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For weeks after Dobby's report, disappointment draped over Harry like the morning mist on the Hogwarts grounds. Ron and Hermione exchanged many pointed looks over Harry's sudden intense focus on his studies, as well as his irritable brooding when he finished his homework. Hermione considered the studious aspect an improvement, but neither of them knew how to help Harry snap out of this funk.

The Quidditch tryouts on the second weekend seemed to help a bit, at least at the time. Elias Ravenclaw downplayed his flying skills considerably, while tossing an occasional rouguish grin to Harry or Ron. He'd spent his life deliberately hiding his finest magic, and he seemed perfectly content to be the Gryffindor team's best kept secret. There were a number of angry glares when Harry picked Elias for Beater (many of which were from the Ravenclaw team, who considered Elias a turncoat from that day on), but on the whole, the tryouts were largely absent of the hostility that had been seen the year before.

Ron, Ginny, and Demelza remained in their previous positions of Keeper and Chasers. It was a tough choice between last year's Beaters, Ritchie Cootes and Jimmy Peakes, for the final slot on the team, but Harry finally went with Cootes. Cootes had clearly practiced over the summer and his aim was now dead-on 99% of the time. Peakes was disappointed, but he took the decision fairly well and he was accepted later that day by the Ravenclaw team. Harry had a feeling there would be some rather fierce rivalry between the two teams' Beaters; it would surely be an interesting season, if they didn't Bludger one another to death.

As the team captain, Harry dutifully scheduled practices on Saturday mornings, but his heart wasn't really in it. He couldn't shake off the guilty notion that he was wasting precious time and precious lives by doing anything other than battling with Voldemort.

One balmy evening, Harry and Ron were zipping about the Quidditch pitch on their brooms as the lapwings snapped up insects in the field below and pink-footed geese yip-yipped their goodnights to one another on the lake. Ron had asked Harry to come and knock the Quaffle about so he could practice tending goal, but he soon brought up what was really on his mind.

"Harry, what's got into you?" Ron blurted after a particularly easy save. "You've barely cracked a smile in two weeks. You're studying so much it's starting to scare me! And now you're not focusing on your game? This is getting serious, mate." Ron held onto the Quaffle instead of throwing it back, so Harry couldn't hide behind the pretense of practicing.

Harry sat back on his broom with a look of sorrowful resignation. "I don't know, Ron," was all he said.

"All right," said Ron with a frown. "Let's look at each thing separately. Starting with your game." He flung the Quaffle back to Harry and, having drifted off to the left, nudged his broom back to the center hoop. "Look at you. Going soft, Harry. You think you're such a blooming Quidditch genius that you don't need to train anymore?"

Harry mustered a lopsided grin and tried to bounce the Quaffle off Ron's head. "It's not that. I just...I don't know that I'll be playing anymore. I'm thinking of putting Dean Thomas back on and making Ginny the Seeker."

"Ah, well, that explains everything," Ron said incredulously. "You've gone mental!"

"Look, my last few games weren't all that great, Ron. In fact, you seem to have done better without me."

Ron rolled his eyes and hurled the Quaffle at Harry so hard that he slid backwards on the broomstick from the impact. "Oh, please! We didn't do too well that time McClaggen cracked your skull, or so I was told," he scoffed. "And that final match with Ravenclaw--well, we had to win that, didn't we? Couldn't let that prat hold you prisoner in the dungeon without showing him a thing or two about Gryffindor!" Harry had spent the last game of the previous season serving detention with Snape.

Harry grinned again, but his eyes were downcast. "Or maybe you just didn't need me. Not like others need me."

Ron nodded thoughtfully, his broomstick gently bobbing in time with his head. "So that's it, then. Merlin's beard! Hermione's right again, blast it all. I thought you were moping about on account of missing Sirius again, but she said it was guilt about the Prophecy," he added in explanation. "Gah! Do me a favor and don't tell her she nailed it, eh, Harry?"

Ron could always cheer him up, even if only temporarily. "Never," Harry assured him. Ron gave an exaggerated sigh of relief.

"Well, just between us then," said Ron, "what are we going to do about it? I won't have you doing homework and sulking for the rest of the year, Harry. It's beginning to feel like a detention just going to the common room anymore!" Ron shook an accusing finger at him. "Here's what I think, mate: Maybe we need a change of scenery." He gleamed sidelong at Harry, who blinked in surprise.

"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?" said Harry, and Ron smiled grimly. "You think we should just go? Pull a Fred-and-George?" The twins' theatric departure from Hogwarts during the reign of Dolores Umbridge had become a part of Hogwarts's local vocabulary.

Ron nodded again. "Why not? You know it's got to come sooner or later, and you don't seem to be weathering the wait very well. Maybe it's time, Harry."

"But the Horcruxes...we can't really put a stop to him without finding them first."

Ron shrugged. "Maybe not, but dying sure slowed him down the first time, didn't it? And if he wants to come back again, he'll need 'the blood of the enemy' for his little potion, just like last time. So we'll just keep killing him over and over until he uses up all those bits of soul he's got stashed around."

Harry stared at his friend. "You're a genius, Ron," he finally whispered reverently.

"So we'll do it, then?" said Ron, his voice grave, his jaw set.

Harry flattened his lips and gripped the broomstick very tightly, just once. "All right. I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be."

The sound of a single pair of hands clapping to a slow tempo echoed around the pitch. "Bravo! Encore! Encore!" It was Ondossi. Ron scanned around in confusion, but Harry knew precisely where to find her. He motioned to Ron to follow, and the two of them flew around the back of the bleachers and up to her platform. She remained in the shadows from which she'd observed the whole exchange, and kept clapping until Harry stepped off his broomstick. Then she just folded her arms and glared at both of them.

"You have something to say, Professor?" said Harry indignantly.

She motioned to Ron to land as well and sat down at the edge of the shadows. "You know," she began in a sour tone, "I was warned about this. 'Stubborn is his middle name,' he told me. 'If you ever need him to do something, tell him to do the opposite.' And here it is. What was it, two weeks ago, that I said it would be a terrible mistake to rush while your true magic is finally coming in? I suppose I'm lucky you made it this long before leaping into some idiotic plan."

Harry clenched his teeth angrily, but Ron spoke up. "Who's to say it's idiotic? No more idiotic than doing nothing while V-Voldemort has free reign out there."

Ondossi turned her full attention to Ron. "Let me ask you something, Mr. Weasley. Do you recall how your mother reacted when her twin sons left Hogwarts to start a joke shop on Diagon Alley--a venture which has turned out to be a staggering success? Do you?" Ron dropped his gaze to the platform, but Ondossi didn't back off in the slightest. "Mm-hmm. And how do you suppose she'd take it if her baby boy walked out to get slaughtered in some forsaken swamp or desert or whatever? Maybe to return as an Inferi, even? Wouldn't that make her day?"

Ron looked up with a vicious glare, but he was hopelessly outgunned. Ondossi went silent and Harry knew she was in Ron's mind, describing in exquisite detail the kind of death Voldemort had planned for him. Ron's eyes were blank, but as soon as Ondossi turned away from him, they were filled with shock and loathing. Ron gasped for his next breath, but did not speak.

"And you!" said Ondossi, baring her teeth at Harry like an angry wolf. "What did he say earlier? 'You think you're such a Quidditch genius you don't need to train?' HAH!" She tossed her head, her long hair flicking into a rather impressive arc behind her. "He said it, hotshot--and now you don't need to train anymore to face Lord Voldemort either. What talents you have! Must be nice to have everything come so easy."

"Are you finished, then?" Harry said sullenly.

She smiled with arrogant triumph. "Oh, no, that was just the first piece, hotshot. It's time you got the whole thing. Let's you and me do a little flying. We're gonna need more room." She stepped out to the edge of the platform, squinting hard in the rays of the setting sun.

Harry picked up his Firebolt. "No hysterics this time?" he growled, mounting the broomstick at the edge of the platform without trying to assist her.

"All business on my end, bucko," she said contemptuously. "Let's roll." She hopped over the back of the broom and took hold of his waist, but despite the tough talk, Harry could feel her shivering behind him. He had thought to push off the platform at full tilt and give her a little taste of fear, but he realized that would be a bit overkill if simply sitting on the broom was enough to make her tremble.

Harry glanced at Ron once more, but Ron, still a bit pale, gave him a reassuring wave. "Where are we heading?" he asked Ondossi gruffly.

"Forest. Find a quiet clearing," she said, straining to keep her voice even. He gave up on any lingering thoughts about putting the Firebolt through its paces. Ondossi annoyed him, but not enough for frank cruelty--and besides, if she lost it over the Forbidden Forest, there was no telling where they might land. Harry pushed off gently and flew in the general direction of Grawp's former "home." Hagrid had chained him up deep in the forest proper, but during Grawp's "taming" period, the spot became a clearing pretty quickly.

Harry landed a bit roughly; there was a slight difference in the Firebolt's handling near the ground with a passenger. He was a little embarassed, but as he turned to face Ondossi, he doubted she had noticed the faux pas. She was crouched down, clutching and releasing the soil of the forest floor with both hands, and even in the long shadows he could see the cold sweat on her forehead. She really hates flying, he mused, unable to fathom such a sentiment.

Ondossi cleared her throat and stood up. "Thank you," she said. "For not trying to scare the bejeepers out of me, that is. You'da needed a serious broom cleaner if you'd tried," she added quietly.

Harry chuckled. "I reckoned as much." He paused as his sympathy drained away and defiance returned. "All right," he said crossly, "you have something to show me? Going to humble me, then? Prove how much more you know than I do?"

"Far be it from me to prove anything to you, hotshot," she snapped. "It's your turn. Show me your stuff, Killer! Impress me."

Harry deliberately let his shoulders slump in a gesture of hopeless disgust. "You want me to duel with you? Is that it?" He reached into his robes for his wand.

"Duel?" she scoffed. "Oh, no. No parlor games. I want to see you kill."

It was Harry's turn to scoff. "Bloody dramatics. You dragged me out here for this?"

"Come on, hotshot, I said show me! You were ready to march out that gate and kill Lord Voldemort. I want to see you kill right now, just in case I miss that show later."

Harry shook his head in disgust. "Okay. Sure. Watch." He cracked his knuckles and made a show of readying himself, shaking out his shoulders and doing some deep knee bends. She scowled harder and harder during the process, which suited him just fine. He finally stood up straight, his face the very essence of concentration, raised his wand--and dropped to the ground, ripped up a tiny sapling tree, and sprang back to his feet. Harry snapped the miniature trunk in two and threw the pieces at her. "Happy now?"

"Cute," Ondossi said in a grudging voice, though screwing up her face to keep from smiling. "Let's try something that can fight back." She stepped back, spreading her arms wide as if to make herself the biggest possible target. She bowed, regarding him with smug expectation.

Harry just stood and stared at her, but she didn't show any signs of dropping this absurd stance. He finally hissed angrily, "Enough, already! You don't even have a wand!"

"Correct," she said evenly. "Even so, I'm hardly quaking in my boots. Any guess as to why that is?"

"I don't have to guess, Tura. It's because I can't take a shot at you and you know it. You're trying to prove some point about how hard it is to kill another person but it's just stupid."

"Wrong!" she announced, rolling her eyes. "I do have a point to make, but not that one. I'm not worried about the curse, Harry, because I know you can't do it, period. You can't use it, you can't make it work."

"And what makes you so bloody certain?"

She dropped her arms to her sides and laughed. "Because you're not Dark enough, sweet thing. Remember when you tried the Cruciatus on Bellatrix Lestrange? I heard all about that. She barely winced, didn't she, and you hated her up one side and down the other. Try and hit me with the Cruciatus, hotshot. Don't worry about the law, I'll forgive you for it," she taunted.

"My pleasure," said Harry, his voice dry and sharp, slicing the air like a sword. He pointed his wand. "Crucio."

As soon as the word left his tongue, Harry was appalled that he'd let her goad him into such an abhorrent act. But to his relief and dismay, she took a single step backwards and coughed, then squared herself up, hands on her hips. "Not as lame as I expected," she conceded, "but I've had white-sock bites that hurt worse."

"Don't you ever do that to me again," Harry said through his teeth.

"No need," she replied with disdain. "I've seen for myself now: you can't do it. Just like the Kedavra."

Harry shook his head. "No. I can do it. I may not be able to inflict pain, but I can kill. I know it."

" 'I can't torture, but I can kill'," Ondossi parroted in a mocking tone. She scanned around the treetops for a moment, then pointed up into a willow tree. "Here's an idea. You're afraid to aim it at me? Then kill that finch up there."

Harry saw it; the finch was preening on a branch about halfway up the tree. He gave Ondossi a furious glare and pointed his wand.

The words wouldn't come. Harry watched the little animal as it straightened its feathers, oblivious to any danger. No, not oblivious; its shiny eyes were constantly peering around, alert for hawks or other enemies. Harry didn't know if the bird really understood the concept of mortality, but whether it did or not, it took measures to protect itself and preserve its life. Furthermore, it had never done Harry any harm. The idea of killing an innocent creature made the curse stick in his throat.

"C'mon, Killer!" Ondossi sneered. "Do it! What's the matter?"

Harry lowered his wand. "This is stupid. I'm not going to kill some helpless bird just so you can prove some sadistic little point."

Ondossi yanked hard on the front of Harry's robe, pulling him down to meet her gaze. He started to twist away from her, but she held even tighter to the fabric, using her weight to pull him down lower, closer, until his face was pressed against her throat and her lips brushed his forehead. He watched, transfixed, as her neck flattened and spread out, the skin rippling into a semblance of pebbly scales. Twin needles briefly pricked him on either side of his scar.

"Know this, Potter," she breathed in an icy, distorted whisper, "if I ever have a 'sadistic point' to make, it will be very, very clear."

She released him as her throat snapped back to its normal contour, her skin smoothing instantly, though he straightened up quickly enough to see the tips of fangs retract over her lip and disappear.

"What in the name of Merlin was that?" Harry said, holding his ground although his skin was crawling.

Ondossi put her hand over her mouth, wide-eyed with mortification. "I didn't mean for you to see that," she mumbled. "You really frost my apples sometimes, Harry."

"Apparently so," said Harry, though he was not at all relieved by her apparent chagrin. "Answer the question."

She hung her head. "That's one of my little secrets. I'm an Animagus. I learned to do it back in the steam tunnels. It's a lot easier to enjoy a rat kabob as an animal than as a girl."

Harry slowly began to nod. "Let me guess. A snake," he said.

"Cobra, actually," she said, glancing up furtively as though she were ashamed. "I wanted to be a wolf but that was what worked."

Harry leaned back against the broken stump of what was once a huge pine tree. "You are one creepy sorcerer," he said in complete sincerity.

She replied, equally somberly, "I know that."

Harry finally averted his own eyes. "Alright, alright, I was out of line with the sadistic point remark. But so are you. I don't want to kill that bird for no reason; that would just be evil."

"It's not 'for no reason,' Harry," Ondossi said briskly, regaining her composure now that they were off the subject of snakes. "There's a very good reason. This is the most challenging spell you'll ever cast--and you don't plan to practice it beforehand? Think about what you're saying! You despised that Umbridge woman for denying you the right to practice spells. Now you're saying you don't need practice?"

She stepped back, glancing around on the ground. "Look, you don't want to kill the bird, that's all right. Start with a bug. You've killed bugs before, even without magic. Here's some ants right down here. Kill a few of them. They don't mind, they're a hive; one ant is nothing."

Harry looked carefully at the line of ants. She was right; unlike the finch, Harry had no sense whatsoever that the ants feared death, or even knew that they were alive to begin with. He rolled his eyes at her and said, "Alright. I'll do it." He pointed his wand. "Avada Kedavra."

Nothing happened.

Harry's jaw dropped. He leaned closer, certain that at least one of the ants must have keeled over; perhaps the amount of magic required to wipe out one ant was so miniscule that they hadn't been able to see the light from the wand. But the line of ants was trudging along unbroken as before; there were no little ant corpses to be found.

"Try to concentrate, Harry," she said dully.

Harry crouched down to get a closer look at his targets. Maybe he had to focus on one ant to make it work. They were zipping along purposefully; perhaps his curse had simply missed all of them. "Darn it, they walk so fast!" he muttered. He finally flicked a few ants out of the line, where they at least stopped marching and began to mill about, tapping one another with their antennae to reorient themselves. He pointed his wand again. "Avada Kedavra."

The ants continued their frenetic tapping.

"I don't believe it," he said. "Did I say it wrong? Tura, what's happening?"

"What's happening," said Ondossi, "is that you're getting the point. Do you see it's not just aiming the wand and saying the words? It's much more than that, Harry. You don't just belt it out like some penny-ante jinx and let your wand do the work. Killing is an act of your will, yours, not the wand. You have to summon your magic, all of it, good, bad, and indifferent, all the power you have in you, and propel that curse through your victim."

Harry had been so sure he could do it. He meant to leave with Ron tonight to put an end to it all. Hermione probably would tag along despite their efforts to sneak off without her, and Harry would secretly be glad to have her there. They would track down Voldemort, trusting Harry to pull off the "impossible" one more time, and he would fail them. He couldn't even kill an ant. Harry thought he might be sick.

"Do you understand now, Harry?" said Ondossi. "You have to become a killer. It's not enough to feel righteous, or vengeful, or angry. You have to perform a spell, a very, very complex spell that you have to practice, and that practice is going to hurt you and change you and make a dark, ugly place inside you. And that's all peanuts compared to what'll happen when you finally kill another human being! You won't even be yourself anymore, Harry, part of you will be ripped out forever."

Ondossi looked momentarily as though she were on the verge of tears, but she shook her head and settled into a cold stance. She took out her thin white wand and pointed it at the ants, still circling where Harry had flipped them. Beckoning Harry closer, she whispered, "Avada Kedavra." A narrow beam of green light shot from her wand, and all of the ants shriveled and fell. She pointed at the long row of ants on the march. "Avada Kedavra." Another green ray and every ant in a six-inch section of the line froze on the spot, dead.

Ondossi looked at Harry with her fathomless eyes and held out her left hand. Harry wasn't sure what she wanted--his wand? She beckoned again and he understood; setting his jaw, he put his hand in hers. She tugged and guided him gently until he stood alongside her, draping his right arm and hand over hers. She looked up at him once more, then concentrated on the finch, pointing her wand. "Say it, Harry."

He looked up at the little bird and felt chilled to the core, but he spoke. "Avada Kedavra." A ripple like an electric current ran the entire length of his arm. The finch fell to the ground instantly, landing on its back with its claws curled.

For a moment, Harry felt nothing. He just stood there and looked at the creature they had killed, expecting it to wake up and fly away at any moment. The whole thing seemed unreal, a mirage or hallucination. It couldn't possibly be so painless, so simple, to snuff out a life. But the finch was most certainly dead, and all Harry had done was say two words; the magic had come from Tura. Mostly. Hadn't it?

Harry suddenly dropped to his knees, breaking out in a cold sweat from head to toe and reeling with nausea.

"Ho-oh!" said Ondossi, leaping backwards. "Chunder time!" Harry had never heard that word before, but he knew exactly what it meant. It was as if his insides were punishing him for his crime, for casting the ultimate Unforgivable Curse. By the time he no longer had to retch, he was shaking so badly he could barely hold himself up.

"Good, then," she said, gathering him in her arms to guide him away from the puddle. "It's good that you're sick. I'm glad. Killing should make you sick. If it made more people sick, the world would be a better place." Just as she had done on the night they met, she conjured a blanket with her wand and covered him, bringing his head back to rest against her shoulder. She was chanting under her breath in her native language, which Harry couldn't understand but found strangely comforting nonetheless.

Eventually the warmth returned to his face, then his limbs, until only his hands were jangling with paraesthesias. It was getting rather dark, and the forest was no place to linger, but Ondossi laid her hand on his forehead. "Don't hurry to get up or you'll just collapse again," she said, and Harry knew she was right. Just his intention to stand made his forehead turn clammy.

"The forest isn't safe at night, Tura," he muttered hoarsely, thinking of Aragog's multitude of hungry offspring.

"Pfft," she sniffed. "I'm the scariest thing out here." Ondossi resumed her chant, resting the side of her face against his head. Harry could feel the song as well as hear it, the strange words resonating through the bones of his skull. He was nearly lulled to sleep by the time she stopped, leaving only the crickets to disturb the heavy quiet of the forest night.

"What were you singing?" asked Harry.

"I was thanking the mother finch for giving us her baby so that you could learn how to save us all."

Harry's stomach wrenched once again, not with nausea, but a twisting tension of overwhelming sorrow. A minute before, Harry felt he'd recovered enough to return to the castle, but he had passed only through the guilt and moral outrage. Now grief swept over him and he burst into great, racking sobs, drawing his arms and legs up against his chest as though to keep his heart from falling out of his rib cage. All the while, Ondossi curled her arm protectively across his shoulders, without singing or speaking or attempting to intervene until every tear was shed and all of his grief was spent.

"It's good that it hurts, too," she said quietly as his breathing finally returned to normal. "You'll be all right, Harry. You should fly back to the castle now, people are probably worried about you."

Harry broke in to a wry grin and pressed his head back briefly against Ondossi's throat. "Funny, that," he said. "I don't think I've ever felt safer in my life." He meant every word; after all the emotional upheaval, her warm, steady presence made him feel like a grizzly bear cub gathered in its mother's paws.

She shifted to look him in the eye, regarding him with disbelief. "Really?"

"Yeah."

Her whole face softened in warmth and wonder at this admission. Harry did a double-take at her expression; he'd never really noticed that she perpetually wore a guarded, cynical scowl until it was absent. He sat up and turned to face her, and her wide, dark eyes no longer seemed empty or cold at all. Harry raised his hand to her cheek without thinking. When she caught her breath at the contact, he felt an unexpected but compelling impulse to lean forward and kiss her.

Although there was no Legilimency involved, a very rapid exchange of ideas seemed to take place between them and Ondossi leapt abruptly to her feet. "Bad idea," she mumbled, and promptly began trudging through the undergrowth toward the Hogwarts grounds.

Harry wasn't sure if she referred to his words or his intentions, but he didn't exactly relish the thought of asking her to clarify. Instead, he just followed her through the forest, tripping and stumbling over roots and vines in the darkness. He wondered how she managed to move so quietly through the unknown terrain when it dawned on him that she probably saw better at night than a cat. Moments later, this was confirmed when she stopped suddenly and crouched down, nearly sending Harry tumbling over her back.

"Oooh, walnuts!" she bubbled. "Yum! And you horfed up all your dinner, poor thing, I'll get some for you." Though Harry could barely see his own shoes under the forest canopy, he heard the clinking of what he assumed were walnuts as she gathered them into a fold in her robes.

"That's okay, Tura," he said, not at all eager to eat anything that grew in the Forbidden Forest. "I'll just get something from the kitchen later. Really."

"Huh? You can do that?" she asked, reaching up into the branches to pluck a nut from the tree.

"Um, yeah," said Harry. "The house-elves love to feed people, all you have to do is ask. You should have already known that, after all the snooping you've done in people's heads."

A walnut bounced off his head somewhat painfully. "You turkey!" she said. "I've had my fill of siphoning every random thought around me, thanks very much. I don't poke very far into unwilling minds unless I have to. I don't like that numb feeling afterwards. You saw the difference with your friend Ron. That's where the real power of your magic resides, Harry--that you can bring whatever's on their mind out into yours. If they're thinking about it already, so can you. It's only when you try to dig up stuff that's idle that it costs you."

Harry nodded. "That's why Ron didn't feel anything when I read him that day?"

"Exactly," said Ondossi. "It's almost like talking, when you just skim the surface. Except that you hear everything and they hear nothing." She paused, then added, "Which is still kind of like talking, with most people." She chuckled ruefully and resumed her quest for walnuts. "You don't have to hang around, you know, if you don't want any of these. I can find my way out."

"There's a reason this isn't called the Friendly Forest, Tura," Harry chided. "I don't think you should be out here alone."

"Hagrid comes out here alone all the time."

Harry sighed. "Yeah, I know. Hagrid's a bit mental in that respect."

"And I'm not?" Ondossi said, laughing. "You're talking to the wild child of the tundra, you know."

"I seem to recall that you weren't thrilled to learn there were centaurs out here," said Harry sternly. He felt vindicated at the sound of several earthy thumps as she dropped some of her walnuts in consternation.

"Right. Well, it's just a phobia, really," she said a bit shakily. "Snakes have a thing about big, heavy animals with hooves." Harry laughed, but his mirth was brought to a quick halt as another walnut hit his forehead, this time with considerably more force.

"Ow! You weren't kidding about your aim." Harry firmly resolved to duck immediately if he had another opportunity to tease her.

Her voice went suddenly serious. "Harry--you won't tell anyone about the snake thing, will you?"

Rubbing his forehead, he replied, "Um, well, I guess not...but why?

"I told you, I wanted to be a wolf. I feel silly being a snake. I mean, I'm an Arctic reptile. How dumb is that? Below zero half the year and I'm cold-blooded."

"If I laugh," he asked, "are you going to throw another nut at me?" Ondossi snorted noncommittally. "It's not dumb," he finally said, forgoing any chuckling. "I don't think you have much choice anyway, you just turn into what comes most naturally to you."

"Great," she grumbled. "I'm a metaphor for a spitting snake from the tropics."

Harry knew he was in for it, but he couldn't stop himself from laughing out loud. "Yeah, who would ever have guessed?" he said, dodging behind a tree just in time to avoid a small, nutty hailstorm, though she was giggling as well.

When the assault faded, Harry gingerly stepped out of the ballistic shadow and picked up the few nuts he could see. "I still say it's silly to be shy about it. Besides, didn't you have to register?"

"Register? Where?" She sounded genuinely nonplussed.

"At the Ministry. Or with your own government. Animagi are supposed to register."

"You're kidding!" she sputtered. "Wow. We don't do that back home." She scoffed. "They can barely get a decent census every ten years, much less keep track of whose magic does what. Although maybe they do it down south, I don't know," she added thoughtfully. "Anyone tried that in Northpole, they'd be tarred and feathered."

Harry shook his head, smirking. "Santa's Little Helpers don't exactly respect authority, do they?"

"Bing," laughed Ondossi. "You'd fit right in."

Harry waited in resignation until Ondossi found all the "good" walnuts, then escorted her out of the Forest. She wanted to show Hagrid the walnuts, so Harry left her at the door of his cabin and darted off on his Firebolt straight to the Owlery. It was nearly empty since most of the owls were off hunting, so it made for an easy entrance into the Castle. Harry realized it had been some time since he'd seen Hedwig; she had grudgingly brought him his letter to himself a few weeks earlier and promptly disappeared again. He wondered if Fawkes could possibly make her see reason. Fat chance, he thought, and reckoned he'd better send away for a box of Owl Treats if he had any hope of making peace.

Harry donned his Invisibility Cloak and returned to Gryffindor Tower, narrowly avoiding Mrs. Norris at the foot of the Owlery stairs. Upon entering the portrait hole, however, he was immediately accosted by a very distressed Hermione, who had clearly been pacing around the common room, leaving a bevy of quivering first- and second-years in her wake.

"Where have you been?" she demanded, before he even had time to stuff his cloak into his pocket.

"With Ondossi. Didn't Ron tell you?"

"Yes, but Ron barely had time to talk--he and Ginny got called to McGonagall's office! Something's the matter, Harry, and I don't know what, and the suspense is unbearable!"

Harry's jaw dropped. "When?"

"Over an hour ago. He came back just before dark, and it's a good thing, too, because McGonagall had sent someone to bring him the moment he arrived. The last thing he needed was to get caught red-handed being out after dark! Anyway, it's been over an hour now and, well, you know it can't be good." Hermione wrung her hands anxiously. "Maybe you and Fawkes can look in on Bill like you did after the attacks on the Ministry," she whispered, bouncing rapidly on her toes to dissipate her nervous energy.

Harry shrugged his shoulders, pondering the idea. He wasn't quite sure how Fawkes had done it the first time. Fortunately, at that very moment, the portrait hole swung open again, and two red heads bobbed through it.

Hermione catapulted across the common room, gasping at their pale, dazed faces. "Oh my goodness, what is it?" she blurted.

Ginny looked as if she were about to cry, and not for the first time that evening. Both of them slumped into the nearest chair, then Ron spoke up weakly. "I never, ever, thought I'd say this, but...my dad's been appointed Minister of Magic."

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