Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione hung back as the mourners filed one by one to drop their handfuls of earth into Dumbledore's grave. Even when Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and the rest of the Order of the Phoenix went forward, they remained standing in front of their seats, mute grief on their faces as they watched the procession.
Only when the last of the adults had gone forward did they finally move. Hermione, tears dripping freely down her face, scooped a handful of earth in a shaking hand, whispering "goodbye" as she filed past, and Ron went right after her, saying nothing. Ginny squeezed Harry's hand before she released it to take her turn. Like Hermione, she whispered an almost inaudible farewell to the Headmaster and then joined her brother while they waited for Harry to pay his final respects.
Like the others, Harry stooped at the graveside, but as he tossed his earth into the grave, he dropped to his knees. "What do I do now?" he whispered, as though his mentor might hear him and provide the answers on which Harry had always depended.
"You keep fighting," said an unexpected voice from behind him, the same gravelly voice which had held each of the mourners transfixed during the eulogy.
"Aber - " Harry began, and then corrected himself, "I mean, Mr. - "
Neither option seemed to be correct. Harry could not even consider calling a wizard as old as the man standing beside him by his first name, but calling him "Dumbledore" in any fashion also seemed to be very wrong.
"You can call me by my first name, lad," Aberforth said softly, easily reading Harry's dilemma.
Harry nodded mutely, still on his knees in the freshly turned earth, his head bowed slightly toward the grave.
"Will you look up at me?" the old man continued.
Harry complied, tearing his eyes away from the coffin, so deep in the ground and covered in a thin brown layer of soil. When he looked up he saw, for the first time since he had looked into Professor McGonagall's face the night of Dumbledore's death, a grief which mirrored his own in intensity.
"I'm…" Harry stammered, not at all sure what he was supposed to say. "I'm…so sorry," he muttered, the words sounding hollow in his ears. He could still not quite wrap his mind around the fact that the man standing next to him had been Professor Dumbledore's brother, had grown up with him, had given and received confidences for over a century.
"You've nothing to be sorry for, Harry Potter," Aberforth said, tentatively extending his hand towards Harry's shoulder as though he meant to comfort the young wizard.
"You know me?" Harry asked with a bit of surprise. He was used to being recognized by his scar, but he didn't see how the old wizard could have seen it, for it was covered almost entirely by his fringe and they had not been in close proximity during the funeral.
"That I do," Aberforth said quietly, making up his mind and continuing to reach out until he had placed his gnarled hand on Harry's shoulder, squeezing it gently in a gesture of shared pain. "Al spoke of you often, right up from when you were born. I'd know you anywhere, and I daresay you've been in my pub more than once."
Of course he knows me, Harry thought, feeling stupid. Hadn't Aberforth been there, right behind the bar, during the first meeting of the D.A. the previous year? Because Harry had not known who he was, he had not paid much attention to the old barman, who had seemed, at the time, to be insignificant.
"Harry?" asked Ginny softly, coming up next to him.
Without thinking about it, Harry reached up and took her hand, pulling slightly against her as he stood.
"Ab - Aberforth?" Harry said, trying out the sound of the new name. "This is Ginny Weasley."
"I'd recognize a Weasley anywhere," Aberforth said. "No, lass, not by your hair," he continued before Ginny could comment. "It's the eyes. You have the same eyes as your father and grandmother, who was an old friend of mine."
Ginny smiled slightly. Most people were so taken by the flaming red Weasley hair that they failed to notice other similarities. Aberforth Dumbledore was right; she did share her father's and grandmother's eyes. Molly had said so often.
"I wonder if I might have a word with Harry," Aberforth continued, looking to Ginny as if for permission.
"Harry?" Ginny asked softly, squeezing his hand. "The rest of us were going to go back to the tower to have some lunch and get ready to go. You could meet us later."
"Where's Moony?" Harry asked, surprised that his guardian had not found him by now.
"He was talking to that, erm, large wizard we saw earlier," Ginny said, trying to be tactful. "I'll let him know where you are."
Suddenly, she pulled him close and whispered in his ear, "You don't have to, Harry. If you want to wait for another day to do this, that's okay. He'll understand, you know."
Harry shook his head slightly. After hearing Aberforth Dumbledore's speech at the funeral, he could not shake the idea that the old wizard knew more than he was letting on. If he, Harry, was meant to end this war, he needed all the information he could get. Everything else, even mourning, had to come second to his mission now.
"I'm all right, Ginny," he said quietly, kissing her softly on the cheek and releasing her. "Tell Moony and the others that I'll be along a bit later."
Ginny nodded. "I love you," she said softly.
"Me too," Harry responded as she went to join her parents and brothers. He turned to Aberforth, a sense of expectancy driving his movements. "Where do you want to go?" he asked.
"The best place would be my pub," Aberforth said seriously. "Naught goes on there but that I know about it."
"You don't want to go to the castle?" Harry asked. If Aberforth had something to tell him that required privacy, Harry could not imagine that the Hog's Head, known to attract the more questionable members of the magical community, could possibly be more secure than Hogwarts.
"Hogwarts was his place," Aberforth responded gruffly, a catch in his voice. He took a moment to recover before he continued, "The Hog's Head is mine. It'll be safe enough, I warrant. I know a few tricks myself. No great wizard am I," he added hurriedly, catching Harry's expression, "but you can't be around as long as I have and have a brother like Al and not pick up a few things along the way. Can you apparate?"
Harry nodded, but felt compelled to add, "I don't have a license yet. My birthday's not until July."
"If everything I've heard is true, you don't set much store by the rules when there's something that needs to be done," Aberforth commented, and Harry was startled once again to see that familiar twinkle light his eyes, so like the eyes of his brother.
"Well, erm," Harry said, not sure how to respond. "I guess not."
"Good," Aberforth told him definitely. "I've never been one to follow a bunch of cockamamie rules either. Out to the gate, then?"
Harry nodded, but before he left the grounds, he turned to look at the grave one more time.
Fawkes had left Aberforth's shoulder and had perched at the very edge of the grave, singing a slow melody, and allowing pearly tears to drip from his eyes and onto the coffin six feet below him. After a few moments, he looked up at Harry.
"Hello, Fawkes," Harry said softly, not even sure that the bird would hear him. The notes of Fawkes's song dwindled to silence, and the bird looked back and forth from Harry to Aberforth, seeming as though he were trying to make up his mind about something. Before either of them could do anything, however, Fawkes disappeared in a burst of orange flame.
Harry looked at the ground on the edge of the grave, expecting to see pile of ashes out of which the baby phoenix would emerge, but there was nothing. He felt a hand on his shoulder once again.
"He'll be going to mourn in his own way," Aberforth said, his gravelly voice once again laced with emotion. "He'll come back, for a while at least." He seemed to mentally gather himself again. "You ready, lad?"
Harry nodded, tearing his gaze once again away from the grave which would most likely be filled and marked by the time he returned to the grounds. He noticed that Aberforth, too, seemed to have a hard time turning his back, but they both managed, and they walked toward the gate in silence.
When they reached the gates and the Apparation point just beyond them, Aberforth turned to Harry with a hint of the twinkle in his eyes once again. "Just don't splinch yourself," he cautioned. "Fastest way to get caught, that is."
Harry had a feeling that Aberforth knew quite a lot about being caught breaking rules and laws, and he nodded with a slight smile. He already liked Dumbledore's brother quite a lot.
"There's a good spot right behind my pub," Aberforth said. "Nice and hidden."
Harry concentrated on the three D's, tempted to simply follow Aberforth as he had done Ginny and Lupin two days before, but unsure of whether that was a good idea. Harry had a strong relationship with the other two, which made a big difference when one was attempting Follow-Along Apparation. Remembering Aberforth's caution about splinching himself, Harry decided that simple apparation would be safer.
After a few moments of being pulled through the vacuum of the space-time continuum, Harry arrived in one piece behind the pub, and he looked around in undisguised surprise.
"Not what you expected from the front half, is it?" Aberforth commented as he appeared beside Harry.
It was certainly not what Harry had expected. The front of the Hog's Head had been filthy and unkempt, and if someone kept the front of his establishment in such a state, Harry could have only imagined that the back would have been even worse. As he looked around, however, he began forming a new opinion of the old wizard beside him. Apparently, the Hog's Head was a front of some sort, and was unkempt for a carefully calculated reason. In the back garden, Harry saw no evidence of the surly, careless barman he had thought Aberforth to be.
The whole garden was alive with color and fragrance, with different shades and types of flowers, both ordinary and magical, growing without rhyme or reason along the back of the pub and beside a small stone path that wended its way through to a small wooden shed, painted brightly. The flowers, though they had been given leave to grow where they would, were not encumbered by weeds. Harry could tell that Aberforth must have spent a great deal of time pottering around out here.
"Nice, isn't it?" Aberforth asked. "Al used to come out when things were getting tough at the school. Said he liked the sounds and the smells, and no one bothered him 'round here. There's wards put up, see?" He pointed to the corners of the garden as thought Harry might be able to glimpse the invisible enchantments which hid this solitary refuge from the world. "No one can come back here but that I give 'em leave to, not even Al. 'Course, he never had much of a green thumb, so I let him come whenever he wanted to, seeing as how it was one thing I could offer him in return for everything he done for me."
Harry strongly suspected that Albus Dumbledore would have had no problem breaching any of the wards put in place by his brother, but he also knew that the Headmaster never would have considered doing such a thing. He did wonder at Aberforth's statement that 'Al' had never had a green thumb. Harry had never before considered that there might have been anything at which Professor Dumbledore didn't excel, but now that he thought about it, there had been nothing growing in the Head's office, not even a pot of flowers or an ivy.
Aberforth cut into Harry's thoughts, saying easily, "Well, now, that's not to say he wouldn't have been a good enough gardener if he'd set himself to do it, but Al always had his mind on higher things, you know?" His voice caught again as he talked about his brother. He had not yet reconciled himself to a life without him.
"Yeah," Harry replied softly. He could certainly see how Dumbledore would not have had time to care for a garden such as this one, and he could also easily see why the Headmaster would have wanted to come here when things were tense at the school or the Ministry. The very atmosphere exuded serenity, and Harry could feel himself relaxing for the first time in weeks.
"Would you like to sit out here?" Aberforth asked, and Harry nodded again. "Right, then, I'll just nip inside and get us some tea and a few other things." He walked to the back door of the pub, which was painted a rich, purplish blue, and it was easily apparent that he didn't mean to hurry. Perhaps it was the calming influence of the garden, but Harry could not find it within himself to mind very much. After all, what pressing appointments did he have this afternoon?
It was a good fifteen minutes before the barman returned, a tray containing a teapot, two cups, and some biscuits floating evenly in front of him, and a large leather pouch tucked under one arm. Gone as well were his black robes of mourning, replaced by deep red ones which reminded Harry of a set Dumbledore himself had worn.
"Al didn't like black," Aberforth said in a voice of forced cheerfulness. "Since I was to speak this morning, I gave way to convention, but I'll not stay in that color longer than I have to."
Harry nodded as Aberforth set the tray and the leather pouch on a small garden table just off the path, but his curiosity would not allow him to remain silent for long.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing at the pouch.
"This is something Al left for you, lad," Aberforth answered gently. "Fawkes brought it to me the morning of the battle. I haven't looked at it, myself. It was clearly addressed to you, though I have some idea of what it's all about."
Harry took the pouch off the table, trying not to seem too eager. Upon opening it, he found that it contained a large sheath of parchment. The top page was a letter written in Dumbledore's familiar spindly handwriting, addressed to Harry.
"Go on and read it," Aberforth prompted.
With a shaking hand, Harry pulled Dumbledore's letter from the pouch, his eyes smarting with unbidden tears even before he began to read.
Today, we have found ourselves at a crossroads. There is no doubt, if you are reading this letter, that I did not survive the battle with Tom Riddle, and your work, then, must necessarily go on without me.
There must be a great many questions in your mind, Harry, and no doubt you are having trouble understanding the significance of the silver ring which undoubtedly weakened me when it must have seemed that my strength should have been at its height. As you peruse the contents of this packet, I believe you will find the answers you will need to continue on your quest, and I would encourage you to seek and find help from whatever sources may present themselves to you.
I will speak no more of this at this time, however, but I hope you will allow an old man the latitude to give you some advice.
Here, the words blurred even more as Harry thought of the times in which he had not heeded the Headmaster's advice, and the fact that he would have given anything now to be speaking to him rather than reading his final words.
Do not allow grief and anger to cloud your mind, Harry, for these will only give Voldemort more strength. Instead, remember what you have been taught, and dedicate your fight to those who are living rather than those who have passed. For it is the living, Harry, who now depend upon you to set the world back to rights.
I once wished more than anything else that I could take the burden of the age from your young shoulders. How could I not, for I saw before me a person on whom life had placed an unfair burden, a person who had been robbed of the normal childhood which should have been his. I wanted so much to give you back what you had lost, but alas, it was beyond my abilities. I soon found, especially after the battle at the Department of Mysteries, that my place was not to lift this burden from you, but to give you the tools you would need to lift it from yourself.
Over the course of this year and our work together, I have learned so much more about the person you have become than I ever knew before, and I write this in perfect confidence that you will fulfill your destiny, and that you will go on to live the life that you have always deserved to live, a life of happiness and normalcy, surrounded by a family of your own.
Love, Harry, is your greatest power, your greatest weapon. I do not think you have yet come to understand the full potential of your abilities if you will not fear to use the love of your friends and yes, your family, as you continue your fight. You must have noticed in your efforts that your upbringing bore striking similarities to that of Tom Riddle, and no doubt this fact has caused you some concern, just as the Sorting Hat's words did at the beginning of your first year.
I remind you now of what I told you so long ago: It is our choices, Harry, which define us, and your choices have been different than Tom's from the earliest beginnings of your life. A pureness of heart lies within you that I have not seen in many wizards throughout my long life, and this purity and the ability to love unconditionally have won you friends and a family who will fight with you to the very end. You must let them, Harry, for your powers will not be fully realized until you do.
I leave you now in the hopes that you will take all that you have been given and use it in the final part of your quest. The war will strengthen and heighten now, but this is but the final burst of the storm before the end. It is not long in coming, Harry, and I would entreat you to return to your aunt and uncle one last time, to take what is left of the blood protection as you prepare yourself for what you must do next.
Above all, Harry, love must conquer. Do not give in to the anger and grief which are, even now, threatening to consume you. Use your greatest power, and you will prevail.
Albus Percival Wulfric Bryan Dumbledore
Harry read through the letter twice before looking up at Aberforth, who was watching him intently. The old wizard's heart was gladdened when he saw, after the second reading, that the young man's eyes were now glistening not with tears, but with the determination that those close to Harry had come to admire and respect.
"That's it, lad," he said. "It's time to fight, and it's time to win. Albus knew you had become ready, and unless I am much mistaken, you will find in these papers clues to your next destination."
"That ring," Harry said slowly. "It was important somehow, wasn't it?"
"Aye," Aberforth answered solemnly, "it was very important, and if my brother was right - which he almost always was, confound him - it is the key to everything." He stood up and dusted the crumbs from his robes. "I have to leave you now, Harry, but you can stay in the garden as long as you like."
Harry nodded absently, still lost in thought, until Aberforth turned to give him one final remark. "You know where to find me. I am not the wizard my brother was, but I'll give you any help that I can."
Remembering the Headmaster's advice to seek and find help from whatever sources presented themselves, Harry nodded again and said simply, "Thank you."
Soon after Aberforth had gone inside to resume his role as the surly barman of the Hog's Head, Harry gathered the leather pouch close to him and apparated back to the gates of Hogwarts. As curious as he was about the further contents of the pouch, he was not yet ready to read them. For the moment, he only wanted to be with Ginny, Ron, Hermione and Moony, the four people dearest to his heart.
* * *
The Hogwarts grounds seemed deserted. As he walked up the path to the school, Harry cut his eyes to the place where Professor Dumbledore's funeral had taken place. As he had expected, the grounds had already been cleared of chairs and the grave already filled and marked with the white marble tombstone Harry had seen behind the mound of fresh earth.
That's it, then, Harry couldn't help thinking as he passed it. Now, somehow, it seemed final. Perhaps it had been Dumbledore's letter, or his talk with Aberforth, or the silence of the grounds, but for whatever reason, Harry felt that Dumbledore had finally gone to rest.
"Harry!" exclaimed a familiar and unmistakably tear-stricken voice behind him.
Harry turned to see Hagrid walking quickly towards him from his hut, his gait strangely unsteady, rather as though he had been drinking. Before Harry had time to figure out what to say, Hagrid wrapped him in a hug which threatened to break every bone in his body.
"Hagrid!" Harry said, his voice muffled due to the fact that his face was now buried in Hagrid's shirt. "Hagrid, could you…I mean, would you please let go?" He knew that Hagrid was devastated and that the half-giant did not know his own strength.
"Oh, yer right, of course, jest right," Hagrid muttered, pulling out a large polka-dot handkerchief and dabbing at his eyes after he had released Harry. "Bein' silly…it's just..." Hagrid broke into renewed sobbing, dropping his huge form on the ground with a thud that caused the ground to shake.
"Hagrid," Harry began awkwardly. "It's going to be all right. You heard what Aberforth said. Professor Dumbledore wouldn't want to be remembered like this." As he said it, Harry realized that he believed it as well. After reading the letter he had been given, he knew more than ever that the Headmaster would not have wanted anyone to fall apart, to lose hope or faith.
Hagrid blew his nose. "Yer right," he said again, his voice hoarse from too much mead and heavy emotion. "Great man, Dumbledore…great man…" Hagrid choked back another sob as he looked at Harry. The young wizard's face still held all the sadness that it had before, but it was composed, determined now.
"Yer on yer own now, Harry," Hagrid said softly. "'Course, yeh can't ever really be alone, can yeh, what with th' whole wizardin' world behind yeh."
Harry nodded, not sure what else to do or say.
"I'll help yeh," Hagrid grunted, looking up at him with respect. "Dumble…Dumbledore was so proud. He always said to me, he did, that you were gettin' ready, that you would win in th' end. Yeh have to, Harry," he said clearly. "Ain't no other way, yeh jest…yeh have to. Let us help, Dumbledore asked…" His voice trailed off.
"What did he ask, Hagrid?"
"He asked us ter stick by yeh, that's all," Hagrid replied in a gruff voice. "He told us yeh would need us afore th' end, and we're all to stand behind yeh. An' we will. We always will."
"Thank you," Harry said softly. "But Hagrid, I…" At this, Harry stopped. He had been going to say, "I don't know what to do," but all of a sudden, he knew that it wouldn't have been the truth. As Dumbledore had said, the time at which he would have to fight, have to end this, was becoming closer with each passing day, and Harry knew that the others had prepared him as far as it was in their ability to do so.
"Yeh know what yeh need ter do," Hagrid said seriously. "Yeh've always known. Ain't nobody better to do it, neither."
"I'll do my best," Harry replied, resolve once again sparking in his eyes even though he wasn't exactly sure what it was that he had always known.
"That'll be enough," Hagrid said, wiping his eyes once again. "Aye, Harry, yer best will do the trick. Where're yeh goin' now?"
"I'm taking the Knight Bus back to Surrey," Harry replied. "I'm going back to the Dursleys until I've…" He almost said, "Until I've read what Dumbledore left for me," but decided quickly that he wanted to keep that to himself until he knew what it was all about. For some reason, he had the feeling that the contents of the packet would need to be treated with the highest level of secrecy, perhaps even from the Order itself. He quickly added, "Until I've turned seventeen."
Hagrid looked at Harry beadily, but didn't pursue the subject. "Ruddy Muggles" was his only comment as he patted Harry heavily on the shoulder after he had gotten up.
"We'll be in touch," Hagrid called after Harry from the door to his hut. "Yeh won't be alone, Harry. Promise yeh that."
Harry waved at Hagrid, a strange feeling of foreboding coming through the gesture. Saying goodbye to Hagrid now, after all that had happened, felt ominous to him somehow. He tried unsuccessfully to shake the feeling off as he entered the deserted castle and headed up the familiar marble staircase to Gryffindor Tower.
The Fat Lady looked at him imperiously for a moment as he approached the entrance to the Common Room, but after he had said the password, she said with a hint of wonder in her voice, "You are to have full access to the castle now, Harry Potter. Orders have been given." Without another word, the portrait swung open on its hinges, and Harry climbed through the portrait hole, wondering exactly what the Fat Lady had meant.
He was surrounded the moment he entered the room, hugging and being hugged by Mrs. Weasley, Hermione, and Fleur Delacour, who had come to the tower with Bill, and shaking hands with Mrs. Weasley, Ron, Bill, George, Percy and Charlie. Last of all, besides Ginny, came Remus Lupin, who smiled at him as he gave him their usual one-armed hug.
"Aberforth is quite a character, isn't he?" Lupin asked, looking at him critically. He was apparently pleased by what he saw, for he did not ask Harry how he was. It was apparent that while Harry was obviously still grieving, he had not allowed it to consume him as he had the previous summer after Sirius had died.
"I like him," Harry said definitely.
"I knew you would," Lupin replied, leading Harry to a table laden down with trays of sandwiches and pitchers of cold pumpkin juice. Harry noticed that all of the people in the room who were not Hogwarts students had changed out of their black robes into their normal clothing, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and Lupin's in their usual states of shabbiness.
Ginny came up to him, carrying a plate that she had filled with food for him, and she led him quietly to his favorite chair by the fire. As Harry settled down into the familiar seat, he suddenly looked around at the Common Room. The same foreboding that he had felt upon saying goodbye to Hagrid came over him again, and he suddenly wondered if he would even be back at Hogwarts the next year. Depending on what was in Dumbledore's packet, Harry realized that there was a possibility that he would not.
"Are you all right, Harry?" she asked softly, gazing searchingly into his eyes. The other occupants of the room busied themselves with departure preparations, giving Harry and Ginny their last few minutes alone before it was time to leave. Even Moony turned his back on the couple, knowing he would have time with Harry on the Knight Bus, for he and Tonks were riding with him to be his guard.
"I'm okay, Ginny," Harry replied, taking her hand and squeezing it. "Are you?"
"I'm…" Ginny began, seeming almost ashamed of what she was about to say. "I'm scared, Harry. I know it's stupid, but I can't help it. I'm afraid for you. Hermione says everything's going to change now, and I guess it has to, and I know what you have to do. But I can't help being scared. All those things we talked about, all those things we want for our future...will they ever happen now?"
Harry looked at her, his eyes strong and full of the intense love he had come to feel for her. "They will, Ginny," he replied firmly. "I've just got to do this first, that's all, then I'll come back for you."
"What do you mean, come back for me?" Ginny asked sharply, her confusion betrayed in her voice.
Harry wasn't sure why he had said that, and with one look in Ginny's face, he wished that he hadn't. "I'm not sure what I'm going to have to do next, Ginny." He lowered his voice. "Dumbledore left me something that he said would help me find my 'next destination,' Ginny. I don't know what he means, but it's time for me to end this. You know it is."
Ginny nodded with difficulty. She knew that what Harry said was true, and she didn't argue with him for the moment. One thing she knew deep in her heart, however, was that Harry would not leave her behind. She simply wouldn't let that happen.
"I love you," was all she said, and Harry didn't even glance around the room to see who was watching as he leaned forward and took her into his arms, kissing her softly. She sat in his lap, curled up against his chest, the folds of her black school robes disappearing into the folds of his.
"I love you, too," Harry replied with feeling. "I always will, Ginny."
"Don't talk like that, like you're leaving me! You're not leaving me, Harry!" she suddenly said with vigor.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Harry told her honestly. "But I'm not going anywhere besides to the Dursley's right now, and we've already said we'll see each other over the summer, haven't we? I know how to apparate now, even if I'm not supposed to, and the Order will help me. Moony promised they would."
Ginny nodded, knowing that until Harry knew what he had to do next, this had to be enough. Without thinking, Harry kissed her again.
"All right, you two," said Mr. Weasley in a tone of forced indifference. Something about the way those two acted when they were together reminded him strongly of himself and Mrs. Weasley, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that his little girl was not so young anymore. He sighed. None of them are children anymore, he thought sadly. "It's time to get your trunks from upstairs. We have to leave the castle in just a few minutes."
Leave the castle…leave the castle…the words echoed in Harry's head as he gave Ginny one last, small kiss and headed upstairs to bring his things down from the dormitory. He never wanted to leave Hogwarts, but this time, it seemed to be even harder than it had been before. Hermione had never spoken truer words than she had in the hospital when she had said that everything was going to change.
As Harry headed down the stairs with his trunk behind him and Hedwig's cage in his other hand, he wondered if Hogwarts would ever be 'home' for him again, if he would ever return in quite the same way.
* * *
The group walked in silence down to the Entrance Hall, where Professor McGonagall was waiting to see them off. As they passed the entrance to the dungeons, Harry was sure he saw the black-robed figure of Severus Snape lurking a few steps down, watching them.
With bitterness, Harry realized that Snape had not even attended the Headmaster's funeral, nor had he been seen fighting in Hyde Park with the Order. I bet he was one of the ones fighting in a mask, killing Muggles for the sport of it, Harry thought viciously, glaring at Snape's retreating back.
"Potter," McGonagall said, snapping him out of his hateful reverie. He turned to look at her, wondering what she would say to him now.
"Harry," she amended, her face softening as she looked at him, and upon further inspection, Harry could see how hard the last few days had been for her as well. She placed her hand on his cheek much as Mrs. Weasley was wont to do, and his eyes widened in surprise. He had received kind words from the Deputy…no, the Headmistress, before, but never had she shown him such an open sign of affection.
"Professor," he responded, looking at her with astonished eyes, completely unsure as to what was happening.
"Do be careful, won't you?" she whispered, no sign of any kind of severity or sternness in her voice or expression. "And remember, Hogwarts will always be your home, and you will always find help here. All you must do is ask."
Harry started a bit as she withdrew her hand from his face, and he wondered if McGonagall knew what information he would find in Dumbledore's packet, knew that there was a possibility that he would not be returning to school. What she did next surprised him even more. Suddenly and gingerly, as though she was out of practice, she leaned forward and hugged him, patting his back before releasing him and stepping back, tears glistening in her eyes.
Harry realized too late that his arms had remained at his sides and that he had not returned the gesture. He looked at her again and whispered, "I'll be careful, Professor, and I'll keep in touch." He tacked the last promise on almost as an afterthought, for initiating contact with Professor McGonagall for anything besides school business was not something he had ever before even considered.
"Right, it's time we were off," Molly Weasley said, her tone betraying the fact that she was dreading their parting more than almost anyone else in the room. She could not bear the thought of leaving Harry at the mercy of those Muggles again, but this time, he had insisted upon going. She wondered what he was hiding, but she did not ask. Harry was different since Dumbledore's death, and though she did not admit it, even to herself, Molly had also felt the aura of his power when he had come back to the Common Room after his meeting with Aberforth Dumbledore.
McGonagall nodded and turned quickly away from all of them, her steps as brisk as they ever had been as her heels clicked up the marble stairs back to her office.
Harry and Ginny walked with Ron and Hermione down the walk to the school, where he would catch the Knight Bus with Lupin and Tonks. The Weasleys would be apparating back to the Burrow, Ginny going Side-Along with her father, and Hermione was going with them for fear that her presence would bring more danger to her parents than anything else.
"Harry, what are you going to do?" Ron asked.
"What did you talk about with Professor Dumbledore's brother?" Hermione added.
"I don't know anything but that I'm going back to Surrey for now," Harry answered honestly. "You'll know when I do."
"Just don't go off and so something mental," Ron said bluntly. "Promise you won't, Harry."
"Ron!" Hermione reproached him. "Harry's not going to do anything rash, are you Harry?"
Harry's only answer was, "I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I've got some things to sort through."
"Just remember that we're with you, Harry," Hermione said as Lupin stuck his wand-hand out, signaling for the Knight Bus. As it arrived with a bang, Ginny lunged forward and threw her arms around him.
"We're with you," Ron echoed, clapping him on the back.
"Always," Ginny whispered in his ear, her face strong and devoid of tears. Now that the time had actually come for Harry to leave, she would do nothing but lend him what strength she had. The last thing he needed was a sobbing girl on his hands, and Ginny knew that.
"Harry, dear, please don't forget to write to us as often as you can," Mrs. Weasley said, her chin trembling just the slightest bit as she gave him a hug. "We'll have you out of there the moment you say the word."
"Thanks, Mrs. Weasley," Harry said. "I'll keep in touch, I promise."
With various other farewell calls, Harry dragged his trunk onto the bus, where it was taken by the now-familiar conductor, Stan Shunpike, who was staring at the assembled group with awe written all over his features.
"Blimey, Ern," he said as Lupin and Tonks followed Harry onto the bus. "They was all there at the park, they was! They was there when Albus Dumbledore was -"
"That will be enough," Lupin said quietly, staring straight into the young man's pimply face. "We wish to be left quite alone."
Stan turned red and hurriedly stowed their trunks, muttering under his breath as they found three squishy armchairs on the second level. The only other thing they heard from the conductor was his inquiry as to their destination and his request for payment. The bus was empty but for them, as most wizards were afraid to go too far from home, and Harry knew he didn't have long as they rocketed away from Hogwarts, not even giving him a chance to look back at the castle.
Harry noticed that Lupin and Tonks were sitting rather close together, and he could not help but smile a little. "So, you two are together, then?" he asked conversationally, enjoying the surprised look that passed between his guards.
"We, well…" Lupin answered, his face reddening a bit until Harry was reminded forcibly of Ron's responses to any questions regarding romance.
"Of course we are, you dolt!" Tonks said, punching him in the arm.
"That's great," Harry said sincerely, "really great."
"Listen, Harry," Lupin suddenly said intently, leaning forward and swaying slightly as the bus began racing down the streets of Surrey with a bang, "We'll be in close contact this summer, but you must be on your guard, always. We don't know how the blood protection will work once you've turned seventeen, if the wards will automatically come down. You've got to keep a watch on yourself, and on your family."
Harry nodded, grimacing only slightly at Lupin's reference to the Dursleys as his family. "I will be, Moony, and I'll talk to you as soon as I figure out what comes next."
"Do that, Harry," Lupin said, carefully refraining from asking Harry about his meeting with Aberforth. He knew that there was something very significant about what had happened with Dumbledore and the silver ring in Hyde Park, and if his suspicions proved correct, Harry had a long road ahead of him.
The Knight Bus squealed to a stop in front of the familiar play park at the end of Privet Drive, the very place in which Harry had first seen it in the summer before his third year. There were several Muggle children playing in the park, but no one seemed to take any notice of the obnoxiously purple triple-decker bus that had just narrowly missed running all of them over.
"Muggles," Stan said contemptuously as he unloaded Harry's things onto the sidewalk on the opposite side of the bus. "They don't notice nuffink, do they?"
Harry had a strong feeling that the bus was either invisible or disillusioned, and that as long as it remained there, anyone near it was hidden, because Moony, Tonks and Stan Shunpike moved around with nonchalant ease, not bothering with cloaks or even whispers. Before the bus rocketed off, however, Lupin shrunk Harry's trunk and hid it, himself and Tonks under Moody's spare invisibility cloak.
When the bus disappeared, Harry seemed to be standing alone on the corner. A few of the Muggles in the park wondered briefly where he had come from, but no one said anything to him…after all, he was just that strange Potter boy who had to go to a school for criminals. It was best simply to pretend they didn't see him.
Harry walked toward Number Four, Privet Drive, feeling rather than seeing or hearing the presence of Lupin and Tonks as they walked behind them. When they reached the Dursleys' front garden, Lupin looked carefully around before removing the invisibility cloak and charming Harry's trunk and Hedwig's cage back to their usual sizes.
"This is where we leave you, Harry, but we're only a call away," Lupin said, clapping Harry on the shoulder.
"If you have any problems with those people," Tonks said darkly, remembering all too well the events of the previous summer, "you're to call us straightaway, you hear?"
Harry nodded. "Bye, you two," he said, turning away from them and walking alone up the front walk, dragging his trunk behind him. He heard two soft 'pops' as they disapparated, and, taking a deep breath, Harry rang the bell.
And so it begins, he thought.
Author's Note: There you have it. I truly hope you've enjoyed reading The Greatest Power. The first chapter of its sequel, Pieces of a Soul will be posted as soon as I have gotten it edited and in good order. I'd love it if you would continue the journey with me!
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