Training Montages



Hope all of you and your families are well in this time of crisis, and are adhering to all norms of social distancing, and taking a stance against hoarding, rumour-mongering and such.

Live long, and prosper.

I try not to write long notes, but a long absence necessitated it slightly. Normally, I would not have posted or written right now, but the three entrance examinations I have to appear for have been postponed. So, well…

Thanks to all readers, favouriteers, followers and the reviewers: buterflypuss, surviversp, KnowInsight, ObsessedWithHPFanFic, mwinter1, alix33 (as usual, special thanks for the corrections; sorry, I have been too lazy to incorporate them lately), Kairan1979, Rori Potter, CoolFanfictionLover, stevefocus, Master of Energy, Deathday Party Planner, sachaelle, The Ghostly Minion, FluffyPandaShip, berserkerbeast, Dr. Stranger, Cheryl, tlyxor1 and Guest.

For those who wanted more action or romance or both, I beg your patience. This story is L.O.N.G. Leadership might mean many things – being an inspiration, leading from the front, commanding loyalty, even being powerful or in a position of authority. But it also means learning, understanding, and also taking truly despicable decisions, for the larger picture. As much as it is reviled, the idea of the Greater Good is really not abhorrent, once it is well-defined.

I am not going to apologise for the long delay. Indian Exam Systems are in a class of their own, and I only get so much free time per week. Between writing fanfiction and football, there's no choice. Football wins, always. Right now nobody's winning, so I have just put everything down here.


"Have you thought of what to ask him?" Luna asked Harry, as they related to her the latest happenings. It was like clockwork at lunch every day, when the halls were packed with students rushing in from some lecture, scribbling last minute additions to their homework and gobbling up food without bothering to chew properly. Naturally, Luna, who always managed to escape notice unless she wanted to, was never noticed even when she sat at the wrong table. It was a bloody inconvenience that she wasn't a Gryffindor, which apart from her sleeping arrangements, her lecture timings and her uniform, she was. She might have had friends in her house lately due to the DA, but her best and closest friends were all Gryffindors.

"Hmm... yes, sort of," Harry replied, then fully swallowed his morsel and continued, "'m thinking of pulling a Luna."

"You have an extra Luna?" Luna asked in her inimitably literal manner.

"There's more of her?" Ron asked fearfully. It would have been a fair approximation of a new boggart for him. An angry Luna was unimaginably, unspeakably dangerous, while appearing deceptively innocent and benign, and the others were not unsympathetic towards their friend but were thankful that only Ron really knew. Sometimes it was just best to keep each one for his own and raise a toast for the fallen bloke.

"Is this like the rabbit muggle magicians pull out of a hat?" Luna wondered, ignoring Ron. "I wouldn't mind being a rabbit."

Knowing very well that Luna was not that literal-minded at all, Harry grinned and pointed his fork at her as he declared, "That's just what I mean!"

"You have an extra Luna!" Ron moaned.

"I am a rabbit like my Patronus! Hmm, maybe a hare then..."

Somehow, Harry and Hermione's famous wordless conversations had extended to include Neville and Ginny, as the four decided that they were sharing a very odd hallucination about their very odd friends.

"What I was saying," Harry continued as Ron edged further and further from the dangerous Ravenclaw and was nearly too close to his other nightmare, his girlfriend, She-Whose-Love-Cannot-Be-Tamed, who was giving him the cold shoulder since his rescue from the vociferous welcome, "was that I will try to befuddle him with something unrelated and try to become friendly. I think it's worth a try."

"Yes, you are right," Ginny agreed, beaming and nodding vociferously, and behaving as if her brother and her childhood friend did not exist at that moment, as the group steadily, but not slowly beat a hasty retreat from three very, very odd people.

"Why do we always leave Ron?" Hermione asked Harry sotto voce. "I mean it's funny, pitiably so, to see him deal with the two, but a bit repetitive now..."

"You're right," he mused. "Maybe the twins will have some ideas?"

"NO!" protested Ginny and Hermione in unison, shuddering as they imagined the train-wreck that would be.

"It violates the man-code, Harry. We are limited upon the number of times we can let one of ours be taken by enemy forces," Neville cautioned sagely.

"But there is a provision for funny situations..."


"I get a pass because I saved him once."

"That is just as absurd as people deciding that life-debts are enforceable things and wanting to use them to make the people do whatever they want."

"We can amend the code."

"No Harry. Believe me, you will regret it."

Hermione just shook her head at the two, and then left with Ginny to grab their wayward duo. It was irritating. She just didn't get enough dialogues as incentive while she was stuck being the voice of reason most of the time. Perhaps she would have to break the fourth wall, and first find whoever was writing whatever passed for a plot and dialogues and slap the idiot silly. This was terribly lazy writing for when there was an attempt to force-feed the readers some absolutely lame attempts at humour.


"Professor, may I have a bit of your time?"

Hermione, Neville and Ron, were, as usual waiting outside. Slughorn had already proven himself to be adept at evading Voldemort and Dumbledore as well, the latter while living in the same castle. A bunch of teenagers crowding the man out was hardly going to pose a challenge. So, while Harry's plan at catching the man was a bit childish at first hearing and as unsubtle as the message written on the walls during the Chamber of Secrets fiasco as well as time-consuming, it was also the only realistic way forward.

"Harry!" exclaimed Slughorn with all his exuberance, a trait that always triggered Harry's paranoia. "Of course, how may I be of help?"

Harry dithered for a bit before he ventured, " request is a bit of the personal nature sir, if it is alright?"

"Is it now?"

"Yes, sir, I mean…uh..."

"You can speak to me at any time, my boy," Slughorn cajoled.

"You taught my mum and dad, didn't you?"

"I did indeed!"

"Yeah, well, everyone only ever tells me they were good at charms and transfiguration respectively and they fought for a bit before finally getting together and everything and that mum was very clever and dad was a mischievous prankster," Harry blurted out.

"And you wanted to know about them as I, someone who was not as close as Minerva or Filius were, remembered them," Slughorn astutely realised, a hint of wistfulness colouring his voice. "Of course, I will, Harry," he promised kindly. "How could I not? Especially, for her..." his voice trailed off, thick with more than just a hint of regret and it was very obvious that it was not in any manner affected. "I am perhaps not the best source to know about your father, Harry. While James was reasonably good enough at Potions to get an EE at his NEWTs, your father and his friends, and I, did not interact as much as I did with Lily, except when I had to reprimand them regarding their feud with my Slytherins. I am sure if you asked Minerva or Hagrid especially, they could tell you more about him."

"But you can tell me about mum?"

"It would be my privilege," the old potions master assured.

Harry thanked him a bit shyly and proceeded to make as polite an escape as he could. Ron could not resist pointing out the absurdity him, and as soon as they were out of earshot of any portrait on that floor, he incredulously demanded, "You want him to tell you about your mother?"

"Dumbledore's methods didn't work. I have my own," Harry replied serenely. "And they will work."

Harry started spending a few hours with Slughorn, sometimes daily, just listening to the man speak about his mother. And what a memory the man had. Lily's favourite cauldron, her favourite potion, her cheekiness, her little tricks and inventions, lots and lots and lots of nifty little tricks and tips about potions.

Then there were the walks through the grounds, where he showed Harry the many ingredients he could find growing around Hogwarts (and made Harry gather them; both to teach him, and also because Slughorn rather loved his comforts).

"Look at that little Toulalan plant there, Harry," he would gibber excitedly, waddling, for lack of a better term, with his truly alarming girth. "The more you cut it, the faster it grows. It is a very highly medicinal plant with a highly poisonous sap, which itself is a very important potions ingredient."

And Harry would dutifully use a careful cutting spell that Remus had shown him, and which had been invented by his mother for the very purpose of gathering potions ingredients.

"And is that Lily's spell there?" Slughorn would ask, knowing that it was.

"Yes sir. Sirius showed it to me. She taught dad and his friends."

"Yes, yes, Black, the poor boy," the Professor would commiserate. Sirius' death seemed a very poor thing to use, but it softened the man often, and further. "Lily was like that. She loved learning, creating something out of what she learnt. It gave her such immense joy. It was a sight to behold."

Everything used to turn to Lily.


"This evening," Harry announced during one of the last January DA meetings, "we have a special session."

This was fairly unplanned and a complete surprise, so people were not sure what to expect.

"We have been concentrating on attacks by Death Eaters – to be precise, magical attacks. However, by now you must all know that Voldemort has a whole army of creatures and beings. That's why, for the past few months, Professor Hagrid has been studying the attacks and patterns to understand that. So, he has agreed to create a kind of simulated attack similar to what Professor Lupin had for examinations."

This was something totally new for the group, as an attack simulation had never been done by the DA. After months of training themselves in the use of spells to the point it became an ingrained response, this was a welcome change of methods.

Hagrid's appearance sparked some amusement. He was clad in clothes somewhat similar to those used by athletes – a sleeveless undershirt and a pair of rather baggy shorts. He had straps around his knees and ankles and wore a pair of goggles. It was unlike anything they had ever seen the gentle half-giant in.

"Right," he started, "so I have here a list of things that You-Know-Who has gone and used. And I've added a few to it. I'll be teaching you to deal with these creatures. Now listen up. None of you will do anything unless I tell you to, and nothing but what I tell you. I don't want any Malfoy and Hippogriff situations."

The class nodded at that. Not that he expected them to behave otherwise. And they also got the message. Hagrid was not being benign. As jarring it was to see an air of authority around Hagrid, it shouldn't have been shocking. Hagrid dealt with all manners of creatures, including the most dangerous ones – humans. He had been, after all, a member of the Order in the first war too.

"Right; Harry..." he directed with a nod.

And so, Harry asked the room to generate an illusion. Suddenly, Hagrid was a thirty-foot-tall giant, or so it seemed. The room itself seemed enormous.

"You lot know I am a half-giant," Hagrid boomed; well, he might have spoken normally, but his voice was amplified as well. "Now I can't go and get you a real giant, so I'll have to do." He raised a truly large club and explained, "We'll be playing tag. Your job is to hit me with a colour spell on these straps. Giants have no real weaknesses. But if many or really powerful bone-breakers or blasting spells hit their joints, you can bring a giant down. Now I want you to make groups. I will be cornering you. Your job is to hit me with spells till these straps become fully red." He produced a bagful of misshapen hats with something like antennae with a ball at the end attached to them. "If I knock off your ball, you are dead."

"That sounds bad," Ron countered queasily at the awkward turn of phrase.

"You start running," Hagrid advised with a growl, ignoring Ron's queasiness.

For the next forty-five minutes, Hagrid was the big not-so-friendly giant. People ran helter-skelter, bumped into each other, shot spells at Hagrid haphazardly (thankfully they at least could keep their heads to keep their spells to everything less than or including a stunner, which didn't quite affect Hagrid much), and most of them 'died'. Then the timer rang out and the simulation stopped.

"That was horrible," was the common refrain.

"And realistic," Hagrid explained, now back to being the teacher. "'S what happens in most attacks where they bring in giants or trolls. The ground trembles. Giants roar. People get scared and shout, making the giants and trolls even more frenzied, like running away shouting from a herd of angry bulls. People lose their heads and run and shoot spells in panic, hitting other people instead of the giants." And indeed, most of the ball-hits were scored by misdirected spells. Harry himself had been taken out quite early that way and had to lay there like a dead body and pray to every divine power that he wasn't actually killed. "And you saw dead people lying down. There's always a stampede. People get crushed. And people also try to not step on the dead bodies."

This had been an object lesson. Understanding the idea of an attack by giants and understanding an actual attack by giants were wholly different kettles of fish. And this had been a simulation which even Hagrid had not been wholly committed to, often lifting the 'dead' and gently keeping them aside. If they fared so poorly against the smallest, friendliest gigantic bloke around, what chances did they have during a real attack, especially when not one of the straps Hagrid had worn had turned red?

The room provided a large chair for Hagrid as he sat down and asked, "So, what did you learn?"

Everyone was silent for a while, before Susan suggested, "In such an attack, we should always gather the people to safety away and plan them into groups. These groups can attack the giants or trolls as a group. We all tried doing it individually. You didn't give us time to form groups."

"Which attack is going to allow you that time?"

And Susan had no answer to that.

Hagrid looked out at everyone expectantly. There was something else. And Harry, who was being trained to be vigilant, if only through letters, was the one to recognise what Hagrid was pointing at.

"The ground trembles. Even before we hear the roars, we can feel the ground trembling. We aren't a country prone to earthquakes, so at the slightest tremor, we should be ready for such an attack."

"That's right. Remember what Moody says. You have to be vigilant." Hagrid stood up and deliberately walked across the room to imitate a giant's stride. Even without the mass of a real giant and with the damping by the stone, they could feel the noticeable vibrations beneath their feet. Giants probably had much higher body density than humans. Hagrid seemed heavier than he looked. "You can sense with your eyes and ears and all, but you think with your brain. Keep your wits. That's what will get you out of an attack. Always keep your head. You lose your head, you die. And don't forget. In real attacks there are Death Eaters too. Put them down first, always. Giants and Trolls on a rampage are stupid and just want to destroy. Death Eaters aren't. They want you to fear them."

There was a contemplative silence as Hagrid's words percolated into their minds.

"Professor Hagrid," Hannah asked a bit timidly, "why are you teaching us to harm giants?"

Hagrid's face was set in a grim scowl. "People, when they think of giants think of so many things. Some are afraid and hate giants. Some want to give them rights. Some want to use them. Some don't even want to think of them. All I know is that whatever anyone thinks, no creature like You-Know-Who should be able use Giants. If giants should be treated well, then they should not fall for that bastard's trickery. And the punishment for few bad ones should not fall on all giants. It's the same for the werewolves. Tell me, Hannah, will you remember me, or Remus Lupin, as your teachers or as monsters?"

And while many who were born and brought up in the magical world were caught in a quandary with prejudices which had been carried through experiences over generations, none could call either Hagrid or Remus Lupin monsters.

"So, you are saying that while prejudices are bad, it is the responsibility of those that bear the brunt of the prejudice to behave in... an acceptable way?" Hannah pressed. It was the sort of question that Rita Skeeter would have asked.

"Prejudice and all that...I told you. Every person, giant, wizard, witch, werewolf, and whatever else, has a responsibility to adhere to the law, so long as the law is right. Otherwise we would be beasties, wouldn't we? I can tell a Blast-Ended Skrewt to behave. But it's a beast. It's not going to listen is it? 'S why we think of Death Eaters as lower than scum, don't we? You are a person, and you should be treated like one, only if you behave like one."

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn't it?

"There now, I want to spend another half an hour chasing you lot," Hagrid growled. "You should do better now."

They didn't do much better, but there were a few left alive at the end.

"We will do this again. I want to teach you to deal with werewolves and vampires as well, and Harry has taught you all the Patronus spell, so that's Dementors and Lethifolds covered. We can't actually bring a Dragon or a Nundu here without anyone knowing, so that's out. Nah, I think I've got a good one planned. Most people don't even think too much about that one till they face it," Hagrid mumbled mostly to himself. "Remember what I told you. It applies to all creatures. Keep your head on. That's half the battle won. Stop giving in to fear and you can fight. 'S what you do with any beastie."

And it was possibly the most tiring DA meeting they'd ever had, where they had learnt defence from an actual teacher, whom many didn't even consider as one.


"How did you first find out about her Potion skills sir?" Harry asked Slughorn as he played caddy again a couple of days later.

"Oh, it was a funny thing, but I found out because she made a sub-standard batch of potions once. Effective, but sub-standard."

That was surprising, and it showed on Harry's face. Slughorn chuckled at that.

"Oh, yes. You see, there is one very, very difficult potion. You will learn it next year. It is called the Draught of Sanity. It is wrongly named, really."

"Does it cure…?" Harry had asked immediately, a little sharply, but with a lot of hope.

Slughorn smiled sadly. "No. It doesn't cure insanity, or the loss of the mind." Then he gave Harry a sidelong glance, "Frank and Alice will not benefit from it." Harry flushed and looked away, even as Slughorn sighed wistfully and murmured, "So much like Lily…" before clearing his throat and explaining, "It is a little like Veritaserum. It renders the person temporarily in possession of his or her full faculties, and some families often try to administer it when old age strikes."

"Do even magicals…?"

"Oh yes, even magicals start forgetting with age, young Harry, even though we often wish that some…some we may never forget. And initially, the Draught of Sanity works. But it doesn't work. Over time, its efficacy reduces, and it is poisonous in very large doses. No. It is very cruel to use it, for it serves no purpose but brings a spurious hope before it is extinguished. Some mistakes, Harry, some mistakes one makes are so terrible, that even forgetting everything else is an acceptable price, just to be able to forget that one thing you wish you had never done." And as he spoke that, Horace Slughorn's voice became tinged with grief.

"But isn't a person more than the mistakes? Don't the people that care for one, that one cares for, don't they matter more, aren't they worth more than that one mistake? Is forgetting, suppressing that one thing, really worth forgetting everything else?" Harry argued, trying not to sound desperate. Harry knew the mistake. He just wanted it confessed completely. "Are the mistakes worth the happy times, worth forgetting the people who can forgive those mistakes and help you correct them?"

Slughorn looked shaken at that. Somehow, somehow Harry just knew that this was not the time to press him. So, he backed off, and after a little silence, asked, "What mistake did mum make anyway?"

"She," started Slughorn in a thick voice, before clearing his throat a little. "She didn't."

Harry responded to that a bit petulantly, something that Slughorn sometimes seemed especially indulgent of. "I don't understand!"

"Ah, but that's just it. Lily made the potion simply by working backwards, based only on the smell, the colour, the spirals, and the headrush she had when she smelt it and felt that her mind was working at thrice the normal speed. One evening, I found her, climbing a stool to get at an ingredient that she thought would make it better than it was, and she still couldn't reach it. It was ever so adorable."

Now Harry knew that his mother was not very tall, but she certainly wasn't short. That was when Slughorn delivered the punchline. "I wondered what a little second-year was doing in my NEWT potions stores."

"Mum made a NEWT-level potion as a second-year?"

"Without any reference except her instincts, what knowledge she had achieved on her own for it, and the borrowed ingredients from a sixth-year Gryffindor girl," Slughorn added proudly. Harry observed that that tone of pride was not much different than the one Mrs. Weasley had when she spoke of any of her children, or even Petunia when she spoke about Dudley. "It was even more amusing to watch her explain what she was doing, and then when I asked her to describe what she had done, I was astounded. She had successfully made a better version of the Clarity Concoction which is a precursor to the Draught, but easier, and taught to fourth-years. Indeed, the Draught uses the Concoction's ingredients and many more stabilisers and so on. And when we did add that ingredient, it did indeed give that headrush of startling clarity."

Harry was both a bit intimidated by his mother's obvious intelligence and also in awe. "I never knew!"

Slughorn's face turned a bit sour at that. "You wouldn't. When I forwarded the new recipe, it was dismissed because I insisted on adding her name. I decided to never give that recipe away till she wrote her own Potions textbook as her ambition was. We were even going to find a way to undo the addictive effects and the loss of effect over regular consumption." Then Slughorn sighed. "It never did happen. Such talent, but talented people are a dime a dozen. So much that she was though, such ambition, such courage, such a loving spirit, a little spitfire… All gone. Not a day goes by when I don't miss her."

While initially it seemed a bit odd, (though not creepy which had been Harry's initial impression) to hear him speak, Harry rapidly came to a very startling realisation. Horace Slughorn was a man who had genuinely liked the muggle-born witch with, as many called it, spunk. But it was probably more. Horace Slughorn grieved Lily Potter's death. He had only started to accept the muggle-born, initially, but he had grown to love her.

He spoke of her in much the same way that a parent would speak of a child lost.

It was a fact that became increasingly obvious, when, as their contact grew, Slughorn, or Professor, as Harry called him respectfully even in private, began to treat Harry with a little loving, indulgent familiarity.

Now that he started to know the man better, Harry felt a bit bad about essentially planning to trick him into revealing that memory which he was desperate to forget. He wondered whether his mother would be alright with what he was doing.


But where Horace Slughorn freely regaled his memories of Lily and made Harry an unacknowledged mentee, the man Harry had specifically asked for help was harsh, blunt, paranoid, pessimistic, and at the end of it all, sensible. He had, in their latest correspondence, brought Harry's attention to something that Harry had acknowledged on a certain level, but had left the issue unaddressed.

That particular issue was the terrifying chasm between Voldemort and Harry.

And there was little that could be done to address it. Voldemort had lived five decades longer than Harry had, had delved into magic deeper than Harry had thought to, never mind Dark Magic which was his plaything.

Such was the content of Mad-Eye's latest letter, which had taken Harry two hours to decode. This "Kwikspell Correspondence Course to Fighting Dark Wizards", as Moody rightly derided the stop-gap solution was the only viable method of contact, flying under the radar through two Protean Charmed notebooks.


As you may have realised, with the way things are going on, a duel or actual fight against Riddle is out of the question. He needs to be defeated, and even if we shouldn't fear the enemy, a healthy respect for the fact that he is too powerful is accepting facts.

This week, I want your input.

We can't let him win, and he is not going to be easy to defeat, especially since his army is much better organised. You are powerful, and in raw power, the Prophecy says you may be his equal. We both know it is not enough. We both know he can defeat you, and beyond Longbottom, we have no options left.

We know he has people inside the school. We know he has people inside the Ministry. We know he has a larger network.

But we also know his one true weakness, now.

I want a working plan to destroy whatever he has in mind. Irrevocably destroyed. It should peg him back. I have given you all the clues you need. Whatever spells, objects, things, curses, plots, manipulations, lies…whatever it takes. Find a way to use everything you already know to take away as much of his power as possible, so that he has to step back, even if for just a bit. You have to stack the odds on your side. Make it so bad for him that his advantages are reduced if not nullified.

Then we are going to tune it and use it. Remember that.


And it was a bit surprising. Ever since Moody, and with his instigation, Kingsley, started communicating with Harry, their initial "lessons", for want of a better word, consisted of stock training exercises – silent transfiguration, spell-casting, all of it while running, blindfolding and casting… Then it had changed. It was never about actually fighting, but about solving problems, puzzles, resolving situations, or analysing lots of photographs and search suspicious objects or people in them, without any reference whatsoever.

Over a couple of days during the Yule holidays, Harry had studied some old crime scene photographs that Mad-Eye had procured, under the cranky old Auror's supervision. And then they went over it again to decide the best way to deal with those things, as Mad-Eye told him the story behind each photograph. The same had been continued as daily assignments by Mad-Eye, when he pointed out that prophecy or not, nobody could sensibly expect the kids to actually protect others.

Harry didn't realise it, but he was getting trained as James, Sirius and Lily had been.

The other thing, as Mad-Eye's latest missive said, was to be proactive. He knew who was operating…no, he knew that Malfoy was one of the Death Eaters operating inside Hogwarts. Proactivity meant using that knowledge. But how? They were sure that Dumbledore knew about Malfoy. Dobby had not been able to report much beyond Malfoy listlessly slinking around the castle apart from foraging for something in the Room of Requirement. And that wasn't enough proof.

And as for what would peg Voldemort back? He had no damn idea.

Yet, as he walked out of the last class of the day (Charms) fiddling with his DA Coin, with the notebook in a pocket of his robes, shrunken, he knew he had a way to solve at least one of the things Mad-Eye had mentioned. He had a few more people to trust.


"So, what's going on?" Ernie demanded. He was, rightly, a bit befuddled. He, Susan and Anthony had received messages to meet up with no mention as to why. Nobody was surprised when meeting with Harry meant meeting with the other five also.

"I take it this is not a DA meeting?" Anthony asked in clarification. "We are here to choose something?"

"No," answered Hermione. "Ron had an idea about the job Ernie has taken up. Harry is the only one who can access the place now, and once we asked him to do so he wanted you and Susan along as well. I know that he wants to bring you three in on a secret, but the matter of the choice is a bit new to me."

Her tone wasn't strident, but more curious, and when coupled with the questioning look that she sent Harry's way, Anthony realised that beyond a new staging area which they must have found, she didn't know much either.

Susan, on the other hand, chose to wait in spite of her curiosity. Her Aunt, trained by Alastor Moody as one of his earliest protégées over twenty-five years before, had warned her enough about unusual behaviour, especially from people that you least expect it from, and she had already taken the initiative of setting up a code system with Justin, and Hannah, her best friend. As such, they knew that she was called, but not why, and if she did not return or anything, they would come calling. It had worked for a month, and she intended to bring it up in the next DA meeting.

"Let Ron go first," Harry suggested.

"Alright," agreed Ron. "So, you lot know about the Chamber of Secrets thing, yeah?"

Ginny cringed, and sidled over to be sandwiched between her brother and Harry. Eventually, given that he was her boyfriend, she would have to let Dean into it all, and in with them, as well as in on the secret. But that last part would come much, much later. Till then, however, she would always look to Ron and Harry for comfort when that topic was brought up. Newly becoming more attuned to his friends, Harry gave her a reassuring one-armed hug.

Susan and Ernie gave Harry apologetic looks. Harry let that go. Between him and his friends, they had forgotten and forgiven many, many things. He idly wondered whether others wouldn't have been as fast to trust him as Ron and Hermione, and in hindsight Neville as well, had been, if they had been friends. More and more as the DA worked together, Harry rued lost opportunities. While he registered that his second, fourth and fifth years might have turned out differently, more importantly, he would have had something he had always wanted since being deprived of them by Dudley in his younger years – friends.

"Yeah," answered Anthony, more to get the topic moving. "What about that?"

"Yeah, so me and Harry have been there," Ron bluntly stated and ignored Luna and Hermione's simultaneous correction of his grammar. "It was You-Know-Who, acting through some sort of thing in the Chamber. I'd seen it, so I know. He chose the victims and sent the monster after them. It was pure luck nobody died. We went in because, well, remember the last close-down of the school that year? That was because Ginny was kidnapped and taken into the Chamber."

"You only went into the Chamber for her?" Anthony asked inquisitively.

"Why would Harry go in for the others? Well, except Hermione that is. Everyone spent the year bad-mouthing Harry, so, well..."

"Not everyone, Ron," Harry softly corrected.

"Fine, but the point stands."

"And she is your sister," Susan countered meaningfully, breaking past Harry's response. Sometimes he could be too forgiving, and while she wasn't happy about it, Ronald had a point. "And we know Harry. He would have gone in to help in any case. Not just for Ginny."

"Hey, now!" retorted Ron with a scowl. "Harry is one of us. That means if something happens to him or to any of the rest of us, the ones left behind go in to help. Nothing else needs to be said," he declared stoutly. He ignored the rest of Susan's statements.

And, Harry reflected, they had. Rescuing Harry from the Dursleys with a stolen car, wading into the forest to face Acromantula, or going with him on the ill-fated mission to help Sirius, in spite of knowing that it was likely a trap, Ron had been there. And then Ginny had been there too.

"Let those things go. It is done and dusted, and doesn't need to be brought up again," Harry forcefully interrupted what could turn out to be a quarrel.

"Yeah, right," snorted Ron with one last glare at the pair of Hufflepuffs. "So, in short, Harry destroyed the thing that was causing the attacks, and killed the monster."

Hermione and Harry exchanged a glance as they inwardly marvelled at the way Ron quite skilfully ensured that Ginny was not even recognised as the one possessed. The diary was in the chamber, and Harry had then destroyed it and given it to Dumbledore, and it was the cause of the attacks, so Ron had not spoken a single lie.

"But, and here we come to the main thing, that place is bloody effing huge. You could fit four of the Great Halls outside the Chamber, and I don't know about the inside," he reported, adding a last glance at Harry.

"I have no idea. The architecture was not exactly my priority," Harry drily offered.

Ron just shrugged and nodded.

"And you want to use that as the staging area," Ernie sussed out. "The outside, it was a cavern, I assume?"

"Yeah," answered Ron. "There's been a bit of a cave-in, 'cause that bloody fraud Lockhart tried to memory charm us, but there was a bit of a problem for him," he explained unconcernedly. "So, if you lot are alright with it..."

"And you agree with this?" Susan asked Hermione.

"I haven't personally seen it, obviously, but that is a good idea," she answered.

"And what if there are other creatures?" Anthony asked practically.

"Well, we ran into bigger, thinking and talking things that year," Ron replied with a shudder. "And those ran from that other thing. I'd reckon that we won't have a problem."

"But if we do encounter another," added Hermione, "we can do this." She promptly transfigured a nearby vase into a rooster. "And we have Harry, who will hear it..."

"It was a basilisk?" shrieked Susan.

"You worked that out fast," Neville praised with an appreciative whistle. "Slytherin's own basilisk, actually," he added. He and Luna had been brought in on that, given they now knew about the existence of something called Horcruxes, and the Diary was one.

A bit put out by the incredulous stares of the three invited that this caused, Harry gruffly suggested that they get a move on. And so, they were led to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom.

"Harry, don't you think Dumbledore might have placed warning charms here?" Hermione cautioned. "Now that Voldemort has returned..."

"I don't mind if he knows, though I doubt he will know; he wasn't there at lunch. Actually, he is the Headmaster, so if we do decide to use the Chamber, we will need his permission," Harry pointed out. "But you're right. We would better not have any other visitors. Goodness knows the next person to come here would be Malfoy. Tell Myrtle to only tell Dumbledore if he comes, would you?"

Hermione nodded, while Harry placed a strong repelling charm that excluded Dumbledore as its target, another one taught by Fleur. That Harry was willing to let Dumbledore know eased the invitees' worries of the six being suborned or subverted in any manner. Their evident relief made Harry nod proudly. He cleared his throat a bit and hissed "OPEN!"

"Merlin, it's just as creepy as it was then," Ernie murmured with an apologetic look, as Harry hissed the Parseltongue password. Susan's incredulity at the entrance to the Chamber being in a girls' bathroom had been a bit dampened by Luna making a vaguely crude innuendo, and then by the large mechanical movements as the entrance was revealed.

"Salazar was a pervert too?"

"I doubt the bathrooms as we know now existed then," Hermione lectured. "The castle was remodelled in 1499, which you'd know..."

"If you ever read Hogwarts: A History," Ron and Harry completed causing Hermione to throw them a dirty look. That though melted as soon as the stench from the caverns assaulted their noses.

"Never thought we'd need a bubblehead charm on land," muttered Anthony as he set the precedent. They had been taught the charm after Christmas, and so far, it had had to be included in their DA practice to ensure that their potion bomb things weren't deterred by the charms.

Thankfully, in anticipation of a phoenix not being a readily available mode of transport, and being pressed for time, they did not forget their brooms. Having already once flown with Harry, albeit on a Hippogriff, Hermione chose the devil she knew, as the nine shared five brooms between them.

She had already clutched him tight when they had sprung aloft, but by the time they landed (having plunged into the depths below the castle) she had yelled herself hoarse and was now sporting hair frizzier than ever before. She was also muttering like someone who had lost her senses thoroughly about brooms and flying being a means of death.

"This is certainly large enough," commented Susan approvingly, once she got over being disgusted, ironically, by the bones of several rodents and what-not. "In a crunch, provided we get the structural integrity checked, which now is scarier when I consider that the castle stands right above us, as does the lake..."

"Anyone got parchment, ink and a quill?" Neville wondered aloud. "I think it'd be better if we made a kind of "to-do list". We have got the bubblehead charm to overcome for the potion bombs, and getting the structural integrity of this place checked, till now."

"I always have something with me in case I need to write down something that the Nargles tell me," Luna replied, as she waved a simple muggle notebook and pencil.

Three years of physical and magical growth was evident when they together cast the spell Hermione demonstrated to stack and fuse the fallen rocks into nine stone pillars. Ron's idea was right, but he had underestimated the size. Now that they were looking around properly, they could see that the cavern stretched much more than they'd believed – it reached the outskirts of the forest and a stretch around the lake also. In an emergency, they could easily fit the entire population of Hogwarts there – even with their families, if need be. At this point, the expanse of the actual Chamber was immaterial. Provided they managed to convince those that needed to be convinced, this, right here, was the safest place that could be found, if they needed to defend Hogwarts like a fort under siege.

It fortified some of Harry's nebulous plans as well.

"Weasley," Ernie fervently declared, "this might be the most brilliant idea for the job."

Ron, despite yearning it, as ever was unable to take the praise properly, and ended up with an odd expression between smug preening and a mortified look.

"I think we need to map this place," Luna pointed out seriously, in a marked departure from her breezy way. "We need more people, and Harry has to be put solely on Parseltongue-duty, and as this is close to the forest, perhaps some of the Professors also."

She proceeded to cast some spells at the cavern walls. She found that the lake's periphery was preserved while digging the cavern, and that the cavern walls were fairly thick. She made another note to state that recesses into some of the walls could be used as dormitories. It earned Ron a proud and pleased look.

The opening of the Chamber, however, stopped the rest dead in their tracks. Ginny unabashedly clung to Harry. She did not want to be there. It was her worst nightmare, and she had only willingly returned because Ron and Harry intended to. But she hated it all. She really, really hated it.

The carcass was rotting, and the maggots that infested it were just as gigantic as the creature they were devouring. Under the glare of their sunlight charms, they could see just where the tree roots had descended into the chamber. It was not unthinkable that some scavenging insects had been busy at work.

"That is abnormally large a size for a snake to grow," Luna conversationally remarked. When she was scared, she spoke in a way that passed as normal for most others.

"I don't remember it being like this," Harry replied frowning. "It looked much more humongous, even considering the fact that it's half-eaten. It isn't as scary now, more like those dead whales that wash-up on shore sometimes."

Behind them, Ernie was the only one who still had the possession of his tongue. His response was only a strangled, and incredulously loud, "WHAT?" which broke the spell on the others and shook them out of their stupor. It was punctuated by a squelching thud as one of the mega-maggots dropped off the carcass. Harry suppressed the bile in his throat at that. There was no further outbreak of reactions. What could any of them say? If at all, it only reaffirmed their belief in him. If he could do this at twelve, then, to their perception at least, Harry could certainly pose a challenge to Voldemort, which was more than anyone else could claim.

There was a hole that they found when they investigated the ways where the parent insect-things could have come in from. Thankfully it was only Hermione who peeped out, because out there was Hagrid's surprise – Grawp. The exploration took over an hour, but that was enough for the day.

"I've got to say Weasley," Ernie approved pompously "this is one first-rate idea you have. There's a lot of work to be done, and we'll need a lot of help, but this is one excellent place to keep people safe."

"I suppose the most important aspect is secrecy," Susan observed. "At the moment, unless You-Know-Who, the only other known Parselmouth, actually stands within that bathroom, and unless we don't find and control any ways in and out from this place, it can be used. But again, the access has to be funnelled through Harry."

"And it would be wise to change the password," Hermione suggested. "It has to be something that he would never speak."

"Maybe we should come here with Dobby sometime. He will be able to help clean this place up – for pay that he and any other elves helping him deem acceptable," Harry suggested, before Hermione could protest, simultaneously mollifying her. "Maybe we should get Remus here. He will be able to manage this better. He is one of four living people who probably know the secrets of Hogwarts better than Dumbledore."

"Lupin knows Hogwarts better than Dumbledore?" repeated Susan in surprise. "Who are the others?"

"Fred and George, and Remus and the traitorous rat, Peter Pettigrew," answered Harry, seething at the last name. Then a feral grin came upon his face. "Now this will be a secret, Pettigrew will never know. And sooner or later, when they will attack Hogwarts, this will be the secret that will prove their undoing."

"This perhaps seems an opportune moment to tell us why you have called us here, Harry," Anthony quietly prompted. "You are talking about too many secrets for this to remain comfortable for us all."

Harry nodded. While he couldn't yet conjure stuff properly yet, he could transfigure quite well now, something that Mad-Eye had taught – everything around one is useful. The debris from the destruction of the Statue of Slytherin by the Basilisk during its attacks on Harry after Fawkes had gouged out its eyes still lay there. They were promptly silently summoned and, in an impressive display of magic, were simultaneously transfigured into ring-like seating arrangement as they flew towards the group and came to a halt softly on the Chamber floor. The cushioning was not of the best quality, but it was more than any of the others could do yet. It elicited appraising looks from the others.

He was practising, and working hard. And he was now able to transfigure similar debris into projectiles. This was only a benign application of the same. He wasn't going to kid himself into believing he would reach the levels of Dumbledore, or the Voldemort, if he lived long enough for that, but that didn't mean he shouldn't have tried.

"Anthony is right. There is something that I intend to tell you." He gave them all a sheepish smile as he explained, "I have been watching everyone in our group. I am under no delusions that we are going to actually be able to fight the Death Eaters and consistently win, or win at all. However, every single person in the DA is one of my people. I am responsible to all of you. And in a crunch, we must together be able to protect each other. And now, more than ever, this is important. This is because we are very likely going to lose the most powerful protection that our world has."

While Ernie and Susan looked perplexed, Anthony's face turned horror-struck. "Most powerful protection… Not that hand?" he whispered.

Harry nodded. "We actually worked that out over the summer actually, and don't take this the wrong way, but we spoke to adults who can actually do something about it. Even as we speak, there are others helping us. We need to have a contingency plan, because we believe Dumbledore is dying."

"My God," murmured Susan, equally horrified. "Our world and any chances of winning the war will be buried with him!"

"We fear so," Neville agreed. "The Ministry is rotten from within, and while we may still have people like Ron's dad there, they are too few. It will fall. And then we will be forced underground."

"We can't afford that, and that is why we need to make any one place a bastion for us," added Hermione. "It has long been claimed that Hogwarts is the safest place in Magical Britain barring Gringotts'. You-Know – VOLDEMORT – covets Hogwarts like nothing else. Harry spoke about those four, but I'd say he knows just as many and maybe a few more..."

Harry sat up straight, as Hermione's words registered with him. Where would he hide something that he wanted protected, and if he considered Hogwarts his home, just as Tom Riddle did?

"What is it?" Ginny asked fearfully, paler than a ghost, fearing another basilisk. She had been silent, all the while, but she was mainly jumpy.

"No, carry on. I just thought of something that I must tell Dumbledore as soon as possible." Only Hermione had observed him closely even as she spoke, and they exchanged a glance with each other very subtly. Their subtlety didn't need gestures, just an easy look. "If what I think is right, then once I confirm it with him, I will tell you all," he promised.

A moment passed as they all attempted to get their bearings back after the unintended scare.

"If he is dying, why are you hedging your bets on him?" Ernie asked bluntly, shakily sitting down as he too had jumped with his wand drawn to attack.

"Because in spite of his impending death, which is just what we think, he is still the only person who knows Voldemort," replied Luna. "Also, he doesn't know that we think he might be dying."

"As I was saying," continued Hermione, "we need to protect as many people as we can. If Hogwarts falls, it will mean Voldemort wins."

"And the papers were partially right," Harry solemnly admitted, "I am one of those tasked with ensuring that that does not happen. I am very aware of my limitations. I am neither as powerful as him, nor am I as experienced. But I swear to you, that if nothing else, I will buy you all time, long enough for you to defeat him, if need be. And that's why I need you three, specifically."

"I am with you Harry," Susan staunchly declared.

"As am I," Ernie agreed.

"I am interested in knowing what we must do," Anthony stated, tacitly agreeing.

"Thank you. As of now, there isn't anything fixed, really," Harry honestly replied. "And call it a bias or whatever, but the six of us fought last year, together. I am no judge, but trying to be objective, I would trust you three to help." He did not elaborate further.

There; he had said it. And that astounded Ernie, Susan and even Anthony to an extent.

Luna frowned at the obvious evasion that Harry was employing. Unfortunately, she was not the only one.

"Is that the only reason?" Hermione prodded.

"It also makes nine," she serenely added, coming to her friend's rescue. "With eight there is one less each time. You are powerful and skilled too. Isn't that true Harry?" Luna asked, as her voice suddenly turned bitingly cold, daring him to have the reason she was reasonably sure he had.

"Of course, that's right," Harry replied brightly, with obvious relief at the rescue.

"That's bollocks," Ron remarked simply, walking unwittingly into it. "You don't even think two moves ahead in chess."

"That's right," agreed Neville. "He is not that clever." He dodged Harry's elbow-nudge narrowly as he snickered.

"Harry?" Hermione demanded. She too had an inkling of why Susan Bones might have been chosen, and she did not like where things were going.

Harry gave his friends a glare.

"Explain," she ordered.

"You expect me to commit to something without knowing everything Potter. We can't do that. We are not daft," Ernie growled.

"Hidden agendas don't suit you Harry," Anthony rebuked.

Knowing there would be no recourse, he accepted defeat.

"I do have an additional ulterior motive where Susan is concerned, yes. When is your birthday, Susan?"

"What?" she asked confusedly at the non-sequitur.

"Your birthday, when is it?"

"We share birthdays, actually," she replied.

Hermione and Neville gasped, grim-faced, Luna shook her head, and Ron swore, again. Ginny looked at Harry balefully and shrunk even more into herself.

"What's the matter?"

"The Prophecy," Neville explained. "Three people are likely to be the ones to fight You-Know-Who. He set things into motion when he heard a prophecy. And all the three likely people are here; you, me, and Harry. We were all born as the seventh month dies." He turned to his friend. "What's that got to do with anything? He didn't even look towards the Boneses on her account, though that may be because it specifically states it would be a boy."

"Look, there's more to it, and frankly, I don't know whether Susan's parents fought Voldemort. But; but she is a Bones. If I was Voldemort, after killing me and you, Neville, I would turn to every one born around that time. If it was somebody who was born to those supporting him, I would hasten to mark him or her. I would have my minions pressurise anyone on the fence into making a choice. And I would kill any and all opponents and their families," Harry replied with a shrug. "But given that Voldemort has been arrogant enough to discount her…"

"We must use it to our advantage," Neville agreed.

"No!" Hermione scolded. "You will not even think of that!"

"I don't understand!" Susan interjected. "What shouldn't he even think of?"

"Backup," spat Hermione. "He said he would buy us time. If he dies, then the responsibility passes to you and Neville."


"It is a realistic possibility. Look, in all honesty, we should not have to fight. We aren't even adults – yet. But – and this is true – Voldemort and his bastard cronies don't seem to care. We know there is a realistic chance that not everybody will see the end of this. My chances are worse than all of yours combined, probably – except perhaps Hermione and Anthony, and that's because of their heritage – and that is not necessarily a bad thing. But when, and not if, Dumbledore dies, and if, as is very likely considering that we are to fight a wizard in his prime, I am unable to make any significant dents to his plans and actions, then you will have to go to ground because in general the magical world is spineless. And you are Amelia Bones' niece. You will command respect and people will flock to you. You could lead people."

"That's cold," Ginny declared with a frown. "And it is also very fatalistic and pessimistic. Do you really think people are going to let you die?"

"I don't plan on dying," Harry retorted.

"But also, the plan is very realistic," Anthony countered. "If you lot started off making contingency plans for Dumbledore, it stands to reason you'd have to make plans for Harry too."

"We won't need them!" Hermione waspishly declared.

"And I will be just as happy," Anthony reasoned bluntly. "Harry's my friend, and it's not as if I want him dead or anything, even without considering the sort of blow it would be to our side. But it would be stupid to not consider the possibility."

It only served to irritate Hermione more, to say the least.

"Then we should be making plans for keeping him – us all – alive as well!"

"And deviate from the true objective of obliterating Tom?" Harry countered. "No. One person against a greater victory is no competition at all. Look, this is all moot at the moment. Nobody is being attacked right now, but we need our roles defined. Half of us in the DA will become adults this year, many of the others already are, and then we will have nowhere to hide. We must prepare for all eventualities."

"Not that you are wrong," Ernie started, "but why the sudden haste?"

"Dumbledore dying is not the only suspicion that we have, Ernie. We are reasonably sure that Malfoy has taken the Dark mark."

"Why hasn't he been expelled?" Susan asked with righteous fury.

"Where is the proof?" Ginny spat bitterly. "We are all constrained by it. We complained because we are reasonably sure that he was connected to what happened to Katie, and we were basically told to shut up."

"Well, then what stops us from inventing an accident that unmasks him publicly?"

"Think, Susan!" Ron retorted in an aggravated manner. "We talked about what we heard over Slughorn's party with the real Moody. He reckons that the prat has been given some sort of mission to punish his father. We've got to know what he's been ordered to do. It's no secret that he's a pawn which thinks he is a knight, and You-Know-Who wants Hogwarts. And we know that Malfoy is a coward, someone who doesn't like to do his own job, and still loves an audience. What combines all that?"

And put that way, by Ron's insightful comparison to everything chess (encouraged in no small part by Mad-Eye Moody) and his rapidly growing cynicism, they knew just what sort of a plan Draco needed to execute – infiltration and recruitment, or generally anything that didn't involve an open declaration of his loyalties. But Malfoy was definitely not the most academically or magically accomplished, and he wanted to be kowtowed to. That left infiltration.

"But then that would require close surveillance," Anthony quietly observed. "Assuming that you intend to know the plan and reverse it without allowing them into Hogwarts that is."

"That has been taken care of," Harry assured with a satisfied look. "The sort of surveillance he has become the target of is more vigilant than the likes of Mad-Eye Moody. We will have something useful soon."

That seemed to be enough for them all, for the time being.

"Till when will it be enough?" Ginny asked.

Nobody had an answer.


"What got into you all of a sudden?"


"You were suddenly startled in the Chamber."

"That," Harry answered with a pensive frown. "It's just something that Hermione said. Voldemort covets Hogwarts, covets knowing its secrets and being the Heir of Slytherin – one of them at any rate. If Dumbledore's right, and as he is reasonably sure, there are more of those Horcrux things out there, where would he hide one of them?"

"Bloody hell!" swore Ginny, not in the least interested in keeping her shock unexpressed, borrowing Ron's stock curse in the process.

"Are you going to tell Dumbledore?" Neville asked.

"Along with the destruction of the locket, yes, I will. Bill wants me to relay it to him. As you said, Dumbledore will want to know what I was doing in the Chamber, if he can detect it opening, and then I can bring it up. Bill seems to be in a bit of a hurry. Six letters in a span of two weeks, honestly; I am sure he didn't write Fleur that much."

"Better him than Percy," Ron growled with no small measure of irritation, a sentiment that everyone agreed with.

Ginny, however, smirked.


"Since when do you say "honestly"?"

"It just slipped off my tongue."

"It was a slip of the tongue, was it? Where else has your tongue been slipping lately?"

"You need sleep. Little children should sleep early otherwise they start seeing things. I am sure I could persuade Lavender to sing you a lullaby in exchange for a little Ron-time."

"Oi!" cried Ron indignantly and inarticulately, even as Ginny maturely retorted with a punch (trigger-happy though she was, better a punch than the bat-bogey hex) and an order, "You sleep!"

"If you children are done fighting, please remember that we still have to do our homework and go down for dinner," Hermione drily interrupted. "And you are going a bit too far, Ginny," she added to the girl in a harsh whisper.

"Yes, I have that in mind," Harry placated, grateful for the change of topic, as he retrieved a haphazardly attached sheaf of parchment from his bag. "I've got it all written in points. Just have to make full sentences of these now," he explained. He got a stunned look in return.


"Why didn't you do this for the past five and half years?"

"I was irresponsible, that's why," Harry blithely replied. "I also have to meet Dumbledore today, because he said he would call me, so I really am busy in a way I wouldn't have thought I'd be." He then looked sheepish as he admitted, "And I always relied on you, but I find myself fairly ashamed of the fact that I was coasting by on the back of your hard work."

Hermione could only shake her head in exasperation, before, just on reflex, she threaded her hand through Harry's hair and leaned into him a bit, before moving away to her own work, with a pleased smile. She was Harry's friend, but it felt especially nice when he, more than anyone else, recognised and appreciated her.

Having grown up with him, she was rather impressed by the growing sense of responsibility he showed. If only that wasn't coupled with fatalism, she mused, as she watched him scribble out full sentences in his barely legible chicken scratch and banter with Ron as the latter slogged over his homework.


McGonagall wore a worried frown as she relayed the message from Dumbledore over an hour later. "Potter, come with me."

Harry complied with an obedient "Yes Professor," and sprang to follow her out of the common room door.

They had barely walked a few corridors when she demanded, "What exactly have you done that Albus demands your presence? Is this something to do with your lessons?"

Harry stopped cold in his tracks as he looked at her with open suspicion. Minerva McGonagall, a woman who'd lived through two wars, felt something inside her break to see that look levelled at her by a student – and this one in particular.

"What did you say to Mad-Eye Moody when he turned Malfoy into a rat?"

"I never said anything to Mad-Eye Moody, because it wasn't Alastor who turned Malfoy into a white ferret. I reprimanded the impostor regarding using transfiguration as punishment," she responded a touch frostily. "Really, Potter, choose a better question the next time. There were far too many witnesses. At least you twisted the question."

"Well, I don't exactly know your favourite jam, as I know the Headmaster's," Harry quipped, then realised he was talking to his Head of House and clammed up.

McGonagall pursed her lips, before she asked, "Why did you feel the need to do so, when by all means I know you to possess more sense than to believe that these questions actually work?"

"You never asked about what Snape was actually teaching last year, though you might have known, or about the detentions with Umbridge, but you seemed interested in why the Headmaster, who's giving me lessons this year, has called me. Professor Dumbledore and Bill told me to keep my eyes open," Harry admitted, ticking the list off his fingers, somewhat honestly. He wasn't about to admit that it was Mad-Eye who'd told him that if nothing else, it bought some time, even if it was a less than ideal manner of verification.

Minerva said nothing. She only turned her face away a little to hide the hurt that was sure to flash across her face. The horrible fact was that all of what Potter said was true – and he hadn't even meant for it to hurt. More and more, she was being incriminated by her own conscience. First it was Katie Bell, then Neville Longbottom, and now Potter. Even Sirius Black, the boy she had so wrongly distrusted, but had needed someone, anyone, and had been ignored by everyone except the Potters. Her conscience had truly bitten her as much as it had the night Longbottom had found her wanting. Her students really thought that she didn't care. It was a bit before she could even think to respond to that, much less actually respond.

"Albus has hardly ever interacted with any student to degree he has with you since being saddled with the Headmastership. It is bound to generate interest."

"Half the time, it's been because of an end-of-the-year unwanted adventure."

Minerva said nothing, as she remembered three first-years insisting that "Voldemort was going after the Philosopher's Stone." Was it too late now? Perhaps she would never know. Perhaps, if she changed her patterns of several years, it might even be the wrong thing to do. But she would rather be brave enough to correct her mistakes as she saw them now, and salvage things later if they went wrong. She was supposed to be a Gryffindor after all.

"Would you mind if I joined your discussion with the Headmaster?"

"Alright," Harry replied with a shrug, still eyeing her oddly.

McGonagall nodded curtly, as she ordered the gargoyle out of the way with the password.

"Good evening Minerva, Harry. We have an esteemed visitor this evening," Dumbledore softly greeted, waving a hand expansively at the leonine man occupying one of the chairs opposite him.

Harry was obviously shocked. He had just been expecting a lesson. While Dumbledore had said he would speak to the Minister and broker at least a tenuous truce between them, he hadn't expected that such a promise would be fulfilled, much less so quickly. His shock must have been visible on his face because Dumbledore gestured to the empty chair so that it moved slightly away, enough so that when Harry sat, he would be facing both the Headmaster and the Minister simultaneously, and said, "Do sit, Harry. I am sure that our guest is pressed for time."

Regaining his bearings somewhat, Harry stiffly greeted, "Good evening," he bit out, before attempting politeness with, "Minister."

"Mister Potter," the man curtly retorted.

"You obviously know each other, and in these troubled times, time is indeed of the essence, so pleasantries will have to wait," Dumbledore said. He looked at McGonagall (who'd stayed put) curiously, before conjuring an identical chair for her to sit as well. "I gather that you had a less than amicable discussion over Christmas."

"Weasley reported, did he?"

"Didn't you say that I was "Dumbledore's man through and through"?" Harry cut in, avoiding the necessity of any obfuscation on Dumbledore's part to protect Mr. Weasley. This was just like facing anything else – or Voldemort. Here he had to rely on himself, his brain and his guts. And Dumbledore and McGonagall, perhaps.

"You report on me to Dumbledore?"

"You wanted me to report to you about him," Harry replied defensively.

"And I am sure that between people on the same side, such subterfuge is unnecessary," Dumbledore gravely interrupted. "We are here to resolve the differences because we have the same goals, Rufus, you and I, the fall of Voldemort. And irrespective of any assertions in the Prophet to that intent, it does not matter whether or not Harry is the "Chosen One", as you would like him to be. I have it on good authority that Harry has an investment in the goals that we share."

"So, he is the "Chosen One", then? Or at least, he is the one you would choose to fight against You-Know-Who?"

"Most assuredly not, Rufus," Dumbledore replied gravely, he is eyes fierce, "for I would not choose that burden to rest on anyone else while I still breathe."

"You said choose," Scrimgeour countered. "Is it your choice?"

"There is always a choice."

"I have no time for these games!" Scrimgeour grunted irritably. "Let me put my cards on the table, Dumbledore. I am not Fudge. These kids broke into the Department of Mysteries – in the Hall of Prophecy – Dumbledore! As much as you'd attempt to hide it, the mere fact that temporary or not, Potter was instrumental in the defeat of You-Know-Who as a child – an innocent that should have never faced war – coupled with where they broke in is enough for people like me to make informed guesses. I have heard all that about him being there to rescue Sirius Black, of all people, but I can read into the bait being in the Hall of Prophecy! It is my job, and I was very good at it. You would not choose to place that burden on Potter. But you cannot choose or so you believe. I am many things. An idiot, I am not."

"Nobody accused you of idiocy, Rufus, far less when I can hardly refute your guess, considering that secrecy regarding the matter has been blown away by both sides," Dumbledore rebuked. All three of them studiously ignored Minerva McGonagall's shocked gasp. "Your adversarial stance to this meeting, however..."

"I have been led to expect that based on past experiences."

"And so, while not accusing you of idiocy, I do intend to draw your attention to that mistake. If indeed, were Harry so steadfast against the Ministry, he would not have requested me to arrange for a meeting to allow for the resolution of differences."

"And what would that entail? You want me to free that conductor? Or maybe make grand rhetoric about arresting Death Eaters en masse and executing them?" Scrimgeour scoffed. "This is the real world, boy. For better or for worse, I have to handle the war while still keeping the magical society functioning till the time you are capable enough to kill him, something I honestly don't see ever happening, because let's face it, he has been around for over fifty years more than you, came back from the dead, has forgotten more dark magic alone than all the magic you know put together, and importantly, because I think it should not be your job. Or till, Merlin forbid, we fail!"

And Harry couldn't disagree with the man.

"You underestimate Harry, Rufus," Dumbledore rebutted.

Harry had had enough of the two going at it as if he wasn't there. Dumbledore had undoubtedly arranged this meeting with some objective in mind, but had not seen fit to inform Harry about that objective for whatever reason, if the heated discussion he was having with the Minister was any indication. Before Dumbledore could continue on his behalf – as had been requested of him – Harry cut in with what he wanted to say to the Minister. If he wanted his demands heard, then he bloody well was going to be responsible for them.

"No. I wish to apologise for not understanding the whole matter before accusing you of doing nothing. I understand and accept why you arrested Stan. It was explained to me."

That was certainly not what Scrimgeour expected. He had come prepared for a confrontation, only to receive an apology on one matter instead. He was nonplussed enough to not be able to react beyond a stupefied blink.

It gave Harry time to say what Anthony had suggested and helped him prepare in anticipation of such a meeting, which nonetheless wasn't supposed to be a surprise.

"I don't agree with much of what the Ministry has done – or not done," Harry continued firmly, "especially about the Death Eaters, and about Sirius and about Fudge and Umbridge. I won't say I spoke incorrectly, because I didn't. I still have the same demands, but I was wrong to shout at you to unload my distrust of the Ministry upon you so rudely. For that I am responsible, and so, I am sorry."

Scrimgeour stared at Harry with his leonine eyes, sizing him up. "I see," he said at long last. "You wish to reason with me."

"I believe, that, having thought long and hard about the matter, there exists a middle path," Dumbledore serenely broke in. "And since Harry had no prior intimation regarding my intention to resolve this matter in our fortnightly consultation as I had promised to help him to do, my intention is to present his case to you, and as well, explain your stance to him."

"What are you playing at?" Scrimgeour asked bluntly. "Were it not for the obvious curse residue I can see, I would have been suspicious. Your behaviour is thoroughly out-of-character. You have never been this forthcoming – or indeed willing to let me meet Potter."

And Harry found himself agreeing with the Minister.

"And I would commend your vigilance. Little, however, can be gained from your primary supposition regarding the Prophecy or by disputing it. As I told Cornelius, I stand against Voldemort. Continuing with my discrepant behaviour, as you termed it, I must say that I could have worse allies than an Auror who has become the Minister, political agendas aside." He then looked at Harry deliberately, before eyeing Scrimgeour again. "As for meeting Harry, I, if you'd care to remember in an unbiased manner, refused to organise a meeting between Fudge, and then you, and Harry without his expressed desire to do so. I feared, and as you experienced over Christmas, rightly so, that the distrust regarding the Ministry could very well fester into hatred. And, I would exhort you to objectively view the matter. For one like you, those conclusions would not be difficult either."

There was a minute of silence as each of them sized the other up. Then Scrimgeour conceded, "Fine."


"I reserve the right to not agree."

"To ask for an insight into your motivations, however, remains a right of every citizen. Pressed as we are, for time, I believe it would behove me to summarise the demands."

"Are they yours too?"

"It shouldn't matter, given that you believe that the choice no longer lies with me."

Scrimgeour gave a half-snort, half-sneer before acquiescing with a nod. "Let's hear it then. As I remember, the matters were the mass executions of Death Eaters, the conductor, and Fudge and Umbridge."

"I see that I don't need to summarise. You do it so yourself wonderfully," Dumbledore complimented. "Of those things, the matter of the conductor, I trust, stands resolved between you?"

He received two nods.

"So, onto the matter that I am invested in as the Headmaster of this school," he continued with a sense of tranquillity that seemed like a facade. "I confess to being disappointed by the continued employment and freedom of Dolores Umbridge."

"Professor, may I?" Harry asked. At Dumbledore's permitting gesture, he said something that left the Minister, Dumbledore and McGonagall shocked. Dumbledore was not the only one behaving out of character that day. "You prosecute her and execute her. Or I will kill her."

"Do you even...?" Scrimgeour started, his anger becoming evident as he stood.

"Dolores Umbridge," Harry interrupted, as he rolled up his sleeve to reveal the cut he received on the 24th of June 1995, "like Peter Pettigrew, when he resurrected Voldemort, stole my blood. What did she do with it? The Ministry attacked me, and you keep her still, so you support her? Prove that you are different. Funnily, I have proof of her actions."

Scrimgeour sat down. He could not defend that. The Ministry had already badmouthed Potter enough. He was the only witness to the resurrection willing to speak, and the blood quill was illegal. All it would take was for Potter to speak out and compare a Ministry employee with Pettigrew. Put the word out otherwise, and he would have Potter as an enemy. Stop Potter from speaking and the word would spread from the school outward, and the public would openly distrust the Ministry, leaving Potter open to make all sorts of demands, many of which could not be fulfilled because irrespective of the war, there was a real reason why any overt action had to be avoided. Dolores Umbridge, moreover, was very disposable.

"I thought you intended this to be a reasonable discussion." Just because he would have to give in did not mean he would give in without even a semblance of a fight.

"I am just being blunt. We all want to save time, and you won't get detentions if I miss out on homework." The levity was not even registered, so Harry soldiered on, "You have seen me when I was not being reasonable."

And indeed, Scrimgeour had.

"Will you testify?"

"Yes. You will, of course, prosecute Fudge for treachery. We lost last year. Every death is on him."

"The annual budget is available in the public domain. I can aid you by ensuring that these questions are asked by the public. And assigning an economic investigative team to investigate the former Minister can help your case," Dumbledore added – which meant he was essentially threatening Rufus Scrimgeour to prosecute Fudge, or else. "It can be done behind closed doors."

"I take it this is non-negotiable," Scrimgeour spat, bitter at being steamrolled.

"You are not an idiot, Minister," Harry quipped.

Scrimgeour snorted bitterly again. "Would you really kill her?"

"I am sure that Harry, and most people in our world hope that it won't come to that," Dumbledore placidly replied, pouring a cup of tea that just appeared on the table. "Wouldn't you agree?"

Scrimgeour simply took a sip. "And do my reasons count for the last matter?"

Taking the tacit acceptance of the matter over the previous administration, Dumbledore nodded at him, speared Harry with a quick look and took a sip from his own cup. "Really, Rufus, you are the Minister. Your reasons and your decisions may not always be agreeable, but they of course do matter."

And Harry knew that Dumbledore being non-committal on this account had a lot to do with Snape.

"Why are Aurors being put up as sacrifice, Minister? Voldemort broke Death Eaters out of Azkaban. Won't he do it again?" Harry wondered. Snape could go burn. This, right here was a chance to make a serious dent into Voldemort's "army's" terrorising abilities. He was bloody well taking it. "Antonin Dolohov, the Lestrange brothers, Crabbe, Mulciber, Jugson, Macnair, Rookwood, Malfoy, Nott, and Avery were caught."

"And that is where I have got reasons why I cannot have them sent to the gallows, Potter," Scrimgeour replied, clearly waiting to deliver that spiel. "Between Malfoy, Jugson, Mulciber and Nott, they account for a combined majority share bloc in companies that constitute, in terms of actual trade and production, twelve percent of our economy."

"That's a flimsy reason."

"They also account for thirty-eight percent of all non-Ministry employment – legal employment."

That stopped Harry's impending tirade out of disgust at the Minister long enough to make him think.

Scrimgeour pressed the advantage. If to convince Potter to understand, he had to pretend to give more information, a lot of which was worthless and easily available, it would be alright really. "Each of them has children who have been identified as high-risk. Draco Malfoy, Delphini Mulciber and Theodore Nott upon majority, and Euphemia Jugson, all three are in line to inherit upon the deaths of their fathers. All four are coveted by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. We cannot legally put them under surveillance, except Jugson, who was in France over the summer – starting from the last day of term – and was in enough trouble to raise eyebrows." He took another sip. "We get them prosecuted – because they were caught red-handed in Death Eater activities, they were thrown into Azkaban without prosecution – and then executed, and their children fall in line with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

"Protective custody," Harry retorted.

"On what grounds would we do it? And, Potter, you are not thinking. What about those people with the jobs? Do you really think there will not be attacks on their homes? For the Malfoys, Muclibers, Notts and Jugsons of this world, as long as their hands are not seen holding the wand, their employees are disposable. They can always get new employees. They can be attacked. They can be laid-off, causing an economic emergency which the Ministry is ill-equipped to handle at the present moment. They can just decide to disinvest since we can easily suspect whoever is the interim caretaker for the businesses may be a front or may be coerced. The Notts hold a majority stake in many of our food industries. Can you imagine what that would that do? We would be crippled by food inflation!"

"Food can be bought from the muggles. The Galleon can be exchanged at Gringotts'!"

"And be fleeced out of money? Potter the galleon is not valued by the Ministry. If it was, it would have been close to ten pounds to the galleon. Right now, it is at half that. Everyone knows this. Why do you think people can't buy anything from the muggles? There were many things Dolores Umbridge can be accused of. But her crusade against the Goblins is one that I honestly support!"

"How can they afford to let gold into wizard hands then?"

"It hardly ever gets into Wizard hands. Most of the time people just go for vault transfers, which have the same service charge as visiting a vault."

"Well if that is not an avenue, then declare those with the Dark Mark as terrorists and attach their businesses!" McGonagall pointed out, startling the two.

"And who will pay them? Legally, and rightly, we cannot selectively or completely regulate businesses or enforce governmental strictures, because that would mean the declaration of an emergency, since otherwise, as an open economy, these decisions, even with the extenuating circumstances of the war, cannot be justified if the war ends. The control will have to be returned to them. An emergency will mean martial law, curfews and all that, which I am understaffed to fulfil. And that is assuming we do not lose. If they win..." Scrimgeour trailed off with a shudder. "Are you sure we can win? If they win, they will cite a precedent of the action taken against their businesses, and attach every other one on the flimsiest of contrived reasons.

"I cannot," he continued, "take a decision that has such horrible ripple effects. And I haven't even explained the full range of effects. Keeping Malfoy, Mulciber, Nott and Jugson alive and locked up with nobody able to make any move, is the best solution we have, at least for the next year. And that's without considering their competitors in the respective businesses. Who is to say that the competitors won't be taken out viciously when the kids take up the businesses? It will stop us from becoming a competitive economy – no bargains, inflated prices, no competition, and a complete loss of both foreign trade and foreign currency reserves!"

"And if Draco, Delphini, Theodore or Euphemia take the mark?" Harry countered, somehow keeping himself in the conversation even as his head spun with the logic behind the stalemate.

"Then matters would change heavily," Scrimgeour grimly conceded.

"I'm sure that such a turn of events may not yet come to pass," Dumbledore said, attempting to move the subject on from his possibly errant students. This was critical, considering that Scrimgeour had shown his hand. He intended to increase the surveillance on his own part. To Harry it was just more confirmation that Dumbledore knew something was up with Malfoy. He could not hide the disappointment in his expression from the Headmaster.

The room was quiet as Harry digested what the Minister had just told him. Then, he raised an objection. "That's only four out of eleven. You can't justify the lives of the others. Rookwood, especially, was from the Department of Mysteries. He, Dolohov, and the Lestranges broke out of Azkaban. No need to wait till Voldemort to decide he wants them back and breaks them out again, is there?" He refrained from saying more.

"Surely, such executions can send a strong message, bolster the Ministry image among the people and deplete a strong part of Voldemort's skilled ranks, Rufus?" Dumbledore supported.

"You are supporting this?" Scrimgeour demanded incredulously at Dumbledore's damage-control.

His immediate ploy was seen through rather easily which was surprising as Potter wasn't exactly known as the sharpest tack in the box. Didn't Potter understand? He was a boy, nothing more. How could he even hope to take on You-Know-Who, never mind defeat him? That was what the apprehended bastards were for! They were the collateral, bargaining chips, as it were. And Dumbledore, the damned old coot! He was supporting Potter on this, in spite of knowing and understanding exactly why those rabid animals were still alive when all Rufus truly wanted was to flay them alive and take his sweet time doing it. Just because he couldn't didn't mean he wanted them alive! He had reasons, however much he hated those reasons himself!

"As you were so keen to remind me, Rufus, the choice may not be mine. Moreover, I am not a supporter of the capital punishment, but I can agree that war necessitates harsh decisions. If the next generation is forced to fight, then I think the preceding one should at least strive to alleviate the problem a little. I cannot see the Aurors disagreeing with such a move, particularly when the stress of extra guard required for these high-profile prisoners in the absence of the Dementors can be reduced."

"And He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will of course cower and not retaliate," retorted in a scathing, sarcastic manner.

"I have heard that you're considered a man of action Minister. You-Know-Who always will react. But he will have decidedly less to react with. We have already fought, and nearly lost a reactionary war once," McGonagall opined. "I would believe more in a Ministry that shows it does not fear terrorists, no matter the consequences. As a member of the public to whom you're responsible, I should think that when we see them killing us, and then we see the Ministry retaliating so strongly, morale would be boosted."

"I might as well go about making speeches as to how we shall fight from brooms, on land and on the sea between here and Azkaban and never surrender! I am not that Muggle War Prime Minister," Scrimgeour derided.

"No. You, Minister," Minerva gravely rejoined, "are an Auror who is the Minister, not the other way around. Our world requires you, in your mandated position, to be the general."

Scrimgeour looked slightly mutinous and only bit out (more to end the subject than anything else), "It needs to be considered." He made no promises.

"What about those who weren't in the Ministry that night?" Harry asked, unwilling to give Scrimgeour any more than the inch.

"Are you suggesting that I legalise a system that will be mostly misused for vendetta?"

"Not all are false complaints," Harry protested.

"Not all are true either. I speak because I have seen that happen last time, Potter. Without proof a complaint is just as good or bad as any other."

"So, what, they will go free?"

"I can't do anything without proof. I cannot have people investigated without sound reason. Accusations won't cut it."

"So, a little appeasement on Fudge and Umbridge, and you intend to let all the Death Eaters go free?"

"I never said anything about those in Azkaban going scot-free. And you are not listening, Potter. I can't do anything without proof." This time, he stressed on that word, that not even Harry, at his naïve-most which he no longer was, could have missed it.

"I see." It didn't really stop them arresting Sirius, Harry thought bitterly.

Scrimgeour simply finished his tea.

"Potter, even though we don't much agree on how things should go please understand this. I want us to win. If I do get out of this mess alive, and given my unwieldiness to the pressure that I am being put under by various pawns, it is not a great probability, I am supposed to ensure that we do not end up broken as so many places do after civil wars. We are facing one, and who knows how badly our image will take a hit internationally, never mind the constant threat of coups and international isolation or meddling. Some will want to turn us away all the time, and some will seek to gain a foothold on our magical sovereignty under the disguise of help. You are internationally known. We need to be visible allies. Intellectually, going on an authoritarian rampage seems nice. The ground realities do not support it. You accepted things – like the conductor. You may even understand things like that with those four arrested bastards," he said, chuckling darkly when Harry reluctantly sneered.

"I don't hate them any less than you do. I have seen them walk after killing my friends too. But my responsibility is not constrained, yet my powers are. With the others, I could be persuaded to think that executing them is good. Will it work? Would they be better used as collateral elsewhere? I don't know. Will it be better if the deed is done, but nobody knows, discreetly? Do you understand what I am saying?"

"All I can hear is a flawed argument. If they are to be some kind of bargaining chip, you believe Azkaban can hold them indefinitely. And everyone knows it is not the truth. Whatever your plans are with the four can only work if you prove that they are only alive because they employ people."

"It's like banging my head on stone!" the Minister spat. "Isn't that an invitation for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to attack Azkaban?"

"He already bloody did that! And that was when the Ministry still supposedly had the dementors and when you believed he didn't exist!"

"Don't you get it? We are not strong enough to bear whatever his response will be! I won't sacrifice my Aurors and Hit-Wizards!"

What he didn't say was even louder. They neither had the manpower, the time to train, nor the money for that! All the money used to go into Fudge's bribes and wherever the Death Eaters poured it.

Harry could only hear excuses. And it was a poor excuse, because had the DMLE bloody done its job investigating Cedric's death and Harry's claim, things would have never reached this stage, or so Harry believed. But one thing he had learnt was to keep his mouth shut. There were other ways to bell the cat. Rita Skeeter had exposed the Ministry once. He was not so foolish as to forget such an explosive resource. "It needs to be thought about," he offered evasively.

Scrimgeour snorted and left it.

"With the previous administration, things can get moving. That case is as clear as night and day. And seeing you in the Ministry will make quite a few of them come into the open, when they see the Ministry openly supporting you. It will make things clearer, if not necessarily easier. That can be dealt with."

"Professor Dumbledore, when can I have the written copy of my complaint against Fudge, Umbridge and a copy of the first information report or whatever against them for treason?" Harry asked in response.

"Within twenty-four hours," Dumbledore replied.

"You don't trust me, do you?" the Minister grumbled.

"Actions, Minister, speak louder than words. Till now, you've just spoken words, and even those mean little."

Scrimgeour looked at Harry shrewdly. "I see." He then drew his pocket-watch, and stood. "I am afraid, though this is abrupt, that this discussion may need to be continued at another time, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Potter. I am required for a previous engagement." He nodded and floo'd away.

"Is it wise, Harry, to antagonise the Minister so?"

"I can never trust the Ministry. If there were a purge, how many Death Eaters and sympathisers would be exposed? Enough to employ those that the displaced businesses will leave unemployed?"

"You cannot generalise any organisation, Harry."

"Perhaps not, but then the past is evidence, I think."

It was at that moment that Dumbledore had a minor revelation. "You hate the Ministry."

Harry did not answer directly. "I have never known it to not lie."

"And what if the Minister doesn't agree to the executions?"

"When Voldemort breaks them out, and he will, I will send the Minister a letter saying "I told you so!"" Harry replied, snidely.

"Potter," McGonagall sighed. It was times like these when she was reminded whose son and godson Potter was. Neither James nor Sirius were ever able to let go off a grudge, and could be exceedingly petty.

"Professor, we have had one traitor, and now we have a Neville Chamberlain."

"That's harsh, Harry. Rufus wasn't entirely wrong," Dumbledore mildly rebuked.

"I don't really care. The only thing I care about is keeping my people safe and ensuring Voldemort dies, irrespective of what I need to do for that."

Harry's conviction made Dumbledore smile sadly. It was a reiteration of that which he had said the evening Horace Slughorn had regained gainful employment.

"Potter, Albus is asking you for the alternative should Rufus not accept."

"You have seen my alternative in action already, Professor. The Ministry has seen it before too."

"That is dangerous," Dumbledore cautioned.

"Is it more dangerous than any of them alive, or more than letting Voldemort have even an inch?"

"Nevertheless, it is my prerogative to caution you, my boy. I would be remiss in my duties as your Headmaster, and mediator, if I do not. Rufus, after all, has the support of the Aurors and their loyalty to a large extent."

"And I have the trust and friendship of the children and kin of Aurors, professor."

"Sowing the seeds of division?" Dumbledore questioned with a frown.

"We are British. It is traditional."

In spite of his misgivings, Dumbledore's eyes twinkled slightly in mirth. It faded soon.

"If you'd excuse us, Minerva, there are some things I would like to talk to Harry about."

With a slight glare at the pair of them, McGonagall left.

"Sir?" Harry asked, once Minerva had left.

"Would you have any idea, Harry, why Bill Weasley wants to meet me as soon as possible, and demands that you be present?" Dumbledore asked, cutting straight to the point.

Harry fought away a wince. Bill, it seemed, was not very happy with Harry's decision to wait for an opportune time and had decided to take matters into his own hands where the revelation was concerned. Harry believed it was hasty.

"Bill would know best, sir."

"Prevarication does not suit you, Harry."

"I am not!"

Dumbledore's brow furrowed. "And yet, he asks that I demand an answer from you."

Harry shifted uncomfortably. He had essentially disobeyed Dumbledore, and he somewhat feared the Headmaster being angry at him for that. And he really didn't want to face Dumbledore's ire without support. Bill was an Order member, and Harry wanted that support. It wasn't a mistake, but still. And being a teen, Harry just wanted to ignore the problem long enough till it went away on its own. That wasn't happening.

"And we will," the Headmaster said at long last. "I hope it is nothing to worry about?"

Harry didn't answer, he just shrugged. "Bill sent you the letter, sir."

"Indeed." He surveyed Harry over his half-moon glasses before springing the next question. "There is another question that I would request you to indulge, Harry."

"Yes sir."

"You may not know this, but there are subtle ways in which magic can monitor presence without actually casting spells constantly. At a particular place within the castle I had reason to cast such magic. Imagine my surprise then, when I found that not one, but nine students tripped this detection scheme of mine, and you were one of them."

"If you are talking about the Chamber, I sort of hoped you knew."

"You have my attention and curiosity, Harry."

Quite contrary to Dumbledore's expectations, Harry was, obviously, not only expecting this question, he wanted it asked. "There are two reasons sir. Ron believes that eventually Voldemort will attack Hogwarts. Hermione said that there wouldn't be another there, because basilisks are apex predators, and cannibals. If we remove the Parseltongue password or something, Hogwarts is a fortified castle, big enough for people to live in, and this is even more space. It is large enough to fit the Great Hall several times over, so we were going to request you to help us."

Dumbledore relaxed visibly at that. "I commend Mr. Weasley's ingenuity. Please, however, do not venture to such a place without my assistance Harry."

"I understood that once we were inside, sir. That's the second reason, actually. I…I think I may have something related to our lessons."

"And what would that be?"

"Sir, do you remember what I told you Tom said to me that night in the Chamber?"

"Ah, you speak about his remarking upon your respective similarities."

"Yes. And well, I have always felt that Hogwarts is my true home."

That was enough for Dumbledore to connect the dots, and Harry knew it the moment Dumbledore understood exactly what he was pointing at.

"And?" the Headmaster prodded, wanting Harry to complete his train of thought.

"Home is safety and comfort, right? If I were Tom, I would hide something I want to keep safe in my home. And the Chamber was a secret that Tom knew but nobody else knew."

"But you have," Dumbledore remarked.

Harry deflated a bit, but continued, "Yes, but he has never been inside Hogwarts since my second year, has he? What if he has a Horcrux right here, in the castle? And what better place than the Chamber?"

Dumbledore smiled widely, and genuinely at that, his eyes twinkling merrily. "This is a truly remarkable breakthrough, Harry. Now that you say it, I find myself at a loss as to how it never occurred to me." He stood up and paced the room for a bit. "This is, indeed a very important thing you have brought to my notice, Harry. Now that I think of it, I do not doubt Tom may have done just that." He paced some more. "I must, however, caution you to not be demoralised if we do not find it in the Chamber. Remember, Tom was very resourceful. I have no doubt that he knows some more secrets of this school, than even you with your prodigious map and equally prodigious skill at getting into and out of trouble have managed to uncover."

Dumbledore maintained his reverie for a while thereafter, not dismissing Harry. "While the idea that a Horcrux could be in Hogwarts is highly probable, I find two arguments against it," he said at last.


"Consider this, Harry, that the Chamber can only ever be opened by a Parselmouth, or, indeed a snake. We both know that Tom would not, at least while those of us who love and cherish these halls stand in its defence, dare step a foot. And I am sure you would agree, that Tom doesn't seem the kind to sire an heir. He lacks the ability to love."

"That didn't stop him from being born. To all intents and purposes, his mother violated his father. I cannot see Voldemort, of all people, finding such an act..." Harry argued, unable to fairly articulate what he meant.

"I believe the word you are looking for is 'abhorrent'," Dumbledore supplied, his eyes twinkling at the argument. He remembered the times when he and Nicolas Flamel would so discuss matters and each would challenge the other. How he wished for time. There was a lot he should have taught Harry, and a lot more that he wished he had time to teach him. In his single-minded approach to solving the problem that was Tom Riddle, it seemed he had forgotten the person who was his legacy.

"Right, that. He could easily do the act, murder the mother, still the kid and have some Death Eater raise it."

"In theory he could do all that, but again that too is flawed. Understand this, Harry. Tom was disembodied and temporarily defeated for fourteen years. Before that Halloween night, it was only a matter of time before the Ministry surrendered to him. If he had such an heir as you hypothesise, such an heir would have been raised by his most loyal Death Eaters. At a minimum, he would be your age. And assuming that the Horcrux is in the Chamber, we would have then been dealing with a living Heir of Slytherin. More importantly, the Dark Side would have employed the Horcrux for its purpose already."

"Oh," Harry muttered in realisation.

"Do not fret, my boy, for it is a very important discussion that we now have. You have raised some quite pertinent counters. Still let us return to the other player…"


The interruption caused Dumbledore to halt his thoughts again.

"Precisely. But a snake cannot undo spells which most assuredly will be among the many protections that Tom will have cast on the item."

"So, it cannot exactly retrieve it."

Dumbledore nodded at that. Deep in thought, he started pacing before he continued, "I am, loathe to assign you further homework, which I have observed you are working on, if Horace's frequent remarks about your growing interactions are any indication. But, with this new avenue of investigation, I would appreciate some help with the use of the map, and any secrets that you may have uncovered."

Harry nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it.

"Do speak, my dear boy. I daresay your inputs have always been more productive and insightful than I dared to hope when I decided to engage you on this matter."

"Would it not be easier to have Remus help? He made the map, after all. Or Fred and George, perhaps?"

"Alas, Remus is engaged with the werewolves, as I expect you might know from Misters Weasley and Weasley and their resourceful tricks. But I shall talk to him about this. It is, however, my expectation that you perform the task, not for the knowledge of the school's secrets, but because you have touched the crux of what I wish to accomplish with our meetings – you can, on a certain level, place yourself in Tom's shoes, without emulating his motives or methods. What kind of, and where, would you place your greatest secrets within the school, if you were Tom?"

Harry sat in contemplation at that, and Dumbledore made no move to dismiss him for the night. There was something truly peculiar of the question Dumbledore had asked.

"What kind of a secret is a Horcrux?"

Dumbledore did not address the question immediately, choosing instead to observe Harry intently for a moment. Twice, in the span of ten minutes since the Minister left, Harry had surprised him. He had surprised him during the meeting with the Minister also. And there was the intent. He did not doubt Harry's intent whatsoever. The boy truly did want Tom destroyed, and Albus certainly did not doubt Harry's declaration regarding any required sacrifice. And that hurt. It hurt Dumbledore in ways that he could barely put into words.

But was this intent always there? Was it just awaiting incentive, or direction? Perhaps he had been an old fool, unwilling to see, unwilling to look beyond what he knew? Had he failed the boy by not stepping in, by not providing the direction he sorely needed, by letting him lurch from one year to other – perhaps relying on the boy's prodigious power and being disappointed with his academic drive, which itself needed some direction, or channelling? It seemed he had been unable to dissociate the teacher with the opponent of the Dark Lord, and by not providing proper impetus to his student, he had failed as a teacher as well. And now it seemed especially egregious. He had failed Harry even worse than he had come to believe. Would this be the nail for want of which the kingdom would fall?

Whatever it was, he would not fail Harry as he had thereunto, he decided. The world did not have the luxury of another failure, most certainly not on his part. And beyond anything the world demanded, he didn't have the luxury of failing someone he truly cared for, Harry included. He had a lifetime of those regrets. He wished he had a chance to correct that, but with his destination now known to him, he would take what little redemption he could get, if only to assuage the guilt a little.

"Sir?" Harry nervously murmured, breaking the odd silence, and the Headmaster's reverie.

"It is a curious question you ask Harry," Dumbledore replied. "One that I still am considering the best way to properly and completely answer." He let out a deep breath. "Let us work you towards the problem. I intend to tell you what a Horcrux is, as soon as you have Horace's memory. But for now, let's suffice it to say that it is a secret that Tom would prize above all, even his muggle ancestry, which, if you remember, he did not hide from those who saw him rise again that night in the cemetery."

Harry nodded.

"Forgive my bluntness and being out-of-character, as the Minister said. Now you know of one Horcrux. You destroyed it. What did it do?"

"It took Ginny's strength, the more she wrote in the diary."

"And? What happened to Tom?"

"And it strengthened him. Tom said that the more Ginny wrote, the more she poured herself into him." Harry paused again, reflecting on that meeting. "He was strong enough. No, wait, he was solid enough to use my wand!" Then, horror-struck, he breathed, "The Horcruxes can bring him back, each time he dies!"

Dumbledore nodded in satisfaction. "I want you to think on this tonight. We have progressed well, Harry, and much further than I had ever hoped or believed we ever would." Recognising the dismissal, Harry stood to leave, when the Headmaster continued, "And I do believe that we should meet more frequently now. Tomorrow, as William requests, we shall meet again."

As he watched the boy leave, Albus Dumbledore felt every one of his years crash upon him. What wouldn't he give to have a chance to correct his mistakes just where Harry was concerned, let alone the regrets of his life?