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Magic Never Dies ~ Chapter Nine

June 9th, 2006 (05:14 pm)
blah
Tags:

current location: Same old, same old
current mood: blah
current song: My Medea - Vienna Teng

Title: Magic Never Dies
Author: Lynney
Pairing: Harry/Hermione
Chapter: Nine
Word Count: 6,759
Rating:R (future chapters)
Summary: This Fic won Portkeys' Felix Felicis Fiction Competition and garnered over 2,500 positive reviews. This is a completed alternative version of Book 7 for the Determinedly Delusional H/Hr shipper. Action/Adventure/Romance/Humor - a bit of everything.




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“I should think,” said Professor McGonagall leading the way to the Great Hall, “that you would like to join your friends at the Gryffindor table. You may have free run of the castle, although as you have already seen, I highly recommend you stay within its boundaries.” She sighed. “There will be no Hogsmeade trips for students this year.”

“Thank you, Professor.” Hermione said. “We appreciate your welcoming us back, considering…”

“If I thought I had the slightest chance of changing any of your minds, I would have held out for your readmission in order to visit with Professor Dumbledore,” she cut firmly across Hermione’s gratitude. “He, of course, was against that idea and seems to think what you are doing is somehow perfectly reasonable. Death has changed him very little after all.”

Harry saw Hermione’s lips twitch.

The Great Hall was comfortingly unchanged, although the number of students was definitely diminished. The Slytherin table was particularly patchy; Harry reckoned there were roughly half the number that once composed the house, and even within the small group there had apparently been a further break down. One end of the table held a cluster of what Harry always thought of as neutral Slytherins; those who embraced the characteristics of the House but did not, at least openly, support Voldemort. The other end was held by those of Draco’s hangers-on who remained; Blaise Zabini had obviously taken over as de facto leader in his absence and might well, Harry thought from the rather obvious possessiveness being displayed between the two of them, have taken on Pansy Parkinson also. Theodore Knott was gone, as, of course, was Millicent Bulstrode. Crabbe and Goyle remained; even Voldemort, who would view them as entirely disposable, hadn’t seen fit to call on those two. Yet.

The Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw houses were both equally diminished; each seemed to have retained a bit less than three quarters of their former numbers. The Gryffindor table was surprisingly full; in fact Harry realized that there seemed to be a full complement of first years and in his own age group the only ones missing were Hermione, Ron and himself. Perhaps Gryffindors were braver after all. Even Seamus, whose mother had threatened to pull him after fourth year, was there in his usual spot next to Dean. Parvati Patil, whose parents had often spoke of bringing home both Parvati and her Ravenclaw sister Padma, sat calmly next to Lavender Brown. Who was glaring rather unwelcomingly at Hermione.

Harry’s own eyes shifted uncomfortably down the table to find Ginny. It took him a moment to spot her; she was on the far side of Dean Thomas rather than amongst classmates of her own year. Her eyes met his and slid away; she elbowed Dean and said something to him and he looked up as well. There was something distinctly uneasy in Dean’s expression and it came to Harry in an unaccustomed rush: Ginny had gone back to Dean. He felt an enormous, lifting sense of relief, pricked only slightly by the unfair thought that it certainly hadn’t taken her very long. But then, Ginny always had been impulsive; quick to make up her mind and equally quick to change it. He realized that was in part the charm of her, but now it only made him more aware and grateful for Hermione’s steadfastness. Funny, how some of the same Weasley traits that made Ron his best friend just didn’t translate when it came to girls. He smiled, hoping to show them both that he was happy for them as Hermione tugged at his sleeve to bring him to his old familiar place at the table.

“So you’ve come back!” Seamus said by way of greeting. “Missed the Express and walked, have you?”

“Just visiting.” Harry said. “How’s seventh year going?”

“Other than the fact there’s no Hogsmeade visits allowed and none of the girls will even consider a good snog on the Astronomy tower anymore… okay I guess. Wouldn’t you say, Dean?”

“Er, I suppose,” Dean said, looking at Ginny.

“So what are you three up to? Why didn’t you come back? Don’t you want to graduate?” Lavender asked. Parvati’s dark eyes roamed the three of them avidly.

“Hello? Have you been paying attention at all for the last six years? Harry’s got a little problem with the Dark Lord trying to kill him and Hermione and I are trying to help him out of it.” Ron said.

Rather pointedly, Harry thought. Clearly he had no intention of striking anything up with his ex.

“Well, wouldn’t staying at Hogwarts and finishing your education make you just a little more qualified to do that?” Lavender snapped back.

“Funny,” Hermione said deadly quietly, “I’ve taken almost every class Hogwarts offers. Somehow I must have missed the one on defusing dark wizards. Because it certainly wasn’t covered by any of the fine succession of DADA professors we had while I was here.”

“Where are you lot living? What have you been doing?” Neville asked interestedly; happily oblivious to the ping-ponging tensions around him.

“My godfather left me his old house,” Harry told him. “We’re staying there for the time being.”

“Alone? Wicked.” Seamus whistled enviously.

“The three of you?” Lavender asked, raising an eyebrow.

Harry had an almost overwhelming urge to jump up and snog Hermione in front of the entire school, just to cut through the inevitable slow dance of discovery and get on with it.

“Yeah,” he said tiredly. “The three of us. No house elves. It’s not pretty and the food’s no where near this good.”

“Good thing it’s a big old house, though” said Hermione, who suddenly seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself. “Lots of bedrooms. If all the rampant three-way sex gets too hard on the furniture we just move on to another one.”

There was dead silence at their end of the table; Lavender’s mouth literally fell open. Ron’s ears went pink and Harry felt as if the enchanted ceiling was suddenly sporting a desert-strength sun.

“Oh go on,” Hermione told them calmly. “You know it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll all be saying as soon as we leave, we might as well get you started off properly. And for the record, Lavender, you can stop staring at me as if I’ve grown three of something. Ron and I had a mutual change of heart. He’s a free man.”

“Oh, good,” came a serenely dreamy voice from over Harry’s shoulder; he turned to discover Luna Lovegood standing behind him, smiling happily. “It wasn’t strictly supposed to happen for at least another two weeks,” she continued, “but this works out even better, I think. And I hope you and Harry are very happy together, Hermione. Your soul shadows are extremely compatible, you know.”

The silence, if possible, deepened.

Ginny’s eyes narrowed dangerously and Harry felt his first flickering sense of how not easy this was likely to go.

“What happened to being afraid that being with you makes someone a target for Voldemort?” She hissed. “You spineless liar. I thought you were being brave. It was always about her anyway, wasn’t it? It always has been. And you.” She turned on Hermione. “Telling me to get on with my life. ‘See other boys, relax a little, he’ll notice you.’ Was that what you were using Ron for?”

“Shut up, Ginny,” Ron said furiously. “You think you know us, but you don’t. You have no idea what you’re talking about. And for your information, I’m fine with the way things are. So stop playing at defending me when it’s your own little hero worship fantasy that didn’t work out in the end.”

Ginny’s cheeks reddened, she looked for all the world as if she’d been slapped by an unsuspected source.

“You told me you dumped him!” said Dean suddenly, turning in angry surprise to Ginny. “You said you realized we were… so what does that make me? The consolation prize? You…

“The sorting hat was wrong when it only warned us of inter-house rivalries.” Luna’s unusually clear and piercing tone cut across the sniping. “Look at you. Harry’s willing to give up his future to fight an evil wizard who’s threatening our whole way of life and Hermione and Ron are doing everything they can as well. And here you are, safe and sound in Hogwarts studying for your NEWTs as if nothing is happening and calling it bravery! You’re arguing about things that couldn’t possibly matter to anyone but yourselves. If Voldemort – oh, stop cringing for goodness sake – if Voldemort defeats Harry the last thing on any of your minds will be who’s seeing who. And Ronald,” she continued, an unfamiliar shyness creeping into her voice as well, “I for one think you are a very brave and loyal friend.”

The blush that had settled on the tips of his ears spread and he said something unintelligible, but Harry noticed it ended in a grin.

“Look,” he said, his own anger rising, “we didn’t come back to… It doesn’t matter what anyone’s doing as long as you don’t believe the rubbish that’s being written in the Prophet. Luna’s right, you don’t need to meet Voldemort face to face to see what he’s doing to us. He may be after me, but he’s had a hand in every decision you lot have made just lately as well. Whether or not to come back to Hogwarts. Whether your NEWTs will even mean anything whatever grade you manage. Whether there will be jobs for you to go on to. Dumbledore being gone changes everything. Voldemort may not have been the one to do the actual Avada that killed him that night, but he did it just the same. Without ever having to set foot into Hogwarts. And it wasn’t just because of Snape, or Malfoy, or his Death Eaters. He did it by using people you like and trust, like Rosmerta. She’ll never be able to forget she was used like that, never trust herself again. And it could have been you,” he said, looking directly at Lavender, “or you,” he told Ginny. “You’re just lucky it wasn’t.”

He pushed back from the table, suddenly anxious to be gone. These were his friends, but now it seemed as if a chasm was starting to open up between them, growing by the day. They appeared much the same, although he knew Dumbledore’s death and the changes at Hogwarts had affected them greatly as well. It must be him, then, he that was moving away somehow, with an ever increasing momentum that felt as if it was about to hurl him at something he had always known was there but still had no idea how to handle. The question was, would he ever?

Hermione rose as well, and then Ron.

“Harry,” said Neville anxiously. “I know you’re going to be awfully busy and all, but couldn’t you come back and tell us how it’s going sometimes? Show us a bit of what you’ve learned? How can we help you and be any real use at all if all we’ve learned how to handle are Boggarts and Hinkypunks? Lupin’s the only werewolf I ever met until the one last year that attacked Ron’s brother, and they might as well have been a different species all together. We want to help, honestly, we just don’t know… how.”

Neville’s words so closely mirrored his own thoughts they cut through any ready answer he might have given and caused him instead to really think about what Neville was asking,

“You mean like the DA?” he asked slowly. Suddenly the idea of Dumbledore’s Army and his flat assertion to Rufus Scrimgeour after the funeral last year that he was and always would be Dumbledore’s man, began to coalesce. Lupin could run the Order, but the Order might well prove to be against what Harry was doing. They were the adults, the experienced ones, but they weren’t the ones with the most to lose. Harry thought of the Department of Mysteries and Neville’s dogged determination despite his broken nose; the way he was clever enough to find Hermione’s pulse when Harry was frozen with terror, sure that she was dead. There needed to be a way for everybody who was willing to fight to do it. Even if he was increasingly certain the end was going to come down to him alone, he could probably use all the help he could get figuring out how to get there.

“Yeah,” said Neville, “Exactly. I could handle it for you here, set up the meeting times and the place and everything. It’s just, well, they aren’t lying to us anymore, not flat out the way they did when Umbridge was here, anyway, but they still aren’t really teaching us anything, either. Snape did a brilliant job of showing us all the worst about the Dark Arts last year but he never really got around to the defense bit, did he? You already know more than that useless Dawlish. You could train us and we could free you up to do the stuff only you can do.”

‘Like suck up the shredded bits of soul Voldemort’s left round for safe keeping and die,’ Harry thought.

He looked to Hermione and she nodded her approval of the idea, but Harry had the uncomfortable feeling she was well aware of his silent response as well.

“If enough people still want to,” Harry told him, “we’ll find the time. It may have to be sort of spur of the moment because we’ve got some, er, traveling to do soon, but yeah. Why not. Do you still have your coin? Signal us when you’ve fixed it and Hermione can set the date.”

“Okay!” Neville nodded enthusiastically. Harry silently hoped he would be smart about who he asked and keep it quiet. McGonagall might not be against the idea in principle, although she’d have to cope with the School Governors, who would. The thing of it was she was a member of the Order and he’d rather keep the two quite separate if he could.

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Hermione went to do some research in the library while Harry and Ron went for a quick fly round the Quidditch pitch. Madam Hooch had a class of first years out taking their first real broomstick riding class and they goggled as the two snuck in a little practice, with Harry trying to get a couple of quaffles past Ron and Ron attempting to beat Harry to the Snitch. They’d borrowed school brooms, old Cleansweeps, and Harry missed his Firebolt intensely.

They had agreed to meet Hermione down at Hagrids’ afterwards and so made their way down the hill under a brilliant blue autumn sky.

“Harry?” Ron asked suddenly.

“Hmm?”

“How do you suppose Bullstrode knew we were coming? Or do you think she’s been waiting there just to see who goes in and out?”

“No idea. I’d like to think it was a happy accident for her, because the alternative is McGonagall’s owl was intercepted or there’s a spy in Hogwarts. Neither makes me feel particularly good.”

Ron nodded his agreement and trod on. Harry had a sudden surge of gratitude that Ron was still there beside him, following the familiar path to Hagrids’. He remembered his words to Ginny in the Great Hall, ‘You think you know us, but you don’t.’ It was true. There was something between the three of them, perhaps even more so now that they had worked through their reconfiguration relatively unscathed; a closeness and trust that had been quick to form but taken six years to ripen into the friendship they had now. Something big enough and strong enough to stretch without breaking when they needed it most.

If Ron had dug in his heels over Hermione’s discovery of her feelings for Harry… The thought tore at his heart. He couldn’t have born losing either of them. But Ron, who had long had the unenviable job of dealing with the attention; both positive and negative, that came to Harry simply because of a prophecy and a botched spell, had proved what he really was. A friend in the truest sense, to both of them. And Harry, rocked as he had been by his experience with Hermione on the night of her birthday wanted, no, needed to see Ron happy as well. It was an oddly powerful urge, both unusual and uncomfortable for him, like a last item that resists completion on an almost finished list.

“Luna’s right, you know.”

“Luna’s a loon.” Ron said, but the same, slightly goofy, amused grin came over his face. “But you know what? After Lavender and Hermione, I think I might quite like a girl with a sense of humor. Even if it is mostly unintentional.”

“Hermione has a sense of humor,” Harry said, guessing that it was now his duty to defend her honor, although he probably would have anyway. He always had before.

“She did at lunch today, anyway,” Ron agreed, laughing aloud at the memory.

Harry joined him.

“Oh, man, Seamus’ eyes were like this big,” Ron said, measuring the air with his fingers. “He was totally buying it for a minute there.”

“I think Seamus wants it the other way round,” Harry snorted. “That was more Lavender’s sort of thing.”

“Lavender’s all talk and lots of tongue but no real follow through. At least with me.” Ron said suddenly.

They’d never talked at any length about Ron’s stint as Won Won, mostly because Lavender had always mildly irritated Harry and he’d sensed he would be seriously lacking in his best-friendly duties in the admiration and support department if they had. Some of the noises their joint efforts had produced in the Common Room last year had come close to tripping even Harry’s gag reflex. That, and he’d hated the effect the two of them seemed to have on Hermione; it was as if she’d lost herself somehow all year.

“So you never? With her?” Harry asked hesitantly, surprised.

“Nope. And not even close with Hermione. Just so you know.” Ron said, with a shy, sideways glance.

“She told me, actually,” Harry admitted.

Ron reddened again and groaned. “Oh please tell me you haven’t been talking about that. You are the last place I want to hear feedback about my snogging ability.”

“No, nothing like that. Honestly. She just told me because…” Harry’s mind flailed, trying to think of any reasonable lie as an alternative to actually revealing how and why Hermione had disclosed that particular piece of information.

Ron appeared to be enjoying his discomfort for a moment before his eyes widened to a degree that put his demonstration of Seamus’ to shame.

“You… and Hermione. You and Hermione! You and she… and she… and you? Sweet Merlin’s wand, Harry. I don’t know whether to be hugely envious or kick your arse!”

“I don’t think she’d thank you for kicking my arse. It was her idea actually. Or, to be honest, she was the one who was Gryffindor enough to make the first move.” Harry told him, a bit panicked now that he was actually having the conversation he’d known all along he’d need to have sooner or later with his other best friend. They were almost down the hill to Hagrids’ and both instinctively slowed their progress.

“I’d say you were one lucky-arse wizard,” Ron told him, “except it isn’t usually true.”

“She makes me feel like one,” Harry heard himself say the words before his brain could edit them and knew it to be the truth. The pain Voldemort had extracted through his scar had been a small price for what had come before it.

“So?” Ron asked. Harry saw his fringe move and realized he was probably waggling his eyebrows at him in a brilliant imitation of Fred or George; it was simply lost in all that Weasley hair.

“Brilliant. Beyond brilliant, actually.” Harry grinned. “And you can tell her I said so. I already have.”

“There’s a conversation I’m so not going to have. It’s already ‘we should help Harry this’ and ‘where’s Harry that’. I’m just not ready to know if you’re hung like your patronus or speak parseltongue when you’re really happy. Nope. Complete ignorance is the way to go. This never happened. Be a friend and obliviate me now.”

“Or you could just stop calling her loony and find out if Luna loves good.” Harry suggested. “Her aura is pulsing Weasley red, she’s humming Weasley is My King and she thinks you’re brave and loyal already. I’m sure your soul shadows are highly compatible as well. Just go for it.”

He knocked on the door before Ron could disagree, and it was thrown open by a beaming Hagrid.

“’Arry! Ron! Sight for sore eyes, the both of yeh. Come in! Come in! The kettle’s on.”

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Professor McGonagall followed Hermione through the door a short time later. Shoving over to make space for Hermione to share his stool (which, being Hagrid’s, offered more than enough room) Harry reflected that he’d never actually seen McGonagall down here before, although she’d flown to Hagrid’s defense quickly enough back in fifth year. Losing Dumbledore had likely pulled those who’d stood longest by him tight. Another gamble on Voldemort’s part.

He watched Hermione’s fingers curl around one of Hagrid’s massive mugs and felt strangely safe. There was something familiar and comforting about drinking tea round the scarred old table with suspicious creatures making hungry snuffling noises in the corners.

“So ‘ow’ve yeh been keepin’, the three of yeh? Things alright in the old place, then? Always gave me a case o’ the willies, it did.” Hagrid said, and the other four at the table took hurried sips of their tea to hide smiles at the thought of that.

“It’s hardly creepy at all now that Kreatcher’s gone.” Harry assured him.

“We’ve chucked a good bit of the nasty stuff into his old room,” Ron said.

“But that’s almost the extent of the cleaning I’m afraid,” Hermione admitted. “We’ve just been too busy.”

“I heard,” said Professor McGonagall, examining her tea leaves carefully, “that you, Mr. Potter, are responsible for Mundungus Fletcher not joining Sir Nicholas amongst the Nearly Headless.”

Harry ducked his own head as well; he wondered exactly who had told her and how much she had heard.

“Waste of time, if you ask me. He’d sell his own head for the right price if it came off,” she continued. “But you gave Remus Lupin a good scare. He was the leader of the “let them alone and watch” school of thought.”

“Was?” asked Hermione, somewhat coolly, Harry thought. “Have you all changed your strategies then?”

“No, no, ‘ermione! Never you mind. We’re still keepin’ a good eye on…” Hagrid began stoutly, then blanched. “Er…”

“Never mind, Hagrid,” Harry told him. “We’d have to be thicker than even Ron and I can be not to realize the remains of the Order would be watching us. We just didn’t want you to be letting important things go because of us, the way the Ministry is with the Aurors. We truly can,” he said, raising his eyes to meet McGonagall’s “take care of ourselves.”

“And quite hopefully,” Professor McGonagall said, meeting them, “each other. I noticed also that there have been some… perhaps realignments is the word?”

Ron choked on his tea and coughed.

Hermione pinkened, but remained collected, her dark eyes unreadable.

Harry sighed, and blinked.

“It is no small thing, love,” Professor McGonagall said sternly. “Particularly among magical folk. A force strong enough to cause changes in one’s patronus is a force to be reckoned with, not ignored.”

“We’re none of us changing our patronuses or anything,” Ron said anxiously.

“One of you already has, Mr. Weasley. And given the increasing role they are likely to play in your lives during the coming months, it is most important that you three remain honest with each other about what lies between you.”

“If you’re talking about Harry and Hermione,” said Ron. “I already know. I mean I knew before. Not that there was anything to know before, but you could see it coming a mile off and Hermione did talk with me about it. I sort of always thought they might.”

“’arry and ‘ermione?” said Hagrid, looking confused. “What about ‘em?

“Hermione’s patronus has changed, Hagrid. I had a real moment of panic this morning when a strange doe deer came galloping up the drive, until I remembered the exact same thing happened to Lily late in her seventh year. It would seem, Harry, that you and your father share a somewhat overwhelming… magical effect.”

‘And what exactly,’ thought Harry ‘am I supposed to say to that? Thank you?’

“Really?” Hermione asked, fascinated, her own embarrassment quite forgotten. “Was hers a deer as well?”

Hagrid clapped his enormous hands together; the resulting sound was loud enough that Professor McGonagall winced and Harry almost fell off his end of the stool. Hermione dropped a steadying hand down to his hip and he felt his attention immediately drift as Hagrid said, “O’course! I remember that! Sweetest little thing on four legs it was. The first time I saw it I hadn’t a clue the two of them ‘ad gotten together…”

His black eyes made their way from Hermione to Harry and back again, eyebrows working furiously.
“Oh,” he said softly. “Right. Well. O’course, yer all grown up now, and all, aren’t yeh. Seems like just yesterday I was busting down the door o’ that miserable shack Vernon Dursley’d locked yeh up in for yer birthday, ‘arry. Could tell for sure they’d kept yeh in a cupboard back then, yeh could, scruffiest, scrawny little thing. And not so long before that I was roaring yeh along on that motorbike of Sirius’ in your wee blankets. Time flies, it does.”

‘Until your professors start talking about your love life, that is,’ Harry thought. At least Hagrid had offered a chance for diversion.

“Hagrid, what did you see at Godric’s Hollow that night? What was the house like? Was it really destroyed?

“’fraid so, ‘Arry. Well, still standing, o’course, yeh were in yer cot in a little room upstairs when I found yeh. But it was like a ‘uge wind went right through it; just blew everythin right away. Windows was busted out, ‘alf the roof off, not a door left on its hinges.”

“I left for Surrey as soon as Hagrid told me Dumbledore had sent him to fetch you there.” McGonagall remembered. “I arrived just in time to see your dreadful Uncle leaving for work and to hear your cousin have the loudest tantrum I’d ever known from a child of one then or since. Wretched little boy. I watched the house all day waiting for Hagrid and Dumbledore to arrive, and I positively dreaded leaving you there by the time they did.”

“So Professor Dumbledore sent Hagrid to get Harry from the house?” Hermione asked.

“That’s it. Dumbledore sent me off with a portkey to the village. Met up with Sirius at the cottage and he let me borrow ‘is bike right off. One look it and he apparated away like ‘e ‘ad a Horntail on ‘is trail, ‘e did. ‘Course now I know ‘e was off after Peter Pettigrew, wasn’t ‘e. Wish I’d done it different. Yeh might ‘ave ‘ad a Godfather all that time, ‘Arry, if I ‘ad.”

“You couldn’t have known what he meant to do, Hagrid,” Harry told him. “And Sirius always did what he wanted to anyway. You couldn’t have stopped him.”

“That ‘e did. Yeh were such a little tyke, ‘Arry. Fair broke my ‘eart to see you sittin’ there cryin yer eyes out and yer poor Mum…” Hagrid broke off and honked into an enormous spotted handkerchief.

“I was crying?” Harry asked curiously; he’d never heard this particular bit of the story before.

“’Course yeh were, ‘Arry, any little ‘un with a jagged great crack on the ‘ead like that would ‘ave would ‘nt ‘e. Don’t know as yeh could see your Mum from there or that yeh really knew what ‘appened to yeh, but yer ‘ead seemed to ‘urt somethin terrible.”

“You must have been frightened,” Hermione said softly. “And to cry and cry and have no one come….”

Harry felt a twinge of something, a flush of barely remembered fear, wordless and deep. He pushed it resolutely away. “How did Dumbledore know?” he asked instead. “To send you, I mean. It was the middle of the night. How did he know?”

“Order members watching the house I suppose,” said Hagrid, as if the thought had never occurred to him.

“But they couldn’t have, could they? How many were in on the fidelius then? I thought they were trying to keep it super secret,” Hermione said in surprise.

“It wouldn’t have mattered, Hermione, only Pettigrew could have given them away. Someone could only find the house if Pettigrew told them himself, not someone else he told. He was the secret keeper,” Ron pointed out.

“But that’s the point,” Hermione exclaimed. “If it had been Sirius it wouldn’t have mattered in the sense of snitching. But look who Pettigrew told! He could easily have told others as well. Here’s what has always bothered me. If Voldemort’s physical being was destroyed that night and he was but the meanest ghost, a shredded soul, what happened to his wand? We know he had it back when he stole Harry’s blood to regain a body fourth year, and we know it was his own, since Harry’s Mum and Dad were among the spell shadows to come out of it. What if someone else was there that night? Someone who snuck away his wand for him? Someone who took something else as well; the thing that he’d meant to make it out of before it backfired into Harry?”

“What if it was just Pettigrew? He could have taken the wand with him and given it back later.”

“If he did, he must have hidden it before Sirius found him, because the spell that Sirius was accused of casting to kill the twelve Muggles wasn’t on it when Harry saw his parents and Cedric, and we know Peter did that before he cut off his finger and turned himself in to Scabbers. Rats can’t carry wands.”

“But what does it really matter?” Harry cut across the two of them. “It doesn’t matter how he got back his wand; he has it. It doesn’t matter if anyone else was there that night, whether it was Pettigrew or even Snape; they didn’t stop him. I still am what I am. It’s all just theories and speculation. It’s time to stop theorizing and fight.”

“I think,” Professor McGonagall said, setting down her mug, “that like it or not, that is what is rapidly approaching us all. It’s a fine thing to step forward bravely into adversity, Harry, and another altogether to rush into it blindly or angrily. Voldemort is counting on losing Dumbledore’s council to lead you to do something stupid. Prove him wrong.”

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Given their welcoming committee, all three agreed that apparition was the safest way home. It didn’t seem as if Millicent and her Durmstrang cronies had had time to notify anyone before their mad dash, but it wasn’t a chance Harry was willing to take.

It had taken Hermione to point out what Harry and Ron had missed; there was probably no coincidence to the configuration of a single girl and two boys as their interceptors.

“They were going to polyjuice themselves to get into Hogwarts, idiots,” she said, although Harry thought hopefully the ‘idiots’ part was more in fondness for their continued stupidity than actual frustration with it. She might be the smartest witch ever, but there was no doubt in his mind that more often then not he was the dumbest wizard for miles. The idea had not even occurred to him.

“The question is,” she continued, “why? Was it meant to be an attack, or are they looking for something? They wouldn’t blend easily as us, since we aren’t students any more, but they might well have guessed that McGonagall would give us access to places in the school they might not reach as someone else.”

“Or they knew about Dumbledore’s portrait waking up and they wanted to come in as us to find out how much Harry knows,” Ron pointed out. “If Voldemort’s guessing Harry’s on to the horcruxes he’ll start guarding them instead of letting them stay hidden.”

Harry felt his stomach cramp; it was going to be hard enough to find the bloody things without every one of them being a death eater battle. Or worse still, facing Voldemort and losing before he’d had a chance to destroy them…

And so it was that Harry was more then a little distracted as they moved from the gates toward the shelter of the tree they had hidden behind earlier to apparate homeward. He listened for the tell-tale popping sounds to be sure they both were safely on their way; Hermione’s a soft sound like a drop of water, Ron’s more of a car backfiring, and then prepared to go himself. The familiar feeling of being squeezed through a bottle began but too abruptly ended, as though someone had tossed the bottle against something solid, shattering it. Harry felt himself hurling through darkness and then jerked painfully back, concentrating desperately on keeping himself whole. Before he could even see properly he was aware of his over-adrenalized body struggling with another, rolling to the ground. He could feel the tree roots beneath his shoulders and a hand clutching his throat. A roaring sound filled his ears; he heard a voice but not what it was saying and continued his fierce attempts to free himself. He grabbed at the fingers around his neck and managed to bring his knee up with enough force to hear his attackers’ abrupt exhalation when it connected somewhere. He was able to achieve a brief gasp of air and his brain took in a few details.

His assailant was taller but not much heavier then he, probably around his own age. He was wearing a hooded cloak, obscuring his identity but slowing his reaction time, fight-wise. And he now had Harry’s wand.

“Petrificus totallus,” a familiar voice hissed, and Harry suddenly went from fight-or-flight mode to well and truly pissed off. And extremely rigid.

He focused on his wand and centered every ounce of his consciousness on a silent scream of Expelliarmus. It took him two tries, but the third attempt ripped the wand from Malfoy’s hand.

“Stupid, Potter. You still aren’t going anywhere. Accio wand.” Malfoy looked up long enough to grab the wand as it returned and Harry used the moment for another attempt at a nonverbal spell. Amazing how easy it was to learn when you were pinned and helpless the second time round. A year ago he wouldn’t even have thought to try, but a lot had happened in a year and Malfoy wasn’t getting another shot at Harry’s nose anytime soon. His 'finite incantatum' freed him and he was grappling Draco for the wand before the Slytherin even knew what hit him.

Hand to hand Draco had nothing on Harry but sheer meanness; a strength that today seemed to be failing him. He quickly fell back on relying on his wand and a spell Harry had never come across before flipped him bodily over and sent him face first into the tree. Reeling, he managed to regain his knees in time to take the one-two punch of a silencio and Malfoy’s fist. He hit the tree again, this time with the back of his head, but came up swinging and managed to knock both his assailants flat before he realized he was seeing double. The second punch hit the tree, with unfortunate results for his hand but a positive surge for his anger.

Swiftly, wordlessly and vindictively Harry managed a leg locker, a binding charm, and another punch that ended with the satisfying sound of Malfoy’s perfect aristocratic nose achieving the same crookedness as his soul.

He dropped, gasping for air and fighting the contents of his stomach while Malfoy found his voice.

“Gods, Potter, you are such a moron. I was just trying to get us someplace safe to talk, now you’ve landed us in Auror central.”

Harry laughed, or at least he meant to. He could not manage to silently end the silencio, and was stuck glaring at his enemy.

“I have a business proposal for you.”

Harry shook his head fiercely. ‘No dice. You’ve got nothing but a couple of Death Eaters looking for you, and it’s nothing you don’t deserve. You tried to kill Dumbledore!’ he thought.

“But I didn’t!” Draco spat bloodily.

Harry gaped at him, then shook himself. Even Trelawney could have figured out what was on his mind just then. He spat back. Less bloodily. Which meant he won, didn’t it?

There was a loud ‘pop’ and Ron appeared. His wand whipped out at the sight before him.

“You okay, Harry?” he asked, training it on Malfoy, who sighed.

Harry pointed at his mouth and Ron’s wand.

“Silencio?” Ron asked.

Harry nodded, and watched as Ron aimed his wand his way and ended the spell.

“For lack of guts, not lack of opportunity or trying,” he croaked out, still back on Malfoy’s denial of his unspoken accusation.

“Er, what?” said Ron, looking at him as if he had lost his mind. “You don’t look so good, Harry. Just step over the dragon dung there and we’ll have you home in no time.”

“Shut up, Weasley,” Malfoy sneered.

“Shut up yourself, Malfoy,” said Ron, suddenly catching up with the situation. “Nice to see you where you belong for a change. Leaving him for Aurors then, Harry? Or maybe his own kind will find him. Hard to run from everyone, is it ferret boy?”

“Seriously, Ron, what should we do with him?” Harry was starting to stiffen up and had an uncomfortable feeling of being out in the open, watched. He wanted a hot bath and to crawl across the hall of Grimmauld Place into the soft warmth of Hermione’s bed and…

“Where’s Hermione?” he asked anxiously. “She got there okay, right?”

“She’s fine. She agreed to give me fifteen minutes. If I don’t have you back she’s coming to find out why.” Ron told him.

“You can’t just leave me here!” Malfoy said angrily, but Harry could see that even Ron heard the note of panic rising in his voice.

“What do you reckon?” Harry asked tiredly. “Blindfold him and take him back? We can get rid of him there, it’d be less dangerous for all of us to let him loose in the City.”

“How is it dangerous to us to leave him here for whoever finds him?”

“What City?” Malfoy asked, as if he had a choice.

“Besides,” Harry said, “I have a few questions to ask him about his old Head of House first. He might not be quite as useless as he used to be, now that he’s actually one of them. And then…

“And then we can bundle him into the fireplace,” Ron offered, “chuck in a handful of floo powder, and say “Hell” real loud and clear!”

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