll.

“I don’t believe it,” he whispered.

“What is it,” she asked, “papers for my hearing?”

“It’s… it’s a permission slip to leave Hogwarts on weekends, signed Arthur Weasley, Acting Minister of Magic.” A pang of guilt twanged the inside of Harry’s heart. He rolled the scroll and dropped his head on the pillow, letting Gabriella’s wand wash the pain away. For a moment, Harry was lost in comfort. It was Gabriella who broke the silence.

“I’ve been a fool,” she whispered. “Darkness covers the land, and I thought I could hide from it… pretend it didn’t exist. If I would have had this with me, they wouldn’t have taken you,” she said solemnly, as waves of relief splashed against Harry’s back. “They had the advantage of surprise, and I was bound, silenced, and tossed into the living room. It was over in a flash, but if I’d have had my wand, they would have never had the chance.”

“Who? Who bound you?”

“Filthy beasts,” she spat, reliving the memory. “You were right, Harry. It’s too dangerous to be without a wand. I was an idiot for pretending I could be something I’m not.”

Harry rolled over on his back to find Gabriella’s eyes fixed in space. Her hand clenched her wand so tight that her knuckles were turning white. There was a tremor in her hand, and when Harry reached out to touch it Gabriella flinched.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “I’m fine, really.” She looked into his eyes, tears welling in her own, and hugged him tight.

“I thought the Phantom had sent them,” she said breathlessly. “I thought they had taken you to him. I thought… I thought…” She squeezed tighter.

“Who, Gabriella?” he pleaded. “What beasts?” She pulled back, and broadly wiped the tears from her face with her arm. Her eyes turned to steel, filling with a hate Harry had never seen fully before; it scared him. Finally, she let him know with a voice that chilled him to the bone.

“Centaurs.”

“Centaurs?”

“They should have all been destroyed after the last war! Where did they take you? How did you escape?”

“Escape? You have it wrong, Gabriella, at least I think you do. I… I didn’t need to escape; they set me… no... they freed my soul.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 55 - The Wizard Next Door
~~~***~~~


It wasn’t long before Harry finished telling the tale of his trip into the heart of the Forbidden Forest. The door to Gabriella’s room open, he slipped his shirt on, and leaned back on her bed against the pillows. His spine felt much better and his bruises were gone, but his mind still seemed muddied. How he had missed the last few days was beyond him. Outside, the sun was bright and the afternoon wearing on. He hadn’t eaten, but he wasn’t hungry. He was trying as best he could to remember every detail. The only thing of which he was certain was his being bound and taken to the falls by Centaurs. Although even after Gabriella’s story he still wasn’t convinced that it was only Centaurs. Harry explained how at first he thought his captors might have been in league with Voldemort. He shuddered as he recalled his thoughts that they might have first killed her, and he was stoic when he spoke of how he thought they were going to kill him.

“And then they did,” he said with a quiet voice.

“Did what?” Gabriella asked, confused.

“I don’t think they expected I’d survive, and I’m not sure I did.” Gabriella was puzzled, and even Harry was uncertain. “When Greg skewered me with his broom, I passed into… I don’t know,” said Harry shaking his head, confused himself. He knew what it felt like to die, at least almost. And yet, at the falls his spirit never left his body, but somehow he knew that some part of him had died. Some part of Harry Potter was gone, and he didn’t know what it was.

“Do you remember them doing this?” she asked, pushing away the hair from his forehead, and rubbing it with her thumb. He shook his head no. He paused for a moment and then decided it was time to show her.

“You haven’t seen this,” he said, pulling back the sleeve on his right arm to reveal the mark. Gabriella gave a small gasp, but more of surprise than fear. She did not know the mark of the Death Eaters, as so many wizards in Britain did. Harry’s eyes were fixed on Gabriella’s, hoping beyond hope he could find a way to tell her his thoughts about her father.

“This is what you wrote me about,” she said excitedly, “after the accident.” He felt her touch run up his arm. “But I’ve seen your bare arm, Harry. This is new.”

“No. It used to fade, and disappear. Now, like the scar on Draco’s face it’s just… there, while my forehead has no…”

“And this? You never mentioned this.” She tapped his arm. “I don’t remember you writing about a vine.”

“Vine?” he asked, looking down. Springing forth from his wrist, at the tip of the sword, was the image of a vine that weaved its way halfway up the sword on his arm. It wasn’t there earlier in the morning, he was sure.

“What the…”

“It’s a blessing.”

Gabriella and Harry turned to see Soseh standing at the door. In her hand was a steaming mug, and on her face was a smile. Her eyes seemed clearer than Harry had seen since he arrived, though her hair had a few more flecks of gray. She walked in, and handed the mug to Harry. “Drink this, and you’re aches will fade away as well.” She held the back of her hand to his head as if checking for a fever. “Tell me, Harry. How did you release your burden?”

“My burden?”

Soseh’s smile widened -- a deep, knowing smile. “Drink. I’ve started a little something to eat. Healing the soul is always best done on a full stomach. Come.” She held her hand out, and Harry took it in his own and stood. Before moving, she gave him a look that said drink, and he did. They made their way to the kitchen and the familiar smells of food and warmth filled him and for the first time his stomach growled. Even Gabriella heard and smiled.

“Will Mr. Darbinyan be joining us?” he asked cautiously. He hadn’t had the chance to ask if Gabriella had mentioned her encounter with Snape, and wondered if she might be hiding her meeting with the Ministry later in the week. His question only received a slight shrug from both Gabriella and Soseh.

“Papa has taken to speaking in riddles. He certainly won’t answer my questions with straight answers. Who knows where he is or when he’ll be back.”

Seeing that he had spoiled the mood, Harry turned to talking about traveling to Lebanon and Armenia over the summer vacation. Much like the drink in his mug it was the perfect medicine, and before long plans were being made and stories told. They had finished their meal, and Soseh poured him a small cup of coffee, handing it to Gabriella who handed it to Harry without sugar. He sipped, praising Soseh for the meal.

“You two should enjoy your last day!” said Soseh, clapping her hands. “The sun is bright and the sky blue, but I wonder which shines brighter?” Her eyes narrowed on Harry, but her face still bore a mischievous grin. “You have used your birthday gift, no?”

Harry cast Gabriella a glance, and then looked Soseh in the eyes and nodded. She took his hand and unfolded his palm looking at it closely. That’s when she noticed the tip of the sword peeking out from under his sleeve. Without asking she pushed back the sleeve, and Harry didn’t stop her. But in an instant, her smile washed into a look of bewilderment. “Yes… of course,” she muttered, sitting back into her chair. “Oh, no. He’s going to…” The look of clarity that was there only moments earlier faded and lines of concern appeared on her face. “Go… enjoy the day. I must do the dishes.” She stood up and walked over to the sink, and began washing the dishes by hand as if a dark cloud had suddenly appeared directly over her head.

“I thought you had taken back your wands?” Harry whispered to Gabriella. The eyes of his girlfriend were sad, as she once again watched her mother slip away into another place.

“Mama, never had a wand,” she said with a reminiscent melancholy to her words. “She never needed one.” She stood motioning for Harry to follow her. “I don’t think Papa ever put his down. It’s been a great lie, Harry. I think he’s been…”

The front door opened, and in walked Grigor. They both stood and looked at him like two children caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

“Hello princess,” Grigor said with a smile, giving her a hug and kissing her cheek. “Harry.” He tapped Harry on the shoulder, and took in a deep breath. “Ah, it smells wonderful!” Then he saw Soseh doing dishes, and his face fell. “But, I’m too late.” He hung his jacket by the door and began to walk into the kitchen when Gabriella took a deep breath, steeling herself for what she was about to say.

“Papa!” she called. “Can I ask you something?” Grigor turned. His eyes were tired, as if he hadn’t seen a bed for days.

“I don’t think I’m up to playing twenty questions again, dear.”

“It’s about Professor Snape.”

Grigor looked at Harry as if he should go somewhere else, and then looked at his daughter with galleons of frustration on his face. “I told you before, I met so many people when we first arrived, I don’t recall who you’re talking about.”

Gabriella took another deep breath. “Professor Snape teaches at Hogwarts, Papa. He is one of Harry’s professors.” She swallowed.

Grigor glanced briefly at Harry, and then back to her. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ve been meaning to tell you… it’s just that… Harry isn’t in reform school, he attends Hogwarts.”

Grigor smiled as if she were joking. “That’s not possible, dear. You know that. And you should watch yourself. The penalties can be severe.” He turned back to the kitchen. “Certainly there must be something to eat in the cupboard.”

“His name is not Harry Dursley, Papa. It’s Harry Potter.”

Grigor froze.

“Harry POTTER, Papa. It was you who told me the stories in school of the boy that lived. Surely you remember the name. So my one question today is: did you know who he was when we moved in? Have you known all along? Is he the reason we’re here, Papa? And if he is, why?” Gabriella’s words grew more biting with each question.

Slowly Grigor turned. He did not believe at first, his eyes darting from Gabriella to Harry, and back again. He stepped closer to the pair, and finally his eyes came to rest on the hair hanging over Harry’s face. Forgetting it had vanished, Harry moved his bangs back to reveal the lightning bolt on his forehead.

Grigor looked at the empty forehead intently. Finally, his upper lip pulled up in a failed attempt to smile. “Is this some kind of joke?” he scoffed. It became immediately clear that Grigor had never known the boy across the street was a wizard, let alone Harry Potter. His face, his eyes, his mind were all trying to process what information he knew of his daughter’s boyfriend. The problem was, he never was home enough to learn about Harry or, for that matter, Gabriella’s feelings for him. He did know the look of his daughter’s eyes, however, and she was not joking. With or without a scar, the young man standing in front of him was indeed Harry Potter. He dropped his hand to his side in resignation.

“Of course,” Grigor whispered. But then a flash of concern came into his eyes. He quickly glanced at Soseh who was finishing in the kitchen. He clasped Harry’s shoulder. “You can’t be near my daughter,” he said sternly. “You’re… you’re too dangerous.”

“Papa!”

“This is not your concern, girl,” Grigor snapped. “There are things involved here that are beyond your comprehension.”

“Like Voldemort?” Harry asked coolly, narrowing his eyes.

Again, Grigor flashed a look to find Soseh drying her hands. “Come with me, boy.” He pulled on Harry’s shoulder, but Harry stood firm. He had no intention of going into a room alone with a Death Eater. “I said…”

“Mr. Darbinyan, would you mind showing me your right forearm?” Harry asked. He expected to see fire in Grigor’s eyes, but instead the Armenian laughed.

“You fear I am in his service?” Grigor asked. He yanked up his sleeve to reveal nothing more than bare skin. “There, Harry. Do you feel safe now?” There was an insincere mirth to the question. Harry looked at the hand on his shoulder, then back to Grigor, who finally let go. “Please, for Gabriella, we must speak.”

Harry held Gabriella’s eyes for a moment, and then followed Grigor into the now familiar study. As Grigor closed the door behind him, his shoulders noticeably slumped. He looked exhausted as he held his hand out for Harry to sit, which Harry cautiously did. Here, now, without his wand and unable to cast a spell without one he felt more exposed than ever.

“A foreign wizard moves in across the street,” Grigor chuckled to himself. “I can see why you would be concerned. I assure you, Harry, your Ministry is well aware of our presence. Although, I wish they would have told me about yours,” said Grigor, sitting behind his desk with a sigh. He leaned forward placing both hands flat on his desk. “I came to this little village to protect my daughter from the darkness collapsing around us, and instead I’ve put her in the hands of the greatest danger in the world, save the Dark Lord himself.”

“I’m no danger,” retorted Harry in defense. “I’m only…” he stopped, and lowered his head. Of course, he was a danger. In just one week, Gabriella had been in more danger than nearly every witch at Hogwarts combined.

Grigor looked keenly at Harry’s green eyes. “How could I have been so stupid?” he asked himself. “Harry Potter.” He shook his head. “You wore a lightning bolt earring, no?”

“Gabriella gave it to me for my birthday.”

“I might have known.” He looked at the earring now on Harry’s left ear. “But this… a caduceus?”

Listening to Grigor finally taking interest, Harry was beginning to wonder if he’d had it all wrong. “The name of my broom,” he answered. Grigor’s eyes widened slightly.

“You’re a flyer?” he asked with a bit of interest. Harry nodded. “Excellent. I had hoped…” he stopped short and leaned back in his chair looking up at the ceiling. The silence stretched, and Harry felt he needed to ask.

“Gabriella says you gave it all up because of what happened to her brother.”

Grigor drew a deep breath. “You complicate things, Harry. Damn you,” he hissed. He took to his feet. “Children are so predictable. I told you to stay away from my daughter, knowing it would bring you closer.” Hearing this, Harry sat higher in his chair. “Tell a teenager the sky is blue, they’ll tell you it’s green. Tell them you agree, they’ll change their mind.” He took one finger and spun a large globe of the world. “But I thought… I thought you were a Muggle.” His voice was empty… hollow. “I’m sorry for this, Harry.” With dazzling speed his wand was out and pointed directly at Harry’s face.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Harry asked, unflinching and slowly standing to his feet. “You placed the protection spell on me.”

Grigor was impressed at Harry’s nerve, but he held his wand fast. “I can’t remove it,” he said weakly. “And I won’t have you go mad around my daughter. I’m surprised that you’re not already…”

“So this is yours?” Harry interrupted, holding out his own arm and revealing the sword and snake. “You did this to me?”

When Grigor saw the mark on Harry’s arm his face pulled up in confusion. His wand, which was ready to kill Harry, now tilted slightly askew. Carefully, Harry took a step closer giving Grigor a better look.

“Soseh,” Grigor whispered, dropping his wand to his side.

“Mrs. Darbinyan?” Harry breathed in, now that Grigor’s wand was lowered.

“She can see what others cannot. You would do well to never argue with my wife, Harry. She’s always right.” Grigor sat on a small wooden stool in the corner of the study. “She knew what I was about to do. She must have charmed you first, and that means our spells have been fighting each other.” He searched Harry’s face. “Your emotions, your magic, I’m sure they must seem out of control,” he said with concern. “Give me your hand.” Grigor held out his own to shake, and when Harry held out his, Grigor again grabbed at Harry’s forearm.

For some time the older wizard looked as if he were reaching into a dark box trying to find something that wasn’t there. His face was perplexed when he finally let go. “There is nothing,” he said, confused. “I almost killed you, for something that isn’t there. I don’t understand… the spell… both our spells are gone -- washed away.” There was a great sadness welling up in Grigor’s eyes. The creases in his face seemed to deepen while he sat looking down at his own two hands as if they were strangers. “There was a time when all my work was turned to healing and teaching others Asha’s will. What have I become? All because I thought you were a Muggle.”

“Most of the Muggles around here are fine people, sir. None are worth killing. You’d learn that if you spent the time—”

“Fine people?” Grigor spat. He stood, roughly rubbing his hands together. “If my son had been a wizard…” What started strong collapsed in on itself. “They killed everything that was my family, and even as we speak they go on killing, here and in Lebanon.” He walked to the window to look out on the backyard.

Harry followed Grigor across the room. “The day will come,” Harry said solemnly, “when the killing will stop for Wizard and Muggle alike, even in Lebanon. But it has to start somewhere. Why not with us?” Grigor shook his head, and Harry placed a hand on his shoulder. “Sir, you need to speak with your daughter. She has something to share with you about Antreas.” Grigor flinched hearing his son’s name out loud. “There’s also something from this morning that—”

“Not now,” a weary Grigor answered, turning. “Now, I need to speak with my wife… if she is able. I owe her an apology greater than I am worth.” He breathed in, rubbed his face with his hands, and gathered the remnants of what energy he had left. “Hogwarts?” he asked. “It is a fine school. And, if I’m not mistaken, you’ll be returning tomorrow. Best that you should spend some time with Gabriella to say goodbye.” Grigor began to walk Harry to the door.

“Then it was just an accident, the Darbinyan’s coming to Privet Drive?” asked Harry, skeptically.

“An accident?” Grigor asked out loud, almost as if examining the question himself. “No, Harry. Mrs. Darbinyan will tell you, nothing is ever an accident. Our journey to Little Whinging was very much intentional. I am chasing a spirit, that’s all. Where that path leads, I’ve yet to learn.” He opened the wood door and waited for Harry to step through. “You should look in on Duncan. I hear he was asking about you yesterday.”

Grigor didn’t follow as Harry walked out into the hall. Instead, he quietly closed the door behind him. Gabriella stood at the base of the stairs. She was trembling. “I-I forgot…” She held out her hand, presenting Harry with his wand. “If s-something would have happened…” Harry smiled, and took her in his arms.

“I’m fine,” he said dismissively. “We just talked. Now he knows who I am, and that’s important.” He held her by the shoulders looking into her eyes. “I think you should let go of your secrets too, Gabriella. Tell your father about Antreas.”

“I don’t know, Harry. I… I guess it depends. Do you know? Could you tell?” she asked. “Is he… is he a—”

“He’s your father,” Harry cut in. “And he’s also your mother’s husband. He wants to be alone with her right now. We should go.” They walked to the front door and passed Soseh, napping in the living room. She seemed so peaceful. A thin smile was on her face as she rested.

Gabriella put her arm in Harry’s as they walked out into the late afternoon air. The sky was blue and the air warm. What snow Harry remembered from days before had washed away with the rain. Arm in arm they elected to walk to Duncan’s.

“You know… if the Ministry knew you hid this…”

“I didn’t hide it,” she said slyly. “I just didn’t offer it up. After all, nobody asked me.”

“And the Tuesday Mr. Weasley spoke of? What’s that about?”

“I did break his arm,” she said sheepishly. “They say I need to pay restitution, for the time he missed from work.”

“But school’s not even in session!” Harry howled. “And it probably took all of five minutes for them to heal his arm.” He began to steam just thinking about it. “I want to be there.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, and that ended the conversation, although Harry was none too pleased about it.

When they arrived at Duncan’s, they found Todd’s car parked in front. Harry shook his head.

“Where are his parents?” he asked. “Don’t they know what happened?” Gabriella stopped him on the walk outside.

“Papa wondered the same thing. He actually spoke with them the other night. They think it’s all just Duncan’s way of calling for help, and they don’t want to reinforce that behavior by running home.”

“That’s ludicrous! Where are they?”

“The Caribbean,” she sighed. “Martinique, I think.” Harry’s heart sank. He should have been here, not chasing a hopeless dream that he might get his godfather back. The pain here was real and now. Harry felt that Duncan might just as well be an orphan. Only, somehow this seemed worse.

“Three whole days,” Harry whispered. “Where was I?” he asked to the air.

“You’re here now,” said Gabriella brightly. “Let’s go in.”

It was Duncan that answered. He was laughing at something over his shoulder as he swung the door open. “Gab! Harry! Come in! Come in! Where the hell have you been, mate?” He was in clean bright clothes. His hair had recently been trimmed, and it looked as if he’d just shaved. In fact, there was a scent of cologne about him. Harry just stood gawking. “What? You expected to see me ready to off myself again? Not this kid,” he said with a smile. Harry still couldn’t think what to say. The two stood and looked at each other. For some reason, the moment… the meeting was awkward. Finally, Duncan put his arm about Harry’s shoulder, and they walked into the front room. “I’m glad you stopped by tonight. You’re leaving for school tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah,” Harry said weakly. “Tomorrow.” Again there was an awkward silence.

“Where’s Todd?” Gabriella asked trying to fill the void.

“Right here,” came a voice from the top of the stairs. Todd stood in a robe, toweling his hair. “We’re going to see a film tonight, would you care to join us?” Gabriella looked at Harry now seated in the front room. His eyes were fixed on a small spot on the carpet. It was the first he’d been back since the night Duncan attempted suicide.

“Harry,” she said, “what do you think?” Instead of answering Gabriella, Harry turned to Duncan.

“Dunc, I’m sorry. I should have stopped you before you ever had the chance.”

“You’re sorry?” huffed Duncan with a smile. “Christ, mate. If it weren’t for you…”

“Okay, that’s it,” called Todd. “All this sorry-sorry, doom-and-gloom stuff has helped me decide. Forget Titanic, we’re going to see Babe.”

“Oh, that pig is so cute.” Gabriella smiled. Duncan’s smile broadened as well.

“They say the animals look like they’re really talking,” he added. “Can you imagine? Like they live in their own separate world right alongside humans and nobody knows.”

“Crazy,” said Harry, casting a furtive glance at Gabriella. “Imagine.”

“Then it’s decided!” Todd said brightly. “We’re havin’ pork tonight! I’ll be down in a flash. We can take my car.”

By the end of the night, not only had they seen the film, but they had a met a number of other kids out for fun on their last night of winter freedom. Before long they and others they met had migrated to, and mixed with, a large crowd at Clancy’s Pub. They danced, threw darts, covertly sipped a few beers, and had a grand time. Harry was wearing a wide grin after watching Duncan completely miss the dartboard when Gabriella came over to him.

“You’re happy for a change,” she said, trying to smile herself, but not making a very good go of it. They both leaned against the wall to watch the crowd, and she took Harry by the hand. “I think Duncan is too.”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “I’m glad he’s got friends willing to spare the time to see him through this. Todd’s been great, and your father’s taken a pretty keen interest in him too, considering he’s a Muggle and all.”

Gabriella nodded with a shrug, and took a sip of her soda. Something was gnawing at her. She looked away and then back to Harry. “If everything’s so great, why am I so worried?” she said, and then took another sip. “If Papa swears he never knew about you, then why was that snake Snape sniffing about?” Harry took her soda, set it on the table and then held both her hands.

“Babe,” he said, still holding to the smile he’d been wearing, “All my life I’ve been watched over. All summer there was a witch or wizard watching our every move.” She raised her eyebrows. “Our every move,” Harry repeated. “Hell, I’m sure I’m being watched right now.” Remembering Mr. Weasley’s words, Gabriella started looking about the room, but Harry squeezed her hands to gather her attention. “Snape probably was asked to stop by and check out the new Wizarding family across the street. Merlin knows he wouldn’t do it on his own.”

He kissed her gently, and pulled her close. “I’m tired of trying to read danger where there is none. It’s pretty obvious when it arrives. Believe me, I know its eyes.” She turned in his arms and leaned back against his chest, and together they watched as a girl came over and asked Duncan to dance. At first, he hesitated, but after a push on the shoulder by Todd, he finally moved out to the dance floor.

“For now,” he whispered in her ear, “this’ll do.” On the dance floor, a broad smile broke on Duncan’s face as he attempted a dance move that looked something like a robot. Both Harry and Gabriella laughed, and he pulled her close against his chest. “Yeah, this’ll do.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 57 - A Fine Team
~~~***~~~


“He shoots… he scores! Ten points for Hufflepuff!”

Though Ron scowled fiercely, the Hogwarts crowd erupted in a cacophony of cheers for the underdog. Even a few of the dozens of Aurors surrounding the pitch clapped. Thirty minutes into the most guarded match in Hogwarts history, Gryffindor was up fifty to nothing when Zacharias Smith of Hufflepuff charged the center ring with the Quaffle. Ron had seen Elenor Branstone trailing behind her teammate, but focused instead on the leader. It was an obvious feint, only Ron missed it. At the last moment, Smith tossed the Quaffle to Branstone who scored through the left ring. It was the first goal scored on Ron Weasley in competition or at practice all year. As Madame Hooch flew to reset the Quaffle, Harry came over to Ron.

“Zach dropped his shoulder just before the charge,” offered Harry. “He had to be thinking of throwing to his left.”

“Yeah?” Ron glowered. “Well, I wouldn’t know what he was thinking now, would I?”

Harry’s face broke into a smile, and a moment later so did Ron’s. The redhead’s newest treatments had helped shrink the foreign nerve tissue growing into his brain. The voices pounding into his head were fading, and it required effort to read minds, effort he chose to leave off the field.

“Would you two break it up?!” Katie yelled from the center of the pitch.

“You’d better keep your eyes peeled, Harry,” said Ron. “I don’t think we’ll be able to run the score on them, so we’re going to need the Snitch.”

“I don’t know about that,” Harry shrugged. “You’ve blocked eight good shots on goal already. That’s damn sharp, and—” Madame Hooch’s whistle blew, spinning Harry around. In an instant he shot past the Hufflepuff Seeker, Summerby, nearly knocking him from his broom and high over the pitch into the cool, clear air. On a day like today, he had no need for the warming charms of his broom, and chose to suppress them and enjoy the crisp feel of the blustery air against his face. Harry focused hard on the field below, searching for any golden glint that might reveal his quarry.

“Watch it!” a voice yelled. There was a loud thump just behind Harry’s left ear. Jack Sloper had just clobbered a Bludger down toward Smith below. The Bludger shot wide as Jack cursed, but Smith seeing the Bludger heading his way swung wildly to the side and missed a pass from Branstone. A blur, Dennis Creevey had the loose Quaffle in his arms, shot straight for the center ring and scored before the Hufflepuff Keeper could react. Both Harry and Jack pumped their fists.

“That one nearly took your head off, Harry,” Jack cautioned and Harry nodded in agreement.

“Thanks for the save.”

“You were right about Smith being skittish after being cracked in the skull last match. He nearly flew out of his shorts, and my shot was way off target.” He lowered his head a bit. “Goyle would have had him off his broom.”

“Hey,” Harry said brightly, “you saved my skull; that counts for something doesn’t it?” At this Sloper smiled, tightened his hand about his bat, and spun down toward the field just as Hooch’s whistle blew again.

Earlier in the year, Harry would have sensed the Bludger coming and been well out of its way… the work of the protection charm he figured. But now, that sixth sense and his ability to perform any serious magic without the use of his wand had vanished completely. Along with his scar, whatever happened at the falls had removed the effects of Grigor’s spell, and the special gifts it had given him. Fortunately, he was released from the whistling charm, and while the mark remained on his forearm, it no longer ached. It was Dobby who had declared him free of darkness. He was late returning from the library last night when the house elf jumped him from behind. “It is gone!” Dobby screamed with glee.

“Shhhhhh,” Harry hissed, trying to quickstep to the common room before Filch caught him out after curfew, the house elf clutched tightly about his neck. But Dobby would have none of it.

“Harry Potter is free of the dark mark!” he yelled. “How? Dobby knows the great Harry Potter is a wise and great magician. But how did Harry Potter succeed where all other wizards failed?” He was now bouncing gleefully on the floor in front of Harry.

“Dobby, be quiet,” Harry pleaded. “This isn’t—”

“Was the magician the great Professor Dumbledore? Yes… yes, of course. Dobby should have known—”

“It wasn’t anybody,” Harry cut in quietly under his now panting breath. They were ascending the staircase now, not much further. “It was burned out of me, or washed out, or… I don’t know.”

Dobby stopped cold, grabbing Harry by the cloak. “Washed?”

“Dobby, let go!” Harry hissed again. “I’m late, and if I don’t—”

“Then what the Centaurs say is true.” The house elf’s eyes were wide. “Dobby was told of its return and—” He realized he had grabbed Harry’s robe, and let go immediately. “Dobby is sorry, sir,” he said looking, not at Harry, but at his hand. The Gryffindor picked up on this at once. Dobby had information about the falls, or at least what they were.

“What’s true?” Harry asked, bending down low to one knee. “Who is returning?” This always made Dobby blush, and as the house elf regained his composure to speak, an all too familiar meow echoed from above. They looked up to see Mrs. Norris glaring down at them. Immediately, the house elf vanished, leaving Harry alone on the steps. A moment later, Mr. Filch appeared holding an unlit lantern in one hand.

“Surprise, surprise,” he sneered. “What have we here, Mrs. Norris? A bit of treasure for the dungeons.” He put one foot down on the steps leading to Harry. “Do you think, Potter, I have time to chase after the likes of you and Mr. Malfoy all night?” Knowing the routine far better than he should, Harry rose to his feet and started immediately toward Professor McGonagall’s office. “At least you’re clean,” Filch said with a sigh.

“Clean?” Harry asked, as the two descended the staircase.

“Found the little rat just after curfew huddled up in the corner, vomit all over himself AND my floor!” Filch exclaimed, clearly more agitated that he had to clean the floor. “And Peeves has made a right mess of it down in the dungeons backing up all the toilets. “I suspect you and Malfoy will have a splendid time cleaning the muck up together.” Filch chuckled out loud imagining the bickering that would ensue when the two students would be in detention together. Fortunately for Harry, Professor McGonagall postponed the detention to Saturday night after the Quidditch match with Hufflepuff, and Snape agreed to do the same for Malfoy.

And so it was that Harry found himself flying on the south side of the pitch, hoping that the match would carry well into the night. There was a sudden groan from the crowd. Katie had taken a Bludger to the back. Her posture was crooked, but she was still flying. If they lost her, the tide of the match would change to Hufflepuff. Harry redoubled his efforts to find the Snitch.

The Gryffindor lead was ninety when he saw it. The sun was beginning to cast long shadows out onto the grass below, and the Snitch flashed for only a moment between the shades of dark and light. It was all the time Harry needed and he rocketed down at once. The motion was not lost on the crowd, which swooned, nor on Summerby, who darted to intercept Harry at once. Harry kept both eyes fixed on the Snitch, now flying fast for the west side of the pitch, while with the corner of his right eye he noted Summerby closing quickly… too quickly. Harry cursed under his breath--the Hufflepuff had the better position. This was going to be close, too close for Harry’s liking. He pressed down on his Caduceus trying to pick up speed. He had the better broom, but Summerby had the better angle. Harry needed a different tack. Basic Seeker training warned to never anticipate the movement of the Snitch; rather track it and react to its ever-random movements. But Harry had had no choice; if the Snitch flew straight, or dodged north, Summerby would have it. On his current path, there was also a better than good chance he would lose to Summerby if the Snitch chose to dart any other direction but up. He chose to improve his odds and guided his broom just south of the Snitch. The Gryffindor crowd groaned in disapproval, thinking he’d lost sight of the golden orb now careening straight toward them.

Even as the wind screamed in Harry’s ears, he felt it. Only meters away from the stands, his eyes noticed they were drifting to the south. A goodly gust of wind from the north had pushed Snitch and Seeker alike, like leaves on a fall day. No one, not even Ron, would believe his theory that Snitches had personalities all their own. To Harry the Snitch the Gryffindor team practiced with almost always preferred to hide about the edges of the pitch, and when it was found it used more speed than agility to try to escape. Katie called it rubbish.

“They’re all given the same standard charm, and they all respond in the same random way,” she’d say, rolling her eyes.

This Snitch… this Snitch… Harry pulled up hard on his broom. Even the Caduceus had trouble responding with his sudden command to pull out of the dive and turn north into the wind. It looked as if he was trying to collide with Summerby rather than let him catch the Snitch, but the Hufflepuff Seeker simply ducked low and passed under Harry’s feet, mocking Harry as he passed by and tracking for the Snitch to carry straight on. The Hufflepuff’s hands were mere inches from the Snitch, when, in a blink, it turned into the wind and shot high. A blink more and the stands erupted as Harry grabbed it in his waiting hands. He held it high above his head, grinning broadly, and then his face fell slightly. There would be time for dinner, but no celebration tonight. Tonight he would enjoy the pleasant company of a very sour Slytherin, while cleaning the dungeons for Filch.

He was struck by his fellow teammates and flown straight into the Gryffindor stands as everyone cheered. Hagrid sat among them; his eyes were still wide in amazement.

“That… that was brilliant, Harry.” Hagrid beamed. “It’s as if yeh read the bloody bird’s mind!”

“Thanks Hagrid, but—”

“You two!” a voice yelled out from the back of one of the guest boxes. A tall figure in dark robes was standing up pointing in Harry’s direction, but he was silhouetted by the sun, forcing Harry to shield his eyes. Harry looked about to see who he was calling.

“You with the glasses,” the man yelled again, stepping down towards them. “Potter, right? And the redhead, er… Winglsey?” When he shifted his position out of the sun, the group of Gryffindors let out a collective gasp. Dressed in long flowing robes of black with hand stitched white piping, stood Terrence Tellman of the Montrose Magpies, current leaders in the British and Irish League. He was holding a rolled program in his right hand and was tapping it against the other, smiling as he stepped close.

“H-Harry,” Ron sputtered nervously, “it’s Tellman of the bloody Magpies… here!”

“I know who it is,” Harry hissed back through his smiling teeth. The sea of red and gold parted as the large wizard approached the pair.

“Some flying, son,” Tellman said with a grin. He stood well over six feet with broad shoulders and hands that looked strong enough to crack walnuts. Standing so close to such a very large Quidditch professional, Harry suddenly felt very small. His hazel eyes peered down at Harry. “How long have you been playing Seeker?”

“S-Six years, sir,” Harry said. Tellman whistled.

“Then it’s true. You started in your first year.” He stroked his chin pensively and then turned to Ron. “And you, Wingsley?”

“Weasley, sir,” answered Ron.

“Not the Minister’s son?” Tellman questioned in surprise. Ron shrugged and nodded his head. “Merlin, then I have hit the jackpot, haven’t I?” Ignoring everyone else, he put his arms about Harry and Ron, and started to walk away from the crowd. “Tell me, boys… how’d you like to leave school a bit early, and have a go as pros? I dare say with you two on board there wouldn’t be an empty seat in the house.”

“On the Magpies?” Ron cried out. “You can’t be serious!”

“Oh, but I am,” replied Tellman, his teeth still beaming in the glowing sun. The look reminded Harry a bit of Gilderoy Lockhart. “I’d heard the reports, and had to see it for myself… unbelievable play, simply unbelievable.”

“Well of course we’d be interested!” howled Ron excitedly. “When do we start?”

“Hold on,” said Harry sternly. “Mr. Tellman, we’ve another year to go here at Hogwarts.”

“For what?” Ron cried. “So Snape can make you redo perfectly prepared potions? Or do you want to stay so you can clean backed up toilets after hours?”

“You know perfectly well why. I would think you, as Prefect—”

“A Prefect that’s smart enough to know when galleons are headed my way. This is my chance, Harry. You’ve already got your estate. Let me make enough to have my own!”

“Ron, you can’t be serious.”

“Fine!” Ron turned his back on Harry and faced Tellman. “Well, he can stay. I’ll go.”

The Magpies’ number one Chaser puckered a bit and clucked his tongue. “Sorry, Weasley. It’s really a package deal, boys. My manger wants you both.” He gently tapped each of their heads with the rolled up program in his hand.

“Surely you can—” Ron started, but Tellman held out his hand.

“He has his reasons, son,” he interrupted. “Believe me; he has plans for both of you.” Tellman’s smile seemed to twist a bit at these words, but Ron was oblivious, still glowering at Harry. “Tell you what. Let’s say we bring you both out for a team practice. No commitment. There’s an open tryout the second Saturday of the month. What do you two say about having a go in February?” Without waiting for an answer he added, “Here’s my card. You can owl me.”

“Deal,” Ron said, snapping the card out of Tellman’s hand. “No need for an owl, is there, Harry?” Harry looked at Tellman, and then at Ron who gave him a look of pure fire. Finally, Harry nodded his agreement.

“Yes!” Ron shouted, clenching his fist and then slapping Harry on the shoulder.

Tellman winked and clicked his mouth, then turned and walked back through the crowd that once again parted. He stopped here and there to sign a few autographs, climbed on his broom, and was gone. It had taken less than five minutes, and they were going to get to practice with the Magpies. Harry didn’t want to admit it, but he was giddy inside. Ginny stood and watched the whole encounter, and when it was over wasn’t sure what to say.

“You know,” she started, “you’ll still need permission to leave, and there’s no way—” Her words were drowned out by the crush of gold and red swarming to find out what had happened.

News of the meeting spread quickly throughout the school. At dinner it was all anybody spoke of in the Great Hall. Harry looked up at the head table to find Dumbledore looking down at him. Harry wasn’t sure if there was a smile behind the old wizard’s white beard, or a look of admonishment. What he did know was that there was no hope in trying to sneak out next Saturday night. They’d have to get permission. He was mulling the idea of how to approach Dumbledore when a hand tapped his shoulder from behind. It was Hermione.

“We’re done with dinner,” she said. “Are you coming?”

Harry was in no hurry to finish dinner. He poked at his roast beef, which had long ago turned cold. He would not be joining the night’s celebration in Gryffindor tower. Detention with Malfoy would be next. He glanced over to the Slytherin table. Malfoy was looking straight at him with a look of pure hatred. Harry knew that Draco was just as good at Quidditch as he. They were evenly matched at Seeker, and Malfoy had the edge at strategy. Only lately, Harry questioned if Malfoy could hold any cogent thought in his head. Even Neville was outperforming him in Defense Against the Dark Arts, and there was talk that if his grades didn’t improve he might be removed. Ron thought it a brilliant idea, but Harry needed Malfoy… wits intact. To do that, he would have to find a way to get Malfoy to stop the potions nearly everyone knew he was taking.

Harry looked at Hermione over his shoulder. “No,” he sighed. “I’ve got to head to the dungeons and meet Filch for detention.” He shoved his plate forward, and it vanished to the kitchens below. He looked back over at the Slytherin table, but Malfoy was gone. He sighed again.

“Be careful, Harry,” Hermione said, as he took to his feet. “Malfoy’s… well, crazy. Merlin knows what he might do down there with you two alone.” Harry simply nodded and started on his way.

The stench became almost unbearable as he descended the stone staircase. What was an awful mess the day before had ripened and now seemed to penetrate his very skin. Harry’s neck began to itch and his eyes watered. It was all he could do to stand upright and not wretch. He stepped into the sticky muck just at Peeves, the cause of all before him, shot passed his head.

“Ho-Ho-Ho! Prince Potter and Monarch Malfoy descend to serve as commoners!” chimed Peeves in an overly sing-songy voice. The poltergeist pulled a mirror off the wall and threw it to the floor. Instantly, Harry withdrew his wand and stopped the glass before it was half way down. The speed of the spell surprised Peeves whose pasty face seemed to flame with rage. “I see you’re quick with what you’ve done, but that alone can’t spoil my fun!” he jeered. In the next instant he flew directly down toward the suspended mirror intending to shatter it.

“Speculum Captus!” Harry cried out. Peeves hit the glass at blinding speed, but it did not shatter. Instead, his essence seemed to be swallowed whole by the suspended mirror. There was a muffled scream as Harry walked over and took the large mirror in both his hands. He turned it about to find the image of Peeves flitting about banging against each edge of the glass.

“Let me out!” he cried. Harry cocked his head in curiosity, then a small smile lifted at the corner of his mouth. “Let me out, Potter!” Harry walked over and stuck the mirror back against the wall. He took a step back crossing his arms, contemplating the trapped spirit. A voice startled him from behind.

“How’d you do that?”

Harry spun to find Malfoy inches from his right shoulder. His face was sunken and large bags hung under his dull gray eyes that hid behind his greasy yellow hair. His breath rivaled that of the stench they were already strolling in.

“Don’t know,” said Harry, shrugging his shoulders. “Can’t ever remember reading about it. The words just came.” Harry narrowed his eyes on the panicking poltergeist. “It’s like I’ve learned the spells of the dead or something.”

“Well,” said Malfoy, turning away from Harry disinterested, “Filch, the cretin, will be eternally grateful if you can keep the creature locked away.” The two students turned to face a squeak on the stairs.

“Cretin, is it Malfoy?” Filch slowly rolled the words out of his mouth, as if chewing over the pending punishment. Eying Malfoy up and down, he was oblivious to his captured nemesis. “You’re not much without daddy around, are you?”

Malfoy glared, a hint of fire returning to his otherwise dead eyes. Filch had no idea the territory he was entering and Harry tried to intervene. “We’ve come to clean the floors, Mr. Filch.” The old man glared at Malfoy for a moment, and then turned on Harry.

“Then get to it!” said Filch with a toothy sneer. Both boys faced the floor and pulled their wands. “No! Put those away. You’ll be using these tonight.” He had two mops in his hands. He handed one to Harry, but busted the other over his knee. “Oops! It broke,” he said looking at Malfoy. Instead he handed him a small cloth barely larger than a handkerchief. “Get busy!” Filch started back up the stairs, holding the mop’s two halves in his hands.

“What’s this?” Malfoy yelled indignantly. “I can’t—”

“Oh… but you will, boy!” Filch chuckled. “Your father was an imperious prick, and I won’t have—”

There was a blinding flash of blue light. Filch stood frozen, his eyes open and his face still twisted in anger. At first Harry thought it some sort of Immobulus spell, but the incantation was wrong, and Filch’s eyes showed no sign of consciousness. “What did you—” Harry began.

“You’re not the only one who’s learned a few things lately, Potter,” Malfoy muttered dryly as he leaned against the wall next to the mirror. Peeves cried out again. “Shut up!” Malfoy yelled. “Or I’ll shatter this mirror and you along with it!” Harry wasn’t sure that would work, but Peeves quieted instantly. Malfoy turned to Harry. “In fact, give the CRETIN a good shove, and be done with him! Shatter the lot!” Malfoy reached into his pocket, pulled out a small silver flask and took a swig letting much of the liquid roll down the front of his neck. Harry walked over to Filch and touched his sleeve. He was cold… ice cold. Malfoy saw the concern on Harry’s eyes, and rolled his own.

“Honestly, Potter,” he drawled. “You look as if I killed your dog.”

“Is he… is he dead?”

“Do you want him to be?” Malfoy asked as if they were talking about a mosquito about ready to be squashed.

“No!” Harry flashed back.

“Well,” Malfoy began. “We can leave him there to thaw. That should take about a year, or I can thaw him now. He won’t remember a thing.”

“Do it!”

“How ‘bout we clean this mess first?” Malfoy suggested.

Harry looked about at the muck. The thought of spending all night with a mop, was more overwhelming than Malfoy’s breath. He pulled his wand and started vanishing the grime from the dungeon corridor floor. Malfoy also vanished away the muck, only Harry noted that his wand hand shook and the occasional spell would misfire splattering feces across the parts of the floor Harry had just cleaned. Harry neither teased, nor corrected the error. Indeed, the two boys did not say so much as a word to each other as they made their way down the corridor, side by side.

After an hour passed, they were nearly complete, having now worked their way into the lavatory Peeves originally backed up. Confined as it was, the stench was twice as bad, and they each held an arm over their faces as they continued to remove the filth.

“I say you shatter the bloody mirror over Filch’s head!” Malfoy yelled out, having just splattered, instead of vanished, a large collection of clumped, used toilet tissue. “Two for one, I say!” Harry continued to flick his wand. He couldn’t imagine trying this with a mop. Even now, his wrist grew weary from the movement of the incantation. Soon after, they were finished. The dungeon corridor and washroom shone brightly--the work of house elves some declared the following day.

As the last bit of dirt was cleared from the washbasins, both students slumped to the floor and wiped their brows. “Not a bad team,” Harry said brightly. Malfoy let out a bit of a grunt, reached into his cloak, and pulled out the silver flask.

“Draco… don’t,” Harry asked, his voice laden with concern. Malfoy looked at Harry and then to the flask.

“What? This?” he asked flippantly. “Just a little something to get by, Potter. That’s all.” He took a swig and slipped it back in. Harry immediately saw the effect in Malfoy’s eyes. What little brightness that was there moments before had now vanished like the filth from the floor. “Just a little… to get by,” Malfoy said softly. There was no thirst for power, no hatred of Harry, no love of Quidditch. There was only nothingness, a blankness of emotion that burrowed deep into Malfoy’s soul.

“You can’t keep doing this,” said Harry. “It’ll kill you.”

“P-Promises, promises,” Malfoy muttered with a smirk.

“It’s not funny, Draco!” Harry yelled taking to his feet. His mind flashed to Duncan’s attempt at suicide. “It’s not funny, at all.” Taken aback by the high pitch in Harry’s voice, Malfoy stood to meet him, albeit more unsteadily.

“And you care, why?” he snapped, trying to focus on Harry’s face. “Morgana knows nobody else gives a damn. Everyone’s stopped talking to me… even… even Blaise.” His voice trailed off, and his head drooped. Then Malfoy took a deep breath and reached back into his pocket pulling the flask out again. He went to take another drink, but before the bottle met his lips it had vanished. Malfoy turned to see Harry pointing a wand in his face. Still, staring at the holly, his face bore no expression. He shrugged. “There’s more where that came from, Potter.” He turned to walk out, but Harry grabbed him.

“Damn it Draco, you promised! You swore to me!”

“What does it matter?”

“I need you. I can’t do this without you.” As before, these words seemed to penetrate Malfoy’s façade somehow. “He’s sick. I know you know it. I saw your hood in Ron’s room at the Burrow.” To Harry’s surprise, Malfoy’s eyes flashed a look of astonishment all their own. “We can win if we do this together, ALL of us.” Malfoy looked away, but Harry grabbed him by the face, pushed back the hair from his eyes and looked intently into the wavering, dull gray pools. “I need you, Draco. Join me. I can’t do it alone.”

Malfoy’s blank eyes looked back into Harry’s. They welled, and a small tear made its way down his face, clearing dirt as it fell and leaving his clean, pale skin exposed like a thin white scar paralleling the red dagger beside it. Seeing him like this, Harry wished with all his might that he could remove the scar that he had placed, but he knew he didn’t have that power… only Malfoy.

They stood in this odd embrace, for some time as more tears made there way down Malfoy’s stoic face. Finally, Harry spoke. “I can heal your body, Draco… not your soul.” Without a word, Malfoy turned and briskly walked out the door. Harry followed behind as he strode down the dungeon corridor to the steps. “Draco!” he called, but the Slytherin paid him no heed. “Draco, I need to know… please!” Suddenly, Malfoy stopped, spun on a knut, and began to almost charge at Harry, coming up just short.

“He’s alive, Potter,” he hissed, fire filling his eyes. “The bastard can’t die, don’t you know that by now? You can’t kill him! We won’t win!”

“Then we’ll die trying,” Harry said in a calm, cold voice, his eyes resolute. The look brought a small smile to Malfoy’s face. The first true smile Harry had seen since his return. Malfoy nodded, and turned to leave. Stepping over Filch, frozen against the bottom of the stairs, he flicked his wand and a beam of red light bathed the Squib in warmth and he instantly revived.

“Honestly, sir,” Malfoy drawled. “We do all the cleaning and you just sleep! Bloody cruel if you ask me, don’t you agree, Harry?” Hearing his name… his first name, Harry smiled, but then quickly put on a face of exhaustion and persecution.

“Cruel,” he said with a sigh, and slumped his shoulders as if exhausted.

Malfoy dropped his rag filled with muck directly in Filch’s lap and it splattered as it hit. Harry pulled over his unused broom and dropped it on the floor. “I think you’ll find the floor satisfactory, sir.”

Filch was befuddled, but took to his feet and followed the boys up the stairs, wiping at his jacket and only making the situation worse. His ears picked up the faint sound of something below, but he was more interested in getting back upstairs and cleaning his jacket. The only thing the three left behind was the crackle of torchlight along the dungeon corridor, and a wailing Peeves, trapped in a mirror nearly filled to the top with the filth the two young wizards had spent the evening cleaning. A fitting punishment they both agreed.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 56 - Friendship
~~~***~~~


It was strange really, surrounded by magical objects, talking portraits, and the occasional explosion downstairs followed by raucous laughter. Had he really only been gone two weeks? When Ron entered the Gryffindor common room, his pockets were filled with free samples of Fred and George’s latest concoction.

“Not yet for sale,” he said, which Hermione translated into unsafe and untested. The as-yet unnamed silver chews caused the chewer’s hair to stand on end, sparkle and then explode in a flash of red and green, only to have the hair reappear just as it was originally. When Ron offered Harry one, he passed. Harry had taken considerable care to use his longer hair to hide the fact that his scar had vanished, and he didn’t need to turn bald and show everyone, at least not yet.

His interactions on the train ride to Hogwarts were minimal at best. Most everyone was talking to Neville or Luna, primarily asking them to describe what You-Know-Who really looked like. Odd, Harry thought. It was as if the monster he’d portrayed in Defense Against the Dark Arts was fabricated, or imaginary. Others showered Ron with dozens of questions, most asking about You-Know-Who, or how Ron saved the school during the attack. His name had prominently appeared in the Daily Prophet since Neville and Luna’s rescue, one article going so far as to wonder if he would follow in his father’s footsteps to become Minister one day. To say that Ron was beaming couldn’t touch the fact that his face had a permanent smile attached to it. Harry wondered how long it would take for those little used muscles to lock that way permanently.

The only person who spent any time at all talking with Harry on the Hogwarts Express was Cho, and really Cho spent most the time listening to Harry talk about Gabriella. When he caught himself going on about her, he stopped and apologized, but Cho simply smiled. “I think it’s wonderful, Harry,” she said, holding her hand to his face. “You deserve to be happy for a change.” For her part, Cho described her intense therapy sessions at St. Mungo’s, and Harry noticed that they had paid off. She was walking with only the slightest of limps, and the use of her arm had completely returned.

“They’ll be mad not to take you back on the team,” said Harry, encouragingly.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said defiantly. “I look forward to putting Slytherin in their place this term.”

The strangest encounter Harry had was with Draco Malfoy: They were both ascending the steps to the second floor just after an early dinner in the Great Hall, when the staircase moved. Harry didn’t notice Malfoy until a voice from behind cursed the stairs’ motion. When Harry turned to see who swore, he first thought he saw a ghost. Malfoy looked awful. It wasn’t really possible to say that Malfoy looked more pale, but perhaps his face was more gray. His hair had lost much of its golden yellow colour, and it too appeared dull. His steel eyes were sunken, undercut by dark rings, and his face gaunt. Malfoy was no ghost, but any less color and he would be. There was, however, something new. On each ear Malfoy wore what looked like a silver hoop earring. Harry couldn’t quite make them out, and instead glanced about to make sure the two were alone.

“Hey, Draco,” he said trying to muster a steady tone. “You okay?”

Malfoy just looked up at Harry, his eyes seemingly unable to focus, wandering about the portraits on the walls as if searching for hidden spies. When they finally settled back on Harry, they bore a look of disgust.

“Potter,” he spat, drawing his robes more tightly about him and shivering. It wasn’t the greeting Harry expected considering he’d saved Draco’s father from death days earlier. When the staircase stopped, Harry moved to the next floor. Malfoy, however, turned and went back to the lower floor without saying another word. His movement down toward the dungeons was wrong. Not the graceful elegance of a cocky aristocrat, but almost a scuttle, like a spider backing away from its prey.

There was another explosion, a small shriek, and then more madcap laughter from the common room downstairs. Through Harry’s dorm room window, he could see the evening’s shadows stretch across the frozen fields. Hagrid’s hut puffed wisps of smoke as if signaling the time was near. Before Harry left Little Whinging, he had told her of the mirrors. He had a vague idea how they might work, and they promised to try them tonight as the sun set. He held the square silver frame in his hand and wondered if she was doing the same on Privet Drive. The sun was painfully slow tonight, but finally it acquiesced, letting the earth rise up to meet it, swallowing its brightness until only a small speck of light called out, telling all it would be reborn tomorrow before finally disappearing to darkness. Harry waited no longer.

“Gabriella,” he called to the square frame. “Gabriella can you…” Before his eyes, the mirror filled with smoke which faded until a shadowy image appeared, slowly coming to focus. Her face, confused, and calling his name, came into sharpness in the glass before him, and then suddenly smiled as it became clear she could see him too.

“Harry!” she said with a grin. “I can’t believe these work! Was the train ride better this go?”

“Hi,” said Harry dreamily, not really listening to the question. It was as if she were there with him, and suddenly the snubs on the train, the attention for Ron, and the dull anger festering in Malfoy’s eyes no longer mattered. “How are you? Did you tell him?” he asked. Gabriella bit her lower lip, and looked away. Merlin, she was beautiful.

“I know I said I would, but I didn’t,” she said nervously. Harry’s heart completely melted. There was something about the look of fear, or anxiety, on her face that so contrasted with the normally confident and secure woman he knew. He’d seen it in her eyes only a handful of times, and he loved her for it just that much more.

“Take your time, Gab,” he said softly. “You’ve got to be ready, but don’t take too long,” he encouraged.

“I won’t. I swear,” she said, in her best Harry inflection.

“Now that’s not fair!” He laughed, and before long they were talking a lot about nothing in particular. When they finished, she asked to try the mirrors again tomorrow night, but Harry had to push back his next call to the weekend. Gryffindor’s first Quidditch practice was tomorrow night. Katie was insistent about it on the train, reminding Harry three times that they needed to get ready for Hufflepuff, and warning him not to get into any detentions.

When he had said goodbye for the last time, Harry gently placed the mirror back in his trunk, and noticed the portrait Soseh had made. He pulled it out, admiring the colours of the sunset and the glow of Gabriella’s brown skin. He decided he would mount it above his bed and levitated it against the wall, placing a sticking charm on it. He heard footsteps climbing the stairs when he noticed his own likeness in the portrait. His forehead no longer bore the single bolt of lightning above his right eye. “That’s not possible,” he whispered. He was about to look closer when his dorm mates appeared through the door.

“Hey, Harry!”

“Harry.”

“Hey, mate!”

Seamus, Neville, and Ron all came in together. Seamus flopped onto his bed, which to Harry still felt like Greg Goyle’s in many ways.

“Has Ron told ye abou’ him seein’ Voldemort?” Seamus asked. “Says he was carried out on his back, he was. Do ye figure he was dead?”

“No,” Harry answered immediately. “He’s not dead.”

“I don’ know, Harry,” Seamus challenged. “Luna says he buckled over in a right fit.”

“Look,” said Harry calmly grabbing some parchment and a quill, “I promised Katie we’d get some plays together for tomorrow’s practice. Besides, Ron led us all back into the Burrow. He saw. I’m sure he can tell you everything.” Harry cast an unnecessarily cool look at the redhead. “Right, chum?”

“Er… yeah, I guess so,” Ron said, puffing out his chest.

Harry was about to leave when he turned to Neville. “It’s good to have you back, Neville.”

“It’s good to be back,” he replied. Neville looked as happy as he had ever seen him. Between he and Ron, Harry thought, the room might burst with teeth. Looking at Neville, no one would know that for over a month Voldemort himself had tortured him. The first hint of concern crawled into Harry’s mind. Had it been too easy?

“I’d like to talk some later, if you don’t mind,” Harry asked.

“Sure,” Neville nodded.

Harry went downstairs, and out through the portrait of the Fat Lady, to an imaginary meeting with Katie Bell. He simply dropped the quill and parchment on the floor, and wandered down the corridor. There was some time to kill before curfew. He thought of the library, or the Great Hall, but he didn’t feel much like talking to other people. Finally he settled on a visit with Tonks. He was near her office by the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom when he heard a rustling noise in an alcove behind two suits of armor. The candlelight was dim here, not lit for traffic at this time of night. He looked back down the corridor noting that he was alone. He pulled his wand, and quietly, slowly, stepped around the first suit. Barely visible in the corner was a figure holding a small flask and drinking lustfully. A pebble cracked on the floor under Harry’s weight and the figure spun stepping into the light and brandishing a wand. Harry was about to strike when he saw who it was. His heart actually skipped in fright.

The light and shadow played tricks on Harry’s eyes making Malfoy’s face appear even more sunken and sallow. He looked like the living dead as he held his wand only a few inches from Harry’s face. “Potter,” he spat, spraying whatever liquid he was drinking all over Harry’s glasses. The smell was foul. “You son of a bitch. I… I should kill you right here, and be done with it!”

“Draco?” Harry asked with sincere concern. “Are you feeling alright?” Malfoy wiped his mouth roughly with his sleeve. As on the staircase, he was most certainly un-Malfoy like. He was almost hunched, motioning Harry against the wall with his wand. Harry obliged. “Draco, what’s going on? I thought—”

“You thought wrong!” Malfoy sneered. He threw the bottle in the corner and it shattered sending a sharp echo down the empty corridor as the shards splashed across the stone floor.

“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” accused Harry. “What is it? Firewhisky?”

Malfoy let out a sound as if to laugh, but the muscles on his face didn’t oblige the look. Instead they twisted and distorted his face into something akin to a dried tomato. “How half-blood of you, Potter,” he drawled. “As if I would bother with something so pathetically benign.” He still held his wand in Harry’s face, but Harry could tell Malfoy’s eyes were losing their focus.

“Draco, what’s wrong? You shouldn’t be drinking that stuff. You’re not thinking straight.”

“Oh, I’ve got it straight. Do you see this? Do you see it?” he yelled, holding his finger to the scar on his face that Harry knew all too well. Harry simply nodded. “Well, after You-Know-Who’s people got walloped in their attack of the school, he didn’t take it too well.” Malfoy pressed the tip of his wand to Harry’s throat, and sneered clenching his teeth. “It wasn’t enough that you ripped my father’s arm off. You had—”

“I didn’t—”

“Shut up!” Malfoy screamed, his wand hand shaking enough to rub the skin under Harry’s chin raw. He took a breath, and then spoke very calmly. “It wasn’t enough that you ripped my father’s arm off. You had to leave me with this mark, already garnering me more attention than I needed.” Malfoy stepped closer. “He decided it was bad luck. Can you imagine? ‘Lucius, remove the mark.’ And so father tried. Envision having the flesh ripped off your face over and over again. That’s what it felt like, Potter. All night father tried, until he was too weak to carry on. Finally, even the Dark Lord gave it a go.” Malfoy dropped his wand and turned. “Every night, he would try something new, every night he would fail, and every night we would BOTH curse your name. I would have willingly died, Potter, begging him to stop. The only thing giving me the will to go on was father’s potions, and…” he spun like a cat, grabbed Harry by the throat with his bare hands, and pressed him against the wall, “…devising ways to make you pay.”

The thought of ruining the sickly wizard before him flashed for only an instant across Harry’s mind. He hated Draco Malfoy, he always had, at least parts. But this… this thing standing here was not Draco Malfoy. For some reason, Harry felt something quite different than hate coursing through his veins. What it was, he couldn’t quite lay his finger on, but it wasn’t hate. Then he noticed the earrings. They weren’t silver, but white gold. And they weren’t simple hoops, but each was the shape of a curled snake with ruby red eyes that glowed in the darkness.

“Where’s he gone?” Harry asked, but Malfoy didn’t answer. “We can win, Draco. He’s ill, he needed help. Where did they take him?” Malfoy was silent, his grip tightening, but whatever potion he’d swallowed was starting to take effect. “Draco, I need you.” The words had an immediate impact. The grip about Harry’s neck softened and relaxed completely, and for a moment Malfoy’s eyes appeared to clear. They darted back and forth between Harry’s own green eyes, as if searching for the meaning behind Harry’s words. And then Malfoy’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he began to fall backwards against one of the suits of armor. Harry caught him in his arms, and slowly lowered him to the floor.

“Let go,” Malfoy said, flailing his arms. “Get away from me!” He pushed Harry away, but there wasn’t much effort in it. “I… I… got to get back to Slyderin,” he slurred. He took a deep breath and miraculously managed to make it to his feet. He took a few steps staggering down the corridor toward the dungeons. Harry made an effort to help, but Malfoy pulled his wand again. “Back away. This isn’t over, P-Potter. Don’t… don’t think for a s-second that…” He turned, never finishing his sentence, and continued to stagger down the hall.

Harry watched until he was out of sight. When Malfoy turned the corner, Harry rubbed his neck, and then ran his fingers through his hair. In his heart there was more hope than hate, more concern for Draco than derision. If Malfoy was acting strangely, Harry had to think that so too was he, only he no more noticed his own change in behavior than the fact that his hair had grown another inch while he was away on vacation.

Harry barely made it back to the Gryffindor common room before curfew. He was unable to find Tonks, and with Malfoy’s distraction had little time to look about the castle. Thankfully, things had quieted down. A few students were already studying for tomorrow’s classes… miniature Hermione’s Harry thought, while the rest had retreated to their dormitories. He headed up the stairs himself when he spotted the orphan, Patrick O’Riley, asleep in one of the chairs by the fire. Harry walked over to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey, Pat, I’m not a prefect or anything, but you can’t sleep in here unless you’re studying.”

Patrick blinked his eyes. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, Harry,” he blinked some more, sitting taller in the chair. “I won’t… Wait. What’d yeh say?”

“Best get to bed,” said Harry ruffling the first year’s hair. “It’ll be a long day tomorrow. The professors always try to be hard noses the first day we’re back from vacation. Get some proper sleep.”

Patrick took to his feet, rubbing his face with his hands. “Yeah, I guess yer right.” He started up the stairs, as Harry took the seat he vacated. “Did yeh have a good vacation, Harry?”

Harry shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, I guess. You?”

“The Changs were great,” said Patrick with a smile, and Harry smiled back nodding. “See yeh tomorrow, Harry.”

“Goodnight, Pat”

Harry sat in the chair and just gazed into the fire. It would be a hellish day tomorrow, but he knew it was early enough they’d still be talking upstairs. He realized that, except for sleeping on the train, he hadn’t spent any time just sitting quietly and thinking all vacation. He leaned back closing his eyes, let out a slow breath, and almost instantly his thoughts turned to the vivificus stone, now hidden by the Invsitata spell on his desk upstairs. Ideas of Grigor and who he was swam by, and then all thought landed squarely on the riddle to get his godfather back. “Welled from source of endless magic,” he whispered to himself. “Obviously not me. I wonder—”

“Hi,” a kind voice said, tapping him on the shoulder. It was Hermione. She was dressed in pajamas, but she wore the diamond necklace Harry had given her for her birthday. Harry hadn’t seen it on her since the day he gave it to her. “Mind if I sit down?” she asked with a lightness in her voice that told Harry their conversation was about to be anything but.

“I thought you were a starlet now,” Harry said in an all too snotty tone. “The girlfriend of the famous Ron Weasley. Surely you don’t have time…” Hermione turned and began to walk away. Harry watched her take a few steps and called her back. “Wait! I’m sorry. It’s just all been too weird, you know?” She turned back and nodded. Then she sat in the chair next to Harry. “Did you just come from upstairs?” he asked, hoping for some information.

“Yes,” she answered. “The boys are getting ready for bed. Ron’s voice is essentially gone, and his face muscles have started to cramp up he’s been smiling so much today.” They both laughed and Hermione caught Harry looking down at her necklace. She rolled it between her fingers and then ran her hand across the diamonds. “I figured his ego was boosted enough he wouldn’t mind. I do love them you know.”

“Good,” Harry said, a bit indifferently. “That’s what it’s all about… boosting Ron’s ego.”

“I can’t believe you’re jealous!” shot back Hermione with a high voice.

“I’m not!” snapped Harry. “It’s just… well… it wasn’t Ron that put Voldemort on his back, was it?” Harry asked, not really wanting an answer. “If that hadn’t happened, Luna and Neville would still be chained to his wall. Nobody seems to realize that little part, do they?” He folded his arms tight around his chest and glared at the fire. He wasn’t jealous… he wasn’t! If there was anyone who hated extra attention, it was Harry Potter. He just wanted… what did he want?

Hermione silently watched him as the emotions rose and fell across his face. She was used to the twists and turns, only this time, perhaps, she saw something a bit different… something new and she liked it. Finally, she spoke with a soft voice.

“Is it really so terrible that Ron have the limelight for awhile?”

Harry sighed and shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “Of course not.” He took another breath, unfolded his arms, and looked at Hermione with a smile. “Helping Neville’s parents was bloody brilliant. He deserves a medal for that one.” Harry’s smile was tinged with concern. “Certainly you’ve seen him without his shirt on. Have you checked the scars on his neck? Have they gone down?” Hermione blushed in the firelight.

“They were pretty bad, but Madame Pomfrey’s worked out a new spell, and a healer from St. Mungo’s has him taking a regular potion. They’re getting better.” Hearing the words, Harry slowly nodded.

“Good,” he said firmly. “Only two weeks until Hufflepuff. We need the Keeper fit.”

“You’re not seriously only concerned because of Quidditch?” Hermione howled. Harry just looked at her with a sly grin, and she shoved him on the shoulder. The two sat and stared at the fire, listening to the crackles and pops. Eventually, they were the only two left in the common room. Hermione looked around and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. The move did not go unnoticed by Harry, who feigned a yawn, stretching his arms wide.

“I really should get to—”

“Did you see Tonks tonight?” Hermione asked innocently.

So they were going there, Harry thought to himself. It only took a bit over an hour, but at least he knew why she was there. Perhaps, he’d known all along. She was there not to be a friend, but to gather information. He had hoped she would want to discuss Malfoy, or perhaps to divine a new strategy for studying this new term. Instead, she was going to stick her nose in and ruin everything.

“I’m really tired, Hermione,” he said with his best tired voice. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Rubbing his face, he took to his feet to leave.

“Harry,” she started again, “I really need to know. Did you see Tonks?”

He didn’t want to be angry, it just welled up from inside. Some part of him was trying to cool the fire kindling in his veins, but he’d have none of it.

“Wasn’t it bad enough you had to nose your way in and listen to me talk to Tonks in private at Grimmauld Place? No! You had to go and try to butt your way in between Gabriella and me!”

“I wasn’t—”

“Is this how you get your kicks now? Or has the Order given you the job to spy on Harry Potter and report back whatever you see and hear?

“I am no spy!” yelled Hermione, now taking to her feet and facing Harry head on.

“Then why ask what I’m doing? Why ask who I speak to? Why follow me around like a lost puppy searching for scraps of information, if not to spit them back up for the Order?” Then Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Or is it the Ministry?” he sneered, as if he detested the word. The memory of the Ministry’s invasion of his home came rushing back.

Hermione stared silently in defiance, her jaw set in denial, but her eyes betrayed her.

“It is! I don’t bloody believe it!” Harry howled. “You’re working for the Ministry of Magic. Do you know how many Ministry officials Voldemort has under his thumb?

“Not Ron’s dad!”

“NO?” Harry spat. The anger had fully engulfed him, and he was going to win this argument with Hermione on all fronts, and at all costs. “Bloody convenient the way he came swooping in at the last second to save the day right behind Fudge who was killed. Only, Minister Weasley doesn’t get so much as a scratch!

“I can’t believe you’d think that!”

“And then, right after the rescue, he comes to search my house, MY HOUSE, as if I’m a criminal,” he raged. He wasn’t really listening to what he was saying; it was just that he wanted Hermione to leave him alone. He needed to make this about anything, about anybody, besides Tonks. He pulled his wand flicking popped embers back into the fire. “And… and Mrs. Weasley… she hates me so much for ruining her precious sons, why doesn’t she move out of Grimmauld Place and go back to the Burrow? Hell, the whole lot of them can run back to that dump if they think I…” He turned to see Ron at the bottom of the stairs. In is hand was a jacket Harry knew to be Hermione’s. The three stood there staring at each other for a moment. Harry could feel the sizzle in his soul hiss as the cool waters of the moment doused his emotions. He took a step toward his friend. “Ron, I—”

“Hermione,” said Ron, stepping down past Harry and holding out the jacket. “You left this upstairs. I thought I’d catch you down here reading, but I guess…” he stopped, casting a sullen glance toward Harry, and then sighed. “Anyway, goodnight.” He kissed her on the cheek, and walked by Harry and back up the stairs without saying a word.

Harry watched in silence as Ron returned to the boys’ dormitory. When he disappeared, Harry cried out, rounding on one of the common room’s study tables. “Arrrgh!” he yelled, flipping the table over with his hands, and then holding out his right arm, he called, “Diffindo!” to sunder the table in two. Only, nothing happened. Frustrated, he kicked one of the upturned table legs with all his might, hurting his foot in the process. “Damn it!” he cursed, hopping on one foot.

“Here,” Hermione said gently, taking him by the shoulders and helping him back over to the chair by the fire. “Let me have a look.” She took off his boot, and examined the foot. “I don’t think it’s broken,” she said. “Does this hurt?” she asked, grasping his big toe and giving it a yank.

“Ayyy!” he yelled. “Yes. Yes, it hurts.”

“Good!” she snapped, pulling and twisting it a bit more as Harry screamed. Finally she cried, “Serves you right!” She grabbed the boot and smacked Harry’s head and a red welt immediately appeared above his left temple. “Ron Weasley is the closest thing you have to a blood brother, Harry Potter, and you have the audacity to smear his family’s name? The same family that only ever treated you as their own son? For the last six months he’s called me his girlfriend, but all he ever talks about is you. Everything he does, he does for Harry Potter. He’d lie for you… he’d die for you, and all you can do is complain he has more lines in the bloody newspaper!” She glared at Harry, whose own eyes were, at the moment, empty, then shook her head. “I don’t care what you think about me, Harry, but don’t ever insult the Weasleys again, or I’ll hex you so bad you won’t walk for a week!” She grabbed her jacket, and started for the stairs.

“Hermione,” Harry said softly, sadly, not turning, but rather staring into the dieing embers of the fire. He could hear her footsteps stop to listen. Harry smiled to himself as tear rose up in his eyes. She would always stop to listen. “Would it be so bad to try?” he asked. “He’s my godfather, after all.” He could hear her steps return to the back of the chair, but his eyes remained fixed on the orange glow before him.

“Harry, have you spoken to Tonks today?” she asked.

“No,” he answered quietly. “I ran into Malfoy instead. He looks half dead if you ask me. Some sort of potion he’s taking, and it’s messing with his mind.” Again there was another long pause, and Harry felt compelled to ask again. “Would it, Hermione? Would it be so bad to try?”

“What’s it worth to you?” she finally asked.

“Everything.”

“Really? Would you hand the keys of the world to Voldemort, just to bring back Sirius?”

“She’s not working for—”

“Yes she is, Harry. And you know it.”

An ember popped from the fire, and before it hit the ground Harry had his wand out and repelled it back into the fire. “I can’t do it without a wand, anymore,” he said flatly.

“I noticed,” she said, moving to the chair at his side. Harry took in a deep heave of air, and exhaled it in a long slow sigh.

“I’m such a jerk,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“You know,” she said kindly, “it’d take the courage of a true Gryffindor to climb up there and apologize right now.” She reached over and gave Harry a hug. “I think we can save talk of Voldemort and his minions for tomorrow, don’t you?” Harry smiled back.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Some things are more important.” Gingerly, he slipped on his boot and limped on up the stairs, leaving Hermione to read a book by candlelight. He would worry about his wounded foe tomorrow… the foe whose darkness even now shadowed the castle walls. For the moment, he would turn his attention on what was important-- bravery, loyalty, and friendship.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 58 - Darkness Returns
~~~***~~~


He could hear the slow steady splat of water as it pattered onto the ledge beneath the common room window. For the last few days the rain had been light, but steady. The grounds were beginning to warm, and the rain seemed to awaken many of the buds in the trees, and revitalize the lawn, which was shaking off its golden mantle for a new green. It was late, and only he and Patrick were still studying. The first year seemed to take pride in working side-by-side with Harry though he rarely said a word, which suited Harry, who still appreciated the company. Since midnight, Patrick had asked only one question about a wand movement for levitation, and Harry worked with him for a moment, if only to rest his mind from his own studies.

“You’d think I could levitate a feather,” Patrick complained. “James can do it in his sleep.”

“Ask Seamus about his first time in Flitwick’s class,” said Harry with a smile and showing the young boy the proper wrist motion. It wasn’t long before Patrick was levitating feathers and sheets of paper. With this success, he chose to retire for what was left of the morning’s darkness. Soon, the rest of Gryffindor would, themselves, be rising. As the young boy started to put his books in his pack, he looked up at Harry hunched over two sheets of parchment and making notes.

“Is it due tomorrow?” he asked.

“Excuse me?” said Harry, blearily pulling himself away.

“Your assignment, is it due tomorrow?”

“What? This? Er… no,” Harry answered. “Something I let slip away from me last year.”

Patrick raised his eyebrows, nodding his approval of Harry’s tenacity. “Well, goodnight,” he said and ascended up the staircase. Harry returned to the riddles before him.

“Blend the three and turn the key,” he whispered to himself for the hundredth time that night. For weeks he had tried to engage Tonks about the riddles, and for weeks she had rebuffed him with excuse after excuse about how she needed more time, and how it was better that they slow down to do it right. Since she had been no help at all, Harry elected to deduce their meaning for himself. It was strange really, as if she was waiting for the stars and planets to realign, and Harry would often use Tonks’ reticence to demonstrate to Hermione that there was no way the young professor was in league with Voldemort. He sighed, shaking his head. He did not want to start his thoughts down that path again… it was mere distraction and always led to more irritation. “Focus,” he thought.

He and Tonks were sure of one thing… one of the ingredients was Lucius Malfoy’s blood, it had to be. “…saved from death by hated foe…” was just too perfect a connection. The second ingredient was simply the golden basin, secretly cast by the Black Family for this very purpose… to return the condemned from behind the Curtain of Phenolem.

It had been Hermione who relayed the history lesson from one of Professor Binns’ classes. The great chamber in the bowels of the ministry was once used as an execution hall. Originally the condemned, often enemies of the state, were executed… put to death in front of hundreds of witnesses on the large dais that now stands there. To prevent their graves or ghosts from becoming gathering sites for enemies, the bodies were disposed of through the Curtain of Phenolem, a tapestry magically woven to entrap the essence of all that entered, allowing no spirit to escape its confines.

Eventually, the early Ministry discovered that even the living could be thrown through the curtain, saving the trouble of the ghastly execution altogether, although it was endlessly debated which was more cruel. Long after the entire process was banned for being inhumane, Sirius Black’s great grandfather Ogmius Black, the first son of Phineas Nigellus, developed a technique to bring those he summoned back from the curtain. Cruel, dark wizards, sentenced to death centuries before were returned whole and ready to terrorize again, ever loyal to the wizard that set them free.

“Harry, don’t you see?” Hermione pleaded. “Your rescue of Lucius Malfoy is what gave Voldemort the idea. He believed, with your blood, he had all the ingredients, but he was wrong. And now he’s using you through Tonks to find out how to set them free.”

“That’s rubbish!” Harry argued, but his heart wasn’t in it. What he meant to say is, “You’re probably right, but I don’t give a damn, because I’m bringing out Sirius, with or without a new army for Voldemort. Do you want to help?”

“Damn!” Harry hissed to himself for letting his mind wander again. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, trying to concentrate once more. The rain sprayed against the common room window, driven by a sudden gust of wind. He turned and watched the sheets of water run down the panes of glass on this moonless night. If only he could think of what the last ingredient was, but it was pointless. His mind was fogged, and continued to wander. With a heavy sigh, he rolled his papers, and went to bed.

He entered the boys’ dormitory to find it silent, save for the rhythmic snoring of Seamus Finnigan. It was the one thing about Seamus that Harry didn’t miss while he was gone last term. He slipped off his clothes, patted the stone of cinnabar now hidden on his desk by the Invsitata spell, and crawled into bed. He might, at least, get an hour’s rest. Only the rhythm of Seamus’ snores and the pitter-pat, pitter-pat of rain against the dorm window remained, as the fog fully filled his mind. There was a dull ache at his temples, probably from reading too much he thought. He turned over on his side, cleared his thoughts, and fell asleep.

The next morning his mind was weary, his eyes watered, and his body ached. He felt quite ill, but went to class anyway. In Care of Magical Creatures he sneezed violently, squeezing a fire toad too tightly and causing it to blast a jet of flame over Ron’s arm. Hagrid sent them both to see Madame Pomfrey, Ron for his arm, and Harry for his cold.

“It don’t get yeh outta doin’ yer homework now! Neither of yeh!” Hagrid called after them as they left for the castle.

Turning the corridor to the hospital wing they ran into Malfoy who was just leaving. Well, it was Ron that really ran into him. Their shoulders collided as each tried to negotiate the turn too quickly. Both had their wands at the ready in an instant. Malfoy’s two snake earrings seemed to sneer as they glinted in the sunlight streaming through the upper windows. Ron sneered back, narrowing his eyes at the blonde. Malfoy’s health had steadily been improving since his detention with Harry nearly three weeks before. His clothes and appearance were far better, but his temperament was as bad as ever.

“Don’t tell me your wand backfired again, Weasels,” Malfoy drawled, as he looked from Ron’s eyes to his burnt arm.

“How ‘bout I try it on your face,” Ron snapped back. “Oh, sorry, that’s already scarred for life.” The words made Harry wince, and he grabbed Ron by the sleeve.

“You two… just cut it out!” ordered Harry, pulling Ron down the corridor toward the Infirmary.

“Next time, Malfoy,” Ron called after the Slytherin. “Next time!”

“I didn’t know red-headed garbage dwellers could tell time!” Malfoy howled back with a sneer. Ron lurched, but Harry held fast and pulled him into the hospital wing.

Ron was the first to be treated. Madam Pomfrey carefully examined his arm and, as always, shook her head. “I just don’t understand why every time the door to the hospital wing opens I expect to see Ron Weasley, or Harry Potter. Imagine my surprise to see you both wander in today.” Her voice was seeped in sarcasm as her eyes rolled to the ceiling.

“Job security, Madame Pomfrey,” said Ron brightly. “Job security.”

“I don’t think I need to worry about that, Mr. Weasley,” she said darkly, as she sprinkled a white powder on Ron’s arm and then bathed it in blue light with her wand. “The healers have been stretched thin this year, I’m afraid.” She let out a sigh. “Although it has been quiet lately.”

Harry winced. A sharp pain pulsed at his temples, then faded. Madame Pomfrey looked at him with concern.

“You’re not just an escort, Mr. Potter?” she asked, finishing up with Ron’s arm, which was now only showing a light sunburned appearance. Still, she wrapped it in light gauze.

“He’s got a cold,” Ron answered.

“A cold?” Madame Pomfrey scoffed, looking at Harry closely. “Let me see.” She stepped over to Harry as he sat on the gurney next to Ron’s. “Take off your glasses, please.” Harry did so, and she moved her wand in circles about his head while holding a silver disk. “There’s no sign of…” and then she noticed the scar was now absent from his forehead. “Merlin, child, what have you done?”

Up until now, no adult had noticed the disappearance of his scar, or if they did, they said nothing about it. Perhaps a handful of Gryffindors had seen a normal forehead, maybe Cho. Other than that, very few paid it any attention. Hermione, to the contrary, was convinced there was something more, and as in all things plunged into the library to learn all she could. Over the last two weeks her search had led to nothing new, and Harry noticed her trips to the library begin to dwindle to a mere three or four a day. But how to handle Madame Pomfrey? Harry chose the tried and true method--ignorance.

“Done?” he asked blankly.

“To your forehead! Your scar… it’s gone. How?” She leaned in closer, but Harry turned to Ron.

“How’s the arm, Ron?” he asked. “Ready to get back to that homework Hagrid was talking about?”

“Er, yeah,” Ron quickly stammered. “Right… homework.”

“Don’t start that with me!” Madame Pomfrey snapped. “Potter, there’s nothing wrong with your head except maybe some sneezing from the new blossoms, and probably this.” She tapped his blank forehead with her wand making a dull thunking sound. Harry continued to look at her as if he was confused. Finally, she handed him some Pepperup Potion. “Very well,” she sighed. “Take a half dose now, and a half dose tomorrow morning. If the headaches don’t stop by lunch tomorrow, you are to return here before dinner, understood?”

Harry nodded.

“I don’t detect any subcutaneous incantation, but if this is some sort of magic to hide your scar—”

“Gee,” interrupted Harry, gulping down the potion. Steam began to billow at once out his ears. “Thanks, Madame Pomfrey.” He sniffed in a deep pull of air through his nose. “Ah… already feel better,” he lied. “Let’s go, Ron.”

They were halfway to the Great Hall to eat lunch before either of them said a word. It was Ron who broke the silence.

“He’s back, isn’t he,” he said darkly, looking down at the stone floor as they walked. Harry said nothing; he didn’t have to. Ron let out a deep breath. “A lot of fame for a lot of nothing… so much for vanquishing He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. What a waste.” He let out another long sigh. Harry stopped, and grabbed Ron by the arm.

“Waste?” he snapped. “You think it was a waste to save Neville and Luna? Was it a waste to show the Wizarding world where Voldemort’s men were hiding out? Was it a waste to bring Neville’s parents back into his life so they could truly have something wonderful to celebrate for the New Year?” He turned to face his best friend, and whatever jealousy Harry still held to vanished. “It was you, Ron Weasley, who made that happen. You made a difference that matters… Voldemort be damned!”

Ron tried to offer a smile, nodding his head, but his heart wasn’t much in it. There was comfort to be had having Harry Potter as your best friend, and it didn’t stem from his wealth or his fame, but rather from his heart and undying loyalty.

“How bad is it?” Ron asked. Harry shrugged. The pain was different, but somehow he knew it was an omen of Voldemort’s return.

“You know how you could hear everyone’s thoughts seeping into your head uncontrollably?” Harry asked as they walked along, neither looking at the other. “I’ve only ever heard one voice… Voldemort’s.” This time, Ron didn’t cringe hearing the name. They walked a little further. “The thing is… this time… it’s different somehow.” He held his hand to his forehead. “Something’s changed.” They were nearing the entrance to the Great Hall, and others were converging. Ron caught sight of Hermione and waved with a half-smile. She jogged over to greet him with a kiss, but could tell there was something wrong.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, as her eyes glanced down to see his bandaged arm. “Are you okay? What happened?” Ron shook his head.

“One thing’s certain,” Harry continued as if Hermione never appeared. “He’s mad.” He looked out and seemed to scan the air with his eyes as if reading a book, or thinking about something quite distant. And then he nodded his head. “Furious.” A thin smile creased Harry’s lips at the understanding. “Let him stew in his failure.”

Hermione knew at once what they were talking about, and her face turned ashen. “He’ll retaliate! Harry, you know he will.” Her face grew stern. “He’s like a spoiled child who can’t get his way. He’ll throw a bloody tantrum, and people are going to die!” Her words were a bit loud, and turned the heads of some hungry passersby. Ron pulled her aside, and Harry followed. They looked very conspiratorial, huddled by one of the statues at the Great Hall’s entrance.

“Okay,” Ron started, “he’s going to strike. But, as always, the question is where and when?” Both he and Hermione looked at Harry as if he might have the answer.

“Don’t look at me,” he shrugged again, sending up another billowing cloud of steam from his ears. “I might just have allergies.”

“You don’t suppose…” Hermione started holding her hand to her chin and squeezing her eyes till they looked like she was in pain. Ron rolled his eyes, waiting for what was next. It was Hermione’s dramatic pause for someone to offer an idea so she could say no and correct them. Ron stopped biting, long ago. “Could it be the Magpies?”

“What?” Ron scoffed.

“Well, I mean, it’s odd enough that you’re both invited to tryout for a professional team…”

“What?” Ron’s pitch ran higher.

“… and now only two days before you’re supposed to leave Hogwarts, Harry’s scar starts hurting again.”

“It’s not my scar…” Harry corrected, “not really.” The problem was he didn’t know what it was. The mark on Harry’s forehead that had linked Voldemort to Harry had been washed away, and with it the darkness that seeped into Harry’s soul, but there still seemed to be a connection, however faint, with all that was good in Tom Riddle. Gone was the piercing pain in his forehead, and in its place was a dull ache that ran throughout his body in a slow wave. It made him feel that if he could just sleep for a day, he’d be better. Harry sighed, maybe he was just sick.

“Why is it odd,” Ron continued, “that the best Seeker, and the best Keeper I might add, Hogwarts has seen in decades happen to attract professional attention?”

“Decades?” challenged Hermione, now taking a turn to roll her own eyes. Harry sighed, and started for lunch. He was hungry, and although Dumbledore had given his permission for the two to travel with appropriate guards, Hermione had a point. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like such a great idea, but there was no stopping Ron, and because of that, there would be no stopping Harry either.

Ron and Hermione were still bickering at the entrance, when he sat down for lunch. They had moved off subject to proper studying habits… a topic Harry had come to learn never ended happily. He tried to eat quickly before he found himself caught in the middle again. It reminded him of the fights that Grigor and Soseh had over the summer. The memories immediately turned his thoughts to Gabriella, and his heart began to sink a bit. He had hoped it would be easier this term, using the mirrors to communicate, but it was only that much worse saying goodbye. It was clear, to Harry at least, that Gabriella was unhappy with what was happening at home, and there was nothing Harry could do about it. He felt helpless.

“Are you going to eat your dessert?”

Harry awoke from his daydream to find Neville sitting across the table from him. Harry looked over to the entrance, and saw both Hermione and Ron storming in.

“Er… no,” Harry sputtered quickly. “You eat it. I need to go.” Harry sat up and started for the exit.

“Harry!” both Hermione and Ron shouted in unison.

“Sorry guys!” Harry held out his hands apologetically in a wide gesture. “I’m late for an appointment.” They both looked a little put out, but that was better than the alternative.

It wasn’t long before Harry was in the boys’ dormitory getting ready for Intermediate Apparation with Professor Flitwick. This term, they would attempt to Apparate on their own, if only across the street, trying to avoid re-appearing with their feet under the ground. The steam now only fizzled from his ears. He was slipping his wand away, when another wave of nausea passed quickly over his body, and then disappeared. It was something akin to having a ghost pass through you, only much deeper, and much colder. The feeling that remained was one of anticipation. He leaned against his bedpost regaining his composure. Blinking his eyes, he glanced up at the portrait Soseh had painted, and noticed another change in the oils. While the people in magical portraits moved, this painting was very much the Muggle type with one exception… it changed. At least that’s what Harry was coming to realize. It reflected the way things were in the present. The portrait had corrected itself and vanished away the scar on Harry’s forehead. It had displayed the new earrings they now both wore since Christmas. Now it had transformed again. In the distance, beyond and behind the figure of Gabriella was a shadow, or puff of smoke. It didn’t make sense, and it seemed quite out of place… unnatural. He began to worry that something was wrong. He reached over and tapped his invisible statue with his hand. He took solace in knowing that the look the two gave each other in the portrait was one of love, but he couldn’t help but see a greater sadness in Gabriella’s expression.

He worried as he laced his trainers. He worried as he headed for class. He worried all day long, fretting at every opportunity. He consistently failed the wand movements in Apparation and lost five house points from Professor Flitwick. The first time that had happened in years.

That night, an hour before curfew, he sped the entire way to the owlery to speak with Gabriella. Over the last few weeks, Harry had been showing her different parts of the castle every time they used the mirrors to communicate. She was particularly impressed with the observatory, and with Firenze’s inside-outdoor classroom.

“Papa would love to teach there,” she had said longingly, and then her face broke into a deepening sadness.

Unfortunately, her father had been home less and less. His appearance and demeanor were deteriorating upon each return, and as it did, her desire to tell him the truth about what she had done in retribution for her brother’s death waned. Duncan and Todd had taken to making regular visits, and perhaps the most enjoyable thing for Harry was the absence of any jealousy in his heart. He loved her, she loved him, their portrait was proof of that, and that was enough.

With Hedwig perched on his shoulder, he called her through his father’s mirror. She was, as always, beautiful. Her hair was worn loosely about her shoulders, as she sat by her bedroom window. He could see past, across the street, to his own bedroom window. To some this might bring a pang of homesickness; to Harry it was just another window. His eyes gazed into hers and he saw tears.

“What is it?” he asked. “What’s the matter?”

Gabriella bit her lower lip trying not to cry, but the tears welled up and flowed freely down her cheeks. Her breaths were quick, jerking and shallow, and she was having trouble gathering herself together.

“Gabriella, what’s wrong?” Harry pleaded. “Is it the Ministry? That’s over with now.” He had never seen her so upset, not even after Emma’s death. He wanted to Apparate right now… to be at her side, to hold her. He could feel the frustration building within, but he took a steadying breath and asked again as calmly as he could, “It’s okay, baby. Just tell me.”

“I… I told him,” she sniffed. “I told him everything.” There was a long pause. He had urged her to tell Grigor what had happened after her brother Antreas’ death, and he knew it would be difficult, but if her father’s love was strong…

“And?” he asked with caution.

“He’s gone, Harry. He’s gone!” she cried out, and burst into tears hanging her head.

“But he’s left before,” Harry offered truthfully. “He’ll be back.”

She cried for a moment longer, and then suddenly stopped, wiped her face, and slowly raised her head to look directly at Harry through the mirror. Her eyes were black stones, cold and intense. It was a look of courage and resolve that he had often seen, but now, like this… a cold shiver slithered up Harry’s spine. “What happened, Gabriella?”

“It was after dinner,” she began. Her voice was slow, steady, and uncharacteristically distant, almost detached. Her expression was frozen into a death masque that felt no pain. Harry had seen only flashes of this part of Gabriella before, but he knew all too well of the results… a murder in Lebanon for the torture and killing of her brother.

“It was after dinner, and for the first time in a long time Papa chose to smoke a cigar in the living room, and read the paper. I finished helping Mama with the dishes, when she said she was tired and wanted to lie down. I can’t remember when the last time Papa and I spent more than five minutes alone together. ‘Now or never,’ I thought, and I took a seat on the couch across from him. He looked over his newspaper and smiled. I wonder if he’ll ever smile at me again.” Her eyes wandered up and over the mirror, to where… Harry could only imagine.

“And so I told him. I told him that I had learned what had happened to Antreas at Al Bsahri. I told him of the great gathering of sixteen at the altar. I never learned the reason for the ritual, but I had learned the result. They had killed Antreas and the poor old woman. And then… and then I told him of the Headmaster, of how… of how he paid with his own life at my hands.” She stopped, staring blankly past, or through Harry, as if she were looking back once again at the greatest horror of her life.

Now more than ever Harry wanted to be at Gabriella’s side. It was clear she needed him there, but his only connection was through this mirror. At least it was better than owl, he thought, looking about the collection of birds flying around and overhead. Hedwig, tired of waiting to be summoned, flew down and lit on Harry’s shoulder. The sight broke Gabriella’s trance of silence, and for a brief instant she smiled as Hedwig pecked in annoyance at Harry’s ear.

“She’s bored,” said Harry, offering her a small treat from his pocket. “Since we have the mirrors, her only chance to fly is when I write to Fred and George, and that’s not far at all.”

“I think she’s getting fat,” scolded Gabriella. Hedwig hooted, and puffed out her feathers, but the effect was not a handsome one.

“Would you like her to come for a visit?” Harry asked. “I know she’d love to see you again.” Gabriella began to smile, but then her face fell.

“I don’t know, Harry,” she whispered.

“I guess… I guess your father was pretty mad?” asked Harry. “He stormed off then?”

Gabriella waited for a moment and then shook her head no. The tears began to well up again, and her look was one of confusion. “No,” she rasped, “not angry… I don’t know… sad, maybe… disappointed.” She drew in a deep breath and finished her story. “After I told him what I’d done, he folded his newspaper and placed it at the side of his chair. He crushed out his cigar, and set it in the ashtray. He came over to me and held me in his arms. I began to cry.” She cursed, wiping her face. “I never cry in front of my father.” Gabriella took the mirror in both her hands, and swung it around. The motion made Harry a bit dizzy. She set the mirror on her night table, and lay down on her bed looking up at the sky. Then, chewing at the edge of one of her nails, her voice took on the tone of her father. “He said he was sorry. He said he was a fool, and had ruined everything, had lost his children, but that he would fix that. He said that he had the key to return all that he lost. He said… he said… ‘Gabriella, she won’t get away, I promise you. Antreas will return.’”

She rolled over onto her elbows and looked into the mirror. “Harry, it doesn’t make sense. He told me to watch after Mama and that one day I would understand. He told me he loved me, and always would, and then… he Disapparated.” She paused, looking into Harry’s eyes. Black locked with green, they both wanted the same thing very much. “He left with a puff of smoke,” she said, weakly trying to smile. “He used to perform magic shows for Antreas and me when we were children. I think it may have been his last true happy memory.”

“He’ll come back, Gabriella. I know he will.”

She shook her head and rolled over onto her back. “Mama woke up about an hour ago. I think he’s been controlling her mind all this time. She knows something, but can’t or won’t bring herself to say. All she did was hold me, and tell me that Papa, as he is, would never return to this house, and Mama is never wrong.”

Harry didn’t know what to say, or think. He had half believed Grigor was in league with Voldemort, but now he just wasn’t sure. Still, what kind of father would abandon his family? “I’m sorry, Gabriella. It’s all my fault. I didn’t think—”

“Shhhhhh,” she hushed, holding a finger to her lips. “I’m the only one that’s sorry. I should have told him straight away and maybe none of this would have happened.”

“But then we might never have met, and my life would be… you know… empty without you. I wish you were here,” he whispered. And she nodded, wiping at her face again. “Listen,” he said brightly. “I know we can’t be together next week for Valentine’s and all, but I thought I’d send you a little something.” He held up a small package in the mirror. “It’s just chocolate from Honeydukes, but—”

“It’s wonderful, Harry,” said Gabriella warmly. “Thank you.” They paused looking at each other, as they always did when it was time to say goodbye, only this time there was a sense of unease.

“You’ll keep me informed and tell me how your mother’s doing? Ron and I will be flying with the Magpies tomorrow night, but we can talk Sunday, okay?”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said with embarrassment, covering her mouth with her hand. “Your chance to join the pros and all I’ve been doing is prattling on about—”

“Family’s more important, Gabriella. It’s always more important.” Again they held each other’s eyes, and she nodded.

After Harry wrapped the mirror and slipped it back into his cloak, he tied the small box to Hedwig’s leg and sent her away into the clear, dark night. There was no moon, only the intense flickering of stars in the heavens. On such a night, he cursed as his mind wandered to where it must. If Grigor was a Death Eater, and he had left to finish whatever he had started, then something would surely happen soon. He watched as Hedwig’s white feathers were swallowed by the darkness, and then, rubbing his temples, turned to leave. It was time to speak with Dumbledore about the Magpies.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 59 - A New Game
~~~***~~~


“Portkey? Why do we have to travel by Portkey?” Harry hated the feeling of his intestines being pulled inside out, and if he was to demonstrate his skills as a flyer, he didn’t need the extra disorientation that flying by Portkey would bring. “Can’t we just fly?” Everyone looked at him askew, as though he’d just released a rather loud belch. “I mean, it’s only fifty miles and—”

“I know your broom will get you there in fifteen minutes just as warm as a pigeon, but the rest of us aren’t so fortunate,” scolded Tonks. “We travel together, and we travel by Portkey.” She had been listening to Harry’s complaint over and over for the last half hour, and this time placed added finality to her words.

It was a small group: two flyers (Harry and Ron), two guards (Tonks and Shacklebolt), and two guests. Ron had selected Hermione. Harry briefly considered inviting Draco as a sort of peace offering, but later reconsidered and instead chose Cho. She had been spending a lot more time with Anthony Goldstein lately, and Harry took some delight in knowing that Anthony would have to sit back and watch as Harry took Cho to see professional Quidditch players the Saturday before Valentine’s. Of the six, only Hermione seemed to be nervous. She sidestepped over to Harry.

“Do you think it’s wise that Tonks—”

“Hermione,” he said, sharply cutting her off. “I think you’ll find Tonks more than capable.” Harry had always been defensive of Tonks, but over the last hour as they prepared to go he was exceptionally acerbic.

“Very well, everyone,” Shacklebolt said in a firm voice. “Just as… er, Professor Tonks said, we travel together. Nobody leaves my sight when we arrive. That includes you as well, Professor.” He pointed at Tonks.

“Understood,” she nodded. “Birds of a feather…”

“Then on three…”

A moment later they were all being yanked by their navels, and soon found themselves landing in the dressing room of the Montrose Magpies. Corry Pembroke, a star Chaser for the Magpies, was lacing up his flying boots. He was dressed in black and white Quidditch robes, and as they arrived he looked up for but a moment flashing dark green eyes and a dark moustache but no smile and then returned to his laces. Standing by the lockers was Terrence Tellman wearing a broad, perhaps Cheshire-like, smile.

“That’s him,” Tonks whispered in Harry’s ear. Harry nodded and took Cho by the arm.

“Welcome! Welcome!” Tellman called to the group as they each regained their balance.

“Cho I’d like you to meet Terrence Tellman,” said Harry. “One of greatest Seekers of all time, next to you of course.”

“You play?” Tellman asked graciously. Cho nodded, turning four shades of red, suddenly unable to find words in her mouth. The man was larger than life, literally. Towering over her he said, “Then perhaps you’d like to be the one to take this back to Hogwarts.” He handed her a black Snitch, perhaps made of ebony, with the names of the players inscribed in small white script. When she took it from his hands it was heavier than she expected.

“Fantastic!” she breathed, turning about to show the others.

“Brilliant,” Tonks said, admiring the ebon orb.

“Harry, Ron, are you ready?” Tellman asked.

“Let’s go!” called Ron, beaming. Harry was a bit more hesitant, but circled to follow Ron. As he did so, he walked straight into Pembroke who was hunched over tying the final knot. Harry flipped over Pembroke’s back, knocked over his broom with a clatter, but somehow managed to land on his feet.

“Quick moves, Harry, if a bit clumsy.” Tellman grinned, as Pembroke took to his feet.

“I’m used to it,” Harry muttered, awkwardly adjusting his glasses as he followed the group to the exit.

They opened the doors to a brilliant green pitch. The stadium was enormous, with stands twice as high as those at Hogwarts. Tonks immediately recognized Alasdair Maddock who was flying about the rings at the south end of the pitch, tossing one Quaffle after another into the air only to bat them into the rings with his broom. A large, burly man flew over to meet the group. His hair was bright red, and he wore something akin to referee robes. As he drew near, Ron leaned over to Harry.

“It’s Bennegin,” he whispered, “the Magpie’s coach.” Harry nodded, but appeared to be more concerned with the skies above the pitch than the large man swooping in. Hermione, for her part, was focused completely on Tonks.

“These the two, Tellman?” Bennegin asked with a big, booming voice. His face was red, worn from years of flying in the open air. His eyes were a brilliant blue and while at a distance he was certainly intimidating, up close, his wide white smile made him appear more like a great uncle. This was going to be fun.

“Yes, sir,” Tellman said smartly. “Fresh in from Hogwarts.” Tellman introduced Harry and Ron, as well as their guests and the two bodyguards. His introductions were more stiff than they needed to be, and his eyes kept darting over to Pembroke now mounting his broom.

“Well,” Coach Bennegin, began, “let’s start with some simple Quaffle passes. I know you’re a Seeker, Harry, but I’d like to see your skill on that Caduceus of yours. We’re still flying modified Firebolts, and I’ve heard mixed reactions from some of the other players in the league. Fast, but not agile.” Harry nodded, looking nervously at Tonks, who shrugged and gave him an encouraging smile.

“You’ll be fine, Harry,” she said. “Just have fun.”

Ron, on the other hand was clearly distraught. His broom was agile enough to guard the rings, but it had no speed to compete with what was flying out on the pitch. Coach Bennegin picked up on the emotion instantly, and was already a step ahead. “Weasley,” he said, “you’ll stay at Keeper. That’s your strength and that’s where the team is the thinnest. I think at this point, as long as you don’t fall off your broom, you’re better than the last three blokes we’ve had through our locker room.”

It wasn’t long before they were airborne. Cho and Hermione joined Shacklebolt in the box seats at center pitch, while Tonks flew watch high above the others. Hermione didn’t understand this since Shacklebolt was the better flyer. She tried to have the two switch roles, but they were having none of it, particularly Tonks.

As play started, it was evident that Ron was having the time of his life. He had blocked the first four attempts on goal. One was a nasty pass from Tellman to Maddock, who tried striking the Quaffle with his broom as he had practiced earlier. While Ron stopped the score, the speed of the Quaffle knocked him backwards into the post of the left ring. It took him a moment to clear his head, but at least he stayed on his broom.

“Well done, Weasley!” Coach Bennegin yelled out from just above. He was flying back and forth across the pitch following everywhere the Quaffle went. “Absolutely brilliant! You were right, Tellman! He’s a mind reader!”

The sky was azure blue, the wind was still, and the afternoon sun put just enough warmth in the air that Harry garnered no advantage from the elements with his Caduceus. Unfortunately, he was not faring nearly as well as Ron. His play was conservative and stilted, as if it had been years since he had even touched a Quaffle.

“Come on, Harry!” Ron yelled, trying to cheer Harry on as he darted for a loose Quaffle after an errant pass from Tellman to Maddock. The broom responded, but Harry’s timing was off, overshooting the falling ball by some three feet. Bennegin, while often yelling about the poor flying of his own players, never said a word about Harry’s. Even Hermione could tell it was the worst flying she’d seen on a Quidditch pitch, except perhaps for last year’s Gryffindor team under Umbridge’s rule.

An hour passed, and Bennegin raised his wand, which emitted a high-pitched squeal. The team flew down to the center of the pitch to take a break. Cho, Hermione, and Shacklebolt were invited to meet the team and get autographs. Cho was clearly the most eager, although even Shacklebolt had a thin grin at the corners of his mouth as Maddock took a quill and signed his name on a portrait they had of the team.

Tellman disappeared for a moment and returned with one of the team assistants. They were levitating a large cooler of lemonade and some snacks. Hermione was wary of the offer, but as Tellman took the first bite followed by Shacklebolt without any ill effects, she soon acquiesced. After a few moments of light conversation, and some coaching points given by Bennegin, everyone had snacked except Harry and Tonks.

“Go ahead, Harry,” said Tellman, offering him a cup of lemonade. “You’re having a rough go of it out there today. Bit nervous?” Harry nodded his head as he stepped toward Tellman. As he did so he moved his broom from his right hand to his left and reached for the cup just as his broom slipped between his feet and tripped him. He lunged forward, splashing the cup all over Tellman’s robes and falling into the table of food, causing it to crash to the ground. The cooler flipped on its side spraying more lemonade over Tellman’s boots and saturating the ground. The Magpie professional tried to step backwards, but slipped in the sour mud and fell to the ground on his hind side. His expression was one of fury. Instantly, he had his wand to the ready.

Shacklebolt was the first to react. He had his wand out before Tellman, but Pembroke, standing to the rear by the stands, cast the first spell.

“Resurrectio Dormis!” he called. The effect was instantaneous. Everyone who had sipped the lemonade reached for their heads, rolled their eyes upward, and fell to the ground. Everyone, that is, except Pembroke and Tellman. Harry was trying to get to his feet and gather his wand from beneath his flying robes as he heard Tonks run past him.

“No!” she yelled, readying her wand at Pembroke. She sent a blazing stunner that struck him squarely in the chest and threw him backward some ten feet against the stone pillars of the stands. A bolt of green light flew just past her head. It came from the right, and as she turned she caught sight of the team assistant. There was another behind him, and in a flash she had expelled both their wands. She spun to take on Tellman, but stopped short. The tall wizard had gathered Harry in his arms and held his wand directly at his temple.

“He said he wanted him alive,” the oversized wizard whispered with an almost mechanical voice. “But dead’s good too. I’m sure he won’t mind too much.” A surreal smile split his lips and showed a toothy grin as if the thought of murder was amusing in some way. “Drop your wand and you can both live.” Tellman’s large left hand reached about Harry’s throat and he began to lift him like a rag doll. Harry gurgled as the wizard squeezed tighter. “Well?” he queried in a high pitched note. The other two had now gathered their wands. The first fired a stunner, but Tonks deflected it with ease sending it back in their general direction and forcing them to take cover. It was three-on-one, and they wisely hesitated to take on the Auror again.

Tonks’ eyes grew narrow, and a thin smile curled at the corners of her lips. It was a look of pure satisfaction. For an instant Tellman looked confused. It was he who was in control. She was clearly outnumbered, but the look on the young woman before him registered something quite different.

“I think, Harry,” she said in a deepening tone, “your time has come. Don’t you?”

And then something more strange happened. Harry, his feet now fully off the ground, nodded as best he could, and then with a snap Disapparated. Tellman found himself gripping thin air; for an instant he searched about to see where the boy had gotten to.

“He couldn’t have gone far,” he sputtered, now wand to wand with Tonks, his fingers trembling having lost his prey. “They said he couldn’t Apparate, they said—”

“Oh, but he can’t.” Tonks smiled, sending off a stunner toward the two assistants peaking about the corner. One ducked in time, the other was not so fortunate. With a twist, her wand was back on Tellman who was still scanning the pitch and stands for Harry.

“He’s got to be here!” he yelled, now becoming nervous.

“He is here,” Tonks said, almost laughing.

A moment later there was a tremendous red flash, and then the air began to fill with the sound of popping popcorn. Wizard after wizard was Apparating onto the pitch and above it on brooms. In the span of ten seconds, over two-dozen wizards had appeared and more were still snapping in.

“Where were you taking him?” Tonks called out to Tellman. The large wizard began to tremble with fear. “Was it by Portkey?” His eyes left the sky and settled on Tonks. Slowly he shook his head, his eyes wide. “By broom?” Silence. Wizards were running toward them, but Tonks held her wand steady. “Damn it, tell me where!” A blast of red light lit up the stones from where the last assistant stood. He flew out screaming, his clothes on fire. Someone had attacked him from behind. Tonks extinguished the flames, as he fell to the ground unconscious. Tellman waved his wand, but nothing happened. “You can’t Apparate, Tellman. Dumbledore’s here by now and he’s secured the area. He’s a Legilimens, so you best speak now and avoid the pain.” As if trying to fight the urge, Tellman’s hand began to shake violently and then the words came in little more than a whisper that pierced his lips.

“Resurrectio Mortis.”

He doubled over, screaming in agony, and then fell limp into the grass. No sooner had he slumped to the sod, Harry appeared from behind the stands where the assistants were hiding. Two steps behind him was Professor Dumbledore. The professor quickly called to Tonks.

“Are you alright, child?” he asked. He was at her side in a flash and put his hands on both her shoulders, looking intently into her eyes.

“Very well, sir” she replied. “But Tellman… I think he’s dead.”

Professor Dumbledore reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small green ball not much bigger than a marble. No sooner had he whispered something, than the red glow faded from over the stadium and Madame Pomfrey appeared.

“Is it Harry?” she asked with concern.

“I’m afraid, Poppy,” the blue-eyed wizard said with a grim look, “the young man there has poisoned himself. It might not be too late, if you hurry.”

“Wait!” Tonks exclaimed, as if suddenly remembering something forgotten. “Let me. I can—” But Professor Dumbledore grabbed her by the arm.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that… under the circumstances,” he said in a very controlled and stern voice. “You’ve spent far too much energy already, I’m afraid. And I know you haven’t prepared.” Dumbledore looked closely into Tonks’ eyes. “Am I not correct?” Tonks dropped her head. Madame Pomfrey bent low to Tellman and the pair vanished. The other co-conspirators were rounded up by the rather large collection of wizards, a number of whom were Aurors, and brought before Dumbledore. He looked briefly into each of their eyes, and shook his head. “They know nothing. It would be best to take them to St. Mungo’s, and let Arthur try his magic.”

“What about…” Tonks began, pointing at Shacklebolt and the others still fallen on the grass.

“Patience,” Dumbledore interrupted. “They are asleep, that is all, and we have one more thing to take care of I believe before they wake. Follow me.” Harry and Tonks followed Professor Dumbledore behind the black and white stands of the Magpie stadium. They were alone, but still he cast a shield charm that enveloped the threesome in a large cloak of invisibility. He looked at Tonks. “Harry, if you wouldn’t mind returning.”

She removed her shoes, and unbuttoned her robe. Beneath the invisibility shield, Tonks began to grow taller and fuller. Her short hair began to grow longer and darken. A moment later, where once stood Tonks now stood Harry, looking at his twin.

“And now you, Nymphadora.” The old man smiled at the other Harry.

The transformation was much quicker, and ended with Tonks standing in baggy Quidditch robes with the addition of flaming bright red hair.

“Is it too much?” She grinned, pulling at her locks and they all laughed.

“A fine plan, if I do say so myself, Harry,” admired Dumbledore. “Although I now know who needs some flying lessons,” he chided Tonks with a grin. The two swapped clothes and emerged from behind the stands just as their friends were being brought back to consciousness.

“Harry!” Cho called, nearly pushing the healer attending to her over, and rushing to Harry’s side. “They said you were okay, but…” She squeezed him tight. “What happened?”

“Later,” he whispered, hugging her back.

“Well,” said Bennegin in a very apologetic voice as he walked toward Professor Dumbledore and held out his hand. “That’s the last time I question the Headmaster of Hogwarts.” Dumbledore took his hand with a gracious smile and the two shook firmly.

“I can understand your hesitation, Bernard,” said Dumbledore. “Tellman has always been one to wear the colours on his sleeve. Still, the Imperius Curse can control the most loyal minds, even to death.” Bennegin sighed, and shook his head. The Magpie coached looked at Harry, as if he was trying to read the boy’s mind.

“So, is this…” he asked.

“Bernard Bennegin,” Dumbledore said in a grand formal voice. “Let me introduce you to Harry Potter. THE Harry Potter.”

“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” Harry said kindly, and the two shook.

“But you met him over an hour ago!” said Ron, blinking his eyes as he stood.

Bennegin just smiled at the redhead. “Listen, lad,” he said putting his arm about Harry’s shoulder and slowly walking a few steps away from the others. “Perhaps this summer, you might find some time to try this again. Only no stunners and nobody has to die. What do you say?”

“And Ron?” Harry asked quietly.

“If he keeps up like he has, he’ll write his own ticket to whatever team he wants to join. But…” he paused.

“Yes?”

“Well, I promised his dad that I’d wait until after he graduates.” He paused again, shaking his head. “I think the Minister’s wife has been in touch with every team in the British and Irish League, warning them to let her son graduate.” They both turned back to the group where each was sharing their recent experience with Dumbledore. “You know, Ron,” Bennegin said in a booming voice. “You’re as brilliant as your brothers. I offered them both positions as Beaters last year when I heard they’d flown the coop. They turned me down flat to start that business of theirs, and now… well, now they make more money than even Maddock with all his endorsements combined.”

“Harry, what happened?” asked Hermione, walking over and rubbing her face.

“I’m afraid,” Professor Dumbledore said, “further questions will have to wait until our return.” He scanned about and settled on the cooler of lemonade now emptied onto the grass. “Portus,” he whispered, and levitated the orange cylinder into the air. “Nymphadora, I understand you and Shacklebolt will be reporting to the Minister?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “I’ll return to Hogwarts later this evening. Kingsley will—”

“Kingsley will be taking a well deserved nap at home tonight,” interrupted Shacklebolt with a smile.

“Very well,” Dumbledore nodded. “Everyone, please gather around.”

Harry waved goodbye at Bennegin just as he was yanked back to Hogwarts.

Together they all walked up the stone steps to the front door of Hogwarts castle and entered. It was strange. Everything was as they had left it. Clearly, no word had gotten out of what had happened. Cho kissed Harry on the cheek as they returned to their respective common rooms to prepare for dinner. “I can’t believe I slept through the whole fight.” She sighed. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she added with concern, and then she smiled. “Gabriella would kill me if I let you die.” She started down the hall and turned back one last time. “It’s a shame they didn’t want you on the team, but your flying was bloody awful today.”

Harry just nodded and shrugged his shoulders. He started on down the corridor to Gryffindor tower with Ron and Hermione. The two young lovers had taken to open signs of affection now. Ron’s arm was about Hermione’s shoulders and he held her close.

“I wouldn’t have let them hurt you, Hermione,” the redhead said, puffing out his chest.

“Ron!” she retorted pinching his side. “You were asleep too. You wouldn’t have been able to save a fly.”

“Well, maybe the ones he was sleeping on,” tossed in Harry. Ron just sulked as Harry grinned, but the grin didn’t last long. It was only a few more steps before it began.

“Harry,” Hermione said with a questioning tone, “you still haven’t said how—”

“Well, it was Tellman and his lackeys against me and Tonks, only Tellman had me by the neck… his wand pointed at my skull. I figured I was dead, but Tonks saved my life.”

The idea of Tonks working against the motives of Voldemort was clearly disconcerting to Hermione. She’d been down this path with Harry already, trying to get him to realize that Tonks was a threat. But with Harry’s new information, her position had only grown weaker. Unfortunately, it had run contrary to everything she had observed, and heard, and that included things that Harry knew nothing of.

“Well,” she began begrudgingly, “I think that’s great. She’s certainly a talented Auror taking on three or four wizards while you were at the death-point of one of them.” There was a moment of silence after Ron uh-hummed in agreement. They were at the portrait of the Fat Lady. “You don’t suppose she was just hoping that he’d ‘pull-the-trigger’ do you?”

“SHE… SAVED… MY… LIFE,” Harry said slowly, deliberately, and loud enough that when they entered the common room, everyone was looking their way.

“Well?” Ginny yelled, seeing them enter. “What happened? Ron? Are you a professional?” Her face was beaming in anticipation, but she could tell at once that Ron was not thoroughly pleased with the day’s outcome. The youngest Weasley, however, was wise enough to understand Harry’s expression, which had quickly moved from exasperation with Hermione to a sense of achievement.

Indeed, Harry had accomplished great feats today. Working with Dumbledore, he and Tonks had fended off an early attempt of Voldemort to strike back, even though Dumbledore had questioned if it was really Voldemort’s idea at all, or perhaps the whim of a misguided loyalist. Still, they had gone in prepared, and they had won the battle. This time it was Harry providing the surprise, and there was something deeply satisfying in knowing he had been a step ahead.

The second most enjoyable aspect of the day’s events was that Tonks had deftly come to Harry’s aid and helped to save the day. Even Dumbledore questioned the wisdom in Harry’s idea to depend on Tonks, but the only way to pull the switch off was to have both Harry and Tonks use their skills, although Harry wished they could have practiced on the Caduceus more. It was his fervent hope that this demonstration of loyalty would keep Hermione off Harry’s shoulder every time he went to speak with Tonks. Harry was convinced that this was why she had stopped talking about rescuing Sirius. With Hermione a few steps back, he and Tonks might have room to solve the puzzle.

Finally, there was some pleasure in knowing that his good friend, Ron, was well on his way to playing professional Quidditch. He wondered if he should tell him, but chose instead to whisper it to Ginny. She immediately began to squeal, and Harry’s attempts to calm her down failed miserably.

“You swore you wouldn’t tell, right?” Harry asked, confirming the oath she had just taken. Ginny looked as if she’d just been hexed with itching powder, or a fire curse the way she was waving her hands and hopping on her feet. Finally, she nodded in agreement boring a slanted eye right at Ron.

“What?” he asked. “What did he say?” He turned to his friend. “What is it, Harry? What did you tell her?”

Hermione, whose instincts were far more in tune than Ron, wore a thin smile. “Go get cleaned up for dinner,” she said pushing him up the stairs. Ginny was still trying to contain herself.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”

“Believe what?” Ron yelled, stepping backwards up the steps.

Harry grabbed Ron by the arm and pulled him on up the stairs. “Come on, Ron,” he said. “Some things are best left to personal discovery.”

“Then it’s about me?”

“Yes. Yes,” said Harry with a smile. “It’s all about you.”

They climbed the stairs and Ron pulled off his shirt giving it a deep sniff. “I think I’ll skip the shower and just rest,” he said, flopping down on his bed.

“Rest?” asked Harry in disbelief. Ron just folded his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. “Okay,” Harry said with a shrug. “I’ll just be a minute.” He grabbed a towel and headed for the lavatory.

As he stood in the shower, letting the warm water run down his lengthening hair, his own mind questioned Tonks’ motives. Much like Soseh, Hermione was rarely wrong. If Tonks had been under Voldemort’s Imperius curse, surely she would have taken action to capture him today. He had agreed with Dumbledore to plan for that contingency, but fortunately never had to implement the plan. Perhaps Voldemort’s loss of energy had weakened the spell. Perhaps there was no conspiracy. Perhaps she was working for someone else. But like the water swirling down into the drain, his mind was once again drawn toward the solution of the puzzle, a thirst building to find a way to rescue Sirius.

If only he could figure out what the other ingredient was. They could save Sirius, and be done with it. He let the nozzle spray him fully in the face one last time, and with a simple incantation turned it off. The water dripped from the shower head and plinked onto the floor with a high pitched tone that echoed against the stone walls. The shower room was quiet except for the small drip-drip-drip that, in the silence, grew louder with every drop.

He was drying off as Lloyd Wade, Neville Longbottom, and a third year Harry didn’t know very well, all entered the showers and turned them on at the same time. The sudden contrast in sounds was remarkable, and for some reason the roar of the water hurt Harry’s ears. It had been so quiet, but this… this reminded him of—

Suddenly, Harry’s hands began to tremble, and his pulse quickened with excitement. He had to lean against the wall to steady himself. He was feeling very light headed at the moment.

“Come on, Harry!” Ron called from the distance. “I’m getting hungry.” Harry took a deep breath.

“Coming!” he yelled back down the corridor.

By the time they arrived for dinner, the story of the attack had spread through the school. Everyone was asking Harry what had happened, but he was more than happy that Ron was telling the tale, even though he’d slept through the whole thing. Harry’s mind was elsewhere. It had left concern of Voldemort behind. It had floated far a field from worrying about Gabriella. It had dismissed, outright, trepidation of the path forward.

Only Hermione noticed Harry’s unusual preoccupation with his drink at dinner. He gazed intently at it, turning the liquid in his hand, examining every feature of the contents as if he’d discovered the Holy Grail in an ordinary glass of water.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 60 — Bad Timing
~~~***~~~


“I’m telling you I know what it is, Tonks,” Harry cried for the fourth time, but she continued to ignore him as she levitated the pillows back against the wall. It was the eve of Valentine’s Day, and Harry had called a DA meeting. It was the only way he could think to get Tonks alone. Lately, she had been chatting more and more with Firenze, and the few chances Harry had to speak with her over the weekend, she seemed to deliberately go the other way.

She adjusted the books on the shelves, and then slipped her wand away and started for the door. “A very good session, I believe, Harry,” she said with not much expression at all, and continued to leave.

“Why are you doing this?” he said to her back. She walked out into the hall. Harry was exasperated. “Then I want it back!” he said sharply. This caused her to halt her step. “I want the basin, and his blood. I’ll do it myself.”

“That’s not possible,” she replied without turning around.

“You started this, Tonks. Not me. I won’t give up now… now that I know…”

“You know nothing,” she sliced, turning back to face him. “Leave it alone, Harry.”

“He’s your family,” Harry pleaded. “Why won’t you…”

“I can’t,” she said, stepping closer. Her eyes dashed up and down the corridor, and then settled back on Harry. “The thing is…”

“Professor Tonks…” said a slinking voice appearing from nowhere. “Mr. Potter,” it sneered. Harry didn’t need to turn to know that Snape stood just behind him. Harry’s jaw clenched in anger. Not now!

“Professor Snape,” Tonks said with an overly professional tone. Harry remained silent. “We were just finishing with tonight’s DA meeting.”

“Yes… yes I know,” Snape drawled. “Another perfectly good night wasted on such drivel, when the students should be studying. No doubt you’ll be as ill-prepared for tomorrow’s class as anyone, Potter. Although, morning classes seem hardly worthwhile since everyone will have their minds on Hogsmeade and their moronic romance plans. Valentines…” he breathed in a long low sigh of disgust.

“No, sir,” Harry replied as he turned to see the Slytherin Head of House. He wondered if Snape ever… no, no he didn’t wonder. “Er… yes, sir,” Harry corrected, and Snape rolled his eyes in dramatic fashion, and waved the back of his hand at Harry as if shooing away a fly.

“Professor Tonks, if I might have a word,” Snape asked, turning distinctly to push Harry out of the conversation. She glanced at Harry, and then back to Snape.

“Certainly, Professor. Harry we can continue our talk tomorrow. Do you have any moronic plans for Hogsmeade tomorrow afternoon?”

“Actually,” said Harry, his eyes glaring, “I had my mind set on a trip to the Ministry… if only I had a…”

“Very funny, Potter,” Snape cut in. “Good evening.” He positioned himself squarely between Harry and Tonks, facing Tonks and then holding her lightly by the elbow and walking with her down the corridor and away from Harry who stood and watched as they turned the corridor. He shook his head; what had changed?

He was halfway back to Gryffindor when he heard footsteps following behind. He turned to look, but only found an empty corridor, and so started on his way. A bit further, he heard them again, only this time he spun quickly and caught site of a dark cloak ducking into an empty classroom. “Who’s there?” Harry yelled, slipping his fingers about his wand. He had much preferred the tingling sensation he had before Christmas that signaled when an attack was immanent, but that sixth sense had long passed since his visit to the falls. “I know you’re there. Come out!”

“Why don’t you step in?” a familiar voice drawled from within. Harry knew it was Malfoy, but why was he following him? He pulled his wand and held it at the ready as he approached the door. His overly cautious entrance only made the Slytherin laugh as Harry entered the classroom.

“Afraid you’ll be molested, Potter?” Malfoy sneered.

“What’s going on, Draco?” Harry asked, looking to see if there were others, but he found the room empty. In a flash, Malfoy pulled his wand, pointed it at Harry, and the door slammed behind him. Harry wasn’t sure why he made no attempt to shield for such a provocative motion. It was as if he was seeing the Malfoy of old… spry, quick, capable, and sickeningly snobbish. A smile creased Harry’s face. “Feeling better?” he asked.

“Maybe,” Malfoy smirked back. His gray eyes were clear, his skin pale but healthy, and his hair as coifed as ever. Nonetheless, Harry noticed a slight tremor in Malfoy’s wand hand, a lingering remnant of his addiction to the potions concocted by his father. “Tego,” he whispered, causing the walls to glow white.

“That damn house-elf is still following me. Pomfrey doesn’t know why you’re healed, and she’s convinced that my using potions may be an indication of my impending madness.” He slipped his wand away and hunched back in a chair behind the classroom desk. “If you ask me, and you should, I’m the only one sane around here. It’s the rest of them that are as mad as a chimaera.” His face twisted, as he looked into space. The result was not flattering, and reminded Harry of the Malfoy he’d seen in the dungeons.

“What is it, Draco?” Harry asked. “What do you want?” Malfoy’s eyes shifted and came to rest on Harry.

“So what are the student and the professor up to?”

“I don’t know what…”

“You know very bloody well what I’m talking about!” Malfoy snapped, sitting up straight in his chair.

“Where the hell do you get off, yelling at me?” Harry yelled back, striding up to the desk and glaring down at the blonde. “I don’t need to…”

“She’ll ruin everything!” Malfoy interrupted. He took to his feet and walked over to a window that looked out to the Quidditch pitch at the back of the castle. For a Malfoy, he was far more moody than normal.

“You’re beginning to sound like Hermione,” Harry said dismissively.

“Well, the mudblood… er, damn it, Harry, your friend is right. I heard Bellatrix talking about her over Christmas, about something she would bring to the Dark Lord. Snape… and now Tonks! He’ll have control of the whole inner castle before too long. Don’t trust her; don’t trust any of them. If you do, it shifts the power to his favor, and we lose.” Hearing these words, in such contrast to Malfoy’s feelings at the beginning of the New Year, Harry couldn’t help but feel he was being manipulated.

“Don’t tell me the Death Eater’s son has had a change of heart,” said Harry, stepping close to Malfoy. They were toe-to-toe by the window and Harry leaned closer. “Because you… don’t… have… one.” Harry could smell the cologne on Malfoy’s face. It was expensive -- but clean hair and fresh clothes didn’t mean a drug addict wasn’t a drug addict. How long would it be before Malfoy relapsed? The one person Harry couldn’t trust stood right before him. Still, the instant the words left Harry’s mouth, he wanted them back. Malfoy needed support and Harry could tell by the look in his eyes that he’d been hurt. Perhaps last year, Harry would have taken satisfaction in that fact, but not now, not anymore. Had he been wrong? If he was, it was too late to take it back. Malfoy turned sharply away from the window.

“Draco, you said this war was about power,” Harry said quietly, “and maybe it is, but I won’t try to win the battle that way… I can’t, it’s just not in me. I have to try another way.”

“And what way is that, Harry? Love?” Malfoy’s lips were thin and his eyes were fire. All year the two had gone round and round and still found themselves back at the beginning. Malfoy was trembling with fury, but why?

“Is love so bad?” Harry asked softly.

“So, she’ll be here, tomorrow, is that it? You’re planning a little tryst?” The questions were sharp.

“Tonks?” Harry asked, confused.

“Gabriella,” Malfoy said in an acerbically innocent tone. “It is Valentine’s after all, and you two are… lovers, aren’t you?” Harry remained silent, but his hands rounded into fists. Lately, Harry hadn’t kept her much of a secret, but how did Malfoy know about Gabriella? And even if he did know, why would he care? The Slytherin pressed the advantage he knew he held. “Don’t tell me she’ll be staying home alone, with her sick mother,” he said, placing his hand over his chest in a fake expression of concern. “That could be very dangerous… don’t you think, Potter?”

In less than a second, Harry had Malfoy pinned to the floor, with one hand pulled back, ready to strike. “If you… if they lay one hand on her…” Harry now began to tremble in anger. “Tell me what you know!”

“What I know?” asked Malfoy, his expression somewhere between hurt and rage. “What I know is that you’re making a giant mistake,” he said, followed by a short burst of laughter, and then he spit in Harry’s face. “Go to hell.”

There was a rustling near the door. The house-elf had returned, hidden from view, but they both knew it was there. Harry pulled back to strike, then cursed under his breath. He dropped his hands about Malfoy’s neck and bent low to his ear. “One hair, Malfoy, and I’ll kill you,” he whispered. He grabbed the corner of Malfoy’s green cloak, wiped his face, and left.

He could hear Malfoy’s laughter, as he walked down the corridor. The false mirth was seeped in sadness, but Harry took no note of it. He brooded, breathing heavily as he walked through the portrait of the Fat Lady. He entered the Gryffindor common room to find Ron selling Weasley’s Wonderful Passion Potions, much to Hermione’s consternation.

“I can’t believe you’re a prefect, Ronald Weasley,” she said in exasperation. “Do you even know if that stuff is safe?”

“Must be,” Ron grinned as he took a Galleon from a fourth year. “It’s still working on you isn’t it?”

Hermione scowled and then her eyebrows curled up into a pensive glare.

“Oooh,” said Ron, looking at the fire building in her eyes. “Maybe you should have some more.”

“I’ll tell you what I should do! I should…” she reached for her wand, but Harry held her arm as Ron started to bend over in laughter. “And you!” she cried turning to Harry.

“Me!” said Harry with a slight crack in his voice. “What have I done?”

“Mr. ‘Oh, can’t we all just be honest with each other’,” she scoffed. “And what have you been doing all weekend? Slinking about the castle as if you were searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. What’s going on?”

“Nothing you want to hear about,” he said, flopping down on an overstuffed chair.

“Two galleons!” Parvati cried out. “That’s robbery, Weasley!”

“He’s a big guy,” answered Ron. “You’ll need at least a double dose.”

“You’re not going to use that poison on Greg, are you?” Hermione shot out, as she spun on Parvati.

“Well, he’s been a bit distant lately. I thought…”

“Did you think about talking to him?” Hermione cut in. “Maybe ask him about his feelings?”

Parvati looked at Hermione and then at the small vial in Ron’s hand. “Well,” she said with a sigh, “it’s too much money for my blood anyway. I guess I can try to talk to him.” She shrugged her shoulders and walked away.

“You cost me a sale!” Ron yelled.

“I saved you from a massive beating from Greg Goyle,” Hermione retorted. In seconds they were at each other again, and Harry took the opportunity to slip up the stairs.

It was quiet and dimly lit in the boys’ dormitory. A few candles flickered yellow light against the wall. Harry glanced up at his picture of Gabriella. The smoke that was there days earlier, had vanished. There was something reassuring about seeing her hold his hand as they watched the setting sun together. “This summer,” he whispered to himself. He took off his pants and shirt and stepped to his bed. As he did every night, he reached out and touched the invisible ball of cinnabar hidden on his desk. He hadn’t really given much thought to using it since he’d returned.

He and Gabriella had agreed to use the mirrors tomorrow evening, but he desperately wanted to speak to her now. It was late, and she’d likely be there if he called for her. He wanted to tell her to be careful, to watch out for those wanting to kill her, to… to tell her everything she already knew. He sighed and fell onto his bed. She hated when he showed concern like that. Still, Harry wondered, why did Malfoy care?

“Damn,” he whispered to the air.

A burst of laughter shot through the dormitory door. Dean emerged with Ginny in his arms. She was fiddling with the collar on his shirt, when she noticed Harry on the bed.

Oh… Hi, Harry,” Ginny blushed. Harry was too tired to worry about being half-naked. His mind was elsewhere.

“Don’t tell me you bought one of Ron’s potions,” Harry asked, dropping his head back onto his pillow.

“We don’t need a stupid potion, Harry,” answered Dean grinning. Ginny grinned back and they kissed. Harry listened to the slurping for a minute then sat back up.

“Er… should I leave?”

“Oh,” Ginny blushed again. “No, Harry… no. I was just saying goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Harry said flatly, dropping his head down again.

She kissed Dean once more and left down the stairs. Dean sat down on his own bed with a light sigh of pleasure. “She’s perfect,” he breathed.

“Uh, huh,” Harry muttered.

“And Ron’s been real cool about the whole thing… thanks to you.”

“Uh, huh.”

“She loves me… and I love her.”

“Right.”

“That’s why I think tomorrow…”

Harry never heard the rest of Dean’s thoughts. His own mind had wandered into a restless sleep.

The sun, hanging high in the blue sky was hot against the back of Harry’s neck. He was flying over the falls, holding a very small cup in his hand. Just a little closer… but for some reason his broom would not move closer. No matter how he’d attempt to approach, a great wind would blow into his face, and try as he might the water of the falls stayed just out of reach. He looked into the pool below, and saw Luna swimming in the water and looking up at him.

“Hi, Harry!” she called. “Have you been listening? They’re just behind the veil. Come and see!” She popped up, and then dived down into the water. Harry pushed his broom to fly down, but the Caduceus would not respond. It just hung in mid-air as if stuck to a giant invisible spider web.

It suddenly grew too dark to see, and Hermione’s voice echoed in his mind. “Would you ruin us all for Sirius, Harry?” And then another voice spoke out, “What would you give to bring back the loved ones you’ve lost?” Who was it? “Well, Harry? Harry!” He woke with a start. Ron stood over him in the morning light, poking him in the ribs.

“If you’re late to class this morning,” he warned grabbing a towel and heading to the showers, “you know you won’t be able to go to Hogsmeade this afternoon.”

“I’m not going,” Harry muttered, and rolled back over in bed.

“Not going is not an option!” Ron yelled again.

“Yeah! Get up, yeh mopin’ murtlap,” cajoled Seamus, as he laced his trainers. “At least yeh got a girl, even if she ain’t here.”

“That’s right, Harry,” joined in Neville, who was staring into the mirror and having trouble negotiating the part in his hair. “You should be thankful for what you have.”

“What are you talking about?” Harry sneered through his pillow. “You’re going to Hogsmeade with Helen this afternoon. Parvati told me you two had reserved the table by the window at Madam Puddifoot's. She was a bit miffed since she wanted the table for her and Greg.”

“Well… er, you should be thankful you don’t have to sit by a fire all afternoon and have arrows shot at your head.” Harry had to smile, thinking back to last year with Cho. Neville had a point, perhaps it would be better just to stay at the castle today.

His smile stayed with him throughout the morning. Gabriella would be opening her gift this morning, and that made him smile more. Harry was unflappable, even in Snape’s class. When asked for the thirty-four ingredients required to create a potion to protect against love potions, Harry listed them all and in order of preparation. The listing was so perfect that Snape hesitated thinking about awarding house points, but turned his back on Harry.

“Satisfactory,” Snape drawled, spun on his heels and went across the dungeon to ask Anthony a question. Unfortunately for Anthony, he’d spent most of the morning drawing doodles of Cho. Although, it might not have mattered, Professor Snape’s question was exceedingly complex, even Harry was confused by it. When all Anthony could offer up was a shrug Snape seemed to unload his pent up frustration with Harry.

“Mr. Goldstein,” he scowled, “I would have thought you would know the difference between extract of ashwinder eggs and flesh of fluxweed. Pity, I expected better, twenty points from Ravenclaw.”

“That’s not fair!” Anthony cried out.

“No?” Snape drawled out in a long, low tone. Everyone behind Professor Snape tried to signal for Anthony to be quiet, even Cho was squeezing his leg, but he ignored them all.

“You’re just bitter!” snapped Goldstein. “Potter answered your questions and, and you’re taking it out on me!”

“I see,” answered Snape in all too cool voice. “Perhaps you can explain it to me, during your detention this afternoon.”

There was an audible groan about the room, most notably by Cho, who just slumped back in her chair.

“But… but…” Anthony stammered.

“Would you like to join me this evening as well? I would think you’d prefer to spend your evening preparing the festivities for your Quidditch match tomorrow against Slytherin.” Anthony slumped, and said nothing. “Do you intend to spend your evening cleaning cauldrons with a bitter man?” Snape pressed.

“No, sir,” Anthony replied, resigned to his unjust punishment.

Professor Snape turned and glared at Harry with a half smile on his face, as if somehow this punishment of Anthony was hurting him in some way. But, as it turned out, the punishment played to Harry’s favor, at least he thought it had.

As everyone was departing to Hogsmeade, Cho caught Harry in the corridor near the library. He was carrying a load of books, including Ancient Runes of the World.

“Ancient Runes?” she asked with surprise. “You’re not taking Runes. What’s up with the text?”

“Er… Hermione asked me to return it for her. She and Ron are off to Hogsmeade.”

“What, aren’t you going?” she asked, with a tinge of surprise in her voice. “Ron said…”

“Yeah, I know,” interrupted Harry, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t want to be a third wheel. Strange really, but…”

“Not go?” Cho exclaimed. “But…” she stopped herself, and immediately began to fidget with the strap of her shoulder pack. “Well, Anthony’s stuck here with Snape, why don’t you go to town with me?” Harry gave her an odd look. “To Hogsmeade, you know, as friends… that’s all. We could go to Honeydukes, or the bookshop, or… well, I’d like to visit Fred & George’s shop. You know… if you want… just as friends.”

Harry didn’t mean to, but he found himself blushing a bit. He looked down at his book on runes; he thought he knew the cipher code for the spinning dial on Black’s golden bowl, but he wanted to make sure. The books he was carrying shifted in his hands; he didn’t understand why his hands should suddenly become sweaty.

“S-Sure,” he said, shrugging his shoulders again, “I guess.”

An hour later, Cho and Harry were walking the main street of Hogsmeade, side by side, but not arm in arm. It seemed that they were surrounded by couples holding hands or kissing, and it was more difficult than usual to carry on a normal conversation. When they came out of Honeydukes, Tristan Pointsetter, a seventh year from Hufflepuff stopped Cho by the arm.

“I thought you were with Anthony… what was his name… Goldstein?” Tristan asked.

“Well… I mean… I guess,” Cho stumbled. “It’s not official or anything, at least, he hasn’t asked… you know.” A broad smile spread across Tristan’s face.

“Yeah, I know.” She winked. “Besides, Harry’s a better catch anyway, the way he handles his broomstick…” she trailed off dreamily, walking into Honeydukes. Cho looked up to the sky to check the time; the air was cool, but both she and Harry seemed a bit flushed.

“Er, Harry, why don’t we go check in on the twin’s new shop?” Cho suggested.

After their success on Diagon Alley, Fred and George took over an old, run down, two-story, Tudor directly on the main street in Hogsmeade. Being the closest building in town to the train tracks, it was often a flophouse for vagrant witches and wizards that would skirt the outside of town. Harry never really paid the building much attention, but now that the twins had established their newest Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes store, its grandeur was hard to miss. Now, completely remodeled and refurbished, it was the first stop for anyone coming to town by train, and the business had become a stiff competitor for both Honeydukes and Zonkos, combining the best of both shops into one.

When Cho and Harry came up to the storefront, they had to wait in line to get in. Couples were leaving the store with little red bubbles coming out of their ears in the shape of hearts. Harry wasn’t sure if he should be disturbed by the whole idea, or happy that his investment was turning such a profit. He looked in through the new windows to see people laughing, and the sight warmed him inside against the afternoon chill. By the time the two made it inside, Harry was beaming; there was a positive energy here like nowhere else.

“Hey! Harry!” Fred called from the front of the store. “Get over here, we need a hand.” Harry and Cho made their way through the crowd and stepped behind the counter. Fred looked tired, there were dark lines under his eyes, and his skin appeared a bit gray. “Good to see you too, mate,” he said brightly, noting Harry’s concern. “Don’t worry, I have another week and I’m expecting a special delivery shortly,” he flashed a large smile. “Look, today everything in the store is two sickles, got it?” Harry nodded. “Good, start taking their money.” He slapped Harry on the back, and moved over to George who was demonstrating a new chew that forced the chewer to sing an extremely sappy love song. The girls were buying them by the dozens for their boyfriends. Harry took off his jacket and both he and Cho started selling Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes.

Nearly an hour passed when there was a sudden, shrill scream somewhere from the middle of the store; it was Marietta Edgecombe. Everyone turned to face the sound.

“There you are!” she yelled with excitement, looking passed Harry to Cho, who was busy gathering up more nougats and toffees. “Cho! Cho!” Marietta cried out again. Marietta pushed her way through the crowd to the front counter, grabbed Cho about the neck and hugged her so tightly, Harry thought Cho would faint. “You won’t believe it! You won’t believe it!”

“What?” Cho asked. “What’s the matter?”

“Les Bowers,” Marietta squeaked, “he’s sick.” Her face flashed a smile, then a look of concern, then a smile again.

“So?”

“Les… is… sick…” Marietta said again, very carefully. As was Cho, Harry was having trouble understanding why Les Bowers, the Ravenclaw Seeker, being sick had anything to do–”

“No!” Cho gasped. “You can’t be serious! Me?”

“Yes!” said Marietta, snapping her head up and down wildly, and then grabbing Cho about the neck again. “They want you in as Seeker tomorrow against Slytherin!” Cho let out a little squeal, and then paused. She held out her right arm and squeezed her hand in the middle of the air as if catching a Snitch; it worked perfectly. The entire shop fell silent, as they waited to see her reaction.

“I can do this,” she said resolutely. She took a deep breath, and then looked at Harry, her face a mixture of happiness and sorrow. “If it hadn’t been for you, Harry…” Tears welled up in her eyes, and then she reached out and pulled him close, kissing him on the cheek. The room exploded with applause and cheers.

“I told you,” someone spoke to a friend near the back of the shop next to the stairs, “they’re the perfect couple. Always were, always will be.” The clapping was just dying down when George noticed a visitor descending from upstairs.

“You made it!” he called out.

Harry, still holding Cho tightly in his arms, looked up to see who George was talking to. She stood there, holding the railing as if trying to steady herself, her two black eyes locked on Harry’s.

“Gabriella?” Harry choked.

“Oh, screwt,” Cho whispered a phrase that had been picked up in their fourth year.

“Oooh, this is going to get good,” whispered a fourth year, seeing the anger building in Gabriella’s eyes.

“You knew?” Harry whispered out of the side of his mouth, as Cho dropped her arms to her side, and straightened the shop apron she was wearing.

“We all did… sorry, Harry. It was supposed to be a…”

“Harry Potter!” Gabriella yelled, descending the stairs and brandishing her wand. Cho ducked behind the counter next to Fred. “You two-timing…” she sent out a shot of purple light that hit left of Harry and exploded a glass jar of nougats, “double crossing…” she sent forth another blast that would have hit Harry squarely in the chest, if he hadn’t deflected it into the fourth year under the stairs, who immediately grew batwings for ears, and squealed running out of the store, “snake sucking…” she was nearly upon him when a blast of red erupted from her wand, forcing him to deflect it into the ceiling, “horklump licking…” she stood in front of him, her wand was directly under his chin. The shop was silent, as the wizard and the witch stood toe-to-toe, and the tension filled the air.

“Perfect,” whispered Theodore Nott, a twisted grin hung on his face. He had just finished making his purchase, and stood only three feet away. “It’s about time you got yours, Potter. And from a girl no less, how…”

Still holding her wand under Harry’s throat, Gabriella reached out with her other hand, and struck at a nerve just at the base of Nott’s neck. He let a short, shrill cry of pain and fell to the ground unconscious. Seeing him fall, a hint of a smile creased Harry’s lips, and when his eyes moved up to meet Gabriella’s he saw, surprisingly, a twinkle.

“Horklump licking?” he asked, his smile growing wider.

“I was lousy in drama class,” she said rolling her eyes, slipping her wand away, pulling him close and kissing him hard. Except for Nott, still on the floor, everyone in the room cheered.

“Happy Valentines Day, Harry!” George called out, as sales began again.

“Correction, Harry,” Fred added with a grin, “Happy Valentines Weekend!” Cho and Marietta both gave Gabriella a welcoming hug.

“What?” said Harry perplexed. “Don’t tell me you’re all in on…” the collective grins surrounding him told him that he’d just been had by Fred, George, and a good portion of the students at Hogwarts, except perhaps the fourth year with batwings.

“It was Ron’s idea,” Cho laughed.

“Ron?” Harry asked. “Where’s…” On the staircase Gabriella had just descended, stood Ron with Hermione, Ron smiling a bit more than Hermione.

“They were helping me get my room together,” said Gabriella, still smiling.

“Your room?” Harry asked, still trying to catch up.

“Fred and George said I could stay the weekend. I thought I’d at least stay and watch Cho fly tomorrow.”

You could have knocked Harry over with a feather he was so giddy. He held Gabriella in his arms, and kissed her again.

“How could you think I’d be mad, after Hedwig brought me this? Chocolate… as if.” She held up her right hand to display a ring, woven from spun gold, and laced with scarlet rubies, the colours of Gryffindor. He would tell her about this ring one day, but not here, not now.

“I brought a present for you, too,” she whispered in his ear, “but I left it in my room.” Her eyes twinkled ever more brightly. “Do you want to see it?” Harry looked at Gabriella and then up to the second floor.

“Sure,” he said with a smile. Then he turned to Cho who was selling a bag of fireworks to a fourth year. “Cho, I’ll be right back.” Cho watched Gabriella and Harry ascend the stairs. Passing Ron and Hermione, he punched Ron on the shoulder, but the redhead only laughed.

“Sure you will, Harry,” Cho whispered under her breath with a bittersweet smile. “Sure you will.” She handed three fireworks to the fourth year. “Six sickles, please.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 61 - A Giant Mistake
~~~***~~~


Unlike the day before, the sky was ominous; thick, black clouds billowed all around and seemed to purposefully descend onto Hogwarts as if driven by some magical power. The wind blew a cold shiver down Harry’s spine, and he pulled his cloak up higher about his neck and snuggled more closely to Gabriella. It was hard to believe that she was here, seated next to him in the stands at Hogwarts watching his other passion; but, more amazing was her grasp of the game, her sense of rhythm and pace, and her unbridled enthusiasm for Quidditch. No doubt a large part of the reason Gabriella had become fast friends with Cho.

“That’s an illegal block!” she screamed, after Crabbe broadsided Cho for the sole reason of trying to knock her from her broom. “Did you see that, Harry? Outrageous! I’d have…” She never finished, and Harry had to wonder what, exactly, Gabriella Darbinyan would do if she had been on Cho’s broom.

The match had been tight for nearly two hours, with some of the best flying Harry had seen from either team. Unfortunately, the Keepers weren’t much better than sieves and the score was already 320 to 280 in favor of Slytherin. For his part, Harry had spent most of the match watching the two Seekers, Draco Malfoy and Cho Chang. At first, Malfoy flew erratically, weaving as he flew from one side of the pitch to the other, but as the match wore on he slowly gathered his bearings and began to look like the Malfoy of old. Cho, at first, seemed extremely nervous on her new Caduceus, but the broom responded well, and would certainly keep her warm in what was turning out to be an extremely frigid day. Now, two hours in, both Seekers seemed poised to strike, though neither had yet seen the Snitch.

“Hot cocoa, Gabriella?” asked Ginny who was sitting right behind them. Ginny and Dean had spent most the match using the cold air as an excuse to meld into each other’s lap. Harry had turned once to point out a particular strategy to Ginny, only to see her locked in a rather slurpy kiss with Dean. When the two weren’t kissing, Ginny was admiring the new ring on her finger set with a glowing firestone. Harry had heard enough about the ring last night in the common room to last a lifetime. It was a promise ring, as Ginny put it, for things to come, though Harry couldn’t but help think there was more behind it.

“Sure,” answered Gabriella, “I’d love–”

“Score!” announced Colin Creevey, who was highlighting the salient aspects of the game over the magic megaphone while simultaneously taking pictures with an obscenely large telephoto lens. “Ravenclaw pulls within twenty!”

“… maybe a small mug.”

There was general applause, but the scores had become so numerous now and the weather so cold, that most people’s hands were beginning to hurt, and indeed many had turned to looking for the Snitch themselves in hopes they could point it out to the Seekers. Harry scanned the pitch with them. He thought he’d caught a glimpse of it early in the match out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned to see, Gabriella’s face was in the way. It was, perhaps, the first time Harry wasn’t disappointed in losing sight of the golden orb.

“Do you need another blanket?” he asked, as the first patter of rain began to fall.

“Have you never used a rain dispelling charm?” she asked, with a tinge of surprise in her voice. “Surely they teach–”

“There it is!” Seamus cried out, pointing to the south end of the pitch near the Slytherin goals. Instantly, everyone stood and the roar from the other side of the pitch made it perfectly clear that they had seen it too. Cho had been searching too high and noted too late the reaction in the stands. Malfoy, to the contrary, had the Snitch firmly in his sights and was already tracking the streaking sphere as it sped toward the Gryffindor stands.

“Cho!” Gabriella screamed above the din, but her words were lost in the winds. Cho turned toward Malfoy and the Snitch, but even on her Caduceus she looked to be too far behind to close the gap. Gabriella was visibly frustrated and upset. “Go!” she yelled, along with most the Ravenclaws in the nearby stands.

An instant later, a look of dogged determination filled Cho’s face. She leaned on the nose of her Caduceus and began to rocket toward Malfoy and the Snitch.

Unsure who to cheer for, Harry watched the drama on the pitch unfold as the rain splattered against his glasses. It was coming down much harder now and visibility was much worse. At first, Cho was set on an intercept, but looking closer Harry could see she was swinging high.

“The wind,” Harry whispered, “she knows.”

“Yes,” said Gabriella, and then realizing more fully, “Yes! She does know, Harry ! We talked about your last match this morning, and I mentioned the wind.”

Still it didn’t look good for Cho. Malfoy was upon the Snitch, his fingers closing around its golden wings, when it suddenly changed direction, heading up and into the wind. Perhaps it was the rain, perhaps it was his still unsteady hand -- a remnant of the potion he’d stopped taking, but the Snitch slipped through Malfoy’s grasp, something it had never done before. The Slytherin looked back over his shoulder, just in time to see Cho, already in position, catch the Snitch in both hands.

“Chang has the Snitch!” Colin yelled over the megaphone. “Ravenclaw wins!”

There was a tremendous groan from the Slytherin stands and an absolute uproar on the Ravenclaw end. Gabriella was jumping with glee.

“I knew it!” she yelled. “I knew she could do it!” She threw her arms out and hit Ron, tumbling him head first into the railing.

“Ayy,” Ron groaned, rubbing his forehead.

“Oh, Ron,” said Gabriella, turning to help him up, “I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”

“That could have been dangerous!” Hermione yelled, her lips a bit thin. “You could have hurt him. In fact, Ron, you should probably go to see Madame Guérir right now.”

“I’m not going to see anybody, but Zacharias Smith,” he said, a smile starting to revive his face. “He owes me a galleon!” He started toward the steps that led to the Hufflepuff stands. “I think your talk with Cho did the trick, Gabriella. Thanks for helping enrich the Weasley estate.” He waved with a smile, but Hermione just stood looking at both Ron and Gabriella, a small scowl on her face. “Come on, Hermione, if we hurry we can catch him before he leaves the pitch. I want to see him cough it up in front of the whole house.”

It wasn’t long before both Ron and Hermione disappeared into a sea of red and gold as everyone slowly made their way from the stands. Gabriella was smiling, looking down on the Ravenclaws now surrounding Cho and her teammates on the grass below.

“She’s brilliant,” said Gabriella, shaking her head.

“Not as brilliant as you,” replied Harry, kissing her gently on the lips. “Did you have fun?” Gabriella nodded her head as she took a bite of every-flavor taffy.

“Passion fruit,” she mumbled as she chewed. Harry took her hand and they began to exit the stands as well.

“Maybe you could come watch me play next term,” Harry suggested. “I’ve been known to handle my broomstick pretty well.” Smiling, Gabriella gave him a slight push on the shoulder, but then her look became more melancholy.

“I’d like that,” she whispered.

For a moment the crowd down on the pitch parted to reveal Cho, held up on Anthony’s shoulders, her eyes fixed on Harry and Gabriella, and a broad smile across her face as she held the Snitch up high for everyone to see. Gabriella waved back flashing Cho the number one with her hand, and slowly dropped her hand; Harry noticed the change in demeanor.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I have to go.”

“Go? I thought we had the whole weekend?”

“I know,” answered Gabriella. “Mama’s doing much better, but I don’t think I should leave her alone in the house for so long. I’m sure Papa…” her voice trailed off, and ended with a rather large sigh. “Yes, I have to go.” Harry’s heart was plummeting, but he put on a good face.

“I understand, you’re right,” he said with a half smile. “Family comes first, I’ve always said that, and I always will.”

Gabriella held him close, and then kissed his cheek. “Such a sensitive heart,” she said warmly. “Do you think you can walk me back to Hogsmeade?”

“Hogsmeade? Well, I’m really not…” he stopped, seeing the disappointment in her eyes. “Hogsmeade? Yeah, er, sure… I can walk you to Hogsmeade, let’s go now.” Harry figured his chances of leaving undetected were better if he left with the large crowd of parents and visitors.

The castle grounds and gates were thick with guards and monitors from the Ministry, but their chief concern had been with checking visitors as they entered the grounds, and none seemed overly concerned with the throng now leaving. This was particularly true now that the rain was driving down. Gabriella pulled her wand and cast a spell that deflected the rain to either side of the two of them as they walked hand-in-hand, past the lake.

“A simple spell like this, I would have thought that this school of yours–” she began, but Harry cut her off. He was a bit miffed.

“Yes, yes, don’t blame Hogwarts for my inability as a Wizard. Believe me, it’s not the school’s fault; it’s mine. You might be surprised to know that I’m not the best student.” The irritation in Harry’s voice increased with each word.

“I didn’t mean–”

“Didn’t you? Every chance you get you put down Hogwarts. To me this place is home, and I’d rather you wouldn’t keep slamming it.”

Still holding hands, they walked along in silence for a few minutes, passing through the gates and out along the road to Hogsmeade. Finally, she nodded her head and let out a great sigh.

“You’re right,” she said, putting her head on his shoulder. “I think… I think I’m jealous, I don’t know why. It’s like I see… I see the energy again -- all the things I loved about magic and learning. I miss it.”

“Well, you know they want you here.”

“Just they?”

“I want you here too,” said Harry correcting himself. “You’re sure to enter Gryffindor, and we could–”

“I don’t know, Harry,” she said with a sigh, “maybe next year when Mama’s better.”

“You know,” he said looking at the water splattering onto the rich earth as they passed by the lake, “I-I charged it this morning, the stone that is. I don’t know why, but I was thinking I could–”

“No,” she cut in quickly, “that is forbidden.”

“Forbidden?” asked Harry. “But why?”

“Maybe one day I will be able to tell you everything,” she said with an understanding smile. “For now, know that you were meant to be the stone’s keeper. It is yours to use as you wish, or as the stone wishes to use you, but it can never by used for my family, and that includes me. It is forbidden.”

“But–” he began, but she held her hand to his mouth, and he stopped. Holding hands the whole way, neither said another word until they came to town.

They entered into Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes to find George alone at the counter. The atmosphere was much calmer than the night before, and he was busy restocking shelves, while a broom floated about sweeping the floor.

“Where’s Fred?” Harry asked.

“And good evening to you, too,” George replied. “Typical,” he muttered to himself, “I do all the work, and the one with the good looks gets all the credit. Nobody ever asks, ‘Where’s George?’” His eyes began to open wide with a sudden realization and he smiled. “Look who’s playing the truant!” he exclaimed, pointing his finger at Harry. “You know they’re going to be looking for you, don’t you; all those guards, and Harry suddenly disappeared. They’ll think you were kidnapped.” George laughed to himself and clapped his hands, then opened up a box. “Oh, and Fred What’s-his-name, he’s at Diagon Alley. I guess the store there nearly sold out. Pure profit, mate!” George broke out in a large grin.

“You didn’t say you’d get in trouble!” Gabriella scolded Harry. “You need to get back… now!”

“But I thought we could… you know.”

“Now!” said Gabriella, sternly.

Harry hung his head, but she grabbed his chin, pulled his head up and kissed him on the lips; and, as her finger ran across his ear still wearing the caduceus earring, a tremendous tingle ran up the side of his body. Cho had been right. There were things that witches could do that Muggles could only dream of, at least Muggle boys.

“Goodbye,” she whispered. “I love you.”

She slipped out her wand taking a step backwards. There was a soft crackle in the air, and she was gone.

“She can Apparate!” exclaimed Harry, his jaw wide open.

“It is good to see that your education at Hogwarts has not been for naught,” George said coolly. “You’re a master of observation.”

“But I never knew. She never–”

“Harry,” George interrupted, “she’s right, if you don’t get back to Hogwarts soon, they’ll have search parties all over town, and that’s bad for business. Might I suggest, Honey–”

“Yeah, yeah, alright, I’m going, okay!” Harry spat back, angry at his sudden turn of luck. He turned toward the front door when he saw, just in time, Professor Snape through the front store window.

“Damn, it’s Snape; where can I hide?”

George dashed over to Harry and splattered what felt like a raw, cold egg on top of Harry’s head. Harry could feel the sensation of cold drip to his toes.

“Invisible eggs,” said George brightly as he dashed back to the counter. “We’re testing this new lot for Easter.” Unsure the egg would be enough, Harry ducked behind a large crate in the corner of the store just as the front door swung open, ringing a bell with a high pitched jingle. Snape sauntered in carrying a small velvet bag, trying to appear as casual as possible, but it was clear he wasn’t there to make a purchase. Meanwhile, Harry was nearly overcome with the aroma of spring flowers.

“Professor, er, Snoop, isn’t it?” George asked, pretending to rekindle a long forgotten memory. “How can Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes be of service this evening?”

“Ever the comedian, eh, Mr. Weasley?” Snape drawled in a none too flattering sneer.

“Pays the rent, sir; pays the rent. Is there something you need?”

“I’ve prepared a potion for your brother; the moon will be full by week’s end, and I thought he might like to ease his pain.”

“A potion?” George asked stunned. “For Fred?”

Snape took out a small bottle from the velvet bag, and set it on the counter.

“He should take half the potion two days before the full moon and the remaining potion the day of,” Snape said, folding the velvet sack in his hands and slipping it in his robes as he turned to leave.

“Professor,” George asked, “will this interfere with any other potions?”

“The rubbish they provide at St. Mungo’s isn’t fit to swallow,” Snape said over his shoulder as he approached the exit.

“The one he’s taking is from Mrs. Darbinyan,” said George. “He’s been doing quite well with it so far, mostly just sleeps through the whole night.” Snape stopped in his tracks and spun sharply.

“Darbinyan?” he said, with more edge in his words than he cared to put there. In an instant, the slip in tone was gone. “Are you sure it was Mrs. Darbinyan, and not her husband?”

“As I understand it, Mr. Darbinyan took off some time ago, leaving the two women home alone. Gabriella dropped off the potion yesterday; she said it was from her mother. By the way, how is your arm, anyway?”

Snape grimaced, reliving the incident in his mind, paused for the slightest of moments, and whispered to himself but near enough to Harry to be heard, “Then he’s found her and his plan is underway.” And then he left without saying another word. Harry waited a few minutes before slipping out from behind the crate.

“That was odd,” he said, looking out the window and watching Snape head toward the road to Hogwarts. The sky was darkening, and he was sure people were already asking where he might be. He cursed himself for not thinking to tell Hermione or Ron.

“Tell me about it,” George answered. “The man has never so much as lifted a finger for my family before.” He picked up the bottle of green liquid from the counter. “Do you think it’s poisoned?”

“No, not from Snape,” Harry answered, “but it might turn Fred’s fur green,” he smiled, and then the smile fell. “Is he doing okay… really?” George’s face was still bright.

“Absolutely, Harry,” he assured. “Mrs. Darbinyan’s taken an interest in him for some reason. She won’t take money for the potions, and they really do seem to work. I think Lupin’s a bit envious, but he doesn’t have the nerve to ask if we can get some for him too.”

“Why doesn’t he ask me?”

“Well… are you two even talking? I think the last time you spoke to each other, you accused him of taking over the Order, or something very Potter-like. After that, he saves your life at the attack on Hogwarts, and then he helps cover for you and Gabriella at Grimmauld Place, and you don’t say so much as a thank you. I think he figures you’ve written him off.”

“But, I… well, I…” But Harry didn’t have an answer. George was right, it had been two months since he had spoken to Remus in any meaningful way, and Harry had never taken the time to properly… “I haven’t even owled him,” he groaned, feeling the warmth return to his toes. He looked down and they had reappeared. So too had the smell of wet hair. “Where’s he staying, at Grimmauld?”

“He says he doesn’t think you’d want him staying there.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“That’s what mum said, but he wouldn’t listen,” George said, flipping a sign on the store that said closed. “Look, you need to get going, and I mean now. Honeydukes closes soon, and if they do, you’ll have to make your way past the Ministry guards at the school gates.

“Yes, yes, I’m leaving,” Harry agreed. He would have rather stayed, but George was right, they would be looking for him.

It was a bit frightening making his way through the tunnel from Honeydukes. Just as he made his way down below the store’s trapdoor, the earth shook -- tremors, he believed, from more underground building on the part of Hagrid and Firenze. He wondered if, perhaps, the caverns that they had created might have intercepted this passageway, but as he came close to the castle he found none. There was another violent shudder of the earth that almost tossed him to the ground. Something was wrong, and the sensation only grew worse as he made his way out of the tunnel behind the old crone.

It was growing late, but not so late on a Saturday night for the corridors to be empty, but they were. Quickly he made his way back to Gryffindor tower without seeing so much as a ghost; only the jeers from the portraits accompanied him on his journey, warning him to return at once to his common room, or suffer the consequences. When he passed through the portrait of the Fat Lady, he ran into Hermione who seemed to be waiting for someone… he didn’t need to wonder who.

“Where… have… you… been?” she hissed under her breath.

“Nowhere.” Harry shrugged his shoulders. “Just walking around.”

“Walking around?” she narrowed her eyes.

“Well, yeah, I…” and then he noticed; a throng of students was gathered about the common room window.

“What are they doing? What are they doing?” said a first year, trying to levitate himself up over the group to see from behind, but falling to the ground every time.

“What’s going on?” Harry asked.

“As if you didn’t know, Harry Potter,” Hermione scoffed. “Walking around, hah! I had to look Professor McGonagall in the eyes and tell her everyone was here,” she said, her voice trembling with anger. “So what were you doing, watching them come in from Hagrid’s cabin? From the Forest? Do you know how dangerous that is? Colin tried to get a picture and was smashed under a falling tree.”

There was another tremor that shook the castle walls.

“That little one looks mad!” someone from the window called out. “He’s shaking a fist at Dumbledore! I can’t believe the Headmaster’s even trying to talk to them. Mum always said he was a bit of a coot.”

There was another rumble and a few shrieks, and finally Harry began to understand.

“Where’s Ron?” he asked Hermione.

“Out there!” she yelled, pointing through the window now plastered with students. “He’s looking for you!” Hermione was clearly upset, and tears began to fill her eyes. Whatever control she was trying to muster, began to slip through her fingers like so much sand. “Colin’s in hospital, and now… and now…”

Harry stepped toward her. “It’ll be okay, I’ll get him back.” He tried to hold her in his arms, but she balled up her hands into fists and pounded him on the chest.

“How… can you… be so… self-centered?” Hermione yelled out. Finally, she stopped and let Harry hold her as she cried. “He was supposed to be back a half-hour ago,” she sobbed. “I told McGonagall… I… I…Damn you both!”

The ground shook again and the floor beneath them swayed.

“Whoa!” someone yelled. “He just tore that oak out like he was picking flowers!”

“Giants?” Harry whispered into Hermione’s ear. She pulled back, looking into his eyes.

“You… you didn’t know?” she sniffed. Harry shook his head.

“I walked Gabriella to Hogsmeade; she had to go home tonight. I snuck back underground. The castle is deserted downstairs.”

“Everyone’s at the windows waiting to see what happens.” She wiped her eyes and sat down. “Professor Dumbledore’s trying to convince their emissary, or whatever he is, that Voldemort’s lying to them. He’s trying to prove that the Wizarding world has changed; the only thing is… they both know it’s not true. I think if Ron didn’t know Hagrid, he’d just as soon see the whole giant race buried in a cavern somewhere.”

Harry glanced at the window, and then turned to leave.

“Wait, you can’t go,” Hermione said, taking her to her feet. “He’ll be back; I know he will… any minute now.”

“I can’t leave him out there by himself,” Harry said, as the portrait opened.

“Funny,” said Hermione, stepping toward him, “he said the same thing about you.”

“Where are you going?” Harry asked, as she moved out the portrait as well. “Somebody needs to stay here in case–”

“Yeah, he said that too… not this time.” Her words were emphatic, as her reason for being in Gryffindor became ever apparent. “I think I know where he’s gone, follow me.”

Carefully, the two made their way down to Firenze’s classroom. Only the occasional ghost floated past, complaining that the castle would be leveled to rubble and they’d have nowhere to live. When they entered the underground caverns, they were both surprised to find house elves. They were doing much more than cleaning; they were preparing. Supplies were being stocked in the kitchen, and potions levitated into the underground infirmary. They were all too busy to pay any attention to the two wizards walking through the tunnels.

“In case things go bad,” Hermione whispered.

As they entered the large, main underground chamber, Harry stopped, and looked at the beehive of activity. A half-giant, working with a centaur made these caverns to protect Wizarding children, and now they were being finished by house elves, and yet, the average wizard would sooner spit in the face of another magical creature, than call them their equal.

When they exited into the Forbidden Forest, it was dark. The sky, blanketed in clouds, only hinted that a full moon would arrive soon. Harry pulled his wand to light the way, but Hermione stayed his hand.

“We can’t chance they’ll see us, Harry. The smallest mistake could send them into a rage.”

In the dark, they picked their way as best they could toward the castle, taking an occasional branch or stinging vine in the face. Hermione was hoping that Ron, who said he’d look for Harry by Hagrid’s cabin, just got caught up in the moment, and was still watching the gathering of giants and wizards. As they stumbled along, Hermione told Harry what he’d missed.

Three giants had traveled to Hogwarts to speak with Dumbledore, at his request. He had tried to speak with them on their own ground in the mountains, but they felt that their families were somehow threatened. Hermione thought, rather, that these three had a falling out of sorts with the others, and were hoping for some wizard gift that would give them the upper hand back home. Dumbledore thought it better to have three more giants on his side than not, and agreed to speak with them. He wasn’t, however, going to simply give them some new power to go back and kill their own kind, although he knew that was likely what Voldemort’s Death Eaters had already given their adversaries back home in the mountains.

Most of the school’s senior staff was at the meeting in case things got out of control, but so far there had only been the occasional foot stomping or tree throwing, which Hermione suggested meant that things were going as well as could be expected.

“What about Hagrid, or Grawp?” Harry asked.

“Hagrid took Grawp deeper into the forest, just to make sure there weren’t any unnecessary distractions. Grawp was picked on pretty severely when he was there, and even though he’s grown since he arrived, he’s still pretty small.”

The ground shuddered again, and there was a large crash as a tree plummeted into the canopy of branches above them, splintering in two and landing to either side. The shattered trunk, four feet across, could have smashed them both. Harry gave Hermione a glance, which she reciprocated, each flashing a flicker of concern for Ron, and then they both pressed on.

When they came to the back of Hagrid’s cabin, they could see the dark silhouette of one giant’s head and shoulders poking up above a knoll on the horizon. It looked like a large boulder ready to roll down the hill. Bonfires lit the grounds just toward the Quidditch pitch, providing both light and warmth against the night’s cold darkness in the only area of the school grounds large enough to hold a meeting with such massive beings. Harry looked at the darkened figure, and a wave of something akin to nausea flooded his body. Perspiration broke out from every pore, and he fell to his knees.

“Harry,” Hermione whispered, “what is it?” She knew better than to believe he was afraid; something else was wrong. Harry took a deep breath, and brought one foot up, as he knelt on one knee, and wiped his brow. His forehead didn’t ache, but still he knew, just as he knew about the Magpies… he knew.

“Voldemort,” he uttered in a low scratchy tone. “They… they’re under his control.”

A branch snapped, and Hermione spun brandishing her wand in the face of a much surprised redhead. He held his arms in the air, unable to see the face of the witch holding the wand against his neck, though the thatch of hair looked familiar. Still, he was a bit taken aback knowing a wand was at his throat.

“I… I didn’t mean to,” he stumbled in a squeaky voice. “I mean… er, honest… I was just–”

“Ron?” Hermione asked, making out his features using the dim light that flickered behind her. She dropped her wand and grabbed him in her arms. “Ron!” she whispered, but the reunion was short-lived

“This way Minister,” came a voice from toward the front of the castle, “you can’t miss them, sir.”

A group of six wizards was marching down the front lawn, past Hagrid’s hut and around the back of the castle toward the pitch.

“They’re evil sir, the whole lot,” said another wizard. “Kill them now and that’s three less to worry about later.”

“Nonsense,” Arthur Weasley said dismissively. “They may be dangerous, they may be a bit dimwitted, but they’re not all evil. We have to try.”

“Dad,” Ron whispered. He made a move to go forward, but Hermione held him by the arm.

“We’re not supposed to be here, remember?” she hissed. “We can’t get in the way, there’s no telling what will happen.”

“Ron,” Harry said sharply, “can you hear their thoughts, the giants I mean; can you tell what they’re thinking?”

“No,” Ron answered, “I’ve been trying all night, but all I’m getting is fog, just a jumble of noise that doesn’t make sense.”

Just then Professor Flitwick appeared from the direction of the giants, and met the party of Ministry officials just a few yards from where the three students were hiding.

“Minister Weasley,” he said politely.

“Just acting, Filius,” replied Mr. Weasley with a smile, “but I am here in my official capacity to attempt to reason with our potential allies.

“Yes, yes,” replied Professor Flitwick brightly, “Professor Dumbledore’s been expecting you.”

“Excellent, will you be doing the introductions then?”

“Well, that’s just it,” Flitwick said a bit nervously, “Professor Dumbledore would rather you not enter the conversations just yet; there may be a problem.”

“Problem?”

“It appears they’re waiting for you, Arthur, the giants that is, and it’s not at all clear that their motives are entirely… good natured, shall we say?” He made a few steps toward the castle, taking Arthur Weasley by the arm. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to wait at the castle, for just a few minutes. When things become clearer, I’ll come to bring you down.”

“Ridiculous,” responded Mr. Weasley, as he pulled his arm from Flitwick’s grasp, and then turning to his entourage. “I’m very well protected, I can assure you. Gentlemen, let’s proceed.”

Against Professor Flitwick’s gentle recommendations, the group of wizards made their way toward the flickering light, disappearing as they passed over a knoll.

“Dumbledore knows,” Harry whispered.

“Knows what?” asked Ron.

“He can read a mind as well as anyone, Ron,” answered Hermione. “Either he knows something’s wrong, or he’s picking up the same mental shield your own mind can’t penetrate, and that’s almost as good an indicator to suggest there’s evil at play here.”

“I don’t think something’s wrong,” Harry said sharply. “I know it. It smells of Voldemort, I can feel it in my veins. Let’s go!” He stood to run, but Hermione grabbed his arm just as she had Ron’s.

“Go and do what?” she asked harshly. “What are we going to do that the Hogwarts’ senior staff and four Aurors aren’t going to be able to do?” She could see Harry pressing to run. “Relax, you’ve got to believe Dumbledore knows what he’s doing.”

“They work for Voldemort, and I’ve got to tell him! He may not know; he might hesitate, and… I don’t know… I’ve got to–”

“Harry, you’ve got to calm down. If–” but the point was mute. While Harry and Hermione argued, Ron was making his way toward the back of the flickering bonfires.

“Damn!” Hermione spat, as they watched Ron sprint up to the top of the knoll to catch the attention of his father and the others. “Okay then, Harry, move quickly, and move quietly.”

They ran as fast as they could to catch Ron, but he was much faster than either of them on foot, and in a flash he too had disappeared over the knoll to the other side where the meeting of massive proportions was taking place.

“This is bad,” breathed Hermione as she ran up the knoll.

“No,” panted Harry at her side, “it’s a giant mistake.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 62 - Crushing Defeat
~~~***~~~


Even as he ran to catch Ron, Harry wondered what this feeling was inside him. He sensed it before the practice with the Magpies, and now… now he wasn’t sure. His skin was clammy and he felt as if he’d just spun his broom in a roll about a dozen times. It wasn’t the familiar ache; instead, every fiber of his being was screaming a warning from within. But, was it a warning about Voldemort, or just a warning to be careful? He’d been so sure a minute ago… but now, running across the field toward the mountains, the giants looming high above, he wasn’t so confident. He was outpacing Hermione and still keeping Ron in view.

Coming across the knoll that looked down on the pitch and the back of the castle, Harry stopped and his jaw fell. He’d heard Hagrid tell stories of giants before, but seeing them, sitting at the pitch and still towering high above the wizards standing by them, he had to gawk.

“Bloody, hell,” he gasped, even as Ron plunged headlong down toward stands.

Hagrid had described their height, and of course he’d seen Grawp, but Hagrid’s descriptions and even Grawp’s enormity didn’t touch the massive beings down on the pitch. They were twice the size of a mountain troll, and yet it was their breadth that was most intimidating. They weren’t fat, but rather a new definition of ‘big boned’ -- simply massive looking, as if they’d been chiseled from an enormous block of stone.

Ron was halfway down the knoll to the pitch, when Hermione came up to Harry’s side. They were too late and Harry’s stomach sank knowing what was about to happen. Together they watched as Professor Dumbledore stepped over to the six new wizards that had just arrived, and pointed toward Mr. Weasley by way of an introduction. The smallest of the three, at some twenty feet high, turned and spoke to the largest at over twenty-six feet. Arthur Weasley bowed politely as the larger giant stood.

“Dad!” Ron screamed, racing down onto the pitch. “Dad, it’s a trap!” The wizards turned to see the young redhead barreling toward them, and in that moment Harry’s head cleared and the nausea passed, as if a great boil had just been lanced.

“Oh, no,” breathed Hermione. “Ron, no!” she screamed, and started running at full speed down the hill.

In the time it takes to wonder what you had for breakfast, the largest giant had Arthur Weasley about the waist in his hands and was turning to run. The scene reminded Harry of an old King Kong movie as everyone pulled their wands, but hesitated for fear of hitting the Minister.

“Dad!” Ron screamed again, now upon the group, his wand drawn, but the smallest giant turned, and with the flick of his hand struck Ron and sent him flying into one of the bonfires near Hermione. Harry heard the hiss of Ron’s flesh as it struck hot embers, and listened as he screamed in pain. In a blink, Hermione had extinguished the flames and pulled him off the coals, but the screams continued.

In the same instant, the giants began to bound up toward the castle taking enormous strides. At that point, the wizards on the ground decided to take action, and a flurry of spells rained down on the backs of the three enormous beings. A sure strike by Dumbledore dropped one to the ground, but the smallest pressed on following the one holding Arthur Weasley, as it crashed directly into and through the castle walls.

“They’ve been charmed!” one of the Aurors bellowed below. “There’s magic at work here!”

Glass shattered from the upper stories and the sounds of screams could be heard from the upper Ravenclaw dormitories. The castle’s great stone wall began to shudder, as the ground rumbled and then there was a great crashing noise as the giants blasted through one interior wall after another. Harry looked back to the pitch to find the wizards taking chase on foot toward the castle, but they were too slow and well behind as the stones began to fall. Unable to Apparate on school grounds, the giants had the upper hand when it came to covering ground by foot.

Harry spun on his heels and ran, fast and hard, toward the front of the castle steps. There was another crash and he looked back over his shoulder to see the castle wall begin to collapse. It was the Ravenclaw tower and Harry was sure they had all been at the windows watching the meeting take place below. It had all happened so fast, they had no chance to pull away from the windows. There were more screams, and then shouts as about a dozen wizards levied their wands to hold the wall in place; it slowed, but still the wall fell, just as Dumbledore slipped beneath the falling stones, disappearing into the castle.

The ground shook again, nearly knocking Harry off his feet. Turning his back on the disaster behind him, he concentrated on the disaster he was sure to face up ahead. He readied his wand as he came around to the castle’s front steps, stopped and waited. His breaths were hard and fast, almost keeping cadence to the crashes growing louder with each shudder of earth, each crumbling interior wall. He was ready when it happened.

The front doors, or rather the full front wall of Hogwarts’ Castle, exploded outward sending rock and glass flying everywhere. Harry deflected the debris with a shielding spell as the smallest giant emerged, followed by the larger close on his heels. They were both covered in dust and rubble, and the smaller giant had a huge gash on his right arm that was spraying blood everywhere. Fortunately, perhaps, the larger giant still held the unconscious Mr. Weasley in his hands like a limp, bloodied rag-doll. The larger giant roared something Harry didn’t understand and pointed toward the forest. The smaller giant nodded and started to run, but stopped short when he saw Harry standing in his way. The Gryffindor never felt so small in all his life, but he wasn’t about to back down now.

Harry let fly a stunner that hit the smaller giant squarely in the chest; he took a step back and roared as if he’d been merely stung by a bee. Harry could feel its hot spit rain down on his face; the stench was tremendous. Again, he let fly a stunner, only this time he aimed lower, and this time the giant fell to his knees, revealing the larger giant from behind. He held up Mr. Weasley in his hands and gave him a short shake, and Harry knew at once it was a threat to kill him, if he wasn’t already dead. Harry stepped closer; his hands began to tingle and his stomach turned. He somehow knew that this one at least was under Voldemort’s control. Harry slipped his wand away, and held out his hands to offer surrender. The large giant smiled a yellowed, slime of a smile and took a step to go, kicking the smaller giant to get to his feet. He tumbled forward when Harry cupped his hands to his mouth.

“I am Harry Potter!” he cried out. “HARRY POTTER!”

Hearing the name, the giant stopped at once, and looked closely at the tiny wizard standing in his way. One giant looked at the other, then back at Harry, and then the smaller one nodded grumbling something Harry didn’t understand, and moved to grab Harry in his bloodied arms, but Harry instantly brandished his wand, and he halted. Harry motioned to Mr. Weasley.

“Me for him!” he called in a slow, loud voice. “Potter for Weasley!”

Again the two giants conferred, this time speaking to each other with voices resonating like claps of thunder. There was another loud crash and more screams, as one of the interior floors collapsed inside the castle. The giant that was bleeding pointed to his arm and shook his head and that’s when the larger one motioned for Harry to move closer. He pointed at Harry’s wand, and Harry dropped it to the ground at his feet. A flash later, Mr. Weasley was on the ground, dropped from the giant’s dangling hands some six feet off the ground, and Harry was in the giant’s grasp racing toward the Forbidden Forest. The grip was tight, too tight -- it was impossible to breathe.

With each stride, he could see up over the giant’s shoulder toward the castle. Nobody had seen Harry face the giants at the front door. Nobody was giving chase. A few students and a wizard or two found Mr. Weasley at the front steps of the castle. Someone started to make chase, but the castle rumbled, and he cast a spell to shield the Minister from the falling debris. Then, there was a red flash immediately followed by a tremendous yellow-white light that poured out from the castle windows; like a star being born, it was blinding. “Dumbledore,” thought Harry, as the brilliance was soon obscured by branches of the forest. The last he could see, everyone was trying to save the castle; they had given up trying to capture the giants, and Harry was sure that had been the creatures’ plan, or Voldemort’s plan, all along.

He tried to pull short rasps of air into his lungs as the giant continued to hold him tightly, and with his lack of air his vision began to fail. He wondered if Voldemort would be happy or sad when the giants delivered a dead Harry Potter at his feet. He tried one last time to wriggle even a finger, but it was as if his body was encased in rock--nothing moved. There was something peaceful about knowing the end was near. He would be with his parents at last. Images of his life began to flash across his eyes. A cutting sense of concern for Ron made him wince with regret that he could not have been faster.

He was on his last breath, or wish for one, his head flopping loosely against the giant’s thumb. All before him was darkness and he began to let go of the mortal realm. Suddenly, a blast of purple light filled the air and the smaller giant screamed in agony. There was another blast, and another, and another, all various colours, and the giant holding Harry loosened his grip. A blast of fresh air filled his lungs, just as it had when he plunged up from to the surface of the lake during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. His vision returned and to his surprise he saw but one wizard casting spell, after spell. The small giant was down, dead or unconscious, and the wizard’s efforts were focused firmly on the giant holding Harry. Spell after spell struck with great precision, never hitting Harry, and ever loosening the grip the giant had on him. More air filled Harry’s lungs, and he began searching his mind for things he could do to set himself free.

With Harry locked in his stony grip, the giant advanced toward the wizard that was casting spell after spell. His magic seemed to be taking its toll, but not just on the giant. Whoever was sending the streams of coloured jets out of their wand was growing weaker. The large giant stumbled forward and with a great sweep of his hand sent the wizard flying some twenty yards and into the trunk of a tree. There, he crumpled to the ground and did not move. The giant let out a deafening roar of triumph and went to check his companion. With his foot he kicked him over and when he did not respond, the large giant gave a short loud grunt, and started on his way.

The grip tightened once again, only this time Harry had time to think, remembering the one thing he held to advantage--the Heart of Asha. It had just been recharged, and just as it strengthened his ability to heal, it would strengthen his ability to kill. He closed his eyes and reached deep within.

“Bravery. Wisdom. Love,” he whispered, and instantly he felt himself falling out of one reality and into another. “Show me,” his mind commanded the darkness, and the veil opened up to an energy he was sure was the giant’s. It was not as large as Harry expected, certainly not in keeping with the creatures physical stature, and was woven in yellow and red strands, spinning like a small cocoon on a thread. Harry willed himself closer and reached his hands toward the life force -- an energy he would take to save his own.

But just as his hands were about to take hold of the giant’s energy in this other realm, a smell, or rather a stench, filled Harry’s senses. In a place where no senses existed, it was an odd sensation and yet a familiar one. He reached with his own mind passed the giant’s life force, and reached beyond, toward the reek. There, in a corner of nothingness, was a dull green glow. Harry moved toward it, the odor becoming unbearable. It was a tangle of dark, fibrous tentacles that weaved their way outward from a dull, dark-green glob.

“Voldemort,” he thought, and he reached his hands toward the glow. It pulled back, but too late. Harry had the Imperius Curse in his fingers, and squeezed with all his might. It exploded like a filibuster firework sending sparklers everywhere in every imaginable colour, and then Harry let go of that reality and returned to the hand of the giant.

He felt as if he’d been kicked hard in the stomach and, when he opened his eyes, he found that they hadn’t moved twenty yards from the smaller giant still motionless on the ground. The grip around Harry’s chest loosened immediately and he gazed up to see the large giant looking down at him with a confused expression.

“Your friend,” Harry called out, pointing at the other giant. “Let me help.”

He wasn’t sure if he was being understood, but the large giant opened his hand and let him loose onto the ground. Harry ran over to the severely wounded giant and again summoned the stone’s ability to magnify his own powers to reach within the being’s life force. After he poured himself out to heal the wounds, Harry reached beyond and again found and destroyed Voldemort’s Imperius Curse. With the stone’s energy draining, it took every ounce of will power, and when he pulled back to reality, his knees gave out from under him, and he fell to the ground. It was not nearly as bad as when he healed Lucius, but Harry knew he would be able to do little more.

The small giant sat up and said something to the large one who uttered something in return, and then the small giant turned to Harry and said in a large gruff voice, “Harry… Potter… Thank you.”

“You speak English?” Harry asked, taking a deep breath, rising to unsteady feet. The small giant flashed him a stubby smile. Suddenly, Harry remembered the other wizard who had tried to save his life. He staggered over to the trunk of the tree where the cloaked wizard lay moaning on the ground. He pulled back the wizard’s hood and discovered Draco Malfoy.

“D-Draco,” Harry sputtered in amazement.

There was a thin smile on the blonde’s face, as a trickle of blood dripped down from the corner of his mouth. He let out a short chuckle, and spat a weak cough. He did not look well.

“I thought I’d be saving an old redhead,” he wheezed. “If I had known it was going to be you, I’d have stayed in the dungeons and been crushed in the castle.”

“You knew? You knew!” Harry yelled. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“Who says I didn’t?” Draco let out another cough, and more blood spewed from his mouth, splattering Harry in the face and speckling his glasses.

Harry wasn’t sure if he should strangle him on the spot, or save his life so he could strangle him later. The Gryffindor was already drained and he wasn’t sure he could save Malfoy’s life even if he wanted to. Still, he placed his hands on Malfoy’s chest and closed his eyes. It was easy to see where the internal injury was. A small tear, not nearly as bad as Harry had feared. He reached out and stopped the bleeding that was filling Malfoy’s lungs. But when he pulled back away and opened his eyes, he fell to the ground barely able to move. He had nothing left to give without risking his own life again.

“The castle,” Harry whispered to Draco into the grass covering his face, “we have to save the castle.”

“I-I can’t be seen with you, Harry,” Malfoy said in remorseful tone. “I’m sorry, I… I can’t–” His words were cut short by a rumbling of the earth, but it wasn’t the two giants next to them. They were sitting on the ground curiously watching the two wizards. Harry looked up to see Malfoy fade into the foliage. He reached out his hand.

“Wait,” called Harry, but his hand fell weakly to his side as Draco disappeared into darkness.

The earth rumbled again and he felt himself being lifted from the ground, but by smaller hands this time. What happened next, he didn’t know as a dull fog filled his head and all went black.

He woke to bright sunlight, the crackle of fire, a smell of smoke, and a wet tongue lapping at his face. Opening his eyes he found himself in Hagrid’s cabin, Fang standing over him. There was a clang of pots and pans on the stovetop, and Harry turned to see who made the noise. He groaned when a familiar pain stabbed at his chest. His wound had been aggravated in the clutches of the giant, and when he looked down he found his chest was all bruised.

“Well, good mornin’ to yeh, Harry,” said Hagrid with a smile, setting a large iron skillet on the stovetop with a loud clang, and walking over to his side. “Madame Pomfrey said yeh might be tender fer a few days, but that’s all. You’ll be up an’ flying before yeh know it.”

Harry tried to sit up, but the pain was too much.

“Here,” said Hagrid offering a stone mug, “take a sip.”

Harry obliged and immediately felt a soothing sensation spread out across his chest. Finally, he could breathe properly and with Hagrid’s help he sat up in bed.

“What… what about Ron, and Mr. Weasley?” he asked. “Where are they?”

“St. Mungo’s,” answered Hagrid. “They’ll both be fine,” he said, reassuring Harry’s questioning eyes. “Hermione took care of Ron straight away, but the Minister almost didn’t make it. He’s tellin’ everybody how yeh saved his life again.”

“But he was unconscious; he didn’t see anything.”

“Oh, well, I guess it was me then that was tellin’ everyone how yeh saved his life.” Hagrid smiled broadly and roughed up the top of Harry’s already tangled hair. He walked over and cracked an egg into the hot skillet, and it began to sizzle. The sound reminded Harry of Ron’s flesh.

“Ron’s okay?” he asked again. Hagrid let out a laugh.

“Do yeh know what he’s been doin’ the whole time at St. Mungo’s? Askin’ ‘bout you. I tell yeh, there’s been no closer friends at Hogwarts since James and S…” he stopped himself.

“You can say it, Hagrid,” said Harry. “James and Sirius… the perfect friendship.” There was a sour note in his tone, and then he rolled something over in his mind. “James and Lilly, the perfect marriage, and then young Harry was born… and ruined everything.” He laid his head back to his pillow. “Everything,” he repeated out loud. He expected Hagrid to jump in and say something, but all he heard was another egg crack, and fresh sizzle.

“Is the castle destroyed then, Hagrid?” he asked. And then, without waiting for an answer, an avalanche of words fell from his lips. “Because if it is, it’s my fault, since Ron was looking for me, and if I’d have just stayed put, he wouldn’t have been outside, and I wouldn’t have gone looking for him and said his dad was going to be attacked by Voldemort, and he wouldn’t have run off, and the castle would have still been–” he halted.

“What’s that, Harry?” Hagrid asked with curiosity. “I coudn’ hear yeh. The castle would a been what?” Harry knew the answer, of course. The giants would still have grabbed Mr. Weasley and carried him crashing through the castle; it had been their plan all along, or Voldemort’s. The thought turned in his head.

“The giants!” he exclaimed. “They didn’t hurt the giants did they? Because… Please tell me they didn’t–” Suddenly, an enormous tremor shook the earth in answer to Harry’s question. For a moment, the sun was blotted out, and the room grew dark, and as the rumble passed, the sunlight returned. “They’re here? N-Now?” Harry sputtered.

“Come on, lad,” said Hagrid with a smile as he set two plates on the table. “Let’s see if yer legs are strong enough teh have a look.” He helped Harry out of bed and to the door of his cabin. “You’ve got the best bed at Hogwarts right now.” He swung the door open revealing row after row of tents along the field surrounding the lake. The air was cool against his face, and for the moment it felt refreshing, but he’d been camping in those tents before and was thankful he wasn’t casting warming charms every fifteen minutes down by the thawing water.

“As soon as they’re sure the tunnels are safe, they’ll move everyone down,” said Hagrid. “Probably tomorrow.”

Harry’s eyes turned to the pounding and rumbling noises up at the castle. To his amazement, one of the giants was helping to repair the front face of the castle wall.

“They’re helping?” he asked in disbelief.

“When Gryffindor laid the foundation for the school, the giants were here teh help,” said Hagrid proudly. “Those were different times, Harry, good times, and you’ve brought ‘em back.”

“Me?” asked Harry, not really sure that was a good thing.

Hagrid shut the door and brought Harry over to the table to eat. As he buttered his toast, he told of what had happened after he’d picked Harry off the ground.

“Well, it was just me an Grawpy, see, an’ these two giants jes sittin’ there scratchin’ their heads not sure what teh do. So Grawpy asks ‘em what happened, me not bein’ good at giant speak an’ all, and they start goin’ on about Voldemort an’ his Death Eaters, an’ how they’d been plannin’ on joinin’ Dumbledore, but were captured comin’ ‘cross the sea. Grawpy knew ‘em from the mountains and they hit it off right away. But when I asked ‘em to follow us to the castle, they were none too keen on the idea. The little one told us, as best he could, what had happened, an’ figured that the wizards had already killed his brother. But I told ‘em it didn’t matter what happened, cuz Dumbledore wouldn’t kill nobody.

“Finally, I couldn’ wait no longer, seein’s how you were lookin’ so bad. ‘The Death Eaters will be waitin’ for yeh that way,’ I said to the little one pointin’ teh the forest, ‘or yeh can try yer luck at the hand of Dumbledore.’ An’ I started headin’ to the castle with you in me arms. I gotta say it was a bit touch an’ go there fer a minute as the four of us walked out of the Forest. The Ministry Aurors were ready to blast us all teh high heaven, till they saw I was holdin’ you. Strange, but nobody seemed teh know you was missin’.

“We had a bit of a shoutin’ match, an’ shoutin’ giants can be heard from pretty far away. Finally, Dumbledore came out of the castle, an’ set things straight. Within minutes, we had Madame Pomfrey takin’ care of yeh here in the cabin, the third giant back up on his feet an released from the Imperius Curse, an’ everybody pitchin’ in teh shore up the castle.” The half-giant took a sip of his mug, and a look of pure satisfaction spread across his face.

“Harry, there’s somethin’ bout usin’ yer hands together teh make somethin’ grander than either of yeh could make alone that binds people as one.” He set the mug down. “You-Know-Who thought he’d ruin our chances of an alliance, and kill the Minister in the process, but it’s backfired on him. Who knows what would have happened if the dark beast hadn’t interfered, but now… now his plans have been crushed like the stones being turned to mortar for the walls of Hogwarts.” Hagrid stood and looked out the window, a grand smile beaming across his face.

“And yer right, Harry. It’s all your fault!” He turned, laughed, and clapped his hands together. “Now eat yer eggs before I have Madame Pomfrey whip up a batch of her Invigorator Potion.” Just the thought made Harry wince; if Skele-Gro tasted bad, Invigorator was pure poison. Quickly, he grabbed his fork and took a bite of eggs.

“Hagrid,” said Harry with his mouth half full, “have you seen D- er, Malfoy?”

“Yeah, I seen the little brat. I hear he got banged up pretty good when the castle walls fell, but he’s up walkin’. Probably jes puttin’ on a show fer sympathy again.” Hagrid waved his hands in the air and rolled his eyes. “Why do yeh ask? Yeh don’ figure he had somethin’ teh do with this do yeh?”

“Er… no reason,” answered Harry, shrugging his shoulders. “He just popped into my mind is all.”

Harry grabbed a slice of toast, took a bite, and wondered if, one day, he and Malfoy might build something together, side-by-side. Was it any more strange than the scene right now on the front steps of Hogwarts? Hagrid drew one eyebrow high in bewilderment shaking his head as he looked at Harry stare into space. The young wizard took a bite of eggs and shook his own head as he swallowed.

“No,” he whispered, watching another shadow pass by Hagrid’s window, “oil and water don’t mix.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 63 - Vanished
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Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, stone upon stone, mortar and magic, and still the castle was not repaired. It took two giants only a matter of minutes to collapse the structure from within, and even with their considerable assistance and the help of their brother, the walls and floors were taking a very long time to put back together. It took tremendous patience on Hermione’s part to explain to both Harry and Ron that the damage wasn’t just what they could see, but also what they couldn’t. Portals to other locations and dimensions had been sundered; time itself had been pulled all through the castle. Neville mindlessly passed one of the guardian orbs, walked through an interior door, and fell into an endless temporal loop. He’d have still been walking through the door, over and over again, if Professor Flitwick hadn’t found him as he performed an evening security sweep.

Despite the damage, the mood of the students and the professors was as good as it had been all year. Hagrid was right; something about building with your hands, side-by-side had drawn everyone together. Even Professor Sinistra seemed to smile more, happy that her students were now sleeping in the warming air out under the stars. It was a decision made by all the houses that they would not hide underground, but rather would live defiantly out in the open. It meant that guards posted to protect Hogwarts by the Ministry were also supported by student watchers. A pixie didn’t light upon the Hogwarts grounds without someone knowing about it. Daytime classes were being taught in the tunnels, while Quidditch practices were moved over the lake.

Ron was well enough to return to Hogwarts the day after his injury, but chose instead to stay through the week until he was sure his father would recover. Mr. Weasley had been badly injured and, as Ron described him, looked more like the inside of a watermelon than the Minister of Magic. Mrs. Weasley cried for days as she sat deathwatch at her husband’s bedside. While there, she spoke with Ron quite a bit about what had been happening at Hogwarts this year and what role Harry played in saving Mr. Weasley’s life and the lives of Luna and Neville. Some days later she sent Harry a post by special ministerial owl. He didn’t know why, but he had kept the post in his pocket all term, secretly pulling it out to read now and again. As Easter break approached, the piece of parchment had grown quite worn and tattered and as he packed for the holiday he slipped it into his traveling bag along with his most prized possessions.

“Why don’t you just come back to Grimmauld for Easter, Harry?” asked Ron as the two gathered what few things they could during the short time they were allowed in the boys’ dormitory. “I’m sure dad can set the Darbinyan’s up on the floo and you two can visit whenever you want. Besides, mate, Remus is back now and I’m sure he’d want to see you. You know… outside of school.”

Harry shrugged his shoulders as he packed away the ebon dragonhead and the fiery red ball of cinnabar, and then carefully folded a shirt around his mirror and placed it between more unfolded clothes. Because Tonks was off working for the Ministry, or the Order, or whomever, Remus had taken an office at Hogwarts. He and Tonks timed it so that he could teach her classes while he was well; she was always about during the full moon. The hardest part about apologizing to Lupin was getting out the first word, the rest was easy. It began following class during a new moon and Remus was in an exceptionally good mood after everyone successfully defended themselves against an ashwinder. As the room emptied, Harry found himself lingering behind. His presence didn’t go unnoticed by Lupin who, though polite, had been a bit stiff toward Harry since the start of winter term. It was a wall Harry had built with his own hands, and it was time to bring it down.

“What is it Harry?” asked Lupin as the last student left the class. He levitated the ashwinder into her brick cage filled with glowing red eggs. “Your spell today was flawless, certainly you don’t–”

“I’m sorry,” Harry sputtered. Remus leaned back against his desk; he hadn’t expected this. “I’ve been a right arse and I don’t expect you can accept my apology, but you need to know I… I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.” Harry slipped his parchment of notes into his pack and looked up at Lupin. “I’d like you to come back to Grimmauld. I mean… if you want. I’d understand if you’d rather I just go stuff my head in a–”

“Thank you, Harry,” cut in Lupin with a soft voice. “I’d like that.” He walked over to Harry who was fumbling with his pack. The young wizard didn’t know why his hands were so shaky. “But I think I owe you an apology as well. I think maybe, when Dumbledore took ill and Professor McGonagall retreated into her office, I think… well, you were right. I did try to step in and take control. I guess I felt someone needed to lead the charge, and I know now I charged to hard… particularly with you.”

“Every time I turn around, Remus, you’re there protecting me. How can that ever be a bad thing?” Harry took in a deep breath. “I have no one else to knock me back into line. I may not care for it much, but I… I’d like you to keep an eye out for me. You know? I don’t have…” Harry completely lost his center and felt a tremendous sense of loss well up inside him. Damn it; he didn’t want to cry.

Remus put his arms around Harry and gave him an embracing hug. “We can keep an eye out for each other, how’s that?” he said quietly. Harry nodded into his shoulder not saying a word; he couldn’t have spoken if he tried. Remus stepped back still holding Harry by the shoulders and looked into his wet eyes.

“Harry, if you ever need to talk about something, know that you can always come to me. Okay?” Harry nodded, wondering how much Lupin knew already.

The warm memory flittered across Harry’s mind as he grabbed another shirt and stuffed it in his bag for the holiday. Why didn’t he just go to Grimmauld place? He looked up at Ron and sighed.

“You know what Dumbledore says. He still thinks–”

“That’s rot!” Ron cut in, having heard Harry’s reasoning for the hundredth time. “How can he think you’re safer there than at a home surrounded by Aurors? It’s ridiculous is what it is, some sick pleasure in watching you suffer.”

Harry scowled at the insult not saying a word.

“Well,” said Ron, “I just don’t get it. Now that you’ve settled things with Lupin, the place is going to be overflowing with wizards.” He levitated his travel-bag off the floor and onto his bed. “Er… do you think I should bring more socks?”

Neville and Seamus had already gathered their things and were downstairs, but Dean seemed to enjoy listening to Harry and Ron banter. He was going to spend the holiday at the Weasley’s ostensibly to help out the injured minister. At least, that’s the story he told his parents.

“You know, Ron,” said Dean, “if you’d just go barefoot, you wouldn’t be wearing holes in them all the time.”

“That’s just gross,” said Ron with a face that looked like a prune.

“He’s afraid he’ll step on a spider,” said Harry flatly, zipping his bag closed.

“Am not!” shot Ron. “I’m simply–” he started, but was cut out by the laughter as Dean began making little crawly figures with his hands, and crept toward Ron with a sinister grin. Ron was near ready to draw his wand when Hermione popped her head in the door.

“You have two minutes! Move!” she commanded with a heated voice, and then as she turned to leave she called back, “And don’t forget to bring plenty of socks, sweetie!”

In the train, on the way to London, Dean and Harry told the story to Neville and Seamus, who told it to some friends, who told it to some more friends, and before long everyone on the train was asking Ron if he’d brought enough socks. He was fuming when he finally finished with the Prefect’s meeting at the front of the train and entered Harry’s carriage.

“Can I kill you now?” he asked, steaming a bright red. “Because… I’m getting tired of waiting for Voldemort.” Harry nearly fell over.

“Ron,” exclaimed Harry with a look of shock. “You said it! You said his name!”

Against the wall, Luna was reading her father’s paper. Without looking up she tapped the page with her finger and said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “You know Ron, Gambol & Japes is having a sale on hole-healing socks… three socks for a Sickle.”

“Gambol & Japes?” Ron questioned blankly, wondering why a joke shop would sell socks. “Why three?” But Luna said nothing more. Just the thinnest of smiles appeared across her face.

For a moment, Harry smiled too, but the happiness quickly ebbed away. Ron’s words had started his mind to thinking again and that was never good. His thoughts landed squarely on the prophecy of his fate. Months had passed without his making some kind of a link with Voldemort, something Harry had almost grown accustomed to. He had hurt the dark wizard deeply by using the stone, but he was sensing his return to strength and wondered once more if it might not be wise to try again.

Both Neville and Luna sat at his side, a testament to the power he now had at his fingertips but hesitated to use. It was meant to heal, for love, for something other than destruction, and a part of him was worried that if he did use its power to seek out another to deliberately cause harm, however evil, there might be consequences. Gabriella had been so insistent that he tell her everything when he first used the stone and again when he reversed its power on Voldemort, he wondered what her reaction would have been if he had used it for some selfish purpose; she was certainly capable of…. He sighed, shaking his head; it was all too confusing. Hermione, who followed Ron into the compartment, saw the scrunched look on Harry’s face.

“Harry,” she asked, “what’s the matter?”

She had been watching him for weeks, he was sure of it, but he wasn’t sure if she was more concerned about his health or the fact that he’d been speaking to Tonks again about the clues for which he was now sure he had an answer. His mind flashed back to the last full moon.

“What’s the matter, Harry?” asked Tonks, as he looked out across the lake at the silver ball’s shining reflection. Harry held a flat stone in his hand and skipped it over the smooth water, breaking the moonlit rings into shimmering bands that splintered across the surface. “You haven’t stayed after class for weeks.”

Harry looked up at her. She was wearing a bright cobalt blue shawl, and her hair was a limp black. It was the first time she had spoken to him outside of class all term and he adjusted his glasses with his hand as if trying to refocus on what he was seeing.

“Maybe… maybe it’s because you told me to bugger off,” he said, turning away. He tossed another stone out into the lake, this time it splashed hard on the first go. “Maybe it’s because you told me–”

“Listen,” Tonks interrupted, “I was just having a bad time, that’s all.” She glanced around, and Harry noticed a nervousness in her eyes that had been absent of late, a look that concerned a part of him, a look that also meant there was a chance to save Sirius again. “You… you said it’s water. What water?”

“The falls,” Harry replied. He had meant to be dispassionate about the whole thing, but already he could feel his pulse quickening. “In the center of the forest, there’s water… special water. It has powers… cleansing powers, healing powers; I’m not sure.” He recited the verse he now had memorized,

“Liquid of life that springs eternal
From birth of light to death infernal
Welled from source of endless magic
To bring back those whose loss was tragic.

“In the center of the Forbidden Forest there wells a spring that leads to a waterfall which fills a great pool of water. It was in the Sorting Hat’s song this year--Gryffindor cleared the land from the mountain to the falls to build Hogwarts. It has to be the proper ingredient, I’m sure of it.”

“I’ve been through the Forbidden Forest, Harry,” answered Tonks, “and there’s no waterfall; there’s no waterfall anywhere near here.”

“I’m telling you I’ve seen it!” Harry snapped. “Hell, I… I swam in it and since then this…” he held up his fringe to reveal his now clear forehead, “this has been gone, and so has my connection with Voldemort. So don’t tell me it’s not there. It’s what we need to bring Sirius back; I’m sure!”

Tonks stared into Harry’s green eyes for a moment, as if trying to ascertain if he was indeed telling her the truth. His look was sincere, but she still didn’t believe. She cast another nervous glance about to see if they were being watched.

“So when can you get me, er, us some of this… this water you’re so keen on?”

“Tonight,” he said with confidence.

And that night, with tremendous difficulty, Harry did fly to the falls. The sky was clear and the moon shone bright. When he arrived, he saw the dark pools beneath him reflecting the starlight above. The roar of the water splashing down onto the rocks below filled his ears. He flew high above the shimmering pools searching all around for danger. Seeing it was safe he finally flew down to gather up the water. As he grew near, there was a snap and where once was water now stood a grove of thick trees. He looked around--the whole scene had changed; even the moon had shifted in the night sky. It took him a moment to gather his bearings, but he realized he’d been transported to a different part of the forest.

“A charm?” he muttered to himself.

He flew back above the trees, found his position and flew back to the falls. They were there as he expected, but when he flew back down to gather water he was again transported to a different part of the forest. Three more times he tried to gather water from the falls and each time found himself in another part of the forest. No matter how hard or how fast he flew, or what angle he approached from, he was transported somewhere else.

He had told Ron and Hermione he would only be gone an hour and it was already approaching two. He knew he’d soon be missed, if not already. He cursed under his breath and returned to the castle; it would have to wait for another day.

But the day never came. Try as he might to slip away, Harry seemed to have someone with him every night. Even when he’d wake up before the first break of dawn, there was a professor or ministerial wizard watching over the encampment. He was sure Hermione had her hand in it.

Now, back on the train, Harry was keen to wonder what role Hermione really played in all this. He sighed, scrunching up his face and thinking he was making much ado out of nothing.

“Harry,” said Hermione again, “are you daydreaming about Quidditch, or Voldemort?”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” said Ron with a grimace. “I should have kept my trap shut.”

“Is it possible to daydream about both?” Harry asked.

“Absolutely,” interjected Luna, looking up from the paper. “Ever since the incident with the Magpies, father has had his best investigators looking into the possibility that Voldemort’s master plan is to take total control over the world’s Quidditch industry.”

“That’s daft,” groaned Ron. Luna ignored the statement.

“They’ve already discovered that he hates to fly himself because he’s afraid of heights, and intends to make all Quidditch matches played below twenty feet so he can compete.”

“Apart from Albus Dumbledore, Voldemort isn’t afraid of anything,” said Harry, slumped against the cushion in his carriage.

“Yes he is,” said Hermione. “He’s afraid of you, Harry.”

Shaking his head, Harry just let out a breath of air and waved his hand dismissively.

“That’s right.” Both Neville and Luna spoke at once, and the unison of their voices made an odd musical chord that resonated in the carriage for just a moment.

“That’s all he ever really talked about,” said Luna.

“Potter this, and Potter that,” added Neville.

The two never wanted to talk much about their time at the Burrow, and the students had been instructed not to ask, but the time seemed right.

“What else did he talk about?” asked Hermione. Everyone sat up straighter in their seats, even Harry.

“Well,” Neville began slowly, with a tremor in his voice, “all I remember is him talking about Harry better come save me, or I’d end up like my parents.”

“I’m sorry Neville,” said Harry with true remorse, “I never–”

“Sorry?” interrupted Neville, his voice growing stronger. “You saved me… us, didn’t you? Well, you three and Gabriella. I don’t think he ever dreamed it would happen.”

“I don’t think he thought he could ever take ill,” said Luna, now folding the paper in her lap and leaning forward. “It’s probably all that dark magic he’s been doing. It’s catching up to him. Father says we may just watch him self-destruct, although when he first crumpled to the floor he kept cursing your name, Harry.”

“And moaning something about a stone,” added Neville.

“That’s right, ‘The stone. The stone,’ over and over again,” said Luna. “Kinda spooky, really. Other than that he was pretty boring.” She turned back to her paper. “Kill the Mudbloods, world domination, and all that rot.”

Hermione and Ron cast a look at Harry. He had told them he had seen Voldemort take ill, he had never told them how it happened by his use of the vivificus stone.

“Well, he’s not ill anymore,” said Harry taking to his feet. “I need to take a walk.” He opened the carriage door and Ron stood to join him, but Harry stopped him patting him on the chest. “I’ll be right back; I’m just going to take care of business.” Ron nodded and sat down next to Hermione taking hold of her hand.

Harry shut the door behind him and walked down the corridor passing the water-closet and on toward the rear of the train. He passed carriage after carriage of laughing, sleeping, and pensive students each carrying on with their own lives. Harry stopped and leaned back against the side of the corridor. He felt separate, alienated, wholly apart from the students living their lives on either side. He had often dreamt what that might be like, to simply live out one’s life in an ordinary way. What would it be like to have a family that loved him? What would it be like to go to school without a care? What would it be like to live, grow old and die like every other normal wizard in the world? Harry took in a deep breath and let out a long, low sigh, then turned to return to his carriage.

“Hey, Potter!” a voice called from down the corridor. Harry jumped, and turned to find Cho stepping toward him. She was smiling at his reaction to her sharp voice. “Good to see you’ve kept your edge.” She took the moment to give him a hug. “How are you?” The question was soft and filled with concern. “We haven’t had a second alone to talk.”

“Kinda hard with Anthony on your arm all the time,” said Harry with hint of sarcasm. “Where is he now, anyway?”

“Sleeping,” answered Cho defensively. “You really aren’t very fair you know; he’s quite sweet.”

“Sweet. Right,” answered Harry not really sure what to say. He had no right to be jealous, but there it was dribbling out of his mouth. Cho just narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms, but her lips still had a smile.

“You should be careful who you vilify, Harry,” said Cho coolly. “In fact, some of your closest friends–”

“Hey, Potter.” This time the voice made both Cho and Harry jump. Blaise Zabini stepped out of the water-closet heading back to the rear of the train where most the Slytherins sat, Cho and Harry directly in his way. “Chang,” he said with a nod.

Even though there was a look of camaraderie in Zabini’s eyes, Harry instinctively wrapped his hand about his wand, preparing to withdraw it and defend himself if need be. In the same moment, a spell was cast and hit him from behind.

“Expelliarmus!”

The spell, ejecting Harry’s wand from his hand, seemed to surprise even Blaise as Harry spun to find Theodore Nott standing in the corridor, heading their way.

“What timing,” Nott said clucking his tongue, his wand firmly pointed in Harry’s face. “Looks like they were about to attack you, Blaise. Lucky I happened to be walking by.” Hesitantly, Blaise pulled his wand, pointed it at Cho and motioned for her to hand over her wand, but Cho had something else in mind.

She made a motion with her right hand as if looking for her wand while her left hand slipped it out from down her sleeve. Before Blaise could react, his wand arm was hit with a beam of green light and began to swell up to the size of a large hog pulling him down to the floor. She turned to Nott, but too late. A blast of blue light knocked her backwards down the corridor. Then he pointed his wand at Harry. “Time to do what that little blonde puke couldn’t,” spat Nott.

“Stupefy!”

Harry looked down; at his feet Nott was out cold, stunned in the back. Carriage doors swung open and students flooded into the corridors to see what was going on. Harry looked back to see who had cast the spell, a glint of gray and a flash of shimmering hair spun about and disappeared into a sea of faces. An instant later, Ron was at Harry’s side handing him back his wand, his own drawn, and Hermione was helping Cho to her feet. Blaise was yelling for someone to shrink his arm as he helplessly faced at least a dozen wands, while Nott remained motionless.

“What happened, Harry?” asked Ron itching for an excuse to stun Nott again. Harry’s gaze remained fixed down the corridor toward the Slytherin end of the train. He said nothing.

“They jumped us while we were talking,” said Cho rubbing the back of her head.

“It wasn’t me!” cried Blaise. “I… I–”

“Cho!” yelled Anthony Goldstein, his wand brandished and face flush.

At the same moment, a group of Slytherins, including Pansy Parkinson, began pushing their way down the corridor. They too had wands drawn.

“Teddy!” wailed Pansy as she dropped down to try and revive Nott.

“Teddy?” Ron whispered in Harry’s ear. “I thought she and Malfoy…” Harry just shrugged as the Slytherin at his feet began to open his eyes.

“They… they jumped us,” Nott said blearily.

“YOU!” Pansy screamed pulling her wand and pointing it at Harry, but Ron stepped in the way his own wand in her face. Soon, wands were pointing in every direction and accusations began to fly. Harry looked around wondering why no professor or guard had yet come to break up the brawl that was soon going to turn bloody.

“Stop it,” he called, but his voice was barely heard above the din. “STOP IT!” The carriage silenced. “Don’t you see? Don’t you see what’s happening?” Distrust was everywhere. “We’ve worked together all year, for what? To cast spells and hexes on each other?” He slipped his wand back into his jeans’ waistband and looked at Ron to do the same. Ron looked at Harry, then at Pansy, then at Harry one more time, then finally lowered his wand and slipped it away.

“Hermione,” asked Harry, “can you take care of Blaise’s arm?”

“I can,” said Cho, and she lowered her wand at him. Crabbe stepped in the way.

“Get out of the way, moose,” said Blaise, hitting Crabbe on the leg with his good hand. Cho knelt down, reduced the arm to normal and handed Blaise back his wand. Blaise took to his feet and put the wand away. When he did, everyone followed in kind -- everyone that is except Nott.

“It’s not that easy, Potter!” he spat. Harry turned to find Nott’s wand in his face again.

Everyone reached to draw their wands again, when Harry yelled, “Put them down!” He looked directly into Nott’s eyes. “Well, Theodore, what is it you want to do?”

“Harry–” Hermione started; Ron hushed her.

“You can stun me if you want, but I’ll wake up again like you did just now.” Harry stepped closer to Nott, making the tip of Nott’s wand poke him in the throat. “You’ll have to kill me if you want to be in his good graces, anything less would be failure and you know what he thinks of failure.”

“Who’s he talking about,” someone whispered from behind.

Nott looked about at the staring faces and his hand began to tremble slightly; Harry could feel the quiver into the flesh on his neck. “Well?” Harry asked. There was no answer, but neither was there a withdrawal of the wand. Harry reached his hand up and wrapped it over the hand of Nott steadying his hand and poking the wand deeper. “Say it,” he whispered. “Make… daddy… proud.”

Nott’s eyes held a look of terror mixed with tinges of hatred, only Harry wasn’t sure the hatred was directed at him.

“Damn you,” he whispered back. There was a commotion down the corridor; someone was coming. Harry expected to hear the voice of a professor; it wasn’t.

“Nott, what the hell are you doin’?” boomed Greg Goyle. Without hesitation, he stepped up to the two wizards, grabbed Nott’s wand arm and pulled him away from Harry. A look of relief spread over Nott’s face, but he quickly recovered.

“Goyle, you… you’ve turned soft!” Nott spat. “They brainwashed you while you were over there.”

“We’re in the lead for house-points,” retorted Goyle sharply, “and I won’t have you ruin it for the rest of us. Come on!” He grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back down toward the Slytherin carriages. The move was very un-Goyle like and Harry liked the new Greg.

With the excitement over, the crowd thinned and everyone returned to their carriages. Anthony held Cho’s hand as he walked her down the corridor, and Harry couldn’t help but watch them disappear into their compartment, leaving him alone with Ron and Hermione.

“Brilliant, Harry,” said Hermione, now that no one was about. “That was really stupid!”

“What was?” asked Harry.

“You know he was probably there when Hogwarts was attacked; he’s certainly on his way to becoming a Death Eater along with Parkinson, Crabbe and Malfoy. He could have used the Killing Curse.”

“Hermione,” replied Harry, “for someone who’s so passionate about helping the less fortunate and eliminating discrimination in this world, you sure jump to conclusions when it comes to the Slytherins.”

“Well, Malfoy for sure!” said Ron emphatically.

“You turned Goyle around, Ron; why not Malfoy?” Ron hur-r-rumphed, but Harry continued. “You brought the Longbottom’s back from nothingness; I wonder if you reached into the darkness of Nott’s mind what you’d find?” asked Harry.

“More darkness,” Ron sneered. “I’m hungry; where’s the trolley?” Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Honestly, Ron,” she said with a sigh, “will you ever stop thinking about food?”

“No,” he answered heatedly.

Hermione smiled. “Well, nobody was seriously injured. With all the commotion, I’m surprised no professors showed up.”

“Or guards,” added Ron as they turned back toward their carriage and then the redhead stopped. “Or… guards,” he repeated slowly.

“What? What is it, Ron?” asked Hermione.

“I told you earlier,” he said to Hermione, the colour draining from his face. “That ministerial Legilimens they brought on board the train kept crawling into my mind at the Prefect’s meeting. I’ve been trying to shut him out since we left Hogsmeade, but…” he paused, “he’s not there. It’s like he’s disappeared.” Harry didn’t wait for an explanation, nor did Hermione, they both grabbed their wands. In the next breath, all three had their wands out and Harry tapped on the carriage door that Cho and Anthony had just entered. All inside looked up surprised.

Eventually, the entire back half of the train including the carriages containing mostly Slytherins was alerted that something was wrong. At the end of the train, Harry opened the carriage door containing Nott, to find Malfoy holding his wand over Nott’s back, bathing it in blue light.

“When we get our hands on the bastard, Nott, we’ll take him out,” Malfoy said in a slow drawl and then looked up to find Harry in his compartment. There was a momentary look of surprise, but Malfoy quickly regained his composure and held his wand at Harry.

“Hard to believe I have to perform rudimentary healing myself,” said Malfoy with a look of distaste in his mouth. “There’s not a healer to be found.”

“Death Eaters,” Harry whispered. Malfoy’s eyes widened as the rest of the Slytherins in the compartment drew their wands.

“I don’t know where you get your information, Potter, but we’re not–”

“Not you,” Harry hissed impatiently. “There are Death Eaters on the train. All the adults we know of have disappeared.” These words put considerable concern on all the faces in the carriage including Nott’s.

“That’s not possible,” Nott said, bewildered by the news. Malfoy also looked perplexed. Harry explained.

“From my compartment to here, we’ve searched the train and other than students we haven’t seen a soul. We’re going to take a group and move forward.” Some of the Slytherins, including Pansy, were looking scared and their expressions made Harry second-guess his initial supposition. “The corridor’s too narrow for us to all go forward; only a handful should move up. I need the best wands with me.”

“With you?” Malfoy drawled again.

“No, I didn’t think so,” said Harry as he moved to close the carriage door.

“Wait!” A large hand stopped the door from closing; it was Greg Goyle. “I’ll go.”

Harry was actually hoping for the Slytherin Head Boy, Giles Adder, who was well known as the best duelist in Snape’s dueling club. Nonetheless, the offer represented an opportunity for unity of the houses, and Harry took it. When Hermione saw Goyle, she cast Harry a questioning look, and without speaking he flashed her eyes that said not to ask.

Harry, Hermione and Goyle were joined by Terry Boot of Ravenclaw, and Laura Madley who was one of only two students from Hufflepuff on this end of the train. Slowly they made their way forward. Carriage after carriage opened to reveal students that were oblivious to what was happening. Finally, they reached the last passenger carriage that held students. Up ahead were the meeting carriages and those reserved for adult passengers including professors, guards, and other Hogsmeade travelers. Harry poked in his head, telling the group of fifth years what was up.

“I’ve been wondering what was taking so long with the food trolley,” said Ernie Macmillan of Hufflepuff. “Professor Ulrich from Goblin Studies just stepped out two seconds ago; she’s not there?” Harry glanced down the empty hallway and shook his head. “Here,” said Ernie, “Laura, I’ll take your place. I know a thing or two when it comes to using a wand.” Harry saw Hermione roll her eyes as Ernie swapped with Laura, puffing out his chest.

As Harry slipped back out of the carriage with Ernie, Goyle took the point and started toward the front of the train. Harry was suddenly overwhelmed with a tremendous sense of foreboding; he was about to tell Goyle to wait when, through the glass doors to the box ahead, Harry saw a witch in dark robes suddenly appear in the corridor. She glanced back for only a moment revealing a sinister smile and piercing green eyes. There was a flash of familiarity and Harry yearned for a closer look, but was unable to pass Goyle’s broad shoulders. It didn’t matter; an instant later she was gone and an instant after that the front of the train exploded with a tremendous white flash.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 64 - A New Day Dawns
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The sky was a faint blue and the air hot against Harry’s face as he lay down at the pool’s edge dangling his left hand into the cool, clear water. He could feel the sun scorching his front; a bit painful, but he didn’t care. He could stay like this for hours just watching her swim, chat about nothing, and smile about everything. Could there be a more beautiful creation on all the earth? Gabriella flashed him another smile then looked up above him, waving at someone. Lazily, Harry turned his head to see who it was. The sun flickered in his eyes forcing him to rise up on his right elbow and shield his vision with his left hand. Drops of water fell soothingly onto his burning face. It was Emma and Duncan. Harry sat up to say hello, when he noticed Emma holding a chain of thorns that was wrapped about Duncan’s neck. She was pulling him along like a dog.

“Hey, mate!” Duncan said with a smile, oblivious to the thorns poking his neck and the blood dripping down his chest. “Bloody hot today, ain’t it?” Emma, however, was most definitely not smiling; in fact, she looked furious. She came to the pool’s edge and kicked Harry hard in the leg, and it snapped off, flying into the pool and sinking to the bottom.

“You ruined everything,” Emma spat, and then narrowing her eyes on Gabriella she added, “Both of you! He was supposed to die by his own hand and you…” she pointed at Harry, “you bloody idiot, you had to interfere.” She pulled Duncan to the side of the pool. “Well, I don’t need him anymore!” she cried and threw him into the water; without making a sound, he sunk and disappeared to the depths with Harry’s leg. Gabriella seemed not to notice, and when Harry turned to save Duncan, Emma grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Forget him, Harry. He’s dead weight.” Then Emma leaned down next to Harry, pointed at Gabriella, and whispered lustily in his ear, “Her father had me tied down to this place, but no longer; he’s helping me now, and we both have our eyes set on you… Harry.” These last words slipped delicately out of her mouth and she slid her finger down his red chest to his navel. It felt as if she were slipping the edge of a dagger down his front. “You have something I want,” she said lingering long and low on Harry’s waist. “Soon, with your help, my little Mudblood, I’ll be rid of this Darbinyan retch and we can be together forever.” She held out her hand, and there appeared a wand about eight inches made of ash. She was going to cast a spell at Gabriella who was still smiling at her from the pool as if nothing had happened, but something was stopping Emma, holding her back.

Out of Emma’s own mouth came, “Put… it… away,” only the voice wasn’t hers, it was a male’s, thick with a foreign accent -- Armenian Harry now knew. “You will not call to her.” Emma’s eyes flickered and a look of rage filled them. It was but a moment before the expression passed.

“Just a few more errands, Harry,” she said, regaining control of her own voice again. “You’ll see… we’ll have each other, love.” As the ringing of her words died away in Harry’s ears, she faded into nothingness leaving only a rope of thorns upon the hot concrete deck of the pool.

“That was nice of him to stop by and say hello,” said Gabriella placing a cool, wet hand on Harry’s chest. The cold was penetrating, passing into him as if he’d been run through by Nick.

“Him?” Harry asked.

“Yes, it’s about time you had a chance to meet. He’s always said–”

“Harry! Harry, can you hear me? Harry!”

Harry watched as the pool swirled around like the flush of a toilet.

“It’s too hot, don’t you think?” asked Gabriella, completely unaware she was being sucked down into some hidden drain. “It’s so much better here early in the morning. I love to watch the sun being born anew.” The sun was fading to darkness, but Harry now felt its heat more than ever.

“He can’t be dead! He can’t be!”

“He’s not dead Ms. Chang. Now, please, get to the hospital.”

“I’m fine,” answered Cho from the distance, in the dark.

“It’s not you I’m concerned for, my dear.”

The voice was Dumbledore’s and it pulled Harry back into the present. Yells and screams, near and far, filled the air, and everyone was crying. Harry opened his eyes to find a very dusty, very tired Dumbledore kneeling at his side. A breath later, his mind began to focus and his eyes opened wider. Behind Dumbledore stood Cho Chang, a streak of blood running down the left side of her ash covered face; both her hands on her stomach. On the second breath, Cho Disapparated as Harry sat bolt upright, pain searing up the front of his body. He was badly burned, his clothes more charcoal than thread. His eyes were panicked, and though he wanted to scream out in agony, there was something far more overwhelming crawling into his mind.

“Greg!?” he cried. “Where’s Greg?”

He remembered watching as the blast appeared to expand in slow motion out from the center of the boxcar before them -- the boxcar from which the green-eyed witch vanished. Glass and steel were flying outward in an ever increasing fireball. Harry and Hermione were both one step back from Goyle as all three cast a defensive shield. Goyle’s spell filled the corridor and as the train in front shattered away his shield expanded to either side to join Harry’s and Hermione’s. But, as if being etched away by acid, the shields began to give way to the explosion now enveloping them. From afar, as Harry was told later, it looked like a large comet streaking down the tracks, their shield charms protecting everyone behind them. Finally, the fireball burned its way through, reached the tip of Goyle’s wand, and his shield charm failed. He was knocked backwards by the explosion into Hermione and then Harry. As Harry felt the percussion of the blast, he watched as the fireball consumed Greg and then all was darkness.

Harry looked up into Dumbledore’s grim face; the Headmaster’s blue eyes bore a deep sadness. Looking down, Dumbledore simply shook his head.

“I’m so sorry, Harry.”

The young wizard could feel his blood turn cold; his heart skipped.

“And… and Hermione?” he asked not wanting to know the answer.

“She’s fine, Harry,” whispered Dumbledore and the air filled Harry’s lungs again. “Quite a remarkable young woman, really. Unfortunately, Mr. Boot required immediate medical attention and she departed with him; now it’s your turn.” Dumbledore suspended a small silver sphere in front of Harry.

“Wait!” Harry yelled. “I can’t… the… the stone. It’s in my bag, in my carriage.”

“There is no carriage, Harry,” said Dumbledore dryly. “Hence, there is no bag, and there is no stone.”

Wincing again in pain, Harry turned to see the devastation scattered on the barren landscape. There was nothing but heaps of smoldering debris surrounded by squatting students, some worse off than others, but all alive. Thanks to the knowledge that something was about to happen, they all had their wands at the ready. “He has the stone,” Harry whispered, dropping his head into the ashen earth. “They’ve won.”

“Perhaps, Harry… perhaps it has been destroyed. Now, please take the orb; we’ll talk later, but first we must tend to your burns.” Harry looked down to see bone poking out through the bottom of his right pants-leg. His blackened jeans were soaked in blood, but the bleeding had stopped. Harry reached out with his right hand and was surprised to see it still clutching his wand. His shirt had been burned away and revealed the mark on his forearm. He cast Dumbledore a nervous glance.

“Later, Harry,” he said calmly. “Now take the orb.”

Harry touched it and felt the tug at his navel and the wind in his face. A swirl of colour later, he was on the cold hard floor of St. Mungo’s, his leg pointing in an awkward direction. He looked up to find Mad-Eye standing over him, wand drawn and magical eye spinning in all directions.

“That’s got to hurt, Potter,” he said gruffly. “A few more breaks like that and you’ll be on your way to being a real Auror for sure.”

“Honestly, sir,” said a Healer reproachfully to Mad-Eye and advancing on Harry from the other side. Harry looked up at her.

“You know,” Harry said with a grimace, “padded floors wouldn’t hurt.”

She smiled. “You would know. Now, stay still.” She whispered an incantation, and Harry began falling into a dreamless sleep as he listened to Mad-Eye go on about how in his day….

Harry’s stay at the hospital was short, only a few days; Terry Boot was there a few more. He never was able to discover Cho’s whereabouts; she was not with the rest of the other injured Hogwarts students. Harry was able to send post telling Gabriella what had happened, but her reaction to the loss of the stone was miniscule to her concern over his injury. She wanted to come and visit, but Harry was released and sent back to Hogwarts before she could make it. There would be no more late-night conversations with the mirrors again; his was in shards scattered with the debris along where once laid the tracks. Still, worry over the loss of the stone, and his sadness over not being able to see and speak with her during evening breaks was overshadowed by the loss of Greg Goyle. It was likely that none of them would be alive if Greg hadn’t stood in front, unflinching, to protect them all. Those were the words Harry used at the memorial service held in the Great Hall at Hogwarts on Easter Sunday.

Many of Greg Goyle’s family members were present, including his mother, but his father, wanted by the Ministry, was absent. The mood was glum as many in the Great Hall were well aware of the turn-around Greg Goyle had been making, but as Harry stood at the front of the hall, speaking for Gryffindor, his tone was bright, energetic, and full of hope.

“There are no words that can describe the goodness of a soul capable of seeing past a history of hatred. There are no lights that can outshine the brilliance of a mind that gives itself willingly for the betterment of another. There are no dreams than can compare to the wonders of a world where all join together to stand against the darkness. These are the gifts of Gregory Goyle. He gave them freely for all to see; his steps set the standard for all who tread that path, however dangerous. His memory will forever be the touchstone of the dreams the Founders once had for this school. It is now up to us to see that he did not die in vain. It is now our turn to take up his wand and carry it forward into a future free of enmity.”

“Many months ago, the giants knocked down these walls. What they couldn’t destroy were the walls that we have built ourselves -- house against house; friend against friend. I have seen a great many things in the last few years, but perhaps the greatest moment of them all was the day I was able to call Greg Goyle… friend. I only hope one day, when Greg and I meet again, we will look back on this day with fondness, for it marks a new beginning… a shining example of hope for the Wizarding world and all mankind.”

As Harry made to his seat, a few claps began from about the students. They were followed by more and more until the entire hall was filled with applause and a rhythmic chant of “Goy-le! Goy-le! Goy-le!” Harry sat down wondering what Greg’s father would think. Dumbledore took to his feet smiling and holding out his hands to quiet the gathering.

“Kind words, Mr. Potter. Thank you.” He looked at a parchment through his half-moon spectacles. “Our last student speaker will be Mr. Draco Malfoy from Slytherin, a close friend of Greg’s since they first arrived at Hogwarts. Mr. Malfoy?”

Draco Malfoy stood and when he took the podium he spoke of the purity of the Goyle line, reciting some ten generations of Goyles going back to Galimor Goyle who defended Britain against a Nordic invasion of half-blood mongrels. He ended on a Quidditch note.

“He was the best bloody Beater Hogwarts has ever seen and the team will be hard pressed to find a proper replacement.” There was a moment of silence and then the Slytherin Quidditch team erupted in rousing applause and whistles. Hermione’s eyebrows furled as she watched Malfoy leave the podium.

“I don’t think he has a caring bone in his body,” she said.

“Oh, he cares alright,” said Ron. “He cares about himself.”

There were more speeches, more prayers, and since Greg’s body had been vaporized in the explosion a small plaque was placed on the Wall of Memories next to the plaque remembering Cedric Diggory. Harry couldn’t help but think of how Emma had died, and explained away his dream of her after the explosion as a mixing of the two events.

“Harry,” Hermione said softly after the ceremony had ended, “you look tired. Let’s get you back to the common room.” The trio made their way back together among a number of black robed Gryffindors.

“Could there be a group of more self-centered, glory seekers?” asked Ron, referring to all the speeches from Slytherin House. “After the third pure-blood ancestor, I was ready to puke!” Ron’s fists were curling at the end of his sleeves. He had not spoken much of his short friendship with Greg, but Harry noted that he had been hurt when Professor McGonagall selected Harry, not Ron, to provide Gryffindor’s eulogy.

“And Crabbe,” said Ron, now fuming, “they were supposed to be friends, and all he did was pick his nose through the whole ceremony!” He went to hit the wall with the back of his hand and hit a portrait of a flock of geese instead. The squawking followed them all the way to the portrait of the Fat Lady.

When they entered the common room, groups of Gryffindors were gathered around an announcement that had been posted. Ginny, still dressed in black, stepped back from the wall, her hand over her mouth in shock.

“Ginny,” Hermione asked in concern, “what is it?”

“Beauxbatons was attacked. They destroyed part of the school and Hogwarts will be getting transfer students to help lighten their class load. They arrive tomorrow.”

“We just got this place back together,” complained Ron. “Why can’t they just–”

“What else?” questioned Hermione, noting that the look on Ginny’s face was too severe to be caused by a transfer of students, whatever the cause.

“Dumbledore’s announced the inter-house transfers,” she said looking like she was ready to be sick.

“No!” cried Ron. “They’re not sending you to Slytherin are they?”

Ginny shook her head no, and then without saying a word she pointed a trembling finger back in Ron’s face.

“What?” he asked confused.

“Oh, no,” Hermione whispered.

“WHAT?” he yelled, suddenly enlightened. He pushed people out of the way as he dashed to read the announcement on the wall. “No!” he cried out again after reading his name next to the word Slytherin. “Why can’t Thomas go, or Potter?”

“Your family is as pure and old as any in Hogwarts, Ron,” Hermione answered in a calming voice. “It only makes sense that–”

“It doesn’t make sense!” Ron yelled back. “I-I won’t do it! That’s all there is to it.” He pulled his black cloak back up over his shoulders. “I’m telling Dumbledore right now!” He spun on his heels and started for the door when the portrait opened and in walked Professor McGonagall. She noted the collection of students around the announcement on the wall.

“Ah, good,” she said smartly, “you’ve seen the announcement.”

“Good?” said Ron, writhing in anger. “What’s good about it?”

“I thought you might be disappointed Mr. Weasley, but–”

“Disappointed? DISAPPOINTED? I won’t do it. Throw me out now because–”

“That will do, Mr. Weasley!” Her voice was raised and her face stern, and the look was enough to quiet any wizard down, let alone a sixth year Hogwarts student. “I expect better manners from the students in my house and you are in my house until tomorrow night. Ten points from Gryffindor.” There was a collective groan.

“But–” Ron began.

“Come with me, Mr. Weasley.” Again the words were tight and firm. Ron glanced at Harry, who was only thankful it wasn’t him, as the redhead stormed out through the portrait.

“They’ll kill him,” Harry whispered.

“I’m sure he’ll take a few down first,” Dean added.

“You guys don’t get it,” interjected Seamus. “That’s what it’s all about… teh learn that we’re not goin’ teh kill each other fer bein’ different.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Finnigan,” shot Barbara McNulty. “Ravenclaw isn’t filled with Death Eaters.”

“Yeah,” added another student. “The snakes are bloody murderers is what they are.”

“Killers, every one of them!”

“Self-centered–”

“STOP IT!” cried a voice from the corner by the fireplace. It was Parvati’s. With the rapidity of events, few, if any, remembered that Parvati Patil and Greg Goyle had been dating. Seeing her reddened face and watering eyes Harry remembered that she was planning on visiting Greg for the holiday, but promised instead to help Professor Trelawney redecorate her classroom. She would have certainly been on the train at Greg’s side had it been otherwise.

“Greg Goyle was a Slytherin!” said Parvati defiantly. “You, Barbara… you gave him our house crest! Was it all a joke?” The room was dead silent as a wave of guilt enveloped all present. Even Harry, whose words had been so eloquent at the eulogy was taken aback. Parvati pulled her wand. “The next person who says one bad thing about Slytherin is going to answer to me! Do you understand? ME! I’ll hex you into the stone-age, and you’ll crawl on your belly like a snake!” She stood there, tears streaming down her face with her wand stretched out, trembling in front of them all.

Both Lavender and Hermione went over, put their arms around her, and began to cry. Harry and Neville, and soon everyone surrounded Parvati apologizing and offering whatever support they could. In the midst of this circle of compassion and caring, Ron burst back in through the portrait ready to explode. His mouth opened wide ready to scream when a wave of emotion passed over his face. His mind was picking up the thoughts filling the room and his shoulders slumped in resignation.

Finally, everyone began to disperse. “It’ll get better, Parvati,” said Hermione as brightly as she could. “Tomorrow, a new day is born, and with it comes new hope.”

“Thanks, Hermione,” said Parvati wiping her eyes and trying to muster a smile.

Ron walked up to Harry and tapped him on the shoulder. “Mate, we need to talk.” But Harry wasn’t listening. He stood there frozen like a statue, his eyes fixed forward playing Hermione’s words over in his mind.

“Tomorrow, a new day is born,” he whispered to the air. For a moment, he paused, and then said louder and with a bit of a tremor, “I love to watch the sun being born anew.” He turned to face Ron and held him by the shoulders. “That’s it! ‘From birth of light to death infernal.’” Ron stood completely clueless. “Birth of light -- morning. I have to go to the falls in the morning. That’s when they took me!”

“Who?” asked Ron trying to gather a quickly unraveling thread. “What falls?”

Harry suddenly realized he was speaking in front of the entire common room, although there was only one person paying any real attention… the bushy haired girl with brown eyes, but she pretended not to be listening.

“Er, nothing, Ron,” said Harry. “Just some music lyrics to this new song I heard.”

“Yeah? Who?”

Harry looked about. Hermione was wandering with no real purpose.

“Boy, I’m hungry,” answered Harry. “You hungry? All this excitement… I need something to eat.”

“Yeah,” said Ron as if hypnotized by the mere suggestion, “food sounds good. I need to get my mind off of… of–”

“Yeah,” Harry jumped in, “let’s eat. Hermione, you want to eat?”

“What?” she asked, looking up as if surprised by the question. “Eat? Sure.”

Once out of their black robes, the three quickly departed and as they strolled down the corridor Harry asked Ron who he thought Gryffindor should put in as Keeper… “You know, with you going to Slytherin and all.” The question sunk Ron for the rest of the evening. That night, he didn’t eat much of anything, nor did he sleep well during his last night in the Gryffindor tower, mixing his nightmares and occasionally crying out “Spiders!”, or “Snakes!”

The next morning it was announced that the first day of classes would be canceled pending the transfer of the new students and to afford the inter-house exchanges to take place. Most everyone was ecstatic, except for Ron and a handful of other apprehensive transfer students leaving their houses. Harry spent the day seemingly distracted and Ron assumed it was because he’d soon be leaving for Slytherin. Somehow, even though Ron was wrong, it made him feel better. As evening came, Ron packed his bags before they were called to the second sorting and what Ron called his “last supper”.

“You know, mate,” said Ron as he packed his things in his trunk, “it won’t be so bad.” He tried to keep his tone light, but the words carried no conviction. “I mean, Jim Chang’s moving over to be in Slytherin this term; they accepted him, right?” There was no answer. “And… and it’s just a couple months and all, RIGHT?” Ron raised his voice noticing Harry’s lack of attention.

“Huh?” Harry asked. “Oh… yeah… couple months.” Harry was lying on his bed looking up at the picture of Gabriella. Her face bore an expression of worry and anxiety. Something was wrong, Harry thought, but he had no mirror with which to contact her. Ron tossed the last pair of socks in his trunk and closed the lid.

“Yeah, a couple months.” He swallowed. “You know, you could try Sloper at Keeper,” he said trying to focus on something he cared about and the two let that conversation carry them down to the Great Hall. It ended when Professor Dumbledore stood at the head table and addressed the students.

“Tonight, we welcome within these walls old friends for some and for others new acquaintances that are sure to grow new friendships. Please open your hearts and your houses as I know you can. Professor?” Dumbledore turned to Professor McGonagall standing to the side of the hall. She walked across with the Sorting Hat and sat it on a lone chair in the front. It furled and sang:

Four houses dare to stand as one
against a dreaded foe.
Two schools must join as four have done,
and soon we all will know.

Come here to me the students new
and find where you will land
As Hogwarts waits to welcome you,
enjoy this moment grand!


“Not much, that,” Seamus said behind his hand to Ron.

“Well, it hasn’t had the whole year, has it?” answered Ron in the Sorting Hat’s defense. “And besides, we just found out yesterday they were coming. He probably had to scrap the one he was working on.”

“That’s right,” added Hermione, and the two began to clap and cheer, and almost for the fun of it the students in the Great Hall burst out with applause. They were thirsty for something to be happy about and the song was as good as anything. Finally, Professor McGonagall unrolled a rather short parchment and started to read.

“We begin with students from Beauxbatons Academy,” she said. Harry wondered what that meant since they were all from Beauxbatons. Hermione seemed to have the same question.

“You don’t think there are some students from Durmstrang do you?” she asked. Harry just shrugged his shoulders as Professor McGonagall called some twenty names.

“Alocette, Devon.”

A tall, thin, pale boy looking about Harry’s age walked from the side room, his nose so far up in the air that he nearly tripped over the chair. Adjusting his robes, he sat beneath the hat.

“Ridiculous,” he whispered in a thick French accent as he closed his eyes.

“Oh, this is gonna be great,” said Dennis Creevey as he rolled his eyes.

“Pure unity,” Jim Chang whispered back.

Colin, sitting next to him, stood and took a picture as the Sorting Hat called out, “Ravenclaw!”

The applause from Ravenclaw was polite, but no more. Hardly a typical welcome given to a first year Hogwarts student.

Professor McGonagall worked her way down the list and as she did so the acceptance of the room was more pronounced and the greetings much warmer. When a large round boy named Peter Walreux with glasses much the same as Harry’s was sorted to Gryffindor, the table stood and cheered.

“What year?” Neville asked as he shook the boy’s hand.

“Sixième,” he answered shyly.

“Me too!” Neville said with a grin, and offered him a place at the Gryffindor table.

“Guess he gets your bed,” Harry whispered to Ron.

“He’s huge! I’ll need a new one when I come back next year,” he paused glancing over at the Slytherin table, “if I live that long.” It was strange; of the nearly two-dozen students sorted, only two had been sorted into Slytherin. It was clear that the Slytherin table which had spent much of the day insulting the Beauxbatons transfer students now found themselves feeling somewhat slighted.

Harry was looking at Ron trying to show concern for his redheaded friend when Professor McGonagall cleared her throat.

“And now, from Al Bsahri,” she said coolly. There were a few murmurs in the room.

“They closed Al Bsahri last year,” someone whispered.

“Some sort of plague.”

“Dozens died, and I heard that–”

Professor McGonagall deliberately cleared her throat, raised her voice, and added an edge that told the others to quiet down. “Darbinyan, Gabriella.”

Harry felt the air leave his lungs as Gabriella walked out in front of everyone in the Great Hall. Someone in the back of the hall let out a whistle and Harry began to stand to see who it was when Hermione took his arm. He hunched back down and watched as Professor McGonagall placed the hat on Gabriella’s head.

“She has to be a Gryffindor; I know it!” he whispered loudly. “She has to!”

“You wish, Potter,” jeered Ernie Macmillan under his breath.

Harry had half a mind to hex Ernie on the spot, when the Sorting Hat called out.

“Slytherin!”

The Slytherin table, which was beginning to sulk, broke out with the evening’s loudest round of cheers discharging into the air; Harry’s heart sank. Gabriella walked over to the table scanning the room, but was unable to find Harry before she sat. Through the seated students, Harry’s eyes fell directly on Malfoy who was smiling malevolently back in his direction. Professor Dumbledore stood.

“Well, the best way to get to know each other is over food. Let’s eat!” A small banquet of food filled the tables with a distinct slant toward French and Mediterranean. Ron looked at a stuffed olive leaf, sniffed it, then popped it in his mouth, nodding in approval and grabbing another.

“Well, at least I’ll have someone to commiserate with,” he mumbled as he chewed. “I’ll keep an eye on her, mate. If I’m not dead.” He grabbed some rolls with melted butter.

Finally, Harry could bear it no longer; he stood and their eyes met. He swung his leg over the bench with the full intention of walking to the Slytherin table when Hermione grabbed the back of his robes.

“Give her a minute to breathe, Harry,” she whispered. “If you go over there now, they’ll–” He pulled away ignoring her, ignoring everybody, and strode over next to Gabriella. She stood and they embraced to the hoots and howls of everyone within the Great Hall. Professor McGonagall looked crosswise at the pair over her spectacles, but Professor Dumbledore smiled broadly.

“You didn’t tell me,” breathed Harry. “When... when did you decide?” She held her hand to his face.

“Minister Weasley paid a visit to our house the other day. Even though Mama’s well, I didn’t want to leave her alone. He offered to have someone stay with her for awhile, and Mama said it was time to get a proper education. So…” she shrugged looking at the sea of green around her, “here I am.” Harry hugged her again looking at the same sea of green.

“There are a lot of good people in Slytherin,” he said trying as best he could to suppress any feelings to the contrary. “It’s a good house. I’ll… I’ll let you get to know them and we can talk later, okay?”

Gabriella nodded, kissing his cheek and sat back down. Harry cast a quick glance at Malfoy who had deliberately ignored his presence at the table the whole time he was there. Finally, he walked back to the Gryffindor table and finished eating.

“Did anybody ask about me?” Ron asked. “You know… me going to Slytherin tonight and all.”

“Erm, sure Ron,” Harry answered. “Malfoy was torn between hexing you into some vegetable thing, or keeping you whole to play Keeper.” Ron just glared at Harry.

“My life’s on the line and all you can do is tell jokes.” He grabbed another roll and stuffed it in his mouth.

When dinner ended Harry tried to meet with Gabriella, but found himself caught behind a large group of Hufflepuffs. It was all he could do not to shove them all aside and rush up to meet her. Just when he thought he’d burst, there was a sudden commotion from up ahead. Someone cried out, there was a cheer, screams, and then Adrian Pucey of Slytherin came flying over the heads of the Hufflepuffs landing at Harry’s feet. His nose had seriously moved to a new part of his face and was bleeding badly. Pucey looked up at Harry and, to the Gryffindor’s surprise, smiled.

“Dat’s one hell ub a woban you got der, Podder,” said Pucey with a grin that revealed two missing teeth in front. A moment later, Tracey Davis was helping him to his feet.

“Just had to get cute, didn’t you Adrian?” she scolded. “Don’t you know what they taught at Al Bsahri? Now look at you! If you can’t help me with my Potions homework tonight, I’m going to kill you.”

Harry looked back at the opening that had split the Hufflepuffs to either side of the corridor. There stood Slytherin Daphne Greengrass, her arm consolingly around Gabriella’s shoulder. Daphne was shaking her head and waved her hand in the air as if to say not to worry about it. Harry’s girlfriend glared back at Adrian as Tracey escorted him to the hospital wing and a shiver ran down his spine. Gabriella’s jaw was set and her eyes on fire. What would it take, he wondered, for her to kill again?

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 65 - The Black Key
~~~***~~~


The sky was blue, the air was warm, and the sun was bright. The breeze carried upon its breath the fresh scent of just blossomed wild flowers, and Harry’s ears were tuned to the birds chirping in the air… a sound of love. Could there be a more beautiful day? He leaned against the wall, folded his arms and continued to gaze upon the dark haired girl in green robes some ten paces to the fore. All was right with the world, and it would soon be–

“Well, Mr. Potter?” a voice in the distance pinged into Harry’s mind. No, this wasn’t a dream, but Harry couldn’t count the number of times he pinched himself to be sure.

It had been a few weeks and already he was happier than he could imagine. Gabriella, having missed so much school, was placed with the sixth year students. Pucey’s face reconstruction had instantly earned Gabriella a rep: Terminator. And although she had endured the occasional hexes and pranks all new students endured, since her arrival she had, for the most part, got on well with the rest of Slytherin. While her family wasn’t rich, they were well off and their genealogical lines in the Wizarding world ran deep. When it was discovered that her father was the best-man at Headmaster Gillman’s wedding (a wizard known to be connected in the circles of dark magic), and her mother’s line stretched to the dark lord Pravus himself, none again questioned her purity or value to the Slytherin name. These small facts were presented by none other than Draco Malfoy, who now stood at her side in the small hamlet of Hogsmeade -- something that would have made Harry’s skin crawl, but for the fact that at her other side stood Ron Weasley, his red hair distinctly out of place in green robes.

“MR. POTTER!” This time the not-so-small voice of Professor Flitwick pressed Harry bodily against the wall. He looked down at the wizard now glaring up at him. “Do you have an answer?” Flitwick’s voice pitched higher than normal, a sign that he was irritated.

“Answer, sir?”

“Five points from Gryffindor,” Flitwick chided, and the collection of red robes groaned in unison.

“Honestly, Harry,” said Seamus trying to be supportive but clearly a bit knitted, “if yeh don’ snap out of it soon, we’re gonna lock yeh away with Lockhart an’ throw away the key.”

“Finnigan’s right,” added Dean, “even I knew the answer to that question, and I’m as thick as Hagrid is wide when it comes to Apparation.”

“Leave him alone,” injected Parvati -- support that Harry wasn’t sure he wanted. “Harry’s in love.” Hearing this, Seamus just rolled his eyes and groaned.

“That’s right, Finnigan” added Lavender with a splash of indignation, and then turning to Harry she said in an overly sweet voice, “I think it’s sweet.”

“Anyone else?” snapped Professor Flitwick. “Describe the three phases of Apparation. Come now, this should be simple review.” Gabriella hesitantly lifted her hand. “Yes… yes, Ms. Darbinyan…”

“Vision, Pathway, Reconstruction”

“Yes, nicely done,” he said brightly. “Ten points for Slytherin.” The Gryffindor group groaned again. They were in third place for the house cup and days were running out. “Though here at Hogwarts we describe them as Vision, Channel, and Reconstruction.” Gabriella nodded taking note as she flashed Harry a smug smile.

Harry could hear her voice ringing in his ears: What do they teach you at that school? It was enough to flare his temper, and he wondered if the reason Gabriella was so well accepted in Slytherin was because, perhaps, her father was a Death Eater. He stood erect hoping to put his head back where it belonged.

“Professor?” asked Harry, and Flitwick turned to face him. “It’s nearly the end of the year, and we’ve only Apparated across the street. When do we–”

“I’m glad you asked,” Flitwick interrupted. “Today we will Apparate from within the Three Broomsticks to an open area staged out on the street.” There was a general murmur of excitement. To some the idea of Apparating through a wall was quite frightening and they had dreaded this moment; for others it was a thrill of a lifetime. Harry wasn’t sure which camp he fell in. In theory, the wall’s presence made no difference, but that was of no consolation to Harry who had disliked Apparation from the start.

First, the students went to a square area some five yards to a side set right in the middle of the street. It was always easier to Apparate to a place you’d been already. Here in the street, if their Apparations were misguided, at least they wouldn’t materialize in a wall. Neville, having missed most of the first term had always felt somewhat behind. In the last class he pushed too hard and when he took his turn to Apparate across the street, he found his feet some six inches below the ground. The feeling, as he put it, was quite painful; something akin to running his feet through a meet grinder one way, then back through the other as his body kept trying to reconstruct itself. His feet recovered fully, but Neville’s mettle to Apparate had diminished somewhat.

As always, when Apparating for the first time in a new way, students took the hand of a wizard or witch that was already licensed. While it didn’t help much with Vision or Reconstruction, it did help to create the Channel of space and time through which they traveled. Usually, there were always willing volunteers in Hogsmeade, and today was no exception.

Harry watched as student after student Apparated from the Three Broomsticks and out onto the street without incident. With each appearance of a pair, a new cheer filled the air. Gabriella had been one of the first to travel, having Apparated for some time in Lebanon without a license.

Finally, Hermione and a wizard from town went with a snap, followed by Harry who held the hand of Madam Rosmerta the shop’s owner.

“Are you scared, Harry?” she asked smiling at him.

“No,” he lied, but his eyes had already given him away.

“Focus on standing next to that pretty girl of yours out there, and you won’t have a problem.”

Harry squeezed his eyes, nodded his head, and held his wand at the ready.

“Vision…” she began.

“Channel…” Harry continued. A doorway opened, past the walls and onto the street. Harry felt himself being sucked through to the street; he imagined it was much the same sensation as being sucked out into space through a hole in a spaceship.

“Reconstruction,” they thought together, and both appeared out on the street.

Knees a bit wobbly, Harry arrived to a small cheer, and waved his hand trying to look calm and collected, though his insides were still squirming.

“Very nice, Harry,” said Rosmerta, patting him on the back. “Good luck on the next go.”

“Next go?” Harry asked.

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” said Professor Flitwick. “The class will now Apparate solo from the same positions.” Harry’s insides squirmed a bit more. He would much prefer flying than this. “Come on, everyone; back inside!”

A few students, such as Ron, raced to the front to be first to go; Gabriella gave Harry a little pinch for dawdling as she passed him on her way into the Three Broomsticks with Blaize. Again, Harry found himself at the end of the line with Hermione, only this time the line was moving much slower as some students were having difficulty leaving at all. Still outside, Hermione looked at Harry and nodded her head toward the side of the building, beckoning him to follow; he did.

“Ron tells me,” she began with some trepidation, “that you’ve had no more dreams, no more voices; is that true?”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Harry with a shrug. “I mean, I can still feel his anger like when those two Death Eaters were caught escorting a pair of giants westward outside of Dresden in Germany.” He looked at her curiously. “Why?” he asked glancing around the corner to see students still waiting outside to get in. There was a small scream as Pansy Parkinson materialized in the street without her arms -- splinched. Professor Flitwick hurried outside followed by Nott who was carrying her arms in his hands.

“Serves her right,” Hermione said with a sneer. Then she too looked about a bit apprehensive of their location.

“I think it’s safe, don’t you?” she asked. “Safe to tell you what I’ve been doing.”

“Here?” Harry asked, eagerly wanting to hear everything, but knowing this was not the spot to be talking about work for the Order.

“I’m talking about you, Harry!” she snapped. “Is it safe or isn’t it!”

“Yeah… yeah, it’s safe, but–”

“Take my hand.”

“What?”

“Take… my… hand!”

“Alright, but–” he placed his hand in hers.

“Do you remember where we first saw Peter Petigrew?” The memory was as vivid as any Harry had. Seeing the look of hatred fill Harry’s eyes, Hermione did not wait for an answer as she drew her wand.

Instantly, a portal opened up before them; on the other side was the Shrieking Shack. They passed through the channel; Harry’s stomach lurched as they reconstructed with a loud pop on the other side. He knew she was good, but he didn’t think she could travel this far.

“You can Apparate?” he asked with surprise. “How long?”

“I decided, after Germany, that it would never happen again. I began to study some… well, a lot.” For Hermione, those words meant something. “I can even Apparate quite a few yards without using my wand now.” Her eyes grew a bit cold. “No one will ever hold me in their arms again, unless I want them to.”

Harry had to sit down. He learned from Dumbledore that she’d been helping develop… “Apparation tracking?” he asked. “For the Order?” He sat on a broken and dusty chair in the corner of the room.

“Well, I’ve been showing some members how it’s supposed to work,” Hermione answered. “But only Dumbledore and Ron know that I can fully Apparate. And only Dumbledore knows that I can track an Apparation better than anyone, at least as far as here to London.”

“London!” Harry gulped.

Hermione nodded her head, in that really it’s no big deal sort of way.

“So… so you HAVE been working for the Order,” accused Harry. “All summer? Where do they–”

“No, Harry, not the Order,” cut in Hermione. “I’m not old enough, at least I wasn’t. Besides, you’re not working for the Order when you’re investigating one of their members.”

“Tonks,” said Harry sharply without hesitation. The name carried with it a tinge of anger -- anger fully directed at Hermione.

“I was asked because she’s given everyone else the slip, Harry.” His eyes were glaring at her. “She’s not the youngest Auror in Britain for nothing.”

“And she’s not a Death Eater!” he shrieked; Hermione remained calm. She needed to tell him, to show him, and she didn’t have much time.

“Harry, she’s been meeting with Mr. Darbinyan since the summer. First, on Privet Drive and now… now in London. I think he has her under his control. He’s the one that provided her the clues to work the golden instrument, and she’s been using you to help her. I don’t know what he’s after, but I know he could care less about freeing Sirius. He’s probably trying to help Voldemort release the criminals behind the curtain.” She took a step toward Harry as he sat with his head in his hands refusing to look her in the eye. “He’s probably a–”

“Snape’s been to the Darbinyan’s!” Harry yelled looking up at her. “Does that make him a Death Eater too?” The words landed on the floor, and the two left them there not sure where they should go. Finally, Hermione spoke.

“Harry, I know you want to save Sirius, but you can’t trust Tonks, and you can’t trust Gabriella’s father.” Harry narrowed his eyes at Hermione.

“So I shouldn’t trust Gabriella either, is that what you’re saying?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Hermione, her voice raising more than she wanted. “Look, let’s work it out together. Just tell Tonks… tell her you quit. Then the Order can work with you to get Sirius out, you’ll see.” Harry stood from his chair, seeing all too well.

“Tell me, Hermione, will the Order try to kill a few of Voldemort’s followers so I can bring them back from near death?” She looked at him quizzically. “No, I didn’t think so. But that’s what it will take to bring my godfather back.” He looked at the spot where Peter Petigrew begged for his life, the spot where Harry had made a decision he now… he now regretted. He would not make the same mistake; he would not let such an opportunity pass again. “If the Ministry gets their nose into it, do you think they’ll give the green light to cut open Death Eaters and watch them bleed so I can use their blood to save Sirius?” A smile split his face… a smile of irony. “We all do so want to save Sirius Black, don’t we? I wonder? I wonder what the papers would say, if he could come back from the dead… friend or foe?” The words were directed squarely at the girl before him, and she took them for what he meant.

“You know the answer to that, Harry. At least, I hope you do.”

Harry wondered. He didn’t mean to, but still he wondered. Was his friend trying to talk to him right now or someone… someone he didn’t even know? He turned to the blackened window deciding to drop all his cards. He would see where her loyalties lay.

“Tonks has Malfoy’s blood. It’s an ingredient I… we need to bring back Sirius. Without Tonks, it can’t be done. If she’s under the Imperius Curse why not have Dumbledore–” he stopped cold. If there was ever any doubt about Tonks being under the Imperius Curse, certainly Dumbledore or someone from the Ministry would have cured Tonks months ago. He spun back to face Hermione.

“Why don’t you want her cured?” Now, Hermione looked away. This time the gears in Harry’s mind turned. “She’s a link to Darbinyan…” he began, “but you want the link to Voldemort.” Harry shook his head at the idea; it made no sense. With Snape, the Order already had a link to Voldemort. He walked closer to her. “Who is it, Hermione? Who is Darbinyan going to lead you to with Tonks’ help?”

This time it was Hermione’s turn to sit on the dusty chair. Setting her own cards out on the table, she said quietly, “It’s rumored that a witch came with Mr. Darbinyan to London -- a very powerful witch.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “Soseh doesn’t have an evil–”

“Not his wife, Harry, someone older than Voldemort himself. Many thought her long dead, but the killing sprees around the world... they’re the same as centuries ago. Whole villages wiped out for no reason, innocents killed for no purpose. She kills for pure pleasure, and she’s returned to England to be at Voldemort’s side.”

“That’s rich, Hermione,” said Harry with a quiver of uncertainty in his voice, “but it’s a rumor, nonetheless. How on earth can you tie together an astronomy professor to a centuries old murderous dark witch?” He was thinking Hermione was talking about the black haired girl now in Hogsmeade, and his pulse began to quicken. Was it possible that–

“They think Grigor was the best man at her wedding to Headmaster Gillman,” said Hermione. At these words, Harry remembered to breathe again. But now he was more confused and Hermione could see it in his eyes.

“She disappeared only weeks before the Headmaster was found murdered. They think she was the black death of Al Bsahri.” Harry glared at Hermione with a look she knew to be disbelief. “I know it’s a stretch, Harry, but that’s why we’re watching. Snape tried to watch, but Tonks caught on. With me… well she doesn’t know I can track her when she Apparates.” Hermione took Harry by the arm. Her eyes were filled with concern and, Harry knew, friendship. “I only want you to be safe, Harry. I swear!”

“What… what’s her name?” Harry asked. “What’s the name of this… this dark plague?”

“She has many, Harry. Professor Dumbledore tells me that about the world she’s known as Anaxarete, but when she was last in Great Britain, watching the green of Ireland turn brown, she was called Ana… Ana Slate.” Harry fell back in a chair, and a cloud of dust filled the room. He tried to breathe in, but the dust only made him cough.

Harry sat silent, breathing in the stale air that only a moment ago had smelled so sweet. He had wanted the truth; now, could he handle it? Thoughts and dreams which floated like separate facets of a large jewel began to coalesce in Harry’s mind: Duncan’s words, “…pure magic. Ask Em! She’s special too. Eh, Em? Well, Em knows. We’re bound by thorns…”; piercing green eyes; no body found, “It’s sick is what it is.”

Still, it was too far fetched to think that Emma, Emma Slate was responsible. Surely Gabriella would know, but then perhaps not. A witch older than Voldemort would have many ways of disguise. Gabriella had not used her gift to read Harry’s mind because she swore an oath not to use her magic; nor would she have used it on Emma. The jewel in Harry’s mind was more quartz than diamond; his thoughts were not that fast, but the girl sitting across from him could spin her ideas faster than Aragog could spin a web.

“Hermione,” he said watching a spider at his side weave a web around a freshly caught fly, “this summer in Little Whinging I met an Emma Slate. She was close with Gabriella. She was killed, at least we thought she was, in the explosion in Paris.”

“Harry, I doubt–”

“Tell Dumbledore that she may have been in Little Whinging all summer.”

“Maybe she came first, and the Darbinyans followed,” conjectured Hermione.

“I need to think more about this,” Harry cut in standing from the chair and dusting himself off. “We need to think more about this. On the train, before the explosion, I thought I saw her.”

“The witch… with the green eyes?” Hermione asked with surprise. Harry nodded.

“We need to get back before we’re missed,” Harry said as he held out his hand. “Thank you for telling me.”

“I’m sorry, Harry,” said Hermione, taking his hand, but Harry did not respond.

As the vision of the Three Broomsticks came to view and the channel was opened, Harry whispered, “Tonks is not a Death Eater; I know it.”

A moment later, they were back at the side of the Three Broomsticks. When they came about the corner, they noticed that Pansy Parkinson was put back together and that most the class had Apparated to the target square. Neville suddenly appeared, fully above the ground, and was greeted to a warm cheer. The first thing he did was look at his feet firmly planted above the earth’s surface. Professor Flitwick poked his head out the door.

“There you are!” he called. “Come on, you’re next.”

Hermione Apparated to the target with ease; Harry’s stomach, however, was tied in knots. Finally, he cast the spell only to find himself some two feet above the earth when he reconstructed. He fell hard to the ground to the sound of cheers and laughter, but he’d twisted his ankle and it hurt. He cursed at the dirt beneath him as Gabriella came to his side and helped him to his feet.

“You hurt your ankle; can you walk?” she asked. Harry took a few steps; the ankle was fine, but he hobbled pretending to fall and she caught him. In her ear he whispered, “Tonight, at eight.” Gabriella nodded as she dusted his robes with her hand, a bit too forcefully for Harry’s taste, but it garnered some smiles from the Slytherins.

The students followed Professor Flitwick back to Hogwarts on foot, practicing Vision along the way. About halfway between Hogsmeade and Hogwarts the ability to see a place to which they could Apparate became more and more difficult. Just outside the front gates it became impossible.

“It was Gryffindor who selected this part of the country over a thousand years ago,” began Professor Flitwick. “First, because of its remoteness from Muggle eyes, and second because of the tremendous magical forces that emanate from the nearby forest. The forest holds untold magical creatures and its source of magic is so intense that even at this great distance the ability to Apparate is rendered impossible. So it is with the electronic instruments that come from the Muggle way of life; and since Muggles have become so dependent on their gadgets, they rarely venture into these environs -- a bonus that not even Rowena Ravenclaw had envisioned.

“The Forbidden Forest,” Flitwick continued, “is forbidden because of the great and dangerous creatures that live there.” Ron cast Harry a knowing look. “It is also forbidden because of the strange and sometime unpredictable effects it can have on the magic cast inside. Mr. Weasley’s father’s car still roams the forest at night. Sometimes you can see the glow from its headlights flashing from the treetops.

“The Centaurs are the only civil creatures that dwell within the forest. Perhaps, they are unaffected because they choose not to draw the energy required for magic from the environment in which they live. Instead, they use it in its raw form: arrows made of magical wood, bows strung with magical plants, and spells cast by drawing energy directly from the earth through all four of their feet. It is a closer bond to nature than wizards, goblins or elves have… perhaps a better one.” He shrugged his shoulders as they continued on their way to the castle. “You’ll never see a Centaur on concrete.”

They arrived just in time for dinner. Hermione went to ask Ron if he wanted to join her after, but he couldn’t.

“Quidditch practice and all,” he said.

“Quidditch?” both Hermione and Harry cried out simultaneously for very different reasons.

“Well, it’s keeping me alive. They want me in as Keeper, and I said–”

“I thought you’d finally have your evenings free,” complained Hermione.

“But,” said Harry scandalized, “Slytherin plays Gryffindor this term.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Ron shot back, looking over his shoulder. “But I have to play well, or the scouts will think… Argh! It’s bad enough I have to wear green, that I had to give up my house signet, and that I have to listen to the constant, pointed complaints about the Minister. But to fly with Crabbe and Malfoy out on the pitch… it’s ruined the only thing I ever loved.”

Now it was Hermione who was scandalized. Her eyes narrowed, but Ron was unable to take in what was wrong. “Well!” she huffed, spun on her heels and headed away. Ron looked at Harry.

“What? What did I say?”

“The only thing you ever loved?” Harry asked.

“And? Oh. OH!” His eyes widened. “Hermione, wait!” he yelled, and ran off after her, his green robes billowing in the breeze behind him. Harry turned just in time to see Gabriella on a sliding staircase with Pansy Parkinson as they made their way to Slytherin. She looked back at him and held up eight fingers.

Through dinner and after, Harry kept count on his own fingers until it was time to raise the eighth. When Gabriella walked into the classroom, she saw more fear on his face than happiness. It was an expression she had not been expecting.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I know you and Hermione haven’t really been on the best of terms,” Harry began. He took in a deep breath. “You were right; she’s been following me and she’s been following Tonks all year. I don’t know why, but Tonks has been meeting… with your father.”

“What?” asked Gabriella incredulously. “I think I would know if–”

“Let me just tell you what Hermione said,” Harry interrupted. When it’s over… let’s talk, okay?” Gabriella agreed, and Harry began telling the story that Hermione had told him, and adding what pieces he knew, like believing he saw Emma… Emma Slate on the train before it blew. When he finished, Gabriella was mortified.

“That… that’s not possible,” she said, not sure she believed her own words.

“Gabriella,” said Harry, holding her hand close and not really sure he believed his own words, “she was wooing Duncan to be her next sacrifice, that’s how she gets her kicks, that’s how she’s lived all these years… by killing Muggles to take their life energy.”

“Emma’s dead, Harry,” said Gabriella, but wavering with uncertainty in her voice. Harry squeezed her hand warmly, and pulled her close.

“Gab… I think she’s the old witch that was at the altar. I think she killed Antreas to take his life force.” In Harry’s hand, Gabriella’s began to tremble. “Your father didn’t come to Little Whinging because of me, Gabriella. I think he came to Little Whinging because of Anaxarete, Ana Slate… Emma Slate.” Gabriella said nothing trying to search her mind for any hint of truth to what Harry was saying. And then something crossed her face and she held her hand to her mouth in a small gasp.

“What?” Harry asked.

“The arguments,” whispered Gabriella. “Sometimes they would argue about silly things like cleaning up about the house… but other times… they would argue about the Heart of Asha, the paths of the dead, and the black key… ways to bring back trapped spirits. Mama refused to let him have the stone and it infuriated him. He swore he’d find a way, but I never understood what he meant.” Her eyes looked up to Harry, tinged with fright. “He’s a Death Eater?” she asked herself out loud. “Could he have wanted to give the Heart to the Dark Lord?”

“Then why Tonks?” Harry asked shaking his head. “She never once asked me about the stone. It doesn’t make sense. All she wants is….” Harry stopped himself short. “A key? They argued about a black key?”

“Yes,” answered Gabriella. “A key father took from Al Bsahri, fabled to open the path to the dead. Mama would yell he should send it to the depths.”

One by one, the cogs in Harry’s mind began to lock into place like tumblers on a Gringotts vault. She had given it back to him to study the engravings on its side in hopes that he would have more to go on. She had dismissed the falls in her own mind, but Harry knew that was where the answer lay, in the middle of the Forbidden Forest at the break of day. Even now Tonks held little hope of success, while now, more than ever, Harry knew she was wrong. He slipped the gold tube, his Christmas present, from his pocket and held it in front of Gabriella.

“This key?” he asked, hoping the answer would be no, but knowing otherwise. The look on Gabriella’s face stood somewhere between shock and horror as she staggered backwards, supporting her weight against one of the desks so that she wouldn’t fall.

Gabriella had calmed by the time Harry had explained the riddle and the basin, and the special key that fit the golden instrument in the Black family study.

“I always wondered,” she whispered, “why they would call it the black key. I thought because of its black magic.” She almost smiled to herself, but stopped short. “Papa wanted to release the dead for the Dark Lord.”

“And somehow discovered Tonks had access to the Black family instruments,” added Harry.

“And has held her under his spell, to do his bidding.”

There was a long pause before Harry shook his head, no, still not wanting to believe Tonks was under anyone’s spell. “If that were true, then he came to Little Whinging because of me,” he said, “because I would be surrounded by wizards and witches with access to the Black estate. But he didn’t. I know he didn’t. He truly believed I was a Muggle.” Harry thought back to the handful of times he met with Grigor. “And I know he isn’t a Death Eater, Gabriella.” She looked up curiously at him. “I just do.”

“Are you going to tell Professor Dumbledore?” she asked, fearful of the answer that would make her father a criminal.

“I’m sure he already knows,” Harry said. “They don’t want your father, Gabriella. They want Anaxarete. As much as Hermione tries to stop me, the Ministry wants this to go ahead. That’s why Dumbledore hasn’t mentioned it to me. They want the next move to be played.”

“And what move is that?”

“To open the curtain,” said Harry taking to his feet, “or at least to try.” It was getting late, and they would need to return soon. “But to do that, I need to get to the falls without being seen, and I think I know the perfect time.”

“But if Hermione’s right and it’s all a ruse to release criminals back into the Dark Lord’s service–”

“Grigor is not a Death Eater!” Harry said emphatically. “And neither is Tonks!”

Without saying another word, Harry extinguished the candles in the classroom and pulled her close. Normally in such an embrace both would close their eyes, but not this night. Tonight there eyes were wide, fearful in anticipation of what would happen to their loved ones. They kissed goodbye in the darkness before he opened the door to the corridor... a warm, tender kiss filled with sadness. In a moment they would separate, each heading a different direction. Neither of them could see the way ahead clearly; neither of them could predict the future. But they knew one thing: they had each other and, for tonight at least, that was more than enough.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 66 - A Tiger’s Stripes
~~~***~~~


In the darkness, Harry watched and waited while the hours ticked slowly by. Patiently, he remained awake while all his dorm-mates, one-by-one, fell asleep, including Peter Walreux now snoring in the bed across from Harry’s. Peter wasn’t too bad; he was quiet and spent most of his time with Neville, which was fine with Harry. The last few weeks since he and Gabriella formed today’s plan, Harry didn’t much want to speak with anyone. He would play his part in this game and see where it led with but one goal in mind -- to bring back Sirius from beyond the Curtain of Phenolem. An hour before the break of day, the very day Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw were set to play their Quidditch match, Harry rose and slipped out of bed. Quietly he dressed, took a small pack, his invisibility cloak and broom, and descended the staircases to the front doors of the castle.

With luck, he would gather the water today, and during the match give Tonks everything she needed to bring Sirius back. Hidden beneath the invisibility cloak, he was about to make his way out the front doors when he heard a rustling toward the entrance to the Great Hall. He stopped to listen more carefully, but heard nothing; then, just as he turned to the doors once more, he heard it again. Unable to resist the temptation, he went to have a look. When he came to the doors of the Great Hall, he wasn’t sure what he felt. This, he knew, was a problem. There was an overwhelming urge to leave, to sneak through the front doors and be on his way with what needed to be done, but courage and friendship took control and held him fast.

Stuck to the closed doors and hexed with a silencing charm was Ron Weasley, coloured in some sort of Red and Gold paint -- a poor attempt at tiger stripes. Only it wasn’t paint; the colour was his skin, and there was a lot of it. Ron was naked. The only thing he wore were blazing eyes, and a note that read, “Gryffindor Spy” placed in a prudent position. Harry watched as he rustled to pull himself free and failed again. Harry imagined what the scene would be at breakfast if he left him there, particularly on a Quidditch day with so many guests arriving. Finally, he took off his invisibility cloak causing Ron to recoil for an instant. An instant after that, Ron was on the floor covered with a cloak conjured up by Harry and ready to release a voice that wanted to scream, though Harry hushed him.

“I’ll kill them,” he hissed.

“What happened?” Harry asked.

“Nott… and Parkinson.” Ron was steaming as he fumbled with pulling the cloak over his bare shoulders. “They said they needed help in History of Magic, and would I go with them to the library. Damn it, I knew better! I never made it up the first flight of stairs. The immobulus hex just wore off. Thank Merlin you found me before…” Ron turned to look at Harry. “What are you doing up this early?”

Harry paused, and considered for a moment that he was talking to the boyfriend of Hermione Granger, but at this point it didn’t much matter. Gabriella had that covered if it was necessary.

“Going for a morning fly,” Harry said, holding his broom. “Should be nice this time of night over the forest.”

“Hermione said you’d do it. She wouldn’t say why, just that you’d be sneaking off.”

“She was right,” said Harry taking to his feet. “Are you off to tell her? If you are, I should be back in about an hour. If the match has started and I haven’t returned, I guess you two should tell somebody, but I’ll probably be dead by then so I wouldn’t bother. It’d just spoil the game.”

“You’re not going into the forest alone.”

“More like over it Ron,” whispered Harry, brandishing his broom as he walked back toward the front doors, Ron on his heels.

“I’m coming with you!”

“Quiet,” Harry hissed. “I can’t conjure a whole new set of clothes, and you don’t have your broom, and you should go to the hospital ward to get those stripes removed.”

“I’m coming with you.”

Harry looked at the eyes staring back at him. He would lose this battle and he didn’t have time for it.

“Fine,” he said, “hop in.” He held up his cloak and Ron climbed under. “But if some Threstral takes you for some sort of flying tiger and wants to be your boyfriend, I’m leaving you behind.”

Outside there was only one Ministry guard by the door. When it opened, he moved to see who was inside. Ron and Harry slipped by before the guard shrugged, thinking it the wind, and closed the door again. By that time, Ron and Harry were already in the air on their way to the falls.

Over the darkened treetops, Harry didn’t try to explain the water; he figured Ron already knew. Instead, he let Ron do the talking about his time in Slytherin.

“I can just about tolerate every one of them in that hellhole,” said Ron in disgust. “It’s just those two: Nott and Parkinson. They’re as thick as Malfoy is with Vol-Voldemort,” he spat out, “and twice as nasty.”

“What? You can tolerate Malfoy?” asked Harry. “How’s that?”

“We stay clear of each other, I guess. I don’t know; I don’t think we’ve said ten words to each other since I’ve been there, which is fine by me.” He stopped talking and stewed for a moment. “Maybe he’s afraid I’ll read his mind and know where You-Know-Who is. But I swore to myself I wouldn’t do it; that was a mistake that won’t happen again.”

Suddenly the forest opened up below the pair and revealed the falls below. Even in the dim light of morning, the sight was spectacular.

“Is that incredible or what?” said Harry with a smile.

“What?” Ron asked.

“Don’t you see it? Don’t you see the falls?”

“I see trees. Where are the falls?” Ron was looking all around, but clearly seeing nothing. Harry pointed with one finger then reached and touched Ron’s shoulder with his hand. Suddenly, the falls were revealed before him.

“Blimey!” Ron exclaimed, unable to say more. Harry dropped the broom low, and settled it down near the largest pool of water. Ron simply gawked in amazement as he looked high above to the source of the roaring water. “It’s spectacular.”

The air was cool here, and the spray of falls crashing into the small pool filled the air with a thin mist. Harry pulled a potions bottle from his pack, a little smaller than the size of his hand, and looked at Ron. “What do you think,” he asked holding up the vial, “about ten gallons?”

“Yeah,” Ron nodded, “’bout.”

Harry tapped the vial with his wand, and bent low to the water’s edge. Ready to dip the vial in, he hesitated; memories of dreams pulling him into the water filled his mind instead. The thought of losing another three days to walk, or swim with the dead, or whatever it was he did the last time when he was tossed bodily into the water was not very appealing.

“It’s just water, Harry,” said Ron with a grin, not truly appreciating Harry’s concern. Harry pulled back from the water, and stood surveying the scene. There was not a living sound except for the two wizards at the water: no birds, no squirrels, no giant spiders.

“Here,” said Ron grabbing the small flask from Harry’s hand, “I’ll do it.” Before Harry could stop him, he bent low to the water…

“Ron, stop!”

… and plunged in his hand. Nothing happened.

“Wait for what?” asked Ron, looking back over his shoulder.

Harry felt stupid as he watched Ron, slowly fill the bottle with ten gallons of water. “Nothing,” he said sheepishly. But then Ron cocked his head.

“Did you hear that?” he asked.

“All I hear is the water,” answered Harry.

“It was a voice,” Ron said, “I’m sure.” He was looking back at Harry, his hand still in the water when Harry noticed the water begin to swirl. “Something about—”

“Ron,” he exclaimed, pointing at the water.

Ron looked down and also saw the water swirling about his hand. Instinctively, he pulled away, but a swirl of water like a branch of Devil’s Snare had wrapped around Ron’s wrist and held him tight.

“Ron?” Harry yelled excitedly.

“It won’t… let… go!” cried Ron. “What are they saying?” he asked, but Harry could hear nothing.

Now the swirl of water began to creep up Ron’s arm like a vine curling around a branch. Harry was distinctly reminded of the green ice cream cone that ran up Malcolm Smelt’s arm last summer. Harry reached around Ron’s waist from behind and pulled, but it was no use; the water held fast. There was a great lurch and Ron, still striped orange and red, was pulled into the water leaving Harry with nothing but the cloak he’d conjured for him earlier.

“Ron!” he screamed, but there was no sign of the redhead. Even the water was still as if not so much as a pebble had broken its surface. A glint flickered into the corner of Harry’s eye. He looked down to see the glass potions flask on the ground spilling water in a slow steady stream. Ignoring it, Harry plunged into the water to find his friend.

Once again, a voice filled his head, “Love harbors no enemies; The sword defends, it does not attack; Embrace the world, and you will be welcomed; Champion these precepts, and be cleansed.” In that moment he realized the words, the voice, was somehow his own only older… wiser, and as he did so Ron appeared before him in the water, his fiery hair swirling about in the currents. Ron’s eyes were closed when Harry grabbed him and began to struggle toward the water’s surface, but try as he might he was getting no closer to freedom. If anything he was being pulled deeper into the water.

Finally, with his thoughts, Harry asked to the water, “Please… set us free.”

“The bonds that tie you are your own.”

There was a snap and he found himself standing at the water’s edge with Ron prone on the ground. Neither of them were wet, and neither of them were wearing clothes. Ron gasped for air and filled his lungs as he pushed himself up on his elbows.

“Who was…? What was…?” he breathed.

At about the same time Harry realized he was naked, Ron noticed that the stripes of orange and red that earlier had covered his body were now gone. Ron spun to see Harry looking down on him.

“Did you…?” he asked, but Harry shook his head no.

Harry looked down on Ron’s back and noticed the freckles, freckles he hadn’t seen all year because of all the red scaring that was now gone. The weaving branches that had stretched down from the nape of Ron’s neck like a thicket of thorns had disappeared. All that remained was the small circular swirl on Ron’s neck; its shape reminded Harry of a Yin-Yáng symbol.

“Ron,” Harry began with a slightly unsteady voice, “your back… the scars, they’re gone.”

“What?” Ron asked in disbelief. He stood up and turned his head to try and see over his shoulder, spinning naked on the muddy bank like a dog trying to chase its tail. Finally, he stopped and reached with his hand, and his eyes opened with a look of surprise and unimaginable joy. Then he asked Harry, noticing for the first time, “Where are your clothes?”

“I don’t know,” answered Harry. “I jumped in after you and, like your scars, they’ve washed away.” He walked over and retrieved the lone cloak that lay against a rock that was just now catching the rising sun.

“Here,” he said, handing Ron the cloak to cover himself. Ron held out his hand.

“You keep it,” he said with a smile. “Somehow, I feel like I don’t need it, not here anyway.” Harry shrugged and slipped it on as Ron looked up at the great falls and then down into the pool.

“What is this place, Harry?” he asked in awe.

“I think it’s the heart of Hogwarts, Ron,” he answered. “Flitwick mentioned the source of energy was in the heart of the forest, and I think this is it.” Again a glint of sunlight caught his eye and he looked down to see the potions bottle at the side of the bank. He reached down and picked it up. Tentatively, he reached down.

“Don’t!” shouted Ron. Harry looked back at him and smiled.

“Peace,” he whispered to the water, and began to fill the small vial. Watching the waves lap against the bank, he turned to look up at the top of the falls. “I think… I think the Centaurs heard I was ill from the guardian hex and brought me here to be healed… maybe more. They kept talking as if—”

“Centaurs?”

“I think,” Harry said with a shrug. “That’s when I lost this.” He tapped his forehead where the scar once was. “It’s like everything that was dark about Voldemort, everything evil he marked me with, has vanished. I’ve been cleansed.”

“Cleansed!” Ron shouted. “That’s what I heard them say! In… in the water…” Ron’s voice trailed off hearing how fantastic it all sounded.

“I heard them too,” said Harry softly. “Did you answer them back? Did you agree?” Harry stood and carefully placed a stopper on the potions bottle, and then slipped it into his pack. The two looked at each other for a moment, and a peaceful smile filled Ron’s face. His eyes were bright with a joy Harry had long missed.

“Yeah,” Ron said. “Yeah, I suppose I did.” He reached up with his right hand to the back of his neck to feel the small swirl that now remained.

“Harry,” he asked, “do you think I can still… you know.” Ron tapped his head with his finger. “Mind if I try?”

Harry shook his head, and stood to face Ron as they had done so many times earlier in the year. Ron watched as Harry closed his eyes, and then he closed his own. The air was silent save for the roar of the falls, when Harry began to hear a whisper. He could sense Ron, but not well enough to focus on finding a way to push him back. Perhaps Ron’s powers had failed. The whispers stopped, and both opened their eyes. A small grin creased Ron’s lips.

“It didn’t hurt,” he said as he held his fingertips to his temples. “Why didn’t you push back? You’ve never let me go that far before.”

“I didn’t… I couldn’t.” Harry’s poise changed a bit realizing Ron had just had a free crawl around in Harry’s brain. “Why? What did you see?”

“Nothin’,” said Ron innocently. “Just school stuff.”

“Ron?”

“We’d better get back; didn’t you say Hermione would be looking for you?”

Harry looked up to see the sun cracking through branches in the trees. He did need to get back, and then he realized… “No, no I didn’t say that.”

“Really, Harry, that’s all I saw, or heard. I promise I won’t look again.”

Harry could tell by the mirth in Ron’s voice that there was more. But if he really knew what Harry was up to, would he be so jovial? Harry didn’t want to argue about it. In fact, he wanted Ron to know everything. As he went over to pick up his broom, he decided to clear the air.

“I’m going to bring back, Sirius,” he said flatly. “Try, at least.”

“You’re what?” Ron exclaimed. Clearly this was one thought in Harry’s mind that hadn’t been read. There was something comforting in knowing that his friend showed discretion. Still, Harry went forward and began to explain his plan. Ron listened intently as if hearing a great new fiction for the first time, and then he whispered, “So that’s what she’s been doing.”

“You didn’t know?” asked Harry. “I thought you and… I thought the both of you were…” Ron shook his head and sighed.

“The girl’s ten moves ahead of me every minute of the day,” he said. “I can’t keep up, and I’ve stopped trying. I don’t even know why she wants to be with me. I’m such a git. She really should have been in Ravenclaw, then she could be with a guy who’s… who’s…”

“BORRRRING,” said Harry with both hands cupped about his mouth. “You’ve found a way into her heart, Ron. I should have seen it years ago; I think you’re soul mates.”

Ron smiled at this looking out across the water. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He reached down and picked up a flat stone to skip it across the lake. He gave it a mighty toss; the stone skipped once then shot across the small pond of water and careened into a modest tree that cracked in two, and fell silently to the ground. Both he and Harry were surprised. “Strange magic, that,” said Ron. Harry nodded in agreement.

“It’s pure magic, powerful magic, the lifeblood of Hogwarts,” said Harry. “With it Tonks and I are going to bring back Sirius.”

Harry began to explain the riddle in more detail, and told Ron the full plan he had… Tonks had to set Sirius free. It was easy really; he didn’t care anymore what Ron or Hermione thought. Tonks would mix Lucius Malfoy’s blood with the magical, purifying water of Hogwarts and they would have a chance to bring back Sirius from behind the curtain. Of course, they might set every other criminal imaginable free too, but Harry would be ready for that. He half expected, half hoped the wizards stepping out would return in the reverse order they entered, much like Voldemort’s wand showed the last incantations he cast. If it was the other way around, things might become difficult, but he’d worry about that then.

As for explaining the falls themselves and how he knew about them, that was more a mystery. Not even Harry truly understood what had happened to him the night he lost the scar on his forehead. He understood even less how Ron had been cured of the scars on his back, or why Harry had just emerged without a stitch of clothing.

“At least I’m not a raving lunatic because of the guardian hex that Grigor placed upon me,” said Harry. “Or worse; I think he might have killed me to protect his daughter.”

“But your arm,” asked Ron. “The scar is still there.”

“I don’t think Grigor did this,” answered Harry as they drew close, “I think this appeared because of something Soseh did to protect me the day we first met… something good. And look…” Harry held his arm up and in the growing light of dawn Ron could see that wings had appeared to form the guard of the sword flaring outward between the hilt and the blade from behind the snake’s mouth.

“I don’t get it,” said Ron. “What’s happening?”

“Don’t you see, Ron?” answered Harry. “The sword and the snake, a vine and wings. They represent the most loved possessions of the founders: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw. It’s telling me something, Ron; it’s telling me that we’re close… that Hogwarts is becoming one. That’s my true destiny.”

“And Draco’s scar?” Ron asked. “That’s the same as ever.”

“No it’s not,” Harry answered. “It’s fading. You may not notice, Ron, but I’ve been watching. It’s getting lighter. If he wants to, he can make it disappear. I’ve always said it was out of my hands, and in his.”

“You know what he’ll do with it if it’s left to his hands, don’t you?” said Ron with a bit of a sneer. “He loves no one but himself, Harry. It’s there to stay.”

“I thought… maybe after the water, you could learn to forgive.”

“It’s not a question of forgiveness, Harry. A tiger can’t change its…” Ron stopped, looking down at his bare body again, and then back at the water.

“Come on,” said Harry, “we’d better go. Gab will kill me if we’re much longer.”

The two mounted the broom and began to ascend over the trees, the morning sun bright in their faces. As they rose to a height level with the top of the falls, Harry thought he noticed two Centaurs at the water’s edge, one with red hair. He turned his broom for a closer look, but there was a snap, and he found himself with Ron in another part of the forest.

“What the…” began Ron.

“We just crossed some sort of protection zone about the falls. You can’t get to them during the day without it sending you somewhere you don’t want to be. I guess it works both ways.” Harry leaned the nose of the Caduceus upward and again they climbed. It was going to be a brilliant day to play Quidditch. With such weather the crowds would be huge, and that meant a better chance for Tonks to slip away. About half-way to the castle, Ron leaned forward to Harry.

“So you and Gabriella were together the other night?” Ron asked innocently.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe—” Harry stopped himself. “How did you know that we…” his ears reddened.

“Yeah,” said Ron, smiling as the castle rose over the treetops in the distance. “I am definitely going to have to try that with Hermione.”

Harry gave Ron’s gut a firm jab with his elbow, but Ron only laughed.

“I ought to drop you in the middle of the pitch without the cloak and without your wand,” said Harry, not meaning a word and with half a snigger. As they drew near the castle, Harry pulled low toward the back of Hagrid’s hut and lit to the ground.

“Well, it’s breakfast now,” said Harry as they watched a few students stepping out to enjoy the morning sun. “I guess Nott and Parkinson will be disappointed.”

“Two minds that won’t fool me again,” said Ron with contempt.

Already down by the lake, Cho Chang and Anthony Goldstein were playing a game Dennis Creevey had invented called Zipper-Pitch. It came to him during the DA meetings and had now become a fairly popular game. Harry even noticed some older wizards playing it in Hogsmeade. Two or more players stand out on the field and cast one or more spells at each other, only the spells don’t travel at their normal speed through the air. Instead, they begin traveling slowly, not much faster than a Quaffle falling through the air, toward their intended victim who then deflects it toward his opponent. As time passes, the spell, which resembles a very bright glowing fairy, gathers speed. Eventually, the scene is akin to a Muggle tennis match in hyper-drive. Deflection after deflection, from one wizard to another, the spell gathering speed until finally—

There was a loud “Pop!” down by the lake as Cho missed the deflection. She glowed bright red and suddenly sprouted feathers. Watching with Harry, Ron laughed as did the two Ravenclaws by the lake. Anthony cast the dispelling charm on Cho, and they began to play again.

“She caught that one under the arm,” said Ron. “Still, it’s good to see she’s finally putting on some weight.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, a bit sullen. “She’s gotten loads better since the accident, but I don’t think she’ll ever be perfect.”

“Are any of us, mate?” asked Ron as they hunched under the invisibility cloak, both in bare feet, and made their way up to the front steps.

Inside the castle, they decided to descend to the Slytherin common room. With most students either asleep or at breakfast, the staircases and corridors were essentially empty. Outside the entrance to Slytherin they pulled off the cloak and Harry slipped it into his pack. Ron hesitated, not sure if he was more uncomfortable because he was naked, or because he was entering without his wand. Before he could ask Harry to conjure him up a robe of his own, two familiar voices filled the air. Immediately, Harry slipped out of sight around the corner and hid behind a suit of armor.

“Thank you so much for helping me with that, Hermione,” said Gabriella’s voice brightly as they walked down the corridor. “I know it was such an imposition, but with the Quidditch match today I didn’t think I’d have a chance later to get your help. Everyone knows you’re the best in Professor McGonagall’s Transfiguration class, and with a quiz Monday… well I just wanted to be sure.

“No problem, Gabriella,” said Hermione warmly. “Your transformation was wonderful. Just remember to flick you wrist a bit more as you cast the spell; it helps focus the energy.”

“Yes, of course,” answered Gabriella, the steps of the witches coming closer. “It’s a shame we must sit apart at breakfast; I do have so many other questions.”

“I heard Dumbledore’s considering some sort of change, at lunch at least. Well, I really should be getting back to Gryffindor,” said Hermione with a slight change in tone. “There’s some, er… things I need to check on. Maybe after we can… Ron?”

“Ron?” asked Gabriella as well.

“Er… hi!” said Ron with a nervous brightness in his voice.

“What in Merlin’s name—” started Hermione, but Ron cut her off and answered her question before she could ask. He told her about being striped like a tiger and stuck to the wall, but that the sticking charms didn’t hold and he was able to escape.

“And you’re just now getting back?” asked Gabriella.

“Well… I’ve been ducking in and out of alcoves trying not to be seen. That… that takes time.”

“Well, I’d tell Snape if I were you,” said Hermione angrily, “and I’m definitely telling Professor McGonagall. That’s just inexcusable! You’re a Prefect!”

“Yeah, I er… need to get some clothes. Can we meet after breakfast?” There was a loud rusing noise and a flash of light.

“Here,” said Hermione, “put these on. I’ll see you after breakfast.” Harry, still hidden from view, heard a kiss. “I just hope I don’t see either of those two, or I’ll… Argh!” There was the sound of steps trailing away, coupled with the hurried rustling of clothes. After a moment’s pause, Gabriella broke the silence.

“And where did the stripes go?” she asked.

“Erm… I vanished them,” answered Ron.

“Without a wand?” asked Gabriella. “You sound like… Harry! Harry where are you?”

Harry stepped out from behind the corner, and he watched as a great smile spread across Gabriella’s face. They hugged and kissed.

“Did you get it?” she asked. Harry nodded. “And Ron was with you?” Again he nodded. “And the story of the stripes?”

“That was true!” Ron blurted out. “Nott and Parkinson… backstabbin’…” his voice trailed not wanting to cuss in front of Gabriella whose lips tightened.

“She’s evil is what she is,” said Gabriella. “I can see it in her heart. We’ll have to think of something… special for her and her boyfriend; don’t you think, Ron?” There was a look in Gabriella’s eyes that disquieted Harry, and to his surprise even Ron was a bit taken back. “Come,” she said sharply to Ron, “let’s get you changed.” She gave Harry another kiss. “And that cloak looks hideous on you, Harry.” She started toward the Slytherin entrance whispering its password.

“See ya, mate,” said Ron as he followed Gabriella into Slytherin house and the door closed behind them.

There was an uneasy feeling in Harry’s stomach as he headed back to the Gryffindor common room. He was headed up the first stone staircase when he met Tonks coming down.

“Wotcher, Harry!” she said smiling. “What’s with the—”

“Don’t ask.”

“Well, are you ready to watch the big match today? It should be… and what’s with the broom?” Harry looked at the Caduceus in his hand and back at Tonks.

“I got it,” was all he said, as he tapped the pack on his shoulder. It was all he needed to say. The smile vanished from Tonks’ face as she looked at the pack with grave concern. She knew he told the truth. Immediately, her eyes flashed up and down the staircase, and the concern slipped away as an expression of eager anticipation began to build.

“The best chance we have,” she whispered, “will be the night of the full moon.”

“Full moon!” exclaimed Harry. “That’s nearly three weeks!” Tonks’ eyes remained steady and stern. Harry knew that many types of magic were strongest beneath the rays of the full moon. If they wanted to maximize their chances, it only made sense to wait.

“That’s just before our match against, Slytherin,” he said. “Katie will want us out on the pitch practicing that night, and I want to be with you.”

“No,” Tonks shook her head, “it’s best if you don’t—”

“I’m going to be there,” Harry interrupted. If it was a ruse to release Voldemort’s new army, he wanted to be there to stop it. If it wasn’t, he wanted to be there to hold Sirius in his arms.

There was a look of pain on Tonks’ face; the expression distorted in waves as if she were unable to center her emotions. Clearly, she didn’t want Harry to go, but why? Was Hermione right? Was she under Voldemort’s control and now standing in front of him fighting the Imperius Curse as Barty Crouch had done before? Her eyes darted back and forth looking for an answer and when they stopped, Harry knew she’d made up her mind, or perhaps it had been made up for her.

As her eyes had been searching, Harry had held up his broom and the sleeve of his robe had fallen down to reveal the mark beneath. It was there Tonks fixed her eyes, and it was there where her decision was made.

“Of course, Harry,” she whispered. “You’re right. You should be there; you need to be there… I’m sure Gabriella would want it that way.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 67 - Dreaming with the Snake
~~~***~~~


The full moon loomed bright on the horizon as the sun dipped and set to the west. The sky was a brilliant red with flickers of gold where the sun skipped off the edges of the few floating clouds. It wasn’t the Mediterranean, but the lake’s reflection of the scene made Harry wonder if such a beautiful sight could be rivaled. But then, he was biased; tonight was the night. He fiddled with the small potions bottle in his pocket. It contained the secret ingredient that would set Sirius free -- ten gallons of pure water welled from a source of endless magic. Of course, he would need only a small fraction of that, but he wasn’t taking chances. Mixed with Lucius Malfoy’s pure blood in a basin cast of gold, the ingredients would open the Curtain of Phenolem. He’d given Tonks back the key that would allow the basin’s lock to spin, and together the two had deciphered the proper runes. She would meet him tonight after hours at the Ministry of Magic; the portkey was under his pillow in the boys’ dormitory.

“What are you looking at?” asked Hermione lightly as she sat at the table in the common room reviewing her Arithmancy notes. Harry turned back from the window to speak to her.

“Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?” he asked, and then turned back to look out the window. Hermione pushed back her chair, stood up and walked over next to Harry.

“Oh my,” she said breathlessly, “what an evening.”

The ripples of the lake continued to shimmer, flashing a myriad of colours just as the first stars began to appear in the night sky.

“Look!” Harry called. The great squid of the lake had breached the water’s surface sending a huge plume of water into the air, and pushing an enormous wave of water to each bank. Harry and Hermione watched as the rings spread out in all directions and the squid disappeared from view. “Summer will be here soon,” Harry whispered.

“N.E.W.T. exams will be here sooner,” said Hermione in anxious anticipation, almost like a small child moving up in queue for circus tickets. Still soaking in the sight, she put her arm about Harry’s waist. “I’m supposed to help Ron tonight with his History homework. Maybe you and Gabriella could join us?”

The change in direction of the conversation was too quick for Harry, and he found himself grinding gears as his tongue tied against his teeth. As much as he’d told himself he didn’t care if Hermione knew his plans, he couldn’t bare to tell her.

“Erm… join you?” he sputtered. “Er, no… we can’t, or I can’t… tonight that is. I-I’m well, really behind in Potions and all.”

“I thought you finished Snape’s assignment last night?” questioned Hermione with surprise.

“Oh, that… no, I… well that I just told you so you wouldn’t get on my case about… you know… homework and all.” Hearing this Hermione’s eyes narrowed.

“Is that what you think I do?” she suddenly snapped, her voice growing in intensity. “Get on your case?”

“No… I just meant that…”

“Hey, Harry, Hermione” called Neville. “Are you going to dinner?” Both he, Seamus and Walreux were standing at the bottom of the staircase.

“Sure Neville!” called Harry. Then quietly he whispered, “Come on Hermione, let’s eat. I just don’t think clearly on an empty stomach. I’m sorry.”

“You sound like Ron,” she said with a puckered smile and thin eyes. Finally, she uncrossed her arms and let out a sigh. “Very well.”

“Brilliant,” said Harry brightly, putting his arm around her shoulders, and the group made their way out the portrait and down to dinner listening to Hermione go on about how important N.E.W.T. exams were.

In the Great Hall, much of the talk was centered on Ravenclaw’s loss to Hufflepuff last week and the upcoming match, next week, of Slytherin and Gryffindor. Cho had caught the Snitch in last week’s match, but only after Ravenclaw was down by over two-hundred points with no chance of climbing back. That put Gryffindor as the only house with two wins. If Gryffindor were to beat Slytherin next week they would be undefeated and the house champions; if they were to lose, Slytherin would also have two wins and because of their defeat of Gryffindor in head-to-head competition Slytherin would be the house champions. There was tremendous speculation over Malfoy, many wondering if he had been clean from potions long enough to be effective against Harry, but that was overshadowed by the possibility that Ron Weasley would play Keeper for Slytherin.

Harry sat across from Neville and Peter Walreux as a plate of beef strips, steamed vegetables and applesauce appeared before him. He cast a glance to the teacher’s table and saw, as expected, that Tonks was absent from her position next to Hagrid -- a fact that did not go unnoticed by Hermione.

“I wonder where Tonks is this evening?” she asked casually, but with a hint of concern.

“Probably, out being an Auror again,” said Neville, taking a drink of milk.

“Yeah, there’s Death Eaters to be had,” added Seamus who was seated next to Hermione.

“No,” said Hermione thoughtfully, “she’s always here on the full moon.” For the briefest instant, her eyes flashed to Harry who was focused on the strips of beef before him. Still, he caught her look out of the corner of his eye and held his gaze onto his plate until she looked away. Hermione took one bite of dinner and began to tap her spoon nervously against the top of the dinner table. Neville began to talk to Peter about the multiple ways to harvest Poisonous Plums from a Killing Caedo tree. Hermione’s tapping grew louder.

“I’m really not that hungry,” she said pushing in her plate. “I think I’ll go back and study a bit.”

“Later, Hermione,” said Seamus, and Hermione stepped between the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tables toward the doors of the Great Hall. Seamus turned to Neville and said, “Over a week till N.E.W.T. exams, an’ she’s worried if she’s done studied enough! She’s more prepared than the three of us combined,” he said, kind enough to include Harry in the equation, and kind enough to leave out Walreux.

For his part, Harry watched Ron stand from the Slytherin table and meet her at the entrance. The two spoke, then glanced back at Harry. Ron showed a distinct level of discomfort when he saw Harry looking back at him, and quickly turned his head.

There was a burst of laughter, and Harry spun to see Patrick O’Riley smiling at something Dennis Creevey had said; milk was running out Patrick’s nose. Harry couldn’t help but smile himself. “Excellent”, he thought, but when he glanced back to the front doors, Ron and Hermione were gone. He was a bit nervous, and reached into his pocket yet again and twiddled the bauble inside.

It was far too early to be worrying about anything, and yet the palms of Harry’s hands were wet with perspiration, slipping about the small glass vial holding such a large amount of liquid treasure. Searching for something to do, his eyes looked for Gabriella at the Slytherin table; instead, they found Draco looking straight back at him. While everyone else seemed animated and excited, filled with the energy of the new moon, Draco sat like a great rock fixed in a turbulent sea. Stoically, he held Harry’s gaze with his own, then almost imperceptible narrowed his eyes and nodded his head to the front doors. A moment later, he stood and was walking alone out of the Great Hall. Harry watched him leave, and then excused himself.

“I’m not too hungry either,” he said to his friends. “Maybe later.”

Walking out into the corridor Harry caught a glimpse of Malfoy’s pale-blonde hair walking toward the staircases to the dungeons. He followed him below ground and joined him in an empty classroom adjacent to Potions. Malfoy held his wand up and sealed the room.

“You’re going to have to teach me that sometime,” Harry said brightly.

“Yeah, right,” answered Malfoy dully. “Hell, I think the damn house elf stopped following me weeks ago. Still, better safe than sorry as father always says.” He grunted and then pulled out a bench seat from behind a desk, sighed heavily, flopped down, and stared blankly out in space.

“Well?” Harry asked. Malfoy looked tired, or bored, or angry, or a mixture of all three. Slowly he lifted his eyes to meet Harry’s.

“That’s my line, Harry,” said Malfoy, still dryly but with a pinch of irritation. Harry looked about, hoping to find a window to divert his gaze, but there were none in the dungeons. “Yeah,” said Malfoy, hunching with his elbows on his knees, “that’s what I thought you’d say… nothing.”

“I don’t know what…”

“THAT’S DOXY DUNG!” Malfoy exploded, taking to his feet and facing Harry head on. “It doesn’t work that way, Potter! Tell me why in the name of Morgana you’re going to be at the Ministry tonight at midnight!”

You could have blown Harry over with a fairy. If he’d had trouble trying to cover his tracks with Hermione earlier, this would be impossible. His opportunity to respond coolly vanished, and with it any hope of fabricating a lie.

“How did you…”

“We were supposed to be a team!” Malfoy yelled again, and this time sorrow and disappointment mixed in with his words. The blonde dropped back down on the wooden bench seat. His head fell into his hands as he clenched the locks of hair falling at the sides of his face with his fingers. “You’ve been using me since we started.” Malfoy sighed. “He was right.” Harry wasn’t sure who he was, but he knew now was not the right time to ask.

“That’s not true,” Harry said softly. There was a deep pain that surrounded Malfoy, although Harry didn’t know what it was centered on; there were so many possibilities. He walked closer to the Slytherin.

“Isn’t it?” Malfoy spat. “Going to the Ministry with a member of the Order, and it’s not something you want to share? What’s the matter, Harry? Don’t you trust me?” The words were sharp, bitter. “I’ve spent my bank account in demonstrations; there’s nothing left.”

“I… I trust you,” said Harry. His words were honest, solid and sincere, and their tone pulled Malfoy’s gaze off the floor. “I’m not going because she’s with the Order, Draco. It… it’s personal.”

“Personal?” cried out Malfoy, the rage ebbing back to the surface. “Well it’s not personal to my father! It’s not personal to the Death Eaters! It’s not personal to the Dark Lord!” Malfoy stood back to his feet and stormed over to a large globe of Jupiter floating above the professor’s desk, and spun it madly. He turned and looked back at his friend. “How is it that every dark magician between here and Tibet knows where you’ll be tonight? Every one, that is, apart from me!” He slammed the globe with his fist and it raced across the floor shattering against the wall.

Now Harry’s forehead began to prickle with perspiration. It had been a trap all along, but then part of him always knew it was a trap. Why hadn’t he asked Malfoy to begin with? Without thinking, he reached into his pocket and began to spin the vial in his fingers. The other part of him still wanted to believe that Tonks was being truthful, but its voice was small and was now but a whisper. The classroom’s walls began to slide their way toward him. Malfoy noted the apprehension filling Harry’s face.

“I can’t just let him die,” Harry whispered to the air. “It… it was all - my - fault!” He was growing warmer by the second, the air was growing heavy, and Harry’s legs seemed to lose the will to bare their burden. His vision began to tunnel down to pricks of light, and Harry stumbled trying to make it to the door. His weight fell onto a desk that flipped over, and Harry fell hard to the floor, the desk landing on top of him. He felt just like he did when he returned to number five, Grimmauld Place last summer. “Sirius,” he whispered. "I'm sorry." He couldn’t catch his breath and everything began to spin as all faded to blackness.

A voice echoed from the abyss. “He’s not gone you know, just on the other side.” It was Luna Lovegood, but he couldn’t see her. “The voices… didn’t you hear them? If only we could find a way to bring him home. But you know the way, don’t you, Harry? You have the key! Do you see my mother?” But Harry couldn’t see anything. “What would you give, Harry? What would you give to bring him back?” Everything began to spin, and Harry felt like retching. Luna’s voice began to fade, “If you see my mother, tell her I miss her so.” An overwhelming burst of nausea filled Harry, and it spewed forth all over the classroom floor.

“Damn, Potter,” hissed Malfoy, “these were new boots!” Malfoy pulled his wand and cleaned the floor with a flick of his wrist, then helped Harry to a sitting position on the spotless stones. He sat down next to his adversary, his partner, and let out a long slow breath. They sat like that, side-by-side for some minutes. Harry continued to tremble, awash in unbridled emotions. Finally, Malfoy asked, “Black? Is that what this is about? Sirius Black? Your… your godfather?”

Hearing the name, Harry began to pull in huge gulps of air. All year he’d waited for this moment, his chance to redeem his stupidity, and now… “He died because of me!” Harry’s voice cracked, grabbing Malfoy by the front of his robes. “I killed him, Draco. I lured him there and set him before the curtain. Your aunt just gave the final push, that’s all.” Harry’s body gave a tremendous shudder. “It was me!” Tears welled up in Harry’s eyes, and the film that had long been absent began to play in Harry’s mind. “It’s ruined! It’s all ruined!” Harry broke down into heaving sobs. Still clutching Malfoy’s robes he dropped his head into the Slytherins lap and cried.

Malfoy’s back stiffened as he looked about the room; surely his charm on the walls had worn away by now. If the house elf was about, their cover would be blown. Harry continued to cry and, not reluctantly but hesitantly, Malfoy put his arm on Harry’s shoulder. Whatever bitterness he’d been feeling evaporated; Harry had his reasons… family, a reason Draco understood all too well.

After a few moments, Harry sat up and bashed his hand against the stone floor. “Damn!” he yelled as he tilted his head back and wiped his eyes. Still, staring upwards his head against the wall Harry whispered, “I don’t care; I’m going to do it anyway.”

“It’s suicide,” Malfoy whispered.

“I can’t live knowing I had the chance to bring him back and then did nothing. I’ve got to try.”

There was a long silence before Malfoy spoke to the floor… words that would take Harry a long time to understand.

“I guess for you, it was your parents… and now Sirius. I don’t know, maybe…” His hands were folded in on each other, clasped in something resembling a prayer.

“Maybe what?” asked Harry, looking at Malfoy who still had his eyes fixed at the patterns in the stone floor.

“Did you… have you ever wanted something so very much that every waking moment, every dream, and all times in between were held by that one desire?” Before Harry could speak, Malfoy went on. “And yet, know that no matter what effort you put toward realizing that desire, that passion, your wish would never ever come true?”

“You’re right,” agreed Harry with a hushed whisper, “my parents.” Malfoy nodded knowingly with him.

“I came to Hogwarts ready to be who I thought I was… Draco Malfoy, son of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, the purest of pure-blood wizards. Heir of wealth and power; the world was mine and all would serve my will. I thought I knew, Harry… but I was wrong. Over Thanksgiving, I stumbled across the Mirror of Erised. I think it was a cruel plan of that gray bearded fool of a Headmaster you prattle on about so much.” Malfoy let out a short snicker. His eyes left the floor and looked straight ahead at the opposite wall, but their focus was well beyond the walls of the castle.

“I saw… I saw the thing I knew I always wanted. I saw a future that I knew I could never have. I didn’t want to leave. I sat there for hours, but then Dumbledore came, said something quite Dumbledore-like, and sent me on my way.” Malfoy sighed. “I never did find the mirror again.” The Slytherin stood, dusted his robes, and pulled Harry to his feet.

“I think Dumbledore was wrong. I think it would have been better to die in front of the glass, than have this life.” Harry started to speak, but Malfoy held two fingers over Harry’s lips.

“Shhh. I may not be able to have my dream, Harry, but maybe I can do something about yours.” The Slytherin pulled his robe up tight about his shoulders and started toward the door. “I’m off to the Burrow.” Harry’s jaw dropped. “Yeah, he’s been having a right laugh about that one. We’ve been back about a week.” Draco shook his head. “I can buy you maybe an hour around midnight, Harry. After that…” he turned and looked back, “we’re both dead.”

Before Draco turned to leave, Harry noticed the scar on the Slytherin’s face fade.

“Draco,” Harry whispered, following him to the door. He put his hand against Draco’s face. “It… it’s gone.” Draco lifted his hand next to Harry’s. There was no raised edge of the sword or snake, no tightening as he smiled.

“Is it?” Draco asked nonplussed. “Huh,” he exhaled in a short burst. He shrugged his shoulders and dropped his hand. Toe-to-toe, his gray eyes narrowed looking through Harry’s green. “I was so hoping to kick your arse next week. Not to worry though, the Quidditch cup will still go to Slytherin; we’ve got Weasles.” He patted Harry lightly on the side of the face. “And Harry, tonight… don’t dawdle; get him and get out. I… I never want to see you again.”

Before Harry could say a word, Draco slipped out the door and walked briskly toward the Slytherin common room. Holding a hand to the side of his own face, Harry watched as he disappeared around the corner. The floor felt like it was swaying back and forth, as if he were in the hull of a great ship beset by a storm at sea. A lone drip of perspiration wicked its way down from Harry’s brow. There would be no turning back now, Draco’s life hung in the balance. Time? What time was it?

Quickly, Harry charged down the corridor and began the ascent to Gryffindor tower. He’d just made it past the library when her voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Harry? Harry, what’s going on?” Gabriella rolled a parchment she was examining, and quickly stepped over to meet him. Her words were steeped in concern. She’d seen his mood swinging all day, and she knew something was amiss. The drip of perspiration on Harry’s brow was now a torrent of sweat. The back of his shirt was soaked and his face flush.

“Er… nothing, why?” he tried to say innocently.

“Come over and sit down,” she said temptingly, “tell me what’s wrong.” Harry’s eyes darted about like a chipmunk scanning for safety. Near the entrance of the library stood a group of students, all from different houses, studying Transfiguration. James Chang was there, wearing green robes. This was the last place to be talking about leaving Hogwarts in the middle of the night and he didn’t have time to find somewhere more secluded.

“Er… no,” Harry said nervously, “I-I’m just going to go back to the common room and get to bed. Goodnight’s rest and all.” He offered a weak smile.

“Very well,” she whispered dejectedly. “You do look warm.” She reached over and held his face in her hands and gave him a kiss on the forehead. A cool breeze seeped through Harry’s brain and down his back; what a touch. There were a few howls from the table of first years. When she let go and opened her eyes, the twinkle Harry expected to see was absent. Instead, her eyes were distant and concerned.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” she said. It was not an unwelcome comment, but felt jarringly out of place considering the conversation. Harry looked at her and smiled. He began to unbutton his shirt which elicited another catcall from the table.

“I want you to hold something for me… just for awhile.” He pulled off the necklace that Professor McGonagall had given him and placed it around her neck. “It… it’s very special.”

“Harry?” Gabriella asked, her eyes filling with fear. He slipped the chain over her head.

“There… Beautiful,” he said with a smile, pressing his hand warmly against the charm that now hung about her neck. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. “I’m really tired. I’ll see you in the morning, I swear.” He started up the staircases once again, Gabriella watching his every step. As the last one finally spun into place, he stepped off and looked back down at her. “I love you too!” he called, and disappeared down the corridor to the Fat Lady.

Speaking the password, he mentally braced himself for the questions he knew Hermione would pelt him with once he walked through the door. He would stick with “tired… sick… goodnight…” and that would be that. As the door opened, he entered to see a very quiet common room. A few students were already preparing banners for next week’s game against Slytherin. Not surprisingly, Harry found the familiar sight of Ginny next to Dean on the couch in front of the fireplace. He scanned the room, but there was no Hermione.

“Hey, Harry,” said Ginny in welcome as he walked through the portrait. She turned back to Dean as they continued to do their homework.

“Have you seen Hermione?” Harry asked.

“She and Ron were talking downstairs,” Ginny replied. “I guess that was about an hour ago.”

“Then Ron stopped by to see you,” added Dean. “He went upstairs to look for you, but you were gone.”

“You let him in?” Harry asked sharply. “He’s in Slytherin!”

“He’s my brother!” snapped Ginny. “And he’ll always be a Gryffindor.”

Harry ran up the spiral staircase to the boys’ dormitory. A quick scan told him immediately what was missing… his broom. The Caduceus which always hung to the side of Harry’s bed was gone. Quickly, he ran back down.

“Did you see him take it?” he asked loudly. “Did you let your brother walk out of here with my Caduceus?”

“What are you talking about?” said Ginny, her own voice pitching higher. Harry could see at once she didn’t know.

“My broom! Your brother’s taken my broom!” Harry’s voice was agitated and his pitch high. In Ginny’s eyes, it was more excitement than the situation warranted.

“He probably just took it for a spin, Harry. I doubt that… oh no!”

“What?” Harry exclaimed.

“The match!” she cried. “He’s taken it so you won’t have it for the match! Slytherin’s brainwashed him! That little rat! I’ll kill him!” She stood facing Harry. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking, Harry.”

Harry wanted to scream that he didn’t take the bloody broom as a prank; he took it to fly to the Ministry. He kicked a table and it went flying across the room. Ginny was mortified.

“Look, we can get Cho to…”

“Forget the damn broom!” Harry spat, and he stormed out of the common room into the corridor. He was breathing heavily, trying to bring focus back on their plan, trying to clear his mind of unnecessary thoughts, but here was not the place to forget. Stains of Dementor blood still splotched the floor. Stick to the plan! Gathering himself, he walked back into the common room and announced he was going to bed early. If he acted quickly, he might still get there first.

“Goodnight!” he said loudly for everyone to hear. There were a few returns of the same, Ginny tried to apologize once more, and finally he slipped into the dormitory. He let out a sigh of relief when he found it empty.

He walked over to his bed and carefully pulled out the little white box from under his pillow. Inside was a small silver sphere - a portkey to the Ministry. Tonks’ words began to play in his head.

“Harry, this will take you to the corridor just outside the great hall where the Fountain of Magical Brethren is at the Ministry. Meet me there thirty minutes before midnight. I’ll take care of the guards and we’ll apparate down to the chamber holding hands. I’ll have everything ready by then; the basin and the blood will be waiting there. Until the end, we’ll keep everything separate. You bring the water, and Harry… don’t tell a soul.” Tonks seemed extremely anxious. It was clear she wanted to say more, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Finally she put on her best smile. “We can do this, Harry. I know we can!”

Harry wondered what it was she wanted to add; what little bit was she leaving out? And once we’re downstairs I’m handing you over to Voldemort. He took a deep breath levitating his covers to look as if they had a body beneath. He pulled the curtains about his bed which was always a sign not to disturb, and pulled out the white box from off his desk. It was a bit early, but he wanted to make it to the Ministry before Ron and Hermione.

He wished he could have had the added power of the vivificus stone. He swallowed hard double checking that the water was in his pocket and his wand was in his sleeve. Perhaps tonight the prophecy would be fulfilled. Slowly, with a shaking hand he reached out and took the silver orb in his fingers. There was a firm yank at his navel, the wind swirled in his face, and a moment later he was on his knees upon a highly polished dark wood floor. Taking in a breath, he froze. The air was filled with the smell of burning flesh. Looking up, he saw a guard propped in the corner, his eyes closed.

All was silent when he heard an incantation given with a high, cold voice. Harry’s skin prickled as the corridor filled with the crackling sound of lighting from the large and splendid hall that waited just around the corner. There was a loud crack, and then a scream.

In a flash, Harry was on his feet, his wand at the ready. His heart began to pound but his hand was steady. If ever he needed his wits about him, it was now. He knew that high, cold voice -- Voldemort’s; and he knew who uttered the scream -- Hermione Granger.

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 68 - A Black Slate
~~~***~~~

In the corridor just off the grand entrance hall of the Ministry of Magic, Harry blinked trying to adjust his eyes to the dim light. Sliding over the polished wood floor on his hands and knees to get a better look around the wall, he brushed up against the guard unconscious in the corner. If anything, the wizard appeared to be sleeping, enjoying some sort of dream by the small smile that was on his face. For a moment, all Harry could hear was the burbling babble of the Fountain of Magical Brethren. Then it happened again: Voldemort’s voice issued a command, there was an electric snap, a crack, and Hermione let out a short, sharp scream.

Harry moved to get a better look at what he hoped he would not see, but knew he would. Slowly rising up from all fours, he clung to the side of the wall and peered around its edge into the resplendent hall. While the fireplaces were dormant, large lit lamps flickered along the walls casting a weak glow over the entire room. His eyes could make out the newly repaired fountain -- the centaur, house elf, wizard, witch and goblin all smiling at each other. Behind the fountain’s large base, he could see the feet of a wizard wearing Slytherin robes that had fallen in a heap on the floor. “Ron!” his mind screamed. Further to the left his gaze landed on a trembling witch in dark purple robes, her wand at the ready. She was looking up at something, her wand arm trembling slightly. Harry continued to move his head around the corner expecting to see a vast hoard of Death Eaters, but instead found one hooded figure, Lord Voldemort himself.

The Dark Lord was floating some three to four feet off the ground, his wand pointed directly at Hermione. His red eyes burned brightly in the darkness and his face bore a broad smile of smug satisfaction.

“As I was saying… I am expecting your friend, Harry,” he hissed. “Perhaps, before I put you down like your friend there, you can tell me where he is, and when he will arrive.” Voldemort cast a beam of red light striking just to the left of Hermione whose shield charm was unnecessary. Still, she let out a short shriek as she jumped to the left. “Cat got your tongue?” he asked.

“Harry’s too smart not to know this was a trap!” Hermione yelled back, her voice echoing off the stone walls. “He wouldn’t step within miles of here!”

“Trap?” Voldemort began to laugh in a thin, jerking rasp.

“I won’t let you have him!” Hermione cried. “He’s my friend!” She held her wand a bit higher, and the trembling vanished.

“Friend?” Voldemort sneered. “You didn’t serve your other friend very well, I’m afraid.” He began to cackle pointing at the pile of green robes by the fountain. “How do you suppose you can now help Potter?” His voice was cold and meant to antagonize.

“Leave now,” yelled Hermione, “or I’ll fry you completely!” The Dark Lord’s face froze in a look of pure hatred. Harry’s eyes, adjusting to the light, could now see that the bottom of Voldemort’s black robes had been badly burned. There was a reason he wasn’t standing on his feet.

“I have no more time for games, Ms. Granger,” he said with a slither. “And I would certainly prefer your absence when he arrives. It’s time for you to join your friend.” He again pointed at the crumpled wizard by the fountain. “Good-bye.”

What happened next was a tale told at Hogwarts and debated in the legal circles of the Ministry for years to come. It was a confluence of events that happened almost simultaneously, and many argue to this day if the sequencing had been only slightly different….

Harry rounded the corner to reveal himself fully. The move went unnoticed by Voldemort, but not Hermione who turned her attention away from her adversary.

“Harry!” she cried, almost wishing her eyes were lying to her. Only they weren’t. He was charging head on toward the two duelists just as Voldemort raised his wand.

“NO!” Harry screamed, not hearing Voldemort’s spell, but seeing the faint green light emanate from the Dark Lord’s wand and streak toward Hermione. “Locomotor Saxum!” Harry called remembering his first Defense Against the Dark Arts class with Tonks. In an instant, a stone bench that was at Hermione’s side flew upward toward the green beam now headed her way, but it was too late. Harry watched in horror as the shaft of translucent green slipped past the bench and struck Hermione squarely in the chest. Her eyes closed and she fell limply to the ground. The stone bench crashed to the floor, shattering and spraying pebbles across the polished wooden floor.

“YOU BASTARD!” Harry roared, still charging forward as both his friends lay dead on the floor. “Never again! Never again!” Harry raised his wand.

Most wizards live their lives never thinking about the deaths that happen around them every day. Even in these dark times, times of war, the sacrifices of those who risk their lives are often ignored in preference of thoughts concerning the menu for the evening’s supper. And yet, wizards and Muggles alike were being killed because of the man floating before him. He would have liked to have said that he raised his wand in a noble effort to protect the precepts of the Wizarding way of life. But what he felt now was not noble; it was not self-sacrifice. Harry’s soul had filled with pure hate. It was time to cross over, to kill. Love harbors no enemies. “Avada…” The sword defends, it does not attack. “…Ke…” Embrace the world, and…

“Harry wait,” a woman’s voice filled his ears and splashed cool water upon the fire in his soul, but the fuse was too far gone.

“…davra!”

A green light burst forth from his wand and struck the floating Voldemort. It wrapped around his robes and imploded inward. Without so much as a gasp, the Dark Lord fell to the floor with a dull thump, his singed robes furling quietly over the top of him. He looked more like a filthy pile of laundry than anything else.

Once again, except for the burble of the fountain, all was quiet. Harry’s hand was clenched tightly about his wand, his knuckles white; he was finding it hard to breathe and he thought he was, once again, going to be sick. Not wanting, but needing to, Harry walked over to Hermione, her body extended on the floor. He could feel the sorrow and guilt welling up from inside and had to blink to see properly. She was on her back, her eyes closed. The anger and resentment welled back into him again. “I should have been here! I shouldn’t have waited!” He wiped his face with the sleeve of his robe.

“I’m s-sorry,” he whispered, falling to his knees at her side and dropping his wand. “Oh, God, I’m sorry.” He began to cry as he reached down and took her hand. It was warm, a sensation he had not expected. He looked up to her face and realized that, like the guard at the entrance, her eyes were closed while her face bore a thin smile.

“Hermione?” he whispered as a faint flicker of hope whipped at his soul. He reached up to her face, holding it between his hands. “Hermione!” He saw colour; he felt warmth. She’s not dead. Beads of perspirations prickled out all over his body. He reached madly for his wand, and finding it at her side he held it at her chest.

“Ennervate!” he cried.

Instantly, Hermione’s brown eyes burst wide open. Instinctively, she reached for her wand, and struggled at first when Harry grabbed her arms.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”

“Harry?” she asked in disbelief. Her body remained tense, and her eyes fearful.

“It’s okay, Hermione,” Harry answered her fear. “I’ve killed him. I used the Killing Curse. Voldemort is dead.” He tried to say it with a smile, but his face wouldn’t muster the right muscles. Instead, he turned her to see the twisted wizard covered in black robes on the floor.

“Dead?” she asked. Her eyes were flashing from Harry to Voldemort and back again, as if trying to convince herself that Harry was really here. Finally, the tension of her body withered and she grabbed Harry by the robes.

“Oh, Harry!” she said softly, and hugged him close. Her eyes, filled with tears, looked up into his. “He’s not dead; that’s—”

“Ron!” Harry exclaimed. “What about Ron? Is he okay?” He left Hermione’s side and rushed over to the pile of robes by the fountain. Hurriedly, he pulled back the green robes, and looking at the site beneath them dropped the cloth and stepped back, and back again. He rubbed his eyes with the sleeve of his robe. Again, Harry tried to gather his bearings.

Like Hermione’s, his body was on its back, his legs splayed outward and his hands flat against the polished floor. Harry guessed he was alive since, like Hermione’s, his eyes were also closed, draped to either side by a slick mass of greasy black hair.

“Snape?” Harry asked out loud, taking another step back.

“He followed me,” said Hermione. “Somehow he knew where I was going. He got one good shot at her legs before she took him down.”

“What?”

“She used the Voldemort disguise to take down the guard. I guess she thought it’d frighten me, but—”

“What are you talking about?” Harry asked becoming agitated. Hermione stepped over to him and wrapped his arm in hers. Then she walked over to the crumple of dirty laundry that was Voldemort. She was beginning to shake, and Harry didn’t understand why.

“It wasn’t Voldemort, Harry; it was Tonks. She’s a Metamorphmagus and I think—”

“WHAT!” cried Harry, ripping his arm from Hermione and rummaging through the pile of black robes. His heart was pounding, his mind trying to recall any moment, any reason to make him believe that….

He pulled back a black flap of cloth and found her face. His heart sank. Her lids were open, and her eyes had rolled backward in their sockets so that only the whites revealed themselves. Harry choked, unable to grasp a breath. This was no prophecy; it was… it was murder. He grabbed Tonks about the shoulders, his emotions shuddering all over the place.

“Nooo!” he howled in a low mournful cry that echoed in the great hall. “No, no, no, no.” He rocked her back and fourth in his arms when his cheek met hers and a small exhale of air popped from her lips. Harry stopped. “Did you hear that?”

“It’s just air, Harry,” said Hermione calmly. “She… she’s gone.”

Harry held his hand to her face; she was cold, but the eyes… the eyes were wrong. He’d seen the blank, expressionless stare of Cedric Digory and this was not it. Her voice. He’d heard her voice and hesitated. Hermione… Gabriella… had they both been right? Did he not have it in him to kill? If Tonks was still part of this world, where on the thread of life was she now? Harry had to find out.

"She’s not dead!” he gasped. “She can’t be.”

“Harry, she’s—”

“She’s not dead! I won’t let her be dead!”

Harry repositioned himself and knelt over Tonks’ cold body. He could do this without the stone. Gabriella had said it was just a way to magnify the gifts he already had. Without further hesitation, he reached down and placed his hands over her eyes, closing his own. Focusing with all his might, he saw the darkness open up before him revealing the pathway to her life energy. In the distance was a brilliant red light. It burned bright but then dimmed, only to burn bright again and then dim. It was like a great engine trying to start, but unable to keep its fires burning.

Harry willed himself closer and as the red glow began to fill his vision he saw the curse he had just cast. A weak green tentacle had sprouted from the nothingness below the red glow and was growing upward, reaching for the light. Every time the two colours touched, the red glow would dim, but the green tentacle would pull away as if stung. Harry watched as the scene repeated itself. He wondered how long this battle might last, perhaps forever if he didn’t do something.

He reached out and grabbed the green tentacle with his hands and squeezed expecting it to burst like a filibuster firework. Instead, the squid-like beam of light twisted and writhed in his hands, tangling itself around his arms. It was more difficult than he was prepared for, and Harry had to redouble his efforts. Suddenly, he saw the slithering light sprout another appendage that wrapped itself around Harry’s neck. He was starting to lose this battle; if only he had the stone. In a great thrash he pulled his foe high above his head and that was when he saw it -- his right arm glowing against the darkness. His scar was outlined in a brilliant orange, and the green tentacle seemed repelled by its light. He suddenly felt, for some reason, like he had the strength of a dragon.

Harry pulled his arm close to his neck and the thing squeezing there let go. He could at least now breathe, if that’s what he was doing, but his green foe would not relent, and as the battle raged on, he could feel himself tire. Thought of failure began to creep into his mind, and he began to wonder what would happen to him if he died there in the darkness of Tonks’ essence. Suddenly, a voice, his own voice, echoed in his mind. “The sword defends, it does not attack. Defend yourself, Harry.”

His right arm flashed a solid orange now, and there almost suspended on the surface of his skin was a blade of light. Harry let go of the green tentacle in his left hand and grabbed the sword. Its wings gave a great shudder and pulled him away from the green glow before him. The squid-like tentacle turned from Harry and surged to again attack the red light that was Tonks, but the vines about Harry’s sword sprouted large and yellow, and pinned the green curse against the darkness, holding it fast. It hung there, suspended in the darkness as Harry raised the orange sword above his head and plunged it down onto the twist of green. A great surge of something that looked like green lava began to erupt from the fissure, and Harry pulled himself away when the snake on his sword opened its jaws wide and swallowed the green glow whole. In an instant it was over, and all that remained in the darkness was the red glow pulsating before him.

The orange sword faded in his hand, flashed brightly once more on his arm, and then disappeared in the dim light. Harry pulled back from this other place, the place where Tonks’ life force now burned warmly if not brightly, and the vision of darkness before him began to coalesce with a vision of Tonks, the red glow fading to red cheeks. There was a gasp; it was from Hermione.

“She’s alive,” she breathed. Harry looked down to see Tonks still curled in the layers of her black robes, but her eyes were closed and her breathing regular. He sat back, winded and dizzy, but satisfied knowing that she was safe. Hermione helped Harry steady himself as he sat on the floor.

“What did you do?” she asked. “How… how did you—” There was a low groan from the other side of the great entrance hall. The spell on Snape was wearing off and he was coming around. “Harry,” asked Hermione, “you cast the Killing Curse? Are you sure?” Her words filled the quiet hall.

“What? What was that?” Snape called out still on his back. He took to his feet and, rubbing his face, came over to the two Hogwarts students seated next to the Auror. Harry expected a snide comment, and he wasn’t disappointed. Snape narrowed his eyes at Harry and said with a remarkable tinge of concern for Tonks, “What have you done this time, Potter?”

“I thought I killed her,” Harry replied, holding Tonks’ hand which was now warming in his own. “I thought…” but he couldn’t finish.

“He used the Killing Curse, Professor,” added Hermione in a matter of fact tone, “thinking it was Voldemort attacking me.”

“He what?” cried Snape. Quickly, he bent low to Tonks and felt her head with the palm of his hand. It was, in Harry’s mind, a surprisingly tender touch. Harry wondered how Snape could show an ounce of compassion to anyone, let alone someone who had just hexed him. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Tonks was a Slytherin. Snape held out his wand and bathed her face in a pale purple light, and a look of confusion crossed his face. “It was a Killing Curse,” he whispered. His eyes slid to the corners and glared at Harry. “Obviously not very effective.”

“I must take her to St. Mungo’s at once,” Snape said urgently, “but I can’t take all of you.” His eyes scanned the hall nervously. “Ms. Granger may be able to Apparate that far, but I’m afraid you, Potter, are once again a disappointment. I can’t have you alone, and I can’t have you wandering because I know where you’d go.” Harry’s eyes met Snape’s, and reinforced that the professor was correct in that regard, he would run downstairs given the opportunity. Snape waved his wand and sealed the doors and fireplaces.

“Ms. Granger, please ensure your friend, Mr. Potter, stays out of trouble. At least until someone returns for you; it should only be a few moments.” With that he reached down and gently lifted Tonks into his arms. There was a loud crack and the two disappeared. Immediately, Harry ran over to the doors leading to the steps, and tried to open them.

“Alohomora!” he called.

“You’ll need a stronger spell than that one,” said Hermione. Harry turned at her and glared.

“You are going to help me, right?” Hermione looked at him and then looked away.

“Hermione!” yelled Harry. “I have to hurry!” He was sure it would soon be midnight, and he had no idea how long Draco could keep the real Death Eaters away from the Ministry. Tonks had said it would all be ready; all he needed to do was to get downstairs.

“They’re going to be back any minute, Harry,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady but failing miserably. Harry spun toward the sealed doors and started to ram them with his shoulder. “Harry!” she cried. He charged again, sending a large clank reverberating around the stony walls.

“I can’t believe…” he said, turning to take another run at the walls. He knew he’d never get through, but it made him feel better. There was another crash, only this time Harry grimaced in pain. “Snape!” he hissed as he walked back from the doors his left arm limp at his side, his head tilted low so that he was glaring at Hermione over the top of his round glasses. He turned to the walls again.

“Stop it!” she cried. “Can’t you see I want to help? Don’t you know I want him back too?” Her eyes were swollen and tears began to drip indiscriminately down her cheeks. “It’s too dangerous, Harry. I won’t lose you! Not again!” She dropped her hands in her face and began to cry. Harry looked to the doors and then to Hermione. He wanted to scream at the top of his lungs, but instead he walked over and held her. Together they sat at the edge of the Fountain of Magical Brethren and he held her in his arms.

“You won’t lose me, Hermione,” he said softly. “Not tonight.” Looking at the ripples of water in the fountain, he reached into his pocket and twiddled with the small vial there. He slipped his fingers passed the glass, pulled out two galleons, and tossed them into the churning water. “For Tonks,” he whispered.

The air was still. Any moment now they’d be coming to take them out of here. Snape was probably busy trying to find someone else to gather Harry and Hermione so he could run back and be with his master as they attacked the torture chamber where the basin now sat waiting to be used. He smiled wondering what the look on Voldemort’s face would be when he found the room empty, save for the bowl and Lucius Malfoy’s blood. Hopefully, he would not take it out on Draco. Harry sighed. Sitting next to Hermione, he looked down at the spot where Snape laid unconscious.

“I can’t believe I thought Snape was Ron,” he said in the stillness of the night. “I thought… I thought he was dead… that you’d both been taken by the Dark Lord.”

“Ron’s safe,” Hermione whispered, “I made sure of that.”

“Good,” said Harry with a smile. “When I saw you talking in the Great Hall at dinner, I thought for sure you were plotting something together.

“He wanted to,” she said with a sniff and wiping her eyes. “Ron promised me he wouldn’t read my thoughts, but I think he slipped. He asked where I was going, and if it was after Tonks.”

“What did you tell him?” Harry asked.

“Well, I had to give him something. I couldn’t have him here. Tracking Tonks was my job and I wasn’t going to lose…” she stopped herself and gave a little shudder. Harry pulled her close again.

“You said it yourself, Hermione,” he said warmly. “You can’t do it all on your own. Sometimes we need to recognize that we’re not alone, that our friends are here to help.” She turned and smiled at Harry, then gave him a hug.

“You’re right, Harry,” she said with her hand against his face. “I’m sorry.” She held his gaze for a moment and a small glimmer flashed within them. “Let’s open the doors,” she said quickly standing to her feet.

“Are you sure?” he said with a smile.

“Yes!” said Hermione, exuberance filling her voice. Harry’s heart skipped as they walked across the great expanse of polished wood.

“I wish Ron were here,” said Harry with excitement.

“Wait till he hears the story,” said Hermione brightly. “Here we are battling it out at the Ministry, and he’s all alone at home.”

“Home?” asked Harry.

“Yeah,” she answered with a mischievous smile. “I told him I was tracking Tonks, and was sure she was going back to the Burrow to reestablish it as Voldemort’s base.” She pulled her wand ready to open the doors. “I hope he doesn’t get too mad when he gets there and finds it’s still deserted.” Harry immediately grabbed Hermione’s arm.

“The Burrow? You sent Ron to the Burrow?” Hermione nodded. “He’s flying there on my Caduceus?” Again she nodded, only this time she was picking up on the anxiety in Harry’s voice.

“He had mentioned it, but I didn’t think—”

“Oh, no!”

“What, Harry?” she asked nervously. “What’s wrong?”

“Hermione, Voldemort… he returned to the Burrow last week.”

“That’s not possible,” she began, but as she looked into Harry’s eyes she could see that he was unflinching. “Harry, how can you be sure?”

“You may be chums with Snape,” said Harry, “but I have my own source.”

“Malfoy,” Hermione breathed, and with that thought ensconced in her mind a look of horror filled her eyes -- Ron was in trouble. Harry wasn’t sure how she had put it all together, but he didn’t care. The important thing was to rescue Ron. He wanted to leave immediately, but they’d have to wait for someone to return. What was taking so long? Hermione was not taking it well.

“I… I sent him there,” she said blankly. “They’ll kill him.”

“He knows to be careful,” said Harry. “He won’t just go barging in to attack—” Hermione glared at him with eyes that said they both knew that Ron was action first, thought later. She reached up and touched his face again.

“Tell them where we are, Harry.” Her eyes were resigned to her fate, and resolute at what she must do. There was a loud snap, and she was gone.

“Hermione!” Harry yelled, but his voice just echoed in the resplendent hall. “The doors.” He slumped against the wall.

“Hey, you!” a voice cried out. It was the sleeping guard that Harry had seen. At last, he thought, someone to help. He started running toward the groggy wizard.

“I need help!” Harry called.

“Stop right there!” the guard yelled.

“It’s urgent! I really need—” There was a red flash of light that rolled directly at him. Harry pulled his wand and threw a shield charm with no time to think of where to deflect the attack. Unfortunately, it ricocheted the stunning spell straight back at his assailant. The guard was hit squarely in the chest and flew back against the wall, falling once again to the floor unconscious.

For a moment Harry considered reviving him, but hesitated, thinking about the fight that might ensue. Then a wild thought crossed his mind; it would only take seconds if he did it right, but he’d have to move quickly.

“Sirius!” he whispered excitedly. With his wand he inscribed on the wall above the guard a note in flaming gold letters: We’ve gone to the Burrow to save Ron. Voldemort’s there. He ran back to the doors and remembered that Hermione had not yet opened them.

“Damn!” he cursed. He kicked the huge slabs of polished mahogany with his foot, sending a sharp stabbing pain through the ankle he had twisted in Advanced Apparation.

“Ouch!” he yelled. Then a queasy nervous feeling began to fill his stomach as he considered the possibility. He could do this… he just needed to focus.

The thought of traveling through hundreds of feet of pure stone was really not appealing at all. One false thought and he’d probably be splinched where no one would find him again. He slipped out his wand and focused on the picture in his mind that was more vivid than any of his other memories: the stone dais where Sirius slipped through the veil.

Vision - An image appeared before him of the ancient stone room below.

Channel - With pure concentration, Harry stepped through to the other side.

Reconstruction - His body reassembled upon the first large stone step, just up from the floor where the dais sat underneath the Curtain of Phenolem. It was the same spot where he stood with Neville when he watched Sirius fall to the other side.

The room was exactly as he remembered. Large stone steps climbed upward from the dais to the doors that exited back into the Ministry corridors. He imagined the wizards and witches that would sit here, looking down on the accused before they were killed, or later cast alive through the veil. He would have liked to think it a barbaric time, but wasn’t sure his own was much better. Candles lined the dais and on its edge were the golden basin, a flask of red liquid, and a thin tube -- the Black key. Harry took a step down when a shadow fluttered from behind the stone archway covered by the veil. He held his wand at the ready. He heard the voice before he saw the face.

“Ah, Harry! Thank Asha you could make it.” Out stepped Grigor Darbinyan, wearing neat blue robes. He held no wand, and instead was holding his hands out in an open gesture of welcome, his face smiling.

“I was getting worried,” said Grigor, “there isn’t much time.” Harry held his wand and narrowed his gaze. This only made Grigor smile more broadly. “You are worried, I see. A prudent approach and I dare say I’d do the same in your position.” He sat up on the dais with his hands folded in his lap. “Tonks and I have been planning this for months. Where is she by the way?”

“She was called to a fight outside Ipswich,” Harry answered cautiously. “She said I was on my own.”

“Pity, she did so want to be here when we fetched your godfather.” Grigor leaned toward Harry who had taken a few more steps in the direction of the curtain. “But we do have you, and that’s all that matters really. He is your godfather, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” Harry said curtly. Stepping closer to the dais, Harry’s heart began to beat faster and faster. He was so close, but….

“Well, Tonks knew about the golden instruments in the Black family all along, and when she heard I was from Al Bsahri she thought I could help.” Grigor casually crossed his legs. “Well, I gave her what little information I could find, and believe me it wasn’t the easiest to come by.” He rubbed his neck. “Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there was a connection between the two of you. Finally, I thought, a way to apologize to Harry for almost killing him. It’s a grand gesture, don’t you think?”

Harry was growing unsure. Something in Grigor’s words made sense. It was almost mesmerizing listening to him as he told the tale. But was it fact or fiction? Harry wanted to believe, he needed to.

“There are Death Eaters coming,” Harry said flatly, wondering what the reaction would be. “Perhaps… Voldemort himself.” Grigor, however, seemed unconcerned.

“I’m well aware of our timetable, and you’re right, we have little time left.” Grigor pulled his wand, and Harry held his higher. Grigor only chuckled.

Grigor cast a spell with a deep accent that, to Harry, sounded nothing like Armenian. A white glow erupted upward toward the ceiling, and then crept along the walls to the floor and finally filled the floor with an eerie white mist that hung low only a few inches from the ground. “An anti-apparation charm; we will be free from visitors for a few moments,” he said warmly. “Have you brought what we need?” Harry glanced down to his pocket, a move noted by Mr. Darbinyan. “Good… good. Bring it here, we must hurry. Unless I’m mistaken your godfather will be first to arrive, and then we can be on our way.” Grigor held out his hand and, almost ignoring Harry, turned to face the basin and blood upon the dais. Clearly, not a threatening posture if he wanted to attack.

Harry looked at the curtain, the ingredients on the dais, and Grigor essentially ignoring him save for the lone left hand extended in Harry’s direction waiting for the final ingredient. He could bear it no longer. Quickly, Harry shifted his wand to his left hand and entered his pocket for the vial with his right. It was the moment Grigor had waited for.

The motion was smooth and graceful as Grigor spun on Harry, his wand outstretched. Harry reached for his own wand, but his hand was trapped inside his pocket for the briefest of moments. It was all the time Grigor needed. Harry felt his body freeze and he fell to the floor stiff, but wide awake. Grigor walked over to him and pulled the small vial from his pocket. His face wore a look of triumph.

“It’s fortunate, Harry, that Tonks was called away. I was not looking forward to killing her too, and not totally sure I could pull it off. I guess it’s all a question of what we’re willing to sacrifice for family.” He patted Harry on the face. “I’m sure she’ll miss you dearly. Perhaps if there’s time, I can return her cousin to her as I promised. It only seems fair.” Grigor stepped back from the dais.

“But… first things first. There is one more step,” Grigor greedily whispered to himself, “and I will be avenged.” He turned back to face Harry and levitated him up toward the dais. Harry was sure he would be tossed bodily into the curtain. One way, he thought, to join Sirius, but certainly not his top choice. Then his body stopped and was set gently onto the stone slab next to the golden basin.

“I’m afraid, Harry,” said Grigor, “that I need one more ingredient. Well, not so much an ingredient as bait.” He sighed deeply. “One Muggle who is really a wizard. Not something you can just go and buy at the local apothecary, eh, Harry?” He stepped close to Harry, leaning over his still body. “You see, I’m not the only one you fooled this summer. But it must remain our little secret.” He held his wand over Harry’s lips. “Don’t say a word,” he breathed, as if Harry had any hope of uttering a sound. A look of excited anticipation filled Grigor’s eyes, while one of horror filled Harry’s.

“Ah,” said Grigor, “Midnight.” He turned to face the far wall as a blue doorway appeared just above the first stone step. “Only family may pass,” he whispered to Harry. In a bluster of mist, Harry could make out a person walking slowly forward. Whoever it was stepped out onto the stone floor, and the doorway vanished leaving the wall still glowing white. Harry’s hands began to perspire, and he was feeling very ill. The sensation overwhelming him was telling every pore of his body that the person entering was Voldemort. But family? The figure stepped close and leaned over him.

“Hello, Harry. It’s good to see you again,” she said with a smile. She leaned down and stroked the side of his face. Her green eyes were as piercing as ever, but her face had aged. Wrinkles creased the eyes and forehead, and streaks of grey filled her long, light brown hair.

“I believe you’ve met,” said Grigor, but in case you haven’t, let me introduce you. Harry, this is Emma, Emma Slate.”

“Oh Grigor,” she said with a tone of embarrassment. “Let’s not be so formal.” She looked down into Harry’s eyes. “You can call me Anaxarete; in the end, all my lovers do.” She leaned down and kissed his lips; he could taste the death upon her. “And in just a moment, Harry, you and I are going to become very close.”

________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 69 – Sacrifice

~~~***~~~


Harry tried to scream, but immobilized all he could do was look past the wrinkled face before him and up at the stone walls. They were gray and roughly hewn, but glowed white with the magic of the anti-apparation charm Grigor had placed on them, a charm that only allowed family to pass. Harry’s mind fumbled trying to understand what was happening and so he tried not to think about it, and instead focused on the ceiling. The last time Harry was here, he never noticed the gargoyles that lined the high walls. But then he never really looked up at the ceiling, seeing as how at the time he was being chased by Death Eaters. The stone creatures seemed to be watching, waiting with anticipation. On his back, his eyes open wide he couldn’t help but consider that these creatures, these stones here were old, very old. He was frightened and the overly comforting voice of the aged Emma Slate was making things worse. It was as if she’d been through a time machine, her body and her voice had aged by at least forty years in the span five months; at that rate she’d be dead by summer.

“I promise, Harry,” she said reassuringly, “it will only hurt for a moment, and then you and I will be together forever.” Harry could feel her breath against his cheek. “It should have been you all along, darling.” She sat up next to him on the dais patting his leg, and then sighed. “But I found Duncan first. Imbecile,” she snapped darkly, “he couldn’t even take his own life properly.” Her voice softened again. “Do you know how many have killed themselves for me, Harry?” She asked the question like someone bragging about how wealthy they were. “I think maybe you would have and, if it hadn’t been for Gabriella, I think I would have taken you instead. It must seem very strange to realize my sist-sis,” she halted, “your girlfriend is a witch. I’d call myself that too, but I’m so much more, and soon we can share that together.” She continued to gently stroke his cheek. Harry wanted to scream, to cry out, but he couldn’t even twitch.

“Ana,” said Grigor impatiently, “we haven’t much time.”

“Yes, I know,” she answered. “The Lord will meet the Lady tonight. But I won’t rush this like last time.” Harry saw a flash of anger flare in her eyes as she turned to face Grigor. “If you would have been there, none of this would have been necessary!”

“I didn’t realize your advanced stage,” he replied with deference, but Harry noted an undertone of irritation as if this had been repeated for the millionth time. Anaxarete may have noted it too because her next words were aimed more at Grigor than at Harry.

“You must understand, darling,” she said stroking Harry’s arms and looking into his eyes, “Grigor and I go way back. It was I that encouraged him to come to Al Bsahri, and it was I that welcomed him and Soseh to the school. If the poor man had half the skills as his wife….” She let loose a long forlorn sigh. “I was there at the birth of both their children. Our families were close, until An-Antreas…” she seemed to choke on the word and the pleasantness of her features grew hard. Quickly, however, she recomposed herself, “…until Antreas was of age to join Al Bsahri. Suddenly the walls came up and no longer were I and my husband allowed to visit the Darbinyan family. I thought, perhaps, he didn’t want his son to grow up in the Dark Arts; many foolish wizards make such mistakes. But when Gabriella came to Al Bsahri, a school-first made possible because of ME,” she said pointedly, “I knew it was something else.” She shifted uneasily upon the dais.

“As the years of separation passed,” she continued, “years of growth for the young Darbinyan boy, Antreas unfortunately faded from my memory. He was never spoken of, not even by Gabriella, and my thoughts were focused elsewhere. The wrinkles you now see on my face began to appear and my hair began to thin. It was time for the joining.” Her eyes left Harry’s for a moment and again her features hardened. “Never send boys to do a woman’s job!”

“I was failing far too quickly, and the ceremony was hurried, although the timing with the rise of the Dark Lord was fortuitous. I would once again be in my prime, and I would take his side, or his power.” These words were spoken as if she thought, perhaps, she would defeat Voldemort, if it were necessary. Something about her presence suggested she might win that battle.

“They found a Muggle boy that had wandered onto the school grounds. Yes, Harry, a Muggle. It always has to be a Muggle; someone like yourself with no magical ability at all. It makes it so much easier, you’ll see. They laid him next to me, and I must admit, I thought the eyes familiar, but nothing more. I have often been to the markets of Tripoli, and perhaps our paths had crossed. He was not as young as I would have liked, but still he would do.” Anaxarete brought herself up above Harry. She stood upon the dais as if to give herself a more foreboding figure, and the breeze rushing from the curtain causing her robes to billow afforded her the look she wanted.

“Imagine my surprise,” she cried out, her voice ringing off the walls, “when I discovered the vessel I was taking was not that of a Muggle, but a wizard!” Again, she was looking at Harry, but clearly speaking to Grigor. “Do you know what it feels like to have someone fighting your every move, thwarting your every thought? The boy’s punishment was to watch the deaths of his Muggle friends, but still he would not yield. So we left Lebanon in search of more fertile ground. Well, Harry, you can see what it’s done to my figure.” She smiled, and what was a moment ago a battery of fine teeth showed one or two missing.

“Knowing of the return and rise of Voldemort, I came to Britain, but the Darbinyan family followed me… followed Antreas.” She let out a sickly laugh. “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer, eh, Grigor?” She sat back down next to Harry. “But we’re not enemies, are we Grigor? I had planned on using that pathetic excuse for a Muggle, Duncan, as an appropriate substitute. It was Grigor, here, who thought you’d make a better vessel. Get rid of the Muggle his daughter had fallen for, while providing me with another hundred years.” She leaned down awkwardly over Harry. “I always sensed you had the stronger energy. That’s why Gabriella fell for you.”

“I’ve been waiting patiently to fully reveal myself to the Dark Lord. I’ve sent him messages telling of my deeds, but never coming before his presence with a squib as a vessel. When I mentioned to him that I was killing you tonight he seemed eager to be here, but I told him he must wait till it was finished. I can’t imagine his interest, Harry, but the secret ritual is not for his eyes. It is for our people only, isn’t it Grigor?” Her voice was smug, superior.

“Yes, my Lady,” answered Grigor quietly.

Harry’s eyes were filled with pure venom. He wondered what Voldemort would say hearing that he was not worthy to see the ceremony she was about to perform. Here was the witch that had caused so much grief around Europe. She nearly cost one friend his life and had killed another, and the thought that Gabriella’s father was in it with her was almost more than he could bear. But why, he thought, did Grigor go through all the antics of helping Duncan, of working with Tonks to release Sirius, if his plan had been to give Anaxarete Harry’s body, or life force, or whatever it was that was about to happen to him? Harry saw Grigor jump up onto the dais.

“Here my dear,” he said, “let me help you.” He maneuvered around Harry to Anaxarete who stood between Harry and the veil. She was bent down stroking Harry’s face, and Harry saw the wrinkles continue to deepen into large creases upon her face. HE’d been wrong; at this rate she’d be dead within a week. “We really must hurry. He will arrive soon.”

“Yes, yes,” said Anaxarete, looking very tired as she stroked Harry’s arm. Suddenly, her eyes caught a glimpse of the scar on Harry’s arm just as Grigor innocently held out his hand to offer support. It was an innocent gesture, but one that Harry had just seen. His heart skipped. The aging witch blinked as if her eyes were not focusing properly, and then leaned over against that hand preparing to sit next to Harry. But she never had the chance. In the time it takes a Doxy to seize an incompetent wizard’s wand, Grigor had twisted Anaxarete about. She reached for her wand, but too late. Her body plunged through the veil with a look of shock and surprise on her face, reminiscent of the look Sirius held in his eyes before he too was lost to the other side. At the same instant, Harry noted a flash of blue light that filled the room, not something he had seen when Sirius fell.

Harry’s eyes widened with astonishment. It had been a ruse all along! Had Tonks known? His heart was jumping for joy waiting to be released by Grigor. The wizard jumped to the floor and slapped his hands against each other as if washing them from the filth he’d just touched.

“First things first,” he said hurriedly. “Asha, I thought she’d never shut up.” He moved over to Harry’s side and quickly arranged the instruments next to him. “Sorry I didn’t have more time to explain, Harry.” Again, Harry waited to be released, but the release never came. “As I said, I need a Muggle who’s really a wizard. I suppose I could have gathered two, but you were just too perfect a fit. I’m sure Gabriella will approve when she has her brother back.” He leaned over and patted Harry on the face. “We all make sacrifices, Harry, and it’s not like you’ll be dead.” Again he arranged everything at Harry’s side like Hermione preparing to tackle one of Snape’s more difficult potions.

The key to futures past and present
Depends on wit and wile
Blend the three and turn the key
Use wisdom for the dial

Harry could hear the Black key slide into the basin and click into place. The runes were then selected as the gears spun tick after tick.

Liquid of life that springs eternal
From birth of light to death infernal
Welled from source of endless magic
To bring back those whose loss was tragic

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Grigor pour what looked like about a quart of the water from the vial Harry had. He put the cap back on, and slipped it into the breast pocket of Harry’s robes. “Keep it safe, son,” he said softly. “We may find another use for it later.” Grigor turned to the flask of blood, lifted it carefully and slowly poured it in.

Liquid of life that courses pure
Split in spite without a cure
Yet saved from death by hated foe
Who stopped the ebb and staved the flow

“Soon, Antreas,” he shouted at the curtain, “I shall hold you in my arms again!”

“Hold who in your arms, Papa?”

Hearing her voice, Harry’s bodied prickled, and at the same time he saw Grigor spin nearly knocking the basin of blood over.

“Gabriella!” he cried in shock, and then said something sharply in Armenian that Harry couldn’t understand.

“No, Papa,” she answered, drawing nearer, “he didn’t want me here. I read his thoughts.”

Grigor cursed, and said something more.

“No, Papa,” she said calmly once again, “I put it down once before. I think I’ll hold it in my hand. It would be the prudent thing, don’t you think?”

Harry still could not move to see Gabriella, but he knew she was drawing nearer, wand drawn.

“Why is Harry…” she began, but Grigor cut her off.

“This is for Antreas!” he cried. “I can bring him back to us, Gabriella!”

“That’s not possible, Papa.”

“Yes it is!” snapped Grigor. “But I need a vessel for your brother’s spirit… and Harry’s it.”

“My brother was murdered!” snapped Gabriella.

“HE WAS TAKEN!” screamed Grigor viciously. “He was swallowed whole like Jonah by the whale and I’m going to make her spit him back out!” He turned from his daughter and the dials began to spin.

Liquid of life in molten state
Cast to let its brethren mate
Spin the lock and turn the key
To let our captured allies free

There was high pitched whirring sound as the dial of runes began to spin. Then it stopped and clicked into place.

“Then let Harry go!” she cried.

“I can’t,” yelled Grigor consumed by the action of the basin. “I won’t lose him again.” There was a burst of red light that shot high over Grigor’s head.

“Papa, you’re not making sense,” Gabriella said, her voice quavering. “Please, stop.”

“Gabriella, your brother’s spirit was taken by Anaxarete. I tracked her to London and have been waiting for her to weaken. It was only a matter of time. This… this curtain I have always known about. I have thrown Ana and your brother to the other side, and in that realm their spirits have been freed from each other. Harry here serves two purposes. First, with the willing assistance of Nymphadora, he brought us the tools and the ingredients we need to free those from beyond.” He turned to Harry. “I think she suspected I was serving Voldemort,” he smiled. “But she was too eager to bring her cousin back, always blaming herself for not killing the witch that killed him.” Grigor’s face grew grim. “I know all to well that sense of guilt.”

The key to futures past and present
Depends on wit and wile
Blend the three and turn the key
Use wisdom for the dial

“But, Papa…”

“We can release the spirits from beyond! We can release your brother!” A thin mist began to roil up from the basin. “Those that passed through last, return first. It is likely that Anaxarete, the stronger of the two, will hold tight to the corporeal vessel the two shared. If so, your brother may emerge in spirit only. That’s what we need Harry for.”

“Papa, no!”

Select the mark to throw them hence
Select the mark to keep them
Select the mark to bring them whence
the darkness now doth steep them

“The mark is set for their return,” he whispered. Then he looked into Harry’s eyes once again. “Wouldn’t you give your own body to bring back her brother?” Then he turned to Gabriella. “The body is but a shell, dearest daughter. Antreas will take this shell and, with the spell, form it to his will. Harry will become the brother you knew just before he was taken.” He turned back to Harry. “Of course, Harry, you’ll have to be near death when he arrives… weak enough for him to take control.” Grigor pulled out his wand. “Welcome to the family, my son.”

A blast of red light filled the room and Grigor slammed head long into the stone dais. A gash of blood ran down his face and into his eye. He blinked reaching up and spinning the last rune into place.

Set the mark before the brew
to slay the ignorance once thought true.
Then as the three mix into one,
and breathe the mist through which they’ll come,
spirit, soul, and purity,
protect yourself from enmity.

Grigor fell to the floor out of Harry’s sight. “Daughter,” he whispered weakly, “be prepared if Antreas is not the first.” Harry heard the clatter of Grigor’s wand fall to the floor.

A great golden mist began to roil up out of the basin above Harry’s head. It was being slowly drawn toward the veil and clung to it slowly creeping its way to the top of the archway. It looked as if someone had taken the veil and dipped it in gold. Gabriella rushed to the dais, grabbed her father’s wand, and leaned upon Harry kissing him hard.

“Are you okay?” she asked, but Harry couldn’t move. “Oh, sorry.” She stepped back and released him from the hex. Harry sat upright and pulled her close.

“We need to go,” he breathed.

“You can’t leave, Harry,” said Grigor slyly. “Only family may pass, in or out.”

Suddenly, there was a great rushing of wind that emanated from the curtain. Harry looked up. The band of golden mist had reached the top of the archway. He slipped down from the dais, Gabriella in his arms, and together they backed away from the veil until their backs hit the stone wall. A great stench filled the room… the smell of death.

“Wands ready!” cried Harry.

A shadow filled the frame of the archway and hung there for what seemed to be an eternity. Slowly, it coalesced into the figure of Anaxarete. Her form was whole, corporeal, but her appearance was more skeletal than human. Only a few strands of gray hair hung down from her balding head. Her face was pulled back and sunken and the skin on her arms seemed to be peeling away. In her hand, however, was a wand, and in her eyes a piercing green flame. She looked to the dais and finding it empty scanned the room. She stepped out onto the stone slab, her toes nothing but bones, and found Harry huddled with Gabriella against the wall. A smile appeared upon her face revealing that no teeth remained.

She was ready to kill Harry, to take his vessel for her own, when she saw it in his hand -- eleven inches of holly. There was a look of confusion in her eyes, and then a fury flamed bright.

“NO!” she cried in a low guttural breath. She looked about and found Grigor, glaring back up at her, a look of victory on his face.

Anaxarete’s piercing eyes raged like emeralds burning green. When she raised her wand, both Harry and Gabriella responded casting spells directly at her. She deflected Harry’s, but Gabriella’s hit true. It knocked her off the dais and onto the stone floor next to Grigor. There was a tremendous snap as her left leg split in two. The flame in her eyes dimmed, but the hatred remained. She flicked her wand one last time and this time a blast of green light streamed from the stick of wood clutched in her bony fingers. It struck Grigor in the chest, and he cried out in agony.

“Feel the pain,” the hag gasped, “before you die.” She tried to strengthen the spell, only it was too much for her; whatever life force she had remaining was spent. The green light faded and died. She tried to heave another gasp of air, but as she did her entire body began to crumble in on itself. She withered and died like a fallen flower until all that was left was a pile of powder that was blown away by another gust of breeze from beyond the veil.

Gabriella burst from Harry’s arms and ran to her father.

“Papa!” she cried, leaning down at his side. Grigor turned and looked up at her. Harry was shocked that he was still breathing. Here truly was an amazing wizard, and if he had but half the skill of Soseh…. Gabriella held her hands to her father’s face and closed her eyes. She would try to heal him, Harry knew, but she winced and pulled away. Her body shuddered and she began to cry.

“No, my daughter,” he breathed, and then Grigor looked up at Harry. “I won’t have to kill you now, child.” His breath was thin and faint. “We have another vessel.” A look of fierce determination filled his eyes. “We can use me.” Harry stood in astonishment as Grigor turned himself to his knees and lifted up to the dais. Reaching with a quivering hand he reset the dial on the basin and collapsed back onto the floor.

“I believe,” Grigor wheezed, “this is yours.” He reached into his pocket and tried to hand something to Harry, but his hand fell to the floor. From his fingers rolled a brilliant red ball of stone flecked in glittering gold… the Heart of Asha.

“The stone!” Harry cried, and he snapped it up instantly. Having healed Tonks, he knew he would be unable to help Grigor, but with the stone there was hope; with the stone…”

“I can use this!” exclaimed Harry. “I can save you, Grigor!” Gabriella’s father was too weak to even look back up at Harry, but gave a small laugh.

“No… no you can’t,” he said and then gently smiled. “It is forbidden.”

“But…” Gabriella grabbed Harry’s arm, and shook her head. Her eyes were overflowing with sadness. Reluctantly, Harry gently slipped the stone into his robes, into a deep and hidden pocket where slept a small puff of fur that Harry had taken to carrying with him over the last few weeks. With Grigor’s last ounce of strength he touched his daughter’s face.

“Tell, Mama, I’ll always be near, listening to her stories, and breathing in the wonderful aroma of the dolmas.” He coughed, and then said desperately, “Gabriella, you know the spell!”

“Papa, I can’t.”

“You must,” he commanded, and then his hands fell limp to his sides. “Otherwise… you lose us both forever.” A breeze from the veil blew Gabriella’s black hair across her face and into her wet eyes. She and Harry looked up to see the curtain flutter as a wisp of white emerged through its golden sheen.

At first it looked like a ghost, but held more substance than Sir Nicholas. The form was that of a young man, his face concerned. When he saw Gabriella the expression brightened and he glided closer, but then he saw his father and his face fell. Gabriella looked frightened, not certain what to do. Harry stood behind her and gently touched her shoulders as they looked up at the spirit of her brother.

“Save him,” he whispered, “if you can.”

Gabriella wiped her face with her sleeve and nodded in agreement. Trembling, she held up her hands and began a chant in a tongue Harry had never heard before. Her voice grew louder and stronger with every verse and he saw a blue glow appear about her fingers; the trembling vanished. He heard her invoke the name of Asha, as she pointed her wand at her father and the glow of her hands traveled down the shaft of ash while the small engravings on its side suddenly flashed a brilliant white. A swirl of glowing blue mist spun in towards Grigor’s chest.

“Antreas Darbinyan!” she cried out, and the spirit that was her brother seemed to be caught up in the swirl, spinning inward toward their father. She held her wand steady as the blast of blue penetrated her father’s chest and with it Antreas’ life force. “Good bye, Papa,” she whispered. She shuddered, the blue light extinguished, and she fell backward into Harry’s arms. The golden curtain still fluttered in the breeze as the two watched the transformation take place.

The features of the man crumpled before them began to change. His wrinkles thinned and his hair darkened. The bags under his eyes disappeared and the veins that were raised on the back of his hands vanished. He became the very figure of the specter they had just seen float out from the curtain -- Gabriella’s brother, Antreas. Harry was stunned as the young man opened his eyes. They were a brilliant azure blue and had a penetrating kindness behind them. There was another burst of air from beyond the veil.

“Sirius!” Harry cried. He stood up at the dais and ensured that the basin’s ring of runes was set in the correct position; all was perfect. His heart began to race with anticipation. Again the golden sheet became translucent, revealing the faint outline of a figure just behind. Harry looked at the top of the archway in eager anticipation when he noticed the white glow on the ceiling above begin to recede. Past the gargoyles, the gray of the walls poured down against the white on either side as if an enormous bucket of paint had been poured on top and slid down the stones. The white mist that was floating on the floors evaporated away.

“No,” Harry whispered to himself. He looked down and saw Gabriella hugging her brother. Harry’s hands flat against the top of the dais, the figure through the veil grew slightly more distinct, but still he could not make out its features. It had to be Sirius… it had to. Harry looked at the walls again. “No,” he repeated as a wave of nausea filled his insides. He clenched his teeth in anger; not now! There was no scar on his forehead burning into his brain; there didn’t need to be. Harry knew all too well what was about to happen… Voldemort was coming.


________________________________________
Harry Potter and the Burden of Becoming

Chapter 70 - The Power That Lies Within
~~~***~~~


Deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic, ancient stone walls, roughly hewn, watched as the young wizard cast panicked glances on every side and into every corner. These stones had seen many deaths, many horrors, and had come to expect the worst from wizards and witches. But this wizard… this wizard was different. They sensed that first last year when he burst through their doors chased by evil. They felt the anguish of his heart call out when he lost his loved one; something they had rarely felt even in the oldest of days. Tonight, on the night of the full moon, when they helped guide his path into this chamber they felt a new purity in his spirit and were happy for his first victory over darkness. They had grown weary through the centuries of the travesties performed in the name of righteousness and they, like the wizard with the glasses by the dais, sensed the impending battle. How many more must be murdered in this chamber? There was a great groan and the stone floor shuddered. Tonight, it would end.

Gabriella let out a short shriek as the small earthquake quickly came and went. Harry was oblivious, looking at the walls and back through the roiling golden mist. Why hadn’t he remembered this feeling upstairs? He should have known then that it wasn’t Voldemort floating before Hermione. The feeling tumbling his insides was new, untested, yet the nausea was now crashing within telling him what was about to happen. He gazed intently at the figure still forming behind the veil. If it was Sirius, he was nearly through, but so was—

“Hide!” he screamed to Gabriella and her brother Antreas who still looked as if he were in a state of shock. Only, there was no place to hide. Aside from plunging into the veil, the singular way to leave was up the great slabs of stone steps and that would mean leaving the basin behind for Voldemort to control, and if Harry were to spill it now Sirius would be lost forever.

“Run!” he yelled. “Get out, they’re coming!”

Without asking, Gabriella heaved hard to help a much larger Antreas to his feet, but both she and Harry knew that there was no way her brother would be able to climb the steps. Harry pulled his wand to cast a locomotor spell, but it was too late. In the same instant, the air filled with the sound of popcorn cracking in every direction. Hooded Death Eater after hooded Death Eater filled the stone arena. Nearly two dozen black robed wizards, some of them quite short when compared to the others, surrounded the three still standing at the dais. Harry and Gabriella held their wands at the ready as Antreas knelt weakly back to the floor. There was no sign of Voldemort, but Harry sensed that the Dark Lord was close; he’d simply sent his henchmen to clear the way for his meeting with the Lady. A meeting that would never come, at least not in the way Voldemort had hoped.

“Where are you, Tom?” thought Harry, scanning the upper steps with his wand held high. “Come out come out wherever you are.”

As the Death Eaters oriented themselves to face Harry and his friends, he pulled Gabriella closer and pushed her down next to Antreas beside the stone dais for what little protection it could provide, at least from one side of the room.

A short squat wizard to his left seemed to take offense to the motion and raised his wand, but a voice Harry knew all too well drawled out.

“Stop, you idiot!”

The short wizard lowered his wand and held his head down, backing away from Lucius.

“Why,” Harry thought, “would they not want to blast him?” But then a glimmer of golden mist caught his eye, and he knew what they were after. Anaxarete was to release Voldemort’s army for him, perhaps as a wedding present of sorts. If the basin spilt, the curtain would close and Voldemort’s army would be lost. He straightened himself, steadying his wand at the black hooded figure he knew to be Lucius Malfoy.

“Still in charge then, Malfoy?” he asked with an impudent tone. “Or did you have to give up more parts to stay in his good graces?” There was no answer as the ring of Death Eaters edged in more closely, a few stumbling trying to negotiate the steep steps. “Let’s see… Peter gave up his hand, you gave up an arm, when does Bellatrix give up her neck?” He was hoping to provoke a response, and he did.

“Where is she Potter?” demanded Bellatrix from behind her mask. She was two to the left of Lucius and kept looking all about. “Where’s the Lady?” It was unusual to hear her so nervous. The ring of black robes edged down and in once again. Harry considered using his wand as he glanced at Gabriella and then to Antreas. She shook her head; Antreas would not be able to help, and even if he could they had no chance of defeating so many. Then an idea came, and he pointed his wand sharply at the basin.

“One more step and she’ll be lost in there forever!” he cried, hoping they’d believe the lie.

“You fool!” Bellatrix howled. “You pushed her through?” Then she began to cackle. “Well, if he wasn’t going to kill you before, boy, he will now. And if he doesn’t,” her voice grew sinister, “she will.”

“She won’t kill anybody if I blast the basin,” Harry threatened. He could see the figure growing more corporeal behind him.

“Is she coming?” whispered one of the Death Eaters excitedly. “Is that her?” Nearly all looked at the figure coalescing behind Harry.

“You’ll not threaten me again, Potter. Kill the redhead,” hissed a high cold voice near the entrance to the death chamber. Harry looked up and knew at once it was Voldemort; he could see him -- he could feel him. Without hesitation, the Death Eater to the right of Lucius pulled the black hood off of his nearest companion to reveal Ron Weasley, his voice silenced by a Silencio spell. Lucius spun on the spot and lifted his wand to kill Ron.

“No! Wait, my Lord!” called another Death Eater whose voice stalled Malfoy. Harry didn’t need to see under the hood of the shorter wizard; it was Draco, Lucius’ son. Draco turned to Voldemort who was gliding down from the top of the stone steps. The Dark Lord’s eyes flashed red; Draco knelt low. “My lord, this one is a Legilimens, the one that brought back the Longbottoms. Inside the castle he would be very useful… with your guidance.” With an evil grin, Voldemort moved lower and raised his wand.

“Crucio!” he sang. From thirty feet away, the spell struck Lucius squarely and he cried out in agony, dropping to his knees and nearly tumbling down the steps. A moment later Voldemort stopped the spell. “Lucius,” he said as softly as if the two were sitting down for tea, “why did you not tell me the boy reads minds? Surely Severus brought this to your—”

“I did not know my— Ayyyy!” he screamed again as Voldemort struck him one more time for the interruption. As soon as he stopped, he turned to Harry. The Dark Lord looked intrigued.

“Harry… Potter,” he sneered, emphasizing the P and looking as if he beheld some grotesque creature chained inside a cage. Then he gazed passed Harry at the figure continuing to take shape behind him. Voldemort’s eyes were filled with curiosity, interest, and eager anticipation. The boundary between death and life was his greatest fascination and the Curtain of Phenolem was a very dark and ancient magic. Harry imagined that the last time Voldemort held the same expression was at Hogwarts when he was simply Tom Riddle. The moment stood frozen: Harry threatening to destroy the basin, Voldemort trying to understand the magic at work behind the curtain, when the Dark Lord let out a short laugh. “I warned her of your ingenuity, of your skill… traits you have undeservedly pilfered from me.” Voldemort bared his teeth and revealed rows of sharp stumpy points lining his gums. “Unmask the bushy haired bitch!”

Further to the left of Ron, a Death Eater slipped off another mask and there stood Hermione Granger a deep gash across her face was still bleeding down her neck. Again, Voldemort laughed, but it was not jovial in the least. To the contrary it was a threatening laugh, an ominous laugh.

“Six Death Eaters!” scorned the Dark Lord; two black robed wizards took a half step back. “Can you imagine, Harry? It took six to capture this mudblood and bring her here alive.” He glanced about the room. “I must say my collection is wanting.” Then he glared at the golden curtain. “But that shall soon be rectified, thanks to you… boy.”

Voldemort continued to approach ominously toward Harry, and soon he was only a few feet away. Harry could clearly see the slits in his read eyes, the flattened face, but worse was the smell. It rivaled that of the breeze still streaming from the curtain. Then Voldemort took note of Antreas and Gabriella hunched on the floor by the dais.

“Ah, more friends of yours, Harry?” He flicked his wand and Gabriella and Antreas flew across the stone floor and rammed straight into Hermione taking the Death Eater next to her down as well. Harry raised his foot over the basin, precariously balancing on the other.

“Harm them, Tom,” shouted Harry, “and I’ll smash it, I swear.”

“YOU impudent…” Voldemort flicked his wand as if swatting a fly and Harry went sailing across the floor, smashing his head into the stone wall above his friends, only to crash down on the floor. For a moment, he couldn’t see -- all was a brilliant white as if a thousand flashbulbs were bursting inches from his face. Still, he could hear the Death Eaters roar with laughter. Harry knew his left arm was broken, possibly a rib on his left side, and he could taste the blood in his mouth as Hermione gasped. He felt her warm touch against his face

“What are you smiling for?” she asked in a whisper, as the Death Eaters continued to laugh.

“Tell the others,” he rasped hoarsely, “hold tight to each other; hold tight to me.” Once again, the great stone room began to tremble. And as it rumbled, raining pebbles and dust onto the floor, he heard Hermione whisper, and then Gabriella. The tremor also quieted the Death Eaters’ jovial laughter as Harry’s eyes slowly began to focus. He felt Hermione grab him from one side and Gabriella from the other, and he looked up at the dais where Voldemort now stood.

“We’re ready,” Gabriella whispered in Harry’s ear, although he wasn’t sure if she had moved her lips.

“When she emerges,” slithered Voldemort, “I will allow her to kill you if she desires. It can be my gift. Perhaps now she will understand why I am the most powerful wizard in the world.” His words were haughty, self-centered as if Voldemort had debated this fact before, and Harry thought he and Anaxarete would have made a wonderful couple. Alas, it was not to be.

Smiling about Ana’s prenuptial death, Harry winced as he reached into his pocket and pulled, not the ball of cinnabar, but a small furry object no bigger than his hand. Around its neck was a golden ring through which Harry slipped his finger. “Pull in case of emergency,” Harry chuckled to himself. Well, if this wasn’t an emergency, he didn’t know what was. Still with blurred vision, Harry looked up at the image of Voldemort standing on the dais. Next to him, through the archway and into the swirling mist, a figure was now emerging.

“She’s arrived!” someone yelled.

“Hail, Anaxarete!” the room cried in unison. All the Death Eaters fell to their knees, only Voldemort stood his hand outstretched in welcome. Harry pulled the ring off the molamar and onto his finger, and then held tight with his one good arm to the back of the molamar’s neck.

There was a snap as a Death Eater Apparated into the death chamber upon one of the highest steps. He missed the mark and began to tumble down steep stone step after steep stone step, thud, thud, thud, then finally came to rest on the floor next to the dais. Broken, he forced himself to look up at his master.

“They’re coming!” he squeaked with a mousy voice. “Severus sent me to warn you!” And then he collapsed on the floor.

“Bloody fool,” cried Lucius behind his mask. “The rat’s shown them the trail!”

The room began to jerk in sharp swift shakes, as if the walls were laughing. Harry felt sand splashing against his hand as the tiny molamar chewed away at the rock. He could feel the creature growing underneath him while at the same time it fell away. The walls began to shake more violently, and the floor beneath him began to sink. The dais was rocking back and forth, undulating beneath Voldemort’s feet and causing him to stumble backwards. His foot landed squarely on the lip of the golden basin, flipping it over and spraying the liquid all over the lower portion of his legs. There was a blood curdling scream as Voldemort cried out in agony.

As Harry felt himself being pulled downward, his vision sharpening, he could hear more pops and snaps in the chaos. Aurors and members of the Order were flooding into the chamber above. Instantly, the room above erupted with tremendous flashes of light.

“Draco, stand behind me!” cried out Lucius.

“What’s happening?” screamed Hermione as she, Harry, Ron, Gabriella and Antreas were being pulled underground behind the enormous living drill.

“Hang on! It’s a molamar!” cried Harry, closing his eyes against the dust. With the Death Eaters distracted, Hermione summoned both her wand and Ron’s just as the chamber above faded from sight. Only flashes of colour filled the tunnel, growing before them.

“I-I can’t hold on,” said Harry cringing in pain, “I need—”

“Arripio!” erupted in both his ears as both Hermione and Gabriella simultaneously cast gripping charms adhering the group to the back of the molamar as it continued to dig its way underground with amazing speed.

“Better,” said Harry still choking in the dust, but feeling a far sight safer than in the chamber above. The creature was astonishing, digging through stone as if swimming in water.

“Are… you… mad?” cried Ron, spitting dust with each word. “We’ll be b-buried alive!”

“And back-ck there is better?” questioned Gabriella, sputtering herself.

Harry could tell they were digging deeper; their weight was resting comfortably against the soft dusty fur of the ever growing molamar. From Hagrid’s class Harry knew that as the molamar plunged on it left an ever widening hole behind where it had been, but the tunnel’s darkness made it impossible to see. Then, suddenly, the creature stopped.

“Lumos!” cast Ron, trying to survey their situation.

They had dug a tunnel some ten feet wide that twisted down and away from the chamber above. In less than a minute, they had traveled at least one-hundred yards. Gabriella noticed the gash on Hermione’s face and closed the wound with a blue light from her wand. There was a loud rumble as the creature lifted momentarily from the ground, and then a foul stench filled the air.

“Oh, that’s bloody awful, that is!” cried Ron holding his hand over his face. “A molamar fart?!”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the creature began again, twisting to the left in search of more organic material. By the light of Ron’s wand Harry could see that they were traveling mostly through stone, and he grew a bit concerned that the only organic material nearby was the five of them stuck to the molamar’s back.

“I could have gone all day without that!” yelled Ron.

“We can climb back up if you want!” yelled Harry.

They seemed to be twisting randomly in no particular direction. Harry wondered how Hagrid and Firenze had controlled the molamars to build the caverns beneath Hogwarts. No wonder there were so many earthquakes shaking the school grounds. A moment later Gabriella asked to see Harry’s arm.

“It’s broken,” she said with concern as they continued to glide through the earth.

“Yeah, I kind of figured that,” said Harry, smiling back with the mask of a coal miner. Everyone’s face was covered in a dull black dust.

“Madame Pomfrey showed me a little trick,” said Gabriella. As they gently bounced along she held his arm in her hands and muttered a spell he didn’t understand. He was about to tell her to make sure and leave the bones there, when he felt a cool sensation over the break that vanished as quickly as it had come.

“Better?” she asked.

“Brilliant,” he whispered, squeezing the fingers of his left arm. He looked back at the tunnel behind them. “You know, they might try and follow us,” said Harry, thinking out loud.

“Not with so many of the Order to fight,” said Ron emphatically, still holding his lit wand high. “They’d need to be possessed to care about the bunch of us. Why on earth would they want to…” and he stopped himself, remembering the prophecy of Harry’s fate. “Oh, right.” Ron positioned himself a little closer to his best friend.

“Well, Harry,” said the redhead defiantly, “Voldemort will have to take us all to get the one.”

“That’s right,” said Hermione, pulling her wand as well.

Gabriella simply squeezed his hand. Harry felt a warmth and closeness he had long missed. He felt energized, and remembered the strength Dumbledore gathered as he strolled along the corridors of Hogwarts with students at his side. It was a bit like the Four Musketeers; they all had their wands out, all that is except Antreas, who was still fading in and out of consciousness. The molamar stopped again; the creature and the tunnel it was creating had grown to some twelve feet across.

“Please no!” cried Ron. “Please, please, please—”

R-R-R-RUUUMBLE.

The explosion of gas lifted the creature and the five stuck to its back a few feet off the ground. Everyone groaned, Ron the loudest. The stench was twice as foul as before and made Harry’s eyes water.

“Move you foul beast!” commanded Ron, turning his wand around.

“Ron, no!” Hermione cried, but it was too late. A blast of red light emitted from his wand, and the creature squealed, eating its way straight upward as a blast of flame ignited the tunnel below. After about ten seconds they had climbed some hundred feet and the real possibility that the molamar might decide to put itself into reverse and crash downward, plunging them into flame, had crawled into everybody’s mind. A few seconds later, it was no longer a concern. The molamar breached like the squid out on the lake into a great room, its dim light nearly blinding relative to the darkness they had just escaped.

“Finite Arripio!” cried Gabriella and Hermione at once. The five fell to the wooden floor as the molamar plunged back downward.

“Rigamortus!” cried Hermione, striking the molamar in the back causing it to freeze in suspended animation.

“Reducto!” said Gabriella, and the molamar began to shrink.

“You two are a bit scary, really,” said Ron looking at the two women with rather self-satisfied expressions on their filthy faces. “You’ll, er… you’ll need to put that ring thing back on its neck or it won’t…erm…”

“Harry, do you have its stasis ring?” asked Gabriella. He was a bit surprised that she knew about molamars, but then she lived much closer to the desert than Harry. He handed her the ring of gold that was still around his finger and she slipped it around the molamar’s neck. The five finally had a moment to relax.

“Is everyone, okay?” asked Harry, trying to slap the dirt from off his robes with his hands.

“Honestly, Harry,” sighed Gabriella. She flipped her wand and the dust fell from his robes as if it were being magnetically pulled back to earth.

“That’s a good one,” said Hermione excitedly, and pointed her wand at Ron. “I think I’ll have a try.”

“Not on me, you w-…” She cast the spell, but instead of pulling the dirt to the floor, it pulled all Ron’s clothes to the floor. “Hey!” he screamed trying to cover himself.

“That’s a good one too,” said Gabriella with a grin. “What was that wrist movement?”

Soon four of them were clean; Hermione was exasperated that Ron refused to let anyone point a wand at him again, filthy robes or not. They all took a moment to catch their breath and take in the scene around them.

Harry had never been to one with the Dursley’s before, but he suggested that the room looked like a museum of sorts. The walls were wood, roughly cut into long planks that reached up to the ceiling some thirty feet high, but there were no windows. It was filled with collections of Muggle artifacts: fine sculptures and paintings, tapestries and toilet seats.

“Maybe we’re in an art museum somewhere in London,” Ron suggested.

“You don’t find collections of toilet seats in an art museum, Ron,” corrected Hermione, “unless it’s a modern art museum.” She shrugged her shoulders as they looked at the long rows of knick knacks.

“Where do you think we are?” asked Gabriella.

“We’re probably miles from the Ministry,” said Harry.

“No,” a voice rasped from behind. They all turned to see Antreas pulling himself up on one knee his eyes blinking. He held his hand toward the wall, wanting to say something, but unable to find the words. Gabriella rushed to her brother’s side as the others turned to the wall. Ron narrowed his eyes, then closed them. An instant later they were wide open.

“GET DOWN!” he cried. Everyone obeyed and in that same instant a huge stone slab flew through the wooden wall sending shards of splinters and rock everywhere. Harry and Hermione cast shield charms as the stone tumbled toward them, crashed, tumbled and crashed again flipping up and over their heads only to come to rest on the row of toilet seats. But then the seats exploded sending the stone slab back their way. Hermione and Harry couldn’t turn fast enough as the slab was about to crush them. A voice from behind them called out.

“Hasrestra!”

The huge stone froze in mid air five feet over their heads and gently descended to the ground between Harry and a row of green telephones that bore small labels: Prop
221: Arthur Weasley, Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office; Explodes when placed next to ear. Harry turned to see who cast the spell and found Antreas on his knees brandishing his father’s wand. His face bore the expression of someone just waking early in the morning.

“Papa!” gasped Gabriella. “Antreas, Papa is with you!”

Through the yawning fissure in the wall left behind by the large flat stone, streaks of light were jetting everywhere. Harry looked up and saw the same gray stone and immutable gargoyles staring down at the battle below.

“We’re still in the Ministry!” cried Ron.

“Brilliant,” said Hermione rolling her eyes. “Any more revelations, Ron? It’s the warehouse from your father’s old job!”

Staring through the gaping hole, Harry was transfixed at the streaks of light filling the room on the other side. Everyone now battling about the bottom of the chamber was oblivious to the fact that Harry and the others were in the room next door. Searching for any sign of Sirius, he began to walk to the hole in the wall and his hands began to tingle; Voldemort was still close. Harry moved to have a better view.

“Harry, no!” called Gabriella. “We must leave, now!”

He stopped to look back at the four of them. Antreas was now standing; he was taller than his father, and far more muscular. He too waved for Harry to leave.

“Gabriella’s right,” he said with a voice that hinted of Grigor. “We must leave before they discover our—”

“Presents!” hissed a high cold voice, snakelike and incensed.

Harry looked up at the entrance to the artifacts room and found Voldemort floating off the ground. His first thought was Tonks. From the shin down, Voldemort’s legs were gone, and his robes tattered as if they were burned by acid. “The basin,” thought Harry, remembering his last sight of Voldemort. He reached up to his breast pocket and felt the vial beneath his robes; there was at least nine gallons of water remaining, he was sure.

The Dark Lord’s red eyes were filled with rage and focused on one thing only -- killing Harry. If the water removed the evil within someone… Without a word, Harry ran and jumped headlong through the gap in the wall just as a jet of green light passed to his left further widening the fissure.

Harry entered the ancient arena of death to find it a shambles. Gargoyle heads littered the floor. The flat stone that had just blasted through the wall was the dais that once lay at the bottom of the chamber, although the archway and black veil remained, the golden glow was gone and there was no sign of any golden basin. There were bodies littered everywhere, but still more than a dozen wizards were battling, filling the room with resplendent colours as shards of stone flew in every direction. Harry didn’t look to see who they were; his mind was elsewhere.

Before the year began, Dumbledore sat with Harry in Grimmauld Place and told him of the enemies he would need to forgive, enemies that he would need as allies to defeat Voldemort. “None of them deserve your hatred, Harry. What’s more, the day will come when we will need many of these people, and more, to help us in the fight against Voldemort. Would it be possible to forgive them all without being asked? When you can, you will have accomplished that which I could not. You’ll have tapped into the true power that lies within each of us. On that day, you’ll be ready, Harry, and you’ll know it.” Tonight, in the Ministry of Magic, Snape had defended Hermione against Tonks and then turned to take the Auror to St. Mungo’s to save her life; Draco risked his life to keep Weasels from being murdered; and even Grigor Darbinyan acting through Antreas saved Harry and Hermione from being crushed beneath the tumbling stone dais. The sequencing of events had led him inextricably on a path to this one moment. What was the true power of the falls? Harry slipped the vial from his pocket and, holding it tightly in his fist, he closed his eyes and thought of all his enemies… even Bellatrix Lestrange.

“I forgive,” he whispered, as blast after blast echoed in the chamber around him. He opened his eyes and felt a warmth flow from his heart and into the vial; it flashed a brilliant white then dimmed looking almost invisible against the flesh of his hand. Harry levitated the vial high above the fissure through which he’d just passed and let it hover near the face of an aged gargoyle. For a moment he looked at the stone creature’s features… there was something in the eyes.

A blast of green swept past his face breaking the trance and he turned to run, but tripped over a body sprawled out on one of the great stone steps. Facing the fissure, crawling backwards on his hands, he waited for Voldemort to appear. He didn’t have to wait long. Ignoring Harry’s friends in favor of his singular prey, the Dark Lord floated into the gap with the solitary focus of destroying Harry once and for all. His snake-like face was oblivious to the mayhem about them.

“Your time has come to an end, Potter… a mosquito that I am now ready to swat.” Blasts of light from the warehouse for misused Muggle artifacts framed the fissure where the Dark Lord floated, striking him in the back, but they had no effect. Indeed, Voldemort looked every bit the Dark Lord, framed in a brilliant ever changing glow that made him appear all the more invincible, all the more evil. Voldemort lifted his wand.

“Zipper-Pitch!” cried Harry, suddenly realizing one of Voldemort’s greatest weaknesses, something of which Voldemort would have no understanding… a game. A bright purple light spit forth from Harry’s wand, but traveled slowly, no faster than a falling Quaffle toward Voldemort. It was an absurd spell really and, worse than that, it was well off the mark clearly heading high over the Dark Lord’s head.

“Is that the best you can do, Potter?” he crowed. “Is that what they now teach at Hogwarts, pathetic spells cast by pathetic wizards? I should have crushed you long ago.” The light from Harry’s wand slowly floated towards its target, but Voldemort, ignoring the floating fairylike glow, was still framed inside the wall. He needed to come closer… and he was. The blasts that were raining down on Voldemort from behind were causing no damage, but they were moving him forward, ever so slowly into the chamber of death. Just a few more inches. Voldemort again raised his wand to kill. Harry stood to his feet in defiance, prepared to die if that was his fate, particularly if meant bringing Voldemort down with him. But then there was a rush past Harry’s shoulder.

“Let me, my Lord! Let me kill him!” From behind Harry, stumbled Peter Pettigrew. The squat Death Eater nearly fell as had Harry, but kept his balance grabbing the burnt threads at the bottom of Voldemort’s robe and serving to pull the Dark Lord just a few more inches into the room.

“Perfect,” thought Harry.

“Fool!” cried Voldemort. He looked down at Peter and was about to punish him, but hesitated. There was a purple glint in Peter’s eyes as they looked up past Voldemort to the spell Harry cast; it had reached its target. In Peter’s pupils Voldemort saw the flash of purple burst bright, he heard the tinkle of shattered glass, and… he looked up just as the nearly nine gallons of water from the falls of Hogwarts fell onto his face and soaked his robes.

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named began to scream as the evil in his eyes was burned away, but the sound was cut short as the evil in his voice was similarly consumed. Harry sat back breathlessly as Voldemort’s body began to rinse away beneath the plummeting waterfall, like a sandcastle vanquished by the rising tide. The room fell silent as all watched the Dark Lord’s black robes fall to the floor with nothing but a plume of black smoke curling upward toward the ceiling. They watched the murky cloud rise and then disappear into the mouth of the stone gargoyle directly overhead.

Someone shouted, “He’s dead! The boy killed him!”

At the same instant, the walls began to tremble more violently than ever. First dust, then pebbles, and then great slabs of stone began to tumble down. The floor beneath the archway that held the veil began to sink. A few pops reverberated from about the room as some fearful Death Eaters Disapparated. Harry ran to Voldemort’s robes and with his wand flung them aside expecting to see Peter cowering beneath them. But the Dark Lord’s servant was gone as well. Even as the remaining gargoyle heads that had lined the ceiling began to collapse inward all around, a grand smile crossed his face. The twisting of his insides, all sense of sickness had vanished. Voldemort was gone; Harry had won.

“Father!” cried a voice from below that Harry knew quite well. He looked down to see Draco Malfoy perched on a finger of stone at the bottom of the death chamber. Beneath the Slytherin’s precarious perch gaped a cavernous hole. He clutched the stone with both arms as it shook beneath him; there was no wand in his hands. Harry jumped two steps at a time and reached the left side of the void that was widening beneath Draco. Harry didn’t think the molamar had dug such a cavern; something more was at work here. He reached out toward his friend.

“Take my hand,” Harry said to Draco, as jets of colour still screamed across the room.

“Take mine!”

Lucius Malfoy had appeared to the other side of his son, and he too held out his hand, his only hand.

“Draco,” said his father, “he’s dead! The power is ours to control! Take my hand and we’ll begin again!”

“Don’t do it Draco!” cried Harry. “It’s not the path; you know it’s not!”

Draco smiled at Harry and leaned toward him holding out his hand. Relieved, Harry took it in his, but felt something cold and hard. Draco pulled his hand away leaving a small circular piece of metal in Harry’s palm. “So you’ll know what I saw in the mirror,” he said enigmatically, his two gray eyes firmly fixed on Harry’s green.

There was another rumble and the finger of rock began to give way. Both Harry and Lucius cried, “NO!” just as Draco leapt to his father’s side.

“It’s not about power, Harry!” he called as the rock continued to crumble all around. “It’s about family!” Draco’s lips curled in an unhappy smile. Lucius pulled him close, and together they Disapparated from the chamber with a snap that he could not hear in the rumbling earthquake. Still clutching the circular disk, Harry stepped back from the widening hole beneath him. It seemed to be swallowing the entire room. He took another step backward and felt the sharp poke of wood in his back.

“The blood traitor,” she hissed; it was Bellatrix. “Turn around, Potter. I want to see your eyes when you die.”

Slowly Harry turned to see Bellatrix Lestrange. Her face was slashed, streaked in blood, and her robes tattered and torn. She had been battling long and hard.

“I’ll kill them all for running!” she cried, castigating the Disapparating Death Eaters. “Don’t think he’s dead, little boy. He’ll return!” She tried to say these words with confidence, but Harry saw the flicker of doubt in her eyes. She raised her wand.

“Avada Ked—” She stopped; her eyes grew wide. Suddenly, the skin around her eyes thickened and enveloped the look of surprise beneath. Like a rapidly spreading fungus, her flesh kept growing until it covered her nose and mouth. She couldn’t speak; she couldn’t breathe. She dropped her wand and clawed at her face. Harry watched as her colour began to turn blue and she slumped to her knees. When she did, Harry saw who had cast the spell. Standing just five feet away watching Bellatrix suffocate to death, her wand still pointed at the witch writhing on the floor was Nymphadora Tonks.

“Tonks!” cried Harry, but the Auror in black robes didn’t register Harry’s voice. The call was a mixture of joy for seeing her standing and fear as he watched what she was doing to Lestrange. “Tonks, stop! You’re killing her!”

“Let her die,” Tonks replied with a hollow voice. “We failed him, Harry, and it was all her—”

“Release her now, Tonks,” snapped a stern wizard three steps up. “Or I’ll take you over my knee!”

Harry’s stomach rose to his throat, and he saw the same reaction in Tonks’ eyes. At the same time the two looked up to see Sirius Black, haggard as ever but wearing a broad white smile. Tonks jumped to grab him but he held out his hands and pointed to Bellatrix.

“Listen to Harry,” Sirius demanded.

Harry looked down to see the witch struggling on the floor; her wand slipped over the edge into the sinkhole below. Tonks released the spell just as Sirius sealed Bellatrix in glistening white ropes and levitated her body off the ground. Smiling, Harry turned to run to Sirius, but his feet gave way to the soft earth as it crumbled beneath him and he fell backwards into the gaping darkness.

“Harry!” he heard both Tonks and Sirius scream. The sound of his name seemed to fade as he disappeared into the nothingness.

Falling, he closed his eyes and focused his vision on the happiest moment of his life and with a loud pop Apparated behind the witch and wizard he’d just left.

“Harry!” screamed Tonks still looking over the edge into the yawning hole. She moved to jump after Harry when he grabbed her by the shoulders.

“I think he’ll be okay,” said Harry. She spun to see him smiling at her.

“You!” Tonks yelled as she wrapped him in her arms. “If you ever—” Sirius grabbed them both.

“We need to get out of here, Harry!” he said forcefully. “The whole place is being sucked down.”

“Through there!” yelled Harry pointing at the fissure in the wall. Pulling Bellatrix with them, they crawled up over Voldemort’s robes and through the crack that had been split by the great stone dais. The others still inside the stone arena gave up the fight and Disapparated to places unknown. Harry was the last to escape, struggling over a large hewn stone as the wall behind him began to collapse completely away. Gabriella grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the artifacts room. She kissed his neck and held him close.

“You did it, Harry!” she said, trying to hold back the tears. “You did it!”

Looking back, they watched the great stone archway that held the Curtain of Phenolem plummet downward into darkness and disappear into the deep. The walls and floor stopped rumbling just as suddenly as they started. The entire chamber was now nothing more than an enormous, bottomless, black pit. Stepping back, Harry opened his dusty hand and looked at the small disk in his palm; it was silver or more likely white gold or platinum. Shaped like a thin coin it was polished flat to a high sheen. If it was a talisman, it didn’t look like one. There were no engravings, no markings of any kind save for a small hole that might accommodate a chain; just his own reflection looked back at him from the glossy silver surface. Harry smiled sadly and slipped the coin into his pocket, then he turned into the artifacts room and saw Ron, Hermione and Antreas next to Tonks and Sirius.

“We did it,” he whispered, thumbing the small coin in his pocket.

Gabriella held him in her arms and they walked over the debris littering the floor to his friends… to his family. He stopped in front of Sirius and looked up into his godfather’s eyes. It was almost too good to be true, and he was at a loss for what to say.

“How, erm…” He swallowed. “How have you been?”

Sirius barked out a tremendous laugh and pulled Harry tight into his arms. Harry closed his eyes. It was real. He opened his own arms wide and ignoring the sharp pain in his ribs squeezed with all his might. The heaviness of his heart had lifted and light poured out from his soul. Great heaving sobs filled the air; everyone was crying. Finally, Sirius pulled away and held Harry’s wet face in his hands.

“I’m fine, Harry. How are you?”

Harry blinked. “Never better.”

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