(A/N: Regarding the scene with Liam, as one reviewer pointed out, Harry's view of "dangerous" is a bit skewed from the normal person's even if he is only 16.

Also, I really hate to take readers to task, but for those who requested "please don't pair Harry with 'X'" (and there were multiple values for X), did you read the A/N in chapter 1? Of course, I've also said there is an Omake at the end for variety - you're welcome to skip 1 of the endings. However, if you don't like a certain girl for Harry, then you're approaching a story with preconceived notions and not letting the author do his/her job. I'd like to say more, but my bio/profile addresses this topic quite well so I'll just point you to it (my profile addresses the topic in terms of Ginny, but the part that discusses JKR's failings in secondary character development really applies to pretty much any girl you like). In the end, if the girl that is paired with Harry is "bad", it's because the author did a inadequate job of character development or you the reader thought she was "bad" before you started the story, not because the character is bad. So for those with preconceived biases, please put them on the shelf and enjoy the story. If you feel I didn't develop any character well enough, you're welcome to tell me *and* why you think that. Honestly, if the mere idea of Harry going out with a certain character (whoever she is) bothers you so much, put the story down (whether mine or someone else's), and go do something more productive. Sorry, I'll put my soapbox away now…)


[Fri, Aug 16]

Harry wasn't sure if he was looking forward to this afternoon or not. He'd finished work at three and left, like the others.

It took him a few minutes of Apparating to various places since he wasn't totally sure where he was going, having only an address. Eventually, he came to a large property that said "Potter" in a stone wall in front. The vegetation had gone wild and he didn't see any structures. After entering the property and walking around for a few minutes he found where the house had been, or so he guessed from the scorched area and stone rubble and other refuse in a pit that had probably been the basement originally. It was as Lady Longbottom had guessed - destroyed.

Harry wondered what mistake had been made for the Potter Manor house to have been destroyed, for he was learning that the wards on the older manor houses generally prevented this. Perhaps he'd ask Algie to see if the man knew of any stories or rumors that would explain this.

Oh well, one task down, two to go…

Next he Apparated to the edge of Godric's Hollow and walked into town. Finding the church with the attached cemetery wasn't hard. Looking around the cemetery he eventually found his parents' graves.

Kneeling down, he touched the combined headstone. He had accepted their loss years ago, but he still missed their presence keenly from time to time, such as now. "I wish you were here and had advice for me," he said softly as he took a long moment to give his respects.

He patted the headstone one more time before he stood and left. He'd return again, but today was not about grieving over what might have been. No, today was for learning about his family.

Godric's Hollow wasn't a large town, so it was easy enough to find the partially destroyed cottage. The sign that appeared as he walked up was a surprise and caused several questions to spring to mind, which he blamed on his new job for causing him to question things more than usual.

Why was the cottage visible and known as the place his family hid? Since the secret keeper was still alive, shouldn't the Fidelius still have been in effect? He could only conclude the Fidelius has been taken down, but by whom?

Why was this considered a monument when, from the records, it still belonged to him and he still paid taxes on it? He had half a mind to remove the sign, but stopped himself for the moment. It'd be less trouble just to stop the automatic tax payments, which weren't much. If they say anything, well, he'd argue then.

Walking forward, he entered through the partially open front door which looked like it had been repaired and badly at that. Everywhere he looked, it was empty. Human nature being what it was, he assumed the many visitors over the years had picked it clean to have a memento.

Going upstairs, he also wondered if his Dementor-induced memories of that night were real or something supplied by his imagination. He had been only fifteen months old and he had no other memories from before he was five, but with magic maybe he could really remember that fateful night.

As he came back down the stairs, he noticed a strange area by the fireplace. He didn't know why he noticed it like he did but it almost called to him. With care and ready for a trap, he pulled out his wand and walked over. It was the bookshelf he finally decided.

Checking out the bookshelf, he finally pulled on one board and heard a click before the bookshelf moved aside to reveal a stairway down. Creating a light with his wand, he peered down to see a fully furnished room, mostly a workroom based on what he could see. He also wondered why this hadn't been found before and why he could find it. Being hidden with family magic was the most obvious explanation.

He also wondered why his parents hadn't hidden down here, but could only guess there wasn't the time - that Voldemort had come through the front door too quickly.

Venturing in and doing his best to ignore the buildup of dust, he explored. It was a single room with areas, like the bed area on the left and something like a kitchenette next to that, or at least there was a sink and shelves with old tins of food on them. The other half of the room was definitely a work area, having three workbenches.

One workbench was definitely for potions as it was a larger example of what he'd used at school. He laid a hand on it and smiled, knowing his mother had used this. He didn't see any exotic potion ingredients, but he wondered what she might have created here.

The second workbench was empty, but the third had papers on it. He saw plans for the cottage and a checklist of things to do with most crossed off plus a grocery list. Underneath was a large drawing of a house, which based on the address was probably his father's plans for rebuilding the manor house.

"Mum, Dad…" he breathed, missing them for the second time that day.

Deciding he didn't want to lose this, he conjured a box and put all the papers into it. Looking around again, he saw a bookshelf with maybe twenty books on it. He shrunk them and put them in the box. Not seeing anything else of importance, he went back up and closed the hiding bookcase. Satisfied, he Apparated back to the Longbottoms from there.

He felt a little closer to his parents. He might even say he felt a little more like a Potter.


[Sat, Aug 24]

Harry Apparated to an alleyway as had been requested and looked around to make sure he hadn't been seen. Satisfied it was so, he walked out and around the corner to an upscale looking hotel and entered. It wasn't hard to find her, especially since she came rushing at him.

"Harry," she breathed in his ear as she hugged him tightly and held onto him for a long time.

"Hermione," he said softly, "it'll be fine; you'll be fine." He saw her parents walking over slowly. He patted her on the back and added, "You need to let go."

She surprised him by sniffling before she did and he could see a couple of tears on her face. He reached up and wiped them gently with the back of a finger. With one arm still around her shoulders, he reached out to shake hands. "Mr and Mrs Granger, it's good to see you."

"Harry," Mr Granger said evenly while his wife looked on with something near amusement. "Would you care to join us for dinner?"

"I'd love to, if someone will let go of me," he quipped.

"Prat," was said in jest as Hermione wiped at an eye again. That brought smiles to the faces of both parents.

"You've lost your glasses and you've grown," she said giving him an appraising look.

He smiled at her. "I've had a little help recently. They fixed my eyes and gave me a potion to be closer to the height I always should have been." He didn't plan to mention his scar, which was covered by his hair, as that would have opened him up to questions he didn't want to answer. Fortunately, she hadn't noticed.

They headed out and walked down the street towards an Italian restaurant. "How are you?" he asked as they walked.

Hermione shrugged and looked down. "Depends." She looked up at him. "Thank you for writing so much this summer. I'm not sure how I would have sent letters to you otherwise."

Harry nodded. "It has been a most unusual summer," he said off-handedly as they neared the restaurant.

"You'll have to tell me more. You've been so vague in your letters," she complained.

"I'll try where I can," he answered as they entered.

After they'd all ordered, Hermione looked at him with her inquisitive look. "What have you been doing that you'd couldn't put in a letter?"

"Hold on, I need to contain this conversation to just this table." He pulled out his wand and did a spell under the table.

"Harry!" she hissed in protest.

"There, now sound won't leave this booth." Harry noticed her parents looked surprised at him, and her father a little apprehensive. "It's fine," he told her, "I don't have the Trace on my wand anymore."

She goggled at him before she said demandingly, "Explain."

Harry considered how to tell her, or really her family. "Look, this is sort of at the level of a state secret. I'll only tell you the not ultra-secret parts, but are you really sure you want to know?"

"Yes," she said immediately. Her parents each gave a slow nod.

"As you probably remember from June, there is a prophecy about me. It says I'll end up killing the current Dark Wizard. I'm not sure if I believe it or not, but it really doesn't matter because the other parties do and so I'm caught between the two old men." Harry watched her eyes go wide in understanding.

"Tom Riddle and Professor Dumbledore?" she almost squeaked in surprise.

"Exactly. They each believe it and so I have to react accordingly whether I believe it or not." He grinned. "I've countered Dumbledore's lack of training for this by finding a third old man who has no problem training me and offering some help."

"Who?" she asked.

"He offered me a job. Training is included as well as learning some other very unique information and magic." It probably wasn't right of him, but he enjoyed her put-out expression as he ignored her question. "Hermione, I believe this is what's going to allow me to survive my ultimate encounter with Tom Riddle. For example, I can tell you that in the opinion of my trainer that I can now beat an average Death Eater without too much trouble and could pass the tests for over half of my sixth year courses right now."

"How? You've never been one to study that hard." Her gaze again demanded an answer.

"Because I now understand I have to, and that's a great motivator. Also, I don't bother to write all the essays we had to in school. I also spend a lot more time learning spells every day than I ever did at Hogwarts and my instructor is good enough he could give Flitwick a real challenge." He grinned at her when she couldn't answer because the waiter had returned with their food.

Once they were alone again, she looked at him. "You're not returning to Hogwarts either, are you?" Her jumping to that conclusion surprised him.

"No, I'm not," he answered and noted the surprised looks her parents were giving him. He looked at them. "I'm truly sorry you were involved in the war, but no matter how hard it was, you did the right thing. Those Death Eaters will never hurt another person again." He looked back to his friend. "That's why I'm doing this. I don't want them to hurt anyone else, including you."

Hermione looked down and took a few deep breaths. "Have you told McGonagall you're not going back?"

"Not yet. I need to do that this coming week. Thought I'd let Ron and Ginny know too; they deserve that much from me," Harry explained.

Hermione nodded and reached for her purse which was bulging. She pulled out a smallish box and put it on the table in front of him before adding three letters on top. "Would you mind sending these letters for me since I don't have an owl? I haven't told them yet I'm not going back to Hogwarts."

He picked them up and saw there was a letter for Ron, Ginny, and McGonagall. "Sure. I'll send my letter to McGonagall at the same time and take Ron and Ginny's when I go see them." He looked at the box. "What's that for?"

"It's a mobile phone, silly," she said with a grin as the box indicated that too. "I have one too and my number is saved in the contact list. I'll only have it on during the weekends, but will you call me sometimes, please?"

Harry opened the box and pulled the little phone out. He also saw a manual and a charger in the box. "Err, Hermione, I don't know how I'd charge it."

She gave him one of patented looks of exasperation. "Honestly, Harry; go to the public library or a café or something. If you only have it on during the weekends you won't have to charge it for very long."

"All right, I'll work something out," he agreed. "Thank you."

"It was the one concession I could get for me having to leave." She glanced at her parents disapprovingly, but neither of them batted an eye.

Harry put a hand on her shoulder. "Hermione, I don't blame them at all for what they're doing. They're just trying to keep you safe. Have you considered that at least they didn't have to do what my parents did to keep me safe?" He knew that was a little unfair of him as he watched her look down. He was surprised to see her father looked surprised and nod approvingly at him, so he assumed Hermione had explained about him being an orphan.

"Listen," he told her gently, "I'll keep you informed about the war so you can know when it's over. All right?"

"Promise you'll keep yourself safe?" she insisted.

"As safe as I can be with what I have to do; I can't promise more than that," he told her and she nodded her acceptance.

"Go learn without all the drama," he encouraged her. "Have some fun, maybe you should even try to find a boyfriend." He watched her blush and her mother smile. "We'll get together again one day; we'll always be friends."

"Thanks, Harry."

Harry took his privacy spell down while Mr Granger paid the bill. Harry walked them back to the hotel.

"We're leaving tomorrow," Hermione blurted out and grabbed him for another hug.

"I'd wondered if it was very soon," he told her and hugged her back. "It really will be fine," he assured her.

"Harry," her father stuck his hand out and they shook. "I wasn't sure about this, but I feel we can trust you as our daughter insisted." He ignored the girl's glare. "Thank you for your help and you're welcome to come visit us next summer if you're able."

"Thank you, sir. Have a safe trip and I'll stay in touch." Harry gestured with the box in his hand.

Hermione gave him one more hug, barely holding her emotions in, before he left. While he knew he would never lose Hermione and Ron's friendship, deep down he knew the trio would never again be like they were.


[Sun, Aug 25]

It was late afternoon and Harry was feeling apprehensive about his task this evening, but he felt it really needed to be done. Looking at Neville he said, "I'm going to talk to the Weasleys. If I'm not back by nine, assume something's happened to me. I don't know what can be done, maybe your grandmother can hit Dumbledore over the head with her umbrella or something." They both chuckled at the image.

"I'll let her know you won't be here for dinner and what you're doing. Be careful," Neville told him.

"Thanks, mate." Harry walked out the front door and Apparated to the paddock behind the Weasley's house. Still, no one was flying so he walked to the house.

He knocked on the door, which was answered quickly by Ginny. "Harry!" she cried in surprise before flinging the back door open and giving him a hug about like Hermione had yesterday, though not as long. She pulled back and then blushed slightly. "This is a good surprise and you're looking good … I mean well."

Harry couldn't help but smile at her being flustered. "You're looking good too," he told her conspiratorially and with a wink, pleased he made her blush again.

"It's good to see you again," she whispered for him alone.

Ron bounded up behind her. "Harry, good to see you mate. Come in, come in." He pushed Ginny to the side and received an elbow to the ribs for that. "Hey!" he protested.

Harry just chuckled at their antics as he walked in.

"Harry?" Molly Weasley gasped in surprise and then hurried over and gave him a hug. "Arthur, Harry's here," she yelled over her shoulder. "Oh my," she said as her husband came in, "I need to tell everyone, especially Professor Dumbledore; he's been wanting to talk to you."

"Mrs Weasley," Harry said with a sigh as he'd been afraid this would happen, "please don't tell anyone else I'm here and especially not Professor Dumbledore. I came here to see your family not to have a party or a debate."

"But he said it was important that he talk to you as soon as possible." She huffed, "He's quite vexed with you for leaving your aunt's home also."

"Mrs Weasley," Harry looked at her husband too, "the Professor is not my guardian and I've been told he has no say on what I do during the summer. Can we please leave it at that? If not, I'll leave."

"But…" The woman hesitated, not sure what to do.

"Molly," her husband said gently, "he has a point that the Professor is not his guardian," he looked at Harry, "but I don't know who is either. Harry, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but your aunt and her family were murdered by Death Eaters on the night we all were attacked. It was maybe a week later before I heard and I haven't seen you since."

Harry blinked as he processed that news and saw his two friends hadn't been told before now either based on their shocked expressions. "I hadn't heard," he said slowly as he tried to decide what to think.

Ginny put a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry." Her mother echoed her.

"It's all right," Harry said bravely. "I'd left them and didn't want them in my life at all. This is still a surprise though." While he'd never wished them dead, he wasn't sure what to think about the news.

"As you're still a minor, you need a guardian. We'd be honored accept that duty if you'd like," Arthur told him sincerely.

"Thank you," Harry told him with smile. "If I didn't already have a legal guardian I'd be tempted to take you up on the offer."

"You do? Who?" Molly asked, surprised as were the others.

"I'm afraid that's confidential at the moment, but it's someone you've heard of," Harry smirked.

Molly looked upset not to know but her husband chuckled and said, "As long as you have someone you can trust. Come in and sit down."

"Yes, come sit at the table," Molly told him, "we were about to have dinner shortly."

"I timed my visit well," Harry told them and followed the family.

"What have you been doing, mate?" Ron asked as he took his seat. "Your letters didn't say much. Also, where are your glasses?"

Here it goes, Harry thought. "I found someone to fix my eyes so I don't need glasses anymore. I have a job where they have me to do various tasks. I've been learning a lot, some from my school books and some other interesting things."

"A job? Why?" Ron protested. "You haven't even finished Hogwarts yet."

Harry noticed that Ginny and her father looked interested; he was thankful the Mrs was in the kitchen and either hadn't heard or was holding her opinion for the moment. "Actually, besides coming over to see you," he looked at the three, "I came to tell you that I'm not returning to Hogwarts this year."

Ron and Ginny just blinked at him in surprise. Arthur actually gaped. Molly proved she was listening from the kitchen as she came to the doorway. "Listen here, young man, you need to finish your schooling. You're very lucky to be going to Hogwarts."

"Normally, I'd agree with you, Mrs Weasley. However, I have something more important to do than to return to school, which doesn't really help me to accomplish my task all that much," Harry explained.

"But we'll lose at Quidditch!" Ron gasped, clearly upset.

Ginny glared at her brother as she reached over and slapped his shoulder hard. "Grow up, Ron. Something more important than Quidditch is going on here."

"But-" Ron was cut off by his father holding up his hand to stop him.

"Harry," Arthur addressed him seriously, "this is about what's been in the Daily Prophet about you, isn't it? Can I assume you've read it?"

"Yes sir, to both questions."

"I would think Hogwarts would still be the best place for you," Arthur told him. "Besides your teachers, Professor Dumbledore is there."

Harry looked at his hands for a moment, unsure how to say what he felt, but he knew he needed to say something. "Look, I know this is going to be hard to understand, but please try. The Daily Prophet is correct that I'm the Chosen One, as they put it." He heard a gasp from the mother.

"However, Hogwarts really doesn't do all that much to help me beyond the basics of Charms and Transfiguration. We've only had two good Defense teachers in my five years there and I have no expectation of it being different this year.

"More importantly, I've found an instructor, or really a team since there are several, who are willing to really teach me magic and how to fight with it. I could probably take my sixth year tests in Defense, Charms, and Transfiguration right now and get a passing grade; I've learned that much over the summer. If all goes well, I'll probably be able to take my NEWTS in those three courses by Christmas. Is it possible to do that while at Hogwarts? I don't think so," Harry said, meaning every word.

"But Professor Dumbledore is there," Molly countered. "He could teach you amazing things and he'll keep you safe."

"Except that he won't, or it would be a surprise to me if he did anything," Harry said a little bitterly. "He's had fifteen years and hasn't done a thing to prepare me. In fact he ignored me last year."

"I'm sure he's planning to do something this year," Molly told him encouragingly.

Harry shrugged. "He's had his chances and didn't do anything while I have an instructor now who is very capable. I'll be sending in my letter that I'm not returning tomorrow. Speaking of letters." He reached into a pocket and pulled two letters out and handed them to his slightly shocked friends. "I'm sorry to be the barer of more bad news."

Molly wore a disapproving look as she returned to the kitchen while Arthur looked thoughtful as he watched his children and looked at Harry. "Are you really sure, lad?" the man asked.

"Yes," Harry answered solemnly.

His two friends gasped and Ron shouted, "How could she?" before he glared at Harry. "This is your fault, isn't it? Does she have a job with you?"

"Ron, shut up! You're being stupid!" his sister yelled and glowered at him.

"Ginny, that's-" her father started.

"Hermione's not coming back to school either!" Ron announced loudly and glared at Harry.

"Is this going to be like fourth year?" Harry asked with forced calm, upset with the conclusion Ron was jumping to.

"Stop, everyone!" Arthur raised his voice though he didn't shout. "Harry, since you already know what's going on, can you please explain it to me?"

Harry noticed Molly was back at the doorway and she looked as unhappy as Ron did. "Hermione's family is moving and she has to go with them, so she'll be attending another school for at least this year and probably next year as well. Her parents were very upset with being attacked in their home this summer. I met them yesterday and they seemed to barely accept my presence, at least until we talked a bit. I think they blame the Wizarding World overall. They didn't say it, but I think they may also blame the Wizarding World for their daughter not spending as much time with them as they'd like."

Ron looked away, still upset. His mother didn't look much better.

Ginny nodded. "I think that last part is true. Hermione has told me her parents wished she wasn't away for most of the year."

Arthur looked down for a moment. "I see. Thank you for the explanation. I can understand that as Muggles they would feel to be at a great disadvantage when attacked by Magicals."

"They expressed that feeling," Harry confirmed.

"Did she say where she's going?" Ginny asked.

"Not exactly, but I have a good guess. It's in another country," Harry replied. He looked at his friend. "Ron, I understand you're upset, but I didn't and couldn't have influenced Hermione. She doesn't want to go; it's her parents' decisions, just like you'd have to go with your parents if they decided to move. I'm sorry I won't be at Hogwarts either this year, but I'll come visit you on Hogsmeade weekends if I know about them."

Ron looked at him finally and nodded. "I understand; I'm not very happy about all my friends leaving me. I'm not very happy I didn't get to tell her good-bye either." The 'and you did' was strongly implied with his look.

Harry had to work hard not to shake his head at his friend's attitude. He was pleased someone understood when Ginny reached out and set her hand on his. "I'll miss you not being around and being your usual fun self, but I understand you need to do what's best for you."

Mrs Weasley didn't look happy in general, but she put on a good face tried to be cheerful as she brought dinner in. Her husband rose to help her.

"Ron, are we going to be good about this or not?" Harry asked, not wanting a strained friendship again as it had been in their fourth year.

Ron looked down for a moment and then back up. "Sorry," he said simply. "We're still friends. This is just a lot of change to take in at once."

"I understand," Harry told him. "If it helps, I'm not perfectly happy about it all either, but life is like that sometimes. I do have one more thing for you." He dug into his pocket and pulled out the Quidditch Captain's badge McGonagall had sent him, setting it front of his friend. "I think you should take this. I'll tell McGonagall that I think you should have it."

Ron was very surprised. "Thanks, mate!"

The rest of the evening went better as all the hard news was out of the way. By the time Harry was ready to leave at half-eight, Ron was joking around like his old self.

As he walked out on the porch to leave, he was followed by his two friends. Ron told him, "I still can't believe you're not coming."

"Sorry about that," Harry replied, "but I'd like to live my life and I think I'll live longer this way."

"Do what you need to," Ginny said as she stepped forward and hugged him again before giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. "We'll let you know when we'll be in Hogsmeade."

"Thanks for understanding," he told her before he turned and walked towards the paddock to return.

When Harry returned to Longbottom manor, he gave Hedwig two letters to take to McGonagall. He was sure the letters would start conversations. He also had little doubt Molly Weasley would add to the conversations with the professors.

He did add a note suggesting Ron be made Quidditch captain and that he'd given the Captain's badge to his friend.


[Mon, Aug 26]

Minerva McGonagall was startled by a white owl flying into her office and drop off two letters before turning around and leaving. She was so surprised it was a moment before she realized it was Harry Potter's owl.

"Finally he replies," she muttered as she picked up the first letter only to recognize this script, having seen many, many feet of it. "And her as well."

The first letter shocked her and the second letter only made things worse. It was only nine in the morning, but maybe a small one wouldn't hurt she thought. She reached into her drawer for a special bottle and a shot glass. A large sip of the single malt would have to do for fortification.

Grabbing the letters, she hurried out of her office and was soon at the Headmaster's office; she didn't even bother to knock.

"Minerva?" the old Headmaster looked up in surprise at her barging in.

"Ms Granger is not returning to Hogwarts! She says her family has moved out of the country!"

Albus considered that for a moment. "Very unfortunate, but not surprising since they were attacked this summer. If you recall, we lost a number of Muggleborns from them moving during the last war."

"But she was my top student," Minerva protested.

"I fear there is little to be done if her parents have moved the family," he replied.

She harrumphed. "Harry Potter is also not returning."

"What?!" Albus stood looking alarmed.

"Now you care," she chastised him.

"We need him here," Albus said. "I must try harder to find him so he can return."

Minerva opened one of the letters in her hand. "He says and I quote, 'The Headmaster is aware that I have a task to do that's higher priority than returning to school; I'm sure he'll understand.'"

"I was afraid this would happen, it's part of why I waited so long to tell him," Albus said wearily as he sank back into his chair.

"He also says, 'If the Headmaster objects to my withdrawal, remind him that he's had fifteen years to take care of the problem. If he had explained the problem to me when I asked in my first year and then worked with me over time, then I wouldn't be having to catch up. Don't worry, I have some very good tutors that have already been far more helpful.'" She stared at him. "While I can guess, they say confession is good for the soul, Albus."

"It would be best I don't, as it would make you a target-"

She slapped her hand sharply on the desk. "Harry Potter has to defeat You-Know-Who and you haven't bothered to help him with that, have you?"

He looked up in surprise.

"Oh please," she sniffed, "it's blindingly obvious to anyone who takes the time to look and has a little wit and I mentioned this not long ago also." She stood. "I'll be sending everyone who asks why Harry Potter isn't in school this year to you."

Before she could make it to the door, Albus asked, "Fawkes, would you take a letter to Harry?"

She noticed the phoenix look at the Headmaster and then actually honk instead of trill.

"Minerva, could you please send a note to Harry asking him to reconsider? Perhaps he'd be more receptive to a note from you?" Albus asked.

The woman raised an eyebrow. "I thought his letter made his feelings and intentions quite clear. I'll send him a note telling I'm available if he wishes to talk, although I don't expect him to change his mind. If you desire another message, you'll have to send it yourself."

Albus dropped his face into his hands as she left, but that was his problem she thought. She just hoped there wasn't too much backlash and other withdrawals when the news leaked out. She was also reasonably sure that Gryffindor wouldn't be winning the Quidditch Cup nor the House Cup this year.


[Sun, Sep 1]

Harry looked at his summer house mate as the two walked down the stairs, though only Neville had his trunk. "This feels really weird seeing you leave but not going too," Harry commented.

"It's weird for me too and will be weirder still once everyone realizes you're not coming back. Still," Neville grinned, "it'll be fun playing that I don't know a thing and listen to all the wrong guesses."

Harry chuckled. "Yeah, have fun with that. Be sure to send me a letter with the best ones in it."

"I'll have to be careful about that, but yeah, will do. Take care, Harry. I've enjoyed having you here this summer."

"You take care too; I've enjoyed being here also. Let me know when the Hogsmeade weekends are and I'll come visit," Harry told him.

"Ready, Neville?" his grandmother asked as she walked up.

Harry watched the woman Side-Along Apparate his friend to the train station. Since he had free time, he retrieved his broom to go flying for a bit.

He also considered the two letters he'd received this week. He'd burned the letter from Dumbledore trying to guilt him into returning to school; logic he would have respected although ignored, but he had no respect for trying to make him feel guilty. On the other hand, McGonagall's letter had been pleasant and respectful, merely expressing that she would miss seeing him but hoped it went well for him, and that she was always available if he needed to talk with her. It almost felt like she was more open with him since he wasn't returning than she was as his Head of House, but perhaps she was like that with all former students.

— — —

Neville sat with Ron, Ginny, and Luna. He was a little surprised that Luna had received a letter from Harry this last week saying he wasn't returning, but he supposed he shouldn't have been since Harry had handed him one so he could honestly say Harry had told him by letter.

The next surprise was finding out that Lavender Brown as now a Prefect. While he had to feign shock at hearing that Hermione had moved, Lavender's promotion was truly news to him. It made him wonder if anything would get done between Ron's lackadaisical attitude to being a Prefect and Lavender's more flighty nature.

A few people stopped by and asked about Harry, so the news of his and Hermione's non-return was all over the train by the time they arrived at school.

Neville was pleased to note that the Headmaster did not comment on Harry's or Hermione's departure. He was not pleased to hear Parvati wonder of Hermione was pregnant since both were absent. He'd have to tell Harry about that one so Harry wouldn't be surprised. Fortunately, most scoffed at Parvati's attempt to start a rumor and Neville did his best to make her feel shame for saying it because something like that was in neither of his friends' character.


[Fri, Sep 20]

Harry saw Betty walk into the office room and gesture for him to join her. As he made his way forward, she turned and left, so he followed and joined her in the corridor.

"I need to key you into a special project room. You're special project is about to go to the next level. Put you hand on the door," she told him when they arrived and then she did a spell. "There will only be four of us who are allowed in this room, at least at the moment." She opened the door and entered, so he followed.

Inside, he saw Algernon and Dupree, along with three tables with men lying on them and chained to them. They also were naked except for a towel draped across their middle for only the barest amount of modesty. Guessing at what was going on, he looked at the left arm of the nearest prisoner and saw the Dark Mark.

"Time for the next phase?" he asked his supervisor.

"Yes, Inigo and Eduardo captured them last night after being on watch for over two weeks. It was difficult to get the right number and not more than we needed nor alert anyone to their disappearance. They finally got lucky though. Are you going to be all right doing experiments on them?"

"This is important and I don't plan to torture them," Harry said. "Also, with how these people act so uncivilized by torturing and killing people, I don't think I'm all that squeamish about looking and prodding at their Dark Mark, even if it is uncomfortable for them at times."

The others nodded and Algernon said, "That's a pretty reasonable attitude. Don't worry if something bad happens though; these won't be rejoining their master at the end." He gestured at his deputy.

"I've given them a potion," Betty explained, "that will keep them in something like a coma. They won't try to be fully conscious and so won't try to escape. However, if you do something that causes them pain, they will respond, probably by groaning. The point is, they should stay here and be safe to work around, but you'll know if you're doing something that activates the Dark Mark. I'll have to give them a nutrient potion once a day, but they can stay this way for at least several months."

"All right," Harry replied, "I think I can work with this."

"I do have a rule for this experiment though," Algernon said. "No one will be in here alone, and only those of us here are allowed in the room, unless you need more help and I approve. This will be a secret research project."

"I understand," Harry agreed.

"So you know why there are three," Algernon gestured to the tables, "it's so you can know if you did something that affects only a single Death Eater or tries to affect them all - although I will say to please try not to do anything that lets the others or their master know they are here. Their names are on their table if that helps you. I don't believe you went to school with any of them."

Harry looked at each prisoner carefully. "No, I don't recognize any of their faces." He checked each table. "Or their names. Hmm, this makes me wonder how many Death Eaters there really are."

"A good question," his manager agreed. "Perhaps you'll be able to figure that out. I'd like you to spend at least half of your time here. We'll bring a couple of desks in here so you have a place to write and keep your research, and whoever accompanies you can bring work with them. You can do your school work at your normal desk when you need to do something different."

"In addition," Betty told him, "I'm stopping my Occlumency lessons. I think you have a good working knowledge of it now. You've detected every time I've tried lately and kept me out. You're Legilimency skills still need some work, but that's not so important at the moment. I'll work with you on that more later."

"Dupree has the first watch with you," Algernon said. "The two of you can go get what you need from your normal desks while Betty and I finish setting up the room. I'll come find you twice a week for a verbal status report if I don't spend time in here with you."

"Right," Harry agreed. It was time to really get working on this and see if any of his ideas on the Dark Mark were correct or useful.

When they returned, Dupree asked, "What did you want to do first?"

Harry opened a notebook and looked at his list. "I'd like to see what we can figure out about the magic of the Dark Mark."

Dupree looked at him and nodded slowly. "I think I should teach you some detection spells…"


[Sat, Sep 21]

It was barely 9am when her phone rang. With glee, Hermione pressed the button and said, "Hello, Harry."

She should hear him chuckle. "How did you know it's me?"

"You're the only person I've given this number to other than my parents and they're both here, silly," she teased him.

"All right," he replied with mirth. "I wanted to tell you Happy Birthday, even if it is a couple of days late, since I couldn't call you on your birthday."

"Thank you, I wasn't sure you'd remember."

"Oh please, I won't forgot the girl who I think of like a sister." The mirth in his voice was evident. "I also wanted to tell you that I sent a present, though I have no idea when it will get there. Do you have it yet?"

"Yes, I got it yesterday. Thank you so very much; I really like it. It's on my desk here." She looked at the framed photo of Harry and Ron with herself. "Where did you get it?"

"Where else? I wrote Colin Creevey and asked him. I hope you like the frame I picked out."

"Yes, it's very nice." She paused. "I really miss all of you."

"We miss you too. How's Salem?"

Hermione considered her answer briefly. "It's going mostly well, but it's also been very eye-opening."

"Oh?"

"I'm really glad I always read ahead because I'm only a little ahead here. It's seems like…" Hermione wasn't sure she wanted to say this but felt she must. "Harry, I'm not sure Hogwarts really is the best school of Magic. I mean," she hurried to explain, "it's really good in some things, like Professor McGonagall would be truly brilliant even over here, but overall…"

"Hmm, I'd wondered what how they would compare. I'll ask more later. How about friends?" he asked.

"It's all right," she said quietly.

"Hermione?" he asked insistently.

"I have a couple of friends," she said finally, "two girls. I joined their group; they call themselves The Outsiders."

"What?!"

"Most of the students are pleasant, but they have their own groups already. Think about it," she insisted. "Once it was the three of us, did we really, I mean really, let anyone else join us?"

"Neville, Ginny, and Luna," he named.

"Sure, but only at the end and mostly out of necessity. Ginny joined us the most and that was because we were around her family. Look, most of those here aren't mean about it, they just have their own groups of friends that they're used to," she defended. She knew the term "clique" was the correct term, but didn't want to say it.

"I suppose," Harry said grudgingly, "but if you need me to come over and kick some arse, just let me know."

"Harry!" she was outraged and then started to laugh as he was laughing.

As they recovered, she sighed, "Any news on the war?"

"About the same," he said. "There's the occasional attack by the other side and quiet progress on our side. I think I've come to understand that despite the attacks, much of the war happens where most people don't see it. Oh, and it's slow, really slow." He ended on a frustrated note.

"I'm not sure I'll be able to call next weekend," he told her.

"All right, so two weeks?" she asked hopefully.

"Yeah, I think so. Take care of yourself, Hermione, and don't forget I am available to come over and set some people straight."

She couldn't help her smile. "Thanks, Harry. Take care of yourself too. Bye."

Hermione ended the call after his "bye" and looked at the phone wistfully. "One day, I'll be back," she promised fiercely.


[Fri, Sep 27]

Harry waited at the door to his project room to see who would show up today. To his surprise, Croaker joined him.

Croaker smiled ever so slightly at the young man's raised eyebrow. "I'm tired of working on the budget and need a break. You're my distraction for the morning, plus I want to know how you're doing."

The two walked in and closed the door. Harry grabbed his notebook from his desk and looked at his notes. With a nod now that he remembered where he was, he walked over to his main test subject.

"I've heard some joke that the Dark Mark is a brand, like is done to cattle. There is some truth to that. The skin isn't burnt, but this is an indelible mark. Betty has lectured me about the myth of the 'magical core'." He watched Croaker nod. "Since there is no organ that is the cause of our magic and it's really spread throughout our body, my theory is the mark is really attached to the magic in the arm. What I don't know is if you could chop off the arm and if he'd live or not, and I don't plan to find out anytime soon."

Croaker nodded again. "Good question, we can save that as the last experiment for one of them."

Harry could understand that in a neutral way, but the squeamish part of him rebelled and that was an experiment he'd let Croaker do if the man wanted. He shoved his emotions on that down.

"Dupree has taught me various detection spells to help with this. I now believe the Dark Mark is made up of several parts. This is what allows it to do multiple functions, such as call one person or call all. I had originally thought that it couldn't call all, then I remembered him doing that in the graveyard." Harry turned the page in his notebook.

"Yes, I remember that - good observation," Croaker told him. "Anything else?"

"My current task is to find out how many functions it has, but I know no other facts of consequence," Harry said as he put his notebook down. "I have developed the theory that only Voldemort and myself can control it because Parseltongue is used, or Parselmagic if you believe in that. I haven't tried it yet, but that is a future experiment. I've been going very slowly so as not to make mistakes and to check that anything I find or suspect is true on all three."

"Excellent work for only a part-time effort over a week, we'll make a researcher out of you yet," Croaker smiled.

"It feels slow to me," Harry commented with a shrug.

Croaker laughed. "It always feels slower when you're the one doing the work and wanting to jump to the result at the end."

Harry nodded his agreement and understanding. "Can I ask you about something else?"

"Of course."

"Can you tell me about Potter manor and how it was destroyed? My understanding was the manor houses, especially older ones, were able to stand up to attacks; yet I've found Potter Manor and there's almost nothing left of it."

Croaker nodded. "I'm afraid you've found another thing, like magical cores, that's believed and has a pebble of truth, yet isn't really true." The man took a seat and gestured for Harry to take the one at his desk.

"If you want full details, see Dupree or Freddie, better yet would be Grace. However, I believe you only need an overview at this time and I can give that."

"A general answer is good enough," Harry admitted.

"It is true that the older the wards the better they'll do, at least for what they were intended, because they do soak up more magic over time - at least to a point. However, all warding schemes can be taken down with the right knowledge and enough power. Even the fabled wards at Hogwarts," Croaker smiled slightly, "can be taken down. It might require a hundred Magicals beating on them for an hour, but it can be done.

"As for your family home, it and a few others suffered the same fate. A large number of very determined Magicals attacked it." Croaker shrugged. "Rumor has it that a number of those Death Eaters died doing the job. Rumor also says that your grandparents didn't suffer but died when the wards went down, suggesting they tied themselves to the wards to give them more power and to hopefully last long enough for help to arrive. I don't know if that's true or not.

"Honestly about all you can do when you rebuild is to put up the best wards you can with the largest power source or sequence you can, and have friends who can come to your rescue when you call and pray that the attack doesn't succeed more quickly than help can arrive.

"Although," Croaker smiled at him, "the absolute best you can do is to make sure there are no large groups of people who want to attack you, but you're already working on that."

"Dark Lords suck," Harry said a little bitterly.

Croaker shrugged. "A single Dark Wizard here or a Dark Witch there isn't all that big a deal. Such a person with a lot of followers is a disaster, such as the two we've had in the last 50 or so years. It's a hard thing, human nature being what it is, but we need to change so that we don't have environments that create these situations. No one seems to have figured that out yet."

Harry frowned but didn't have an answer for Croaker's questions. "Yet Light Lords don't go around killing people."

Croaker shrugged, not having an answer for that observation.


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