Albus Dumbledore Severus Snape
Multiple Eras
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Order of the Phoenix
Published: 10/14/2004
Updated: 11/05/2004
Words: 419,861
Chapters: 24
Hits: 157,499

Harry Potter and the Veil of Mystery


Story Summary:
Suddenly with a higher profile after being proved right about Voldemort's return, Harry's use of Voldemort's name around Hogwarts gains popularity. It also attracts Voldemort's attention in the form of a series of attacks, and Harry soon finds that he is shouldering a burden even greater than the prophecy--the likelihood that Sirius's fate could come to his friends, who will stop at nothing to protect him.

Chapter 17

Chapter Summary:
After his stay with the Aurors, Harry spends the rest of Christmas vacation with the Weasleys, and has a great time... for the most part.

Chapter 17

Christmas at the Burrow

On Monday night at a little after six o'clock, Harry stepped out of the fireplace at the Burrow to see Arthur Weasley sitting in the living room, reading. "Harry, dear," said Molly, walking in from the kitchen, wearing an apron. She hugged and kissed him, and Arthur got up and shook his hand. "Good to see you, Harry. Did you have a good time with the Aurors?"

"Very good, thanks," Harry replied. "They showed me all kinds of stuff, it was great. But I'm happy to be here, now."

"Well, we're thrilled to have you," said Molly enthusiastically. "This is the first Christmas we've had you here, we've been looking forward to it. We've had too few young people in the house these days."

"That reminds me, Mrs. Weasley-"

"Molly, dear, Molly."

Harry nodded. "Molly... I was wondering if you were still upset with Fred and George. I kind of feel bad about it, since I'm the one who gave them the gold for the shop. I mean, I don't regret it, I'd do it again, but since they were able to open the shop because of me, and you were upset at them because of that, I felt bad because-"

To Harry's surprise, she looked at him fondly and touched his lips with her hand so he would stop talking. "It's sweet of you to worry about that, but it's all right. I may not approve of their career choice, but I've resigned myself to it, and at least I know they're happy. Arthur tells me I just got spoiled by the older children all being high achievers, and I suppose he's right. Really, don't worry."

Harry wondered whether she was just saying this to make him feel better, but she seemed genuine enough. Maybe the passage of time had helped her get over it. "I'm glad," he said. "I just didn't want to cause any problems."

"Even if you had, nobody could fault your motives," said Arthur. "What you did was extremely generous. You saved them at least a few years of scrounging and making huge efforts to get the money necessary for a shop, and enabled them to start in a good position. Look at how well they're doing now. They've worked hard, but it wouldn't have been possible without you."

Harry nodded, but said, "Yes, but I have lots of money from my parents. It's not such a big sacrifice to give away a thousand Galleons when you've got much more than that in a Gringotts vault. People act like it was a big deal, but it really wasn't."

"It really was, Harry," said Molly. "Most people wouldn't give away a thousand Galleons like that even if they had a hundred thousand more. And if they did, they'd want something in return, to be owed a favor. Maybe it wasn't a financial sacrifice for you, but it was extremely thoughtful, and that's what's important."

It wasn't that thoughtful because I was desperate to get rid of the money, Harry almost said, but he didn't think it was right to continue arguing the point. "I'm just glad they've done so well with it," he said. "Will they be coming by very much during vacation?"

"Sometimes, but not as much as we'd like," said Arthur. "Diagon Alley is open during much of vacation, and they want to keep the shop open almost every day. They're only closing for Christmas Day and New Year's Day, and then only because all the other shops are as well. So they'll be here for some of those two days, at least."

Ron and Ginny walked into the room. "Hey, Harry, thought we heard you," said Ron. "So, how was it with the Aurors? I'm sure Mum and Dad want to hear about it too."

"Hold on, Ron, you know we promised Hermione we'd get her first," chided Ginny. Then, to Harry, she said, "We popped over to Hermione's yesterday for a bit, and we decided that she'd come over for dinner tonight so we could all hear the Auror story, and you wouldn't have to tell it twice. Hang on, I'll go get her." She tossed some Floo powder into the fireplace and was off. Less than a minute later, she was back with Hermione. Molly announced that dinner was ready, and they sat down.

"Well, I'll give you the big news first," said Harry. "Two things: one, they didn't want to talk about the spell after all; instead, they gave me three days of Auror training." Ron gaped in obvious envy. "Second, they fixed it with the Ministry so that I'm officially considered to be of age, right now, and they taught me how to Apparate. I can now do it any time I want."

Ron, Hermione, and Ginny were all stunned, and temporarily speechless. Arthur and Molly didn't seem especially surprised. "Yes, it's about time they did that," said Arthur. "The Ministry should have thought of it themselves. I would have suggested it to them, but it's so well known how close you are to us, it would have been unseemly for me to suggest it, like I wanted special favors for you. Better that the Aurors did it."

"You three look like Harry's just been made Minister of Magic," Molly teased Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. "It's just common sense. He's in significant danger all the time; Disapparating could save his life. Seventeen is an arbitrary age, and it would be stupid to deny him the ability to keep himself safe just because he isn't of age."

"Still... that's so cool, Harry... so, you could have Apparated over here if you'd wanted to? Did you?" asked Ron eagerly.

"No, I took the fireplace," Harry said. "They gave me a quick course in Apparation customs and manners, and they said it's always better to take the fireplace if you can, because it's not as jarring when people appear there."

Arthur nodded. "Pretty much the same things they tell you at the Apparation Test Center when you get your license. Oh, I don't want to forget to ask. Did they gamble on anything while you were there? Kingsley sometimes tries to get me to join these pools they get going. I tell him that I'll join their pools when I get an Auror's salary."

"Yes, they did. I hadn't known they gambled so much. They had a pool on how quickly I would learn to Apparate."

Molly and Arthur laughed. "Leave it to them..." said Arthur. "So who won, how much money, and with what guess?"

"Tonks, a hundred Galleons, and she said I'd do it on the first try."

Now, the adults were the ones who were extremely impressed. "First try? It took me over two hours," said Arthur. Harry explained why he and Kingsley thought he did it so quickly. "That makes sense," Arthur agreed, "but it's still very impressive. Of course, it's nothing next to what else you've done, but still... Good for Tonks, she must have been very happy."

"Speaking of which, how did it go with her, Harry?" asked a smiling Hermione.

"Pretty well. I tried to take your advice, and it was fun. The other Aurors knew what she was doing, and they thought it was pretty funny. Like, on the second day, she asked me to take a walk with her, and she held my hand the whole time. It was kind of nice, actually. She spent most of the walk giving me advice on what to do when I do get a girlfriend. I just hope I can remember it all."

"So, after learning to Apparate, what did you do?" asked Ron, who seemed less interested in what happened with Tonks than the others.

"I learned how to move around multiple objects at once, so I can hopefully block Killing Curses if I have to. Then in the afternoon, it was dueling." He explained his request to the Aurors, and told about how Neville came to be involved.

"Oh, that was so good of you, Harry," Hermione gushed. "Neville must have been thrilled." Ron looked like he was trying to appear nonchalant but doing very badly, which Hermione noticed as well. "Come on, Ron, he can't always ask for you or I in those situations. It made perfect sense to ask for Neville. He and Harry are about the same skill level dueling, and Neville's parents were Aurors. He deserved it."

"I don't begrudge him that," said a somewhat chastened Ron. "I just wish it could have been all of us. That would have been so cool..."

"I would have liked to have had all of you, Ron, believe me," said Harry. "They wouldn't have taken anyone but Neville. They're kind of fussy about who visits their training area, but Cassandra has a soft spot for Neville, and she was really surprised when I told her that Neville was the sixth-year dueling champion. So, not only did he stay for the afternoon's lesson on dueling, but she asked him to stay for the remaining two days as well." He then launched into the full version of his Auror visit. He had to remember to take bites of his food before it got cold. After ten minutes, he finished.

"That sounds so great, Harry," said Ginny. "But even better than how cool it is, is how it'll help if you have to fight anybody. I'm really glad that you'll be safer."

"Yeah, me too. Now I feel like I at least have an even shot against a Death Eater, if they're not too strong a one. Oh, that reminds me, they also showed me how to put down an anti-Disapparation field. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do one strong enough to stop any of them from Disapparating. Of course, they're Aurors, so I shouldn't have expected to be able to, so fast. They say I'll get better with more training. I was wondering if I could try it on you two," he said to Arthur and Molly. "I want to know if what I have so far will work on non-Aurors."

"Sure, Harry," said Arthur. He stood and Apparated over to the living room. Harry walked over, and put up the field. After a few seconds, Arthur said, "You did it. I tried to Disapparate but couldn't." He walked back to the table. Harry sat down, satisfied.

"Now, bear in mind, I'm not one of the strongest wizards in the world," added Arthur. "And with my job being what it is, I don't have much occasion to practice. But it's still very good that you can do that much, after a very short time."

"Thanks," said Harry. "I just want to get it to the point where I can stop most Death Eaters from getting away."

"I'm not sure how much good that's going to do, they'll just get away from custody anyway," grumbled Molly.

"Maybe not for long," replied Arthur. "I heard today that they may be taking stronger measures against the ones they have in custody."

"Yes, they were talking about that, at lunch on Sunday," said Harry. To the others, he explained, "The escape on Halloween of the ones they caught in the Department of Mysteries made the Aurors really angry, apparently. The way they talked about it sounded like they don't trust the Ministry to keep guard over these people. Apparently some Aurors want to keep custody of Death Eaters themselves, while some don't want their time taken up by doing that sort of thing. They had an argument at the dining table."

Arthur nodded. "The problem is, we're so used to putting people in Azkaban, we neglected to develop any kind of professional system of secure incarceration. We're going to have to work on that, but the Ministry is dragging its feet. Or was, at least, until the escape. Now, some people are talking about more extreme measures."

"What sort of extreme measures?" asked Hermione.

"For example, putting them under sedation, or some types of spell or potions that affect their ability to move, or act quickly," said Arthur. "Some people are even seriously suggesting that they be put under the Imperius Curse, so they would actually resist attempts by their comrades to break them out. Most people in the Ministry don't approve of that-there is quite a taboo around the Imperius Curse, given that it's one of the Unforgivable Curses-but the fact that it's even being discussed is an indication of how seriously the situation is being taken."

"The Aurors seem to have different opinions about it," added Harry. "A few support the use of the Imperius Curse, but most don't. A few think nothing should be done that affects the prisoners' rights, that we just have to develop a better system of keeping people locked up. The others say there's no time for that, that we can't afford to lose captured Death Eaters while they try to work out a better system. I got the impression that they've had a few arguments about it."

"I'm not surprised," said Arthur. "People who harmed or killed Aurors would be the ones escaping, so they would naturally have strong opinions about it."

"As I listened to them talk," said Harry, "I couldn't help but think, Hermione, of-"

"Of that day in Hogsmeade, the day before the attack," she finished. "Yes, me too, it's almost exactly like that." She explained to the others what they had talked about. "So, the question is, do we do what's expedient, that may save more lives and enhance our security, or do we impose measures we normally wouldn't, measures that could lead down a path to a police state? It's a very serious issue, and judging from our History of Magic lectures, one that almost every generation has to deal with."

"But the situation is so serious now, I think we have to risk leaning a bit in that direction," said Molly. "Our society's freedom is at stake. If Voldemort wins, we won't have the luxury of debating what measures to take against prisoners. I don't approve of the use of the Imperius Curse, but as long as Voldemort is around, something stronger needs to be done, even if it's not what we'd normally do."

"Molly and I have already had discussions about this," said Arthur. "I wouldn't go as far as she does, but I recognize the validity of her point. That's why it's such a hard issue; the practical aspects can't be dismissed so easily. To just say 'prisoners' rights must be respected' and leave it at that just seems very pie-in-the-sky right now. The slippery-slope argument doesn't seem that important, but I still think it is." Hermione explained the phrase to her fellow students.

"What do you think, Harry?" asked Ginny.

"I'm not sure; the Aurors never asked Neville or I what we thought. Maybe they thought it would be rude to involve us. But just based on what I'm hearing now, I think I'm very close to your mother's opinion. Not that I don't see your father's point, but it has to be a first priority that no more of them escape. Not only because they'll kill people who they otherwise wouldn't if they escape, but if they think they can escape so easily, they'll be really brazen about doing what they want, they won't care about getting caught because they'll always be sure they can escape. That attitude on their parts could lead to even more deaths."

"Exactly, Harry," said Molly emphatically. "Just exactly what I said to Arthur a few days ago. We can't risk that."

"What do you think, Hermione?" asked Arthur.

Hermione looked a little nervous. "For one thing, I think you're asking me because you think I'll think the same way as you," she said, smiling apologetically.

Arthur smiled back. "I keep hearing about how clever you are, Hermione. I see that it's well deserved. And?"

She took a deep breath. "And you're right, I feel very much like you do. Too much has happened in history once people started down this path for me to feel comfortable with it. And like Mr. Weasley," she said to the others, especially Molly and Harry, "I'm not saying that we should do nothing we wouldn't normally do. I know how serious the situation is. But we have to be really, really careful what we do, or before you know it, we'll be rounding up all known werewolves just to be on the safe side."

Harry was very surprised. "What do werewolves have to do with it?"

"The point Hermione's making, and it's a good one," explained Arthur, "is that once you have an atmosphere where you start doing things you wouldn't usually do, it opens the door for people who want to take advantage of it to push their own fears and prejudices, and to gain power in doing so. Once you take away the rights or liberties of one group, it's that much easier to do it to another. I think she picked werewolves to bring the point home to you a bit better, since you're close to Remus. Remember, Harry, Dolores Umbridge was able to push through that anti-werewolf legislation a few years ago, the one that made Remus's already difficult life much worse. And that was in an atmosphere of no particular danger or alert. What if people started saying that werewolves were more likely to be Dark wizards, and were starting to bite people to gain more recruits? What if it was believed? People will believe a lot in an atmosphere of fear, and politicians will be quick to exploit that. What Hermione suggests may be unlikely to happen, but it's not at all inconceivable." Arthur went on to give a brief lecture on the subject on the fate of Japanese-Americans during World War II. "Far more than ninety-nine percent of those people were loyal American citizens, but they lost four years of their lives and freedom because of their race. The Americans ignored their own laws to do what they did, and most people agreed with it, or didn't debate it strongly. I could give you many, many other historical examples."

Even though she disagreed with him, Molly looked at her husband fondly. "You don't want to get Arthur started on this, he'll talk for hours. He got Outstanding N.E.W.T.s in History of Magic and Muggle Studies. He reads Muggle history books, so I know he knows what he's talking about. I know he has a good point. I just think if we're conscious of the danger, we can avoid it."

"The problem is, Molly, that while you and I may be conscious of the danger, most people won't be. I mean, Harry is rallying people to say Voldemort's name. That's an easy idea to understand, and the reason for it is obvious. But what if he was rallying people to be careful of what measures we take that could deprive people of their liberties? It's a very conceptual, nuanced argument, and if people don't have a good grasp of history, they won't get it. The demagogues shouting about safety would drown Harry out, and people would dismiss him as some nut who doesn't care that people are dying, his personal bravery and accomplishments notwithstanding. If people aren't aware of the danger, the leadership has to be. If Dumbledore were Minister of Magic, I'd be more confident. But Fudge is just the type who'd take whatever harsh measures that seemed to be justified, with no sense of perspective. He'll follow where people lead him."

There was silence for a few seconds as people digested this. Then Molly said, "Well, at least it's good that we're having this discussion, that's what people should be doing. Harry, dear, you may want to think about this some more, get a clearer feeling about what your opinion is. You're a prominent public figure, and you may be asked about it if the subject becomes a bigger issue. People will listen to what you say. They may not agree, of course, but they'll listen."

Harry's head was swimming; he still didn't have a definite opinion on the subject, and it seemed like something that he shouldn't be deciding, that it should be for people smarter than him. The problem was, Arthur and Hermione were saying that the smart people wouldn't be the ones making the decisions, and he could see that was true, based on what had happened last year. He was also very affected, as Hermione had obviously intended, by what she had said about Remus. He hated to think of Remus locked up for no reason, as hard a life as he had already had. Could stronger measures against prisoners really lead to that? He didn't want to think so, but the people at the table who knew history best seemed to think it was possible. But the idea of more Death Eaters escaping was also terrible. "I just don't know," he finally said. "It seems like we're stuck between equally bad choices. I still think that it's extremely important that we keep the Death Eaters locked up, but I don't want to ignore Hermione and Arthur's concerns, either. One thing I want to do is talk to Remus about this. I'd be very interested to know what he thinks."

"Well, you'll be able to find out, Harry," said Molly. "He'll be joining us for dinner sometime later this week. I'd like to know what he thinks, too." She stood up and started clearing the dishes.

Arthur got up as well. "I'm going upstairs for a bit, so you four can have the living room. See you later," he said as he left the room. Harry and the others headed for the living room.

They had all just entered it when Hermione wheeled on Ron, looking angry, to Harry's great surprise. "All right, Ron, exactly what is your problem?"

Ron reacted as though he'd been slapped for no reason. "What? What are you talking about?"

"You were pouting all through dinner," Hermione said. "You barely heard a word we said about the prisoner situation."

Ron was still mystified, or acting like it. "I didn't have anything to say! Is there something wrong with that?"

"Hermione's right, Ron," added Ginny. "You were really unhappy, it was totally obvious. I was surprised Mum or Dad didn't say anything."

"You're upset," Hermione continued, "because Harry asked Neville to visit the Aurors with him instead of you. What have you got against Neville? Do you think you're more deserving of it than him?"

"Of course not!" Ron almost shouted. He looked at Hermione as if she were a bit loopy, and Harry could understand why. Then Ron angrily said, "I don't have to listen to this," and headed for the door.

Hermione, standing closer, blocked it with her body. "You're not going anywhere until you tell me what your problem is."

Ron couldn't believe it. "This is my house! I can leave the room if I want to!" Hermione just stared at him, angry, unmoving. They stared at each other for a few seconds.

"Hermione," said Harry tentatively, "if he doesn't want to talk about it-"

"Stay out of this, Harry," she said vehemently. Harry immediately decided not to say another word.

Finally Ron walked to the sofa and flopped down onto it. Ginny sat down next to him. "Ron, I admit I don't know what Hermione's so upset about, but it was pretty obvious that you were upset at dinner. If you could tell us-"

"It has absolutely nothing to do with Neville, that's for sure," said Ron, looking angrily at Hermione. Ginny looked at him expectantly. Ron moaned, obviously feeling trapped. "Look," he said to Ginny, almost pleading. "You know I'd rather have teeth pulled than talk about this kind of thing. I just... got upset, that's all. I'll deal with it, it'll be fine. Just leave me alone."

Harry wished for Ron's sake they would, but Hermione obviously wasn't going to let it go. "Ron, you were angry at either Neville or Harry, and neither of them deserves it. I want to know which one, and why."

"Hermione, I said I'd get over it! Since when do we have to have some big conversation about it? This kind of thing has always worked itself out without that," argued Ron.

"Yeah, look how well it worked itself out in fourth year, when Harry got stuck in the Triwizard competition," said Hermione in a low but angry voice. "You two didn't talk for, what, a month? You know how hard that was for me, being in the middle of that? Trying to persuade you two idiots to just have one conversation, where you could have worked it out in just a few minutes, like eventually happened? But no, neither of you would talk to the other. I'm not going to have that happen again, Ron, so yes, we're going to talk about it. What is your problem? Are you mad that Harry asked Neville and not you?"

Ron had his head in his hands, clearly frustrated but also embarrassed, seeming to know that she would get out of him what she wanted to. "It's not like that, exactly," he said, finally dropping his defenses. "I mean, I felt a bit like that, but I know it was wrong. All the arguments are right, Neville's a better dueler than I am, and his parents... I know that. That feeling... I was jealous, I guess... would have gone away in just a minute. But it's something else." He paused, thinking. Harry almost ached with empathy for what Ron was going through, admitting something personal when it was the last thing he wanted to do.

Finally, Ron continued. "Harry's become a teacher. He goes off to the staff room, someplace we can't go. We do take the advanced lessons from Dumbledore with him, but only because he asked; Dumbledore would have just as soon given them to him alone. Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Snape talk to him about Order stuff, stuff that I'm sure he isn't allowed to talk to us about. Then this Auror thing. I just feel like..." He breathed heavily, then continued. "Like Harry's drifting away from us... from me. The whole wizarding society is grabbing for pieces of him, and there won't be enough to go around as it is. I remember the way it was with the three of us, and I feel like it won't ever be that way anymore." He paused, then glared at Hermione. "There. You happy now?"

Harry looked at Hermione, who was near tears. She ran over to the sofa, sat down next to Ron, and pulled him into a hug. "I'm sorry, Ron," she said through tears. "I'm really sorry, I had no idea..."

Fighting back emotion, Ron said, "Will you stop crying, you'll get me doing it."

Ginny was looking at Ron with great sympathy. "I think you know that Harry's never going to let that happen. He's not the type to get impressed by people grabbing for his attention, flattering him, whatever. He appreciates what the Aurors did because he wants to become one. But he resists being grabbed at pretty well. It's not going to happen."

"I kind of know that," said Ron, still being held by Hermione. "I know I'm being stupid, and that it's not going to happen like that. Like I said, I would have gotten over it. I guess it was just bad timing, and I didn't know I was being so obvious about how I felt."

Harry finally spoke. "Ron," he said quietly, "if someone asked me in an interview what the best day of my life was, I would say it was the day in first year when I took the Hogwarts Express to school. I made a friend, the first one I ever had." Now Ginny was almost crying as well. "I want you guys to be as much a part of my life as possible. I need you, I depend on you. You're what got me through the stuff this year. No matter how much I get pulled, I'm never going to-"

"All right, all right, Harry, I know," said Ron, withdrawing from Hermione's embrace, still fighting off his own tears. "Like I said, it would have gone away. Just a stupid feeling, is all it was."

"But it's still better to talk about things like that, Ron," said Hermione earnestly. "What if this kind of thing had happened more? You might have felt more and more like that, but not said anything, and started drifting away from Harry because of it. This can be the kind of thing that causes friendships to be lost. It really is a good idea to talk once in a while." Ron, still composing himself, had no reaction to Hermione's words.

"Sorry, Ron," said Harry. "I know you probably didn't need me to say that much, that you really knew it already. But it felt good to say it. So I suppose I was being selfish." Ron smiled, and the girls laughed.

"Yes, Harry, you're so well known for being selfish," Ginny teased. "So now, Hermione, since you practically pinned Ron down and forced him to say what he was thinking, I think it's only fair that you do too. You seemed to be angry at him way out of proportion to what was going on. Why were you so angry? What did you think he thought?"

"Well, I'm sure Ron doesn't care to know..." said Hermione hesitantly.

"No, after all that production, I really would like to know," said Ron. He looked at Hermione.

She sighed heavily. "I probably wouldn't have said anything, but now that I've done this, I suppose it's not fair of me not to tell you... I thought you were mad at Neville, that you didn't want him being more of a part of our group. He's been getting more comfortable with us, and us with him, and it's nice. This thing with Harry and the Aurors is bound to boost his confidence, make him feel better about himself, which he really needs. He's had a hard life. I thought that you were trying to shut him out."

Ron shook his head. "That was the last thing I was thinking, Hermione. I like Neville fine, I'm happy to have him as one of our group. It's nothing like that."

"I know, I know that now," she acknowledged. "And I'm sorry again for reacting like that."

"But why would you react like that anyway, Hermione?" asked Ginny. "Why would it be something that you would..." She trailed off as she saw the look on Hermione's face. "Oh, wow..." said Ginny suddenly, eyes wide.

"What?" asked Ron impatiently.

"I'm..." Hermione paused for a few seconds. "I have feelings for Neville which are more than friendship," she said. She looked around for people's reactions.

Harry felt totally stunned; he had not expected anything like this. "Wow... I had no idea..." He looked at Hermione, who looked anxious to know what people thought. "I'd never even thought about that before, but... Neville really is a good guy. I'm happy for you."

"Thank you, Harry, it means so much to me for you to say that. But this is still really early, I don't know what's going to happen. He doesn't know yet, of course. I'm kind of afraid to tell him. I don't know how he'll react."

"I would think he would be thrilled, Hermione," Harry said. Ginny nodded approvingly.

Hermione looked dubious. "I hope so, but you never know. Maybe he just doesn't look at me that way. Maybe he'll think he's not ready to have a girlfriend. I mean, Neville has gotten much less shy, but this is a pretty big thing. I just don't know what he'll do. I'm worried."

"I can understand that," agreed Ginny. "But I'm with Harry, I really think he'll be happy."

Ron looked like he was barely starting to understand what Hermione had said. "Well," he finally said, "I guess now I understand why you were so mad. I don't know what to say, Hermione, except that I hope it works out."

"Thank you, Ron," she said. "I'm glad you three feel like you do. I knew you would, I know we all like Neville, but I was still nervous, of course. I'm sure I still will be, until I tell him."

"You should tell him when we all get together," said Ginny enthusiastically. "There'll never be a better time for it, you know how hard it is to get privacy at the school. Just tell him you need to talk to him privately, take him into my room, and tell him. Maybe if he's interested, you could spend some time with him before school starts again, like you two could go to Diagon Alley together or something."

Hermione nodded. "That does make sense," she admitted. "I thought of that too. It's just... actually telling him is going to be nerve-wracking. I've never done anything like this before. Part of me would have preferred to put it off, but you're right, now is the best time."

"First the Aurors, then you... he'll think he's died and gone to heaven," Harry said, smiling.

"Oh, Harry, that's so sweet of you to say," Hermione said gratefully. "I hope you're right, I really do. Now I just want... what's the day he's coming over? Thursday? Now I just want Thursday to be here, so I don't have to worry about it anymore, it'll just be done. Oh, I'm so nervous."

"He will be too, Hermione, once you tell him," said Ron, grinning.

Harry nodded. "I think you can expect astonishment, a bit like I felt when Dumbledore asked me to take the teaching job. He may need you to confirm what you said. I mean, if any girl came up to me and said what you're going to say to him, I'd need some time to-"

"Run away?" asked Ginny, smiling. Ron laughed out loud.

"I'm the brave Harry Potter, I do not run away," he said with exaggerated dignity as the rest laughed. "Think about how I felt, is what I was going to say. Also think about whether I felt brave enough to have a girlfriend. At least that won't be something Neville has to worry about."

"How would you feel, Ron?" Ginny asked. Harry wasn't sure if she was really curious or just wanted to tease Ron.

"If it was Hermione, you mean?" he asked. Harry and Ginny laughed.

Hermione sniffed and said, "Oh, you're so nice, Ron, what girl wouldn't want you?" causing Harry and Ginny to laugh more.

"No, just a girl you liked," clarified Ginny, "but who you had no idea would be interested in you."

"I don't know... I suppose go out a few times and see what happened," Ron said. "It would really depend on who it was, of course. It's just hard to say."

There was silence for a minute. Then Ginny said, "Wow, this is so strange... Now even I feel like I can't wait for Thursday to get here, I want to know what happens. I can really understand how Hermione feels."

"Well, let's talk about something else," said Hermione. "Maybe I'll get distracted and I won't be so nervous." They talked about other things, and Harry showed them some of what he'd learned over the past few days. He, too, couldn't help but wonder what would happen on Thursday.

Harry woke up on Wednesday, Christmas morning, to see Ron still sleeping in his bed on the other side of the room. Harry could have stayed in Fred and George's old room, but he and Ron preferred to sleep in the same room so they could talk as late as they wanted. Harry started to walk out of the room quietly, but Ron said, "I'm up, just not up enough to get out of bed." Harry waited until Ron got up, and they went downstairs.

Everybody was at the dining room table, including Fred and George, who greeted Harry and Ron. "Oh, good, you're up, I was just about to call you down," said Molly, dishing out breakfast onto people's plates. "I remember when you lot were little, nothing could keep you from rushing to the tree and tearing your presents open."

"Sorry, Mum, but we grew up," said George.

"But we still have our boyish charm," added Fred.

"So how were your Christmas sales?" asked Harry as he sat down.

"Excellent, Harry, thank you for asking," said Fred. "Yesterday was our busiest day ever. The day before Christmas, so naturally, but it was still impressive. We hardly got a chance to sit down all day."

"Three months later, Harry, but people still mention your name, and what you said in that article," said George. "Thanks again."

"That did even better for us than the Special Services award," agreed Fred. "They don't mention those in the paper."

"Couldn't have had them mention us on the back of your Chocolate Frog card, though?" joked George. Harry laughed. "We don't usually sell them, but we're going to just for January. Not absolutely in keeping with the motif of the shop, mind you, but we're sure they're going to be a big seller. I just wish we could advertise it in the window now, let people know we'll have them, but they're not being announced until the day before they're actually released on the second of January."

"You should come down to the shop then, Harry, have a bit of a meet and greet with your adoring public," urged Fred. Ron and Ginny laughed at the idea that that was something Harry would want to do.

"Good idea, Fred," said Harry agreeably. "I haven't had nearly enough people stare at me all my life. Very thoughtful of you."

"It's no problem, Harry, really," said Fred.

"It's just the way we are," added George.

The conversation around the table mainly centered around the twins and their shop, as they weren't around the Burrow so much. After breakfast, everyone went into the living room and sat down near the tree. Harry enjoyed watching the Weasleys open their presents. Arthur was delighted with his gift from Harry: a portable compact-disc player, twenty batteries, and ten compact discs. Harry explained how the player worked, and the Weasleys were very interested in how the disc spun in the player. Harry said, "The twenty batteries won't last forever, of course... is there a way to recharge batteries by using magic?"

"I believe, Harry," said George, "that you have thrown down a gauntlet which Dad will not be able to stop himself from picking up."

"Now that I have something to use the batteries with, I think I'll find a way, Harry. Thank you very much," said Arthur.

"As for the compact discs," added Harry, "of course I didn't have a clue what you would like, so I told them your gender and age and had them include what's most common for people like you to buy."

"What age did you tell them he was, Harry?" asked Ginny, grinning.

"I knew someone was going to ask me that as soon as I said the word 'age,'" said Harry. "I thought it would be Fred or George, though."

"What, I can't have a go at you?" asked Ginny.

"Of course, Ginny. I wouldn't want you any other way." The Weasleys laughed. Then Molly said, "So, what age did you-"

She was interrupted by louder laughter from the rest of the family. Harry smiled at Molly. "You, too, I see... well, I'll whisper it to you, and you can tell them if I'm not off by more than five years." He leaned over and whispered, "Forty-eight." She chuckled and repeated it to the room. "Not bad, Harry," said Arthur. "Only off by one year, I'm forty-nine. I assume you went by the ages of the children."

Harry nodded. "I'm pretty bad at telling ages."

"Want to guess my age, Harry?" asked Molly, now enjoying herself. There was more laughter.

"Let's put it this way: I'd rather go down to Diagon Alley and sign autographs for an hour," Harry replied. Molly laughed and mussed his hair. She leaned forward and picked up a card, which was Harry's gift to her. She opened it up. Harry had written: "Dear Molly, I lost my mother at a very young age. But I was lucky, because I found another really good one later on. You've always been so good to me, and I wanted to let you know how important it's been to me. Thank you very much for everything you've done for me. I love you. Love, Harry."

She turned to him, eyes already moist with tears, and pulled him to her, hugging him tightly. "I love you too, Harry," she said. Harry hugged her back tightly, and whispered, "I really mean it." She nodded, looked at him proudly, and kissed him on the cheek. Arthur had picked up and read the card silently. "That was very sweet, Harry, thank you," he said, smiling.

Ginny was smiling as well. "I assume, Harry, that whatever you wrote is something you couldn't have managed to write last year?" Harry chuckled. "Yes, that's safe to say," he agreed. He saw the twins grin at each other but say nothing.

Molly reached and took two more cards, from Harry to Ron and Ginny, and handed them over. Taking in their expressions, Fred said, "This should be good. Ginny is hoping Harry said something to her like he said to Mum-"

"-and Ron is afraid that he did," finished George.

Ginny opened hers first, and read silently. Harry had written, "Dear Ginny, I really do wish you were the same year as us. You're as important to me as anyone, and I'm very happy for whatever time we get to spend with you. I'm glad you like my new direction. You're great, and I love you. Love, Harry." She smiled and stepped over for her hug. "It's a very, very good direction, Harry," she said as she hugged him.

As she stepped back, George said, "Yes, I think Ron's looking pretty nervous right about now."

Ron gave them an annoyed look and opened his card. To Harry's surprise, he read his out loud. "Dear Ron, I wanted to express my gratitude for your friendship, but I know that emotional displays make you uncomfortable. I respect that, and so I won't write anything that would embarrass you. I'll just say Happy Christmas, and have a good year. Regards, Harry. P.S. I love you."

The Weasleys burst out in loud laughter, and even Ron laughed after giving Harry an obligatory annoyed look. "Oh, Harry, that was really good," Ginny said between laughs. "Very well done."

Harry felt wonderful. This is what Christmas should be like, he thought. He felt very lucky.

"Hey, there's something in mine," said Ron. He took out a small piece of paper and started reading it. "There's one in Ginny's, too," Harry said. "It's the same thing. They're gift certificates for a department store in London, I mean Muggle London, of course. I was hoping we could all go, you could use those, we could make a day of it."

"That's very nice, Harry," said Ginny. "The card is the best gift, though."

"Somehow I don't think Ron's going to be inclined to agree with that," said George.

"In the amount of one hundred pounds," read Ron from the certificate. "How much is that in Galleons?"

"I thought you weren't supposed to ask how much a gift cost," replied Harry with amusement. Ron rolled his eyes. "I'm pretty sure it's less than what your father's stuff cost, if that makes you feel any better," Harry half-assured, half-chided Ron. "I just thought it might be interesting for you to go shopping in a Muggle store. You can get all types of stuff, that's the good thing about department stores. So you should be able to find something you like."

"So, when should we go?" asked Ron. Harry was grateful that he had dropped the subject of the cost, for now at least.

"How about Friday?" asked Ginny. "Tomorrow we have everyone coming over, so that's probably the best time." Harry and Ron agreed. They continued opening presents, but Harry felt that just being at the Burrow was the best gift he could have hoped for.

The rest of Christmas Day was equally pleasant; Harry entertained Fred and George by showing more of what the Aurors had taught him. Ron expressed frustration that as he was still underage, he couldn't practice dueling with Harry until they got back to Hogwarts. Fred and George could, but neither of them lasted more than ten seconds against Harry, to Ron's amusement. ("Well, we didn't get any instruction in seventh year, did we?" pointed out George.) They flew around on their brooms for a while, fooling around, doing Quidditch moves, Ginny having joined them. "We just need two more Chasers, and we've got a pretty good Quidditch team here," said George. Later they had a large and filling Christmas dinner, also attended by Bill and Charlie. Harry thought he saw on Molly's face a few times her sadness at Percy's absence, but she never said anything about it. Harry hoped that she and Arthur weren't arguing about it.

That evening, they all sat in the living room drinking eggnog and talking. At one point, they were interrupted by the sound of what was obviously a boggart in a large chest in the corner. Molly got up to get rid of it, but Harry asked her to leave it for him to do tomorrow. He explained that he was thinking of using a boggart in a few of his classes, as Lupin had, and wanted to practice on this one first. She agreed, and from then on their conversation was punctuated by the occasional thump. Harry was pleased to see that Arthur had already been working on the compact disc player; not only had he discovered how to recharge the batteries, but had found a way to play the audio over the air, even in the absence of speakers. One of the compact discs had been of Christmas songs, and they listened to that as they talked. Again, Harry couldn't have felt more at home.

At 4:00 on Thursday, Harry, Ron, and Ginny sat in the Weasley living room, waiting for their guests. Fawkes had joined Harry, and was currently on his shoulder. At a few minutes before four, Pansy walked out of the fireplace. She cheerfully greeted them, and sat down with them and talked. Neville showed up five minutes later, and Hermione five minutes after that. Harry felt that Hermione was dressed a little more nicely than was usual for her, but he thought it could have been his imagination. Neville and Pansy were given a tour of the house, after which they sat and talked in the living room until dinner.

Pansy and Neville seemed a bit overwhelmed by the experience, especially at dinner. "I don't think I've ever eaten with this many people, except at Hogwarts," she said, and was seconded by Neville.

"Oh, this isn't that much, Pansy," said Molly, just sitting down after making sure everyone had enough food. "It used to be that we had more than this, just with the immediate family."

"I'm an only child," Pansy said. "It must be interesting to be in such a large family. I guess it hasn't been quiet around here most of the time."

Molly nodded. "I must admit I'm dreading Ginny leaving home," she said wistfully. "There have been children here for over twenty-five years. The idea of just Arthur and I here makes me sad. No offense, dear."

Arthur chuckled in response. "That's all right, I know I'm not the most exciting person in the world," he said with a smile. "That's what the kids were for."

Molly continued, "I must say, we were hoping to have a grandchild by now, but no such luck. I try not to badger Bill and Charlie about not being married yet."

"I'm sure they appreciate your restraint, dear," said Arthur wryly. She frowned at him as Ron and Ginny chuckled.

"Seven children, you'd expect we'd have loads of grandchildren," she said. "Within ten years, for sure. Ron, Ginny, Harry, keep that in mind." Harry looked a bit startled to be included. "Yes, Harry," she said to him, "you are a member of this family, after all. Any child you have, I will consider a grandchild, so you remember that."

Harry saw Hermione and Pansy looking at him fondly, obviously touched by what Molly had said. "I will, Molly," he said. "As soon as Voldemort's dealt with, I'll get right on it."

"I know you're joking, but I hope you won't wait for that. We have to live our lives, after all. Even you, target on your head notwithstanding." Harry just nodded, as it was easier than arguing.

"Don't worry, Harry, nothing's going to happen to you," said Hermione. "You have us, remember?"

"Yes, it's hard to argue with that," he conceded. "Actually, that reminds me of something I wanted to mention at some point. Something the Aurors said. We were talking, and somehow the subject of how you guys saved me at Hogsmeade came up. Neville said, 'Thank goodness we had already studied the Diffusion Shield.' They just looked at each other like they knew something we didn't. I spent the next few minutes trying to get them to tell me what they were thinking. Finally Cassandra said that the Diffusion Shield is, as far as they're concerned, a much less important spell, because of how rarely it comes into use. They were very surprised that Dumbledore taught it to us at all, never mind in the first lesson. She said they all thought that Dumbledore taught it to us specifically so that it could be used to save me, and for no other reason."

There was silence around the table, and many surprised looks. Finally Molly said, "Well, neither Arthur nor I are experts on this sort of thing, but isn't it possible that Dumbledore just has a different opinion of this spell than they do, and he just thought it was a good thing for them to know?"

"I asked that," said Neville. "They dismissed the idea immediately. They seemed really sure, and they are the experts on this sort of thing. They're absolutely sure that he taught it to us so we could save Harry. I said, 'so, even if he did, what's wrong with that?' Cassandra said that they thought it was morally questionable, since because the shield's effect against the Killing Curse was so unpredictable, just teaching us the spell was like deliberately putting our lives at risk. They're sure he wouldn't have taught it to us if not for Harry."

"But that doesn't make sense," said Hermione. "If I'd been the one targeted, you guys would have done it for me, including Harry, then he would be at the same risk we had been."

"Harry said that," said Neville. "They said that the whole point is that Dumbledore had to know, or could guess very accurately, that Harry would be the one targeted. They said, Harry's the Death Eaters' number one target, and if they can take a shot at anyone, it's totally obvious it'll be Harry. Harry and I thought of three or four arguments, and they shot down each one. They were really sure. Kingsley said, 'It worked out for the best, so maybe this is just Dumbledore being wise beyond what we can understand. But it seemed like an awful chance. Neville and the others could be dead.' Of course I told him I was glad he taught it to us, and the rest of you were too. He said, 'I know, that's what makes it morally questionable.'"

"So, that's kind of bothered me," Harry said. "I mean, it's hard enough for me to accept people risking their lives for me, much as I appreciate what you did," and he looked at Ron, Hermione, and Neville in turn. "But the idea that he deliberately put you at such huge risk for my sake is kind of disturbing."

"But Harry, he didn't put us at risk," protested Hermione. "We did that, we chose to. All he was doing was giving us the means to do what he knew we would have wanted to do. He knew we would want to take the risk. If there was a safer way of stopping the Killing Curse, he would have taught it to us. But there isn't, so he did what he could. You told us that he's been conscience-stricken many times after asking or allowing people to take risks that ended up getting them killed, but that he also understood that those people made their own choices and were proud of them. He understands that, and I'm sure he would have been terribly upset if we had been killed, and blamed himself. But he also knew it was our choice, and that we would want the ability to make the choice we wanted. I don't see anything morally questionable about that."

"I told them that was how I felt," said Neville, "and that you and Ron would too. And I don't mean to exclude you two," he said, looking at Pansy and Ginny, "because I know you would have done it if you'd been there. Anyway, I got kind of annoyed, because it was as though I wasn't responsible for what I did, as if you two and I were Dumbledore's puppets or something. I said that even if he did do it deliberately, there was still nothing wrong with it, because Harry has to be kept alive, at any cost. If he's the one who can beat Voldemort, losing a hundred people to keep him alive is worth it."

Harry looked mortified. "God, Neville, don't say that, I can't even deal with thinking about that. I don't know if I could function if that happened."

The rest looked at him sympathetically. Ron said, "I agree with Neville, of course, both about the Diffusion Shield and keeping Harry alive. It could end up saving hundreds or thousands of lives. You could easily argue that what Dumbledore did was for the greater good, and so morally okay."

"I agree, of course, Ron," said Arthur. "But you have to keep in mind that it's possible for something to be for the greater good and still be morally questionable. Remember our conversation from Monday night." He briefly summarized it for Neville and Pansy, who hadn't been there, then continued. "In fact, quite often what is for the greater good is morally questionable. So they have a reasonable point."

"It does seem to me," said Molly, "that when they have that discussion, they forget how many lives Dumbledore is holding in his hands, so to speak. Fudge may have the political authority, but Dumbledore is the one with the moral authority, the one people will die for. That's a huge burden, one I doubt they fully appreciate. He has to think about who will die because of what he did, or because of what he didn't do. Like Neville said, Harry's life could be worth hundreds. Maybe that doesn't affect the strict question of whether what Dumbledore did was moral or not, but it's ridiculous to not consider it at all. If you're responsible for the lives that are lost, of course you're going to consider it."

Everyone seemed to agree with this, and no one said anything for a moment. Then Harry said. "Anyway, I will ask Dumbledore about this thing with the Diffusion Shield. Much as I hate to see you risk your lives like that, I understand how you feel, since I'd want to for you, I'd want to know I had that option. So I'm not going to be angry at him for helping you risk your lives. I just want to know how he would respond to the Aurors' feelings about it."

There was silence for a few seconds, as no one had anything more to say on the topic. Then Pansy asked, "Mr. Weasley, you work for the Ministry... what's the attitude there right now? How do they feel about what Harry's doing?"

"It may be that I'm not the best person to ask, Pansy," said Arthur, "because it's so well known that Harry's very close to us, nobody's going to say anything bad about Harry directly to me. But some people tell me what others say. It seems that a lot of people admire and support him. But the problem is, some of those people-who I don't necessarily doubt are telling the truth-are the same ones who were fine with the trashing he took in the Prophet last year. So his support may be wide, as they say, but I'm not sure how deep it is. There are plenty of opportunists, people who'll flow whichever way the wind is blowing. Still, it's an improvement over last year. We just have to hope the wind doesn't change direction."

"It's not likely to, is it?" Pansy asked. "I mean, now that everyone knows that Voldemort's back, isn't the Ministry going to be focused on stopping him?"

"I hope so, Pansy, and probably yes," replied Arthur. "I've just been at the Ministry too long to take anything for granted. I mean, I should explain, I work there but I don't have a lot to do with it. See, I'm well known for being fond of Muggles-too fond, many think-and I'm happy to work in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, which is considered a career backwater, someplace you get put if you're not in favor. I have no chance of advancing, and I don't care. I'm happy with what I do, and I'd want no part of high-level politics anyway. My point is, my only real connection to the Ministry is that I work there, not because of any influence I might have over anything. But of course I hear a lot of things. And yes, they are focused on stopping Voldemort, but people still jockey for influence, and put their personal interests above stopping Voldemort. Some people, anyway." He had an especially dark look.

"Wonder who he means," said Ginny to Ron, quietly. Ron grunted in agreement.

"That's enough, you two," said Molly.

"It's not only him," said Arthur. "I didn't even mean him specifically, but the shoe fits. It's a lot of people, and it gets stronger the higher up the ladder you go."

"Excuse me, I'm sorry," said Pansy, "but... him who?"

Molly looked upset at Ron, Ginny, and Arthur. Arthur didn't appear to be bothered, though he could obviously tell. "Sorry, Pansy, I know you and maybe Neville don't know about this. Hermione, you do, of course." She nodded somberly. "Everybody at the Ministry knows, Molly, I don't see why it should be any secret."

"I know it's not a secret, it's just not something I like to discuss at the dinner table," replied Molly unhappily. She clearly knew an explanation had to be given.

"They're talking about Percy, our third son," said Arthur. He went on to explain what had happened. "So he'll probably rise fairly quickly in the Ministry, since his actions have made it clear to Fudge and people like him that it's the Ministry's interests he'll look out for and nobody else's, including his family. It's hard for us, it's almost like having a death in the family. Now he talks to Molly occasionally, since she's the only family member who'll talk to him without an apology on his part. He acts like he wants to be a part of the family again, and maybe he does, but he seems to have no concept of how he betrayed us, and no remorse for it. I can't forgive him for what he did unless he understands it was wrong. If he really doesn't think it was wrong, then there's just nothing to say."

"Harry, dear," said Molly, who then smiled sadly at the look of alarm that crossed Harry's face. "I'm sorry, I can see that you don't want to be asked, but you are a family member, and I want to know what you think."

"Are you sure you don't know some people who'd like autographs instead?" he nervously joked, then paused before speaking. "Molly, I don't blame you for feeling like you do. He's your son, and I can't know what that feels like. But me, I'm like them, I wouldn't talk to him unless he'd realized what he'd done. He knew me personally, he knew I wasn't some nutter. He knew Dumbledore, what kind of person he is. He made a deliberate choice, and because of people like him, we got a late start on fighting Voldemort. Who knows how many lives that could cost. He chose himself over you, over what was right. It's not too late for anyone to change their choices, and if he did, I'd welcome him, if I thought he was genuine. People make mistakes. But to me, to forgive what he did to the family that easily means that it didn't matter. It matters a lot, I think."

Molly looked at him, then said, "Don't worry, Harry, I'm not going to be angry at you. Everyone else in the family has said what you said, more or less. I see the point, of course. It's just harder for me to see it that way. Maybe mothers are just too soft. And while I'll talk to him without preconditions, I did make sure he knew he couldn't be welcomed back until he had made substantial amends. I think he wants to, he just can't get himself to do it. Too much pride."

"He only wants to," said Ron heatedly, "because we're on the right side now, as far as he's concerned. If Fudge hadn't seen Voldemort with his own eyes, Percy would still be laughing along with the people sticking it to Harry and Dumbledore in the Prophet. You remember what he said about Harry in that letter."

"Well, I think this is enough of that," Molly said. "Pansy, Neville, Hermione, you shouldn't have had to listen to that." She cast a stern glance at Ginny, who she obviously held responsible for starting the topic.

"It's all right, Mrs. Weasley," said Neville. "We don't mind. We feel bad for you, but we don't mind."

Molly smiled at him. "Thank you, Neville, you're a sweetie." Harry exchanged a smile with Hermione. "You know," said Molly, no doubt eager for a chance to change the subject, "we had a chance to talk to your grandmother in November. She's a very distinguished lady. And she was very proud of you."

"I know, she told me," said Neville embarrassedly. "But I think she was as proud of me for mentioning my parents in the article as she was for me helping to save Harry."

"I read that, Neville," said Pansy. "That was very brave of you. You knew that what happened later would happen. I'm sure that wasn't easy." She went on to explain to Arthur and Molly what had happened in the Herbology class.

"It shouldn't take that much bravery, really," said Neville. "Especially by sixth year, it's not the kind of thing most people are going to make fun of you for. They know better by then. I should know enough not to care what people like Malfoy say. Anyway, Harry's been taking stuff off him for years. He deals with it."

"He never made fun of my having lost my parents, though," pointed out Harry.

"C'mon, Harry, you're the Boy Who Lived," replied Neville. "If he had, the whole school would've beaten him to death. He knew he couldn't do that. But he would've if he could've."

"He did in the Slytherin common room," said Pansy. "Even there it wasn't really popular. But anyway, Neville, I still think it was brave."

"We all think so, Neville," said Hermione. Molly nodded.

"Well, fortunately, most people have been really good about it, so that was nice," said Neville. "Not that I'm eager for unsolicited sympathy, as I've already told these three, but I know they mean well."

There seemed to be nothing more to say on that topic, so Arthur tried a new one. "Say, I noticed there were quite a few owls this morning. Did we just get a lot of mail, or-"

"That was Harry," said Ginny. "Thank-you letters from his first years." To their parents' quizzical looks, she explained what he had done. "I think he got about twenty-five or so."

"It was almost embarrassing," said Harry. "No, not almost, it was embarrassing. I have a very hard time getting used to stuff like that."

"I read some of it, and I thought it was great," said Ginny. "Okay, they got a bit carried away, but I enjoyed reading it."

"I can only imagine what his Slytherins said," said Pansy. "Sometimes I talk to them in their dormitories. I do get the impression that Harry is a godlike figure to them." She smiled at him teasingly. "I encourage this sort of thinking, of course."

The Weasleys, Hermione, and Neville all laughed, while Harry stared at her, trying to pretend to be annoyed. "I love to tease Harry," continued Pansy. "But really, Harry, they put you on a Chocolate Frog card, you drove Voldemort off, you invented this great new spell, and they're eleven years old. Can you really expect any other reaction? Not to mention, they get a personalized card from you. Not only legendary, but thoughtful too. I wouldn't mind seeing those letters either, come to think of it."

"Maybe if you promise not to make fun of me," said Harry.

"C'mon, that would be the best part," replied Pansy. "You're cute when you're embarrassed."

"I think I remember Tonks saying that on the last day," said Neville, smiling.

"Now, don't you start," Harry said, pointing a finger at Neville, to more laughter. He sighed. "This would be so much easier if I were egotistical."

"If you were egotistical, Harry, they wouldn't love you the way they do," said Arthur. "They can tell that you're not."

"Well, why is it that I can't enjoy that kind of thing?" Harry asked, almost plaintively. "It just embarrasses me. You'd think someone who people felt that way about would just enjoy it. All I want to do is run away."

Nobody spoke for a moment. Then Hermione said seriously, "Does that bother you, Harry? That you can't enjoy it?"

Harry shrugged. "I'm not sure I would say that, exactly, but I guess it makes me feel like there's something wrong with me, like this isn't how most people would react."

To Harry's surprise, Ron spoke. "Not everyone can be Lockhart, mate. I'd be embarrassed too, I think. But now the problem is, it's not just being the Boy Who Lived anymore. You did something phenomenal in September-sorry, I know you don't like hearing that, but it's true-and now even if somebody exaggerates when they praise you, there's at least some truth in there. I think one problem is that you don't see what you did in September the same way others do. I mean, Hermione and I were awestruck, and we know you better than anybody. We know your faults and flaws, we have a perspective. Most people don't know you like that. They only see the stuff that's amazing, and they probably think that's the way you are in every way. So they don't see the ordinary parts of you, and you don't see the exceptional parts of you. No wonder you and they see you so differently."

Everyone looked at Ron. "That was very impressive, Ron," said Hermione, clearly trying not to sound like her compliment was a backhanded put-down. "He's right, of course, Harry. You may need to adjust your ego to account for the impressiveness of what you did. Then you might be able to enjoy it a little. Of course, you shouldn't enjoy it too much, either. There's not much danger of that, though. But you did something remarkable. There's no reason you should have to be embarrassed about enjoying it, or enjoying the reactions from it."

"Harry, I'm sorry," said Pansy, looking serious. "I shouldn't have made fun of you being so modest. I didn't know this actually bothered you. Maybe I should just give up making fun of anybody, altogether."

"No! Don't do that," said Harry urgently, surprising her. "Pansy, I like it that you tease me the way you do. It's how I know you're comfortable with me. I'd be really upset if you stopped. You're getting down on yourself again about your past, but this is nothing like that. You mean it affectionately." He looked into her eyes.

She looked back for a few seconds, then smiled. "You're cute when you're earnest, Harry." He smiled back. "Yes, you're right, I do bring up my past too quickly when I beat myself up about something. It's just so easy to do. So I'll try not to, and you work on that modesty thing."

Harry reluctantly nodded. "Okay, I'll try, if only so you'll stop beating yourself up."

Molly smiled. "So, you two have only known each other for three months now? Seems like a lot longer."

Pansy explained how they'd met once or twice a week to talk, and why. "It's been a very concentrated three months. So it feels like a lot longer." She sighed, then said, "Oh, I dread January. Malfoy gets out of his little prison, and I have to start acting like I care again." She looked at Harry sharply, as if in warning.

"What did he do?" asked Neville curiously.

"It's what he was going to do," replied Pansy.

"I wasn't going to!" Harry protested.

"Yes, but you wanted to."

"Yes, but I didn't. Don't I get some credit for that?"

Now she smiled, and explained to the rest. "Harry wants me to come out in the open, because he cares more for my comfort than for his safety. But I still think that Malfoy wants to kill him if he gets a chance, so I won't come out in the open. I can do a lot of good where I am. But Harry, you need to understand," she said, sounding serious now, "that what I'm doing is difficult. You help a lot, and now so do Hermione and Ginny. But it's still hard. I chose to do it, I want to do it. But sometimes I need to be able to complain without you telling me every single time to come out in the open. It makes me feel like I shouldn't complain, but I feel like I need to. Does that make any sense?"

Harry nodded guiltily. "I'm sorry, Pansy. It's not that I mind you complaining, it's just that..."

"You worry about me, I know. Harry, I really can take care of myself. Please, try not to worry so much."

"That's kind of hard. I know what I should do, of course. When you complain, I should say, 'Pansy, what you're doing for me is wonderful, and I really appreciate it.'"

"Yes, that would be about right," she said. "That would help. Now you just have to remember to say it."

Now Arthur was smiling. "It's just like a married couple, isn't it?" he said to Molly.

She nodded. "They have their sore spots, their issues, and they know what they are, it's just hard to change."

"But they want to try, both of them. I admire that," said Arthur. "A lot of married people don't want to put that kind of effort into it."

The students were looking at them in various degrees of surprise. "What, are you saying you think they're going to end up married?" asked Ron.

The Weasley parents laughed. "No, that's not what we mean," said Molly. "What we mean is that the dynamic we've seen between them in the last few minutes is a common one for married couples. When you get married, or are in a relationship, you're bound to rub each other the wrong way in some areas. It takes some work to discover what they are, and then you have to work out how to deal with it. Both people have to try pretty hard to change, or the stuff that upsets one of them keeps happening."

"See, for example," continued Arthur, "it upsets Harry when Pansy won't forgive herself about her past, because he has, and he wants her to. He doesn't want her to think that he blames her for anything." Arthur looked at Harry, who nodded. "And it upsets Pansy when Harry suggests she come out in the open, because she feels like it means he doesn't appreciate or take seriously what she does, which is very difficult. She feels like he's saying, 'if it's too tough, then just quit,' which is not what she means." Pansy nodded. "So their natural tendencies-hers to criticize herself, his to worry-affect the other in ways they didn't expect. So that has to be dealt with. And that's exactly how it is with married couples."

"Also," added Molly, "you two have a... comfort level, and an emotional intimacy, which usually takes longer than three months to develop. And I especially liked how Pansy picked up on Harry wanting to say what she's come to expect him to say, even though he didn't say it, and criticizing him anyway. That's very typical. I know I've done that to Arthur more than a few times."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, darling," he replied, and they laughed.

Pansy looked very impressed. "It's amazing how you put all that together so fast."

"Just part of being married," said Arthur modestly. "Well, being successfully married, anyway. Lots of couples don't try that hard, and they end up emotionally distant from each other."

"Sounds like my parents," she said sadly. "They're both kind of... overly formal people, don't show their feelings much. I can't imagine them trying to work out the psychology of what was going on, or try to understand what the other was thinking. They just don't work like that. It makes me feel kind of sad for them, actually."

Arthur shrugged. "Different people are comfortable with different things. Maybe your parents are happy with how they've worked things out. It's just hard to know."

"One thing I do know," said Pansy, "is that they wouldn't have listened to Harry and I bicker and thought it was cute and explained the dynamic; they'd have told us to be quiet. They wouldn't have talked about something as sensitive as the Percy situation even to each other, never mind around other people. And they wouldn't be so friendly to someone they barely knew."

Molly and Arthur smiled, touched. "Thank you, Pansy, that's so sweet," said Molly. "First Harry's card, now this, I really am going to get embarrassed."

"Harry's card?" asked Pansy.

"Harry wrote cards for Ron, Mum, and I," Ginny explained. "The ones to me and Mum were very nice, heartfelt, and the one to Ron was a classic. Ron, go get the card Harry gave you."

Ron rolled his eyes. "Why should I? He's just having a go at me."

"No, Ron," Ginny explained patiently, "He's expressing heartfelt sentiment and having a go at you, at the same time. It was brilliant. Now go get it, or I will."

Ron groaned and started to get up from the table, but then had a thought. "Harry, you're not subject to the underage restriction anymore. Just Summon it. It's near my bed, with all my other Christmas stuff."

Harry took out his wand, focused on the card, and silently Summoned it. It arrived in a few seconds, and he caught it and handed it to Ron. "No, you read it," said Ron. "You're the one who wrote it, so it makes more sense."

Harry did so, and was rewarded with loud laughter from Pansy, Hermione, and Neville. "Oh, Ginny's right, that is a classic. Keep that card, Ron," chuckled Hermione.

"Oh, absolutely, Hermione, it'll be one of my most treasured possessions," said Ron sarcastically. Then, to Harry's surprise, he turned to Harry and smiled. "I will admit, though, it was funny. Thanks for putting the effort into it."

"Any time, Ron."

"What's this, Harry?" asked Hermione, pulling the paper out of the card. "Oh, it's a gift certificate! That's a good idea, Harry!"

"He didn't get you one?" asked Ron. "Both Ginny and I got them."

"Ron, this is a Muggle store, I can go there any time. He must've gotten them for you and Ginny so you could shop there. Were you going to go with them, Harry?"

"Yes, I was. You should come too. You've actually shopped in these places, whereas I've only seen them. You too, Neville, if you're free." He looked at Pansy, and his face fell. She smiled gamely.

"I know, Harry, you don't have to say it. I can see how bad you feel, and I appreciate it. But you're right. Much as I'd love to come along, even I recognize that it would be a huge and stupid risk. Tell you what, you just promise me that you'll all do something like this with me after I'm out in the open. How about it?"

"Sure, Pansy," said Ron, who also seemed to feel bad. The others nodded.

"Good, you can be sure I'll remember this," said Pansy.

Molly got up to start clearing away the dishes. Hermione tried to help, but Molly brushed her away.

"I'll help her, Hermione," said Arthur, "you all go on into the living room. Harry, you were going to use that boggart tonight?"

"Oh, yes, thank you, Arthur. Of course, I would have heard it thumping and remembered anyway. Thanks for letting it stay for a few days so I could use it." He and the others went into the living room.

"So, why are you keeping a boggart here, Harry?" asked Neville.

"I wanted to practice on it. I was thinking about using one the same way Remus did when he taught us. I was also thinking about using it to help teach the Patronus Charm. See," he said, now to Pansy, "When a boggart sees me, it becomes a dementor. I thought maybe I could open it, make sure I was the closest one to it, and then a student could try the Patronus Charm on it. That's how I learned."

"Not a bad idea, Harry," said Hermione. "Of course, you'd have to keep a decent distance. It's not going to be good if you faint, the students won't be able to get rid of it."

"Yeah, that's why I thought I'd practice," he agreed. "I want to make sure I can take care of it with no difficulty. I'm sure I can, though."

"I'm sure, too, Harry, but I'll stand by to grab Mum or Dad just in case," said Ginny. Remember, the underage thing, none of us are allowed to do anything."

He nodded. "Okay, now, stay a distance back from me. I'm going to open it." He looked at the chest in the corner of the room, but didn't come close to it. He waved his wand, and the door flew open.

A dementor did not come gliding toward him as he had expected. Instead, a body seemed to come flying out of the chest, landing a few feet away from Harry, who backed away reflexively. The body came to rest, face up.

It was Pansy, very clearly dead. The Pansy created by Harry's fears had not died easily. Her face was bruised in several places, and there was a gash in her chest, along with a fair amount of blood on her dress near the wound.

Harry gasped, and felt he could barely breathe. For a half of a second he thought it was the real Pansy, and was in shock. Then he turned and looked at the real Pansy, who was equally shocked, as were the rest. He looked back at the boggart, which was still in the form of the dead Pansy.

He staggered over to the sofa and sat down, tears starting to come up. It's not Pansy, he thought. It's just a boggart. Pansy is fine. But what he had seen, he could not dismiss easily. That could happen, he thought. He put his head in his hands.

Pansy walked over, looking mortified. She sat down next to him and looked into his eyes. She reached out and held him, and a few tears trickled down his cheeks. "Oh, Harry," she said. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I ever criticized you for worrying, I'm so sorry..." She said it over and over again as she held him, his head buried in her shoulder.

He shook his head. "It's not your fault," he said. "It's just me, it's not your fault." He heard someone say "Riddikulus," and realized that Ginny must have called Molly.

"It is my fault," said Pansy, now near tears herself. "If I hadn't been so dismissive of your concern, maybe you wouldn't have worried so much. I'm sorry... I had no idea it was like this."

Harry shook his head, the tears stopping. "It's just a boggart," he said, as much to himself as to her. "I know you're going to be careful. Just me being stupid," he said, not wanting her to blame herself.

"It isn't stupid, Harry," said Molly gently, sitting on a chair near the sofa. "A person's worst fear is never stupid. And Pansy, it wasn't your fault," she said. "Harry was going to worry, no matter what reassurances you gave him. Believe me, I know what it's like to worry. He can't help it, it's just the situation you're in."

Harry took a few breaths, and looked up at the others. They looked stricken, imagining how it must have affected him. He looked at Pansy, and took her hands in his. "I know you want to do this," he said. "I respect it and I appreciate it. I know it could save my life. It's just hard for me not to think about that."

"I understand," she said. "I should have understood better... I guess I never really put myself in your shoes. I should have tried harder. I'm sorry, Harry..."

"It wasn't your fault that the boggart-"

"I know that," she said, sniffing. "I mean I'm sorry for not taking your concern that seriously. I just always thought, oh, he worries too much, I guess it's just this thing he does. I didn't realize it was like this, that this was what you saw... I just never thought about it, and I should have. That's why I'm sorry. You can believe I'll take your concern more seriously from now on."

He nodded to indicate his appreciation. "I don't know what I can do... not much I guess, since I don't think I can stop worrying just like that. I'll just try to keep in mind that you're being careful." Harry didn't know how much good that would do, but he felt he had to recognize that just because he feared something didn't mean it was going to happen.

Molly leaned forward, rearranged Harry's hair affectionately, smiled at him, and kissed his forehead. She stood, then touched Pansy on the shoulder. "If you need anything, you let me know," she said, and left the room.

"Ron, Ginny," said Pansy. "I envy you two. She's very nice."

Ginny smiled, but Ron said, "You've never heard her yell."

"Sure I have," she said. "Second year, that Howler you got for taking the car."

Now Ron smiled a little. "Oh, yeah."

Hermione looked as if it had been an effort not to rush over and hug Harry for the past few minutes. She did so now, sitting where Molly had sat. "Poor Harry..." she said.

He looked at her appreciatively. "I'll be all right."

"I know," she said, "but... it's like what Dumbledore said, you have all these burdens, and this is one of them. I can only imagine what you felt when you woke up after the Diffusion and saw us in those beds, wondering if we'd ever get up. This really... brings that to life somehow." She let go of him, looking at him with concern and sorrow.

Neville walked over to behind the sofa. He didn't say anything, but leaned over and put a hand on Harry's shoulder.

Harry looked up and said, "Thanks, Neville."

Neville nodded and said, "Good thing you decided to practice first. Can you imagine if that had happened in front of a class?"

Harry shuddered at the thought. "It would have been bad, they would have had to get another teacher. Not to mention, Pansy's cover would have been blown." He shook his head. "Stupid of me not to assume it could change, I just thought it would be dementors forever. I didn't think about the fact that I'm actually not that scared of them anymore, because I'm good at the Patronus Charm now. But even if I had to try to guess what it would be, I wouldn't have guessed that. But it makes sense."

Neville nodded. "I have no idea what mine would be now, but I have a feeling it wouldn't be Snape anymore."

Pansy laughed out loud. "I heard about that. I would have loved to have seen it."

"It was very funny," affirmed Ron. "Of course, Neville paid for it. Snape was really, really awful to him after that."

"It wasn't like it made that much difference," said Neville. "He was always awful anyway."

"It's so strange," said Hermione. "You two don't have Potions anymore, so you don't see it, but now, Snape treats Harry perfectly politely in class. No snide comments, no sneers, even. I think it's as nicely as he's capable of treating anybody. It has to be because Harry's a teacher."

"It could be that," Harry agreed, thankful for the conversation to help get his mind off of the shape the boggart had assumed. "But I think it's also possible that Dumbledore asked him to do it, or made him do it. He doesn't have to treat me like a teacher when I'm in his class, but he does anyway."

"In my class, he's as nasty as ever," said Ginny.

"I haven't seen any change either," added Pansy. "Of course, he always favors Slytherins, so I wouldn't. He's still pretty unpleasant with the Ravenclaws in our class."

"That reminds me," said Harry, "I think I forgot to tell you before, but before the year started, I actually called him on that." He described what had happened at the teachers' meeting.

"Good for you, Harry," said Hermione. "Imagine that, him accusing you of singling out people. That's a laugh."

"Talk about the pot calling the cauldron black," agreed Ron.

"Flitwick and Sprout were really pleased," said Harry. "They both told me later that they appreciated it. They know how blatant he is, but there's not much they can do."

As they continued talking, everybody sat down, and the incident with the boggart gradually faded from their minds. They talked about school and exchanged Christmas-related experiences. After a few hours had gone by, during a lull in the conversation, Hermione looked at Neville. "Neville, could I talk to you for a minute?" Surprised, Neville nodded. "You can use my room," said Ginny. "You know where it is, Hermione." Hermione got up and left, followed by Neville.

No one said anything for a few seconds, until they were well out of range. Ginny exhaled. "I'm so nervous, and it isn't even me."

Harry nodded. "I know what you mean." He turned to Pansy. "See, what's going on, is-"

"I know what's going on, Harry. Hermione told me about this in the notebooks a few weeks ago."

"A few weeks ago?" Harry repeated in surprise. "We only found out a few days ago."

Pansy shrugged. "I think when you write to someone in a notebook like that, it's easier to say private stuff. You don't have to worry about being overheard. I really hope it goes all right too."

"Did she, um... tell you about how it came up that we found out?" asked Ron, clearly hoping to receive a negative answer.

Pansy smiled sympathetically. "Sorry, Ron. But she felt really bad about it, like she had invaded your privacy for no good reason."

"Yes, she feels bad for invading my privacy, so naturally she goes and tells another person."

Pansy looked at him earnestly. "Ron, I can be trusted. I'm not going to tell anyone, or make fun of you. I thought it was sweet that you worried about that. So did she, even though she felt bad."

"Pansy, it's not a question of whether I trust you," said Ron. "I do, just like they do. I just didn't even want to tell them. It's hard for me to talk about that kind of thing. Of course, she probably told you that, too."

"I did, too," said Ginny. Ron looked up in annoyance.

"Yes, you seem to be pretty well-known for it," said Pansy, smiling. "But I know how you feel. I was like that too, up until this year." She looked at them more seriously. "When I first came to talk to you in September, Harry, I was really nervous. Maybe as nervous as Hermione is right now. I wondered how I was going to convince you that I was genuine. I knew that I was going to have to... open up, in a way that I never really had before. It was hard, especially since I didn't know if you'd believe me. Since you were as understanding as you were-and I still thank you for that-I've gotten a bit more used to opening up about things. Especially after that time I hid under the Cloak in your office. Did you tell them about that?"

Harry shook his head, and Pansy told Ron and Ginny what had happened. "So I just cried on Harry's shoulder, it was like my whole past came up to haunt me all at once. I had never told anybody stuff like I told Harry that day, and he was so good about it. I think that helped me get used to talking about stuff like that, that I wasn't going to be made fun of, or dismissed. But I really do know how you feel, Ron. Who knows, you might change too."

Ron's expression suggested that he wasn't thrilled at the idea, but he said, "Being around you lot, it wouldn't shock me. But that thing with Malfoy... he's so despicable, I feel bad for you just hearing about it." Harry and Ginny glanced at Ron in surprise, as it wasn't common for him to express sympathy like that. "I also get that you told me that kind of in return for what Hermione told you about me."

She nodded. "Yes, that's true. And thanks for your sympathy, but the fact is, I deserved it. When that happened, I didn't cry because he had contempt for me; I cried because I deserved that contempt, and I knew it. It was good that it happened, though. That cry helped me get most of it out of my system. I felt like all those years of being Malfoy's toady had... kind of poisoned me, and I had to get it out." She looked at Harry. "I wanted to say this when you were talking about Percy, but I didn't think it was my place. When you said what you said, that you could forgive him if he knew what he'd done and regretted it for the right reasons, I couldn't help but think of my situation. What you said you would do with Percy is exactly what you did with me."

"I'm sure Mum knows Harry meant it anyway, though," said Ginny. "To tell you the truth, though... and I'd never tell Mum this... but I don't care if he comes back or not. In some ways, I'd just as soon he didn't. He's very much the way you describe your parents to be, maybe even more so. He's just so... distant, even with family members."

"He's a jerk, is the way I'd put it," said Ron disgustedly. "I'm with Ginny, of course, I'd just as soon he didn't come back either. But I suppose if he really was repentant, I'd agree to his coming back. I just don't think it's going to happen."

The conversation turned to other things. After another half hour had passed, Ginny said, "I wonder how it's going up there."

"Well, I hope," said Pansy. "I hope Neville's smart enough to know how lucky he is."

Ron chuckled, then looked embarrassed at Pansy's inquiring glance. "Sorry, I didn't mean to do that. It's just... I'm not used to the idea that you're that close with Hermione. I know you have the notebooks and everything, but..."

Pansy looked at him sadly. "Because of how I used to make fun of her?"

Ron nodded. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have laughed. I know that must be a hard topic."

"My impulse is to say that I deserve it, which I do, but then Harry will get on my back, so I won't."

"Yet you did, anyway," said Harry.

"Sort of. But I do understand, Ron, and I don't think you were even thinking about the reason when you laughed. And yes, with the notebooks, I've discovered what a nice person Hermione is. She doesn't seem that way when you see her in class, she's so focused on knowing everything. And in person she can seem a bit bossy." Harry and Ron exchanged a smile. "Yes, I see you've thought that too," said Pansy. "But the things I like about her are the kind you don't find out until you get to know her. Also, look at Neville. He's the kind of boy that a lot of girls say they want, but really don't. He's kind and gentle, and he'll be a great husband. They deserve each other."

"Thank you, Pansy, that's very nice of you to say," said Hermione, as she walked into the room with Neville, holding hands with him. Neville looked overwhelmed. "I agree, of course." She looked at Neville and smiled. She continued, "I know you all want a report... all I can say is that we're going to spend some of the day tomorrow together, and a few more times before vacation is over. But I've managed to convince Neville to give me a chance."

Now Neville looked very embarrassed. "Hermione, come on. It's more like the other way around."

The others all smiled, happy for them. "Scared, Neville?" asked Ron.

"Terrified," grinned Neville. "And very surprised. But very happy."

"Well, if you need advice, you can always ask my Mum and Dad," said Ron. "They seem to know a thing or two."

"Maybe we will," said Hermione. "So, what were you talking about while we were gone?"

"You, of course," said Pansy.

"I think the last thing was that Neville would make a great husband," added Ginny, smiling at Neville, who blushed even more than he already was.

Pansy smiled at Harry. "See, Harry, you're not the only one who's cute when he's embarrassed."

"I think I can't give an opinion on that," said Harry, straight-faced.

"This is what I get for saying what Tonks said about you," said Neville to Harry. "It didn't occur to me that anyone would say it about me."

"I wouldn't have thought so about me, either," Harry agreed. Realizing that for each of them the source of the embarrassment was having been complimented, he added, "We're being made fun of, but I suppose there are worse ways to be made fun of."

The next morning, Harry had to assure Molly repeatedly that he was all right, that the boggart experience was not still bothering him. Harry, Ron, and Ginny flew around outside for a while, and otherwise killed time until 1:15. Neville and Hermione came through the fireplace about five minutes late.

"Sorry we're late," said Neville. "My gran, you know..."

"We had lunch with her, at Neville's place," explained Hermione.

The others raised their eyebrows. "Bet that was fun," said Ron.

"I was a little worried," acknowledged Hermione, "but it wasn't that bad, really."

Neville agreed. "I was kind of worried too, I didn't know how she'd react to my bringing a girl home to meet her. I know better than anyone how she can be. But fortunately, she already had a high opinion of Hermione. She still acted strict, like she often does, but I knew she was pleased. Last night, when I told her what happened, she was really surprised. She told me some things, and they all kind of boiled down to the idea of, 'You've got something good, now don't mess it up.'" The others laughed.

"Excuse me, I have to use the bathroom before we go," said Hermione, and walked off.

"You have got something good, Neville," Harry said. "But somehow I don't think you're going to mess it up."

Neville looked at Harry seriously. "I still can't believe it, Harry, partly because... last night, I had a hard time falling asleep, so much was going on in my head. But one think I kept thinking was, 'she wants me, and not Harry?' It's just hard to get used to that idea."

"You'd better get used to it, Neville," said Harry, embarrassed. "First of all, you know how close Hermione and I are, and always will be. But I think we've both always known that it would never be romantic. I'm not sure why, but it's true. Secondly, there's no reason for her not to prefer you over me. You're..." He paused, uncomfortable with the idea of telling Neville what he thought were his good qualities. "Ginny, will you please tell him? It'd be better coming from you."

Ginny grinned at him wickedly for a second before turning to Neville. "What Harry wants to say, Neville... well, what he doesn't want to say, really... is that like Pansy said, you're kind and gentle. You're also not afraid to deal with emotions, which girls find very appealing. You're a good person, and Hermione was clever enough to see that. She got you while you were still available."

Neville was, of course, very embarrassed. "I think I feel like Harry felt with what his first years were saying in letters. My opinion of myself is so different from Hermione's, and yours, that it's taking a lot for me not to assume Hermione just feels sorry for me or something. I know that's dumb, of course, but you see what I mean. You know how I used to be, part of me still sees myself that way."

"Well, Hermione doesn't," warned Ginny, "and if you don't stop, you're going to really annoy her by putting yourself down too much. That's not something that girls like, just so you know."

"Yes, I guessed that from last night," Neville said ruefully. "It took her almost a half hour to persuade me that I was good enough for her. I think she was getting impatient, but she managed."

"You'll be fine," said Harry. "You know, we're all really happy for you, for both of you."

"Thanks, Harry. That means a lot to me."

"So, what did you do this morning?" asked Ron.

"We just walked around Diagon Alley, visited the shops, nothing special. We talked a lot, and that was nice. Suddenly there seems to be a lot to talk about. We also visited your brothers' shop," he said to Ron and Ginny. "She told them about us, you should have seen their faces. It was pretty funny. They made a few jokes... I got the feeling that they wanted to make more than they did, but were being nice, for them."

Hermione walked back in during his last sentence. "Yes, for them. I was annoyed, though, because they treated Neville more like he used to be instead of who he is now. They don't know what he's been like this year; if they did, they wouldn't act like it was so strange. Not that he wasn't good last year, too, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I think they stopped making jokes because they figured out that they were annoying me, more than they meant to, probably. Then they were more nice about it."

"They mean well," said Ginny. "You know them, making jokes is their main way of communicating."

"Yes, I know," said Hermione, her tone making clear what she thought of that. "If either of them ever wants a woman in their life, they're going to have to change that."

"I wouldn't disagree with you," said Ginny. "So, are we ready to go?"

"I think so," said Harry. "Did you go to Gringotts earlier so Neville could exchange some Galleons for pounds?"

"No, I have pounds," said Hermione, "so I can just trade directly with him."

"And you can use some of my gift certificate, Neville," Ginny offered.

"Yeah, mine too," added Ron, with a sideways look at Harry. "I have a feeling it'll be more than I need."

Harry sighed, and tried not to roll his eyes. "I suppose I should be grateful that you didn't complain. I was afraid you would."

"I almost did," said Ron. "I may not know the exact exchange rate, Harry, but I'm not a moron. I know a hundred pounds isn't a small amount of money. But I decided to be nice to you, and not complain. I must have been overwhelmed by what you wrote in the card." They all laughed.

"My first thought was to make it two hundred each," said Harry. "It was only worrying about your reaction that made me take it down to one hundred."

"Harry," said Ginny, "next time, give him the one hundred and give me the two hundred. I'm not nearly so proud as he is."

Harry chuckled. "I'll keep that in mind, believe me."

"Well, let's get going, we can talk along the way," suggested Hermione. They stepped through the fireplace one by one, and continued their conversation in Diagon Alley.

"Can I ask, what's the problem with Harry giving you guys a gift certificate?" asked Neville. "I mean, he's got lots of money, he can afford it." Harry noticed that Neville and Hermione were holding hands.

"See, Neville," answered Ginny, "our family has never had much money, and it can be hard to accept money and expensive things when you're in that situation, because it makes you feel bad that you can't reciprocate. Harry wouldn't want us to feel like that, but it can be hard not to."

"It's all part of the wonderful lifestyle of not having money, Neville," added Ron. "Even if somebody wants to be nice, it's hard to accept it. I almost wish I didn't feel this way, but I do."

Neville nodded. "I guess I understand. My gran and I have never had that much money, but it's always been enough. I'd probably be in your situation if I had six brothers and sisters."

"Tell you what, Harry," said Ron. "You can buy me a Firebolt if you really want to."

Harry thought Ron was joking, but he wanted to be sure. He stopped and stared at Ron intently. "Would you really let me? Because if you say yes, we'll go to Gringotts right now." With his eyes, he tried to make sure Ron knew he was serious.

Ron's eyes widened. "Of course, I was joking! Are you crazy? Do you know how much a Firebolt costs?"

"Six hundred and seventy Galleons," Harry answered, deadly serious. "You shouldn't joke about something you'd know I'd really like to do."

Ron sighed in exasperation. "Harry, I know you have a fair bit of gold, but you do that a few times, and your vault will be down to nothing."

"Ron, they pay me for teaching, remember? I have no expenses. I'm going to get three thousand, five hundred Galleons this year that I didn't expect. Do you really think I'm going to miss six hundred and seventy that much? I would give the whole thing to your family if I thought they would let me."

Ron looked flabbergasted, and Ginny and Neville looked surprised as well. "Three thousand five hundred for the year? That's really good," said Ginny.

"Actually, it's four thousand two hundred, Harry," corrected Hermione. "They pay you in the summer, too, even though you're not teaching then."

Ron was shaking his head. "Having money must give you an odd attitude about spending it."

Harry gave Ron his most earnest look. "No, Ron, you know what gives me an odd attitude? Not having money, and then having it. The Dursleys never gave me a pound, even though they had plenty of money. Then I had plenty of money, and I knew I didn't want to be like them, I wanted to do what I wished had been done for me. Remember the Hogwarts Express, first year? Do you know how happy it made me to be able to buy that stuff and share it with you? It really felt great.

"Look, I'm not saying I don't understand your attitude about this. I can see why you would feel that way. But I wouldn't feel like I was doing you a favor. I would feel like you were doing me a favor, letting me do something that would make me happy."

Ron finally looked serious. "Harry, I can see you're serious about this. It's kind of amazing, really. And I do take your point, I can imagine myself feeling the way you do if I was in your position. I'm almost tempted. But the fact is, I just got a new broom last year, and I can't imagine Mum being very happy when it was hard for them to buy me what they bought me, and then have it made irrelevant by a Firebolt. I'm sure you can understand that. Also, as a Keeper, a Firebolt would be pretty much wasted on me."

"It wouldn't only be for Quidditch, Ron," Harry said. "But yes, I do see the point about your mother. She was really happy to buy you that broom when you were made a prefect. I didn't think of that." Harry felt frustrated.

To Harry's surprise, Ron smiled a little. "That look on your face is kind of how I feel when I want to buy something but can't. You want to and can't, just for a different reason. And it was nice, what you said about your salary. Yes, they'd never take it, even though you'd want them to. They just wouldn't be comfortable."

Harry sighed again, and they continued walking. Then he turned to Ginny. "Ginny, any chance I can persuade you?"

"I've been thinking about it for the last few minutes," she said, to his surprise, "because I knew you would ask me. I'm tempted as well. I don't have any issues with Mum, since my broom's a hand-me-down, and as a Chaser, it wouldn't be wasted. But my problem is, it wouldn't mean to me what it would mean to Ron. I don't look at a Firebolt in Quality Quidditch Supplies with lust in my heart, like Ron does. It would be nice, but that would be about it. I promise you, Harry, that if it meant to me what it would mean to Ron, I would let you do it. But it just doesn't."

"Okay, I can see that," Harry said. "But let me ask the two of you a question. Bill works for Gringotts. Suppose he came into a lot of money, let's say, twenty thousand Galleons. If he wanted to give your parents five thousand so they could be more comfortable financially, would they take it?"

Ron and Ginny looked at each other, their faces indicating that neither was sure. Ginny said, "We don't know, Harry. But I see where you're going with this. If they would take it from Bill, they should take it from you."

Harry nodded. "What it really comes down to is, am I truly a member of the family or not? Would they consider my children their grandchildren, but refuse to accept from me what they would accept from one of you? I'd like to know that."

"I'd like to too, actually, Harry," said Ginny. "It seems only fair. I'll tell you what I'll do. The next time I get Mum alone, I'll ask her the Bill question, a nice, innocent what-if question. If she says no, or that they'd have to think about it, then she's off the hook. But if she says yes, I'll lower the boom on her. She'll be upset, but it's perfectly fair."

"Is that really fair, to find out that way?" asked Neville. "Seems kind of tricky."

"Where do you think Ginny got the idea to do that, Neville?" said Ron. "She's done it to us, more than once, to convince us of something or other. Who knows, if she's really on the ball, she could recognize Ginny's question for the trap that it is."

"No, she won't, Ron," said Ginny. "She won't be expecting it. I don't think she knows that Harry's so keen to give away large amounts of gold."

"Why are you so keen, Harry?" Neville wondered. "Why is it so important to you?"

Before Harry could answer, Hermione said, "I think I can answer that, and Harry can tell me if I'm wrong. You see, Neville, Harry has no real family, by which I mean, people who welcome him home and care about him. The Weasleys became that for him, and they're very good people. And it wasn't because he was Harry Potter, he knows that. Everybody-well, everybody except Percy-in the family has been very good to him, so he badly wants to do something for them, in gratitude. Gold seems like the perfect thing-Harry has more than he needs, and they don't have as much as they'd like. He'd like it to make them happy, so it's frustrating to him that it might make them as uncomfortable as it would happy. Does that about cover it, Harry?"

"I could hardly have said it better myself," he answered, as they exited Diagon Alley and headed into Muggle London. "Hermione, you know how to get to this store, right?"

She nodded. "It's just a few blocks away, I assume that's why you picked it. Just follow me, it won't take long."

Ginny picked up the thread of the conversation. "Harry, of course, it's extremely good of you to want to do that. But you know what, you made Mum very, very happy with that card. She's mentioned it two or three times to me since Christmas, and of course I was there when she opened it. She's also mentioned that you kiss her back now when she kisses you. I told her why, of course. But if you only do stuff like that, that's more than enough. Even though she'd know that you're sincere in your reasons for wanting to give it, she might be afraid it could somehow cause tensions later, and she wouldn't want to risk that. She's very happy with your affection."

"The other thing," Ron added, "is that in a way, it's almost not necessary anymore. Ginny and I are the only two left, whereas there used to be as many as seven of us kids. That's much less of a burden, and one way I noticed is that they gave us more pocket money than usual this year. So it's already not like it was, and when Ginny and I leave, they'll have far fewer expenses. They'll say it's not necessary."

Harry was disappointed, but he could understand that, too. "Okay, but I still want Ginny to ask the Bill question. I really would give them as much gold as they'd take. I mean, I'm not even going to need what's in my vault. Even if I don't manage to become an Auror-"

"Are you kidding, Harry?" interrupted Neville. "They can't wait to have you, didn't you notice?" To the others, Neville said, "The way they talked about him, it was obvious that to them, the testing is a formality. They act like he's one of them already."

"You're not being very understanding of my modesty problem, Neville," Harry joked. "I hate to jinx it. Anyway, I was saying, even if I don't become an Auror, I'm never going to have money problems, being Harry Potter. I'll always be able to do something."

"Yeah, that's true, Harry," agreed Ron. "You could charge for signing autographs!" Harry gave Ron a sour look.

"Actually, you could write a book," suggested Hermione. "Even your life up until now is interesting enough that it would be a best-seller."

"I never thought of that," said Harry. "But you see my point. Nobody is ever going to worry whether I have enough gold, even if I give a lot of it away."

"Sorry, Harry," said Ginny. "Who knows, we could be wrong about what Mum and Dad will think. But it doesn't seem likely. Even so, and I'm completely serious when I say this... just randomly give Mum a hug and a kiss for no reason, and ask her some questions about anything. Sit down with Dad and talk to him about Muggle stuff, or his job. You'll make them happier than you would by giving them gold."

Harry didn't respond, because he knew it was true. He resolved to remember to do what she suggested a few times before going back to Hogwarts.

They entered the store and started looking around. Hermione and Ginny quickly became interested in clothes and shoes, which the boys had no interest at all in, so they decided to separate and meet in an hour. The boys walked and talked, taking long looks at nothing in particular. In the sporting goods department, Harry explained various Muggle sports to Ron and Neville. When the girls rejoined them, Ginny carrying a large and full bag, they went to the electronics department and looked around.

"Dad would go nuts in this kind of place," said Ron. "He'd spend all kinds of money, and then Mum would be annoyed at him because of the clutter."

"Hey, Ron, look at this," said Harry. He pointed to a small chessboard.

"Why is that in the electronics section?" asked Ron.

"It's a chess-playing computer," Harry replied. "See, it has sensors on each square, they can tell when you've moved and what you did. Or you can input the moves manually on the keypad. Do you know what the notation is... oh, wait a minute, it's on the board. Okay, I'll type in, d2d4. See, instantly, it answers g8f6. I've seen you do that more than once, I never know what to do after that."

"Usually, you should play c2c4," Ron said. "Then I imagine the computer, if it's smart, will play g7g6." Harry entered in White's move, and the computer responded as Ron had predicted. "Okay, now g1f3," Ron said, speaking to himself more than to Harry, who was amused to see Ron getting so interested. Hermione and the others had walked over. "Could this thing actually beat me?" Ron asked.

Hermione chuckled. "Ron, Muggle computers can beat the best chess players in the world. This won't be one of those computers, but I'm pretty sure it can beat you."

A salesman had walked by and heard their conversation. "Do you play tournament chess, sir?" he asked Ron. "Do you have a rating?"

Ron shook his head. "No, but I'm pretty good. No one at my school can beat me."

"Well, this computer's tournament-regulation setting has an equivalent FIDE rating of twenty-two hundred, which is a strong master level. A master will typically have spent at least several hundred hours studying, and played two to three hundred tournament games," the salesman explained.

"And this thing plays as well as someone who's done that?" Ron asked, impressed. The salesman nodded. "And can it use batteries? The same type as a compact disc player?" Receiving affirmative answers, Ron made his decision. "Okay... oh, wait a minute, how much is it?"

Hermione gestured to the price tag. "Ninety-nine pounds," she read.

"Perfect! Good, I'll take it," Ron said. He started to pick up the board.

"Not this one, Ron," murmured Hermione, embarrassed at Ron's faux pas. "This is the display model, they have other ones down below. Here, give me your certificate and let me finish the purchase. You go on with this game, let's see how you do."

Ron continued playing the game he had started. The salesman took a new computer from below the counter, and Hermione gestured for Harry to walk with her to the register. She whispered in case her voice carried. "I realized that Ron doesn't know about VAT," she said. "I was afraid that if he found out-"

"He wouldn't get it, because he'd need more money and wouldn't want to ask," Harry finished for her. "Good idea. Should I-"

"No, let me do it, it won't be that much. I like the idea that I helped him buy it too, even if he won't know." Hermione paid for it, using the certificate and her own money to pay for the tax. The box was put into a bag, which Hermione took over to Ron.

"Look at this, I'm winning," said Ron. He was two pawns ahead of the computer, and had a dominant position. "I thought I wasn't supposed to be able to win."

"This is the weakest setting, Ron," Hermione explained. "The display model would naturally be at the weakest setting, so customers wouldn't be intimidated by losing so badly. Of course, even at the weak setting, it's still going to beat a lot of people who don't know much about chess."

"I see, that makes sense," said Ron, accepting the bag that Hermione handed over. Harry noticed that she didn't give him the receipt. She also handed him a one-pound note, as she knew that would be the change if there had been no tax. "Well, I don't need to finish, I know I'd win. Let's go look around some more. Ginny, did you spend your whole certificate?"

She nodded. "All here in this bag. Shoes, pants, blouses, and other things you wouldn't care about."

"I believe that," Ron agreed. They walked away from the electronics department. "Should we go, or does anybody want to look around some more?" They realized there were several areas of potential interest they hadn't been to, and decided to stay.

As they walked, they talked, but Harry suddenly had a strange feeling, as though something was wrong, but he couldn't identify it. It became stronger, and he suddenly realized what it was: it was very similar to what he'd felt when the Cruciatus Curse had been tested on him, just before the spell had been delivered.

He felt a burst of adrenaline, and his reflexes kicked in. "Get down!" he yelled, grabbing the two nearest people, Hermione and Neville, pushing them to the ground as he went down. Just as he said the words, he heard two voices saying, "Avada Kedavra!" The green bolts, aimed at Harry, just missed him and the others, going over their heads. Ron and Ginny were slower getting down, but weren't in the line of fire.

Lying on his side, Harry whipped out his wand, and Apparated to a spot behind the two who had fired the curses. He immediately put down an anti-Disapparation field, followed by two Stunning spells. The spells had no effect; they had not seen Harry, but they must have had the Protection Charm up just in case, Harry thought. He now saw Neville, on the other side of the attackers and using a counter as a shield, wield his wand, and ropes formed and whirled around the two. One immediately broke out of the ropes, and used his wand to free the other.

While they were doing so, Harry looked around for things to throw, and found four solid-looking metal objects. He waved his wand, and all four flew at high speed toward the two attackers. Harry had hoped they would not be expecting such a crude attack, and he was right; two objects hit each attacker's head, and they went down in a heap. Neville quickly Summoned their wands and wrapped them in ropes again.

Getting to his feet and looking around, Harry saw Tonks and Winston Clark run up to him. "Are there any others?" he asked.

"One," said Tonks. "Ron and Hermione were firing at him, but he Disapparated, he's gone. If there are any others, we don't know about them." Harry saw other Aurors Apparate, casting spells over wide areas that calmed down the frightened shoppers.

"Okay, it's secure, we just have to put it right, start doing Memory Charms," said Clark. "We want to get you all to safety. We'll assist the others. Harry, Apparate to Arthur Weasley's office; you know where it is, and it's close to ours. Go with him to the Auror offices, the others'll be there very soon."

"But the others are fine, right?" Harry asked.

"Yes, they're fine," yelled Tonks impatiently. "Now go!"

Instantly, Harry was standing next to Arthur Weasley's desk at the Ministry of Magic. Arthur, sitting at his desk, immediately stood. "Harry! I heard the alarms, but I didn't know what it was. It was you?"

"Yes," Harry said, still not having had much time to think. "We were attacked in a Muggle department store. Aurors are there, they say everyone's fine. Clark said you and I should go to the Aurors' offices. That's where they're taking the others."

Arthur broke into a run, and Harry followed. In a very short time, they were in a large room. An Auror Apparated in, holding Ron by both shoulders; the others were already there. Hermione was hugging Neville.

"Everyone's fine, Arthur," said Clark. "You might want to go to the scene, they'll need lots of people doing Memory Charms. It was pretty crowded."

"Okay, but I'm going to stop at home first, tell Molly to come in. She'll want to be here." He Disapparated. Kingsley Shacklebolt Apparated in and approached Harry. "I'd like you five to join me in that interview room," he said, indicating a nearby empty room. "Dumbledore'll be here in a- oh, there he is." Dumbledore had just Apparated into the room. Harry and the others walked in, and were greeted by Dumbledore.

"Harry, I am very glad you and the others are all right," said Dumbledore gravely.

Harry nodded. "It just now happened, I've barely had a chance to think."

"We need to get a memory from someone," said Kingsley. "Who should it be?"

"Harry has used the Pensieve before," said Dumbledore. "If you would, Harry."

Using his wand, Harry extracted the memory. "You need not join us," said Dumbledore. "You should relax. We will be back in a moment." Dumbledore and Kingsley entered the Pensieve.

Harry looked at the others. "You're about to apologize, aren't you," said Hermione. "I've seen that look, I can tell. You know we accept the risk."

He shook his head. "Yes, just being in public with me puts you at risk," he said disgustedly. "And people wonder why I don't want a girlfriend..."

The others looked at him with sympathy. "Really, Harry, it's all right," said Neville. "I know you don't like it, but we want to be around when something like that happens." The others said nothing, but their agreement with Neville's statement was clear on their faces. Harry looked down, frustrated. All he could think of was how close his friends had come to being killed, again. He imagined what he would be feeling if one of them had.

Molly Weasley ran into the room, and one by one hugged everyone, including a surprised Neville, Harry last. "Oh, thank goodness you're all all right," she said fervently.

"Molly, I should leave the Burrow and go back to Hogwarts," said Harry, despondent. "I'm too dangerous, I-"

"Oh, stop that," said Molly impatiently. "Of course you're staying. You don't think Dumbledore's helped arrange security at the Burrow? Why do you think they waited to attack you until you were in public?"

"That reminds me, I thought I was always being followed," said Harry. "What happened with that?"

Dumbledore and Kingsley had just returned from the Pensieve; Kingsley immediately Disapparated. "You were, Harry," said Dumbledore. "It was the one following you who alerted the Aurors. Everything happened so quickly that there was almost nothing for the Aurors to do once they arrived. You and Neville had taken care of the two that are now in custody, and the other had already escaped. The time from when they shot Killing Curses at you to when you incapacitated them was six seconds.

"Molly, if you or anyone else would like to view Harry's memory of the attack, you may do so now, before Harry puts the memories back." She wanted to, and so did all the others. Harry decided to join them. They watched it twice, after which Harry felt he more or less understood all that had happened. They exited the Pensieve, and Harry put his memories back.

Neville spoke first. "The Aurors told us that usually before a Death Eater will do a Killing Curse, they'll put up an anti-Disapparation field so the person can't get away. Why didn't they do that before attacking Harry?"

"They did, Neville," said Dumbledore. "Harry simply defeated it. Then as soon as he Apparated, he put a field on them. Just before you distracted them with the ropes, I saw both try to Disapparate, and fail."

"So... that means Harry's a stronger wizard than either of them?" Dumbledore nodded. The others looked impressed, but Harry was still in no mood to be impressed with himself. As he had in the infirmary after Hogsmeade, Harry stood up and kicked the wall. It made him feel no better this time than it had then.

"Harry," said Dumbledore in the same calm that had made Harry angrier after Sirius's death, "I know that you are angry because your friends were put at risk. But they were exactly where they chose to be, where they would wish to be."

In his anger, Harry did what he had told himself he would not do. Raising his voice, he asked, "And that's why you taught them the Diffusion, too, right? Because they would want you to? Are the Aurors right, that you taught it just so it could be used to save me?"

Still calm, Dumbledore nodded. "Yes, Harry. That was why. I make no apologies for it. You must be kept safe, and for reasons greater than my own personal wishes. You know this, and so do your friends. They wish to-"

"I don't care what they wish! I want them to stay alive!" Harry yelled. Realizing that he was on the verge of acting as he had in Dumbledore's office in June, Harry stopped talking, still furious.

Ron got up and walked over to him. "Harry, get a grip, will you? Do you really want to be yelling at him? You have to get over this! Do you think we're stupid, that we can't decide what we want? We've always done this! Why should now be any different?"

"SIRIUS IS DEAD!" Harry screamed, losing control momentarily. Then he got it back, and saw Ron's shocked expression. He felt like he desperately needed Ron to understand this. "He's dead, he's never coming back, and I'm terrified that it could be any of you next..." He started sobbing, unable to say any more. So absorbed in his misery was Harry that he didn't think to be surprised when Ron stepped forward and lightly held Harry, Harry's head on Ron's shoulder. Harry cried for about a half a minute, after which Ron guided him back into his chair.

Harry breathed deeply and looked up at Ron. "It was only Pansy because she's the one in the most danger," he said, struggling to keep control. "It could have been any of you."

"We know, Harry," said Ron. "We know. But we can't do anything else, you know that. Put yourself in our position. You'd do exactly what we're doing. We're risking ourselves for you, and you're risking yourself for all of wizarding society. Don't blame us for following your example. How would you feel if we tried to get you to knuckle under to Voldemort, to keep you from danger? And do you think we don't worry about you?"

Ron paused, then continued. "I'm sorry, Harry, I forgot about Sirius when I asked what was different. That was stupid, and I can see how it would affect how you see this. But you know I'm right."

Harry slowly gained some control over his feelings. "Yes, I know you are. That's the worst thing about this. I just can't help how I feel. It's kind of like Hogsmeade." He paused. "The great Harry Potter," he said bitterly. "Stronger than these two Death Eaters, strong enough to drive Voldemort off... but not strong enough not to have a fit because his friends are in danger. It should say that on my card."

There was another silence. Then Dumbledore said, "If it did, Harry, it would be nothing to be ashamed of. This is your burden. We have seen how much you love, so it is not surprising that you would react this way. Your friends will support you in this way, as they will when you are under attack. You will get through it with their help."

He looked up at them, and it was easy to see that they agreed with Dumbledore. Ginny stood, walked over, and pulled at Harry to get him to stand up. He couldn't help but smile, a very small one, at what she was doing. He allowed himself to be pulled up, and she hugged him. He held her, and tried to not think about his fears. Dumbledore's right, he thought. I'll get through this with their help. I just pray they'll all be there at the end.

Finally, he let go of Ginny. He looked at her, Ron, Hermione, and Neville. "Thank you," he said.

Ginny pulled her chair over next to Harry's, sat down, and held his hand. She looked at him as if daring him to comment. He gave her a look that he hoped conveyed his appreciation.

"Harry," asked Hermione, "I saw from your memory that you pulled us down and yelled at exactly the same time the Death Eaters said the incantations. But you didn't see them. How did you know?"

"I was wondering about that myself," added Molly.

Harry shook his head. "I can't even say for sure, but whatever it is, it's the same thing that let me block those Cruciatus Curses blindfolded. It's just a feeling, something that seems wrong. I didn't even know for sure what it was, but it was enough like it felt with the Cruciatus Curse to know it was serious. I just reacted, didn't think."

"Is this common?" Molly asked Dumbledore. "I've never heard of it."

"It is rare," replied Dumbledore. "It is something I experience to a certain degree. Voldemort has been reputed to as well, more strongly. One reason he is so strong is that it seems that he can know what spell is coming before it does, and so more easily prepare and defend. My guess is that this ability, along with being a Parselmouth and perhaps more, was passed along to Harry by the curse."

"But then, why am I only noticing it now?" Harry asked. "If I've had it all along?"

"It is a very subtle ability, easy to miss," explained Dumbledore. "You noticed it because you were subjected to the Cruciatus Curse for five nights in a row, and you were in a more focused state. In general, the stronger a spell it is, the more easily you will notice it. The trial with Voldemort caused you to become aware of it, and this caused you to notice it more consciously in the demonstration with Professor Snape. That is why, the next day, you knew you would be able to block the Curse blindfolded, but were unable to satisfactorily explain why. In this case, the feeling was even stronger, I suspect, because the curse involved was a Killing Curse. This ability saved not only your life, but Neville's as well. One of the curses was poorly aimed, and would have just missed you and hit Neville. I hesitate to tell you this, for obvious reasons, but it is the truth."

"Harry," said Neville earnestly, "whatever you do, don't-"

Harry nodded. "It's okay, Neville, I'm done with my fit."

"It wasn't a fit, Harry," said Hermione sternly. "It was a very understandable emotional reaction."

Harry smiled a little, still looking at Neville. "I'm done with my very understandable emotional reaction, Neville, so don't worry."

Neville nodded his acknowledgment. "And thank you for pulling us down."

"Yes, thank you, Harry," Hermione agreed.

"There is something else related to this topic I do not want to neglect to mention, Harry," said Dumbledore. "You reacted in time to save yourself and Neville from the curses, but you noticed something a short time prior to that, did you not?"

"Yes, I just felt like something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was. It was very vague. It was... maybe four or five seconds before the curses."

"That was my impression as well," Dumbledore agreed. "I saw your face. One moment it was normal, then suddenly it was very unsettled. What you were noticing was the anti-Disapparation field they had put up. You started looking unsettled a few seconds before it was deployed; you simply did not know why. I wanted to inform you of that so you might recognize it in the future."

He nodded and sighed. "I have a feeling I'm going to have plenty of opportunity."

"Unfortunately so," said Dumbledore. "In any case, we should work on refining this skill after vacation. It is clearly a very valuable one. And speaking of skills, yours seem to be improving by leaps and bounds. Kingsley just said, 'if he gets much better, there's not going to be much we can do for him that he can't do for himself.' The fact that there was little for the Aurors to do once they got there was a good indication of that.."

"It would have been very different if they hadn't gotten permission for me to Apparate."

"Yes, and if you had not become so quickly adept at what they taught you. Not everybody can move four objects simultaneously, so quickly, as you did. I know your time is very limited as it is, but I think you may wish to consider having regular Saturday training sessions with the Aurors. What you accomplished in three days with them was obvious in what you did today. Even now, you are clearly not an easy mark for Death Eaters. With further training once a week, it will not be long before you are a match for any of them, and not a pushover for Voldemort."

"Then that's what I'll do," Harry said, determined. "Will they do that?"

Dumbledore allowed himself a small smile. "I have been consulting with them over the past few days. Even before today's events, they were proposing such an idea. They were most impressed with your progress over the three days, and so are happy to spend their own time on this. The fact that you may be critical to our cause also motivates them, but they would not spend the time if they felt it would be wasted. They also wished me, if I suggested it to you, to extend the invitation to Neville. They were quite impressed with him as well."

Harry looked at Neville, whose face had lit up. "How about it, Neville?"

"Obviously, I want to," said Neville fervently. "But what about the others?"

Harry wondered if Neville was thinking particularly of Ron, or Hermione, or all three. Clearly wanting to make up for his behavior on the night Harry returned from the Aurors, Ron spoke. "Neville, you're both special cases. You're really good at dueling, and the son of two Aurors, which is important to them... and Harry is, well, Harry. They can't be taking everyone's friends. Don't worry about it."

Hermione touched Neville's arm. "It's okay, Neville. You and Harry can teach us what you learn."

Harry wondered where he would get the time, and Neville looked amazed at the notion of teaching anyone anything, but neither argued. "Thank you," said Neville, to Hermione and Ron.

"I will make arrangements with them, then," said Dumbledore. He stood up. "I should be getting along. I will let you know when arrangements are finalized with the Aurors. Tomorrow being Saturday, it is possible they may be interested in a session then. If so, I will let you know soon."

"Sir," Harry said quickly, before Dumbledore could leave. "I want to apologize for what I said about the Diffusion Shield. I meant to ask you about it, but I didn't mean to accuse you about it."

"Thank you, Harry, though I did not take offense," said Dumbledore. Harry wondered what it would take for Dumbledore to take offense. "It was a valid question, and understandable under the circumstances. I know that you are referring to your tone, and again, that is understandable." He walked to the door, stopping to pat Harry on the shoulder. "Molly, I will be in touch," he said, and left.

"Okay, let's get back to the Burrow, no point in lingering here," said Molly, getting up. Ron and Ginny picked up their bags from the shopping expedition. "There's a fireplace a short walk away. Hermione, Neville, are you coming back with us, or going to your homes?"

"We'll come back, at least for a bit," said Hermione, as Neville nodded. They followed Molly out of the room.

Fifteen minutes later, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville were sitting in the Weasleys' living room, eating cookies and drinking butterbeer provided by Molly. "I guess when you almost get killed, you get to eat bad stuff before dinner," commented Ginny. Fawkes had joined Harry.

Ron was already playing the chess computer, after getting some help getting started. "There's a manual, you know, Ron," Hermione had said, but only halfheartedly, knowing he would not read it unless he absolutely had to.

"Well, that was quite an eventful first day as a couple for you two," Harry said to Hermione and Neville. They were on the sofa, and Hermione had her arm around Neville, who looked happy but embarrassed, as if he were doing something wrong.

"It was certainly memorable," agreed Hermione. "Nothing like mortal peril to make you feel closer. Funny, it makes me more glad that I was brave enough to do this. What happened today makes me feel like you have to live life while you can. Or as a famous Muggle said, 'eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.'"

"I'm sure he was invited to a lot of parties, with that attitude," said Ron, not looking up from the chessboard.

"You know what it means, Ron, or at least you would if your head wasn't buried in that thing," chastised Hermione.

"I know what it means," replied Ron, still not looking up. Harry suspected that now it was deliberate. "I know it doesn't mean literally tomorrow. I'm just saying, it's kind of morbid."

"I see your point, Ron," said Harry, "but for some reason, it especially makes sense to me right now. It just seems kind of hard to be merry right now."

Ginny smiled. "We could get Tonks in here, Harry, I'm sure she'd have a few ideas."

"I bet she would," Harry agreed. "Say, Neville, are you going to be reporting to Hermione every time Tonks has fun with me on Saturdays?"

Neville looked at Hermione, then back to Harry. With a straight face, Neville said, "I think Hermione's going to be mad at me if I don't. You wouldn't want to be responsible for that, would you?"

Harry chuckled. "Of course not, Neville. I have a feeling that soon, I'll be looking back fondly on the days when you were too afraid to make fun of me."

Now Neville smiled. "No you won't, Harry. I think you like me better this way."

Harry nodded. "You're right, I do. And Ron... thank you, for earlier."

Now Ron did look up from the chessboard. "No problem, mate. In that kind of situation, you're allowed to go off your nut a bit."

"That wasn't exactly what I meant."

"I know what you meant," Ron said. "What can I say... I felt awful for you, which you probably noticed. Dumbledore says it's a huge burden, which especially after today, I can see a bit better. I'm almost amazed you don't have a fit like that once a week or so. I mean, I worry about you sometimes, about all of you, wondering, what if something happened. But at least I don't have to feel responsible for anyone but myself. You're not really responsible for us, of course, but I do see why you could feel that way. But just try and stop us, you'll find out how non-responsible you are."

"He's right, Harry," said Hermione. "We all love you, and you're stuck with that."

"You got that from a greeting card, didn't you, Hermione," said Ron, deadpan.

Harry, Neville, and Ginny chuckled. Hermione looked at Ron disapprovingly. "You can be sincere and nice with Harry, but all I get is smart remarks?"

"Tell you what, Hermione... you go through what Harry goes through, and I'll be as sincere and heartfelt as you want."

Hermione looked disappointed. "That's fair enough, I guess. But it would be nice if you could do it sometimes, just for no reason. You're going to have to learn, if you want a halfway decent woman in the future."

"Learn what, dear?" asked Molly, just having entered the room to put some things away.

"Ron, to be sincere and heartfelt, at least sometimes," explained Hermione.

"Oh, he can, Hermione," said Molly. "Not only today, I've seen him do it. I know he'll manage when the time comes."

"Thank you, Mum," said Ron. "I think."

Harry suddenly remembered what Ginny had said earlier. He got up, walked over to Molly, and hugged and kissed her. Delighted, she looked at him. "Harry! What brought this on?"

"No reason," Harry said, happy at her reaction. "It's just that I haven't done that as much as I should, for a few years. I just wasn't in the habit. So I want to make up for it now."

Molly beamed at him. "Aren't you sweet," she said fondly. "I know you don't want a girlfriend now, dear, but someday, some girl will be very, very lucky to get you." Still smiling, she left the room.

Harry turned to Ginny. "As long as I keep getting good advice, anyway."

She gave him a serious look. "Here's some more good advice, Harry: Keep focusing on love, especially in crisis situations, but as much as you can. That's how you'll stay alive, and help us stay alive."

He nodded. Anything I can do to keep the rest of you alive, I will, he thought. He found himself looking forward to more Auror training sessions. He pet Fawkes, and hoped there would be one tomorrow.

Harry found out the next day that the Aurors didn't plan to have the next session for a few days, so he would have plenty of time to hang around the Burrow and do whatever he wanted in the meantime. It occurred to him that the only times he had ever had that kind of freedom outside the oppressive environment of the Dursleys' home had been in the summers before his second and fourth years at Hogwarts, when he had stayed at the Burrow at the end of summer. The thought made him think of the Burrow even more as his home than he already did.

He spent an hour the next morning talking to Molly, who left at ten-thirty to go shopping. She asked Ginny if she wanted to come along; Ginny declined, and Harry noticed that Molly didn't ask him, though she glanced at him in a way that suggested that she wanted to, but had thought better of it. He knew the reason was the security issue, which brought his mood down. Not that he would have especially wanted to go anyway-he wouldn't have, he knew-but it was just the idea that he couldn't go anywhere in public without putting everyone around him at risk. Molly left through the fireplace, saying she'd be back in a few hours.

Harry and Ginny were downstairs; Ron was upstairs in his room, absorbed in playing his chess computer. Harry walked to the living room window and looked outside. It was raining steadily, and had been since he'd woken up. His mood was further dampened, as he'd felt like going for a fly all morning, and especially right then. He walked to the sofa and sat, and a few seconds after he did, Fawkes materialized and fluttered down, standing on his lap. He couldn't help but smile a little as he felt Fawkes's calming influence affect him, though he was still unhappy.

"Does he usually do that when you're depressed?" asked Ginny, from the other end of the sofa.

"Not always, but yes, a lot of the time," agreed Harry, as he gently pet Fawkes's feathers. "How did you know I was depressed, anyway?"

She chuckled; he got the feeling that it was because she thought he was being dense. "It's all over your face. I'm not Hugo, but I can read moods fairly well. I'd be able to tell even if it was a lot less obvious than this. You're thinking about yesterday, aren't you." Despite the words, her tone made it a statement, not a question.

He sighed. "Shouldn't I be?"

She nodded sympathetically. "It's not a question of should or shouldn't. It's really understandable that you would." She paused for a few seconds, then continued, "Last night, before I went to sleep, I was thinking about what it would be like to be you, to be in your position. Anytime you go someplace that isn't totally secure, you have to worry about your friends being killed, or innocent people being killed. I was trying to imagine what that would feel like."

He didn't particularly feel like talking about it, but he appreciated her effort to see things from his point of view. "Bet it wasn't fun."

"No," she agreed. "It kept me up for another hour past when I usually fall asleep." Looking at his expression, she added, "You know, I don't mean to depress you more by talking about it. I just want you to know that I understand what you're going through. Or, I'm trying to, anyway."

"Thanks, I appreciate it," he said. "I must be pretty bad off, if both you and Fawkes can't get me out of feeling depressed."

"Well, we should do something that'll distract you, then," she suggested. "I saw you looking out the window. I'd love a fly also, too bad about the weather. I know, why don't you teach me dueling, get me started on what Dumbledore and the Aurors have taught you."

"But you couldn't practice what I taught you, because of the underage thing," he pointed out.

She shrugged. "It's no problem, Mum's not here."

He did a double-take. "It's against the law!"

She chuckled knowingly. "Well, yes and no." Seeing his blank expression, she explained. "A lot of families don't pay attention to the underage magic law, and from talking to people at Hogwarts, I've found out that it's pretty well understood that the Ministry knows that, that they only take it seriously in certain situations, like when Muggles are likely to be involved.

"I mean, look at what happened with you, the first time Dobby visited you. You got a warning for the Hover Charm that he did. What that means is that the Ministry magic detectors knew that magic was done, but they didn't know who did it. They assumed it was you, since it happened in a home where you were the only wizard. So, think about it. If they can't tell who did the magic, how could they possibly use the magic detection to enforce the underage law, in a home with a whole family of wizards? They can't, and they don't try. We don't do underage magic around here mainly because Mum and Dad don't want us to, but really it's more because it's their rule than because it's against the law. They haven't said that, but I've figured it out."

"If they can't enforce it most of the time, then why have the law at all?" wondered Harry.

"One reason, I think, is so parents can threaten their kids with it, tell them it's against the law and they could get caught," said Ginny. "That doesn't work for very long, though, since most kids start doing magic when they're alone, and nobody from the Ministry comes charging in. Another reason is the Muggle angle; they don't want Muggle-born wizards doing magic in their Muggle homes, mainly because of the possibility that it could be noticed by someone outside the family, and then they have to come in and do Memory Charms. The law is really a little unfair to the Muggle-borns, since it mostly only applies to them. The only other reason I can think of is to stop kids from doing magic in public, where they could annoy people, or do accidental damage.

"Anyway, Harry... believe me, lots of magic has been done in this house that Mum and Dad didn't know about, and the only way they ever found out was if the results were really obvious, like things getting broken. Who knows, Mum might not even object if you asked her, since the more Ron and I can defend ourselves right now, the better. I just don't see the point in bothering. She'd be reluctant to break the law, even an unenforceable one."

Harry slowly nodded. "I guess that makes sense, I hadn't thought of it that way before. It's kind of annoying, considering all the trouble I got in last year, just for using it to defend myself. Bad enough that they use a law against me unfairly, but especially one that a lot of people break anyway." He thought for a few seconds. "Okay, sure, I'll teach you. I just hope your mother doesn't come home and see us."

"You could explain it to her anyway, but she won't," Ginny assured him. He spent the next hour teaching her the basics he'd learned from Dumbledore, and started her on what the Aurors had taught him. They stopped at noon to have sandwiches for lunch. Ginny suggested they make an extra one for Ron, and she took it upstairs. "He thanked me, but he barely looked up," Ginny reported with amusement upon returning to the kitchen.

They chatted as they ate the sandwiches and potato chips, and Harry found that he was feeling better than he had. After they finished eating, they walked over to the living room window and looked out. Rain was still falling, as heavily as ever. They exchanged a look of disappointment, then Ginny's face lit up. "I just thought of something. It might not be raining at Hogwarts, it's pretty far away. We could fly over the pitch there, Fawkes could take us!"

Harry hesitated. "I guess he could... I'd love to, but I'm not sure I want to ask him, for something like-" He stopped speaking, then smiled. "It's funny... I'm getting a feeling, like he wouldn't mind. Normally, I wouldn't know if that was my idea or his; a lot of times it's hard to tell. But I'm also getting an image, of the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch. I'm pretty sure he's telling me that it's cloudy, but not raining there, and that he doesn't mind taking us there at all. So, yes, I'd love to. We should ask Ron if he wants to come."

"I'll ask him, I'll go up to get my broom," said Ginny, as Harry Summoned his. She came back a minute later and said, "He says, maybe later. He's really involved with that thing." Harry nodded, happy that the gift certificate had led to Ron finding something he enjoyed so much, which he never would have found otherwise. Fawkes appeared, and Harry put an arm around Ginny and grabbed Fawkes's tail.

They flew for a half hour, then Ginny wanted to do some Chaser practice, so they got a Quaffle from the Quidditch supply shed. Harry acted as a Keeper, and Ginny would fly at him and try to shoot past him. After a half hour of that, they decided to rest, and flew over to the stands and sat on a bench.

"You were getting pretty good there, at the end," she said. "You wouldn't be a bad Keeper."

"Thanks," he replied. "Never tried it before, it takes a little bit to get used to."

"Well, you have great reflexes, that's bound to help," she observed. "We should do this with Ron; he could Keep, and you could defend. It'd be good practice for me, a real challenge."

"I'd be happy to," he said. "But I'm not a Chaser either, of course, so I wouldn't be able to-"

"You'll do fine, trust me," she assured him. "Especially on the Firebolt, I'll have to work hard to get past you."

Harry nodded, and looked up at the sky, then over at the castle. As he had at the Burrow, he felt at home, as though he was somewhere he belonged. "You look like you feel kind of better than you did before," she said.

He nodded again. "I guess you were right about needing to be distracted. Thanks."

Smiling, she moved closer to him and put an arm around his waist; he reflexively put his arm around her shoulder in response. "I'm happy to do it," she said.

They sat in silence, and he looked around more. He saw Hagrid's hut, and wondered if Hagrid was there, or in the forest talking to Grawp. That made him think of the centaurs, then of Firenze, about whom he'd heard nothing since the year had started. He wondered what Firenze was doing, since he hadn't been teaching Divination; probably something secret for Dumbledore, Harry guessed. Or maybe Dumbledore helped him find a new herd of centaurs to join, since he'd been ostracized from the one in the Forbidden Forest.

Ginny shifted her position a little, and Harry suddenly thought of Hermione and Neville yesterday after the attack, on the sofa together, her arm around him. He was happy for them, but envied them a little. It would really be nice to have a girlfriend, he thought, especially someone like Ginny who's funny, really nice, and likes to fly and play Quidditch...

He imagined himself and Ginny walking through Diagon Alley, holding hands, going to Florean Fortescue's for ice cream and cake, as he knew many couples did. Hermione and Neville might be right now, he thought. In his mind's eye, he and Ginny were at a table, laughing as she reached over to wipe off frosting from his lower lip. She leaned over and kissed him... and as they broke apart, they saw a Death Eater pointing a wand at Harry, a green bolt flying toward him. He saw Ginny leap in front of him to take the bolt meant for him; he looked on in horror as she fell to the ground.

Yanked back to reality, he stiffened, with a slight shudder. Ginny looked at him quizzically. He let go of her and quickly stood, the feeling that he was endangering her right then just by holding her taking him over. This is why you don't let yourself think about having a girlfriend, you idiot, he told himself. Not only could that happen, it'd be pretty likely to happen. I can't let myself think like that, I can't put anyone in that kind of danger. As he thought it, he realized that she would probably jump in front of a Killing Curse for him anyway, girlfriend or not, but it represented what he feared most. He knew he couldn't allow it.

She stood as well, looking at him with great concern. "What?" she asked.

He could hardly tell her what had just gone through his mind. "Nothing," he said, sounding unconvincing even to himself.

"Uh-huh," she said, sounding like she knew that he knew she didn't believe it. "It's yesterday again, isn't it?" This time, it was a question.

Trying to calm down, Harry nodded. Technically a lie, he thought, but close enough to the truth. She stepped forward and hugged him. "I'm sorry, Harry," she said.

He resisted the urge to push her away for her own safety, as he knew it was irrational. Even so, he found himself saying, "I just don't feel like you're safe with me."

She hugged him more tightly. "We're safe here, at Hogwarts."

"I mean-"

"I know, not only right now," she said, running a hand across his back. "You'll be well protected, Harry, and the better you're protected, the safer we are. You'll get through this, we all will. You have to believe that."

He nodded. "I guess I have to, since I'm stuck with the situation anyway." He moved his head off her shoulder to look at her, and was heartened by the love and support he saw in her eyes. "Thanks. I'm just being stupid, thinking things I shouldn't think."

"It's really understandable," she said.

Yes, it is, he thought wryly, most sixteen-year-olds would daydream about having a girlfriend. I just don't get to. "I suppose so," he conceded. "Want to fly some more?"

"Sure," she agreed. They mounted their brooms and kicked off again, flying high into the air. He couldn't totally escape being Harry Potter and all that came with it, he thought, but when he was flying with a friend, it seemed very far away.

Author notes: In Chapter 18: Harry's friends begin to double as his security detail, even inside Hogwarts, as events make clear that there's nowhere he's completely safe.