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Harry Potter and the Last Chance

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Challenge

*Harry is killed at 17 during a fight with Voldemort. He's sent to his Death's office (explained later) and finds out that this isn't the first time that this has happened.

*Harry's Death (who can have a human name) is mad at his arrival. Apparently, people dying before their time is a black mark on the various Deaths' records, and Harry is getting perilously close to getting this particular one fired.

*When Harry asks what was supposed to have happened, Death goes off on a rant saying how he was supposed to have killed Voldemort, found his soulmate ("Some Granger girl...") and lived to be a centennial age. But since Harry keeps getting into life-threatening situations for one reason or another, he keeps dying before that happens. Harry is surprised about the soulmate part.

*Death gives Harry a paper to sign that allows him to retain his memories (the previous times, he wasn't given this option for some reason). Harry is deposited to a previous time of the writer's choosing.

*Eventually, Harry gets it right. He kills Voldemort, gets the girl, and lives to a ripe old age of whatever. And Death doesn't get fired.

REQUIREMENTS:

*Harry has to have died at least three times before this one.

*The memory keeping contract must be included.

*Death must refer to Hermione as "some Granger girl" when Harry's soulmate turns up in his rant.

*Obviously, must be H/Hr.

*Have fun.

OPTIONAL:

*Dumbledore's manipulations can be a factor in Harry's premature demises.


Warning

This story will work towards a relationship between Harry Potter and Hermione Granger as you can probably tell from the challenge. Ron will be a bit of a useless prick. I don't intend to go out of my way to bash him but that's mostly because he isn't worth the effort. If either of these things are not your cup of tea then the back button is up top. Furthermore, there will be scenes that include some graphic violence later on in the story. You have been warned.


Disclaimer

Harry Potter and all associated characters, locations and what not belong to J.K. Rowling and whoever she sells the rights to. I have borrowed these characters, locations and what not in order to mess around with them. In some cases I have lifted a piece of dialogue or scene directly from the books as a touchstone. I do not own anything except the plot and I am not making any money from this endeavor. This applies to the whole story.


Harry woke up with his face pressed to a cool floor. Something about that seemed wrong to him. Wracking his brain he suddenly shot up off the floor. The last thing he remembered was the green light of Riddle's killing curse hitting him in the chest. That should preclude any waking up on a floor, or indeed anywhere else. Maybe he was back at the ethereal King's Cross Station he had just visited. Looking around he realized that wherever he was it didn't look at all ethereal. In fact it looked like the waiting room at a doctor's office right down the ghastly pattern on the floor. Thoroughly confused, Harry sat in the chair provided. The best thing to do was probably just wait until someone showed up like Dumbledore had done.

Harry had no idea how long he sat in the waiting room. There were magazines on a table but they weren't in any language Harry had ever seen let alone learned. Eventually though, a door opened where there hadn't been one before. A bored looking woman stepped through holding a clipboard.

"Your Reaper will see you now, Mr. Potter."

Harry saw the shock spread across the woman's face as her own words sank in.

"Wait. Potter?! You're back? Oh, not good. Not good. Well come along. Best get this over with."

Harry found himself bustled from the waiting room and down a hallway. Any attempts to ask the woman where he was or what was going on were roundly ignored. The two came to an empty stretch of hallway that looked no different from any other and the woman once again opened a door that hadn't been there before Harry blinked.

"In you go, dearie. Good luck."

With a firm hand to his back Harry was shoved through the door. When he turned around to look back at the woman who had brought him here he was once again looking at a blank wall. Looking around he realized he was in an office of some sort. On one of the walls hung several framed diplomas. Across from him was a desk stacked so high with folders that the person sitting behind the desk with a look of unmitigated horror on his face could barely see over them.

"YOU!"

The man leaped across the desk scattering the folders and the papers they contained all over the office. Harry wasn't in any state to do anything about that as the man had grabbed him by the shirt and started shaking.

"What in the name of the nameless are you doing here, you bastard! Are you some kind of fetishist?! Mentally deficient?! What is it, huh?!"

"What are you on about, you madman?!" Harry was thoroughly annoyed. He had known that dying was a possibility for a long time now. He had even accepted it as a certainty for the short time it took him to walk into the Forbidden Forest. However being accosted by strange, obviously deranged man had never featured anywhere in his expectations .

"What am I on about?! You showing up here for the, drumroll please, twelfth blasted time! You are trying to make my afterlife difficult, aren't you?!"

"I've been here before?"

The shock in Harry's voice calmed the man somewhat.

"Yes, you have been here before. In fact this is your twelfth death. Since you mortals never remember this plane I suppose I'll have to introduce myself again. I am Ephialtes, Reaper of Europe. You are Harry James Potter, the little brat that can't stop dying. Boy-Who-Lived, my hairy arse! You do realize that you are this close to getting me fired, don't you?"

"Grim Reapers can get fired? How would that even work?"

"It works by giving them a soul to watch over that insists on taking joyrides to the afterlife rather than fulfilling the destiny laid out for it. If I get fired there will be no way for me to pay back the debt I incurred on my soul while I was alive. If that happens I promise you I'm dragging you down with me!"

Harry was starting to feel a little overwhelmed but he still managed to pick something out of Ephialtes' less than polite introduction.

"You said 'if'. That means there is still a chance for you right?"

"Yes, but since that chance rests entirely in your hands I'm not holding out too much hope." Throwing his hands up in disgust Ephialtes turned back to his desk and froze. Seeing the state of his files he whimpered.

"Oh great! Just what I needed!"

Stomping over to the desk the man threw himself into his chair and aimed a glare at Harry.

"I blame you for this, Potter."

"I'm pretty sure I wasn't the one who jumped over that desk."

Ephialtes simply huffed in response and started looking through the mess on his desk. After a few minutes of sifting through papers he had several in his hands and gave out a loud sigh.

"Well, sit down. We have a lot of work to do."

Taking a seat in front of the desk, Harry decided he had been patient long enough.

"Are you actually going to tell me what that work is then?"

"We're going to save my job. And you are going to fulfill your destiny to do it."

"I don't know what my destiny is, but doesn't being dead present a bit of an obstacle to me fulfilling it?" Okay, so that was a bit snarkier than he intended, but for once Ephialtes seemed entirely unconcerned.

"A bit of an obstacle, yes, but not an insurmountable one. I am going to send you back to the living world and you are going to do it right this time. After all if you don't then we're both up the Styx without a paddle. Your thirteenth chance is your last one. You die again and you really will be joining me in purgatory, never to walk the Elysian Fields. As for what you have to do, it's embarrassingly simple: kill that degenerate running around down there, find your soulmate and live to 169 years old. Then, and only then, do I want to see you again. Are we clear?"

"No! How am I supposed to avoid making whatever mistakes I made first time through? How do I know who my soulmate is?"

Ephialtes was giving Harry an odd look and it was beginning to make him uncomfortable until the Reaper abruptly stood and walked over to a filing cabinet in the corner of the room. When he returned he was holding a thick scroll.

"In my hands I have a contract that you will sign. It states that you fully understand that you are on your last chance, that you will be allowed to retain your memories since you are too much of a dunderhead to get it right without assistance. Finally it says that you will keep everything you have learned here a secret. The only person you may tell, if you so choose, is your soulmate. As to who that is, if you weren't so bloody infuriating I would simply be able to look it up in your file. As it is I think we can safely say that it isn't anyone you've been spit-swapping with so far. After all we wouldn't be in this mess if they were."

This prick was starting to remind Harry more and more of Snape. Never a good thing.

"Helpful, aren't you? You don't remember anything that could be useful? Anything at all?"

"Do you have any idea just how many people die per minute? No, I don't remember everything about every angsty, little brat. However, since you seem determined to screw me over I will give you some simple guidelines. First, the degenerate: you know how to kill him. Remember that this is your task, don't hang around and hope someone else will come by and solve your problems. That is good general advice, mind you. Second, the soulmate: it takes something really messing with their heads to keep soulmates apart. Check yourself regularly for potions, charms and diseases. Again there's some sound general advice in there." Harry was blushing like mad at the insinuations coming from the being in front of him.

"So you're saying that the only way Ginny could get me to fall for her is with a potion?" That was insane. He couldn't imagine any of the Weasleys doing something like that, let alone her. Ephialtes was giving him a long suffering look.

"I have no idea who this 'Ginny' is, but by your expression I'm guessing she's the angsty, little brat you were playing house with before you decided to die before your time. Again." Harry opened his mouth to respond angrily but Ephialtes beat him to the punch. "Look kid, you've tried this your way. Several times, in fact, and turned your destiny into a royal clusterfuck every time. You were the one who asked if I could come up with anything useful so keep quiet and listen for once in your lives." Here the Reaper took a moment to glare at his charge and make sure he wouldn't be interrupted again.

"Alright so like I was saying: regular checks. Food and gifts as well. And since I am through assuming anything about your competences: learn the detection methods and the necessary counters. If you come back here because you caught something you will regret it." Fine, so he wasn't above taking his frustrations out on a teenager, but to be fair that teenager was the cause of just about every one of his frustrations. The blushing was rather amusing too.

"Finally, the not dying: I'm just not sure what to tell you. While you may know where the hazards were, the moment you start messing with time things change. Be alert and train yourself to deal with your many shortcomings. You live in a goddamn magical world. Find a way to get what you need. There are myriad options for the truly creative and determined. You should have realized this by now but it bears repeating: coasting by will get you killed and getting killed is bad."

The similarities with his old potions professor were solidifying in Harry's mind by the minute. Taking the scroll from Ephialtes he started looking through the contract. It said essentially what he had been told, though a good deal less insulting. Harry was weighing his options. If he didn't do this he apparently would be stuck in purgatory forever. He had a feeling that he wouldn't see his family there. It would also mean damning his friends left behind to world ruled by Riddle. If he did sign the contract he would be thrown back in the deep end and left to work it all out on his own. Although with his memories intact he might be able to save Cedric, Sirius, Dobby and a host of others. That left him ahead of where he usually was in strange and dangerous situations. In the end there was only one thing Harry could do. Decision made he laid the scroll on the desk and looked around for a pen only to find Ephialtes holding one out that seemed to be made from a patronus. Harry took it and signed his name in glowing, misty letters.

"Excellent. Now technically, corporate can veto this so we need to get you sent off as soon as possible. Better to ask forgiveness and all that. Follow me."

As the left the room, Harry got the distinct impression that they were sneaking. Ephialtes certainly was at any rate. Eventually they came to another door-that-wasn't and slipped in.

"Good. Now you stand over there." Ephialtes said, indicating a raised dais. As he walked over to what must be a control panel. Harry simply did as he was told and stood in the centre of a ring of runes that he couldn't make heads or tails of. He smiled to himself as he thought of what Hermione would give to be able to study this room. He was drawn out of his thoughts about his best friend by muttering coming from the controls. Looking over he saw Ephialtes paging through a book, occasionally stopping to double check something and then change the settings on the panel in front of him.

"Right. I'll be sending you back to a time when you will be able to actually do something. I think we'll just leave that bit of Riddle's soul here. It's not going to help you after all." Here the Reaper looked up with a glare.

"That means you can't go getting hit with the killing curse, you understand?" Harry just nodded in acknowledgement. Ephialtes went back to fiddling with the controls in a way that worried the young wizard.

"You do know what you're doing, don't you?"

"I have the manual here, thank you very much. It's not like we have to use this thing very often. Most people manage to live out their destinies just fine without all the handholding and need for extra chances."

Before Harry could respond to that a loud voice boomed into the room.

"EPHIALTES! WHERE ARE YOU, YOU LITTLE SNEAK?!"

The Reaper blanched and muttered something Harry couldn't understand but was fairly sure was a curse.

"No time to double check now. Off you go. Good luck!"

The rings of runes glowed blue and peeled themselves off the floor. They started to swirl through the air around Harry encasing him in their glow. At the same time the door to the room banged open and a figure Harry couldn't make out through the runes strode in.

"EPHIALTES! STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING! YOU COULD PUT EVERYTHING IN DANGER!"

Ephialtes seemed to stiffen and then whirled around to face the swirling magic in the centre of the room.

"Potter! Your soulmate! I've just remembered: I'm pretty sure it was some Granger girl!"

Hermione?! My soulmate is Hermione?

Before Harry could contemplate this any further he felt as he was being squeezed until he shot off like a bar of wet soap. Magic was swirling all around him. There was so much of it in the air that Harry was beginning to feel nauseated. He closed his eyes in an effort to control his stomach. Sicking up all over a magical time vortex was probably a bad idea.

Eventually Harry felt like he was beginning to slow down. The magic was becoming less and less oppressive and seemed to be dissipating. He was finally making some real progress in calming his churning stomach. He was so preoccupied with his struggle that he didn't notice the last of the magic fading away.

"Harry Potter."

Chapter Text

"Harry Potter."

Harry's eyes snapped open as he heard the familiar voice call his name. He was sitting in the Great Hall at Hogwarts. The very much intact and undamaged Great Hall, surrounded by people who were young and alive. No traces of the war anywhere. Nothing could have kept the shock from showing on his face.

"Harry Potter!"

His head snapped around to look at the source of the voice. Albus Dumbledore stood in front of the head table next to the Goblet of Fire and was looking as stern and unsmiling as Harry had ever seen him.

Wait! The Goblet of Fire. I'm back in fourth year. Sirius is alive! Cedric is in the next room! I really can save them. I was half expecting my time with Ephialtes to be some kind of delusion.

"HARRY POTTER!"

A pair of hands pushed him to his feet. Looking over at the contact he saw a pair of worried brown eyes. "Your soulmate! I've just remembered: I'm pretty sure it was some Granger girl!" Ephialtes last words rang through his head almost causing him to miss Hermione speaking to him.

"Go on, Harry. You have to go up there." With another little shove Harry started walking. He was remembering how this year had gone last time around and trying to get comfortable in his younger body again and so missed most of the glares that were being aimed his way by the other students. When he came up to the headmaster he was handed the slip of parchment with his name on it and directed to the antechamber where he knew the other three champions were waiting. Still feeling a bit dazed Harry made his way across the hall. The sounds of the Great Hall cutting off abruptly as the door of the antechamber closed behind him was every bit as ominous as it had been the first time around.

Looking up he saw the three champions gathered around the fire. When he had been fourteen in mind and body he had been caught by how tall they were. With the mind of a war veteran all he could think was that they looked too young for what lay ahead.

"What is it? Do zey want us back in ze Hall?"

At Fleur's question Harry mentally shook himself. He needed to focus. He could gather wool when he was safe behind the curtains of his four-poster.

"No. Something's gone wrong." Harry said. He really didn't want to get into this. He knew the animosity he would be facing over the coming months and time travel or massive delusions apparently gave him a blinding headache. He still wasn't sure what had happened there.

"Well? What 'as gone wrong?" It was clear the Fleur was growing impatient with his poor performance as a messenger. She wouldn't be kept waiting much longer as Bagman came bouncing through the door. Unable to contain himself at this twist in tournament and, probably even more so Harry thought, the betting opportunities it afforded. He ignored the rotund former beater as he introduced Harry as the fourth champion in a contest that was named for the fact that there were only ever three. Should have bloody well tipped everyone off that there was something miserably wrong right there.

Fleur was just starting to work herself into a strop when the rest of the adults came into the room. Welcome to the sideshow. No charge.

"Madame Maxime! Zey are saying zat zis little boy is to compete also!" Harry couldn't quite suppress a twitch in his jaw at the 'little boy' comment. He knew there was a decent person under Fleur's act of being a quintessential French snob, had even met her, but damn, did that woman need to work on her first impressions. It didn't help that this comment was the other two headmaster's cue to get indignant about the situation. Well at least they're worried that a 'little boy' could upstage their champions. Wonder if I should take that as a compliment or an indictment of their own programs. He didn't bother to hide his eye-roll at Snape's pronouncement that he had been breaking rules since he got to Hogwarts.

"Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire, Harry?" Dumbledore asked studying him. Harry reflexively threw up his occlumency shields.

"No." Harry couldn't feel anything come up against his shields but certainly heard Snape's wordless scoff.

"Did you ask an older student to put your name in for you?" Harry had already started answering the question when something occurred to him.

"N-Wait?! You mean, that would have worked?!" he asked incredulously. Judging by the faces around him it actually would have. "That means you had something set up to deal with the possibility of someone being entered without permission right?" It was Bagman who answered him.

"Ah…well, who would want to enter more competition for a title they wanted, Harry?"

"I'll just take that as a 'no' then, shall I?" Harry groaned. "Should I also assume you have no method for dealing with unwilling participants?"

"We must follow the rules, and the rules state clearly that those people whose names come out of the Goblet of Fire are bound to compete in the tournament." was Crouch Sr.'s non-answer. Harry just snorted in disgust earning him a glare from Snape. Maxime and Karkaroff had their hackles up again and were arguing with the other organizers. Harry was forced to admit that from their point of view they had good reason to be angry with the situation.

They were interrupted by Crouch Jr. explaining exactly how he had entered Harry into the tournament. Harry had to admit, as ballsy moves went, this one was right up there with anything he had ever pulled. It was this interruption however that caused Dumbledore to force the issue and declare that Harry would have to compete. After the two foreign delegations had left in a huff Harry and Cedric were also dismissed.

Once they were outside Cedric spoke up, "So, we're competing against each other again."

"Honestly, Cedric, give me a quidditch match any day." Harry was pinching the bridge of his nose in an effort to relieve the headache he still felt. He knew the next question was coming but it still managed to annoy him.

"Will you tell me how you managed to get your name in?"

"I didn't, but apparently any prick over the age of seventeen who was given half a reason could have." Harry's tone was curt as he answered the Hufflepuff.

"…Right." Cedric didn't sound any more believing than he had last time but they had thankfully come to the point where their paths diverged and Harry was left alone for the remainder of the walk up to Gryffindor Tower. He really didn't feel like putting up with the same bloody questions all night and no one believing his answers. In fact he was tempted to just head over to the Room of Requirement and ask it for a place to spend the night. Find a way to get what you need. There are myriad options for the truly creative and determined. Harry froze mid-step as Ephialtes' words rang through his head for the second time that night. Find a way to get what you need. Harry continued his walk with a more confident stride. First chance he got tomorrow he was heading down to the kitchens to talk with Dobby and 'learn' about the Come and Go Room from the elf. He could do with some plausible deniability if he had to keep his future knowledge a secret.

The tumult in the common room was as bad as he remembered. All of Gryffindor, led by the quidditch team, wanted to congratulate him and know how he did it. It also didn't take long for Harry to get fed up with the whole thing. He decided on a slightly different approach to last time and climbed onto a table holding up his hands for silence.

"Quiet, you lot! Our champion is going to make a speech!" This proclamation led to a roar of approval before everyone settled down again.

"Thank you, Fred. Now then, I am going to say this one last time. I did not enter my name into the Goblet of Fire." Harry waited for the catcalls to subside before he continued on, "Professor Moody has a theory on how my name came out as the fourth champion, if you're interested go talk to him about it." Take that, you conniving bastard. Harry hoped the Death Eater would be inundated with requests from Gryffindors. It was petty, sure, but he wasn't sure unmasking the imposter at this stage was wise or even possible. "The judges did mention that all you would have had to do is convince an older student to enter your name for you." The expressions on Fred and George's faces were comical to say the least. They were clearly kicking themselves for overlooking this. "Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to bed as I don't really want to celebrate getting shafted into a deadly tournament."

His point made, Harry jumped down and headed towards the stairs to the boy's dormitories. The rest of the house was too shocked to stop him and he managed to make good his escape. Just before opening the door to the fourth year dorm Harry took a moment to prepare himself for the confrontation he knew waited within. Sure enough he hadn't taken three steps towards his bed before Ron was standing in front of him.

"So, congratulations." He hated that false grin his best friend was wearing.

"On what?" He knew he sounded bitter but the next few months were some of the worst times in his friendship with the redhead.

"You managed to get into the tournament. Even Fred and George couldn't do that. How did you do it?"

"Since you seem to have missed the announcement downstairs: I didn't. Someone else entered my name. If you want the full theory, talk to Moody." Ron's face took on a disbelieving cast.

"It's okay, y'know. You don't have to lie to me about it. You're already getting away with it. If you couldn't let me in on how you were going to do it you can at least tell me after the fact." Harry squared up to Ron and looked him in the eye as seriously as he possibly could.

"Ron, we have been best friends for three years. Do you really think that I would lie to you about something like this?" Something in Ron's expression wavered for a moment before it hardened.

"I didn't. Guess I know different now, don't I? Wormtail would be proud of you, the way you stabbed your friends in the back." Harry staggered back at the venom in Ron's voice. That last comment had been beyond the pale and something Harry had never imagined Ron capable of saying.

"Fuck you, Potter." Ron whirled away from his still shocked roommate and got into his bed wrenching the hangings shut. It took Harry a few moments longer to make his way to his own bed. When he closed his own hangings he quickly cast some privacy wards they had used on the hunt before letting himself go. He was shaking like a leaf from the rollercoaster he had just been on. From battle, to the afterlife, to the past is a lot for a body to take. Here in the privacy of his own bed he could finally start to assimilate and process what had happened.

To start with he wasn't at all convinced it had actually happened. The wards currently protecting him were certainly strong evidence; after all he couldn't remember learning them until 1997. That didn't necessarily mean this hadn't just been one great, big delusion. Just that that delusion surpassed anything he had ever heard of. Right. What had Hermione called it? Something about a razor and the easy explanation usually being the right one. He wasn't getting it exactly right but either way the concept wasn't helping him either. He just wasn't sure which of his two options was the more far-fetched.

Thinking of Hermione brought up Ephialtes' final words to him again. Your soulmate! I've just remembered: I'm pretty sure it was some Granger girl! He had never even heard of soulmates but assuming for the moment that they existed, how did he feel about Hermione being his? He considered this carefully. In his mind's eye he saw his best friend both as she was and as she would be. He remembered the things they had been through and would go through. In the end he decided it would be anything but a hardship to have her in his life for the next 155 years. He didn't know if he loved her of love was even part of the whole soulmate thing but, assuming it was, should he act on what might just be a delusion?

There just weren't any easy answers. Most of the questions were leading him around in circles. Okay, let's look at it this way: will it cost me more to follow Ephialtes' advice or ignore it? Overall there weren't any real problems with the advice the belligerent Reaper had given him. In fact the only bit he had any real problem with was the soulmate thing. He didn't like the idea that he and Hermione had no choice but to get together. He considered whether he should simply tell Hermione everything that happened and ask her to help him work it out. No. If it was real I can't tell anyone except my soulmate what happened and Ephialtes didn't exactly give a definite answer who that was. 'Pretty sure' might not cut it. Besides what if she decides she wants to date Ron again when sixth year rolls around? She might feel pressured to follow along with something that is at best still uncertain. I won't do that to her.

He briefly considered whether he was pulling a 'Dumbledore' and keeping information he should perhaps share. Dumbledore had something concrete he could share. Your evidence amounts to "I've apparently died a dozen times and we're fated to be together." Hell, it hasn't even managed to convince you. In the end Harry decided he would keep an open mind with regards to Hermione and at least act on the 'sound general advice' Ephialtes had given him, starting with that talk with Dobby tomorrow.

Now that he had made his decision and had the beginnings of a plan Harry felt much better about the whole thing. Taking off his glasses and getting changed he settled down for the night.

:-:-:-:-:

The next morning Harry got up early as he usually did. He felt a pang of anger and loss when he saw Ron's closed curtains. He knew that his friend would apologize after he had faced the dragon but it still hurt. Especially since Ron had been a lot more vindictive than he remembered. That thought sent a shiver down his spine. What if he had already changed things so much that Hermione wouldn't believe him? That would just make the nightmare complete. With a sigh he set off to breakfast, what would come would come and he would meet it when it did. Just like Hagrid had said a year from now.

His walk through the common room was uncomfortable. His talk with Ron was apparently not the only one that had changed the way he was treated. The Gryffindors that were sitting around seemed to be doing their level best to pretend that he didn't exist. He headed directly for the portrait hole; maybe he would get to speak to Dobby earlier than he thought. As he stepped through the portrait hole he came face to face with a most welcome sight.

"Hey. I brought you these." Hermione was standing in front of him holding up a couple of bacon sandwiches wrapped in a napkin. "Would you like to go for a walk?"

"Please and thank you." he replied, the obvious gratitude in his voice causing a pleased look to briefly flash across her face. The two friends headed outside to the lake. As they walked Harry ate his delivered breakfast. When they got to the lake they sat down and Harry began to tell Hermione everything that had happened since his name came out of the goblet. She was outraged that the organizers had apparently known this could happen and ignored the possibility. She smiled when he told her of his little speech in the common room and told him she had already heard all about it from Lavender and Parvati. She was appalled at Ron's comment.

"You do understand why he's acting that way, don't you, Harry?"

"I know that he's jealous, Hermione. The problem is that I really don't have the energy to talk him down. I'm going to be putting everything I have into surviving the latest Hogwarts madness. This has the potential to be as bad as the basilisk." Hermione looked like she desperately wanted that not to be true. "Besides, after what he said I'm not sure I could talk to him without punches being thrown. He's not the only one that needs to cool down before we try to fix this."

"That's actually very mature, Harry." He didn't take offense at the slight surprise in her tone and expression; it was a little unusual for him to mention that many feelings in one sentence. "Are you going to write Sirius?"

"I suppose I'd better." Harry sighed. He got up and brushed the grass off his robes before extending a hand to help Hermione up. "Do you happen to have a letter for your parents?" he asked her.

"I was working on one. Why do you ask?"

"I can't use Hedwig to send letters to Sirius and she gets huffy with me when I use other owls. If we send her off first with your letter it'll keep her happy. I'm not so long on friends right now that I can afford to tick her off." Hermione's response was to laugh most of the way to the castle at the relationship between her friend and his owl.

Classes that day were a nightmare. First was Herbology with the Hufflepuffs who felt wronged by Harry's selection as champion and weren't shy about letting him know it. That afternoon was Care with the Slytherins who were taking any and every chance to get a dig in. Harry didn't bother to hide his gratitude even a little this time when Hagrid believed him about the goblet.

After classes Hermione left for the library to finish her letter to her parents once again smirking at the reminder about Harry and Hedwig's relationship. Harry used the time to make his way towards the kitchens. After he had tickled the pear and opened the painting he was surprised that he wasn't immediately swarmed by elves but quickly realized that right before dinner was probably the most busy time of day for Hogwarts' hidden work force. There was one elf that was always going to find time to talk to his favourite wizard. Harry barely had time to brace himself before he felt Dobby slam into him and hugging his legs.

"Harry Potter Sir! You is here! You has come to visit Dobby!" Harry couldn't help but smile at the excitable little fellow.

"Hello, Dobby. I see you've found work at Hogwarts. How have you been?" Dobby released his hold on Harry and stepped back to look up at his saviour.

"Dobby has been looking for work for a long time, sir, but now that he has come to Hogwarts Dobby is very well, sir." The elf was beaming with pride.

"Why did it take you so long to find work, Dobby?" Harry asked, feeling a bit ridiculous since he already knew the answer.

"It takes Dobby a long time because he is wanting paying, sir. Wizards is not wanting to pay house elves. Dobby was almost giving up hope when he finds Winky. When Dobby hears Winky has also been freed he thinks to himself 'where is there being enough work for two elves?' And it comes to him sir: Hogwarts!" Dobby spoke very fast in his enthusiasm. The other elves in the kitchen backed away as the tale progressed looking very uncomfortable and embarrassed. Harry felt that Hermione's S.P.E.W. efforts were likely doomed with this lot. The one elf that didn't back away was swaying drunkenly on her stool near the fire and wailed loudly when her part in the story came up. None of this stopped Dobby for a moment.

"Dobby and Winky is speaking to Professor Dumbledore, sir, and he is telling Dobby he will pay Dobby. Dobby is getting one galleon a week and one day off a month." This prompted another howl of grief from Winky. "Professor Dumbledore is also telling Dobby and Winky they may call him whatever they wishes. We may even call him a…a barmy old codger, sir. But Dobby would never. Dobby is grateful to be working at Hogwarts."

"That's wonderful, Dobby! I'm happy for you!" Harry grinned meaning every word. "Do you happen to have a moment to help me with something?"

"For Harry Potter, Dobby always stands ready." the elf assured him seriously.

"In that case can you help me find a place where I can practice magic in private without anyone disturbing me?" Dobby's brow wrinkled in thought for a moment.

"One moment, Harry Potter Sir." he said before dashing off. Harry saw him talking to some other elves that looked like they were wishing he would stop bothering them. Harry felt for his little friend as he was receiving the same treatment from his own peers. Dobby had apparently gotten the information he needed as he once again stood in front of Harry, bouncing excitedly.

"Dobby has learned of the perfect place, sir. May Dobby show Harry Potter the way?" Grinning at the thought of what the Room would look like if he gave Dobby free reign in creating it, Harry agreed. Dobby led him out of the kitchens and up to the seventh floor and the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy, chattering happily all the while about his long job hunt. When they got to their destination, Dobby beamed up at Harry and told him how to call the Room. Harry began pacing and started with the most obvious request he could think of. I need somewhere I can learn what I need to survive. His focus was such that he didn't notice the door forming until Dobby squeaked next to him.

"Harry Potter Sir has done it!" Harry was just staring at the door. He hadn't honestly expected that to work with such a vague request. Deciding to see just what he had called into being he opened the door. Inside the room was clearly divided into two parts. The first reminded him of the Gryffindor common room except the walls were lined with shelves stuffed full of books. A quick perusal revealed titles like The Healer's Helpmateand The Curse-Breaker's Companion as well as some more advanced sounding titles. The other side of the Room was set up like a duelling arena and Harry could see several training dummies.

"Dobby this is absolutely fantastic! Name your reward!"

"Sir?" Dobby looked shocked.

"This is beyond anything I had expected. You deserve to be paid for a job well done and since you did this job for me, not Dumbledore, I will be paying you. Name your price." As Harry beamed down at Dobby he was surprised to see the little elf looking very uncomfortable. "What is it, Dobby?"

"Dobby is having a wish, sir, but it is too much to be asking for this." Harry remembered what Dobby had done for him in the future and thought that any wish the elf had, Harry would do his best to fulfil.

"Not at all, my friend. If I can grant your wish I will do it." When Dobby's only reaction was to blush furiously Harry started to get worried. This behaviour was atypical of the Dobby he knew. "Surely it can't be that bad?"

"Dobby…Dobby…" the elf took a deep breath before saying in a rush, "Dobby wants to be Harry Potter Sir's elf!" Immediately he clapped his hands over his mouth, shocked at his own audacity. His tennis-ball-shaped eyes were wider and rounder than usual and for a moment Harry was afraid Dobby would flee the scene.

"Of course you can be my elf, Dobby. Would you like the same pay you've been getting from Hogwarts?" Harry didn't see what the problem would be.

"No sir, Dobby is wanting to be Harry Potter's bonded elf." Dobby whispered. Well, that was different. Harry knelt down in front of Dobby so he could look him in the eye.

"Are you sure, Dobby? I thought you enjoyed being free?" Dobby straightened up looking as serious as Harry had ever seen him.

"Dobby is sure, sir. Elves is not meant to be free, sir." At Harry's confused look he continued. "Elves is needing the bond to use magic, Harry Potter. Without it we is losing our magic and dying. But magic is always having a price. The price elves pay is to serve." That didn't make sense to Harry.

"But why should that stop you getting paid?"

"If Dobby is paid to serve then he is not paying for magic and the bond will not form, sir. Dobby wanted to be able to leave Hogwarts when Harry Potter finished school and hoped Harry Potter would bond with him." Dobby was blushing again as he admitted to the last part. Harry realized that the elf was putting all his cards on the table. He also knew that if he turned Dobby away he would feel like the lowest scum of the earth. Hermione is going to kill me.

"If that's the case then of course I will bond with you, Dobby. You will have to explain how though." Harry hadn't finished speaking before an ecstatic house elf slammed into his chest.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, Harry Potter sir." Dobby was jabbering so quickly that Harry was having trouble hearing the individual words. The gist of it was loud and clear though.

"It's alright, Dobby. Now how do we do this?"

"Harry Potter must find his magic and push it out to Dobby." Harry closed his eyes. Finding their magic had been part of the first year curriculum. It was essential to be able to touch your magic if you wanted to cast a spell. When he found his magic he was momentarily surprised. There was a lot more of it than he remembered. Damn horcrux must have been parasitic. Time enough for speculation later, focus on Dobby! No sooner had he had that thought than his magic began to leak out towards Dobby. To Harry's senses it almost seemed like Dobby was a sponge, absorbing everything Harry pushed towards him.

"That is being enough, sir!" Harry's eyes snapped open at Dobby's interruption. When his focus stopped so did the flow of magic.

"Is it done, Dobby?"

"It is, sir." Deciding that he needed more information if he was ever going to keep Hermione from his throat Harry decided to ask his new elf some more questions.

"That's good, Dobby. Are all the castle elves bonded to the headmaster like this?" It seemed like a lot of work to go through every time there was a change of headmaster but he wasn't prepared to put anything past magical society.

"Oh no, sir. The castle elves is being bonded to the school itself. Hogwarts is having a great magical reservoir. Only personal elves is bonded to the staff." Dobby looked very sure of himself.

"But they are all bonded?" When he didn't immediately hear a response he looked over to once again find Dobby looking uncomfortable. "Let me guess: Winky isn't bonded?"

"No, sir. Winky is not wanting to bond to the castle and there is no teachers requiring an elf now. Winky is wanting a family again." An idea was forming in Harry's mind and he wasn't sure he liked it but if Winky's life and magic were at stake, not to mention her happiness, he knew he was going to do it.

"You were alright for a few years though, right? How long do we have to find someone for Winky to bond with?" Dobby perked up.

"Sir will help look for a family for Winky? Sir is too kind." Suddenly his ears drooped "Dobby is surviving because he is rationing his magic. Winky is not doing this. She is not having the will to live. Winky will die by the summer." Harry blanched at that pronouncement. Bugger.

"Dobby, would you mind if I bonded Winky. I'm not sure I really have enough work for two elves but I can't let her go on like this." Dobby had tears in his eyes.

"Dobby had hoped to ask the Great Harry Potter to bond Winky if he worked hard enough this year. Dobby was not wanting to presume." He punctuated his statement with a loud sniff. Harry sighed.

"Very well. I won't bond her unless she's sober though. This bonding feels like something you shouldn't do drunk." Dobby was nodding so rapidly his ears were flapping around on his head. "Can you take care of her for me?" More nodding. "Alright then that is your first job, okay?"

"At once Kind and Generous Harry Potter Sir!" with a pop Dobby had disappeared. Harry shook his head. He was going to have to talk to Dobby about forms of address. Harry sat down at the table the Room had provided and pulled out parchment, ink and a quill to write his letter to Sirius. He paused when he realized he was probably going to need the same discussion with Winky. Hermione is definitely going to kill me.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione was worried. Harry hadn't shown up for dinner. She knew he was stubborn but skipping meals because of a bunch of gossips wasn't his style. As soon as she had finished eating she had begun searching. That had been nearly an hour ago. He's not going to run away. He never has. She was just checking an empty classroom when a familiar voice called her name.

"Hermione! There you are. Have you finished your letter?" Sure enough, there was the object of her search walking down the hallway like nothing was wrong.

"Harry! You missed dinner? Are you alright?" seeing the bemused look on his face shifted her questioning, "Do you have any idea how worried I was?"

"I'm sorry I worried you, Hermione. I was writing a letter to our friend and planning a training schedule to help me survive this year. And, yes, I'm alright." He was looking at her with that damn lopsided smile of his again. She wanted to stay angry but he had apologized and made her curious with his talk of a training schedule.

"Do you want me to look over your schedule? You know you tend to be a bit…relaxed about your schoolwork." She didn't want to offend him for the world but Maeve knew schedules were her thing. Her question didn't seem to have put a dent in that smile though.

"You can check my schedule later, Hermione. First things first, do you have a letter we can send with Hedwig?" After one more searching look she started rummaging in her bag.

"I have it right here." she said as she fished it out. His smile turned into a full on grin.

"Excellent! Let's go then." Harry grabbed her hand as he whirled around and she found herself being pulled along. She didn't mind. Not having to watch where she was going freed up attention she could devote to analysing her best friend. She had expected him to be much moodier than what she was seeing. He was almost relaxed and he definitely seemed collected and in control. It was as if he had learned something that took away all his insecurities and she couldn't imagine what it was. An abrupt stop and the release of her hand were signals to reassign some more attention to the world around her. While she had been trying make sense of Harry he had managed to get them both to the owlery. She had the uncomfortable suspicion that she had been staring at the back of his head the whole way. Thankfully she could always count on Hedwig to demand some of Harry's attention and he was currently busy rubbing his familiar's plumage. By the time he had turned to her to ask her for the letter to her parents Hermione had herself back under control. Watching Harry with Hedwig was a calming experience anyway. She certainly wouldn't like to have to say who took care of whom in that relationship. Harry might be the owner and the human but Hedwig could be downright mothering to him; and how many wizards took into account their owl's feelings when sending a letter? Soon Hedwig was winging off towards her parents to update them on the most recent happenings at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry watched her until he couldn't see her anymore. She knew the moment it happened because his shoulders slumped momentarily. He straightened right back up though and peered up into the gloom of the rafters.

"Which one of you wants to take a letter for me?" Hermione amused herself for a moment by imagining the owls discussing who would be risking Hedwig's wrath for taking a letter from her human but it didn't take long for a barn owl to glide and land on Harry's arm. Harry held out the letter to it.

"This needs to go to Snuffles, ok? Do you know how to find him?"

*prek*

"Good man. Here you go then." Hermione shook her head in wonder as she watched the real magic of knowing Harry Potter. Harry only watched the barn owl long enough to make sure it got under way. When he turned back to her he had that lopsided grin on his face again.

"C'mon then, let's go enjoy a few horrendously awkward moments in the common room before we go to bed." He offered her his arm and she just smiled at him and shook her head before taking it. She could get used to relaxed Harry.

Chapter Text

The week had passed fairly quickly. The day after Harry had written Sirius, Hermione had said she was going to find anything she could on the tournament in the library. Harry knew his friend did her best work surrounded by peace and quiet and left her to it; who knew she might find something they hadn't known last time. He instead went up to the Room of Requirement and began his training. He hadn't told Hermione about the Room yet, largely because he knew it would lead into a discussion about him bonding Dobby and, soon, Winky. He hoped she would understand and was even fairly confident that she would. Eventually. Not having Hermione around would make this year cripplingly lonely. She wasn't likely to reconcile with him just because he flew rings around a dragon after all. The result was actually that Harry was unusually focused in his work in an effort to distract himself from the confrontation he knew he would eventually have to face. He began by developing a plan for dealing with most of the horcruxes.

He would start to learn curse breaking so he could get at the ring. That meant that he needed to learn as much Ancient Runes and Arithmancy as the Room could force into his brain. The diadem could be picked off whenever. The only reason he didn't do so immediately was that he was unsure of whether Riddle would notice if he did. He had decided he would take some more time to think on it since he had that time available for once. This had led to what Harry rather proudly believed was his best plan yet. He knew Riddle and Wormtail would be waiting for him at the end of the third task. He also knew that Riddle would be as weak as he had ever been and that Wormtail was a pathetic excuse for a wizard at best. Without the horcrux causing a debilitating pain in his scar he should be able to capture both and kill Nagini. Destroying another horcrux and buying the wizarding world enough time for him to collect the rest. Wormtail's capture would free Sirius which meant that he wouldn't be as desperate at the end of Harry's fifth year and that Harry would gain access to 12 Grimmauld Place and the locket. Riddle's capture would get him some help going after the cup, he hoped, because that was the one horcrux he couldn't think of a plan for. Once he had all the horcruxes he would either head down into the Chamber of Secrets for venom or borrow the Sword of Gryffindor and end the whole damn war before it could start.

The Room had supplied him with materials to start his studies into Runes and Arithmancy as well as book called Survival-Securing Spells for the Self-Sacrificing. It was a small tome but contained spells like the Heaven's Shield Charm, said to be able to stop even dragon fire, and Gaia's Embrace, a spell that allowed the user to manipulate the earth around them to a limited degree. His choice for what he would learn first was fairly obvious after the mention of dragon fire. He grinned to himself as he thought of himself walking through the dragons fire bursts unharmed and simply picking up the egg before walking away again. He knew it was strategically unsound and would probably get him eaten but indulged in the fantasy for a moment anyway.

In order to learn all of this in time for it to be useful, Harry had reached a decision that he needed more time. So he was going to stop going to Divination and History of Magic. Those times, along with his free periods would be spent in the Room working on things that might actually save his life someday soon. He even had a thought that if he learned enough Runes and Arithmancy he might just drop Divination completely next year. History he would self-study and in doing so probably learn more than from sleeping through Binns' classes.

Wednesday evening Harry and Hermione had once again separated for their studies. Harry couldn't remember every assignment he had been given over the past few years and didn't bother trying to work ahead. Instead he tried to learn some basic detection spells. He discovered a number of tracking charms on himself but figured they weren't doing any harm telling whoever was on the other end that he was at Hogwarts. He would have to remember to remove them if he chose to leave the school grounds.

Feeling buoyed by his success he also tried to learn the Heaven's Shield Charm which proved not only insanely difficult but magically exhausting after four tries. Since he couldn't go on with practical work after that he settled down with some books and immersed himself in the most common rune alphabet: the Elder Futhark. When he wanted a break he switched to the introductory arithmancy book which felt like a review of some mathematical principles he was thankfully familiar with from his muggle upbringing.

The rest of the week passed quickly for Harry. Classes were ridiculously easy and he completed his homework in a fraction of the time it used to take him. Thursday Hermione had found out he planned on skipping some of his classes when he didn't show up for History. She had been furious at first and had only cooled to a simmer when he explained his reasons. She had forced him to make an appointment with Professor McGonagall for the coming weekend so that he would at least not get in trouble for simply skipping classes.

The students weren't any more pleasant than they had been last time around with one exception. Harry and Hermione were walking to Transfiguration when they spotted a group of Ravenclaws surrounding a younger student. Annoyance with the student body in general combined with a deep-seated hatred of bullies saw Harry stepping up to the group, wand in hand. He was never more proud of Hermione than when he saw her wand come out at the same time as his.

"What do you think you're doing?!" Harry's face was contorted in a feral snarl as his frustrations boiled over which visibly frightened several of the Ravenclaws. As they turned around a small part of Harry's brain noticed he was dealing with a group of girls.

"None of your business. This is no place for cheaters." sneered a girl Harry was surprised to recognize as Marietta Edgecomb.

"I'm making it my business; and the good news about being on everybody's shit list already is that I won't disappoint anybody when I bounce you up and down the hallway 'til no amount of make-up can help you." The low threatening tone, as well as the fact that Hermione's wand never wavered during Harry's declaration made up several minds there and then.

"Let's go, Marietta. She's not worth it." Several girls were already leaving, eager to get away from danger. Marietta was the last one to go after casting one last scathing glance at the younger students. Once the bullies were gone Harry turned to find a pair of familiar protruding grey eyes looking back at him.

"Are you alright, Miss?" He felt a little silly not being able to address his friend by name, but she wasn't his friend. Not yet, at least.

"You are Harry Potter." He smiled at her.

"I am. This is my best friend Hermione Granger. Who are you?" Luna considered them for a moment with her head cocked slightly to one side.

"My name is Luna Lovegood. Most people think I am a little strange."

"It's nice to meet you, Luna." Harry said before giving a shrug, "Most people think I am an attention-seeking cheater."

"Yes, it's a pleasure to meet you, Luna. Most people think I'm a bookworm." Hermione completed the introductions before pointing a finger in Harry's face, "Not a word, you!" Harry closed his grinning mouth, but had clearly been on the verge of pointing out that she was a bookworm.

"Don't worry about being a little strange around us, Luna. This idiot's life is so strange he probably wouldn't even notice."

"Oi!" Hermione just smiled innocently at Harry at his interruption. The twinkle in his eyes gave him away as he tried to look mightily offended. Giving his glare up as a bad job he turned back a surprised looking Luna.

"If you ever need help with those bints you can come find us, alright, Luna? I don't like bullies in the first place and you seem like a nice girl besides." Harry thought he might have seen tears forming but couldn't be sure as Luna had thrown herself at him and was hugging him tightly. A moment later Hermione was given the same treatment. Eventually Luna stepped back.

"Thank you, you two. This is almost like having friends." Harry could feel Hermione's shock and indignation from where he was standing.

"What do you mean like having friends? I'd love to have you as a friend, Luna." Luna's eyes widened even more when Harry added that he too would like to be friends with Luna.

"In fact, why don't you join us for lunch? That'll give us a chance to get to know you when we're not in danger of being late for class." Harry suggested. Hermione let out a loud gasp.

"Harry! We're going to be late to Transfiguration!" She grabbed his wrist and started pulling him down the corridor. Harry smiled over his shoulder at Luna and called out with a wave, "Bye, Luna! See you at lunch!" before turning around and joining Hermione in racing to their class. They left behind them a thoroughly overwhelmed little blonde.

Over the course of the week Luna ended up eating every meal with her two new friends. Friends who didn't make fun of her or try to steal her things. The bullies had stayed away for now as well as they watched this new development and thought about how to approach it.

Thursday night Harry spent some time polishing his wand in preparation for the ceremony the next day that nobody had told him about. After that he had the talk with McGonagall that Hermione had made him schedule. He was also remembering the confrontation with Malfoy. He couldn't avoid it completely as it was the idiot's curse that had allowed Hermione to get her teeth magically fixed. He knew how much having normal teeth had meant to his friend and he wouldn't deprive her of this chance if he could help it. If the ferret fired anything but a Tooth Growing Hex though all bets were off.

:-:-:-:-:

Friday dawned to a grimly determined Harry getting himself ready for the day. He knew the real excitement was reserved for the afternoon and didn't relish having to spend a morning dealing with the tension he was feeling. Breakfast with Luna helped lift his spirits as it was almost impossible to remain depressed around the upbeat little Ravenclaw. That morning Hermione had Arithmancy and Runes so Harry put in a double period in the Room. He thought he might have seen a flicker of something during his practice with the Heaven's Shield, but it was gone so fast he wasn't sure it wasn't just wishful thinking. Either way he couldn't afford to keep going to magical exhaustion like had in the past. He still had Charms and Malfoy to look forward to. In the past week he had finished the Elder Futhark and the slightly more modern Younger Futhorc. Harry had discovered that Ancient Runes made sense to him in a way few things except flying and Defense ever had. He could easily visualize the meanings behind a string of runes even if he was a little weak on their grammar. He was moving on to the ancient Celts and beginning with the Ogham of the Trees.

Lunch time was again spent with the girls who noticed his tension. When they asked about it he simply said, "Double Potions with the Slytherins today." In Charms they were learning the Summoning Charm, which Harry had had trouble with the first time but which now felt like an old friend. All too soon it was time to head into the dungeons. On the way there they passed Cedric Diggory signing the book bags of bunch of giggly sixth year girls. Harry rolled his eyes at the display. At least someone was enjoying their name coming out of the cup.

Down in the dungeons Harry saw a sight he had been expecting but in no way looking forward to. All the Slytherins from their year and a few he was sure were just hanging around for the entertainment value were gathered near the Potions classroom. Each one of them was wearing a large badge that Harry didn't need to see to know what they said.

"Hey, Scarhead! Like our badges?!" At Malfoy's shout all the Slytherins made sure to turn in such a way that Harry could see all their badges. The entire corridor was filled with glowing letters proclaiming:

SUPPORT CEDRIC DIGGORY:
THE REAL HOGWARTS CHAMPION

"That isn't all they do though. Watch this!" All the Slytherins pressed their badges and the messages changed. Harry lightly placed a hand on Hermione's forearm to keep her from reacting. He already knew how he would handle this. He calmly waited until each badge was winking the same message back at him.

POTTER STINKS!

Harry raised one eyebrow at Malfoy who seemed almost giddy with anticipation.

"That's it? That's the best you could do in a week? That's…adorable." Malfoy wasn't the only person in the hallway looking shocked. Harry's voice had been cold and silky in a way that Snape could only ever hope to achieve. It slithered around them like a snake which to the smarter Slytherins meant a strike was coming. A twinge of unease began forming in those best at reading the mood of a room.

"WHAT?!" Nobody would ever accuse Draco Malfoy of that kind of awareness though.

"I'm serious, Malfoy. It's like watching a niffler trying to use tools. I'd give you a pat on the head for your hard work but I just washed my hands."

"Like you could do any better, you disgusting half-blood!" Harry grinned dangerously and drew his wand causing Malfoy to scramble for his. Harry though wasn't looking to get in a duel just yet.

"You mean just off the top of my head? Let's see." With a wave of his wand fiery letters formed in the air between them.

SUPPORT DRACO MALFOY:
AMATEUR HAIRDRESSER, AMATEUR WIZARD

The Gryffindors in the corridor started laughing loudly as the blond ponce spluttered in an absolute rage.

"No? Perhaps this then." With another wave of his wand Harry changed the message. Attention switched back to the letters he had conjured earlier as the shifted.

SUPPORT THE MALFOY PARENTS:
THE SHAME IS CRIPPLING

"Feels more appropriate, doesn't it, Malfoy? How do your parents live with it by the way?" The Gryffindors were absolutely howling by now and Harry noticed more than a few Slytherins snickering along with them. Malfoy looked like he was about to have an aneurism. When the blond ponce started moving Harry was ready. He had a small reflective shield formed at the tip of his wand that he could use to bat the coming jinx away. It was something he had learned indirectly from Riddle over the course of their confrontations and it was the best way Harry could think of to make sure there were no nasty surprises. It also happened to look thoroughly intimidating which was something else he wanted to achieve here.

"Furnunculus!"

What the hell, you little shit?! That was not what you were supposed to use! Harry's wand moved with the speed of a striking snake and batted the curse into the wall over Crabbe and Goyle's heads causing their usual gormless expressions to morph into something Harry thought might be shock. He ignored them as he advanced furiously on Malfoy who stumbled back in fright, stepping on the hem of his robes and falling painfully on his arse.

"I suppose I shouldn't expect more from an inbred little cretin like you, but I confess myself…disappointed." Harry was milking his Voldemort impersonation for all it was worth and judging by the fact that several Slytherins were slipping the buttons they'd been wearing into their pockets surreptitiously the act was working on them as well as it ever had on their parents.

"Densaugeo!" Harry had Draco's wrist in an iron grip before the blonde could completely bring his wand to bear and, hearing the beginning of the incantation he had been waiting for, jerked the boy's arm to the side so his wand was accidentally-on-purpose pointing at Hermione. When he heard her cry out he wrenched the wand out of his rival's grasp and moved over to his friend. She had her hands covering her mouth and tears in her eyes. Despite knowing what the eventual result would be Harry felt like the lowest scum on the earth just then for causing her pain.

"Let me see, Hermione." He said gently as he pulled softly on her hands. When they lowered he saw her teeth had grown past her lower lip. "Finite Incantatem." The Disspelling Charm stopped the teeth from growing further but didn't reverse the process. Harry fully intended to leave that up to Madam Pomfrey. Turning back to Malfoy he saw fear in the boy's eyes. Good. As he looked over the rest of the corridor he saw that Snape had arrived on the scene and was looking a bit wide-eyed. Making his way over to the Slytherin Head of House, Harry flipped Malfoy's wand so he was holding it by the tip. He held out the wand to Snape.

"Professor, Draco Malfoy has been firing hexes in the corridors and poorly at that. I'll leave his wand with you while I escort Miss Granger to the Hospital Wing." With that he turned around, gathered his and Hermione's bags and, putting his hand on her back, escorted his friend away from the scene of the confrontation.

Severus Snape was in shock as he watched two of his most hated students leave. He had arrived just as Draco had thrown a Boil Hex. The spawn of James Potter had then proceeded to put the Dark Lord to shame with his response. Batting away the spell like that, those movements and that voice, Morgana's might, that voice. All had reminded him viscerally of the Dark Lord at his most dangerous. Snape hauled his godson to his feet and thrust the boy's wand back at him before glaring the students into the classroom. Before he entered in behind them he dispelled the burning words that still hung in the air, privately thinking that Potter might have hit closer to the mark than he intended.

:-:-:-:-:

In the Hospital Wing Harry leaned against a wall while Madam Pomfrey was tending to Hermione. He knew what his friend was thinking as she looked into the little mirror the healer had given her and when she raised her hand Harry knew she at least had the teeth she always wanted. He hoped it made up for the pain of being hexed but had an extra idea that he would need some help with. He was about to move over to see the result when the doors crashed open to reveal a panting Collin Creevey.

"Harry…Bagman…ceremony" he managed between pants.

"Easy there, Collin. Catch your breath and then tell me what's wrong." The younger boy took several gulping breaths before he felt confident enough to deliver his message.

"Harry, Bagman wants you to join him for some sort of ceremony to do with the tournament. I'm supposed to show you the way."

"Okay. Let me just get my things." Walking over to Hermione and picking up his bag he smiled at her.

"I'll see you for dinner, alright?" She smiled and nodded, but Harry noticed she kept her lips shut rather than show him her teeth. Since her eyes were sparkling with happiness he decided he didn't need to push for anything here. With a final nod he followed Collin out of the Hospital Wing. The younger boy was as chatty as ever, but Harry tried to pay attention. He could still remember Collin's body being carried into the Great Hall. It had been less than two weeks ago in his personal timeline and was determined that he would be a better friend this time.

Eventually the two boys reached the room where Harry knew the Weighing of the Wands would be held. Saying goodbye to Collin, Harry walked in. He had hoped that with the extra time Collin would have spent looking he would be able to postpone his meeting with his least favourite reporter but one look around the room was enough to tell him that Dumbledore and Ollivander weren't there yet.

"Harry! Marvelous! That's all the champions. The rest of the judges will be along in a minute, my boy." Bagman was practically bouncing around the room again. The man was like Lockhart except with some actual, verifiable accomplishments to his name. "Now then, this is nothing to worry about. Just checking that your wands are up to snuff for the competition and we're turning it into a little ceremony. There will also be pictures and interviews. Exciting stuff, wouldn't you say?" Harry barely managed to suppress a groan. Bagman was listing off most of the elements for Harry's idea of the Most Annoying Event Immaginable.

"Oh, and this is Rita Skeeter. She's covering the tournament for the Daily Prophet. She'll be asking you a few questions after the ceremony." The reporter had sidled up to the conversation and was eyeing Harry with a predatory smile. Harry found a similar smile wanting to form on his lips but resisted the urge. He was starting to enjoy not being completely ignorant every time his life was in danger.

"Actually, Ludo, I think I would like to get started now if we're just going to be sitting around otherwise. Do you mind if I take the youngest first? Lovely." She already had a hold of Harry's upper arm as Bagman managed to stammer out, "I…ah, well, that is if Harry doesn't have a problem with it."

"Not at all, sir. Miss Skeeter?" Harry's calm response didn't reassure Bagman one bit, but Rita's smile got a little bigger as she dragged him out of the room and into the nearest broom cupboard. Harry didn't resist and sat quietly as she settled herself down.

"Now, Harry, do you mind if I use a Quick-Quotes Quill?" The acid green quill was already hovering over a piece of parchment when Harry plucked it out of the air with a seeker's grace.

"I don't think you will be wanting this thing recording our conversation, Rita." He finally allowed the vicious smile that had been tugging at his lips to burst forth.

"What do you think you're doing, boy. Give that back!" Harry just casually twirled the quill between his fingers as he looked the furious woman across from him.

"Do pay attention, Rita. This is important. We are about to agree to a deal where I will give you exclusive interviews, none of which will be written with this disgusting thing, and in return you will not write any gossip, insinuations or otherwise invented nonsense about me or my friends." Rita's fury had turned to a sneer.

"Why you little brat! What makes you think you think you can tell me what to write?" Harry's smile grew positively bloodthirsty.

"Technically I can't. The first time you write your usual garbage though, the DMLE will be informed of your status as an illegal animagus." The color drained out of Rita's face so fast he briefly wondered if she might be a metamorphmagus as well. "I am well aware that being an unregistered animagus only carries a fine that you may well be able to pay. However the way you have used your form means that you will also be charged with espionage. That is a prison sentence in Azkaban if you are found guilty and given how many toes you've stepped on over the years you will be found guilty. If you really annoy me the DMLE will also be receiving an anonymous tip about your use of veritaserum and Memory Charms to, ah, 'protect your sources'." At this point Rita was shaking in fear and Harry began to worry she might pass out.

"Now, Rita, you can prevent all this from happening by simply not attacking me and my friends. You will even get a few exclusives out of it. That is more than a glorified gossip columnist like yourself really has any right to expect."

"Who?" came the reporter's question in a broken voice.

"Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Ron Weasley and their families. If you can provide actual evidence for a story then I don't care what you print but you will not go around attacking us in your usual style." Rita was in a bind. This agreement gave protection to that rag the Quibbler and a ministry department head. Still there was only one choice she could make.

"Alright, you little bastard. You win." Harry smiled and held out Rita's Quick-Quotes Quill to her. She promptly snapped it up and put it back in her bag. Taking out a normal quill she shot a nasty glance at a serenely smiling Harry before she began a very different interview than the one she had planned. The interview continued until the cupboard door opened to reveal Albus Dumbledore.

"Ah, Rita. Harry. Are you enjoying yourselves?" the headmaster asked, his eyes at full twinkle. Harry just couldn't resist the presented opportunity.

"Actually, sir, it's not quite the experience I imagined for my first visit to a Hogwarts broom cupboard." Dumbledore's beard twitched while Rita just looked scandalized. The reporter got up and left in a huff leaving Harry and Dumbledore to follow at a more sedate pace. The ceremony itself went as Harry remembered but the photos went a lot quicker and the other champions were actually interviewed this time. By the time he left the whole circus behind Harry felt the satisfaction of a job well done.

:-:-:-:-:

Dinner that night was an easy affair as Harry had passed most of his hurdles that day as well as he could have expected or better. This meant that he was a lot more relaxed than he had been earlier in the day. He, Hermione and Luna shared a lot of laughter as the meal progressed. When Professor McGonagall stood to leave and gave him a significant look Harry turned to his two friends.

"Looks like I'm headed into the Lioness' Den. Sweet dreams, Luna. Hermione, I'll see you in the common room." Luna smiled brilliantly at him, but Hermione gave him a firm look.

"Be serious, Harry. This is important even if you don't want it to be." Harry just smiled at her and waved as he left the Hall. Since he wasn't going to change his current schedule even if McGonagall didn't agree with him, he didn't think this was as important as Hermione made it out to be. The second rise of Lord Voldemort and the end of the wizarding world sounded much worse to him, even if no one else knew they were coming.

Harry arrived at the door to Professor McGonagall's office and knocked.

"Enter." came the voice of his Head of House. Harry opened the door and stepped onto the office, looking around. Most of the walls were covered in bookcases. McGonagall herself was seated behind a large desk situated in front of a pair of windows. One bookcase contained what looked like pictures and mementoes of past students. Harry was sure something of Hermione's would end up there one of these days. He sat himself down in one of the straight-backed, wooden chairs facing the desk.

"Good evening, Mr. Potter. What can I do for you today?" she asked while running her eye over him as if checking for indications that he might have been up to mischief. Harry steeled himself and answered her.

"I am here to inform you that I will not be attending History of Magic or Divination classes this year. Instead I will be using that time to prepare for the tournament. It is my intention to continue studying for the subjects themselves independently." McGonagall's gaze seemed locked on him for the duration of his speech and she continued to study him.

"May I ask what brought on this decision." As confident as he had been walking to this meeting, his Transfiguration teacher certainly had a way of unnerving him. Harry was sure she was drawing on her abilities as a cat animagus to give him this stare.

"Frankly, ma'am, I've been forewarned this year that my life is in imminent danger. Listening to Professor Binns drone on about another Goblin Rebellion or Professor Trelawney predicting my death is not going to help me survive. Honestly, if I thought I could get away with it I would drop out of Potions as well and not give Professor Snape and his house the chance to take potshots at me for two hours each Friday." Professor McGonagall closed her eyes momentarily and Harry felt a brief sense of relief. Before he could get too comfortable McGonagall spoke up again.

"While I cannot deny that you are in a difficult position, I have to be concerned about your future after the tournament as well. Your work the past three years just does not convince me that you would do well with an independent study course, Mr. Potter." Harry thought that simply telling her that he really didn't have any intention of changing his study schedule might not be in his best interest. He would have to offer up something else.

"I will still be completing the assignments for those courses, Professor, and if it makes you feel better: I'm perfectly willing to take the end of year exams with my classmates in June." The surprise wasn't visible for long on McGonagall's face, but it was clear enough that Harry knew he had taken her off guard with his offer. She was quiet for a long time before she spoke again.

"I will be monitoring your academic performance minutely, Mr. Potter. If at any point it seems to me your marks are slipping, you will be back in those classes. We will discuss whether I feel you should take the end of year exams at a later date as they are scheduled very closely to the date of the last task and I want some more information before I make my decision." Harry couldn't stop his jaw from dropping open as his Head of House gave him permission to skip two of his classes. "I cannot give you permission to absent yourself from Potions as brewing unsupervised is dangerous in the extreme."

"Thank you very much, Professor. This means a lot to me." Harry was surprised to find he was telling the unvarnished truth; he really was touched. "I will do my best."

"I do believe you will, Mr. Potter." Harry smiled broadly at her and stood up to leave. "Oh, and Potter? Do be careful in the tournament. It's…well, the dangers are very real and I find that the rules prohibit me from giving you any information. I…promise me you'll be careful and work hard, Potter." This surprised Harry as much as anything since he had shown up in Ephialtes' office. He might even swear that her eyes were shining with unshed tears. She knows about the dragons and can't tell me.

"I promise, Professor; and don't worry too much. After all, if the past three years have given you doubts about my academic commitment they should have given you ample evidence that my friends and I tend to find such information regardless of any rules." The near imperceptible brightening of Professor McGonagall's expression made him feel like he had ended the day on another high note.

As he was walking toward the Gryffindor tower it occurred to Harry that he really should find a cover story for knowing about the dragons. It only took him a moment to hit upon the answer. He and his friends were certainly good at finding out things they shouldn't know and he remembered he had just made two new ones. A quick conversation in an empty classroom later and Harry was sure he would know the moment the dragons arrived.

:-:-:-:-:

The next morning Harry sought out Fred and George Weasley. "Do you have a moment, lads? I have something I need your help with." The twin troublemakers looked at each other and then back at Harry.

"We certainly have a moment, ickle Harrikins."

"The question is: why should we give it to you?" Harry simply smirked at them.

"Two words, Fred: pranks and profit." The twins hated the fact that Harry could tell them apart when their own mother couldn't but it got them to pay attention like nothing else. Not that the attention of Hogwarts premier pranksters was always a good thing but it was certainly what Harry was after now. The twins shared another look.

"Very well. Speak on, O Noble Champion."

"What do you need help with that offers pranks and profit?" Harry's smirk only grew as he informed them of what he wanted to do. Once they heard the plan, and that Harry was content to let them keep any profits, the twins were downright eager to help. That evening Dobby was sent to get supplies without anyone in the castle knowing.

Over the next few days a new product hit the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. Modified Gobstones called 'Gobshites' that were shaped suspiciously like Draco Malfoy's head. They also had the added feature of yelling something at the loser before spitting the standard foul-smelling liquid in the person's face. "You worthless peasant!" and "Wait 'til my father hears of this!" could be heard regularly in the corridors much to the irritation of the Malfoy heir and his godfather but they were never able to locate the distribution network that somehow reached into Slytherin as well.

Chapter Text

"Great and Wonderful Harry Potter, sir must be waking up!" Harry had been asleep when it finally happened. "Great and Wise Harry Potter, sir wished to know if something unusual was brought inside the wards. He must wake up so Winky can tell him."

"Just a moment, Winky, I need my glasses." His glasses promptly appeared on his face and the little elf came into focus. She was almost bouncing with excitement and had a wide smile on her face. He felt an answering one stretch his own cheeks. "Okay, Winky, what have you discovered?"

"Many wizards is bringing four dragons into the forest Great and Noble Harry Potter, sir." That conversation with his elves about appropriate and above all concise forms of address had just gotten a bit more urgent.

"Thank you very much, Winky. You two did a stellar job." He watched as she swelled with pride. It was a vast improvement over the sobbing drunken mess she had been. He was also going to have to talk to Hermione about elf-rights and what the elves wanted those rights to be.

"Will the Great and Magnificent Harry Potter, Sir be needing anything else?" That's it! We are having this discussion now.

"Yes actually, but I need the both of you here for this. Dobby!" With a small pop the elf population in Harry's bed doubled.

"The Great and Honoured Harry Potter sir is calling Dobby?"

"Yes. I wanted to talk to the both of you about one more thing. I just want you both to know that you are free to call me whatever you like. This 'Great and Wonderful Harry Potter Sir' business is a bit of a mouthful though. Do you have anything shorter that you can call me? Perhaps you could just call me 'Harry'?" The two elves looked at each other and then back at him before responding in unison.

"Of course, Master Harry." Before he could tell them that he didn't need anyone calling him 'master' they had popped out. He briefly considered calling them back, but he had said they could call him anything. Perhaps this was an instance where his preferences should make way for the elves', even if it meant his talk with Hermione had just gotten more difficult. He mentally shook himself and slipped out of bed. Grabbing his broom and invisibility cloak he snuck down to the common room and opened a window. He flung the cloak around him before mounting his Firebolt and flying off towards the Forbidden Forest.

Using Hagrid's hut as a guidepost he soared out over the forest. Seconds later he saw flash of light in the distance and headed in that direction. As he got closer the roars of the animals and the shouts of their handlers were easily heard. Hanging in the air, invisible, gave Harry a great vantage point to do some scouting. The cages with the dragons in them were being moved into position much to the animals displeasure and repeatedly groups of handlers fired stunners only for the dragon to wake up again a few minutes later. Harry stayed just long enough to determine that the four dragons were the same breeds as last time and to hear someone mention the golden eggs.

Upon his return to Gryffindor Tower Harry thought about the difference even the few days advantage would have made if he had known what awaited him as soon as possible. That inevitably made him think of the other champions. With a sigh he headed back up to bed. It looked like he was going to have to ask Hermione to send another letter to her parents.

:-:-:-:-:

In a tent in the Forbidden Forest one handler was desperately writing a letter full of information he had been strictly ordered not to mention to anyone outside of the team he was a part of.

The next day three of the champions received letters from Hogwarts school owls. Each of them paled upon reading the letter and none of them would speak of what they contained. Also each of them left breakfast rather abruptly after speaking to their headmaster, or in Cedric's case Professor Sprout. Harry's lack of a letter was ignored by the student body and so were Hermione and Luna's pale faces and shaking hands.

:-:-:-:-:

The day of the first task dawned crisp and sunny. The sky was clear and it didn't look like the champions would be getting any help from a well-timed shower of rain. Knowing he had already successfully faced what awaited him was the only thing that allowed Harry to function somewhat normally as he spent his time trying to work on his occlumency shields. While his nerves weren't as bad as the last time he had faced the first task, the prospect of facing a nesting mother dragon is never approached with complete calm. When lunch time rolled around Harry forced himself to eat something. Next to him Hermione was desperately trying to pretend she was calm and in any state to reassure him. When Professor McGonagall walked over and asked Harry to follow her out she lost that battle and flung her arms around him.

"Promise me you'll come back to me, Harry." Harry had wrapped his own arms around her, returning her hug and trying to offer some comfort.

"I promise." She nodded her head into his chest but still had to be coaxed into letting him follow their Head of House. At the Gryffindor table Hermione and Luna gave up all pretense of being alright and simply held on to each other. Harry observed that Professor McGonagall was looking paler than usual as she led him to a tent near the enclosure where he would soon be facing a dragon once again. Just before he walked in she spoke up.

"Do your best, Potter, and be careful." He decided to try and reassure her a little.

"I'm prepared, Professor." At her sharp look he simply smiled and said "Remember the end of our discussion in your office, ma'am?" A look of honest to goodness relief filled her eyes for a moment and she put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Make Gryffindor proud then."

He nodded his head and walked into the tent. The other three contestants were already there, tense and hyper-aware of what the next hours would bring. None of them acknowledged the presence of any of the others. Harry simply joined them in their silence. Soon they heard the sound of hundreds of footsteps passing by on their way to the stands and shortly after that the tent flap opened and admitted the judges. The drawing of the dragons went the same as Harry remembered and he would again face off against the Horntail. At least I know to keep an eye on the tail this time.

As the judges were leaving, Bagman called out to Harry and asked to speak to him outside. Knowing what was coming Harry followed him out.

"Feeling alright, Harry? Anything I can get you?"

"I'm fine, sir." Bagman faltered a little. Clearly he had not expected that level of composure from a teenager who had just been told he would face a dragon.

"Got a plan?" Harry had to stop himself from taking a step back as the corpulent ministry worker invaded his personal space by leaning forward conspiratorially. The man smelt of stale sweat and some kind of pungent aftershave. "I can give you a few pointers, you know, since you are so much younger than the others…" He trailed of suggestively and Harry wondered if Bagman thought he was being subtle.

"I'll be fine, sir. Besides I doubt I'd have time to effectively use anything you tell me on such short notice. Now if you don't mind, I need to focus." With that he turned around and marched back into the tent leaving a slack-jawed Ludo Bagman behind him.

One by one the champions were called out. Each had a look of terror mixed with determination. Harry was torn between putting up a silencing charm so he wouldn't hear Bagman's inappropriately enthusiastic commentary or leaving matters as they stood so he could at least hear that the others came away unhurt. In the end he listened and waited for his turn. When he was finally called out, Harry squared his shoulders and walked out into the enclosure.

Despite having been faced with this sight once before his stomach dropped unpleasantly as he took in the angry dragon across the enclosure. Staying behind the boulders at the edge of the arena Harry raised his wand and preformed the only spell he needed.

"Accio Firebolt!"

He risked a quick look at the Horntail but she was busy keeping an eye on the crowd since he wasn't making any moves towards her eggs and they were still cheering loudly. Sooner than he expected Harry heard a whistling noise as his broom approached at high speed. Leaping onto the broom without waiting for it to stop near him he rocketed into the sky. A small part of him absently noted that it was perfect quidditch weather. Shaking that thought off he set about luring the massive magical lizard off of her nest.

The crowd gasped and cheered as he dove towards the dragons head, dodging bursts of flame, but Harry never heard any of it. He was completely focused on flying and nothing else penetrated his awareness. When he pulled back up Harry heard the snap of her jaws closing behind him. Again he dove and this time his climb was accompanied by a roar of frustration from the Horntail. She wanted to swat this nuisance from the sky. On his third approach Harry was thankful that he knew to watch out for the tail as it whistled past his shoulder. He was ecstatic that he had managed to dodge that injury. It was one of the first concrete examples that he could change things for the better.

Having once again found a safe height Harry looked down at his opponent. From the way she was glaring up at him he was sure he could get her up with his next pass. Taking a deep breath he shot down towards one of the most feared creatures in the magical world for the fourth time that day. As he weaved in between the bursts of flame he was muttering to himself.

"Come on, come on then, you oversized oven. Get up. Give me chance."

Almost as if she could hear him, the Horntail's head followed him and as he climbed into the sky once more she rose up on her hind legs in a furious effort to end this insulting intruder. The moment he saw her move Harry was plummeting to the earth trying to draw every ounce of speed from his loyal Firebolt. He dodged a blast of fire, two claws and a tail before leaning out to grab the golden egg and racing for the edge of the enclosure. Once he was past the arena boundary it was as if someone turned the sound back on.

"Look at that!" Bagman was yelling. "Will you look at that! Our youngest champion is quickest to get his egg! Well, this is going to shorten the odds on Mr. Potter!" The students were going mad in the stands at the performance by one of their own. He could see Hagrid, McGonagall and Moody making their way over to where he was as the dragon handlers rushed into the enclosure to bring the Horntail back to her cage. Harry was just starting to relax when he heard a loud snap behind him.

Harry whipped around and saw to his horror that the Horntail had snapped the chain that kept her secured to the nest. This is bad. The inane thought shot through his head and was immediately ignored in favour of the Hungarian Horntail in an absolute fury that something had taken one of her eggs and gotten away unmolested. She was pouring out enough fire to make a blast furnace jealous and the handlers were desperately dodging it as best they could, all thoughts of coordination abandoned as each looked to their own survival.

As Harry watched, one of the handlers decided that this was not what he signed on for and broke away. Once the first one fled the others soon followed as the situation became untenable. The last man out of the enclosure had flaming red hair. With no prey available in the enclosure however, the dragon turned its attention to the panicking spectators who were trying to flee the stands. The sheer press of humanity was working against them though as they were bottlenecked at the exits. Harry was moving before he was consciously aware of what he was doing. Dropping his egg he slung a leg over his Firebolt and launched himself back towards the stands. He desperately drew his wand even as the dragon drew in a massive breath. A split second before a torrent of flames erupted from the beasts maw Harry threw all his magic into his spell as he screamed "Aegis Divus!".

Harry hadn't managed this shield in his many tries during his training sessions in the Room of Requirement but now with the lives of his friends and classmates on the line, the Heaven's Shield Charm burst from his wand like a golden cloud of light and shot forth to place itself between the stands and certain death. The fire streamed from the dragons mouth for nearly a minute and when it finally let up. Harry thought he might fall off of his broom as the exhaustion slammed into his body. I can't stop. Not yet. Not while everyone is still in danger. Not when it's my fault. He needed to focus the Horntail's attention on himself but he didn't think he could cast so much as a Stinging Hex after that shield. Suddenly he froze. That is a really stupid idea. It might just work though and if I don't try anything she's going to roast the stands.

The Horntail was getting confused and ever more enraged. Why wouldn't these inferior creatures just die?! Nothing was going right for the mother today. She sucked in another massive breath. She would turn their world into an inferno. Nothing would live through her fury! The expected blast of flames never formed however as her left eye erupted in pain and the original annoyance flashed in front of her face. With a roar she tore after it, determined that it would pay.

In the stands a pair of red-headed twins were staring in awe at the figure that was rapidly becoming a speck in the sky.

"Gred, did you just see what I saw?"

"If you saw Harry Potter spitting in a hacked off dragon's eye, then I think so." The two shared a look before returning their attention to the most reckless Gryffindor to ever mount a broom.

Harry meanwhile had discovered a flaw in his plan. Now that he had the dragon's attention on him he had no idea what to do next. Tired as he was she was likely to win a flight of attrition. He had no way to bring her down and he wasn't sure he could count on someone else distracting the beast or bringing it down for him. Later Harry would never be able to say what made him do it but almost like offering up a prayer he begged in his mind Hogwarts, help me!

A seeker trains to spot a glint of gold under any conditions so a burst of flame high above himself and the pursuing dragon followed by a glare reflecting off of an object clearly much larger than a snitch was always going to catch Harry's attention. He wrenched his broom up and raced off in that direction almost on instinct. As he closed Harry could see what had caught his attention. Fawkes had brought the Sword of Gryffindor. When the mythical bird saw that it had been recognized it trilled a melody and released the sword. Harry pushed his broom even harder in an effort to reach the only thing that Hogwarts thought could help him. He was flattened along his broom's shaft, one hand extended towards the ruby encrusted hilt. The distance between the two shrank rapidly until with a lunge Harry's hand closed around the sword.

During his mad chase he had completely lost track of the dragon that wanted him dead and ashes. A roar brought her back to his attention. Having to lift her bulk it was far more difficult for the dragon to climb than it was for Harry. It was gaining quickly now though and Harry didn't have long to decide what to do. In the end there was only one course of action that would see the students safe at the end of it. Making sure he was between the sun and the dragon he answered her roar with a wordless battle cry and turned the shaft of his broom towards the ground with one hand. The sword was gripped tightly in his other. The combination of one eye having to squint due to irritation and looking into the sun meant that the Horntail couldn't see her prey but she knew roughly where it was. When she guessed the irritant to be in range she opened her jaws and loosed a torrent of fire in the general direction she knew him to be in.

Seeing the flames racing up hungrily to meet him Harry started a spiral that took him out of the path of a superheated death and allowed him to keep avoiding it as the dragon tried to adjust her aim. The two combatants closed rapidly and Harry knew this was going to be like threading a needle blindfolded on a motorbike. Steeling himself he watched his target get closer and closer. At last moment he took both hands off of his broom and gripped the sword and applied the only bit of fencing he knew: the pointy end goes into the other guy. Faster than the dragon could react he thrust the sword into its good eye allowing their speed to drive it all the way back along the optical nerve and into the brain. Though he tried Harry couldn't let go in time was almost wrenched off his broom by the impact. Barely hanging on he spun out of control, buffeted by the wind of the dragons passing as he tried to regain control. He saw the tail a moment before it hit but couldn't avoid it.

"Aaaarrgghhh!" One of the spikes that gave the dragon its name was driven clean through Harry's shoulder. The force with which Harry was falling caused the tail spike to snap off. The good news was that Harry was now clear of the dragon. Using his good arm he managed to stabilize the broom and get out of the way just in time to watch the dragon's corpse plummeting towards the ground. The wind catching its wings caused it to flip and tumble on the way down until it slammed into the ground with an almighty crash. Relief washed through Harry when it stayed down.

Harry flew his broom down gently. As he approached the ground he heard the cheering, crying and laughing of the people who hadn't been able to leave the stands. The adrenaline high they were coming off of combined with sheer relief at still being alive meant that they were venting their emotions any way they could. Ignoring them for now Harry landed next to the dragon's head. Now that it was over he could feel his own adrenaline rush subsiding but there was still something he needed to do before he could collapse. He walked over to the dragon's head and grabbed the hilt of the sword that still stuck out of the dead predator's ruined eye. As he wrenched it out Harry called out "Fawkes!".

A burst of fire above his head marked the arrival of the magnificent bird. Holding up the sword to the phoenix Harry allowed it to land on the hilt before letting go and entrusting the artefact back to the one who had brought it to him.

"That's two I owe you, Fawkes." A warbling trill answered Harry's statement before Fawkes flashed out again. Dizziness swept over Harry and he steadied himself on the dragon's snout. Gathering himself he managed to mount his broom one last time and flew towards the medical tent never rising more than a few feet off the ground. Once inside he finally let go of his iron grip on consciousness and fell to the ground as blackness overtook him.

Chapter Text

When Harry woke up it was to a throbbing pain in his shoulder. Even without his glasses he could clearly tell where was. The Hospital Wing again. His searching hand managed to find his glasses. Sliding them onto his nose, Harry sat up for a look around. His struggles unfortunately didn't go unnoticed.

"Mr. Potter, what on earth do you think you're doing?!" Madam Pomfrey bustled over, looking highly put out with her most frequent and intractable patient. "Why won't you ever just stay down and rest?" Her wand was already out and performing diagnostics. Harry never could read his healer but the lack of tutting and clucking gave him hope.

"Well, Mr. Potter, your scapula was shattered to the point where I had to vanish it and feed you Skelegrow. It has healed rather nicely but you will be wearing a sling to give it the proper amount of rest. Are you feeling any pain in that area?"

"Not really." Madam Pomfrey eyed him for a moment before poking him firmly in the shoulder. His hiss of pain didn't seem to surprise her. She fetched an ointment and began rubbing it into his shoulder while admonishing him to always be completely honest with his healer. She finished it off by putting his arm in a sling as she had promised. Harry found the experience rather humiliating and couldn't imagine why Malfoy would have willingly walked around with one of the damn things in third year.

"Your shoulder will be right as rain tomorrow if properly rested. Your magical core is another matter entirely. While I can't help but be thankful for your actions against that dragon, the fact remains that you completely drained your core. You will not perform any magic whatsoever until Monday at the earliest. If you manage to behave today I will release you after classes. If, I said if, Mr. Potter. If I release you, you will be back here Sunday evening after dinner and I will evaluate your magical core and we'll see if you can rejoin your classes the day after. Am I clear, young man?" Harry decided discretion was the better part of valour and simply nodded. "Very well then." A flick of her wand arranged his pillow and few others so that he could lean into them and maintain a sitting position. "An elf will bring your breakfast in a moment. You will eat every scrap of it." She waited for his nod before she moved back to her office.

When breakfast was delivered Harry realized that her admonition had been completely unnecessary; he was ravenous. After polishing off his meal he called for Winky and asked for his Runes book. It would give him something constructive to do while he sat out his sentence. Feeling Madam Pomfrey's eyes on him he made sure to only use his good hand to read the book.

Lunch brought a very welcome distraction in the form of Luna and Hermione coming to visit. Both girls were clearly very happy to see him awake. Hermione had even brought him his post as Madam Pomfrey didn't allow owls in the infirmary. The way they were watching him when she handed it over to him gave a feeling he was about to be pranked, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out what kind of prank Hermione of all people would pull on his mail while he was in the Hospital Wing. Added to that was his expectation that she would have ripped into him over recklessly flying out to fight a dragon and getting injured in the process, leaving Harry completely wrong-footed. Hermione handed him what looked like a newspaper with a front page sized note.

Harry,

You are pretty good for business. Keep this up and I won't even regret our arrangement. You still
owe me an interview though.

Rita

Curious what had brought this on he took the note off of what he assumed was the Daily Prophet. He took one look at the paper and he was blushing like a beetroot. There was a picture of him pulling the sword from the Horntail's eye and giving it to Fawkes and it took up the whole front page. It didn't look anything like his recollection of the event though. The spike through his shoulder was barely visible as it was turned away from the camera. When his picture pulled the sword out, it held it over his head just as Fawkes flashed into view. The phoenix's wings were spread wide as it landed on the hilt of the sword before the image repeated itself. To finish of his embarrassment at the bottom of the page was the headline.

KNIGHT OF THE LIGHT

"Wha-…bu-…I…" Harry wasn't even sure how to vocalize his discomfort with this situation. The girls didn't have that problem in the slightest and were having trouble holding each other up they were laughing so hard.

"Have…have you read the article yet?" Hermione managed to hiccup between bouts of laughter. With trembling hands Harry opened the paper and started to read. The article described the amazing flight of a teenage hero against a storybook monster. The whole thing set him up as some kind of fantasy hero and ended with him mourning the noble beast he had been forced to slay due to the organizers incompetence. This assertion was backed up by a picture of Harry standing with his hand on the Horntail's snout with his head bowed for a long time. I was about to fall over. I wasn't being noble. It wasn't that Harry was particularly happy or proud as a result of killing the dragon, the opposite in fact, but the way the article told it was so sensationalized that he could barely cope. Leafing through the paper revealed interviews with a lot of witnesses and finally, on page 8, a report of the task itself. Harry noticed that he was in first place having received the full fifty points. Krum was in second place with forty points followed by Cedric and Fleur, each with thirty eight points. Throughout, Harry's mounting horror was clear on his face and had the girls in stitches all over again. Desperate to change the subject away from anything even remotely to do with him Harry cast about for anything that might distract them.

"So how is Ron taking all of this?" he asked, gesturing at the paper. If Harry had looked for a better way to stop the snickers he wouldn't have found one. Hermione scowled and her breathing returned to normal within a few breaths and Luna just looked uncomfortable.

"Ronald has been absolutely insufferable." Hermione growled out. "The Headmaster apparently asked him to take care of the golden egg for you. Now Ronald carries it everywhere with him. He is constantly answering questions on your behalf that I am sure he can't even begin to guess the actual answers to. I even heard him promising some students that you would give them an autograph. When I told them that you had never given an autograph in your life he just gave me a smug little smile and pointed out that he was the one entrusted with the egg!" Hermione was so worked up with indignation that she couldn't continue her rant. Harry looked over at Luna to see if she had anything to add.

"I'm sure that Ronald is simply fighting of a Floating Blowguard infestation. It is their mating season and they can be persistent while it lasts." It was moments like this that Harry wondered exactly how many of Luna's theories were the truth presented as nonsense.

"I take it Ron is getting a lot of attention from girls?" he asked just to clear up his suspicions.

"Enough that he wouldn't come with us to visit you. He is acting like he hasn't spent the better part of a month being a complete and utter pillock!" Harry just sighed. He had thought that Ron would simply mutter an uninspired apology like last time and they could go back to being friends. This behavior was…well Harry couldn't say it was unexpected. Ron loved the spotlight as much as Harry hated it.

"Well, I'll be out with good behavior after classes. I'll have to take the damn thing back then and Ron will hopefully calm down a little." Hermione looked extremely doubtful about the whole thing but didn't say anything more on the subject. They talked a little about Harry's health before the girls had to leave for classes. When a blushing Hermione asked if she could have his copy of the Daily Prophet since she was putting together a scrapbook Harry had given it to her without hesitation. He certainly didn't need an extra source of embarrassment lying around. Hermione carefully put the paper in her book bag, gave him a kiss on the cheek and left him sitting there staring after her, slack-jawed while a giggling Luna skipped out after her friend. He slowly raised one hand to his cheek where her lips had touched. After a few moments he shook himself out of his daze and grabbed his book to continue studying. He didn't notice when his hand drifted up to his cheek several times during the course of his reading.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry had just finished a chapter when his studies were interrupted by the doors of the infirmary opening to admit a redhead. It looked like Charlie had stopped by for a visit. When the second Weasley brother made a beeline for him, Harry closed his book and put it on the bedside table. The second oldest Weasley son looked incredibly uncomfortable.

"So Harry, I haven't seen you since the world cup." Charlie was being a lot more awkward than Harry was used to from the summer at the Burrow.

"It's okay Charlie, I know you're just here to keep an eye on Krum." Harry told him with a wink. "As far as we can tell Ron's virtue is still intact though."

"You've been spending too much time with Fred and George." Charlied responded with a grateful grin. "They're the only ones who think Ronnie's got a chance with Krum. The rest of us know he's destined to end up with Galvin Gudgeon." Harry snorted at Charlie's reference to the seeker for Ron's favourite team.

"So what brings you here?" asked Harry. He saw some of the levity leave Charlie's expression.

"I'm here to apologize on behalf of the Gemenele Dragon Preserve for our failure. The handlers were supposed to deal with any dragon going rogue, but we fled and left you to deal with the problem. In the process of doing our jobs for us you were injured making our failure that much worse. As compensation we are willing to render and sell your dragon carcass for you free of charge. It's the least we could do." Charlie's speech was delivered in a stiff, formal tone, leaving Harry very aware that he wasn't speaking to his friend's brother but the Preserve's representative. He had a feeling that turning down this offer would insult the Preserve and put Charlie in an awkward position. There was one thing he needed to clear up before he accepted though.

"Charlie, what do you mean 'my dragon carcass'?"

"It's international law. 'The remains of any magical creature with a danger rating of XXXXX that is destroyed in defense of human lives, magical or non-magical, will belong to the one who dealt the death blow.' Since the Horntail went feral and attacked the spectators and you killed it, its remains are yours." That made sense, sort of. The important thing right now was that if he didn't accept Charlie's offer he was apparently still stuck with a dead dragon and no idea of how to deal with it.

"In that case I'd be honored to accept your offer to, er, render and sell the remains was it?" At Charlie's grin and nod Harry felt much better. "What else has that kind of rating?" Hermione probably knew the answer but Charlie was an expert on the subject and, perhaps more importantly, available for a friendly interrogation.

"Well, let's see, there's Manticores, Lethifolds, Acromantula, I think werewolves are technically classed as a 5-X beast..." Harry felt something niggling at his brain as he listened to Charlie list some of the deadliest animals known to wizard-kind.

"Would a basilisk be classed as 5-X?" The niggling was becoming a full-blown suspicion as he watched Charlie's face.

"Without a doubt. Any reason you asked about basilisks specifically?" Of course there was. Here was a chance to get the beast's venom without potentially killing himself.

"Well, how are your team at rendering things beside dragons and can I hire you?" Charlie looked disbelieving.

"Are you telling me you have a dead basilisk stashed away somewhere?" With a grin Harry began to tell his visitor all about his second year at Hogwarts. Charlie had heard the tale from his mother and had written it off as too much wine and a particularly lurid Witch Weekly article. Hearing it from someone who had actually been there was very different. Harry made the story come alive in a way that had Charlie itching to get down there. Eventually they agreed that Charlie and his team would render the basilisk down to useful components and sell them for a percentage of the profit. This lead to a discussion about whether Harry should keep any parts of the animals being rendered and if so which bits might be useful. The conversation rather brilliantly whiled away the afternoon until it was interrupted by Harry's stomach letting out a loud growl.

"Sounds like another 5-X beast right there." Charlie laughed. "I'll get out of here before Madam Pomfrey decides to come over and pop me in bed just in case." Harry felt heat rush to his cheeks as he blushed.

"I know what you mean but unfortunately I'm stuck here. Still, thanks for alleviating my boredom. I owe you one." Charlie grinned at the young man he had just spent a very enjoyable afternoon with.

"No problem. You don't mention how Ron knew to warn you about the dragon and we're even." He laughed for a moment before realizing that Harry wasn't joining in. Looking over he saw that the teenager had gone white as a sheet.

"Ron knew about the dragons?" Charlie didn't think shock like that could be faked, but then again Fred and George might have found a protégé.

"Nice try, Harry, but I saw you take down that dragon. You knew what was coming and so did the others."

"Charlie, Ron hasn't spoken to me since Halloween. I knew about the dragons because I got curious about the flashes of light in the forest about a week before the task." Charlie felt as sick as Harry looked at that revelation. Harry though had just had a horrible thought. "Did you write anyone else in your family?"

"Well, Mum knew that I was coming to Hogwarts for work. Would have been in for a howler if I hadn't let her know I was in the country. Might still be in for one, having made you face a dragon." The attempt at humor fell flat. Harry's head was hanging down, his shoulders were slumped and everything about him looked as if an enormous weight was pulling him down. "There might still be an explanation, Harry. Maybe he never got the letter. Maybe the owl got lost. Ron wouldn't let you face a dragon unaware if he could help it." Harry's head moved in a nod but never really lifted. Charlie spent a few more moments trying to cheer him up but eventually left him to digest everything. Charlie knew Harry was doubting his and Ron's friendship right now and, much as he might wish it otherwise, Charlie was experiencing a tendril of doubt himself. He shook himself and ruthlessly quashed it. There was no way his little brother had done something that was tantamount to attempted murder.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione and Luna had agreed to meet up after class to get Harry from the Hospital Wing and escort him down to dinner together. Hermione was especially looking forward to getting Harry alone at some point to grill him about the shield he had used to protect everyone from the dragon's fire. It was not on for her best friend to know an impressive piece of magic like that and not teach her. She was prepared to beg, bargain and bully her way into private classes with Harry and that shield would be first on the list. Or maybe the Patronus Charm, she hadn't decided yet but the idea of learning either spell filled her with an immense desire to start studying right away. When the two girls finally got to the Hospital Wing they found a very different Harry to the one they had left behind. He sat hunched over and unmoving on the bed. It was like the very air around him was heavy with somber thoughts. They shared a look before moving over to the bed.

"Hello, Harry. Ready to get out of here?" Hermione had decided to try and pull him out of his funk by being as lighthearted as she had hoped he would be. Being the lighthearted one was awfully unfamiliar for her though. Usually she relied on her boys to stop her from being too serious. When Harry looked up at the sound of her voice she gasped. His eyes were those of a broken man. Something terrible must have happened. "Harry, what's wrong?!"

"Ron knew about the dragons." Whatever she had been expecting, that was not it. The statement made no sense to her. Ron might be a prat sometimes, or more accurately most times, but he was Harry's best friend same as she was. She might not have a lot of experience with best friends but she was sure you didn't let one face a dragon unprepared if you could help it.

"Harry, are you sure? How do you even know anyway?" Harry looked at her for a moment and then started talking, unsteadily at first but more firmly as the story went on. He told them about Charlie coming to visit and their discussion on dangerous beasts and his claim on the dragon's carcass as well as the basilisk's. He told them how he had thanked Charlie and said he owed him one. He told them of Charlie's response and his attempts to explain why Ron would not have told Harry. Both girls were listening with rapt attention as the tale unfolded neither wanting to interrupt Harry in any way.

"After Charlie left I just couldn't get it out of my mind. I didn't think I could face Ron without knowing. So I asked Dobby if he would look through our dorm and see if there was a letter from Charlie there." Hermione almost throttled him when he went silent at the climax of the story except he was already reaching over to the bedside table. "He found this behind Ron's bed." With trembling hands she took the crumpled looking parchment that Harry was holding out to her. She felt Luna sidle up next to her as she started to read it. Phrases kept jumping out at her as she tried to keep her composure. You need to warn Harry…Fireball's weaknesses include…Stay clear of the Horntail…could very well die.

"That useless, scum-sucking sack of shit!" Both Harry and Hermione's heads snapped up at Luna's unexpected cursing to see the little blonde was shaking with tears in her eyes. "He knew. He knew you could die and he didn't once open his worthless gob! We could have lost you because that walking food-stain decided he didn't want to get off his arse!" She looked like she was going to fly apart at the seams and Hermione couldn't have been prouder of Harry than when he held his arm open in a clear invitation that Luna didn't hesitate to accept. She knew Harry wasn't exactly comfortable with human contact and for him to offer it to Luna now was a big step. She quickly joined them on the bed and in the hug.

"I'm sorry, it's just…you are my first and only friends at Hogwarts. I don't think I could take losing you. Either of you." Luna said from the middle of their tangle of arms.

"I know how you feel, Luna. Neither Harry nor I have a lot of friends either and you are very quickly becoming a very good one." Hermione squeezed the two people in her arms a little tighter. "What are we going to do next time we see him?" She felt Harry heaving a sigh as much as heard him.

"I can't speak for you, Hermione, but I don't think I can be friends with R-, with Weasley again, or if I could it will take a lot of time. His jealousy was one thing, but this…" Harry trailed off sounding miserable. It was clear that the loss of his first friend his own age was hitting him hard.

"Well I for one will not miss Ronald's constant insults towards anything that isn't quidditch, chess or food." Hermione sniffed. Levity was certainly more difficult than Harry and- than Harry had made it appear. "What about you, Luna?" Luna looked surprised that her opinion was wanted but in the circle of her friends' arms felt safe enough to give it.

"Ronald is the one who gave me the nickname 'Loony' and I certainly shan't miss him either." That bit of news caused a frown to appear on Harry's face. "Don't frown, Harry. It attracts Umgubular Slashkilters." Harry gave a snort at that and Luna got an extra squeeze.

"Alright, Harry. Let's get you discharged and we can have some dinner. I'll get Madam Pomfrey." When Hermione returned with the healer Luna was sitting in a chair beside the bed discussing the migratory patterns of the Crumple-Horned Snorcack with Harry. Right then Hermione decided that between the three of them they could get through this. Harry was discharged so quickly he actually became suspicious. He was however careful not to voice his suspicions until he was out of Madam Pomfrey's hearing. Hermione privately suspected that after an afternoon of looking at a seriously depressed Harry, Madam Pomfrey had decided that he needed some time with his friends.

When they got to the Great Hall the three friends had just enough time to see that most of the school was in attendance before the Hall was plunged into darkness. A moment later Hermione was blinded by what turned out to be a spotlight.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. Please welcome to the Great Hall of Hogwarts-" Fred and George, I should have known.

"the Knight of the Light-"

"the Pride of the Lions-"

"the world's only living Dragonslayer-"

"the one-"

"the only-"

"Harry!"

"James!"

"POTTER!" Her friend's last name had been the bellowing finale to a steady crescendo and was met with thunderous applause. As the normal lighting in the Hall restored itself Hermione was surprised to see that all four houses were on their feet, cheering and applauding. Risking a glance to her side she had to fight the urge to giggle as Harry had once again started blushing. His humility is really one of his best features. And he doesn't half look cute when he blushes like that. The thought passed through her mind unremarked as Harry chose that exact moment to start walking rapidly to the Gryffindor table and she and Luna had to hurry to catch up. It was a good thing they did. When Harry got to the table he was treated to a round of backslaps, handshakes and eager thanks. Collin's camera was clicking like mad and several girls were already jockeying for position on his arms. She moved in quickly with Luna only half a step behind. She had to help Harry, his shoulder was still sore and she was sure this attention would cause him to bolt soon. She slipped in between Harry and a second year she thought was called Romilda Vane, who was practically salivating at being so close to him. She slid an arm around Harry's waist, shielding his injured arm and shoulder with her body and was rewarded with a deeply grateful look that warmed her heart. She smiled at him briefly before aiming a quick glare at the pouting girls that were trying to jostle her out of the way. Luna tried to claim Harry's good arm but was knocked out of the way by none other than Ginny Weasley.

"Harry! You saved my life again! I was hoping that I might be able to thank you sometime soon, in private." Is she…is she rubbing herself on Harry?! Hermione quickly glanced up to see how Harry was taking this newest development and was unaccountably pleased that he looked confused and a little uncomfortable.

"Harry, did you see where Luna went?" The confusion and discomfort dropped off of Harry's face as he started scanning the crowd around them. Ginny took advantage of Harry's distraction to aim a glare at Hermione that clearly said 'back off'. Hermione just responded with a disapproving look that left no doubts of her opinion of the youngest Weasley's tactics.

"There she is. Luna!" Hermione honestly tried not to smirk at Ginny's disappointed look when Harry's arm left her grasp to wave at Luna. "How on earth did she get all the way over there? She was right behind us wasn't she? Come on."

"Ahem! If you could all make your way to your own House tables for a moment." All the noise in the Great Hall stopped for a moment as the headmaster's voice managed to cut through it. It then resumed to a lesser degree as everyone rushed for their usual seats. Harry managed to snag a despondent Luna by the arm before she left for the Ravenclaw table.

"Come on, you're still sitting with us, Luna. If it wasn't a problem yesterday, it's not a problem today." He started pulling her over to their usual seats.

"But Harry, Professor Dumbledore just said-"

"Professor Dumbledore says a lot and the majority is demonstrably nonsense." Harry stopped for a moment to cast a look at Luna. "Unless, of course you want to sit at the Ravenclaw table?"

"NO!" She clutched onto Harry's arm desperately as he grinned and led the girls to their usual places. Hermione noticed that Ginny wasn't best pleased at the treatment Luna was receiving from Harry. Once everyone was seated the headmaster spoke up again.

"I would like to thank Misters Weasley for that memorable introduction of Mister Potter." The twins leapt up from their seats and began bowing extravagantly towards Dumbledore who bowed back every bit as enthusiastically to great amusement of the Hall. "Yes, yes. Well done. It is Mister Potter however that I wished to address." Harry looked up to meet the twinkling blue eyes of Albus Dumbledore.

"Mister Potter, yesterday you showed your skill and determination and saved the lives of many of your fellow students as well as several noted guests. This went above and beyond anything we could have asked of you and I am therefore proud to award you a Special Award for Services to the School." The Hall erupted into applause and cheers as the students took the chance to once again thank the one who had saved their lives. Hermione's gasp went unheard amid the tumult as she realized that Harry would be immortalized in her favourite book for being the first student in the school's long history to win two of those awards; well that and a host of other reasons. Honestly, it was a bit disingenuous of the headmaster to single this particular incident out as more than they could ever have asked of her friend. That statement could have applied at any point after the troll in first year and no one had seemed too bothered then. When the noise began to die down the headmaster had one final thing to add.

"I am sure you are all immensely grateful to Mister Potter for his actions but I must ask that you allow him to study and eat in peace. As Madam Pomfrey just reminded me: he is still recovering from injuries sustained yesterday and could likely do without those injuries being pounded on by eager well-wishers. She also mentioned that Mister Potter should eat a full meal to recover." Harry had been casting grateful looks at the head table until that last remark when the look turned decidedly aggrieved. "Now, please enjoy your meal." At the headmaster's pronouncement the plates filled and everyone started trying to eat and stare at Harry at the same time.

Harry had wondered how he was supposed to eat with only one arm and no magic when a plate with food already cut into bite-sized pieces appeared in front of him. He resolved to do something nice for Dobby and Winky in the near future and tucked in. As his plate emptied Harry spent more and more time looking around the Great Hall trying to decide whether he was more disturbed by the people who looked away when he caught their eyes and pretended to be engrossed with their meal until he looked away or the ones who just kept staring. He did eventually notice something that had him turning to Luna.

"Say, Luna, did something happen in Ravenclaw. A lot of them keep flinching."

"Well a lot of things happen in Ravenclaw every day. The flinching is probably just because you scare them." Harry stared at his blonde friend.

"Why on earth would I scare them?" Her gaze was as dreamy as it had ever been as she answered him.

"You did just kill a dragon with nothing but a sword and a broom, Harry. I suppose that they are worried I will ask you to hurt them. A lot of my possessions have disappeared over the years. Quite a few of them have found their way back to my bed today already." Harry could practically feel his blood pressure spike at Luna's casual comment. His glare snapped over to the Ravenclaw table.

"Have they now?" His voice was laced with a promise of violence. The Ravenclaws had noticed the conversation taking place at the Gryffindor table and Harry's reaction seemed to confirm some of their worst fears. Four girls ran from the Hall in stark terror.

"Yes, they have and I imagine when I get up to Ravenclaw Tower tonight several more will have joined them. You don't have to hurt them, Harry, really." Harry looked over at Luna and gave her a single nod. "If they start bullying you again though I am tearing that damn tower apart stone by stone." Luna just smiled at him and continued arranging her tower of Yorkshire pudding with functioning baby-carrot catapults.

:-:-:-:-:

It wasn't until Harry and Hermione got back to the Gryffindor common room that they ran into the confrontation they had been dreading. Despite having just had dinner Fred and George had found the time and energy to set up a party welcoming Harry back, celebrating his win and celebrating the fact that he had saved the school. Any one of these was a good enough excuse for the twins to throw a party; all three at the same time nearly obliged them to do it. Harry and Hermione had taken a route to the common room that passed close by Ravenclaw tower and said goodnight to Luna before enjoying the walk up to Gryffindor tower together. When they got to the portrait of the Fat Lady and gave the password she didn't get the chance to swing open all the way before eager hands were pulling the pair in.

If the party celebrating Harry's entry into the tournament had been loud, this one shook the rafters. After all, Gryffindor's Champion had proven to the world that they were the best house at the best school. Clearly everywhere else was worse if they couldn't beat a Gryffindor, even if they were given a three year head start. Most of the people thinking these thoughts managed to conveniently ignore that they had been ignoring or bad mouthing the champion they were now so proud of. One of those people also happened to be holding a golden egg. Ron knew he had to apologize to Harry. He had never even heard of a picture taking up the entire front page of the Daily Prophet before. If they were going to be printing Harry's photos like that then Ron Weasley knew where he needed to be. It was going to require an apology and Ron knew that. He also knew that he had better make it a good one, but that didn't mean he would be doing it in front of the whole school. Honestly, Ron would prefer to do it in an empty common room, but he couldn't hang on to the golden egg any longer with the Golden Boy returning to the tower. Although, perhaps Harry would let him hang on to the egg since he would be busy with the party. Ron certainly hoped so, the thing was a bloody bird magnet. So when Harry and Hermione were dragged into the common room and cheered he started making his way over. He let the quidditch team go first to soften them up. After all, even Fred and George had believed that Harry had entered his own name and Harry could do with a reminder of that. When the chasers had moved aside it was Ron's time to shine.

"Harry, mate! Here is your egg. Dumbledore asked me to take care of it for you." He shoved the egg into Harry's good hand. "If you ever need someone to look after it again you know you can trust me to do it. Oh, and I'm sorry about the whole, well…you know." He could see it in Harry's face, Harry had missed having his best mate around and being cooped up in the library with Hermione all day. This apology was in the bag. "Hey, do you think you could talk McGonagall into letting me ditch Binns' class too, I can nap better in my bed." Now that he had apologized to Harry he had one more thing to take care of before he got back to the party.

"Herms, care to help a bloke out with some assignments tomorrow? I could certainly use-" Ron was forced to stop speaking because his jaw was almost dislocated by the slap he had just received. He looked back at Hermione in shock only to see her red-faced and trembling with rage.

The whole common room had heard the slap and looked over to see what was going on. Even if they hadn't they would have easily been attracted to the scene by Hermione's tirade.

"How dare you, you miserable, little pus-boil?! You think that constituted an apology? That things will go back to the way they were now? You knew! You bloody well knew and you didn't say a word! You could have gotten Harry killed, you self-centered pile of krup-shit!" You could have knocked the whole of Gryffindor over with a single feather as they listened to Hermione Granger, whose distaste for vulgarity was legendary, blister the air. Hermione didn't have a feather handy but she certainly had a large amount of frustration left and concentrated into one act. The crunch of her fist breaking Ron's nose and knocking him arse over teakettle spurred at least the twins into action. They threw themselves between their little brother and the enraged young witch.

"Hermione! What's gotten into you?" asked Fred while keeping a careful eye on Hermione's fists.

"And what do you mean 'he knew'?" added George. Everyone may have been watching Hermione but it was Harry who answered.

"I had a visit from Charlie today in the Hospital Wing. It came up that he had sent Ron a letter asking him to warn me about the dragons. Ron never said a word." The twins looked at Harry for a second before turning their gazes toward Ron.

"Is that true, Ron?"

"And remember that we can just check with Charlie when you answer." Ron was glaring furiously at Hermione and gingerly holding his nose with one hand.

"Whad does id badder? Hawwy did fine!" he growled out. The twins swooped down on him and a moment later they were dragging him out the portrait hole by his armpits. Before they left George shouted over his shoulder, "You kids carry on. We'll just take Ronnikins here to the Hospital Wing and have a talk with him." The portrait swung shut behind them cutting off any response Ron might have made. It took a while for the party to start up again but it did. Harry received no more apologies that night and many of the girls who had been eyeing Harry up decided that perhaps this was not the right time to make a move. Hermione actually calmed down once Ron was removed from the common room but she kept a careful eye on Harry for the rest of the night. He was still recovering, after all.

:-:-:-:-:

Sirius had been having a terrible day. He knew that last night had been the first task of the Tri-wizard Tournament. He also knew that his pup was going to be put in a life-threatening situation again and not one damn person in Hogsmeade had the decency to throw out their Daily Prophet. How was an escaped convict supposed to properly worry about his godson if the local populace wouldn't bloody well lend a hand. In the end he slunk further into the village in his dog form. When he got to Norton's Newsagents he could see the man was doing brisk business. How the hell was no one willing to throw a dog a bone when there were this many papers being sold. They had left him no option but to take matters into his own paws. He timed his run carefully so that he leaped between old Norton and the customer being handed the paper at the moment of exchange. The paper carefully clutched in his jaws and trying not to slobber too much, Padfoot hightailed it out of there to loud cursing from the men he had surprised.

When he got back to his cave Padfoot transformed into Sirius Black and cleaned his prize off with a wave of his wand. Picking up the paper he received such a shock that he almost dropped it again. What the hell, pup?!There on the front page was his little Harry looking damn grown up and powerful at the tender age of fourteen. Sirius was wracking his mind for any kind of story from his time at Hogwarts that could match up to what he was seeing in front of him. Still feeling shocked he settled in to read the stories attached. At the end he was impressed as hell with his godson and angry like he had rarely been at the organizers and Dumbledore in particular. Wasn't the headmaster supposed to be keeping his students safe? Sirius contemplated writing a howler to the headmaster demanding better care be taken of his godson. Sadly he didn't think today's tactics would work for getting the necessary materials. Taking another look at the paper Sirius started casting various preservation charms, including an Imperturbable Charm. He understood now why nobody wanted to throw this edition of the Daily Prophet out.

Chapter Text

The morning after the Gryffindor party a rumour raced around the school that Ronald Weasley had known about the dragons and hadn't warned anybody. Even the students from the other schools were aghast at the idea that this kind of information would have been kept from their champions. The phrase "wouldn't do that to my worst enemy" was frequently heard in the discussions of the redhead's actions. Around lunch time the rumor came out of Hufflepuff that Potter had found out about the dragons anyway and warned Cedric. By dinnertime similar rumors had surfaced from Drumstrang and Beauxbatons. One of the principal characters in these rumors was nowhere to be found though and neither were his two shadows.

The three in question had met in the library after an early breakfast to do some homework but had quickly become distracted by a question Hermione had asked.

"Harry, where did you learn a shield spell strong enough to stop dragon fire?" she asked as her lower lip caught between her teeth. The scratching of Luna's quill as she did her homework stopped as the Ravenclaw was tempted away from dry and compartmentalized writing by the possibility of new and exciting knowledge. Harry was in a bit of a bind. He hadn't really meant to keep the Room of Requirement a secret, but for the past month it had been an invaluable resource as it had offered him a place where he didn't have to pretend, where he could train himself in new magics without anybody asking him how he had advanced so far so quickly. He was torn between keeping his refuge a secret and helping his friends grow. In the end his mind was made up by the memory of Hermione's injury in the Department of Mysteries at the end of fifth year. He was surprised for a moment at the relief his decision brought him until he realized that he was already keeping so much from his best friend and his new friend that he was actually happy to get one of those secrets out of the way.

"Alright. Pack up your things and come with me and I'll show you." The three friends were soon walking out of the library and heading up to the seventh floor. At the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy Harry stopped. Luna and Hermione were looking about in confusion since as far as they could tell there was nothing here.

"There is a hidden room here called the Room of Requirement. The house elves also call it the Come and Go Room. It only appears when you have real need of it or if you walk up and down in front of this tapestry several times thinking hard on what you need, like this." Harry proceeded to demonstrate by calling up his usual training room. The girls gasped as they saw a door take shape in the wall. "Come on then. This is the secret to my success."

Harry led the way into the room and had to start leading the girls by the hand as they stepped over the threshold. As soon as they had seen the inside they had simply stopped moving and stared around trying to take it all. He pulled them over to a couch by the fire and walked over to a familiar bookcase. When Harry came back Hermione was at least blinking again and Luna seemed have focused on him even if she was still staring. He would be the first to admit that he had trouble reading Luna Lovegood's facial expressions though so for all he knew she had completely accepted this. Upon reaching the couch he held out the book he was holding to Hermione. It was Survival Securing Spells for the Self-Sacrificing. Hermione reached out with trembling hands and started flipping through the book. Harry knew when she had reached the chapter on the Heaven's Shield Charm because she stilled and looked up at him.

"How long have you known about this place, Harry?" he could hear the hurt in her voice and guilt gnawed at his gut.

"Since the day after my name came out of the goblet." He wasn't going to sugarcoat it. He had made his choice and he was going to take his lumps.

"Why?" He knew what she was asking and realized he couldn't give the honest answer. I was preparing for a war because I was sent from the future to make things right. That'll go down like a lead balloon. He did have another reason that had always been secondary because it was never supposed to be linked to the Room so he gave that.

"I wanted to surprise you." Hermione snorted at his answer.

"I think I can safely say I would have been just as surprised a month ago, Harry." Anger was starting to shimmer in her voice.

"Not with the room; with this." He waved his wand and the books he had been using to study Runes and Arithmancy floated over to land on the coffee table in front of the couch. Hermione looked through them and her expression told Harry that she wasn't impressed.

"I've already read all of these, Harry, and I'm frankly insulted that you thought you could buy me off with some books." Her voice was as cold as he had ever heard it.

"I've read them too, Hermione," he said softly, watching as her eyes widened. "the surprise wasn't the books. I wanted to surprise you by being able to discuss Runes and Arithmancy with you. I needed something to distract me every so often, that shield charm drains your magic like you wouldn't believe, so I started learning something that I had hoped would, well something I had hoped would make you proud of me." By the end Harry was talking to his shoes more than Hermione so he wouldn't have to see her expression anymore.

"You're learning Runes and Arithmancy?" Harry could hear the clear disbelief in her voice and winced.

"Well the grammar is giving me some serious issues but I've got several alphabets memorized: Futhark, Futhorc, the Ogham of the Trees and the Ogham of the Beasts and the Sumerian alphabet. I'm working on Ancient Egyptian now. Arithmancy so far has all been basic maths; it's dull but doable." There was silence in response to that. Harry took a chance and looked up. Hermione's face was a picture of shock but when their eyes met she seemed to gather herself. The two of them kept their eyes locked reading each other's emotions while Luna continued to sit quietly. This was something she realized her friends needed to work out for themselves. Eventually Hermione spoke up.

"I'm still not happy that you kept this from me, Harry. I thought you knew you could trust me." Harry cringed in on himself. "That said I am proud of you. To learn five alphabets in a month is amazing especially since your regular school work hasn't suffered and you managed to learn a difficult spell that saved hundreds of lives." Hermione's voice was a lot warmer than it had been and when Harry looked up she was even wearing a small smile. "But you are going to teach me everything you have been learning, you hear me, Potter?" Harry nodded with a smile as his gut unclenched.

The trio started discussing spells and training schedules. Now that she knew about the Room, Hermione was a lot more accepting of Harry's non-attendance in two of his classes. She and Luna also agreed to help Harry understand the various grammar rules of dealing with runes and pass on the assignments they were given in class so Harry could get used to those and possibly join one of them in actual classes next year. Harry shot down Hermione's demands to be taught the Heaven's Shield Charm first.

"Hermione, Thursday was the first time I cast it successfully and I don't actually know whether I can do it when I don't have a dragon breathing down everyone's neck. That's ignoring the fact that it takes mountains of power. You need to work up to it." Hermione however was ready with a response.

"Fine. You'll be teaching us the Patronus Charm first then?" Harry just sighed and mumbled out his agreement. When the girls immediately started to get excited he did give them a reality check.

"The Patronus isn't exactly easy either. Despite both of you being better students than I am it's exhausting to actually attempt and you won't be allowed more than three or four tries a night. This is going to frustrate you as it drags on. Try and keep that in mind." Both nodded very seriously. "Alright then, we'll start when I can use my magic again." Hermione squawked in disagreement. "There are some other things I need before we start practicing as well. A stock of Honeyduke's Finest at the very least. The spell really does leave you drained and the chocolate helps."

"Can't we just ask the Room to give us some?" Harry decided that he may have underestimated his best friend's enthusiasm for learning and felt a sudden stab of sympathy for their professors.

"No, we can't. Did you expect an inanimate magical tool to be capable of violating the First Principal Exception to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration?" Harry asked with a laugh in his voice. That laugh trailed of as he saw the girls' confused looks. Shit! We didn't learn that 'til sixth year. Harry decided to try and use a distraction to keep them from questioning him too closely on his sudden knowledge of N.E.W.T. level material. With a focused thought two copies of a book describing elemental transfiguration appeared on the table. When the girls realized what they were, the books were snapped up so fast Harry was sure they would both make excellent seekers if quidditch was played with a flying book and not a snitch. Deciding to leave them be for now Harry picked up the book on Egyptian Hieroglyphs he had been reading and moved to the table he usually sat at to study.

Time passed pleasantly for the three students as they were each absorbed by their own book. They were able to study uninterrupted for as long as they liked and in the case of the girls that might have meant they would have never left. At least until Hermione's stomach rumbled. With a blush the brunette looked up to see if anyone had noticed but both her friends were still absorbed in their reading material. Remembering what Harry had said and what she had just read she walked over to him.

"Harry, what do you do for food if the Room doesn't provide it?" Harry looked up at her, his hair more mussed than usual where he had run his hand through it and his eyes clearly distracted.

"What? Huh? Oh. Dobby!" Hermione watched on in horror as her best friend, the secretary of S.P.E.W., summoned a house elf. Dobby popped in wearing a simple pair of dungarees and a beret.

"Yes, Master Harry?" Harry was still distracted by the intricacies behind uniliteral versus multiliteral hieroglyphs and didn't notice the death glare aimed at his head.

"Do you think you could get us lunch, please?"

"Of course, Master Harry!" The elf popped off with a big smile on his face and Harry went back to his reading.

"Harry James Potter! What was that?!" Hermione's fists were clenched by her sides as Harry's head shot up and he looked around in surprise. She ignored the surprised squeak and subsequent sound of a body hitting the floor that came from the couch.

"What was what?" he asked confused as he couldn't see anything out of place.

"Did you, or did you not, just order a house elf to get us lunch? Do you even care how it's going to look to people if the board of S.P.E.W. orders lunch from slaves? Wait! He called you 'Master Harry'!" Apparently she had only thought she was angry before. "When he gets back you are going to free him, Harry. I have never been so disappointed in you."

"No," Harry's answer stunned her. He was looking nervous but determined. "Dobby showed me the Room. When he did I offered him anything he wanted as payment and he asked for the bond. I will not throw him out just because you told me to, especially since you haven't bothered to hear his side of the story."

"Harry he asked for the bond because he's been brainwashed. Brainwashing you-"

"No, Hermione!" The surprise of the interruption actually stopped Hermione in her tracks. "You can't have it both ways. Elves can't be intelligent beings capable of self-determination and brainwashed and unable to think for themselves. Have you stopped to consider that Dobby might have a valid reason for wanting the bond? When he gets back I'll ask Dobby and Winky to discuss the reason for the bond with you. Unless you listen to them you are being as unthinking and inconsiderate of their needs as you always claim wizards are." Hermione was shocked; Harry was rarely this forceful. In fact the only times she could remember had been when he was utterly convinced that he was in the right and nobody else was going to solve the problem at hand.

"Harry's right, Hermione. House elves need the bond." With Harry looking at her like that and Luna backing him up Hermione knew she wasn't going to convince him to free his slave right now. She would talk with the elves and convince them of the merits of freedom. Then Harry wouldn't have a leg to stand on and would have to see reason.

As a consequence of Harry and Hermione's second clash of the day lunch was a strained affair. Since conversation was nearly non-existent Harry reflected on the fact that he had, in fact, had two arguments with Hermione. Last time around they had barely managed that in seven years, never mind one day. Then again last time I wasn't actually four years older than I appeared. In fact the actual fourteen year old Harry Potter had just begun getting used to most of his interactions with people during a year being positive, or at least not belligerent, and hadn't been willing to rock the boat. At, well eighteen by now he supposed, Harry had lead a war effort, died twice (that he could remember) and learned some valuable lessons about standing up for yourself. Does that mean that I only got along with Hermione because I was a pushover? No, she wouldn't have followed a pushover to the Department of Mysteries or to war. In the end it came down to Harry not being able to hide that he had changed fundamentally and whether it was a good thing or a bad thing it wasn't something he could really change. He would do everything he could to at least keep Hermione's friendship, within reason. He couldn't afford to sacrifice the world for his own happiness. Neither would he force others to follow him to war again if it came to that. Although, if the plan works it really shouldn't come to that.

When lunch ended Harry called Dobby and Winky and asked them to explain the bond and the reasons for it to Hermione. He just hoped she would actually listen to them. As he made his way back to the table Harry saw that Luna was following him. He gave her a quick wink before setting back down to continue his studies. It was several chapters later that he heard someone clearing their throat. He looked up and saw an embarrassed looking Hermione.

"I'm sorry. I thought you were enslaving Dobby to make your life easier and that would have been wrong. I still think the way elves are treated is atrocious but I should have learned more about them and I shouldn't have jumped down your throat without hearing your reasons first." She looked decidedly uncomfortable giving her apology.

"Apology accepted and for what it's worth I agree with you in principle. I didn't agree with the name or the way you were approaching things, but elves shouldn't be treated the way many of them are."

"What's wrong with S.P.E.W.?!" Hermione's indignation washed all the discomfort from her demeanor.

"People read it 'spew', for starters." Harry held up his hand as Hermione was about to respond vehemently. "I know what you call it, but everyone else reads that acronym as 'spew'. That and you aimed rather higher than wizards or elves are willing to accept."

"Well what would you do then?" Hermione was clearly put out with the flaws he was pointing out.

"I would model the whole thing on the RSPCA. Maybe call it the Magical Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Elves and have better treatment of elves rather than their freedom be the main goal of the organization." Hermione was staring at him with a slightly open mouth.

"Why have you been forcing me to hound you about your studies for three years if you're obviously intelligent enough not to need me?" He could see a slight smile pulling at the corners of her lips taking any sting out of her remark.

"Maybe I just needed an excuse to keep you around? Besides I do need you. You really are a much better student than I am." Hermione actually looked pleased at his response and her cheeks gained a light pink dusting. It was all true too. He wasn't anywhere near as smart as she thought, he just had a head start. "Now are there any more things that I've forgotten to tell you that you had a burning questions about? I don't like it when we argue this much." He had meant it as a joke but Hermione turned serious.

"Actually there was one more thing. What is this deal you have with Rita Skeeter that she mentioned in her note?" Damn. I forgot that she would have seen that. It was only the size of a newspaper front page, after all.

"Ah, well, Rita has a bit of a reputation." Harry began.

"She's a stain on the journalistic community, you mean. It's people like her that make others doubt sightings of the Crumple-Horned Snorcack!" Luna broke in. Hermione looked like she had her own opinion on people's reasons to doubt a Crumple-Horned Snorcack sighting but didn't say anything.

"She writes mostly gossip, rumors and fantasy, but she does it in such a way that they sound like facts; and she always slants it so the subject of her article is dealt as much damage as possible. I discovered something about her that she doesn't want anyone else to know. In exchange for my silence and a few exclusives she'll refrain from writing anything bad about the three of us, your families or the Weasley's. I did tell her that if she had actual proof I wouldn't stop her from printing." Hermione just shook her head and smiled at him.

"I don't think a reporter would ever care to write anything about me, but thank you." she said.

"It will be nice to not have her disparaging Daddy. Thank you for that, Harry."

"You are both very welcome." Harry grinned. He was happy that a third conflict had been avoided. He hadn't been lying earlier when he said he didn't like arguing with Hermione. He didn't like arguing at all, come to think of it.

"You do know you're going to have to owl her soon don't you?" Hermione asked.

"What?! Why would I want to see more of her?" Harry was perfectly alright with not seeing the reporter any more than strictly necessary and now Hermione wanted him to contact her?

"Well once the basilisk is rendered down into parts and sold people will hear where it came from. If she's going to interview you about it you could probably do with some proof of your own considering how unbelievable that story is. You should probably talk to Professor McGonagall about it too if you're going to be bringing people into the school." Harry raised his finger and opened his mouth to rebut her comments point by point but couldn't think of anything. She was right. With a groan he dropped his head heavily on the table, manfully ignoring the giggling coming from the other side of the table.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry had resolved to speak to McGonagall after their next Transfiguration class on Tuesday since it was the last class of the day and just hoped she would have time. He had forgotten about a certain announcement that was due to be made. The guinea fowl they had been changing into guinea pigs had been locked away and they had copied down their homework.

"If I may have your attention for a moment more, I have something to say to all of you." Professor McGonagall was surveying the class sternly to make sure that everyone was indeed paying attention. "The Yule Ball is approaching. It is a traditional part of the Tri-Wizard Tournament and a chance for us to socialize with our foreign guests. The ball is open to all students fourth year and up. You may take a younger student if you so wish. The ball is formal, so dress robes will be worn. The ball will last from eight to midnight on Christmas Day." Professor McGonagall went on to give her warning about the standards of behavior she expected from her Gryffindors to much giggling from Lavender and Parvati. Then the moment he had known was coming since she had started her announcement arrived. "Very well. Class dismissed. Potter, please stay behind a moment."

Harry caught the look Hermione sent him and nodded slightly. He would talk with his teacher about the basilisk. When they were alone Professor McGonagall spoke sternly.

"Potter, traditionally the champions and their partners open the ball with a dance. Do make sure you are suitably accompanied won't you?" Even though he knew it was coming Harry couldn't repress a sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

"They're really milking the performing monkey aspect for everything it's worth, aren't they? No matter. I actually had something else I wanted to speak to you about, Professor." McGonagall had opened her mouth to respond to his 'performing monkey' comment but shut it again to hear what he had to say. "While I was in the Hospital Wing, Charlie Weasley stopped by to see me. Apparently there is some law that says that since I killed a dragon that was attacking people, I get the remains. Charlie and his team are rendering it down to parts and will help me sell it. The thing I need help with is that during our discussion the basilisk I killed in second year came up. It falls under the same law and I have asked Charlie to help me with rendering that down too, but Hermione pointed out that I should probably ask first if I'm going to be bringing people into the castle." Professor McGonagall was inscrutable as she watched him speaking and then simply sat there and looked at him for a while longer. Harry let her; Dumbledore had used that same tactic on him so much he had almost gotten used to it.

"I see, Mr. Potter. Did you have a time in mind when you wished to do this?" When Harry shook his head she continued. "In that case may I suggest Saturday morning? This operation will likely take all day and I would like to get it out of the way without repeated visits disrupting the school."

"Of course, ma'am. I'll have to ask Charlie but it shouldn't be a problem. I'll let you know." His professor nodded and seemed ready to dismiss him when Harry felt he should mention something else. "Hermione also asked me to contact Rita Skeeter over the matter. I have a deal with her to curb some of her more libelous tendencies but it requires that I give her a few exclusives. Unfortunately I don't think there is a chance she'll give this sort of thing a miss." Professor McGonagall sighed in frustration at his declaration.

"I think I can understand that. Were you planning on taking anyone else down there?" she asked.

"Well, Hermione and Luna have asked to join us, but I didn't see the harm in that. Did you have anyone you wanted to add?" McGonagall looked taken aback by that question but quickly recovered.

"I believe that some of the staff may wish to make the journey. I suppose it would be a good idea to offer the students who were petrified the chance to get some closure if they need it." Harry could see the sense in that and agreed. "This Saturday then, Potter. I will leave the arrangements to you as long as I am informed by Friday at the latest. And Potter? Do remember to ask someone to the ball." Harry could hear the dismissal in her tone and left the classroom.

As soon as he was clear of watchful eyes Harry ducked into a secret passage and activated the Marauder's Map. When he couldn't find Hermione or Luna in the Library he turned his steps to the Room of Requirement. As he walked he thought about the upcoming ball. More specifically he thought about the upcoming ball in light of what Ephialtes had told him and what he knew from the previous time line. Despite much of the evidence he lived through day to day suggesting the encounter with the Reaper had really happened, Harry just had trouble believing he had been manipulated away from a 'soulmate'. Upon his arrival he would probably have thought that he would take Ginny to the ball this time around, if it had occurred to him to think of it at all. She had been his girlfriend and even after the break up Harry had been sure they would get together after the war. Yesterday evening had revealed a flaw in that plan though: Ginny was thirteen and hadn't grown out of her fangirl phase yet. That would make the entire evening extremely uncomfortable. He had had the fact that this was a young girl and not the woman he had once dated rubbed into him rather physically and realized that he was just not attracted to children. Nothing was going to happen between the two of them until something could happen.

So who should he ask then. He knew what Ephialtes wanted him to do but was honestly tired of people dictating what happened in his life. Was that enough of a reason to ask someone else? And if so who? Cho had been an unmitigated disaster in fifth year and was still hung up on Cedric at this point. Parvati and he had a terrible time last time, though admittedly he had been so surly any date would likely have gone badly. Lavender would be worse. The Chasers were unofficially dating the twins and Lee. Will you just admit, if only to yourself, that Hermione would be a wonderful date to the ball and the only reason you haven't decided to ask her yet is because you feel like being contrary? Harry sighed out loud. Yes, Hermione was his best friend and he would love to spend an evening with her. As for being contrary, well, his conscience was right. He really didn't want to do what some Snape imitator told him to. So you would take a lesser date just to be churlish? And that was the crux of it. There really wasn't anyone he would rather go with than Hermione but he wanted to be sure that asking her was his choice. Whatever decision I make now is my own choice, isn't it? I have certainly considered other options and found them all wanting compared to her.

He made his decision to ask Hermione to the ball as soon as possible. He already knew he wasn't the only one who wanted to take her to the ball. And what will you do if she says 'no'? She does have a choice in this that you can't control. This internal debate was over much quicker. If Hermione was unavailable he would ask Luna. She might be the same age as Ginny but would at least be good for a laugh. He snickered to himself as he imagined Karkaroff's face the first time Luna brought up one of her creatures at the champions' table. His musings had by now brought him up to the tapestry of the dancing trolls and Harry realized that he was standing in a corridor snickering to himself like a bit of a loon and quickly asked for the room Hermione was using.

When he walked in he saw that both girls had started on their homework; an admirable display of self-restraint with all the new and exciting knowledge available to them. They looked up as they saw him enter. Harry walked over and took the extra chair that had just materialized at the table and started rummaging in his bag for a quill and parchment.

"Well, what did McGonagall want?" Hermione sounded impatient that he was delaying the flow of information even if it might be to get started on his homework.

"She wanted to let me know that the champions and their dates have to open the ball with a dance and to make sure that I was 'suitably accompanied'. " He could hear a small gasp from across the table.

"Have you decided who you're going to ask yet?" Hermione sounded downright timid asking him this.

"I have." Harry wasn't sure he wanted to ask Hermione with an audience, even if that audience was their friend.

"Well Cho should be down in the Library. Maybe you should go and ask her now." Harry shook his head at Hermione.

"It's not Cho."

"It's not? Then who?" She looks adorable when she's confused. Harry knew the moment had come to bite the bullet, Gryffindor up, be a man about this, take the leap-…stop stalling.

"Hermione, will you go to the Yule Ball with me?" he locked his eyes with hers and refused to look away now that the words were out of his mouth. He could see that Hermione had not been expecting this and was scrambling to get her scattered wits back in some sort of order.

"I…what…are you…" she gave herself a little shake, "Yes. Yes I would love to go with you." Harry felt a grin stretching across his face.

"Brilliant!" Hermione was also smiling a goofy little grin and Luna was beaming out a megawatt smile at getting to see two of the most intimidating people in the school act like the teenagers they were.

"Make sure you avoid the nesting nargles while you dance." Her two friends looked at her, slightly gobsmacked. She couldn't stop herself from giggling, something she found was becoming a regular occurrence these days. Harry just gave a rueful shake of his head and got to work on a letter to his godfather, he had just been given a few extra paragraphs worth of good news. They worked in silence for a few minutes before Hermione just had to know something.

"Really? Not Cho? Me?" It would seem her disbelief had caught up with her. Harry just grinned at her.

"I thought about it on the way up here and I quite literally could not think of anyone I would rather go to the ball with. Besides, what would Cho and I talk about for an entire night? The fact that she has yet to beat me to the snitch? That I really didn't enter my own name?" Hermione nodded and turned back to her own essay with a pink face and small but immovable smile.

Chapter Text

Friday arrived and Harry had the responses to his letters so he went to see Professor McGonagall again. He arrived at her office after classes had ended and knocked.

"Enter." Harry opened the door just a little and stuck his head in.

"Do you have a moment, Professor?" She looked up at him with a slight scowl.

"Certainly, Potter. That is why I said 'enter'. Will the rest of your body be joining us?" Harry stepped all the way into the office and closed the door behind him while doing his best not to feel like he had just been caught stealing a biscuit.

"The reason I- Professor! What is that thing doing here?!" There, on the wall next to the case that held the mementoes of Gryffindors past, hung a framed copy of last week's Daily Prophet. An edition he was still being asked to sign every time he stepped foot into a hallway. He couldn't believe that his Head of House had framed it and hung it on a wall. As he stared at her, horrified with embarrassment, she started to defend herself.

"It was an important moment in the history of Gryffindor House that happened during my tenure as Head. Why shouldn't I commemorate it?" Harry thought he might have been more accepting of that very reasonable explanation if his professor's cheeks hadn't pinked. She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I assume the reason you're here is because you have received notice from Mr. Weasley and Miss Skeeter?"

Looking anywhere but the framed picture and McGonagall's blush he nodded. "They both said they would be here at nine thirty, ma'am. I haven't spoken to the victims yet as I don't want it getting out and people queuing up to go down with us." As he spoke, Harry felt the embarrassment fade and he could once again look in Professor McGonagall's direction. "I was also hoping you could contact Penelope Clearwater for me. I think she might suspect a prank of some sort if I were to offer her a trip to the Chamber of Secrets." McGonagall had also regained her composure and nodded.

"I can do that, Mr. Potter. Was there anything else?" He shook his head. "Very well, then." Accepting this dismissal Harry left. Professor McGonagall watched him go and sighed to herself as she tried to remember what Filius had told her about keying a Notice-me-not Charm to a specific magical signature.

:-:-:-:-:

The next morning at breakfast Harry got up and walked over to the Hufflepuff table. A lot of curious eyes followed his progress and more than a few were surprised when Potter started talking to Finch-Fletchley. The Hufflepuff boy was nodding excitedly and raced out of the Great Hall, sparking much speculation about what was going on with Potter this time.

On returning to the Gryffindor table Harry also spoke to Colin getting a reaction similar to Justin's. When he spoke to Ginny she paled and nodded, then spent the rest of breakfast pushing her breakfast around her plate.

At nine thirty a small group arrived in the Entry Hall. Penelope Clearwater was talking to Charlie Weasley who had brought five other dragon handlers along. Rita stood off to one side looking eager and had brought her photographer, Bozo. Justin and Colin were also standing slightly apart, waiting on some people their own age to arrive. When Harry, Hermione, Luna and Ginny arrived, he noticed with satisfaction that everyone seemed to have brought a broom like he had asked them to. Well, Hermione hadn't, but he would be giving her a ride. The recently arrived group had apparently picked up a tail on the way to and from the Quidditch pitch though.

"Charlie!"

"What are you doing here?" The dragon handler looked up and grinned to see his little brothers.

"Fred. George. Managed to turn McGonagall's hair white yet?" he joked easily at them. The twins opened their mouths to respond but another voice cut across them before they could.

"They have not, Mr. Weasley, though not for lack of trying I assure you; and I'll thank you not to give them any ideas." Professor McGonagall had arrived, accompanied by Professors Sprout and Flitwick. "Run along now Mr. and Mr. Weasley."

"Actually, lads, why don't you join me over here for a minute?" McGonagall raised an eyebrow at Harry countermanding her. "Fred, George, I want you two to come down into the Chamber of Secrets with us."

"You're going down into the Chamber?"

"And we're invited?"

"Wicked." They both finished.

"Actually there's a condition." Harry's serious tone caused the prankster's to eye him carefully. "You will stay close to Ginny at all times. I think she might need you today." One look at their sister and both boys agreed. "Get your brooms then and meet us at Moaning Myrtle's toilet."

"No need, O Champion." one of them started.

"We learned from the best." the other added.

"Accio Brooms!" They finished with grins at Harry before moving over to sandwich a grateful-looking Ginny. McGonagall had been about to berate Harry for adding people they hadn't discussed to this expedition before she heard his condition and had taken a good look at the Weasley girl. Potter might just have a point. When the twins had caught their brooms the group set off for the second floor. In the bathroom there was no sign of Myrtle so Harry walked over to the tap with the snake engraving.

"The entrance is right here. It can only be opened by a parselmouth." Feeling that he had given everyone enough of a warning Harry turned his attention to the snake and, imagining it to be real, hissed: "₰Open.₰"

Harry could hear Bozo's camera clicking as the entrance to the chamber was revealed. He tried to ignore it as he felt a twinge of relief that he had not lost the ability to speak parseltongue along with the horcrux.

"This next bit is rather dirty, but I recommend you try to enjoy it." With that Harry grinned at them and hopped into the pipe and slid down with a loud whoop. At the bottom he quickly got up and cast a cushioning charm at the base of the pipe to make the landing a little easier on the rest and conjured several small, pale balls of light that hovered in place using the Magelight Charm. As the others started arriving he took the time to clean some of the muck off himself and his friends.

Once everyone was down and several people were looking at the profusion of bones and on other detritus in horror Harry called them on. When they reached the cave-in Harry began chanting and waving his wand ending the motion by stabbing his wand forward and then wrenching it up. The pile of stone in front of them shuddered and started flowing until it formed into an arched passageway.

"Very good, Mr. Potter. That would be worth an O in class." McGonagall nodded approvingly.

"Thank you, Professor. This is the point where we found the shed skin of the basilisk. That fraud, Lockhart told us he was going to take a bit of the skin up, Obliviate us to the point where we wouldn't know our own names and write a new best-seller. Thankfully he tried to use Weasley's broken wand to do it and the spell backfired. Last I heard he was at St. Mungo's." The professors' faces became grim at this revelation while Rita Skeeter could hardly look more excited.

As they continued walking Harry continued to field questions from both his friends and the reporter about how he and Weasley had ended up down here. When they got to the vault-like door to the Chamber proper, Harry hissed the passphrase again. The door swung open and everyone trooped inside. Harry was pleased to see that the basilisk wasn't showing any obvious signs of decay. If the war does come, we'll need money to fight it. This should help. If the war doesn't come St. Mungo's will forget all about Malfoy's 'contribution' when they get whatever this ends up being worth. All of a sudden Harry realized nobody was walking with him anymore. Turning around he saw that he had crossed about half the chamber while the others were all standing open mouthed at the entrance. He followed their stares to the basilisk before looking back again.

"Are you all alright?" He called over. "It's ok. It's quite dead, I assure you." His complete lack of concern about the massive snake behind him broke the spell for some members of the group. Hermione sprinted across the chamber and slammed into Harry grabbing him in the tightest hug he could ever remember getting from her as she knocked the breath out of him. He was worried he might have seen tears in her eyes as he was bracing himself for impact. His worry was suspended as he came under a verbal onslaught.

"Harry James Potter! Describing that…that thing as 'a big snake' is woefully inadequate! That monster is gargantuan or colossal or…or…just something more than 'big'!" Harry didn't get the chance to respond as the air was once again being squeezed from his lungs. "Why didn't you tell me how bad it was?" The pressure lifted slightly, allowing Harry some breath to answer.

"You would have worried; and like I said it's dead now." She looked up at him as if trying to determine the truth of his words and he mentally cursed as he saw that her eyes did indeed look suspiciously shiny. Pulling her closer again, Harry looked over at the rest of the group to see that some of the shock was wearing off. Bozo and Colin were snapping pictures and Rita was scribbling like mad. The professors and some of the victims were starting to look around the Chamber. The Weasley brothers had Ginny surrounded in a hug and the handlers were waiting on Charlie to get started. Luna was looking over at him and Hermione and seemed to be trembling a little. Harry lifted one arm from Hermione's back in an unspoken invitation to the little Ravenclaw and was soon experiencing his second impact hug of the day. Professor McGonagall and Rita followed her over at a more sedate pace.

"Potter, I don't know what to say. I can't believe you faced this monstrosity at age twelve with nothing but a sword." The Head of the House of Brave looked thoroughly shaken.

"Actually, I was hoping to hear that story in more detail," Rita prompted. So Harry told the story, the pressure on his ribcage increasing whenever he got to a particularly tense part. When he told of how the basilisk had bitten him as he killed it, Harry had to stop talking and comfort the two girls who hadn't let go of him for a moment and didn't seem likely to do so anytime soon. He had some trouble moving his arms around them to show the scars where the fang had gone clean through to the listeners. He managed to get through the entire story without mentioning Ginny's name as the possessed student. He only mentioned that Ginny had been taken into the chamber and that a student had been controlled by a dark artifact. Nothing Rita did made him shift his stance on that. He also managed to gloss over the fact that the diary was a horcrux. If Riddle got suspicious and started moving his treasures around, Harry would have the devil's own time finishing the bastard off so he didn't even mention the connection to Voldemort. At the end of the tale Charlie, who had joined them unnoticed, spoke up.

"Professor McGonagall, you may want to get the kids out of here. We're about to start rendering the basilisk and it's never a pretty process." The professor took this as the good advice it was. Several of her charges had clearly seen enough for one day. She herself could use a stiff dram, but not until she was safely back in her office. Potter's blasé attitude to the whole affair was just adding to her nerves. To think that someone that young simply accepted these sorts of things as a part of life made her feel like she had failed terribly somewhere. She quickly began herding them out of the chamber, noticing that the handlers had dogged the door open. Anything that kept her students from having to come back down here to open that door by speaking in hisses was fine by her.

Filius Flitwick was a champion duellist and Charms Master. He had lived through two wars and thought he had seen something of the horrors the world had to offer. The Head of Ravenclaw had just been presented with a rather pointed reminder that there is always more that you don't know. He would have to find an excuse to be in Minerva's office tonight. Her 'secret' bottle would be open, he was sure of it. He was also sure that he could use something stronger than what was usually on offer in Hogwarts.

Pomona Sprout had come down to support one of her badgers but was now in the slightly embarrassing position of having that badger steady her as she staggered out of the chamber. How on earth Minerva put up with students that could get into those sorts of situations, regularly too, was entirely beyond her. Pomona would be asking her old friend that very question at the earliest possible opportunity; tonight, in fact.

Charlie Weasley watched as the group containing two of his little brothers and his only little sister left the legendary Chamber of Secrets. Turning back to the basilisk he considered that his family owed Harry Potter more than he had ever realized. Being a dragon handler was considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the magical world. In the space of ten days Harry had proven twice that he had larger stones than any dragon handler alive. With a determined cast to his face Charlie set about gutting the thing that had threatened his baby sister, taking a grim pleasure from the job that he never had before.

Up in Myrtle's toilet Luna reclaimed the death grip on Harry's arm that she had relinquished to fly up the pipe. Justin had left in a hurry once his Head of House had steadied herself; he had a story nobody would believe and everyone wanted to hear. Colin had been out of there even faster clutching his camera like it was his first-born. Harry would be very surprised if the younger boy left his dark room before dinner. Penelope had bid the teachers a shaky goodbye before heading down to Hogsmeade. Professors Flitwick and Sprout had left once the students had, informing Minerva that they would be by in a little bit. Professor McGonagall herself looked like she desperately wanted to join them but turned her attention on the three students in front of her. The girls were obviously distressed but Potter seemed to have things well in hand. Actually they seem to have him in their hands, she snorted to herself.

"Potter, that discussion we had concerning the Yule Ball…" She trailed off, unwilling to tell him to ask one of these girls to the ball in front of them like that. The only person who seemed completely unruffled by the events of the day so far smiled at her.

"It's alright, Professor. I asked Hermione and she agreed to go with me." Minerva allowed a small smile to form on her features at that; she should have known.

"Excellent choice, both of you. I will inform you that the first dance of the ball will be a waltz. After that it will be up to the band that the headmaster convinced to play for us. I don't think I'm breaking any confidences when I tell you that 'formal' isn't what they're known for." A look of consternation crossed Harry's face. "I will be offering dancing lessons starting on Monday after dinner." Relief flooded her student's features.

"Thank you, Professor. I will be sure to attend." With a nod Professor McGonagall left.

"Harry?" Hermione's voice was small and she hadn't loosened her grip at all. "Can we go to the Room and just stay there for a while?"

"Of course. Let's go." He was about to take the two girls out of the loo when something occurred to him and he hissed "₰Stay Open.₰" over his shoulder. He hoped that would keep the handlers from getting trapped.

:-:-:-:-:

Something was poking him in the knee. Harry cracked open an eye to see Dobby standing in front of him. The elf perked up at finally having woken Harry.

"Master Harry, it is being dinnertime and the red-haired wizard is looking for Master Harry." Harry groaned softly trying to understand what he was being told. Red-haired wizard? That was probably Charlie Weasley or if it was Ronald there was going to be a problem.

"Alright, Dobby. I'll head down in a moment. Thank you for waking me." The little elf gave a beaming smile as he popped away. As the cobwebs cleared from Harry's head he noticed that he was sitting on a comfortable couch with two bodies pressed against him. His memory kicked into gear and reminded him that he and the girls had asked the room for a different set-up this time. A large comfortable couch in front of a roaring fire that the trio had collapsed on without letting go of each other. The stress of the day had gotten to the girls and first Hermione then Luna fell asleep on his shoulder. He had been so comfortable that he had joined them in their afternoon nap. The feeling of their rhythmic breathing on his neck told him they hadn't woken up from Dobby's presence. After a quick internal debate that resulted in the conclusion that he wasn't going anywhere pinned as he was, Harry gently shook the girls.

"Come on, you two. Time to wake up. We need to go have dinner." Luna just scrunched her face up in a clear protest of being woken while Hermione snuggled down deeper in an effort to avoid wakefulness and burrowed her face further into Harry's neck sending shots of pleasure racing around his nerves. "Please? We can't just stay here all night."

"Why not?" came Luna's groggy voice. Looking over at her Harry saw her blinking sleepily up at him. "I was really very comfortable, Harry. You rather ruined that."

"Sorry, Luna. Dobby just told me that Charlie is looking for me. If he doesn't find me he'll tell McGonagall and we'll have a mess on our hands that we don't need." Luna grumbled something unintelligible but did get up from the couch and start stretching. Harry turned his attention back to his other shoulder.

"Hermione. You need to wake up. Come on, I know you can do it." A slight mewl was his only response and set his nerves tingling again. "Luna, any ideas?"

"I did hear something once," Luna said straightening up and placing one finger on her chin in a thoughtful pose. "I think if you can't get a girl to wake up you're supposed to kiss her." Harry's face flushed red as he thought about what Hermione might do if he kissed her awake.

"Luna! Something else!" Harry hissed in a strangled whisper. Luna just pouted at him.

"You haven't even tried my first suggestion yet." Harry was still completely red but decided to get Luna of his back by technically following her suggestion. Twisting his head, Harry pressed a kiss to Hermione's temple. He never noticed the sly smirk crossing Luna's face.

"Hmwah?" Crap. Luna's never going to let me live this down. "Hey, Sleepyhead. Time to get up." Hermione was blinking owlishly as she came back to full consciousness.

"Harry?"

"Yeah, it's me. Luna's here too and all three of us need to get down to dinner before someone orders a search party." Hermione sat up and started rubbing her eyes. She looked around the room and suddenly seemed to sharpen to full awareness.

"How long have we been here?" she asked sounding a little worried.

"I'm not sure of the exact amount of time, but I'd guess the entire afternoon." Harry also stood up and noticed that his body was one big knot from the way he had been sleeping. Hermione just nodded and finally the three were ready to go.

When they walked into the Great Hall they saw several heads at the head table snap up to look at them. Charlie was there, looking relieved, and started heading over to them as soon as he saw them. Professors Flitwick, Sprout and McGonagall simply nodded at the students before returning to what looked like a heated argument happening behind a Silencing Charm. Snape and Dumbledore were clearly agitated and letting the other three senior staff members know it.

"Hey, you three. I'm happy to see you. It's getting a little uncomfortable up there. Mind if I join you for dinner and some business?" Taking one look at the argument at the head table would be enough to convince anyone to cut the dragon handler a break.

"No problem, Charlie. What are they arguing about anyway?" A grin slowly started to spread on Charlie's face.

"You didn't hear this from me, but Snape and Dumbledore apparently would really have liked to see the Chamber and the basilisk. Snape was screaming at me about letting amateurs collect valuable potions ingredients. He thinks we should have donated the carcass to Hogwarts and let him take charge of it." Harry couldn't help but grin. Anything that got Snape's humungous beak out of joint was a good thing to the last of the Potters. He may have been sort of helping them during the hunt, but the man was an unmitigated arsehole whose obsession with Lilly Potter creeped her son out enormously.

"I'm not saying that I would have been happy to take Snape along, but I don't think I could have objected if either of them had signed on. " Harry said as the group sat down at the Gryffindor table next to Ginny and the twins. Charlie's mirth was almost a tangible thing now.

"From what I gathered from the screaming Dumbledore was out of the castle because he had to attend a ministry inquiry about why you had to save Hogwarts from a runaway dragon. He's one of the organizers of the tournament and the one ultimately responsible for the safety of the students. His main problem seems be with Rita Skeeter's presence there today. I think he may be in for another inquiry very soon. Snape was on rotation to supervise the castle and be the contact for the prefects and Head Students. He had to stay up here all day and didn't even know anything about us going into the chamber. I think I just told you what his biggest problem with today's outing is." The Weasleys and the trio were already snickering and just one step from outright laughter. "You have to tell me: did you know this when you planned it?"

"Not at all. I just told you the time and date McGonagall gave me." Harry managed before he collapsed in laughter along with the others. The mirth at the Gryffindor table went largely unnoticed by the staff but certainly washed away the last of the tension felt by those who had had their first encounter with the basilisk that morning. Once Harry had regained some control he asked Charlie "Was that the business you wanted to discuss or was there something else?"

"Ah, well, I wanted to tell you we sold the dragon parts like we discussed. We held back several litres of blood for you and enough hide to make four suits. I…Fred and George told me what happened with Ron. I can't tell you how sorry I am. We could still sell the hide that was earmarked for the fourth suit if you like." At Charlie's mention of the youngest Weasley brother all four red-heads frowned briefly and Harry's face twisted into an expression of grief. Hermione and Luna looked angry more than sad.

"No. Let's leave it as is. You never know and we may need that fourth suit or a spare sometime." Harry took a steadying breath. "I suppose you also wanted to talk about the basilisk?" At Charlie's nod, Harry continued. I'd like a good bit of the venom. With all the things that seem to want to kill me around here I can think of several uses for it. Is the hide useful for anything?" Charlie snorted.

"Basilisk hide is absolutely wonderful for covering the walls of a duelling arena. With how much there is I can guarantee you a bidding war between various national duelling federations so they can boast about having an entire room lined with the stuff. It's far too heavy for armour. We had to cut the stone the hide was lying on out of the floor and levitate that to move it. The viscera and heartstrings will be in demand from the same sort of people who bought them from the dragon. The goblins put in an offer on the meat which is probably as good as we can get and I honestly don't know about the fangs but I imagine there are several collectors who would want them, as well as possibly potions researchers." Harry nodded in understanding.

"That's fine. Just keep back some of the venom then. Did you find someone I can talk to about making armour out of the dragon hide?" Charlie handed him a slip of parchment with an address and a name in response. "Thanks. Any more business?" When Charlie answered in the negative Harry declared that they had been serious enough for today. Fred and George heard their cue and started telling their brother about recent happenings at Hogwarts that had them all in stitches, even if the likelihood that the twins were telling the truth was almost non-existent.

After dinner Harry, Hermione and Luna said goodbye to Charlie and headed back up to the Room to do their homework and, in Harry's case, several additional assignments on Runes and Arithmancy. Just before curfew they left to go back to their respective towers, happy they were already on the seventh floor after a long day. In the Gryffindor common room Harry wished Hermione goodnight and started up the stairs to the boys dorms.

On the first landing two shadows separated themselves from the gloom at his approach. He had his wand out and a Stunner on his lips before he recognized two very serious-looking Weasley twins.

"Harry. We don't have the words to thank you after we saw what you saved Ginny from." George started.

"Whatever you need, whenever you need it, it's yours." Fred continued. "We owe you our little sister's life and will repay you with our own if that's what it takes."

"We've got your back, little brother." George finished up for his twin as Harry felt incredibly touched.

"Thanks, guys. That…that means a lot." Harry croaked out past the lump in his throat. The twins nodded and clapped him on the back before heading up and out of sight towards their dormitory.

:-:-:-:-:

When the paper came out the next day Harry was once again the main topic of conversation at Hogwarts. The pictures of the basilisk and the harrowing tale that accompanied them were enough to turn your blood cold on any given day. Coming just a week after Harry's defeat of the Horntail it cemented him as the favourite to win the tournament in the minds of many of the students. Many of the girls who already had autographs from Krum and Cedric came up to Harry begging for his. The reluctant champion himself was confused. These girls had attended school with him for years, surely they knew he didn't give autographs? Hermione mostly saw the funny side and teased her best friend repeatedly with Luna getting in on the act once she realized that, while Harry honestly despised his fame, the worst he would do to friends who teased him about it was huff at or tickle them.

Rita had sent him another copy of the paper with a slightly less snarky note. Harry had as little interest in this one as he had the last and once again gave it to Hermione for her scrapbook when she asked him for it.

Over the course of the next week Harry received multiple offers for dates to the Yule Ball and turned them all down, happily telling the girls that he already had a date. The first time he did this in front of Ron the red-head snapped the quill he had been putting in his bag before storming away. Hermione hadn't mentioned being asked by anyone else yet and Harry hoped that this meant that Krum wouldn't try. He was not at all convinced that she would turn the Bulgarian down after the fantastic night she had had with him last time.

The two friends attended Professor McGonagall's dance instruction religiously and worked hard to make sure they would know what to do at the ball. News that the dance would have formal dress but no mandatory formal dancing, except for the champions, meant that only four people showed up at all: Harry, Hermione, Cedric and Cho. On Friday Hermione had mentioned that the Yule Ball was shaping up to be a wonderful night and she was just sad that there was no way for her parents to see her attend her first dance with her first date. The look Harry got in his eyes was one she was starting to associate with Harry getting ready to turn something on its head. She decided she didn't want to know what he was planning now and that she would find out eventually. Eventually turned out to be that very next day when Professor McGonagall announced that couples would have the opportunity to get their photo taken at the ball by Hogwarts very own in-house photographer: Colin Creevey. Harry's utterly unsurprised look and self-satisfied smirk as well as Colin's teary-eyed look at his hero pointed her exactly in the direction of the culprit.

"You got Colin into the dance to take photo's? You realize he'll be even more enamoured with you now, right? She teased her friend. She was surprised when he just shrugged and his smirk turned into more of a smile.

"It'll be worth it if you get to send your parents a photo of you at your first ball." Hermione couldn't help herself, she threw her arms around the very best friend any girl had ever had with enough force to knock them both off the bench they were sitting on and she was not crying, she wasn't.

"Thank you, Harry." she whispered as she felt his arms come around her shoulders.

"Just when I think you can sink no lower, Scarhead. You seriously asked that disgusting creature to the ball?" Harry looked up from the floor to see that Draco Malfoy had made his way over from the Slytherin table, flanked by his henchmen.

"You know, Draco, insulting Hermione isn't going to get me to suddenly invite you to the ball. I wouldn't be able to stand the smell of all that hair-product anyway." The Malfoy heir had not counted on anything but some blustering about Granger being attractive which he would then use to show that Potter was an idiot with no taste. His surprise at the direction this conversation was taking, was being taken by the rest of the school to mean something else though. It didn't take Draco long to realize what the whispers were about.

"I am not some poofter, Potter!" he screamed. Harry just raised an eyebrow.

"So you came over here with two boys who follow you around everywhere to insult my date who was hugging me because you're not gay?" Students were beginning to laugh as they listened in. "It's okay, Draco. I won't judge you on your sexual orientation. I'll judge you on being bigoted, little ferret and an utterly crap wizard."

"Damn it, Potter, I am not interested in you!" Draco was getting red in the face with rage and embarrassment. The whispers were going to take ages to shut up and he knew it would affect his standing in Slytherin, especially after that incident with the badges.

"Actions speak louder than words, Draco, and everyone at Hogwarts has had three and a half years to watch you approach me over and over again. You want us to believe that you don't care about me? Then stay the hell away from me." Potter's voice had gone cold and threatening and for once Draco took the advice he was given and got out of there at what he hoped was a dignified speed.

After that the gossip mill worked overtime to tell everyone what they claimed to already know: Harry Potter and Hermione Granger were going to be attending the Yule Ball together. Neither Harry or Hermione ever really paid any attention to the rumors that raced around the ancient castle and this one wouldn't have interested them anymore than the others except that it caused Harry's Yule Ball invitations to slow to a trickle as the girls of Hogwarts mostly chose to respect the fact that he was spoken for. There were always going to be a few who thought they were in with a chance, but those persistent few came away disappointed.

:-:-:-:-:

On one of Padfoot's scavenging missions into Hogsmeade he noticed a distinct lack of newspapers in the bins he was rummaging through. Remembering what that had meant the last time he once again slunk towards the newsagents for further reconnaissance. Sure enough there was once again a throng of people clamoring for copies of the Daily Prophet. This had his godson's name written all over it, probably literally too. This time Padfoot snuck up to the large stack of papers Norton was selling from and nicked one just as the old man was busy with one of his customers. This time more than shouts followed him as he fled the scene of the crime and though he managed to dodge the proprietor's hexes and make good his escape, he worried about the next time his godson did something ridiculous enough to make the papers. Harry didn't seem inclined to tell his godfather these sorts of things so he needed those papers, couldn't the old bastard understand that?

Settling down in the cave, he cleaned off his loot once again. Padfoot's reaction contained a lot more invective than last time. Buckbeak looked up, startled at the sudden noise, to see his usually human companion staring white-faced at a piece of parchment. When the human started flipping through the thing and continued making those odd noises Buckbeak settled down and ignored it. Humans were strange creatures on a good day and an intelligent Hippogriff didn't bother with them if it didn't have to.

Sirius on the other hand was starting to seriously consider if howler supplies might not be worth the risk. What the hell was going on at Hogwarts these days? He was going to be having a very serious talk with Harry next time they met. If this was only coming out now, Sirius shuddered to think what else his little godson had seen. He would have to be careful how he approached it though. The boy seemed bound and determined to make the legendary Marauders look like a bunch of average schoolboys and appearing jealous would not help an old prankster in getting the juicy details. He was still deep in thought when an elf wearing dungarees and a beret popped in.

"Is you being Master Harry's dogfather?" The elf asked him looking him up and down suspiciously. Thoroughly taken aback, Sirius could only nod. "Dobby has a letter for you from Master Harry. You be calling Dobby when you be wishing to send a reply. Master Harry said this would be safer than using owls." Well, hot damn. Maybe Sirius would be getting answers from his godson sooner rather than later.

"That's great, Dobby. Can you get me some writing supplies?" The little elf snapped his fingers and a quill and parchment appeared in front of the old marauder. "Excellent! So how did Harry get an elf anyway?" Dobby's face lit up as he launched into what he considered the greatest story ever told about the greatest wizard who ever lived. Sirius thought that tricking Lucius Malfoy out of a house elf was a marvelous prank. By the time Dobby left he had become quite friendly towards the Marauder who clearly held a deep fondness for Master Harry.

It took Sirius quite some time to get started on reading the letter Harry had sent him and even more to actually write the reply, including a request for Harry to have Dobby buy periodicals and food and deliver them to a cave near Hogsmeade, but he had rarely enjoyed a conversation with an elf more.

Chapter Text

Hermione Granger was walking down the Hogwarts corridors barely aware of where she was going. She had just had one of the most surreal experiences of her life and being Harry Potter's best friend she felt she knew something about the strange and surreal. She had been in the library and had just finished helping some third years with their Arithmancy homework when she had been approached by the hulking figure of Viktor Krum. He sent poor little Nancy Williams from Hufflepuff running with a glare before he turned to Hermione.

"You are Hermy-own Gansher, da?" Hermione didn't like the way he was mangling her name any more than the way he was looking at her. She clutched her copy of Numerology and Gramatica to her chest as a shield.

"My name is Hermione Granger. Was there something you needed?" She wished he would just say 'no' and leave or maybe that Harry or Luna would show up so she had some back-up. Krum just nodded as she confirmed he had the right person.

"I use to see you much in Library, but no more. I miss dat." Well, that was…eerie.

"I have been choosing to study elsewhere with my friends, Mister Krum. Now, if you will excuse me." Hermione tried to walk past him but Krum squared up to her and actually took a step towards her forcing her to back up a pace to preserve some distance between them.

"I am Viktor for you, da? I haff come to invite you to de Ball." Hermione was more than a little nervous now. Trying her best not to let him see it she palmed her wand, ready to defend herself if this turned out to be more than a cultural misunderstanding.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Krum. I already have a date for the Ball. I would appreciate it if you would let me go." Hermione tried to make her voice as calm and collected as she could.

"Leaf him. Potter is a boy, let a man take you and show you de pleasures of a night like dis." Something about his voice had changed and to be honest it scared her, but Hermione Granger had been sorted into Gryffindor House for a reason.

"The hell I will! Harry is more of man than you could hope to be and certainly knows more about pleasing women." Okay, so that was stretching the truth to breaking point. She had no idea what Harry might or might not know about the subject but Krum was free to draw any conclusions he wanted. Judging by the frown on his face he might be doing just that. He even turned to the side providing her with a small space to make her escape through. She promptly did just that. As she pushed past the most famous seeker in the world he grabbed her arm in a vice-like grip and leaned forward. She never found out what he was planning as she had whipped her wand up at the first touch she had felt and now had it digging into his carotid artery.

"For the last time: leave. Me. Alone." She twisted her wand into his neck for emphasis and he let her go stepping back and holding his hands up. Hermione kept him covered until she was several steps away and then she turned and ran. She hadn't been paying attention to where she was going, rather just focussing on getting away from the library. When she stopped it had taken her a minute to properly orient herself and start towards Gryffindor Tower. She remembered Harry saying something about spending some time up there and she needed to see her friend. She wasn't sure if she was going tell him what just happened but she was sure she needed to be around someone who wasn't out to intimidate her into a date. Her analytical mind started replaying the scene over and over as she tried to figure out why Krum would act like that and what she could do to prevent being caught in that situation again.

This was how Hermione came to be absent-mindedly walking through Hogwarts, trusting her feet to get her to her destination. When she got to the Fat Lady she gave the password and tried to shake herself from her reverie. Stepping into the common room she looked around for Harry and quickly found him sitting across from Colin Creevey in deep conversation with the younger boy. Hermione felt her body physically relaxing at the sight of Harry listening with a small smile to a boy whose enthusiasm was a source of intense frustration to her best friend. She walked over to them.

"Is this a boys-only talk or can I join you?" Harry looked up at her with a smile and shifted over slightly on the two-seater to make some space for her.

"Colin's been explaining how to brew a Photo-Developing Potion. I agreed to help him develop the photos he takes during the Ball since it's my suggestion that's causing him to give up his Christmas to work." Hermione thought Harry was severely underestimating what this chance meant to Colin. The poor boy looked like he might have an accident any time now, he was so excited. "You should stick around. Colin is much better at explaining potions than Snape ever was or will be." Hermione nodded her agreement; this potion wouldn't be covered in the Hogwarts curriculum and she thought Colin might be an expert at brewing it by now. She quickly started rooting around in her bag for a quill and parchment.

"I'm sorry, Colin, but would you mind starting over so Hermione can hear everything you were saying?" She heard Colin start stammering out his agreement and when she looked up she saw him nodding frantically.

"Ok, I'm ready. What were you telling Harry, Colin?" Harry and Hermione spent an enjoyable hour listening to Colin talk about his passion for photography and the potions involved in that passion. Hermione had covered several feet of parchment when Colin's friends hesitantly approached him about a game of Gobshites. The third year looked torn.

"Go ahead, Colin. I think we reached a good place to stop. We can continue this next time, okay?" Colin perked up at hearing there would be a next time and excused himself before moving over with his friends who, in Hermione's opinion, were all clearly impressed that he had just spent an hour talking with someone who could kill dragons with a sword. Hermione realized that she had forgotten all about Krum during the surprise lesson when she started comparing the interaction between the two champions and younger students. When she compared Harry's kindness to a person she knew annoyed him on a regular basis to Krum's treatment of someone he didn't even know it showed a glaring difference in their characters. She was happy that Harry had asked her to the ball and she felt that Krum would never be able to match up to her best friend. Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face though as Harry asked her, "Is everything alright?" She nodded at him.

"Everything's fine, Harry." The look she got in response could only be described as disbelieving. Harry just kept that look aimed at her, silently making it clear that he wasn't letting this go. With a sigh Hermione gave in. "Viktor Krum just asked me to the Yule Ball." She couldn't believe the effect this statement had on him. His face crumpled and his shoulders slumped.

"Oh. Well, um, I can probably find someone else or, um…" Harry trailed off looking very uncomfortable with the topic.

"Harry, I turned him down." she said taking his hand in hers. She was amazed and a little proud of the way life seemed to flow back into him at her simple confirmation that she wouldn't drop him for a famous sports star. "Did you really think I wouldn't?"

"Well, he's really famous and he's older and a real school champion." Harry answered in a sheepish tone. She rolled her eyes at him.

"You're at least as famous, my age and in the lead for the Tri-Wizard tournament. I don't think you have anything to worry about on those points." She gave him an impish grin. "Besides, if you don't feel like you're a school champion, you can just be my champion." He barked out a laugh.

"Hermione's Champion. I like the sound of that." He slid off the couch and onto one knee. "Your Champion will face any challenge, fight any battle for your honour, My Lady!" She swatted at his shoulder as she laughed.

"You are an absolutely incorrigible goofball, my Champion." The two didn't even notice their antics were being observed by the rest of the common room with smiles. "If you are to fight for my honour, you should endeavour to find out what it is you face. Have you solved the egg yet?" The way his face hardened told her he had and wasn't happy with what he had discovered. She had no way of knowing that Harry had simply asked the Room for a bath and lobbed the egg in to check that the message was what he remembered. He re-joined her on the couch and in a low voice told her the clue he had heard when he had listened to the egg underwater. She was immediately analysing what the clue was telling them.

"The first two lines seem to imply that you will have to go into the Black Lake. I do wonder what they'll take. The last half of the poem seems to imply a time limit. I'm a little worried that the task is likely to leave you under water for an hour." Harry was frowning at her.

"The second half of the poem is not what I'm worried about. Considering the tournament's organization so far I'm a lot more concerned about the third and fourth line." Hermione looked at him in surprise.

"What do you think they'll take that has you so worried?" Harry's face darkened even more and she could see his anger at the organizers clearly in his eyes.

"I don't think it will be a 'what' at all. I think it will be a 'who'." Hermione was shocked into silence for a very short moment before she rushed to reassure her friend.

"Harry, they wouldn't just involve people in a dangerous task. I mean people who haven't volunteered. Would they?" Harry's look clearly said that he had no such faith in the organizers and Hermione suddenly remembered that her friend hadn't volunteered for the tournament he was in either. "Well we'll just have to prepare for that as a worst case scenario. It's still the breathing underwater that worries me. I mean I know that we're supposed to learn the Bubble-Head Charm in sixth year. Do you think you'll be able to learn it with the help of…" Hermione was suddenly very aware that they were still in public, "well, with the help of the you-know-what." Harry was giving her a grim smile.

"I probably could, but I will be leaving the charm as a backup. I intend to take the view that everything we are taught here is magic, including Herbology." A plant? Harry was going to use a plant? "Gillyweed, Hermione. It'll give me gills and webbed hands and feet allowing me to swim faster. I also intend to keep a tracking charm on you as we get closer to the task so I can find you quickly." Well she couldn't fault that for planning but she desperately wanted to lighten the mood a bit.

"I am what you would sorely miss, Harry?" she asked him with a sly smile. Harry though responded far more seriously than she had expected.

"You are the one thing in my life I would miss the most." That has to be one of the sweetest things anyone has ever said to me. Hermione didn't have the words to respond so she just leaned in to Harry, laying her head on his shoulder and sighing happily. It wasn't the mood she had been aiming for exactly but she would definitely take it, especially when Harry summoned a book out of his bag and opened it to reveal a Herbology text detailing the effects of Gillyweed. Hermione didn't notice that she pressed herself even closer to Harry to more easily read the book he had open on his lap while he explained the series of experiments he had planned to determine the duration of the effects so he would know how much of the magical plant to take. Hermione was soon completely absorbed by the academic challenge being presented and didn't have a shred of a thought to spare for Viktor Krum.

:-:-:-:-:

Hogwarts Castle was unusually busy this Christmas. Harry knew from personal experience that in a normal year barely half a dozen students would stay in the castle for this holiday. With the approaching Yule Ball though, the hallowed halls of learning became decidedly festive. Harry thought the professors might just be pulling their hair out with so many children running around with no classes or homework to occupy their time. Since Luna had left for home, Harry and Hermione were spending most of their time in the Room of Requirement only coming out to join the general populace for dinner. They were also taking extra care to not be followed. 'Idle hands are the Devil's playthings' Aunt Petunia was fond of saying whenever she gave Harry more chores and there were a couple hundred idle pairs hanging around with nothing better to do than follow their favourite champion around. Thankfully, none of the other champions knew the castle near as well as Harry.

With Hermione more or less permanently available to help Harry focused on his studies into Ancient Runes and Arithmancy with her help, rather than expanding his repertoire of spells. He still wasn't sure how to explain that he could probably take his N.E.W.T.s in the wand based subjects without coming off as a dangerous madman. His newfound studious nature in no way deterred him from dragging Hermione out to play in the snow one morning when the two teenagers joined their classmates in a massive snowball war.

Christmas Day dawned bright and early for Harry with the excited cries of his dorm-mates. It still amazed him how Weasley could sleep the day away every day, but somehow be up at six on Christmas morning. He looked to the foot of the bed and smiled to see a pile of presents. It still moved Harry to know that there were people who wanted to send him presents every year for Christmas and his birthday. He had received Mrs. Weasley's usual care package despite his row with her youngest son which meant a lot to him. Sirius had sent him the penknife again and Hagrid a massive box of sweets. Ron hadn't sent him anything this year which was fine by Harry as he hadn't sent the red-head anything either. The tissue from the Dursleys made him happy he had sent them a recipe for a Bowel Cleaning Potion.

The gift from Charlie and the Twins of a dragon-hide wand holster that released his wand with a flick of his hand was new, he was very sure of that, just like his year-long subscription to the Quibbler from Luna. He was also pretty sure that Hermione's gift of the three part series Challenges in Curse Breaking hadn't been included last time around but it was highly appreciated nonetheless. He hoped she liked the blue shawl he had included in addition to a book called Applied Advanced Arithmancy. He knew the colour was close to the dress she had worn last time through and the saleswitch at Gladrags had gone on and on about the material so he had bought it on a whim. Come to that he hoped Hermione's parents liked the gift he had helped Hermione find for them: a set of picture frames that hid their contents from anyone who was not aware of the magical world. His gift to Luna of the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft left him snickering even now as he imagined articles on Shoggoths, Mi-Go and Night-Gaunts filling the pages of the Quibbler. Finally he noticed a small lumpy package was the only one left. When he opened it he grinned to see two pairs of socks. It looked like Dobby had drawn Winky into his gift idea and they had each made him a pair. He hoped the two elves enjoyed the sewing supplies, as well as the cookies and fruit cake he had made for them himself.

He got out of bed feeling like the day was off to a brilliant start. When he got down to the common room, he saw Hermione sitting there with his Christmas gift around her neck. Her smile when she saw him lifted his spirits even further. The two friends shared a long hug before going down to breakfast. Harry and Hermione spent the day in the common room enjoying the Christmas atmosphere with their housemates. At four thirty Hermione told Harry she was heading up to get ready along with the other girls. Harry just smiled and told her to have fun, thinking privately that being stuck in a room with only Lavender and Parvati for company sounded like nothing he would ever volunteer for. He could hear several of the fourth and fifth years complaining about the girls needing three hours to get ready. As he thought about what he knew the results would be Harry was a little concerned that he was cheating by already knowing that Hermione would be the undisputed belle of the ball. Ah well, not like he could or would change that. Harry went up to the dorm to grab the first volume of the set Hermione had given him and settled in to read. Two hours later he said a quiet thanks to Neville who nudged him out of his concentration to go and get himself ready. It didn't take him long at all to shower and get into his robes. He debated using a shaving charm and decided he might as well go the full mile and get rid of the peach-fuzz that was all he had for beard growth at this age. He was happy he had some experience with the charm as he avoided the nicks and cuts that his dorm-mates gave themselves copying him. He borrowed some hair gel from Dean and tried to get his unruly hair to look like it was purposely tousled, having given up on 'flat' years ago. He didn't waste any time commiserating with Weasley about his frilly robes this time, though Seamus looked to have that well in hand. Deciding he looked good, or rather as good as it was going to get Harry headed back down to the common room.

As he waited for Hermione, Harry felt himself get unaccountably nervous. He had gone through this before and hadn't been half as confident or prepared. As a matter of fact he couldn't remember being this nervous last time. He had no reason for his hands to get this clammy now or for his heart rate to pick up like he was faced with a dozen Death Eaters. Last time you weren't going with Hermione Harry's conscience made itself known. He sighed; wasn't that just a true thought. He tried doing some Occlumency exercises to calm himself. If he was nervous about making a complete arse of himself tonight, he was setting himself up with a self-fulfilling prophecy and he'd be damned if he allowed any more prophecies of any kind near his life. His dorm-mates left one by one with their dates. Seamus and Parvati. Dean and Lavender. Neville and Ginny. Where was she? Wasn't she getting ready with-

Harry's thoughts ground to a halt as Hermione glided down the stairs to the girl's dormitory. She looks better than the last time. She was once again dressed in a floaty, periwinkle set of robes. She once again had her hair in a sleek shiny braid. She once again walked with the kind of grace that is difficult to manage while carrying a mountain of books. Maybe it's the smile Harry thought to himself. Last time it had been nervous; this time she was simply beaming. Realizing he had been standing there staring at his date like an idiot, Harry moved forward in a daze. Taking Hermione's hand he brought her knuckles up to his lips and bowed his head over her hand for a chaste kiss.

"My Lady." he murmured. Her smile grew brighter and her eyes sparkled at him.

"My Champion." she answered him. Harry blinked as he wasn't sure he had been joking. Shaking it off he placed her hand in the crook of his elbow.

"Shall we?" he asked. She nodded, her smile never dimming and together the two left the common room and Harry at least would have been unable to say who, if anyone, had been present as they did. As they walked towards the Great Hall Harry almost felt like he was floating. He chanced a look at Hermione only to see her eyes snap away and a light shade of pink touch her cheeks.

"You look absolutely stunning." Harry told her. Hermione smiled and looked back at him.

"It's because my hair isn't a nightmarish mess and my teeth have been shrunken down to human proportions." she told him. Harry frowned.

"No, it's more than that. Personally I think it's the way you're smiling and how it makes your eyes look." he informed her. The light pink darkened into red. "The blushing's pretty cute too though." He grinned at her. Hermione's jaw dropped at that before she smacked him in the shoulder.

"Harry!" She didn't look at all put out with the comment though and Harry shrugged unrepentantly. The atmosphere between them lightened at his teasing and they managed to enjoy the walk and each other's company. The might have just breezed into the hall like they usually did if it hadn't been for Professor McGonagall's voice calling out to them.

"Mr. Potter! Ms. Granger! Over here, please." The two teens made their way over to their Head of House who examined them critically before nodding her head and gracing them with a rare smile. "You two look excellent; Pride of the Lions indeed." The professor looked a little surprised that she had just quoted the Weasley twins and looked around quickly to make sure that there were no witnesses. "If you will follow me, the champions and their partners are gathering in a waiting room." Harry and Hermione followed her obediently and discovered that the other three champions were already present. Cedric and Cho they had been aware of from McGonagall's dance classes. Fleur had once again brought Roger Davies who seemed to already be drooling. Harry knew snickering would be terribly impolite, but by the ancients, it was hard to control himself. Krum had found a date among the Beauxbatons contingent whom he was currently ignoring in favour of leering at Hermione. Harry felt his date cringe and noticed that she seemed to be trying to hide behind him. Clearly Krum had not just asked her to the Ball. Harry turned slightly, drawing Hermione with him so that he was squarely in between her and the Bulgarian. He spared the seeker a quick glare before ignoring him and instead focusing on Hermione. The brunette was looking up at her date with a look of gratitude but he could also see apprehension, which he rightly attributed the conversation he intended to have about what really happened between her and Krum, and an apology for dropping him into this situation which he considered entirely unnecessary. Before tensions could escalate, Professor McGonagall had returned.

"Your attention, please. We are about to send you in to the Great Hall. After the overwhelmingly positive response to the presence of a photographer we have allowed another student initiative and you will all be announced formally. You will therefore enter in ascending order based on your current standing in the points. Mr. Diggory, you will be first, followed by Ms. Delacour, Mr. Krum and Mr. Potter. Remember to enjoy yourselves and do your schools proud." It only took a moment to get in the order Professor McGonagall had specified and they left the room. As they approached, the doors swung open and the noise of the Great Hall washed over them along with Lee Jordan's magnified voice.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I give to you the Champions of the Revived Tri-Wizard Tournament. Presenting Mr. Cedric Diggory of Hufflepuff House, accompanied by Ms. Cho Chang of Ravenclaw House." Cedric and Cho walked in with their heads held high to thunderous applause. Professor McGonagall stopped Fleur and Roger from following them in. The reason became clear a moment later when Lee's voice rang out again.

"Presenting Ms. Fleur Delacour of Beauxbatons Acadamy, accompanied by Mr. Roger Davies of Ravenclaw House." As the next pair moved into the hall to cheers that sounded like they were mostly from the male half of the attendees, Harry felt a stab of worry in his gut. Lee was the twins' best friend and Harry had heard his Quidditch commentary for three years. Somehow he had a feeling that this 'student initiative' was a prank. A prank aimed at him.

"Presenting Mr. Viktor Krum of Drumstrang Institute, accompanied by Ms. Celine Beaumont of Beauxbatons Academy." Harry felt Hermione's hand gripping his forearm so tightly she was threatening to cut of his circulation. He brought his other hand up and pried her hand off before bringing it up to his lips for another kiss. He tried to reassure her with his gaze and judging by her nod he had succeeded. He replaced her hand on his arm right as Lee called out the last introduction.

"Presenting the Knight of the Light, the Pride of the Lions, the Lord of Gryffindor House, Harry James Potter, accompanied by his Lady, Hermione Jane Granger!" Harry gusted out a sigh; he knew it. Squaring his shoulders he and Hermione strode into the Hall desperately trying to pretend they had received the same introduction as everyone else. He also felt slightly sorry for Lee as he caught a glimpse of the unbridled outrage on McGonagall's face. Their housemate was likely going to be in detention for the rest of the year for that stunt. Unorthodox though their introduction might have been, the reception by the rest of the Hall was as loud and enthusiastic as any of the other champions. As Harry and Hermione made their way to the Head Table where the champions, their partners and the judges would be eating , two of the faces Harry saw jumped out at him. Weasley looked sick with jealousy, and that expression was strangely mirrored on Malfoy's face. Several others simply looked stunned. When they got to the table Harry held out a chair for Hermione graciously offering her the one closer to Fleur and Roger rather than the one next to Percy Weasley. From what he remembered of the evening that should give her a chance to join an interesting conversation rather than having to listen to an endless barrage of bragging. Once he had taken his own seat he greeted the third Weasley brother who gave him a coldly polite greeting in return. Harry wasn't sure what he had done to offend the older boy but he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. When Dumbledore demonstrated the way the menus worked Harry gently squeezed Hermione's knee and she nodded in understanding. The extra work for the house elves annoyed her but she wouldn't blast that ire over the champions table; yet. Hermione ordered the bass and Harry the tenderloin. The couple each tasted the other's choice and came away satisfied with their own.

Dinner passed in a rush of pleasant conversation and Hermione even managed to present her views on the MSPCE to an impressed Madame Maxime and Fleur Delacour. Harry was drawn into the conversation mostly so he could avoid Percy's constant sniffs of disapproval at the idea of a group devoted to helping house elves. When dinner was done Dumbledore announced the opening of the dancefloor and the four champions and their dates left the table for the opening dance. Harry and Hermione smiled as their arms went around each other as they had every night for the past two weeks during Professor McGonagall's dance classes. When the music started the two fell into a pattern of movement that had become so familiar that they no longer had to pay attention to where they were placing their feet. Instead they were talking in voices just loud enough to cover the limited distance between them.

"I'm happy I'm here with you. Thank you for agreeing to this circus. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have by my side." Harry said. Hermione smiled up at him.

"I have to protect my champion, don't I? Besides I'm having a wonderful time too. I can't think of anyone else I would want to be here with either." she replied. He gave her look.

"That feels like a lead-in to ask you what happened between you and Krum." Harry said. Hermione's face fell slightly but she managed to keep her smile in place.

"Not here and not tonight. I don't want anything to ruin our first dance." Harry was well aware that Hermione probably meant that this was the first ball either of them attended but he couldn't help but imagine future dances with Hermione in his arms. He sighed and leaned forward to press a kiss to her forehead.

"Fine, I'll drop it for tonight." He couldn't see Hermione's smile as she dropped her head to rest on his shoulder as the two moved together and abandoned the formal waltz in favour of just holding each other and swaying to the music. They continued like this until a voice and a tap on the shoulder interrupted them.

"Is five songs not enough for the two of you? I thought we had agreed to share at least one dance?" Harry and Hermione looked up to find a grinning Cedric and Cho. Five songs? We barely danced at all. Both Harry and Hermione were shocked but recovered quickly as they had indeed agreed to share a dance with Cedric and Cho as a show of unity that the Hogwarts Champions held no ill will for each other.

"Be honest, Cedric. You just want to be able to say you danced with the most beautiful girl at the Ball." Harry chided him playfully, getting a bark of laughter from the older boy.

"Hands where I can see them, Potter." Cedric returned, to which Harry took Cho's hands and held them out as wide as he could, pressing their bodies together.

"I'm sorry, Cho, but your boyfriend insisted." He said with mock sincerity and wide-eyed innocence as the girls chuckled and Cedric swatted him in the back of the head and called him a brat. Harry let go of one of Cho's hands and stepped away from her as he bowed.

"May I have this dance, miss?" Harry asked as Cedric copied his actions with Hermione. Cho's eyes still sparkled with mirth as she answered.

"Of course, my Lord Gryffindor." Harry just groaned at her before leading her onto the dancefloor. This time Harry and Hermione had no trouble limiting themselves to one dance before finding the others and returning to their partners for the night. They spent some time talking with Cedric and Cho and neither of them noticed that their hands had intertwined between them. Another slow song came on and Cho dragged Cedric back onto the floor as they said their goodbyes to the younger couple. Harry and Hermione shared a look and a smile and moved back out onto the floor as well. After they had danced for a few songs Harry suggested a break and led Hermione over to the corner of the Hall where Colin had set up his equipment. The couple joined the queue and took the chance to catch their breath and slow their heart rates as they waited their turn. When they took their positions in front of the camera Colin's head shot off of the viewfinder.

"Harry! Hermione! Isn't this the greatest night ever?!" he didn't wait for them to answer. "Okay, just hold each other. I'll be taking several pictures so feel free to change your pose around." The young Gryffindor barely waited for the couple to slip their arms around each other before he started taking pictures. After two solid minutes Harry was ready to start asking how long this was going to take. As he opened his mouth to do just that he saw someone walking by and inspiration struck.

"Professor McGonagall! Will you join us for a picture?" Harry called out to the passing professor. She looked surprised and so did Hermione and Colin. Harry just smiled winningly at his Transfiguration teacher.

"Very well, Mr. Potter." she said after a moment's contemplation and joined the two fourth years in front of the camera. She would never admit it but the idea of photo with two of her favourite students rather appealed to her. Colin had gotten nervous at the idea of taking a picture of his Head of House and had to visibly gather himself before he said "Same procedure as last time, everyone. I'll take several shots so you can adjust your poses if you wish. Harry made sure he was standing next to McGonagall while Hermione took up position on the other side of their professor. The first two shots Harry tried to look dignified and impressive. At the third flash of Colins camera he tensed. Right before the fourth flash he launched himself at professor McGonagall and swept her up in a giant hug just as the camera flash went off. There was no fifth photo as Colin had nearly dropped his camera in shock and was staring open-mouthed at the scene in front of him. Minerva McGonagall was blushing like a schoolgirl at the unexpected physical affection from one of the most reserved students in the school and was scrambling to gather her scattered composure in the face of an impish grin that was giving her flashbacks to the seventies. Harry quickly grabbed Hermione's hand and pulled her away from the still recovering Deputy Headmistress.

"That's for framing that ridiculous paper, ma'am! Enjoy your evening!" He called out cheekily as he pulled his date back out onto the dancefloor.

It took Hermione a few minutes to recover from the audacity of her best friend. When she did she smacked him in the chest and half-heartedly berated him for his prank, to Harry's great amusement. They danced until they noticed they were thirsty. On the way over to the drinks table they ran into Neville and Ginny. Harry offered that he and Neville would get drinks while the girls took the time to catch up. He should have remembered what happened last time Hermione's date left her to get drinks. Harry and Neville returned to see Weasley standing in front of their dates screaming his head off and looking like he had been there for a while.

"You just had to whore yourself out to Potter, didn't you?! If you looked like this every day I might have asked you, but no, you only put in the effort for the rich and famous! Or are you going to deny that you just dropped me as soon as Potter was chosen as a champion?!" His ire then turned to his sister. "And you. Get back up to the dormitory! You are far too young to be dressing like that and I won't have people saying my sister's some sort of scarlet woman!" Harry was furious and rushed over to the confrontation, fully intent on escalating it, only to find that Hermione had things well in hand. The smack of that hand landing full force on Weasley's cheek was heard around the Hall and gave Harry a great deal of satisfaction.

"I stopped being your friend, Ronald Weasley, because you proved beyond a doubt that you are a terrible friend and a terrible human being. It is not my fault that the rest of the girls at Hogwarts realized that as well." Well that answered the question of what Weasley had been on about before they came within hearing distance. Harry reached them as Weasley was raising his hand. Harry had no intention of finding out what his former friend was planning to do. He was pre-empted by Professor McGonagall though.

"Mr. Weasley! What do you think you are doing? Did I not specifically say that you were to behave yourselves tonight." At Weasley's mutinous look she came to a decision. "Your Yule Ball has just ended, Mr. Weasley. Return to Gryffindor Tower. Now!" The last command was added when the redhead hesitated. Finally he turned around and stormed out of the Hall. Harry breathed out a sigh as he felt the tension leaving his body. He noticed that he was still holding the drinks he had gotten for himself and Hermione. He handed one to his date and immediately slipped his free arm around her in a comforting hug.

"Come on. Let's take a walk." He murmured in her ear as he started guiding her out of the Great Hall and into the garden that had been set up. Hermione simply nodded and drank her punch with trembling hands. Harry deposited her empty glass and his untouched one on a table just before they passed through the doors. They didn't speak as they walked around the garden but Harry could feel the tension gradually bleed out of Hermione's shoulders. When she leaned her head against his shoulder Harry knew she had calmed down again. The kiss on his cheek was certainly more than he was expecting and made him feel like he had truly done something worthwhile tonight . He smiled down at Hermione and said, "Would you like to go back in? I for one wouldn't object to a few more dances with you." Her bright smile was all the answer he needed and they headed back in. They didn't leave the dancefloor again until the professors started sending everyone up to bed.

The walk up to Gryffindor Tower passed in comfortable silence. When Harry and Hermione entered the common room they were relieved to find it empty despite the fact that several sixth and seventh year couples had been dismissed at the same time. They walked up to the staircases leading to their dorms still holding on to each other. Neither of them really wanted the night to end. Eventually it was Hermione who broke the silence.

"Thank you, Harry, for an absolutely wonderful night." Before he had a chance to respond she stood on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his cheek, right at the corner of his mouth and ran up the stairs after a hurried "Goodnight."

Harry didn't know how long he spent standing there looking up at where she had disappeared. One hand drifted up and touched the corner of his mouth where he could still feel the press of her lips despite the smile that threatened to split his face. Maybe Ephialtes had a point was his last thought before he headed up to his own dorm.

Chapter Text

After the Yule Ball Harry and Hermione became more affectionate with each other than they had been. Hugs were exchanged and even the occasional lingering kiss on the cheek as the two grew closer together. The experience of the Yule Ball cemented in Harry's mind that even if the whole concept of soulmates turned out to be nonsense he could see himself in a serious relationship with Hermione. He could not remember being happier than he was right now. Even his two week relationship with Ginny paled in comparison and he and Hermione were not even dating yet.

The day after the Yule Ball both Cedric and Fleur tried to talk to Harry about the golden egg. Harry reassured them that he was well aware of the clue and shared his own suspicions about people close to them being taken as hostages, much to the other two champions dismay. Harry and Hermione also had a discussion about what happened in the library with Viktor Krum. Harry did not take it well and was all set to rush out and find the Drumstrang Champion.

"Harry, please cursing him isn't going to solve anything." Hermione pleaded with him.

"Who said anything about cursing him? I'm going to beat his face in with my bare fists; much more satisfying." Harry growled in response. Rather than try to explain to an enraged Harry that Krum was far bigger and stronger and that a physical confrontation had no chance of ending well for the younger seeker Hermione pushed Harry onto the couch they had been having a discussion on and, in a small voice said "Will you just hold me?" She had to hide her smirk when Harry's arms came around her and all attempts at leaving to find Krum ceased. She was sure she could talk some sense into him once he was calm again, but in the meantime she certainly wasn't averse to being held like this.

The remainder of the winter holidays were spent experimenting with Gillyweed to determine the duration of its effects by weight. They would then measure out doses that would allow Harry's transformation to end reasonably quickly after he finished the task rather than having to spend a full hour in a freezing lake in Febrauary. Harry himself also studied up on various tracking charms and made time to help Colin develop the pictures he had taken which numbered in the thousands. The boys ended up being very grateful to Hermione for her occasional help in sorting the pictures. After one session they decided that Harry would brew the development potion continuously while Colin developed the pictures. It took them until the new year to get everything developed and delivered to the people on the pictures. Several shots of the champions entering the Hall and of the mass of students on the dancefloor after the ball had been opened had been delivered to the staff to be used as promotional material should there be a request for that from the media. Hermione sent copies of her photos and a letter detailing the entire event off to her parents with Hedwig and was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Rita had apparently still crashed the party in her beetle form and the story on Hagrid was published. Harry and Hermione responded by rallying students, mainly from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff and leading them down to Hagrid's hut to demand that he stay on as their teacher. The half-giant was overwhelmed by the support and promised his students he would be back at the start of the new term.

The start of term may have meant that classes resumed but to Harry and Hermione it also meant that their friend was returning to the castle. At the feast to welcome back the students who had returned home Luna came sprinting through the doors as one of the first off the train and grabbed her friends in a tight hug.

"You two look wonderful. The Fluttering Cheripods seem to really like you a lot more now." Harry grinned at his Ravenclaw friend as she nattered on at them about her holidays with her father and asked them a hundred questions about their own time spent in the castle without pausing for breath or answers. Answers Hermione was only too happy to give once Luna finally ran out of breath.

When classes resumed the next day so did the trio's schedule. Free time was largely spent in the Room, though both Harry and Luna insisted on attending Hermione's tutoring sessions in the Library much to Krum's obvious consternation. As the second task drew closer Harry made sure to tell the girls how he had learned the Bubble-Head Charm and non-verbal casting as a backup measure; both demanded more private tuition. Harry promised them that as soon as they managed a corporeal Patronus they would move on. As it was, both girls had managed a formless shield but not an actual guardian yet. The result of his admonishment was that Harry spent the next hour giving another lesson on the charm. Hermione's Patronus actually managed an indistinct form earning her congratulations from her friends. Harry's studies into Runes and Arithmancy were roaring along and Luna was joining him in learning as much as they could. Hermione felt they would catch up to where the fourth year classes were by Easter. She also thought that if Harry absorbed these two subjects this quickly he would make a spectacular curse breaker or enchanter one day. He clearly had no interest in spell-crafting, his lessons taught her that much. Use what you know. Drill a few spells into your bones that you can rely on rather than learning a thousand spells in passing. He had told them that several times when he helped tutor them in Defence.

During his private sessions in the Room Harry worked on combat training and the new spells he had found in the Room's books. He hadn't managed the Heaven's Shield Charm again after the first task and was working hard to master it in conditions where adrenaline wasn't screaming through his body. To relieve some of the monotony of working and failing at one charm Harry was also practicing some basic healing although he couldn't honestly say that he could heal more than bruises and scrapes after a month of practice. On several particularly ambitious days he had also started in on Gaia's Embrace meeting with no more success than he had with the Heaven's Shield Charm at first.

On the 13th of February all training was suspended as Harry and Hermione chose to celebrate Luna's birthday with her. The gifts and attention she received that day would leave Luna smiling for a week. Several days later Harry received three packages at breakfast. He later shared them with the girls who tried to refuse the gifts they were being given. Harry would have none of it and eventually managed to out-stubborn his friends.

On the evening of the 23rd of February Harry and the girls felt that he was a ready as he could be for the task the next day. He had a plan and a backup plan and was fully capable of using the magic required for both. They all agreed that further practice would only unnerve him and had retired to their common rooms at Luna's suggestion. Harry and Hermione sat leaning against each other on a two-seater in front of the fire. The other Gryffindors where being oddly quiet out of respect for their champion and the task he would face the next day. Harry and Hermione were companionably silent as they were each lost in their own thoughts of what the next day would bring. A cough brought both of them back to full awareness. The twins were standing in front of them looking slightly nervous.

"Hermione, McGonagall wants to see you in her office as soon as possible." Hermione and Harry exchanged looks. Harry looked distinctly worried while Hermione just looked resigned.

"I'll be alright, Harry." Hermione said softly. Harry just looked at her a moment longer before he lowered his head with a shuddering sigh.

"Go get changed then." He said and she gave him a wan smile before heading up to the girl's dormitories. Harry's gaze returned to the fire a good deal more brooding than it had been.

"Harry, do you know what's going on?" George sounded unusually worried. Harry lifted his eyes to the twins and nodded. When he didn't volunteer the information Fred asked "Well, why does McGonagall want Hermione then?"

"To stick her to the bottom of the Black Lake as the hostage I must rescue tomorrow." Came the morose answer that left both of the pranksters gaping. "We've got a plan but I'm not happy about the whole thing. Hermione refuses to let someone else take the risk though." Both twins just stared at Harry. When their Head of House had asked them to fetch Hermione they hadn't suspected this. They didn't know how on earth they were supposed to reassure their honorary little brother. None of them knew how long the uncomfortable silence lasted before Hermione came back down the stairs. To the rest of the occupants of the tower she didn't look as if she had changed at all. As soon as she set foot in the common room Harry was at her side casting as many tracking spells as he knew on any surface that wasn't covered. The rest of the house looked on in fascination but didn't interrupt. When Harry was done he grabbed Hermione in a tight hug.

"I will have you out of there as fast as possible, my Lady." He whispered into her neck. She squeezed him a little tighter before loosening her hold to lean back and look him in the eye.

"Promise me you will be careful, my Champion." she demanded softly. The teasing nicknames they had been using failed to produce a smile on either teen as they felt deadly serious all of a sudden.

"I promise." Harry's response was more of a croak than anything else but he had given his word. As the two friends drew apart Hermione leaned back in for a brief moment and very gently brushed her lips across Harry's before turning on her heel and marching determinedly towards the door flanked by the Weasley twins who were giving Harry apologetic looks. The thud of the portrait hole closing brought about a change in Harry that the whole room could see. The wizard who had slain a dragon in single combat shone through clearly as he whirled around and stalked up the stairs to his dorm. Once the Gryffindors were fairly sure he was out of earshot the speculation and rumors started. Most agreed that Hermione would somehow be involved in the second task and that Harry was not happy about it. Those who held this theory unanimously agreed that they would not want to be the obstacle that faced Harry Potter's wrath on his way to Hermione Granger's side.

Upstairs Harry was oblivious to all this as he called for Dobby and asked for a vial of Dreamless Sleep Potion. He would need his strength tomorrow and knew he wasn't getting to sleep by himself.

:-:-:-:-:

The morning of the 24th was as chilly as one might expect a mid-February morning in Scotland to be. Harry was up with the sun and getting dressed. He first pulled out the contents of the mysterious packages that had been delivered earlier in the week: Dragon-hide armour lined with Acromantula silk. His girls each had a suit and Hermione was wearing hers now, under the Black Lake. Harry couldn't stop his hands from forming fists as that thought crossed his mind. Shaking himself he dressed in his armour before pulling on a set of robes. He made sure he had his wand strapped to his wrist in its holster and that he had his carefully portioned Gillyweed in a pouch at his waist. The small balls of the magical plant should give him gills for ten minutes at a time and he had enough for an hour and a half. After double checking that he had everything Harry made his way down to the Great Hall for breakfast.

When he got there very few people were awake yet. Those that were already down left him to his own devices much as his House had the night before. He noticed Cedric and Fleur walking in. Both looked pale and their expressions were strained. Viktor Krum by contrast was almost jovial, especially considering his usual expression, wearing a confident smirk that Harry felt was wholly inappropriate to the situation. The Hall slowly filled and the noise level increased as the supporters of the various champions yelled insults and taunts at each other. The twins were running their usual book, but in much more subdued fashion.

At nine o'clock the champions were asked to head to their tent and prepare themselves. When they got there the tent was divided into four separate sections and they were each ushered into one. Harry realized that this was done to give them a chance to change into their swimming gear and took off his shoes so that he wouldn't have to waste time doing that at the lakeshore.

Once again the sound of many footsteps thundered past the tent as the spectators made their way to the stands. Harry was starting to get restless when he heard professor McGonagall's voice calling out to him.

"Mr. Potter? It's time." Harry stood and squared his shoulders. He was determined that Hermione would not spend a minute longer underwater than absolutely necessary. As he strode from the tent he gave McGonagall a jerky nod without really seeing her. The champions gathered on the shore as Bagman started talking up the event to the spectators in the stands behind them. Harry didn't listen, he was too focused on what he had to do. When a whistle sounded he jumped forward with the other champions, tearing off his robes as he went. Harry never noticed the reaction his skintight armour caused in the stands any more than he noticed Fleur Delacour in a silver one piece. He cast an Imperturbable Charm on his watch and grabbed one of the balls of Gillyweed and charged forward into the frigid water. After swallowing the slimy mess he took a deep breath and dove in, completely submerging himself. The pain in his neck told him the plant was working but he waited until it had subsided to open his mouth and start gulping water through his gills.

The transformation of his hands and feet allowed Harry to cut through the water like a torpedo as he followed the pull of the various tracking charms he had placed on Hermione. Compared to last time the task was much easier with all the preparation Harry had done, but he found himself unable to appreciate this fact in his single-minded determination. The Black Lake was large enough that it still took him nearly ten minutes to reach the village where the hostages were being held. Keeping an eye on his watch allowed him to swallow another ball of Gillyweed to prolong his transformation.

When the hostages came into view Harry barely noticed that they appeared to be the same ones as the last time around. In fact he didn't really notice anything except the long, chestnut locks floating around one of the hostages. Hermione! Finally seeing Hermione caused Harry to put on an extra burst of speed. Just before he reached her Harry flicked his wrist to draw his wand and fired a non-verbal cutting curse at the strand of seaweed tying her to the lakebed. Hermione hadn't drifted up more than a few inches before Harry had her in his arms. I've got you, my Lady. I've got you and we're getting out of here. This time Harry didn't hang around to do the noble thing and see to it that everyone was rescued, this time he kicked his legs as hard as he could and started pulling Hermione back up to the surface and safety.

The swim back up to the surface was slower than the race down had been since Harry was down two limbs to use for propulsion and also carrying a water-logged Hermione. His relief at having gotten Hermione and his desperate hold on her meant that he wasn't looking at his watch. He only noticed that another ten minutes had passed when he felt the pain in his neck letting him know that his gills were receding. As fast as he could Harry fished another ball of Gillyweed from his pouch and swallowed it. He focused on holding his breath until the gills returned and not letting go of Hermione. As a consequence he noticed he had drifted close to the seaweed beds by the time he had his transformation back under control. Remembering that there were Grindylow packs that sheltered there Harry swam a little higher and kept a vigilant eye out for anything that seemed to be coming near them.

It was this constant scanning of the seaweed that allowed Harry to spot a swarming pack of Grindylows ahead. He would have just ignored them and given them wide berth if a break in the swarm hadn't revealed a cloud of silver-blond hair. He knew that Fleur had been rescued from the Grindylows last time while he had collected her sister but the memory of what had happened with the Horntail forced him to intervene. He pulled Hermione as tightly to him as he could and flicked his wand back into his hand. A barrage of Revulsion Jinxes and Stunning Spells left Harry's wand and slammed into the Grindylows before they were even aware of the threat. By the time they had found the wizard attacking them more than half the pack had been incapacitated in some form. The rest quickly decided that retreat was the best option available to them and pulled their brethren with them leaving their prey floating in the water. Harry swam over to Fleur and noticed that her Bubble-Head Charm had failed. He non-verbally cast a new one as well as a Reviving Spell. Fleur's first gasp of air upon reawakening was followed a lengthy coughing spell as water was expelled from her lungs. When she seemed recovered enough to continue Harry tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention.

The French witch's eyes widened as she saw her youngest competitor floating in front of her holding his hostage close to him but watching her with concern. She had felt her Bubble-Head Charm fail, she was sure she had. That meant that the one she was wearing now was courtesy of the young man in front of her. How the hell did he know a spell she had learned less than a year ago? If he was anyone else she would have thought that he was under the effects of her allure but he had never shown any signs of being entranced by her. Would a fourteen year-old, British wizard really help someone like her? Fleur was having trouble believing it but as she studied him, trying to find answers, she was surprised again.

Harry made sure she was looking at him before he pointed in the direction of the hostages. He was about to continue on when he noticed that Fleur hadn't moved and was still looking at him. Thinking she might not have understood, Harry swam over and gave her a gentle shove in the direction of the underwater village and pointed again. This time she swam a few strokes before she paused and looked back at him again. Frustrated, Harry just pointed a final time before turning around and kicking off again. He didn't have time to sort Fleur out, not when Hermione was still unconscious in his arms. Keeping a safe distance from the seaweed Harry followed the lakebed up towards the shore. He hadn't checked his watch when he was desperately gulping down Gillyweed. He knew one thing though: he was close now and there was no way he was going for a ten minute swim while Hermione was on shore without him.

Finally Harry noticed a change in the water ahead of him as it grew lighter and shallower. He was close to the shore. A minute later Harry started slowing down even though he was kicking more vigourously than ever. Looking down he could see the webbing shrinking on his feet. Harry kept kicking furiously as he took in big gulps of water, trying to get as much oxygen in his bloodstream as possible. He was only a few yards short of the shore when he felt the pain in his neck return. He kept his mouth shut and kicked a few more times so he was in the shallows. As soon as his feet hit the solid lake bed he stood straight up, lifting Hermione above the water. Both teenagers gasped as they cleared the surface sucking in lungfuls of life-giving air.

Hermione was momentarily disoriented by finding herself dripping wet in someone's arms. When she looked up and saw a pair of worried emeralds looking back she relaxed. As Harry started wading towards the shore Hermione rested her head on his chest. She could hear his heart still beating wildly with the stress and exertion of the task but with every step it seemed to calm slightly. When they reached the shore Harry saw the five judges arguing but ignored them. He never noticed that the Gryffindor section of the stands was leading the Hogwarts students in screaming themselves hoarse at his early return. He strode towards the champions tent and into the partition he had used earlier. Once there he set Hermione down gently on her feet.

"Winky!" The elf popped in with a shy smile on her face.

"Yes, Master Harry?" she asked.

"Could you get Hermione a towel and something dry to wear, please?" Harry asked. Winky just curtsied and popped out. Harry turned back to the wet and shivering girl in his arms. "You need to dry off and get into some warm clothes or you'll catch your death." Then he gathered his courage and returned the chaste kiss Hermione had given him last night and walked out to stand guard outside the partition. It was a good thing he did because just moments after he had heard Winky pop in Headmasters Dumbledore and Karkaroff swept into the tent followed by Madam Pomfrey.

"Harry, my boy, you have my congratulations on completing the task so expediently. There are some complications we were hoping you could clarify for us, though." Dumbledore said as Madam Pomfrey started scanning Harry who was eyeing the two men suspiciously.

"And what colossal mistake have you made this time?" He wasn't feeling respectful in the slightest since he was still freezing cold and dripping wet. Neither Headmaster had a chance to reprimand him on it as they were interrupted by an agitated mediwitch.

"Mr. Potter, what are you wearing? I can't get a single reading from my diagnostic spells." Harry looked sideways at his healer. Upon hearing that it was dragon-hide and that he intended to change out of it soon she seemed unable to decide whether to berate him for wearing something that blocked her diagnostics or praising him for wearing protection into a dangerous situation. She resolved her dilemma by forcing a pepper-up potion into his hands and telling him to drink it. She then turned to head into the partition only to find her way blocked by a steely-eyed Harry Potter. As she opened her mouth Harry cut her off.

"Hermione is currently changing in there. She was also wearing dragon-hide under her robes as an extra layer of protection and something dry couldn't hurt." When the mediwitch gaped at him he asked her "Did you not expect us to prepare after hearing the clue from the last task?" Madam Pomfrey grumbled a little but settled down to wait. If Miss Granger was changing into something warm and dry she was already doing the medically sound thing and Potter didn't look like he was going to listen to arguments about healers having seen it all before; damn Gryffindor chivalry.

"That actually brings us back rather neatly to why Headmaster Karkaroff and I are here," Dumbledore inserted himself back into the conversation. "As it happens we did not, as you put it, 'make a colossal mistake'. You did, my boy. Could you tell us why you rescued Ms. Granger?"

"Because you people put her at the bottom of a freezing lake." Harry was looking at his headmaster as if he was severely doubting the man's mental fitness. Dumbledore just smiled genially while Karkaroff seemed to be gnashing his teeth.

"I am afraid you misunderstood me, my boy. I meant why did you not save your own hostage?" Harry was confused. Who else could he have possibly had to save? Gabrielle would be rescued by Fleur and Dumbledore couldn't have known about that in the first place.

"What are you talking about? Hermione was my hostage and I rescued her." Harry said curtly. He really wasn't in the mood for Dumbledore's eccentricities right now.

"I am afraid not, my boy. Mr. Weasley was your intended hostage. Mr. Krum was supposed to rescue Ms. Granger." Dumbledore was still smiling and twinkling away. Karkaroff had apparently reached boiling point though.

"You deliberately sabotaged my Champion, boy! I will see you punished for this. Severus was right: you are nothing more than an attention seeking brat with delusions of grandeur." He snarled at the teen in front of him. Harry's temper had been about to explode at Dumbledore's insinuation that he should have let Krum get within touching distance of Hermione, but Karkaroff's rant gave him a chance to get a hold of it with both hands. When Harry spoke his voice could have chilled the arctic winds.

"You tied the single most important person in my life to a lakebed and then expected me to leave her down there while I swam back with someone who has already proven he would happily see me die to satisfy his jealousies? Who's diseased mind thought that would work?" He turned a glare on Karkaroff that was as cold as his tone. "The last and only time your champion spoke to Hermione she had to draw her wand to defend herself from his inappropriate and unwanted advances. You can tell him from me that if he ever tries that again there won't be enough left of him to stuff inside that snitch he seems so fond of chasing." Dumbledore tried to step in and play peacemaker.

"Surely, Harry, you must see that Mr. Krum has far fewer friends available here for us to call upon than you do?" he said in a soothing voice. Harry wasn't for being soothed though.

"If his treatment of Hermione is any indication it wouldn't surprise me if has no friends available anywhere for you to call upon. Even if I were to acknowledge your point it still doesn't answer why, with all my friends available to you, you would pick someone I wouldn't lift a finger to rescue as my hostage and ask me to ignore my best friend. Either your selection of the hostages is deeply flawed or your clue was. 'We've taken what you'll sorely miss' indeed." Harry snorted as a thought occurred to him. "Weasley is an entirely more appropriate hostage for Krum anyway. This way he can rescue his most rabid fan." This was too much for Karkaroff's rapidly dwindling self-control.

"You are just a nasty, little cheat, boy!" The spittle sprayed from Karkaroff's lips as raged at Harry. "How else could you have completed the task so much faster than the best our schools have to offer?!" Rather than rage back, Harry simply smirked.

"I was entirely confident in your incompetence and general disregard for the students well-being so I placed tracking charms on Hermione that led me straight to her." Karkaroff was purpling now, giving Harry an odd insight into what a thin Vernon Dursley might look like. He ignored the foreign headmaster and turned to his own. "Did you even bother to ask Hermione anything before you stuck her down there?"

"No they didn't, Harry." Harry whirled around at the sound. Hermione was standing just outside the partition glaring at the two headmasters whom Harry promptly forgot about. Grabbing her into another hug, he asked her "How are you feeling?" She squeezed him once before stepping back.

"I'm feeling well, Harry. You on the other hand are cold and wet and should be getting changed." She didn't get to say much more as Madam Pomfrey could finally get at her patient and was diligently scanning her as she shoved a pepper-up potion in her hands. Harry turned back to the two educators who were still standing in the tent looking a bit trout-slapped.

"Gentlemen, I believe we have answered your questions satisfactorily. You made a series of ridiculous, almost insulting, assumptions which caused your current confusion. I can't help but wonder what blunders you have planned for the third task. If you'll excuse me." With that Harry walked into the partitioned section of the tent Hermione had just vacated and found that someone, presumably Winky, had left him a dry change of clothes and a warm fluffy towel. Several minutes later he emerged fully dressed only to be ambushed by the school healer who could finally run her diagnostics. Upon determining that he was apparently disgustingly healthy she left the tent to await the next champion to return with their hostage.

Harry looked over at Hermione and smiled at her. He knew that there were supposed to be safeguards for the hostages but he felt better with her out of harm's way entirely. She walked over to him and slid her arms around him resting her head on his chest.

"I'm 'the single most important person in your life', Harry?" she asked him after a minute of just enjoying each other's presence. Harry blushed; he had forgotten that a tent was in no way soundproof. Of course Hermione had heard him say that. Still, it was the truth and he didn't even want to try and deny that.

"You are." He told her softly and heard her sigh. In that moment Ephialtes' words, Harry's time in the room with Hermione, their date at the Yule Ball and the time they had spent together since then swirled around Harry's mind until they crystalized into a decision. "Hermione?" Harry waited until she was looking up at him. "Will you go to Hogsmeade with me?" She started blushing just as badly as Harry was.

"You mean…like a date?" Hermione's nervousness gave Harry a slight confidence boost as he realized he wasn't the only one feeling like that. He started to smile.

"Not like a date; a date." Hermione's lips were stretching into an answering smile.

"I'd like that, Harry." she said. Both of them were grinning like loons now. Harry couldn't stop himself from leaning in towards Hermione but he managed to stop just short of her lips, giving her a chance to draw away. She didn't need one and closed the rest of the distance between them and they shared a gentle kiss before pulling back and blushing furiously. They shared a look and smiles that managed to convey both nervousness and great joy, as well as the fact that they both felt slightly overawed by their own daring.

"We should head out and see how the task finishes up." Hermione suggested. Her tone indicated that staying hidden away was not an option, much as she wanted it to be.

"You're right, we should." They shared another look that agreed there would be time for exploring the new dimension to their relationship later, preferably when there was no chance of anyone walking in and ruining the mood.

When Harry and Hermione emerged from the tent it was to renewed cheering from the Gryffindors. For the first time Harry noticed that there were quite a lot of flags in that section of the crowd depicting the same thing: a black dragon pierced by a red sword. Dean must have been really busy was Harry's only distracted thought on the matter, his mind still mostly focussed on the kiss he and Hermione had just shared. He thought he could see the twins jumping up and down, screaming something he couldn't hear at this distance. He waved at them and was shocked to find that the noise level coming from the stands could actually go up.

Harry and Hermione settled in at the edge of the lake, seated close together for extra warmth and the comfort they drew from the contact. Harry summoned a blanket from the pile near the judges that was meant for the contestants as they emerged from the lake and wrapped it around himself and Hermione while she cast warming charms on the both of them. The result was two very comfortable Gryffindors. Harry checked his watch and saw that there were only about ten minutes left of the one hour time limit.

At one minute past the hour Cedric and Cho broke the surface and began swimming to shore. They were immediately accosted by Madam Pomfrey who was checking them over and Professor Dumbledore who looked like he was asking them questions about what had happened under the lake.

Seven minutes outside the time limit two silver-blond heads broke the surface of the lake and Fleur started to pull her little sister to shore. When they were once again on land the earlier scene repeated itself except with Madame Maxime questioning her champion who was gesturing enthusiastically much to Madam Pomfrey's consternation. When the healer cleared both sisters and Madame Maxime had the answers to all her questions Fleur dragged Gabrielle over to where Harry and Hermione were sitting.

"You saved my life. You warned me about ze dragon and now you 'ave 'elped me to save my sister." The words were tumbling out of Fleur's mouth as if she had no control over what she was saying. "Zank you, 'Arry Potter." She bent down and gave him a kiss on each cheek. Harry could feel a slight blush make its way to his cheeks and also Hermione's questioning gaze.

"I kind of helped Ms. Delacour out with some Grindylows." he muttered in answer to her unasked question. Fleur though seemed to take offense at this statement and proceeded to regale Hermione with the story of a brave boy who had rescued an unconscious veela from certain death. Harry's discomfort with the praise she was heaping on him was so familiar to Hermione that she couldn't help but laugh. Her laughter then had to be explained to the French witch, who in turn passed the joke on to her sister leaving Harry the source of much merriment for several minutes.

In the meantime, sixteen minutes outside of the time limit, a shark's head had breached the water, followed by a wand changing it back into the extra surly looking visage of Viktor Krum. He pulled up a ginger head of hair and promptly swam for shore, leaving Weasley sputtering in the middle of the lake. The moment he reached the shore he stalked off to Karkaroff and began complaining loudly in Bulgarian. Ron only made it to the shallows before Percy, who was once again standing in for Crouch Sr., reached him and started dragging him out of the water and towards Madam Pomfrey.

Cedric and Cho had joined the rest of the champions and hostages who had already been checked over and were clearly having a grand time judging by the amount of laughter. Harry, desperate to avoid further uncomfortable stories, asked Fleur to introduce her younger sister and was smilingly scolded for calling her Ms. Delacour.

"Zis is Gabrielle. She does not attend Beauxbatons yet but was allowed to come to Scotland to watch me compete. I 'ad never intended for 'er to be zis close to ze action." Harry smiled at the younger girl and held out his hand.

"Hello, Gabrielle. I'm Harry Potter." The little girl blushed mightily and shyly took Harry's hand with her own. He gently shook it and when he let go she looked up at Fleur and said something Harry didn't understand but that brought a snort from Hermione and a smile from Fleur. Harry looked between the two in confusion until Hermione translated.

"She thinks you're a very nice boy and that Fleur should go out with you. Apparently you would make a good brother." Ignoring the snickering coming from Cedric and Cho, Harry turned to Gabrielle.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I already have someone I am very much looking forward to going out with." Harry couldn't keep himself from looking over at Hermione who was looking very pleased through a blush of her own. About time someone else felt a little embarrassment Harry thought fondly before turning back to the younger girl. "Can we still be friends?" When everything was translated the little veela nodded happily and hugged her new friend much to his surprise. By the time the judges were ready to announce the scores the entire group was on a first name basis. It was Bagman who was given the honor of addressing the crowd.

"Ladies and gentlemen! The judges have reached a decision on the scores for the second task. Mr. Harry Potter showed excellent preparation having placed a Tracking Charm on his hostage to allow him to find her quickly. He then made use of measured doses of Gillyweed to great effect. Mr. Potter was the first to return with his hostage, well inside the time-limit of an hour even after having stopped to help out a fellow champion experiencing difficulties. Most judges feel that such moral behavior merits full marks. However due to some confusion about the assigning of the hostages Mr. Potter's score is forty-eight points!" The stands roared their approval of Harry's score. It was high enough that he was guaranteed first place going into the final task and that news was quickly spreading among the students.

"Mr. Cedric Diggory performed a marvelous Bubble-Head Charm and was second to return with his hostage. We award him forty-four points!" The cheers may have been led by the badgers this time but were just as loud as they had been for Harry.

"Ms. Fleur Delacour also used the Bubble-Head Charm. She was ambushed by Grindylows and would have had to quit the task if Mr. Potter hadn't driven the creatures off, reapplied the Charm and revived her. However she was third to return and we award her thirty-eight points!" The cheers Fleur received were a bit more restrained and polite than Harry's and Cedric's had been.

"Finally, Mr. Krum used an incomplete self-transfiguration but was the last to return with his hostage. However, since he did not require any assistance we award him forty points!" Krum's cheers came mostly from the Drumstrang and Slytherin students, though that may have had something to do with the way he was glaring at the other champions.

"This means that Mr. Potter currently has a commanding lead with 98 points, followed by Mr. Diggory with 82 points, Mr. Krum with 80 points and Ms. Delacour with 76 points. The third and final task will take place on the 24th of June at dusk. The champions will be notified of what the task is exactly one month before it takes place. Thank you all for your support and see you in June!" The champions and their hostages made their way back up to the castle behind a rush of students wanting to prepare celebrations in their honor. The Hogwarts students were especially pleased since both of their champions were currently leading the foreigners.

Chapter Text

The party that night was loud and raucous as Gryffindor celebrated their champion's win and the safe return of two of their own. As Fred put it: "If we can't celebrate Harry beating everyone at Quidditch, we can at least celebrate him beating everyone at something else!" This was answered by a roar from the crowd that only encouraged the Weasley twins. They transfigured a throne from one of the armchairs and placed it on a table before hauling Harry up and plopping him in it.

"Ladies and gentlemen, tonight Harry Potter himself will be giving an interview Rita Skeeter would kill for!" George opened the act to loud hoots from the crowd.

"Pinch me, Gred, I think I'm dreaming!" When George complied Fred let out a loud yelp. "Not that hard, you git!" Fred straightened himself out and held the rubber haddock he was using as a microphone in front of his face. "Anyway. Gryffindor House we present to you: the Knight of the Light!"

"The Pride of the Lions!" Here we go again. Note to self: throttle Fred and George Harry couldn't help but think as the twins launched into their now familiar introduction.

"The Diver for Damsels!"

"Harry!"

"James!"

"POTTER!" Harry almost fell out of his seat as the entire house roared his surname at him. Fred however was moving the show right along.

"Now, O Champion of Champions, Gred and I have a question that's been bothering us since the first task." George was nodding along in agreement to his twin's words and took over.

"What possessed you to spit in an angry dragon's eye?" It was amazing how quiet it got in the common room when George shoved his tin parrot in front of Harry's face for an answer.

"I would have hurt my foot if I kicked it in the teeth." Harry answered seriously. His deadpan tone and straight face had the room in stitches. Fred and George were howling along with the rest before asking the next question.

"Is it true that you saved our French competitor, the delectable Delacour, down in the lake?" At Harry's reluctant nod George jumped in with the follow up question.

"We saw you getting cozy with the mademoiselle and her sister by the lake. Should we expect a date in Hogsmeade soon?" Harry smiled a knowing smile at the twins.

"Sorry to disappoint you, boys. I already have a date for this weekend." It wasn't the boys looking disappointed though. Several girls were looking downright outraged that Harry had a date for the weekend. Fred and George were staring open-mouthed for a full five seconds before they locked gazes with each other and simultaneously declared "We need another throne!" They quickly had a second throne standing next to Harry's and dove into the crowd. Harry tried to get up and follow them but discovered one of the twins had applied a Sticking Charm to him or the chair. Either way he wasn't going anywhere. Moments later the twins were back and tugging Hermione along with them. She was berating them loudly.

"Let me go, you hooligans! You don't even know if I'm the one Harry is taking into Hogsmeade!" That stopped the twins short.

"Wait, Harry's not taking you?" Fred sounded like she had just told him she was transferring to Slytherin. Hermione's blush answered the question before her stammering did.

"I…he…well, yes he is, but- wait what are you doing?!" The twins were happy with her confirmation and had simply picked Hermione up and plopped her into the chair next to Harry. She too found out that the twins had included a Sticking Spell. The twins stepped back grinned at the uncomfortable looking pair.

"Three cheers for the greatest witch and wizard of our age!" called George increasing the couple's mortification. Especially when each cheer was accompanied by a blast of fireworks from behind the thrones. After the third cheer the twins handed Harry and Hermione a Butterbeer each and the Sticking Charms were lifted. The two fourth years escaped the makeshift podium as quickly as they could while Harry muttered an apology for sucking her into the whole mess in the first place. With the entertainment over the party really got started. Harry and Hermione were kept busy by a seemingly endless stream of people wanting to ask about their experiences under the lake. Neither teen felt like giving all that many details but, luckily for the gossip hounds, there was another source of information present. For the first time since the last party Ron wasn't glaring at his former friends as he reveled in the attention he got from being the thing Viktor Krum would miss most and telling of his harrowing battle with the merpeople. Harry and Hermione left him to it and were actually among the first to head to bed.

:-:-:-:-:

Saturday morning Harry got out of bed feeling both nervous and eager for his date with Hermione in a way he never had with Cho or Ginny. He took extra time getting dressed and groomed for the day and fully expected an impatient Hermione to be waiting for him in the common room. When he got there however there was no sign of her. Harry moved over to his favourite armchair and sat down to wait for Hermione. He was relieved that he wasn't late and worried that she wasn't there yet. Harry wondered if the entire day was going to be one long series of conflicting emotions. Still better than the constant discomfort I felt with Cho. I can't remember that I ever went on a date with Ginny, just that we snogged between classes for two weeks. Harry gave himself a mental shake. He wasn't going to spend his time comparing Hermione to his memories of having girlfriends in the future. That way, he was sure, was only going to drive him mad while doing Hermione a great disservice in the meantime.

His new resolve was helped immensely by Hermione choosing that moment to enter the common room. Harry shot out of his seat and very nearly stood at attention. Hermione had chosen to wear a knit sweater and a knee-length skirt over a pair of tights. Her hair had been tamed to somewhere between what it had been at the Yule Ball and her day to day bushiness and now fell around her face in soft curls. Harry thought she looked breathtaking. He could see Hermione scanning the common room and she seemed to smile and cringe at the same time when she spotted him. Harry felt the vaguely familiar sensation of relaxing a little because he wasn't the only nervous one.

"Good morning, Hermione. You look absolutely gorgeous." he greeted her. Hermione's eyes locked with his and he saw her relax a bit as well.

"You look quite handsome yourself, Harry." she said before a look of uncertainty stole across her face. "So…what do we do first?"

"I was thinking we'd eat breakfast." Harry grinned at her. That's right; it's just Hermione. We're going to have a good time. There's no reason to get hung up on the fact that this is a date. Harry decided to share his epiphany. "You need to relax, Hermione. We're still just us and we're not going to be marked on our performance today." She huffed at him but he could see a small smile fighting to break out on her face.

"Fine then. Lead on, my Champion." she told him, smacking him lightly in the chest. Harry took her hand in his and pulled her towards the portrait hole.

"My Lady's wish is my command." He said over his shoulder, grinning like a loon. The last of the awkwardness faded away between the two friends as they walked through the school hand in hand. At breakfast Harry received Rita's usual gift of a copy of the Daily Prophet covered with a note.

Harry,

You really do set up the best pictures. I'm looking forward to another interview with you.

Rita

Peeling away the note let him see the cover page. While the photo didn't cover the front page the way the one of the first task had, it still took up a good three-quarters. It showed Harry and Hermione emerging from the water. Oddly enough Harry hadn't realized at the time that he had picked her up bridal style like that. The look their picture-selves were sharing both made him hopeful that the date would be a success and left him utterly mortified that his emotions were so obviously displayed. This time Hermione blushed right along with him rather than teasing him about his ability to make the front page. She still took the paper for her scrapbook though.

After breakfast they made their way past Mr. Filch and on to Hogsmeade. They had both made a list of things they absolutely needed to get and visited those shops early in the day to leave themselves more free time to relax afterwards. Harry almost had a heart-attack when they passed the newsagents and saw a wanted poster for Sirius in dog form, until he read it and realized it was a wanted poster for a paper stealing dog that had nothing to do with Sirius Black. I need to ask Padfoot what the hell that is all about. He hoped that Dobby and Winky had managed to get Padfoot's care package to him.

The two teens headed to The Three Broomsticks for lunch together. While they were there they got a taste of just how fast the news that Harry Potter was on a date had spread.

"Oh my, what a lovely couple. What do you say to a quick exclusive, Harry?" Harry closed his eyes and wished very hard that he had just imagined that. When he reopened his eyes and looked behind him, however, Rita Skeeter was still standing there with Bozo snapping pictures of them like he was at some kind of great historical event..

"Hello, Rita." Harry said. "You do realize that you just interrupted my first date to ask me for an interview don't you?" He couldn't have hidden the annoyance in his voice if he had tried. Judging by Rita's expression she knew damn well what she was doing and viewed it as a petty revenge for blackmailing her.

"Come now, Harry. You must realize that if I don't, someone else will." Rita's voice was sickly sweet as she continued to push his buttons. Harry looked at Hermione for some sign of how she felt about this and found her deep in thought. He hoped she wasn't regretting her decision to join him today. After a few moments Hermione looked up at him gave a reluctant nod.

"You have until our lunches arrive." He told the reporter curtly. She beamed at him and plopped down across from them and started firing off questions while Bozo tried to get them to adopt various poses. What made Harry choose Hermione? Was Hermione worried about dating a wizard who was entered into a dangerous tournament? Did Harry's rescue of Hermione affect their decision to start dating? How far had they gone?

Thankfully that question was interrupted by Madam Rosemerta putting two plates of lunch down rather forcefully on the table. Harry was mentally thanking the woman for her timing. Outwardly he just smiled and addressed the disgruntled looking reporter across from him.

"Time's up, Rita. I'll thank you to leave now." As she stood up and gathered her things Harry had one more thing to add. "Oh, and Rita? Next time you try to hijack one of our dates I shall become acutely disinterested in our little arrangement. As you pointed out: you are not the only reporter out there so you'd better give me a reason to keep you around." Skeeter blanched, nodded once and fled the scene. Harry sighed and turned to Hermione.

"I'm sorry about that. She really is a nasty piece of work." Hermione smiled at him.

"It's okay, Harry. You can't control what she does and she did have a point about someone else making things up about your love life if she doesn't. This way we had some input or at least a warning. Let's just forget about it and enjoy our lunch, hm?" Harry returned Hermione's smile and gave her a kiss on the cheek. After that their date went about as well as either of them could have hoped. Stares followed them around the village but that was nothing new since it happened at school too. When it started getting dark the pair headed back up to Hogwarts. In the thestral-drawn carriage Harry felt suddenly shy again.

"Hermione? I really enjoyed today. Would…would you be willing to do that again sometime?" He held his breath as he waited for her answer. When it came she was blushing fiercely enough for it to shine in the gloom of the twilight.

"I really enjoyed today too, Harry, and yes, I think I would very much like to do that again." As she fell silent their eyes met and they leant in to each other. Their lips touched and the two teens got lost in the moment. When the carriage arrived at the Hogwarts gates they had yet to say another word but both were wearing satisfied grins.

The next morning Harry received a copy of Witch Weekly with the headline:

THE BOY-WHO-LOVED

There was no accompanying note from Rita this time though. Harry sincerely hoped he had scared the nosey bint enough yesterday that she had developed at the very least a selective case of manners where he and his friends were concerned. The article itself was about as tastefully done as a gossip piece can be. The emphasis was on two friends transitioning into something more and was heavily peppered with springtime metaphors. Harry passed the magazine over to Hermione so she could read it and then turn it into part of her scrapbook or fuel for the common room fire, Harry wasn't about to be picky.

The real surprise came several minutes later when Errol, the Weasley family owl landed in front of Hermione bearing a red envelope addressed to her. With trembling hands Hermione opened the envelope as Errol made good his escape, knowing from long experience what was about to happen. Sure enough, Molly Weasley's magnified voice rang around the Great Hall in strident tones.

"HERMIONE GRANGER, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?! YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS FOISTING YOUR LOOSE MUGGLE WAYS ON POOR HARRY! HE NEEDS A PROPPER YOUNG LADY, NOT SOME GOLD-GRUBBING MUDBLOOD WHORE OF A-" Whatever else Mrs. Weasley thought on the matter would never be heard as the howler was incinerated by an enraged Harry Potter. Hermione had tears in her eyes at the language being directed at her by a woman she had come to think of as a kindly aunt. The Slytherins were already laughing; it didn't take much to set them off these days as they had precious little to taunt the rest of the school with this year. Harry put his arm around Hermione and pulled her close to him already whispering reassuring words to her.

:-:-:-:-:

Over the next few weeks Harry and Hermione received mixed responses to the news that they were dating. Many girls in school seemed to think Harry had betrayed them somehow. Hermione was particularly hurt that Ginny was included in this group. From outside Hogwarts came messages that could be classed as either bigoted: telling them that "the Potter family could not stand to be polluted for another generation", or supportive: wishing the two teens all the best in their new relationship. Harry and Hermione didn't understand people's need to tell them their opinion in either case though they were of course much more tolerant of the messages of support than the others.

Fred and George had shame-facedly apologized for their mother's howler and told the couple that they had written their father on the matter. A few days later a very apologetic letter arrived from the Weasley patriarch that would have probably meant more to Harry if it had been addressed to Hermione and not tried to defend Mrs. Weasley every other sentence.

Luna had been unreservedly enthusiastic and even a little exasperating with her occasional chants of "I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!"

When the Easter Holidays rolled around Hermione, like most of the students that had stayed for the Yule Ball, was set to return home and spend some time with the family she hadn't seen for months. She was reluctant to leave Harry but she didn't think that inviting her boyfriend of five weeks to stay at her house was something either of them were ready for. They had yet to refer to each other as boyfriend or girlfriend but Hermione was confident that Harry felt like she did and wouldn't risk blowing up their friendship if he wasn't at least somewhat serious about her.

When she had tried to apologize for leaving Hogwarts without him Harry had kissed her and then told her "Family is important. I would never want you to give them up." He went on to promise her he would make good use of his time and train for the third task as much as he could. She could see the sincerity in his eyes and let the matter drop to spend her last evening before the train left in Harry's arms.

When Hermione and Luna had left for the Express after a goodbye that left Harry feeling a little dazed and very happy, he headed up to the Room. He hadn't been lying to Hermione. He fully intended to prepare for the third task and specifically the aftermath that Riddle had in the works; the plan he had come up with right after his return was good enough but he couldn't afford to foul it up by taking anything for granted. Harry started by going over his plan with a fine toothed comb. He had the room create a blackboard that he could use to write down and order his thoughts.

Harry felt like a bit of an arse that the best way he could come up with to keep Cedric alive was to not be a noble git and take the trophy while he had the chance. Capturing Riddle and Pettigrew were matters that were a lot easier to accept. Killing Nagini would be a pleasure but it did bring him to something he had been putting off for a while. He had wanted to wait until he was at a point where Riddle couldn't change his plans anymore before Harry started destroying the Horcruxes. The encounter with the Horntail had certainly taught him that he couldn't afford to assume everything would happen exactly as he remembered or even at all as he remembered. This made him think that it might be a good idea to eliminate the diadem sooner rather than later.

Remembering his studies into Arithmancy, Harry wished for a list of ritualistically important dates and almost unsurprisingly one appeared on the wall next to the blackboard. He noticed that Beltaine, the festival of the start of summer, was coming up soon which might work. Continuing down the calendar he noticed that the summer solstice would be on the 21st of June this year. Three days before the task and magically significant. If Riddle noticed his Horcrux disappearing when Harry destroyed it he might just attribute it to magical fluctuations and excitement rather than a piece of his soul disappearing into the void. Seeing as he didn't have enough information to make a more accurate guess, Harry slated the diadem's destruction to coincide with the night of the summer solstice.

Thoughts of the summer solstice lead to thoughts of the summer in general. Harry knew that the adults would want him to stay at the Dursleys' until the Order of the Phoenix saw fit to collect him. He knew about the blood protections, but he also knew that Hermione, Weasley and he had managed to avoid Riddle's regime without them. The only fly in that ointment was that he had no way of performing magic outside of school without being detected. This meant that he would be unable to raise the required charms to keep himself hidden leaving him with number 4, Privet Drive once again being his only safe option. This would prevent him from completing the studying that he desperately needed to do. The Dursleys would confiscate anything remotely magical and Harry wouldn't be able to do any practical work anyway since he was out of school.

Once he started going around in circles with his planning Harry elected to stop. He moved on to more practical preparations as he stepped up his studies and training. Duelling especially had just become an important subject. He worked himself to the bone and by dinnertime he was exhausted. Dobby popped in with dinner and stayed to watch his master study after having eaten. This pattern continued for four days before something changed. Harry was exhausted as he had been every night this holiday, but when Dobby popped in with dinner he noticed the little elf's face looked distressed.

"Is something wrong, Dobby?" Harry asked.

"It is not being Dobby's place, Master Harry. Master must do what he thinks best." Harry's dinner was promptly forgotten about.

"What's wrong, Dobby? Am I doing something to upset you or Winky? I promise I won't get angry if you tell me." Harry was disgusted at himself that he had done something to his elves that had them afraid to speak up when something worried them.

"It's just...Master Harry is working too hard. He does not smile since Miss leaves us. Dobby is worried and wonders what he can do to help." Harry let himself drop back into the chair he had shot out off when Dobby had first started talking.

"I'm sorry, little buddy. I don't think anything is going to help that particular problem. Not unless you think you can end Voldemort for me or you know a way for underage wizards and witches to perform magic outside of school."Harry tried to smile reassuringly at his elf and felt a little better when he saw Dobby light up. Dobby's next words blew him away.

"Oh, but Dobby does, sir. Dobby used to put up elf wards so the Young Bad Master could practice magic. All elves is knowing how to do this." Harry was staring slack-jawed at the diminutive being that had just solved his problem for him. Note to self: next time I'm stuck on a problem, remember to ask Dobby for help.

"Dobby, my friend, sit down. You and I have a lot of planning to do." Harry and Dobby talked until the small hours of the morning but when he fell asleep Harry was confident for the first time that he had something to work with this summer. Dobby would be getting the necessary supplies using the money from the sale of the Horntail and Harry would be able to wait until whoever was tracking him was lulled into a false sense of security before removing the charms on himself. With a snicker at the thought that Malfoy's current magical ability was the result of being able to practice over the holidays in addition to what he learnt with everyone else Harry rolled over and fell asleep.

When Hermione and Luna returned to the castle a mere ten days after they had left he barely had any time to welcome Luna back before Hermione dragged him off to find an appropriate broom cupboard to reunite in.

:-:-:-:-:

On the evening of the 24th of May the champions were called to the Hogwarts Quidditch Pitch. Harry left Hermione and Luna in the Room and headed down to one of his favourite parts of Hogwarts. Despite knowing what he was going to find the state of the pitch still pained him. He noticed that the other three champions were already waiting with Bagman at the centre of the maze. When he had finally navigated his way over the low hedges and joined he was greeted warmly by Cedric and Fleur while Krum just sneered at him. Bagman coughed nervously and his eyes flickered over Harry.

"Right then, you are standing exactly where the tournament will end. Around you, you can see we are growing a maze and this will be its centre. Here we will place the Tri-wizard cup and the first to reach it gets to keep it, so to speak. You will be allowed into the maze in the order you are currently in by points, with each point being worth half a minute. Mr. Potter will enter first, Mr. Diggory eight minutes later, Mr. Krum one minute after that and Ms. Delacour will follow two minutes after Mr. Krum. Are there any questions?"

"We seemply 'ave to get zrough a maze?" Fleur asked a bit astonished.

"Ah, well there will be obstacles of course. Professor Hagrid will be providing a few creatures I believe, there will be some static spells as well and the maze will be its own challenge, I think." Bagman livened up at the idea of the obstacles and Harry was starting to worry that the man's idea of entertainment was a bit too close to that of the average Death Eater. Then again it might just be something that was inherent in wizards, no one else seemed to think that this tournament was anything but a great time. He admitted to himself that he was probably biased because of the way he had been forced into the whole thing. He thought that he had been looking forward to watching the Hogwarts Champion compete for the prize before his name had come out, but it had been years ago and the subsequent events had been overwhelming enough that he was no longer sure.

Since nobody else gave any sign of wanting to ask a question Bagman cheerily dismissed them. As Harry turned to leave though the former beater called out to him.

"Harry, do you mind if I have a word, in private?" Bagman looked nervously at Fleur and Cedric who had stopped and were looking back, clearly waiting for their fellow champion. Krum was already moving out of sight.

"Alright, Mr. Bagman." Harry turned to his friends for a moment, "You two go on ahead. I'll see you at breakfast, yeah?" The two older champions gave each other a look and then called back affirmatives. They would have insisted they stay but neither of them could imagine a situation where Ludo Bagman could get the better of Harry Potter. Harry for his part turned back to Bagman and cocked an eyebrow.

"Not here, not here. We don't want to be overheard. Follow me." Harry followed Bagman to the same place he had had a discussion with Krum about Hermione last time. Knowing that both Crouches were out in the Forbidden Forest and his general disquiet around Bagman meant that Harry had his wand in his hand and didn't care if he offended the other man.

When they got to a place Bagman felt secure they wouldn't be overheard he turned around.

"Now, Harry, I just wanted to- Great Scott! Is that really necessary?" Bagman had just spotted Harry's wand in his hand. Harry decided not to mention his actual misgivings just yet.

"You led me to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. I have some idea of what lives in those trees and have no intention of letting my guard down around any of them." This caused Bagman to start glancing towards the trees nervously. "What did you want, Mr. Bagman? This really isn't a place to just have chat." The portly man was now starting to sweat with nerves.

"Y-yes, w-well…" He cleared his throat, "I thought I might see if you felt prepared to face the task now that you know what it is. I might be able to point you in the direction of some useful magic to study…" The man trailed off suggestively. Harry was not amused.

"Mr. Bagman, are you trying to use me for your bookmaking scam?" Harry's blunt question caused the man to freeze up completely. When he started to talk again he seemed even more nervous than before.

"How did you…I mean, that is to say, I might offer a few bets, all in good sportsmanship of course, but I wou- WHAT'S THAT?!" Harry's wand came up to shoulder height while in the back of his mind he made a mental note to tell Fred and George that Bagman squealed like a little girl when properly startled.

"Hominem Revelio." Harry incanted quietly using the Revealing Charm specialized for detecting people. It showed a single presence just inside of the trees. "Stupefy." The beam of red hit the collection of sparks that indicated where the person was hiding and they slumped to the ground. Harry made his way over to the person carefully and discovered that Barty Crouch Sr. had once again managed to escape his captors. He decided that he would take the man to Madam Pomfrey. This had the potential to reveal Riddle's survival much sooner than he had planned and that would change his plan but he couldn't condemn a man to die because of a plan.

"Mobilicorpus." Crouch's body raised itself into the air and Harry let it float out of the trees in front of him. When the body left the trees he heard another high pitched scream and when he emerged from the Forest himself he saw that Bagman had fallen on his arse and was staring up at Crouch with wide terrified eyes.

"B-b-b-barty? What's wrong with him? Is he dead?" Harry looked incredulously at the man.

"You just saw me stun him. No, he's not dead." Seeing those frightened eyes turn to him Harry sighed in frustration. "I'm taking him up to the Hospital Wing. Perhaps you should go find Dumbledore and get him to come too." Bagman nodded frantically and scrambled up to set off to the castle at a speed Harry hadn't know the man was capable of. Harry followed at a brisk walk, he hadn't been joking with Bagman earlier when he told him the Forest could be dangerous at this time of night.

He made into the castle and up to the hospital wing without encountering anyone. He called for Madam Pomfrey as he walked into the Hospital Wing and the poor Matron got quite a fright when she walked out to see a fourth year student levitating the body of a senior ministry official. Harry started telling her the story of how he and Bagman had found Crouch at the edge of the forest and what spells he had used. She huffed at a man of Crouch's age being Stunned but had to agree with Harry when he pointed out that he hadn't known who he was stunning. Harry felt a little guilty that his story was only technically true but felt that it was offset by the fact that he had brought the old man up here.

When Dumbledore and Bagman arrived, Crouch was resting comfortably with most of his injuries already healed. Harry had already been shooed from the Hospital by Madam Pomfrey and had returned to his dorm.

:-:-:-:-:

The next day Harry was sitting in Defence Against the Dark Arts when a first year Hufflepuff came in and told the fake Moody that Harry Potter had been summoned by the headmaster.

"Best go see what Dumbledore wants Potter." the professor growled. Harry gathered his things and followed the younger boy out of the classroom. The second year, who introduced himself as Sam Baker, was almost as excitable as Colin Creevey on a bad day in Harry's opinion, but he managed to hide his irritation and answer some of the boy's rapid fire questions. When they finally got to the gargoyle Harry asked Sam if he knew the password and mentally cursed Dumbledore when he didn't. Harry wasn't prepared to stand there guessing sweets like an idiot with a witness present so he just turned to the gargoyle and said "The headmaster has asked to see me. Could you inform him I have arrived?" Moments later the gargoyle jumped aside and revealed the staircase behind it. Sam looked heartbroken that he couldn't accompany Harry up to the headmaster but left to tell his friends of the time he had spent with the Harry Potter. When he got to the top of the staircase Harry knocked on the door and waited for permission to enter. When he received it and opened the door he was only mildly surprised to see that Fudge and two Aurors had made the trip to Hogwarts.

"Ah, Harry. Wonderful." Dumbledore was twinkling behind his desk at the people in his office. Harry allowed his eyes to sweep the office. He noticed the slightly open cabinet where he knew Dumbledore kept his pensieve and the silvery glow coming from it. He also saw that the Sword of Gryffindor was back in its display case. His scrutiny of the office was interrupted by Fawkes flying over to him and landing on his shoulder.

"Hello, Fawkes. Having fun?" Harry greeted as he scratched the beautiful bird's neck and chest as he had learned from Hedwig. Fawkes trilled something in response that Harry took to mean that the bird felt that whatever the humans were doing now was pointless. "Ah well, that's unfortunate."

"Harry, perhaps you could leave your discussion with Fawkes for another time. The minister here, would like to ask you a few questions." Harry looked back at the humans in the office but kept up his scratching of the phoenix. Fudge looked slightly nervous but had something that Harry supposed was a smile plastered on his face.

"Yes. Yes, Harry, my boy, I've been told that you were the one who found Barty?" Harry nodded. His memories of the minister's actions after the resurrection of Voldemort left him wary of the man. "Can you tell us exactly what happened?" Harry nodded again and began to tell the same tale he told Madam Pomfrey the night before.

"..and then Madam Pomfrey sent me back to the Gryffindor dorms, sir." The two aurors had taken notes and looked at each other. One of them, Harry thought his name was Dawlish, said "He was definitely still alive when you found him then?"

"Yes, he was still alive. Does that mean that he's dead now?" Harry was shocked; he had been sure that he had been called in here to receive a warning about Voldemort's plans. He had thought that he had saved Crouch Sr.'s life yesterday.

"He passed away last night in the Hospital Wing. Don't worry, you are not suspected of anything to do with Director Crouch's death, Mr. Potter. We will, however, need to inspect the location for spell residue to corroborate your story. Would you mind waiting here for us to return?" the other Auror asked. Harry fought to keep his reaction to a nonchalant shrug.

"Sure, sir. I can make up Professor Moody's class some other time. I think he'll understand; that or I'll be doing dodging drills for a week." A snort broke through the Auror's composure and he looked around a little abashed.

"Right, well, Dumbledore, would you show us to the location where young Mr. Potter found Barty?" Fudge was clearly trying to come across as competent and 'take charge' in front of his underlings. Harry decided to forego pointing out that it came off as ridiculous. Dumbledore nodded and rose from behind his desk.

"Harry, this shouldn't take long. Feel free to have a cup of tea in the meantime." With a clap of his hands a cup of tea appeared on the headmasters desk. Once everyone had left Harry surreptitiously fired a non-verbal detection spell at the cup trying to keep his wand hidden from all of the portraits surrounding him. When the test came back negative he raised his voice.

"To whichever house elf brought this tea: thank you very much!" His declaration brought several snickers from the portraits and Harry was not eager to find out whether it was because he had realized that an elf had done it or that he was thanking what they considered a lesser being. Desperate for something to do or rather something to take his mind off of how utterly he had failed to change this event, Harry grabbed the cup of tea and headed over to the cabinet that was still emitting a silver glow and opened it completely.

"Here now, boy. What do you think you're doing?" Harry glanced up at the portrait of the corpulent wizard who had spoken.

"Dexter Fortescue, I presume?" he asked. The wizard seemed to swell with importance.

"I see you've heard of me, boy. Now what are you doing?" Harry kept looking up at the portrait for a moment before he shook his head.

"I've honestly never heard of you but your frame has a nameplate." Several of the other portraits snickered as Harry allowed his lips to quirk up in a smirk. "As for what I'm doing: I'm a student. I'm learning." Fortescue grew red-faced with indignation.

"No you're not! You…you're snooping! Through the headmaster's things no less!" Harry just shrugged in response.

"As you like. You know as a former educator you could just enlighten me and remove any need for me to , ah, snoop." He shot the portrait a pensive look. Fortescue seemed to be struggling with a dilemma.

"If I tell you what it is will you, sit back down and behave?" Harry thought about it for a moment before he nodded. "Very well then. That is a pensieve. It is a device that can be used to view memories from a third-person perspective. Damn useful things for ordering one's mind. Could have used one back in my day, but back then the ministry was a bit fussy about letting the things out of their sight." The portrait gave Harry a stern look and added "It would be the height of bad manners to peruse someone's memories without their permission." Harry grinned up at the portrait.

"You used to give your students a lot of ideas, didn't you?" he asked to more snickers from the other portraits and one heckler calling out "Aye, that he did!"

"You said you would behave!" Fortescue cried out in dismay.

"And I will. I was just making a point. That rivalled the annual 'don't go near the Forest' speech in its ability to give a student ideas for mischief to get into." Fortescue was starting to sputter in embarrassment as his colleagues continued ribbing him. Harry decided that getting into a fight with a portrait would not be productive and decided to throw it a bone. He carefully closed the cabinet before turning to face the talkative portrait again. He bowed his head to Fortescue and said "Either way, thank you for the lesson. It was very interesting."

The portrait nodded back, seeming somewhat mollified even if the heckling hadn't diminished one bit. Harry supposed this was as entertaining as being a portrait got. The only thing that seemed to bring the portraits to order was a witch in old-fashioned robes running into a portrait near the door and yelling "Albus and his guests have re-entered the castle!" It amazed Harry how quickly they all settled down and pretended to be asleep. Several minutes later the office door opened and the headmaster, minister and Aurors returned to the office. Dawlish told Harry that his story had been corroborated by the forensic evidence and that he was free to go.

Harry thanked them and wished them all a pleasant day and walked from the office. As he headed towards the Room of Requirement he felt the satisfaction of a job well done in officially learning about the pensieve strangely intermingled with the regret of not being able to save thoroughly unpleasant man's life. He would have to tell the girls about what he had 'learned' today.

Chapter Text

The day after he learned of Crouch Sr.'s death Harry was still stunned by it or more accurately by his inability to affect it. He had to believe that he could change things or Ephialtes sending him back made no sense. While he was mulling this over at dinner, Professor McGonagall came up to him at the Gryffindor table.

"Potter, I need to see you in my office after dinner." She waited for his nod before continuing on and out of the Hall. Harry was curious what his Head of House wanted but not particularly worried. She hadn't seemed angry or impatient so whatever it was, it was unlikely to cause him any serious problems. Once he had finished his dinner he excused himself and told the girls that he would give the Room a miss tonight since he had no idea how long his discussion with McGonagall might take.

Upon reaching the door to the Transfiguration teacher's office Harry knocked and waited for permission to enter. It came quickly and in no time Harry was seated in front of his professor's desk and waiting to hear why he had been summoned.

"Mr. Potter, I have called you in here to continue our discussion from earlier in the year." Harry didn't immediately catch on to what she meant but her next words made it obvious. "Considering your performance in the first two tasks and the fact that your schoolwork has actually improved since you stopped attending two of your classes, I can now say with certainty that it was a wise decision on your part. I am especially pleased with the effort you have been putting forth in my own class." Harry could only smile in acceptance of the compliment.

"As you may recall, we left open the matter of whether or not you should be pushed to take exams this year. I believe that you were made aware of the general composition of the third task this week and will be able to give me your honest opinion on whether or not you will be able to manage exams in addition to your preparations. Given your performance so far this year I should like you to at least take the History of Magic and Divination exams so we may properly evaluate your progress." This small speech was followed by an expectant look at Harry which he took to mean that the time had come for him to actively participate in this discussion.

"I have no problem taking the History of Magic exam with the rest of my classmates, Professor. I think I would be able to take the rest as well, but I would like to drop Divination and take the exams for Ancient Runes and Arithmancy instead." Professor McGonagall raised a single eyebrow at her pupil's declaration that he wanted to take the exams for two of the hardest subjects in Hogwarts; subjects he was not taking unless she was very much mistaken. Seeing her initial reaction Harry rushed to reassure her.

"I've been studying those subjects on the side this year, ma'am. Hermione and Luna have been helping me as well and Hermione says we're currently ahead of where her class is." The second eyebrow joined the first on Professor McGonagall's forehead. Ms. Granger was not given to exaggerating her academic accomplishments. Quite the opposite in fact, she tended to worry needlessly over whether she was doing enough work. If Potter's work really came that highly recommended she just might let him take those exams.

"Mr. Potter, I cannot say anything definite about those exams without first talking to the professors involved. Let us therefore concentrate on the exams I can say something about. If you are sure that it will not interfere with your tournament preparations then I am inclined to agree that it would benefit your education to take the end of year exams, if only so we know where you stand." At Harry's resolute nod she answered with one of her own. "In that case I shall let your professors know to expect you for the exams. I will also talk to Professors Vector and Babbling about possibly allowing you to take their exams at the fourth year level. If they do not agree to let you take their exams you will have to take the Divination exam, are we agreed?" Harry nodded but was desperate to continue the run of good fortune that was his exemption from Divination.

"Professor, I have been doing the same assignments that Luna and Hermione received in those classes all year. Would it help my chances if I gave you my work to pass on to the Professors?" Minerva McGonagall was not easily surprised but the number of times the boy in front of her managed it was starting to get ridiculous. She hadn't expected him to have been that dedicated in his studies.

"Yes, Mr. Potter, I would imagine that having two years' worth of assignments would certainly help argue your case. Can you get them to me by tomorrow?" Harry was enthusiastic in his response.

"Of course, Professor! You'll have them at breakfast!" His enthusiasm earned him a quirk of the lips.

"Alright then, Mr. Potter. I will get back to you as soon as possible about everything." He grinned that impish grin at her and for a moment the elderly professor thought she was about to be ambushed with another hug, but Potter simply wished her a good night and rushed off. She sighed and opened her desk drawer to look at the photo she kept there. It was the photo of Mr. Potter's prank on her at the Yule Ball. She would never admit it to anyone but she absolutely loved that photo. Not many students over the years had had the courage to be that familiar with her. She had tried to be outraged but it was damn hard to be properly indignant in the face of that grin so she had approached Mr. Creevey quietly for a copy of this photo to remind her of what had truly elevated Mr. Potter and Ms. Granger to their positions as her favourite students, not that she would admit to having favourites either. It was their caring natures, their nobility that made the Head of Gryffindor think kindly of them.

As she looked at the photo she remembered Mr. Potter's comment as he ran away and looked up at her wall with a slight smirk. Judging by the fact that he had not commented on the framed paper's continued presence, nor on its two new neighbours proclaiming his victory over the basilisk and in the second task, she had to assume that those keyed Notice-me-not Charms were working as advertised. She pulled a stack of essays towards her for grading and her smirk grew as she imagined removing those charms at the end of his seventh year; teach the little bugger to prank her.

:-:-:-:-:

The morning after their discussion Harry delivered two clearly marked folders containing the assignments he had done that year to professor McGonagall at breakfast as promised. A week later he received confirmation that he would be allowed to sit the exams. Professor McGonagall made sure to point out that a large part of the decision had been based on Hermione's evaluation of his skills and that he had better not make a liar out of her.

Harry and Hermione had been steadily growing into their relationship. It consisted of a lot less snogging than Harry's future relationship with Ginny had. Harry didn't mind and actually didn't compare the two all that often. He knew that he and Hermione were approaching their relationship from an entirely different angle than he had with Ginny since their long friendship was something neither was willing to risk.

The week before the exams Hermione made a comment that had Harry jumping up and running off with a rushed "I need to send an owl. See you later." and a peck on the cheek. Hermione turned to her best female friend and asked her, "Do you know why Susan mentioning that her aunt was complaining about funding would cause that reaction?" Luna considered the question carefully as she attempted to balance a pair of strawberries on a strip of crispy bacon resting on a piece of asparagus.

"I'm not really sure. I didn't notice any Wrackspurts in the area and Harry seems mostly immune to Umgubular Slashkilters. Maybe a Nargle stole his memory and something you said brought it back."

:-:-:-:-:

Harry was, quite unusually looking forward to the end of year exams. He knew they would end on the day of the final task but having completed that once before he did not feel it constituted a decent excuse for doing poorly on either challenge. There was also his agreement with Professor McGonagall to consider and the possibility of tweaking Snape's massive nose. So Harry joined Hermione in her studies and both of them helped Luna when they could. Harry was pleased that he was able to answer many of the younger girl's questions on Ancient Runes and Arithmancy. After all three years of Trelawney was bad enough. He was not extending that to even one more.

When Harry joined his first exam he caused a small commotion as several of his classmates, led by Weasley and Finnegan, expressed their rather loud disbelief that he would take exams he didn't have to. Harry ignored the whole thing, trying to focus on transfiguration while his head of house tore into the disruption. Over the course of the exams Harry found himself having to hold back a little. Nobody seemed to have noticed that he had used non-verbal casting during the second task and he didn't want to have to explain to anyone that he was perfectly capable of using that particular skill, least of all Crouch. Who knew, something like that might save his life soon and the real Moody would probably be proud of his paranoia. Aside from keeping his future knowledge hidden the fourth year exams were ridiculously easy to Harry. Even his new subjects didn't pose much of a challenge making him more confident that the room could turn him into a rudimentary curse breaker by the time he had to go after the ring.

On the night of the 21st, Harry snuck out of Gryffindor tower under his father's cloak. He carefully made his way over to the Room of Requirement and asked for the Hall of Lost Things. When the door appeared, he slipped inside and called for Dobby. As soon as he was called the elf appeared and Harry took the cloak off.

"Dobby, can you get the Sword of Gryffindor from the headmaster's office without him noticing? He should hopefully be asleep but be careful of the portraits, they like to fake it." Dobby nodded at his master and popped off. A few moments later he popped back in and handed his master the sword. Harry was relieved. He had no intention of facing a Horcrux without the means to destroy them easy to hand if he had a choice.

"Thank you, Dobby. I need your help with one more thing. I am hunting an object that was cursed like the diary was." There was no need to clarify which diary he meant. Dobby's face darkened at the mention of another object like that being in the school. "It's a diadem or tiara. If I reach for it with anything other than the sword I need you to restrain me and pop me out of here, okay?" Harry waited for Dobby's nod before he started looking for the place where he had left Snape's Potions book in sixth year. It took him a while to find but when he did, he didn't hesitate for a moment. He lifted the sword in his hand and brought it ringing down on the lost treasure. With a horrifying shriek the famous artefact broke into two pieces and belched out a putrid cloud of black smoke. Harry waited for it to finish before he asked Dobby to find him some sort of bag to keep the pieces in. The little elf refused to leave until Harry had backed away several rows of junk, remembering his master's first order and not willing to chance it. When Dobby returned with a simple canvas bag Harry collected the pieces of the Horcrux before giving Dobby the Sword of Gryffindor.

"Thank you for your help tonight, Dobby. I couldn't have done this without you. Could you please make sure that the sword is returned to the headmaster's office exactly as it was?" Dobby was blushing with his master's praise but managed to squeak out "Yes, Master Harry." before he popped off. Harry looked fondly at the space where the little guy had been before he threw the cloak over his shoulders and pulled the hood up. He carefully snuck back into Gryffindor Tower, keeping his cloak on until he was safely in bed thanking his luck that the Fat Lady had been too groggy to properly notice the lack of a visible person providing the password. With a satisfied smile Harry fell asleep. He had more exams in the morning and needed to be well rested.

On the final day of exams Harry had History of Magic first thing. It was an exam he was both dreading and looking forward to. It was a horrible subject to study for but he was going to see whether his new approach worked and had decided that this was a better trial run than the O.W.L.s. Next to him Hermione was barely eating as she was completely absorbed in her notes. With a sigh Harry turned to his girlfriend and started prodding her to eat; she would hate to pass out from hunger in the middle of an exam. Just as they were rising to go to their exam Professor McGonagall came walking down the aisle between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables.

"Potter, the champions are congregating in the chamber off the Hall after breakfast," she said.

"But the task's not till tonight!" said Harry, looking at her quizzically.

"I'm aware of that, Potter," she said. "The champions' families are invited to watch the final task, you know. This is simply a chance for you to greet them. Do remember to head to your exam on time after you have finished your greetings."

With that she moved away again. Harry's eyes followed her out of the Great Hall before he turned to Hermione.

"Let's go. We've only got twenty minutes before the exam starts."

"But Harry, didn't you hear what the professor just said? Aren't you going to the chamber?" He could feel Hermione's eyes searching his body language to gauge what he was feeling.

"What I'm going to do is pretend that one of my favourite teachers did not just callously disregard the fact that I don't have any family, or at least none that can come visit me in Hogwarts. Instead I am going to try and get my first decent mark in History of Magic. Coming?" Hermione trailed behind him as he stalked out of the Hall, worry written clearly on her face. Harry of course had another reason for avoiding the family gathering. He knew who he would see there. He had felt betrayed by the bigotry on display in Mrs. Weasley's howler after he and Hermione had gotten together and he certainly didn't think he could hold his temper around the woman. He felt a small hand slip into his and saw his girlfriend walking next to him clearly trying to reassure him. He took a deep breath to calm himself before smiling at her in thanks. Together they headed off to their exam.

After their exam Harry and Hermione walked back to the Great Hall together for lunch. Hermione was grilling him on the answers he had given as usual, trying to find where either of them might have lost points. It certainly wasn't his favourite pastime but knew it was how she dealt with stress and so answered every question she fired off. They were discussing the influence of Urdroot the Unaggressive when they were loudly interrupted.

"HARRY JAMES POTTER! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN YOUNG MAN?!" The two teenagers looked up to see a red-faced Molly Weasley advancing on them. "I know for a fact that Minerva told you we were here! To then ignore us like that, have you no shame?! Clearly her loose, disgusting muggle ways are infesting you if you think it is alright to just blow us off like that!"

Harry realized that he had been right: he was only holding on to his temper by his fingernails as the woman in front of him insulted his girlfriend. As Molly was drawing in a breath to continue her tirade Harry moved in to cut her off.

"Actually, Madam, Professor McGonagall informed me that the champions' families were here, not that I had visitors. You should know that I avoid my muggle relatives as much as possible. Had I known you were here I would have still chosen to attend my exam. You might also remember, Madam, that I myself was raised in the non-magical world and, as such, raised to take offence at bigotry. Taking offence at insults aimed at my girlfriend is entirely my own choice though. Good day."

With that he took Hermione's hand and pulled her out of the Hall and away from a gaping Weasley Matriarch who was still recovering from the cold tone with which the public reprimand had been delivered and a very confused Bill. The strength of Hermione's grip on his hand was enough to tell him that she was also having trouble hanging on to her composure. They didn't speak until they were safely inside the Room of Requirement.

When they entered the room had formed itself into their usual hideaway and Hermione walked to the couch and flopped down on it. Harry was still to wound up to sit down and started pacing. It took a few minutes for Hermione to break the silence.

"I thought I would be ready to face that woman but somehow she still caught me off guard." She said sounding exhausted.

"I can't believe that after all that bigotry she thought she could just waltz in here and claim to be my family!" was the fuming answer.

"I understand, Harry, I do but will you please stop pacing like that? It's getting on my nerves." Harry glared at her for a moment but knowing she wasn't the one he was angry with threw himself down next to her. "Better. Now, how about we eat some lunch and try to focus on the task?" Harry gave her a tired smile and a kiss before calling for Dobby to bring them something to eat. They spent the rest of the day together going over Harry's strategy for in the maze. When it started getting close to dinner time Harry got changed into his dragon-hide armour. Hermione insisted on checking every inch minutely in an effort to reassure herself. She then repeatedly made him promise to not take any unnecessary risks. Harry complied while keeping quiet that he considered deliberately heading into the graveyard a necessary risk. Harry himself felt that spending time with Hermione was the best preparation he could imagine for the final task and the confrontation that would hopefully end the war before it began. He still wasn't sure if he believed Ephialtes about the whole soulmate thing but being with Hermione was a truly wonderful experience.

:-:-:-:-:

When Harry and Hermione went down for dinner Bill and Molly had gone back home. When they entered the Great Hall Harry was tackled by a silver-haired blur that wrapped its arms around his waist.

"'Arry!" Gabrielle cried happily as the two teens smiled down fondly at her.

"Bonjour, Gabrielle. Are you here to watch your sister compete?" Harry hadn't learned a lot of French over the last year but was at least to the point where he could say 'hello' and ask for directions without Fleur collapsing in laughter. The two words in her own language were apparently enough for Gabrielle though as she launched into a whole new story while still looking up at Harry and smiling. By this time Fleur had managed to catch up to her little sister and started berating her in French. Harry wouldn't swear to his understanding of what his French friend was saying but he guessed it was something about not running off in strange places. When she was done she looked up at Harry and smiled.

"I apologize for my sister, 'Arry. She is very excited." the Beauxbatons champion explained. Harry just smiled.

"No harm done, Fleur. Where are we sitting?" Three of the four champions had taken to eating together after the second task and this saw them rotating between the Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables.

"Ze organisers 'ave set up a table for ze champions. Come, meet my papa et maman." Fleur said as she tried to pull a reluctant Gabrielle along. Harry slipped an arm around Hermione and held out a hand to Gabrielle who latched onto it eagerly and started chattering at him again while Fleur rolled her eyes good-naturedly. During a break in the story he couldn't understand Harry looked around the Hall and made eye-contact with Luna. With a jerk of his head he asked her to join them. At the Champions' table Harry was introduced to the Delacours and Mrs. Diggory. The trio spent a greatly enjoyable dinner talking with their friends' families, but everything must end.

As the meal approached its end Dumbledore stood up and announced that the task was about to start and asked the champions to make their way down to the Quidditch pitch. The Great Hall erupted into a cacophony of cheers as everyone shouted encouragement to their favourite champion. Harry was hugged by Luna and Gabrielle before being grabbed even tighter by Hermione who kissed him hard.

"Remember your promise, Champion." she said, barely audible over the noise of the twins setting off fireworks.

"Always, My Lady." With that Harry turned around and left the hall with the other three Tri-Wizard champions. Soon the noise of the Great Hall faded behind them as they left the castle and turned down to the pitch. Once again a tent had been set up to allow everyone to take their seats before the champions made their entrance. As they sat waiting to be announced Harry took a moment to reflect on the changes he made this year. There was a camaraderie between the champions that there had not been last time, he was doing much better in his studies (sure, he already knew most of it but he had been studying Ancient Runes and Arithmancy for the first time and hopefully condensed two years into one), he had already destroyed one Horcrux more than he had at this point last time and would be adding to that tonight, and not unimportantly: he had started dating Hermione and had never been happier. There were also the less welcome changes mostly in his relationships with the Weasleys, or at least some of them.

Harry was brought out of his musings by Lee Jordan's magically enhanced voice announcing that the champions would enter the maze at times specified by their point totals. He needed to focus everything came down to this. He moved to the entrance of the tent and locked eyes with the other champions. He shared a handshake and a smile with Cedric and a hug with Fleur. Krum just scowled and grunted.

"Aaaaand here come your champions. Currently in fourth place, representing Beauxbatons Acadamy: the lovely miss Fleur Delacour!" Fleur noticeably squared her shoulders and thrust out her chest. With a mischievous wink at her fellow competitors she strode out to loud applause.

"In third place, representing Drumstrang Institute, the greatest professional seeker in the world: Mr. Viktor Krum!" Harry was treated to an extra fierce glare at the 'professional' qualification that was added by Lee before Krum stalked out to join Fleur.

"In second place, representing Hogwarts School and Hufflepuff House, the Badgers' Bad Boy: Mr. Cedric Diggory!" Cedric received the loudest applause yet as he walked out of the tent leaving Harry alone.

"And finally, in the lead, representing Hogwarts School and Gryffindor House, the Knight of the Light, the Pride of the Lions and the Boggart of Dark Wizards Everywhere: Mr. Harry James POTTER!" I really should be getting used to that by now. Harry thought as he heard what was probably more than just the Gryffindors joining in the call of his surname. Steeling himself he walked out of the tent and straight into what felt like a wall of noise. Looking around he could see the Quidditch stands had become a riot of Hufflepuff and Gryffindor house colours as the Hogwarts student body seemed entirely prepared to scream their champions to the cup. Flags showing the pierced dragon waved all over the Gryffindor section. He could just make out Hermione and Luna ensconced in the middle of the sea of red and gold waving and cheering. He waved back getting a loud roar in response from a crowd that didn't realize he had meant it for his girls.

"At the whistle Mr. Potter may enter the maze and this final task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament will be underway! Go get 'em, Harry!"

"Jordan!" McGonagall's bark brought smiles to both Harry and Cedric as they were reminded of the matches they had played here before. For the first time Harry felt like they truly had the home field advantage. Turning towards the maze he nodded at the judges and drew his wand. A second later he heard the whistle and headed into the maze.

He had almost forgotten how eerie it was to walk in the gloom and quiet of the maze as it blocked out the noise of the crowd and the stadium's lights. He had no idea of the exact route he took last time and had decided to simply use the same tactic as he had then: using the Point-Me spell to keep going roughly north-west. A few turns later he walked into a wider path. The reason for this was immediately obvious. There was a Blast-Ended Skrewt sitting in the middle of the path. As soon as it saw him it started towards him. Harry said a silent apology to Hagrid before he started casting. "Aguamenti. Glacies!"

The Water Making Charm flooded the area in front of him and the advancing Skrewt. The Freezing Charm turned the whole area into an ice rink and froze the Skrewt's carapace. Harry could see and hear the cracks appearing in the armour but didn't waste time looking at it. He transfigured some sharp spikes onto the bottom of his shoes and started speed-walking across the ice. As he was taking his first steps he heard the whistle again. Cedric was in the maze. Not this time. This time you live.

Once he had crossed the field of ice Harry undid the spell on his shoes and took off once more. At every intersection he checked the Point-Me Spell to make the best decision he could, or at least not get entirely turned around. He hadn't encountered any more obstacles before he heard the third whistle letting him know Krum had joined them. It didn't last though. As he turned the corner he saw a Dementor gliding towards him.

"Expecto Patronum!" Prongs leapt from his wand and immediately charged. The Dementor responded by turning into an avalanche of glowing blue spheres. Prophecy orbs! Months of seeing professor Lupin dealing with his Boggart during their Patronus lessons left Harry unusually well prepared to deal with this. With calm "Riddikulus" all the orbs turned into balloons that shot of haphazardly. Harry privately hoped Lee and the twins got a kick out of that if they could see it. With the way cleared, Harry set off once more. A few minutes later the whistle sounded for the last time. That's all of us.

After several more minutes of no new obstacles appearing Harry felt that Crouch might be clearing the way for him again. His luck was nowhere near good enough for this, he knew that much. Not that he had choice except to keep going. Eventually he reached a floating mist. Rather than the golden one he had encountered last time this one was an ominous pulsating purple and black. Having no intention of taking chances Harry led off with a Disspelling Charm. When that failed to have any effect he decided to try and get rid of the obstacle the way he would any other fog or smoke in his way. "Ventus!" A strong wind rose out of nowhere and mere seconds later the mist was no more. Harry allowed himself to feel a moment of satisfaction at clearing this challenge so easily.

That was shattered by a piercing scream. For a moment he was back in Malfoy Manor and Hermione was being tortured by Bellatrix. With a gargantuan effort he wrenched his mind back to the present moment. Fleur! She sounds close…there! Facing in the direction of the screams Harry launched a Freezing Charm at the hedges followed by a powerful Reductor Curse. Unlike the last time he had tried this he didn't have to scrabble and crawl through the opening he had made. This one was large enough to walk through. Harry chose to dive through to give his opponent as little chance of cursing him as possible. He came up in a kneeling position a brace of Stunners already leaving his wand before he had fully taken in the situation. The thump of a collapsing body told him he had been successful though.

In front of him Fleur was lying on the ground, twitching from the after effects of the Unforgivable. A little beyond her was Krum's unconscious body. Harry quickly Stunned him again before summoning his wand and binding him in conjured ropes. Kneeling next to Fleur he saw her startling blue eyes watching his every move.

"'Arry Potter. I 'ad wished...to finish…zis one task…wizzout...you saving me. It seems…I am truly…not fit...to win...zis competition." He could see the tears forming in her eyes.

"That's not true, Fleur. I don't think anyone of us expected Krum to use that curse on a fellow champion. This is not your fault." It was odd for Harry to be giving that advice for once and he couldn't help but wonder if it sounded as patronizingly ineffective as it always had to him. "Can you continue?"

"Non. I am finished. Will you...'elp me…one last time, 'Arry? I cannot…raise my arm…to fire...ze sparks." Harry slipped an arm around her shoulders as gently as he could and lifted her up before slipping her wand back into her hand. Picking it up by the wrist he lifted it until it pointed skyward. A softly whispered spell later a cloud of red sparks hovered over them. The response was unexpectedly swift. Within a minute Professor McGonagall was landing next to them on a broomstick.

"Mr. Potter. Unless you are quitting this task you should continue on." Harry nodded at his Head of House and gently lowered Fleur back to the ground. Before he could straighten up again she grasped his sleeve.

"You must win zis, 'Arry! You are ze most deserving. Bon chance, mon ami."

"I'll certainly do my best." he reassured her. Standing he handed Krum's wand to McGonagall and with a cheeky salute raced off. He still had to beat Cedric to the cup.

Realizing he had lost a lot of time helping Fleur, Harry decided to go the unorthodox route. Preforming the Point-Me spell once again he turned in the direction it indicated and simply repeated the combination of spells he had used to get through to his French competitor. Three repetitions later he stood in front of a familiar looking sphinx.

"You are close, young one. The fastest way to the cup is past me. If you answer my riddle I will let you pass." Harry thought about it, but somehow doubted that he would get the same riddle as last time and he had no desire to hang around and figure another one out.

"Allow me instead to solve the riddle of your very presence, ma'am." At her raised eyebrow he turned to the hedges and blasted his way through. Hurrying on about a hundred yards he blasted his way back into the original path, waved at the sphinx and hurried on. He swore he could hear her laughing behind him. Putting the foibles of sentient magical creatures out of his mind he hurried onward. It didn't take long for him to see a glow indicating the cup was up ahead. Good, Cedric hasn't been taken. he thought as he tried to force his legs to move faster.

Harry burst into the clearing in a headlong rush. Ahead of him was the cup on its pedestal. He was about two-thirds of the way there when Cedric raced out of a passage to his right. The older boy was also in a dead sprint, his eyes locked on the cup. Dread pooled in Harry's gut as he knew what would happen next. His eyes darted behind Cedric and spotted the Acromantula he knew would be there. Harry flung his wand up and managed to force an incantation from his mouth between gulps of air.

"Aranea Exanima!" Seeing that his spell was racing towards the Acromantula, Harry turned around and resumed his sprint towards the cup; he still had to save Cedric and stop Riddle. Unfortunately for Harry, Cedric saw a wand being aimed at him and, on edge since he had heard Fleur's screams, responded to what he thought was an attack.

"Stupefy!" Even as the white light flashed over Cedric's shoulder and on to its intended target a red light was heading towards the back of Harry's head. Realization spread across Cedric's face as his eyes followed Harry's spell to the giant magical spider that had been about to take him out. He whipped back around to call out his thanks, an apology or a warning, he wasn't sure which. It all became irrelevant as the Stunner slammed into Harry and knocked him off his feet. The momentum of the younger champion's mad dash carried him forward as his feet left the ground.

Harry was sure he was going to be able to meet one or more of his major goals since appearing in this timestream when something struck him in the back of the head. He felt himself slam into something hard. And as darkness took him he felt a jerk behind his navel.

Chapter Text

"Stupefy!" Even as the white light flashed over Cedric's shoulder and on to its intended target a red light was heading towards the back of Harry's head. Realization spread across Cedric's face as his eyes followed Harry's spell to the giant magical spider that had been about to take him out. He whipped back around to call out his thanks, an apology or a warning, he wasn't sure which. It all became irrelevant as the Stunner slammed into Harry and knocked him off his feet. The momentum of the younger champion's mad dash carried him forward as his feet left the ground.

Harry was sure he was going to be able to meet one or more of his major goals since appearing in this timestream when something struck him in the back of the head. He felt himself slam into something hard. And as darkness took him he felt a jerk behind his navel.


Harry woke to an ear-splitting, persistent scream. He couldn't figure out exactly who was doing the screaming as his mind was consumed with pain. Nothing else existed for what seemed like hours. When it finally subsided the tremors and spasms rocking through his body as well as the lingering ache in every part of his body identified what had just happened and his sore throat told him who had been screaming.

As he managed to focus through the pain he realized something was holding him upright. Looking around he saw a giant cauldron. In front of it stood a hunched figure with stringy blond hair and watery blue eyes holding a squirming bundle. He was in the graveyard, tied to Riddle Sr.'s headstone. Damn it, Cedric! I was supposed to arrive here awake, you prick! Even Wormtail could beat an unconscious man and now Harry was in a situation he had desperately wanted to avoid.

"Harry Potter, welcome. I will join you in a moment. Wormtail!" At the bundles command Pettigrew walked over to the cauldron and tipped it in. Harry knew what was coming next but was powerless to stop it. Damn Pettigrew for being a traitor and Riddle for being the kind of sick bastard who uses a bloody Cruciatus when an Ennervation Charm would have worked.

"Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son." Harry watched as the trail of bone dust floated from the grave to the cauldron.

"Flesh…of the servant…w-willingly given…you will…revive…your master." As Pettigrew's scream tore through the graveyard Harry couldn't help but wish him every bit of the pain he was feeling. As soon as the traitor had recovered and cleaned the knife he stumbled over to where Harry was immobilized. Harry briefly toyed with the idea of offering his blood willingly but had learned enough about magic to know that it was the intent that mattered and he could never actually want Riddle back in his body, torturing and killing innocents. He settled for coldly glaring and the sniveling coward in front of him.

"B-blood of the enemy...forcibly taken...you will...resurrect your foe." Harry made sure not to react to his sleeve being pushed up or the cold steel biting into his flesh. He wanted Wormtail to feel every ounce of contempt Harry held for him. The little weasel stumbled back over to the cauldron. Knowing to expect a blinding flash Harry squeezed his eyes shut. When he heard Pettigrew's gasp he opened them again and saw Tom Marvolo Riddle once again in the flesh.

"Robe me." Wormtail scurried to obey his master's command. Harry meanwhile started trying to plan his way out of this mess. Plan A had gone to the dogs the moment he arrived here unconscious. Plan B had been to rely on the Priori Incantatem effect to throw Riddle off guard and make his escape. The after-effects of the Cruciatus made purposefully aiming for one of Riddle's curses a suicidal undertaking. That left Plan C: wing it and hope for an opening to get to the cup and portkey the hell out of here. From now on that was his only objective and even that was a world away until he got out these bindings and preferably got his wand back. A whimper of pain from Wormtail brought his attention back to the dark wizards in front of him. Pettigrew was kneeling in front of Voldemort who had his wand pressed to the Dark Mark on his slave's arm.

"How many will be brave enough to return when they feel it?" he whispered, his gleaming red eyes fixed upon the stars. "And how many will be foolish enough to stay away?" He turned his gaze to Harry.

"Ah, Harry Potter. My most faithful has told me of you. Of your remarkable growth this year. When I heard of your fight with a dragon I was…impressed. I will teach you however that a dragon is nothing compared to the wrath of Lord Voldemort. Crucio!" Once again pain consumed Harry's awareness blocking out any sense of time or his surroundings. When the curse lifted Harry was desperately sucking in ragged breaths and the trembling of his limbs had worsened.

"Look, Harry Potter, they have come to me. After all these years they still obey me. More than magic, this is power." With that he swept away and Harry tried to take the chance to get his body back under control. If the ropes were removed now he would likely just collapse.

Riddle meanwhile was playing to the crowd. Harry had to admit that the old bastard knew how to work a stage. He wondered to himself how much time Riddle had spent in his demented baby form practicing this. While Harry's mind wandered Riddle had moved on to torturing his minions. Harry was just grateful that the bastard was naming them. He remembered the letter he had sent a week ago and thought there was still something he could do to change the course of the war to come. Assuming he managed to once again beat the odds and get out of here alive. A flash of silver caught his eye and he saw that Wormtail was receiving his new hand. That meant that Harry was about to be dragged into this production.

"It would seem that I have been neglecting you, Harry Potter." the sibilant voice hissed. "That simply will not do for the guest of honor and I am always an appropriate host." He turned to face the gathered Death Eaters again. "For thirteen years you thought this boy could destroy me…you thought him my equal. Tonight you will be proven wrong." Harry couldn't restrain himself.

"You mean you're finally going to tell them that you are the son of a muggle and a squib and less of pureblood than I am? About time, Tommy-boy." When Voldemort whirled around to face Harry his eyes were glowing a malevolent red.

"You insufferable boy! Crucio!" For the third time that night Harry's senses where overwhelmed by pain. He hung limply in the ropes once the curse was ended. The spasms were coming fast and thick now.

"Well, Harry Potter, what do you say now?" Harry looked up at his tormentor and spit out a glob of red saliva at Riddle's feet before answering.

"Didn't hear…a 'no'...in there." For a second Harry thought Voldemort was going to curse him again, but at the last moment something changed in the Dark Lord's gaze.

"The Sorting Hat placed you well, boy. You are brave, I said as much last time we met, but you are also foolish. You survived me twice with luck and your mudblood mother's blessing. No more, Harry Potter." One long spindly finger reached out and touched him on his scar, "The touch that burned me is gone, your protection is gone; and to ensure that there will never again be doubts we will duel. Once you have begged me for death I will bestow on you the gift of finally meeting your parents. Your mudblood I will send your corpse to weep over." The last sentence set Harry's blood to boiling and he glared ferociously at his tormentor. Riddle seemed pleased to be on the receiving end of Harry's venomous look. "Very good, boy, that defiance will make you most entertaining. Wormtail!"

Pettigrew scuttled up to the two antagonists and, at a gesture from his master, tore through the ropes letting Harry collapse to the ground. His wand landed in front of him a moment later. Harry immediately reached out and grasped it. The situation had just gone from impossible to untenable and it actually made him feel a bit better. He struggled to his feet never letting his knees touch the ground. He was not going to kneel in front this psychopath if he had anything to say about it.

"Excellent, Harry. Now first, we bow." Voldemort's upper body bent slightly but his gaze never left Harry's. Harry kept his back straight as best he could with the tremors running through his body. "That won't do at all, Harry Potter, such a lack of manners. Imperio!" A feeling of calm washed over the teenage wizard. For just a moment there was no pain, no fear. It was this calm that allowed him to notice that the Death Eaters hadn't circled around them yet. They were standing behind their master in clusters, it looked like they were setting up a betting pool.

"Now bow, Harry Potter, bow before your Lord." Before his body could even begin to react Harry snapped the curse. It did however give him an opening and he started casting before his wand was fully raised.

"Confringo! Diffindo! Reducto! Coracis! Bombarda!" spell after spell he chained together. Exploding Curse. Cutting Curse. Reductor, Siege Engine and Blasting Curse. All of them extremely destructive even if they didn't hit exactly what he was aiming at. The first spell hit the ground in front of Riddle throwing up a spray of dirt and surprising the Dark Lord enough that he stumbled back a few paces. The rest tore into the waiting Death Eaters. Amid the screaming and the blood Harry ducked behind Riddle Sr.'s headstone.

Someone had gathered their wits, however and sent a Blasting Curse at Harry's cover blasting it into rubble. The fact that the force of the explosion sent Harry bouncing back several yards made him think it was probably Voldemort who threw that. The rest of them soon followed their master and a veritable avalanche of spells was heading for Harry as he scrambled to find some more cover. Between dodging and shielding he managed to avoid most of the curses but he didn't have perfect control. Half a dozen curses splashed against his armour and dissipated before his luck ran out and the armour started giving out. A cutting curse glanced across his back feeling like someone had laid a red-hot piece of iron across his skin. He flung up his left hand to catch a Bone Exploding Curse that would have left his head looking like it had been used as Fluffy's chew toy. A blasting curse hit him just as he was diving for cover and flung him behind a different tomb than he had been planning to use. Since fire was now being concentrated on his intended hiding place Harry was actually considering placing that curse in his 'good luck column' for the night. I need a way to hide. The thought passed through his mind and Harry almost slapped himself before tapping himself on the head with his wand. Thankfully he had worn his robes over his armour allowing the spell to take hold there rather than being broken up by the dragon-hide's spell resistance. As he slowly faded from view he forced himself to get up and keep moving. Every so often he would throw a curse at the Death Eaters who had spread out and were clearly annoyed at the fact that their prey was proving so elusive. His use of silent casting meant that it took them a moment to locate the source of the curse allowing him to move on safely.

Since he had no idea where the Tri-Wizard cup was Harry didn't dare summon it. He couldn't take the chance of his ride out of here being shredded by the hail of curses flying every which way. He was back to desperately searching for a glint. Just as he thought he saw something by the giant cauldron he heard a hiss behind him and flung himself to the side. Nagini's fangs flashed through the air where he had been a second earlier. Harry saw the snake's tongue flick out as it gathered itself after the failed strike. Shit. Snakes hunt their prey by tasting the air with their tongues. She won't care that I'm invisible. Just as Nagini raised herself for another strike Harry managed to get over his shock.

Harry's curse flew true and the snake's head went flying. Nagini's death meant the end of another Horcrux. Unfortunately killing the Horcrux the usual side-effect: an ear-piercing shriek of agony. Harry couldn't wait any longer and broke into an all-out sprint towards the cauldron. The curses fell silent around him as everyone stopped to identify the scream. Judging by Voldemort's face he already had a fairly good idea.

"Get over there! Sssurround the little ssshit! If you let him essscape I will take it out of your hidesss!" The Dark Lord was so furious that he almost slipped into parseltongue as he hissed out his orders. In the face of their master's rage the Death Eaters rushed over to surround the area the scream had come from and started waving their arms in front of them trying to find an invisible teenager who was no longer there.

Harry in the meantime had reached the cauldron and was looking around desperately for the glint he had seen earlier. Something flashed to his right and the seeker whipped around to it his wand coming up, a summoning spell already on his lips. That changed as he registered that it was a silver hand, not a cup. Wormtail had apparently stayed behind to 'provide cover'. The red flash of Harry's stunner lit up the night as it slammed into the cowardly traitor. Diving for the body of one of his most hated enemies Harry gave up all pretense of stealth and shouted out "Accio Cup!" hoping that the glint he had seen earlier had indeed been the cup and not Pettigrew's hand. The relief he felt when the cup soared towards him from the base of the cauldron mere yards away was intense.

The flash of spellfire had not gone unnoticed however and every Death Eater was watching Pettigrew's collapsed body when Harry's first vocalized spell in minutes gave his position and intentions away. A hail of spells rained down on Harry and Pettigrew. Several missed them all together, one or two slammed into Wormtail and a few struck Harry; only one made it through the remaining protection of Harry's armour. He felt Riddle's Bone Shattering Curse hit his right knee just as the cup slammed into his shoulder. His grip on Wormtail never loosened as he was dragged away by a hook behind his navel. The last thing he saw as he disappeared was Voldemort's enraged countenance and a green light that wouldn't reach them before they vanished.

:-:-:-:-:

The Portkey slammed Harry and Pettigrew into the ground in front of the maze hard enough that he couldn't suppress a cry of pain as the shards of what used to be his knee and hand were ground into the surrounding flesh. All around him people were running around in a panic caused by Cedric Diggory coming out of the maze yelling that Harry Potter had been Portkeyed out by the Tri-Wizard cup. Even in that chaos though there was one person who not only heard his voice, but recognized it as well.

"Harry!" It was just as well he was already flat on his back as Hermione Granger, smartest witch of the age, slammed into her boyfriend at high speed drawing another whimper of pain from him. "Oh, god. Oh, Harry, are you all right? Are you hurt? What happened?" Her hair was bushier than he had seen it in a long time, her eyes were red, puffy and still overflowing with tears and worry and her cheeks were tearstained. In that moment Harry thought that there had never been a more beautiful sight.

"H-hey, M-m-my L-l-lady." he managed, trying to smile reassuringly through the spasms. His girlfriend just tightened her hold and buried her face in his neck as she completely broke down. Behind her the message was flying fast through the crowd: "Harry Potter is back!" Eventually this drew the running forms of Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall and Snape.

"Mr. Potter!" The relief in Minerva McGonagall's voice was obvious to everyone within hearing distance. "Are you alright? What happened?"

"All in good time, Minerva. I believe that mister Potter could do with some medical attention and a little privacy first." The twinkling eyes of the Hogwarts headmaster told the world that he too was undeniably grateful to see his student back in one piece. "Perhaps we could get the rest of the students moving to the Great Hall? It is more comfortable and they can all share in the comfort of a cup of warm cocoa. I shall fetch Madam Pomfrey."

At that suggestion the teachers started shepherding the students away from the portkey landing site. Professor McGonagall took one final look at the two teens entwined on the ground as if to make sure that Harry was really back and not going anywhere before she joined the rest of the staff. No move was made to pry Hermione away from her chosen position.

As the crowd started to disperse around them Hermione felt Harry's body relax slightly. She didn't even consider letting go though. Not when he was warm and there and alive! Their contact was a reassurance she desperately needed. She was surprised when he tensed up again at the approach of uneven footsteps. Confused she looked over her shoulder but she only saw Professor Moody hobbling up to them. On second thought the grin on his face was disturbing but maybe he felt in his element with all this chaos and mystery. What really disturbed her was the way his real eye widened and the grin slid off his face when caught sight of a living Harry. His hand shot into his pocket and he didn't even have his wand all the way clear before he began his incantation.

"Avada-" He never finished it though as several red bolts shot out from around her hip. Two of them slammed into the retired auror. Two of them slammed into ministry workers she didn't recognize but who were clearly hanging around for the free show. The last one sailed clear over everyone and everything. Shocked she glanced down and realized that her boyfriend was still holding his wand in his trembling hand. Looking up she saw that his eyes had gone hard as he looked at their Defense Professor. Wondering what else she had missed in her worry over him she started analyzing their surroundings and quickly found something that needed explaining.

"Harry. Is that…is that Peter Pettigrew?" The pained grin on Harry's face told her everything she needed to know. The same could apparently not be said for other people.

"What?! Pettigrew is supposed to be dead!" Hermione reflected that it is hard to keep a hold of someone lying on the ground who certainly wasn't making any moves to get up and keeping an eye on your surroundings. "And why is Moody stunned?"

"Professor Moody was drawing his wand on us and had already started the incantation for the Killing Curse when Harry stunned him. We found out that Pettigrew was alive and a Death Eater last year but the minister wouldn't believe us when we told him. How Harry managed to capture him, I have no idea." Hermione had her own wand out by now and was standing protectively over Harry, eying the woman in front of her speculatively. She had short grey hair, a square jaw and a monocle in one eye. She was surrounded by several people who, judging by their robes, were aurors for the ministry as well as several people wearing grey cloaks with their hoods up. "Who are you, ma'am?"

"Madam Amelia Bones, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Mr. Potter sent me an owl asking me to attend tonight as there had been several, ah, mistakes since his name was entered under suspicious circumstances. It would appear he was right to be worried." Hermione's eyes went wide as she remembered the message that Harry had sent off a week ago with Hedwig. Bones had turned to one of her aurors, "Check Moody's wand before you wake him up."

"N-n-no. S-s-spy." Harry had apparently decided to make his opinion known, earning him a stern look from the head of the DMLE. Just as she was opening her mouth she was interrupted by her own auror.

"Ma'am! Mad-Eye's last spell was the Imperious!" Bones' monocle popped out of her eye when she heard that tidbit. "What the hell is going on here?! Secure him! Pettigrew too! We are getting to the bottom of this, no matter what!" Four of the aurors moved as if she had scalded them, immediately casting binding spells and summoning wands, portkeys, potions and anything else that could help their prisoners get away. Once they were done they levitated the two men away. Bones in the meantime returned her attention to the person who seemed to be at the center of all this drama. "Mr. Potter are you able to talk about what happened tonight?"

"T-t-take m-memory. D-d-dumbledore h-has P-p-pensieve."

That statement shocked everyone who heard it. One of the grey-cloaked figures stepped forward. "Does he now? That is very interesting." Hermione was about to ask what a Pensieve was and why the headmaster having one was so interesting but never got the chance as everyone was distracted by a commotion at the rear of the group. The source was soon found as Madam Pomfrey appeared, shoving aurors away in her haste to get to her most frequent patient.

"Move it, you lumps! There is an injured student here!" To Hermione's great surprise and amusement the aurors that jumped out of the matron's way managed to look sheepish doing it. Her amusement lasted right up to the point that she herself was pulled away. "I need room to work, girl. If you want to help you can hand me the potions I need!" Hermione decided that was the best she was going to get and wrenched open the bag the healer had brought with her.

In the meantime Professor Dumbledore, who had followed behind Madam Pomfrey, was being confronted by the men in grey cloaks. "Chief Warlock we have learned that you have in your possession a Pensieve. A restricted item that our department only loans out under certain conditions and always keeps very careful track of. It just so happens that one was stolen some fifteen years ago. Care to comment on that?" Dumbledore's face showed his shock that anyone knew about his Pensieve.

"Mr. Potter is currently unable to give testimony about what happened tonight and has offered us his memory of events. We're going to need that Pensieve regardless of how you obtained it." At that revelation the headmaster's gaze turned towards Harry who was currently on a stretcher being levitated by a very worried looking Pomfrey.

"He'll not be hanging around here for you to play around with." she snapped at the onlookers. "You can bring whatever contraption this is to the hospital wing and if it won't interfere with his healing you may let Mr. Potter use it." She and Hermione left the pitch at a run floating Harry ahead of them.

"Bode! Go with them and explain the memory retrieval process to Madam Pomfrey." One of the cloaked figures nodded and hurried off after the retreating women. "Chief Warlock, the rest of us will be accompanying you as you retrieve the device so our property does not become…lost…on its way to your hospital wing. Madam Bones, we will see you there." The rest of the Unspeakables left with a very chagrined looking Dumbledore. Madam Bones and the aurors following behind them. On the way to the castle a voice caught their attention.

"Madam Bones! Madam Bones! What is going on here? The French and the Bulgarians are demanding explanations for the mess this turned into. I will not have the ministry looking bad over this!" Madam Bones managed to restrain a sigh as Minister Fudge came running up to them, face red with exertion and one hand on his green bowler hat to keep it in place.

"We are heading to find that out now, Minister. Perhaps you would like to join us?" She was not prepared to ask him about what that girl had said about Pettigrew. She wanted more information before she waded into that mire.

"Yes. Yes, I think that would be best." Madam Bones somehow also managed to find the willpower not to roll her eyes at her superior's pomposity.

:-:-:-:-:

In the hospital wing Hermione was sitting next to Harry's bed under Professor McGonagall's watchful eye. Experience had taught the Gryffindor Head of House where to expect this night to end and she had come to learn what had happened to her charge and exactly what had gone wrong this time. In a corner Unspeakable Bode was doing his best to convince Madam Pomfrey to hold off on giving her patient a Dreamless Sleep Potion until after the memory of the night was extracted and having limited success at best. Harry was drifting off as it was, barely able to keep his eyes open now that the adrenaline was fading and his injuries were healing. Bode was in luck as the doors to the infirmary opened and a small army trouped in.

As the pensive was being set up at the foot of Harry's bed the lead Unspeakable came over to talk to him. "Mr. Potter, I will need you to remember what you wish to show us. Really focus on it. I will place my wand to your temple and cast the retrieval spell. Do you understand?" A weak nod was his answer. A second later Harry closed his eyes and the Unspeakable gently placed his wand where he said he would. As he drew it away a long silvery thread followed it. Hermione was a little disappointed that she hadn't been able to learn more of this spell but mostly fascinated with the whole process. The silver strand was dropped in the Pensieve.

"Mr. Potter do we have your permission to view this memory?" Another nod.

"Good, if that is all, Mr. Potter needs to take his potion now." Clearly madam Pomfrey was done postponing treatment as she immediately placed the vial she was holding to Harry's lips and poured it in. She hadn't even lifted it away when his body went slack, finally getting the rest it desperately needed. That done the adults all gathered around the Pensieve and extended fingers to touch the silvery substance within. One by one they disappeared from the Hospital wing until even Madam Pomfrey and Professor McGonagall were gone. Hermione gaze flicked between Harry and the Pensieve until her curiosity became too much and she reached out her own finger.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione landed in what she realized must be the maze. Hedges towered over her on either side. Ahead of her the group of aurors, Unspeakables and teachers were following along behind Harry. Well, Memory-Harry at any rate. This was absolutely fascinating, she was actually walking in one of Harry's memories. A quick pass of one hand through a hedge confirmed that she couldn't interact with this world. Of course I can't. It's already happened.

Hermione hurried to catch up to the other observers. As she turned the corner she froze. Harry was facing off with largest damn skrewt she had ever seen. If that thing hurt my Harry I'm asking Bones to destroy the rest! She needn't have worried. Harry was magnificent. Hermione was especially impressed with his mastery of the Water Making Charm, they weren't supposed to learn that until sixth year. If she was reading Professor McGonagall's face right she was equally impressed though that could be down to the casual use of transfiguration on his shoes proving that he was really internalizing her teachings.

Harry's encounter with the Boggart confused her even if she felt he acquitted himself brilliantly. She saw that several of the Unspeakables were agitated at its second form and couldn't help but wonder why. There was a group that was really kicking her curiosity into high gear. When they came to the mist she hoped Harry would be smart enough to not run headlong into an unknown static spell. He surprised her with the use of yet another N.E.W.T. level spell. Harry, you've been holding out on me. Judging by the comments from the group ahead they were just as impressed.

All conversation was abruptly broken off at the screams that suddenly sounded through the maze. Hermione almost sighed as she watched Harry act exactly as she might expect in that situation: he rushed to the rescue. Watching him with Fleur made her a little uncomfortable. She knew he was only helping someone in need but couldn't stop her insecurities from playing up as she concluded that Fleur looked unsurpassably beautiful, even after being tortured. She appreciated the French girl's encouragement though.

She had to stifle a small snicker when she saw that Harry had apparently had enough of playing by the rules. She didn't actually have to worry about being overheard as several aurors were braying with laughter at the display. She thought most of the adults looked amused even if the Unspeakables were hard to read with all their covering. She was disappointed that she didn't get to hear the riddle of the Sphinx but thought Harry's solution put Oedipus to shame. She was glad the Sphinx thought so too as she wouldn't have wanted to witness a battle between the two.

Finally she saw Harry sprinting for the cup and was surprised to find herself silently urging him on. She almost cursed when she saw Cedric burst out of the passage. Several of the aurors did curse when they saw the acromantula. Harry managed to kill the damn thing with a spell she had never even heard of. You are tutoring me when you are up and about again, Potter. As she watched the red stunner hitting Harry's head and slamming him into the cup she made another resolution: Cedric Diggory was going to get slapped. The colours around her started to swirl before everything went black except the people who had entered the Pensieve. She hoped cover would soon reemerge as she had nowhere to hide if her professors decided to start looking about.

The world erupted around her accompanied by the most heart-wrenching screams she had ever heard. The source was easily identified. Harry was bound to a massive tombstone and thrashing about clearly under the effects of the Cruciatus.

"Harry! NO!" Her cry burst from her lips before she could stop it and she started sprinting towards him. Everyone turned to look at her in surprise, but she didn't care. Harry was suffering, she needed to help, she needed to do something.

"Miss Granger! Hermione!" Suddenly her cheek stung and she blinked. She realized her Head of House was standing in front of her, holding her shoulders and clearly worried. Somewhere in the back of her mind she noticed the screaming had stopped and Harry was using the ropes around himself to keep himself upright. "Miss Granger, you should leave here. This is unlikely to be pleasant." Hermione just shook her head.

"If Harry had to live through this I can manage watching." Her voice was determined even if it contained a slight quiver. Professor McGonagall looked like she was going to overrule her student before examining her for a moment. Whatever the elderly professor had been looking for she apparently found before nodding and slipping an arm around Hermione's shoulders and drawing her along to the rest of the group. They ended up standing next to a female auror with pink hair who looked over at her and winked before turning back to the ritual that was being performed. The Unspeakables and several older aurors hadn't stopped scribbling down notes on what they were seeing.

Voldemort's rebirth caused exclamations of fear, revulsion and horror from the group. Harry's second Cruciatus of the night was met with screams of abuse at Voldemort, mostly from Hermione. When the Dark Lord lifted the curse Hermione noticed that the ropes were supporting all of Harry's weight now. She missed most of the interaction between Voldemort and the Death Eaters, busy as she was trying to catalogue every change of expression on Harry's face. The aurors were scribbling faster than ever trying to record every last name and crime mentioned. Voldemort hadn't had the time to cast the Imperius on anybody yet so these scumbags were here of their own free will.

Harry's goading of the Dark Lord and his response to the third Cruciatus had many of the aurors looking at him with serious respect showing on their faces. Hermione saw that Professor McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey had tears streaming down their faces. Voldemort's declaration that they would duel brought hisses from most of those present. One grizzled auror spat on the ground.

"Aye sure, torture the lad before ye dare 'n face him. Coward." He got several grunts and quite a few looks usually reserved for dangerous lunatics. When Harry stood on trembling legs Hermione heard the pink haired auror gasp.

"Circe's tits. He's still going to get up and fight?" The awe and respect rang clear in her voice. Hermione thought the people who didn't know Harry personally might be reaching a saturation level from their exposure to the inhuman force of will that was Harry James Potter. Their reaction to his breaking of the Imperius never made it over the sounds of battle. Hermione was horrified watching her boyfriend fight for his life as death flew through the air in brightly colored lights. The snake's fate caused everyone a lot of confusion except for the headmaster who felt only surprise and satisfaction that another Horcrux was gone. The swirling colors that signaled Harry's escape were met with raucous cheering. Even some of the ever stoic Unspeakables got in on the act. The greatest surprise to Hermione would always be her Head of House screaming something that sounded like a Gaellic war-cry, not that she planned to ask. At this point she just wanted to get back to Harry. She had to hold him to make sure he was alright. After what she had just seen Madam Pomfrey's scans could take a long walk off a short pier as far as reassurances were concerned.

Hermione's reaction to Harry's arrival at Hogwarts earned her a soft punch in the shoulder and a slight smile from the pink haired auror.

"That's it, girl. Get your man." Hermione couldn't quite manage a smile in response. Moody clearly starting a Killing Curse caused some hard looks to be exchanged between the aurors. That was also the last event Harry had submitted for the pensieve and everyone felt themselves rise out as the memory ended.

:-:-:-:-:

The large group once again filled the Hogwarts Hospital Wing as the Pensieve disgorged an emotionally wrung out group on the floor. Hermione and Madam Pomfrey were the first to recover as they raced to Harry's side to make sure he was really alright. The rest of them slowly gathered themselves.

"We'll need to prepare for war. Send out notice to every auror, reserve and Hit Wizard we've got. We're about to be so deep in it we'll need every hand on deck." Madam Bones had seen enough in that pensieve to convince her that the wizarding world could be on the brink of destruction within months. "Get me warrants for the arrest of every dirt-bag in that cemetery tonight. I want them on my desk by morning. Speaking of that cemetery, find out where it is and go do damage control. The muggles won't know what to think with the place looking like a sodding battlefield." Aurors were already starting to move to obey her when another voice sounded.

"NO!" Everyone turned to see the red-faced, furious Minister for Magic, "We will not be wasting valuable ministry resources on some deluded boy's fantasy! It is impossible for a dead man to come back. All aurors stand down. You will not be getting warrants to disturb some of the most respected members of our community. If anyone should be arrested it's that boy." The shock was universal. Here was the most powerful man in Magical Britain denying the evidence of his own eyes.

"Are you suggesting that Mr. Potter's Cruciatus exposure came from some kind of daydream, Minister?" Professor McGonagall's scorn was as pronounced as her accent when she addressed the little man in front of her. The Minister only floundered for a second.

"It was probably Black. He tortured the boy and Memory Charmed him. It's the only thing that makes sense."

"Cornelius, surely you can see that-"

"AHEM!" A very angry Madam Pomfrey was glaring at everyone in her ward not currently in a bed. "If this is going to turn into a political discussion you can all bloody well find somewhere else to hold it. This is a Hospital and my patients require peace and rest. Get out!" It took Dumbledore gently guiding the minister out to get things moving in the end. Next were the Unspeakables who took the pensieve with them. Just before they left the leader turned to Madam Bones.

"You may call upon the Department of Mysteries, Amelia. That was no forged memory." With that they all left. Before any of the aurors could move to leave the grizzled one who had spit at Voldemort's treatment of Harry spoke up.

"Madam Director, I would like volunteer meself for the guardin' o' the lad. He'll no need it when he's awake but he en't learnt to cast while sleeping yet." This got some chuckles from his colleagues. "I'll make sure as none get to him save his Healer an' that lass o' his. I en't for tellin' him I laid hands on his miss after all that." That got more chuckles and the pink haired auror raised her hand.

"I'll volunteer as well, Madam Bones." Bones simply nodded.

"All right, Montrose, Tonks. I'll send relief in the morning. No one except for Poppy, Minerva, myself and the young lady comes near him. Not even the Minister or Dumbledore, got that." Montrose snorted.

"If'n the fruitcake wants the lad arrested he can try it his ainself. He'll no be getting' help from any as hear what happened tonight. As for Dumbledore, I figure the grey cloaks'll keep him busy. Otherwise we'll give Minnie a call." He finished with a wink at McGonagall who rolled her eyes at him.

"Have ye no changed yet, Ambrose?" she asked him with a smile, getting a grin in return. Madam Bones decided to wrap up.

"Right, I'll go try and smack some sense into the fruitcake, I mean the Minister. The rest of you start notifying anyone who you're sure isn't in the Minister's or You-Know-Who's pocket. Now, move out." With that all the aurors who weren't standing guard over one of the most dangerous fighters they had ever seen left the hospital wing and quiet descended once again. It was broken very quietly by Madam Pomfrey.

"Minerva? What should we do about that?" Minerva looked where the Hogwarts Healer was pointing. There, sleeping in the bed next to Harry Potter and holding on to him like he might float away at any moment, was Hermione Granger. Minerva almost groaned. She didn't actually want to deal with this. Finally she decided to leave well enough alone and simply enlarged the bed and conjured a frame around Potter's knee to ensure nothing disturbed the healing process.

"Let them know tomorrow that this exception is only because of the extraordinary events they've been through tonight. I have to go address the Great Hall since Albus is off playing politician. Oh, and Ambrose, stop smirking." Her command had precisely no effect on the old auror.

Chapter Text

Harry woke up to a murmur of voices, a deep ache in every part of his body and an unexpected weight resting on his chest. A groan clawed its way out of his throat and the murmur stopped and was replaced by a single shout for Madam Pomfrey. The weight on his chest shifted and started talking in a worried voice.

"Harry! Just hang on a moment. Madam Pomfrey is coming to check you over, okay?" He knew that voice.

"...mi...?" His throat was refusing to properly form the sounds he wanted and only croaked out one syllable of Hermione's name.

"Shhh. I'm here Harry." He could feel fingers running through his hair and tried to force his eyelids open but they felt like they were made of lead. Every other part of his body was trembling and occasionally twitching and jerking as the after effects of the Cruciatus still had him in their grip.

"Miss Granger, I need you to get off of Mister Potter so I can examine him." Madam Pomfrey's voice sounded from somewhere above him. Harry felt the weight on his chest move and lift away as the bed shifted slightly. A moment later he felt magic washing over him, probing and searching through his body for injuries.

"Well, Mr. Potter, your broken bones are mending well. You will need to exercise your hand and knee gently over the coming week to make sure there are no problems going forward. The wound on your back has closed nicely, though I'm afraid you will have a scar." Harry tried to shrug his shoulders to indicate that another scar wasn't a major issue but he wasn't sure that he succeeded. "The damage to your throat requires another potion and you need to speak as little as possible. I also have another Pain Relieving Potion to help with any pain you are feeling from that. It won't help against the pain you are feeling from the Cruciatus, I'm afraid; nothing will. That disgusting curse is unforgivable for a reason and only time will help you recover." She fell silent for a moment and Harry felt a vial being pressed to his lips. He swallowed the contents eagerly for a change as he was ready to feel some relief anywhere. After he had drunk both potions Harry finally managed to ease his eyes open.

He could see Madam Pomfrey standing next to the bed watching him carefully. Just beyond her stood Hermione looking anxious. Harry tried to smile reassuringly but had the nagging suspicion that it came off as a grimace. Hermione and Madam Pomfrey certainly didn't look in any way comforted from what he could see. Embarrassed by his infirmity Harry tried to distract himself by looking around. Madam Pomfrey had apparently set up privacy screens around his bed giving him a rather monotonous view until a shock of pink entered his view. Harry froze as his eyes locked on to the mother of his godson. Seeing his shock Hermione tried to help.

"Harry, this is Auror Tonks. She and Auror Montrose have been standing guard here tonight to keep people from bothering you." Harry managed to recover while Hermione was speaking and was able to nod somewhat to Tonks' greeting.

"Wotcher, Mr. Potter. We're expecting Madam Bones back here anytime now. She went back to the ministry to interview the dirt-bags you captured. Amazing job on that last night by the way." Tonks' tone of voice was a little overawed and overly respectful for Harry's liking.

"Pleasure…Tonks. Harry…please." Talking was still difficult with all the damage the Cruciatus had done to his nervous system but Harry was pleased to note that his throat was at least up to producing more than a croak now. Tonks scowled a little at Harry's answer before looking over at the other side of the bed.

"Fine. You were right." she said sulkily. Harry followed the auror's gaze to find a smug looking Hermione. At Harry's look of surprise, Hermione started explaining.

"Auror Tonks was talking to me, well, teasing me really. She asked me if I was sure I wanted to keep dating you since after…after last night, you were going to get a really big head." Hermione was clearly having trouble talking about the events after the third task and, considering which bits she had witnessed, that probably meant she had entered the Pensieve. "I told Auror Tonks that you wouldn't change because of a fight with a dark wizard and she told me I didn't know teenage boys. I told her she didn't know you. We agreed to put it to the test by having her treat you with excessive deference. I told her you would ask her to stop that right away." Hermione's smug little grin was back on her face by the time she finished telling Harry about her conversation before he woke up.

"Should've known you'd know him that well given you're already sleeping together." Tonks shot back proving to Harry that his body might be damaged but that he was still fully capable of blushing. Hermione had gone even redder and was sputtering out incomplete words.

"Not…doing…that." Harry managed. He had missed that wicked smirk Tonks wore so often when he had woken up, now he was wondering why.

"You may have been out of it, Loverboy, but old Montrose and I got to spend the night watching the two of you snuggling up together. Never knew McGonagall allowed that sort of thing or I would have asked to be resorted." Tonks was clearly having the time of her life teasing the two teenagers. Hermione was quick to defend her favourite professor though.

"Professor McGonagall wouldn't condone any inappropriate behaviour! You heard Madam Pomfrey: it was only due to special circumstances and a t-traumatic experience!" Hermione's voice went a little shrill at the end, but Tonks just smirked.

"Who are you trying to convince, Hermione?" she asked. Hermione's gaping would have amused Harry at any other time but her distress when referring to last night's events was more important in his opinion. Making eye contact with Hermione he asked as concisely as he could "Pensieve?"

Hermione looked stricken at his reminder of what she had seen. "Oh Harry, I am so sorry but I just wanted to know what had happened to you and you didn't seem to mind everyone else going in."

"Not…angry. Concerned. Are…you…alright?" Both women were looking open-mouthed at the young man who was so injured he could barely speak asking if one of them was alright.

"Honestly, Harry? No. I am not alright. I watched you get tortured by that disgusting sadist last night and I couldn't do anything to help you. You almost died last night, Harry, and that terrifies me." Seeing the tears in her eyes Harry raised a shaking arm in an offer comfort. Hermione just took his hand and gently pushed it back onto the mattress. She didn't let go though. "If you want to help me you're going to have to focus on yourself for once. I need you to get better, alright?" Harry tried to squeeze her hand and nod before he said "Alright."

"Hey, Harry? When's the wedding?" Harry and Hermione were drawn out of their private little universe and aimed glares at the grinning, immature auror. The comment worked to break the serious mood though and Hermione and Tonks joined forces to entertain Harry while he was laid up. It was mostly Tonks telling stories, showing off her morphing talent and teasing the two teens something awful while Hermione held his hand and occasionally stroked his hair away from his face. There was one moment where Hermione told Harry that she approved of him calling her 'Mi', despite a long-held aversion to any kind of shortening of her name. Harry didn't want to tell her that it hadn't been his intention to give her a nickname while Tonks was listening in and just smiled at her. Tonks and Hermione kept going until Harry fell asleep, exhausted. After that the two women talked quietly with each other to pass the time.

:-:-:-:-:

The next time Harry woke up he was alone. His solitude didn't last long though as Madam Pomfrey came bustling through the privacy curtains.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Potter?" she asked him, wand already out and casting spells at every part of his body.

"Fine." The healer's wand stopped moving as she aimed a glare at her patient.

"I see you are at least well enough to give me that ridiculous answer." she sniffed before continuing her work. "No complications. That is good. I will have someone bring you your dinner and I expect you to eat it all." She finished with a stern look that Harry felt was entirely unnecessary; he was so hungry he could eat a horse. "Also, despite my protests Madam Bones is here to talk to you about last night's events. Considering what happened I can't overrule her on this." Harry just nodded. His dinner was delivered by Winky who's eyes filled with tears when her master croaked out his thanks with difficulty. As it happened the aurors did in fact have the patience to at least wait until Harry had eaten something before coming in to speak with him.

"Mr. Potter, it is good to see you awake. With me are Aurors Shacklebolt and Robards. They have taken over your protection detail from Aurors Montrose and Tonks. I understand that you are not yet up to a long conversation so I shall keep this as brief as possible." Madam Bones' tone was brisk and business-like. Clearly she really did want to get through this quickly.

"We have interrogated the man who was impersonating Auror Moody. It turns out that he was a man named Bartemius Crouch Junior, the son of the Mr. Crouch who was a judge in the tournament. He is a convicted Death Eater whom we thought had died in Azkaban. Obviously he managed an escape. He admitted to Confunding the Goblet of Fire and entering your name on behalf of a fictitious fourth school. His intention was to guide you to victory so you would reach the cup, which he had turned into a Portkey, before any of the other champions and be delivered to his master. You may take pride in the fact that you turned out to be so competent that he didn't have to do anything to help you win and he in fact sent a warning to You Know Who." Madam Bones was cut off by Harry raising a trembling hand.

"His…name…is…Tom…Marvolo…Riddle." Harry told her with as stern a look as he could manage. The three law enforcement officers looked momentarily taken aback.

"That actually leads into one of the questions I need ask you. How do you know so much about You Kno-…Riddle?"

"Told…me…second…year. Memory?" It didn't take much for the aurors to cotton on and Robards went to see if Madam Pomfrey would lend them a few vials. Bones took the time to ask Harry another question.

"I was also wondering how you knew he was alive, but if he was talking to you in your second year I think I have my answer. The question then becomes how many times have you faced him that you are willing to give us memories of?" Harry took a moment to think about it.

"Five." Bones looked shocked.

"When did this happen?" she almost shouted. A dangerous dark wizard had been running around without her knowledge and she wasn't taking it well that she hadn't known about it until last night.

"Yesterday...second...year...twice…first…year…Godric's…Hollow." The memories were not pleasant and already threatening to overwhelm Harry, but he was fighting it off to get the answers out.

"You remember the original attack?! How? You were only a year old." Bones was sure that she was being fed a tale. Children just didn't remember that sort of thing.

"Dementors." The Director of the DMLE felt sick. She had forgotten that she wasn't talking to a normal child. Dementors would dredge up the worst memories someone had and for Harry Potter that probably would be that attack. If Potter was willing to give it, she would take the memory gratefully. Anything that might help destroy this madman was more than they had last time and this memory might contain a hint.

"What…about…Sirius?" Harry decided to move matters along. Madam Bones seemed to remember where she was and continued the story.

"Peter Pettigrew was also interviewed. He told us about last year's events as well as those surrounding the end of the last war. That combined with his very existence should entitle Sirius Black to an exoneration. Unfortunately the Minister is refusing to allow any retrial despite the evidence that we now have from the two Death Eaters in custody who were supposed to be dead, in addition to your testimony. I am afraid we will need a new Minister for Magic and around half the Wizengamot replaced before they will even hear the cases we want to bring to trial." In the years to come Madam Bones would remember the thoughtful look that put on Harry Potter's face. The fact that she suddenly felt that maybe, just maybe, this teenager could pull off what she could only dream of compelled her to be more forthcoming than she usually would.

"The Minister is doing everything he can to suppress any mention of You Kn-…Riddle's return. There was no Daily Prophet delivered this morning as members of the Minister's Office confiscated the entire print and threatened to shut the paper down. Those who are heard talking about last night are threatened with losing their jobs. My own department has had most of its funding pulled so that we can't implement the measures we wanted to. I can't even investigate if someone is…helping these decisions along." Madam Bones was usually more careful with her words but her frustrations were boiling over, fed by her very real fear that this time next year she and Susan could be living under the boot of Emperor Voldemort.

"I'll…talk…Gringotts. Sold…basilisk. Donate…profits." Harry gritted out. He knew that money was going to come in handy. Madam Bones was not ready to accept that though.

"Mr. Potter, you should keep that money. You are still young and it could help you enormously when you are ready to start your life after Hogwarts." She hadn't told him that to get money! Harry was ready for her though.

"Those…you…stop…I…don't…have…to." The Head of the DMLE was left gaping at the young man who was giving her as much of a glare as the twitching of his muscles would allow.

"That is depressingly true. I will accept your donation gratefully and promise we will use it as best we can. I must warn you that my gratitude will not extend to favours should you ever break the law." The glare Harry was aiming at her got more intense.

"Not…Malfoy!" he hissed out. Thankfully for the now embarrassed Madam Bones, Robards finally returned.

"Sorry about that. Apparently Pomfrey sends empty vials back to the Potions Master so that she can get refills as quickly as possible. The grease-rag was trying everything he could to get out of giving me these. I brought along a dozen just in case." He looked around the sectioned off part of the Hospital Wing. "You alright, Boss?" His superior just growled and snatched the vials out his hand to begin the memory retrieval. When they were done the three aurors thanked Harry for his assistance and left him alone. Harry discovered that the whole encounter had completely drained him and he drifted back off to sleep.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry wasn't released from the Hospital Wing until the day of the Leaving Feast. That whole time he was kept behind privacy curtains and a volunteer auror guard. Being kept forcibly out of the public's eye was less of a frustrating experience than a relaxing one to the unwilling celebrity, even more so than usual since this time he had won the tournament outright. He wasn't lonely since Luna and particularly Hermione were frequent visitors. Their first visit had been especially memorable.

Hermione and Luna had walked in the day after Madam Bones' visit and Harry had been extremely pleased to see his friend and girlfriend again. The visit started out much like he might have expected, with many hugs and reassurances that he was fine which neither girl believed. It didn't get strange until Luna pulled out the mail she had received for him.

"Hedwig brought this yesterday. It had a bit of blood on it but she seemed alright so I assume she took it from the owl that was supposed to deliver it." The letter had turned out to be a copy of the Daily Prophet from the blocked edition with a very short note.

Harry

Thank you.

Rita

The front page article gave an extremely detailed account of what had happened the night of Riddle's resurrection which to Harry meant that his least favourite reporter had found a way to lift a ride into his memories. Harry simply passed the newspaper over to Hermione for her scrapbook once he had read it. The real shock came from that day's edition of the Daily Prophet. Its front page was a glowing account of the success of Hogwarts' educational standards and how they had allowed even a mediocre wizard to win the prestigious Tri-Wizard Tournament. The next largest story was that there had been a change of leadership at the Prophet. The previous editor and several reporters had been fired for seditious behaviour by the owners. Harry didn't doubt for a moment that these owners were wealthy Death Eaters. He told the girls about his discussion with Madam Bones, glad that he was able to speak a lot more easily than the day before. Their discussion and subsequent conclusions were grim.

Harry had to stay in the Hospital Wing until the day of the Leaving Feast. Just before Harry left the Hospital Wing, Madam Pomfrey passed on the message that the awards ceremony for the tournament was to be that night at dinner. Hermione and Luna had stopped by the Hospital Wing to pick Harry up before they headed to the Great Hall and promised that they would make sure that Harry didn't skip out on his public recognition to sputtering protests from the Champion in question.

"Honestly, Harry, are you going to try and convince us that you wouldn't skip out on the award ceremony if you thought you could get away with it?" Harry's trapped look gave away that he was still thinking about summoning his Firebolt and getting himself as far away from any awards ceremony as he could. "Come on then, Harry. Best get this over with. They can only give you the cup once."

"It's statements like that that make me extremely nervous some ministry idiot will try to do that anyway." Two laughing girls grabbed Harry's arms and pulled him from the Hospital Wing, or to his doom depending on who you asked. The school matron followed them shaking her head in amusement. By the time they reached the Great Hall the girls were no longer pulling Harry along. Rather Harry had one arm around Hermione's shoulders which she was reciprocating with an arm around his waist. He was using his other hand to poke Luna in the side as she had the time of her life coming up with increasingly ridiculous additions to the award ceremony that she wanted to suggest to Bagman.

When the trio entered the Great Hall, Harry realized a few things. First was that he had never really thought about how the Hall would be decorated in a year when there was no House Cup and nobody had died. He might have predicted the black banners with the Hogwarts crest on them hanging where the winning House's banners usually hung. Nothing could have prepared him for the massive cream-coloured banner bearing a black dragon being pierced by a red sword that was hung behind the Head Table. One look at Professor McGonagall's smug little smile convinced Harry that he was being pranked by his Head of House. Next time it'll be more than a little public affection, Professor floated through Harry's numb mind.

The second was that he had underestimated what it would mean for him to win the contest outright to the rest of the students. The students of all three schools were standing and cheering loudly. Harry just had to count his blessings that the Weasley twins couldn't give him their usual introduction due to the noise.

Lastly Harry realized that he had been out of action for days and that people had probably not been given the slightest explanation and would soon be swarming him for any details they could get. He shot his girlfriend a pleading look that was ignored as she and the girl he was coming to think of as an adopted little sister dragged him over to the Gryffindor table where the cheering was loudest and several of his housemates were waving flags that matched the banner behind the Head Table. The cheering finally settled down when Dumbledore stood up and held up his hands for silence.

"Thank you, everyone for your enthusiastic reception of Mr. Potter." Dumbledore began. "We have come to the end of another year and I hope you have all become richer in knowledge and friends. We have, of course, also come to the end of another day and I believe it best we had dinner before we old folks bore you with our speeches. Tuck in!" At Dumbledore's final exclamation food appeared on everyone's plates.

After loading his plate up Harry performed his now standard check for any strange additives. It was difficult to this surreptitiously as it turned out that Harry had been correct in predicting the reactions of his peers. On either side of him Luna and Hermione were making a valiant effort at keeping the nosy bunch from overrunning him but they had little success until reinforcements showed up in the form of two Weasleys armed to the teeth with prank products. The loud bangs, sudden colour changes, strange smells and odd transformations soon had the whole horde of busybodies finding somewhere else to be.

"Thanks, you two." Harry said with clear gratitude in his voice.

"No problem, little brother."

"Mum would have cleaned us out when we get home anyway." The twins nonchalant attitude didn't quite reach their eyes as they settled down across from the trio and loaded up their plates. The antics and laughter of Hogwarts' premier pranksters and the fact that there was food to be eaten ensured that Harry was at least able to eat his dinner in peace; well, as much peace as it was possible to experience near Fred and George actually trying to be distracting.

When the food cleared Dumbledore stood once again and waited for the Hall to quiet down. Once he was sure he had everyone's attention he spread his arms out and began his speech.

"As I said before we settled down for that excellent meal: I hope you have all gained both friends and knowledge this year. I believe you have all seen feats of magic and friendship worthy of emulation from the people we asked that the most of this year. I am speaking, of course, of our four champions and I ask them to come up here now." There was a swelling of applause as Dumbledore paused to give the champions time to make their way up to the Head Table. Harry got up with less prodding than at Halloween but still dreading the walk to come.

Up on the dais Harry found himself sandwiched between Fleur and Cedric who both said a quiet word of greeting and congratulations. Harry returned the greeting and looked out over the upturned faces to find his favourite shade of brown looking back up at him. The understanding smile on Hermione's face helped him find the motivation to at least look like he was happy to be up here like a pig at auction. Dumbledore allowed everyone a good look at the champions before continuing.

"For each competitor we have a medal declaring their selection as a champion. These will be handed out by Mr. Bagman and Mr. Weasley on behalf of the Ministry for Magic." Bagman strode up to the champions waving jovially to the crowd while Percy scuttled up behind him holding a purple cushion with four silver medals on it.

"First to Ms. Fleur Delacour who represented Beauxbatons Acadamy well." Bagman walked up to her and hung a medal around her neck before pumping her hand enthusiastically. Harry didn't think Fleur looked half as eager as Bagman and she quickly stepped back into line next to Harry.

"Next to Mr. Viktor Krum who did his best for Drumstrang Institute." Krum just looked surly as he accepted his medal and Harry hoped that it hurt the older Seeker to know he had been well and truly beaten. Karkaroff was already mysteriously absent and Harry was sure his body would turn up in a matter of weeks.

"Third to Mr. Cedric Diggory who represented our very own Hogwarts School." Cedric had a bright future as a politician as he was smiling brightly and managing to look like he was doing so at Bagman and the audience at the same time.

"Finally, to the winner of this year's Tri-Wizard tournament: Harry Potter." Harry shook a beaming Ludo Bagman's hand as the unexpectedly heavy medal was hung around his neck. He had the nagging feeling that Bagman's enthusiasm meant that he had just cleared his gambling debts. When Harry moved back from the former beater he could see Dumbledore waiting behind the man with the Tri-Wizard Cup.

"In addition to your medal, Harry, I have here for you the Tri-Wizard Cup." Harry had to force himself to take the Cup from his headmaster. So far he only had very bad experiences holding that thing. Once he had it in his hands Harry felt a little unsure of what to do. To be honest he had never wanted the cup. He decided to just do what he had seen footballers do on the telly and held it over his head. This turned out to be the right move as the Hogwarts contingent exploded with cheers and the other schools clapped politely. After several moments Harry felt his arms begin to tremble and lowered the cup again. Dumbledore stepped forward again, this time holding a large sack.

"The final part of your prize, Harry: 1000 galleons." Harry accepted the bag of money from the Headmaster with as much grace as he could. This was made easier by his own knowledge of the coming of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. Standing there with his winnings in his hand Harry raised them once more and let his schoolmates cheer themselves hoarse. It took even less time for his arms to start trembling this time and Harry quickly lowered his prizes. He was surprised to find arms wrapping around him from either side. Cedric and Fleur smiled at him as they steadied him before waving at the crowd with the arms that weren't supporting him to disguise that they were holding him up.

"Thank you all for your enthusiastic support of the champions this year. Tomorrow our guests will leave before you get on the Express home so make sure you come down to say your goodbyes to them. I am sure you will want to be well rested for both that and the reunion with your families, so off you trot. Goodnight." Dumbledore wrapped up the ceremony quite neatly and some of the students, noticeably those at the Ravenclaw and Slytherin tables started to get up and leave. Krum led the Drumstrang contingent out of the Hall in an almost military march. Gryffindor and Hufflepuff looked more reluctant to do as the headmaster had said while several of the Beauxbatons students were drifting out of the castle to their carriage. Eventually it was just the friends of the three champions on the stage left in the Hall when even the faculty made themselves scarce.

Hermione raced up the steps of the dais to grab Harry, who had clearly overexerted himself at least a little. Harry was surprised at the speed with which Cedric got out of the way and shot a questioning look at the boy.

"Harry, mate, just a little piece of random advice: don't piss Hermione off to the point where she slaps you." Harry blinked once before turning his gaze towards his blushing girlfriend. Hermione laid her head on his shoulder and refused to meet his eyes.

"Cedric, I saw her deck Malfoy towards the end of third year but what on earth happened for you to get smacked like that?" He asked feeling Hermione squeeze him slightly.

"Ah, well, I tried to visit you in the hospital wing. You were unconscious but Hermione was there. I tried to tell her that I was there to apologize to you for stunning you into that Portkey after you saved my life but before I could get my explanation out she slapped me and then tore strips off me about what happened." Cedric said with a slight smile while Fred and George were howling with laughter in the background. "If she's right about what you went through wherever that thing took you then I can understand why she was that upset; even if Madam Pomfrey did have to break out the Bruise Salve." Harry's ribs were being tightly squeezed by now. He knew it still upset Hermione to hear people discuss what had happened after the third task. Harry needed a distraction and he knew just where to find it.

"Oi, Gred! Forge! Get over here." The two redheads ran over and snapped off identical salutes.

"Yes, O mighty Champion?"

"You called for us?" Harry just shook his head with a slight smile.

"I did, you mavericks. Here, take this." Harry shoved the sack of galleons into Fred's hands. "It's for your joke shop. I want you to get inventing." Fred and George had been about to make a series of jokes about Harry using them as mules but now their mouths were dangling open. Hermione was no longer squeezing Harry's ribs as she leant back to look at her boyfriend in surprise.

"Harry, are you serious?" George's voice was trembling. "That's a lot of money, little brother."

"I still have my inheritance and what I made selling the Horntail's carcass, I don't really need the extra thousand galleons sitting around in my vault. Besides, I'm sure that the two of you making everyone laugh is worth far more than that; well, everyone except Zonko's I suppose. If all that weren't enough, you're calling me your brother. If I have the means to make my elder brothers' dream come true I should do it, shouldn't I?" Harry grinned at them. The twins barely managed to stammer out their thanks while their eyes grew glassy as they imagined the possibilities now open to them.

"I think you may regret that next year, Harry." Cedric told him with a grin while the twins were off in their own world.

"And why is that?" Harry wanted to know.

"Well, put it this way: I'm not going to be a Gryffindor prefect next year." Cedric's grin somehow managed to grow even wider. Harry was about to protest that he wouldn't be a prefect but since his only reasoning for that was based on his future knowledge he just let it go. Everyone would find out sooner or later and after how Ron had acted this year Harry didn't feel bad about creating some extra work for him. He was sure he could get the twins to let up around Hermione who was looking utterly horrified at the implications of finally achieving an ambition she had held in her heart since first year.

"Perhaps we should get a head-start on that and get this lot to bed." Harry suggested with a small smile. Everyone agreed and after saying goodnight to the Hufflepuffs and Beauxbatons students, the trio and a still subdued pair of twins headed up the stairs. Luna was dropped off at the Ravenclaw common room and the four Gryffindors headed back to their tower for Harry's first night back. With the twins distracted and the Express leaving at lunch tomorrow there was no party to celebrate Harry bringing the cup into the tower. The twins promised to make it up to Harry next year, no matter how much Harry insisted that they didn't need to, before they headed up to bed and presumably to make sure that the gold was stored safely in their trunks in a way that their mother would not be able to find it.

Harry gathered Hermione into his arms for a goodnight kiss and watched her go up the stairs towards the girls' dormitories. He then headed up to his own room dropping the Tri-Wizard cup unceremoniously into his trunk before getting ready for bed and falling asleep.

:-:-:-:-:

"AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!" Hermione awoke with a loud scream. Her skin was clammy and her heart was racing. It was the same nightmare she had been having every night for the past week, ever since she had seen Harry's memory in the Pensieve. In her dreams she could see and hear Harry screaming under the Cruciatus and just like in the Pensieve there was nothing she could do. She knew it was just her subconscious trying to deal with what she had seen but that didn't make it any easier to wake when the swirl of colours didn't take Harry away from that last green curse and she saw his body falling limply to the ground. In fact the only night she hadn't had the nightmare was that first night when she had slept in the Hospital Wing. She hypothesized that it was because she had had Harry close enough that not even her subconscious could miss that he was alright.

Hermione's breathing was starting to calm now that she was back in the waking world and her rational side could take over. Unfortunately she couldn't shake the worry that something was wrong with Harry. With one last admonishment to herself that this was irrational she got out of her bed and put on her slippers and dressing gown. Quietly she slipped out of her dorm and down the stairs before heading up towards the boys' dorm. With her hand on the doorknob of the fourth year boys' dorm Hermione hesitated for a moment. Her urge to make sure that Harry was indeed alright quickly beat her sense of propriety into submission and she opened the door carefully. She knew from previous excursions into this dorm to wake Harry, and Weasley when they had still been friends with the redhead, exactly where his bed stood. She lit her wand with a low light anyway as she also knew that the floor wasn't exactly likely to be free of obstacles.

When she got to Harry's bed she opened the curtains and nearly screamed when a hand pulled her in and a light shone in her face.

"Hermione?" Harry sounded groggy from just having woken up. The light was extinguished. "What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to check up on you because I had a nightmare." Hermione's shock was leading to her rather uncontrolled honesty. "Harry, you scared me witless when you pulled me in like that. How did you know I was here?"

"I've been putting wards around my bed ever since we learned that Weasley knew about the dragons. You tripped them and I thought it was him trying to get a last hex in. I wanted to scare him a little. I'm sorry that it turned out to be you instead." As Harry was giving his answer, his arms wrapped comfortingly around Hermione and she relaxed into the embrace.

"It's okay, Harry." She sighed feeling her body start to relax. "Do you mind if we cuddle for a bit before I go back?" She felt a kiss on the crown of her head.

"Of course not." The couple spent several minutes just holding each other and eventually neither noticed that they relaxed right into sleep.

Chapter Text

The next morning two well rested teens awoke and blushed red at the position they found themselves in. It was Hermione who dispelled the awkwardness by leaning over and gently kissing Harry.

"Good morning, my Champion." she said softly. Harry grinned happily and answered back just as softly.

"Good morning, my Lady." Harry was in no hurry to get out of bed as he was perfectly comfortable. Hermione on the other hand knew she had to get back to the girls' dorm. A quick "Tempus" revealed that it was already past eight-thirty. There was no chance of nobody being awake between here and her own bed. When she put the problem to Harry she watched his brow furrow in concentration. Harry looks so hot when he's thinking. Hermione's thoughts were causing some interesting reactions in her body. Luckily Harry didn't notice though she worried for a moment when his face lit up.

"Winky." he said firmly. With a soft pop and a curtsey Winky appeared inside the hangings of Harry's bed.

"What can Winky be doing for Master Harry?" she asked in her usual squeaky voice.

"Winky, could you pop Hermione over to her own bed so that no one notices?" Winky nodded enthusiastically.

"Winky will do. Miss, please be taking Winky's hand." Surprised Hermione did as she was told and after a brief sensation of pressure, was sitting alone in her own bed. Oh, that has possibilities if we ever want to take things further. Shaking herself, Hermione got out of bed and got ready for the day.

Back in the boys' dorm Harry also got ready for the day. Around him his roommates were desperately trying to pack their things before the trunks were scheduled to be taken to the train. Harry walked into the bathroom and called Dobby.

"Dobby, I should have everything packed already, but could you just check for me? If everything is in the trunk, just take it where it needs to go, alright?" Dobby nodded an affirmative and Harry thanked him for his dedication before heading down to the common room to await Hermione. The two Gryffindors headed down to breakfast to meet Luna and their friends among the other champions. They wanted to say goodbye to Fleur before she left and then not have to hurry on their way to the Express.

When they got to breakfast a fast moving silver blond blur hit Harry's midriff and started talking rapidly in French. Harry's arms came around his ambusher's small shoulders.

"Bonjour, Gabrielle. Did you manage to give Fleur the slip again?" Harry grinned at the little veela. Gabrielle responded with a long string of French.

"Gabrielle!" Fleur came storming up to the group looking mightily put out with her sister. She eventually settled for shooting the younger Delacour a quick glare before looking at Harry with a smile. "Bonjour, 'Arry. We are to sit wiz Cedric today, oui?" Harry grinned at her and nodded.

"Yeah, looks like Luna is already over there. Shall we?" As they started walking Gabrielle grabbed Harry's hand and started skipping while swinging their clasped hands and chattering happily while her big sister translated. Breakfast passed in high spirits between the group and afterwards the British students took their French friends for one last walk around the grounds, ending at the Beauxbatons carriage. There they all said a teary farewell with Gabrielle especially having to be carried into the carriage while begging to be allowed to stay for a few more days. Harry's promise that they would meet again one day did nothing to stem the flood of tears from the little blonde though Fleur gave him a grateful nod.

Around them other groups of new friends were also saying their goodbyes. When the carriage took off back towards France most of Hogwarts was out on the lawn waving goodbye. The goodbyes with the Drumstrang students were a lot more reserved, but when their ship left the Black Lake it was also to waving from the British students. With all the foreign visitors gone, the student body started thinking towards their own journey home in a little over an hour. Harry, Hermione and Luna saw no point in hanging about the castle, only to be caught in a crush of students headed for the train at the last minute. Getting to the train early the three friends were able to claim a compartment for themselves and get it warded with Notice-Me-Not Charms before the rest of their schoolmates arrived. They had just settled down when their schoolbags arrived and all three called out their thanks to the elves.

The train ride passed easily with the three friends reading, talking and playing a few games of Gobshites. Hermione could be a particularly vicious player with that game. The model for the stones passed by the compartment they were sharing a few times but never saw through their charm. The trolley lady didn't either but nobody minded since Dobby and Winky had packed them some delicious snacks that were a good deal healthier than anything the jolly old witch might be selling. As they got closer to London, Hermione noticed that Harry was starting to show signs of being nervous. Hermione had a feeling she knew what he was nervous about from her reading.

"Harry, are you alright?" she asked him, feeling a little mischievous. Harry looked up at her from the book he had been reading.

"I'm fine, Mi. Why?" he answered her. Hermione wasn't buying Harry's standard answer.

"You wouldn't happen to be nervous about something? Meeting my parents perhaps?" The grin that she had been suppressing finally broke out on her face. Harry just looked at her a little strangely.

"Well, a little I suppose. Am I not supposed to want to make a good first impression?" Harry asked her.

"No, you are. It's just funny that someone who can face dragons and basilisks without flinching would be afraid of my mum and dad." She started giggling.

"Yes, well since I don't particularly want to kill your parents with a sword I don't think that comparison holds water." Hermione briefly paled as she imagined that scenario. "I've never been introduced to a girlfriends parents before. Since I also don't have any parents I rather feel like I'm going in blind." Hermione realized that she had made a mistake in her estimation of what Harry was feeling.

"Don't worry, Harry. My parents are wonderful people, you'll love them and they'll love you." She reinforced her encouragement with a kiss to his cheek.

"They raised you, Mi. I'm sure I could at least get along with them if they're anything like you. It's just a bit of an unknown situation, so you can't expect me to be completely calm," he gave her a smile, "but thank you for the kiss and the reassurances anyway." The two leaned into each other for comfort and the simple pleasure of each other's presence. Across the compartment Luna couldn't stop smiling at her friends. She hoped that one day she might be able find someone like Harry and Hermione had, someone who could accept her and love her for who she was.

When the train eventually pulled into Kings Cross Station Harry helped the girls locate their trunks and wheel them over on a trolley. Harry and Hermione first met Xenophillius Lovegood. Harry remembered the man betraying him for Luna's sake and found that he couldn't hold a grudge for a parent acting like a parent. They spent several minutes holding a headache-inducing conversation with the Lovegoods before the two blondes went home. Next up was the meeting Harry was most nervous about. Hermione was already scanning the crowd looking for her parents. Harry could easily identify the moment that she found them. His girlfriend's entire face lit up and she rushed off through the crowds. Harry followed her as best he could. He found her surprisingly easily considering how packed the station was with all the reuniting families. Harry paused a few yards away from where the Grangers were hugging each other happily. He felt a slight pang shoot through his heart. He would never begrudge Hermione her family, would do anything to ensure that they stayed together and that she would never have to Memory Charm them, but it still hurt to know that he would never have this. Maybe if I have children one day I will be able to experience at least one side of that.

When Hermione realized that she had more or less abandoned Harry in her haste to greet her parents she looked behind her only to find him standing there with a longing look on his face. She slipped out of her parents embrace and took Harry's hand. Pulling him over to stand in front of her parents she proudly handled the introductions.

"Harry, these are my parents: Richard and Helen Granger. Mum, dad, this is my boyfriend: Harry Potter." Harry stepped forward and without releasing Hermione's hand held out his other to her father.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Granger." The dentist had a kind face and dark brown hair. He reached out and grabbed the boy's hand.

"A pleasure indeed, Harry. You'll have to come over sometime over the summer so we can get to know each other better." He spoke with a calm voice that Harry imagined was very soothing to any patients that found their way into his chair. When the two men let go of each other's hands Harry was immediately faced with Hermione's mother. Helen Granger was a petite woman with curling brown hair and intelligent eyes. She had a hold of Harry's hand before he knew what was going on.

"Oh yes, it's wonderful to finally meet the person we know from our daughter's stories." She said with a bright smile.

"Mum!" came Hermione's clearly embarrassed exclamation.

"It's good to meet you too, Mrs. Granger." Harry said, a little taken aback by the woman's enthusiasm. He spent a few more minutes talking with the Grangers during the course of which he was invited to come and visit them over the holidays another two times. Eventually they had to go if they were going to get to the restaurant where they had reservations for their dinner. Hermione's parents took the trolley with Hermione's trunk and moved off a ways to give the two teens a chance to say goodbye.

"I'm going to miss you something awful, Harry. Promise me you'll write." Hermione was suddenly far less enthusiastic about her homecoming now that it hit her that she would hardly see Harry for months.

"I'll write you every week, Mi. Promise me you'll answer. With Riddle back in his body things are going to get dangerous. If I don't hear from you for more than a week, I'm hopping on my Firebolt and coming to find you." Harry's eyes showed that he was dead serious about this. Hermione agreed and the two kissed tenderly, each trying to let the other know that they would be missed. When they finally drew apart Hermione had to be led away by her parents who were looking fondly exasperated as she was still staring into Harry's eyes.

Once she was out of sight Harry heaved a sigh. He felt an almost physical pain from her absence but he had plans that couldn't wait. Slipping through the barrier to the non-magical platforms, Harry easily spotted his uncle standing there like a volcanic island in a sea of people. Judging by the colour on Vernon's face he didn't appreciate having to wait around for Harry. Too bad, Uncle. You'll be there for a while yet. Harry carefully snuck past his uncle by simply walking along behind a large family, keeping them between him and Vernon the whole time. Since Vernon was looking for a boy hauling a large trunk it never occurred to him to look around at the faster movements of people without trolleys. It also helped that he refused to look at the barrier between platforms 9 and 10 so that he would not have to be exposed to more freakishness than absolutely necessary.

Outside the station Harry found an empty alleyway and called his elves. As soon as they appeared Harry started passing out orders.

"Okay, you two. I need you to make sure no one can see us. We're in muggle London and I doubt people will understand." Once the two elves had cast Notice-me-not and Muggle Repelling Charms Harry continued. "Dobby is everything set up like we discussed?"

"Yes, Master Harry." Dobby sounded unusually excited to have been able to help Harry with the plan they had devised together.

"Excellent. Good job! Then we can move on to Disspelling the tracking charms on me. I need the two of you to do the actual magic. If you need me to do something, tell me, okay?" Harry looked them both in the eye to ensure that he was understood. Dobby and Winky started waving their hands in unison. Harry closed his eyes and felt their magic wash over him. When the feeling left he couldn't tell if anything had changed. Opening his eyes he could see Dobby and Winky standing there looking disappointed and guilty.

"It didn't work, did it?" he asked. Dobby shook his head sadly.

"The charms is placed by a powerful wizard or several wizards. Dobby and Winky is not powerful enough to break the spells." Dobby's face took on a nervous cast. "There is a chance that if Master Harry were to share his power with Dobby and Winky that they could be powerful enough to do as Master has asked." As soon as the words had left his lips Dobby slammed his eyes shut. Winky looked shocked at what she had heard. Their reactions made Harry cautious.

"That sounds like a good idea, Dobby, but I have no idea how to do that and the way Winky is looking at you makes me think it might be dangerous." Dobby was shaking his head at the end of Harry's question.

"It is not being dangerous, Master Harry. Wizards is usually angry when not-wizards is asking them to share magic. If you is letting Dobby and Winky hold your hands, Dobby and Winky will draw out magic through the bond and use that." Harry considered that for a moment. It sounded like he could cut off the flow of magic by breaking skin contact so he wouldn't be completely drained and it seemed to be his last chance to be rid of those tracking charms; that was really all he needed to know.

"Alright. I trust you both. Just do your best and stop if any of us fall unconscious or show other signs of being too drained to continue." Both elves nodded and Harry knelt down in front of them and held out his hands. Each elf took one hand in one of theirs and started waving the other around again. Harry immediately felt the drain on his core begin. Apparently the elves needed to draw a lot of magic to pull this off. It took several minutes and Harry was starting to get nervous that he would not have enough power to help the elves break the charms when he felt the backlash of a spell being broken slam into his body. The force of the backlash knocked him back and into a dumpster bin. Holding his head to steady it against the dizziness he was feeling Harry looked around to see where Dobby and Winky were. The two elves were clambering up from where they had landed against the opposite wall.

"Are you okay, Dobby? Winky?" Harry asked as he was running through a mental checklist of his body to see what was damaged. It felt like he had just had the wind knocked out of him and he hoped that the elves had fared at least as well. When the two affirmative answers came Harry felt a wave of relief sweep through him.

"If we're all alright we should get out of here. Whoever cast those charms will know that they have been broken here and come to investigate. Are you well enough to apparate?" Again both elves answered in the affirmative. "Let's go then." Both elves grabbed a hold of their master and with a loud pop the alley was empty once again.

The three reappeared in front of a fairly large tent standing in the middle of the forest. Harry eyed it carefully.

"You warded it like we discussed?" he asked, just to double check. At the elves hyperactive nodding he smiled. "Fantastic job, guys. Let's get inside then. I think we could do with dinner and we have some field trips to plan."

:-:-:-:-:

At Hogwarts Castle, Minerva McGonagall was sitting in her office with her back to her desk, watching the sunset out of her windows with a glass of whisky in her hand. She did this every year after the Hogwarts Express had left. It was her moment to reflect on the past year. She knew several of her colleagues had their own rituals they would be engaging in right now. Her eyes drifted towards the south and the direction her charges had disappeared in. She tried to view them all in the same light regardless of the fact that she was Head of House for only a quarter of them. She was Deputy Headmistress for all of them she reminded herself regularly.

She was a Deputy Headmistress in charge of an almost empty castle right now though. Albus had come storming in moments ago telling her he had an errand to run before rushing out again. He might have shown as much concern about Harry Potter being entered into that damn tournament. It rubbed her entirely the wrong way that Albus had remained so calm and unruffled while a fourteen year-old was entered into a deadly competition that was only supposed to be for legally of-age competitors. Albus had been one of the people to put that rule in place and at the first sign of it being broken had done precisely nothing. Never mind that Potter had won the damn thing, that boy excelled at the ridiculous and unpredictable. One might even go so far as to say that the older champions had been at a disadvantage facing off against him. All of it was still no excuse to throw the poor boy to the dragons, literally. Minerva's grip on her tumbler tightened as she remembered Potter dropping his golden egg and grabbing his broom to fly to the rescue of his classmates; classmates who had been treating him like garbage at the time. The nerve of that little bugger to actually spit in a dragon's eye.

Minerva gulped down her whisky and got up to get herself a refill. At her desk she couldn't help but open a specific drawer and take out the now familiar framed photo within. This photo was one of the most comforting things she owned. First of all it was a picture of her favourite students, even though everyone knew that the Hogwarts Transfiguration Professor didn't play favourites. Second, she would have to admit to having secretly enjoyed the moment depicted. A smile stole across her face as she looked at the three people in the picture. Miss Granger was looking beautiful and proud to be included in a photo with her Professor. Minerva herself was trying to project an air of approachable authority. Mister Potter's eyes were twinkling with the mischief he had planned. She watched as the young scamp repeatedly grabbed her in a hug before grabbing his date and running off laughing. If he can still laugh after all he's been through, there may be hope yet. Settling down in her chair again with a new drink and the picture Minerva thought to herself that she had never had an easier choice in assigning the prefect badges than she did this year.

:-:-:-:-:

At a home shaped like a solitary tower Luna Lovegood was unpacking her trunk. A lot more of her possessions had made it home than usual. She knew exactly why that was and was happily reminiscing about the past year. Marietta and her pack of attack bitches had cornered her but something entirely out of the ordinary had happened. Two people who wanted to be her friends had happened by. The extraordinary part was that Harry Potter and Hermione Granger might be two of the only people who could have intimidated her tormentors. A professor wouldn't have done half as well since every Ravenclaw knew what line the teachers wouldn't cross. Harry Potter was an unknown quantity, especially after his mysterious entry into the tournament. After he slew the dragon the Ravenclaws had known that whatever that quantity was nobody wanted to cross him. The reactions of her housemates when Harry had glared at them after the first task were a guiltily happy memory for Luna. The whole of Ravenclaw House knew as well as she did that Armageddon could be visited upon their tower if Luna ever asked for it. It was wrong to enjoy it, it was almost bullying except that she wasn't using it to force anyone to do anything except not bother her. Luna idly wondered if all friendships were like this or if you only experienced this with a Wind Spirit like Harry Potter in the equation. Maybe she would ask her father; he would know.

:-:-:-:-:

In a well-kept home in Crawley the brightest witch of her age was paging through her scrapbook while seated on her bed when her mother came into the room.

"Hermione, sweetheart, can we have a talk?" Helen asked her daughter.

"Of course, Mum." Hermione replied closing the scrapbook and looking attentively at her mother. Helen was a little uncomfortable bringing this up, but considering the fact that Hermione had a boyfriend it had to happen.

"Sweetie, I want to talk to you about Harry." Helen began. She wasn't surprised to see her daughter's face take on an exasperated expression. In fact, she rather suspected she had had a similar look on her face when her own mother had this talk with her. She knew her daughter would remember the talk she had been given before heading off to Hogwarts about human biology. This second talk was just as important but could really only be given after Hermione had fallen in love for the first time. It was easy to loose your head when you experienced it for the first time and do something you might regret. Years after the fact Helen wished she had listened more to her own mother and was determined to do her best to make her daughter understand. "Your father and I both think Harry seems a nice boy from what we've seen of him. Certainly from what we've heard of him from you. We're just a little worried about how…enthusiastic you seem when you talk about him. I know that he may seem like he is a fairy tale prince who slays dragons in his free time, but I just want you to keep your eyes open and make sure you see him in a realistic light." Helen had run through a list of expected responses and when she had laughter hadn't featured anywhere on that list. Anger, dismissal, denial and tears? Yes. Uncontrollable laughter? No.

Hermione had in the meantime gotten up and started rummaging through her trunk. When she returned to her bed she was carrying a stack of periodicals and still giggling away.

"I think I understand what you mean, Mum. You need to think of some new metaphors for Harry though." With that she handed her mother the pile. Helen's mouth dropped open as she held a newspaper showing her daughter's boyfriend pulling a sword out of what looked like a dragon and handing it to a bird that appeared in a burst of flame. "Before you start: that isn't doctored in any way. I was there when it happened. Harry really killed a dragon with a sword and a broomstick. The reporter who wrote that sent him a copy of each article she wrote about him. He gave them to me for my scrapbook. I just didn't have the heart to tell him I also had my own subscription and that I wanted to keep at least one copy of the papers intact."

Helen's mouth was moving but no sound was coming out as she tried to absorb what the picture and her daughter were telling her. In an attempt to buy herself some time she looked at the other headlines. It was a poor decision. That massive snake was at least as scary as any dragon. Her daughter being hoisted out of the water as if she was on the cover of a bad paperback novel made Helen's point pretty well and at the same time made it less likely that Hermione would listen. The front page of a magazine describing her daughter's first date didn't seem possible. The picture of the chaos in front of some hedges didn't really mean much to her yet, but if it was anything like the others, Hermione's boyfriend would be at the heart of it.

"I wanted to get some picture frames like the ones I sent you and Dad for Christmas and hang them on the wall. I think it might be good idea if you read them first. They're not actually as inaccurate as we had feared." Hermione gave her mother an understanding smile "Don't worry. It's difficult to get a grasp on exactly how amazing my Harry is. Give it time."

Helen just nodded and got up. As she left the room holding the magical newspapers and magazine she reflected that no part of that conversation had gone as planned. She needed to find Richard and the two of them needed to look through this mass of information. Somehow she didn't think Hermione had decided to prank her parents all of a sudden. The conversation about Hermione's boyfriend could wait until they figured out exactly who this boyfriend was.

Back in her room Hermione had given in to the giggles that were consuming her. Happily she dug out her scrapbook again. Saving up extra copies of articles about Harry had turned out to be one of her better ideas after all.

:-:-:-:-:

In a ramshackle house in the Devonshire countryside a redhead sat pondering the last year. Ronald Weasley had started out the year as Harry Potter's Best Mate. That had changed when Potter entered himself into the tournament and wouldn't share how he'd done it with Ron. After the first task Ron had been the centre of attention when Dumbledore had asked him to look after the golden egg until Potter could collect it. That day had been one of the best that Ron could remember. It really grated on his nerves that there could have been so many more of those days if Potter would just stop hogging all the glory and let Ron share in it every so often. Still he had apologized and all, so Potter should have forgiven him. After much thought on the subject Ron had realized why it hadn't happened the way he'd planned: Granger. That ridiculous bookworm had planted herself firmly at Potter's side. Ron was sure that if it hadn't been for Granger, Potter wouldn't have made such a fuss. That meant that he had to get her away from The Boy Who Lived and the fame and recognition he had enjoyed after the first and second task would come flowing back to him.

Ron's problem was that he had no idea how he was going to drive a wedge between the two. After all girls were strange and unfathomable creatures. He knew what he was going to have to do and was now just trying to find the determination to do it. Standing up, he walked out of his room in search of someone he was sure would know the inner workings of a teenage girl like no other.

:-:-:-:-:

In a magnificent manor house in Wiltshire one of the wizarding world's most noble princes sat pondering upon the last year. It had, in Draco Malfoy's estimation, been a nightmare of a year. That half-blood bastard Potter had publicly humiliated him and then gone on to beat two proper purebloods to the damn Tri-Wizard Cup. To make matters worse his father had been severely injured by Potter directly following the last task. The Malfoy patriarch had lost his wand hand to one of Potter's damned cutters and was currently learning to use his wand with the hand he had left. It might be better than Goyle's father who had been vaporized by one of the bastard's Exploding Curses or one of the other seven who died at Potter's hands. This kind of insult could not be left unanswered, if Potter wanted a war he would get one. It would take cunning, stealth and an ambitious plan though; Draco set to work plotting revenge on his nemesis.

:-:-:-:-:

In the office of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement Amelia Bones raised a glass of Firewhisky to Harry Potter. The lad had come through for her and all of Magical Britain: on her desk was a letter from Gringotts that her department had received a donation in excess of four million galleons. She would use the money to set up a response system to any Death Eater attacks. She would write a note to Mr. Potter thanking him for what he had done right after she was done with that. It was the absolute least she could do.

:-:-:-:-:

In a side alley in London a figure was moving about, waving a wand. It had definitely found the last place the trackers on the Potter boy had been active. There was no magical signature that it could identify though so how had the little brat removed them? The figure growled in frustration. There was nothing here that could help it. It would need to look into other methods of finding the boy and it damn well didn't need this right now. With a loud crack the figure disappeared from the alley.

:-:-:-:-:

In a tent in a clearing in the Forest of Dean that no one knew existed anymore Harry Potter sat driving himself into a panic. It had been a little more than a month since term had ended and he had used that time well as evidenced by the blue orb he was currently tossing up and down in an effort to relieve some of his gathering anxiety. He and Dobby had gone on a 'field trip' to the Department of Mysteries. On his trip there Harry had noticed that the Order had already started 'guarding' the entrance when he saw a leg sticking out of thin air and heard snoring coming from that same area. He had slipped in and switched out the prophecy sphere for a prepared recording sphere with an insulting message.

While he was down there Harry had found the Unspeakables' library. He had been struck by inspiration and set off to find any information he could on soulmates. He had also pocketed some other tomes that looked interesting along the way like Sensing Active Magics: A Dissertation and Cascading Ward Failures: A Brute Force Approach. Eventually he found a disappointingly small volume titled On the Bonding of Souls which seemed to be the only source the Department had on the matter. He had decided that since he was officially committing a burglary at that point he should probably get out of there with his ill-gotten gains. He promised himself he would return them after the war.

He had since read the books he had stolen and was frankly a little disappointed with the available information on soul bonds. According to the book this was due to the intimate nature of the bond. Most bonded couples didn't feel like having someone probe and prod at them and their relationship. This also made it difficult to say exactly how rare a phenomenon it was. On the Bonding of Souls described the soul bond as a life-long process by which two people grew together and merged until their souls were connected at a fundamental level. After the first connection was made the bond was considered forged and it was usually measured by how intertwined the magic of the couple had become. It was unknown if muggles also formed soul bonds since there was no magic for the Unspeakables to measure. None of this made it easier for Harry to approach Hermione about them possibly being soulmates since the book didn't actually explain how to measure the intertwining of two people's magic, apparently assuming that the reader would already have that knowledge. Harry continued throwing the prophecy up and down.

He had taken it as a good sign that Madam Bones hadn't sent him any kind of summons with her thank-you note or the subsequent package. When asked if there was anything she could do to thank him for his donation, Harry had responded with a request for the aurors' After Action Reports from the last war. He had combed through them to try and find any kind of pattern in the Death Eaters' attacks. So far he hadn't found anything other than that their tactics consisted of outnumbering and terrifying their opponents. If those opponents couldn't fight back the Death Eaters turned invariably sadistic; if they met resistance they fled.

Harry had also been working on spell practice under Dobby's ward to prevent the detection of underage magic. He had made some serious progress with Gaia's Embrace now that he was away from the magically saturated, man-made flagstones of Hogwarts. It was by no means mastery of the spell but he could at least shape small amounts of earth and it gave him something to work with when he got back to Hogwarts. He could also hold the Heaven's Shield for a full eighteen seconds now.

He had asked Winky to take his armour to the armourer and have it repaired using the extra hide he still had in his vault. He also had gloves and boots made to go with his armour. That way he wouldn't have to suffer through a mangled hand or foot if he decided to throw a non-vital body part in front of an otherwise lethal spell again.

He had taken a field trip into the muggle world by himself to buy some new clothes with money that Dobby had exchanged at Gringotts. Rather, he had visited a second hand store and bought some clothing that fit him properly. It was a new experience at any rate and Harry had been inordinately pleased with his new wardrobe. He knew that his body would change drastically in the next twelve months and had no intention of wasting his money buying expensive things he would never use before he grew out of them. He could only hope Hermione might approve of his new look.

Harry heaved a sigh. He knew he was trying to distract himself and to be honest it wasn't really working. Hermione's message hadn't arrived this week and Harry was starting to worry that something had happened. Hedwig had been dispatched yesterday morning but even when the Grangers had been in France for their annual holiday she had returned faster. He had already gotten his invisibility cloak and broomstick and was ready to tear out of the tent the moment it was 'official'. He didn't want to intrude on Hermione's time with her family and would feel like a heel if he showed up, wand blazing when the reality was that Hermione was simply lost in the pages of a book.

Harry had just caught the prophecy again when something caught his attention through the tent flap. Harry immediately put it down on top of the stack of newspapers on the table in his magically expanded tent. He had continued his subscription to the Daily Prophet so he could keep track of what to expect when he returned to the wizarding world. He had been surprised that Dumbledore had been dismissed from the Wizengamot and the ICW for 'theft of a rare artefact'. Reading carefully he had come to the conclusion that the article was referring to the Pensieve. He felt a little guilty that he had caused the headmaster to lose such a valuable tool, after all he had stolen from that particular department too and couldn't really condemn the older man for that. He had also noticed that his name was being dragged through the mud again and had wondered why he was even bothering. He knew the answer though: he couldn't condemn innocents for the corruption and wilful idiocy of their government. He had also noted that Sturgis Podmore had been arrested for trying to break into the Department of Mysteries.

Harry had drawn his wand as he moved towards the entrance. He could see a speck moving through the sky towards him. He clamped down on his first reaction which was joy and relief. He had received plenty of owls from the order over the summer. Much more than he had last time around, except that these letters all contained Compulsion Charms, Portkey Charms, Locator Charms or a combination of all three. Harry had only answered the ones from Sirius if they were charm free, letting his godfather know that he was fine and safe and that he didn't appreciate the kidnapping attempts. When he saw that the owl on approach was Hedwig, Harry didn't allow himself to relax. Hedwig was ridiculously smart but she had had a tail before who had thankfully run headfirst into a Confunding Ward that Dobby had erected.

Hedwig landed on a tree branch she had claimed as hers all summer and hooted dolefully. She didn't have any letters for her human and she knew it would cause him distress. She was right. Harry cursed out loud before jamming his wand back in its holster. He grabbed the cloak and his Firebolt and marched back out.

"Dobby. Winky. We're headed for Hermione's. She hasn't checked in and that's not like her." Harry's tone was harsher than usual as he spoke to his elves.

"We can be popping Master Harry to Miss's home." offered Winky. Like Hedwig the elves knew that this was hard for their master.

"Thank you, Winky. I hate to impose on you but the sooner we find out what happened the better." Harry told the elf, forcing himself to moderate his tone. Focus! Hermione's life could hang in the balance and you wanted to ride a broom. Harry's self-recrimination was cut short by a sensation of pressure before he noticed that he was standing in front of a rather nice looking house. It was certainly larger than number 4, Privet Drive. Dobby and Winky made sure they were invisible as soon as they arrived so Harry started moving towards the door. Years of experience had taught him that respectable people hate to see someone loitering near their house. Moving like you knew where you were going kept people from shouting to Uncle Vernon that his nephew was about to burgle their houses. At the door Harry was grateful to see the name Granger on a little plaque above the doorbell. He rang the doorbell and prayed that when it opened he would see a familiar head of bushy, brown hair. He was half right.

Chapter Text

Helen Granger had been enjoying her day off with a cup of tea and a good book when the doorbell went. She carefully marked her place and headed to answer it. Opening the door she was surprised to see her daughter's boyfriend standing there looking worried.

"Harry? What are you doing here?" she asked. She couldn't see anyone else or a car that could have brought him. He did have a strange looking broom in his hand and Helen suddenly remembered many paragraphs in her daughters letters going on about how well Harry flew on his broom. "Come in, come in. I doubt you want to explain that broom to anyone." Harry stepped across the threshold into the Granger home and put his broom down against the coat rack.

"I'm sorry to just turn up like this, Mrs. Granger. I just really need to speak to Hermione, is she in?" Harry said the nervousness clear in his voice. That nervousness became a full blown panic when Mrs. Granger's face paled.

"Harry, she left just about a week ago to spend time at your house. Am I to understand that she is not in fact there?" Helen was working herself into a panic to match Harry's, imagining what reasons her daughter could have to lie and not liking any of the answers she was coming up with. Especially since Harry showing up like this rubbished any chance of her running off with him.

"Actually, Mrs. Granger I don't technically have a house. If I did I would have invited you and Mr. Granger as well. Was there anything off about Hermione when she told you where she was going." Harry was doing what he did best: suppress his fear and try to solve the situation as best he could. He didn't know that the Granger parents had heard all about his exploits and that seeing him in action was having a calming influence on Mrs. Granger. She was just happy one of them was thinking clearly.

"Hermione left a note. I think it's still in her room. I'll show you there." she said as she turned around and hurried up the stairs, Harry hot on her heels. When they got to Hermione's room her mother walked straight in and quickly found the note her daughter had left. She turned around to see Harry staring at the wall in horror.

"Why does everyone feel the need to frame that thing?!" he cried in dismay, pointing at the frames on the wall. When Helen followed his finger she saw the framed edition of the Daily Prophet edition that depicted Harry killing the dragon. In spite of the situation Helen felt a snort of amusement escape her. Harry's reaction to being confronted with public attention was every bit as funny as Hermione had described. The humour was fleeting though and, seeing that Harry was incredibly distracted, she pulled the young man from the room before handing him the piece of parchment.

Dear Mum and Dad,

Some friends have come to pick me up to stay at my boyfriend's place for the remainder of the summer. I can't tell you where it is due to a spell that has been cast on it but I promise it is very safe. No one will be able to find where I am unless they already know where it is. I will see you both at Christmas.

Love
Hermione

"That doesn't sound like Hermione's usual tone; there's not even a way to contact her included. Was she acting at all differently in the days before she left?" Harry asked trying to puzzle out what had happened. It wasn't like Hermione to run away and leave her parents exposed with a war going on. Hell, last time she had drastically altered their lives to make sure that they would be safe. It just didn't make sense. The spell she mentioned sounded like the Fidelius but he had no idea what might have been hidden, which meant he didn't have access to the secret; that was going to make finding Hermione dificult.

"Well she was a lot quieter after we got back from France and she spent a lot of time in her room. To be honest we thought she was writing love letters to you." That didn't offer Harry a lot to go on.

"Did she receive any strange packages after you came back from France? Anything to eat or drink?" Harry asked, fully aware that he was grasping at straws.

"Just the chocolates you sent her, I think." Mrs. Granger answered. Now it was Harry's turn to pale drastically. Suddenly a reason for Hermione abandoning her parents coalesced in his mind with a cold certainty.

"Mrs. Granger, I never sent Hermione any chocolates. I think someone may have fed her potions to make her more pliable. The question now is who and where did they take her?" Mrs. Granger was now if anything more anxious than Harry. If he was right her daughter had been drugged and kidnapped. She was so wrapped up in visions of horrible things happening to Hermione that she almost jumped out of her skin with a loud shriek when she heard the front door opening, convinced for a split second that her daughter's abductors had returned.

"Helen?! What's going on?!" Mr. Granger's voice bellowed from the hall moments before Harry could hear the man's footsteps thundering up the stairs. When he got to the top he was momentarily stunned by the presence of a young man in his house.

"Oh, Richard. It's Hermione. Harry says that she never went to visit him. He showed up here because he was worried about her." Mrs. Granger quickly explained what they had deduced in the past half an hour while she grabbed onto him, desperate for a hug now that she knew her baby might be in danger. At the end of her explanation Mr. Granger looked at Harry and asked him "So you think this has something to do with that Lord Voldethingy?"

"Actually I doubt it. If the Death Eaters had taken Hermione they would have shown up when you were home and the message would have been your corpses. These people take any opportunity to gruesomely torture anyone without magic. I would imagine that it's more likely that the Headmaster of our school and his militia came by and convinced her to come with them. It's just a guess and one I admit is anything but iron clad, but Dumbledore is one of the few people in the world who can cast that spell and wouldn't kill a muggle-born witch on sight." Harry's face had gone hard during his little speech. He knew he was being harsh but considering what he knew of Hermione as well as his own experiences with people withholding information from him 'for his own good' he couldn't bring himself to lie to the Grangers. "I came here to make sure Hermione was safe. I guess I'm not done yet. I will find her Mr. and Mrs. Granger. I promise." Mr. Granger took a deep breath.

"I suppose that this isn't something we can help with. Is there anything we can do make sure we're safe and Hermione can spend Christmas here?" He asked Harry. In response Harry closed his eyes and reached out with his magic to try and feel any wards on the house. He found nothing.

"I can ask some friends of mine to add some magical protection to your house with your permission." At Mr. Granger's nod Harry continued. "I'm going to call them now. I just want to warn you that these friends are not human. Please don't be afraid of them though." When Harry felt the Grangers were sufficiently prepared he called out. "Dobby! Winky!" The two elves showed up promptly in response to Harry's call.

"Hello, you two. These people are Hermione's parents Richard and Helen Granger. I want you to ward their house using my power like when we broke the tracking charms at King's Cross. Can you do that?" Dobby and Winky bowed to the Grangers when they were introduced before listening to Harry's plan.

"We can be doing that, Master Harry." They answered in unison.

"Alright then, same orders as last time. We stop if one of the three of us can't go on, alright? Aside from that I want you to make these wards as strong as possible and I want you to make sure you'll know if someone is attacking them. If that happens you will be responsible for getting the Grangers out of here as fast as possible and taking them to the place where we've been staying." Harry waited for the elves to nod their understanding before turning to the Grangers.

"Mr. and Mrs. Granger, Death Eaters have a nasty habit of sealing houses and burning them to the ground. Using the system I just described should see you evacuated in time if that happens, but I can't guarantee that all your possessions would make it out. You should think about putting some things in storage or making a list with Dobby and Winky that details what needs to be removed first in the case of an attack." The Grangers could only nod numbly. It was clear that Harry knew what he was talking about, but it was a little surreal to see the strength of will their daughter had told them about in action.

"Right then. Dobby? Winky? Whenever you're ready." Harry said, kneeling down and holding out his hands.

"Yes, Master Harry." Harry felt the elves small hands take hold of his and the drain on his magic start. He could feel the elves putting up ward after ward. He was starting to feel light headed but refused to stop. This was for Hermione's parents' sake. He had promised himself that he would do everything he could to protect them. More wards went up and eventually Harry could not feed the drain on his magic anymore. With a gasp he collapsed on his side. As the world went black he could have sworn he heard Hermione's worried cry. I'm gonna be in for it now was the last conscious thought he had.

:-:-:-:-:

When Harry woke up it was in a bed he didn't recognize. Looking around he realized that he didn't recognize the room either. Wait! Hermione! Her parents said she's missing! As Harry's mind raced to catch up to what had happened he scrambled out of bed. If Hermione was missing he had to get a move on. A look out of the window told him that several hours had passed while he had been unconscious. He felt himself starting to panic at the thought of having wasted time he could have spent looking for his girlfriend. Focus! If you don't calm down you can't help Hermione. Protecting her parents was important too; remember that. Using meditative exercises that he had learned while studying Occlumency in the Room of Requirement Harry fought to calm down. Once he felt that he was at least in control of himself he headed out the door and down the stairs he could see at the end of the hall.

Downstairs he found Mr. and Mrs. Granger looking nervous. Their heads shot up when he entered the living room.

"Harry! Are you quite alright?" Mrs. Granger asked him, concern clearly etched on her face. He gave a grim nod.

"I'm fine, Mrs. Granger. I'm just itching to get started on my search." Hermione's mother looked like she found that answer rather unsatisfying but it was her husband who spoke up.

"Do you have any idea how you're going to look for her? Her note said that she would be in a place that was magically protected so that no one who didn't already know where it was could find it." The dentist looked like he couldn't quite believe the words that had come out of his mouth. Harry just nodded again.

"The Fidelius Charm. If she really has gone with the headmaster's friends then the good news is that he and his friends have been desperately trying to get me to do some things for them this summer that I have no interest in doing and have been using Hedwig to submit some of their requests. This means that she knows the secret and can lead me to the general area. Once there it will be a matter of luring out someone who can pass on the secret." Harry decided not to share his fears of what might happen if the note was, against all odds, a fake.

Both dentists felt extremely relieved upon hearing the confidence the young man spoke with. They hadn't said much to her, but they had been worried about their daughter before she disappeared. To know that someone was going to look for her in a way that bypassed the ridiculous amount of magical security she was sequestered behind was a balm to their worried minds. They even managed to feel less surprised at the sudden appearance of the two creatures who had placed invisible protections on their home. After Harry had given the elves instructions he quickly scribbled something on a piece of paper. When Dobby and Winky returned and presented Harry with a broom, a miniature trunk and a silvery, shimmering cloak Richard and Helen didn't bat an eye. When the elves did something that made Harry disappear from sight the muggle parents' calm evaporated like snow on a summer's day.

"Harry?" Mrs. Granger asked tentatively.

"I'm still here, Mrs. Granger. Winky's just cast a Disillusionment Charm on me and it renders me nearly invisible. Since there are people who can see through the spell I will also be wearing my invisibility cloak. I realize it's a bit unnerving, but it's also the safest way to go about this." Mrs. Granger just nodded uncertainly. Harry decided he had better narrate what he was doing to prevent any further discomfort for the Grangers. "I'm going to open the door now. I will be taking off from your back garden once I have a word with Hedwig." The sliding doors to the back garden seemed to open themselves and the Grangers followed their daughter's invisible boyfriend outside. A snowy owl landing on nothing in midair to listen to unintelligible murmurings once again tested their tolerance for the strangeness of magic. Magic was forgotten though as they heard Harry speak.

"Sir. Ma'am. Hedwig and I will be going now. Thank you for your hospitality. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to call for Dobby or Winky. They may not be able to find us under the Fidelius, but they've agreed to take care of you until further notice." Helen felt tears stinging her eyes and waved weakly at where Hedwig still floated in mid-air. It was left to Richard to give voice to their feelings.

"Just make sure she's safe, son, and take care of yourself as well. Just let us know what's what as soon as you can. That's all we can ask for." The Granger parents watched as Hedwig was launched into the air.

"I won't rest until I know she's safe, sir." came Harry's voice before they felt a gust of wind they took to mean that he had flown off after his owl. The Grangers spent some time staring in the direction Hedwig had flown in before they made their way back into their home. As had so often been the case since Hermione had first left for Hogwarts they were left to wait for news, powerless to help their only child.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry spent roughly two hours following Hedwig's flight. They had to detour slightly around Gatwick Airport to avoid getting caught by passing aeroplanes but after that it was a straight shot on to London. Harry made sure to keep as close to his familiar as possible. They came in view of the Thames before Hedwig changed her course and started losing altitude. Harry eased his Firebolt down after her. Even though he knew it was coming Harry was surprised when Hedwig disappeared from sight between blinks. He instantly stopped and didn't bother trying to find her again. He simply waited. Either Hedwig would emerge or the Order would. Given the note he had attached to her leg, his money was on the Order.

Harry won that bet with himself when ten minutes later Lupin, Moody and Tonks emerged. He was glad that he'd had Winky disillusion him when he saw Mad-Eye's eponymous eye spinning wildly trying to find him. The three spread out trying to unobtrusively cast detection spells. Harry waited for the three searchers to spread out so that the detection spells they were casting wouldn't overlap. Having already decided that he would be entering…wherever it was, on his own terms he flew down towards the most colourful of the three. For what he had in mind Lupin's heightened senses were too acute and approaching Moody would be suicidal.

Harry dropped from his broom behind Tonks, grabbing her chin with one hand and pulling her head back. His other hand had his wand digging into her carotid artery. She squawked in surprise and the other two whipped around but couldn't see anything except Tonks standing in an odd position.

"What's going on girl?" Moody called. Before she could respond Harry hissed in her ear.

"You look a lot like an auror I met once in a hospital. How about you prove who you are before you do something silly like reaching for your wand or calling your friends?" Tonks hair grew long, lank and stark white while her face morphed into a rather unique expression of shock. "Works for me, Auror…Tonks was it?" He could see the relief on the metamorph's face as he withdrew the wand from her throat and released her. By now Moody and Lupin had come over.

"I asked you a question, girl. What the devil are you doing?" Moody's eyes were both fixed on Tonks. Harry decided to have some fun and answered the question for her.

"You didn't think I was just going to trust your pretty, blue eyes did you Moody?" The old auror actually jumped up and started trying to point his wand everywhere at once.

"Potter?" he growled out.

"Yes, and before you start asking silly questions: my Patronus is a stag and I was taught how to cast it by Moony over there." Harry could see the other two looking at Lupin with questions clear in their expressions. The werewolf chose address Harry directly though.

"Hello, Harry. You've been worrying a lot of people recently. Why don't we go inside?" He held out a small note which Harry quickly took from his hand. The message was familiar: The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at 12 Grimmauld Place. After he had read the note he stuffed it back in Lupin's hand and focused on what he had read. As soon as he saw the old house appear he asked the Order members "Shall we then?" and headed over on his broom. It was somewhat amusing to see them trying to escort him without any idea of where he was. He could tell that Lupin and Moody at least were looking and listening for footsteps. When he reached the door and opened it they all broke into a run to reach the house they were still several yards away from.

Once the door was closed Harry removed the cloak and cast the Disspelling Charm to become visible again.

"You could get in trouble for that, you know?" Tonks told Harry conversationally only to have him snort.

"Are you going to tell me that a government funded monitor can bypass the Fidelius Charm?" he looked at her with one eyebrow cocked, "Pull the other one. It's got bells on it." Tonks though seemed determined to get a reaction.

"True. Doesn't cover your assault on an auror outside though, does it?" When that didn't change his facial expression one jot she tried something else. Smiling slyly she asked him "Does Hermione know you go around grabbing girls while invisible?" That got a reaction though probably not the one she was looking for.

"Funny you should mention Hermione, Auror Tonks. You lot wouldn't happen to know why she disappeared from her parents' house and missed her scheduled check in, would you?" His icy glare roamed over all three of them as he asked his question. Tonks and Lupin looked uncomfortable while Moody actually looked somewhat impressed.

"Come on, Harry. We were about to sit down to dinner. Hermione will be at the table." Harry's gaze returned to Lupin for a moment before he nodded and indicated that the werewolf should lead the way. Harry's entrance into the kitchen caused quite the stir. He ignored it and went straight for his girlfriend who looked shocked to see him. When he got to her he pressed a relieved, lingering kiss to her lips. He soon stopped though as she was not reciprocating. When he pulled back she still seemed to be in shock.

"Are you alright, Hermione?" he asked quietly. He watched her blink a couple times before she shook herself and nodded at him.

"I'm fine, Harry. I just have something I need to talk to you about in private." she said. Harry was perfectly willing to head off then and there but Mrs. Weasley interrupted.

"I'm sure there will be time enough for that later, dears. Why don't you eat something first?" Harry looked up in suspicion at Mrs. Weasley's attitude. Their last meeting had been frosty at best, but she seemed back to her mothering self. As he looked around the table he noticed for the first time that Hermione was sitting next to Weasley. That surprised him after the year they had just had and his first instinct was to ask what was going on. He quashed the urge though and added it to the list of things he and Hermione needed to talk about after dinner. Something was wrong here and unless his guess was very off, he would find out as soon as they could get some privacy.

Turning to greet the rest of the people there including Sirius took his mind off of the weirdness Hermione was displaying for a moment. Once he had been introduced to all the members of the Order of the Phoenix without the name of the group ever being mentioned he took a seat in between Sirius and Hermione. Dinner was a rambunctious affair with most of the Weasleys present. Sirius was never one to calm a situation down either. Harry did notice that several Order members were having a deep discussion at the other end of the table. Harry himself refused to answer any questions about where he had been and what he had been doing. As the dishes were being cleared away Sirius asked a question that Harry had half been expecting.

"So, Harry, I would have expected you to start asking questions as soon as you had the chance." Harry looked at his godfather with one eyebrow cocked.

"Why?" Several people around the table were surprised at that answer but Harry kept his gaze locked on Sirius.

"Well, I thought you would be curious about what is happening with the fight against You Know Who." Sirius was clearly just as flabbergasted as most of the other people present that Harry was seemingly going to be the only teen in the house not loudly demanding to know what they were doing. Harry chose to flash them all a predatory smile.

"You misunderstood me, Sirius. I meant, why would I ask you?" Harry took a moment to enjoy the gobsmacked expressions around the kitchen of Grimmauld Place before continuing. "The Order of the Phoenix, a 'secret' militia and information gathering ring started by Dumbledore during the last war with Riddle. You have no information I want or need. As far as I can tell you have you have massively failed at literally every target you have set." He sat back to enjoy the loud cries of indignation that his proclamation had brought until one voice sounded over the rest and restored quiet.

"And what do you think you know about it, Potter?" Harry looked straight at Moody's grizzled face, still wearing his predatory smirk. He knew it was important to knock the Order down a peg. What they were doing was dangerous and would get them killed if they didn't drastically change their way of thinking.

"Let's review what you have done so far, shall we?" Harry started. It might be for their own good but he was going to enjoy this nonetheless. He even had an excuse ready for his knowledge. "First, information gathering: you have tried to establish contacts with the darker elements of our society both to further this goal and also to try and slow Riddle's recruitment of those same elements. The werewolves for example." He swung his gaze to his former defense teacher.

"Lupin has been trying to ingratiate himself into the pack and is failing miserably due to his prolonged exposure to wizards, as well as being the only werewolf on the Isles who was allowed to attend Hogwarts while already cursed. It would take years before they start trusting him with anything remotely important. You've also sent Hagrid and Madame Maxime to parley with the giants. They will fail. Giants are not impressed by pretty words and even if they were, Riddle can offer them something concrete that you never can: expanded territory and revenge on wizards." Harry's gaze swung around to the eldest Weasley brother. "Bill is your contact with Gringotts. The goblins don't have a dog in this fight and won't get off their collective arse until a clear winner becomes obvious. They are far more likely to wait and hope we destroy each other so they can squeeze some concessions out of whatever wizarding government comes into being at the end of this. In addition Bill is a human and has clearly shown he will side with wizards the moment there is a conflict, meaning Ragnok is keeping him pacified with platitudes while his career implodes." The kitchen was entirely silent as the Order digested that Harry not only knew what they were doing but was rubbishing their actions at every step.

"You have no contact with the vampire covens, which shouldn't be a problem unless one of the Elders is bored this century. The centaurs will simply attack anyone who comes into the forest, no matter which side they're on. The only reason the Acromantula colony hasn't attacked Hogwarts yet is that Hagrid hatched and raised their patriarch, who is just about on his deathbed. Your information from the ministry comes from rumor and hearsay and is also available to the other side. That leaves us with your supposed trump card: Snape's spy work, which is probably worse than useless."

"Dumbledore trusts Snape. We should too, or at least look past our differences with him." Harry gave Lupin a pitying smile at the interruption.

"Whether or not Dumbledore or anyone else trusts Snape is largely irrelevant." He enjoyed the shock on Moony's face knowing the older man had expected a rant about Snape being a greasy git. "Dumbledore proclaimed in at least two public trials after the war that Snape had turned spy for our side. He said that in front of both Crouches, whom Riddle had access to for months. Wormtail was a spy in the Order for Riddle last time around and let his master know exactly what information was leaked to you. Riddle knows that Snape has been a spy for Dumbledore and yet somehow Snape's still alive. That means Snape's given Riddle enough to still be useful to him. Since Riddle is not an idiot he is extremely unlikely to allow sensitive information anywhere near Snape. Anything tall, dark and greasy does uncover is likely to be misdirection." Harry's throat was starting to get dry but he wanted to finish this and have some time with his girlfriend tonight.

"Shall we move on to your active operations? You currently have two. The first was finding me, which you didn't. I even managed to find you. The second is guarding the Department of Mysteries. Why on earth you lot are still wasting your time there is the real mystery. Since Sturgis Podmore, a member of your organization, got arrested for trying to break into the Department you had him guarding we can conclude one of two things: he was a traitor, in which case the enemy knows what you are doing; or he could have been Imperiused in which case you still have to assume that the enemy knows what you are doing. Even if you ignore that, what is one guard under an invisibility cloak going to do when Riddle shows up? You have very few competent fighters." Harry started pointing them out as he listed them. "Former Auror Moody, Auror Shacklebolt, Auror Tonks, Former Auror Black and Remus Lupin who would have a Mastery in Defense if the wizarding world wasn't a bigoted shithole. Oh, and Dumbledore I suppose, even though he doesn't pull guard duty and if the aurors' After Action Reports are accurate he never once captured or incapacitated a single Death Eater during the last war so we might as well discard him except as a flashy distraction. If all of that wasn't enough you haven't even realized that for the past two weeks the very thing you've been guarding has gone missing. I removed it myself and left a slightly altered copy that I hope Riddle enjoys. Which I suppose also proves that you lot don't make particularly effective guards." Harry looked around and thought that most members of the Order actually looked catatonic. Some of them looked like they were starting to get it and Moody looked like he wanted to kick himself.

"The grand sum of your accomplishments so far is making yourselves feel important at the risk of your lives and serving as a reverential cult for Dumbledore. So, if your intelligence sources are compromised, unreliable or both and your active operations are ridiculous failures on almost every front, why would I want to ask you anything about the war?" Harry gave them a moment to let his rhetorical question sink in. "Glad we cleared that up. Mi, you wanted to talk somewhere private?" Harry stood up and pulled his girlfriend to her feet, leading her out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the room he knew was Regulus'. He was happy for an excuse to get away from the Order before they realized that he had essentially insulted them at every turn during his lengthy rant.

When they entered the room Harry had chosen he carefully shut the door and pulled Hermione into his arms. He lowered his head to kiss her again but she turned her head to the side and her small hands were on his chest pushing him away. Harry released his hold on her and took a step back trying not to show the hurt he felt at her rejection. Whatever it is must really be bothering her.

"So, what did you need to talk about, Hermione?" Harry asked her, searching her face for a clue as to what had his girlfriend acting like this. She was clearly struggling with what she wanted to say.

"I'm breaking up with you, Harry." All of Harry's mental processes screeched to a halt.

"What?" His nonplussed response came out in a small voice as he tried to work through what Hermione had said. Where Harry was floundering with what was going on Hermione seemed to be getting more comfortable now that the bombshell had been delivered.

"The only reason I agreed to go out with you is because I thought I didn't have a chance with the man I love. I recently learned that he feels the same way about me and I have to take this chance. I would be lying to both of us if I didn't." Hermione spoke in a calm and gentle voice. Harry wanted her to scream at him, to have at least earned what she was doing to him in some sense.

"You're serious?" Odd. That didn't sound like his voice. When she nodded he asked a question he needed to know the answer to, "Who?" Hermione blushed before answering.

"Ron." At Harry's incredulous look she continued. "He is just so manly. My perfect opposite, he balances me out." Each word she said was like a knife thrust into Harry's heart. He knew he was in no way processing this well. He felt numb and sluggish. He felt tears burning in his eyes. He felt his heart tearing itself to shreds in his chest. "I'm sorry, Harry, but I think you'll come to see that this is for the best." With that Hermione turned around and left. Just outside the door Harry could see Weasley leaning up against the wall. He greeted Hermione with a kiss that Harry knew would have left her uncomfortable if Harry had done it in public at Hogwarts. When Ron did it though she apparently didn't mind. Then maybe this is for the best. You knew this could happen. It's your own fault you got taken in by some stupid vision of what probably never was. The kiss in the hall had ended and Weasley shot Harry a malicious smirk over Hermione's shoulder before leading her away with the words "C'mon, babe, I think we're gonna need a little privacy."

Harry thought he might be sick. He had never talked to Hermione like that because he thought she would hate it but clearly that had been his downfall. Harry felt a desire to hit something, to make something else hurt the way he was hurting, well up inside of him and took it out on the unsuspecting door. It slammed shut with an almighty bang and Harry fired Silencing and Locking Charms at it before screaming his rage at the heavens. He spent a lot of time cursing Ephialtes for being a backstabbing, traitorous bastard. He made the pillows from the bed hover in front of him and went to work on them like a boxer training for a championship fight. He had no idea how long he went on for but at the end of it he couldn't say that he felt any better. Despite having memories of Hermione and Ron ending up together he had stopped believing that it would happen because of all they had learned about the redhead. He felt a wetness on his face and realized that he was actually crying. Angrily he swiped away the tears. He needed to do something, anything. Anything but think about what was happening elsewhere in the house. He needed to adjust his plans for collecting the Horcruxes. Actually I don't. Those plans were never contingent upon Her- on her.

Harry threw himself down on the bed. He couldn't even think her name without something twisting painfully in his chest. Might as well get to bed early. I'll collect the locket tonight and get the hell out of here before the Order notices anything's happened. I am not staying here to watch Weasley and…and her together. Plan made, Harry unshrunk his trunk, grabbed his toiletries and headed into the en-suite bathroom that Regulus' room had. Brushing his teeth was hell. It just reminded him of dentists, which in turn reminded him of why he had left the safety of his tent and what he had experienced. He decided he would leave her a note telling her to contact her parents. That should fulfill his promise to them. When he was done with his ablutions he flopped down on the bed fully dressed. What was the point of undressing when he was just going to be leaving in a few hours, after all? He did his best to fall asleep but a short, fitful doze was as close as he got.

When he woke up from his restless sleep, Harry felt no better than he had before. A quick glance at his watch told him it was just gone two in the morning. Time to get to work. Harry headed over to the door, undoing the spells he had placed on it and opening it. He nearly stepped on a plateful of biscuits as he walked out. Harry picked the plate up and noticed there was a note laying on top of the baked goods.

Harry

I made these for you in case you wanted a midnight snack. I know it hurts now, but one day you will find someone worthy of you.

Ginny

Harry snorted, he did not need a reminder like that right now. He placed the plate on the desk in the room and moved out into the hall. It wasn't the most gentlemanly thing to do but Ginny could just discover them tomorrow. Harry quietly made his way to the Drawing Room. He didn't know if it had been cleaned out yet but he doubted it. As he recalled, it had been towards the end of his stay here that they had gotten around to cleaning that part of the house last time around. As he let himself inside he lit his wand and immediately moved over to the glass display cabinets containing the most prized possessions of the Black Family. It took him relatively little time to find the locket and he simply lifted it out of the display case. He didn't bother to make a copy, certain that nobody would even know it was gone. The locket felt as unclean and unwelcoming as it always had. As he turned to leave he realized that he had forgotten about the one person who certainly would notice that it was missing.

"What is filthy half-blood doing with Master Regulus' locket? Filthy half-blood should not be stealing from the noble House of Black. What would Mistress say to Kreacher if she knew?" The ancient elf looked particularly menacing in the sharp shadows from Harry's wandlight. Harry knew that Kreacher wanted the locket destroyed as badly as Harry did. He just wasn't sure how he was going to convince the elf of that. He slipped the locket into his pocket. He wasn't going to wear the damn thing around his neck ever again if he could help it.

"Kreacher, was it? Are you sure this locket belongs to your Master?" Kreacher gave him look of pure loathing.

"Of course Kreacher is sure. The half-blood's breeding must have made it stupid." Harry had forgotten just how unpleasant Kreacher could be.

"You lie, elf." Harry hissed at the little being in front of him. His emotions from the day he had had added to the natural tendency towards anger his fifteen year old hormones produced had shortened Harry's emotional fuse to the point where it was nearly non-existent. Oddly enough Kreacher actually seemed to respond to Harry's tone of voice and the glare being aimed his way. "This locket reeks of the magic of Tom Marvolo Riddle and I know that he has never had a house elf. Now tell the truth or get out of my way."

"Kreacher's Master Regulus recovered the locket. It is his." The elf was stubborn if not as insulting as he usually was.

"Then your Master will lose his possession. I will be destroying this disgusting thing as soon as I can. If there is a problem with that, he can come find me." Kreacher's eyes widened at the declaration.

"Half-blood would help Kreacher fulfill his Master's last command?" The elf sounded downright emotional. "May Kreacher assist half-blood Master?" Taken off guard by the elf's form of address Harry actually considered the request. Considering how long Kreacher had carried this burden it did seem fair to let him help. Besides, Harry still had to return to his room to collect his broom and his trunk and to write a note for-...to write a note. Having a house-elf's assistance would also allow him to destroy the damn thing tonight. Kreacher had not so much as twitched while Harry considered his request.

"Alright. You can help." Harry was surprised to see emotion welling in the old elf's eyes. "I will need something that you can get for me. In the headmaster's office at Hogwarts there is a display case holding a sword. I need you to fetch me that sword without anyone noticing it's gone. Be careful not to cut yourself with it as it will be the last thing you ever do. Bring that sword to the room I'm staying in." Kreacher bowed deeply and popped out. Harry snuck out of the drawing room and back to Regulus' room. When he got there he found Kreacher already waiting for him with the Sword of Gryffindor leaning up against the bed. With two flicks of his wand Harry silenced the room and locked the door again. Turning back to Kreacher he took the locket out of his pocket and tossed it on the floor.

"Alright, Kreacher. I am going unlock this thing. You hold it open and I'll stab it with the sword. Got that?" Harry waited for Kreacher to nod his understanding before issuing one more warning. "That locket is at least somewhat aware, so it's going to fight us. You need to ignore anything it says, no matter whose face it uses to say it, do you understand?" He waited for the elf to confirm his understanding once again.

"Kreacher will not listen to the locket, half-blood Master. Kreacher understands." Harry nodded in approval at the old elf and grabbed the Sword for Gryffindor before moving to stand over the locket. Kreacher crouched down across from him staring intently at the locket.

"Okay, three, two, one. ₰Open₰." Kreacher's gnarled old hands shot out and wrenched the locket open as soon as it clicked open. Harry saw a dark cloud with two glowing, red eyes billow out from the locket.

"Harry Potter. I have seen your heart and it is-" The locket cut off with an agonized scream as the Sword of Gryffindor was rammed through it with a vengeance.

"I'm not in the mood, Tom." Harry snarled at the remains of the locket before ripping the blade out of the wreck of the Horcrux. Kreacher fell back on his rear staring open-mouthed at the remains of the locket that had tormented him for fifteen years. His eyes followed the piece of jewelry as Harry picked it up and placed it around the ancient elf's neck. "If it was your Master's last request, then I think he would want you to keep it. Your loyalty is a credit to you and the House you serve." Fat tears were starting to drip down Kreacher's wrinkled cheeks at the honor this wizard was showing him.

Harry stood up and looked around the room. It was time to go. He knew that Hermione was safe, happy even, and he had destroyed another Horcrux. He remembered his promise to two Crawley dentists and moved over to the desk to write a note on their behalf to their daughter.

"Young Master! No!" Harry froze where he was and turned to look at Kreacher who had one hand extended towards him. "Good Young Master must not eat the biscuits. They is being full of potions." Harry gaped at the elf, who in all fairness looked rather shocked at his own actions. After a moment to recover from the surprise Harry's face took on a thunderous cast and he stalked across the room in two strides his wand already out and pointing at the plate of biscuits. He snarled out Scarpin's Revelaspell as he approached and grabbed a piece of parchment to start writing down the results. Once he had finished he looked over the list of ingredients but couldn't link any potion to the list. It occurred to him that the list was long enough to be several potions. In which case he needed to look for possible combinations and his potions knowledge really wasn't good enough for that.

"Kreacher. I need a book listing various potions by ingredients." Kreacher got up and bowed deeply before popping away. He had made his decision that he would serve the young wizard. The boy carried the blood of the House of Black in his veins from his grandmother and he had reminded the old elf somewhat of his Master Regulus. What had clinched it for Kreacher was how viscerally he had just been reminded of Master Arcturus. The young wizard had clearly inherited the strength of will and the indomitable spirit required to rule over the Family and it was only right that an elf should serve one such as that. Moments later he returned with the book and offered it up to his Young Master before moving off to wait quietly in case the Young Master needed more help in what had clearly become a hunt for the guilty and a quest for vengeance worthy of the Blacks of old.

Harry was flipping feverishly through the book. He started with the first ingredients listed as those would be present in the highest concentrations, making them a likely base for whatever potions someone had been trying to feed him. Finding the entry for Ashwinder Eggs, he looked through the potions that were listed. One of them caught his eye and, even if he had no evidence yet, his intuition was screaming at him that it was at least one of the potions present in the odious mixture. He quickly checked the rest of the ingredients for the potion and found them all present. Using the same method he had soon identified a total of three potions in the biscuits. A love potion, a hate potion and Gregory's Unctuous Unction, designed to make the drinker think of the brewer as their best friend.

Harry stared at the plate in disbelief. The accompanying note could have been written by anyone and he wasn't ready to condemn Ginny just on that basis. It takes something really messing with their heads to keep soulmates apart. Check yourself regularly for potions. Harry heard the words Ephialtes had spoken echoing through his mind from the depths of his memory, but his initial reaction was the same as it had been then. There was no one currently in the house he would have believed this of. Well maybe Weasley, but he certainly couldn't brew all these potions. He could however buy them or have someone else make them. As far as Harry was concerned it was just another reason to get out of here as soon as possible. What about Hermione? That harrowing thought brought Harry up short. He didn't even notice the way his heart clenched at the thought of Hermione's name. He had forgotten all about what her mother had said about Hermione getting chocolates over the holidays. That had been an immediate red flag and he had forgotten it while wallowing in his self-pity. If it was Weasley and he was using love potions, then Hermione's sudden relationship with him took on a much darker cast.

"Fuck." He couldn't leave her, not without making sure that she was safe. "Fuck." There just wasn't much else he could think to say. He needed a plan. Nobody would believe him without evidence, least of all Hermione if she was indeed poisoned. Looking around the room for inspiration his eyes landed on Kreacher who was still waiting patiently.

"Kreacher. I need to discover just how far this goes. Will you help me?" At the ancient elf's agreement a plan started forming in Harry's mind. "I need you to make and serve me breakfast tomorrow and then keep an eye on everyone's food. If anyone receives potions I want to know about it, but only when we have some privacy. Once we know who is doing what to whom, we can plan appropriately."

"Kreacher will help Good Young Master." The elf said before popping out. Harry got changed and laid down in the bed. He had thankfully already slept a little because the grim determination he was now feeling was not conducive to a good night's rest. He knew one thing with certainty though: if Weasley was doing what Harry suspected him of, there would be nowhere for the sniveling bastard to hide.

Chapter Text

Breakfast at 12 Grimmauld Place was an excruciating affair. It all started when Harry walked in to the kitchen. Many of the members of the Order who had congregated to enjoy Molly Weasley's cooking glared at him disapprovingly. Harry couldn't have said that he was surprised by the reaction. Having a fifteen year-old point out your glaring failures to you was never going to go down well with the average wizard. Hell, it probably wouldn't go down well with any adult. Harry only hoped that they would adjust their modus operandi in response to what he had said, not that they would suddenly like him. The younger guests were a lot more friendly, Ginny even excessively so. She had run up to him the moment she saw him and tried to kiss him full on the mouth. Harry turned his head to the side so her lips landed on his cheek.

"Ginny! What the hell?" He pushed the redhead away from him and looked at her incredulously. Did she really think that was the best way to cheer him up after he had just been dumped? Ginny looked confused for a moment before rallying her expression. She clasped her hands down by her waist and squeezed her upper arms together in what looked like an effort to show off her developing breasts. This was coupled with a look on her face that made her look innocent as could be.

"I was just saying good morning, Harry. Well, that and trying to cheer you up a bit." Harry almost didn't hear what she said as the realization set in that the note had not been written by someone else. In fact it looked like little Ginny was damn well aware of what those biscuits had been laced with.

"I'm not really in the mood to be cheered up, Gin." Harry said, struggling not scream out his frustration. His hormones really were making it difficult to control his temper. He couldn't afford to lose it; not before he had given Kreacher a chance to gather the necessary information.

The moment Harry sat down a full English breakfast appeared before him and Mrs. Weasley was up in arms over someone else using her kitchen and berated Harry for tucking in with gusto. She tried to force a plate of her own cooking in front of him but Harry suggested that she give it to someone else as he was already served.

"Harry, dear, that food is just not safe. It was made by the house elf here and he is a miserable little creature. You never know what he might have put in there." Harry was now including everyone at Grimmauld Place in his suspicions and this mention of something being put in his food really got under his skin. Right now Kreacher was probably the safest cook in the house, bar himself.

The cherry on the cake though was when Weasley and Hermione came in looking thoroughly mussed. Hermione was hanging all over Weasley as they sat down and was even sprayed with bits of food from the carnage next to her. When she didn't once complain and instead looked on with fond indulgence Harry almost felt his breakfast come back up. He managed to stay seated until Hermione started eating her own food. He hoped that with all the attention on him Kreacher had managed to discover something. He stood up abruptly leaving his partially eaten breakfast. As he did, Kreacher popped in looking distressed.

"Was breakfast not to the Good Young Master's liking?" Harry couldn't let the little guy think this was somehow his fault, no matter how badly he wanted to get out of there.

"Breakfast was excellent, Kreacher. Thank you very much for making it for me. I've just lost my appetite." Harry reassured the elf. He could see something darken in Kreacher's eyes.

"Kreacher will preserve the rest for when Good Young Master is less distracted from his meal." Harry could only smile at the typical house elf offer. They were always taking care of others and Harry couldn't help but love them for it.

"Thank you, Kreacher." Harry said before a giggle from Hermione sent him from the kitchen at a near run. The Order members who had met Kreacher were nonplussed at Harry's easy rapport with the elf. As soon as the young wizard had disappeared the ancient elf turned a glare on the rest of the people in the kitchen and popped out with the remains of Harry's breakfast.

Harry stormed up the stairs to the library. As much as he suspected that Hermione wasn't acting this way of her own accord, it still hurt to see them like that. In the library he selected a few books on curse breaking and continued on to his room. When he got up there he slammed the door shut behind him and fired of his usual Silencing and Locking Charms before he collapsed in the desk chair. Harry closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. That had been harder than he had anticipated.

"Kreacher." he called; might as well get this over with. Kreacher popped in and looked Harry up and down critically.

"Is the young master wanting Kreacher to bring him the rest of his breakfast now?" Kreacher's tone implied that there was something very wrong with a young wizard not finishing his breakfast.

"Not right now, Kreacher. Did anyone try to slip me a potion this morning?" Kreacher looked a little put out that the breakfast conversation was on hold.

"Fat, red blood-traitor tries to poison Good Young Master. Kreacher will make sure she never cooks for the Good Young Master again." Harry's heart broke, nearly as badly as it had when he had heard that Ron had known about the dragons. Mrs. Weasley was someone he had looked to as a mother-figure in his previous life. Some of the lustre had worn off with her howler in response to his relationship but it still cut him that she would do this. He tried to focus on what this meant for his response. Ignore how it makes you feel. Ignore the fact that you once cared for them. What will you do? That was the million galleon question. He couldn't approach her or Mr. Weasley for any help in dealing with their children if they were in on it. Of course he could solve his troubles by simply leaving but before he could he needed to know one more thing. The problem was that he was afraid to ask the question and even more afraid of hearing the answer. Harry wasn't sure just which answer he was hoping for.

"Was anyone else given any potions?" He asked the question quickly, as if he was ripping off a plaster. Kreacher's response was unexpectedly gentle.

"Fat, red blood-traitor gives the mudblood the same potions she tries to give the Good Young Master." Harry nearly collapsed with the relief that he hadn't been completely wrong about Hermione. She wasn't the kind of cold-hearted bitch who would play with someone like that. The relief was extremely muted as it also meant that Hermione was in very real danger of essentially being raped. He barely remembered to ask if anyone else was being influenced and the negative answer was almost meaningless to him except that it let him focus on helping the girl he loved.

"Kreacher, I need these ingredients as quickly as possible as well as the equipment. Take any money you need from my Gringotts vault." Harry handed Kreacher a list and the elf bowed and was about to pop away when Harry held up his hand. "Once you have completed that task I want you to watch over Hermione. If it looks like Weasley is going to hurt her, do whatever it takes to stop him." Kreacher looked like he might object for a moment before nodding and popping out.

With a sigh Harry allowed his body to go completely limp for a moment. She might not hate me. The danger Hermione was in solidified Harry's resolve like almost nothing else could and he got up and grabbed the potions book Kreacher had brought last night. He opened it to a page he had bookmarked and started reviewing the proper procedure for brewing a Purging Potion. He had just gotten to the step where the Wiggentree twigs were added when he heard a knock at his door. Harry looked at the door suspiciously; he was sure he had used a Silencing Charm on it.

"Harry? Can I come in and talk to you for a moment?" Sirius voice came through the door. Harry supposed that he couldn't really lock himself away without expecting someone to come looking for him. Besides, Sirius knew that Harry and Hermione had been dating and after the display at breakfast he might think Harry wanted someone to talk to.

"Come on in, Sirius." Harry called firing an Unlocking Charm at the door. Sirius came in accompanied by a streak of orange.

"Crookshanks." Harry murmured as the cat leapt onto his lap. Crookshanks butted his head into Harry's hand in an effort to get it scratched. As Harry subconsciously obliged he turned his eyes back to Sirius.

Once the Marauder was inside he had reapplied the Locking and Silencing Charms before Harry could. At Harry's questioning look Sirius said "I imagine you had a reason to have the charms up." Harry just nodded. He was perfectly willing to wait for Sirius to get to the point and didn't expect it to take the generally restless man long. He was right.

"I wanted to ask you how you were feeling." Sirius began sounding incredibly uncomfortable. At Harry's cocked eyebrow he rushed to continue. "I mean, getting thrown over for your best mate like that has to hurt and I wanted to know how you're holding up." Harry started a little at his godfather's tactlessness and Sirius seemed to notice this.

"Look, Harry, that may not have been the best way to put it, but something is clearly wrong with you. You're studying Potions, for Godric's sake!" Harry was in a bit of a bind. Sirius was clearly worried but Harry wasn't sure if he should just come clean and tell Sirius about the potions. Actually, to be honest, he was desperate to tell the man all about it. Harry was carrying enough burdens that he couldn't share. This was something he could and would frankly love some help with. Finally he decided that if he couldn't trust Sirius that the situation here was so dire that he might as well just kidnap Hermione and leave the wizarding world to drown in their own filth.

"I'm not studying Potions on a whim, Sirius." Harry was a little confused at the disappointed look on Sirius' face.

"Harry, no matter how good the relationship was, you can't use love potions to try and win her back." Harry's face went decidedly stony at the implied accusation.

"I wasn't planning on getting Hermione back with a love potion, thank you very much. I was planning on getting her back with the Purging Potion." Harry couldn't keep the icy tone out of his voice. He couldn't believe that Sirius thought he would stoop to the level of the people who had done this to Hermione. Harry could see the exact moment his comment started making sense to his godfather. Sirius face had turned thunderous.

"Ron is using a love potion on Hermione?" Harry appreciated Sirius' instant outrage on Hermione's behalf but hadn't forgotten the beginning of the conversation.

"Actually she's under a love potion, a hate potion and Gregory's Unctuous Unction and, while I'm pretty sure Ron knows, this morning it was Molly Weasley who tried to feed us potions and succeeded in Hermione's case. Last night I received a plate of potion laced biscuits with a note from Ginny as well." Sirius leapt up and strode towards the door only to stiffen and fall over. Harry levitated the man he had placed under a Full Body-Bind back to his chair. "Stop. Unless you have a Purging Potion ready to hand, and I know you don't or Kreacher would have fetched it for me, you charging out there is going to do nothing but harm." Sirius' eyes looked mutinous.

"Kreacher is currently fetching me the things I need to brew this potion. It will be difficult enough to get it to Hermione without you tipping the bastards off. If I can control myself, you damn well should be able to as well." Sirius was only looking slightly less mutinous and Harry sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose in an attempt to alleviate some of the tension that was starting to cause him a headache. "What were you planning to do anyway? Scream at them? Throw them out of the house?" Judging by the look in Sirius' eyes at least one of those guesses was spot on.

"If you throw them out what will Hermione in her current state do?" He waited a moment to let that sink in. "She would go with them in support of her boyfriend. Similarly, if you let on that you know, Hermione will not believe you but she will probably become suspicious of any potions coming from us. I'm hoping she isn't so far gone that she's done anything she can't take back, but these potions are designed to steal a person's capacity for rational thought and if we push her, she might do something she'll regret for the rest of her life. If nothing else she might want to prove that her relationship with that shit-stain is 'real'." Sirius eyes finally looked like he had understood and was in control of himself again so Harry released the spell. "After she's safe we can go after the traitors, but not before." It was quiet between them for several minutes before Sirius spoke again.

"Any idea what you're going to do to them yet?" Harry shook his head.

"I've been a little preoccupied, Padfoot. Besides, all I had before breakfast was a suspicion due to some laced biscuits." Harry wasn't about to admit that he also had memories of Ron and Hermione in a relationship in the future muddying the waters. He was starting to have some suspicions about how that had come about after what he had learnt though. "If it wasn't for Kreacher helping out I never would have gotten that confirmation without going to war with the Order." Sirius remembered an evening getting drunk with Minnie as she told him about watching a memory of Harry Potter taking on the Dark Lord and roughly thirty of his Death Eaters after being subjected to the Cruciatus Curse multiple times. He remembered what she told him about the amount of damage Harry had done then while trying to get away. He carefully looked at the young man across from him who was positively radiating power and dangerous levels of determination. Finally, he also remembered that Harry had gotten the drop on Moony, Tonks and Mad-Eye just outside of the Order's Fidelius Charmed Headquarters before showing a level of knowledge about their activities that nobody should have had. All in all Harry going to war with the Order, by himself, might be a quicker death sentence than taking on You Know Who and his Death Eaters in a pitched battle. If it was to protect Hermione then he didn't think even Dumbledore would be able to turn the tide.

"Speaking of the little crapbubble, how did you and he become so chummy?" Harry shot Sirius a stern look.

"For starters, I didn't call him a 'little crapbubble' but treated him like a person. Secondly, I helped him with an order from his former Master that he couldn't manage on his own. Finally, I don't assume he is evil or whatever your problem with him is. He is actually a pretty nice guy and an extremely loyal elf if you give him a reason to be." Sirius was gaping at Harry.

"He's a little pure-blood bigot!" Sirius shouted, making Harry glad they had reapplied the Silencing Charm.

"Actually, I would say he has remained loyal to your parents and their views. He has shown that he is changing though. He has stopped caring about my status as a half-blood already. I think if we give him time and a reason he will come around." Harry answered his godfather. When he saw Sirius angrily open his mouth he said. "Look, I understand that you have a lot of unpleasant memories of him, but that is no reason to dismiss him as an ally out of hand." Sirius just huffed in response and Harry decided an abrupt change of topic might not be a bad thing.

"So have you heard anything about a trial yet or are the ministry still dragging their collective arse?" It was crude but it worked as Sirius held out for a few seconds before the two men launched into an enjoyable session of insulting the ministry. Kreacher popped in with lunch for the both of them and admonished Harry that this time he was to eat everything before popping out. Harry thought this might have done more for Sirius' views on his family's elf than anything Harry had said. Sirius eventually left some time after lunch and Harry took up the potion's book again. He had no time to waste messing this recipe up and he wanted to get it right in one go.

:-:-:-:-:

When Harry woke up the next morning he saw that Kreacher had left everything needed to start brewing in Harry's room. Since he had convinced Sirius to put out the word that Harry was sulking in his room and would be taking his meals there, Harry would be free to stay in and brew. This was particularly convenient since the potion, like most medical potions, was fiendishly complicated and took a relatively long time to brew; thirty-six hours to be precise. Harry was also glad that he had an en-suite bathroom as it meant that he really didn't have to leave unless he wanted to.

After he had gone through his morning ablutions and finished a very tasty breakfast under Kreacher's watchful eye Harry got started. He set up his equipment and checked the ingredients before prepping them. Since the potion required a lot of simmering, Harry grabbed one of the curse breaking books he had borrowed from the library. He would have liked to spend his time coming up with a suitable revenge against the people who had done this to Hermione and him, but last night taught him that he tended to get stuck on 'where do I hide the bodies?' and murder felt so...pubescent as a punishment. Weasley deserved something special.

:-:-:-:-:

Three days after he had arrived at Grimmauld Place, Harry Potter was in his room looking very satisfied with the vials of electric blue potion that were lined up on his desk. The Purging Potion was finally done. The only thing that remained was to get Hermione to take it. Harry's plan was simple: he would ask Hermione up to his room and then convince her to take the potion. 'If you don't believe that you are under the effects of a potion then this should have no effect on you' sounded like it had potential. The side effects of the potion required that the taker be close to a toilet and preferably a bucket or a lot of cleaning supplies. He also had a backup plan that was even simpler and that he fervently hoped he wouldn't have to use. So it was that Harry left his room for the first time since breakfast on his first morning here and went in search of Hermione. He actually found her by following the sounds of voices to a half open door.

"…which is why it's so interesting." Harry smiled to himself, Hermione had clearly found some new book or piece of knowledge and wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

"Merlin's sweaty sack, Herms! When you said you had something interesting I thought you had finally learned something about Quidditch or something, not read another dumb book." Clearly Weasley was there as well. That presented a bit of a problem. Having the traitor along would prevent Harry from administering the potion.

"No, really, Ron. If you would just give it a chance you would-"

"Not a chance, Herms. Now, are you gonna be joining me tonight, or what?" Shit. I really don't want to hear this.

"Ron! I…I told you I'm not ready for that yet." Harry breathed a sigh of relief as he heard that. It sounded like Hermione was still in control of herself enough that she should come out of this without that scar added in.

"C'mon. It'll be great. I promise." It took everything Harry had not to go in and punch the traitor until nothing was left but a sodden lump.

"I…I don't know…I um." If it looks like she's going to his room with him this is turning into a snatch and grab with as much collateral damage as I can manage. "I…No. I can't." Hermione's voice carried enough force that Harry knew she had found her backbone one last time. It would be enough, he would make sure of that. He heard Weasley make an impatient noise.

"Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this relationship. I'm gonna get an evening snack." Harry retreated quickly and cast a Disillusionment Charm. The traitor came out of the room with a face like a thundercloud. Harry kept himself still through force of will. He noticed that one of the bastard's hands was scratched up rather thoroughly and made a mental note to do something nice for Crookshanks or Kreacher soon.

Once the redhead's footsteps had disappeared down the stairs Harry moved forward to the door again. Looking inside he could see Hermione sitting on a couch crying. He suppressed an urge to go downstairs and take his rage out on the one who had caused it. Hermione first, revenge later. He Disspelled the Disillusionment Charm, stepped in to the doorway and knocked. Hermione's head shot up and she angrily wiped at her cheeks.

"What do you want, Potter?" Harry was shocked to hear how cold her voice sounded.

"I found something in a potions book that I wanted to go over with you." He said. He hoped she would just take the bait and come with him. He knew he stank at lying, especially to her, so he was sticking as close to the truth as he could.

"Really? And what was so important that the great and powerful Boy Who Lived decided to walk among us mortals?" Harry was floundering under the amount of hatred she was putting out. Harry's self-confidence had never been his defining attribute and between that and the physical reaction of his fifteen year-old body he wanted to run away from her but knew that this was likely to be his only chance to help her. It's the potions talking. Just the potions Harry repeated over and over to himself.

"Um…well if you come with me I can show you." The expression on her face was something he hoped never to see again.

"Come with you? To your room I suppose? Do you think I am stupid, Potter? That was the most pathetic attempt at talking a girl into bed that I've ever heard of." Hermione was on her feet now and yelling.

"I wasn't trying to-"

"Yeah right, Potter. What do you take me for?" It's the potions talking. Just the potions. "Just stay away from me from now on, you scrawny little bastard." Hermione pushed past Harry and headed towards the door angrily. She never made it as Harry started 'plan B' and silently stunned her. He winced when her body hit the floor.

"I am so sorry, Mi, but I need to do this." He said as he tapped his wand on her head and watched her fade from view. One more silent spell and Hermione's invisible body floated up and followed along behind Harry as he quickly made his way to his room. Once he got there he deposited Hermione gently on the bed and applied his usual charms to the door before he dragged his desk chair into the bathroom. Next he took the bin that automatically vanished its contents and placed it near the toilet. Coming back into the bedroom he cancelled the Disillusionment Charm on Hermione and took a moment to look at her. She still looked beautiful, even with tear-stained cheeks. He just hoped he wasn't about to destroy whatever good will she still had left for him.

Steeling himself, Harry levitated Hermione into the chair in the bathroom. He thought about it for a second and bound her with conjured ropes before reviving her. It would have been easier to pour the potion down her throat while she was still unconscious but then she would wake up with a Purging Potion running rampant through her body and no idea what was going on. He owed her an explanation or a warning at least.

When Hermione's eyes fluttered open he could see the realization of where she was slowly dawning. When her gaze landed on him he felt her hatred almost as a physical force battering at him. Her first reaction was to let loose an ear-piercing scream for help. When she paused for breath Harry jumped in.

"Please stop screaming, the room has been silenced." For a moment he thought she would scream again.

"That's fairly good planning for a rapist." Hermione bit out. "Let me guess: I rejected you so you're going to take what you want anyway?" Harry just ploughed on with what he was going to say ignoring her barbs as best he could.

"You are under the effects of a potion, Hermione. I've brewed a Purging Potion for you." He pulled a vial of the electric blue potion from his pocket. "Once you drink this your body will force out any and all potions in your system. You will sweat, vomit and, um, defecate as it does so. This will affect literally all potions so if you are on the…on the Contraceptive Potion, you will need to retake it should you still want to be under its protection." At the end of his speech the sneer on Hermione's face hadn't decreased at all.

"Wow, that's some mental gymnastics to satisfy your ego, Potter. A potion is the only reason I don't want you? Keep dreaming and keep that stuff away from me." Hermione clamped her jaws tightly shut. Rather than fight her in an effort to get her to take the potion Harry stunned Hermione, poured the potion down her throat and revived her again. He vanished the ropes binding her and made to leave but before he could he felt a sharp impact on his jaw that caused him to stagger a step. When he looked up to see Hermione he saw that the loathing in her eyes had only increased. She was already starting to sweat and Harry knew the Purging Potion was doing its job.

"The Dursleys were right. You are a disgusting freak." Hermione managed to bite out before she bent over the toilet and threw up everything in her stomach. Harry got out of there before the final method the human body had for getting rid of waste came calling. Once he reached the relative safety of his bedroom, Harry called for Kreacher.

"Kreacher, Hermione has just taken the Purging Potion. Please bring her toiletries and a change of clothes for when it's run its course." Harry asked the old elf. Kreacher didn't look like he liked the order but bowed and said "Yes, Young Master." before leaving to carry out his task. Harry decided to hide in the library until Hermione had returned to her own room.

:-:-:-:-:

It took Hermione the better part of an hour to get everything purged. During that time she was thoroughly miserable and at the end of it she didn't feel much better. Her mouth tasted disgusting and her clothes were soaked through and sticking to her body. Looking around she saw her own toiletries and a change of clothes. Harry must have-…HARRY! Oh no, oh no, ohnonono. What have I done? Hermione slumped back against the wall of the bathroom and drew her knees up to her chest as memories flooded her mind. Memories that looked very different without potions altering her perspective. I have to talk to Harry. I have to apologize.

Hermione was up and moving towards the door before she realized what she was doing. The heavy pull of her sweat soaked clothes brought her back to the here and now. I can't talk to him like this. He'll be utterly disgusted. Hermione was by no means a vain girl, but nobody wants to smell like shit, sweat and sick. Especially not when trying for a favourable impression from someone they have wronged, no matter how unintentionally. Stripping off her clothes and grabbing her shower things she dove into the spray of hot water and set about cleaning herself off.

Half an hour later Hermione felt much refreshed by the shower and brushing her teeth. She had pulled on the clean clothes that had been delivered. When she stepped out into Harry's bedroom she was disappointed to see he wasn't there. Hermione walked over to the door, intent on finding Harry but her hand hovered over the doorknob. If she went out there, there was a very good chance she would run into Weasley. Knowing she had been given potions to fancy him made her very wary of getting anywhere near him. One of the reasons she so wanted to talk to Harry was that she wanted to know what he had learned about the potions she had been given and who had given them to her. Without that information she could easily be trapped again, Harry had proven that it wasn't that hard to force-feed someone potions if you really tried. While she could forgive his methods, especially given what the alternative might have been, it wasn't something she'd want to give someone else a shot at.

After a long internal debate Hermione decided that she'd wait for Harry right there. He would have to return at some point and she'd be able to talk to him. It should also keep her safe as she knew just about everyone in Headquarters avoided Harry's room. Hermione crawled onto the bed, grabbed Harry's pillow and hugged it to her. She was almost shaking with nerves about the upcoming conversation with a boyfriend she had treated very poorly, even if it was under the influence of potions. In an effort to calm herself she prepared by rehearsing as many variations on that conversation as she could imagine. Eventually she realized she was thinking in circles and buried her face in Harry's pillow with a loud groan. Having her face buried in the pillow allowed her to smell Harry's scent and it worked better than anything else had so far at calming her. She kept her face in the pillow and inhaled. It felt like she was being surrounded by Harry; it felt safe. The effects of the stress of purging the potions from her system and her body finally relaxing from that meant that she was asleep with a smile on her face before long, still clutching tightly to the pillow.

:-:-:-:-:

After Harry left the room he headed down towards the library as quietly as possible. Once he got there he found a book on the history of the Wizengamot and settled down on one of the couches available to read on. He cast a Notice-Me-Not Charm around himself to keep from being bothered and settled in to spend some time reading. The hours passed smoothly as Kreacher brought him a cup of hot cocoa and kept it replenished. When a glance at his watch told him it was nearly one in the morning Harry decided that he had been gone long enough to give Hermione a chance to get cleaned up and head back to her room. Putting the book on the shelf where he had found it, Harry left the library to go to bed; he was exhausted after the day he had had.

When he got to his room he opened the door and walked in only to stop in shock. There on his bed, cuddling his pillow, was Hermione. She was fast asleep with a small smile on her face. For a moment he just looked at that smile. It was something he hadn't seen in weeks and he had missed it terribly. Harry was about to walk over to the bed and wake her up when her voice rang through his head. The Dursleys were right. You are a disgusting freak.

His eyes closed in remembered pain. What if she still thinks that? Harry knew the potions had a cumulative effect, becoming stronger the longer they were used but he had no idea how long they had been fed to her. That meant that he had no idea of how much of her vitriol was induced and how much her own honest opinion. Years of the Dursleys' vicious comments seemed to slam into his mind. His body was starting to shake as Vernon's voice seemed to echo in his ears. With a massive effort Harry managed to force the memories down. Gasping for breath he looked back at the bed and the form laying on it. Harry hesitated a moment longer, but couldn't bring himself to face her again, not if there was a chance she really felt like that. With a last longing look at the girl on the bed Harry Potter, Gryffindor extraordinaire, backed off and slipped back out of the room, turning the light off as he left.

Back out in the hall, Harry was left unsure of where to go. For lack of a better destination he headed back to the library. Once there he looked for a relatively unused section. Having located the dustiest one, he set about casting the spells they had used to protect their camps during the hunt for the Horcruxes. Looking at the floor he cast several cushioning charms at it and laid down. It wasn't as comfortable as his bed but currently far preferable. Soon Harry was drifting off in to an uneasy sleep.

When Harry was fast asleep Kreacher popped into the library as if the protective spells weren't there. Taking a look at his Young Master he shook his head and conjured a pillow and blanket. He gently placed the pillow under the Young Master's head and covered him with the blanket before he popped out again to clean the house that the Young Master was apparently going to be using more extensively now.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione awoke with a scream. She had been having the most god-awful nightmare. She had given in and joined Weasley in his bed. She could still feel his hands groping her body, the dream powered by a memory of her letting him touch her through her clothes in an attempt to keep him pacified without resorting to everything he was asking for. Her heartrate was almost back to normal when she noticed she was in a strange bed and panic slammed back into her until she remembered that she had been waiting for Harry and fallen asleep on his bed. That brought up a new worry though: where was Harry? As she looked around the dark, empty room a terrible thought struck her. What if he left because of what I said? What if he doesn't even want to be my friend anymore?

That thought was disturbing enough that it drove Hermione from the room to look for Harry. It was dark enough that she thought everyone would be asleep. She would check the common rooms of the house first. When she got to the drawing room she saw Kreacher inside, carefully cleaning the various Black family heirlooms. She knew Harry got on well with the elf and hoped he would know where to find her wayward friend.

"Kreacher?" The elf turned around and scowled mightily when he saw who it was. Hermione pressed on regardless. "Kreacher, I need to find Harry. It's important. Can you help me find him?" The scowl on Kreacher's face intensified.

"Why should Kreacher help nasty mudblood who hurts his Good Young Master? Kreacher will not." The elf popped away before Hermione could argue her case. Since Harry was obviously not in the drawing room she moved on. Hermione systematically checked all the rooms she came to except when she already knew who was sleeping there. She couldn't find Harry anywhere. When she finally came to the kitchen a part of her was already planning what she would do if it turned out that Harry had left the house.

"Hermione? What are you doing up?" Hermione hadn't noticed Sirius sitting in his pyjamas in the kitchen holding a mug. As she got closer she could smell that, whatever was in the mug, it was extremely alcoholic.

"I'm looking for Harry. He never came to bed and I need to talk to him, I need to apologize." Hermione's tone was extremely distressed. Sirius looked her over and grunted.

"Gave you the Purging Potion, did he?" At Hermione's surprised nod he continued. "Good. Then maybe you can put a smile on his face; or was that why you were waiting for him in his bed?" Hermione blushed ferociously at what Sirius was implying. "Ah well, it's none of my business. Let's go." With that Sirius drained his cup of whatever it was and got up. He was already moving out the door when he looked over his shoulder.

"Are you coming, or what?" Hermione ran to catch up to him and was surprised to see they were heading back up the stairs. When they entered the library she spoke up.

"I've already checked the library, Sirius. There's nobody here." Sirius just kept going, leaving Hermione no choice but to follow. He finally stopped in front of a set of shelves that looked no different than any other and turned to look at Hermione.

"It may interest you to know that as the owner of this house I know when someone puts up wards or static charms on my property." Sirius told her. It only took Hermione a moment to work out the significance of that statement.

"Harry's hidden himself behind wards?" Sirius just looked at her and shrugged.

"Someone put up some static protection charms around here. No idea if it's Harry, but it's damn likely." Hermione was looking around trying to spot the charms but even knowing they were there she couldn't find a thing. Sometimes it was really annoying that Harry had started applying himself in his studies. She was distracted from her inspection by Sirius talking to her.

"Now, I can find the charms due to my connection with the house but before I show you exactly where they are I want to make one thing very clear." He waited until he was sure he had her undivided attention. "Potions or not, if you ever hurt my godson like that again I will destroy everything that makes your life worth living and leave you to suffer in the wreckage, understand?" Sirius grey eyes were like chips of ice and his voice conveyed that he was entirely willing to carry out his threat. Hermione realized exactly why the Black family was still feared in the wizarding world and also why Sirius Black had been considered capable of murder when he was thrown in Azkaban. She felt she could only nod meekly. Seeing her nod, Sirius grinned at her. "Good, then get in there fix what's broken."

He gave her a shove and Hermione stumbled several steps. When she steadied herself she saw Sirius leaving the library humming to himself. She was about to call after him and ask what the hell he was doing when she became aware of someone else in the room with her. There on the floor was the sleeping form of Harry Potter. A part of Hermione's mind considered that Sirius must have pushed her past the protection charms but it was eclipsed by the sheer relief that Harry was still in Grimmauld Place and the joy of seeing him again without the potions affecting her judgement.

Hermione couldn't bring herself to wake Harry just so she could beg his forgiveness, instead she would wait for him to wake up of his own accord. She couldn't stop herself from kneeling down to touch him, just to make sure he was real. When she did she noticed the Cushioning Charm on the floor. That explains how he can sleep on the floor like that. After a few moments of watching him and worrying at her lip as she considered her options, Hermione laid down next to Harry. Fighting the rush of self-consciousness at her own daring she wriggled under the blanket and curled up against him. The scent that had helped her relax back in Harry's room was much more present here at the source. She realized she could hear his heart beating as she laid her head on his chest. The regular thumping was so relaxing that she drifted off without ever noticing it.

Chapter Text

Hermione realized she could hear Harry's heart beating as she laid her head on his chest. The regular thumping was so relaxing that she drifted off without ever noticing it.


A few hours later Harry and Hermione woke more or less simultaneously. The look of apprehension in Harry's eyes cut Hermione like a knife. She clung to him a little tighter afraid that she had already lost him with the way she had treated him.

"Harry, I'm so, so sorry about what I did and said. I didn't mean a word of it and you know I would never want to go out with Weasley. Please believe me, I wasn't in my right mind, please." She trailed off just repeating the word 'please' over and over softly.

"Of course I believe you. I gave you a Purging Potion, Hermione. I know what was affecting you." Hermione looked up at Harry unable to believe that he was going to let her off that easily. He was smiling at her but she could still see the hurt in his eyes.

"I swear, Harry, I will do anything to make it up to you." she promised.

"Just give it some time, Hermione. I won't say it didn't hurt to see you with that weasel or to hear you..." Harry took a deep breath, "to hear you say that the Dursleys were right, but like I said: I know what potions were in your system to make you act that way. Just give my heart a chance to catch up to my head, okay?" Hermione was about to keep going when Harry cut her off.

"I'm much more concerned with how you're doing. You are the one who was drugged." Harry was practically radiating concern. Hermione hadn't realized just how much she had missed the feeling of being in his arms; the feeling of being cared for.

"I…I'm not happy about it, Harry. I feel violated and used and…dirty, I suppose." Hermione shuddered as memories of the past weeks came back to her and felt Harry's arms tighten.

"Hermione? Did he…um, did you…" He was having trouble finding the right words to ask the question.

"Would it matter to you if we did?" Hermione asked him, almost afraid to hear the answer.

"Of course it would!" Hermione looked up in shock to see Harry looking absolutely outraged. "That's rape, Hermione. If that sick little piece of Bundimun puke so much as laid a hand on you I'm feeding him to the Acromantula; piece by piece!" Rage and magic were flowing off of Harry in waves as he was obviously coming to his own conclusions as to why she had asked that question.

"We…we never had…intercourse." Hermione reassured Harry with a beet-red blush. "I was asking if you would still want me if…if I was…not a virgin." Harry's face gained a look of comprehension but the anger didn't entirely disappear.

"I…I think that this may have been the wrong scenario to be asking that in." Harry said looking very serious. "But, yes, I would still want to be your boyfriend, if you're still interested."

"Yes!" Hermione reinforced her exclamation by pressing her lips to Harry's in their first mutual kiss since King's Cross Station. She was relieved, almost ecstatic, when Harry returned the kiss. A disappointed mewl escaped her when he drew back.

"Hermione, you said that you hadn't had intercourse. Do I need to be planning revenge on the bastard for anything else?" Hermione bit her bottom lip. She really didn't want to share what Weasley had done to her with her boyfriend. It made her feel dirty like she had said and she was still worried he would feel like she was dirty too. A finger under her chin lifted her face until she was looking into those emerald depths. "Like I told you: if he did anything it's sexual assault. I will not let that stand without some sort of action being taken. You are too important for that. I'll understand if you tell me to back off though." She could see that he was serious in his eyes.

"No. It's…I let him grope my breasts once to keep him off my back about going further. That's it. I swear." Hermione was almost begging by the end even as Harry drew her into his chest. She started sobbing as she remembered that horrid evening. As the tears spilled out Harry just rocked her and whispered calming phrases in her ear. When Hermione's jagged cries finally subsided to sniffles the front of Harry's shirt was soaked through. She had to admit that it had been cleansing to confess what had happened, even if she wasn't eager to repeat the experience. Pulling back she wiped her eyes.

"Sorry about that, Harry. I ruined your shirt." she said. Harry snorted.

"I can wash it. The important thing is that you're okay." Harry gained a determined look. "I'm going to have to teach you how to check for potions in your food from now on. I'm not letting you go through something like this if I can help it." Hermione was torn between the joy learning something new and a question that wouldn't leave her alone."

"Why didn't you teach me before, Harry?" she asked. Harry could feel tears of shame burning at the back of his eyes.

"Because I didn't seriously think that you would be threatened, that you could be in danger like this." And that makes this my fault. I knew that potions were a possibility, but between my tunnel-vision regarding my training to beat Riddle and my self-centered conviction that attacks would be directed at me I let Hermione get hurt. Hermione could hear the regret in Harry's voice, but she wasn't sure how to deal with it. It was clear that he blamed himself for what had happened to her. To be honest a small part of her blamed him too, for not teaching her how to avoid this before her rational side took over again.

"It wouldn't have helped, Harry. I wouldn't be able to check everything at my house without breaking the Reasonable Restriction on Underage Sorcery. It's my fault that I was so naive that I ate something sent to me in the post."

"No! Hermione, whatever this is, it is not your fault." His arms tightened around her as a spoke as if he was trying to squeeze her self-recriminations out of her. Hermione took a shuddering breath, her emotions were still running rampant through her body. She clutched tightly to Harry to keep herself grounded in that storm. For several minutes neither teen moved or made a sound, until Harry cleared his throat. He looked uncomfortable for a moment. "Hermione, I think that we need to talk to Sirius about this. He knows the wizarding world better than we do and can help us find an appropriate response. He knows what the Weasleys were doing to you and wants to throw them out of the house, so I think we will be safe enough talking to him." Harry was looking at her worriedly and Hermione took a moment to think about what he had said.

"I agree. Some help would not be unwelcome and Sirius is actually the one who helped me find you. Apparently the owner of the house can feel when wards or static charms go up." Hermione told him only to be met with a slightly forced grin.

"I'll admit that I was curious about exactly how you managed to find me, but that explains it." he told her.

"Harry? Do we have to find Sirius right now?" Hermione asked Harry.

"Not right this instant, no. Not if you don't want to." He answered her gently.

"Can we just stay here a while then?" she asked, hating how small her voice sounded. Harry just held her tighter and settled back against the Cushioning Charm.

:-:-:-:-:

It took the two teens the better part of two hours to work up the will to face the world outside of Harry's spells. When they did Harry brought them crashing down but didn't move.

"That should have alerted Sirius to the fact that we're done here. The old dog is so curious that it'll probably be quicker to wait for him to come sniffing around." he told Hermione who was looking at him shrewdly.

"Let me guess: it also saves us having to talk to anyone else as we run around the house, willy nilly?" she asked him with a slight smile on her face. Harry grinned back at her, truly hopeful for the first time that they would both be able to heal and grow from this ordeal.

"Well, I can't help it if my genius is simply staggering." Hermione fluttered her eyelashes at him before giving him a shove. The banter continued, however brittle the underlying feelings might be, until the library door opened. Just as Harry had predicted, Sirius had come to take a look around. He seemed surprised to find the couple still sitting on the floor.

"What are you two still doing here?" He asked in honest confusion before a suggestive grin spread on his face. "Was this supposed to be some sort of kink? You know, getting caught while doing it in the library?" He waggled his eyebrows like mad.

"Hermione, do you happen to know any old, single women? I think the mutt is getting a little frustrated." Harry asked looking at Hermione with mock seriousness. Hermione responded by tapping a finger against her lips in supposed thought.

"Why don't we set him up with Professor Trelawney? She's going to need something to do this year now that she can't predict your death every class." she said with a rather wicked smile. They looked up at Sirius who was looking absolutely horrified at the direction his teasing had taken the conversation in.

"Actually, Padfoot, we were waiting for you. You're getting a little predictable in your old age and we need to talk to an adult who understands the wizarding world." Harry told his godfather, serious for the first time in the conversation.

"Is this the kind of conversation that could use some privacy?" Sirius asked, surprising the teens with how seriously he was taking this. They both nodded and Sirius continued "Well follow me then. We'll use the study; it has so many privacy enchantments on it you could happily discuss state secrets behind those doors." As Sirius turned around and started walking Harry and Hermione scrambled up to follow him.

On the way to the study Hermione leaned in and asked Harry "Did you know there was a study?" Harry just shook his head. He hadn't heard of this in either timeline. Hell, he hadn't known about it when he owned the house.

It was a surprisingly short walk to the study. A little way down the hall from the library was an empty stretch of wall that suddenly contained a door when Sirius put his hand on the doorknob. The effect reminded Harry unpleasantly of his experience in the afterlife except that this door didn't disappear after it had been revealed. The study itself was luxuriously appointed with a large desk and several bookshelves holding what must be the Black family equivalent of the Restricted Section. Sirius took one look at the large chair behind the desk and grimaced before sitting on the desk itself and looking at Harry and Hermione.

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" he asked his favourite teenagers. Harry and Hermione shared a look and it was Harry who started talking.

"I think you are pretty much up to date on the potions and that Hermione is free again, right?" Sirius' face lit up at the question.

"This means I finally get to throw them out right?" He asked excitedly drawing a raised eyebrow from Hermione.

"May I ask why you left them here in the first place if you knew what they were doing?" her tone was icy at best. Sirius knew just how to deal with this though.

"Harry wouldn't let me! Get mad at him!" he said pointing at his godson. Hermione turned to look at her boyfriend. Harry just shrugged at her.

"Under the potions, how would you have reacted if we threw the Weasleys out?" he asked her. Hermione winced as the honest answer came to her. "You would have gone with them; and how would I give you the Purging Potion then?" Hermione nodded her understanding.

"Sorry about that. But you are throwing them out, right?" Hermione just had to be sure that Ronald Weasley would be nowhere near her for a while. Sirius' happy nodding could put Dobby to shame. "Although if you want to prank them first, I suppose I could condone it this one time." Hermione allowed. Sirius looked like he had fallen in love.

"Harry, I want you to marry her. Do you know how rare it is to find a girl who can appreciate a good prank?" He said very seriously. Harry just shook his head in disbelief.

"Down, boy. We're a bit young for that, don't you think?" Sirius was not about to be diverted though.

"Why? You're already sleeping together." The grin rather gave away that he was asking the question more for the sake of the resulting blushes on the couple's faces than anything else. Harry kept on going through his blush though.

"Stow the dirty old man act, fleabag, or I'll feed you the next thing Molly puts in front of me and watch you moon over Ginny." he threatened. Sirius looked disgusted but it was Hermione who just picked up on something that had eluded her until now.

"Molly?! Ginny?! You mean the whole family has been feeding us potions?! I thought it was just Ronald." She looked close to tears as she felt the betrayal of the family as keenly as Harry had. Harry looked at her in some surprise.

"Why did you think we were talking about throwing out the Weasleys rather than just Ron?" Sirius asked her in a bemused voice.

"Because they would never let Ronald live alone on the streets like he deserves?" came Hermione's hesitant answer. Harry slipped his arms around her and pulled her close as he explained.

"As far as we can tell Molly's been feeding us the potions, or trying to, and Ron and Ginny are aware of it and taking advantage. I'm not sure about the rest. Bill and Charlie don't strike me as the type to use potions, but I don't really know them. As far as I know Percy isn't speaking to his family and hasn't been for over a month. Fred and George, well to be honest they are the type to use potions, but I think those potions would have worn off by now and we would have heard a 'gotcha' somewhere. This has passed far beyond funny and I don't think they would have let it go that far. I have no idea if Mr. Weasley knows but I certainly remember the letter he sent to apologize for Molly's howler. I don't think it would matter if he did know." Hermione was still processing the information she had just been given so Harry addressed his godfather.

"Sirius, is there some way to go after the ones who did this? Press charges, maybe?" Sirius shook his head sadly.

"I'm afraid that any case of a muggle-born accusing a pureblood of using love potions would be laughed out of the Wizengamot. They might be disappointed in Ron for 'lowering himself' but that's about it. You, on the other hand, have to be careful that you don't do anything that could be classed as assault though, or if you do: don't get caught whatever you do. I can promise you that Azkaban is no fun this time of year, or any other for that matter." Sirius hated having to tell them that as he could see the way the news impacted on Hermione and the grim look on Harry's face. He couldn't know that Harry was also evaluating how having to face a trial would affect the war and whether or not it might be worth it. He was forced to come to the conclusion that if he was sent to Azkaban, Riddle would be laughing while he took over the sheep of the wizarding world within a week. If that happened Hermione would probably be subjected to the fate she had just escaped anyway.

"You're telling me that our options are throw them out and let them get away with it or do nothing and let them get away with it?" Harry asked bitterly while a trembling Hermione tried to burrow into his side.

"I'm afraid the best we could do would be to prank them mercilessly, possibly going a little further than good taste allows." Sirius agreed morosely. Harry mulled this over for a moment before deciding that some punishment was better than none.

"Very well, Mr. Padfoot. I think we should defer to your expertise in this area. How would you go about giving them a pointed reminder to not do this again?" Sirius looked a little proud at the use of his Marauder name by his godson.

"Switch out your meals so the potions go to someone else." he proclaimed proudly.

"I'm not sure I could do that to someone else though, Padfoot. I mean how would you feel if we fed you something to make you fall in love with Ron Weasley?" Sirius turned a little green at the image Harry provided.

"Actually I was thinking of giving them each other's potions." This time Harry turned a little green.

"That's disgusting, Sirius. I mean, that's honestly nauseating." Harry said.

"I vote we do it." Both men looked surprised at the vicious tone Hermione used in voicing her support of the plan. "Those disgusting, inbred cretins tried to rape us and if Harry hadn't given me the Purging Potion when he did, I'm afraid they might have succeeded. They deserve everything we do to them and more."

"Excellent! I'll say it again, Harry: marry her." Sirius crowed. Harry was searching Hermione's face to see if she was serious about this and couldn't detect a trace of doubt.

"Alright. I suppose since you are the one they wronged we'll do it the way you want." Harry finally gave in. "Kreacher!" The old elf popped in and bowed to Harry before looking disgusted at the other two who were present. "Kreacher, we're going to get some revenge on the redheads. I want you to switch out any food given to me with food given to Ronald. Any food given to Hermione is to be switched with Ginevra's food. Make sure no one notices you. We'll let them eat their own potions and wallow in their own filth." Kreacher had a disturbingly happy smile on his face as he bowed.

"It will be Kreacher's honour, Young Master." he croaked. "Would Young Master like to have breakfast in the study or will he be joining the traitors for breakfast?" Harry looked around at the other two who nodded at him.

"I don't see any reason to delay their punishment, Kreacher, do you? We'll eat in the kitchen. Good luck with your task." Kreacher bowed with that disturbing smile only growing wider before he popped out. The three humans stood up and headed out of the study and towards the kitchen. When they got there, they noticed that a large number of Order members were also there having breakfast. Ginny was already seated at the table though there was no sign of Ron. Ginny's face lit up when she saw that Harry had come down to breakfast for a change, though it settled into confusion when she saw who he came in with. Harry took care to make sure that Hermione was seated between Sirius and himself. Mrs. Weasley bustled over holding two plates and trying to hide the frown on her face as she saw the seating arrangements.

"Harry. Good to see you, dear. It's not healthy to sit in your room all day. Here, eat up. You're skin and bones. You really shouldn't trust that house elf you know. The filthy little thing is not right in the head." She ended her admonition by firmly setting the plates down in front of the two teens before heading back into the kitchen. Harry saw a movement in a corner and saw that Kreacher had popped in and was giving him a bow and a knowing smile. With a grin Harry started eating. Seeing Harry get started Hermione joined him.

They were about halfway through their plates when Ron walked in. Harry felt Hermione stiffen next to him and placed a hand on her leg under the table and gave it a reassuring squeeze. She shot him a quick look from the corner of her eye before relaxing just enough to finish her breakfast. By the time they were done Sirius was wearing a wide smirk and Hermione was having trouble concealing her satisfied look. They had all noticed that Ginny's eyes were flicking over to her brother frequently. They didn't know exactly how potent the potions were but it looked like they produced at least some effect quickly. It was impossible to tell if Ron was just as affected as he was still engrossed in his food and nothing and no one else had a chance at his attention until it was finished. When Harry and Hermione left the table to Molly's smug smiles, Ginny also got up and quickly followed them.

"Harry! Hermione! Wait up!" She jogged to catch up to the two older teens. "So, Hermione, I've been meaning to ask you: did you have a good night?" Ginny's tone was extremely suggestive and it was clear that she had her own ideas of what had happened already.

"Excuse me?" Hermione was on edge having to speak to any redhead so soon after learning what they had planned to do to her.

"You can't hide it from me, Hermione. I know you didn't come back to our room last night and this morning your bed hadn't been slept in. You spent the night somewhere else. I'm just asking how it was." Ginny's rather vicious smirk was especially horrifying to Harry. He had never seen her act like this in the last time line. Had he never noticed or had he changed things so drastically that he had caused his once-upon-a-future girlfriend to start acting like this? Or did she manage to get the potions to me last time around? A shiver ran down his spine as he considered that option.

"For your information, Ginny, I fell asleep in the library last night." Hermione sniffed. She knew she was being economical with the truth but she didn't think the little wannabe rapist needed to hear that Hermione had slept on top of Harry in the library.

"What? Seriously? Merlin, you're boring. How do you plan to hang on to my brother like that?" Hermione forced herself not to respond to that, mostly because she wasn't sure how she would. "Well, I think we had better find somewhere to hide or Mum will have us cleaning all day with no magic. Feel like sharing a hiding spot, Harry?" Ginny was leaning in suggestively as she spoke. Harry leaned away from her.

"Thanks, but I think I've been managing pretty well so far." he told her.

"Oh well, your loss, Harry. I know Hermione and Ron will probably be holed up all day again so come find me if you want some company." With that the little redhead flounced off.

"Harry?" The young wizard looked at his girlfriend who was watching the youngest Weasley walk off. "I think I desperately need to change rooms. Remind me that I need to talk to Sirius if the opportunity presents itself." Harry gave a dry chuckle.

"Alright. In the mean time we can hide in my room. I may or may not have checked out some of the more interesting books in the Black library." Hermione's eyes lit up at the idea of spending a day reading with Harry and she immediately grabbed his arm and started pulling him towards his room, urging him to get a move on. Harry laughed as he playfully resisted, offering various other things they could do along the way like counting cobwebs in the drawing room or snorkelling in the bathtub.

When they got to Harry's room he put up his usual Locking Charms but forewent the Silencing Charms. Not long after he was done Hermione was demanding to see the books he had up here.

"Not so fast, Mi. There's something you need to do first." Hermione couldn't keep her apprehension from showing on her face. "You need to write your parents. I promised them I'd pass on the message, but they're dead worried." Hermione's jaw dropped.

"Can I borrow a quill and some parchment?" Harry nodded with a smile and pointed her to his desk. The room was soon filled with the scrtch-scrtch of a quill writing on parchment. Harry, his smile still in place, found the book he had been reading yesterday before he had gone looking for Hermione and settled down to study until she was ready to join him. Time passed quietly as Hermione produced one of her novel length letters.

A knock on the door startled Harry and Hermione from their respective tasks. They looked at each other in an attempt to decide on their response.

"Harry, it's me, open up."

"Sirius." Harry drew his wand and unlocked and opened the door. A grim looking Sirius stepped into the room.

"Hermione, Ron is looking for you and he seems to be getting pretty annoyed. Don't be surprised if you walk straight into a confrontation when you leave here." Hermione's snort indicated that any confrontation that might happen might not be completely down to Ronald Weasley. "Harry, you have a bigger problem. Dumbledore's turned up and he wants to talk to you. I asked him to wait in the drawing room."

"Huh. I had expected him to show up a lot sooner considering how much effort the Order's been putting into our little game of hide and seek." Harry said shooting his godfather a look. "I don't suppose he told you why he's been so spontaneously reticent?" Sirius shook his head.

"I know he's been off for a few days on some unspecified errand but he hasn't shared what it is with the Order." He's probably started looking for the Horcruxes. I wonder if he's going after the locket or the ring? Sirius watched the thoughtful look on Harry's face and suddenly got a sinking feeling.

"You know what he's up to, don't you?" Sirius asked in a resigned voice. Harry shrugged.

"It could be any number of things, but I've got a good guess." Seeing the expectant looks on Hermione and Sirius' faces he added "It's not a guess I'm willing to discuss outside of your study." Standing up, Harry stretched to get the kinks out of his back. "I suppose I'll go see what our headmaster wants. Hermione, don't forget that you wanted to talk to Sirius." With a casual wave Harry walked out the door. Sirius and Hermione watched him leave until the door closed.

"So, you wanted to talk to me?" Sirius asked Hermione with a faux-lecherous leer. Hermione snorted in amusement.

"Down, boy." she quipped. "I wanted to ask you about any other rooms I could stay in. I don't think I can stay in a room with Ginny after what I've learnt; well not without committing a homicide." Sirius opened his mouth for a moment before closing it again and frowning thoughtfully.

"I'm sorry, kiddo, I think you're stuck. The other rooms in the house all have occupants what with so many of the Order staying here for safety. You'll have to make do or figure something out like you did yesterday." He suddenly grinned "I'm sure sleeping in either Harry's bed or the library won't be too much of a hardship for you." Hermione huffed but didn't contradict him. Sirius took that as a sign of his victory and happily left, congratulating himself on helping his godson. Hermione glared at the Marauder's back and locked the door behind him before returning to her letter; no need to invite trouble from a Weasley before she went looking for it. If her options were rooming with Ginevra, staying in the library or staying with Harry she was fairly sure what she would choose. She wasn't sure how long she had worked when she heard an agonized scream and shot out of her chair. She didn't hesitate to grab her wand and run out of the door. A scream like that was indicative of the sort of trouble Harry would be right in the middle of.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry spent the time walking to the drawing room reinforcing his Occlumency shields. So far neither the headmaster nor Snape had tried anything but Harry wasn't taking any chances with either Legillimens, not when he had an otherworldly contract hanging over his head demanding that he keep the existence of the afterlife a secret. When he arrived at the drawing room Harry schooled his expression and opened the door and walked straight in; he refused to knock in Sirius' home.

Inside the Headmaster had apparently been inspecting the various items in the display cases. He looked up when he heard the door open and twinkled at his most famous student.

"Ah, Harry, my boy. It's good to finally see you. You have been making life exceptionally difficult for a number of people." the Headmaster said in a jovial tone. Harry just cocked an eyebrow at the man and sat down in one of the armchairs.

"Why don't you take a seat, sir? This feels like it could be a long discussion and we may want to jump up theatrically at some point." Harry stated with a tinge of dry humour to his voice. Dumbledore chortled and sat.

"Quite, my boy. Since you seem to have correctly guessed the reason for my being here, let's get straight into it shall we?" Harry gave a one-shouldered shrug in reply. "As I said you have been making life exceptionally difficult for several people. Would you care to explain why?" Dumbledore steepled his fingers and looked over his half-moon glasses at Harry.

"Of course, sir. I'm rather averse to meeting Riddle and his coterie of idiots so I hid myself away. The fact that your little club couldn't find me was a bit of an unintended side-effect." Dumbledore sat there, clearly waiting for Harry to elaborate. Harry amused himself by looking for shapes in Dumbledore's beard as if it was a partially cloudy sky on a summer day.

"Harry, I'm sure you understand that that answer will not suffice. We were looking for you because we care about your safety. You need to be protected." Harry just cocked his eyebrow again.

"With all due respect, sir, I think the fact that neither you nor the Death Eaters could find me proves that I was well protected. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I was safer for the past two months than I have ever been at Hogwarts." Dumbledore was clearly displeased by this assessment.

"Harry, there are things you don't understand. I have set up protections for you that have no equal. In order for those protections to be maintained I will be delivering you to your aunt and uncle when we are done here." It would have been hard to say what Dumbledore had predicted Harry's reaction to be but it would probably be safe to say that peals of laughter were not high on his list of expectations. It took Harry a moment to get his laughter under control.

"Don't be ridiculous, Headmaster. Of course I'm not going back there." He managed before he continued chuckling. Dumbledore was actually starting to look frustrated with his student.

"Harry, I must insist. There are reasons that you do not yet understand, but-"

"And you have yet to explain a single one of them. I am currently living with my godfather under a Fidelius Charm and, while I think we both know that it is not a perfect protection, no protection can be. I would appreciate it if you would stop insulting my intelligence by arguing indefensible positions from authority." Dumbledore's face suggested he had swallowed a wasp when Harry interrupted him and rebuked him in a level tone.

"Very well, Harry. When your mother died protecting you, she infused her protection into your very blood. Based on that I have erected wards of unparalleled power at the residence of your last living blood relatives: your aunt and cousin." Dumbledore gave Harry a very significant look when he said this.

"And what do these 'wards of unparalleled power' actually do, sir?" Harry asked, completely unimpressed by the explanation so far.

"They ensure that Voldemort will not be able to touch you while you call that place home." Harry shook his head in dismay.

"That implies that I have been unprotected since the end of my first year, sir." Harry said in a tone of disappointment.

"What?!" Harry found that he really enjoyed watching the normally unflappable wizard's face pale.

"Once I was introduced to Hogwarts I started seeing the castle as my home. I even told Hermione and Weasley as much on the train ride back to London that year. Add to that the fact that Riddle did touch me during his little resurrection party and I think we can dismiss your protections 'that have no equal' as obsolete and unreliable." A paling Albus Dumbledore was a wonderful sight, but in Harry's opinion a Dumbledore with his jaw swinging open was even better. "If that was all, sir, I would like to get back to my studies and my girlfriend." Dumbledore seemed to gather himself with a herculean effort.

"We can return to that topic later. If you're going to insist on hiding yourself away like that I must ask you to share your protections with me so that I can evaluate if they suffice." Dumbledore said.

"No." Harry was a little disappointed that his blunt reaction didn't make the headmaster so much as twitch. Apparently the politician's mask was back in place.

"Harry, surely you don't believe that a fifteen year-old can devise a perfect protection. If nothing else my years of experience can be of tremendous benefit to you." Dumbledore sounded eminently reasonable in his argument.

"I think I just told you that there is no such thing as perfect protection. Telling the leader of a group with such terrible operational security seems like a poor first step to any kind of protection though." Dumbledore took the opening and jumped on his next topic of conversation.

"Ah yes, I believe you mentioned something along those lines when you first arrived here. Would you care to tell me how you learned things that we have taken great pains to keep secret?" Dumbledore asked, some of his eagerness to know coming through in his voice.

"Your lot are terrible at keeping secrets or even basic, analytical thinking." Harry deadpanned. Dumbledore heaved an aggrieved sigh that Harry was fairly sure was entirely theatrical.

"Harry, we cannot work together if you keep fighting me every step of the way." he said sounding disappointed in his student's reticence.

"Actually, Headmaster, as I understand it my age also forms a barrier to us working together. Only of age wizards may join your Order, isn't that right? My explanation of your deficiencies was merely a friendly service, provided in the hope that you don't kill a large number of people, some of whom I even like."

"Are you going to demand that we make an exception and allow you to join the Order then?" Dumbledore asked Harry.

"Not at all, sir. I have no desire to join your order. Which brings us rather neatly back to the point I was making. I am not one of your underlings, sir. You are merely guests in my godfather's house." Harry's posture while he spoke was deliberately insolent. He was hanging back with his chin resting on the knuckles of his left hand. While he didn't think Dumbledore was his enemy, he was certainly proving to be an obstacle. Harry's instincts were screaming at him to be on alert. He hoped that presenting his headmaster with the look of a typical moody teenager would distract the man from the fact that he already had his wand in his right hand.

"Harry, we can only stand against Voldemort if we stand united. Can't you understand that?" Dumbledore tried.

"Not running around doing objectively daft things you are entirely unqualified for also helps, sir." Dumbledore's eyes narrowed.

"You are, I believe referring to our vigil over the Department of Mysteries. In fact, I am told that you said you removed the very reason we assigned a guard there." Harry's instincts were absolutely howling now.

"You mean that prophecy Professor Trelawney gave you? Yeah, it's gone." Harry told Dumbledore with forced casualness. Harry didn't like the look of calculation in Dumbledore's eyes. Shit. His eyes. The moment Harry made eye-contact he felt a probe slam into his Occlumency shields. Harry knew that Dumbledore was vastly more experienced at Mind Magics than he was and that he was unlikely to be able to hold out for very long. Acting purely on instinct Harry threw his magic at the intruder, tearing into the probe as viciously as he could in an attempt to make it withdraw. The effects were a lot more drastic than he had expected. Dumbledore fell out of his chair and onto the ground screaming like he was under the Cruciatus. By the time the door of the drawing room slammed open less than a minute later he had already stopped. Unfortunately for Harry the first person through the door was Mad-Eye Moody.

The result of an auror, even a retired auror, facing off against against a fifteen year-old should never have been in question. That the auror in question was the legendary Alistor 'Mad-Eye' Moody should have further solidified that result. The difference was that this fifteen year-old had had more combat experience than the average auror before he had gone through a war and killed the most feared Dark Lord in history. This fifteen year-old had come back through time and found himself with a well of power he had not had before and spent a year training himself to use that power against the same Dark Lord he had killed before in a Room that catered to his every need. This fifteen year-old had just had someone try to rape his mind and was eager for a victim to take his fury and frustration out on. Moody got of the first spell not realising that he was poking a raging dragon in the eye.

With a quick twist Harry turned out of the way of the stunner that the old auror had thrown at him, his own already heading towards the man. Mad-Eye threw himself to the side, his peg leg collapsing under the momentum, and responded with a series of vicious jinxes designed to take out an opponent hard. Harry used his wand to levitate his armchair in the path of the barrage before Banishing it towards the former auror. He followed that up with another banishing charm. As Harry had predicted, Moody blasted the chair to smithereens; smithereens that shot at him at high speed when they were hit by Harry's second Banisher. The chair had been too close when it was demolished and even Mad-Eye couldn't get a spell off fast enough to block any of it. He instinctively threw his hands up in front of his face to protect it which meant that his wand was out of position to stop Harry's stunner which hit Moody right in the centre of his chest and dropped him like a sack of potatoes. The next two people into the room were Dedalus Diggle and Emmaline Vance who saw an attack on one of their own and responded by firing their own jinxes at Harry. Harry's training in the Room of Requirement allowed him to dodge the incoming barrage while returning fire with pinpoint precision. Less than half a minute later both were unconscious and Diggle was slowly rotating upside down in the air while Vance was wrapped in conjured ropes. Luckily the next head through the door was Sirius.

"Pup? Any particular reason you decided to take out the Order today?" Sirius asked sounding wary.

"Just my usual response to being attacked." Harry was still standing in a ready stance with his wand out.

"Okay, and the screaming?" Sirius asked while he was joined by Hermione, the Weasleys and Professor McGonagall who had apparently come to Grimmauld Place with the headmaster.

"Dumbledore tried to enter my mind with Legilimency. He didn't take my defence well." The snarl was still audible in his voice.

"You can't just go around accusing Dumbledore of things like that, young man. Now, what did you really do?" Molly was standing with her arms akimbo and her face growing red. Harry just shot her a disgusted glare.

"Sirius, I'm going back to my room. Let me know when the rubbish leaves." With that Harry swept from the room just as Molly was sputtering her way into a rant, managing to snag Hermione along while he was leaving. The two beat a hasty retreat and were soon ensconced in Harry's room. They didn't speak for a long while each just taking comfort from the other's presence. Eventually they let go long enough for Hermione to quickly finish her letter and Harry to play with Hedwig before they attached the letter to her leg and sent her off to the Granger house. After that the two sat together and talked softly. Harry told Hermione what had happened with the headmaster and Hermione told him of her conversation with Sirius.

"Have you decided what you will do yet?" Harry asked her after hearing her tell him about the options Sirius had listed.

"If you don't mind I…I'd like to stay here with you?" Hermione asked tentatively.

"I have a feeling you'd be able to convince me." Harry grinned at her. "Kreacher!" The old elf popped in and bowed deeply. "Kreacher, would you please get all of Hermione's things and bring them here. She'll be staying with me for the remainder of our time here." Kreacher just bowed again and left. Soon Hermione's things started appearing in Harry's room. When Crookshanks appeared it was with a loud offended yowl. The large ginger cat jumped onto Hermione's lap and promptly spread out so he was also covering Harry's.

"Harry, could you put up the same spells you used last night when we go to sleep?" Hermione asked. "It's just...it would,um-"

"I understand, Mi." Harry reassured her. "I'll put them up, I promise." Hermione could feel relief sweeping through her body and allowed herself to sag against Harry as a massive amount of tension bled out of her.

"So, did you tell your parents that you were planning on talking your way into my bed?" Harry asked Hermione with an overly innocent look on his face while they scratched behind her familiar's ears in an effort to mollify him. She just swatted his shoulder with a grin.

Chapter Text

It took several hours for anyone to gain the courage to go up to Harry's room. When they did it could be counted as unsurprising that it was two Gryffindors. Professor McGonagall followed Sirius up to the room of one of her favourite lions. As she walked she contemplated what had happened before the Order meeting that night. Albus had been taken to the Hospital Wing and without the leader of the Order present it had been chaos as people kept shouting over each other. The main gist of the evening was that the Order was falling apart into three factions. Those who wished to follow Albus' plans and trust that the wise old wizard knew what he was about. Those whose faith had been shaken after hearing the points Harry Potter had made about the Order's strategy or lack thereof and wanted to rethink how the Order went about achieving its goals. Finally there was a group that was undecided. Minerva knew this group existed because it described her own feelings. Potter's words had a ring of truth to them, but Albus always had a plan. Minerva wanted to wait to hear how Albus responded to the points Harry had raised. They could discuss it right after she tore into him for daring to use Legilimency on a student. For now though she had a mission she needed to complete.

When they reached the door to the room where her charges presumably were Sirius knocked and immediately called out.
"Harry, mind if I come in? I've got Minnie here with me. Ouch!" Professor McGonagall put her wand back in her pocket after having fired a Stinging Hex at Sirius Black's rear end. The rascal had had trouble with propriety when he was a student too as she recalled. A moment later she heard a click and the door swung open to reveal two smiling students.

"Still getting disciplined in your old age, Padfoot?" Potter asked in a teasing tone.

"Hush, Harry. You know you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I'm not sure you could ever teach this particular dog anything." Ms. Granger rebutted.

"Hardy-har-har. You going to give the 'old' jokes a rest and let us in or what?" Sirius groused at them. Potter flashed them an impish grin before he said "Of course we'll let you in. No promises about the jokes though." Sirius huffed and pushed past his godson while Minerva was bowed into the room.

"Good evening, Mr. Potter. Ms. Granger." she said briskly.

"Good evening, Professor." the two said in unison causing Minerva to pause slightly. If they started talking like the Weasley twins I am retiring she told herself. Instead of voicing that out loud though she reached into her pocket and drew out two envelopes. She quickly checked the names of the addressees before handing each to the correct student.

"Since the school owls can't find this place, I've taken the liberty of bringing you your letters myself. I am sure that the Order will ensure a safe expedition to Diagon Alley to get your school supplies." A look passed between the two teens that she couldn't interpret but she was suddenly sure that the Order's protection would be wasted on these two. Ms. Granger was the first to open her letter. Minerva held her breath as she waited for a reaction she had been imagining for the better part of three years. Sure enough Ms. Granger's eyes went wide when the prefect's badge fell into her hand. She looked up at her Head of House as if seeking confirmation. Minerva nodded with a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. As if that had sealed it Ms. Granger gave a loud squeal and jumped into Mr. Potter's arms. Mr. Potter was laughing happily as he spun her around congratulating her. When he put her down Ms. Granger said something that caused a weight to settle in Minerva's gut.

"Open yours, Harry." Grinning at her enthusiasm he did as she had asked and pulled out his own letter. After quickly reading through it he looked up at his teacher with a guarded expression.

"Professor, I think you made a mistake." She had been hoping to avoid this. Still, Potter had proven very reasonable last year, so maybe she could explain it.

"I am very sorry, Mr. Potter. I want you to know that I wanted you as the boys' prefect but Professor Dumbledore overruled me and gave Mr. Weasley the position. There's nothing I can do about it." Potter blinked at her in surprise.

"I…see. That's not really what I meant though." It was Minerva's turn to blink in surprise. She had been sure that Potter would feel that the badge had been stolen from him. Hell, she felt the badge had been stolen from him. "I was talking about the fact that I have a Divination book listed and neither an Ancient Runes book, nor an Arithmancy book." This was making less and less sense.

"May I see your booklist, Mr. Potter?" He handed it over without protest and after a quick scan she could see he was right. "That's strange. I could have sworn I changed your schedule. I will check your class enrolment when I return to the castle Mr. Potter. In the meantime perhaps you could share with- Ms. Granger are you alright?!" The girl had gone white as a sheet.

"Weasley is the boys' prefect?" she asked in a horrified whisper. Minerva nodded, not sure what was causing this reaction. She saw that Potter had his arms around Ms. Granger and was whispering something in her ear.

"No, Harry. I couldn't do it if it was structurally based on at least three rule violations." Before Minerva could puzzle out what Mr. Potter had said her brain was shocked into numbness as Ms. Granger pressed prefects badge into her teacher's hand.

"I'm sorry, Professor. If Ronald Weasley is the boys' prefect I will not be able to serve." Minerva's thoughts felt like they were slogging through marshes.

"Why?" was all the Head of Gryffindor could manage as she was confronted with a situation none of her colleagues would believe.

"He…he has been feeding me love potions this summer. If Harry hadn't found out and forced a Purging Potion down my throat…" Ms. Granger trailed of and shivered as Potter gathered her to him again. "I just wouldn't feel safe patrolling the halls at night with him. I truly am sorry, Professor." she said before hiding her face in Potter's chest. Both Potter and Black looked exceedingly grim.

Minerva felt at a loss. She was now without both prefects she had envisioned for this year and to make matters worse, the one prefect she did have might have taken part in behaviour that was only legal because of the pervasive bigotry in the Wizengamot. She couldn't remove him without some serious evidence that he was misbehaving. She hadn't been lying when she accidentally misinterpreted Potter's question: she couldn't overrule Albus on this. Albus! He was going to answer some questions when he was up and about again, she'd make sure of it.

"I am sorry too, Ms. Granger. I…" Minerva had no idea what to say. What could she say? "I'm sorry." With that Professor McGonagall turned and left the room looking older than any of the other three had ever seen her. Just outside the door she leaned against the wall as she tried to understand what had just happened. Doing so allowed her to hear the conversation that started up between the remaining people.

"I can't believe the old goat would deny you the prefect's position!" Minerva couldn't believe Hermione Granger had just spoken of Albus Dumbledore in such a tone of voice.

"I can." Potter sounded so matter of fact that it startled Minerva. Thinking back he had at no point demonstrated a belief that he would be the prefect for their year. She assumed that he had received some incredulous looks in the silence that followed because he continued with an explanation.

"I may not have done it on purpose, but I'm the reason he faced inquiries last year over the Horntail and the Basilisk. Not to mention that he lost a Pensieve and his positions on the Wizengamot and with the ICW as a result of my wanting to offer a memory last year. I imagine that even if I hadn't he would still have stepped in. I can't seem to go a year without almost getting killed and that could be a bad example for the younger students."

"You'd think that saving the entire school at least twice would cancel that out." Minerva had never heard Ms. Granger sound so bitter. "Do you really think Dumbledore would be that petty?" came the next question. It was one Minerva would like answered as well. Hearing Potter's snort gave the answer clearer than words. Minerva numbly pushed herself away from the wall. Her faith in her friend, teacher and employer was severely shaken. Moving on autopilot she headed for the Floo. She needed time to process this; time and perhaps a dram.

:-:-:-:-:

Back in Harry's room Harry, Hermione and Sirius were discussing how they were going to get their school shopping done.

"I was thinking that we could ask Kreacher to do it. I don't think he would get a second look and even if he is noticed any Death Eaters will assume he works for one of them or their sympathizers." Harry suggested. Hermione looked a little uncomfortable at the idea but didn't object.

"We'll need to get measured so he can pick up our robes for us." was all she said. Harry agreed with her and thought that it might be well within the elf's capabilities and that they should at least ask him. Something seemed to have occurred to Hermione though.

"Harry, how will he pay for everything though?" she asked sounding worried. Harry just smiled at her.

"Gringotts will allow an elf to take money if they've the appropriate key. I did my banking through Dobby that way over the summer. I'll just give Kreacher my key and that lets him take the necessary money from my vault." Harry explained.

"Harry, I can't let you pay for my school supplies. My parents will probably send me some money and we can just ask Kreacher to exchange it at the bank." Hermione offered.

"How about we take the galleons from my vault and we'll settle up later?" Harry countered. Hermione took a moment to think it over before carefully agreeing, but Sirius still had something to add.

"Almost right, pup. It will be my vault that pays for this. As your guardian your school expenses are my responsibility." he said proudly. Harry stood there slack-jawed for a moment before he turned to Hermione.

"I think you were wrong about teaching an old dog new tricks. That was downright parental." he said with an almost straight face.

"Oi!" Sirius objected as the two teens dissolved into laughter. "If you don't knock it off I'm removing the wards on the stairs and the library." That got the two teenagers attention.

"What wards?" Harry asked curiously. Sirius turned smug and started buffing his nails on his robes.

"Oh, you know, just some wards to keep unwelcome people out. Only the three of us will be able to access the top floor and the library. Minnie was able to come up here because I pulled her across the ward line, but otherwise she wouldn't have even been able to find the stairs." Sirius was grinning at the slack-jawed expressions on Harry and Hermione's faces. "What? If I didn't do this, I would have to throw those traitors out and that would be a horrible waste of a revenge. I trust this meets with your approval."

"I take it back, Sirius. Almost parental kind of works for you." Harry said before turning to his girlfriend. "What do you think, Mi? Throw them out or trust the wards?" Hermione mulled it over for a while.

"Will you still put up your spells at night?" she asked after a moment.

"If you want."

"Then I vote we go for the revenge." Hermione said resolutely with a predatory look in her eyes.

:-:-:-:-:

It took the Order until August 31st to organize themselves for a shopping expedition. When they were finally ready to go Mrs. Weasley asked Harry for his vault key so she could go shopping for him as it would be too dangerous for him to go to the Alley with them. When Harry told her that wouldn't be necessary as he already had everything for the coming year she didn't believe him until Sirius stepped in and told her that Harry had indeed gotten everything on his list. Ron and Ginny were standing off to the side ignoring the two people they had just recently been so determined to claim. The only exceptions were occasional disgusted glares at the reunited couple; either the hate potion was in full effect or they had realised that they had been caught. Meanwhile, Molly had switched over to a rant about Harry flouting the Order's protection and endangering himself. She was demanding to know how he had snuck out when the other Order members interrupted to say that they had to go now and that if Potter didn't have his things for the school year that it wasn't their problem. The fact that it was Diggle and Vance who were escorting the shoppers may have contributed to this attitude. They still hadn't forgiven Harry for taking them down so easily several weeks ago. Moody on the other hand had congratulated him and offered some advice on spells he should study up on.

Finally the shopping group left and Harry and Hermione took the chance to peruse the study for a final selection that they would be taking along to read at Hogwarts. Harry had spotted Slinkhard's name on the booklist telling him that the toad would be making a return to Hogwarts. He had a few ideas to get her kicked out as quickly as possible but a lot depended on how she reacted. Either way he hadn't wanted to buy the book but hadn't been able to come up with a satisfactory excuse for not doing so. That didn't mean that he would be wasting his time in Defence reading that pile of pigeon droppings. Instead Harry planned to be sitting there with a useful book glamoured to look like Slinkhard's nonsense.

The Black Manor study had quickly become familiar territory for Harry and Hermione. Sirius had dragged the two in here for a discussion on Harry's 'guess' about what Dumbledore was up to. Harry had asked them both how their Occlumency was before answering that. When both of them had reassured him that they were sufficiently competent to keep out most Legilimens, Harry had continued.

"I think that Dumbledore is looking for the magic that Riddle used to survive that night he came to Godric's Hollow." Harry had told them. When asked if he knew what that magic was, Harry had hesitated for just a moment.

"You know about that connection I have to Riddle? During my Occlumency meditation I came across some knowledge that wasn't mine. First of all, Riddle thought there was a prophecy made about us. It's the reason he came after my family. Second, it seems that Riddle made something called Horcruxes. It took me while to figure out what that meant but I got there in the end." Harry had taken a deep breath and continued to explain what a Horcrux was and that Riddle had made six. He explained how to destroy them and that the Sword of Gryffindor had absorbed basilisk venom. He carefully avoided any mention of once being an accidental seventh Horcrux or that he had been reviewing his memories from the future during this particular meditation and that it had taken him all of his sixth year to figure the Horcruxes out. At the end of his explanation both Sirius and Hermione had been stunned.

"Do you know where these things are, Harry?" Hermione had asked in a quivering voice. Harry had nodded reluctantly.

"Four of the six are already destroyed. The first was the diary that possessed Ginny in second year. The second was Ravenclaw's diadem which was hidden in Hogwarts and pretty well confirmed the information was accurate. I still have the pieces. The third was his familiar, Nagini. The fourth was Salazar Slytherin's locket which turned up in a different place than where Riddle had left it. Right here in Grimmauld Place, in the drawing room." From there Harry had launched into the story about Regulus and Kreacher. Sirius had been crying by the end of it. Hermione had only gotten more and more nervous as the story progressed.

"Harry, why do I have the feeling you're going to be hunting the rest of these things?" she had asked. Harry had proceeded to tell her about the prophecy and Hermione had broken down in his arms, telling him that she didn't want to lose him to some ridiculously hideous piece of obscure magic. Harry had tried to comfort her as best he could saying that he had no intentions of going after these things until he knew he could do so with as little risk as possible. Sirius had asked to know where the remaining Horcruxes were but Harry had refused.

"You are every bit as capable of doing something stupid and impulsive as I am and especially since you know I'm involved. The prophecy is about me and I'm afraid something will go horribly wrong if you do something impulsive." Harry had told Sirius and no amount of wheedling had changed his mind. Harry had reassured both Hermione and Sirius that he was studying as hard as possible to prepare himself. Hermione had thrown herself into creating a schedule for them to work with and Sirius had managed to key them into the study so they could use the books there. Harry was certain that neither had given up on somehow relieving him of his burden and that they were simply waiting for the opportune moment. So far though he had avoided any real clashes on the matter except for one night where Hermione had angrily berated him for, as she put it: his refusal to learn from the stories about the Oracle of Delphi, saying that he was forcing the prophecy to fit his interpretation. Harry had argued that he was simply preparing for the worst since Dumbledore and Riddle clearly believed in the prophecy. That had been the only night so far that they had spent on opposite sides of the bed. They had managed to talk it out in the morning but it had still been a night where both had slept poorly.

Harry sighed as he looked through a book on ward-eating curses and put it on the 'take to Hogwarts' pile. He still wondered on occasion what had possessed him to tell Hermione and Sirius about the Horcruxes and the prophecy. It had been an inescapable need at the time, but in hindsight he had increased the risk to both his plans and the two people that meant the most to him in this world. It hadn't been the first time in recent weeks that he had allowed his impulses to rule him. I don't think I'm going to enjoy going through puberty again. I'll have to be careful that I don't do anything to endanger Hermione; or my mission. In the end though he hated lying to either of them and while the story of how he had died and come back in time wasn't really something he could discuss, this had been a secret he could share. He certainly couldn't deny that it had felt amazingly freeing to have someone else know even if he regretted the worry he was now putting the two most important people in his life through. It impressed the hell out of him though that even at fifteen, going on sixteen, Hermione had chosen to stand by him and help him with his task.

"Harry?" Hermione's voice pulled Harry from his musings. "I think I've found as many books as I'm going to be able to fit in my trunk. How about you?" Harry nodded.

"I think I've got enough. We're still going to be able to ask the Room for books so we can always expand on what we bring with us." Hermione nodded noncommittally and Harry suspected that in her opinion there was no such thing as 'enough books'. The couple gathered the books into two piles and levitated them back to their room where they started packing them. They had most of the books packed when Sirius came in.

"How's the packing going, lovebirds? Did you bother to remember that your things are supposed to go in separate trunks?" he asked happily. Sirius apparently considered a day wasted if he didn't make at least one attempt to point out that Harry and Hermione were essentially living together. The regular teasing did mean that the two teens were being rapidly cured of their blush-reflex; a reflex that Harry felt should be embarrassing in its own right for a nineteen year-old war veteran.

"Are you here to contribute our just to remind us that you still can't get a date?" Hermione asked Sirius archly. The old Marauder responded by clasping a hand to his chest and acting mortally wounded.

"Actually I wanted to give Harry something his dad and I used when we had separate detentions." He proudly held out a hand-mirror. "This is a Communicating Mirror. It'll let us talk face to face if we need to. You just say my name or my marauder name to call me. Say 'come in" to accept a call and 'over and out' to end it. I thought we could use them in case you need to talk about the…you know." Sirius was looking inordinately proud of himself as he explained how to work the mirrors and only a little awkward at the end.

"You had terrible taste in muggle culture when you were at school, didn't you?" Harry asked his godfather while shaking his head. Sirius looked stuck between confused and offended. "Still these could prove useful. Thanks, Padfoot." Sirius spent the rest of day until the shopping party came back leaning back in the desk chair and heckling Harry and Hermione as they packed. Both gave as good as they got.

That evening as Harry and Hermione headed to dinner. They were accosted by the Weasley twins who were looking a little unwell.

"Harry, can we talk to you for a moment?" Fred asked looking at Hermione coldly. The twins had been acting distant towards Hermione all summer and while Harry didn't understand it he wasn't about to send her away unless he heard a good reason to.

"Sure, guys. What's on your mind?" he asked them. The twins shared a look before George picked up the conversation.

"Have you guys noticed anything…off about our younger siblings?" he asked, going a little greener as he did. Harry and Hermione also shared a look as they silently debated how to answer the question. They hadn't told the twins anything about the potions since they weren't sure how the two pranksters would take it.

"Not really, but we don't really see them that much during the day. Why?" Fred looked truly nauseous as he answered.

"While we were shopping today we noticed Ron and Ginny slipping off together. We followed them to see if they had chosen to get up to no good despite Ickle Ronnie's new badge."

"We…we saw them snogging in a side alley." George sounded close to tears as he admitted what they had seen. Had they had some warning as to where this was going Harry and Hermione might have had a chance to stop the twin snorts of laughter that escaped them. Fred and George looked mightily offended.

"We're not making this up!"

"That wouldn't even be a good prank!" Harry just held up a hand to calm the two redheads.

"We know. I think we can also explain this to you." The offended looks hadn't completely disappeared but there was definitely curiosity mixed in now. "Right after I came to headquarters we discovered that your mum and your siblings had been giving Hermione several potions and tried to give those same potions to me."

"Harry managed to get me a Purging Potion. After we found out what they had done we wanted to do something to keep them from trying that again." Hermione picked up the story.

"Kreacher's been switching our food with theirs at meals." Harry finished off. "To be honest we thought they'd stopped when they realized that neither of us was falling for them." The twins faces had turned thunderous as they listened.

"Are you telling us you fed our little siblings that love potions to make them snog?" George asked angrily. Harry was in his face in an instant giving him a hard look.

"No. We're telling you that they tried to feed us potions to force us into relationships with them." Harry's voice was cold. "We're also telling you that we turned their little scheme around on them and that if they had stopped acting like a conniving pack of rapists this wouldn't have happened. We're telling you that we weren't pulling a prank but getting revenge."

"But…but…Mum wouldn't do something like this." Fred managed "She wouldn't." he repeated more quietly. Harry stepped back half a step and blew out an aggravated sigh and ran his hand through his hair.

"When I found a plate of potion laced biscuits that apparently came from Ginny according to the note that came with it, I asked Kreacher to watch any food served around here to determine if anyone else was being fed potions and who was doing it. At the time I was actually trying to prove that Ginny wasn't involved, as I didn't want to think that of your family. He saw your mum adding the potions and has been serving me my food ever since. Your siblings' actions were enough to convince us that they knew about the potions even if they weren't actively putting them in our food." He saw that the twins were still struggling to accept what they were being told. "Look, after we get to Hogwarts I expect that the effects will dissipate since Molly won't be there to try anything. If they start this shit again though we're going to use my idea of revenge and get a lot more violent."

Leaving the twins with that last warning ringing in their ears Harry and Hermione continued on to the kitchen. When Fred and George showed up they tried to get their siblings' food away from them, only to be met with a tirade from their mother. As dinner progressed Hermione felt torn between enjoying the fact that their plan had worked, as evidenced by the longing looks and touches the two youngest Weasleys were giving each other when they thought no one was looking, or being disgusted by the very same thing. She settled for trying to suppress the vicious little smirk that she could feel pulling at the corner of her mouth.

:-:-:-:-:

The next morning Harry and Hermione packed the last of their things and shrank their trunks. Harry let Hedwig fly from their open window, telling her he would see her at Hogwarts. Getting Crookshanks into his carrier was always a difficult task but with the two of them working together they managed well enough. Putting the miniaturized trunks in their pockets they headed down for breakfast. Eager to avoid the redheads as much as possible, the couple had their breakfast served early by a teary-eyed Kreacher. In the end they needn't have worried as the Weasleys were running late as they did every September first.

In the end it took a series of growled threats from Mad-Eye about leaving them to get to King's Cross by themselves to get the redheads downstairs with their trunks. When the old auror had turned to Harry and Hermione and demanded to know where their things were both teens simply tapped their pockets drawing his magical eye to their shrunken trunks. Moody's loud guffaws and compliments on keeping their mobility were met with smug smiles.

There was a brief argument when Sirius showed up in his dog form, determined to accompany them to the station. Harry ended up being the one to resolve it.

"Padfoot, we are damn close to getting you exonerated. If you come along you risk getting captured by a stunningly corrupt ministry and you know that would mean the Kiss. Can you sit on your impulsive side and just say goodbye now so we can say hello again at Christmas?" Sirius looked torn for a minute before he relented under Harry's stare.

"Alright. Alright, pup. Just stop looking at me like that." He grabbed Harry in giant bear hug and whispered in his ear "I'm gonna miss you, pup. Be careful this year and don't go off on your own without backup, understand?" Harry nodded into his godfather's shoulder. Sirius then surprised everyone by also grabbing Hermione in a hug. Harry couldn't hear what was whispered between the two but Hermione nodded much like Harry had before she stepped over to Harry and took his hand.

"If we're all done with the mushy stuff?" came Moody's annoyed voice. He didn't wait for anyone to answer him but started walking towards the door. "Let's get a move on then." The large group trouped out of Black Manor and started the long walk to King's Cross Station. Outside they met up with Tonks, Diggle and Vance. As they moved through the non-magical side of London with eight magicals doing their best muggle imitation, four of whom were lugging trunks, Harry and Hermione could feel the astonished looks of the people around them.

"Thankfully we don't stand out like a sore thumb." Harry remarked sarcastically to Hermione, making absolutely no effort to whisper. "That would make this protection detail completely useless." Hermione just shook her head as Diggle and Vance glared at them. Eventually the group managed to make it to King's Cross without being stopped by the bobbies. Harry and Hermione were first through the barrier and immediately headed for the Express. Hopefully they could find Luna and ward their compartment like they had for the last ride. In the end it was less a case of them finding Luna and more a case of Hermione nearly being knocked into the wall by a hugging missile. Harry laughed his head off until it was his turn to have the life squeezed from him.

"Hello, Luna. I've missed you. Have you got a compartment yet?" Luna beamed at them, happy to be reunited with her friends.

"Oh, yes. Nobody else has tried to join me yet. Will you be putting up spells to keep the Nargles out again?" Luna managed to get all this out with a look of wide-eyed innocence that had Harry grinning; he really had missed the little blonde and her refreshing brand of honesty.

"I was certainly thinking so, Luna. Shall we? We can discuss our summers after I put up my spells." Slinging an arm around her shoulders Harry pulled Luna into the compartment she had burst out of, followed by a smiling Hermione. After Harry had put up the same wards as last time the three friends had a great time sharing their summers with each other. Just before eleven Harry called Dobby and Winky and invited them to join in. It took the elves a while to get the hang of volunteering information but eventually they were enjoying themselves as much as the humans.

It was about an hour into the train ride that Harry felt someone breaking down his spells.

"Dobby! Winky! We're about to have company. Hide yourselves and make sure nobody except the three of us knows you're here." The elves obeyed the commands instantly while the girls eyed the door worriedly. Harry flicked his wand into his hand and waited for the door to open. When it did Harry's wand was in the intruders face so fast it was a blur. A surprised Cedric Diggory was going almost cross-eyed trying to look at the length of holly pointed between his eyes.

"Harry? I should've known I suppose. Who else would ward their compartment?" Cedric was clearly trying for a casual tone but there was a slight tremor there that told everyone that the business end of Harry Potter's wand was not where he wanted to be. Harry quickly put his wand away, looking rather sheepish.

"Sorry about that, Cedric. I was a bit concerned about the intentions of anyone who was trying to break through our wards." he apologized while stepping back a pace to allow Cedric to enter. Behind Cedric followed Roger Davies who was looking relieved that he had allowed Cedric to go first.

"Yeah, well I have a bone to pick with you anyway. How come you two aren't the Gryffindor prefects? When I saw who showed up for the prefect meeting I thought the two of you were pulling a prank on me." Cedric's face suggested that he hadn't given up all hope on that particular theory. For the first time Harry noticed that the badge on Cedric's chest had changed.

"Hey, you made Head Boy! Congratulations!" Harry exclaimed clapping the older boy on the shoulder. Hermione and Luna were quick to add their congratulations and Hermione told Cedric she thought there was nobody in the school more suited to the task.

"Speaking of suited to the task: you two still haven't explained how you aren't the Gryffindor prefects." Cedric said, unbridled curiosity evident in his voice. It was Hermione who answered him.

"Professor McGonagall did want to give the badge to Harry, but the headmaster stepped in and gave the badge to Weasley instead." she told the Head Boy. Harry picked up right where his girlfriend left off.

"Hermione did get the badge but she returned it." Both older boys stared at Hermione in shock. All of Hogwarts knew how badly Hermione Granger wanted to be prefect and then Head Girl. Hermione shrugged uncomfortably.

"Due to some things that happened over the summer I wouldn't feel safe patrolling with Weasley alone at night. Harry offered to shadow us so I could have some backup and keep the badge but I couldn't in good conscience accept the position if it was going to be based on us repeatedly and deliberately violating several school rules." She told them. Both boys looked to Harry for further clarification. Harry shared a look with Hermione who gave him a small nod.

"The little shit tried to rape Hermione using love potions." Harry's tone was curt and cold as it usually was when he was forced to bring up Weasley in conversation. "Apparently there is nothing that will be done by either Hogwarts or the Ministry."

"You mean we're really stuck with Weasley and Brown?" Roger asked, speaking up for the first time. Harry and Hermione nodded somewhat apologetically and Roger cursed softly before turning to Cedric.

"Have fun being Head Boy, man." he told his friend. Cedric just groaned. The two seventh years stayed for a few moments longer chatting with the younger students before Cedric pointed out that they needed to finish their patrol.

"That sense of responsibility is clearly why you got the top job." Roger told him nodding sagely. Cedric responded by playfully shoving the Ravenclaw out of the compartment before turning back to Harry.

"Technically you aren't supposed to lock the compartments, but all things considered I won't say a word if you choose to ward this thing again after we leave." He gave them all a nod and left to join Roger for the remainder of their patrol. As soon as they were gone Harry warded the compartment again and Dobby and Winky reappeared. The elves were carrying packed lunches for the three humans and handed them out to effusive praise. The rest of the ride to Hogwarts went uninterrupted and was mightily enjoyed.

When they reached Hogsmeade Harry and Hermione restored their trunks to their proper size and would have left them in the compartment if Dobby and Winky hadn't immediately taken them and disappeared. Nobody bothered the trio on their way up to the castle. In the Entrance Hall Professors Flitwick and McGonagall were keeping an eye on the mass of returning students. Surprisingly they were called over by the Charms Professor, or rather, Luna was.

"Miss Lovegood, I am aware that you would usually sit with your friends at the Gryffindor table, but I must ask you to join the rest of your House for the Welcoming Feast. You may sit where you wish for the rest of the year of course." Luna considered this for a moment before nodding. As they moved into the Great Hall she reassured Harry, who was already glaring at the Ravenclaws.

"Don't worry, Harry. You still scare them more than a rampaging Huffalump. The might not be friendly, but they'll be civil." Harry nodded at his friend.

"Anyone gives you trouble, you come find us." he told her as he gave her a hug. Hermione also hugged their friend. As the two Gryffindors went to find their seats, Luna skipped her way to the Ravenclaw table. As Harry and Hermione headed for their own table Harry scanned the Head Table. To his great disgust Dolores Umbridge had indeed shown up to make a mockery of Defence. He also noticed with some satisfaction that both Dumbledore and Snape seemed determined to stare at a point somewhere above his head.

At the Gryffindor table Harry and Hermione noticed that they were rather unfortunately placed where they couldn't help but see Weasley and Lavender posturing with their badges. Ron had his chest thrust out further than Percy had back in their first year. With Lavender it was hard to tell if she was trying to use the badge to draw attention to her cleavage or her cleavage to draw attention to the badge as it was situated at the bottom of a very deep v-neck that Harry doubted was an acceptable part of the school uniform. The expression on Hermione's face certainly suggested it wasn't, though how much of her visible disgust was for which prefect was hard to say.

Harry had never really paid attention to the sorting but at least put in a bit of effort this year since he knew that it was important to Hermione. He noticed that the Sorting Hat once again urged the school to unity and struggled to at least remember the names of the new Gryffindors. After the sorting, the Welcoming Feast appeared as usual. This time Hermione joined Harry in checking their food for potions. Once they had confirmed it was safe the couple happily dug in. At the end of the meal Dumbledore gave his usual start of term announcements and, just like Harry remembered, Umbridge claimed the stage and gave her condescending propaganda piece. At the end of it Hermione and Harry shared a look that conveyed that they had both understood Umbridge's true mission at the school. Once the toad was done, Dumbledore was able to complete his announcements and asked the prefects to lead their houses to the dormitories.

"Right, over here, you midgets! Shift it!" They heard Weasley bellow while Lavender tittered next to him. Hermione buried her head in her hands in shame.

"Professor McGonagall is going to have to step in, isn't she? I mean, he can't be allowed to get away with that." she asked, her voice muffled by her hands. Harry just shook his head.

"I think if it were up to McGonagall she would have already done something. They're more Dumbledore's prefects than they are hers." Harry said. To be honest, he too was feeling a little uncomfortable with the way the two prefects were addressing the first years. Once they had a group of them they swept out of the hall, Lavender on Weasley's arm as she called over her shoulder for the first years to keep up. Harry saw one first year girl break into a run in an effort to reach not just the departing prefects but the rest of her year group. Shaking his head he got up and offered Hermione a hand. The two of them found Alicia who was the seventh year girls' prefect and got the password to the tower from her before heading up themselves. There was no sign of Lavender, Weasley or the first years in the common room and Hermione fretted over whether they had made it up alright.

"I think the best thing we can do is tell one of the older prefects. If we start wandering the halls looking for firsties we're going to be the ones in trouble." Hermione agreed and gave Harry a passionate good night kiss that he happily returned. Just before she pulled away she whispered in his ear "I'm going to miss sleeping in your bed." She turned around and quickly hurried up the stairs while Harry was still processing what she had said. By the time he could react she was already out of reach.

"I'll get you for that, My Lady!" he called up after her shaking his fist theatrically and hearing only musical peals of laughter in return. Harry took a moment to find and inform Alicia that he and Hermione were worried about all the first years having made it up to the tower. Alicia groaned and went looking for her counterpart so they could check the first years' dorms. Harry left them to it and headed up to his own bed thinking that Hermione might have a point: sleeping alone was going to take some getting used to despite how shortly they had shared a bed.

Chapter Text

The second of September started early as usual for Harry. Despite having now gone a full year without the Dursleys' demands, getting up early was too deeply ingrained in him to allow him to sleep late. It was something that had helped him as he diligently trained to fulfill his destiny and take down Riddle. He performed his morning ablutions and threw on the clothes he had gotten at the second hand store before heading for the common room to meet with Hermione. He was just reflecting that it was nice to have the day after September first off so you had some time to get used to the castle again before classes when he emerged into the common room and a scene of mild chaos. The new first years were milling about and nervously chattering at each other. Harry watched for a moment as two of the boys seemed to be trying to convince the others of something. Finally Harry's curiosity became too much to bear and he walked over. Tapping the shoulder of a girl near the back he asked "Are you lot having trouble with something?"

The girl turned around to see who had spoken to her and squeaked loudly when she saw who it was. As he saw her face Harry recognized her as the first year who had been running to catch up to the rest last night.

"You're Harry Potter." She whispered in awe. Her squeak had quieted the rest of the group and her words set them off whispering to each other. Harry could clearly see which of the children had been raised in the wizarding world and which ones in the non-magical world. The muggle-raised students looked confused about what had their yearmates in a tizzy.

"Yes, so I've heard. Are you having some sort of problem, um, Abigail wasn't it?" She gasped as he said her name.

"Yes. Well, I prefer Abby. Abby Albrighton, sir." Harry grimaced.

"Nice to meet you, Abby. Please don't call me sir. It makes me think there's a professor standing behind me." This got some nervous chuckles from the eleven year-olds. "Back to the problem at hand?" Harry asked wondering if he had been as difficult to keep on track in his first year. If so he owed some of his teachers an apology. Abby was blushing as she answered him as the chosen spokesperson for the group.

"We, um, we can't remember how to get down to the Great Hall. Last night the prefects were going so fast that we had to run to keep up and didn't really notice where we were going. Euan and Billy want us to go on an adventure but the castle is so big we're worried we might not find it until dinner." There were several embarrassed faces in the group as she admitted this. Looking them over Harry remembered back to his first year and how difficult it had been to learn his way around the castle he now navigated without a second thought.

"Okay, if you want I'll show you the way down there. Make sure that you round up all your yearmates still in the tower so we don't leave anyone behind and once my girlfriend gets down here, we'll take you." The first years were eagerly nodding their acceptance of Harry's idea and several of them shot off to get the late risers out of bed. Harry spent his time meeting the rest of them officially. By the time Hermione came down Harry was literally surrounded by curious eleven year-olds listening with rapt attention as he told them a little about the common room and Gryffindor House. When he saw her he stopped his story and smiled.

"Excuse me for a moment, please." Making his way over to Hermione he gave her a gentle good morning kiss. "My Lady, there are youngsters in need of guidance. I have volunteered my services already. Will you grace us with your presence and your wisdom?" he asked in a grand tone. He could hear some giggling behind him.

"You are as noble as ever, My Champion. I suppose I must accompany you to see that you do not lead these young minds to mischief." Hermione spoke in as posh a voice as she could. Harry clasped a hand to his chest and waved the other around in disbelief.

"Would I ever do such a thing, My Lady?" he asked her sounding dismayed.

"Yes. Yes, you would." was Hermione's droll answer.

"You never let me corrupt young minds anymore." Harry pouted at her before straightening up and turning to the first years. "Everyone here?" he asked in his normal voice. Getting nods all around he started for the portrait hole. "Then let's go. Everyone please follow me."

On the way down to the Great Hall Harry pointed out several landmarks and made them memorable with a story for each one. Hermione doubted all, or even many, of the stories were based in fact, but she couldn't deny that he had captivated his audience. She was even learning to look at some features of a school she had lived in for four years with new eyes. Maybe she could get Harry to write a piece or two that they could submit to the editors of Hogwarts: A History. If nothing else Harry could write a section on getting around the castle for first years. As Hermione pondered the possibilities she walked behind the group making sure none of the first years got separated from the rest. After a while she noticed Harry wasn't taking any of the secret passages he usually did on his way to breakfast. She quickly realized that he wanted the first years to learn the 'proper' route first before confusing them with all the madness Hogwarts offered.

When they reached the Hall the first years let out a loud cheer and rushed towards the table. Harry and Hermione followed at a more sedate pace but found when they reached the table that their charges had left a pair of seats for them in the middle of the group. The two older Gryffindors shared a look and a shrug before sitting down and loading up their plates.

"While you've got us here, does anyone have any questions?" Harry asked the group and soon the floodgates were opened. It didn't take long for the first years to realize that Hermione would answer their questions in meticulous detail and Harry would interject some humour into his answers. It also didn't take them long to realize that Harry didn't like talking about himself and they eventually stayed away from any personal questions after receiving a few one word answers to them. Breakfast passed quickly and happily and by the end of it Harry and Hermione had agreed to give the new students a tour of the school and also to help them find their classes for the first week, provided that everyone was ready to go at seven-thirty in the common room each morning. The first years had eagerly agreed believing a week of early wake up calls to be worth getting shown around the castle. A little way through breakfast Luna joined the group and the first years soon realized that her answers to their questions were the most wonderful nonsense they had ever heard. As they left to start the tour none of the group noticed that a pair of eyes was observing their every movement from the Head Table.

Minerva McGonagall liked to get an early start to the day. It gave her more time to get everything done that her three positions demanded of her. The Heads of House had agreed to hand out the schedules on Sunday so the students could have one day to get the summer out of their systems before they had to get back into the rhythm of school. She had been surprised when all of the new Gryffindors had shown up before breakfast was halfway over. That surprise had lasted all of a few seconds until she saw who else came into the Hall. When Potter and Granger had sat down with the first years she had been certain. Those two are already proving to be good prefects even if they don't have the badges. It still rankled the old witch that she hadn't been able to change Albus' mind. He had as much as admitted that he had indeed tried to invade young Mr. Potter's mind and the lad had made him pay for it. At the end of their conversation Minerva had even started to believe that Mr. Potter might have had a point when he called the headmaster petty.

None of that seemed to bothering the group at the Gryffindor table as she heard frequent laughter drifting up towards the head table especially once Ms. Lovegood joined them. This was how Minerva liked to see her House: a constant succession of older and younger siblings teaching each other and learning together. As she watched them leave she noticed that one of the younger girls had slipped her hand into Mr. Potter's and that he never once complained or pushed her away as she was sure several of his yearmates would have. She didn't need one of Sybill's ridiculous crystal balls to predict that this year's newcomers would be among the fastest to ever learn their way around the castle. She was proven right at dinner when a dozen enthusiastic first years and a skipping fourth year led two tired looking fifth years into the Hall, chattering happily together. It seemed as if they were all trying to tell each other about their day at the same time. Minerva also noticed that though they looked tired, Potter and Granger's smiles seemed genuine as they listened to the cacophony around them.

The next morning they were there as a unit again when Minerva came down from the Head Table to hand out this year's schedules. When she got to the group she had been observing yesterday she noted the varying expressions her arrival brought. Ms. Granger looked eager. The first years looked torn between apprehension and excitement. Ms. Lovegood looked distracted. Mr. Potter, oddly enough, looked suspicious. Well, his booklist had been a resounding disappointment and she still hadn't gotten a straight answer from Albus as to why he was insisting that Mr. Potter not be allowed to switch out of Divination. Knowing Potter would probably just start ignoring his classes like he had last year, Minerva had chosen to disobey her superior and enrolled the lad in the classes he had worked so hard to get into. When she handed him his schedule she couldn't help but point out to him "Mr. Potter, this schedule does not have the headmaster's approval so I trust you will help me prove to him that you are up to the challenge?" Potter's nod was to be expected but it was the determination that blazed in his eyes that reassured the Deputy Headmistress. That was the determination that had seen him through that nightmarish tournament and she would put her money on that any day. Minerva happily moved on and continued handing out schedules to her lions.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry had nearly forgotten how much he hated Mondays the last time through. History, Potions, Divination and Defence had provided him with a line-up of all his most hated Professors. At least I managed to dodge Trelawney this year. Harry was in all honesty looking forward to his first Ancient Runes class. He spent the time in History of Magic with earplugs in, studying his book like he had last year in the Room. In Potions, Snape was at his bat-like best as he tried to intimidate his students with the upcoming O.W.L.s. Harry mostly ignored the man and simply brewed his potion for the day while working on his Occlumency. Ever since last year Snape had backed off a little. Harry was not entirely sure why but he remembered it being shortly after he came back and had, for a time, been worried that the Potions Master had caught on to Harry not being the same as he had been before Halloween. He had since come to the conclusion that it must have been something else. Now though Snape just looked tired. Harry had to wonder if the git had been moonlighting as a Death Eater recently. Still the class passed without incident and at the end Harry was able to hand in a potion that would be worth either an O or an EE on the O.W.L.s.

Ancient Runes turned out to be a bit of a let-down. With as much studying as Harry had been doing into curse breaking he was well ahead of the class. They were now covering things he and Hermione had been studying at Easter last year. After class he asked Hermione how she stood going at that snail's pace.

"It's always good to review the material with an actual Master on hand, Harry. We may assume that we know what we're doing but Professor Babbling actually does know." They continued discussing it as they headed to pick up the first years at Defence and take them to Transfiguration before hurrying back to attend their own Defence class. They made it back just in time to avoid punishment.

Umbridge started her class much as Harry remembered she had last time. Mostly by talking down to them and requiring them to answer in unison. She explained her course aims (which are a load of certifiable nonsense Harry thought to himself) and instructed them to read the first chapter. Harry drew out what looked like Defensive Magical Theory but was in fact a glamoured copy of Devestation, Destruction and Dismemberment: Curses for Advanced Duellists. He had specifically chosen that book because of how diametrically opposed it was to the slop they were supposed to be reading. He was just getting into the material when he was drawn out of his concentration by Umbridge's sickly sweet voice.

"Yes, dear? Did you have a question about the reading?" Harry looked around and saw that Hermione was just lowering her hand.

"No, Professor. I had a question about the course aims." Hermione responded. Harry rolled his eyes. Hermione knew the hag was here to interfere, not teach, and still her love of learning would not allow her to let this shoddy set up in their O.W.L. year go.

"What is your name, child?" Umbridge asked.

"Hermione Granger, ma'am."

"Well, Ms. Granger what about the course aims is unclear? I had thought I had made them simple enough that any competent witch could understand them." Harry marked his page with a piece of parchment and put his book down. No way was he going to let his girlfriend face this bigot alone.

"You didn't mention anything about using defensive spells, Professor. Shouldn't this class also have a practical part?" Hermione's earnest question got a contrived titter from their teacher.

"Miss Granger, why on earth do you think you would need to use defensive magic in my class?" Umbridge simpered. Before Hermione could protest Harry raised his hand.

"Mr. Potter? You had a question?" Harry could hear the predatory note in her voice.

"No, Professor. I was going to answer your question." Umbridge looked confused, probably because she hadn't expected anyone to volunteer an answer to what had quite obviously been a rhetorical question. "You see, Professor, if we stop practicing spells in our wand-based subjects that would make Hogwarts a muggle school and a pretty poor one at that. It would after all not be teaching us skills we could use in either world." Harry kept looking like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth as he spoke. Around him his classmates were quietly snickering. Umbridge didn't need their help to cotton on to the fact that she was being mocked though.

"Detention, Potter, for disrespecting this hallowed institution and daring to insinuate that it could ever be inferior to some muggle hovel. I will see you in my office, tonight." she snarled out, the girlish tones she usually affected gone for the moment. Harry cocked his eyebrow at the dropped act and the blatant bigotry. "Hem, hem. Now if there are no more interruptions you will continue to read Chapter One, Basics for Beginners." The class had been suitably cowed and returned to their reading quietly, occasionally throwing glances at Harry who had returned to his book without showing any signs of distress.

In all honesty, Harry was happy the toad had assigned him the detention for tonight rather than the weekend. This way he had a chance to get rid of her far earlier than anticipated. Harry was sure the bint would try to make him write in his own blood again. This time though he had a personal acquaintance with the Head of the DMLE and would have no hesitation in reporting that one of his teachers had tried to make him use a proscribed dark artifact. After class however he first had to deal with Hermione.

"Oh, Harry, couldn't you have been a bit more respectful? I mean, you were right but you could have put it a little more delicately." She was speaking rapidly in her worry over Harry already having a detention.

"Hermione, calm down. It'll be okay. It's just a detention from a political bigot. As long as there isn't a surprise Quidditch practice tonight it's just not enough of a bother to get excited over." Hermione huffed at him, clearly disagreeing with his assessment. Harry knew she got even more annoyed at dinner when Angelina came over to announce that she would be holding try-outs that weekend and for Harry to make sure that he was there as well. Before he left for his detention he tried to reconcile with her.

"Hermione? Are you going to stay mad at me all night?" he asked her. He got an explosive sigh in return.

"I'm not angry at you, Harry. I'm worried about you but you seem to be giving that stupid sport all of your attention." Hermione huffed out. Harry gave her a shrug and a smile in response.

"You relax with books, I relax by flying." was all he said. Hermione hung her head for a moment before looking at him.

"I don't suppose you'd be willing to find a way to relax that doesn't involve you plummeting from fifty feet up every other game?" she inquired resignedly. Harry just shook his head with a small smile still in place.

"There's nothing like flying for me, Mi." Hermione rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.

"I know, Harry. It's just getting to me that you already have a detention and a completely unfair one at that." Harry decided not to mention that after four, or seven, years of Snape, unfair detentions weren't exactly anything new. They stayed like that for a moment until Harry kissed her hair and spoke up.

"I'd better get to my detention. Will you be headed to the Room or the tower?" Hermione stretched herself out a little.

"Probably the Room. There are some books that I wanted to read that have been checked out of the Library already, which I should be able to find there." she said after considering it for a moment. Harry nodded and told her "I'll probably come find you there afterwards then." before getting up to leave.

"Good luck." Hermione called after him. She gathered her things into her schoolbag and left the Hall as well turning her steps towards the seventh floor.

Harry meanwhile was heading towards the Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor's office and carefully working through his plan. He would probably need to write out at least the first letter to make sure he had evidence but that shouldn't do any permanent damage. After that he would contact Madam Bones by Floo and hopefully the hag would be out of the castle before midnight.

When he got to the office he knocked and waited until he heard Umbridge call out for him to enter. The first thought through his mind was that she looked like a toad that had caught a massively juicy fly. Thinking of what he had planned for her, Harry couldn't keep one corner of his mouth from quirking up in a small smirk. When she saw this Umbridge returned it with a truly evil smile.

"Good evening, Mr. Potter. You will be writing lines for me tonight." Umbridge said as she waved one stubby, little hand at the desk she had set up in the middle of her office. Harry saw the parchment already lying there as he sat down. He reached into his bag for a quill knowing he was going to be interrupted and sure enough.

"Oh no, Mr. Potter. You won't be needing a quill. I should like for you to use a special one of mine." The so-called teacher simpered. As she held out a familiar black quill. Harry took it from her ignoring the look of vicious anticipation on her face.

"What will I be writing, Professor, and how often?" he asked her hoping that it was the last time he'd have to address her by that title. Umbridge's smile grew wider.

"You will write 'I must respect my betters' for as long as it takes for the message to sink in." Well now, she actually managed to come up with something I would hate to have carved into my hand even more than 'I must not tell lies'. Harry bent over the parchment and wrote out a blood-red 'I'. He felt a stinging in his hand and sat up as he watched the letter be carved into his flesh. It was just a red mark like you might receive if you scratched yourself with a quill but it was enough.

"Is something wrong, Mr. Potter?" Umbridge's voice was full of dark enjoyment. Harry looked up to see a matching smile on her face and relaxed the control he was exerting. His own smile coming out caused hers to slip off of her face.

"Why yes, Madam Umbridge. You seem to have overplayed your hand." Harry's voice had once again gone as soft and silky as Riddle at his most dangerous. "I don't really care why Fudgey placed you here but did you really think you could get away with using a proscribed dark artefact on a minor?" Umbridge looked livid.

"You will do as you are told, boy." she hissed at him, "And you would do well to respect the minister and his power." Harry gave a dark chuckle as he twirled the Blood Quill between his fingers.

"Oh my, you really did. You do realize you just toppled your precious minister, don't you? Sending a sociopath to torture the nation's children, whatever will the voting public say?" Umbridge had gone white as Harry spoke.

"No one would ever believe you, you disgusting little liar!" she screamed at him. The note of fear in her voice gave Harry a thrill of guilty pleasure. He had never wanted to believe he could be like Riddle despite the fact that he knew they shared several characteristics, but this bitch deserved it.

"Why don't we Floo Madam Bones and find out, hm?" Harry asked his would-be tormentor as he got up and moved towards the fireplace. Later Harry would admit that he had been an idiot and gotten cocky. He just hadn't thought that he would intimidate Umbridge to the point where she'd be that desperate.

"Crucio!" Harry's world lit up with pain as he fell writhing to the ground.

:-:-:-:-:

Up in the Room of Requirement Hermione was disturbed from her reading by a pop followed by frantic, squeaky cries.

"Miss must come quick! Master Harry is being hurt by Professor Toady! She be using torture curse!" Dobby was dragging her upright as he was yelling. Once the message penetrated Hermione's surprise she was pulling Dobby along.

"Let's go, Dobby. We need to get there as soon as possible!" she cried out as she raced for the door. Hermione felt a pressure envelope her body and suddenly she was looking at the door to the Defence Professor's office. She could hear screams coming from the other side of the door; screams that she still occasionally heard in her nightmares. A red mist descended over Hermione's vision and her wand was somehow in her hand.

"Bombarda!" she snarled pointing it at the door. The wooden planks were no match for the enraged witch. Stepping through the wreckage she saw Umbridge standing there looking surprised and still pointing her wand at Harry who was twitching on the floor.

"Depulso! Collocorpus!" Umbridge couldn't bring her wand around fast enough to block the spells coming her way. The Banishing Charm slammed her into the wall with a loud crunch before the Full-Body Stickfast Hex held her there. "Expelliarmus. Stupefy." The last two spells ensured that Umbridge would not be a threat again until the aurors had a chance to get to the castle. Once her Professor was out of the fight Hermione's attention shifted to her boyfriend. She knelt down next to him and gently lifted his head into her lap. Harry's eyes opened and he tried to smile at her.

"H-hey, M-m-mi. C-could you c-call B-Bones?" Hermione could feel herself start to tremble as the adrenaline left her body.

"Harry?" she said with a sniff, "Shut up. We're getting you taken care of first. Dobby! Winky!" The two elves appeared next to Hermione before she had fully finished saying their names. "Can you two go get Professor McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey? Tell them to hurry." The elves barely squeaked out "Yes, Miss." before they were gone again. Hermione passed the time until her Head of House arrived with the Matron by running her fingers through Harry's hair.

"How on earth do you manage to get hit with an Unforgivable on the first day of school, Harry Potter?" Seeing Harry open his mouth to respond she placed her hand over his lips. "No talking. You are going to rest as much as you can. You get to answer questions when Madam Pomfrey gets here. Until then you are just going to listen." Trusting that he would stay silent, Hermione's hand resumed its path through Harry's hair.

"I need you to stop getting cursed, Harry. One of these days it's not going to end well. It worries me like nothing else when you get into these situations. Isn't that prophecy enough of a threat?" Hermione's voice had taken on a slightly distant tone as she spoke and her eyes seemed to be looking at something no one else could see. Harry let her get on with since she clearly needed to get this off her chest and her hand running through his hair actually felt good, even through the pain of the Cruciatus. Hermione seemed to be calming down when a gasp from the remains of the door had her wand out and pointing in that direction in the blink of an eye. When she realized who was on the other end of the wand she was holding rock steady she calmly lowered it. Professor McGonagall had her hand in front of her mouth in shock. Madam Pomfrey had moved into the room and towards the two teenagers the moment she sensed she wasn't in danger of getting cursed.

Her wand was waving over Harry first almost out of habit. Her scans didn't make any sense and she performed them again. And again.

"How, by Asclepius' Staff, are you suffering from Cruciatus exposure on the first day of school while still inside the castle?!" The Healer was screaming by the end of her question. Hermione's hand once again covered Harry's mouth to keep him from talking.

"When I came in that beastly woman was holding him under the curse." Hermione said pointing at Umbridge. "Her wand is around here somewhere so someone will be able to check it using the Prior Spell Charm. Harry wanted me to contact Madam Bones first, but I wanted you to look him over before he does anything else." She looked down at Harry who was looking distinctly annoyed, even with all the twitching he was doing because of the curse. "Yes, I know I said I'd let you answer questions when Madam Pomfrey got here, but you telling her you're fine when you clearly aren't can wait until she's treated you so it's almost true." Madam Pomfrey was nodding along approvingly.

"Quite right, Ms. Granger. Five points to Gryffindor for not listening to this blockhead on matters of his health." Harry looked severely offended at the Matron's point dispensation. Professor McGonagall meanwhile was walking over to the fireplace.

"While Mr. Potter's priorities may be up for debate, he is right that we need to contact the aurors. I also think that he may be right that Amelia will want to handle this...woman personally." The Deputy Headmistress shot Umbridge a look of pure loathing before grabbing a container of floo powder from the lintel. "I shall call her while you tend to Mr. Potter. Ministry for Magic, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement's Office." The lengthy call at the end was accompanied by a pinch of Floo-powder disappearing into the flames followed by Professor McGonagall's head. Madam Pomfrey in the meantime was transfiguring a stretcher from the splinters of the door. When that was done she levitated Harry on to it.

"Ms. Granger, could you stay here and inform the aurors that they can come back another time to talk to Mr. Potter?" Hermione looked mutinous at the Healer's order. She had no intention of sitting here and playing messenger while Harry was in the Hospital Wing. Luckily she was interrupted before she could formulate an answer.

"That will not be necessary, Poppy. We're already here." Hermione and Madam Pomfrey looked over to the voice and saw Madam Bones standing there next to Professor McGonagall and in front of two aurors. "We will need to talk to both Miss Granger and Mister Potter at some point but for now I'll settle for a basic description of what happened."

"Ssshe t-tried t-to m-m-make m-m-me use a B-blood Q-q-quill. I t-tried t-to c-c-call you. Sssshe used C-c-cruciatus." Harry had taken grateful advantage of the fact that both the Healer and his girlfriend had been too distracted by the arrival of the aurors to shut him up. Madam Bones' eyes widened as she heard that.

"The 'she' you are referring to is Madam Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister and Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts?" Bones wanted this absolutely clear.

"Yesss." Harry might have been hissing in pain, but hissing in hatred of the woman or satisfaction at her downfall could be equally likely.

"Enough. If you want to interview him further, Amelia, you can come back at the end of the week. Right now Mr. Potter needs to get to the Hospital Wing and he needs to rest." Madam Pomfrey's recovery from her surprise didn't bother Harry. He'd gotten out the information he needed to. As he was levitated out he saw the one of aurors asking Hermione to stay for a moment while the other was bending over to pick something up. After that his only company was Madam Pomfrey's chuntering.

Back in the Defence office Hermione was recounting the events of the evening as best she could. She didn't mention that Dobby was Harry's house elf just that she had been warned by a house elf and that two had appeared after she had dealt with Umbridge. It didn't seem the auror was too interested in the elves anyway and for once Hermione was thankful for the blinding bigotry of the wizarding world. She knew exactly how big an asset the elves were to Harry and she was happy that she hadn't blown that wide open for him. Eventually the aurors let her go but not before she got to see Umbridge revived and arrested.

"Wait! What are you doing?! I am the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister. You need to be arresting that little mudblood! She assaulted me!" The toad started screaming the minute she realized what was going on.

"Well, we will certainly look into that, Dolores. Right now though I am a lot more interested in why you have four proscribed dark artefacts in your office, why we have two witnesses who say you cast an Unforgivable and why the forensic evidence backs that up. I think you and I should head back to the ministry and discuss it don't you agree? We may even have to take this matter up with the Wizengamot. I think roughly eighty percent of them currently have family at Hogwarts, and I know that they'll be interested to know what you've been doing." Madam Bones voice had a definite predatory undertone. The two aurors she had brought along wore grins that promised the Undersecretary an uncomfortable night as well. "Well, Minerva, I may have to come back and speak with your students again but for now I think we have taken advantage of your hospitality enough. I would advise you and Albus to start looking for a new Defence professor though." With a smirk she grabbed the Floo-powder and opened a connection to the "Ministry of Magic, Detention Centre" and stepped through. One of the aurors went next with Umbridge before the last one went through after throwing Hermione and Professor McGonagall a jaunty salute. When it was just the two of them the Head of Gryffindor looked down at her most gifted student.

"Mr. Potter will have been fed a Dreamless Sleep Potion by now, Ms. Granger, and it's almost curfew. I suggest you head up to bed." Hermione didn't even protest. From the tone with which her Professor had given the suggestion she knew it wouldn't do her any good anyway. She would talk to Harry in the morning and they'd go from there.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione approached the Hospital Wing on the morning of her second day of classes filled with a nervous frustration. The nervousness came from the fact that she didn't know what the most recent bout of Cruciatus induced damage would do to her boyfriend. The frustration came from the fact that she usually had at least a chance to settle into the year before he ended up in the Hospital Wing with injuries that barely anyone else ever encountered. Her apprehension faded as soon as she walked through the door and heard Harry arguing with Madam Pomfrey.

"…nothing compared to last year. I'm barely twitching. I can go to classes just fine today." Harry was telling Madam Pomfrey with a bit of impatience in his voice.

"You got hit with an Unforgivable! You can take a day to rest and let your body recover!" Madam Pomfrey was displaying more than a little irritation as well. Hermione was about to beat a stealthy retreat when Harry spotted her.

"Mi! Is it time to collect the first years already?" She could hear the false cheer in his voice and she hated it.

"No, Harry. I dropped them off at breakfast and came to see how you're doing." She paused for a moment. "Madam Pomfrey's right, you know? You can take a day off after being tortured and heal." The Healer in question beamed at the support. Harry just looked aggravated.

"No. I refuse to let that miserable toad beat me. She barely had time to hold the curse before you showed up and she's nowhere near as good as Riddle is with that curse to begin with. My symptoms currently match those I had when I took the train to King's Cross last year and I was considered fine to walk around then. Why shouldn't I be able to go to class now?" Harry turned back to the matron. "Besides, last year you told me that you have nothing that can actually help with the after effects of the Cruciatus and that it's unforgivable for a reason. Keeping me cooped up will just make me frustrated and annoyed which will hinder my recovery." Hermione was surprised that Harry had bothered to remember something Madam Pomfrey had said more than three months ago like that. She was also impressed that he was arguing so cogently but despite his points she couldn't help but agree with Madam Pomfrey: he really should be resting. Madam Pomfrey however had been driven to a different conclusion and threw up her arms in frustration.

"Fine! If you want to strain your body so badly, go ahead! Just don't come to me when you can't walk anymore tonight. I can't cure pig-headedness." With that she whirled around and stomped off to her office. Hermione watched her go in shock.

"What on earth did you do to her, Harry?" she asked her boyfriend.

"I tried to sneak out this morning to make our seven-thirty appointment but she caught me. We've been arguing in circles ever since." He looked at the closed office door and shook his head. "I'll apologize to her when we've both calmed down a little. In the meantime we should probably go." As they walked out of the infirmary Hermione noticed that Harry was indeed showing roughly the same amount of trembling as he had on the train ride home before the summer. They had walked along for several minutes in silence when Harry spoke up.

"Mi? I wanted to thank you for what you did yesterday. You really saved me in there." She could hear the sincerity in his voice.

"It's nothing, Harry. How often have you done the same for me?" Hermione felt suddenly bashful in the face of Harry's gratitude.

"And how often have you made sure to thank me afterwards?" Harry retorted with a smile. "Still you did far better than I did yesterday. You remembered to take out the threat, while I started gloating. I guess I need to remember to apply what I taught you myself. I owe you one." Hermione snorted at that last comment but it didn't help her blush subside. Harry could feel the awkwardness he usually felt on the other side of this conversation radiating off of Hermione. In an attempt to distract her he started teasing her.

"So, I take it you left the kids with Auntie Luna?" he asked innocently while watching Hermione from the corner of his eye. He saw her eyes go wide at the idea that the first years were 'their' kids before she started laughing.

"Yes, I did, but please don't call her that again for at least a couple of years. I don't know what I would do if the kids actually start calling us Mum and Dad." she gasped out between laughs. Harry started laughing right along with her. The two of them kept up the banter, teasing each other with how different kids took after them. Neither ever noticed that they were being followed and overheard.

When they got to the Gryffindor table they were enthusiastically greeted by the first years and Luna. Harry noticed that some of them looked a little wide-eyed while Luna was looking especially serene.

"Luna have you been telling the first years scary stories before breakfast?" he mock-scolded his blond friend. Luna remained entirely unruffled.

"I suppose I have. I was telling them about some of your adventures after they heard that you had been held under the Cruciatus Curse last night." she said in her dreamiest voice. Seeing the worry grow more pronounced in some faces he hurried to reassure the younger students.

"Don't worry, you lot. Most people go through Hogwarts with their most exciting experience being a Gobstones tournament or a common room party after a Quidditch match. I just happen to attract almost surreal amounts of trouble." Harry wasn't sure how well he was doing at reassuring the first years when Luna joined in.

"You really don't have to worry you know. Harry is more than a match for anything strange or dangerous that comes to Hogwarts, so it'll never reach you." And why is it that that works? Harry wondered to himself as he watched the faces around him perk up while they considered this new angle.

Later that day during the fifth years' first Transfiguration class of the year Harry had to endure Professor McGonagall not only looking him over with a critical eye as if he was about to fall over, she also felt the need to praise his and Hermione's actions regarding the first years.

"The way the two of you have been acting would have been exemplary if you had been prefects. To do so without the obligations that come with that badge is extraordinary. Ten points each to Gryffindor." Harry caught Neville's look of congratulations and the thumbs up he shot the couple and grinned in return. He failed to notice that two pairs of eyes were glaring at his back.

Chapter Text

Everything was going well for the new students that first week until Thursday. None of them showed up in the common room at the agreed upon time. After waiting for fifteen minutes Harry and Hermione decided that they had to keep to their end of the bargain they had made. Since the first years hadn't gotten up on time, the two fifth years headed down to the Great Hall to have breakfast. On the way down Harry and Hermione discussed possible reasons the kids could have been late. Their best guess was that they had had Astronomy the night before and were having a lie in. When there was a little more than half an hour left before breakfast ended both Harry and Hermione were starting to get worried.

"Harry, I think we should go check on them. The fact that literally all of them are missing worries me." Hermione said as her teeth bit into her bottom lip. Harry nodded his agreement and stood up from the table holding out his hand to help Hermione to her feet. They said goodbye to Luna and hurried up to the tower to make sure that the entire year hadn't simply overslept. When they got back to the common room there was still no sign of the first years anywhere.

"You check the girls' dorm and I'll check the boys'?" Harry offered. Hermione gave a determined nod and headed up the stairs to the girls' dorms while Harry did the same on the boys' side. It didn't take Harry long to discover what the problem was. Stretched across the doorway of the first year boys' door was a translucent, pink membrane. On the other side he could clearly see the six eleven year-olds in a panic. When they saw him they started waving and their mouths were moving like they were yelling. Harry tried the basic Disspelling Charm first. The only result was that he could now hear the boys screams for help.

"Quiet down, guys. I can't hear myself think." He called into the noise. The boys abruptly stopped yelling in surprise.

"You can hear us?" asked Billy Cobb. Harry nodded.

"I'm pretty sure I just Disspelled a Silencing Charm. I'm going to try to get rid of the rest of this now but I need to be able to concentrate, okay?" The first years just nodded in response, keeping their lips tightly shut. Since it was a physical barrier Harry tried a Vanishing Charm and barely managed to dive to the side when it ricocheted back at him. Right, this needs a different approach. Getting closer to the barrier he studied it carefully. He conjured a stick and poked the barrier. It flexed under the pressure but didn't break. The more Harry thought about it the more he was reminded of chewing gum. It's worth a try at this point, knowing the wizarding world's penchant for trick sweets he thought to himself. He took a step back to give himself room to react if his spell came back at him again.

"Seccare." Harry dived to the side again, just in case, but when he looked up he saw that the barrier had changed from glossy and translucent to cracked, opaque and, unless Harry missed his guess, brittle.

"Stand clear, everyone!" Harry called before once again levelling his wand at the barrier. "Depulso." The barrier cracked and shattered inward under the force of the Banishing Charm. Stepping into the dorm Harry vanished the debris before looking around at the open mouths of the boys.

"Well? You'd best get a move on or you'll be late for breakfast." he told them. It was Euan who responded dejectedly.

"Why bother? We'll never make it in time anyway."

"Yes we will. I know a few shortcuts. Everyone grab your schoolbags and meet me downstairs ASAP. I need to go tell Hermione how to get the girls out if she hasn't done so already." With that Harry turned and ran down the staircase. Standing at the foot of the girls' stairs he called up.

"Hermione! Use a Desiccation Charm followed by a Banishing Charm to get rid of the barrier!" Several moments later he heard cheers from the first year girls. "Everyone grab your bags and get down here! We're going to be making it down to the Great Hall in record time today!" It took maybe ninety seconds for everyone to assemble.

"Okay, let's go. You'll only have time to grab a sandwich and you'll have to eat on the go but you'll at least be able to eat something." Harry told them before striding out of the portrait hole and in the opposite direction to the one they usually took. When they came to a tapestry of a lion taking down an antelope Harry pulled it aside and ducked into the space provided, ignoring the stairs that spiralled down. When everyone was gathered around him he spoke up again.

"This is a very special secret passage developed for Gryffindors. I need you all to pay attention now." Harry walked over to the wall and touched his wand to the only red stone. "Fortune favours the bold." he said in a clear voice. There was a grinding noise as the stairs turned into a slide with high sides. Grinning at the astonished faces he told them "Let's go!" before jumping down the slide with a loud whoop. The ride was pretty long as the stairs went all the way down to the ground floor, one corridor over from the Entrance Hall. When Harry landed on the Cushioning Charm at the bottom he hopped up as fast as he could and got ready. Every time a first year landed Harry grabbed them and hauled them out of the way of the next one. In some cases it was a close call or someone would have gotten flattened. The last one down was Hermione.

Harry led the way out from behind a statue of a warrior wizard and towards the Great Hall at a brisk pace. In the Great Hall itself the first years ran up to the table and quickly made a few sandwiches without sitting down and reported back to the two fifth years within minutes. Harry and Hermione got them to the Transfiguration classroom with time to spare and said a quick goodbye as the had to hurry themselves to get to Potions; Snape was never in a forgiving mood when Gryffindors were late.

The couple arrived just in time to join their classmates filing into the dungeon and were penalized five points each for being late. Neither Gryffindor reacted to the blatant abuse of power having seen much worse in their time here. As they worked Harry was just happy that he wasn't trembling anymore and that his twitches managed to confine themselves to moments when they couldn't do any damage. He may have only had one year of actual instruction in Potions but he noticed that even that was an enormous help. Well, that and his studying in the Room of Requirement.

Class passed as any class with Snape usually did and when it ended the Gryffindors all breathed sighs of relief. As they headed to Arithmancy, Harry and Hermione discussed the prank that they had undone that morning.

"Harry, I think we need to talk to the twins." Hermione said after they had reviewed what they knew. Harry grimaced. The relation between the couple and the twins had been strained ever since Fred and George had found out about the love potions. "If they did it we need to talk to them about limits and if they didn't they may know who did."

"You're right. This is just going to be unbearably awkward." Harry gave in. Arithmancy turned out to be closer to where they had been in their personal studies but the subject matter just didn't grip Harry the way Runes had. Still immensely preferable to Divination though he thought to himself. He and Hermione worked together until the bell rang for lunch. As they left for the Great Hall, Harry grinned at Hermione.

"What are the odds the kids spent their entire free period in the Great Hall waiting for lunch to start?" he asked her.

"Well some of them do take after you." Hermione huffed playfully once she had looked around in an effort to make sure they wouldn't be overheard. "I'd still like to think that some of them used their study period to get started on their homework." She shoved him lightly with her shoulder as she retorted. Harry grabbed her arm and tugged her to one side.

"Come on, I know a shortcut." He said pulling her through a door and closing it behind them.

"Harry! This is a broom cupboard." Hermione scolded him with a smile once her eyes adjusted to the darkness around her.

"Whoops." Harry said in husky voice with no hint of remorse in it as he lowered his lips to hers. They were late to lunch that day but judging by the grins on their faces the shortcut had been worth it. They headed over to the Gryffindor table and sat down closer together than would be considered practical for eating a meal. The resulting frequent 'accidental' touches made sure they both kept their smiles firmly on their faces. Towards the end of the meal they were interrupted by Professor McGonagall.

"Mr. Potter. Ms. Granger." came the stern voice from behind them. Both Harry and Hermione did their best to not look guilty.

"Yes, Professor?" Hermione responded for the both of them trying to ignore the examining look the Deputy Headmistress was levelling at them.

"I heard what you did for your underclassmen this morning. In fact, I don't believe they've stopped talking about it yet." The two teens followed Professor McGonagall's sardonic gaze down the table to where several first years were excitedly talking to some second years. "Fifteen points to Gryffindor each, for your exemplary actions in helping younger students." Giving them one last look the Head of Gryffindor left the Hall. Hermione was beaming at Harry in pleasure at having earned thirty points for Gryffindor. Harry beamed back in relief at having escaped a reprimand.

That evening Hermione approached the Weasley twins carefully. She and Harry had planned this out as much as possible and both were confident that their predictions would never survive contact with the unpredictability that was Fred and George Weasley.

"Good evening, boys. May I have word?" she asked more confidently than she felt. The twins looked at her with that polite, neutral look they had been using for Harry and her for a week now. It was honestly a little unsettling. When they didn't tell her to get lost she pushed on. "Harry and I were wondering what you knew about the prank that was played on the first years this morning."

"Why would we know anything, Hermione? We weren't responsible. We're actually working on something else." One of the twins responded. She never could tell them apart.

"Because if a prank happens in Gryffindor tower the two of you usually know something, Fred." came Harry's voice from behind them. The twins whirled around in surprise and looked up at Harry who had quietly made his way over to stand behind them. This was the basis of the strategy the couple had developed: keep the twins off guard and they might reveal something. Neither teen thought this was the pranksters' work but they might know who did it and, in the worst case scenario, pass on a warning that Harry and Hermione were unamused which they hoped would be enough to keep a repeat occurrence from happening; both teens were well aware that they had a reputation for coming down hard on bullies after befriending Luna last year. "Now, what does a translucent barrier that strongly resembles chewing gum mean to you?"

"Someone used Captive-Keeping Chewing Gum?" the twin that had to be George asked dumbfounded and before his brain had caught up with his mouth judging by the look of chagrin that flashed across his face a moment later. Harry's eyes lit up and predatory grin spread across his face.

"That certainly sounds like it could be the stuff we're talking about. I don't remember seeing it in Zonko's, so shall I just assume that it's one of your creations?" he asked them. Fred and George shared a look before their expressions changed and became more serious than blank.

"Yeah, it's one of ours. It's also one we're still trying to work some kinks out of. We can't seem to Disspell it except for letting it shrivel up over time and we don't sell something we can't undo. This stuff kept us locked in our room for a day and a half. We're pretty sure that the problem comes from the fact that it bounces back any attempt to vanish or transfigure it at the caster's clothes." Fred told them. His twin sat up straighter as something occurred to him.

"You two were able to Disspell it though, weren't you?" Both twins were looking eager now and Hermione took over.

"We used Desiccation Charms to dry out the gum and then a Banishing Charm to shatter the result." George pulled out a small notebook and started scribbling away in it. "I'm glad we could help you develop your product. We're a little more interested in who used it though. Especially since both the boys and the girls were hit." While George continued scribbling, Fred scrunched up his brow in thought.

"We didn't think anyone except Lee knew about most of our products, but we have them fairly clearly labelled for safety reasons. Anyone with half a brain and access to our dorm would be able to get at it and use it. George, take a note that we need to increase security to keep possible spies out." George nodded and turned a few pages before he continued writing.

"Thank you, boys. If you happen to find out who took your things, we would like to have a quick word with them on appropriate timing and choice of victims when pranking." Hermione said, thinking that the conversation was over now that the twins had something else to focus on.

"Actually speaking of inappropriate pranks, you two said that the potions you gave Ron and Ginny would wear off but we saw them coming out of a broom cupboard yesterday. That doesn't seem like it's wearing off to us." Fred said with an edge to his voice.

"People are starting to notice; and talk." George added, sounding pained.

"Like we told you before: that wasn't a prank, but revenge for what they did to us. The potions will wear off, but it can take up to two weeks." Harry told them. As the twins turned around again to look at him Hermione was thankful that they had come up with this pincer strategy. It was something the twins usually did to keep others off balance and it was gratifying to see it used against them.

"Besides, we also told you how Harry got the potions out of my system and you haven't bothered to apply that, so I'm not sure either of you has a reason to complain." Hermione said and the twins' heads turned back to her. "I would imagine that Madam Pomfrey or Professor Snape will have a Purging Potion already brewed. If they don't it takes two days."

"I would think we've made it clear we don't have any interest in helping the people who tried to rape us, but you haven't even tried." Harry finished up. "It doesn't matter to us either way when they come to their senses, but if it's really bothering you that much you know what to do." With that he stepped around the couch the twins were sitting on and he and Hermione walked away leaving the redheads to their plotting.

The next morning at breakfast Ron and Ginny were looking rather ill and pushing their food around their plates rather than actually eating. It drew a lot of attention from the rest of the student body as for the first time any of them could remember Ron Weasley's legendary appetite had been stopped in its tracks. The siblings turned an especially interesting shade of green whenever they caught sight of the other. Harry and Hermione were seen smirking throughout breakfast, though they refused to answer the questions of the first years they were showing around as to why that was.

:-:-:-:-:

Saturday morning most students took the chance to sleep in and eat a late breakfast. This meant that it was lunch time before the entire castle knew that the wizarding world had been turned on its head. The morning's Daily Prophet announced it in banner headlines:

Fudge Dismissed Over Torture Scandal
Bones Gets Top Job

The paper went on to reveal that Fudge had placed his lackey at Hogwarts and that she had tortured a student with an illegal dark artefact and an Unforgivable. The student remained unnamed and for once Harry was grateful for the rag's bias, but the news was brought in such a way that any parent was sure to be outraged and demanding reassurances from their offspring. The newspaper also lauded the actions of the brave aurors who had brought this psychopath to justice.

Harry was particularly pleased with the news and what it meant for Sirius' chances to become a free man once more. He also couldn't help but feel some grim satisfaction that there was apparently no way the rag could get around reporting this news, even if they had turned it into their usual scandal-mongoring. It was also noted that many of the Slytherins were not nearly as happy with this change of regime.

On top of the good news in the Prophet, Harry was overjoyed that he didn't need to miss the Quidditch try-outs like he had last time through. After lunch Harry put on his Quidditch robes, grabbed his Firebolt and headed out to the pitch accompanied by Hermione and Luna, who were coming to watch as Hermione often had before, and a gaggle of excited first and second years. At the pitch Harry gave Hermione a kiss and headed for the Gryffindor dressing room. Hermione and Luna headed up into the stands still surrounded by the younger students.

The first years who had been raised in the magical world were busily trying to explain Quidditch to those who weren't. Hermione could empathise with the lost looks that occasionally appeared on the faces of those receiving the explanation when those doing the explaining went off on a tangent about games they had seen or how some rule tied into the tactics of the game before they finished their explanation. She even stepped in a few times to complete an explanation when the conversation veered to far off topic into the confusing and her knowledge on the subject would probably have surprised some of her classmates. They never considered that she might have remembered the information in Quidditch Throught the Ages as assiduously as any of her text books, but it had been the only book she had been able to study before her flying class in first year. By and large though, she kept quiet she kept quiet and let the people who actually wanted to discuss the subject ad nauseum get on with it.

When the current members of the Gryffindor team flew out there was a loud cheer from the younger students and the second years were talking over the first years as they told the story of how Harry had out flown a dragon. Despite the fact that Hermione was sure that they had heard the story before, the first years listened breathlessly. When the story reached the part where the dragon hit the ground there was a lot of loud whooping and cheering. Hermione hid a smile as the players looked over at the stands in surprise.

Hermione could see that there were five hopefuls for the open Keeper position and that nobody had felt up to challenging the current starters in any of the other positions. To be honest she couldn't imagine who could outplay their current squad either but was willing to admit that she didn't know enough about the sport to be sure. The only player trying out that she could recognize at this distance was Weasley, his shock of red hair standing out among the others. Hermione could see Angelina was busily talking to the current team members and was surprised to see one of the twins, Katie and Alicia take off and head towards one set of hoops. They were soon followed by a boy Hermione thought was in the year above them who took position in front of the hoops. The other twin, Angelina and Harry flew up with another hopeful and Hermione realised that her boyfriend was about to play Chaser.

Sure enough Harry and Angelina started taking runs at the goals and trying to score. Hermione was surprised Harry did as well as he did considering that one of his greatest assets as a Seeker, 'flying like a madman', was not a skill she associated with what Chasers usually did. There were none of his usual aerobatics though, much to her relief. The best part of Harry's participation as far as she was concerned was that it allowed the team to work through the applicants twice as fast. After each candidate had had a chance to make five saves they were sent out to fly laps around the pitch while the team deliberated. Hermione was curious who they would pick as she certainly hadn't seen an exceptional candidate.

Down on the pitch Harry was being questioned by Angelina.

"Do you think you could be on a team with Ron? I know you two don't get along since last year." She asked him seriously. Harry heaved a sigh.

"Angie, you know what he did to Hemione." Angelina looked uncomfortable at that reminder. Harry let her squirm for a moment before adding, "Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself, though? I didn't see him fly, but if someone else is better this discussion doesn't even need to happen."

"That's a good point I suppose. Fred, Katie, Alicia? Who was the best of your lot?" Angelina asked the half of the team that had tested the Keepers at the other end of the pitch.

"I would say it was a toss-up between Ron and McClaggen, Angie." Alicia answered for the group with Katie and Fred nodding in agreement. Harry felt a twinge of unease at that. He didn't want either of those two anywhere near himself and especially not anywhere near Hermione.

"George, Harry? What were your observations on our side?" she asked next.

"That third year did alright didn't he? What's-his-face." George said.

"Derek Nordstrom. I agree, he'll need to practice a bit to get up to snuff but I think we may have been spoiled by how good Ollie was." Harry added his opinion. Angelina just nodded thoughtfully and turned her eyes to the flying would-be Keepers. Her eyes narrowed as she saw McClaggen and Weasley out in front jostling each other roughly enough for it to be considered a foul in an actual match, in an effort to take the lead.

"We'll let them fly another five minutes or so then bring them in and let the three we just mentioned take a crack at defending the hoops from all three Chasers. Fred, George you'll observe from either side. Harry, you stay behind and below. I'm also going to ask you to catch the Quaffle if the Keeper doesn't. Five runs each and then we'll send them off and make our final choice." The team voiced their understanding of their captain's instructions and waited for the agreed upon five minutes to elapse.

When Angelina blew on her whistle and waved at the Keeper hopefuls to come back down Harry began to get an idea of what she was planning. McClaggen and Weasley raced in until they almost crashed and landed hard, both of them out of breath and glaring at each other. Derek was the third one in, but his landing was a lot smoother and he wasn't breathing hard at all. Angelina thanked the last two candidates and sent them up to the stands. The other three were told the plan and Angelina decided that they would be going from oldest to youngest. McClaggen was smirking at a fuming Ron as he mounted his broom to take his place in front of the hoops. The current team members took their positions and the third phase of the try-outs began.

McClaggen was a competent flyer and Keeper like Harry remembered, but with all the aggressive flying he had just done he was knackered and his focus was on his feud with Ron more than the Quaffle. He only managed to save three attempts. Ron was the same, despite the additional rest he had gotten, and also managed three saves. When Derek took to the hoops Harry thought that he at least looked more focused than the other two. It paid off as the youngest applicant saved four shots on goal, though Harry wasn't sure that even Oliver would have done any better with the fifth shot. The results were clear but when they landed Angelina told the remaining three candidates that they could hit the showers while the team talked it over. As they walked off Harry could clearly hear Weasley and McClaggen arguing over which of them Angelina would choose.

"I don't think I really need to ask, but I'll do it anyway. Who gets your vote?" Angelina asked looking the group over. Alicia and Katie were quick to nominate Derek and Harry quietly added his vote to theirs. The twins took a little longer but in the end they too agreed that the third year had put in the best performance. "It's unanimous then. I'll give the kid the good news tonight. Keep it under your hats 'til then. Dismissed!"

Just like that the try-outs ended. Harry was curious why they had ended so differently from the other timeline, but not having experienced the try-outs last time through he couldn't be sure whether it was just his opinion of Weasley that had changed things. His experience with Umbridge had drilled it painfully into his mind that he couldn't afford to overlook things, although he quietly admitted to himself that the composition of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team might not be on the same level of importance as getting a new Minister for Magic. He took a detour past Hermione and Luna on his way to the dressing room and told them that he was going to take a quick shower and that he would meet up with them after. The girls waved at him as he flew away along with the younger students, many of whom were disappointed that they hadn't gotten to see one of Harry Potter's signature dives.

:-:-:-:-:

The second week of the year passed without notable incident. The first years were finding their way on their own though they still occasionally asked Harry and Hermione for help with classwork or about the castle; the couple was always happy to help. They made sure they were in the common room at least an hour before curfew so that anyone who needed help could get it. Ron and Ginny still became physically ill any time they saw each other, much to Harry and Hermione's satisfaction. Most of the couple's free time was still spent with Luna in the Room of Requirements and quite a bit of their free time was spent in the Room without Luna, since it was vastly preferable to the common room or a broom cupboard for certain activities. Harry also had Quidditch practice three times a week which Hermione frequently used as reading time. Neither minded that they took the time to pursue their own interests and especially since they each found their hobby to be a calming influence. The calm could not last, however, and it was Hermione who broke it.

"This is completely unacceptable!" the brunette exploded on a weekend evening in the common room while the pair was reading on a couch. Harry looked up in surprise trying to find the thing that had drawn his girlfriend's ire. She was holding her book away from her like it was contagious and looking at it in disgust. This was unusual enough that Harry took a closer look at the book which turned out to be Slinkhard's Defensive Magical Theory. He breathed deeply to dispel the tension that had accumulated in his body at Hermione's outburst.

"I quite agree, Mi, but why are you reading that garbage in the first place? You know Umbridge never meant to teach us anything." Harry said. He got a glare in return.

"This is our O.W.L. year, Harry. If we don't get some instruction soon, we'll never pass our Defence O.W.L.." She snapped. Harry just cocked an eyebrow at the ridiculous notion that Hermione could possibly fail an O.W.L..

"Then we'll self-study. We're basically already doing that for History and Potions. One more subject should be quite doable." Harry tried to reassure Hermione. Unfortunately his girlfriend took his response in a slightly different way than he intended.

"You could teach me!" She exclaimed with a gleam in her eye that had Harry a bit worried. "You tutored Luna and me last year. You'll do it again, won't you? Please?" By the end of her request she was almost sitting in his lap and putting on her best puppy-eyes. Harry gave a low chuckle.

"Of course I'll help you, Mi." he told her, sneaking a quick kiss. His answer got him a squeal and a deeper kiss in return. Harry felt inordinately proud of himself when they finally came up for air and he could see how happy he had made Hermione.

"Oi, Harry. If we kiss you like that will you teach us too?" Harry's good feeling went down the drain as he looked over his shoulder at the twins who had just spoken up.

"Excuse me?" he asked.

"We're just wondering what we'd have to do to get you to teach us Defence." Fred reiterated.

"Or not do, as the case may be." George added, believing this to be relevant information. Harry was just trying to come to grips with the idea of Fred and George actually going so far as to ask anyone for classes.

"I'd give you a snog in return for classes, Harry!" Katie Bell called out from a few tables over getting loud agreement from her fellow chasers. Harry could practically feel Hermione's indignation growing next to him.

"Okay, hold on. I'm not exchanging snogs for tutoring with anyone other than Hermione." Harry was a little shocked to see that he had the attention of the entire common room and that several girls were pouting at his declaration. "I'm sure Dumbledore will find us a new instructor soon, but if you want to form a study group in the meantime, that sounds like a pretty good idea." He was desperately trying play down everyone's expectations.

"Are you going to be leading this study group?" Alicia wanted to know. Harry closed his eyes for a moment. He really had enough to be doing, trying not to screw up his destiny and what not. On the other hand he had enjoyed teaching the DA last time and it had helped dispel some of the myths about him. His weighing of the pros and cons of doing this was rudely interrupted by a finger in his ribs. Harry opened his eyes to see Hermione looking determinedly up at him.

"You have to help them, Harry. You're the only one in the school who can." She said quietly but with complete conviction. Harry felt a calm settle over him and made his decision. He should have known that Hermione would once again be the driving force behind the DA.

"Alright." He said still looking in her eyes but the loud cheering around him was too distracting to keep that up for long. "Whoa! Calm down you lot. We'll meet in the Defence classroom tomorrow evening at six so we can get an idea of how many people want to join in and what we'll need to get started." If Harry thought this announcement would bring people back to earth he was sadly mistaken as the cheering resumed the moment he had finished. He would have had more of a problem with it if Hermione hadn't grabbed his head and started the most insistent display of public affection the couple had ever shared. The only thing she said when she paused for a quick breath before continuing was "You as a Professor may be the hottest thing I've ever heard of." Harry made sure to file that away for future reference.

:-:-:-:-:

Sunday evening in the Defence classroom Harry was having trouble keeping his jaw off of the floor. He, Hermione and Luna had arrived early and moved the desks to the walls to create a less formal atmosphere similar to what Harry remembered from the Room last time. When the blond Ravenclaw had heard that Hermione had convinced Harry to tutor them in Defence she had let out a squeal that Harry found eerily similar to the one he had heard from Hermione last night before grabbing him in a massive hug and repeatedly thanking him. Harry had gently hugged her back but it had been the cue for the Weasley twins to also grab him in a hug and thank him profusely while kissing him on the cheeks until Hermione dragged them off by their ears. The whole thing was apparently immensely funny to people who weren't in the middle of it. Throughout the rest of the day he hadn't heard anyone talking about Defence Against the Dark Arts though and had put it from his mind. That was until people started arriving for the meeting.

The Gryffindor Quidditch Team had been expected. The Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw teams had been less so. The first years from all four Houses had been eye opening. After that people had kept coming in and there did not seem to be an end to them. Right now the classroom was absolutely packed and Harry could see through the doorway that the hallway outside was also filled with a throng of people who had given up on trying to get in and were now shushing each other and trying to catch any word of what was said inside. Harry decided he needed to say something at least, even if this was far more than the old DA he had been expecting.

"Everyone, may I have your attention please?" He called out and was almost terrified by how promptly even the Slytherins complied. "Right, thank you all for coming. This meeting was meant to determine how many people wanted tutoring in Defence. It looks like just about all years and Houses are represented among you. It's a good thing that you are all motivated enough to work on this even though Hogwarts is neglecting our education in this field. I have to admit that this is a few more people than I was expecting, but now that we know you're interested we can start working on a study schedule for everyone." Harry paused and looked around. He didn't see anyone who looked ready to lynch him yet and counted that as a good thing.

"Are there any questions or requests at this point?" he asked the crowd.

"Will you be working around the Quidditch practices?" called out one of the Hufflepuff Chasers.

"We will certainly be doing our best." Harry replied. When nobody else called out a question he continued. "As there are so many of us I think it would be easiest if I let you know when we have a schedule by posting it in your common rooms. If the Quidditch captains and the prefects would please stay we can work out exactly how we're going to do that. The rest of you, thank you for coming and be sure we'll set something up as soon as possible. If you have any particular times that you would like us to take into consideration please speak to a prefect on your way out and we'll do our best." There was less grumbling than Harry had expected as the classroom emptied and he was left facing three captains, including Cedric, twenty prefects and the Head Girl.

"Right then, if you'll all write down the times when you know people will absolutely not be able to attend, Hermione, Luna and I will work out who goes when." Harry told them as the girls handed out parchment and quills. It took roughly twenty minutes for everyone to finish writing all the times when people would not be able to attend although the captains of the Quidditch teams were quick to say that they would move their practices if they had to. There were a lot of grateful handshakes as they left and everyone there thanked Harry at least once for what he was doing. When the door closed behind the last of them Harry collapsed into what would normally be the professor's chair.

"This is a nightmare. I can't possibly teach this many people. I don't have the time." he said as he closed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. He felt a small hand grab his wrist and move it away before his fingers were replaced by that same pair of hands as they raked their nails deliciously across his scalp.

"Well, I agree that you wouldn't be able to assign them homework and correct it. That would take up too much time; but I think you could actually tutor everyone here today." came Hermione's soft voice from somewhere above him.

"I think you're underestimating the time it would take to prepare each lesson, Mi. There's a reason teaching seven years' worth of students is a full time job." he sighed out, relaxing under Hermione's ministrations. "I think our best bet is to find out what each year would need to know and then leave them to study it on their own." Hermione was quiet for a long moment before she spoke again.

"I think it's like what we were discussing last week about Runes. Studying by yourself can only get you so far before you need someone who knows what they're doing. When it comes to Defence not even the Professors know as much as you do. You have more practical experience than anyone else, except maybe Professor Dumbledore but he's the one who's dithering on getting us a new teacher. That experience is why everyone was so willing to listen to you tonight. They know you are their best chance at, not only passing their exams, but surviving the war that is on the brink of raging outside of these walls." And damn it, that last argument actually made sense. Harry might not want to spend all his free time teaching a bunch of sheep, but could he really face himself in the mirror if he didn't do everything he could to prepare the innocent? Especially since his plan for the third task had failed so spectacularly? "At least send Professor Lupin an owl and ask him if he still has his lesson plans from two years ago? Please?"

"Alright. I suppose we need that information anyway." Harry admitted. He could practically feel Hermione smiling victoriously above him and rolled his eyes behind his eyelids. He still had his misgivings about the whole undertaking.

Later that night Hedwig left the Owlery with a letter for Remus Lupin attached to her leg.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after Umbridge had been arrested was a notable week for Harry Potter. Tuesday he was asked to stay after class by Professor McGonagall. Hermione reluctantly went on to lunch after their teacher assured her that this shouldn't take long. Harry was led from the Transfiguration classroom and into McGonagall's office. He was surprised to see a familiar face waiting for him.

"Mr. Potter. It is good to see you again." Amelia Bones greeted him as he and his Head of House walked in.

"Mada- Minister Bones. The feeling is mutual." Harry answered remembering the proper form of address at the last minute. Minister Bones didn't look particularly bothered by his slip though. "What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"Well, Mr. Potter, I have given my former department the order to bring in anyone who was present in your memory of the events in that graveyard. Unfortunately that information apparently leaked out and we encountered only empty houses. I tell you this so you may be prepared should anything like last year happen. These men just got a lot more dangerous since they have a lot less to loose. We are trying to freeze their assets, but Gringotts isn't interested in cooperation it would seem." Minister Bones paused for a moment to see how Potter was taking this. She was both heartened and disappointed to see his eyes harden. The determination she saw gave her hope that he would survive anything those terrorists threw at him. That she was making that evaluation of a fifteen year-old was what was so disappointing. He should be preparing for his O.W.L.s or a date, not a war.

"There is a positive side to all this bad news. The men who have fled were the same who would have blocked a trial for Sirius Black in the Wizengamot. Black's trial, along with Pettigrew's and Crouch's are scheduled for Thursday. It will not be necessary for you to attend considering the fact that you are still a minor, the memories and testimony you have already provided and the other witnesses available, but the accused must be present to be able to present his defence. I have come to ask you to contact Black and let him know that he must be at the Ministry no later than ten in the morning on that day. If he wishes an auror escort he must be at platform 9¾ at King's Cross Station by nine thirty. It should be empty since the Express isn't scheduled to make the trip to or from Hogsmeade any time soon." Harry nodded his understanding.

"I'll pass on the message, ma'am. Should I let you know his decision?" Harry asked, trying not to show the jig he was dancing inside.

"That will not be necessary. His presence will be answer enough. I will have two aurors waiting at the platform until the appointed time and the ministry security staff have been notified." Minister Bones told him. "One more thing, Mr. Potter. These trials are likely to reveal the resurrection of Tom Riddle. I have no control over what the Prophet does or doesn't print; you may wish to prepare yourself for the public's reaction." Harry nodded grimly in understanding. His experiences with the wizarding public were rarely what he might wish but he appreciated the minister's attempt to give him some advance notice.

"Ma'am, if I might, what's going to happen to Fudge and Umbridge?" Harry asked. Madam Bones gave him a grin that hung somewhere between amused and vicious.

"Dolores was sentenced to life in Azkaban the day before yesterday. My aurors are currently investigating corruption charges against the former minister, but like I said: Gringotts isn't being particularly helpful. We have found some evidence in the record of his executive decisions. Particularly his reduction of human staff at Azkaban after he saw your memory three months ago needed to be quickly rectified." They exchanged a few more pleasantries before Professor McGonagall dismissed Harry so he could get some lunch.

Harry got to the Great Hall with barely any time to spare. This meant that Hermione's interrogation was delayed until Professor Grubbly-Plank had them drawing knarls. She was happy for Harry and Sirius at hearing the news the minister had brought. She knew both men desperately wanted to officially be a family.

The remainder of the day felt like it was going by in slow motion to Harry. After classes he sprinted up to Gryffindor tower and his dorm. Grabbing the mirror Sirius had given him, Harry closed the curtains of his four poster and called his godfather. The two spent half an hour discussing the ways Thursday's trials could resolve. Finally it was Harry who signed off since he still had a pile of homework to do. The workload in fifth really was brutal.

Harry was in a good mood for all of the next day. On Thursday though he was feeling particularly nervous. Judging by the viciousness Snape displayed in Potions class he too knew what was happening that day. Several other professors also noticed that Harry Potter seemed distracted and that his work in their classrooms was not quite at the high standards that they had so quickly come to expect from him.

The reason for Harry's distraction became clear to everyone at dinner that night when Sirius Black strolled into the Great Hall, free as you please, accompanied by Aurors Tonks and Shacklebolt. Several of the older students who had been present two years ago when Sirius Black had been a dangerous criminal who broke into Hogwarts screamed and dove under their tables. Sirius looked around the Hall and grinned when he spotted his target at the Gryffindor table.

Harry and Hermione had been surprised at Sirius' entrance, but independently they each reached the conclusion that the old dog was simply too happy in the spotlight to ever tell them the results of his trial in a letter or mirror call. The first years who were sitting a little way down the table were busily repeating Luna's words to themselves Harry is more than a match for anything strange or dangerous that comes to Hogwarts, so it'll never reach you. This seemed to be borne out when Harry rose from the table to meet the approaching Sirius Black. His words surprised most of the people who heard them.

"So did they find you innocent or did they simply agree that you didn't commit any crimes and leave it at that?" The amusement in Harry's voice while talking to the man who had betrayed his parents came as a shock to those same people. Black theatrically clutching his chest and acting mortally wounded just rounded out the strangeness.

"I cannot believe that my own little godson could say such things!" he declared dramatically. "After all I have suffered to come back to you!"

"If you adopt him, I'm breaking up with you, Harry. He looks like a problem child." Now Hermione Granger was getting in on the act. If anyone in this castle was nearly rabid about keeping Harry Potter safe, she was it.

"Black! What the hell are you doing here?! Aurors, arrest that man! He is a dangerous criminal and there are children here!" Everyone in the Great Hall watched with baited breath as a new player entered the scene. Professor Snape looked absolutely livid. Not even Harry's classmates had ever seen the man this angry and they hadn't though it possible for Snape to display more hatred for anyone than he did for Potter.

"Put a sock in it, Snivellous. You and I both know I never committed any of the crimes I was accused of; or were you hoping that the kids would believe that I walked in here with two aurors who thought I was guilty? Baba Yaga's Baps, man, give them some credit!" The Weasley twins almost had tears of reverence in their eyes when they heard Sirius address the Potions Master by his hated childhood nickname. "Oh, and you should probably expect a hearing about bearing false witness in your near future. Somehow you managed to see a lot of things the night I was almost Kissed, despite being unconscious for most of it and the DMLE is very curious how you managed that." The looming confrontation between one of his professors and a member of his Order forced the headmaster to step in.

"Gentlemen, that is enough. Mr. Black, while you have my congratulations on your exoneration and freedom, I am wondering what caused you to come to Hogwarts before this information was released to the general public." The headmaster was twinkling for all he was worth over his glasses at Sirius.

"Well, Dumbledore, I'm here to inform my godson that I am free, that the rat who betrayed his parents to the dark wizard Tom Riddle is currently rotting in my old cell, and that there was a custody hearing shortly after the criminal trials were done. I'm officially your guardian now, Pup."

"Really?! That's amazing!" Harry's honest joy was plain to see for everyone in the hall. Dumbledore wasn't quite done though.

"Mr. Black, do you not think that you might have waited or chosen a different method to inform Mr. Potter of this?" The headmaster's disapproval was clear in his tone. "You could have done this without disrupting our meal and terrifying the children."

"This isn't really the sort of news that you put in a letter, Headmaster. Besides, I wanted to let Harry know as soon as possible that he finally has a family." Sirius was somehow keeping a straight face as he talked to Dumbledore. "Oh, and I suppose I'm also playing post owl. Here, Pup, Moony sends his best." He handed Harry a clearly shrunken packet. Harry took it and put it in his pocket before thanking his godfather.

"If that was all, Mr. Black, may I suggest that in the future you arrange any visits through the staff like other parents and guardians do?" Dumbledore cut in again.

"Yeah, sure." Sirius said, impatiently waving the headmaster's words away. "Harry, make sure you do well in your classes and don't do anything I wouldn't do. I'll see you at Christmas, okay?" Harry rolled his eyes at his new guardian.

"I'm pretty sure those two things are mutually exclusive, but I'll do my best." He snarked at Sirius while ducking a noogie. "And, yes, I'll be home for Christmas." The two said a quick goodbye and Sirius left the Hall with much waving and calls of goodbye towards his godson who was now shaking his head. When he was gone the Great Hall erupted in a susurration as everyone turned to their neighbour to discuss what had just happened in low tones. The only ones who weren't joining in were Harry, Hermione and Luna, although Luna looked like she wouldn't mind questioning Harry closely over tonight's events.

After dinner the trio disappeared up to the Room of Requirement so Harry could look into the packet that Sirius had delivered. Hermione got excited when she saw Professor Lupin's lesson plans from the year he had spent teaching.

"Oh, Harry, this is marvellous. Now you'll be able to start teaching us." she exclaimed happily. Harry was not quite as excited.

"Let me look through this first, Mi. There's no guarantee I'd be able to teach this well, so let's not get ahead of ourselves." Harry tried to temper his girlfriend's enthusiasm. Hermione just beamed at him.

"That sounds like you've decided to teach us." Harry just gave a defeated sigh and shook his head.

"You were right last time we talked about this. There is a war coming and we are miserably under-prepared. If I can change that, I have to try." Harry said. Hermione looked a little taken aback for a moment before she leaned in and pecked him on the cheek.

"You are going to be an amazing teacher, Harry Potter. Mum always told me the best teachers are the ones who are doing it for their students." With that Hermione got up and moved away from their study table to give Harry some privacy as he worked through the lesson plans in front of him. She joined Luna on the couch with a book and the two girls shared a celebratory squeal behind a Silencing Charm. The prospect of having a competent Defence Professor merited no less in their opinions.

The reactions were only slightly less enthusiastic in the common rooms that Friday night when certain pieces of parchment appeared on the notice boards. Harry had passed out a schedule and booklist to the various prefects who had shown up to the first meeting of what Harry had thought would be the DA. Harry would tutor one year every day, for an hour and a half, between the end of classes and dinner. There would be no written homework but everyone was expected to put in the work to come prepared to these sessions. The fifth and seventh years were planned in for the weekend and had longer 'classes' to help them prepare for their O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s. Harry had taken Remus' suggested booklist since he was following the werewolf's lesson plan and had been surprised to learn that the old Marauder had assigned his N.E.W.T. students the same book as Snape had. Still, from what Hermione had said last time through in sixth year, the book fit Harry's teaching style anyway.

:-:-:-:-:

When September 19th rolled around Harry wanted to make sure that it would be a birthday Hermione would remember. His first plan had been to hold it in the Room of Requirements with just Hermione, Luna and himself attending. However he accidentally let slip that he was planning something for Hermione's birthday where some of the younger students could overhear. Harry was inundated with requests from younger students to be allowed to join the celebration. Eventually this meant that word reached the older students as well and the Weasley twins reported for party planning duty. This meant that Harry was mostly trying to slow the two exuberant redheads down. He chose to look at it as the twins' way of letting him know that they had dropped their grudge over what had happened to their younger siblings.

The party itself was set to take place after classes and all the attendees would be eating there. Harry was tasked with getting Hermione to the spare classroom they would be holding it in. He had no trouble getting Hermione to come along with him. Her eager look told him that she was half expecting something from him for her birthday. When he pulled her through the door to the party Hermione didn't even wait for the door to close completely before she grabbed Harry in a heated kiss. An excessively loud throat clearing stopped the pair of them before they could really get going and Hermione's eyes grew huge as she registered the amount of people who had shown up and the tables holding presents and refreshments.

"Tsk, tsk, Ms. Granger. What will these poor impressionable youngsters think?" George said while shaking his head and pointing at the grinning first-years.

"No decorum, I tell you, brother." Fred immediately added on.

"Perhaps she thinks she can get away with that kind of behaviour because it's her birthday?" George suggested. Fred appeared to be thinking it over.

"Can't she?"

"That's enough, you two. Hermione was clearly just inoculating Harry against Wrackspurt infections. Happy Birthday, Hermione!" Luna's interruption knocked even the two inveterate pranksters for a loop and allowed the rest of the party to start coming up to the birthday girl and offering their congratulations. The rest of the evening was lively and thoroughly enjoyed by all those present. The twins managed to recover from their Luna-induced surprise and filled the room with animated balloon animals, confetti that kept flying around and various trick sweets.

Hermione felt wonderful. She had never had this many people gather to celebrate her birthday. She looked over to where Harry was forcing Fred and George to make sure that the first years wouldn't be caught in any untested pranks. A smile spread on her face as she contemplated how much of an impact he had on her life since she had met him and how that impact had grown since they started dating. She decided that overall she couldn't wish for anyone better. She cast her mind back to that morning when Harry had already given her his gift: an extremely rare copy of Al-Nuad's Arithmantic Almanac. She had no idea where he had manged to find it and was looking forward to wheedling that information from him. Giving herself a mental shake she returned her attention to her Arithmancy students who were currently wishing her a happy birthday and offering her their gifts. This was definitely her best birthday ever.

:-:-:-:-:

After the first week of teaching classes on top of completing all his work for his own classes, his studies into curse breaking and three Quidditch practices Harry was dead on his feet. He had even agreed to give Neville some one-on-one tutoring after the fifth year class on Saturdays. The other boy had come up to him after class and requested it. Harry had agreed knowing that Neville was going to be in danger from Riddle's thugs who only knew part of the prophecy and because he remembered what it had done for his friend's confidence last time around. Thankfully Harry had the last period on Mondays free since that had been when the fifth year Gryffindors had Defence with the toad. Harry took the time to catch a quick nap before heading down to the first years' second Defence class of the year. At the end of it Harry at least felt that he was tiring himself out for a worthwhile cause.

After he had dismissed the first years to go to dinner Harry spent some time cleaning up the Defence classroom where he was holding his tutoring sessions. He was just finishing up when the door opened and Hermione stuck her head in.

"Hello, Professor Potter. Ready to get some dinner?" she said with an impish smile on her face. Harry stopped waving his wand and turned to face her with a grimace.

"Remember why we don't refer to Luna as 'Auntie Luna'? Let's put 'Professor Potter' in the same category." he said. Hermione just laughed and came up to Harry.

"But, Professor, I was hoping for some private tuition." She said in an overly girly voice. Harry cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Am I going to have to discipline you Ms. Granger?" Hermione's jaw dropped at that, but she quickly rallied herself.

"Oh, Professor, are you suggesting we do something improper?" The wide-eyed innocence that Hermione managed to project into that last word was ruined by her stomach growling. Harry couldn't keep a straight face any longer.

"I think your entire act may be 'improper', Ms. Granger." He told her before he pressed a quick kiss to her lips. "Let's head down and have dinner before we do anything appropriately inappropriate." Hermione just nodded, looking thoroughly embarrassed at being betrayed by her own body like that.

The couple walked down to the Great Hall in comfortable silence. When they walked through the double doors that gave access to the Hall both of them froze however. Hanging above the Gryffindor table was a sight that they were having trouble processing. It was a large banner with a wizarding picture of Harry sitting in an armchair surrounded by first years and clearly telling them a story or explaining something. Hermione was moving among the first years handing out mugs of hot cocoa. Hedwig was perched on the back of the armchair lending an air of gravity to Harry's words while Crookshanks could occasionally be seen reclining in Abby's lap. Behind the group they could see the Gryffindor common room fireplace roaring. The picture itself wouldn't have been particularly bad if someone had not chosen to add a caption.

Mum and Dad welcome you to the Gryffindor family

"Wha-…How?" Hermione tried to formulate her surprise. Harry was already scanning the Gryffindor table and soon found two self-satisfied looking red-heads.

"My first guess would be the twins." He answered Hermione's half-formed question as he started pulling her towards the table. "Our best bet is probably to just try and ignore it." Hermione shook herself and, while she looked doubtful about the potential success of this strategy, wasn't prepared to let a prank drive her from the Great Hall either. They joined an unhelpfully smiling Luna and ate as quickly as they could without ignoring their manners. The whole experience was terribly uncomfortable for the two. They did notice that there wasn't a lot of outright laughter and the Gryffindor first years were actually beaming with pride at the sight of the banner. Hermione decided that the lack of outright laughter was probably down to the fact that her classmates were aware of the fact that Harry was the only reason that they currently had any Defence classes at all and that enough students didn't want to risk losing that by offending their professor. Even so she could see more than a few snickering behind their hands and that really wasn't any better. Once they had their dinner wolfed down they both left the Hall and headed towards the seventh floor followed by a skipping Luna. They didn't leave the Room until right before curfew in an effort to avoid having to deal with their schoolmates and went straight up to bed.

Two days later the Great Hall was once again in an uproar, this time at lunch. Another banner had been hung over the Gryffindor table. This one was of Professor McGonagall sitting in the common room looking severe. It also had a caption that made the whole thing go from strange to awkward.

Grandma Minnie is watching you

When Professor McGonagall came into the Hall she froze mid-step as she saw the new decoration. Her mouth moved silently as she read the caption before her eyes blazed and roved over the Gryffindor table.

"Mr.'s Weasley! My office! Now!" she snapped out before her lips settled into an impossibly thin line.

"What?!"

"But we didn't..."

"NOW!" As she watched the twins slump out of the Hall in front of their Head of House, Hermione was assaulted by a feeling of deep suspicion and her eyes shot to her side. Harry Potter was sitting there looking like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth and somehow she knew.

"Harry." she hissed under her breath, "Was that really necessary?" Harry spent a moment acting like he didn't know what she was talking about before a crafty grin spread across his face.

"Well, I did owe them both one banner prank. This felt like a two birds, one stone kind of solution." he told her quietly. Hermione just groaned and buried her face in her hands. On her other side she could hear Luna's giggles as she had apparently listened in.

:-:-:-:-:

Over the next month Harry managed to adjust to his gruelling new schedule. People seemed to enjoy his classes and since they were voluntary everyone was diligent about preparing for each session. Harry also adjusted to the workload of the fifth year well. Since he had gotten out of the habit of writing essays on the hunt Harry was grateful that he had had fourth year to readjust. His added knowledge and his time in the Room of Requirement meant that he was still doing the homework in a fraction of the time it had cost him the last time around.

The Quidditch team was also shaping up nicely. Derek was proving himself to be a competent Keeper and a dedicated player. Harry even thought Derek was turning out to be a better Keeper than Weasley had been and was doing his best to keep his feelings about the redhead out of that analysis.

As for the Weasleys, they had been keeping their distance. Ron and Lavender were apparently dating since they were once again snogging in the common room. Harry felt slightly nauseated when he saw them and hoped Hermione and he didn't look like that on the occasions where they got carried away and their hands started wandering without input from any higher brain functions.

Ginny could still be caught glaring at Hermione and mooning after Harry from time to time but she never approached the couple. Far from reassuring Harry, this behaviour only worried him more. Ron might be too distracted to care about his former friends but Harry could swear that Ginny was planning something.

Similarly Malfoy's lack of any taunting after nearly two months of school was tearing at Harry's nerves. The last time the little ferret had stopped bothering Harry it had been because he was trying to assassinate Dumbledore and sneak Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Minister Bones' warning about the Death Eaters possibly getting desperate with less to lose was also echoing around his head. It had in fact resulted in another trip into the Hall of Lost Things to make sure that the Vanishing Cabinet was blasted into kindling and spread over as large an area as Harry could manage in a limited time.

Harry shared some of his suspicions with Hermione and Luna. Unlike in their sixth year Hermione was willing to hear him out. She agreed that both Ginny and Malfoy were displaying some uncharacteristic behaviour but that they couldn't do anything about it without knowing what was causing the change. The trio agreed to keep their eyes open and be on guard around both Ginny and Malfoy.

Harry was keeping in touch with Sirius regularly. He had learned from his mistakes in fifth year the last time around and, while he didn't think that a free Sirius would be quite so reckless if faced with a murdering cousin, he was going to keep doing whatever he could to make sure that the Department of Mysteries debacle didn't happen again. He felt it was a good sign that Sirius had bought a home where they could both live that wasn't infested with years of exposure to dark magic.

With all the extracurricular activities he was now engaging in it became harder and harder for Harry and Hermione to find time to spend together and any stolen moments were deeply cherished by both teens. There had only been one Hogsmeade weekend so far and it stood as a shining beacon of normalcy and relaxation in Harry's mind.

There was one major advantage to how busy Harry was these days. It was the morning of October 31st before he realized that the anniversary of his parents deaths had snuck up on him this year. It didn't take long for Harry's usual relationship with that particular date to assert itself. Breakfast in the Great Hall was a strained affair as the Daily Prophet was widely being read and discussed.

Mass Azkaban Escape

The paper that had been so steadfastly silent on the return of Riddle was screaming out the horror of some of his top lieutenants escaping the once inescapable prison. The story presented the escape as the result of the Bones administration's incompetence. This cemented Harry's opinion that a few wealthy Death Eaters were currently dictating what was being printed at the newspaper. Looking across the Great Hall he could see that the children of Death Eaters were looking smug almost to a man.

Classes that day were a subdued affair as everyone considered that the war they had been dreading might be about to start in all seriousness. Harry and Hermione were happy that they were covering Silencing Charms in their class with Professor Flitwick. Both had already mastered the spell and could afford to pay the class less than their full attention. After Transfiguration Professor McGonagall asked Hermione to stay behind. Harry decided to wait in the hallway and was surprised when a worried Hermione emerged with her Head of House.

"I have to go see the Headmaster but Professor McGonagall doesn't know why." she pre-empted her boyfriend's question. She could see that it made his worry jump up a notch.

"Be careful. Don't look him in the eyes." Harry said before drawing her into a hug. "If anything happens call for Dobby or Winky to get you out of there." he whispered so that Professor McGonagall couldn't overhear. He felt Hermione nod into his shoulder and let her go. "I'll see you at lunch or in class then." Hermione nodded again and turned to follow her teacher who had been standing a little ways down the corridor to give the two teens a moment.

After the two women turned the corner and disappeared from sight Harry headed down to the Great Hall unable to shake the feeling that something was very wrong. That feeling didn't change when Hermione did not show up for lunch. It escalated into a full-blown panic when she failed to show up for Care. Harry tried to calm down by telling himself that it was possible that Hermione's discussion with the headmaster had simply run longer than she had expected. Yeah, and Snape is going to start washing his hair.

When Hermione didn't show up for Herbology, Harry was ready to march straight back into the castle and start tearing it apart in his search for his girlfriend. If she's been potioned again I might just do that anywayHarry thought to himself before a shiver ran down his spine as the implications of that thought settled into his mind. Calm down. Weasley is right over there so she isn't being forced into his arms quite yet. It wasn't really much of a reassurance but it was all he had until he could go looking for Hermione. The moment Professor Sprout dismissed the class Harry was out of the greenhouse and sprinting up to the castle. When he got there the corridors were full of students leaving their final classes. As Harry ran past a group of fourth year Ravenclaws something occurred to him.

"Morag!" The girl whipped around as she heard her Defence Professor call her name. "Morag, can you inform everyone that class is cancelled today? Something's happened to Hermione and I need to find her. I'll make it up to you guys on Saturday morning, okay?" Harry didn't wait for the girl's confirmation but set off again as soon as the words were out of his mouth. When he got to a seldom used secret passage Harry ducked inside and pulled the Marauder's Map out of his schoolbag. He activated it and started frantically scanning it. It took him several minutes to find Hermione and when he did he was confused by her location. What on earth is she doing on top of the Astronomy Tower by herself?

Harry decided that he would figure it out after he made sure that Hermione was alright. It took Harry mere seconds to plan out the fastest route to his girlfriend's location. He had stopped sprinting now that he knew Hermione was at least in the castle but couldn't stop his speed from varying between a brisk jog and speed walking. Opening the door to the top of the Astronomy Tower, Harry carefully stuck his head out. That caution was thrown to the wind when he saw Hermione. She was sitting with her back to the parapets, her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms desperately hugging them. She had her head down and Harry couldn't see her face as it was shrouded behind a curtain of hair. He didn't need to see it to know something was extremely wrong though and hurried over to Hermione's side. When he got there he pulled her into a hug and his worry escalated into full blown panic as she didn't respond in the slightest.

"Hermione? Hermione, what's happened?" Harry asked her his beginning desperation making its way into his voice. Hermione didn't respond. Harry gently took a hold of her head and pulled it up so he was looking in her eyes. They were red and puffy and completely empty. "Hermione! Come on, love. Talk to me. Please. You're scaring me." Hermione blinked as though she was just registering that someone else was there. It was the first sign of life Harry had seen from her and he drew as much hope as he could from it.

"That's it, Mi. Come back to me. Please, Mi, let me know what's wrong." He saw a flash of pain in her eyes and it felt like dagger to his own heart.

"Gone." Hermione croaked out in a voice that sounded nothing like the girl he knew.

"What's gone, Mi?" he asked as gently as he could. Those dead eyes looked up at him with tears already leaking out of them again.

"My…parents." Harry's eyes widened. He couldn't have heard that right. "To keep the ministry busy the Death Eaters attacked muggles and did enough damage to keep the aurors and obliviators busy cleaning up after them. They found and killed my parents." Hermione's mouth kept moving after she had finished talking but no sound came out. Suddenly she shuddered and collapsed against Harry; huge sobs wracked her body as she once again felt the loss of her parents now that she had come out of her near catatonia. Her hands grasped at his robes, digging painfully into the flesh below. Harry just held her as best he could while his mind struggled to accept what he was being told. How could this happen? How would the Death Eaters even know where to go? Even if they did find the Grangers, there were wards and Dobby and Winky had orders to evacuate them in case of an attack. Harry felt like someone had thrown a bucket of ice water down his spine. It quickly turned to rage.

"Dobby! Winky!" Harry snarled out. The two elves popped in looking apprehensive at their master's tone. It had been cold and fierce enough that even Hermione was momentarily shocked out of her crying. "How is it that the Grangers are dead despite your orders to get them out at the first sign of an attack?" Harry hissed out, his eyes narrowing. He didn't do well with grief, but anger he understood; anger was safe. The two elves cringed at their master's cold fury. It was Dobby who found the courage to speak up first.

"We is sorry, Master Harry, but we is not understanding. The Grangers is still alive. They is in Master Harry's hidey tent. Dobby and Winky took them there like Master ordered." The elf's answer threw Harry for a loop. He wasn't the only one.

"My…my parents are still alive?" Hermione's voice was hesitant and her head came up off of Harry's shoulder about an inch as she tried to get a better look at Dobby. Dobby hesitantly nodded.

"Yes, miss. They is well and hidden." he squeaked out. Hermione's eyes flicked between Harry, Dobby and Winky before rolling up into her head. Harry managed to catch her just as she slumped over. He was feeling terrible. He had jumped to conclusions like an idiot and in doing so gone after his elves in a way they didn't deserve.

"Dobby, Winky, I'm sorry. I should have just asked you what had happened rather than yelling at you. I will make it up to you however you like." He said trying to convey his honest regret at the way he had treated them. Dobby and Winky shared a look.

"That is not being necessary, Master." Winky said softly. Harry was already shaking his head.

"Yes, it is." Seeing how uncomfortable the elves looked Harry decided to slightly change tack. "You can think about it if you need to, but I will be making this up to you. In the meantime, would you still be willing to help me with something?" Harry asked them. Both the diminutive beings perked up at the idea that they could be useful again.

"Of course, Master Harry. What is you needing?" Winky said, sounding happy to be back in familiar territory.

"Winky, can you go to my dorm and get the communicating mirror? I'm going to take Hermione inside, so could you please deliver it to the Room?" Winky curtsied and popped away. "Dobby, if you would, please find Sirius. Tell him we need to borrow his communicating mirror and take it to the Grangers. Explain to them how to answer the mirror and that we will be calling them soon. If Sirius asks, tell him I will explain everything later." Dobby nodded and also popped off.

Harry sighed and looked at the unconscious girl he was holding. It took some magic to make it work, but soon Harry was standing with Hermione held carefully in his arms. He quickly headed for the stairs, thankful that it was a short trip across the seventh floor to the Room. The door appeared in the wall across from the dancing trolls before Harry even got there. He silently thanked Hogwarts for her help as the doors swung open at his approach. The Room looked different than it usually did when Harry called it. Specifically it had a bed instead of a training area.

Harry walked over to the bed and gently lowered Hermione onto it. Straightening up he heard a pop behind him and turned around to see that Winky had popped in with the mirror he had asked for.

"Thank you, Winky." Harry said. The elf just curtsied and popped out again. Harry was left alone to wait for Hermione to wake up. He knew he could use an Ennervating Charm, but didn't. He thought that Hermione's mind and body had shut down to process the chance that her parents were still alive and that cutting that short would not be good for her. So he waited patiently. After only a few minutes Dobby popped in to report that the Grangers had received the mirror and were waiting for the call.

For lack of anything better to do Harry took out his homework and started in on that. He hadn't gotten particularly far when he heard a soft groan coming from the bed. He quickly stood up and hurried over. Hermione was indeed waking up and judging by her expression very confused as to where she was.

"Harry?" she asked looking at him as if he might disappear at any moment.

"I'm here, Mi." He answered as he sat on the bed and placed a hand on her knee. Hermione's own hand darted out and grabbed him.

"I think I just had a terrible nightmare. Did I fall asleep doing homework or something?" she asked him. Her tone told Harry that she didn't think this was particularly likely.

"No, Mi." He answered her, trying to be as gentle as he could. "I found you out on the Astronomy Tower after you didn't come to class." He could see that Hermione was starting to pale as she remembered why she was out there in the first place.

"My parents?" she asked sounding terrified of the answer.

"Dobby and Winky managed to get them out in time. I was just waiting for you to wake up so we can call them." Hermione looked at him like he was daft. "Dobby brought them Padfoot's mirror so you should be able to check for yourself that they're okay." Hermione's expression cleared up enormously when she heard that. She shifted over on the bed to give Harry enough room to sit down next to her. Harry held the mirror up to eye-level and said "Sirius Black".

The mirror turned cloudy for a moment before it resolved into the worried faces of a pair of Crawley dentists. Harry could feel Hermione sag against him in relief at this tangible evidence that her parents were unharmed.

"Mum! Dad! You're alive!" Hermione gasped and snatched the mirror out of Harry's hand, looking like she was going to try and climb through it to be with her parents. Harry gave her a quick hug and climbed out of the bed. He put up a Silencing Charm to allow the family some privacy while they reunited.

"Of course we are, baby." Her mother answered Hermione's exclamation. "Those strange little people got us out as well as all of our photos and heirlooms, just like we discussed. Why would you think we weren't?"

"I was called into the headmaster's office at lunch and he told me that last night Death Eaters had overwhelmed the wards he had placed around the house. He said that he and the Order were too late to save anyone and that our house has been burned to the ground and that…that you were dead." Hermione paused for a moment to take in the familiar faces that she wasn't ready to take for granted again. Helen had one hand in front of her mouth as she realized what her daughter must have gone through over the past several hours. Richard had his arm around her and was comforting the only member of his family he could touch. He also took up the narrative.

"Several of those blokes suddenly appeared in the street and started firing spells at the house. Those two little elves were there in a flash telling us we needed to go right away. They took us to Harry's hideaway somehow. Did you know that he lives in a tent the size of a house, on the inside at least? Either way, however we travelled, it felt like being squeezed through a garden hose." He shuddered as he remembered the feeling. "The little chap and his missus had already stashed most of the library somewhere safe even if I don't know where. We had told them what things had sentimental value and they made sure to save those first. We knew the house was somehow destroyed when they stopped popping in with our things." Hermione's prodigious mind was working overtime to assimilate all this information.

"But how did the elves know you were in danger?" Hermione asked. It seemed unlikely to her that Dobby and Winky would have been sitting around her parents' house waiting for it to be attacked.

"They said they did something when they set up those protections." Helen answered. "I don't know exactly how they work but I do know I owe your boyfriend one hell of a thank-you. I was screaming when he collapsed but he may have had a reason to go that far after all."

"Wait. Harry collapsed? What happened?" Hermione was getting more confused by the minute. Her mother gave her an odd sort of look before she told the tale of how Harry had shown up in Crawley looking for Hermione and that he had fed the elves magic to allow them to weave a powerful set of wards. At the end of the story Hermione had taken her eyes off her parents and was looking over at Harry who seemed to be absorbed in an essay he was writing. She heard her mother say something and blushed when she had to ask her to repeat it.

"I said: why do you think Harry wouldn't tell you about what he did?" Helen said patiently. Hermione just snorted.

"It's too much like bragging for starters and he had other things on his mind at the time. You remember what I wrote about being drugged by that boy?" Hermione waited for recognition to dawn in her parents eyes. "One of the potions made me hate Harry and I was being an absolute bitch to him. I would never have given him a chance to talk about it. I imagine that it slipped his mind afterwards." It was momentarily quiet between the Grangers as they each thought about what had happened.

"I still don't understand why Harry felt the need to go that far." Hermione said after a while. "Was it before the headmaster placed his wards?" Her father shrugged at her.

"No idea, sweetheart. We never saw your headmaster place any spells around the house so we have no idea when he may have done it." Hermione felt an ice-cold feeling settling down in the bottom of her gut.

"He didn't. One of the first things you learn about wards is that you need the home-owner's permission if they are going to hold up for any amount of time. If you never saw the headmaster then he can't have placed any wards." Hermione's voice was shaking at the end of her declaration.

"Well, it's a good thing your boyfriend showed up when he did then, isn't it?" Helen tried to bring a positive note back into the conversation. Hermione gave a small smile in response.

"I told you it takes time to appreciate just how special he is, didn't I?" she retorted gently. Helen just bowed her head in acknowledgement. Conversation after that fell squarely into the category 'small talk'. Hermione especially was simply trying to stretch the conversation out so she could spend more time with her parents. In the end it was her stomach rumbling that made her mother demand that Hermione go eat something. Hermione reluctantly agreed and said a long good bye. When she ended the mirror call she leant back against the headboard and closed her eyes for a moment. It had been a long and emotional day and she needed to recover. When she opened her eyes again they fell on Harry, still engrossed in his work. She felt a fond smile tugging at her mouth as she got up and moved over to him.

Harry was surprised when he felt a soft touch at the base of his neck. Looking up he saw a smiling Hermione and felt better than he had for hours. As soon as he straightened up she wiggled her way into his lap and lowered her lips to his. She didn't let more than a few seconds pass before her tongue was demanding entrance to his mouth and her hands were running up and down his body, through his hair and under his shirt. When they came back up for air it took Harry a moment to find his bearings again. Once again a rumble from Hermione's stomach brought the couple's attention back to more mundane matters.

"Winky!" Harry called while Hermione was trying to will her blush away. "Could you bring us something to eat?" As usual, Winky curtsied and popped out. It only took a few moments for her to return with two plates of Shepherd's Pie and disappear again. Harry was surprised when Hermione pulled one of the plates towards herself without making any moves to get out of his lap. He used his wand to make his homework stack itself before he grabbed the other plate. If Hermione wanted to eat in his lap after the day she'd had, Harry was going to let her.

Once they had finished their meals, Hermione still wasn't showing any signs of moving out of Harry's lap. She was biting her lower lip in a way that Harry knew she was debating something with herself.

"Harry?" she asked in a timid voice.

"Yes, Mi?"

"Can we just stay here tonight?" She asked looking apprehensively at him. "I…I don't think I want to be alone tonight." Harry just gave her a hug.

"Of course we can." He said before he picked her up and moved over to the bed. There they settled down together and removed their robes. It was moments like this that they felt grateful that they were both muggle raised and still chose to wear their non-magical clothes under their school uniform. They curled up together in the bed and Harry could feel Hermione pressing herself close. All thoughts of sleep were banished when he felt her start kissing his neck. He couldn't stop a sharp intake of breath when she hit his pulse point.

"Mi?" he asked her, unsure if this was really what she needed. Hermione's mouth left his neck as she shifted up to straddle him. In the dark he could still see the sparkle of her brown eyes.

"Harry, you saved my family today. You were there for me when I thought I had lost them. You….you…" For once in her life Hermione couldn't find the words for what she wanted to say and simply leant forward to capture Harry's lips again. "Please, Harry?" Harry searched her eyes to be sure of what exactly she was asking. When he found it he slipped one hand behind her head and the other up her side and started returning his girlfriend's passion as lovingly as he could.

By the time they fell asleep they were a lot more familiar with each other's bodies and satisfied that there was more left to discover.

Chapter Text

When Harry and Hermione woke up it took them a moment to remember where they were. When they did they couldn't help but smile at each other. Rather than get up they laid down and spent some time holding each other. Hermione especially felt like a balloon of sunshine was inflating in her chest. After the day she had had yesterday how could she not?

"Hermione?" Harry asked softly. "I think we're going to have to do some acting." Hermione giggled in response.

"You mean we shouldn't tell Professor McGonagall that we spent the night sleeping together?" she asked as she imagined her Head of House's shock in response to that proclamation. Harry snorted.

"Well, that too. What I meant, though, was that maybe we shouldn't let on that your parents survived yesterday." Hermione was shocked and sat up to look at Harry. He looked dead serious. "I don't think it was a coincidence that the Death Eaters showed up at your parents' house and I think we may not want to advertise that they failed."

"But who would have told them where to find my parents? Surely anyone who would want to find them wouldn't have access to the necessary information?" That happy feeling was rapidly diminishing. Harry sat up too and drew Hermione back into his arms.

"That's what worries me. Snape has access to the Hogwarts records which would list your home address. I would imagine that there is a record in the ministry too. Someone could have broken in to read that record or there could be informants in the ministry. Either way, Riddle takes people surviving his madness as a personal insult and I would like to keep your parents as safe as possible." Harry was looking resigned to the fact that this plan would be painful for Hermione. He also looked like he fully believed it to be necessary. Hermione was trembling with fear as the reality of her parents' situation hit home. "We'll need to ask them whether they ever gave their work address to a magical person. If they did they should probably close their practice, at least temporarily. If not, well I doubt that the Death Eaters would ever really go looking for information in the non-magical world, even if they could figure out what a dentist is." Hermione could tell he was trying to soften the blow.

"Did Dobby return the mirror to Sirius yet?" she asked despondently. Harry nodded and got out of bed to get a piece of parchment and a quill. When he returned he sat behind Hermione and pulled her into his chest.

"Let's start by just asking them about how much the magical world as a whole knows." He said when he saw Hermione just staring at the blank parchment. "You can always 'find out' that they're alive at a later date if you think it's safe." Hermione sighed and started writing a letter to her parents. By the time she was finished she had at least found her calm again. She folded the letter and sealed it with a spell. Harry called Dobby and gave him the letter with instructions to take it to the Grangers. He also told his elf that if the Grangers wanted to return to work they should make sure that nobody in the magical world knew where it was.

With the letter sent and sunlight streaming in through the windows, the two teens decided they had better get out of bed. After straightening their clothes and flinging on their robes the two headed across the seventh floor to the other side of the castle and Gryffindor tower. As they climbed in through the portrait hole they received a nasty surprise. Professor McGonagall was seated in one of the armchairs looking as disappointed as either teen had ever seen her.

"Mr. Potter, Ms. Granger, we need to talk. Do you need to change?" her tone was detached and professional. Harry and Hermione shared a look.

"If this conversation is going to take long I think we might, Professor." Harry said as calmly as he could. Professor McGonagall nodded and stood up.

"Be in my office in no more than half an hour then." she said before striding from the common room. Hermione was looking horrified at their treatment at the hands of her favourite professor. Harry was taking it a little more stoically but he too wondered what was so urgent that it had caused Professor McGonagall to be sitting here this morning. He shook himself; they would find out when they met with their Head of House and until then getting to that meeting on time was the priority. He gave Hermione a small nudge and her head snapped up to look at him before she nodded. They made their way up to their respective dorms for a quick shower and a change of clothes. The couple met up in the common room a mere fifteen minutes later and together they left for Professor McGonagall's office.

When they got there Hermione knocked on the door and they were called in quickly. Inside they found out that Professor McGonagall's stern expression hadn't softened one bit. At her direction the two students took seats in the chairs in front of her desk. She surveyed them for a moment before she began.

"I think you are both intelligent enough to know why you are in here. What I want to know before I give you your punishment is whether I need to call Madam Pomfrey down here or whether you took the necessary precautions?" Harry looked to the side to see that Hermione looked as gobsmacked as he felt.

"Umm, Professor, Harry and I, we aren't…we haven't…gone that far yet." Hermione managed to get out, embarrassment glowing clearly on her face. Harry nodded in agreement; his own face felt rather warmer than usual too. Professor McGonagall just raised one disbelieving eyebrow.

"When I received a report this morning that you hadn't slept in your own beds last night I didn't believe it. Then I checked and found the report to be accurate. Now I would appreciate it if you would be honest with me." she said in a disappointed tone of voice.

"We aren't denying that we spent the night somewhere else, Professor." Harry said his voice harder than he had intended. "We're just telling you that we haven't done anything that could possibly warrant precautions or a visit to a Healer."

"And what, pray tell, were you doing that rendered your own beds unsuitable for sleeping?" Professor McGonagall asked sharply. This time Harry's voice was exactly as hard as he intended it to be.

"You were in the headmaster's office at lunch yesterday, Professor. You know what happened. We simply fell asleep while I was trying to comfort my girlfriend after…well, after." Hermione looked miserable at the reference to yesterday and the events that had preceded Harry finding her. Professor McGonagall looked uncomfortable with the direction this discussion was taking.

"Would you be willing to prove that, Mr. Potter?" she asked, deliberately stressing the fact that he would be doing the proving.

"I am not sure what you would accept as proof, ma'am, but I am willing." Harry told her without softening his tone. McGonagall seemed slightly more comfortable with this confrontation if she focused on him.

"I will cast a spell on you that will let me know if you've been…sexually active." What little comfort she had felt had clearly left her by the end of the sentence. Harry just gave a curt nod. Professor McGonagall drew her wand and waved it at Harry while incanting "Coitus Revelio". As soon as the spell hit Harry he started glowing with a soft white light. Not being familiar with this spell but knowing what the results should be Harry just cocked a sardonic eyebrow at his Head of House who was now looking massively embarrassed.

"It would appear that I was mistaken in my assumptions. I apologize to you both." She managed barely meeting her students' eyes. "I still have to punish you for breaking curfew, but I am more relieved than I can say that I will not have to do the same for…other matters." Harry's face could have been hewn from granite as he watched his teacher struggle. It occurred to him that had he been dragged in here with anyone else he might have been able to laugh it off, but McGonagall hadn't believed Hermione, had embarrassed Hermione. He thought that the professor's current discomfort was the least she deserved for that.

"Ten points each from Gryffindor and detention tonight after dinner with Mr. Filch." McGonagall concluded her tone clearly indicating that the meeting had come to an end and that she hoped her students would leave so she could gather herself. Harry gave another curt nod and stood. He offered Hermione his hand and helped her up before leaving the office without another word. The two were silent for several corridors until Hermione spoke up.

"I hope we never have to go through that again." She seemed to have regained her composure. "I can't help but wonder who reported the both of us as missing though." she added thoughtfully. Harry just shrugged in response. As they entered the Great Hall he had a feeling that he knew though. Weasley and Brown broke out into smug smiles the moment they saw them and Harry didn't think he had given either of them a reason to look like that recently. A nudge was enough to draw Hermione's attention to what he had seen. Harry could see her eyes narrow at that. They sat down at a space that was far enough from the prefects that they could talk privately.

"Well, at least they've finally done a part of their job as prefects, no matter how annoying it is for us personally. We should in all honestly probably encourage that kind of responsibility in those two." Hermione said with a sigh.

"Does that mean we aren't going to find a way to place them in a highly embarrassing situation if the chance arises?" Harry asked his girlfriend. Hermione considered him for a moment.

"I didn't exactly say that." she replied after a while.

As Harry and Hermione were walking to class after breakfast they heard a popping noise. A moment later Dobby was waving at them from behind a statue. The two teens walked over after checking that there was nobody who would notice their behaviour. Dobby had brought them a letter from the Grangers. In it they said that they were willing to play dead to the magical world. They agreed that if Harry was more or less the recognized expert on these matters it would be foolish to ignore his advice. It wouldn't really affect their lives as they had barely any contact with the world their daughter inhabited in the first place. They had never talked about where their practice was. The only time their occupations even came up was when they were talking with Mr. Weasley before second year and he had been so distracted by concepts like plugs and rubber ducks that the details of what they did never came up. The letter went on to tell Hermione that they had already made contact with the police and their insurance company. A new house would be built on the location of their old one and the police were already looking for a band of homegrown terrorists. After that the letter descended into small talk about the response of the community. It made Hermione feel better to know that her parents were getting their life back on track and that they weren't upset with her for suggesting that they fake their deaths towards the magical community. She still wasn't looking forward to her part in this deception and acting like she had lost her parents though.

:-:-:-:-:

November brought with it cold, wet weather and the traditional opening of the Quidditch season at Hogwarts: Slytherin versus Gryffindor. Angelina had been drilling the team as ruthlessly as Wood ever had and Harry thought they stood a better chance than even the last time. He also hoped that without the feud that existed between Weasley and Malfoy, which could be described as being even more vicious than the one between Harry and Malfoy, playing a part in the game there wouldn't be a ridiculous song to compete with this time. The run-up to the game had looked like it would be as vicious as it had been the last time. Right up until the seventh year players ended up moving around the castle as a unit and taking care of Katie as well. Harry had Hermione and Luna with him at all times and helped Derek get around to his classes unmolested. Even most of the Slytherins agreed that pissing off the Weasley twins was a bad idea and pissing off Harry Potter might be downright suicidal.

The team's arrangement might keep skirmishes involving them to minimum but the rest of the students in either House were only a step from outright war. Harry was almost relieved when the weekend of the match came around. He had trouble not laughing out loud when Professor McGonagall refused to assign her fifth years homework for the weekend. Everyone else had been confused until she looked straight at Harry.

"I expect you to make the extra time count, Potter. You will show Slytherin that you are perfectly capable of out-flying Viktor Krum." Her eyes were burning with passion as she said this and the rest of the class roared their approval. Even Weasley would apparently rather see Slytherin laid low than Potter.

The day of the match, the weather looked like it would cooperate. The sky might be grey and threatening but the rain refused to fall just yet. The Gryffindor team met in the common room and headed down to breakfast together accompanied by a small army of friends and well-wishers. The result was that half the House entered the Great Hall together. During breakfast Harry focused on getting Derek to eat something. The youngest member of the team was nervous and having the same trouble eating that Harry remembered from his own first game. Eventually Derek managed a few bites of toast and a cup of tea before Angelina called the team to the dressing room.

They got up to loud applause and cheering which only increased in volume when Hermione gave Harry a good luck kiss that might not have been entirely appropriate in front of the younger students. Luna had once again made her lion's head hat and it roared loudly amid the cheers. As the team trouped out towards the Quidditch pitch Harry felt as relaxed as he could ever remember feeling before a match. After the team had changed into their scarlet Quidditch robes Angelina gave her pep-talk.

"Listen up! We all know we're the better team out there today. We also know that the Slytherins are going to pull every dirty trick in the book. Fred, George, be careful today. Derrick and Bole managed to graduate somehow and have been replaced with two blokes I know nothing about: Crabbe and Goyle." She was looking a little anxious at the fact that she had no information on the new beaters.

"They're Malfoy's pet gorillas, Angie. I'd expect them to be brutal and vicious rather than in any way skilled." Harry told his captain. She gave him a relieved nod.

"I didn't really expect anything else from the snakes, but it's good to know for sure." she said. "Harry, I think you know better than I do how to tie that little albino twit into knots. Derek, just stay calm and focused. Their Chaser line is indistinguishable from their Beaters; all about brute force and intimidation. Alicia, Katie, I want to see Bletchley cry today. Let's go!" The team gave a loud cheer and followed Angelina through the tunnel to the pitch. When they got there they lined up and Harry found himself standing next to Derek who was still looking a little wide-eyed.

"Don't worry, Derek. Once you get out there it's still just playing Quidditch and it's still fun." he told the younger boy with a grin. Derek gave a jerky nod, but his eyes never left the mouth of the tunnel. When they could hear Lee's voice finish his introduction of the Slytherin team Angelina mounted her broom and shot out of the tunnel and onto the pitch followed by the rest of the team.

"And here come their opponents today: the Gryffindor Lions. Led by Captain, Chaser and all around hottie Angelina Johnson."

"Jordan!" Harry couldn't help the smile that burst onto his face at hearing McGonagall berating Lee as he commentated in his usual style.

"Sorry, Professor. Johnson is joined up front by Alicia Spinnet and Katie Bell. A first start today for Keeper Derek Nordstrom. If he's been practicing against this Chaser line I have no doubt he will be giving us quite a show today. Wielding the bats will be Gryffindor's human Bludgers: Fred and George Weasley. Finally the man who will end today's game in Gryffindor's favour: the Knight of the Light, the Pride of the Lions, the Youngest Quidditch Player in a Century: Harry! James! POTTER!" Harry winced at the introduction he got and wasn't mollified by half the crowd joining in on his surname. He had forgotten about that particular stunt the twins had pulled the year before and would have hoped they and Lee had as well. Looking around the stadium he could pick out a dozen flags that were also familiar from last year; black dragons impaled on red swords were waving around the Gryffindor section of the stands. Harry was starting to think it might be better to just give up on people ever forgetting his second fourth year. Thankfully Hooch was already calling the captains to the centre of the pitch. After the completely ineffective pre-game ritual of asking the captains for a clean game after having them shake hands the game was on.

Harry settled into a focused searching pattern. Matches against Slytherin were best kept short and that meant finding the Snitch early. After a few minutes of searching he was forced to conclude that the little bugger had decided to hide somewhere and wasn't up for a chase yet. He returned his attention to Lee's commentary, hoping for an update on the score.

"…and Warrington scores to make it thirty-ten to Slytherin. The Quaffle is with Spinnet…she's rocketing down the pitch…passes to Bell…ouch that has to hurt, Bell is hit in the hand with a Bludger. Pucey takes possession." Harry had heard enough to know his team was getting the short end of a very hard stick. Peeling away from his search pattern Harry dove down towards the Slytherin Chasers. As he was closing in on an oblivious Pucey, Harry heard a grunt and the familiar sound of a bat hitting a Bludger behind him. He threw himself into a barrel-roll to avoid getting hit and saw with satisfaction that the Bludger hit Pucey between the shoulder blades smacking his face into his broom and forcing him to drop the Quaffle. Angelina picked it up and passed it to Alicia who put it through Bletchley's left hoop while Montague and Malfoy were busy screaming at Goyle who had apparently been the one to hit the Bludger.

"Gryffindor score! Thirty-twenty after some outstanding disruptive play from the Gryffindor Seeker. Keep that up, Harry!"

"Jordan!" Harry shook his head and shot up again to continue looking for the Snitch. Malfoy followed him and began marking him much closer in an effort to prevent Harry from tearing the Chaser plays apart again. That was fine by Harry. He waited until each team had scored again and he was facing Malfoy to do a double-take and dive down underneath his rival and towards the opposite stands. Harry heard Malfoy curse as he wrenched his broom around and took off after the Gryffindor Seeker. Harry started a gentle spiral to flare out his robes so that Malfoy couldn't see past him and would have to assume that Harry was following the snitch. Harry waited until the very last second to veer away from the stands. Malfoy, who had been focused on catching up to Harry, didn't have time to react and ploughed into the stands; hard.

"Potter ploughs Malfoy! If you want to beat Harry Potter on a broom I suggest you bring along several dragons, folks, and even that might not be enough. Seven snakes certainly isn't."

"Jordan!"

"What?! It's true, Professor!" Lee was protesting his case. "Fine, fine, sorry. Potter continues to casually take apart the Slytherin team. Madam Hooch stops the match and Madam Pomfrey is heading over to take a look at Malfoy who's really had a number done on him."

Harry smirked as he thought that Lee had a point. Malfoy was hanging in the supports of the stands in a rather awkward spread eagle position, looking more than a little dazed and most of the bristles in his Nimbus 2001's tail were twisted to one side. It was unlikely that he would be much of a threat even if Pomfrey let him get back in the air. Harry was scanning the pitch in an effort to find the Snitch so he could get after it the moment the whistle blew again. As he was doing this he heard twin cackles approaching behind him.

"Did the ickle ferret annoy the mighty Champion?" Fred asked as the twins came level with Harry.

"Do you think you can leave some of them for us? I swear Pucey hasn't managed to catch the Quaffle since you pulled that earlier stunt and Malfoy doesn't look like he'll be able to fly straight for a week." George mock scolded his younger teammate.

"Looks like he'll be giving it a go anyway." Harry responded as he watched Malfoy unsteadily climb on his broom and wave Madam Pomfrey off. "Best get in position, lads. Time this right and you might be able to knock one of his trained monkeys off their brooms." The twins looked at each other before saluting Harry with their bats. Harry never noticed as he had caught sight of a glint of gold and tensed on his broom, carefully following it's erratic flight with his eyes. Once Malfoy had wobbled his way back up Madam Hooch blew her whistle. Harry plummeted from the sky like a peregrine falcon.

"Play has barely resumed and Potter's off again. I wonder who he's after this time?" Lee called out gleefully. "Ouch! Excellent Bludger work from the Weasley twins. Crabbe manages to knock away the first one but took the second straight to the face." Harry didn't notice that the twins had taken his advice literally as he closed in on the fluttering golden ball. "Great Merlin! Potter's not hunting serpents, he's seen the Snitch! Go, Harry!" The entire stadium held its breath as they watched Harry Potter sharpen his dive in response to a change of direction from the now desperately fleeing snitch. Malfoy was too far away and too unsteady to pose a challenge so the only way Gryffindor were losing this game was if Harry fell off his broom.

"Potter dodges a Bludger…dodges Warrington and Montague…HE'S GOT IT! Harry Potter does what we have come to expect and catches the Snitch. Gryffindor win 190 to 40!" Harry was flying across the pitch at an altitude of a foot and a half with his hand in the air, the Snitch's silver wings beating weakly against his fist. The Gryffindor section of the stands were screaming their heads off at the commanding victory over their arch-rivals. Two-thirds of the rest of the school were politely cheering the win while the green and silver section of the stands looked utterly disgusted. It didn't take long for the rest of the Gryffindor team to find their seeker and grab him in a mid-air hug. Even the usually stoic Derek was cheering and hugging with the rest. As they made their down to the pitch they could see their housemates streaming out of the stands.

On the ground everyone wanted to pound Harry on the back. He dodged several overly amorous witches and finally came face to face with the one witch he actually wanted to be amorous with. He picked Hermione up and spun her around causing a loud squeal of laughter. When he stopped spinning she leant down for a victory kiss that was every bit as steamy as their good luck kiss had been. The other Gryffindors weren't content to let the couple celebrate in peace though and started dragging them to the castle. Harry managed to get a quick hug and congratulations from Luna and told her they would see her at breakfast the next morning before eager hands dragged him off to the common room for the first Quidditch party of the year.

:-:-:-:-:

It was several weeks after Gryffindor defeated Slytherin that Minerva McGonagall was teaching a Gryffindor/Ravenclaw second year class. She was happy that despite Ravenclaw also winning their match against Hufflepuff last week there were no signs of conflict in this class. Conflict was the last thing she needed as she had arrived at a landmark lesson in any student's development: beetles to buttons. It was her second years' first foray into the world of animate to inanimate transfiguration. As she usually did, Minerva walked around to observe and assist. The two girls she was observing completed the transformation well enough. In fact one of the few who might have outperformed them in recent years was Ms. Granger. Minerva gave the girls a well-deserved compliment and moved on to the next pair.

As she watched the two boys make much of clearing their throats in an opportunity to postpone her evaluation, Minerva allowed her mind to wander back to the Quidditch match her lions had played three weeks ago. She had thoroughly enjoyed watching Potter play. By now she had lost track of how often she had patted herself on the back for demanding that exception to the No-Broomstick-Rule for first years from Albus. Even better was the look on Severus' face whenever Potter played a particularly significant part in Slytherin's defeat. It was also one of the reasons she was so happy that she didn't have to break up any arguments among this group as in her mind there was no chance that any of the other Houses would win the Quidditch Cup this year and she wasn't sure she could keep from saying so. Finally getting tired of the prevaricating going on in front of her she barked at the two boys to get a move on. They both failed miserably and received extra homework. Giving them a stern look she moved on to the two Ravenclaws in front of them. It surprised her when her ears, honed by years of catching rule-breakers in her classroom, picked up the conversation behind her.

"It's not fair we got extra homework. This is ruddy hard and I've got no idea what I'm doing wrong." she heard one voice say.

"Shh." hissed the other. "Keep your voice down or McGonagall will hear you. We just have to wait until we can go to the common room after dinner tonight and we can ask the professor for help." Minerva had been about to let the two chatterboxes know she could hear every word when the last sentence stopped her. There were several red flags there. Either one of the professors had taken to hanging around her common room, which was unlikely, or one of her students was making unreasonable demands of his or her peers. Secondly there was the clear indication that whoever this person was, the students had far more faith in them than in their Head of House. That meant that she was clearly doing something wrong and it also meant that these students were unlikely to respond well to a direct question. Still, she had been a teacher for nearly forty years and this wouldn't be the first time she had discovered answers to questions students were unwilling to answer.

At the end of the day Minerva dismissed her class and headed into her office to get some work done. It was unlikely after all that she would have time tonight. Minerva attended dinner and kept a close eye on her second years. She could easily tell when they were almost done with their dinner and excused herself from the Head Table. She headed out of the Hall and slipped into a niche behind a suit of armour. She Disillusioned herself and shifted into her animagus form. This should allow her to observe her lions without them noticing her.

Minerva waited patiently for her second years to emerge and when they did the camouflaged cat raced along behind them. She quickly noticed that there were some Ravenclaws mixed in and the group seemed to be arguing. Could it be that she had completely missed the signs earlier today? As she got closer she realized to her surprise that they weren't arguing about Quidditch at all.

"It's just wrong, is what I'm saying." One of the Ravenclaw boys was arguing. "The smartest witch in the school and the only student professor should be Ravenclaws, not unthinking Gryffindors." If Minerva had been visible the students would have been treated to the unnatural sight of a cat rolling its eyes. Apparently Filius wasn't the only one who couldn't stop complaining about that. Before this year he had only complained about Ms. Granger not being sorted into his House but with Mr. Potter taking over the Defence course he was now being included in the Head of Ravenclaw's mostly good-natured grumbling. Now that I think about it, I think another visit with Albus to see if he has found an actual teacher yet is in order. This conversation was shedding some light on the conversation Minerva had overheard in her class and at the same time making it more confusing. She had certainly considered that Mr. Potter might be 'the professor', but she couldn't imagine him wanting to be called anything but 'Harry' if her past experiences with him were anything to go by. She refocused on the argument in front of her in an effort to glean more information that she must obviously be missing.

"And my point is that if they're that intelligent and still in Gryffindor, you can only imagine how brave they are." one of her Gryffindors was arguing. Minerva shook her invisible head. She had never made any headway with Filius with that argument either. Sure enough:

"There isn't enough bravery in the world to offset that kind of intelligence not being in our House." another Ravenclaw threw out.

"Two words: Hungarian Horntail." one of her cubs bit back. It was a long walk up to the fifth floor where the Ravenclaws turned towards the entrance to their tower. Minerva followed her students up to the portrait of the Fat Lady. She had been musing about their argument the whole way. It seemed clearer and clearer that Potter was the 'student professor' but she was still confused as to why the usually self-effacing boy would demand the use of a title from his peers. Now she would get to see what was going on. She had to dart in quickly after the last student to avoid giving her presence away. As soon as she was inside the common room she darted off to the side and up several pieces of furniture until she was neatly perched on top of a bookcase. Looking around it seemed nobody had noticed an invisible feline jumping around. No one except for that overly intelligent ball of ginger fluff that was currently staring right at her while being petted by some first years. Crookshanks shot the invisible professor an amused look before closing his eyes and relaxing under the talented fingers of his minion's minions. It would seem he was prepared to let Minerva get on with whatever it was she was doing without ratting her out. Good thing too. This is getting to be more exhausting than it used to be, even as a cat. Luckily the weekend starts tomorrow.

After quickly scanning the common room Minerva confirmed what she had already come to suspect: that there were no other professors present, which meant that she was going to have to talk to one of her lions about abusing their seniority. She focused on the second years who seemed to have developed an acute case of shyness. Eventually one of them was pushed forward by the rest. She followed the younger Mr. Creevey's progress until he stopped in front of Mr. Potter who was reading a book. Creevey cleared his throat and Potter looked up.

"Dennis? Is there something you need?" he asked his underclassman.

"Yes, Professor. I think we all need some help with our Transfiguration homework." Minerva's surprise at the idea that Potter of all people would ask someone to give him a title was nullified as she watched his face twist into a pained expression.

"You do realize that you don't have to refer to me like that, don't you?" Potter asked. "I have a name and I don't actually work for the school." Creevey got a slightly stubborn look to his face.

"You're still our teacher. Shouldn't we address you with respect?" Minerva could see that Potter was struggling to find a way to answer that question that wouldn't lead to a rash of disrespectful incidents for her and her colleagues. The snickering coming from Ms. Granger who seemed to be tutoring two sixth years in Arithmancy told her that this was a challenge he had faced before and not yet overcome.

"Fine. What did you need help with and should we call your classmates before we get started?" Potter relented. The other second years had clearly been listening in and were soon arranged in front of Potter.

"We were learning about turning beetles into buttons, but we're all sure we're doing something wrong, Professor." Potter nodded and seemed to be ordering his thoughts before he launched into an explanation that was a bit less academic than her own had been, but still essentially correct. She could see the younger students listening with rapt attention and even taking notes.

When he had finished his explanation Potter walked over to a window and threw it open before casting a Summoning Charm. Soon he had ten beetles on one of the study desks and the second years arranged themselves around the table and started practicing. She noticed that Potter gently corrected those who were having trouble. When he got to the two girls that had impressed their Transfiguration Professor he observed their attempts carefully.

"It looks exactly the way it should, you two. If you want, you can practice by creating different styles of button to work on your finesse but there is no way Professor McGonagall would disapprove of these." Minerva was nodding along to Potter's words but the girls faces paled.

"No! Something has to be wrong with them. Professor McGonagall said that if we kept going like this she would make us...prefects." Minerva was only able to hear the last word due to her superior hearing as a feline. It was still enough to nearly drop her from her perch. What on earth was going on here to make these students think being a prefect was a punishment? Thankfully Potter looked as surprised as she felt.

"You know, Sakura, if Professor McGonagall said that she probably meant it as a compliment." Ms. Akagi's look of deep scepticism felt very wrong to the experienced professor. "Well, take it from me then. Both you and Natalie are doing very well with this spell." Both girls brightened and looked very proud. Potter gave them both an approving smile and moved on. After only half an hour of tuition every member of the impromptu class had mastered the spell. Minerva was very impressed and already preparing her careers advice session with Potter. Hogwarts could desperately use this kind of educational talent.

Potter dismissed the second years and encouraged them to get started on their homework. Minerva was again surprised when every last one of them followed that instruction without complaint. Meanwhile, Potter Banished the beetles back in the direction of the Forbidden Forest and sat down with his book again. Ms. Granger's tutoring session had apparently ended as well since she joined Potter on the couch. The two shared a chaste kiss before settling down to read while leaning on each other.

Minerva spent some more time casually observing her lions in their natural environment as it were. Most of what she saw pleased her immensely and she felt herself calm down as she observed the greatest sight any educator can hope to see. The peace was quite abruptly disturbed by shouting near the staircases. Minerva's head shot up and she immediately identified the source of the conflict. Mr.'s Colback and Wells from fourth year were arguing loudly. It looked like punches would be thrown and Minerva was about to intervene and stealth be damned when someone else beat her to it.

"Alright, that's enough! What on earth are you two fighting about?" Potter was standing there and while he was only a few inches taller than the fourth years it felt like he towered over them even from the top of a bookcase on the other side of the room. Granger, standing at his shoulder, had a look of disapproval on her face that must be doing just as much to cow the two troublemakers. The fight had stopped before it could properly begin and both boys were now looking at their feet. "Robert, you first."

"Andy stole my Gobshites set, Professor Potter." A small part of Minerva was starting to enjoy that moment of aggravation on Potter's face whenever someone addressed him with that title.

"I did not!" Mr. Wells was quick to rebut. Potter gave them both a critical look.

"Robert, are you sure that your Gobshites were stolen? And that it was Andy who did it?" Potter's voice suggested that Mr. Colback had better be sure.

"He was the last one in the dorm this morning when they were lying on my trunk lid. Now they're gone and nobody's been up there since." came Colback's answer. Potter's look didn't waver.

"Have you tried a Summoning Charm?" He asked. At Colback's shake of the head Potter continued "Let's go up and do that now then. That way we can be sure of where they are." With that Potter guided Colback up the stairs. They came back down a few minutes later, Colback looking thoroughly embarrassed. He walked straight up to Wells.

"I'm sorry I accused you like that, Andy. When we summoned them it turned out they had rolled under my bed." Mr. Wells looked like he was about to say something when a glare from Ms. Granger made him stop.

"It's okay, Robert. I'd be upset if I lost my Gobshites too." The two boys then sat down to repair their friendship over that ridiculous game. Minerva was impressed with the way the two fifth years had handled it. She was even more surprised when she saw Mr. Weasley and Ms. Brown get up after all the excitement had died down.

"You ready for our patrol, babe?" Weasley asked. Ms. Brown tittered and nodded and the two left through the portrait hole. Minerva could have sworn that there hadn't been any Gryffindors scheduled to patrol tonight. Still, she knew that prefects traded patrols fairly frequently and paid it no further mind. She continued to relax and observe. After another hour she stretched herself to get rid of some stiffness that was developing from sitting in one place for so long. As she did she noticed the clock on the wall indicating that it was half past nine. Looking around the common room she still saw several first and second years sitting around. They were supposed to be in bed by now. What were the prefects doing?

She must have made some noise because Granger's head shot up with a suspicious look on her face as she started looking around. Minerva could tell that Ms. Granger also noticed the time and settled back down to see what, if anything, she would do about it.

Ms. Granger gave Potter a quick nudge and pointed the clock out to him with a hushed whisper. Potter nodded and put his book away as Ms. Granger stood.

"First and second years, it's time you went up to bed. Staying up late on a Friday night is one thing but you have classes tomorrow." There was some grumbling but all the first and second years started gathering their things.

"Chop-chop, kiddies." Minerva's head whipped around at the new voice.

"Yes, wouldn't want to make Mum and Dad angry by staying up too late." The Weasley twins, I might have known. Ms. Granger turned to face them with her hands on her hips and a mocking expression on her face.

"I was actually going to tell them that if they don't get to bed on time they will turn out like Uncle Fred and Uncle George and nobody would want that." she told them firmly.

"Oi!"

"Why not?!" This late night comedy act ensured that everyone went to bed with smiles on their faces. Potter and Granger waited until every first and second year had at least gone up the stairs before finding their couch again.

Minerva's heart was breaking at the fact that these two were doing everything and more she could ask of a prefect while those who had the badges sat back and waited for them to solve everything. She jumped to a neighbouring bookcase to get closer to her two favourite students. She could see they hadn't picked up their books again and were simply holding each other and looking very content doing so. They sat there for a few minutes before Ms. Granger broke the silence.

"So how many patrols does that make this week?" she asked, momentarily confusing her eavesdropping professor.

"I've stopped counting. It's just not worth the bother. With the hols coming up I imagine they'll spend most of the weekend patrolling." Potter's response was sarcastic enough at the end that Minerva was developing a very clear suspicion of what was going on.

"Are you sure we shouldn't tell Professor McGonagall?" Ms. Granger asked. Potter blew out a frustrated sigh.

"We don't have any evidence, Mi. After they accused us of more or less the same thing it would just be seen as retaliation." Potter sounded frustrated and Minerva couldn't blame him. It is just typical of that boy to know almost as much about what happens in the castle as Albus does. I doubt Weasley and Brown told them the reason I was waiting here for them after Halloween. Ms. Granger just sighed and cuddled into Mr. Potter.

Minerva laid down where she was. She might have to wait for the last students to go to bed if she wanted to leave undetected, but she certainly had learnt enough tonight to keep herself occupied until then.

Chapter Text

Minerva came down to breakfast with a determined stride and a plan. She ate quickly and enjoyed a cup of tea while she waited. When she saw at least two students from each of the first four years she moved down to the Gryffindor table. She asked the first years to meet her in the Transfiguration classroom after breakfast, the second years before lunch and the third years after. She asked the fourth years to meet her at the end of the afternoon. Her summons delivered Minerva headed to her classroom. Last night had given her a lot to ponder and in the end she decided that a single observation might not be an honest reflection of the situation in the Gryffindor common room. She would be talking with the younger Gryffindors today and, if it proved necessary the older ones tomorrow.

Ten minutes after breakfast officially ended the door was hesitantly opened and Euan Abercrombie stuck his head in. Seeing his professor sitting behind her desk he opened the door fully and walked in followed by his yearmates.

"Please be seated everyone." Minerva said. She noticed that everyone sat down where they would if it was a class. The students all looked extremely nervous at being called in on a weekend. "Let me begin by reassuring you all that you are not in trouble." Several shoulders slumped with relief. Time for the first test Minerva thought to herself bracingly.

"I would even go so far as to say that you are performing at an exceptional level compared to other years. I will have a hard time choosing the prefects in three and a half years' time." She felt a keen sense of disappointment at the horror spreading on the dozen young faces in front of her. One of the girls raised a shaking hand. "Miss Albrighton?"

"Um, Professor, can you tell us what we need to do so we don't become prefects?" the young girl asked getting several nods of agreement.

"Ms. Albrighton, the prefect position is an honour, bestowed on the best students in the year." The looks of horror turned decidedly sceptical. "Why would you not want to achieve that?"

"I don't want to have to steal from other people."

"I don't want everyone to hate me."

"Would I have to kiss the boys' prefect?"

"I don't want to be a bully." The litany of complaints grew and grew. Minerva had decided to let them get it out of their systems but was starting to wonder if she shouldn't step in to at least defend the position if not the people. Quite abruptly the tone of the whole discussion changed on its own.

"I never wanna be a prefect. When I'm a fifth year I'm gonna be like Professor Potter! I'll be able to teach anybody anything!"

"I wanna be like Hermione! She's even smarter than the professor."

"I'm gonna be like Harry and learn all about the castle so I can show the new kids around!" Minerva could only watch as the children got excited about their chosen role-models. The best I can say is that I wanted to choose the same role-models for them.

"Alright, everyone. Quiet down, please." It was more than a little gratifying that she could still quiet a classroom that quickly. "I think it's time that I clarified some things about the prefect position." Minerva spoke at length about the qualities they looked for in prefects and the duties that came with the position. She explained that many of the qualities they idolized in Potter and Granger were part of what made a good prefect and that those who neglected these qualities were simply bad prefects. This inevitably led to questions about why Hermione and Harry were not prefects if this was the case. Minerva tried to answer these questions as best she could without completely throwing Albus under the bus. It wouldn't do for the students to not respect their headmaster. On the other hand she always tried to encourage critical thinking. The many nods of agreement when she told the group that Ms. Granger had refused the position when she heard that Mr. Weasley was to be her counterpart surprised her. Time to find out just how much of a hash has been made of this.

Minerva spent the rest of the allotted time interviewing the first years on the performance of all six Gryffindor prefects. The conclusion seemed to be that their performance ranged from ineffective to outright abuse of power. Minerva thanked the first years for their help and told them not to mention this to any older students as she wanted to hear their untainted opinions when she spoke with them later. The class seemed to sense that there was more at play here than just conversation and they all agreed not to mention this discussion until after Minerva finished all her meetings.

The rest of the day progressed in a similar manner even if the older students were a little more decorous and mature than the first years in expressing their distaste for the current prefects. Each of the first four years had a similar opinion of the students assigned authority over them. The sixth and seventh year prefects were not forceful enough to keep troublemakers in line and at the head of that list of troublemakers were the two fifth year prefects. She also heard many voices telling her that the only reasons there was any order in the Gryffindor common room were Potter and Granger. In fact the only dissenting voice all day had been Ms. Weasley's and Minerva felt that the young lady might be biased in favour of at least her brother.

At the end of the day Minerva's Dicta-Quill had recorded enough evidence for her to dismiss Brown and Weasley but she needed to know she could then give the badges to her chosen candidates. Albus could still overrule her choices and after he had done so the first time Minerva was anything but sure that she could make him see reason. Perhaps something might come to her tonight. Potter had made a good point last night that she couldn't take his and Ms. Granger's word for it, no matter how much she might want to, that the two fifth year prefects were engaging in the kind of hypocritical behaviour utterly unbecoming of a prefect. She could however investigate.

So it was that a once again Disillusioned tabby cat was sitting in front of the portrait that guarded the entrance to Gryffindor tower, her invisible tail flicking back and forth as she waited for her prey. She had checked the patrol roster before coming up here and she knew that the Gryffindor fifth year prefects were not supposed to be patrolling until Monday night. She had also noticed that they had not swapped patrols with anyone the day before meaning that whatever they were doing during these patrols, they weren't supposed to be doing it.

Minerva was unsure whether to be pleased or disappointed when the Fat Lady swung open and a laughing Brown and Weasley emerged. This might mean that she could point out to Albus that his choices had been ill made in the extreme. On the other hand, she had no desire to prove that about any member of her House. She quietly padded behind the two unsuspecting teenagers and listened in on their conversation.

"Want another Chocolate Frog, Won-won?" Ms. Brown asked. When Mr. Weasley responded Minerva could hear the smile in his voice.

"Why not?" She watched as he stuffed the chocolate amphibian in his mouth in one go and seemed to barely chew before swallowing. "I tell you, babe, this prefect thing is one fine gig. Free candy, no curfew and the professors don't come after us for anything." He finished his comment with a leer at the girl walking next to him and a swat to her rear. Ms. Brown just giggled. Minerva felt the first stirrings of anger. Free candy? No curfew? How blatant had their abuse of their position become?

"I suppose you're referring to our little prank on the first years?" she asked coyly. Minerva had to suppress a snarl as she remembered the first years being locked in their dormitories in their first week at Hogwarts.

"Wench!" Weasley growled out before pushing her up against the wall as the two started slobbering all over each other. Minerva was growing more disgusted by the minute and when she saw Weasley's hand hiking Brown's robes up around her waist she was already transforming back.

"Wait, Won-won!" Minerva stopped before she undid her Disillusionment Charm; perhaps Ms. Brown was simply being overrun in her prefect duties by Mr. Weasley. This was still an investigation after all. "Wait 'til we get to our room. Then we can have some real fun." Minerva's huff of indignation might have given her away if it wasn't for Ms. Brown's high-pitched tittering. She hesitated for a moment before changing back into her feline form. So far this had been very informative and she still had the aforementioned room to find. She was sure she could prevent anything too disgraceful from happening. Still, the level of hypocrisy on display here tonight was fomenting a righteous anger in the Head Lioness' belly.

She once again silently stalked the two soon-to-be ex-prefects. She watched as they slipped through the door to an unused classroom on the sixth floor. Minerva transformed back into her human form and walked up to the door. When she tried the door handle it wouldn't budge. Minerva drew her wand and cast a diagnostic spell at the door. The readings made no sense to the elderly teacher. There was one spell on there that was probably supposed to be a Silencing Charm, but it didn't look like any variation Minerva had ever seen before. The other spell on the door was even more unrecognizable. Considering what she had seen before her students went inside the room and the difficulty she had had with the door Minerva would have expected a locking charm. Taking a chance Minerva started with as Disspelling Charm aimed at the door. Another Revealing Charm told the Transfiguration teacher that there was no more active magic present. This was underscored when Minerva heard a grunt and a moan coming from the other side. She took the final step forward and flung open the door to the empty classroom.

There on the floor were Ms. Brown and Mr. Weasley, both with their robes hiked up around their waists, lying on a pile of cushions straight out of one of Sheherazade's tales. Judging by the dribble of male bodily fluid running down Ms. Brown's thigh the two had already copulated. But how? I wasn't outside for more than five minutes at most. Minerva shook herself and aimed her most disapproving glare at the two students who had frozen at her entrance and were gaping at her in wide-eyed horror.

"Cover yourselves!" Minerva snapped. If Albus hadn't interfered this never would have happened she thought bitterly. The two students in front of her scrambled to get their robes in order. "My office. Now." Minerva was keeping her commands short for now. Time enough to truly express her disappointment in their conduct in the privacy of her office. The last thing she needed was for Severus to happen by while she was berating these two; she'd never hear the end of it. Minerva led the way to her office, trying to bleed off some of her anger by marching at a fast pace. When she got there she opened her door and looked behind her to see Weasley and Brown red-faced and puffing with exertion. "Inside!" she barked and watched as the two Gryffindors scrambled to obey. She followed them in and let her door slam shut with an ominous thud.

:-:-:-:-:

The next morning there was a series of frantic whispered conversations up and down the Gryffindor table at breakfast as the House tried to figure out what had caused them to lose 160 points overnight. There was also the very visible irritation on Albus Dumbledore's face that fuelled the rampant speculation. Some of the older students looked at Harry first. It was overnight and unexplained after all, but his honest confusion on the matter convinced his interrogators that he truly didn't know anything about the mysterious point loss. It also cemented Harry's determination that he would not shun the poor buggers who had caused this without first hearing their side of the story. He wasn't given a chance to contemplate the matter in any kind of depth though as Professor McGonagall swept down from the Head Table and addressed him and Hermione.

"Potter, Granger, I need to see you in my office as soon as possible." She sounded extremely tense which for her was tantamount to screaming in frustration. Harry quickly checked with Hermione who daintily wiped her lips and nodded.

"We're at your disposal, ma'am." Harry answered carefully. He only got a jerky nod in return before McGonagall swept from the Hall. Confused and a little worried the couple told Luna they would find her later and left the Hall in a hurry. They had managed to catch up to their Head of House just before they reached her office and were shown into the room with a curt gesture. Once there, they settled down in front of the desk while McGonagall took her place behind it. Both Harry and Hermione sat quietly, neither wanting to start any conversation that had their teacher this agitated.

"Mr. Potter, Ms. Granger, I have called you here to discuss a serious matter." As she spoke Professor McGonagall laced her fingers and rested her arms on the desk in front of her. "Last night I came across Mr. Weasley and Ms. Brown engaging in the very activity they had accused you two of. Suffice it to say they have been punished." McGonagall took a deep breath, "I would like to take this moment to apologize again for the way I treated you two in that instance. I acted on the assumption that your hormones had finally caught up with the two of you. Also, I was so relieved to finally see some concrete evidence that Mr. Weasley and Ms. Brown were taking their position seriously that I didn't listen to you as I perhaps should have. I recognize now that their report was likely not motivated by any sense of responsibility, but rather simple spite." Harry and Hermione shared a look that communicated that this conversation was not exactly headed in the direction they had expected. Hermione cocked her eyebrow at Harry and he understood that she wanted to forgive her favourite professor. Harry looked across the desk at his Head of House; she did look honestly contrite. Harry barely restrained a sigh and let his shoulders slump. He gave Hermione a nod.

"That's alright, Professor. We know you take your duty towards the students seriously." Hermione spoke up cautiously. Professor McGonagall gave a serious nod at her words.

"The reason that I was investigating Mr. Weasley and Ms. Brown last night was that I had been having conversations with the younger Gryffindors because of...well because of something else that had come to my attention. It became clear very quickly that none of the younger students, with the exception of Mr. Weasley's sister, had a good word to say about the prefects. It also became abundantly clear that they do respect the two of you. Which brings us to the crux of the matter." Professor McGonagall opened a drawer in her desk and took out a pair of silver badges which she placed in front of Harry and Hermione.

"Mr. Weasley and Ms. Brown have lost their positions due to their abuse of power and their duplicity. I want you two to take up the badges as I had originally intended. You may be assured that the headmaster will not be interfering this time." McGonagall's expression turned downright bloodthirsty as she made that comment. When Harry and Hermione hesitated, their Head of House jumped in to convince them. "You have both been doing the job already from what I've seen and heard. It's time you had the recognition that goes with it. All I ask is that you take one patrol a week and ride herd on the rest of the prefects in addition to what you have been doing." She looked at her two best chances for redeeming the prefect position in the eyes of the younger years and didn't dare interrupt the silent conversation they seemed to be having. Eventually Hermione turned to her professor.

"We'll accept, ma'am." Professor McGonagall heaved a sigh of relief at those simple words of acceptance. She watched with some pride as the two pinned their badges to their robes.

"Congratulations to the both of you. It is my personal opinion that this is long overdue and I feel like that opinion will be shared by most of the school." She gave her two new prefects a slight smirk. "I nearly had to give our Head Boy detention when he came to me to vent his opinion earlier this year." Both teenagers looked a little abashed at that and Minerva McGonagall felt as if the world had tilted onto its proper axis again. "Off you go then. I do believe there are some people who will be wanting to congratulate you on this news."

Harry and Hermione left McGonagall's office still a little bit shocked at the turn the conversation had taken. Their professor's demeanour when they entered had led them to believe they were in trouble. This was about as far from trouble as they could get. The couple headed up to the Room of Requirement where they were sure they would find Luna.

Their blond friend's enthusiastic congratulations were somewhat expected. The reception from certain students in the Great Hall when they went down for dinner was not. It started with a loud whoop from Cedric Diggory who rushed over to make sure that his eyes were not deceiving him and the badges on Harry and Hermione's chests were real.

"This is great! McGonagall finally came to her senses, did she?" He exclaimed happily. Hermione promptly jumped to her professor's defence.

"That's not fair, Cedric. It was Dumbledore, not Professor McGonagall who insisted Weasley be prefect." Cedric just waved this objection away with a large grin.

"I'll make sure you are added to the patrol schedule and I'll hand you that and our scheduled meeting times at breakfast tomorrow, okay?" Without waiting for a response he clapped Harry on the back and headed back to the Hufflepuff table with a definite spring in his step. On his way there he stopped off at the Ravenclaw table and was clearly seen high-fiving Roger Davies a moment later.

The Gryffindors were just as happy, even if it took some of the younger years some convincing that practically very little would change in how Harry and Hermione behaved. In the end their trust in the people won out over their misgivings over the position and they were happy for their friends.

:-:-:-:-:

In the two weeks before the holidays Harry and Hermione quickly got used to their new duties. McGonagall had been right that there was really very little difference compared to what they had been doing before. This was also a great reassurance to the younger years. Just about the only difference the rest of the school noticed was that any couples looking for some late night privacy were learning to avoid Harry and Hermione's patrol time like the plague. Harry was sure the Marauders would hate to hear that their map was now being used to locate troublemakers, but the quicker they found everybody, the more time he and Hermione had to spend together themselves. They made sure not to be as blatant as Weasley and Brown had been and that they had completed their duty first, but being out late at night with just the two of them walking through the seemingly empty castle meant that they did make a stop in the Room of Requirement after they had finished flushing out any other students. Harry and Hermione were aware that they were being a bit hypocritical themselves since they were engaging in the very activities they otherwise disrupted. Hermione reasoned that they were at least doing their jobs first and not sneaking out on other nights to do the same. Harry felt that it was simply a matter of unfortunate timing that the end of their patrols was pretty much the only time left that they could spend together in their busy weeks and refused to consider the matter in any more detail than that. He was fairly sure he would hate what he found if he did.

When Professor McGonagall came around to take the names of those staying she smiled at Harry's declaration that for once he would be heading home for the holidays. When she came to Hermione the professor hesitated, uncomfortable with asking a student who, to the best of her knowledge, had no where to go what her holiday plans were.

"I'll be staying with Harry and Sirius, Professor." Hermione answered the unasked question with a sad smile. "There are some things I need to take care of in the muggle world anyway." Professor McGonagall gave her student a bracing smile and a nod.

"I understand Ms. Granger. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to send an owl." she responded. As their Professor moved on to the next cluster of students Hermione's shoulder's slumped. She felt an arm coming around her and gave Harry a weak smile.

"I hate lying to her." Hermione said with an air of resignation. Harry just nodded in understanding. They had discussed it with the adults and agreed that even though Hermione and Harry trusted their professor it was better to not tell her that the Grangers would all be at Sirius' place for Christmas. As Sirius had put it: "Even if you trust her, the more people that know a secret, the more likely it becomes that that secret will be revealed." It still didn't sit well with the teens, though, even if they could admit that the logic made sense. Harry once again resolved to end Riddle as soon as possible.

That week Harry had his last tutoring session with Neville before the holidays. He took the opportunity to discuss Neville's wand with him. Neville didn't think that his Gran would buy him a new wand. Harry grinned and asked if the other boy wanted to borrow his invisibility cloak so he could sneak out. After a long discussion turned planning session the cloak was determined to be unnecessary and Neville was looking determined to sneak out and buy himself a new wand with his pocket money over the holidays.

The evening before the Express was scheduled to depart Harry and Hermione checked with the first and second years that they had packed everything they needed for the holidays before settling in by the fire to listen to the excited chatter of everyone eager to go home and the twins' idea of carolling which included new lyrics, off key renditions and, for some inexplicable reason, fireworks.

Many of the students they had helped stopped by to wish them a happy Christmas. Some even gave little gifts as tokens of appreciation. They were especially touched when the first years showed up and gave them each a bar of Honeydukes' chocolate which they had all pitched in for. All in all most of the students enjoyed the experience of spending time together and getting a head-start on the festivities of the coming weeks.

On the express the next morning, Harry and Hermione left their trunks in a compartment with Luna and, for the first time, headed to the prefects' compartment at the front of the train. It took up one side of a carriage and was filled with comfy armchairs which made Harry think of a more luxurious Knight Bus. As the couple found seats near the rest of the Gryffindors they were enthusiastically greeted by most of the prefects. The notable exception was Malfoy who merely sniffed disapprovingly while Parkinson simpered all over him. His eyes never left the newest additions to the compartment though.

"All right you lot, settle down and we can get all the official stuff out of the way." the Head Girl, Hazel Stickney called out. "As most of you will know the times in the middle of the trip are reserved for the fifth year prefects, sixth years take the last patrols and seventh years will start the early patrols. I have your exact times here. We had relatively few problems in September so let's make sure this ride goes just as smoothly." There were a few more announcements about things to look out for but soon the meeting ended and the prefects lined up to collect their patrol schedules. Harry and Hermione saw that they were indeed scheduled to patrol half way through the trip and wished the others a pleasant ride before they headed towards the compartment where Luna was waiting for them.

The ride back was once again comfortable as they had their compartment warded and their only break in their time together was when Harry and Hermione left to patrol the train. They didn't find anyone misbehaving but they did notice that Weasley and Brown had a compartment to themselves and were either glaring at everyone coming by or just the new prefects in particular. Malfoy gave a disapproving sniff loud enough to be heard through the door, which Hermione suggested might do permanent damage to his sinuses. Harry didn't think that the world was suddenly going to be that fair.

When they got back to their own compartment Luna had fallen asleep with a book open on her lap. Hermione carefully picked the book up and marked the page before placing it to one side. Harry meanwhile conjured a blanket and tucked the little Ravenclaw in. They put up a silencing charm around their friend and cuddled on the opposite seats, speaking in low voices despite the fact that they knew they wouldn't be overheard.

They didn't wake Luna until they saw the outskirts of London racing past their window. The Ravenclaw was a little put out that her friends had let her sleep and even more so to hear that the blanket she had been tucked in would eventually disappear. She wouldn't let Harry Vanish it and instead carefully folded it and packed it into her trunk.

"If it will disappear eventually that means I should use it as much as possible for the time being." was her only comment when Hermione asked her why she was keeping it. The three headed off the train and Harry and Hermione said their goodbyes to Luna before they joined the other prefects in trying to regulate the chaos that was the disembarking of the Hogwarts Express. It felt like it took hours especially when several of the younger years started dragging their parents over and introducing them.

"Harry, Hermione, just move off to the other side of the platform. I think that's the best way to get some breathing room over here." Cedric called over to them. Taking the Head Boy's advice the two moved off to complete all the introductions now waiting for them at a more practical distance from the train. They were told over and over again that it was a pleasure to meet the faces that went with the names in the letters. It was clear that none of the parents they were meeting with had read the Daily Prophet, or if they had, they had chosen to believe their children instead.

When the last parent had gratefully shaken their hands Harry and Hermione were faced with a grinning Sirius Black who had apparently joined the queue. He grabbed Hermione's hand and started pumping it enthusiastically.

"I just wanted to thank you for taking such good care of my little Harry. He still wets the bed sometimes when he gets nervous in a new environment and knowing you were there to change his nappies has made all the difference." Sirius was speaking in an overdone imitation of Molly Weasley which was causing Hermione to break out in laughter while Harry jumped his godfather and started giving him a noogie and telling him to say 'uncle'. By the time Sirius surrendered and called out the requested phrase Hermione had tears running down her cheeks.

"I'm not sure how I'm going to put up with the pair of you for two and a half weeks." she gasped out as she tried to catch her breath. When she had, Sirius grabbed both the teenagers' arms and told them "Hang on tight." Harry felt the familiar nauseating feeling of side-along apparition and when it cleared away Harry saw a beautiful house sitting on a river bank. It was perhaps too large to call it a cottage but it wasn't excessive by any stretch of the imagination. As he looked around he saw a massive castle rising into the sky overlooking the river, a village across the river and what he supposed were farmer's fields as far as he could see on 'their' bank.

"Arundel Castle?! We're in Arundel?" Hermione's exclamation surprised Harry.

"You know where we are?" He asked in wonder.

"That's Arundel Castle, Harry. It's about a forty-five minute drive from our house." Hermione gave her explanation for her impressive knowledge of geography in a distracted tone of voice before her face fell. "I suppose it's 'the house we used to live in' now." Harry slipped his arms around her shoulders in an offer of comfort.

"Actually your mum and dad said that they're rebuilding the house so I figured if I wanted to see my godson at all during the summers I'd better find somewhere to live that wasn't too far from you." Sirius broke into the moment without a care in the world. "I asked your parents if there was anywhere around here that might be nice to live and they told me about this place. I just bought some land off a farmer, hired a magical contractor, warded it to hell and back and there you go: one family home that won't be desecrated by madmen." Sirius was speaking with a definite note of pride in his voice before Hermione returned the favour and ruined the mood.

"If you and Harry are going to keep acting like you were at the station I give the house five minutes before it's desecrated by madmen; and that's only because you don't count as a plural by yourself." Sirius made a big show of looking highly affronted.

"I'm telling." was his mature response and it got the eyerolls it deserved. "Can we go in now. I mean it's pretty and all but it's cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey; that and your parents will kill me if I take too long getting you to them." It suddenly occurred to Hermione that her parents were in that house and she took off at a dead sprint for the front door after a brief widening of her eyes. Despite Sirius' earlier complaints, he and Harry followed at a walk, allowing Hermione the reunion with her parents in peace.

"So, you made prefect, huh." Sirius asked with a look to the side that promised no good. "NEEERRRRRRDDDDD!" he suddenly yelled out jumping away from Harry and pointing his finger at his godson. Harry just cocked his eyebrow at his godfather.

"Would you like to see some of the things I've been learning to deal with Riddle and his clowns? I could use a practice partner." he asked casually. Sirius was about to reply when he remembered just what his godson had done and tempered his response.

"Nah, I'll just watch and give you pointers."

When the two men reached the front door of their new home it was standing wide open. As they stepped through it they saw a clump of people desperately hugging. They could hear some sniffles coming from the group and carefully closed the door before hanging their coats on the coatrack. Harry took off his shoes and carefully placed them under his coat. Sirius managed to let his left boot slip and it clunked down heavily.

The Grangers' heads shot up out of their huddle to find a guilty looking Sirius and Harry pinching the bridge of his nose under his glasses. Helen Granger was the first to let go and she quickly made her way over to the two men. Harry barely contained a squawk of surprise when he was drawn into a motherly hug.

"Thank you, Harry. You kept Hermione safe like we asked and you saved our lives as well. We owe you more than we can ever repay." She said as she squeezed him tightly. Hermione was still being hugged by her father and as far as Harry was concerned that meant that she was in no position to help him. Sirius was grinning like a madman at his godson's expression, ruling out any help from that corner either. Lacking a better course of action Harry gingerly returned the hug he was receiving. It went on longer than he was really comfortable with and was only broken when Winky popped in to announce dinner.

Harry's first meal in his new home was extremely pleasant. Hermione and her mother did most of the talking as each tried to catch the others up on most of the details that might not have been discussed over the mirrors. Harry understood that they were just trying to deal with the joy at seeing each other in the flesh again after the six months they'd had and didn't make any effort to break into the conversation. Mr. Granger likewise just sat and watched. Sirius didn't do well outside of the spotlight and kept making increasingly off colour jokes in an effort to draw the group's attention back to himself until Harry slapped him upside the head and told him to stop it. Both Richard and Helen were full of praise for Harry and Hermione making prefect and they were impressed by Hermione's stories of how Harry was teaching Defence; stories that Harry tried to downplay in vain. After dinner the company was shooed out of the kitchen by Winky and they retired to the living room to continue their conversations in front of the fire and over cups of hot cocoa. It was late in the night before they all went up to bed, the joy of Christmas an almost tangible thing in the house.

Chapter Text

The day after Harry and Hermione got home they found out that Sirius, Richard and Helen had bought all the necessary decorations for a thoroughly overdone Christmas, but had waited for the kids so they could help put them up. In practice it turned out that Hermione was the one who put everything up once she learnt that Dobby, Winky and Kreacher had put up the ward that blocked the trace. As she was casting Hermione had trouble imagining how life could get any better than this. It was Christmas, she was celebrating it with Harry and their families and her parents were able to see their daughter use magic for the first time. Harry just sat back with a cup of tea and enjoyed both Hermione's enthusiasm and her parents amazed looks at what their daughter was doing. When everything was in place the way Hermione wanted it she started showing off with little transfigurations around the house. Helen actually gasped when a piece of packaging she had been about to throw away turned into a delicate crystal flute.

"Hermione, this is wonderful. I can't wait until you can do this anywhere." Helen said as she ran over and hugged her daughter.

"This is nothing, Mum. Harry is even better than I am." Hermione tried to share the praise. As a result Harry found himself confronted with several expectant looks.

"I'm really not. Hermione is a much better student." Harry murmured while shooting his girlfriend a look for landing him in the centre of attention.

"Yeah, yeah, you're both staggeringly amazing. Now get on with the show, Pup. I need some bragging rights after you let Hermione do up the house." Sirius demanded with a look of childish glee on his face. Sighing in resignation, Harry drew his wand.

"You may want to hold that carefully, Mrs. Granger." he warned as he flicked his wand and cast a silent spell at the flute she was holding. Helen was not sure what her daughter's boyfriend was on about until she felt the crystal flute expanding and becoming softer. It quickly got impossible to hold with one hand and Helen slung her other arm under the thing and pulled it to her chest to keep from dropping it and was rewarded with a wet nose in her neck. Pulling back in shock she saw a chocolate coloured Labrador pup in her arms wagging its tail and yipping softly.

"Oh, Harry, he's absolutely darling." Helen crooned as she started petting and cuddling the enthusiastic little thing.

"Nononono! Do the Patronus, Pup. Show off a little would you?!" Sirius broke in earning an affronted look from Mrs. Granger who was clearly of the opinion that turning rubbish to crystal flutes to puppies was impressive enough to be getting on with. Harry just cast an exasperated look at his dogfather before raising his wand again. "Expecto Patronum." Prongs burst out from Harry's wand and Helen forgot all about the puppy in her arms for a moment. Both Granger parents looked on in awe as the glowing stag filled the room with positive feelings. Sirius looked extremely smug.

"Expecto Patronum." Hermione's otter joined Prongs, gambolling around the stag's horns playfully and raising the feelings in the living room further. Sirius' smug smile had slipped off his face as he watched the spectacle slack-jawed. After a while both the Patronuses faded away. Their casters had moved closer together while the adults were watching their magic and were now leaning comfortably into each other. Hermione noticed that the adults seemed to be coming out of a trance. She caught her father trying to surreptitiously wipe a lone tear from his cheek. Her mother was absently stroking the puppy Harry had transfigured and still staring at the last place the two magical guardians had been.

"No fair!" Sirius had apparently recovered as well. "How, by the ancients, are you able to do that too?!" His voice was filled with wonder despite his words and Hermione just gave him a knowing smile as she slipped her arm around Harry's waist.

"I have a very good Defence Professor." She said impishly as she looked up at Harry whose arm had come around her shoulders. He rolled his eyes playfully at her. After that Helen and Richard occasionally asked about the children's ability to perform different kinds of magic. Harry and Hermione responded with demonstrations and explanations when possible.

:-:-:-:-:

Over the next week the extended family dove headfirst into celebrating Christmas as much as they could. Everyone agreed that it was more important than ever to enjoy themselves while they could. Even so the spectre of a possible Death Eater attack would not be banished completely. Christmas shopping was done in disguises and the Grangers had to forego their annual attendance at a neighbour's Christmas party. Not one of them doubted that it was worth it though. As Mr. Granger had said: "Christmas is a time for family. As long as we have that, we have enough."

Christmas morning itself dawned idyllically. The snow outside was pristine and the inside of the cottage was filled with the smell of baked goods that Dobby, Winky and Kreacher had prepared for their family. When Harry came downstairs, Sirius had put on a recording of several wizarding Christmas carols and Richard and Helen were looking a little nonplussed at the lyrics to God rest ye merry Hippogriffs. Hermione was the first one to notice him leaning against the doorjamb as he took in the scene in front of him. She walked up to him and gave him a soft, lingering kiss.

"Happy Christmas, Harry." she said quietly, enjoying the happy wonder she could see in his eyes.

"Happy Christmas, Mi." Harry answered her just as softly as he carefully committed the moment to memory. This is what Christmas is supposed to be like. The serene atmosphere was unfortunately never going to last long though with Sirius around.

"Harry! Presents!" He shouted as he jumped the two teens and grabbed them in a hug. By the time Harry had extricated himself from the eternal man-child's arms Hermione's parents were waiting for their turn. Mrs. Granger reached out and pulled him into a caring, motherly hug, like she had been doing all week, as she wished him a happy Christmas and Mr. Granger clapped him on the shoulder as he did the same. Harry allowed himself to wonder briefly how his own parents would have greeted him on Christmas morning and came to the conclusion that he hoped it would be similar to what he had just experienced.

"Yeah, yeah, heartwarming stuff. Presents!" Padfoot whined at the rest of the occupants, earning himself a scolding from Mrs. Granger about the meaning of Christmas which didn't seem to dent his enthusiasm in the slightest. "I'm Father Christmas!" he called out joyously once everyone was seated around the Christmas tree. With a flick of his wand the presents were sent to their proper recipients and Sirius was free to tear into his own.

Harry just shook his head in fond exasperation at his godfather's antics before turning to his own pile. He felt the familiar anticipation that wrapped packages brought and, in stark contrast to Sirius, he carefully peeled the wrapping paper off of the gifts, savouring the moment. He took his time in between opening presents to observe the others in the room and thank them when he got to their gifts.

Sirius and Lupin had once again gotten together to get him the book set Practical Defensive Magic and its Uses Against the Dark Arts. Dobby and Kreacher had made him a scabbard that confused the rest of the occupants of the house, but that was clearly meant for the Sword of Gryffindor and Winky had knitted him a scarf. Hagrid had sent him that fanged wallet again and Fred and George had sent him a sample set of their products called The Marvellous Mischief Maker's Medley. Harry was just admiring the patchwork quilt Mrs. Granger had made for him when he heard Hermione gasp and looked over at her.

"Oh, Harry. That might be the most thoughtful gift you could have come up with." She was looking at the gift her parents had just opened that had been addressed to 'the Granger Family': a pair of seemingly innocuous mirrors that had the dentists looking at him hopefully. "They're communicating mirrors, aren't they?" Harry nodded with a small smile pulling at his lips.

"After Halloween it occurred to me that you might want to have a faster way to communicate than owl post. Just don't mention it to Hedwig." Mrs. Granger got up from where she was sitting and pulled Harry into yet another hug.

"Thank you, Harry. Hermione, is right: that is a very thoughtful gift." she said.

"I want to know about these...Self-Flossing Stringmints you included." Mr. Granger spoke up. Harry and Hermione spent a few moments explaining the magical candy that Harry had included as a joke to Richard's great delight. As they moved back to their own piles both Harry and Hermione realized that they only had each other's gift left. A quick and silent communication later and Harry opened his first. Hermione had gotten him a rune carving set that was meant for people undergoing an Apprenticeship in the field and a book on basic enchanting. Harry happily thanked her for the beautiful gift and urged her to open his. The package Hermione opened was a lot smaller and when she pulled the box out of the wrapping paper she gasped as she saw that it was the kind that would usually contain jewelry. Inside was a silver locket that had fine tracery engraved on it resembling blooming vines. Upon opening the locket, Hermione found a picture of herself and Harry dancing at the Yule Ball last year that she had never seen before and in the other panel was a magical picture of her parents waving at her. Looking up she could see that Harry was watching nervously for her reaction.

"I love it, Harry. Will you put it on me?" He smiled at her and gently lifted the locket out of her hands. Hermione turned around and lifted her hair out of the way. She felt the locket settle against her chest and Harry's fingers fastening the clasp in her neck. The feather light touches in her neck sent bolts of pleasure racing down her nerves. When Harry's fingers left her she had to fight down a mewl of disappointment. She gently touched the locket and turned around beaming a smile at her boyfriend. "Thank you, Harry." she said before they shared a soft kiss. Since she had no more presents waiting to be opened she curled up against Harry with her feet tucked under her and just enjoyed being with the people she loved most in this world.

The rest of the day was filled with Sirius' exuberance, Harry's wonder and the Grangers' joy. Dobby, Winky and Kreacher made the family a wonderful Christmas dinner and were eventually coaxed into sharing it with them. When Harry fell into bed that night he honestly felt that he had experienced one of the best days of his life.

:-:-:-:-:

Over the next week the group spent their time exploring the town where Harry and Sirius would live from now on. A visit to Arundel Castle was of course on the agenda and Harry and Hermione surprised her parents by getting them a guided tour by the ghost of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The Poet Earl was able to tell them a lot about how his father, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, had run the castle. He was also able to tell them something about his cousins Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and their husband who had had all three beheaded. Throughout the tour the ghost managed to graciously answer the various questions the Granger women were firing at him about his role as one of the two Fathers of the English Sonnet.

Arundel Castle was as old as Hogwarts, but much warmer in Harry's opinion. He still loved Hogwarts, but it was clear that Arundel had been a home for generations whereas Hogwarts had been a school. Lord Surrey told them that the current Duke of Norfolk and his family still held the castle as their seat and that his son held the title of Earl of Arundel until he succeeded his father as Duke. The tour lasted most of the day and at the end they were all warmly invited to return soon by Lord Surrey who had missed interacting with living people and was eager to repeat the experience.

Since they were staying at Sirius' house they also spent a lot of time playing in the snow, dodging pranks and laughing at the Marauder's stories of his days in Hogwarts with Harry's father. Two days before New Year's Eve, Sirius was avidly telling them the story of how he had spent a year watching Harry and Hermione. Harry knew that all Padfoot was really doing was leading up to a ridiculously embellished retelling of the night that he had escaped from the dementors with Harry and Hermione's help but one detail in the story stuck in his mind and wouldn't leave him alone. That night when Hermione and her parents were absorbed in their books, Harry dragged Sirius into his room for an urgent conversation.

"Sirius, I have a question for you and I think it may be important." When Sirius saw the level gaze with a hint of worry he was receiving from his godson the prankster persona seemed to run off him like water.

"What's on your mind, Pup?" he asked.

"I want to know how you got into Gringotts while you were on the run." Sirius blinked at the unexpected question.

"Why on earth do you want to know that?" he asked. Harry didn't answer but kept that disconcerting look aimed at his godfather. After a few moments Sirius folded. "Alright. There's a little known entrance that is used by the older families when they don't want anybody to know what they're doing." Harry's intense look turned into a scowl.

"The pureblood bigots, in other words." he growled out.

"Most of them are, yes, but you're forgetting that you're dealing with goblins here. What counts is that these people are rich. I'm not sure what the Potter account looks like after all these years but it's possible they'd let you in there too. Are you going to tell me why you want to know this stuff now?" Harry once again ignored his godfather's request for an explanation.

"Where is this entrance?" he asked, his scowl gone and the intense look of someone close to a breakthrough back on his face.

"Behind the Palace of Westminster, under the statue of Oliver Cromwell. You scratch the lion's ear and when it gets up you go down the stairs. There's a rumour that if your account balance is too low the statue will maul you. Now tell me why you want to know this." Harry waved his hand at his godfather.

"Just one last question: would Bellatrix know about this entrance?" Sirius' face blanched at that. His hands shot out and grabbed Harry by the shoulders.

"Absolutely not! You are not to go hunting my mad cousin, do you hear me?!" Sirius was shaking Harry as he tried to emphasize his point. "She's dangerous, Harry. You get landed in enough trouble as it is and this is more than even you would be able to easily handle. Promise me you won't go looking for her." Harry grabbed Sirius' wrists and pulled his hands away.

"I promise that I will not go looking for Bellatrix, okay?" he said in a firm tone. Sirius looked his godson over as if trying to spot a lie and then nodded jerkily.

"I'm holding you to that." At the quirk of Harry's eyebrow Sirius continued. "I mean it. If I even think you're going to do something like that I'll...I'll tell Hermione!" Harry blinked in surprise at the triumphant shout at the end.

"Calm down, Sirius, I meant it: I won't go looking for her. How about we go get something to drink from Winky instead, hm?" His reassurance seemed to be reaching Sirius and the old Marauder relaxed somewhat and agreed. As they were heading out of the room Harry couldn't help but think to himself I won't go looking for Bellatrix; but the Horcrux in her vault is a whole other matter.

:-:-:-:-:

The Hogwarts Express made its way back up to Scotland nearly a week into the new year. Harry and Hermione had received their patrol schedules in the prefects' compartment and had once again chosen to join Luna in a regular compartment. Hermione and Luna were eagerly comparing holidays while Harry leaned his head against the wall of the compartment. He wasn't really listening to the girls' conversation, but rather was immersed in a very pleasant memory of Hermione sneaking into his bedroom after everyone had gone to bed on New Year's Eve. Well, her parents had; Sirius had gone out to the pub after they had all wished each other a 'Happy New Year'.

He had been surprised at first and thought that maybe Hermione had been having a nightmare. He had held back the covers and allowed her to crawl into the bed. After only a few seconds of holding her, Harry had known that Hermione was in his room for an entirely different purpose. She had whispered in his ear that what you did on New Year's Eve was supposed to be an omen for how the rest of the year would go and that she knew what she wanted from the upcoming 366 days. They had agreed that they were not quite ready to 'go all the way', but Harry had gained a new appreciation for certain tastes and sensations. He was jolted back to reality when Hermione poked him in the knee and told him it was time for their patrol. Judging by the mischievous glint in her eyes she either knew what he had been daydreaming about or had been reliving the same memory.

Harry sighed theatrically and hauled himself to his feet. With a wink at Luna he strode out of the compartment with an air of mock resignation to begin his patrol. It took the two prefects a long time to patrol the whole Express as most compartments wanted a quick word with them about one thing or another. Neville was especially eager to show Harry his new cherry and unicorn hair wand. Hermione just hung her head and groaned about Harry being a bad influence when Neville told him that their plan for him to sneak out had gone off without a hitch. When they got back to the compartment they were sharing with Luna, Harry didn't have to fake his exhaustion and collapsed onto the bench. Hermione followed a split second later and landed half on top of him. Rather than complain about the sudden jostling, Harry shifted her to a more comfortable position and did his best to melt into his seat.

"Oh my, are the big, bad prefects tired?" Luna singsonged at them. Harry cracked open one eye to give his friend a glare that he suspected was less than effective. Giving it up as a bad job he closed his eye again and groaned.

"Remind me why we choose to share a compartment with someone who can't muster any sympathy for us hard-working, responsible authority figures?" He asked in Hermione's general direction and only got a grunt in return. "I'll take that to mean that your energy reserves are low and that it's time for lunch." Harry said. "Dobby! May we have some lunch, please?"

The three friends shared a pleasant lunch which saw Harry and Hermione recover their energy. The rest of the trip passed without incident and sooner than they had expected the Express was pulling into Hogsmeade Station. Harry and Hermione made sure to help the younger students into the carriages before taking one themselves. The feast passed in a blur for the tired students and they were all grateful when they were dismissed up to bed.

:-:-:-:-:

There was something about Hogwarts that had always seemed timeless to Harry. Maybe it was the fact that despite a war starting up outside its walls, classes continued uninterrupted. Quidditch practice was as brutal as ever, even though the game against Hufflepuff wasn't until the beginning of March. Harry still trained like a possessed man in the Room of Requirement, though Hermione had joined him in a clear effort to be ready to stand by his side should worse come to worst. Harry's Defence classes still proved popular among the majority of the students.

One notable exception to this rule was, of course, Ronald Weasley. Harry hadn't specifically banned the redhead from showing up, confident that Weasley would not be able to behave long enough to make it through even one class, but Weasley had apparently decided that he did not want or need any extra classes and that suited Harry just fine. He had expected Weasley and Brown to want some revenge for the loss of their badges but he was surprised to see them withdrawn and quiet. They rarely looked anyone in the eye anymore and their disruptive influence in the common room had dwindled to nothing. Harry learned the reason for this after a Quidditch practice two weeks into the new term.

Harry had been taking advantage of the clear crisp weather to get some extra flying in after practice. Busy as he was, Harry still wanted to take any opportunity to indulge in one of his favourite activities. It was just about the only time he had left where he was completely alone. Once he started to feel numb from the cold he headed for the dressing room. As he stood in the doorway he overheard the two Weasley twins talking.

"I'm still not sure that I even want to take anyone to the wedding. It's embarrassing enough as it is." George said, getting a grunt of agreement from Fred.

"Still, we don't want Mum to have even more reason to yell, do we?" came Fred's rhetorical question. Harry frowned as he tried to work out if Bill might have asked Fleur already. Just because Harry hadn't heard about it until the summer before sixth year last time around, didn't mean that the Weasleys wouldn't have known. Plausible as it sounded, that still didn't explain why Fred and George considered their brother's wedding embarrassing.

"I know, I know. We're not taking anyone who'll be at Hogwarts next year though." came the reply. Fred just snorted at George's remark.

"Why? Because they're not going to figure it out when Lavender or Ronniekins or both fail to show up next year?" Wait, Ron and Lavender are getting married? Aren't they too young? "Who's there?!" Harry blinked in surprise; apparently he had spoken that last thought out loud.

"It's me, lads." Harry said walking into plain sight. Fred and George shared a look before turning back to him.

"How much did you hear?" Fred asked in a heavy tone of voice. Both twins were standing there with slumped shoulders and defeated looks on their faces.

"I heard that you are embarrassed to be going to a wedding and that your brother and Lavender may or may not be coming back next year." Harry told them. Fred nodded wearily as George spoke up.

"Please don't tell anyone, Harry. I know you more or less hate Ron by now, but the castle doesn't need to know this."

"If you don't want me to say anything, I won't. Well, I might tell Hermione, but you both know she can keep a secret." Harry said getting a nod of thanks from George. "Just so we're clear on what this secret actually is: is Ron getting married to Lavender?" Both Weasleys grimaced a little and gave a stiff nod. Harry flopped down on one of the benches as he wrestled with that piece of information. "Why? I mean, I could have imagined them doing it after graduation, but you sound like it'll be happening soon." Fred gusted out a large breath of air and sat down on the bench across from Harry.

"You know how we lost that massive amount of points before Christmas? It turns out that Ron and Lavender got caught sneaking about and, well, playing Hide the Wand if you know what I mean." the redhead started. Harry nodded that he was aware of this. "It also turns out that the silly bugger forgot to use any kind of contraception." Harry's eyes went wide as he realised what that meant.

"So, Lavender's..." Harry trailed off, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. Fred and George just nodded unhappily.

"Her family's right mad about it too. They keep saying that they expect Ron to take responsibility and provide for her. We spent the whole of the Christmas hols listening to that or to our own parents going off on the rest of us to make sure that we know what we're doing." George said.

"By the time the hols ended, Mum and Dad and Mr. and Mrs. Brown had gotten the two of them engaged. Since the parents are signing off on the whole thing it's legal and Lavender will be the newest Mrs. Weasley after the Spring Break. Dumbledore's agreed to keep her on the rolls as Brown until the end of the year at least." Fred added.

"So the reason that they might not be coming back is that they'll be taking care of a child? Can't your mum help or something?" Harry asked, feeling a little stunned by the turn this had taken.

"Maybe. Both she and Mrs. Brown said that them raising the kid would make it more difficult for Lavender and Ronniekins to take over as its parents when they finally graduate, so they're reluctant to get that involved. The Browns and Mum and Dad are currently debating whether it would be better for one of them to get their N.E.W.T.s or for them to start working right away. It'll probably end up depending on how they do on their O.W.L.s. Wouldn't stop the wedding at this point either way." Fred said.

"Why don't they, um, abort the baby?" Fred and George both flinched.

"That's extremely dangerous to Lavender. If the baby's magical, and there's a good chance it is, its magic may lash out if it becomes threatened. You never try to get rid of a witch's baby since it usually ends up killing her." George said in a grim voice. Harry nodded wide-eyed.

"Like I said, I won't tell anyone, but I have to tell Hermione now. I think she and I need to sit down and discuss this whole magical pregnancy thing and she's going to want to know what brought it up." Fred and George livened up to something more resembling their usual selves.

"Something you want to tell us about yourself and the delectable Ms. Granger, Harrikins?" Fred asked.

"Or should we just go ahead and tell the firsties they're about to get a little brother or sister?" George added with an evil grin.

"Nothing like that, you twits. Not yet, at least. After what you just told me I'd feel much better being safe than sorry though." The reference to their little brother's predicament killed the teasing stone dead. Harry walked over to his locker and pulled out his toiletries and a towel. Just before he headed in to the shower he turned back to his teammates. "For what its worth: congratulations on your new niece or nephew. Teach them a few good pranks for me, yeah?" Harry turned and walked into the shower not seeing the impact his words had on the two Weasleys behind him. They looked like the notion of teaching a nibling pranks hadn't occurred to them before.

:-:-:-:-:

That night in the Room of Requirement, Harry and Hermione had one of the most embarrassing discussions in their relationship to date. After Harry had informed her of Ron and Lavender's situation Hermione sat there for a moment digesting what she had heard.

"We should probably start brewing a contraceptive potion just in case, shouldn't we?" She said eventually, a deep blush staining her cheeks. Harry's blush matched hers.

"I don't want you to think that I'm pushing you into anything, but yes, I think we should." Harry answered.

"You're not pushing, Harry." Hermione said softly. Neither teen was able to hold eye-contact with the other for long. "Why are we this embarrassed? I mean we've more or less done everything but...that." Hermione blurted out. Harry shrugged his shoulders.

"I think it might be because...sex has more consequences than what we've been doing. We never really discussed the other stuff beforehand, did we?" When Hermione shook her head he continued. "I think that those conversations would have been just as awkward if we had had them. This time we need to though. Let's see if we can find a potion that works over a longer period of time. That way it won't keep shoving itself in our faces and whatever happens can happen in its own time." Hermione give a single nod before reaching for a book that had just appeared on the table in front of them. Harry and Hermione managed to find a potion that would keep them infertile for thirteen lunar cycles and sent Dobby off to collect the ingredients. The potion would be ready in two weeks and they would have to take it under the full moon. The slightly awkward feeling of having named the possibility of having sex for the first time stayed with the two teens for the rest of the night.

:-:-:-:-:

As the year continued Harry couldn't shake the feeling that something was brewing. It had been a little over three months since the Azkaban break-out and Harry thought that meant that the former prisoners were likely to be recovered enough and antsy enough that they must be chomping at the bit to cause some chaos. Riddle might still want to plot his way into the Department of Mysteries to hear the prophecy, but Minister Bones' acknowledgement of his return would probably force a significant change in his strategy. Harry just hoped that the casualties would be limited when they found out what that change might be.

The thirteenth of February brought a welcome, lighter note to their days. It was Luna's birthday again and Harry and Hermione once again chose to celebrate with their friend. Like with Hermione's birthday they couldn't do it in the Room because several of the younger years were determined to join the celebrations for 'Auntie Luna'. They really are a bunch of little smart-arses Harry thought fondly as Luna's nickname, given to her after the twins had explained the inspiration behind their banner prank, flashed across his mind. He thought Luna herself would vastly prefer this nickname to 'Loony' though.

There were times during Luna's birthday party when Harry saw her look around in wonder at everyone there like she still couldn't believe that people would want to spend time with her. The sight tugged at his heart and he had to continually remind himself that things were better for his friend now to keep from going on a rampage against those who had bullied her. The party was a smashing success and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Harry and Hermione patiently waited for the stream of well-wishers to dwindle before they rejoined a beaming Luna.

"Are you enjoying yourself, Luna?" Hermione asked.

"Oh my, yes." Luna replied dreamily. "Though if it's not too much trouble I'd like a favour from you, Harry."

"Of course, Luna. Name it." Harry responded with a smile.

"A boy asked me to go to Hogsmeade with him next weekend. I think he's honestly being nice so could you not terrify him over this?" Harry blinked in surprise at this request. "From what I've heard big brothers tend to want to scare prospective suitors worse than a Blibering Humdinger wants to eat a Dirigible Plum. I do rather think of you as my big brother, but I'm worried that you might be a little too intimidating." Harry smiled at the thought that Luna saw him in that light.

"Alright, Luna, I'll keep my nose out of it." Harry said with a chuckle in his voice. "If he hurts you all bets are of though. Who's the lucky bloke?"

"Jimmy Peakes." Luna said, pointing at the boy in question. Jimmy happened to look up just in time to see Luna pointing him out to Harry and Hermione and paled drastically. When neither prefect made a move to come over he started breathing again. He had known that asking out the girl who was next to Hermione in Harry Potter's affections would be nerve wracking, but thankfully Harry didn't seem to be inclined to kill him just yet. Gryffindor courage had paid off after all.

Chapter Text

The weekend following Valentine's day was a busy one in Hogsmeade; the weekend closest to Valentine's day usually was. Harry and Hermione had ignored the holiday itself but were eager to get out of the castle and spend a few hours just being together. Luna had her date with Jimmy Peakes and seemed to be looking forward to it. Harry and Hermione had agreed that they wouldn't hover over Luna's first date and simply let her get on with it. This meant that for the first time in a long time the three friends were eating separate breakfasts at Hogwarts. Harry and Hermione did wave at their friend as they left for the carriages.

Since neither of them really needed to buy anything, Harry and Hermione had agreed to go exploring away from the town centre. They discovered that only three streets away from the central shopping area there were no students left. Both teenagers enjoyed their walk immensely. It was rare for the two of them not to be surrounded by others clamouring for their attention and the couple was enjoying the rare peace and quiet to the fullest.

"Oh, Harry, look! There's a park over there." Hermione exclaimed as she pointed to what Harry would have described as a glorified garden. "Can we stay here for a moment? Please?" Hermione's eyes were wide with hope and excitement and Harry could only chuckle and nod before he was dragged off. As soon as they passed the boundary to the park Harry could feel that there must be some kind of climate controlling ward around the place. The temperature seemed more fitting to a spring afternoon all of a sudden and the air was heavy with the scent of flowers that had no business blooming in February. He heard a happy gasp from Hermione who immediately shucked her coat.

"This place is marvellous. We need to remember it for the next time we're here, Harry." She was walking around the edge of the small park happily inspecting the flower beds. Harry took the time to remove his own coat and spread it on the grass before plopping down on it to watch Hermione's progress. When she had made a full circuit she practically skipped over to him and sank down next to him before cuddling into his side. She heaved a contented sigh. "This is just what I needed. I could stay here all day."

Harry didn't know about 'all day' but he wasn't averse to sitting here with his girlfriend pressed against him for a while. The peace of the setting was certainly relaxing him and after how busy he had been lately he could really use that. For just that moment there was no need to teach children how to survive a war, no need to learn every curse breaking technique he could to get the ring and no need to think of ways to break into one of the most secure banks in the world. In that moment there was only a normal teenage couple. Neither of them was sure how long they had been sitting there but they both noticed when the temperature started dropping at an alarming, familiar rate. They shot up and looked around for the threat they knew must be present, but they couldn't see anything. Harry wasn't willing to take a chance though and flicked his wand into his hand.

"Expecto Patronum." Prongs appeared and didn't hesitate as it raced away towards the shopping district.

"They're after the students!" Harry and Hermione realised at the same time. They scrambled up, barely remembering to grab their coats and started running back to the town centre. As they threw their coats back on Harry was already working out a plan.

"Mi, find the prefects and get everyone headed back to the school. Youngest ones go in the carriages first. I'll make sure you have some room to work in." Hermione drew her wand and gasping for breath cast her own Patronus. A silvery otter raced off in the opposite direction of the one the stag had already gone in.

"I can help." she told Harry.

"I know that." Harry shot back "I also know that without one of us kicking their arses into gear most of the prefects are useless. We have to split up and, of the two of us, I have the better chances against Riddle and his band of inbreeds." Hermione grabbed Harry's arm and pulled him to a halt. He looked at her in confusion that was soon lifted as she claimed his mouth in a demanding kiss.

"Don't you dare die out there, Harry James Potter. You are coming back to me, understand?" Harry could hear how much it was costing her to let him go.

"I promise, my Lady." He told her with a grim smile before he gave her one last kiss and headed towards where he thought the attack was happening. It was an easy choice of direction as he just followed the screams and explosions. The first thing he saw of the battle was a cloud of black cloaks fleeing into the sky, chased by a glowing woodland creature. Unfortunately there were still two dozen black cloaks standing around looking up in surprise at the sight through bone-white masks. Harry could see the smouldering wreckage of several buildings surrounding the raiding party and even two small bodies lying half buried under the debris. Letting his rage flare his magic Harry took aim and cast the Siege Engine Curse.

The Siege Engine Curse was designed in the Middle Ages to do enough physical damage to bring a six-foot thick castle wall crumbling down. When applied to human targets the results tended to be messy as the Death Eaters had learned in the graveyard. This time Harry could aim. Half a dozen Death Eaters were torn apart by the curse's impact and the rest of the party were splattered by the fine red mist they turned into. Harry used the screams and cursing of the Death Eaters to cover his apparition. This was a piece of magic he had yet to use since he didn't want Riddle catching on to his ability to use it yet. The amount of dust in the air made any kind of invisibility useless though. That meant that apparition based guerrilla tactics were his best bet against, frankly, overwhelming odds. Harry was just going to have to hope that Riddle wasn't here today. When he reappeared a third of the way around the group Harry fired of a brace of Reductor Curses. He didn't wait to see if he had hit something but apparated to a rooftop on the other side of the group.

"Shields!" shouted one of the Death Eaters as four of their number died gruesome deaths. One was missing his head the others were missing significant parts of their torsos. The Death Eater who had yelled out the command was instantly obeyed, but with the logic Harry might have come to expect from pure-blood wizards they all shielded only in the direction the last attacks had come from, leaving themselves completely open on the side he was standing on. Harry knew he couldn't afford to waste this opportunity now that the Death Eaters had recovered from their surprise at his first attacks.

"CoracisCoracis." Once again the Siege Engine curse tore into the ranks of the Death Eaters. They had spread out slightly and his two curses turned a total of nine Death Eaters to mush. Harry could feel his stomach clench in protest of what he was doing. Don't think about it. Keep going, keep moving. You have to protect the students. You have to protect Hermione Harry thought to himself, forcing his emotions down before he apparated to a spot directly across from where he had fired his first spell. Unfortunately for Harry his hesitation would cost him.

"Fuck the shields! Attack!" A different Death Eater screamed. This time the curses flew in all directions. Firing deadly curses at anything in sight was a Death Eater specialty after all. Harry appeared just in time to see a frighteningly familiar purple flame coming towards him. He dived out of the way but felt a burning sensation across his right thigh that quickly became an excruciating pain. He couldn't suppress a tormented cry that attracted a hail of other curses in his direction.

Harry forced himself to apparate out before the curses could reach him and landed in the area where the dust was thickest. He managed to grit his teeth and keep from making a noise as his injured leg collapsed under him and he fell to the ground. Quickly, before he could be rediscovered Harry placed his wand to the ground.

"Terra Forma." he growled out the incantation to Gaia's Embrace. He might not be able to form elegant structures with this spell yet, but after a year of working on it he could certainly move the earth he focused on. Loud yells sounded from closer by than he had expected as Harry made the earth roll and buck like the sea during a fierce storm.

"Ventus!" Harry's wind spell tore the obscuring dust away from the site of the battle revealing his enemies. As he had hoped all the Death Eaters had lost their footing. Gathering his magic he pushed it into what he hoped would be one final curse.

"Coracis." Harry's final Siege Engine Curse gouged through the earth and the five remaining Death Eaters struggling to get up. Enough of its power was drained by the ground it passed through that the Death Eaters were not turned into a red mist, but torn apart. Harry shielded his face with his arms as blood, guts and limbs rained down on him.

I just killed twenty-four people. Twenty-four men and women who might have had families at home waiting for them. Harry rolled over and heaved his upper body off the ground before he emptied his stomach. He told himself that they were murderers and torturers and rapists who preyed on the innocent. He reminded himself of how many students would have died today had he not fought; how many men, women and children would have died if he had let the bastards get away. None of it helped though. He had had enough time to know what he was doing and had chosen to do it anyway.

By now Harry was choking up bile as he had already thrown up everything he could even if his body was not done yet. Coughing and spitting he finally got himself under control again. He rolled himself away from the puddle of sick that he had just deposited on the ground and in doing so got a good look at the gore-spattered crater he had created in Hogsmeade. Get up, Potter! There might still be people you can help. Don't think, just do.

Harry summoned a nearby tree branch and transfigured it into a crutch. Using his new walking aide he hauled himself up into a standing position and started hobbling off. As he passed the various piles of rubble he cast Revealing Charms, looking for any survivors. The only one he found was what looked like a third year. He hobbled over to try and help but knew he was too late when he saw the young girl's eyes. Clearly he hadn't been fast enough with his Patronus and the poor kid was only technically alive. Despondently he raised red sparks over her position and moved on. He was nearly to the Three Broomsticks when a wave of pressure hit him and nearly knocked him over. With a sound like a repeating cannon what looked like half the auror department apparated in.

"Aurors! Drop your wand and keep your hands where we can see them!" one of the aurors screamed. Harry shot the man a mocking look.

"Professor Moody would kill me if I gave up my wand." he called back. This unexpected response seemed to take the auror who had been yelling off guard and he blinked in confusion. Several of his colleagues were staring in horror at the blood-spattered apparition in front of them. There was one though who barked out a laugh.

"If ye're a hobblin' around here, I take it we're late, Potter?" Harry looked at the man and it only took him seconds to place that grizzled face.

"The fighting's done if that's what you mean, Auror Montrose. You'll find the remains of the Death Eater raiding party over by the smoke and the ruins. I counted at least two students dead and one Kissed. You'll find her by the red sparks. No idea how many bodies you'll find in the ruins." Many of the aurors looked horrified or disbelieving at the grim recital. "I'm headed up to the castle. The prefects should have evacuated as many of the students as they could find so if one or two of you want to come along you'll probably be able to get the names of the ones we're still missing." With that Harry turned around and started limping off again. He hadn't gotten far when he heard hurried footsteps catching up to him. Soon he saw Aurors Montrose and Shacklebolt drawing level with him. They had been walking for a while when Shacklebolt wondered aloud where the carriages were.

"Hermione will have put the youngest students in the carriages first and sent them back up to the castle. I imagine that someone with half a brain will have realized that sending them back would just provide an easy way up to the castle for the attackers." Harry answered dully. It was taking a lot of concentration to ignore the pain in his leg and keep moving.

"I knew I liked that lass o' yourn. Cool head in a hot situation is worth more 'n I can say." Montrose said as he nodded. "An' unless I miss my guess, that means you was givin' the bastards what for. How many of 'm did ye manage to curse afore they ran?" Judging by Montrose's tone he was giving a compliment.

"Twenty-four. None of them managed to get away." Harry reported grimly. Both of the aurors forgot to keep walking as they tried to process that statement. They were soon hurrying to once again catch up to the still limping Harry.

"That sounds like the kind of story ye need a few drams in ye t' tell it proper-like." Montrose said quietly. "I'll have t' find a way tae sneak ye awa frae Minnie." Once again Harry took the older man's words as a bracing compliment. Shacklebolt had other ideas though.

"We'll need to get you up to see the Headmaster. He should know what's going on." he said in his deep voice. Harry wasn't having it though.

"Does that mean I get to give your name to Pomfrey and Hermione when they ask why I wasn't in the Hospital Wing right away?" He asked the usually unflappable auror who started looking uncomfortable. "If Dumbledore wants to know what's happening he can get off his arse and help. One look out his window should've told him that his students were in danger and I haven't seen so much as twinkly eye or a white beard hair down there." The discomfort on Shacklebolt's face grew more pronounced at Harry's damning tone. Montrose adding his opinion reassured Harry that he had at least some back up.

"I agree with the lad, Shack. 'Sides, it's no like he donna hae you reportin' t' him." Montrose's tone was easy but Harry could see the warning on the man's face from the corner of his eye. The walk after that was made in silence. When they came up to the gates they found them closed and locked. Harry was surprised to find he was merely relieved that someone had taken some kind of precautions in response to what was happening. He flicked his wand into his hand and cast his Patronus before putting the tip of his wand to his throat.

"Hagrid, I'm at the gates with two aurors. Let us in?" he said before dismissing the stag with a flick of his wand. With a groan he sagged against the bars of the gates to take some of the weight off of his legs. He was grateful that the two aurors were kind enough to pretend that they couldn't see his weakness. His leg was throbbing now, with spikes of pain thrown in for good measure. It took ten long minutes for Hagrid to appear. He was carrying his crossbow and accompanied by Professor McGonagall.

"Potter! Ambrose! Kingsley! Are you all alright? We're missing six more students, have you seen them at all?" The professor was wringing her hands in distress but Harry didn't really want to talk about what had happened in the town again so soon.

"Yer lad's banged his leg up, Minnie but he took care o' all the fightin' afore we even got here. There's the better part o' three dozen aurors combing through the town right now but if Potter's report was right we can't be expecting all the bairns back." The old auror's voice was oddly gentle but Harry could see the way his words impacted Professor McGonagall. She swayed as if the news had been a physical blow and her hand flew up to cover her mouth. She had to swallow twice before she could speak.

"Open the gates, Hagrid. We'd best get Mr. Potter over to Poppy right away. It looks like he'll need more than a calming draught and some chocolate." McGonagall said and Harry could have sworn he heard a tremor in her voice. Hagrid hurried to comply and barely gave Harry enough time to put his weight back on his crutch and his good leg. He refused the half-giant's offer of carrying him up to the Hospital Wing. He could hear the murmurs of conversation behind him but couldn't make out the individual words. McGonagall's loud gasp at one point made him think that the aurors were filling her in as best they could on what they had seen. She and Auror Montrose left the group at the first floor presumably to talk in her office.

When they made it up to the Hospital Wing Harry wasn't surprised to see it packed with students eating chocolate and looking extremely anxious. Harry hobbled in alone, as Hagrid and Shacklebolt would have unduly crowded the room. Somehow in the middle of that press of humanity Madam Pomfrey managed to sniff him out like a bloodhound.

"Get in here, Mr. Potter. Ms. Granger warned me you'd be coming to visit." She said sounding resigned. As soon as he had awkwardly hopped onto a bed Madam Pomfrey's wand was performing it's familiar dance. She didn't react to any of the readings until she got to his leg when a loud gasp escaped her and she started summoning potions.

"Do I want to know how you got hit in the leg with and Organ Crusher Curse, Mr. Potter?" She demanded as she started shoving potions into his hands.

"I dodged." Harry gritted out before he started downing the potions she had given him. Madam Pomfrey blanched for a moment as she imagined the damage that she might have had to deal with before she Vanished his trouser leg and stared pouring a potion over the wound that was revealed. Harry could perfectly understand his Healer's reaction given what he had seen of Hermione's injury from the Department of Mysteries. He thought he might even be making his Healer suspicious with how accepting he was being of the treatment she was giving him. Harry only had to down five different potions, as opposed to the ten per day he remembered Hermione having to take, but given that Madam Pomfrey had referred to the curse as the Organ Crusher Curse Harry supposed the damage would be less if there weren't any organs to crush. It still felt like the curse had given it one hell of a go though. Madam Pomfrey wrapped a potion-soaked bandage around the wound and told her patient that he needed to rest and let the potions do their work. Harry was lying down as he had been ordered to by Madam Pomfrey and trying to look around for someone who might know where Hermione was. At this rate he was going have to let her know that he had survived by post owl or Patronus.

Harry was just about ready to grab his wand and enact his slightly ridiculous plan of sending Hermione a Patronus Charm when the doors to the Hospital Wing banged open. In strode Albus Dumbledore looking eye-watering in his neon pink and yellow robes and accompanied by Kingsley Shacklebolt and Severus Snape. The trio marched right up to Harry's bed.

"Mr. Potter I have heard some disturbing news today." Dumbledore began looking grave which, in Harry's opinion, came of as slightly ridiculous from a man dressed so garishly. It also managed to annoy him.

"Congratulations, Headmaster. Looking out your window and coming down to help us out would have probably gotten you that information more quickly though." Harry retorted.

"I am not referring to what others may or may not have done. I am referring to the fact that you murdered twenty-four people today." Harry briefly wondered what Dumbledore was trying to achieve here. Was he hoping that the students would shun him if they learnt that he had killed? That would just mean that the old man would actually have to put some effort into securing a teacher for Defence Against the Dark Arts.

"I fought and killed twenty-four terrorists, Snape's little friends, who were hell-bent on killing children, Headmaster. Children you are supposed to be protecting." Harry no longer had to try as hard as he once used to, to imitate Riddle's cold sibilant way of speaking. The effect it was having on the Potions Master was almost entertaining as the man seemed caught between outrage, anger and fear. "That will be my burden to live with for the rest of my life. Yours will be that you sat in your tower and did nothing while your students were in mortal danger, again." Suddenly Harry's hand flashed out and grabbed his wand. He threw up a Silencing Charm while Dumbledore and Snape drew their wands and pointed them at their student.

"Put that away, Headmaster." Harry snapped. "I put up a Silencing Charm because children who are already upset should not have to hear this. I saw at least two students dead and one girl who had been Kissed by Dementors. Somehow though you are more concerned with the fate of their murderers than the fact that the kids around us have lost friends and classmates today." Harry took a deep breath to calm himself and cancelled the Silencing Charm. He didn't want to traumatize his schoolmates by shouting about their dead friends in an argument with the headmaster but he wasn't above letting them see and hear the real Albus Dumbledore.

"Harry, surely you can see that those men could have been redeemed; shown the light and gone on to live productive lives. At the very least they should have been allowed to stand trial and be judged by people whose wisdom has been proven. There may have even been some that were only acting under the Imperius Curse. That would mean you murdered innocent men."

"I didn't have time to sort out if some of them might be innocent while they were taking potshots at children I know to be innocent. There were too damn many of them to use non-lethal force and survive. Like I said: that will be my burden to bear. If you don't agree with the way I protect your students then get off your arse and protect them yourself. Now, if you don't mind, this is a hospital and some of us are recovering from injuries." Dumbledore didn't seem prepared to accept being dismissed by his student and Snape seemed to be considering how many curses he could get away with before somebody stopped him. Shacklebolt was looking between Harry and Dumbledore with his mouth hanging open as if he couldn't understand what was happening here.

"He's right, Headmaster. These children need rest." Harry's would-be interrogators looked behind them to see Madam Pomfrey standing with her hands on her hips. Her face was arranged in a slightly strange expression but it was clear that she was not going to be placated on this matter. As they became aware of the room around them it suddenly occurred to the three men that there were rather a lot of students in the room. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Hogwarts could predict that this confrontation would be common knowledge to the entire school within the next six hours, if it even took that long.

What really hurt Dumbledore was the amount of fear and loathing he saw in the looks directed at him. Clearly the students were choosing to believe Potter over him. They were choosing to believe that killing was acceptable. He couldn't see any way to convince these children that Potter's words were not only wrong, but dangerous. That was troubling; he might end up known for having raised a generation of dark wizards at Hogwarts. It was clear to him that pushing here would mean pushing them further into the dark; the best he could do at this point was retreat and regroup.

"One day, Harry, I fear you will see that you have made an irreparable mistake today. I hope that day comes in time to prevent further tragedy." Dumbledore gave his parting shot as he walked out the door. Harry just snorted. Jackass. As if letting children die would be less of a tragedy.

"Um, Professor Potter?" Harry was drawn out of his chuntering thoughts by a small voice and looked over to see a third year Hufflepuff girl looking at him from beside his bed.

"Yes, Stephanie?" he asked her. He watched her play with her long braid for a moment.

"I-I just wanted to say thanks. I know killing is bad, but they were already going to kill us and- and you protected us, like a real professor." Stephanie's last words came out in a rush and Harry found himself lost for words for a moment. He quickly regained his wits, though and tried to smile reassuringly at her; he suspected it looked grim, at best.

"You're very welcome. And you're right: killing is a bad thing. It just sucks when your choices are two bad things. That's when you have to make a decision that you will never like and always remember." He said as gently as he could. The young girl looked at him for a moment before slowly nodding her understanding.

"Professor Potter is right, those are the moments that will really test you and show who you are." Harry's head whipped around in surprise as he heard Madam Pomfrey speak up. He was shocked that any member of staff would join the students in using what had started out as a teasing title. There were a lot of thoughtful looks around them and a few that looked like they were just as surprised as he was. "I will thank the lot of you not to pick up his habit of getting injured though. One of you in this castle is more than enough." The last sentence was directed solely at Harry and accompanied by a pointed look.

"You may wish to brace yourself, Professor, I've just sent an elf to let Ms. Granger know where you are. That way I know someone will be enforcing the treatment I'm about to prescribe for you." Madam Pomfrey finished with a knowing smirk.

Hermione! Harry couldn't wait to see her, to make sure that she was okay and to hold her until the horrors of the day left him. Horrors that he could feel creeping up on him like a chill up his spine now that there was nothing to distract him. He grabbed his head in his hands as images flashed through his mind of the ten spells he had cast, ten spells that had led to twenty-four deaths. Over and over again they played through his mind. Soon the spells he had cast half a year ago in the graveyard started joining in. He didn't know if he had killed that day; he'd never even wondered about it. Now that he knew he was a killer the question wouldn't leave him alone. What kind of heartless bastard, what kind of freak, doesn't even think about whether he killed the people he was attacking with lethal force? Even Quirrel made a reappearance in his memories. That had been more of a freak accident than a conscious decision. In the graveyard he had been desperate and barely in control of himself because of the repeated use of the Cruciatus, but he could have chosen spells that wouldn't carry the risk of killing. Harry wasn't going to delude himself that unthinking use of lethal force was in any way more acceptable than conscious killing. His first five spells after spotting the raiding party might have been attributed to the heat of the moment, but the two Siege Engine Curses he had thrown from the rooftop had been deliberate. He had had more than enough time to select something else. He'd certainly had the time to notice his enemies' shoddy shield-work. He had chosen in near cold blood to end human lives and it was eating him up. Becoming aware that he was a killer hurt.

"Harry!" Harry's head shot up and his mind was dragged out of the spiral of self-recrimination at the sudden shout. Looking next to the bed he saw Hermione looking extremely worried and like she had been trying to get his attention for a while now. As soon as their eyes met he could see that she was having trouble with what she had seen today as well. He also knew that she would be able to see his own inner turmoil. He did the only thing he could think of and scooted over to make some room and held out his arms to her. Hermione didn't hesitate and climbed into bed with him and grabbed on for dear life. For a long time they just laid there and held each other each trying to find the comfort they each felt they couldn't give. Finally Hermione looked up and searched Harry's eyes.

"Harry, what happened out there?" she asked him. She wasn't sure whether she was asking him what he had experienced or asking him to deny the horrors that had been visited upon them. Harry picked up his wand and cast his second Silencing Charm of the day.

"You first." He said once he had placed his wand back on the bedside table. Hermione looked like she was going to argue with him about the matter until she saw the determination on his face. With a sigh she gave in.

"Most of the students were already running towards the carriages. It seemed like it was more a matter of organizing them so they didn't trample each other. When we got to the carriages the dementors were waiting for us. My Patronus was trying to hold them off but it wasn't strong enough." Hermione's recitation was broken by a sob she couldn't contain and she was thankful for the tightening of Harry's arms as he did his best offer his support. "Nancy Williams, from my Arithmancy group, she- she was Kissed. That filthy thing sucked her soul out and I couldn't do a damned thing!" Hermione had tears running down her cheeks as she screamed out her last sentence, her hands clutching fistfuls of Harry's sweater, the helplessness she had felt making a vicious return. It took her a few minutes to gather herself and continue her tale.

"I- I saw a Slytherin boy get Kissed as well and then your Patronus showed up. I don't know how you got it to follow my commands, but however you did it, it saved a lot of souls." Hermione was looking up at her boyfriend in wonder only to find him looking back in confusion.

"I didn't send my Patronus, Mi; or at least not consciously. Maybe the spell was working on its own in some way. We'll have to do some research. I've never heard of someone else being able to control a Patronus before either." He said causing Hermione to become just as confused.

"Something for later then." she decided. "Anyway, the two Patronuses together managed to drive off all the dementors. After that we loaded all the younger students in the carriages and the sixth and seventh years walked back up the path to the castle. I went with them as there wasn't room in the carriages. When we got to the castle Professor McGonagall met us at the gates. She had heard what was happening and once we were inside she put the castle on lockdown and we counted the students. We were missing nine. I- I told her about the two that had been kissed and that you were fighting the Death Eaters. I think she may be having words with you about that if the way she was cursing was any indication." Hermione's attempt at levity fell flat as neither teen was in the mood to even try and laugh. "What happened on your end, Harry?" Harry took a shuddering breath and began to talk.

He told Hermione about finding the Death Eaters standing around looking at the fleeing Dementors and his first spell. He told her about his apparition strategy and the way he had slaughtered the lot of them. Her first response surprised him though in hindsight perhaps it shouldn't have.

"You can apparate, Harry?" Hermione asked in shock. "Isn't that illegal?" Harry nodded slowly.

"Without a licence, yeah, it is." he answered her. "With all the madness that I tend to get caught up in I wanted an extra option to get the hell out of dodge though. I think I'll have to teach you too. You seem determined to get caught up in that same madness with me. At least, I think you do."

"I'm not leaving you now, Potter." Hermione said in a shaky voice. "I wish it wasn't always left up to you though. Why can't someone else fight for once?" Harry didn't answer her; he didn't have an answer even though he had asked himself that question repeatedly. The couple quieted down and didn't speak again for several long minutes.

"You did the right thing, you know?" Hermione spoke up after a while. "They came to Hogsmeade to kill us and you were simply better than they were. You still are." Harry just squeezed her in response and buried his face deeper in her hair. They staid like that until Madam Pomfrey approached them and entered the Silencing Charm.

"Mr. Potter, Ms. Granger, I need to talk to you about Mr. Potter's treatment." The elderly matron looked more tired than Harry had ever seen her. He and Hermione lifted themselves into a sitting position and gave Madam Pomfrey their full attention. "That leg needs to be kept elevated as much as possible and you'll be spending the next few days walking with a crutch or a walking stick. You need to come in here twice a day to get that bandage changed. This one will last you until the morning. You can take your showers here so you won't be without it for too long, nor have to deal with it getting wet." She waited for both teens to nod their understanding. "I think Auror Montrose and Professor McGonagall wanted to talk to you before you do anything. After you've done that you'll be free to leave."

After the Matron had left Harry expressed his surprise to Hermione that he wasn't being made to stay the night.

"She's probably a lot more concerned about the psychological harm that was done to everyone. Keeping you here might actually do more damage than good considering how few physical injuries you have. You'd just be isolated." was Hermione's opinion. Harry didn't get a chance to respond as Montrose and McGonagall wasted no time approaching his bedside.

"Mr. Potter, are you well enough to talk?" His teacher asked in a concerned tone of voice. Harry just nodded.

"I think ye likely ken what I need, lad." Auror Montrose said heavily.

"Would another memory suffice?" Harry asked. When Montrose nodded and drew his wand Harry grabbed one of the empty potion vials beside his bed and cleaned it out with a spell. He closed his eyes and when he felt the auror's wand press to his temple he started focusing on what he remembered of the battle. He felt something slip through his hair and away from his head and opened his eyes to see Montrose putting a strand of silver in to the vial. "Just make sure that Riddle's goons don't get to see that, please. I don't need the old bastard to know what I'm capable of." Harry requested in a tired voice.

"I'll make sure it's disposed of proper-like me ainself." Montrose promised. Harry nodded his thanks, but he had one more question.

"Auror Montrose, do you know how many people I killed in the graveyard?" he asked, not sure he wanted an answer. The old auror looked him over for a moment before nodding with a sigh.

"Suppose it's only right tha' ye ken. There was eight dinna make it, far as we know." The man said sounding unusually gentle. Harry closed his eyes as he absorbed that information. Thirty-three. I've killed thirty-three people. The number kept running through his brain until he felt a kiss on his cheek. Opening his eyes revealed Hermione looking at him with concern.

"I love you, Harry Potter. This doesn't change that." she said softly but firmly. Harry nodded and returned the kiss.

"I truly do like that lass o' yourn, Potter." Montrose said with his usual grin back in place. "I still need t' get ye awa frae Minnie for a bevvy and t' hear these stories o' yourn."

"Ambrose! Yer nae t' be corruptin' my students, ye rascal!" McGonagall launched herself into the fray. With a wink at the couple on the bed Montrose set about riling her up by claiming that Harry had earned the right to get rat-arsed a few times after all he'd seen and did she want to come along with Hermione so they could make it a double date? The fact that McGonagall was making no effort to throw the man out of the castle but instead rather creatively upbraiding him for being a rake and a reprobate convinced Harry and Hermione that the two adults were trying to distract them. They appreciated the effort but when the professor and the auror left saying a final goodbye, the two teens felt the events of the day heavy upon their shoulders.

Hermione got out of bed and helped Harry climb out as well. As they passed Madam Pomfrey's office the matron came rushing out and pressed a dignified cane into Harry's hand reminding him to keep off his leg and keep it elevated as much as possible. Once more confirming his understanding Harry hobbled out the door using the cane and Hermione for support.

As they left the Hospital Wing Harry's stomach growled so they made their way down to the Great Hall. Arriving there they met a decidedly funerary atmosphere. Their entrance was noticed by the entire student body and after only seconds the whispering started. There was barely any effort made to disguise the topic of conversation. Only a few students actually said anything to the couple, Luna of course being the first. The moment she'd seen her friends walking into the Hall about as unhurt as she could hope for she was on her feet and racing towards them.

"Harry! Hermione told me you went off to fight the Death Eaters. I was so worried. How hurt are you?" Harry carefully hugged his younger friend.

"I'll be alright, Luna. The curse that hit me was designed to affect my organs not my leg. I'll be able to drop the cane in a few days." he tried to reassure her. She sniffled into his chest for a few moments longer, before letting go of him. The three made their way over to the Gryffindor table and sat down near a frightened looking group of first years. They loaded up their plates and tried to get some food into their stomachs while trying to reassure the younger students. At one point Harry noticed that Hermione and Luna seemed to be deep in conversation but couldn't find the energy to get too curious about the subject. Harry was eating almost mechanically trying not to remember anything about the day.

He was a little surprised when Luna stood up and told him that she was exhausted from worrying over them and was going to bed, but before he could comment she had grabbed him in a tight hug and was making her way out of the Hall. Hermione leant over and whispered that she was done for the day too and asked him if he would join her.

It was Hermione who steered them as they walked, allowing Harry to focus on getting into the rhythm of walking with a cane. He was surprised when they came to the Room of Requirements. When they entered Harry recognised the set up as the same one they had used on Halloween when Hermione had thought that her parents were dead.

The first thing Hermione did was oddly enough to grab a piece of parchment and a quill that had spontaneously appeared. She wrote out something quickly and called for Dobby and asked him to hang it on the door to the Defence classroom. Before he could leave she bent down and whispered something in the small elf's ear. Dobby's eyes went wide and he started nodding vigorously before popping out to complete whatever task she had set him. Turning around she saw Harry's surprised look and let him know "It's just a note to let the others know your class has been cancelled if they show up for it."

Hermione pulled him over to the bed and pushed him down. Climbing in after him Hermione straddled his waist, bent down and pressed a kiss to his lips. She moved down to his neck and began frantically tugging at his shirt.

"Hermione?" Harry asked, carefully grabbing her wrists and holding them still. Hermione stilled for a moment looking into his emerald green eyes with her chocolate brown ones.

"I saw two people our age get Kissed by soul sucking demons today, Harry" she began in a tremulous voice. "The only thing I could think through the horror was that it could just as easily have been one of us. I realized that there is so much I haven't done yet. I want to do well on my O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s. I want to be Head Girl. I want to expand the MSPCE to the point where an elf being mistreated is the exception, not the norm." Hermione paused for moment before nearly whispering. "I want to feel you. I want you." Harry looked into her eyes, trying to see if she was sure about what she was saying. "Please, Harry, I don't want to think anymore. Make me feel. Take me away from this place, from this war." she begged him with her words and her eyes.

Seeing no doubt in her look Harry relented and started returning her kisses. It was not the pure and tender love-making either one of them had envisaged for their first time. There was the clumsiness of first time lovers mixed in with the desperate need to forget of those who have seen too much. It might not have been what they had imagined but it was what they needed as the world around them ceased to exist and was replaced only with each other.

Chapter Text

Harry awoke feeling lighter than he thought possible. He let himself bask in the glow of what he and Hermione had shared last night, carefully ignoring the events that had led up to that moment and the dull throb in his thigh. He revelled in the feeling of Hermione's head resting on his chest and the sensation of her naked body pressed against his. He briefly allowed himself to contemplate never setting foot outside the Room again and simply staying here like this forever. As he laid there he subconsciously started playing with strands of Hermione's hair that he could feel draped over his fingers.

While Harry was lost in his own world Hermione slowly came back to consciousness as well. She too felt like someone had inflated a balloon inside her chest that the slight soreness between her legs did nothing to deflate. She was very happy they took the contraceptive potion a few weeks ago. Like Harry, she chose to lay there and enjoy the feelings that were filling her up. She listened contentedly to his heartbeat and giddily reminded herself that it was her lover's heartbeat. When he started playing with the hairs in her neck Hermione couldn't suppress a mewl of pleasure.

"Mi? Are you awake?" Harry asked in surprise, the thrum of his voice surprisingly pleasant for the girl lying on top of him.

"No. Now keep doing that." Hermione quickly discovered that his gentle laughter felt even better than his speaking voice and the more determined movements of his fingers were driving her libido up again. In what seemed like no time at all she was rubbing herself up against him like a cat in heat. "Mmmm. That feels great," she moaned, "We need to get up though. Remember what happened last time we stayed out?" Harry did remember and almost cursed himself for not realizing that they would be missed.

"Sorry, I didn't mean for you to freak out." Hermione hastened to reassure him. "I asked Dobby and Winky to make our beds look like we were sleeping in them. I just meant that we can't pretend to be in our beds all day. You can call them and ask them to pop us into our own beds and no one will be the wiser." Her voice took on just a trace of smugness as she informed him of her actions. Harry shifted his head so he was looking at her.

"Why, Ms. Granger, didn't you just plan my seduction down to the fine details?" he grinned at her. Hermione smiled back just as broadly.

"Yes. Yes, I did." The couple laughed, enjoying the fact that they could still laugh and allowing their joy to blunt the horrors of the day before. When the laughter tapered off Hermione looked Harry over carefully. "We really should get started on our day. You know there will be any number of people looking for us." When Harry grimaced his displeasure at the idea of getting up Hermione leant over him and kissed him deeply. "Come on. Madam Pomfrey will be waiting for you."

Harry sighed and nodded before calling Dobby and Winky and asking them to take Hermione and himself to their respective beds. When he found himself behind the hangings of his four-poster, Harry couldn't help but feel like his bed was unusually cold. He reluctantly cast a quick Air-Freshening Charm on himself so that people he met between here and the Hospital Wing wouldn't immediately notice Hermione's scent all over him. Having done that he got out of his bed and found a change of clothes and his cane laid out on top of his trunk. Harry gathered his clothes into his schoolbag and hobbled out of the dorm. Throughout the walk to the Hospital Wing he could feel his emotions fluctuating between the heights of joy and the numbness of horror depending on where his train of thought took him. One thing he would always be grateful to Hermione for was that he could at least contemplate his actions without getting lost in the spiralling recriminations of his mind. She had given him a handhold that he could grab to keep from falling into the abyss. She still loves me.It was a soul deep knowledge that Hermione cared for him, and for a boy who had never had that certainty before it was a wondrous shield against the cold of I'm a killer.

Upon his arrival in the hospital wing, Harry was promptly shown into the showers by a Healer who seemed to be eyeing him up and down to make sure no limbs had fallen off during the night. Madam Pomfrey insisted on a full scan of his leg after he had showered and told him that if he was having trouble sleeping she had some potions that he might consider taking so he didn't aggravate his injury while he slept. Harry prevaricated on the matter, not wanting to take the potions and not wanting to admit to exactly how 'restless' he had been the night before. Eventually Madam Pomfrey agreed to let him go another night without potions but warned that if he had another bad night she was going to give him the potions regardless of how he felt on the matter.

When his leg was once again wrapped in potion soaked bandages Harry was cleared to get dressed and leave. Harry stopped outside the Hospital Wing to pass off his schoolbag containing his clothes from the day before to Winky before he hobbled his way down to the Great Hall. When he got there he found that Hermione and Luna were already present, heads close together and giggling uncontrollably. The sight reminded him that they had been doing that last night too and he had a sudden and rather unwelcome suspicion that Luna had known what was set to happen last night before Harry did. Shaking himself Harry decided that it wasn't worth getting upset over even if his guess was accurate; after yesterday it really was a minor issue. His new resolution in place Harry hobbled over to the Gryffindor table and plopped down next to Hermione who gave him a warm good-morning kiss before asking about his visit to Madam Pomfrey. Harry related the Healer's findings noting with some amusement that the two girls blushed lightly when he mentioned Madam Pomfrey's worries about his restless sleeping.

Breakfast was just as subdued an affair as dinner had been last night. Looking around the Hall, Harry felt like something was off. He couldn't for the life of him place what it was. Eventually the persistent feeling became too much to bear and Harry put his fork down and started openly studying the Hall and the students. It only took him a few minutes to figure out what the problem was: there wasn't a strand of red hair at the Gryffindor table. Harry had a sinking feeling as he considered why they might be missing. Last time through Mr. Weasley had been attacked during one of Riddle's attempts to get into the Department of Mysteries and his children had been sent home. Harry dearly hoped that the casualty list wouldn't be growing past where it was already. Even so, he was uncomfortably aware that if he had faced two dozen Death Eaters yesterday that would have been a significant chunk of Riddle's forces and Riddle hadn't been there. Harry knew better than most how dangerous Riddle could be by himself and how feckless the Order could be. I can't do anything right now. I need to focus on the people I can help.

After breakfast Harry and Hermione slowly made their way back up to the common room. They spent the rest of the day offering comfort to the younger students and even some of the older ones as best they could. Professor McGonagall joined them around lunch time to give her Lions another ear to talk to. She brought with her the news that the next two Quidditch matches had been pushed back two weeks to give the students a chance to grieve but emphasizing that this was a way to fight the terrorists. They would not allow You-Know-Who to dictate how their lives would be lived. The matches would be played in honor of the victims of what was already being called the Battle of Hogsmeade. She would later confide in Harry and Hermione that all future Hogsmeade visits had been cancelled until the school could guarantee the students' safety, no matter what she had said about defying Riddle. That was also when Harry and Hermione learnt why there were no Weasleys in Gryffindor Tower.

"Ms. Weasley was one of the five who were kissed. According to eyewitnesses she refused to run. One person even reported that she was yelling that her love would save her." Harry felt the news land like a hammer-blow. He might not have particularly liked Ginny these past few months, had even been furious at what she had tried to do to him, but the Kiss was more than anyone deserved. "Ms. Weasley has been taken home by her parents who will care for her there. Her brothers have also gone home for the weekend to be with their family." After McGonagall left Harry and Hermione grabbed each other in a needy hug.

"I can't believe it." Hermione whispered softly. "She...this was..." She trailed off as she couldn't find the words to express the feelings running through her.

"I know." Harry said quietly. He too was having trouble separating his grief for the friend he had once thought he had, his anger at the Death Eaters and his guilt at the undeniable relief that she would no longer pose a threat to him or Hermione. After a long moment more they shared a look and a soft kiss before they headed back over to the other students to try and offer what comfort they could.

At the end of the week Aurors Montrose and Tonks showed up at the castle asking to talk to Harry. They informed him that almost all of the Death Eaters he had faced had been mercenaries from eastern Europe. They had only managed to identify seventeen of the attackers so far and those seventeen were enough to have three different ministries looking to reward Harry for eliminating several of their most wanted criminals. Harry was more worried that Riddle was bringing in these mercenaries since nobody on their side had any idea how many there were or how fanatical they were likely to be. That meant that they had no idea how or when Riddle might strike at them. He did warn the aurors that at least two of the Death Eaters had spoken English without an accent and that their orders had been followed by the others. Tonks and Montrose nodded and reminded him that they had seen that in his memories making Harry feel just a little foolish.

Before they left Montrose assured him that the memory had already been destroyed and only a few people Minister Bones trusted implicitly had been allowed to see it. He also added with a grin that they had a summons to deliver for the Headmaster to appear before the Wizengamot to explain what measures were being taken to protect the nation's children. As he watched them walk away Harry considered everything he had learnt. He decided that he wouldn't act until the holidays. He had the skeleton of a plan to get into Gringotts and it would just have to be ready by the time Easter rolled around. I can't afford to let Riddle gain too much strength; the world can't afford that kind of threat.

:-:-:-:-:

After a week Harry's leg had completely healed and he had happily returned the cane to Madam Pomfrey. During that week of recovery he had not been able to move around the castle at his usual speed and that meant that he was frequently stopped by students who wanted to thank him for his courage and skill in defeating the Death Eaters and the dementors. Harry tried to be as sensitive and understanding as possible to the students who came up to him despite his furious aversion to attention that he still had left over from the Dursleys. He was greatly helped in this effort by the fact that Hermione received as many plaudits as he did. The students who had been in Hogsmeade clearly remembered the girl who had swept in like an avenging angel to drive off the dementors and get them the hell out of there while she covered their flight.

During the two weeks after that the school started slowly adjusting to the changes that had been forced upon them. There were only three Weasleys walking the Halls these days and eight other students were missing too. It was unnerving that Fred and George hadn't pulled a single prank since the Hogsmeade attack even if it was understandable. Ron had drawn closer to Lavender and the two were rarely seen apart any more. Harry thought that she might be using glamours to hide her pregnant stomach since he couldn't see a sign of it. Hermione had told him that Lavender was throwing up nearly every morning so there was little doubt that she was, given what else they knew. Both Harry and Hermione wondered if this would be the push that the redhead needed to become a good father to the child he had sired. The care he was showing its mother gave them hope.

By the time the Ravenclaw-Slytherin match rolled around the mood had settled a little inside Hogwarts, though it was decidedly more somber than it had been before the attack. As a tribute to the students who had fallen during the attack, both teams played with a black armband around their upper left arms and the match started with a minute of silence to remember the fallen. The Slytherins showed that they felt unencumbered enough to play their usual style, while the Ravenclaws hadn't quite recovered to the same extent and ended up losing the match even though Cho caught the snitch. Gryffindor's match against Hufflepuff two weeks later was something Harry had been looking forward to since the beginning of the year, but when it actually rolled around the atmosphere was not as exuberant as the final match between Harry and Cedric might otherwise have been. Cedric had done a good job building a team, but Gryffindor still had most of the players from what a large proportion of the students still acknowledged had been one of the best teams to ever play at Hogwarts, even if their Beaters were playing with less than their usual flair. As a result Hufflepuff lost by a massive margin as the Chaser line racked up the score before Harry caught the Snitch and put the Badgers out of their misery.

The rest of the term leading up to the Easter Holidays saw the students determinedly going about their business. Much like Harry, Sirius and the Grangers had during the Christmas break, everyone was determined to not let the threat hanging over their heads dictate their actions and, just like the two families had discovered, they were unable to completely banish the spectre of war. Harry noticed that his Defence classes were now being attended by everyone in the castle who didn't have a Death Eater parent and a few who did. His students were invariably attentive and worked hard to master anything he taught them. Those that had lost a friend or family member in the attack worked themselves into the ground with a determination that he could easily recognize.

In the final run-up to the Easter Holidays Harry noticed that most of the students were desperate to get home and spend time with their families. For him it meant that he had a clash of wills with Hermione. She was heading home to spend time with her parents and had noticed that Harry had signed on to stay at the castle. His reasoning that he needed to spend as much time as possible in the Room working on ways to take out Riddle didn't cut mustard with her. Even though Harry had told her of the prophecy over the summer, Hermione hadn't given up hope that someone else might take the burden off of Harry's shoulders. She begged, cajoled and threatened in the hope that he might join her on the Express but Harry wouldn't be moved.

"Hermione, we both know that the more time I spend training, the greater my chances of seeing the end of this thing. Whether or not the prophecy is real is irrelevant at this point. Riddle believes it is and that it applies to us. He isn't going to let it go, so sooner or later I'm going to have to face him again and I mean to be prepared when I do." He told her the night before she was due to leave the castle. "Think of it this way: if I spend a week working on destroying him now, we might have months of holidays in the future." Hermione scowled at him before blowing out a massive sigh.

"I know, Harry. I just don't like it." she admitted.

"By the Ancients, Mi, I'm not asking you to! I certainly don't." Harry exclaimed as he pulled her into a hug. Hermione resisted for a moment before allowing herself to melt into the embrace.

"Maybe I should stay here. I could help you train." Her muffled voice sounded up from his chest.

"You should go home, Hermione. You and your parents have been having a rough year so far and I think you need to see them as much as they need to see you." Harry told her gently, not wanting Hermione caught up in his admittedly dangerous plans for the holidays.

"What about you and Sirius, Harry?" Hermione asked, her head shooting up from where she had buried it. "The two of you have been having a hard time for far longer. Don't you need to see him?"

"It's different, Mi." Harry sighed, "Sirius and I are still kind of getting used to not being alone anymore. We both agreed that we are going to ease into this. I already called him and he said that he understood my reasons for doing this and to not even think of going hunting for Riddle without him."

"Well, the same goes for me then!" Hermione said looking very fierce as she did so. "You will have to teach me what you learn when I get back because I will not be left behind when you face him."

"I promise I'll teach you what I learn, Mi." Harry said solemnly. Hermione searched his eyes for any sign that he might not mean what he said. When she found none she said "Go to bed, Harry, and remember to silence your curtains. I have a feeling you will be having a very restless night." She then claimed his mouth in a demanding kiss before sauntering up the stairs to the girls' dorms. It took Harry a moment to get his bearings before he headed up to his own dorm despite the fact that it was only just after curfew for the younger students. He could certainly do with a restless night.

:-:-:-:-:

Thursday night found Harry Potter sitting on his broom under his invisibility cloak and a Disillusionment Charm. He was hovering over the statue of Oliver Cromwell behind the Palace of Westminster as he had the previous five nights. He had decided to make use of the time he was afforded by the holidays to stake out the covert entrance to Gringotts in the hope of spotting one of the Lestranges. After the first night he had learnt to bring a book to pass the time and to occasionally sit on the statue to give his rear end a break from sitting on the broom. This was clearly a very seldom-used entrance.

Harry hoped one of the Lestranges would show up before the end of the holidays; he wouldn't be able to keep this up once classes started again. After the Express had left Harry had started on his new schedule. One of the elves would pop an invisible Harry down to London at six in the evening and he would keep watch over the secret entrance to the Goblin-run bank until six in the morning. Harry would then sleep the morning away before spending his afternoon studying, training and getting his homework done. During the hours Harry was at Hogwarts Dobby kept watch over the entrance to ensure that nobody used it even though Harry doubted that it would be used during the daytime. He just couldn't imagine a Death Eater blending in with the throngs of tourists that flocked to the centre of British government every day.

Harry had just settled down on Cromwell's shoulders with his book on Intent Reading Wards open on the Lord Protectors head when he thought he saw something moving in the darkness. He closed the book and tucked it into an expanded pocket before grabbing his broom. A moment later he was convinced that someone was moving about and while it was hardly certain that it was one of the people he had been waiting for, he felt himself tensing. If he hadn't already been focused on the possibility of an intruder he might have missed the sound of someone landing after vaulting over the wall that surrounded the Cromwell Green. As quietly as he could Harry got his feet under him and mounted his Firebolt. He watched a shadow detach itself from the wall and move towards the statue. The robes it was wearing gave away that this was clearly a witch or wizard, but kept Harry from finding out the person's identity.

Harry flew down as close as he thought he could without giving himself away in an effort to determine whether this person was worth the risk of following them down into Gringotts. He held his breath as the figure approached the lion at the base of the statue, reached out a pale, bony hand and scratched it behind the ears. The lion came to life and stood up fixing the figure with an implacable stare. Those pale hands reached up and pulled back the hood that had concealed the figure's identity. Long black hair spilled back from under the hood, but Harry never noticed. His eyes were locked onto the mysterious figure's face. The face of the woman who had murdered Sirius and tortured Hermione. With an enormous force of will Harry refrained from drawing his wand and cursing the bitch into little pieces. He focused on the fact that his luck had taken a turn for the better for once and ran through his plan for this situation in a matter of seconds.

While he was doing that the lion had concluded its inspection and stepped to the side revealing a set of stairs spiralling down into the darkness. Bellatrix moved forward quickly, lighting her wand as her foot hit the first step. Harry flew in as closely behind her as he dared, barely squeezing past the lion which was already returning to its post. As it settled down the light from the outside faded to nothing leaving Harry and Bellatrix dependent on her wand-light to see anything as they proceeded down the staircase.

Halfway down Harry nearly had the life scared out of him when Bellatrix whirled around and her wand light hit him in the eyes. He froze where he was as her eyes roved over the staircase behind her following the beam of light she was moving around. Eventually she turned around again and kept moving. Harry increased the distance between them just to be safe, or as safe as one could be when tailing a powerful and psychopathic witch. After several minutes Harry noticed that there was light pouring through an archway at the bottom of the stairs. When they reached it and Bellatrix stepped through she was immediately greeted by a goblin Harry was surprised to recognise.

"Madam Lestrange, welcome to Gringotts. My name is Griphook. How may I help you today?" Huh, the universe does love its little ironies, doesn't it? Harry thought to himself as he watched Bellatrix's mouth twist into a disgusted sneer.

"Take me down to my vault, Goblin." she demanded imperiously. Griphook bowed her towards a cart and once she had passed him straightened up with a surprisingly similar sneer of disgust on his face. By the time Bellatrix had settled herself into the cart the goblin's face was once again an impassive mask. He got into the cart in front of her and in the next moment the cart had rocketed off down the tracks and into the caverns ahead.

Harry was grateful for his Firebolt's speed as he flattened himself to the handle and raced after the little cart. He twisted and turned following along behind them and hoped that the flapping of his invisibility cloak was not audible over the rush of the wind and the rattle of the cartwheels on the tracks. He cursed himself for a fool for not having Silenced the damn thing while he had a chance. The flight was demanding enough of his attention that he knew he wouldn't be able to cast it until the cart slowed down. He had cast his spells at Hogwarts to prevent the Ministry from recording underage magic being performed and hadn't dared to take a chance to perform the Charm when Bellatrix had almost caught him; he had to wait until they were definitely on Gringotts' territory. He had found out that Gringotts was considered sovereign territory and that the Ministry's detection-net didn't penetrate their wards any more than it did the Fidelius Charm form a depressingly boring book on the establishment of the modern Ministry for Magic.

When the cart eventually did slow down Harry was surprised. They hadn't encountered the Thief's Downfall at any time during their journey. He absently thought that it must have been because their infiltration wasn't exactly subtle last time around. The tellers had clearly been suspicious and Harry had been inexperienced in the use of the Imperius Curse. Dumb luck had gotten them through that harrowing mission and he wasn't sure what to think of the fact that his entire plan essentially rested on that same dumb luck. He decided to just hope against hope that it would hold. Either way the cart's two passengers seemed to be oblivious to the fact that they had been followed.

Griphook and Bellatrix had exited the cart and were now making their way past the Ukranian Ironbelly. With the noise that Griphook was making with the Clankers Harry doubted that he needed to Silence himself now. Instead he drifted gently behind the witch and the goblin. When they got to the door Harry recognized as the entrance to the Lestrange vault Griphook pressed his hand to it and the door melted away. With barely a look at the goblin to assure herself that he was remaining outside Bellatrix swept into her vault. Harry saw that Griphook was once again directing a sneering look at the dark woman's back and decided that he wouldn't get a better chance than this.

Harry manoeuvred his broom quietly behind Griphook and drew his wand. He took a moment to gather himself and check his aim and then poured a massive amount of magic into a silent Banishing Charm aimed at Griphook's unprotected back. The charm hit the unsuspecting goblin and flung him forward straight into Bellatrix. The force of the impact carried both of them into a pile of treasure. As the two bodies hit the mountain of gold and precious jewels the traps that Harry remembered from his last visit to this vault activated.

Harry ignored the tortured screams of two people being buried by burning treasure. As soon as his Banishing Charm had struck Griphook he had cast a Summoning Charm on Hufflepuff's Cup. The golden chalice came soaring out of the vault. Harry snatched it out of the air with a Seeker's grace and gritted his teeth against the curses that were burning his hand while several copies of the cup clattered to the ground below him. It only took seconds for the curses to run their course.

As soon as the cup had stopped multiplying Harry heaved the Firebolt's handle around and raced out of there with the cup clutched to his chest. Behind him he heard the muffled clunk that signaled that the vault had resealed itself. Harry shot passed the blind dragon before it realized that there was an intruder. His timely departure didn't stop it from roaring and sending out massive gouts of flame in an attempt to hit him.

As he raced up trying to retrace the twisting path they had taken down to the vault Harry heard sirens starting to wail. Shit. They must have noticed my spells down there. The ministry might not have any monitoring charms in Gringotts, what with it being sovereign goblin territory, but it looked like the goblins did. Harry bent himself closer to the handle and tried to coax some more speed from his faithful broomstick.

After several minutes of flying Harry saw a light up ahead. Uncaring of whether he had found the entrance he had come in through Harry rocketed onward. As he came closer he saw a dozen heavily armed goblins facing him. As he got closer he heard one of them bark something in Gobbledegook and the next thing he knew the air was filled with crossbow bolts. A desperate lunge upwards took him clear of their trajectories. Once past the volley of projectiles Harry aimed his broom just above the goblins' heads. I really should have Silenced the damn cloak.

Several of the goblins were already reloading their crossbows while the rest kept their spears pointed up trying to eliminate any room for the intruder to fly through. Taking his hand off of the broom's shaft Harry flicked his wand into his hand and launched a powerful wide area cutting curse at the forest of spears facing him. Harry had to admit that the goblin guards had guts; they barely flinched when their spearheads clattered down around their ears. Instead they started swinging the butts they were left with like clubs.

As Harry shot overhead one of the goblins caught him with a glancing blow that caused him to swerve dangerously close to a wall. Harry managed to right his course by flinging himself into a barrel roll away from the wall. His control over the broom was slipping as he was hanging on to the cup with one hand and his wand and the shaft with the other. He still managed to duck through a familiar archway and wrenched his broom up. Underneath him he heard the impact of half a dozen crossbow bolts on the first steps of the staircase Bellatrix had descended less than half an hour ago.

Harry's heart was in his throat as he shot upward. He shifted the hand holding Hufflepuff's Cup so it was also gripping the shaft. His grip was enormously awkward and Harry knew it was about to get worse. As soon as he felt he had a firm enough grip with that hand he let go with the other and lifted his wand above his head and cried out "Defodio!" He watched carefully as the light of the Gouging Spell shot up ahead of him. When it had a sufficient head start Harry shot off several Reductor Curses to deal with any falling debris.

When the Gouging Spell hit the bottom of the statue that marked the entrance the effect was spectacular. Anyone standing outside would have seen the lion and Cromwell's pedestal being vaporised while the statue of the Lord Protector was launched into the air followed by several blasts of red light which exploded against pieces of rubble that were left behind. The dust that resulted from the blasts was suddenly pulled into a cone pointed at the sky as something shot through it at high speed.

As Harry shot through the London night sky he was carefully thanking every lucky star he might or might not have. He kept flying until he was over the A5, or as the wizarding world still called it: Watling Street. He followed the ancient road up past Saint Albans and landed in a field near Luton. There he removed his cloak and took a moment to let his whirlwind raid on Gringotts sink in. Thirty-five he thought dully. I've killed thirty-five people now and I seem to be planning out their demises further and further beforehand. Harry felt a shiver run down his spine as guilt threatened to slam into him only to be stopped from doing more than touching him as it hit a wall of Hermione still loves me instead. He drew in a shuddering breath and called for Dobby. Harry asked the faithful little elf to pop him back up to Shrieking Shack. Dobby canceled the Disillusionment Charm and then grabbed his master's outstretched hand and popped them out. Upon their arrival in the Shack, Harry also called for Winky.

"Winky, could you please fetch me some Burn Salve and Bruise Remover?" Harry gritted out. "Dobby, if you would get me the Sword of Gryffindor again? I have another item with the same curse as that diary." Dobby's face hardened as both elves bowed and popped out. They returned simultaneously with the requested items. "Alright, let's take care of the curse first. I'll feel better when it's gone."

Harry placed the cup on the floor of the Shack, wincing as it tore off some of his skin that had been fused to the metal by the Flagrante Curse's heat. He held out his good hand and accepted the sword from Dobby. He raised it above his head and brought it whistling down on the cup. The sword cut cleanly through the gold which peeled away from the sword like wilting petals. A moment later the horrid shriek of a dying Horcrux filled the air. Outside, a drunk wizard ran all the way back to the Three Broomsticks to tell everyone about the latest blood-curdling incident involving the most haunted building in Britain.

Inside Harry sank to the floor in relief and exhaustion. In a flash Winky was at his side quietly demanding to see her master's injured hand. When Harry held it out she tutted and started gently applying the Burn Salve to the ravaged appendage. While she was busy Harry asked Dobby to return the Sword of Gryffindor to the Headmaster's office. When Winky was done applying the Salve to his hand she popped out, only to return a moment later with a roll of gauze which she carefully wrapped around the injured limb. Next she vanished his trouser-leg and started applying the Bruise Remover to his knee. When she was done Harry thanked her for the care she had shown him and started for the trapdoor that covered the passage to the Whomping Willow.

"Where is Master going?" Winky asked in a sharp tone. Harry straightened up and blinked at the assertiveness she was showing.

"Um, my bed?" he answered her, unsure of what had brought this on.

"Master is not to be going through the tunnel. He will hurt his hand." Winky told him resolutely. She stepped up next to Harry and grabbed his good wrist. With a pop the two vanished and reappeared in Harry's otherwise empty dorm. With a snap of her fingers Harry's clothes were switched for his pyjamas.

"Master will be resting and not adventuring until he is well again." Winky told him in a lecturing tone of voice. Still slightly bemused Harry got into bed with a small smile on his lips. Seeing him doing as he was told, Winky nodded approvingly and popped out. Harry settled down after setting an alarm for the morning so that he could readjust his circadian rhythm to a pattern more suited to his classes. Five down, one to go was his last thought before he drifted off.

:-:-:-:-:

Harry was awoken from his peaceful slumber by an insistent buzzing. As he struggled to get his thoughts in order he realized the noise was coming from his nightstand. Pushing himself up into a sitting position he grabbed his glasses and saw that the noise was coming from his communication mirror vibrating to tell him he had an incoming call. Carefully he picked it up and said "Come in." The mirror's surface turned cloudy for a moment before revealing his girlfriend's worried eyes. Those same eyes performed a quick visual inspection and finding him unharmed, if a little groggy from being woken, turned hard.

"Harry James Potter! What the hell were you thinking?!" Hermione yelled into the mirror.

"Huh?" was Harry's intelligent response. "You just woke me up, Mi. What is it you think I've done?"

"You broke into Gringotts!" Whatever response Harry had been expecting, an accurate identification of his covert mission was not it.

"What? How did you know?" It belatedly occurred to Harry that his response was basically a confession.

"Harry, how could you? You told me that you were going to be training to fight Riddle. You never mentioned illegal activity that could start a war between wizards and goblins. What possessed you?" Hermione was working herself into a proper rant and Harry was thankful that she still had to breathe.

"Hermione!" He said loudly just as she was drawing breath to continue her tirade. "Do you remember the conversation we had last summer in Sirius' study?" Hermione looked wrong-footed for a moment before she realised what he was talking about. "There is one less of those things in the world right now." Hermione was clearly working through what this meant for the war, her boyfriend and her family as her face took on a thoughtful cast. Suddenly she shook herself.

"You still took a ridiculous risk, Harry. Do you have any idea of how dangerous it was to do what you did?"

"Yes, I do as a matter of fact. I am getting very curious about how you know what I did though." Harry answered her. Hermione's mirror shifted around, the blur of colours making Harry feel slightly nauseous. When the image settled down again Harry was looking at a copy of the Daily Prophet.

Death Eater Dies During Gringotts Break-In

"The paper says that two wizards broke into Gringotts and one died while the other got away, reportedly by broomstick. Sirius blew his top when he read it. He was ranting about something you asked him during the Christmas hols. I think you may be grounded come the summer." Hermione told him as he tried to read the article through the mirror. A moment later the blur of colours filled the mirror again and when it stopped Harry was once again looking at Hermione's face. "So how badly were you injured?" she asked.

"Not badly." Harry said. When Hermione kept a glare aimed at him through their mirrors Harry sighed. "A burnt hand and a bruised knee; barely worth mentioning."

"Tell me everything." Hermione demanded.

"Where are you? Or more to the point could someone be listening in?" Harry asked.

"We're at Sirius' place. Mum and Dad say that our house is almost rebuilt and it's easier for them to reach it and their practice the muggle way from here." Hermione told him. "They want to get back into the swing of things as much as possible."

"That's good to hear. Unfortunately, I'm afraid the explanation will have to wait until you get back in that case." Harry said regretfully. "Your parents can't learn Occlumency and, while the wizarding world might think they're dead I don't want to take any chances. Not with this; not when we're so close." Hermione reluctantly nodded.

"Alright then, but you'll tell me everything when I get back?" At Harry's nod she changed tack. "Have you been to see Madam Pomfrey for your injuries yet?"

"No." Seeing Hermione winding up for a lecture Harry quickly added an explanation. "I can't explain them and I'd rather not even try. You know how Dumbledore's been and you know he'll hear of it. Winky is doing a great job taking care of me." The conversation settled down after that though Harry's adventure from the night before remained something of an elephant in the room. When they said goodbye and signed off Harry collapsed back into his bed. He was awake now and wouldn't be getting back to sleep so he might as well get his day started.

After he had taken a shower Harry called Winky. She reapplied the Burn Salve, bandages and Bruise Remover. Once she was done Dobby popped in with a tray full of breakfast. Harry was a little surprised at, but grateful for his elves' solicitousness. He spent the rest of the day in the Room of Requirement reading and studying. When he fell asleep that night he couldn't help rehearsing what he would say to Hermione when she got to Hogwarts the next day.

As it turned out Hermione was able to wait until everyone had gone to bed before she was popped into Harry's bed by Winky. Knowing what she wanted Harry held up a finger to his lips before softly asking Winky to stay and also calling Dobby. He had the two elves take them to the corridor just outside the Room and requested somewhere they wouldn't be overheard.

Once they were inside Harry told Hermione all about his mission into Gringotts. He told her that he had known that Bellatrix had been given one of the Horcruxes to keep in her vault; how he hadn't had any idea of how to get it before Sirius mentioned buying Harry a Firebolt over the Christmas holidays. He told her about his conversation with Sirius and the amount of planning he had done in the following months. He told her that he had known that it would be dangerous and pointed out that any undertaking to get this particular Horcrux would have been. He outlined why he thought that this was the best option and why he felt he had to take the chance now. When Harry finished speaking Hermione was giving him a considering look.

"Was this venture into larceny the reason you encouraged me to go home, Harry?" she asked him.

"Yes and no." Harry answered with a shrug. "I won't deny that it was convenient that I could try this without you worrying, but I meant what I said when I told you it was important to spend time with your family and that it was important that I work on destroying Riddle as fast as possible." Hermione considered his answer before she slowly nodded.

"I can see that." she said carefully. "Next time though I want you to tell me beforehand. I might worry, but at least I'll know where you are. What would have happened if you had gone down there and one of those crossbow bolts had hit you in the eye? I would have had to hear that you died doing something illegal and you would never get the chance to explain it to me." There was a definite tremor in her voice by the end.

"Okay. When I go after the last Horcrux, I'll give you advance notice if I can." Harry promised quietly. Hermione nodded.

"In that case I think we need to get back to your bed, Harry." she said in a husky voice. "Dobby! Winky! Could you pop us up to Harry's bed?" The elves bowed to Hermione.

"Yes, Mistress." the answered her in unison before popping the two teens away. When they landed in Harry's bed Dobby and Winky popped out before Harry could ask them why they had changed the way they addressed Hermione. He noticed that Hermione was looking a little trout-slapped at the spot where they had last seen their smallest friends.

"I'll ask them about it tomorrow, Mi." he said as he drew her down to the mattress with him. For a while they simply held each other enjoying the physical closeness that they had been missing for a week now. Slowly, holding each other turned to kissing which eventually grew into more. Soon the two teens had forgotten about any awkwardness between them as they lost themselves in each other.

Chapter Text

As April moved into May the students of Hogwarts started to gear up towards the exams that were looming on the horizon. Harry found himself working to keep Hermione from burning herself out on a daily basis. His girlfriend had run in to the same problems he remembered her having last time around. Between studying for her O.W.L.s and trying to suppress the annual trade in fake mental stimulants she was nearly in tears. In Harry's opinion that second problem was a lot less pronounced than it had been last time around; certainly in Gryffindor Tower.

Harry occasionally found himself ordering his elves to kidnap Hermione so that he could force her to get some rest. She tended to admit after several minutes of cajoling that a well-rested mind was far more capable of retaining information, only to resume her frantic pace the next day. The elves were happy to help since they saw their actions as keeping their mistress from getting ill. Harry had asked them why they had started referring to Hermione like that and the answer was so typically elfin that he was left feeling a little lost for how to deal with it.

"Mistress is Master's mate so she is Mistress." Winky had helpfully told her master. Harry was getting the idea that she might think that he was a little slow. In the end both he and Hermione had decided to just leave the matter alone as it was hardly the most important thing they had to focus on.

Harry was also caught up in reassuring students who came up to him regularly with concerns about the war. On the one hand it was good to see the Prophet finally getting in gear and at least reporting the Death Eater attacks that were taking place regularly now; skirmishes between the aurors and Riddle's followers were being reported every other day. On the other hand, he could see what it was doing to his fellow students. There was no way to deny that there was a war on now and everyone knew it. Harry felt guilty that he couldn't tell his classmates that their families would be safe, that no one could. Whenever the war got to him too much and he slipped into brooding, Hermione would prove that she was able to take a break from her studying and distract him until he was feeling better.

Harry noticed that Snape was absent more and more often outside of his classes, which told him that the Death Eater offensive was unlikely to slow down any time soon. Harry couldn't help but feel the pressure to end this war as soon as possible and any moment not spent studying for the O.W.L.s was spent working on curse breaking techniques in the Room of Requirements. Harry was unsure of exactly which wards surrounded the ring, but he felt like he was getting close to being able to break through them.

The month of May was a busy one for Hogwarts fifth years. Not only were there two Quidditch matches that would decide the winner of the Quidditch Cup, they bracketed something Harry had forgotten all about: careers advice. Once again a notice appeared in the common room telling the fifth years when they would be expected in Professor McGonagall's office and once again they pored over the various leaflets and brochures that sang the praises of one profession or the other. As Harry read over the qualifications required to become a Gringotts Curse Breaker he remarked to Hermione "You would think they would show us these in third year as well. I never had any idea what implications my course selection would have on my employment opportunities."

"I think that the school believes that thirteen year-olds are not generally ready to consider their careers after graduation." Hermione replied absently while examining a pamflet on becoming a St. Mungo's Healer. "Besides, you came around eventually." Harry shot his girlfriend a faux offended look which she completely missed absorbed in the subject matter as she was. With a sigh Harry went back to his own reading thinking to himself that at least she wasn't piling more stress on herself if she was reading that intensely.

Harry's careers advice session with McGonagall was Monday, at half past two. Five minutes before the scheduled time Harry was standing outside the door to his Head of House's office which allowed him to see Parvati leave with a slightly worried look on her face as she hurried off to Divination. Harry gave McGonagall a chance to gather herself before he knocked on her door.

"Come in." came the familiar Scottish burr from inside. Harry opened the door and stepped inside an office he was becoming rather fond of. "Ah, Potter. Right on time. Excellent." Harry watched McGonagall shuffling through a pile of parchment until she came to the one she wanted. He also did something he hadn't done a lot of over the last few months and took a moment to appreciate how much better this situation was without Umbridge. He was drawn out of his musings by his professor clearing her throat.

"Now then, Potter. We are here today to determine whether you know what you want to do after you graduate and what you would need, in terms of your academics, to achieve that goal. Have you given any thought to what you would like to do?" Professor McGonagall was eyeing him carefully across the desk.

"Well, I considered becoming an auror but I don't know if I want to deal with dark wizards all my life. I mean, I'm pretty sure that if I manage to survive Riddle anyone else wanting to make a name for themselves as a Dark Lord will be coming after me anyway and I don't really need to go looking for more of that. I was thinking that being a Curse Breaker sounded like fun." Harry responded. He was thinking out loud more than speaking from any deep contemplation on the subject, but it was true none the less. Professor McGonagall nodded thoughtfully as she listened to him talk.

"Considering how well you took to Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, I believe you might do well in that field. If you are serious about it I would recommend taking Runes, Arithmancy, Charms, Transfiguration, Potions, Defence and Herbology as your N.E.W.T.s. It is as hard a course load as you could ask for and before last year I would have only recommended it to Ms. Granger but I think you have proven that you will be up to the task. I will also tell you that these courses would allow you a chance at just about any career in our world." She seemed to be considering something else and after a moment spoke up again.

"Mr. Potter, while it may not satiate your need for adventure, I would ask you to also consider another career." Harry blinked in surprise. He couldn't remember McGonagall offering him this advice in the other timeline.

"This past year has rather clearly demonstrated that you have a significant talent as a teacher. I hope that you would at some point consider coming back to Hogwarts and allowing younger generations to benefit from that talent as you have done this year. I know that I would feel reassured if you were to be my successor teaching Transfiguration if you didn't choose another subject." Harry was absolutely flabbergasted by the turn this conversation had taken. "I will say that Hogwarts usually demands a Mastery in the subject one wishes to teach and an Outstanding mark on the N.E.W.T. exams for at least two other subjects." Harry nodded dumbly as he tried to absorb the fact that Professor McGonagall wanted him as part of the teaching staff at Hogwarts. Somewhere in the midst of the shock he could feel a tendril of pride that a teacher he respected that much wanted him as a colleague. That she considered him a good replacement was one of the highest compliments he thought he'd ever gotten.

"While we are on the subject, Mr. Potter, I have a request to make. As you know the O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. examinations start in June. Normally if a subject has a practical part to the exam that subject's professor will oversee the practical. The actual examination will be administered by representatives of the Wizarding Examinations Authority but the professor is there to keep the students who have yet to take their exam calm and direct them to the proper examiner. There has been some debate amongst the staff about how we should approach this for the Defence exam since we haven't had a teacher for the subject since the beginning of the year; no teacher except you that is." Harry could see where this was going quite easily.

"You want me to supervise the exams, Professor?" he asked quietly. She gave a solemn nod.

"If you are willing."

"I'm not sure how that would work, Ma'am. I'm taking the O.W.L. after all. I'd need to send myself to an examiner at some point." Harry pointed out.

"If you agree to do this, the Defence practicals will be held on the last day of the exams for both O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. students so that this wouldn't interfere with your studying. We would ask you to take your written exam with the others but your practical during the Muggle Studies exam. I have already cleared this with Madam Marchbanks, the governor of the WEA."

"Would it really make that much difference?" Harry wondered.

"We find that the students are calmer when they see that they have the support and belief of the one who has taught them the subject. That calmness allows them to put in better performances. From a personal perspective it is also quite gratifying to see the fruits of your labour." McGonagall told him. Harry bowed his head in thought as he considered the matter carefully. He didn't think that the switch in schedule would bother him too much. In fact it gave him an extra day where he could relax, knowing that he had done all he could for his own exams. If it was true that something this simple could help boost his classmates' confidence then it would be petty of him not to do it; after teaching them for a year he might as well see it through to the end. He looked up to find Professor McGonagall watching him anxiously.

"I'll do it, Ma'am." he told her. Harry had to fight not to let his surprise show when his teachers usually stern face morphed into a beaming smile; he thought gaping like a fish might be rude.

"Excellent, Potter! Truly marvelous. You are doing a great thing." the professor exclaimed. After some reassurances that she would walk him through the proper procedure for dealing with the exams from a professor's point of view Harry was excused from the meeting. He made his way up to Gryffindor Tower in a bit of a daze. He wasn't there long before his classmates came streaming in. Hermione saw him instantly and was worried by the expression on her boyfriend's face.

"Harry? Did something happen in your meeting with Professor McGonagall?" she asked carefully as she sat down next to him. Harry looked at her and blinked once before he started telling her what had just happened. When he got to the point where McGonagall told him she wanted him as a Hogwarts Professor Hermione couldn't suppress an excited squeal and kissed him thoroughly. When he told her about their teacher's request regarding the Defence practicals during the exams a fire seemed to light in her eyes and she dragged him off the couch and out of the portrait hole. The last thing anyone in Gryffindor Tower heard her say was "Have I told you lately how hot it is that you're a Professor?" The two teens were not seen again until curfew and most of the other residents of the tower were simply thankful that they had a night off from a thoroughly overwrought Hermione Granger.

:-:-:-:-:

The week after the careers advice was an important one for the Gryffindor Quidditch team. With Hufflepuff beating Slytherin two weeks ago, Gryffindor were the runaway favourites to win the Cup. Beating Ravenclaw would make the cup theirs without a doubt. If they lost to Ravenclaw by less than 130 points they would still be the champions. If they lost by more than 130 points Ravenclaw would win the Cup. With the entire Gryffindor team fit and in form nobody was giving the Eagles much of a chance.

The day of the match dawned clear and bright. It might have been a little warmer than what Harry would have described as perfect Quidditch weather but that wouldn't dent anyone's mood today. The team met in the common room and headed down to breakfast together accompanied by the usual coterie of friends and hangers on. In the Great Hall Harry and Hermione were joined by Luna who was very carefully not wearing anything that could be construed as Gryffindor or Ravenclaw colours. She was holding a pole with fabric wrapped around the top half.

"Luna, do you happen to have one of those pierced dragon flags there?" Harry asked with apprehension in his voice.

"Why, yes Harry." Luna told him airily as she sat down next to him and started gathering her breakfast while humming tunelessly to herself. Once she had assembled mango, cheddar and carrots between two pieces of toast she looked up at Harry again. "I have never really felt like a part of Ravenclaw House, but they have been making an effort this year to not pick on me." Luna delivered this message in her usual dreamy tone. "I wouldn't feel right cheering for or against them, so I will simply be cheering for my big brother." She apparently considered the conversation closed as she took a big bite out of her oddly colour coordinated sandwich. She resumed humming a wandering melody around the food in her mouth only stopping occasionally to swallow. Harry decided to let the matter go, mostly because he couldn't fathom where he would even begin arguing with Luna.

Over the course of breakfast most of Gryffindor House came up to the team to wish them luck in the match. The first years were happily anticipating the party in the common room when the team pulled of a victory they felt was such a forgone conclusion the Ravenclaws might as well stay on the ground. When Angelina stood and ordered the team to the dressing room there was a loud cheer from the rest of the house. As he walked out the door Harry could have sworn he saw several of the first and second years pulling Hermione and Luna out of their seats with excited faces that the two girls responded to with kind smiles.

When they got to the dressing room the whole team became more serious. They changed into their Quidditch robes and settled down on the benches to face a decidedly grim looking Angelina.

"Right you lot. This is our day. Today we're going to win the Cup for Gryffindor. We were robbed of this last year by the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but this year we've shown everyone that Gryffindor still fields the best team in the school. I intend to show them that one last time." she began passionately.

"I thought the Tri-Wiz was pretty cool; and Harry won it anyway." Derek muttered not quite quietly enough.

"Cheers, Derek." Harry grinned at him while the Weasley twins collapsed in laughter on the boy's other side. Derek's face grew red as he realised he had been overheard.

"Yes, well, this is Quidditch." Angelina said trying to get the group back under control. "For Fred, George, Alicia and me this is our last shot at the Cup and I mean to win it. Fred, George, you know Samuels and Inglebee from last year. They take their time trying to find the best angles so I want you all over them." Fred and George jumped up and snapped off salutes.

"Derek, their Chasers usually pull massively complicated plays with relatively simple finishes, so wait until you see them shoot. This game is going to test your reflexes, understood?" Derek nodded.

"Katie, Alicia, they still have Page on the hoops. He tries to play the probabilities so we'll be going for the Fred and George approach and playing like we just escaped from a madhouse."

"Oi!"

"That's our job!" Angelina ignored the interruption and turned to the final member of the team.

"Harry, the sooner you end this, the sooner we have that Cup. You know Chang's going to be switching between watching your arse and Diggory's so just keep an eye out for the Snitch." Harry grinned and winked at his captain who scowled in return. "Let's get out there and give our Housemates a reason to cheer!" She finished her speech to a standing ovation from Harry and the twins, complete with whistling and hooting.

As they lined up in the tunnel Harry listened to Lee's introduction of the Ravenclaw team, absently aware of the fact that it was also the last time he would be providing the commentary. Harry realised he must have gotten lost in his thoughts while he waited as he noticed the team around him start moving to the tunnel mouth.

"Presenting today's favourites to win the Cup: the Gryffindor Lions! Led out by Captain and Chaser Angelina Johnson. She is joined up front by Bell and Spinnet. This will be the last time we see this trio in action and next year's Captain has their work cut out for them trying to find a Chaser line that works half as well. Also in their last game at Hogwarts: the Unbeatable Beaters Fred and George Weasley. Guarding the hoops will be young Derek Nordstrom. Last, but certainly not least: the man who will finish today's game, the Knight of the Light, the Pride of the Lions, the Hero of Hogsmeade, Harry James POTTER!" And hopefully that will be the last time I have to hear that.

As soon as he felt the wind rushing past his face Harry felt all his stress and the weight of his Housemates' expectations fall away. He closed his eyes and shot across the field performing a series of aerial acrobatics that brought cheers from the crowd that Harry never even heard.

"Merlin's Sack! It looks like Potter's up for it today."

"JORDAN! Five points from Gryffindor and if you cannot keep that despicable language out of your commentary it will be detention until you graduate!"

"Yes, Professor. Sorry, Professor. I meant to say, of course, that Chang's going to have her work cut out for her if Potter keeps flying like that. The teams are taking their positions. The captains are shaking hands aaaaaaaand we're off! Bell takes the Quaffle right from the whistle and tosses a long ball up to Spinnet. Spinnet streaking down the pitch...she takes aim and...no, she lays it off to- did Johnson just kick the Quaffle?! GOAL! Gryffindor opens the score, ten-nil!"

Harry smiled to himself as he heard Lee's commentary. It sounded like Angelina had been serious when she demanded that the Chasers play the way they imagined Fred and George would. Harry settled into a simple searching pattern, unsurprised to find Cho in his way every time he turned. He was almost disappointed that she was still trying that in their third game.

"You know, Cho, unlike Cedric I can keep from looking at you for a whole game. Shouldn't you be putting more effort into finding the Snitch?" He called over playfully.

"Unless the Snitch shows up in front of Hermione's face I'm pretty sure I'll be alright." she called back just as cheekily. Harry was about to reply when he noticed a glint of gold far below him. Cho was surprised for a moment when Harry abandoned their banter and seemed to drop out of the sky but cursed and chased after him when she saw his path taking him towards the Snitch. Harry's world had narrowed to the little ball ahead of him as he rocketed down at a speed many other Seekers would call suicidal. He didn't hear Lee screaming himself hoarse in the megaphone with absolutely no interference from Professor McGonagall whose attention was riveted to the scene in front of her.

The Snitch seemed to sense that it was about to be caught and started flying as erratically as it could. Harry raced after it barely even aware of dodging a Bludger and Roger Davies' blatant attempt at blatching. The small golden ball shot upwards in an effort to gain more room to manoeuvre but its pursuer was relentless. By now the entire stadium was holding its breath as a blur of gold followed by a streak of red shot towards the Ravenclaw goals. Harry flattened himself to the shaft of his Firebolt eking out every ounce of speed he could and stretched out his right hand. Fred or George saw the Ravenclaw Keeper making a move to intercept their friend and smashed a Bludger at him that forced him to divert his course. Harry didn't notice as he was almost to the Snitch. He managed to grab the fluttering golden ball right as they shot through the left goal hoop. As soon as he had the Snitch in his hand it was as if all the sound in the stadium slammed into him again.

"Potter does it! He does it! I can't believe I saw that catch! Thank you, Harry Potter! Gryffindor win the match! Gryffindor win the Cup!" Lee was screaming into the megaphone while jumping up and down like a madman. Harry barely had time to register that McGonagall was punching the air and cheering next to Lee before three happily screaming Chasers slammed into him, hugging him within an inch of his life. The twins and Derek soon joined them and the whole team floated down to the pitch that was already being swarmed by ecstatic Gryffindors.

As soon as they landed the group hug was pulled apart by fervent well-wishers. Harry's back was already starting to ache from the many slaps it had received. Suddenly the crowd seemed to open up in front of him and Hermione was there, throwing her arms around him and pressing her lips to his. He could feel her tongue asking for entrance and was happy to deepen the kiss. He would have remained lost to the world if several of the first years hadn't been pushed over and fallen into them. Breaking apart Harry and Hermione quickly set about making sure that nobody was hurt but the younger students seemed utterly oblivious to any possible pains as they joined the upperclassmen in screaming themselves hoarse.

The group settled somewhat when a loud Cannonblast Charm sounded over the pitch. Dumbledore and McGonagall had come out onto the pitch. Dumbledore was carrying the Quidditch Cup and putting away his wand.

"Yes, well done Gryffindor on winning the Quidditch Cup this year. To the other Houses better luck next year. Now, let's see, where is Ms. Johnson?" the old wizard asked. Angelina was pushed out of the crowd. "Excellent. I am happy to present this to you, Ms. Johnson. Congratulations." he said as he passed the massive silver cup to Angelina who held it up to the crowd of Gryffindors' to renewed cheering. The cup was passed around the players who each lifted it up to a loud roar from the surrounding students. Once it had made its rounds Angelina took the cup once again and handed it to a proud Minerva McGonagall. That night Gryffindor Tower was turned on its head as the Weasley twins pulled out all the stops for what might well be their last party at Hogwarts. Harry and Hermione didn't chivvy the younger students up to bed for once as the noise would probably have been enough to overcome any Silencing Charms anyway.

:-:-:-:-:

The rush of winning the Quidditch Cup couldn't last forever. The fifth and seventh years only had two weeks left before their exams and most of Gryffindor's team this year fell into one of those two years. Harry was reviewing far more intensively than he had last time around, determined to improve on the results he remembered. The professors were mercilessly drilling their students in their final review classes and some students noted that Harry was doing the same in his Defence classes.

During their last Transfiguration class before the exams the fifth year Gryffindors were given their exam schedules and a stern talking to concerning the use of Auto-Answering Quills, Remembralls, Detachable Cribbing Cuffs, Self-Correcting Ink and the like. Harry pinched the bridge of his nose as he noticed Hermione trembling and looking extremely distressed, probably at the idea of having to keep an eye out for those things as well as the already roaring trade in stimulants and amulets that they had been trying to stamp out over the past weeks.

That night Harry dragged Hermione down to dinner arguing that this was the only time they ever saw Luna anymore since they were so busy studying. He also absolutely forbade her bringing along Achievements in Charming to study at the table. Finally, he got her downstairs and sitting in front of plate. With no study materials around, Hermione's anxiety had her wolfing down her food in a way she would have been chiding Weasley for in the last timeline. Luna, bless her, seemed to realise what Harry was trying to achieve and set about distracting her friend with a will. The two girls were just getting into a discussion on the merits of charming pudding, with Hermione's contributions ranging from exasperated to incredulous when the doors to the Great Hall opened and a small group of ancient looking witches and wizards walked in.

"Ahh, Professor Marchbanks, honoured members of the WEA, welcome once again to Hogwarts." Dumbledore proclaimed as he stood up with his arms spread out widely.

"Again with the dramatics, boy?" Marchbanks demanded in a voice that sounded...dusty. Harry wasn't sure how he had come to the conclusion that a voice could sound dusty but that thought was drowned under his mirth that someone had called Dumbledore 'boy' and that the old wizard looked mightily put out with it. The examiners made their way up to the Head Table where several place settings and comfortable looking chairs appeared out of thin air. As the examiners settled in Harry turned to Hermione and saw that she was about to have a panic attack.

"That's them, Harry. Those are the people who will decide our futures." Hermione whispered tremulously.

"Calm down, Mi." Harry said as soothingly as he could while drawing her into a hug. "We're deciding our own futures; they're just watching us do it. You know you are more prepared than any of us and you are going to do brilliantly." It took Harry quite a while to get Hermione calm again and he knew that it would not be the last time he would have to do that before the end of the exams.

Breakfast on Monday was a tense affair. As the majority of the school got up to go to their classes the fifth and seventh years stayed behind in the Entrance Hall waiting to re-enter the Great Hall and take their first written exam of the upcoming two week period. Many of the younger students and sixth years wished their friends good luck as they left. Normally there would be a written exam in the morning and a practical in the afternoon but this year there was an exception for the O.W.L. students who would be taking their Defence practical on the morning of the last day. The last slot would usually have been filled with the Muggle Studies exam which would now follow the Defence Theory exam. The N.E.W.T. students would have their Defence exam on the last day in the usual fashion.

The O.W.L.s that year would start off with the Charms exam. Harry breezed through the written part. Despite knowing that it wasn't likely he felt like it was an easier paper than the last time. He found it so easy that he finished well within the time limit and spent the rest of the time checking his answers and making minor corrections. The practical was a bit of a shock though.

Harry was once again standing in front of Professor Tofty and feeling more nervous than he would have expected. When the old examiner asked Harry to make an egg cup do cartwheels Harry flicked his wand and had the piece of pottery doing acrobatic stunts for a full thirty seconds. When he looked up at Professor Tofty for his next task he found the man looking back at him open-mouthed.

"Mr. Potter, you can perform non-verbal magic?" the examiner asked incredulously. Harry blinked and realised that he had been so focused on the assignment that he had forgotten to use the incantation.

"Ah. Well, yes. Sorry about that." Harry said feeling sheepish. The professor must have wanted to check that he knew the incantation as well.

"Not at all, lad, not at all; extra credit I should say. Please perform as many of the tasks non-verbally as you can. Just for correctness sake: what would be the proper incantation in this situation?" After that Harry spent the rest of the practical exams casting non-verbally and occasionally giving the incantation afterwards when asked for it.

Harry's Defence exam was one of the hardest he had to sit during his O.W.L.s. At first he worried that he had improperly prepared his students but after a while he realised that the examiners must also be trying to get a feel for how he had taught all his classes including those at N.E.W.T. level.

During his Defence practical he was the only student in the room. He was being examined by Professor Marchbanks and Professor McGonagall had come along to observe. Harry had to admit that the vote of confidence settled him down and was happy that he had agreed to do the same for his students. The exam took longer than he remembered but ended in the same way, with him casting his Patronus. As he was leaving Harry noticed that the two professors seemed to be deep in conversation and he decided that he just didn't want to know what they were saying.

:-:-:-:-:

When the final day of exams arrived there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Many of the students who had spent the past two weeks being grilled on every speck of knowledge they had about magic could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Harry had spent the evening before in the Defence classroom helping his students review for the exam. He had been told that, like he had suspected, he had been given a slightly different practical and that it wouldn't do his friends any good if he gave them an overview of what he had done. Harry took that advice to heart and simply tried to prepare the fifth and seventh years for any eventuality.

At breakfast Professor McGonagall asked him to stay behind for a moment. Many students started whispering when they heard that, especially considering the disgruntled expression that the headmaster was wearing. Harry gave Hermione a gentle kiss and wished her good luck before he headed up to the front of the Hall.

"Here you are, Potter. These are the class lists for your students." Professor McGonagall began, "Just make sure they are directed to a free examiner and that they don't panic too much. Any questions?" Harry shook his head. She had gone over this and more with him over the weekend and he was confident that he would be able to handle what was frankly a very easy task. "Alright then. Good luck to you and your students."

Just as Harry turned to leave he noticed Snape rushing into the Hall. The Potions Master didn't even stop to sneer at his least favourite student but instead hurried over to the headmaster and murmured something into the old man's ear. They both got up and left the Hall quickly enough that Harry started to worry that Riddle might have decided to move again. He just hoped that the Order didn't get too many people killed.

Once the Hall was empty Harry watched as the examiners waved their wands in a coordinated and practiced motion. The House tables moved themselves over to the walls and stacked themselves. The benches leapt up on top of the tables and in no time at all there was an open area in the middle of the Great Hall. Half of the examiners nodded to the others and left the Hall. The remaining witches and wizards spread themselves out and when they were done Professor Marchbanks called out "Whenever you're ready you can start sending them, Professor Potter." Harry blinked for a moment at being addressed like that by the governor of the WEA but shook it off and moved over to the Entrance Hall.

When he walked into the Entrance Hall he looked around at his classmates standing around nervously. Harry cleared his throat and the susurration of voices stopped as they all turned to look at him.

"Alright, everyone, the Defence practical is about to begin. I know that you all have what it takes to not just pass this exam, but do well on it. Just be confident in yourself and your abilities." Harry spoke up using the carrying voice that he had developed during his Defence classes.

"Wait. Does that mean that you're not taking the exam with us?" Ernie Macmillan called out.

"I took my practical earlier this week so that I could oversee the practicals for you guys and the seventh years." Harry answered him. "Are there any more questions before we begin?" No one else spoke up, but there was a quiet scoff from Malfoy. "In that case good luck to you all. Hannah, Susan, Terry and Mandy, you're up first."

The four students he had named separated themselves from the group and followed Harry back into the Great Hall where pointed them each towards a different examiner and gave each of them some words of encouragement. He settled in to watch how they did. As he saw each of them performing the spells they were asked to he started to feel pride in their accomplishments. He remembered the troubles that they had had with various spells and while some of their casting made him want to walk over to them and give a quick word of advice, they really were doing quite well. At the end of the examination all four waved excitedly at him before they left through the antechamber where the Tri-Wizard champions had first assembled. Once they were out of the room Harry called in the next group.

The morning continued in that vein. Most of the students were bolstered by seeing him there with the exception of several Slytherins who seemed to take his presence as an insult to their education. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to happen until he called in Hermione, Anthony Goldstein, Goyle and Daphne Greengrass. When he directed Hermione to go to Professor Tofty she said "Yes, Professor." in her sultriest voice while lightly dragging her fingertips across his chest. Even in his flustered state he could hear the old man cackling away. When Neville came in, Harry gave him a clap on the shoulder.

"I know that you are going to do well, Nev. Remember that you know that as well." he said before sending his friend to Professor Marchbanks.

When the testing finally came to an end with Turpin, Vane, Weasley and Zabini, Harry was approached by Professors Tofty and Marchbanks.

"Professor Potter, what do you say to a bite of lunch in the staff room before we take a look at your seventh years?" Professor Tofty called out as soon he felt he was near enough. Harry thought about it for a moment before he agreed. He thought that Hermione would understand. She'd probably be less understanding if I turned them down, come to think of it.

Harry spent a surprisingly fun lunch talking about his classes with the examiners. They all seemed very interested in what he had done and when he stopped to think it over for a moment that made sense; they had made careers out of evaluating education after all. He told them how it started out as a study group and had somehow grown into something that more closely resembled an actual class. He happily talked about how his students had grown and how proud he was of them. He explained his methods to them and asked them how he might improve them.

The talk wasn't all business though. Professor Tofty especially enjoyed himself when Hermione came up in conversation. When he heard that she and Harry were dating he chortled and told Harry "She's a firecracker, that one, a real firecracker. You hang on to her, lad, y'hear?" Harry blushed when he admitted that he had every intention of hanging on to Hermione. Towards the end of their lunch together Professor Marchbanks commented that she hadn't seen such a competent class take the Defence O.W.L. in a good twenty years.

"I don't know what Albus is playing at, but if that boy has any sense he'll be offering you a job before the year is out. I heard Minnie's already got her eye on you. That girl always had good common sense." Harry couldn't help but feel a swell of pride at the compliment paid to him. Maybe I should take another look at McGonagall's suggestion of becoming a teacher.

When the N.E.W.T. students arrived they were surprised, but happy to see Harry there to support them during their exam. The afternoon passed strangely for Harry as he once again felt the gratification that Professor McGonagall had mentioned when she talked him into this and at the same time started growing unaccountably more nervous as the day wore on. At the end of the day the examiners invited him to join them for dinner as he had for lunch. Harry agreed to accompany them to the Great Hall, but told them that he would like to eat with Hermione and his friends now that the exams were over. He soon discovered that even if he was ancient, Professor Tofty was every bit as capable of making off colour remarks as Sirius was.

As the group made its way down to the Great Hall Harry thought back to the start of the day and the way Snape had come rushing in. He couldn't shake the feeling that Riddle might have launched an assault on the Department of Mysteries in an effort to get the prophecy. There was nothing there for him to find and the ministry had already admitted that he was back so, aside from hoping that he didn't cause too many casualties, Harry wasn't about to get involved. Still there was that pervasive sense that something was wrong, that he was somehow missing something; something important.

:-:-:-:-:

Hermione woke with a gasp to a harsh pain in her ribs. She struggled to get her bearings as she looked around. She was in a cold, dank cellar of some sort from the look of things. Manacles dug into her wrists and kept her shackeled to the wall behind her.

"Ah, you are awake. Welcome, mudblood." Her head snapped around at the cold sibilant voice coming from somewhere above her. She had only ever heard the sight in front of her described by Harry: bone white skin, spidery hands with long fingers, a skull-like head with no nose and burning red eyes.

"Riddle." she managed to spit out. The pain in her chest flared as the Dark Lord's boot lashed out and kicked her in the side.

"You are well matched to the boy...Hermione, was it? He never knows when to keep his mouth shut either and if young Draco is to be believed you are worse." Those inhuman eyes were inspecting her with a lazy curiosity. "Yes, well matched indeed. That will make it all the sweeter when I use you to ensure his demise. You see, you will have the great honour of participating in a ritual that will allow me to absorb Harry Potter's magical core into my own."

"Fuck you. I'd never help you." Hermione ground out. Facing this madman might be Harry's specialty, but she wasn't about to roll over and surrender even if she was laying on the ground, curled up in pain.

"That is rather the point, yes. I require a virginity, forcibly taken, from one he cares for." Riddle was almost purring as he leant over her. "There is such beauty to it, mudblood: the more you fight me, the better. My blood and his death will seal it." Riddle's were glittering with malevolent enjoyment which shifted to confusion when he heard choking laughter coming from his captive. "What is so amusing, my dear mudblood? It would be rude not to share such a story with your host."

"Your plan has already failed." Hermione managed with a positively vicious grin. "Did you really think that Harry and I wouldn't have gone that far in our relationship?" Judging by the surprise on Riddle's face that had been exactly what he had thought. Hermione felt a pressure on her mind and clamped down her Occlumency shields.

"Occlumency." the fiend above her hissed. "Taught by Harry Potter, no doubt. I could tear your mind to shreds to find the information...but no, that would end your suffering prematurely. Coitus Revelio." Hermione couldn't help thinking it was surreal that a psychotic criminal would use the same spell Professor McGonagall had used on Harry months ago. When nothing happened after the spell was cast Riddle gave an angry wordless hiss.

"So it is true. You are worthless to me." He seemed to consider something. "Although...you may provide some entertainment for my men when they gather here tonight to witness the death of Harry Potter. It would certainly have an effect on that wretched boy to see your used and broken body leaking the seed of the worthy. Yes, I think that will be your fate. Rest well, mudblood. You will be busy tonight." With that Riddle spun on his heel and left the cell, letting the door fall ominously shut behind him.

Hermione immediately tried to get loose from the chains that bound her to the wall but nothing she did made them budge. A quick check had soon revealed that her wand had been taken. Desperate to stave off the tendril of despair that was starting to coil in her mind Hermione thought about Harry. Please, Harry, get me out of here. Please, my Champion.

Chapter Text

Harry and the examiners came into the Hall together in good spirits as they all felt the exams had ended on a high note. Harry still felt a little overwhelmed at the praise he had received from these experienced educators and was giving a career as a professor when all this was over some serious thought. He couldn't wait to tell Hermione all about his experiences. As thoughts of his girlfriend crossed his mind he automatically scanned the Great Hall for her. Not seeing her he uneasily decided that she was probably in the Room or the common room of Gryffindor Tower and forced his attention back to the still bantering examiners around him.

As they walked towards the expanded head table a shadow detached itself from the rafters and soared down towards Harry. A loud caw grabbed the young wizard's attention and he held up his arm in confusion for the large raven that was approaching him. When the bird had landed Harry saw that it had a scroll tied to its leg. As soon as Harry had removed the scroll the bird took wing and flew out of the Hall. Seeing that the scroll was indeed addressed to him Harry unrolled it and started to read.

Harry Potter,

I have your little mudblood whore. Unless you wish to receive her piece by piece via owl post you will come and find me. I would tell you to come alone but that won't be necessary as we're under a Fidelius Charm. Dear Hermione awaits you here: the throne room of Lord Voldemort is in Riddle Manor, Little Hangleton. Careful now, don't burn yourself.

Lord Voldemort, the Immortal

As soon as Harry had finished the letter it burst into flames. His thoughts were racing in an attempt to come up with a plan. Judging by the content of the letter Riddle must be planning some kind of trap. Not like it matters if the bastard has Hermione. The very thought sent fury boiling through his veins like lava. Magic started leaking out of Harry as his control slipped under his rage. A powerful wind started blowing around him like a tornado tearing at his robes and hair. All of Hogwarts was treated to a demonstration of exactly how powerful Harry Potter could be and for most it far exceeded what they had imagined.

Harry spun on his heel as a red mist descended over his vision. Riddle had gone too far this time and Harry was going to make him pay. As he stalked out of the Great Hall he called out to his elves.

"Winky, my armour! Dobby, get the sword!" The elves popped in with the requested items as Harry passed through the doors. He ducked into an unused classroom, threw his robes to the side and started pulling on his armour. He took his invisibility cloak from his schoolbag and stuffed it into a pouch on his waist that had once held balls of Gillyweed. He was just putting on the gloves he had added to the ensemble after the graveyard when the door opened and Luna and the twins burst in.

"Harry! What's happening?!" Luna cried out. Harry slid the Sword of Gryffindor into its scabbard as he answered her.

"Riddle's taken Hermione. I'm going after her." Luna looked shocked at the news that one of her best friends might be in the hands of a madman.

"Are you sure she's gone, little brother? How would Death Eaters even get in here?" Fred asked carefully. Harry hesitated for a moment before he turned to the elves who were still waiting in the room.

"Dobby, Winky, check the Come and Go Room. If Hermione's not there, report back immediately." The two elves popped out Harry pulled the Marauders' Map from his bag and spread it out on the floor before activating it. All four friends pored over it looking for a dot labelled 'Hermione Granger'. Dobby soon popped back in and reported that the Room was empty. Minutes later they were forced to conclude that Hermione really wasn't in the castle.

"I didn't see Snape or Malfoy either. It may not mean anything, but if it does Dumbledore's going to be out a Potions teacher and a prefect." Harry growled as he strapped the sword to his back. Folding the map back up he handed it to the twins. "Keep an eye on it 'til I get back, yeah?" he said. For once neither Fred nor George had words to lighten the mood. Instead they grabbed him in a hug.

"Be careful, little brother." Fred began.

"And bring her back." George continued. When the twins