Hermione, Ron, and Ginny looked very worried as they left Harry with Professor McGonagall and followed the rest of the students into the Great Hall. They had all seemed as though they wanted to come along, but when McGonagall had given them a stern look and nodded towards the rest of the student body, they had no choice but to go.
"Come with me, Potter," McGonagall said curtly, and set off at a quick walk up the marble staircase and towards the Headmaster's office, her shoes clicking briskly under her long, emerald-green robes.
"Professor," Harry began, feeling very anxious indeed. If Professor Dumbledore was insistent on seeing him at that very moment, it meant that he was not in the Great Hall with the rest of the staff and students, and that in and of itself was highly unusual. "What -"
"Professor Dumbledore wishes to speak to you," McGonagall repeated, and Harry could tell from her tone that any further questions would not be welcomed. When they reached the stone gargoyle that guarded the Headmaster's office, they stopped and Professor McGonagall put a hand on his arm. "I trust you know the password, Potter?" she asked, and there was a look in her eye that belied her curt tone of voice. Harry could tell that whatever the Headmaster wished to speak to him about had caused Professor McGonagall considerable concern.
"Then I must return to the Great Hall for the feast," McGonagall told him, and when Harry didn't turn back to the gargoyle, she said sternly, "The Headmaster is waiting."
Harry nodded, and turned to say the password. He heard the click of the professor's shoes growing faint as she hurried down the corridor, and with a sigh he climbed the ascending spiral staircase and prepared once more to meet with Albus Dumbledore.
As he reached the top of the staircase, he was startled as the door to Dumbledore's inner office opened magically for him. Usually, he knocked and waited for permission to come in and then opened the door himself.
"Hello, Harry," Dumbledore greeted him pleasantly, but Harry did not miss the somber look in his eyes. "Do have a seat. I apologize for causing you to miss the feast, but there are matters which must be attended to immediately, and I must discuss some of them with you prior to moving forward."
Harry nodded and took his usual seat in front of the Headmaster's desk, looking at the old man expectantly. He understood that the situation was likely very serious, but he still hoped that it could be dealt with quickly so he could return to the Great Hall and eat with the other students. Due to the stream of visitors to their carriage, Harry and the others had quite lost their appetites and had not bought much from the lunch trolley witch that day, and Harry was growing quite hungry.
Dumbledore, seeming as though he had understood Harry's thoughts at that very moment, murmured, "Of course, how thoughtless of me," and waved his wand, causing a small table laden with food which had obviously come from the feast downstairs to appear to the left of Harry's seat. "Please help yourself, Harry. I know you must be hungry."
Although Harry was still hoping to attend at least part of the feast, he did not want to appear rude, so he took a moment to fill a plate with roasted chicken and vegetables and a goblet with icy pumpkin juice. He was rather surprised when Dumbledore came around his desk to do the same, and he resigned himself to a long meeting as the Headmaster conjured a chair on the other side of the table and began to eat.
Harry swallowed a large bite of chicken and decided to try to get to the bottom of things as quickly as possible. "So, Headmaster, you wanted to see me?"
The words sounded stupid as soon as they left his mouth. Of course the Headmaster wanted to see him - why else would he have summoned him the very moment the students had arrived from the carriages?
"Yes, Harry," Dumbledore answered, wiping his mouth with a small silver handkerchief. "We have several matters to discuss, some of great import, but do let us finish our meal first."
Harry was startled, and it felt very strange indeed to be sharing a meal alone with the Headmaster, regardless of all the time they had spent in lessons over the previous term. Harry ate as quickly as he could, growing more suspicious each minute that whatever Dumbledore wanted to discuss was going to have a profound effect on his own life over the next term.
It seemed to be a very long time before the meal was finished and Dumbledore waved his wand once again, Vanishing everything from the small table besides the pitcher of juice and their goblets. "I do believe I will stay here as we talk. Rather more personal than speaking across my desk, don't you think, Harry?"
Harry nodded in bewilderment. He wondered briefly why he had been asked to miss the feast when Dumbledore didn't even speak to him while they ate together, but then he reflected that this meeting had already been so strange that it might be best not to question the details.
"I've always thought my desk was far too large," Dumbledore said with regret. "Alas, it seems as though there is more parchment work to fill it every day."
Harry nodded again, not sure how to respond to this new and unexpected attitude.
Dumbledore sighed. He hated what he was about to tell Harry; what was more, he hated what he was going to have to ask the boy to do.
"Harry," he said seriously, leaning forward slightly to stare straight into the young man's emerald-green eyes. "As you are undoubtedly aware, since the attack on Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, Voldemort and his Death Eaters have been disconcertingly hidden and silent. What knowledge we have leads us to believe that plans are being made for a larger attack."
"Yes, sir," Harry responded. He had thought the same thing when several days had gone by without any kind of attacks on either wizards or Muggles.
"Our source," Dumbledore continued.
"Snape," Harry interrupted without thinking.
"Professor Snape, Harry," Dumbledore corrected automatically, "and yes, I am speaking of him."
"Sorry," Harry said without really meaning it. He knew that he and Dumbledore would never agree on Snape's loyalties until something was proven one way or another.
"Professor Snape," Dumbledore said as though Harry had never interrupted, "has found himself in an increasingly compromised position, and in order to maintain his own position as well as his safety, he has been unable to reveal much more than we already knew. Also, of course, he has been unable to tell us the whereabouts of Voldemort's stronghold, as Voldemort himself is the Secret-Keeper of that information."
Harry nodded. He already knew all this, but he had grown accustomed to the Headmaster's habit of starting serious conversations with a rehashing of known fact. He knew that he would simply have to wait until Dumbledore reached his point, but he was starting to feel rather impatient. Although he was no longer hungry, Harry wanted nothing more than to return to the Great Hall and be with his friends.
"We do, however, have another possible point of access to the information we need," Dumbledore said, and by his change of tone, Harry was almost certain that he was not going to like whatever the Headmaster said next.
"We do, sir?" Harry inquired politely, wondering if they had persuaded another Death Eater to spy for their side. That seemed the most likely possibility…the only question was who.
"Yes," Dumbledore responded heavily, and he suddenly fixed Harry with a stare so piercing that Harry felt the same way he did when Dumbledore attempted to break through his Occlumency shield.
Wondering if this was perhaps another one of Dumbledore's unexpected attempts to disarm his defenses, Harry automatically strengthened his shields but was surprised when he detected no attempt on his mentor's part to perform Legilimency on him.
After a few moments had passed in silence, Harry asked, "Who is it, sir?"
"Yes, Harry," Dumbledore answered. "That it the burning question, is it not? For of course, our new source of information would not be a 'what,' but a 'who.'"
For one wild moment, Harry, remembering his suspicion from the beginning of the fall term, wondered if Draco Malfoy was to serve as the Order's new informant. He could think of no one else in Professor Dumbledore's immediate influence who could possibly be a Death Eater, but neither could he imagine Malfoy ever switching sides.
"Will you tell me?" Harry asked, feeling the beginnings of a boiling frustration with the Headmaster. Their relationship become such that Harry had grown accustomed to having most of his questions answered directly, and he did not at all like the way Dumbledore seemed to be circling the issue - it reminded him forcibly of their meeting at the end of fifth year in which Dumbledore had told him about the Prophecy.
Dumbledore gave no immediate answer, causing Harry's frustration to increase, but continued to stare at Harry unwaveringly, as though willing his student to come to the correct conclusion himself.
"Professor," Harry said firmly after another extended period of silence, and Dumbledore broke his gaze away from Harry's eyes and settled back into his chair, steepling his fingers under his chin in the way that had become so familiar to Harry over the past few months.
"There is, indeed, one other person who could help us," Dumbledore said, his tone growing almost sad. "This person could have almost unrestricted access to all the workings of Voldemort and his followers, including the location of their stronghold, but he will only be able to obtain that information at great personal risk."
Harry was almost certain that the person who was to be the Order's new informant was to be none other than Draco Malfoy. He tried hard to keep the disgust from his face, and he hoped fervently that he was not about to be asked to befriend the repulsive Slytherin.
"Do you not understand, Harry?" Dumbledore asked almost desperately, and Harry realized with a start that the professor did not want to say whatever was on his mind. He had never known Dumbledore to behave this way, and it made him very nervous.
"Draco Malfoy is the new informant," Harry said, trying to keep his voice neutral but succeeding only in making it sound flat.
Dumbledore looked surprised. "Alas, Harry, Mr. Malfoy is not our new informant. He does not have the level of access we require."
"So Malfoy is a Death Eater?" Harry asked quickly, wondering whether or not what he had been suspecting all along was, in fact, correct.
"Mr. Malfoy is not the subject of this conversation, Harry," Dumbledore responded, regaining his poise quickly. For his own reasons, he did not want news of Malfoy's status spread over the school.
Harry looked confused. If not Malfoy or Snape, then who?
"Can you think of no one, Harry? Can you think of not one person who has the single greatest ability in the Wizarding world to gain information from Voldemort, greater even then Professor Snape, or Lucius Malfoy?"
"Sir?" Harry was growing more confused by the moment. Indeed, he could think of no one who had greater access to Voldemort than Lucius Malfoy unless it was Bellatrix Lestrange, but the idea of her coming over to the Order's side was laughable.
Dumbledore sighed heavily. He could understand quite well why Harry could not understand what he was implying. After all, the entire Order had been fighting against the very event which the Headmaster was about to suggest. It was quite reasonable that the idea had not yet occurred to Harry, and at that moment, the wizened old wizard detested himself for what he was about to ask of the young man who had already been through so much. However, he knew the time had come for this action, and though he had been trying for weeks, he could not see another way around it. He sighed again.
"I am speaking of you, Harry," he said quietly.
For a moment, Harry seemed unable to speak. After he had taken a moment to register what Dumbledore had just said, he whispered, "Me?"
"You are not obligated to agree, Harry," Dumbledore responded, looking at the young man's astonished face closely. "Indeed, you have no binding obligation whatsoever, and I would not blame you in the slightest if you refused."
"Refused?" Harry echoed, still trying to understand what the Headmaster was talking about. Did Dumbledore mean that Harry himself should attempt to breach the Death Eater ranks, to convince Voldemort and everyone else that he had changed sides? Surely not…and just as Harry rejected this thought as completely implausible, the true weight of the meaning behind Dumbledore's words hit him and he felt the color drain from his face.
"You want me to break into Voldemort's mind…on purpose?" Harry asked, knowing immediately how dangerous such an attempt would be, but also knowing that he could never refuse. He knew Dumbledore would not have asked him if there were any other way for the Order to obtain the information they needed.
"Yes, Harry. It is for this very reason that you have been training in Legilimency," Dumbledore answered, seeing the now-familiar flame of determination in Harry's eyes and knowing that the young man was willing to take on the task.
"I thought…" Harry began, still trying to wrap his mind around the task which had been assigned to him. "I thought I was just learning that as another defense?"
"I had hoped that would be its only use," Dumbledore responded, "but I must admit that I have known ever since I learned of your unlikely connection with Voldemort that this might become necessary."
"I've never tried that before," Harry said. "Won't he know I'm there, like he did when I saw the attack on Mr. Weasley last year?"
"You have had considerable training against that eventuality, Harry," Dumbledore reminded him, "and I believe you are ready. You and I will discuss it further at our meeting on Tuesday, but you have now earned the right to some rest."
Harry stared at the Headmaster in astonishment. He had been longing to return to his friends and to his dormitory ever since his meeting with Dumbledore had begun, but now, just after the Headmaster had given him this information, he was being dismissed?
"Harry, I would prefer it if you did not share this, even with Miss Weasley, Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley just yet. Let us make certain that our plans are set into motion first."
Harry nodded, and as he looked at the Headmaster, the thought suddenly struck him that it might be Dumbledore who needed rest, even more than he himself did. He was looking older than Harry had ever seen him, and the absence of the twinkle in his eyes seemed to deepen the lines on his face and make him appear frailer than ever.
"Have you any other inquiries, Harry?" Dumbledore asked politely, rising from the chair opposite Harry to lead the way to his office door.
"No, sir," Harry answered, although he still had a million questions in his mind.
"Then I will bid you good night. Please go straight to Gryffindor Tower. It does not do to be wandering the castle alone in the dark."
"Good night, Professor," Harry said, and he turned his back and left the office, closing the door softly behind him. As he proceeded down the rotating staircase, his mind was whirling with the responsibility that had been placed upon him. He had known that the time was drawing near for him to become more active in the war effort, but somehow, now that his first real task was at hand, he found himself wishing yet again that he was not The Boy Who Lived.
Harry walked slowly back to the common room, fatigue and worry weighting every step he took. The corridors were almost clear, as everyone had left the Great Hall some time before he had left Dumbledore's office, and curfew was fast approaching.
"Carpe diem," he said tiredly to the Fat Lady. She did not swing open in her usual fashion, but stayed closed and stared at him imperiously, her arms crossed.
"Carpe diem," Harry repeated. He was not in the mood for games from the portrait.
"Password?" the Fat Lady asked as though Harry had not said anything.
"Carpe diem," Harry said again, more insistently.
"That is not the password," the Fat Lady declared. "No password, no entry. You know the rules!"
"I've been living here for six years!" Harry said in frustration. "You know I live in here!"
"How am I to know you are not an imposter?" the Fat Lady responded cheekily, fluttering her eyelashes at Harry.
"I'm not! When did we get a new password?"
"The password was reset this morning," the Fat Lady responded.
"How was I supposed to -"
"Harry!" Ginny said as she came up behind him, her face etched with concern. "When you never came to dinner I went to the Head's office to look for you, but that painting on the third floor told me that you'd already come back this way. How did we miss each other?" She kissed him softly on the lips.
Harry returned the kiss, but it must have been obvious that his mind was elsewhere because Ginny pulled away after only a moment and looked up into Harry's eyes. "Harry, is everything all right? What did Professor Dumbledore want to speak to you about?"
Harry shook his head slightly and cast around for a change of subject. He had promised Professor Dumbledore he would not reveal the subject of their meeting. Even if the headmaster hadn't asked him to keep it secret he could not imagine how to tell his friends what he was going to do, but he knew that silence would only serve to worry Ginny more.
"What's the new password?" he asked in a would-be casual voice. He knew that, as a prefect, Ginny would have been given the passwords on the train.
"It's 'veni vidi vici,'" Ginny told him, and she took his hand as the portrait swung forward to admit them, only letting go when she had to climb through the entrance to the common room.
As soon as they reached their usual spot, finding Ron and Hermione waiting there for them snuggled together in one of the large squashy armchairs, Ginny turned and gazed straight into his green eyes with her deep brown ones. Her eyes were still so full of sadness. With Fred's death still such a fresh wound, Harry was glad he was obligated not to tell them because he did not think he could bear to add one more burden to Ginny's shoulders or to see the looks on their faces when he told them what he must do.
Ginny, however, had other ideas. "Harry," she said firmly, "I want to know what's going on."
Harry looked at her face, which seemed to have grown so much more serious, so much more mature than it had been only a week ago. His gaze moved to Ron and then to Hermione, and he was startled to find that their faces, too, bore the unmistakable signs of age. Fred's death had affected them all greatly. Dumbledore had told Harry at the beginning of term that he was no longer a child - it was now apparent that his friends were no longer children either.
"Harry?" Ron asked, snapping Harry out of his thoughts. "What did Dumbledore want to talk to you about, mate?"
"He - erm - just wanted to go over what we were going to be doing this term," Harry said, feeling his face redden. It was true enough, but he hated misleading his friends.
"Harry, consider who you're talking to," Hermione said. "Whatever it is, I'm sure he didn't want you to keep it a secret from us."
He sighed, and reasoned that he could tell them part of the conversation without revealing what Dumbledore wanted him to do. "The Order's worried because no one has heard from Voldemort since…"
"Since Fred died," Ginny said quietly.
"Yeah," Harry said. "He wanted to know if I'd seen anything."
"He just wanted to make sure," Harry said and then quickly changed the subject to something he was sure would distract everyone. "Do you reckon Draco Malfoy's a Death Eater now?" he asked.
"Malfoy?" Ron asked, laughing bitterly and without humor. "A Death Eater? You-Know-Who'd have to be insane to bring on that slinking little ferret, wouldn't he?"
"I do think Malfoy's too young," Hermione said. "I've never heard of Voldemort bringing on an underage wizard."
"He has seemed rather different this year," Ginny said. "Even more arrogant, if that's possible."
"But a Death Eater?" Hermione said doubtfully. "That just doesn't seem probable, does it?"
Harry nodded, although he himself was convinced that Malfoy had been a Death Eater since before the start of school.
The foursome discussed the possibility for a few more minutes, and when Harry was certain that they had forgotten their original question, he yawned widely and said he was going to bed.
Ginny walked him to the staircase and kissed him before he went up to the dormitories. Before she released him, she whispered into his ear, "I know you're hiding something, Harry, and whatever it is, I want you to know that I will be behind you every step of the way. I love you."
Harry nodded and held her tightly for a few moments before heading up the stone staircase.
When he reached the dorm, which was empty but for Neville's pet toad, he changed quickly, pulled the hangings on his four-poster, and stared at the hangings, his heart racing.
Dumbledore wanted him to actively break into the Dark Lord's mind. Harry wasn't sure if he would be able to do it, and in the unlikely event that he could, he didn't know how he would remain undetected. He knew he had become a reasonably skilled Legilimens, but if Dumbledore wasn't able to accomplish it, he just didn't know how they expected him to.
Still, he reasoned, he had to try. He had vowed after Fred's death to do whatever it took to stop Voldemort, and if this is what it took, he knew he had no choice. As he lay silently in his bed, he hoped beyond hope that he would succeed. Even so, in the small part of his mind that usually stayed hidden, the part which still held the spirit of a boy only sixteen years old, he was more afraid than he had been in his entire life.
Harry must have dropped off to sleep before Ron and the others came into the dormitory, for he remembered nothing else until he woke the next morning just in time for breakfast. Everyone else was already gone, and he realized with a pang that he had not remembered to cast the silencing charm on himself the night before. He was glad nothing had happened, but once again, he found Voldemort's silence to be extremely disconcerting.
Ginny was waiting for him in the common room, and they walked down for breakfast hand-in-hand, not speaking after they had wished one another a good morning. Harry hoped that they day would be a normal one, perhaps his last before he began his new assignment with Dumbledore the next day. When they entered the Great Hall and saw the students chattering seriously with one another and Hermione waving them down, a copy of the Daily Prophet in her hand, he knew that something important had happened.
"Harry! Ginny!" Hermione exclaimed as they joined their fellow Gryffindors at the long house table. "I don't believe it!"
"What, Hermione?" Harry was not in the mood for riddles this morning, and hoped that whatever had happened, Hermione would out with it and get it over with.
"It's Fudge!" Hermione responded. "He's been sacked!"
"Sacked?" Harry asked as he sat down. "Why? George said that Percy said there was trouble at the Ministry, but I didn't know the Minister for Magic could be sacked without a vote or something."
"The Wizengamot met right after Christmas and someone moved for a vote of no-confidence," Hermione answered. "Apparently, the response was almost unanimous."
"They sacked him!" Ron said thickly, his mouth full of bacon and eggs.
"That's disgusting, Ronald," Ginny said, making a face at him.
Ron swallowed. "Girls," he muttered. "Who cares about table courtesy at a time like this?"
"Who's taking his place?" Harry asked, hoping it would be someone they knew.
"Well, there will have to be an election, won't there? In the interim, though, they've picked a witch no one's ever heard of, even though she's been working at the Ministry for years. She was an Unspeakable," Hermione said, scanning the front-page article in the Daily Prophet with great interest. "Her name is Imelda Arnold, and it says here that she was Head Girl at Hogwarts in her day and is said to be one of the most intelligent and talented witches at the Ministry."
"Well, that's something," Harry said. "I'll ask Dumbledore about her tomorrow."
"So you're meeting with him as usual tomorrow?" Ginny asked shrewdly. "Nothing before that?"
"No, just meeting with him at our regular time," Harry answered. At least this would not seem too suspicious.
"All right," Ginny said, but she glanced significantly at Ron and Hermione before she began eating her own breakfast. Harry wondered what they had discussed the previous night after he had gone to bed.
"You two had better hurry," Hermione chided. "You were late coming down today, and we've got classes in fifteen minutes."
"Right," Ron said, even though she had been talking to Harry and Ginny. "Enough time for another helping, then. I'm starving." All four of them rolled their eyes as he refilled his plate.
The Ministry was in turmoil. With Fudge's sudden sacking and the rise to power of someone that few people knew and no one knew well, everyone from the Minister's office down was concerned about the security of their jobs. By the end of her first day in office, Interim Minister Arnold had assured most Ministry personnel that their jobs were quite secure as long as they were performing as required.
Those closest to Minister Fudge, however, were not so lucky. His immediate staff had all been informed that if they were to retain their jobs at the Ministry, they should apply for different departments. Imelda Arnold had her own staff, and she was not eager to keep anyone too closely connected to Fudge in her direct employ.
Percy Weasley was the second wizard to receive his notification, and as he began packing his personal belongings into a leather satchel he knew that he would not remain at the Ministry. Ever since Fred's death, Percy had realized more clearly just how little the Ministry had done to prevent Voldemort's rise to power, and he was ashamed of himself for having any part in it. As soon as he had everything packed up, he sent an owl to his longtime-girlfriend Penelope Clearwater and proceeded to the Apparition point located in a far corner of the Atrium.
Arthur Weasley heard what had happened almost immediately after Percy, himself, had found out, and he met his third son at the outer door to the Minister's offices. "Percy, I'm so sorry this has happened," he said sincerely, knowing how important this job had been to his son.
"I'm not, Father," Percy said shortly, not believing for a second that his father was sorry.
"I am prepared to offer you a position in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office," Arthur began.
Percy looked at him in surprise. Although he knew his family had forgiven him, he had not expected this, and his old pride reasserted itself just a little as he wondered whether or not his father was offering him this job out of pity and nothing more. "A position?" he repeated disbelievingly.
"Yes," Arthur answered firmly. "You're an intelligent young man, Percy, and we are several staff members short. Unfortunately, as you well know, the charming of Muggle objects has become both more common and more malicious over the past year. I would be most grateful if you became a member of our department."
"Thank you, Father," Percy replied sincerely. He truly was appreciative of the offer; he had not supposed that anyone in the Ministry would be eager to hire the former Junior Assistant to Minister Fudge. However, he still did not wish to continue working for the Ministry, so he said politely, "I think I am going to explore one other opportunity before I seriously consider staying with the Ministry. May I have until the end of the day to decide?"
Arthur was surprised. He knew how much Percy had loved the importance of his job at the Ministry, and frankly, he had expected the young businesswizard to jump at the opportunity to remain there. A thought came unbidden into his head as he considered where else Percy might be seeking employment, and he fought a smile as he answered seriously, "Certainly, Percy. Send me an owl with your decision as soon as possible." He kept his voice formal to assure Percy that the offer was a sincere one, knowing that his son would not quickly accept any favors.
As Arthur walked Percy to the apparition point and watched as he waited his turn and then apparated out of the Ministry, he hoped his suspicions would prove correct and that Percy was, in fact, going to Diagon Alley. He headed back to his office, hoping that he would hear from his sons soon.
With a small pop, Percy appeared in the small alley behind the Leaky Cauldron and quickly used his wand to open the gateway into Diagon Alley. Carrying his leather satchel and still dressed in his pressed and starched pinstriped business robes, he appeared to be on important business, and he spoke to no one as he strode quickly down the main road and to the entrance of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.
George did not look up as the door dinged Percy's entrance to the shop. Percy realized with a pang that his brother was, once again, sitting disconsolately behind the counter, staring into space, his face set in the now-familiar expression of immense sadness.
The store had been put back in order by a team led by Lee Jordan and Angelina Johnson, and no traces of the battle now remained. They had repaired everything they had been able to repair, and had replaced everything else from the storerooms in the basement under the shop. Under Angelina's direction, they had even rearranged parts of the shop so that it would not look exactly as it had that night. As Percy walked through the shelves of joke merchandise, he once again thought in some surprise about how successful the shop had been.
"George?" he asked softly as he approached the counter. "How's business?" Percy was still too formal to ask his brother directly how he was feeling, so he followed his usual habit of discussing the store. He did not realize it, but in this way he actually helped George quite a lot by giving him something to think about besides his own sadness.
George's head snapped up and he registered a slight bit of surprise when he saw his older brother. "Slow since the students have gone back to school," he answered somberly. "I expect that we'll begin getting mail-orders soon."
Percy nodded. "I imagine the students will want skiving snackboxes as they get back into their classes," he answered, noticing the irony of discussing something that he had once thought to be silly and irresponsible as if it were a serious item of business.
"What are you doing here, Perce?" George asked. "Shouldn't you still be at the Ministry?" Even though Percy had taken to visiting the shop more and more, he had still maintained his schedule in Fudge's office for the most part.
"Hasn't it been in the Prophet yet?" Percy asked with some surprise.
"Hasn't what?" George asked in turn. He had not read the morning's copy of the Wizarding newspaper; it was in the back of the shop, stacked with other unread papers and correspondence.
"The Wizengamot sacked Minister Fudge," Percy informed his brother, and in spite of himself, George smiled a bit.
"It's about time," he answered, and then quickly added, "no offense."
"None taken," Percy answered honestly. "The Ministry has not done nearly enough to protect the public this year, have they?"
"No," George answered, a trace of bitterness in his voice.
"The interim Minister, a witch called Imelda Arnold, sacked everyone from Fudge's office," Percy continued, keeping his voice carefully impassive.
"What about Dad?" George asked. He was not surprised that a new Minister would want a new staff, and though he felt a bit bad for Percy, he thought the decision was a good one.
"Dad's fine," Percy answered. "They aren't firing anyone besides the ones in the Minister's direct employ."
"That's good," George said. "So what are you going to do?"
"I was hoping," Percy began, and was surprised to find that he felt nervous. "I was hoping that possibly…well, possibly that you might like some help with the shop. I need a job, see, and…" He trailed off, not liking to mention that he thought George could use the help. Anything that reminded George of Fred's death seemed cruel, as the young wizard had not come very far in his recovery and was prone to fits of crushing depression at the loss of his twin.
"You want to work here?" George asked in surprise.
"Well, yes, that is, if you want me to," Percy answered, wondering why asking his brother for a job was making him feel so nervous.
George thought for a few moments. Percy had been surprisingly helpful over the past two weeks, and if he was honest with himself, he needed the help. Although George was a brilliant inventor, he found the financial aspects of running the shop wearing. He and Fred had always split those duties. Additionally, in their own roundabout way, he and Percy had become closer than they had ever been. He could never replace Fred, but it was nice to have someone to talk to.
"Sure, Perce," he said softly, his face sad once again. "When do you want to start?"
"I need to tell Penelope," Percy said, "but there's no reason why I can't go down the street to the post office and send and owl from there. How about today, after lunch?"
"Okay," George answered. "What about pay, and all that?" He was afraid that his ambitious brother would require more than he could afford.
"Let's do all that later, George," Percy said briskly, "after we've taken a look at the books."
George nodded, wondering just how much his brother had changed over the past weeks. This Percy seemed every inch a Weasley, caring for family over ambition, and the transformation was so startling that if anyone had told him what was going to happen, he would not have believed it.
As he watched Percy leave the shop, his business robes snapping smartly behind him, George wished once again that the door would open and his twin would come through, grinning fit to burst from a new idea. George was beginning to understand that it would never happen, but he could not help wishing. Still, he reflected, wouldn't Fred have regarded Percy coming to work for the shop as the biggest joke of the year? George couldn't help but smile just a bit as he imagined his twin's disbelief. This was certainly an interesting development.
After a particularly horrible Potions class in which they had been required to brew a healing potion which stung their eyes and smelled of boiled fish and ammonia, Harry bid farewell to Hermione and went up the dungeon stairs to the large classroom in which he was learning dueling from Kingsley Shacklebolt.
As he walked, he practiced in his mind the steps that he had to take to accomplish wandless magic. With his new responsibilities, Harry knew that it was more important than ever for him to learn to perform wandlessly. The shared cores between his and Voldemort's wands made it impossible for them to duel one another traditionally, and if Harry was to have any chance of success, he must learn to do it another way.
"Hello, Harry," Kingsley greeted him seriously. "How are you?"
"I'm all right, sir," Harry answered. He had not seen Shacklebolt since Fred's funeral.
"Good," Kingsley responded, not being one to get into long discussions about feelings and emotions. He was here to do a job, and Dumbledore had told him that it was time to redouble Harry's already arduous training schedule. The Auror was not sure why the Headmaster had made the request, but to him the reasons did not matter. If Dumbledore wanted Harry's training increased, there had to be a reason for it, and Shacklebolt took his responsibility seriously. He would have Harry ready for whatever he had to face, whenever that was to happen.
"Kindly stow your wand, Harry," he requested as usual, and Harry quickly put his wand into his pocket. He had learned the hard way that stowing his wand across the room was no longer a smart idea.
Kingsley gave Harry no further time to prepare, but attacked as soon as his student's wand was safely out of his immediate grasp. "Stupefy!" he cried, and Harry did not even begin to react. The spell hit him square in the chest, and he fell without making a sound.
Shacklebolt quickly revived him and pulled him roughly to his feet. "What was that, Potter?" he asked roughly.
Harry started at the harsh note to Kingsley's tone. "I'm sorry, sir," he said, not sure how else to respond.
"You're sorry? If this had been a duel with a Death Eater, you would be dead!" the Auror told him roughly. "As I told you before the holidays, I expect more from you. I will take nothing less than complete concentration. If you are not prepared to work, leave the room, and good luck to you. I will not be returning."
Harry stared at the tall wizard who was glaring at him so fiercely. Kingsley Shacklebolt had always pushed him to his very limits, but never before had he been quite so severe.
"What will it be, Harry?" Shacklebolt asked mercilessly.
"I'll work, sir," Harry answered, still a bit shocked.
"There is no excuse for failure, Harry," Kingsley said, and his tone softened almost imperceptibly. "I know you have been through a lot, but that will not stop Voldemort, and so it must not stop our work either. You must be prepared."
Harry nodded and attempted to prepare his defenses, feeling his earlier determination bubbling to the surface as he thought of all that the evil wizard had done, and all that he was sure to do as long as he remained unchallenged. As Harry concentrated, he suddenly felt more powerful than he had ever felt before, and his fingers tingled with magical energy.
"Tarantellegra!" Kingsley shouted suddenly.
Without thinking, Harry cried, "Protego!" and swept his hand diagonally across his body, putting every bit of force he possessed into the spell. It was hard to say who was more astonished, Kingsley or his student, when Harry's translucent golden shield appeared in front of his body.
"Maintain your guard, Harry," Kingsley said, and began firing a series of curses at the younger wizard, one after another with no pauses in between. Each curse rebounded from Harry's shield, causing it to shimmer slightly, but it did not falter until Kingsley, abandoning any pretense that this was a normal professor-student tutorial, shouted, "Imperio!"
Harry's shield broke under the unforgivable curse, and he experienced the same wonderful, euphoric feeling that he'd had in the fake Professor Moody's defense classes during his fourth year.
"Break your wand," a voice inside his head demanded, as though from very far away. "Take it out of your pocket and break it in two."
Just as he had been when the fake Moody had put the curse on him during his fourth year, Harry was tempted to obey the order. Why not? he thought.
You don't want to do that, another part of his mind responded. You like your wand, it's a good wand. It's never let you down.
"Just break it," the first voice, Kingsley's voice, insisted. "Do it now!"
"No!" Harry shouted, throwing the curse off entirely. He glared at Kingsley, who was once again looking rather astonished. "What'd you want to go and do that for?" he asked angrily.
"I'd heard you could throw off the Imperious Curse, Harry," Kingsley said. "I was testing you much in the same way a Death Eater would have. The first thing they would want to do with a formidable opponent would be to disarm that opponent permanently."
"What if I hadn't been able to throw it off?" Harry demanded, breathing heavily.
"You would have broken your own wand," Kingsley replied matter-of-factly.
"How come you didn't, I don't know, tell me to do gymnastics or sing a song or something, like Professor Moody did?"
"Do you think a Death Eater is going to make you do gymnastics?" Kingsley asked, the slightest touch of exasperation in his tone. "Harry, my job is to prepare you for the real thing. Incidentally, I am quite impressed with your ability to throw off the curse. Many wizards do not have the strength of mind to accomplish this."
Harry nodded, his breathing slowing back to normal. He understood why Shacklebolt had done what he did, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Without really thinking, Harry decided that it was time to turn the tables on his dueling tutor. He quickly pulled his wand out of his pocket, pointed at the Auror, and cried, "Expelliarmus!"
Kingsley reacted instantly, raising a strong invisible shield charm so that Harry was forced to dodge his own spell's rebound. As he came out of his roll, he cast another spell at his tutor just as a freezing curse came flying his way. Without thinking, Harry raised his shield with his wand-free hand and shot another disarming spell at Shacklebolt immediately after, using his wand.
The Auror was immensely surprised. This young man had become better at dueling than any student he'd ever taught in any of the Auror training courses. He dodged the disarming spell, avoiding it only by the merest fraction of an inch, and shot another curse at Harry, which was easily deflected by the shield that Harry was maintaining even as he fired another curse at Kingsley.
After another five minutes, Kingsley called the duel so they would have time to discuss all that had happened. Once he and Harry were seated at their small table at the back of the room, however, he found that there was little to say. He had never seen such a display from his student or any other student before.
"I'm sorry for attacking you, Mr. Shacklebolt," Harry said. "I don't know what came over me."
"That's all right, Harry. I'm glad to see that you are willing to be proactive, although in future, I would prefer it if you did not do so until I have completed our objectives for the day. May I ask you what caused you to try raising your shield charm and using your wand offensively at the same time? I never taught you that."
Harry shrugged. "I don't know," he said honestly. "It's just the way it happened."
"It was very good, Harry," Kingsley replied, treating his student to a rare shadow of a smile. "That is a skill which I did not expect you to use for quite some time, but now that you have made a beginning, we will continue to develop it. Now, I believe your time is up for the day. I will see you later this week, Harry, and I expect you to come fully prepared. You are to practice nightly, do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Harry responded automatically, shouldering his bag and heading down to the Great Hall for lunch.
Kingsley watched the sixth-year student leave them room, seeming no worse the wear for their dueling practice, and sighed. Harry was progressing more quickly than he had imagined, and the amount of power contained in the young wizard seemed greater by the day. The Auror noticed that this exponential increase in Harry's abilities had come soon after the death of a good friend, and he too, had noticed the gleam of determination in his eyes. Although he still needed considerable training, Harry Potter was quickly becoming one of the most powerful wizards Kingsley Shacklebolt had ever met.
"Harry!" Neville called as he caught sight of the familiar messy black hair in the common room that night. "Oi! Harry!"
Harry turned and tried to smile at Neville, although he had a pounding headache and was ready to spend an evening writing their latest essay for Potions. "Hello, Neville," he said tiredly.
"Harry, I heard we were going to have a D.A. meeting this week. Is that true?" Neville asked hopefully.
Harry had not given it much thought, but he realized that they did need to meet that week if they were to continue training.
"Yeah, Neville," he answered. "It'll be Wednesday as usual, in the Room of Requirement. Can you spread the word?" He hoped Neville would take this request seriously and leave him alone for a bit.
"Sure!" Neville said cheerfully, and immediately began making the rounds in the common room, informing people of the upcoming meeting.
That particular problem taken care of, Harry flopped into his usual chair next to the fire and began working on his Potions essay while he waited for Ginny, Ron and Hermione to return from their Prefect duties.
As Harry struggled with the particular uses of salamander droppings in healing burns, he heard his friends come through the portrait hole, and whatever they were discussing, their expressions were very serious.
"Come off it, Hermione," Ron was saying in a loud whisper. "Dumbledore would never -"
All three broke off the conversation when they saw Harry staring at them, and Ginny made a brave attempt at a smile, although it looked like she had been crying just moments before.
"Ginny?" Harry asked in concern. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Harry," Ginny said, wiping her eyes.
"I'd leave it if I were you, mate," Ron cautioned, and Harry did, although he could not help wondering what Ginny had been so upset about. She had not cried most of the week, preferring, as did all of them, to be as strong as possible in the wake of Fred's death.
She seemed to be all right as she pulled out parchment and quill from her bag and set to work on an Astronomy essay. She could tell just from their first day back that the spring term of her O.W.L. year was going to be quite trying.
Harry finished his Potions essay in just under two hours and packed up his bag, having no other homework that evening. He turned to Ron, thinking of suggesting a game of chess, but Ron and Hermione seemed too deep in conversation.
"I'm going to go to bed," he told the group of them, and Ginny looked up from her work just long enough to give him a quick kiss before he took his things upstairs.
Just before he turned the corner, Harry looked back at his friends. All three of them had abandoned their work the moment he had turned his back, and their heads were together in deep conversation. Feeling more than a little left out of whatever they were planning, Harry sighed and continued up the stairs. That night, he remembered to cast the silencing charm on himself once again, although he was now almost certain that he would not need it.
Draco Malfoy stared disdainfully at the huge, stupid beast standing in front of him. He had been to visit the giant almost daily, offering more gifts as he had been instructed, and it seemed as though his plan was about to come to fruition.
"Hagger Gurg," the giant grunted bitterly, gesturing to the gift of a large, carved wood club that Draco had presented him with only moments before. The club was large enough that Draco had had to shrink it in order to be able to carry it into the forest after dinner in the Great Hall, and the handle was carved smooth out of hard oak. To a giant, this would appear to be a most superior weapon.
"Hagrid is only the Gurg as long as you allow him to be," Draco repeated what he had said time and time again. "You are the largest and strongest of the Forest Giants. You should rightfully be the Gurg."
"Hagger Gurg," Grawp repeated, this time in a lower and angrier growl than before.
"Suit yourself," Draco said, preparing to depart. "Present that gift to your Gurg, the smallest and weakest giant of the forest, when you see him."
Draco knew perfectly well that Grawp had not given Hagrid any of the gifts, but had hoarded them in the hollow of a large rotten tree near his confinement area. He had reported this fact to his father, who said it was a sign that Grawp did not completely accept that Hagrid had the rule of the forest.
As he turned to leave the forest once again, the blonde Slytherin heard the giant pick up the large club, and then smiled slightly as he heard the tell-tale swishes of it being swung forcefully through the air. Success will come soon, he thought, and I will finally prove my value to Lord Voldemort and to my father.
Draco, however, was not prepared for what happened next. He was no more than one hundred meters from Grawp when he suddenly heard the snap of a metal chain breaking, the repeated swish of the new club and the heavy footfalls of the giant as he hurried out of the forest and towards the Hogwarts grounds, violence written on every large, leathery feature. Draco quickly stepped out of the giant's path and watched as he passed, his heavy footfalls echoing through the forest like the dull rolls of thunder in a summer storm.
When he was certain it would be safe to follow, he hurried after Grawp and grinned even more widely when the giant went straight towards his half-brother's house.
Without a hint of a warning or a greeting, Grawp raised the club high and smashed it onto the thatched roof of Hagrid's hut, causing a large noise and a cloud of rubble to rise around the damaged area. Draco, knowing that the racket would attract attention from the school, covered himself quickly with his invisibility cloak and remained at the edge of the forest to watch.
To his astonishment, Hagrid came out the front door of his ruined cabin, his crossbow in his hands. "Grawpy! What are you doing?" he cried as the giant swung his new club again, demolishing the east wall of the house. "Grawpy, STOP!" he called futilely.
The giant paid no heed to his half-brother's words. "Grawp GURG!" he bellowed, and swung the club hard in Hagrid's direction. Hagrid tried to dodge, but such a large target coming at that much speed was impossible to miss, and Draco winced as he heard the sickening thud of bones breaking as the club made contact with the large gamekeeper.
Just then, Dumbledore and several other teachers from the school came running down from the castle, firing spells in quick succession, all of which seemed to bounce off the giant's tough hide. Grawp, however, seemed to see this invasion as cause enough to leave the scene, so with one final bellow of "Grawp GURG!" he disappeared into the forest.
Under ordinary circumstances, Draco knew the other professors would have pursued the giant, but Hagrid's need was obviously greater to them, although he could not understand why they would want to save that stupid oaf of a gamekeeper.
Hagrid was lying motionless on the ground surrounded by professors and Madam Pomfrey when Draco Malfoy took his leave. He was proceeding straight to the dungeon chamber to inform his master that his mission had been completed, and his arrogance and pride in himself was so great that he did not see the sad gaze of Albus Dumbledore as the older man watched the footprints moving away from the scene of the crime and towards the school, nor did he see the silvery signal emerge from the Headmaster's wand.
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