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Chapter 18 — The Foibles of Youth

The sun emerged momentarily as Harry, walking with the Weasley family and his guardian, stepped through the rusted, wrought iron gates leading onto the Puddlemere Quidditch grounds. Families were braving the wet grass and spreading out woolen blankets with picnics upon them. Children on half-size broomsticks squealed and shouted as they chased each other around the high, high goal posts.

Ginny glanced yet again at Professor Snape, who had yet to comment on her status or punishment for being absent from Hogwarts without permission. Fred and George with some help from Bill had convinced the Weasley parents that the winner of the dueling tournament could not skip the picnic; that all Hogwarts students should have been allowed to attend; and anyway, she couldn’t get into additional trouble that day with all of them watching her.

Molly stopped in an open spot and decided that they had found a good place to spread out. The Weasley brothers turned drying the ground into a competition and soon they were all lounging comfortably on the huge checked blanket. Some pre-Hogwarts youngsters, wearing brand new gold hats that must be for sale just for the event, asked Harry to autograph theirs. Harry borrowed a quill from Bill to accommodate them. They stood with hands quaintly behind their backs as they waited their turn. As soon as their hats were returned they dashed off excitedly with them clutched in their hands.

As the picnic basket was unloaded, Ginny came around to the edge where Snape sat, eying a nearby group of wizards who were prepping fireworks while glancing around as though to see if they had attracted attention from anyone in authority. “Professor . . .” Ginny began. “Deputy Headmaster Professor . . .” she said with a light grimace of reluctance. Snape’s brow furrowed oddly at the convoluted title, but he didn’t comment. Ginny crouched down, glanced at her closest brothers, who were playing a mini dueling game with their wands, and asked sheepishly, “What is my punishment going to be?”

“I have not decided yet. Professor McGonagall should certainly be involved in the decision. I’m assuming she knows of your location from listening to the tournament on Wizard Wireless with the rest of the school.”

Ginny balked at that. “Wizard Wireless was broadcasting the tournament?”

“You didn’t notice them off to the left in a wooden booth?” he asked. “I guess you were otherwise occupied,” he went on snidely.

“I was,” she retorted smartly. “You were using non-reg spells on me that required a bit of extra attention to counter.”

Snape glanced sideways at Harry, who was just biting into a chicken leg Molly Weasley had given him. “I almost called you on that,” Harry told him and then pointed out to Ginny, “But, you handled it all right, so I didn’t.” Sliding his eyes back to Snape, Harry added with false gravity, “Wonder what Minerva will say about you tossing a fireball at a student.”

“I did not realize my opponent was a student, so it does not count,” Snape returned smartly.

The fireworks erupted and everyone turned and watched the colorful display as the perpetrators scattered in the face of approaching Ministry personnel. Some people even clapped in appreciation and called for more. The Games and Sports Department staff who were running the picnic slunk away after sending threatening glances around the nearby blankets.

Harry scanned the now crowded pitch, which resembled a giant quilt with all of the colorful blankets laid out upon it. Children scampered about, mothers tended to the youngest, fathers tossed Quaffles back and forth with the older kids. Despite being surrounded by friends and family, Harry felt wholly isolated from the events around him; the prophecy hung like an impenetrable membrane between him and everyone else in their apparently carefree lives.

“Harry Potter,” a small voice prompted from Harry’s right. Harry started and found a small boy removing his commemorative t-shirt which he then held out and asked to have signed.

“Bill, can I borrow that never-out quill again?” Harry asked.

The boy stood shivering with his exposed pink skin while Harry used the marker pen charm and signed his shirt, which Harry admonished the boy to put back on immediately. A harried looking witch in plaid robes came up from behind the boy and said, “Paisley, there you are! Whatever are you doing with no shirt?” When she spotted Harry, she said, “Oh,” and her mouth held in that shape.

The boy, Paisley, held up the t-shirt in her view before moving to put it on but it was snatched away. “Save that, dear,” the witch said, carefully folding it before draping her bright orange shawl over the boy instead.

Fred and George were pounding the blanket, laughing, as the pair walked away. “Oh, Harry Potter, sign my hand,” George teased, holding out his hand as though to have it kissed. “No,” Fred interrupted while holding out his foot. “Sign my shoe! My shoe first!” He grabbed Harry around the neck to better hold his foot up in front of him and they tumbled backward onto the blanket. George pretended to reach for his trousers as though to pull them down. “Sign this!” he said, waggling his bum back and forth. Fred’s hands slipped away because he was laughing too hard to hold on and they all fell into a hysterical heap, and for one glorious minute the membrane between Harry and the rest of wizardry was pierced.

“Boys,” Ginny grumbled as their antics continued and their jokes grew incomprehensible over their laughter. She accepted a carrot stick from the bowl of them that was held out by Ron, who eyed the pile as though looking for an opening. Ginny munched on the carrot thoughtfully. “You can’t really make me stay an eighth year, can you?” she asked Snape. “I’m of age. I didn’t actually have to come for my seventh year.”

“Anything is possible,” Snape uttered softly.

“No, it isn’t,” Ginny countered, now sounding more confident.

“With a special decree from the Wizengamot,” Snape enunciated carefully, which made it come out more threatening, “anything is possible.”

Ginny bit through the carrot stick loudly and paled a little as she held off on chewing. A shadow fell across her and she looked up at Reginald Rodgers, standing above her, hands on his hips which spread his cloak wide.

“Weasley,” he said in greeting, and then “Snape,” with less enthusiasm. He glanced at the wrestling match with mild dismay, but Harry didn’t notice him. “A word with you, Ms. Weasley, if I could.”

Ginny eagerly stood up and followed him a few steps away, out of hearing. The scent of seaweed still clung to him and Ginny considered apologizing but waited to see what he would say first.

Rodgers said, “You made a good showing, considering. And I couldn’t help but recognize your name from the apprentice applications. We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t offer you a chance to apply.” At her excited reaction, he added sternly, “But realize that we are not necessarily opening a spot this year.”

“No?” Ginny asked in disappointment.

“No. You will have to convince us that we cannot do without you.”

“Ah,” Ginny uttered, thinking that didn’t seem quite as hopeful as she would have liked. “I’ll certainly try my best,” she said. “Do I have to have N.E.W.T.s to be accepted?”

Rodgers appeared concerned. “Usually. Why?”

Ginny hedged and gestured at Snape behind her. “Well, I may get expelled before I get a chance to take them.” At his further confused expression, she went on with: “I was already in trouble for trying to rescue Harry at the warehouse and now I’m not supposed to be here either. Professor Snape won’t tell me what my punishment is going to be.”

Rodgers leaned around her to peer at Snape, who gave him an unyielding look in return. “Your Auror test scores will have to be impeccable and an exception would have to be made. That is not unheard of, though, so you certainly should come to the initial testing.” After another glance at the full blanket behind her, he said, “I assume since I have not heard anything from Arthur, that he does not know you have applied?”

Ginny bit her lips and shook her head.

“Hm,” he grunted and giving a little bow with his head, said, “I will see you at the Ministry this summer then, if not sooner, Ms. Weasley.” With a last dismayed glance at the roughhousing young men, he stepped away.

Ginny bounced back to the blanket and sat down, thinking hopefully that things could still work out. Now if only she were certain that was what she wanted.

Molly Weasley leaned over and asked through the melee, “Was he congratulating you, dear?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, he was.”

Snape gave her a very dubious look, but didn’t speak. Harry somersaulted through between them and gracefully stopped in a crouch, dress robes fluttering. “'Scuse me,” he said, his face red from exertion and laughing. Snape’s expression made him add, “Sorry.” And rather than restart the wrestling, he sat down between them and took up a carrot.

“‘E’s given up, then,” George complained disparagingly.

“About time you decided to act your age,” Molly said, handing sandwiches to each of the twins.

Harry sighed and brushed his hair back. “You did really well today, Ginny.”

“That’s what your boss just said,” she pointed out.

“Who? Rodgers?” Harry asked, looking around with much less of a confident attitude.

Smirking, Ginny said, “Yeah, he was just here.”

Snape said, “Looked willing to trade her for you, in fact, given your position at the bottom of the pile.”

“It was two against one,” Harry pointed out, feeling a little embarrassed to have been behaving so juvenilely in retrospect.

Ginny nudged Harry, “Get Professor to tell you what my punishment is.”

Harry stared at her before that sank in. “Oh, for being out of school, you mean?”

“Again,” she clarified.

“Oh yeah. You had good reasons both times,” Harry pointed out.

“Tell him that,” Ginny said, even though Snape clearly must have overheard.

Harry turned to his guardian. “So, what’s Ginny’s punishment?”

Snape replied, “Minerva will have to decide.” Far off near the banner poles more fireworks were erupting.

“What are you going to recommend?” Harry needled.

“What do you recommend,” Snape immediately asked Harry. “Oh ye, who was so fond of breaking the rules himself.”

“Oh,” Harry uttered, munching his carrot to stall answering. “I don’t know,” he sheepishly admitted. “There’s only a month and some left . . .”

“So it will have to be something exceptionally harsh to add up during that time,” Snape stated with a twisted pleasantness.

Harry leaned closer to Ginny and murmured, “I think you’re in trouble.”

As it turned out, Ginny was. When she and Professor Snape arrived in the headmistress’ hearth an hour later, McGonagall strode quickly down from the upper half of the office to face her. The paintings behind her held supporting expressions of dismayed disappointment, although one of them appeared to be leering as though punishment were the ultimate form of entertainment.

When Snape hesitated behind Ginny, McGonagall said, “Go on, Severus, I’m certain you have grading since all I heard today were complaints about your extra assignment to make up for the holiday.” While she spoke, she didn’t take her eyes off Ginny, or her hands off of her hips.

Snape didn’t move immediately. “I am curious what punishment you are going to assign . . . I had some ideas.”

“I think you are too biased, in Ms. Weasley’s case, to consult on any corrective action.”

Snape’s expression grew disturbed. “Biased in what way?” he asked carefully, sounding on the verge of anger.

The two of them stared each other down. Ginny lifted her shoulders and glanced around uneasily. More of the former headmasters appeared to think entertainment was being provided and were smirking. Ginny didn’t speak because she would rather be expelled than end up with an eighth year.

“I will handle this, Severus,” McGonagall insisted firmly but conversationally. Snape stalked out, closing the door just a little louder than usual. Ginny shifted from one foot to the other nervously. McGonagall paced the room and finally spoke.

“I’d have liked to think that once you made the finals you could have come to me and asked for permission to leave,” the headmistress said slowly, green robes swishing as she walked. “Given that you clearly deserved to be in the tournament. But I suppose I would have simply been forced to punish you then for being absent without permission earlier.” She looked Ginny up and down as she passed her. “You don’t seem as trouble-seeking as your brothers on the surface, Ms. Weasley, so I find myself shocked to be dealing with such blatant and repeated transgressions. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Ginny wanted to simply shrug, but she would have derided that in someone else. “I guess I just would rather not be here at all. It’s too constricting here at school.”

“Is it?” McGonagall asked doubtfully.

“Planning for the tournament and working out how to sneak away unnoticed has been the only thing keeping me going the last few months. Otherwise I’d have lost my mind,” she admitted.

“It at least explains your long hours in the library,” McGonagall commented.

“School doesn’t matter,” Ginny pointed out. “These horrid prophecies are what matter, and helping Harry with them.”

“And to this end you wish to be an Auror, do you?” McGonagall asked in a tone that implied she knew the answer.

Ginny wondered who had told her. “I was considering it,” she allowed.

McGonagall wandered to her desk and straightened the stack of files there. “Do you have any idea how much discipline the Auror’s program requires, Ms. Weasley? How much studying, rote memorizing, repeated practice and drills? I suspect that you do not have the self-discipline necessary if you cannot keep yourself satisfied for a mere year here in varied and presumably occasionally interesting topics, among your friends, no less, with Quidditch as a diversion when all else fails.”

Ginny had not considered it quite that way. It was true that Harry seemed to do nothing but read his Auror books. “I just said I was considering it. And I’ve been invited to apply, so they think I have enough skill.”

“I don’t doubt that you have sufficient skill, Ms. Weasley . . . many have sufficient skill. It is not as unique as you think.” She stepped around her desk, sat down, and began taking out official looking parchments and a quill. Ginny wrung her hands a moment before forcing them to her sides.

“Do you wish to be expelled, Ms. Weasley?” McGonagall asked.

“Depends on what the alternatives are.”

McGonagall’s brow furrowed. “What could be worse than that?” she asked in confusion, but then immediately answered her own question. “Ah, yes, Severus said he threatened you with an eighth year, didn’t he?” She was smiling now in real amusement. “The only difficulty with that, is that we’d be punishing ourselves as well; otherwise it is a splendid idea given that you are already in detention for the foreseeable future.” McGonagall began scratching out something on a parchment. “Do you at least regret what you did?”

Ginny thought of the three hundred Galleons stashed away in her room at home—more money than she had ever imagined having at one time. She remembered her intense happiness when Harry called the last match a draw, giving her the win. “No.”

McGonagall rolled her eyes. “Very short term thinking, Ms. Weasley, I would have expected better foresight from you.”

“Why?” Ginny prodded, sounding difficult.

McGonagall paused. “I just would have. I’m surprised you sacrificed your last Quidditch match, as well. You’re letting your team down severely.”

“I didn’t expect to win the dueling final. If I’d come in second or third, it wouldn’t have mattered, no one would have known. I just . . . couldn’t let them make out the trophy wrong. For once I was out from under my many brothers’ shadows.” It hurt to say that even though, or perhaps because, it felt incredibly true.

McGonagall’s writing paused again. “A Quidditch ban and detention for the remainder of the year is barely more punishment than you are already under. But I don’t wish to expel you, if only because I fear that you will become entangled in worse troubles. I feel we should keep you isolated and safe here with the rest of the wizarding youth.”

“If things are so bad, why did the Ministry hold such an event? Why didn’t th-”

“Didn’t you notice how small the crowd was kept to?” McGonagall interrupted. “There were far larger places to hold the tournament. Many of the Regionals were held in larger venues. The atrium was the size the Ministry felt certain they could secure. The picnic was only held on the condition that nothing go wrong at the tournament. Many in the Wizengamot wanted the very public picnic canceled outright but doing so would have revealed how worried the Ministry really is, so it was not.” She gazed at Ginny for many seconds. “I am only not expelling you because I owe old loyalty to your parents and feel obliged to protect you as long as possible.” She sighed. “To that end, the only punishment I can see is one where you are compelled to volunteer to help clean up and organize the school for a month after classes end. You need not live here during that time, unless you wish to. All of this is dependent upon obtaining your parents’ agreement, but I expect they will.”

“What?” Ginny uttered, trying to take that in. She had felt nothing but pity when Harry was stuck here over the summer while the rest of them were home. “No, I wouldn’t want to live here.” Her gaze dashed over the objects in the room, disliking them all suddenly. “Can’t I just be expelled?”

“No. Go back to your tower; I believe your evening detention begins shortly.”

Ginny huffed and turned to stalk out, but stopped to hear McGonagall add. “Look at it this way, Ms. Weasley: you can still take your N.E.W.T.s.”

Ginny closed her eyes and in the interests of demonstrating some discipline, didn’t swear, even under her breath.

- 888 -

Harry opened the letter from Ginny that arrived that evening. It was a long letter for her, both sides of two full pages, but apparently she had needed to rant. Harry had to stop and reread twice the part where she offhandedly mentioned that McGonagall had kept Snape from consulting on her punishment on the argument that he was biased. Once Harry was sure of what he read, he chuckled.

Harry wrote out a long reply saying that he sympathized deeply with the notion of being stuck at school after everyone else had left, but insisted that it would go faster than she thought. He wrote:

Ten years from now I don’t think you’ll regret sneaking off to the tournament even if it means an extra month of Hogwarts. The trophy will always remind you of why it was worth it and heck, there’s no reason Hogwarts shouldn’t be as happy to see you go as it was for your brothers. It allows you to sit for your N.E.W.T.s as I’m sure Minerva intended and it’s only 30 days. The teachers are much more relaxed once the students are gone so it won’t be as bad as you think. Just make certain now that you can get the days off you need for the Auror testing and STUDY HARD—the tests are a bear, worse than the N.E.W.T.s.

P.S. Minerva probably thought Severus would be biased simply because you probably handed Slytherin the cup and he owes you for it.

After sending the Hogwart’s owl back with Ginny’s letter Harry leisurely got ready for bed, prodded the fire one last time, and crawled under the duvet. Sleep didn’t come though and gradually the fresh orange flickers on the ceiling from the hearth faded to a slate grey so flat it seemed the ceiling had disappeared into the far distance.

Hours later, the prophecy circling in his mind like a vicious animal, Harry lit his bedside lamp and read instead of attempting to sleep.

Fortunately, training the next day was all review during drills and, though tired, Harry had no difficulty keeping up, even when Rodgers called him to the front to demonstrate on him. Maybe it was Harry’s foggy brain, but Rodgers didn’t seem utterly disgusted with him today. Harry would have puzzled on this, but he couldn’t concentrate on two things at once, so he just put it aside and hoped it continued.

“Did you pay Ron?” Harry asked Aaron when they were packing up at the end of the day.

“Sure did,” Aaron replied. “Found him at the picnic, thank god, I almost had an epileptic fit from the jitters caused by the spell by the time I located him.” He hefted his shoulder bag. “Usually I win those bets I put a seal on, so serves me right I suppose,” he added with a laugh. “Glad it’s over, though?” he asked Harry.

Rodgers, who was straightening his notes in front, stopped and looked up to hear the answer to this as well.

“Yeah,” Harry admitted, although his worries about everyone being angry about his judging had long since been overshadowed by other larger concerns. He wondered now why he had been so concerned before when all he had to do was be fair and no one could remain upset for long.

Rodgers dug through his things and pulled out a copy of the Prophet, folded it to the back page and stepped over to hand it to Harry. “Skeeter thinks you must have known who Vogle really was.”

Harry stared at the back page gossip column. “She’s a nutter. I had no idea.”

Rodgers simply shrugged and stepped out, leaving Harry in the dark about why his trainer had pointed out the column.

That night didn’t go much better for Harry. Again the persistent greyness of his unlit room felt as though it might suffocate him. He petted Kali until she fell asleep and placed her gently back in her cage in the hopes that it would help him sleep; instead it made him feel so utterly exhausted that it drove him into a state of jittery alertness. He pulled out a one-inch thick volume entitled Obscure Ministry of Magic Regulations involving Charmed Objects and Homemade Spell Invention, his last resort to sleep. It eventually worked; he woke an hour later with the page stuck to his face and the lamp low due to the wick curling to black and needing adjustment. He put the book aside and lay back, hoping to fall back to sleep. He didn’t. Instead, memories he hadn’t perused in years swirled through his mind.

Harry remembered the battle at the Department of Mysteries and more starkly than previously, remembered his friends’ injuries and their outright dumb luck. He remembered all of it, disjointed and out of order with Dumbledore's sad and affectionate countenance overlaying it all.

The last prophecy required over eighteen years to run its course looped through Harry’s tired mind. The last one took only one night followed closely on its heels. Only the one born into prophecy is equal . . . is equal . . .

Harry didn’t sleep at all again the rest of the night and the next day required well-timed Pepper-Ups to remain equal another day of training. Fortunately it was a relatively easy day of drills and quizzing and discussion of common regulations that all shared ninety percent of their wording with the other seven hundreds they had already reviewed. Harry was rubbing his eyes and slowly getting his things together after everyone else had departed when Rodgers said, in his far snidest tone for the week, “You aren’t holding a week-long party to celebrate DV-Day, are you, Potter?”

Harry straightened and pretended to be alert. “No sir. Regulations just make me sleepy.” As Harry stood there under his trainer’s scrutiny, facing another long night, he wished Rodgers knew about the prophecy. But Snape had strongly suggested Harry not tell anyone at the Ministry. Harry was starting to think that wasn’t the best plan.

Hermione stopped by the house while Harry poked at his dinner; it was almost as though she knew he needed company. Rather than discuss the prophecy, they discussed Ginny, with Harry getting to share the news about her punishment, which a letter just that day from Ginny had depressingly stated that her parents had indeed agreed to the arrangement because her mother was desperate that she finish school and sit for her N.E.W.T.s.

“‘Just look at Ron,’ Mrs. Weasley apparently told Ginny when Minerva had them visit for a conference about it,” Harry said to Hermione and they both had a chuckle.

“I think Ginny would rather end up anything but like Ron: training Trolls and keeping the Goblins happy. But Ron is better at that than I would have expected,” Hermione opined as they ate more of the cake that Winky had provided soon after Hermione arrived.

After a long silence Hermione asked, “How are you doing, Harry?”

“Not as good as I would have thought. I thought I’d still be used to this . . . pressure. The Ministry hasn’t been told and now I think they should. I think I’d feel less suffocated if they did.” He thought further, imagined awkward meetings with Bones to discuss what was expected of him. “Though, maybe not,” he then added.

“Maybe it will get resolved quickly this time,” Hermione optimistically offered.

“Then there’ll just be another one after it,” Harry grumbled.

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Harry, don’t think like that.”

It was getting late and Harry’s eyes tried to close on their own. “I need to get to sleep,” he said. It was the most optimistic thing he had said all evening.

Again though, he catnapped for an hour and then found himself awake, with the remains of a very bizarre dream haunting his dim bedroom. In the dream he was at the Demise of Voldemort Day party, sitting around a table occupied by Bellatrix Lestrange, the Malfoy family, Avery, MacNair and a few hidden, hooded others. All of them sat still and silent as the party went on around them, eyeing Harry as though waiting for him to slip up and make a mistake.

Harry rubbed his eyes and forehead and turned up his lamp. The room was cold. He padded across the floor and added three logs to the hearth without bothering to stir the coals first, so all they did was smolder thick black smoke, some of which billowed into the room. He pulled out the most boring of regulations manuals again and, curled up on his side under the duvet, forced himself to read it starting from the random page where the book fell open.

He dosed lightly again, but woke shortly after, thinking he should exhaust himself, perhaps with a long flight. But the destination he thought of was the warehouse in the Docklands because he was curious to look around again. Going anywhere else didn’t hold any purpose.

As he lay there with the lamp sputtering, the door to his room swung silently open, rather than with its usual faint squeak. Harry had his wand in his hand before the shadow in the doorway said, “You are up.”

Harry put his wand down and released the breath he had taken. “Yeah.”

Snape stepped in and looked down at him from beside the bed. Harry couldn’t read his expression in the oblique sputtering light.

“I wish . . .” Harry started to say before cutting himself off and biting his lip.

“I do not think there is any point in wishing,” Snape pointed out.

“No,” Harry agreed. Snape reached into his pocket and pulled out a small vial, prompting Harry to say, “I don’t want it.”

“You need to sleep.”

“How did you know I wasn’t?” Harry challenged.

“I asked Winky.”

“Oh,” Harry murmured. Snape had set the vial down on the night stand. Harry eyed it. “I don’t want to not wake up if I need to.”

Snape didn’t move to pick up the vial again. Instead he sat down on the edge of the bed and hesitated before asking, “Do you need to speak of things?”

“What’s to say?” Harry retorted. “I’m on the hook again. Me. Why me?” He was angry all of a sudden, which he would have sworn he hadn’t been a moment before.

“Perhaps because you bear the burden better than others.” Then more solemnly: “I do not know why you are chosen.”

“So I should be rubbish at taking care of it so it doesn’t happen again,” Harry grumbled.

“I don’t think you have that option.”

“‘Dark hordes.’ How do you know it isn’t me releasing the dark hordes?” he taunted, finding it easy to use Snape as an outlet for his anger.

“I don’t,” Snape replied easily, unflappable.

Snape’s calm for once didn’t incense Harry further; instead, he fell into a brooding silence. In the morning he wouldn’t feel so cheated; he was certain that this was just exhaustion making him weak. “I have to sleep,” he said, curling up and pulling the duvet up snugly to his ear.

A hand stroked his hair back, making Harry squeeze his eyes more tightly closed. He asked, voice muffled by the covers, “Should I just hunt Merton down and get it over with?”

The hand returned for another pass, surprising Harry, although his fingers tugged hard on his hair as he spoke. “Albus always appeared content to let events play out. Infuriating really. His instinct would have been to wait until circumstances are aligned properly, believing that you would know when the time was right. I hope you do recognize the moment, should you chose that route.”

Thinking about it everything at once was only making things worse. Harry rubbed his forehead and asked Snape to turn the lamp down. He then said, “I’ll get used to the idea. Right now I just want to do something about it. Inaction is killing me. I hate waiting for the right moment. I’m not a Hogwarts student anymore . . . not a child; I should be able to do things my way this time.”

Snape’s hand rested on his shoulder, muted by the thick covers. “The prophecy is a conjunction of events, just like the stars and planets form in the sky. You may not be equal to the task until that time.”

After a pause, Harry accused from under the duvet, “You’ve been reading up, haven’t you? From books Trelawney probably takes to bed.”

“Yes,” Snape admitted.

“You don’t believe any of that,” Harry accused.

“I don’t know,” Snape honestly admitted. “But I have seen you overcome very poor odds and I am not unhopeful.”

Harry snickered. “You’re such an optimist.”

Snape sat back and said, “No reason to get insulting”, although his lips were faintly curled.

Harry awoke when the morning sun filled his room. He had slept soundly after Snape had departed and although he was a bit groggy, he felt significantly better. He even arrived early for training, and curious what might be going on, wandered down to the Auror’s office.

“What’s all this?” Harry asked of the very tall stack of files on Rogan’s desk.

“Research,” Rogan said, paging through a file before setting it on another knee-high pile on the floor.

“Looking for Merton?” he asked because they were alone.

Rogan smiled. “Give you an inch, Harry,” was his only reply.

Tonks came in then carrying more files and greeted him warmly. “Ready to work, Harry?” she asked.


“That’s good,” She replied while paging through her own stack of files. “Especially since you are on real duty tomorrow.”

“I am?” Harry asked in quick excitement.

“Your sense of cursed objects is being put to use, so real field work for you.”

“Brilliant,” Harry said happily, needing more than ever to be doing something useful.

“Don’t be eager,” she admonished him. “Be careful.”

Training seemed to take forever that day: the discussions were even longer and more boring than previously, the regulation numbers and conditions blurring from previous days. Finally Harry was released. He immediately went to find Ron, too chipper to go home and study.

Harry came home from a much-needed carefree evening at the pub and fell into bed. The notion of meaningful action calmed him enough to put him to sleep almost immediately and he woke feeling ready to conquer any dark wizard stupid enough to cross his path that day. Dressed and at the Ministry early in an unprecedented second day in a row, Harry found a small conference going on in the break room.

Mad-Eye Moody’s magical eye swung over to Harry as he entered and the room fell silent. “Potter, come on in,” he invited in a tone that sounded the opposite of the words.

Harry, who had been hesitating in the doorway, joined the group around the small table. Tonks was there as well as the oldest Auror, Whitley, Rodgers, and Mr. Weasley, plus some staff from the Magical Reversal Squad.

Rodgers said, “We’ve arranged enough protection to give Merton’s place a thorough going over. Several Aurors have visited it at night, alone, being careful not to be seen by the neighbors, or to set off any traps. We’re going in as a group this time . . . going to comb the whole place from top to bottom.

Harry stiffened, thinking that this was an opportunity to look for the objects Draco wanted back. Not necessarily to give them to Draco right away. First he would take a very long look at them. Maybe have Hermione take a very long look at them as well—and Bill too, if he were willing.

Rodgers was still talking. “Remember, we aren’t just looking for the unusual, we’re looking for what might be missing as well. He hasn’t been back, as far as we can tell, to fetch anything. We left a few traps of our own that haven’t been triggered. And on that note, no Apparating in or out from inside the perimeter—only by foot, understood?”

Everyone nodded, so he said, “We need clues to where Merton might be now. We have a pretty good idea what he is doing, but we think he must have help and we’d like to know who that is as well, so we want to look for the usual things: old post, datebooks, etc. We’ve looked before but we’ve come up empty so far, so they may be hidden if they’re there.”

Harry’s trainer turned to him. “Potter here is good at spotting cursed objects and seems to have a special antipathy for Merton’s toys. I want you to look for anything, anything at all, that sets you off the same way, got it?” Harry nodded. “Alastor will also be looking for things along that line. We want to be in and out as fast as possible and the place is big. Magical Reversal will be helping us blanket the neighborhood to make the surrounding Muggles unaware of our activity, but there is always a chance for exposure so let’s minimize it. Alastor is in charge of the operation, so all decisions to withdraw fall on him. Any questions?”

Harry shook his head and worked to keep his excitement at bay.

The Aurors who had previously patrolled the area didn’t need assistance, but Harry had to have Tonks Apparate him. As little as he minded having her hold his hand, he wished it wasn’t for something so childish feeling.

“Everyone be careful,” Mad-Eye said as they approached the very ordinary front door with a little curved window in the top middle. “No telling what might try to lop a limb off in a house like this.”

They moved as a group into the narrow entryway, until Mad-Eye gestured for a few people to go right and some to go straight, ending the traffic jam.

Harry wandered off down a side hallway lined with windows that looked into the neighbor’s garden. As he walked, he looked up and down and carefully at the wall, just in case. He even checked the floor for loose boards with his toes.

At the end through a door, he found a sitting room that resembled a shop on Diagon Alley it was so crammed with objects. There were no fewer than ten lamps just in this one room, a very tall one in the shape of a stork that followed him with its head as he moved about, making him worry that there could be a monitor somewhere where Merton could watch him. Harry eyed it closely, but it didn’t feel exceptionally magical and its eyes were of the same brass as the rest of it. He decided to ignore it for now and instead went over to the largest cabinet along a wall of them, peering at each shelf while checking for a gold inkwell or a seal. Merton seemed to own one frilly specimen of just about everything but nothing that matched Draco’s description. Many of the objects felt cursed but none significantly so he moved on to the next cabinet.

At the end of the line, he pondered the room again. On the far wall, a portrait hung, its subject absent. Suspicious, Harry began to cross the crowded room toward it.

Before the stove and its very full wood bin, sat a small overstuffed chair, and against its seat, blocking the path, rested a silver cane, or strangely, half a cane, lengthwise. Harry tripped over this on his way by, or perhaps, as he wondered darkly when it clattered to the floor, it had tripped him up. Since there had been talk of setting additional traps for Merton here, Harry didn’t want to leave the room other than exactly as he had found it. So, without forethought, he picked it up to set it back precisely as he had first seen it.

Harry stared in confusion at the thing he was holding in his hand. It was all silver and shaped like a cane, but it was flattened along on one side. It was also very heavy, as though it were solid metal. It occupied a most unusual room full of all kinds of old, twisted and curious things. In the distance footsteps could be heard and low conversation. Someone stuck their head in the room, pulled it back and then leaned in, mouth agape.

“Harry?!” a woman with bright pink hair done up in a Mohawk uttered in shock.

Harry stared at her, looked around the room, and asked, “How do you know my name?”

The woman saw the cane. In a low voice of dismay, she said, “I told you not to touch anything. Why are you holding that?” she demanded, almost frantic.

Harry, used to being yelled at just like this, set the cane down quickly against the chair beside him. The woman stepped closer and stared down at him, hands on hips. “The effect didn’t go away,” she lamented and then leaned over to glare at the cane in consternation, careful not to touch it.

Harry hazarded another question even though his previous one had gone unanswered. “Where am I?” He had just minutes before been hiding in his cousin Dudley’s cupboard to avoid him and his friends who had bored of their other games and had begun to plot various things they could do to Harry.

Another figure came to the door, a black man with very short hair wearing a long cloak. “This room clear?” This new person glanced at Harry and his expression went horrified. “Tonks, what’s this then?”

The woman turned her head. “He picked that up. Had it in his hand.”

“Harry!” the man chastised forcefully. Harry backed up a step, and would have tripped over about a dozen things sitting on the floor had the woman not pulled him back forward by his oversized t-shirt.

The woman called Tonks, said, “We’ll have to take it with us. Get a sample bag, will ya?”

“Reggie said, ‘exactly as we found it’,” the man argued.

“We don’t have any choice. Harry didn’t revert when he put it down. We’ll have to figure out how it works.” Using Harry’s shirt, which Tonks still held, she dragged him from the room, down a long corridor, around a corner, and out the door. Harry, for lack of a good reason to resist, followed along. They walked out into the cool air to the end of the drive and started down the road. Harry glanced back at the ordinary house and the street and didn’t recognize where they were. Cloaked figures stood in the yards of each of the houses, sticks held up before them like short swords, reminding Harry of something . . . something very dim and frightening.

The woman stopped and her sharp voice broke his chain of horrific, dreamlike memory. “I’d yell you silly if I thought you had any notion of what you’ve done,” she said angrily.

“Sorry,” Harry offered automatically.

She took his arm and the strange neighborhood and its strange figures disappeared. Air hit Harry’s ears with a bang! and they appeared in a wood-paneled corridor with lamps flickering along it high along the wall. The woman immediately dragged him by the arm to the first room, tugged out a chair before a desk in a room full of desks, and said with a forceful wave of a finger, “STAY!”

Harry shrunk down a bit at this. Somehow she didn’t look like she would normally be mean. Harry sighed and watched a paper airplane turn in the door and land smoothly on the next desk over. He started to stand up to investigate, but then remembered the last insistent command and sat back again. This grew increasingly difficult as various interesting things happened, such as files ruffling themselves, and a glass lump upon another desk glowing brightly as though it were spinning inside. Someone ran by and his footsteps could be heard running away.

Tonks returned. She sat down and started writing furiously with a quill on a piece of parchment. Harry couldn’t see what she was writing since her hand mostly blocked the view. She was shaking her head and muttering a lot though.

“Where am I?” Harry asked again.

The woman closed her eyes, looking to be on the verge of a real blow up, or perhaps a collapse. Harry thought he should not have asked. Quietly, she said, “This is the Ministry of Magic.”

“The what?” Harry couldn’t help blurting. He had never heard of that. Of all the Ministries his Uncle Vernon frequently complained about, Harry was pretty certain he would have remembered that one.

“You’ve never heard of it because we don’t want anyone to know about it.”

“Is your name really Tonks?” Harry asked. It was an odd sort of name.

“Yes.” She blotted the paper with haste and ran off, her footsteps echoing as well.

Harry sighed. This was better than running from his cousin, he had to admit, especially since his ribs still hurt badly from the day before when Dudley and his friend had caught him. On the other hand, all the strange goings on in this place were a little alarming. A man stopped in the corridor and stared at Harry. He was a lean Indian with thick hair down to his collar. He looked one way down the corridor and then the other and then back at Harry. Harry figured that this man also knew who he was.

“May I inquire what has happened?” the man asked in an accent. When Harry shrugged, he said, “Ah, that is not far-fetched that you are not knowing.”

“I’m in big trouble,” Harry offered. “I think.”

“Oh yes,” the man said, eyes glittering a bit. “I imagine you are. My name is Vishnu, by the way.”

“Hi, I’m Harry.”

“I am knowing this,” the man said, now definitely smiling. “How old are you, Harry?”

“Nine. Nine and a half,” Harry quickly amended. The paperclips beside him on the desk were dancing. Harry leaned a bit away from them, quite certain that wasn’t normal paperclip behavior.

“They are just magical,” Vineet explained. “Don’t you have your wand? Ah, it is there on the desk.”

He came over and handed a long wooden pointed stick to Harry. It was highly polished and worn around the handle as though used a lot. Harry felt a rush of something as he held it, as though a breeze were filling him with possibility.

“Ah yes. That is yours for certain. Shall I show you a spell?” At Harry’s vigorous nod, the man came and crouched beside him. “Wingardium Leviosa,” the man said while waving the wand. A quill on the next desk rose into the air. He demonstrated the hand movement several times until Harry had it down and then corrected his pronunciation. Harry put it all together but nothing happened.

“You are losing the proper swish when you speak,” Vineet explained. “Try the motions a few more times without speaking.”

Well over ten minutes of patient help passed; so patient Harry really wondered about this man and who he was. No one had ever spent this much time with him on anything, not even a teacher at school. But Harry finally got the feather to jump in the air.

“Did you do that?” Harry demanded.

“No, no. I am doing nothing. It is your doing only,” the man insisted kindly. He looked Harry up and down. “You are too small for your clothes; they must not have changed with you.”

Harry looked down at his grey t-shirt and the rolled up cuffs on his trousers. “These are my clothes. Well, they were my cousin’s before. He’s a bit bigger than me.”

“He must be. And this spell must be very strong to bring you with your clothes.” Vineet straightened up then and gave Harry a soft look.

“How do I know you?” Harry asked.

“You are forgetting much, but I am assuming it is safe to tell you-”

“Vishnu,” Tonks said, rushing back in. “I see you’ve met Harry.”

Vineet smiled more. “Yes. I am having an advantage for the first time . . .”

“I have to send an owl through the Floo to Hogwarts. I wish I had any kind of advantage.” She propped her fists on her hips and considered Harry at length. “I wish he’d just revert and save an awful lot of trouble.”

“What has happened?” Vineet asked.

“He picked up a cursed or charmed—we’re not even sure which—object at Merton’s place. I found him like this. He seemed well enough so we didn’t bother with Mungo’s, which we’d prefer to avoid anyway, but Severus is going to kill me when he sees him.”

Harry’s brow furrowed as he tried to follow what Tonks was saying. It was similar to the code Vernon and Petunia used, but Tonks didn’t seem to be trying to lock Harry out of the conversation.

Tonks teased her companion, “Feel like babysitting? Then we could just hide him until this is straightened out. I was down in Mysteries trying to move them along. I had to leave before I did something permanent to Percy.”

“Nandi would not be unwilling . . .” Vineet said, “And it is the weekend.”

“Tempting,” Tonks said, tapping her fingers on her elbow. “But if Severus ever found out . . . and he is very good at finding things out.”

Vineet straightened as though less willing to pursue his offer. “Ah, there is that.”

Tonks sighed. “Well, there’s nothing for it.” She stomped to the desk and wrote out another message, more carefully this time, that Harry could almost read, if he could have understood the unusual words. Then she disappeared again.

“I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” Harry asked the Indian.

Vineet smiled lightly, which eased Harry’s worries. “It will be straightened out,” he assured Harry.

Tonks returned and, to Harry’s disappointment, sent Vineet off on an errand. She sat down at her desk and opened the fluttering paper airplanes with nervous motions, even dropping one on the floor. “As soon as I get a reply, I’ll take you home,” she said.

“Oh,” Harry said sadly. “Can you come in and explain? My aunt and uncle are going to be furious that I’ve gone missing. Maybe they’ll listen to you.” Harry looked her now green-spiked hair over and thought again that maybe they wouldn’t, but it was the best chance he had.

Tonks shoved the pile of parchments aside and said, “You don’t live with your aunt and uncle anymore.”

Harry, who had just been at his relatives’ house, wondered about this sudden reassignment. “Where am I going?”

“Harry,” Tonks said, sounding less patient. “You are eighteen. Well, you are supposed to be eighteen. Almost nineteen. Nine years have passed since the last things you remember right now.” She looked through her desk drawer. “Drat, I don’t have any photographs here. Just trust me. You’ve been adopted and you live with your new father, although he is teaching and lives at the school during the school year.”

Harry studied her small eyes and pert nose, looking for a clue to the truth. “I’ve been adopted?” Harry couldn’t imagine that. From what his relatives always said, he wasn’t the most desirable material for offspring.

“Yes,” Tonks confirmed. “By a man named Severus Snape.” Tonks wasn’t working anymore, had pushed her work aside in fact, and was now giving Harry her full attention.

This was another very odd name. Harry went on with, “Is he nice?”

“Er . . .” she hesitated awkwardly. “That isn’t exactly the right word . . .”

Harry’s heart fell out of his chest after feeling queerly swelled up. “He’s cruel?”

Tonks grew more nervous. “He’s a little hard to summarize.”

Sadly, Harry asked, “Can I go home with Vishnu instead?”

“Harry,” Tonks sharply chastised him. “No, you can’t. Severus is your father now and that’s where you live. Luckily it’s Friday so he only needs to find a substitute for the rest of the day, I expect.” Harry’s disappointment apparently made her soften her tone, because she took his arm and said, “He takes very good care of you, really. He’s not at all like your aunt and uncle . . .” Here she paused as though needing to recover from that statement. “And I can’t count how many times you’ve told me how happy you are to have him as your dad.”

Harry sat, resigned, until an owl came fluttering in carrying a letter. When it landed, it scattered ashes onto the desk. Tonks opened the letter with nervous motions. “Forty-five minutes he’ll be home. He has Remus to substitute, apparently. I told him it wasn’t a total emergency . . . I hope he views it that way when he sees you.”

Author's Notes
Ginny's surprise win — Wow, finally a controversial chapter. Made it a long way into the sequel without one, I realized upon reading the reviews. Clearly playing it much too safe with this story. I'll keep that in mind as it continues. Bwa hah hah hah.

In an unstructured fight, I think Ginny would have lost easily. The format of alternative spelling gives creativity a chance to trump professional knowledge. For example, I'd expect Rodgers or Snape to cast three spells to her one easily if there were no limit. In an overly fair fight such as this, superior complex blocking maxs out as an asset—the nasty spells the ultrablocks work against aren't going to be cast anyway. So, dark alley fighting with no scruples, I'd probably give it to Snape, but Rodgers would be a close second, and only because I think he's been trained to fight fair, to his detriment.

Would Rodgers beat Harry? Yes, I think so, if only because he's been studying Harry's every weakness for the last year and Harry doesn't have the advantage of surviving six older, highly creative brothers like Ginny does.

Harry vs. Ginny? Hm... I might have to work that in somewhere... I'd give the psychological advantage to Harry.

Harry + Ginny? In case Harry's comment that Ginny feels like a sister doesn't make it clear enough that he has no girlfriend interest in her, let me lay it down again: the story is not going Harry/Ginny. I've just felt lately in need of developing another strong female character that wasn't an OC, because boy are they lacking in this universe. Also discovered another lacking in my outlining: by total scenes, Ginny isn't in there much but putting her scenes so close together boosts their importance (and them being "starring" scenes doesn't help) especially for people who find that she grates on their nerves. I feel sad for you—book 7 is going to hurt. I do appreciate the sentiment that the story is perhaps still worth reading further. As you can see, things have taken a very interesting turn for our main characters...

Next: Chapter 19

Harry took a tight hold of the woman's robes and closed his eyes as rushing air assaulted his ears. He opened them after half a minute and watched as brick, and stone, and cement rushed by interspersed with flaming and glowing hearths. They were spinning dizzily, and Harry worried he might lose his glasses, but he didn't want to let go of his escort even with one hand.

They landed with a slap on a cement slab. Tonks led the way out, ducking under the mantel. Harry looked around the darkly paneled room. There was a window on the right and on the far wall a high shelf held strange bottles. A figure all in black swept into the room from the door to the left and glared at the two of them.

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