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Chapter 8 Disclaimer: don't own Harry Potter. Breakfast was a somewhat quiet affair the next morning; everyone was tired, having to get used to waking up early after several months of freedom. Minerva handed out schedules as usual, passing Harry his with a small smile, before moving on down the table. Harry looked over his schedule, making a note of what books he would need for the day.

Schedule for Harry James Potter Monday: Potions: 0900-1050 Defense Against the Dark Arts: 1300-1450 Tuesday: Ancient Runes: 0900-1050 Charms: 1300-1450 Wednesday: Arithmancy: 1000-1150 Transfiguration: 1300-1450 Potions: 1500-1650 Thursday: Ancient Runes: 0900-1050 Defense Against the Dark Arts: 1300-1450 Charms: 1500-1650 Friday: Transfiguration: 1000-1150 Arithmancy: 1300-1450 "I've just realized something," Ron said suddenly as he looked up from studying his schedule.

"What's that?" Neville asked, looking at the redhead. Ron glanced up at the head table. "There's no new professor this year. Dumbledore didn't make any announcements, and I don't see anyone new. Do you know what this means?" Harry looked up at the head table as well, surprised.

"Wow," he commented, slightly impressed. "The same teacher for more than a year. Maybe the curse is broken." "Or maybe there was no curse at all, but it just got a bad reputation after having so many professors leave after just a year," Hermione retorted. "There's no proof of any curse on the position." Harry shrugged, and turned back to his meal.

It was nice that they wouldn't have to adjust to yet another Defense professor. Snape had done a good job last year, and he was glad that the snarky man would continue in that role.

After everyone had finished eating, they all hurried back up to Gryffindor Tower to grab their books for the day, before making their way to the potions classroom.

As Harry went through the first week, he was reminded greatly of the beginning of his fifth year; every professor started their class by talking about the NEWTs at the end of the year.

They stressed the importance of studying, and using their last year to decide what they wanted to do once they graduated. By the end of the week, Harry knew without a doubt how important it was to do well on those tests, not that he had questioned that fact before. Harry had been impressed with Ginny's restraint; she waited until the second night back before she decided to spend the night in Harry's room.

Fortunately Harry had been prepared, and had cast silencing spells to ensure no one interrupted or overheard. From then on, Ginny spent most nights with Harry, after making only a short appearance in her dorm room to be sure her dorm mates didn't start talking. They wouldn't comment on her not being in the room in the mornings, because she had been waking up early to exercise every morning for the last few years. She knew they were risking it, but now that they had completed the bond, she wanted to spend as much time with Harry as possible.

Plus, the sex was amazing. Ginny blushed as she thought that last thought, and Hermione, who had glanced up briefly, taking a short break from the Charms essay she had been writing, frowned.

"Is everything all right, Ginny?" she asked, concerned. Ginny started, and immediately nodded, trying not to blush any further. "Fine, Hermione." Hermione's frown deepened slightly, but she turned back to her essay, and Harry, sitting next to Ginny, glanced over and winked, amused.

She gave him a mental growl, and shoved him lightly. Ron groaned as he tossed his quill down. "Only one week in, and I already can't wait until the holiday," he grumbled. "My wrist hurts." Harry made a sympathetic sound, while Neville nodded in agreement. Hermione rolled her eyes, but set her quill down as well. "Perhaps a break is in order," she admitted. Ron's eyes lit up, and he immediately grabbed Hermione and practically pulled her out of the common room.

If Harry had to hazard a guess, the two were headed to find a nearby broom cupboard. Neville shrugged and packed his things away.


"I could use some fresh air," he said. "You guys interested?" Harry glanced at Ginny, and then shook his head. "Another time, Nev.

I think we're going to go for a walk." Neville nodded. "Have fun. I'll see you at dinner." Harry and Ginny smiled, and then headed out of the common room, hands entwined. They had no real destination in mind, but were content to just wander, talking through their bond. Ever since they had completed it, their feelings just seemed to have gotten that much deeper.

Both had noticed an increase in power, and Harry, who had always been somewhat sensitive to magical energies, could almost feel the power around him; it resonated in his very bones. It had taken some time to get used to it, and after a while, the constant hum was comforting. Ginny was amazed at the magical power all around her, that she had never really noticed before.

She knew most of it she was sensing through Harry, but she could feel it all the same. It was as they were walking back to the common room that it happened. On the seventh floor, they were passing the blank stretch of wall that hid the Room of Requirement, when all of a sudden, a door materialized.

Harry and Ginny stopped, staring at the door, confused. Harry frowned. That's the Room of Requirement, but you need to walk by three times for the door to appear. Ginny furrowed her brow. Do you think we should check it out? Harry was about to reply, when the background hum he could constantly feel increased slightly, before going back down. He looked at Ginny. I think Hogwarts wants us to go in. Ginny nodded and pushed open the door. Inside, they were a little underwhelmed to find nothing more than a bare stone room, with what looked to be a basin in the center.

They walked forward cautiously, and peered into the basin. Now Harry was even more confused. Why did Hogwarts want them to find this room, when the only thing in it was a basin filled with glowing coals?

What ? Ginny asked, but was unable to complete her thought, as she felt an answer come to her. Suddenly, she knew what Harry meant when he said that the castle was speaking to him.

Welcome, children, to the life, the soul, the Heart. Harry glanced around the room. What do you mean? he asked cautiously, unsure if it would work. It was the first time he had really tried to hold an actual conversation with the castle. He felt a sort of mental smile in response, similar to the expressions he and Ginny sent to each other, except this didn't come from Ginny. All the magic around you, ties back here.

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Only those who are worthy can find this room. Being an heir isn't enough, child. You must have a pure mind and a pure heart. Harry nodded slowly, and Ginny frowned slightly. Why can I hear this? she asked curiously. I'm not an heir. Hogwarts' mental voice was amused now. But you are one soul. Your bond is complete, and you are no longer two separate entities. You are one, children, forever and all eternity.

Though Harry knew that Ginny was it for him, it was still rather shocking to hear it put in those words. They left the room soon after, still thinking about what they had learned. You can probably communicate with Hogwarts now, because we completed the bond, Harry said as they entered the common room. Ginny nodded. It makes sense. I still can't believe there's a room here that's the Heart of the castle.

Harry definitely shared in her amazement, but they left off the conversation as their friends met them at that moment, and they headed down to get some dinner. XXX The next week passed quietly, with the most excitement being Quidditch tryouts, which would be held by all four Houses over the next two weekends. Harry and his friends met the next weekend, to talk more about their horcrux search, though they still didn't have many more ideas than they had over the summer.

Harry felt like they were stalled until they could find the Gaunt Shack. He knew there was a chance that they were doing all this searching for nothing, but some instinct in his gut told him that there was something to the idea, and he knew he wouldn't be able to let it go until they found the shack and searched it. Neville brought forth a few ideas, but it would be a while before they could actually test them out.

The next weekend saw more than half of Gryffindor out on the Quidditch Pitch shortly after breakfast. Even though they only had one free spot on the starting team, Ron had decided to follow Harry's lead, and hold full tryouts, to ensure that they truly had the best team on the field.

The lanky redhead was nervous as he stood in front of the group of students, but swallowed hard, and started the tryouts, separating everyone by position, and sending the chasers up into the air. XXX When the tryouts were finished, Ron motioned for Harry to stay back, as the rest headed inside for lunch. "What did you think?" he asked once they were alone. Harry shrugged slightly. "You're the Captain, Ron. It's up to you." Ron glared at him, but there was no real heat to it.

"This is new to me, Harry. I'm asking your opinion." Harry bit his lip and considered as they headed back up to the castle. "I think our starters and reserves from last year were pretty solid," he replied.

"As far as a third chaser goes…" He paused and thought back through the morning. "I think Sheila showed the most promise. She's small and speedy, and she's got a wicked arm." Ron nodded in agreement. "That's what I was thinking. What did you think about that third year, Euan?

He was pretty good on a broom." Harry nodded thoughtfully. "He showed some talent. Not as good as Ginny, of course." Ron snorted. "I don't think anyone here is," he replied. "Especially not when she's on a Firebolt." Harry smiled. "She is pretty awesome." Ron rolled his eyes as they passed through the large doors into the Entrance Hall and headed for the Great Hall. "Please don't go all lovey dovey, Harry. That's my sister." Harry glanced at him sidelong. "Yeah, but you're my best mate.

If I can't talk about my girlfriend with you, who can I talk about her with?" "Neville," Ron deadpanned. "I really don't want to hear about you and my sister, no matter how happy I am that you two are together." Harry shrugged, but didn't reply as they sat down and pulled platters of sandwiches closer.

XXX Ron put up the team roster that night, so that people would know the results before they went to sleep. They all thought it was a pretty good team, and were excited for the season to start. Starters: Chaser: Ginny Weasley Chaser: Demelza Robbins Chaser: Sheila Walters Beater: Dean Thomas Beater: Colin Creevey Seeker: Harry Potter Keeper: Ron Weasley (C) Reserves: Chaser: Vicky Frobisher Chaser: Natalie McDonald Chaser: Euan Abercrombie Beater: Seamus Finnegan Beater: Geoffrey Hooper Seeker: Dennis Creevey Keeper: Evan Harrison Sheila was ecstatic to make the starting team for the year, and couldn't stop bouncing around, beaming from ear to ear.

Her friend Evan just rolled his eyes, amused, until Ron told him he would work with him throughout the year to make sure he could take over the starting position after Ron left. At that point, Evan was nearly as hyper as Sheila. Ron let the team celebrate for a few more minutes before he stood up. "Oi!" Everyone turned to look at him. "Congratulations everyone who made the team.

Practice starts tomorrow afternoon, don't be late!" Harry rolled his eyes slightly, but knew that Ron was serious about his position. He was a bit Quidditch obsessed at times, but he was also a good player and a great strategist.

Harry firmly believed Ron would make an excellent Captain. XXX The term picked up quickly, with professors piling on the homework for the seventh years, while Ginny and Luna were nearly as swamped with their classes as well.

Both had decided to stick with Arithmancy and Ancient Runes, while dropping History of Magic and Astronomy. Luna was also taking Care of Magical Creatures. They were so busy that they hadn't managed to do much research on the horcruxes in a while, much less meet to discuss any findings.

Harry and Ginny did manage to find some time to visit the room they had decided to just call the Heart, which they discovered was the only place where they could actually communicate with the castle in the physical sense. Harry had been able to pose questions and get answers before, but he had never actually heard words, other than in that room.

Outside of the Heart, any responses were more feelings he received that led to certain answers. With all the work, classes, Prefect and Head Boy/Girl duties, and Quidditch, Halloween was upon them before they realized it.

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As had become tradition for them, Harry and Ginny skipped the feast in the Great Hall, and had a private date in the Room of Requirement. They celebrated their anniversary this year over a dinner of roasted lamb, mashed potatoes, and roasted vegetables, with chocolate cake for dessert. Even though technically, their anniversary was November First, they figured it was easy to celebrate it on Halloween, since they only really got together just a few hours into November. Ginny gasped as she opened the velvet box Harry gave her.

Inside was a gorgeous sapphire and diamond necklace. "Oh Harry, this is beautiful." Harry smiled and helped her put it on. "It's a family heirloom," he explained. "According to the card in the case in my vault, it was a wedding gift from my two times great grandfather, to his new wife." Ginny nodded, fingering the necklace as she admired the way the light bounced off the diamond. It was amazing to her; just a few years earlier, she never would have considered herself able to afford a diamond anything.

And now she had a jewelry box filled with more galleons than she had ever owned. Harry pulled out a second box. "This is something I should have given you a long time ago, but I figured it's time you have it." He opened the box, and Ginny smiled at seeing the wedding band that completed her set. It was a rose gold band, encrusted with diamonds all the way around, in an infinity style ring.

Harry took her hand in his, and put the ring on, sliding it up her finger. Ginny pulled her hand back and admired the look, until Harry distracted her once more; when she looked up, he was taking a second ring out.

He glanced at her and smiled. "If I give you yours, it only makes sense to have mine as well." Ginny took the ring from him, not even giving him a chance to put it on. After admiring it for a moment it was rose and white gold, a solid band in two colors that crossed at the top before she took his hand and slid the ring on. They stayed where they were for a moment longer, holding hands and just enjoying the moment. After a few minutes, Ginny smiled seductively.

"I got you a present as well, but you'll need to unwrap it." Harry grinned, understanding what she was saying. "I would love to," he replied. Ginny nodded, and pulled one shoulder of her dress down, showing the lacy strap to her new lingerie set that she had purchased in anticipation of this night.

Harry's grin widened. He concentrated for a moment, and the Room changed around them, getting rid of the table and turning into a large bedroom, with a king sized bed in the middle, and a fireplace against one wall. He kissed her swiftly, and pushed her backwards, walking quickly until they were against the bed. Ginny pushed him back, and sent him a smoldering look, dropping the other sleeve, and letting the dress fall to the ground.

Harry gaped for a moment, admiring the view, before he was kissing her again. In a tangled heap of limbs, the two fell backwards onto the bed. XXX When Harry woke up the next morning, he had only a brief moment of confusion, before remembering that they had fallen asleep in the Room of Requirement the night before.

He turned to the side, and smiled at the sight of Ginny lying there. Once more, he wondered how he had gotten so lucky as to have a woman like her interested in him. Ginny groaned as wakefulness filtered through her sleep-muddled brain. Some day, you're going to stop selling yourself short, Harry. She opened her eyes and looked at him. You're an amazing guy; smart, kind, thoughtful, gorgeous, and that's not even getting into how amazing you are in bed.

Harry blushed, but smiled all the same. I know the Dursleys did a horribly good job at convincing you that you were worthless, but you're not, Harry. You're worth so much more than you give yourself credit for. She leaned forward and kissed him. Besides, you aren't the one who got lucky. I am. Harry raised an eyebrow as she pulled away, and Ginny glanced down and elaborated.

I never considered myself beautiful, or popular. I was always more of a tomboy. But then you come along: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, who could have his pick of any girl he wanted. And you chose me. Harry grasped her hand tightly. I'll always choose you, Gin. You are the most beautiful woman in the world, to me.

I never cared about popularity, or fame. What I care about is you. You're perfect. Ginny smiled, and gave him another kiss. After a few more moments of bliss, she pulled away and sighed.

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"It's probably time for breakfast. If we're not there, people are going to ask why." Harry nodded regretfully, and got up, Ginny following his lead. They were surprised to see a change of clothes for each of them waiting neatly folded next to the fireplace, before Harry shrugged and figured the house elves had seen to it, knowing that they would need clean uniforms.

Both made sure to remove their wedding rings and in Ginny's case, her engagement ring as well before they left the room and headed towards the Great Hall. They received a several looks from their friends when they joined the Gryffindors for breakfast. Hermione, somewhat predictably, was the first one to speak. "Where were you two last night? I checked with your dorm mates Ginny, and they said you didn't return to your room." Harry and Ginny knew it was futile to try and hide it, after they glanced at each other just once; their blushes said it all.

Ron frowned, trying hard not to fly off the handle. He knew that Harry and Ginny were soul bonded, and technically married. He knew that they would be together until the end. But it was still his little sister and his best mate. He didn't want to think about their sex life. It was a startling insight, to realize that his little sister was doing… that. Hermione also looked less than pleased, but it was more because she didn't appreciate them staying out all night, or engaging in those activities while still in school and while Ginny was underage.

Perhaps it was also because they… no, she stopped herself suddenly in the middle of that thought. They were married. They weren't doing anything wrong other than maybe staying out all night because Ginny was emancipated, due to their soul bond. Harry and Ginny were relieved when no one commented.

Neville had no negative thoughts, knowing that they would be responsible, and it was their life and their relationship. So rather than an inquisition, as the couple had been expecting, the talk turned to the first Hogsmeade trip of the term, a couple weeks away. They were all excited, and Hermione was thankful, as she needed some more parchment, while Neville could stand to update a few of his quills. Soon enough, they left the table and returned to the common room to grab their schoolwork, before heading to the Room of Requirement to meet the rest of their friends and spend the day doing homework.

XXX Ron had an unhealthy green tinge to his face, the Saturday following Halloween. It was the first Quidditch match of the year, Gryffindor versus Ravenclaw. Harry tried to get him to relax, but knew that only a win would convince Ron that he had earned his position as Captain. Gryffindor dominated, of course. With Harry and Ginny both on Firebolts, no other team really stood a chance. They destroyed Ravenclaw, with a final score of 320-60. Ginny had been responsible for half of their goals, something she proudly lorded over everyone at the party that followed, though everyone knew that she was just having fun and joking with them.

Ron was bright red as he was greeted as a hero at the party, with people congratulating him and praising him. He had always considered himself known to everyone as 'Harry Potter's best friend'.

He had never really thought of himself as popular in his own right, more popular by association. But here he was, Quidditch Captain, at least partly responsible for the complete landslide win they had just delivered. He wasn't just a sidekick! He had a grin a mile wide throughout the entire evening, and felt that if needed, he could provide a Patronus to drive away all the former Dementors of Azkaban.

XXX The group split up early on, the morning of the Hogsmeade trip; each couple wandered off to spend some time alone, before they agreed to meet up for lunch at the Three Broomsticks. Neville and Susan went off to meet Neville's parents, who had come to the village to see their son. They had to report for duty in the afternoon, but they would have the morning free. Harry and Ginny spent the morning wandering through the shops, before they made their way to the pub just before noon.

A series of loud cracks interrupted them just before Harry opened the door, and acting on instinct, he immediately dove to one side, knocking Ginny down. A jet of green sailed over his head, missing him by inches. If he hadn't moved when he had, he would have been hit square in the chest. Harry and Ginny were immediately up and firing, turning to face the mass of figures robed in black with white masks. Death Eaters, Ginny said grimly.

Harry nodded, noting in the back of his mind the way students and townspeople were scrambling to defend themselves, not expecting the attack. Damn it, we're going to need help, Harry replied, observing the roughly thirty Death Eaters firing on the crowd.

Most of the DA was in the village, and he could see several students providing opposition. Hannah and Terry were shooting off spells from their spot in the doorway of Zonkos; Colin and Dennis were watching each other's backs from their position in an alley between Scrivenshaft's and the post office. He was about to start worrying on where his closest friends were, when the door opened behind them, and Hermione and Ron came out, wands blazing.

The foursome separated, Hermione and Ron to one side of the building, and Harry and Ginny to the other, each taking cover in the alleys, while still giving the Death Eaters a hard time. "Where are the others?" Harry called out, hoping that they were all right.

Hermione didn't even spare a glance as she replied, "We were the first ones there. Neville said that he and Susan would be spending the morning with his parents away from the crowds, but Frank and Alice have most likely already left for the Ministry by now." Harry nodded grimly, and turned his attention to the fight. This group of Death Eaters were deadly talented, but they hadn't seemed to count on so much opposition. The DA had trained well, and used their skills to keep the Death Eaters at bay.

Harry lost track of time as he ducked and dodged. He was unable to keep his position by the Three Broomsticks for long, and got pushed down the street as he defended himself and the younger students who were trying to find cover in the battle.

Harry tried to direct any younger students to the nearest safe cover, to get them out of the line of fire, but everywhere he looked, spells were flying. His heart leapt into his throat when he saw a small body lying across one doorway, and several more bodies of varying ages in the streets.

Harry was getting tired, but he knew he had to keep going. He ducked a purple spell, and then dodged a sickly yellow one. At one point, it was Ron standing on his left, firing at a Death Eater who had been attempting to bring Zonkos down on Hannah and Terry, and then he moved, and it was Hermione standing there, shielding him while he took out two Death Eaters firing spells at a group of third years attempting to take cover in an alley next to Gladrags.

Throughout it all, though, Ginny was a steady presence at his back, protecting him, and he, her. "Where the hell is help?" Harry growled, firing a blasting hex at the wall behind two Death Eaters.

He felt satisfaction in seeing the wall crumble and fall on top of Voldemort's supporters. Ginny shrugged, not pausing in her own casting.

"Out to lunch?" she suggested. Harry rolled his eyes and concentrated on the fight. It felt like hours before they heard the crack that signified apparation. Harry was prepared to defend against the new threat, but relaxed slightly when he recognized several members of Dumbledore's Order, as well as a few Aurors including Tonks, Frank, and Alice and returned to the problem at hand.

A short time later, the Death Eaters had all portkeyed away. It appeared that they had linked portkeys, because the ones who were unconscious disappeared as well.

Harry lowered his wand slightly, but didn't completely let down his guard, just in case. He was pleased to see the rest of the students behaving similarly. Moody was at the front of the crowd, and nodded approvingly at the caution the students were displaying.

"Good, Potter. Never let down your guard." Harry tightened his grip on his wand. "What was the first spell Moody taught my class in our fourth year?" Moody snorted. "Wouldn't know, would I? I was trapped in a trunk." Harry nodded and relaxed a little more. Moody turned and started barking orders to the rest of the new arrivals, while Harry took stock of the students. "Blaise, Daphne," he called out, relieved that the two were all right. "Get the injured organized." He turned back to Moody.

"I assume Dumbledore will be sending medical assistance? I have a feeling we're going to need it." Moody pursed his lips and nodded once. "I'll see where we stand on that," he replied, turning away once more.

The attitude the former Auror displayed clearly told Harry that the headmaster had not thought that far. Blaise, Daphne, and Luna started triaging the injured, getting those who were less hurt in a group, and organizing other students to help stabilize those who were more seriously wounded. Harry looked around at the destruction of the village, now that there was nothing pressing that needed to be seen to.

Buildings destroyed. Blood in the streets. It was madness. It was horrible. The students who weren't injured were calling out for friends or siblings, or helping see to the wounded. Townspeople who had joined in the fight were doing much the same. Harry could see at least five bodies not moving at all, and his stomach lurched painfully as he noted that two of them had to be school aged or younger.

Ginny put her hand in his, and Harry looked down into her compassionate gaze. "Come on," she said softly. "There's still work to be done." Harry nodded mutely, and followed her into the fray. _ _ _ Chapter 9 Disclaimer: don't own Harry was exhausted. It had been a long afternoon at Hogsmeade, getting all the injured seen to, and organizing people to get them back to the Infirmary at Hogwarts. The Order had tried to take charge, but found themselves relegated to the background, as the students were more willing to listen to Harry and his friends than a group of strangers.

Sirius, Remus, and Kingsley all appeared shortly after the Order, with more Aurors, but the fighting was over. Sirius was very happy that Harry and Susan were all right, and apologized for not arriving sooner.

As he explained, Dumbledore had called an Order meeting that morning; they had all been at Grimmauld Place when Snape had stumbled into the room informing them of the attack.

Voldemort had decided to only inform those who would be involved, so as not to let it get out beforehand. He was growing steadily more suspicious, after the listening devices had warned them of more attacks on wizards and muggles, so Snape felt he needed to tread carefully. But even he wouldn't have been able to do anything to stop this one.

He hadn't even known about it until Madam Rosmerta had sent a Patronus to Filius, who was in charge of the castle while Dumbledore and Minerva were at the Order meeting, informing them. Snape would have been there as well, but he had had several potions that needed to be completed, and couldn't leave them unattended.

Sirius informed Harry that Minerva had gone directly to the castle with Dumbledore, to get an update on the injured students who were already being seen to by Madam Pomfrey. It was early evening before Sirius told Harry to get the remaining students up to the castle.

There was nothing more to do in the village, and the students who were still in the village should head back to the school before it got much darker. Harry nodded, and rounded up the dozen or so students who had stayed to help clean up, giving Sirius and Remus one last farewell, before they headed back. XXX Harry pulled out his DA coin as they walked, and called for a meeting for that evening. When they entered the castle, they headed straight up to the lounge, and waited for everyone else to arrive.

First and second years who hadn't been at Hogwarts two years earlier, when they had needed to employ the coins, could be informed of the impromptu meeting by their elder Housemates. It took fifteen minutes for the entire group to assemble, and when they did, they were completely silent. It was unnerving for Harry to see all of his classmates so somber. He took a deep breath, squeezed Ginny's hand, and then stood up. He walked to the front of the room, where they had a board filled with photos that they had taken over the years since the creation of the club.

It was mostly Colin's doing, but they had decided to take a wall and fill it with pictures of all of them: practicing, studying, anything really. They wanted to document the club, and the inter-House friendships that they had formed, for everyone, now and in the future, to see. The idea was that each year, more photos would be added, and new students would get to learn about former members.

Harry searched for a few minutes, and pulled away three specific photos. He turned back to the crowd, seeing all their eyes on him. He held the first photo up.

"Adrian Whitlock, fourth year Slytherin." He turned to the second photo. "Eliza Melner, third year Hufflepuff." He held up the last photo. "Mark Belmont, fourth year Gryffindor." He put the photos on the nearest table. "Three students. Seven townspeople. Eight major injuries, twenty nine minor to moderate." His green eyes were blazing as he looked at each and every student in the room. The first and second years, especially, were shell-shocked. They hadn't been in the village, and had only heard about it as the injured were being brought back to the castle.

Harry sighed. "I know the war hit us hard today. I know how difficult it is to continue to stand up when it feels like the world is driving you down. Some people, they get pushed down so much, they simply can't stand back up again.

But the trick is to use your feelings your pain, your anger, your fear and let it spur you forward. Trust in yourselves, and in each other. Don't lose yourself in the grief, and never forget what we've lost." Harry bit his lip, and looked to his friends, who were all watching him with steely looks, full agreement of his words clear on their faces.

"Why should we fight a hopeless battle?" a second year Slytherin asked, his young voice carrying clearly in the silence that had followed Harry's words. "Why should we stick our neck out for someone else?" Harry looked at the young boy, his gaze compassionate and understanding, though his words were strong and threaded with steel.

"Voldemort doesn't care what House you're in. He doesn't care how many OWLs or NEWTs you received, or what rank in your class you are. All he wants is total domination, and if he thinks you're in his way, he will remove the problem.

We have to protect each other. No one man is a mountain. We need each other." Susan stepped forward, breaking from the group as she moved to stand next to Harry. Her eyes were just as determined, her stance just as firm, as she looked out over the crowd. "Harry's right. We live or die by our friends, our family. We protect each other, and we trust in each other." Her gaze narrowed slightly. "Either we stand together, or we fall together." Silence greeted her claim, as the weight of her words settled over the students.

Many of them looked scared, some hesitant, and a few, determined. It happened slowly; first, it was Harry's friends who stood up, showing their support.

Then it was some of the older students Terry, Ernie, Hannah, and most of the other seventh years who were at the meeting and not in the Hospital Wing. Then other students began to stand.

Younger years who had a light in their eyes that told Harry they trusted their leaders to see them through this; third and fourth years who had been touched by war much earlier than was healthy. Fifth and sixth years who were determined to fight for their future. Soon enough, the entire group was on their feet, showing their resolve. Harry was overwhelmed by it, and smiled tightly, trying to show his appreciation. "Thank you." His voice broke slightly, and Ginny quickly stepped forward to grasp his hand, lending his support.

On the other side, Susan also took his hand, and after giving a look of gratitude to both girls, Harry continued. "Together, we'll end this. We will persevere. We will endure." He nodded decisively. "We all have to make the choice between what is right and what is easy. No one can make that decision for you. But if we stand together, we can win this." Susan sighed. "It's getting late, so we should all get some rest.

Don't withdraw. If you need to talk, your Prefects are here. Harry and I are here. If you want to talk to a professor, they will undoubtedly all be willing to listen.

Don't turn away help out of pride or fear. You won't be cast aside." Harry nodded in agreement. "Susan's right. Let your friends help you.

Let us all help each other. Good night, everyone." There were good nights all around, and slowly, the large group left the lounge, headed to their respective common rooms. It had been a long day, and they doubted things would get much easier from here on out. XXX Dumbledore chose to speak with the student body the next evening, to insure that everyone was present.

Most of the injured students had been released from the Hospital Wing by that point, with only a few of the more seriously injured remaining under the mediwitch's ministrations. Dumbledore stood up once people seemed to be finished eating. His eyes were grave as he looked out over the students, thinking of the three children who would never sit in this hall again.

He cast his gaze momentarily to the black banners that hung from the rafters, before he spoke. "I am certain by this point, that all of you know the full extent of the situation with the battle in Hogsmeade yesterday. Let Messrs. Whitlock and Belmont, and Miss Melner's memories live on in each of us. Mourn their passing, and remember the cause they gave their lives to defend." Harry had to grit his teeth at that. Adrian, Eliza, and Mark were too young. They shouldn't have had to give their lives for anything.

Why had it taken so long for Dumbledore's Order to show up? The headmaster was still speaking. "I know that all of you are in shock. Though there have been many battles in this war, it has only just been brought so close to home." Here, Harry had to stifle a snort. Next to him, Ginny was nearly grinding her teeth. Only just brought close to home? How many of these students had been affected already?

The Patil twins had lost relatives, Daphne and Astoria had lost their mother. So many others had had loved ones fall at the hands of the Dark Lord or his followers. What is Dumbledore playing at? Ginny scowled mentally. Harry rolled his eyes. He's Dumbledore, he's always playing at something. Ginny nodded slightly.

How many people in this room have been affected by Voldemort? she asked rhetorically. In this war or the last one? Your parents, Susan's parents, my mum's brothers, Regulus, Sirius' incarceration, McGonagall's family… everyone at least knows someone who has been touched by this war.

Harry sighed softly. They call this the second war, but it's not. The war never ended, even with Voldemort's disappearance. We're fighting the same battles, against the same Death Eaters. Only it's worse, because there's more of them now, with all the recruiting that got done in those years of 'peace'.

There was a cry of outrage that interrupted their conversation, and Harry and Ginny snapped back to the world around them in confusion. What had they missed?

Playing back the words the headmaster had spoken while they had been talking, Harry realized that the old man had just canceled Hogsmeade trips until further notice, due to safety concerns. He shook his head, disappointed. While he could understand why Dumbledore felt the need to carry out such an action, he didn't think the headmaster had really thought about the consequences. Besides being a nice place to carry out some shopping and stock up on needed supplies like quills and parchment, those trips gave the students a chance to get out of the castle, to breathe and stretch their legs.

He didn't think it was the best idea to confine several hundred students to the castle for the foreseeable future. He would place money on mayhem and chaos levels going up in the remaining weeks until the Christmas holidays. Glancing at him sidelong, Ginny agreed wholeheartedly. You know this means that your job as Head Boy just got a lot harder, she commented. Harry looked at her and groaned audibly, causing the rest of their friends to turn to them, confused.

"Don't ask," he said, seeing their inquisitive looks. XXX School continued after the attack, with students and professors trying to return to some semblance of normalcy. Harry knew the third and fourth years were taking it the hardest, having lost several of their classmates. Seeing the way they struggled to return to their studies, he got together with Susan and the seventh year Prefects, and decided to call a meeting for all third and fourth years the Wednesday after the attack.

The group of students gathered in the DA lounge, and once they were all present, Harry warded the room to insure they weren't interrupted. They had moved things around in the room, and rather than having tables set up, there was now a large, clear space on the floor, with pillows and blankets set up for comfort.

Harry smiled as they all took a seat. "I called you all here because we've seen how hard you're struggling to get back into the swing of classes.

I can imagine how scary it must be to lose a classmate, a friend, even if I've never actually been in that position myself. I've come close enough that I hope I can comprehend some of what you must be feeling. We wanted to give you a chance to talk, to maybe share some stories. Everyone is so eager to put the attack behind them and return to their normal routine, but I don't think that's the best course of action. I don't want to forget Adrian, Mark, or Eliza.

I don't think you do either." With some prompting at first, the students opened up and began sharing stories of their fallen classmates. Evan told them about how he and his roommate had come in late to their first Transfiguration class, and McGonagall had threatened to transfigure one of them into a pocket watch.

Harry chuckled at the story. "She threatened the same thing to me and Ron," he grinned. "Don't worry, she wouldn't have carried through with it." The evening wore on, and more stories were shared. Stories about how Eliza was always willing to help anyone who needed it, and how Adrian had stood up for several first year Gryffindors who were being teased by some older Slytherins just a few weeks ago Pansy, Crabbe, and Goyle, Harry knew.

They were the only real contenders. It boiled his blood that those three were still here, but unfortunately, they had yet to be caught actually doing anything, though Harry was positive that they had been involved in the Death Eater infiltration last June.

"You want to know what one of my favorite memories is?" he asked, to general consent. He smiled. "My fourth year, just a few months after the DA started. You fourth years were just first years then, remember?" They nodded. "That Christmas, we had a huge snowball fight, with everyone involved. It was the first time I really saw all the Houses mixing together. Everyone was calling out for friends to join them, and no one cared about what colors were on your ties.

There was one moment, where you, Evan, called out for Adrian to help you take down a couple of Hufflepuffs. At that moment, I realized that what we were trying to do was actually working.

That's the moment I saw that everyone was capable of looking beyond Houses, if given the opportunity. You were all able to get past the history, and the preconceived notions, and see each other as friends, people with common interests and common goals." Evan sniffed.

"I didn't really think about that," he admitted. "Adrian was a nice guy, and he liked Quidditch. He was my friend." "Exactly," Harry smiled. "You didn't care what House he was in.

You saw him as a person, and he saw you. That's what the DA is all about. That's why we formed this club. To look beyond colors and House stigmas, and see that we're all people. No one is inherently good or evil, we all have that choice. Everything you do is a choice. Your paths are you own, and you have the opportunity to affect the outcome. We may have picked the harder path by not giving in to Voldemort, but I think that our journey will be all the more rewarding because of it." Hermione shifted in her seat.

"There's a famous poet named Robert Frost, have any of you heard of him?" Several heads nodded, most likely muggleborns or half bloods. "He wrote this poem called 'The Road Not Taken'. It has this one line, 'two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference'." She glanced at Harry.

"I think that quote applies here. Like Harry said, we all have to make that choice at some point. We may have picked the harder path, I believe, but it was the right one. We chose friendship, and life, and love, and happiness. We chose not to bow down to a man who wants us to call him 'master'. That was our choice." Sheila furrowed her brow. "But why would I choose otherwise?" she asked, scrunching her nose in disgust. "Why would I want to call someone 'master'?" Harry snorted. "You'd be surprised at how many chose otherwise.

Voldemort's Death Eaters made the opposite decision as you. They chose to give their life and freewill to the cause of a megalomaniac. They chose to enjoy the pain and fear of others. You might think it's a no brainer, but some people don't see it that way. That's what sets you apart from them. You still have that ability to choose. You are not obligated to jump when Volddemort says so." He glanced at Hermione and smiled. "As long as we're bringing quotes into this, there's one by Robert Henlein, a muggle author, that I rather like: 'You can have peace.

Or you can have freedom. Don't ever count on having both at once'." Everyone seemed to consider his words carefully, and Susan shook her head slightly. "It is a good quote, though I would rather have both. But I will fight for my freedom every time. I won't let a bastard like Voldemort take it from me." They all nodded determinedly, and spent another minute in silence before they headed back to their dorms, thanking Harry, Susan, and the Prefects for doing this for them.

When the third and fourth years were gone, Susan turned to Harry. "It was a good idea to do this," she said. "You were right, as always." Harry shrugged.

"They just lost three of their classmates. I know that people want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, but how can they do that when they're going to class every day and seeing the empty seat where Mark, Adrian, and Eliza used to sit?

It's just not possible for them. They will get better, but it's going to take time." Daphne nodded, her expression somber at the memory of the students who were absent from the gathering that evening.

"You're right. I get why everyone is moving on the way they are, but their classmates need that time." Everyone else gave their approval at the meeting, thinking it had gone very well, and had accomplished what they had set out to do. XXX Harry found that he was really looking forward to the Christmas holidays, as the next couple of weeks passed. You couldn't see the war in the stone hallways of the school, but you could see it in the eyes of the students, in the tight smiles of the professors.

He needed a break from the oppressive atmosphere, and the crowds of students who rushed from class to class, their eyes wide with either fear or sadness. He knew his friends felt the same way, and more than once, they all had to retreat to the Room of Requirement to let off some steam against the practice dummies the Room provided.

At the beginning of December, Harry received a letter from Sharptooth telling him that the forged Sword of Gryffindor was ready for him to pick up, and he replied that he would do so over the holidays. They were happy that something was going right. With the real Sword, they could continue horcrux hunt. They could destroy the two they had in their possession, and when they found the others, they could destroy those immediately.

It gave them a sense of purpose, and it made them feel like they were moving forward. Even if it was just a letter, they felt like it was progress. XXX Sirius knocked briefly before he entered the pristine potions lab. Narcissa looked up and nodded a greeting before returning to the potion in front of her. Sirius was content to wait until she finished, knowing how volatile potions could be.

He took the time to observe his cousin in silence. Narcissa looked well. Instead of the posh and elegant robes she had worn as the Lady Malfoy, she was wearing a simple blouse and skirt. Her hair was tied up in a ponytail, and she looked younger by far than she had before the dissolving of her marriage. She looked… happy. She wasn't greeting her husband's sleazy friends or pretending to support Lucius' goals and ideals.

She wasn't acting the part of a Lady. All she had to do here was follow the steps and brew the potion. She had always liked potions, Sirius remembered. And she had always been rather good at them. She could have gotten a Potions Mastery, had she not married Lucius and given up those dreams. Narcissa added the last ingredient, stirred three times clockwise, and then stepped away. "Good afternoon, Sirius. This is a surprise." Her tone was courteous with just a hint of worry at the unplanned visit.

Sirius smiled and kissed her cheek in greeting. "Narcissa. Are you able to step away? I don't wish to take you away from your potion." Narcissa shook her head. "It needs to stew for twelve hours, so I am free for now. Shall we head up to the kitchen? I can fix some tea and sandwiches." Sirius nodded his consent, and the two headed upstairs.

Narcissa puttered around the kitchen for a few minutes, putting water on the stove and taking ingredients out of the cold box for an afternoon snack. She was so grateful for Sirius' help; she knew she would not have made it very far if she had had to do this alone. But Sirius had given her everything she needed.

After their conversation that summer, she had waited nearly ten days before the opportunity had presented itself. Taking the bag she had packed and hidden Narcissa was talented with wards as well, and had made certain no one, not even the house elves, would find it she had left, never looking back. Once at the Leaky Cauldron, she had been surprised to find that Sirius had thought of everything. Tom the barman had given her a key with a wink, telling her that a private room had been set up and paid for, for the next two days.

She had stayed there, afraid to leave her room, afraid that her husband's lackeys would find her. Meals had been delivered to her room three times a day, and she had had little to do but worry, until two days after she had made her escape. On the third day, a note had been delivered with her morning meal. It had a simple message: 'collect your things and hold on'. She had been confused, but had collected her still packed bag, and clutched the note tightly.

A few moments later, she had disappeared from the room at the back of the Leaky Cauldron, and appeared in the living room of a cozy house on a quiet stretch of land. Sirius had been waiting for her, and had shown her around her new home, a safe house Sirius had had the goblins purchase on his behalf through a muggle realtor. By using muggle means and an alias, he doubted anyone would find it.

Once the home was in his possession, he had converted it into a wizard's home, adding a potions lab in the basement and switching all the muggle appliances to wizarding ones, before he called the goblins to ward it. He had stocked the bedroom closet with clothing for his cousin, and made sure that the kitchen was filled with food. He told her that he had assigned one of the Black house elves to her new home, to help with the cleaning and ensure that she would have enough food and other necessities.

Narcissa placed a cup of tea in front of her cousin, drawing him out of his thoughts. She sat down herself, putting her own cup on the table and the plate of sandwiches between them. She had a perfect view out of the large window behind Sirius, and took a moment to admire the scenery. Her new home was located in the country, a short distance from Devon, but you could never tell, just looking out the window.

There wasn't a building in sight. She was grateful that Sirius had had the goblins include a yard in the wards, so that she had a place to go outside if she wanted.


She didn't want to be confined to the house. Sirius took a sip of his tea and set the cup back down. "How are you doing, Narcissa?" he asked curiously. Narcissa smiled softly. "I'm well, Sirius, thank you.

I could never have escaped that life without you. Severus has been by often, helping me with potions and providing an ear if I wish to talk to someone." She bit her lip. "I'm worried about him." Sirius frowned.

"How so?" Narcissa sighed. "He has told me that the Dark Lord has become more suspicious. That he worries his position as a spy may become compromised." Sirius bit his lip. "We have the same worries," he admitted. "I have told Severus to use caution. We want to stop as many attacks as we can, but we cannot ask him to give his life for that goal. I won't ask him to do that." Narcissa nodded. "I understand.

And I told him to be careful as well. He truly does have a difficult role in this war, doesn't he." Sirius lifted one shoulder up and then dropped it.

"I'll never admit it to his face, but I admire him." Narcissa smiled slightly, and Sirius shook his head. "It takes a lot of guts to follow orders day in and day out in the hopes that one day, you'll be able to tell your master what you think of him." Narcissa nodded slowly.

"I understand. I'm not sure I would be able to do what he does." Sirius sighed. "I may not see him as a friend, but he does have a difficult task, and I can acknowledge that I didn't exactly handle things well when we were in school. I could have been better." Narcissa shrugged.

"From what I remember, he could have as well. Hogwarts wasn't like it is now. We lived and breathed House rivalries. Gryffindor and Slytherin were complete opposites, and it was ingrained into our minds to hate those of the opposite House." Sirius agreed, and then shifted in his seat. "I just wanted to stop by to see how you're doing, Narcissa.

I know it has been difficult, living alone, spending most of your time with no one to talk to." Narcissa sobered at the reminder of the long days and lonely nights. "I'm fine, Sirius. This is better than any alternative." Sirius nodded, smiling as he reached out and covered his cousin's hand with one of his own. "It's good that you can focus on the positives. You've taken this all very well." Narcissa didn't say anything for a few minutes, considering both herself and her cousin, and how they had changed from when they were younger.

"You're very different, you know that?" she asked suddenly, looking at Sirius. Sirius furrowed his brow. "How so?" Narcissa sighed. "You're more… world-weary.

More mature. Harder. You've grown up quite a bit since we were children, and I agree with many of the changes you've brought to the wizarding world, through the Wizengamot." Sirius smiled slightly. He had been fighting an uphill battle in that arena, attempting to take on many problems, such as the disparity between purebloods and muggleborns, werewolf rights, and the like.

There were so many issues with their world, and he intended to fix as many as he could. "Thank you," he said, before moving to stand up. "I should get home, or Amelia will worry." Narcissa nodded and stood as well. "Thank you for stopping by, Sirius." She left him in the front room, the only room that anyone could apparate or disapparate from, and only if they were on the master list, which traced magical signatures.

At this point, Narcissa, Sirius, Snape, and Minerva were the only ones on that list. Sirius gave Narcissa one last farewell, and disapparated. Narcissa stayed in the room for a moment longer, still thinking about the huge change in her life. She had loved being Narcissa Malfoy, but living here, being by herself and reinventing her life… it was different, but she thought she liked being Narcissa Black even more. _ _ _ Chapter 10 Disclaimer: not mine More Death Eater attacks rounded out the last couple of weeks of term.

More injuries, more deaths, and Harry hated the fact that he wasn't out there doing more. That thought only lasted until Ginny got a hold of him and dragged him into his private bedroom with barely a glance at their confused friends in the common room. Harry James Potter you stop that line of thought this instant or so help me, you'll be sleeping alone for a month.

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Harry almost chuckled, but managed to contain himself. I'm sorry, Gin. I just feel like I should be fighting. We are fighting, Ginny reminded him. Find the horcruxes, destroy them, and then destroy Voldemort. We're doing all we can.

Harry sighed, but knew that Ginny was right. Damn straight, Potter, Ginny retorted, a smirk on her face. Harry smiled.

You're always right, Potter, he replied. Ginny felt a shiver run down her spine. Ginny Potter, she mused, throwing her arms around his neck. I could get used to that. I sincerely hope so, Harry said, leaning down to kiss her. XXX With just a week left until the Christmas holidays, Harry and the other seventh years were counting the days. It was like fifth year all over again, only worse.

There wasn't much time for them to get away from the onslaught of homework to research horcruxes, but they managed to do so the weekend before they were to head home for the holidays. "I know we've put all our effort into finding the Gaunt Shack," Hermione commented, "but I feel we should also consider the other possible locations. Harry, you suggested Hogwarts. Is there any way to find out if he hid something here?" Harry bit his lip and shrugged.

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "It wouldn't be somewhere anyone could stumble across it, but the castle is a big place." "Could your status as heir of Gryffindor help you?" Ron asked curiously.

Harry sighed. "I don't know. I can try, but no guarantees. We'll just have to do the best we can." No one looked too happy with that assessment, but agreed, and spent the remaining time until lunch doing homework.

Harry considered the possibility of returning to the Heart of Hogwarts, to see if he could get answers that way, but didn't share the idea with anyone. Ginny heard it in his mind, and thought that they should try before the term ended. After lunch, the couples all separated, wanting to spend some time alone. Daphne headed down to the Slytherin common room to find her sister, while the others wandered off. Ron and Hermione found themselves in the clock tower, looking out over the grounds as they talked.

It was moments like these that Hermione felt completely at ease. Without the pressures of the war, or the horcruxes, she could just spend time with her boyfriend, admiring the view, and being teenagers.

"It's so peaceful," Hermione commented, looking out at the distant snow-covered Pitch. There were a few students out on the grounds, mostly younger years having a snowball fight, but for the most part, everyone had taken refuge in the castle, avoiding the bitter cold of the December air.

Ron gave a hum of agreement, throwing an arm across Hermione's shoulders. Hermione glanced down at the arm, and then snuggled into Ron's side. "I could get used to this," she said softly, smiling in content.

Ron looked at her and raised an eyebrow. "How so?" Hermione bit her lip. You. Me. Us. I like this." Ron nodded awkwardly. "Me too. I know I was pretty clueless when I was younger, but from the beginning, I think it was supposed to be us, together." Hermione gave him a considering look. "That sounds sort of like what Harry and Ginny described." Ron shrugged. "We don't have to be soul bonded to be together. To be honest, I'm not sure if I would want that." Hermione looked surprised.

"You don't?" Ron was now nervous. "It's not that I don't love you, Hermione, I just " Hermione placed a hand over her mouth, giving him a dazzling smile. "I don't want a soul bond either." Hermione withdrew her hand and Ron's mouth dropped open.

"You don't?" Hermione shook her head. "No. I mean, I see Harry and Ginny together, and I want that type of relationship, but I don't think I'd want someone to be constantly in my head." Ron nodded slowly.

"Yeah," he agreed. "It works for them, but I don't think I could do it." Hermione leaned into his side once more. "I think we'll get to that point eventually.

It was easier for them. Neither of us was really ready to fall into such a serious commitment right away, not the way they were." "I think it was because of the experiences they had," Ron commented.

"When we got together, we were still just teenagers. We were young. We had to work it out and grow into the relationship. But Harry and Ginny… neither of them was really a kid by the time they got together. I mean, yeah, they were thirteen and fourteen years old, but inside, they were already adults." Hermione glanced up at him.

"I'm so proud of the way you've grown up, Ron. I can see how much you've changed in the last few years." Ron blushed. "We all have to some time, right?" Hermione nodded, agreeing. "Have you thought more about what you want to do after graduation?" Ron shrugged slightly, glancing out at the grounds. "When we had our career counseling sessions, I told Professor McGonagall that I wanted to be an Auror, or play Quidditch professionally.

I'm not really sure if that's my dream anymore." Hermione looked intrigued. "What is it, then?" Ron looked a little nervous. "I'd love to play Quidditch, but I'm not sure if I'm good enough. I think I'd really like to be a coach, eventually. I'd like the experience of playing, but I think in the end, I want to be a coach.

Or maybe a sports correspondent, or work in the Department of Magical Games and Sports." Hermione smiled. "So something to do with Quidditch." Ron nodded. "I don't think I want to fight Death Eaters all day, not after this war. I've had enough fighting." Hermione beamed. "That sounds good to me." She paused and looked down briefly.

"Where do I fit into this future of yours?" she asked hesitantly. Ron looked at her, his cheeks tomato-red. "Erm… well, I… that is…" He took a deep breath to steady himself. "Hermione, I love you. I know we're not Harry and Ginny, but I do think that I want to spend my life with you. Whatever else happens, I hope that you'll be by my side." Hermione grinned and stood on her tiptoes, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

"I love you too, Ron. And whatever happens, I want us to be together." The couple lapsed into silence, spending the remainder of the afternoon in each other's arms, enjoying the peaceful quiet and daydreaming about the future.

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XXX Harry and Ginny also spend part of the afternoon discussing their future. They ended up back in the Room of Requirement, relaxing in front of a roaring fire on a very comfortable rug.

Ginny was snuggled into Harry's side, one arm thrown casually across his stomach, the other pillowing her head. I can't believe you're leaving school in just a few months, she marveled. Harry nodded slowly, drowsiness creeping in and washing over him like the warmth of the fire at their feet. I still remember Hagrid coming to tell me that I was a wizard, he grinned. Ginny snorted. Didn't he smash down the door, start a fire with an umbrella and give your cousin a pig's tail?

Harry nodded, smiling at the memory. Good times. Ginny shifted so that she was even closer to him, if that was possible. A lot's changed, she commented. Harry nodded again. Everything. His mental voice was soft.

Ginny looked up at him. You're starting to think seriously about careers now, she observed. Have you narrowed anything down since your career counseling session two years ago? Harry shrugged, an awkward movement as he was lying down. I'm not sure I want to do more fighting, but I really like the idea of joining the Aurors. My dad did it, and his dad, and his dad before him. It's like a tradition. Ginny frowned. You don't have to follow their footsteps if you don't want to.

No one will think less of you. Harry shook his head slightly. I want to. I just feel like, after this war, I won't want to jump into another job that requires me to go up against Death Eaters and the like. Ginny tilted her head to the side. What if you took some time off, first, before joining the Aurors? Professor McGonagall told me at my session last year, that Madam Hooch is considering retiring soon. Maybe you could be the flying instructor for a while, to get some distance from the war, and then, when your ready and if you still want to, you could join the Aurors.

Harry looked at her in surprise. That's actually a really good idea. Ginny raised an eyebrow. What's that supposed to mean, Potter? she asked, her mental voice sounding disgruntled. Harry gulped and gave her a quick kiss. Nothing, Gin. It's a great idea, I just hadn't considered it before. Ginny nodded and settled back down. They spent the rest of the afternoon cuddling, before reluctantly getting up to join their friends for dinner.

XXX A couple of days later, Harry made his way to the Room of Requirement alone. Ginny was doing homework, and the others were all likewise occupied. He probably should be doing work as well, but he wanted to go back to the Heart before the holidays, and knew that this could be his last chance. He slipped into the familiar stone room and looked around.

The embers in the basin were still glowing; it looked the same as it had the last time he had been there. As he walked forward, he heard a voice in his mind. Greetings, child. It has been a while. Harry nodded slightly. I'm sorry, I've been busy. Hogwarts' mental voice was amused. I understand. You have many questions; you have come for answers. Harry bit his lip. I was wondering… would you be able to tell me if someone hid something… evil… in the castle? Hogwarts was silent for a moment.

When she replied, her voice was soft but indomitable. I am sentient, but not all knowing. I cannot see all. There is something… wrong… here, but I cannot tell you where. Harry nodded, disappointed.

Thank you for answering. I was not trying to be rude. Hogwarts was back to being amused. I know, child. Now, I am glad you have returned. I wish to show you something. Harry stepped forward, intrigued, as a side of the room melted away, showing him a dark passageway.

This is the last truly hidden entrance to the castle, Hogwarts informed him. It will appear on no map, and one must be given access by one of the Founders or their kin to see the outside entrance. It leads here from a boulder in the fourth cave beyond the village. You should know the one. Harry inclined his head, understanding. Beyond the village and up into the mountains a bit, there were a series of caves. The castle was telling him which one housed the entrance to this passageway.

Place your hand on the boulder. As Godric's blood flows in your veins, the passage shall be revealed to you. Harry nodded again. Thank you, he replied, grateful for the knowledge. An escape route that no one knew about could come in handy. Hogwarts bid him farewell, and he felt the presence leave his mind. That was interesting, Ginny commented as he headed back to the common room. It was, Harry agreed. I'm not sure why exactly the castle showed it to me, but it's definitely a good thing to know, an alternative route in or out.

Ginny agreed. With the way things are right now, we need all the help we can get. Shame that the castle can't tell you if there's a horcrux here. But she did say that there was something wrong in the castle, Harry argued as he gave the password to the Fat Lady and entered the common room.

That could mean that there is a horcrux here, so we've at least narrowed down a location, in the general sense. Ginny looked at him as he sat down next to her. The castle is a huge place, Harry.

We wouldn't even know where to start. Harry had to give her that, but he couldn't help but feel that the afternoon hadn't been a complete waste. There was something wrong in the castle. Harry just knew that meant there was a horcrux here. He didn't know which one, or where it was, but it was here.

Now they just had to find it. XXX Harry was incredibly glad that they were due to leave for the Christmas holidays the next day. He needed a break, and he needed to get out of the castle. It was a large place, but they hadn't had the opportunity to leave the grounds since the last Hogsmeade visit; normally, there were at least two trips to the village scheduled in the first term, but because of the last attack, all future trips had been canceled.

He also wanted to take a break from the mountains of homework. Everyone was feeling the strain, and the reality of the NEWTs was starting to sink in. The time before the tests was shrinking faster than any of them were prepared for.

Yes, Harry could tell that he wasn't the only one looking forward to the break. He also wanted to spend some time away from the headmaster. He had kept his temper in check all semester, knowing that accusing Dumbledore of anything especially without concrete proof would not be productive. He wanted to hex the old man to within an inch of his sanity, but thankfully, his rational side prevailed, and he was able to keep himself and Ginny from outright attacking the headmaster.

And if Dumbledore had found himself on the receiving end of a multitude of pranks over the last few months? Well, Harry was certain he had no idea who was behind all that bad luck. The truth was, everything Harry suspected Dumbledore of from being aware of the soul piece that had linked him and Voldemort together, to placing Harry with his relatives to make him more willing to give his life for the cause there was no real evidence.

It made sense that the headmaster had known, when Harry thought about it, but there was no proof. So Harry had to be content with watching Dumbledore suffer from someone's targeted prank war whoever it was sure must have something against the headmaster focusing on the light at the end of the term, when he would be able to leave the castle for a few weeks, and hopefully get some rest and relaxation in, before another semester of dealing with the headmaster's schemes and plans.

Harry sometimes wondered if Dumbledore was actually doing anything productive in this war. It wasn't like he was actively trying to find a way to kill Voldemort. All he appeared to be doing was leading Order meetings where nothing got done, and sitting in his office making plans for Harry to sacrifice his own life. And perhaps that might have worked, six or seven years ago. But these days, Harry found he was a lot more selfish. He had a family, a future, a life he didn't want to give up, just because an old man said that he had to die, to stop a megalomaniac.

XXX Everyone was in a talkative and joyous mood the evening before the Christmas holidays were to start, as they gathered to eat supper in the Great Hall. Once everyone had finished eating, Dumbledore stood up. "Now that you have all eaten, I wished to speak with you one last time before the train departs." His eyes were serious as he observed the crowd. "Most of you will be leaving tomorrow morning for your homes, and I wish you all a Happy Christmas.

However, I would also like to implore you to use caution. It is a dangerous time, and I wish you all to be safe." He smiled. "Happy holidays to everyone, and I shall see you all when the new term commences." There was a flurry of movement as people headed for the exit, making their way back to their dorms to finish packing and get some sleep.

Harry spent the evening lying on his bed, with Ginny at his side, as he read through the documents that he had taken from the Gryffindor Vault the previous summer. He had put them away and then nearly forgot about them until had had been repacking his trunk this summer. There was a lot of information about Lion's Castle, including the fact that the Gryffindor Lordship ring was also a permanent portkey. According to the documents, the ring, which he wore invisible on the middle finger of his right hand, could hold up to three locations.

The first one, which could not be removed, took the wearer and anyone he wished to include to Lion's Castle. Simply put, if Harry wanted someone to be included in the portkey and they were touching him, they would be transported with him. If someone was touching him that he didn't want to come with him, they wouldn't. Two other locations could be added to the portkey if Harry wanted. He decided to add Potter Manor as soon as he could get to the Manor, since he needed to be at the location to add it to the portkey.

The interesting, and perhaps wonderful, thing about this particular portkey, was that it wasn't like regular portkeys. It could be used through wards, and the travel was much smoother.

It was more like disappearing from one place, and reappearing at another. There was no spinning, no nausea, and no risk of falling on your backside. This sounds really useful, Ginny commented as she read about it over his shoulder. Harry nodded. "The Castle sounds amazing too.

I hope it's not too rundown, with no one living there for centuries." Ginny pointed to a specific part of the document. "It says that house elves are bound to the Castle itself, to keep it neat and running no matter who is or isn't in residence." Harry smiled, relieved. "I'll have to go there sometime, to meet them and make sure they're happy and have everything they need." Ginny nodded, agreeing.

"Definitely." Harry bit his lip. "These wards sound impressive. It would be a good place to hide, should we need it. Better than McGonagall Castle, or Potter Manor, which are protected, but people know about them. No one knows about this place." Once more, Ginny agreed, and soon after, both dropped off to sleep, exhausted from the last few months of school, Prefect and Head duties, Dumbledore, Quidditch, and horcrux research.

XXX Everyone was up early getting ready to head down to the train at the station in Hogsmeade. Harry and his friends all met for breakfast, eating at the Gryffindor table, an act that garnered no strange looks, as people often switched tables nowadays, eating with friends in other Houses.

The professors didn't care, and only mandated that House tables be utilized as such for feasts. Once they were finished eating, they separated to grab their trunks and agreed to meet in the Entrance Hall in twenty minutes.

Harry and Ginny decided to shrink their trunks and carry them in their pockets. Following their lead, everyone else chose to do the same, and together, the group made their way down the path leading to the train station.

It was a beautiful day, Harry mused as they walked. The sky was a crystal clear blue, with not a cloud in the sky. The last snow had nearly melted, leaving just a dusting behind. Around them, the rest of the students returning to their homes were talking excitedly about the holidays, making plans to get together with friends, and wishing each other a good break.

No one expected the explosion that threw nearly all of them off their feet. _ _ _ Chapter 11 This is a busy chapter. I hope no one gets confused with all the jumping around, but there's a lot of stuff going on all at once! Disclaimer: don't own Harry Potter. Most Ministry employees were already at work when the mass of cloaked figures appeared in the Atrium. People didn't realize at first, just what was happening, but it became clear as soon as spells started flying.

Kingsley had been heading up to the DMLE, when he suddenly found himself faced with at least five opponents. Grimly, he dove for cover, sending a Patronus up to level one, before he jumped into the fray.

XXX Amelia was catching up on paperwork when a sudden increase in noise drew her attention. She looked up to see her Senior Undersecretary, Madeline Woodward, burst in. "Minister, there's an attack!" she panted.

Amelia stood up quickly. "Where?" she demanded. Madeline straightened up, pulling out her wand. "Here." Amelia was shocked. Death Eaters attacking the Ministry? She took out her wand as well and pushed past her assistant, intent on helping out. Madeline followed her, trying to get her to stop.

"Minister, we need to get you out of here. You cannot stay." Amelia shook her head. "I will defend this building. It is my duty." Most of the office was overturned, people panicking as Kingsley's message had reached them, informing them of the attack. People were trying to use the protected Floos on this level, but it wasn't working. Clearly, the Death Eaters had planned well. To get out, they would need to go through the Atrium. Amelia pitched her voice to reach all corners.

"Stand ready to fight. We will defend ourselves. Let's show these terrorists who they're dealing with." She grimly clutched her wand as the elevator dinged, and prepared to fire. XXX Fred and George were pulled from their lab as an explosion rocked the room.

They quickly hurried up the flight of stairs into the main shop. Peering out the window, they swallowed harshly at seeing the mass of cloaked figures marching down the Alley, firing spells at anyone who was visible. The twins looked at each other, and nodded. "Let's give 'em hell," Fred said grimly. George agreed, and together, they burst out the door and jumped into the fray.

XXX It was only thanks to an abundance of practice that the Death Eaters didn't catch them completely unawares, Harry thought, as at least thirty figures popped into existence around them. Most of the DA was ready as soon as the explosion had happened, back on their feet in an instant, wands out and firing before the Death Eaters could tell what was what.

The rest of the students weren't far behind. Harry ducked and dodged all colors of spells, throwing up shields when he could, but not trusting a simple Protego to block everything.

He was grateful that they had worked on dodging so much in their defense lessons over the last few summers, and when Sirius had taught in his fifth year.

He could see that the training was helping his fellow students as well. Ginny was still at his side, but he could see the others getting pushed away. He tried to keep them in his sights, but he had to concentrate on the battle first and foremost. The younger students were trying to get to cover behind the train, while the older ones were fighting, but it was an uphill battle. They were losing. Harry could see that clearly. Where were the professors? Where was the Order?

Where were the Aurors? They needed help. XXX Amelia was relieved to see Ministry employees exit the lift, rather than Death Eaters. Percy was the first one out, and his expression clearly told everyone that the situation was serious. "It was Martin Chase," he said without preamble, referring to his immediate supervisor, a man just one step down from the Head of the Department of Magical Transportation. "He approved several Death Eaters to Floo into our office, and then closed down all Floo access in the building.

We just barely got out. I sent everyone down to try and find an exit, and came up here. Minister, we need to get you out of the building." Behind Percy, the two Aurors nodded, gripping their wands tightly. The man in front stepped forward. "Scrimgeour sent us up to protect you, ma'am." Amelia pursed her lips.

She wanted to stay and fight, but she also knew that she needed to get herself out. She could only combat Voldemort if she stayed alive. "Where's Rufus?" she asked. "What's the situation at the DMLE?" The Auror, Dawlish, glanced at his partner. "Deteriorating rapidly when we left. Rufus sent the entire corps out to fight. He was getting reports of an attack at Diagon Alley as well, but couldn't send any aid, with the situation here.

Shacklebolt was most likely in the Atrium when the Death Eaters arrived." Amelia nodded. "Kingsley sent us a Patronus message." She sighed. "Very well, let's get out." She turned to the rest of her staff. "Use the stairs, try and get to the visitor's entrance. Be careful. Everyone knows where the safe house is, correct?" They all nodded. One of the things Amelia had done in the last year was work with all the senior staff to set up a safe location where they could run the government underground, if the need arose.

It was a muggle house located in the south of England, that she and Sirius had renovated. It could house all the senior staff, if it had to. "Make your way there, but be certain that no one can trace you. Take your time, but be there by tomorrow morning." They nodded again, and Amelia turned back to Percy and the Aurors. "Let's go." They gave the rest of the staff a few minutes head start, before they headed to the stairs.

The sounds of fighting filled their ears, audible on every floor. The Death Eaters had infiltrated fully and completely; even with Amelia's cleaning house, there were still supporters and sympathizers in many departments, and they had used that to mount this attack.

Percy kept his wand raised, looking around him warily, ready to act at a moment's notice. He may have been the most book-inclined Weasley, but that didn't mean he was a slouch in Defense. A door opened as they passed the third floor, and before the masked Death Eater was even through it, Percy had laid him down with a stunner. They quickened their pace. XXX Harry only felt a moment's relief when the silvery beard of Albus Dumbledore made itself known in the crowd.

The headmaster struck down several Death Eaters with ease, before turning to face the foe that had shown up just as he had. Voldemort. Harry knew now wasn't the time for him to fight the megalomaniac himself, as he wasn't ready and they still had to destroy the horcruxes, so he focused on the Death Eaters and left their leader to Dumbledore. "Harry!" Harry turned quickly, dodging a jet of red light, and felt a knot in his chest loosen at seeing Minerva battle her way to him. "Please tell me help's coming," he said as she reached him.

Minerva shook her head grimly. "Diagon Alley was attacked this morning, most of the Order is there." "What about Aurors?" Harry asked, firing a blasting hex at a nearby Death Eater.

Minerva grit her teeth, transfiguring an opponent's robes to iron, and then stunning him as he fell under the weight. "Tonks sent Albus a Patronus right before we came out to assist. Death Eaters infiltrated the Ministry as well. It's chaos over there." Harry felt his heart thud painfully. "Amelia?" Minerva shook her head. "No news. Harry, you need to find your friends and get yourselves out. Go somewhere safe." Harry nodded, not liking it, but knowing that they needed to protect themselves.

He and his friends had a task to complete, and they had to protect the knowledge that they held. "What about the students staying at Hogwarts over break?" "Already evacuated to Hogsmeade," Minerva assured him. "There were only a dozen of them, and we sent them through the passageway to Honeydukes, with instructions to Floo home from the Three Broomsticks. We thought it best to take care of that immediately." She blasted a Death Eater backwards.

"The wards are falling. There has to be another group somewhere working on bringing them down." Harry's stomach dropped to his feet. He nodded again, but didn't have time to respond as the swell of the battle separated him from his guardian.

He grimly fired off a Reducto, and then a Stupefy, before dodging a Killing Curse. Ginny, where are you? he asked worriedly. He felt Ginny's own panic at not seeing him. Near the train, she replied. Harry turned towards the now burning train, and searched for his wife. Try and find the others, he said. We need to leave. Ginny agreed, and they both turned to the battle, hoping to find their friends so that they could get themselves out.

XXX Amelia could confidently say that she was sick of war. She made her way across the floor with her three escorts, heading for the set of stairs on the opposite side of the building, and everywhere she looked, she could see destruction.

The battle around them raged, and there were bodies lying on the ground, robed and masked figures mixed in with Ministry employees.

Some were groaning, while others were scarily silent. All four of them had their wands ready, and used them often to clear a path. The worst part was when a Death Eater recognized Amelia, and alerted his fellow terrorists. Amelia found herself pushed through the entrance to the stairs by one of the Aurors, who then locked the door behind them. Dawlish and Percy looked at each other briefly, before dragging Amelia forward, continuing on their journey.

There was a small, out of the way exit that could be accessed from one specific place in the Ministry. It didn't use magical transportation, and so, couldn't be closed. The only downside was that for some reason, it was as far away from Amelia's office as was possible to get.

What most people didn't know was that there were three sets of stairs in the building: there was one that accessed the upper floors, and one for the lower floors.

The downside to that system was that you had to cross an entire floor in order to get from one to the other. Of course, most people didn't really care, since the majority of Ministry employees just used the lifts. The third set of stairs only went to one place: a secret exit that could only be accessed from the Atrium.

So in order to reach the exit, they had to get down to the Atrium, cross it, and then go back up the third flight of stairs, which would lead them to a door that led into an alley that was invisible to muggles. On the off chance that a muggle stumbled in, the door was warded to look like a solid wall. Percy took a deep breath before opening the door that led to the Atrium. "Stay with us, Minister," he implored. "The situation is unknown, and no matter what, the most important thing is to get you out." Amelia nodded shakily.

"Understood." Percy pushed open the door, and with him in the lead and Dawlish in the rear, they escorted Amelia through the destroyed Atrium.

XXX Sirius gritted his teeth and fired a Reducto at the side of a building, causing the brick wall to collapse on three Death Eaters. "Damn it, where are they all coming from?" Remus asked, back-to-back with his best friend. Sirius shook his head. "I dunno, but something tells me this was a very well thought out plan. Look around you, it's only the Order here. Where's Dumbledore?

Where are the Aurors?" Remus' eyes widened and he nodded. "They must be caught up somewhere else. But what do the Death Eaters want?" Sirius could only shrug as he threw himself into the battle once more. The group of Death Eaters really didn't seem to have any goal other than causing mayhem. Several of them appeared to be testing the wards on Gringotts, but the white stone building was as indomitable as ever.

More were throwing balls of fire at the various stores in the Alley, while others were keeping the shopkeepers and all those who had ventured to the Alley this morning busy. It was a bad day to pick to do your Christmas shopping, Sirius mused as he dodged an entrails-expelling curse. XXX Harry found Hermione in the crowd, but couldn't see any sign of the others.

"Hermione!" he shouted. The witch turned quickly, and then sighed in relief. "Harry! Are you all right?" Harry nodded grimly, and kept his friend next to him as he continued to work through the crowd. "We need to find the others," he said. "We have to get out of here." Hermione frowned. "I lost Ron," she reported worriedly. I've got him, Ginny chimed in, and Harry nodded mentally. "Ginny found him," he told his bushy-haired friend. "Just stay with me and keep firing." Hermione nodded, and the two pushed their way through the crowd.

Susan was losing a fight with Dolohov when Ginny and Ron found her. She had been thrown to the ground, with the sneering man looming over her. Without hesitation, the two Weasleys raised their wands as one and blasted their uncles' murderer back twenty feet, where he slammed into the train and fell to the ground.

He flopped over onto his side and moaned loudly, but didn't get up. Ginny looked relieved as she helped Susan to her feet. "Are you all right?" she asked. Susan nodded shakily. "Yeah.


Thanks." Ginny smiled slightly. "It was a real pleasure. Where's Neville?" Susan looked around, scared. "I don't know," she admitted. I lost him in the crowd a while back. Where is help?" Ginny bit her lip. "McGonagall told Harry that Diagon Alley and the Ministry were attacked this morning as well.

We've got the professors here, but no more help will be coming." Susan gasped. "Aunt Amelia…" Ginny shook her head. "We don't know anything. The important thing for us is to get out. We have to find Neville and Harry." Ron opened his mouth, and Ginny glanced over at him.

"Hermione's with Harry. Can you see Blaise, Daphne, or Luna?" They looked around, but none of their other friends were visible. Ginny took Susan's hand, and pulled her with them, searching through the crowd. She tried not to think about the bodies lying on the ground, determined to find their friends and get to safety. XXX Amelia didn't allow herself to be startled when a body fell in front of her. The battle around them was raging, and the Atrium was a mess. Death Eaters were everywhere, but so were people fighting back.

There had to be at least fifty Death Eaters in the Ministry, between the Atrium and those she had seen on the other floors. Grimly, she threw a curse at a Death Eater that had felled an Auror she recognized as Wilhelmena Robbins.

She didn't know if Robbins was all right, but didn't have time to check, as Percy and Dawlish dragged her forward. Suddenly, Percy stopped short, and peering around him, Amelia knew why. Delores Umbridge, former Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic, was standing in front of them, wearing the black robes of the Death Eaters, and a sickly sweet smile on her face. "Amelia," she gloated, her piggy eyes narrowing. Amelia gritted her teeth, but didn't let herself rise to the bait.

They couldn't let themselves get distracted.

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Percy jerked his head slightly, and understanding, Amelia and Dawlish followed as he surged forward. They were nearly at the hidden entrance, and already, Percy was working on correctly taking down the wards that hid it from view.

Amelia turned and shielded Percy, seeing Umbridge barreling towards them. Without mercy, she cast a cutting curse, and then a blasting hex, followed by a Reducto. Umbridge shielded herself from the first two, but couldn't hold up against the Reducto. She flew backwards and hit a pillar with a sick crunch, before sliding to the ground. Percy turned around, and gestured for Amelia to go through the door. She did so, as Dawlish took on Bellatrix, who had suddenly appeared out of the crowd.

The Auror led the crazy woman away from the hidden staircase, knowing that he was out of his league, but also knowing that he would give his life for the Minister. Amelia hesitated, as Percy looked at her.

"Go," he assured her. "Get out and get safe." Amelia took a deep breath, wanting to demand that he come with her, when a flash of green out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned quickly, but didn't have time to react as Percy gave a shout and leapt forward, pushing her further through the door and up the first few steps.

Amelia stumbled, and then swallowed, staring at the still and lifeless form of the third oldest Weasley child. XXX The fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort had dragged on for a while, and it was clear that the old man was tiring. Harry tried not to watch, since he had his own issues to deal with. He and Hermione were still looking for the others, but had been cut off by the irritating form of Draco Malfoy.

The Malfoy heir looked at them smugly. "Scarhead. Mudblood." Harry growled and clutched his wand tighter. "Death Eater scum. Get lost, Malfoy. Before I decide to give into my instincts and blast you where you stand." Malfoy sneered. "I'd like to see you try." He then fired off a cutting curse that Harry easily dodged. As Harry engaged Malfoy, Hermione's attention was drawn by Pansy Parkinson, who had clearly picked her side, as she fired a blasting hex at the muggleborn.

The two Gryffindors battled Malfoy and Parkinson for a few minutes, but it was clear that Harry and Hermione were the more advanced pair, and within three minutes, Pansy was stuck in the ground literally. Hermione had turned the ground beneath her to quicksand, let her fellow seventh year sink to waist height, and then hardened the ground once more, before disarming the Slytherin.

Pansy shrieked threats and profanities, but it was of no use. Malfoy was slightly better than his former Housemate, but he still couldn't match up to Harry. In no time at all, the Potter Lord had disarmed Malfoy and then bound him with heavy chains and secured him to the ground using a similar spell as Hermione. The two shared a smile, before moving forward, continuing in their search.

XXX Amelia wanted to grieve for those she knew had been lost, but she couldn't let herself get distracted. She closed the door behind her, and then, using reserves she hadn't known she had, she sprinted up the stairs.

At the top, right next to the door to the outside world, there was a large button. Without hesitating, Amelia pushed it, causing a loud horn to go off, before all the lights in the stairway turned red.

Nodding her head sharply, Amelia pushed the door open and exited the building. XXX Frank and Alice were a good team. They had worked hard to pass the Auror training when they had joined up, and had been rewarded for their efforts by making it through near the top of their respective classes.

They hadn't been partners, of course, having been a couple, but they still made a good team. After taking some time to recuperate after being healed this past summer, the Longbottoms had gone to Rufus and Kingsley, and worked to re-qualify so that they could continue to serve as Aurors. It was a job they loved, and they wanted to continue. They didn't want to give it up just because they had had sixteen years of their lives taken from them. They had been successful, and had been working as full time Aurors once more since the middle of October.

When the Death Eaters attacked, the two had been working on some paperwork in the DMLE office. Sent to assist in the Atrium by Rufus, they had put all their skills into defending against the onslaught of Death Eaters.

They had been fighting for a while, with no sign of any progress, when the lights around them switched to red. Frank looked at Alice, eyes wide. "Evacuation signal," he said in a hushed voice. Alice nodded soberly. A full evacuation like this would only be signaled if the building was lost. "Let's go," Frank said shortly, grabbing his wife's hand and hurrying towards the various entrance and exit stations.

Around them, people were rushing in all directions, trying to find some way to leave. The evacuation signal was something that they all learned about when starting at the Ministry, but this was the first time in memory that it had been used.

Not even during the last war with Voldemort had anyone had to push one of the three buttons that would send off the signal. Frank knew that there was one hidden in the Minister's office, one in the DMLE Head's office, and one in a location unknown. Only the Minister and the Head of the DMLE knew where the third button was located. The Floos were all blocked off, but the apparation platform was still there, and potentially usable, if they could get past the crowd of Death Eaters defending it.

Frank tugged Alice's arm towards the visitor's entrance. "It's our best bet," he assured her. Indeed, no one was blocking that exit, so together, the two piled themselves into the small lift, stopping only briefly to tug a shaken Madeline Woodward, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, in with them, as she had been hit with a jinx right as she had reached the lift.

The woman was moaning and shaking, but seemed all right, to the Longbottoms' relief. Frank quickly pressed the correct buttons, and all were relieved as the lift shuddered and began to rise. XXX Harry!

Ginny shouted, relief sweeping over her as she spotted her husband in the crowd. Harry looked up, and felt a knot in his chest loosen as he barreled his way forward, pulling Hermione with him. "Thank Merlin," Ron muttered, hugging Hermione.

Harry smiled slightly at his friends, before giving a shout and pushing them out of the way of a bright orange curse that hurtled their way. The couple got to their feet shakily a moment later. "Thanks," Ron said, swallowing hard. Harry just nodded, but any reply was cut off by Ginny's scream. He looked over quickly, but was confused to see that she looked perfectly fine. Her gaze was transfixed on something over his shoulder.

Slowly, Harry turned. Dumbledore was lying on the ground, in a spread-eagle position. His glasses were crooked on his face, and there was a trickle of blood running from his mouth and nose.

He didn't appear to be breathing, and his eyes were wide open and glassy, staring sightlessly up at the overcast sky. Hermione turned as well, and pressed her hands to her mouth, horrified. Over the headmaster's dead body, Voldemort was standing, a leer of pride on his twisted mouth. He bent over and picked up Dumbledore's wand, holding it in front of him. "Lord Voldemort always wins," he crowed. Students, professors, and Death Eaters alike stopped to watch the Dark Lord, some with horror on their faces, others with eagerness.

Voldemort turned slightly, and his red eyes focused on Harry. He smirked. Harry gulped. He couldn't take on this fight right now. They weren't ready. A force slammed into Susan, who bumped into Ron, who stumbled into Harry.

They all took a few steps, and looked over at the disturbance, relieved to see that it was Neville. Around them, the battle picked up once more, students and professors determined to neutralize the threat. Harry could see Minerva several meters away, battling a man he was pretty sure was called Rowle. She glanced at him briefly, and he was startled to see tears in her eyes. She nodded, just once, and Harry knew that their time was up. Voldemort was slowly making his way towards Harry.

Harry looked at his friends. "We have to leave," he said urgently. "There's no more time to find the others. Everyone grab onto me." They all did so, confused, and a moment later, disappeared from the station at Hogsmeade. Please don't hate me!

To be honest, a lot of this chapter was unplanned; I really wasn't sure where I was going to go when I started writing this. But I've had many reviews over the course of this series, that berate me for having everything turn out all sunshine and roses. Telling me how in a real war, not everyone survives. So if you're upset, blame them! When I wrote this chapter, I believe I had just received a review telling me how it wasn't believable, because everything was going Harry's way.

I think that's why I had things go as they did, here. In all honesty, those reviewers are right: in a real war, not everyone survives. I'm trying to make this as believable as it can be, so I apologize if I fall short at times. I am not a professional writer, and I'm doing the best I can.

_ _ _ Chapter 12 I know not everyone was pleased with the way the last chapter went, and I am sorry if some of you hate the direction I've gone in, but I did have a reason for it, and it's not because I just like killing characters (I'm not Rowling!).

I have dropped several lines about Harry wanting Dumbledore to see him finish Voldemort, his way, and wanting to put the old man in his place, but the truth is, I just couldn't redeem him. I've tried, many times over the last few stories, but I just couldn't get him to come around in a way that didn't sound completely gaudy and fake.

Could any of you see him stepping back and letting Harry and his friends bring the wizarding world into the twentieth century? Hey, at least you can't say you saw it coming! I think. Disclaimer: I own nothing The group appeared just as suddenly as it had disappeared, in a large and grand entryway. Hermione looked around her with interest and curiosity.

"What was that?" she asked. "It didn't feel like a portkey." Harry made the ring visible, and showed it to his friends. "This is the Gryffindor lordship ring. It acts as a portkey, but it makes for a much smoother ride." He gestured to the area around him.

"This is Lion's Castle, which I inherited through the Gryffindor line. It's completely unplottable, and besides Sirius and Aunt Minerva, we're the only people who know it exists." Susan looked close to crying. "Is there any way we can find out what's going on at the Ministry? Aunt Amelia…" Harry nodded understandingly. "I know, Susan. I'm worried about everyone. I wish we could have found Blaise, Daphne, and Luna." Ginny rested a hand on his arm.

"You know we had to leave," she implored. "Voldemort was headed right for us. We're not ready for that battle yet." Harry sighed.

"I know. I just hope they're all right." Ginny squeezed his arm gently. "Me, too." Harry took a deep breath to collect himself. "I guess we should take a look around," he suggested. "Aunt Minerva told me to get us somewhere safe, and I don't want to risk anything before we know the situation." There were nods around the group, though everyone looked less than thrilled about not finding out what was happening with their loved ones immediately.

A loud pop interrupted them as they turned towards the staircase. Harry glanced at the source of the noise, and smiled at the house elf that had appeared. The elf peered at him curiously. "Master Gryffindor, sir? No one but a Gryffindor heir could get through the wards." Harry nodded and showed her his Gryffindor lordship ring.

"My name's Harry, I am Gryffindor's heir." The elf nodded eagerly. "Welcome, Lord Gryffindor. I being Mimsy." Harry smiled. "It's nice to meet you. And you can call me Harry. Are there other elves working here?" Mimsy nodded again.

"Oh yes, Mimsy's family has been bound to Lion's Castle since Master Godric had it built for his son, Master Adrian. There being five of us now, we keep the Castle in order." Harry glanced around at the group, and then looked back at Mimsy. "I would like to meet with all of you when it is convenient, but for now, I think we'd like to settle in a bit, and perhaps get something to eat?" Mimsy nodded, her ears flapping wildly.

"Mimsy will have lunch prepared for you right away, Master Harry!" She popped away, and Harry turned back to his friends. "Let's find some bedrooms, and put our stuff away." Ginny snorted lightly, a small hint of hysteria in her voice indicating her exhaustion and fear for family and friends possibly still fighting for their lives.

"Isn't it lucky we shrunk our trunks down to transport them?" Harry grasped her hand tightly, and pulled her with him up the grand staircase. The others followed behind. They found several empty bedrooms on the second floor, and Harry indicated for them to take whatever rooms they wanted. He and Ginny chose a bedroom near the stairs, with soft blues and greys as the theme. There was probably a master suite somewhere, but the couple wanted to be near their friends, and the rooms in this hallway were all spacious and welcoming.

There was a queen sized bed on one wall, a wardrobe in a corner, a desk, and a door that led to a walk-in closet. There was a second door along the far wall, and when Harry opened it, he found there to be a Jack and Jill bathroom, which he and Ginny could share with the next bedroom over.

The door to that room opened, and Harry nodded at Neville, smiling slightly as he saw Susan currently unpacking her trunk in the bedroom.

Neville glanced behind him, and blushed slightly as he shrugged. Harry didn't say anything. He wasn't going to regulate where his friends chose to sleep. If they wanted to share rooms, well, who was he to judge?

The group of six met back in the hallway fifteen minutes later, and wandered back down the stairs to find the dining room. In the entryway, they were met by Mimsy, who showed them to the room in question, which housed a magnificent cherry wood table that could seat forty people comfortably. At one end was an impressive spread set up for them, with four elves waiting off to one side. Mimsy eagerly introduced the elves as Flora, Mugsy, Hattie, and Tamsy. Harry smiled at each of them, and introduced his friends.

"If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask," he said, as they sat down to eat. The elves all looked like they might start crying at the kindness, and promptly popped away to get back to their jobs. Over lunch, they discussed any next steps to make. Ginny bit her lip. "I hope Selene and Crookshanks are all right," she commented worriedly. Hermione gasped softly.

"Oh, I didn't even think about that!" she cried. Harry, Ron, and Neville had released their owls to fly home, but Hermione and Ginny had had their cats in carry boxes. Harry rested a hand on Ginny's arm.

"I'm sure they're fine. They're smart cats, they would have gotten away from the fight." Ginny nodded slightly, but her expression didn't clear. Harry sighed, and removed his hand. "I need to get a message to Aunt Minerva," he said. "We need to find out what happened after we left, and what happened at the Ministry and Diagon Alley. I also want to get Blaise, Daphne, and Luna here." "Charmed portkey letters?" Ginny suggested.

"Have them activate a specific time, so that they can be prepared with all their things." Harry nodded. "That's a good idea. But I'm not really sure how to get a letter to all of them. We don't have any owls, and even if we did, I think there are too many ways a note could be intercepted." Mimsy popped in at that moment. "If Master Harry writes a letter, Mimsy can deliver it." Harry smiled. "Thank you, Mimsy. I'll let you know when they're ready." Mimsy beamed and popped away.

Susan chuckled. "I guess that's settled." Harry bit his lip as he thought about what to put in the letters, and then turned to the group. "Why don't you all explore a little, and I'll write these notes. I'll meet up with you in a bit." They agreed, and Harry excused himself from the table to find a study.

XXX Minerva was exhausted as she nearly collapsed onto the chair in the sitting room. What a day. It had been a hard fight, and they had been badly outmatched. It was a miracle they had held up as well as they had. In the end, the Death Eaters had retreated to the castle, holding it down and forcing students and professors alike to make for the village, where they all Flooed or apparated away to their homes or somewhere safe.

Those that were able assisted any injured in getting clear of the battlefield. There were far too many who had been hurt, but Minerva was fairly certain they had gotten most of the wounded out of danger. It was official: Hogwarts was closed. Voldemort had very clearly announced his intention to hold the castle against the light, and there would be no retaking it until the Dark Lord was gone.

The fire flared briefly, and Minerva jumped to her feet as a haggard Sirius and Remus tumbled in. They looked up and sighed in relief at seeing the Transfiguration Mistress well. Minerva frowned. "How bad was it?" she asked worriedly. Sirius groaned. "The Death Eaters seemed intent on causing as much mayhem as possible. There were so many of them, and not nearly enough of us." Minerva nodded grimly.

"Understood." Remus sat down shakily. "Eventually they all portkeyed away, but not before the Alley was in shambles. We stayed to help out as much as we could, getting people to St. Mungos and the like. I have a feeling the Alley's going to be pretty empty for a while." It hurt to hear, but not knowing was even worse, Minerva mused. She was so used to Diagon Alley being a place of cheer and joy, with people spending a day out shopping with friends, or meeting up for lunch at the Cauldron.

She sighed. "How many casualties?" She was almost afraid of the answer. Sirius swallowed. "I'm not sure how many deaths," he admitted. "Madam Malkin had to be taken to the hospital, as did Fortescue. Ollivander's missing." Minerva gasped lightly. "What do you mean?" Remus shook his head. "We saw some Death Eaters go in and drag him out, but we weren't in a position to assist. We're not sure what they want with him." Minerva felt a few tears leak from her eyes.

Ollivander had been a staple in the Alley for decades. She remembered buying her first wand from him, on her eleventh birthday. Sirius rubbed a hand across his face.

"More shopkeepers and visitors to the Alley were injured as well. For the Order, we lost Hestia and Dedalus. Bill, Fleur, and the twins are fine, though," he assured her. "We saw them helping out after the fighting was over." Minerva nodded, still thinking about how much had been lost in just one day. The fire flared again, and they all stepped forward quickly, gasping in surprise as Amelia stumbled out.

Sirius quickly reached out and grabbed his wife in a tight embrace. Amelia held him just as securely, crying tears that she had been holding in for a while. After a few minutes, they separated as they sat down on a loveseat, though Sirius continued to hold her hand, as Minerva asked what had happened at the Ministry, taking a seat in an armchair.

Amelia shook her head slightly. "The building's lost," she reported grimly. "I told my senior staff to meet at the secure location by morning. I have no idea what happened to Kingsley or Rufus, or any of the others." She closed her eyes briefly. "Percy's dead." Minerva gasped again, her hand flying to her mouth. Amelia nodded, her eyes pained. "He pushed me out of the way of a Killing Curse, and it hit him instead." Sirius reached out and pulled her into another hug.

Amelia felt her eyes slip closed again. They stayed in silence for a while longer, thinking about Percy, giving his life to get Amelia out, and all of those friends and family who were in the wind. Arthur, Frank, Alice, what had happened to them?

Suddenly, Amelia sat up. "The kids?" she asked, looking at Minerva. Minerva bit her lip. "I told Harry to get the others and get to a safe place.

I lost track of them for a while, but I saw them portkey out." "But where are they?" Amelia asked, fearful for her niece and the others. Minerva couldn't give her an answer, but a moment later, a strange elf popped in. She looked around at the group, and handed a folded piece of parchment to Minerva. "I being Mimsy," she squeaked. "Master Harry wishes me to give you this." Before Minerva could say anything or ask any questions, the elf popped away.

Fear gripping her heart, Minerva opened the note. Aunt Minerva Don't worry, we're safe. I'm not going to tell you where I am, though I'm sure you'll be able to figure it out. Everyone is fine, and we're going to disappear for a while, while we do what needs to be done.

We'll be careful, and we'll keep in touch. We are all very anxious to find out what's happened today. If you can meet at Potter Manor at noon tomorrow, I will be there for fifteen minutes.

Please come alone. See you (hopefully) tomorrow, Harry Minerva read the letter aloud, and they all felt some of the worry lift. The teenagers were all right. "I wish they had come back here," Amelia fretted. "I won't completely calm down until I see Susan with my own eyes." Minerva pursed her lips.

"They're being safe. Though these wards are impressive, they are still fallible. Harry has chosen to remove himself and his friends from view for the near future. They're going somewhere no one would think to look for them. It is public knowledge that I took over his guardianship; therefore, the Death Eaters could try and find him here." Sirius nodded.

"I want to see for myself that they're all right as well, but I think they're doing the smart thing here. We trained them well, so we have to trust that they'll take care of themselves." The fire flared again, and then again, several more times, as people stepped out. Frank and Alice looked slightly worse for the wear, but not seriously injured. They seemed incredibly relieved to see Amelia there. "We sent your Senior Undersecretary to the safe house," Frank informed her.

"She was shaken up but all right." Amelia nodded, thankful. Behind the Longbottoms were Bill and Fleur, and then the twins. Bill looked around. "Have you seen dad at all?" he asked worriedly. "I heard it got nasty at the Ministry." "That's putting it mildly," Alice snorted. "The Ministry was evacuating when we left. The building's lost." Frank was quick to reassure the redhead.

"I'm sure Arthur is fine. He's a good fighter, he can take care of himself." Bill nodded, but still looked concerned, as Fleur wrapped an arm around his waist. Behind Bill and Fleur, Tonks appeared, and wasted no time in jumping into Remus' arms. "Oh I was so worried," she murmured into his shoulder. "I heard you were at the Alley." Remus nodded, gripping her tightly. "We're fine," he assured her. "Everything will be all right." Tonks pulled back.

"I should get my parents," she fretted. "Their wards aren't too great, and they should know what's going on." Minerva nodded. "I'll add them to the access list here. Have them pack a bag, and they are welcome to stay as long as they want." Tonks smiled a thank you, and then stepped back through the Floo. Not two seconds after she had left, Kingsley appeared.

His expression was grave as he looked at Amelia. "Rufus is dead." Amelia gasped. She hadn't really liked the man that much, but he was a fierce fighter, and loyal to the light. "How?" Sirius asked grimly.

Kingsley glanced at him. "The Lestrange brothers. I couldn't see too clearly, as I was fighting Avery, but I saw him fall." "Do you know if the rest of the senior staff made it out?" Amelia asked shakily. It seemed so incomprehensible to realize that in the span of a few hours, their government had folded. No, she thought determinedly. She wouldn't let their government fall. They could still operate in the shadows if need be. Kingsley shook his head.

"I don't know about everyone. I know Amos got out," he referred to Cedric's father, the head of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. "I'm not sure about McFarlen or Helmsby," he spoke of the heads of the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes and the Department of International Magical Cooperation, respectively. "I saw Basil making for the exit when I left." Killian Basil had only just taken over as head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports. "Cedric was with him." He thought they would want to know that, seeing as how Cedric was pretty good friends with Harry.

"I think Jones is dead," he reported on the head of the Department of Magical Transportation. "I thought I saw her body, but I could have been mistaken." Amelia nodded, taking in the information. The people Kingsley had talked about rounded out the senior staff of the Ministry, which consisted of the heads of the seven departments, plus most of those who worked on level one, the Minister's support staff.

The Department of Mysteries was housed in the Ministry, but most people considered them to be separate. While the head of the DoM was a part of the senior staff, there wasn't much interaction between Department of Mysteries employees, and Ministry employees. She opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off as Molly came through the Floo.

She looked around and gave a cry of relief at seeing three of her sons and her daughter-in-law, lurching forward to hug them all tightly. When she pulled back, she looked around the room.

"Where are the children?" she asked worriedly. Minerva gave her the letter from Harry to read, and though she didn't appear to be too happy about what it said, Molly let it pass without comment, handing the parchment back to the professor. "What about Arthur? Have you seen him?" She seemed to be almost afraid of the answer. They shook their heads, and Molly gave a wail of despair, sinking down into a chair.

Minerva consoled her softly, and the room lapsed into silence once more, before being broken by yet another figure stepping out of the fireplace. Augusta looked around quickly, and immediately made her way to her son and daughter-in-law, giving them each a tight hug. "The governors have all been informed," she told Minerva. "The school is officially closed." Minerva nodded shakily, swallowing hard at the thought of the school actually closing its doors. It had nearly happened when the Chamber of Secrets had been opened years ago, but this was so much worse.

Augusta frowned. "Neville?" Frank and Alice looked grim, as Minerva handed them the note that Harry had sent. They all seemed slightly calmer after reading it, but still wanted to see for themselves that he was all right. "What do we do now?" Bill asked softly. Amelia glanced at him and shrugged. She couldn't stop the guilt from worming its way through her gut. His brother had died for her. Molly's son had sacrificed his life, for her. How was she supposed to tell them that? Especially when Arthur's fate was still unknown.

As if in answer to their prayers, the fireplace flared up yet again, and the Weasley patriarch stumbled out. Molly nearly flew across the short distance to grasp her husband in a tight embrace. "Oh I was so worried," she cried. Arthur patted her back consolingly. "I'm all right," he reassured her. "Where were you?" she asked angrily, pulling back.

Arthur took a deep breath. "I went by Kings Cross," he admitted. "I wanted to make sure parents waiting for their children knew what had happened." "That was a good idea," Minerva admitted. "I hadn't considered that." Arthur nodded his thanks at the praise. "I specifically wanted to tell Hermione's parents what was going on, but I thought everyone needed to know. They were all thankful." "Are the Grangers all right?" Minerva asked.

"They can certainly stay here if need be." Arthur smiled. "I suggested that, but they felt comfortable behind the wards at their home. They were grateful for the offer, though." Tonks reappeared at that moment with her parents, who expressed their relief that everyone was all right, before Minerva had a house elf take their bags. "Has Dumbledore given any indication of what to do next?" Andromeda asked curiously, looking at Minerva.

Minerva stilled suddenly, realizing that none of them would have heard yet. She swallowed harshly. "Albus is dead." They all gasped, shock on everyone's faces. Though they had their differences with the man, he had been such a staple in the wizarding world, their whole lives, that to imagine it without him was just impossible. Minerva nodded shakily. "You-Know-Who killed him. I just…" She trailed off, looking at her lap as she remembered the headmaster.

She may not have agreed with everything he had done, but he had been a good friend, once upon a time. "I can't believe it," Arthur shook his head. "The wizarding world will be reeling from this. Albus was the leader of the light side. He was the leader of the opposition against You-Know-Who." After a few minutes of silence, Molly glanced at those who had come from the Ministry. "Did any of you see Percy? I don't " she stopped at the look on Amelia's face. "Amelia?" Amelia felt a new wave of tears build up and then spill over.

"Molly… Arthur…" Molly gasped and leaned into her husband's side. "No," she muttered, tears cascading down her face. Arthur was also crying, though slightly quieter. "How?" he asked, his wet gaze meeting Amelia's pained one. Amelia shook her head slightly, her apology and guilt clear on her face.

"He saved me. He came up to Level One at the beginning of the fight, and told us how one of the people in his department let the Death Eaters in and closed off Floo access. He and two Aurors acted as guards to get me to a secret exit made for situations like this." She swallowed, seeing Percy's final moments flash in front of her eyes once more. "We were at the exit, and I wanted him to come with me. He… he pushed me out of the way of a Killing Curse." Molly gave a wail of pain and buried her head in her hands.

Arthur tightened his grasp on her. "He was a hero," he murmured, to nods all around the group. Bill was getting just as much support from Fleur as Molly was from Arthur, and Fred and George looked ghostly pale. They had teased Percy a lot, but they had been happy to have him back in the family, and proud that he had realized that family was more important than anything. After a few minutes, Minerva suggested they all get some sleep, and allocated bedrooms out to everyone, before she retired to her own, feeling as if all the energy had seeped from her bones.

XXX Daphne was nearly sobbing as she and Astoria landed in the Entrance Hall to the Greengrass Manor. Barely a second passed before a house elf appeared and cried out in relief. "Mistresses are all right. Master was so worried. Zibby will inform him of mistresses return." The elf popped away, and Daphne turned to Astoria.

"Are you all right?" she asked, concerned. Astoria nodded, sniffling. "I was so scared," she cried. Daphne gave her a hug, holding her tightly and trying to convince herself that they were safe. Once Dumbledore had fallen, people began trying to get out of the battle as quickly as possible. They had been forced backwards towards the village, and those who knew how to apparate had done so, even if they hadn't had their licenses yet.

Some had grabbed onto younger students and taken them along, just trying to get everyone out of range of the Death Eaters. Daphne had looked around for Harry and the others, but hadn't seen them. Knowing that she didn't have much time, she had grasped onto the arm of her sister, thankful that Astoria had stuck close, and taken them back to their home. Cyrus nearly flew down the stairs, not even pausing before he grabbed his daughters tightly. "Oh thank Merlin," he breathed.

"Dad?" Daphne asked in a small voice, muffled by the cloth of her father's shirt. Cyrus pulled away. "I was at Diagon Alley this morning," he informed them. "The Alley's in ruins." Both girls gasped. "What?" Astoria asked, shocked. Cyrus nodded. "Come, let's get something to eat, and I'll tell you what's happened today." Together, the trio headed to the kitchen, where they sat at the small table as one of the house elves whipped up a meal for them. In between bites, Cyrus informed the girls about the Ministry and the Alley, to their shock and fear.

"What does this mean?" Daphne asked when he finished. Cyrus sighed. "Amelia had safeguards in place so that the government could be run underground if need be.

The building was lost. As for the Alley… it won't be too populated for a while." Daphne bit her lip. "I wish I knew that the others were all right. I couldn't see Harry before we left. After Dumbledore fell, it was just chaos. I couldn't waste any time." Cyrus nodded in understanding. "You did the right thing, sweetie. It may not feel like it right now, but you got yourself and your sister out of there alive.

That's what Harry would have wanted. I'm sure he had the means to get himself out as well." Daphne nodded shakily, but it didn't ease her worry. Cyrus smiled slightly. "Try not to brood, Daphne. I'm sure Harry will find a way to get in touch with you. I will attempt to contact Sirius and Druella, to see if they have any more information." Daphne looked eager for news.

"Can you tell me if Blaise is all right?" Cyrus' smile widened minutely as he nodded his agreement, and made to get up from the table. Before he could complete the motion, Zibby popped in once more.

"This letter be arriving for Mistress," she squeaked, handing the parchment to Daphne. With a murmured thanks, Daphne unfurled the short note.

This portkey will activate at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. Prepare for a lengthy stay. There was no signature, but Daphne knew Harry's handwriting. Cyrus frowned. "Is everything all right, Daphne?" Daphne looked up at her father. "I'm going to go away for a while," she informed him. Her expression was serious and filled with grim determination. Astoria looked startled, but Cyrus just sighed, closing his eyes.

"Something you must do, I assume." Daphne nodded. "Harry needs me." No more words needed to be said, and Cyrus knew that even if he did protest, Daphne would go anyway. She was seventeen after all, and he couldn't stop her. "Be careful, and try to let me know that you're all right once in a while," he said softly. Daphne stood up and gave him a hug, before she turned to her sister. "Everything's going to be fine, Astoria," she soothed, as the younger girl clutched her in a tight embrace.

Astoria sniffed. "You're leaving." Daphne shook her head.

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"I'll be back, I promise." Astoria pulled back and observed her older sister with world-weary eyes. "You shouldn't make promises you can't keep." Daphne started, but then realized her sister was right. She nodded.

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"All right then. I promise that I will do my best to come back to you. Is that better?" Astoria bit her lip but her gaze was accepting. "Take care of yourself. And Harry. He needs people to make sure he eats and everything, when he gets into study mode." Daphne snorted, in complete agreement with Astoria. If it weren't for Ginny, Daphne was sure that Harry would have starved to death years ago, simply because he forgot to take a break and eat something every once in a while.

Cyrus watched his two girls leave the kitchen, headed for the third floor where their bedrooms were, before he went to the nearby sitting room, intent on Flooing his various contacts for information. _ _ _ Chapter 13 Disclaimer: I own nothing At nine o'clock precisely, Harry was waiting in the Entrance Hall of Lion's Castle, ready for the new arrivals.

The rest of the group was down in the kitchen, eating breakfast, as three separate beings popped into existence in front of him. Daphne barely restrained herself from flinging herself at Harry, but she was so relieved to see that he was indeed all right. Luna did not feel the need to hold herself back, and immediately launched herself at her boyfriend, hugging him tightly. Blaise was equally relieved, and after a moment, they all greeted Harry.

Harry scuffed his foot against the floor. "I'm sorry we didn't take you with us yesterday," he said softly. "I wanted to, but Voldemort was headed right for us, and we couldn't wait any longer. I couldn't find you guys." Blaise shook his head.

"We're all fine, and you did the right thing, Harry. You had to get out." Harry looked a little better as Daphne and Luna also indicated their understanding, and they headed to the kitchen to join the rest for the morning meal.

As they walked, Harry filled the newcomers in on what was going on with them, as well as what he knew about the multi-pronged attack Voldemort had carried out the day before. "I'm meeting with Aunt Minerva at noon today to get an update," he told them, as they entered the kitchen. There were tearful greetings all around, as everyone was happy to see Blaise, Daphne, and Luna. Yesterday's fight had scared them all. The rest of the morning passed quietly, as they congregated in the library, reading, researching, anything to take their mind off of things, such as their worry for family members.

At eleven forty five, Harry gave Ginny a kiss and left to Floo to Potter Manor. The first thing he did when he arrived was add the Manor as a location on his portkey ring. He then took a seat in one of the comfortable chairs in the sitting room, and waited. At twelve o'clock precisely, the fire flared up, and Minerva stepped through, holding a large carry case.

She brushed herself off briefly, and then strode forward to grasp Harry in a tight hug. "Oh thank Merlin," she breathed, clutching him with all her strength. Harry gripped back just as tightly. "I'm all right," he assured her. Minerva nodded slightly, and then stepped back.

She looked down at the case she was carrying, before passing it to Harry with a small smile. "Hermione and Ginny should be happy to know that I managed to get Crookshanks and Selene.

I thought they would want their pets with them." Harry took the case with a grin, knowing how relieved the two girls would be. The two took a seat, and Harry told her that he and his friends were planning on continuing their quest, that they would stay in touch, but they had to do this alone. They didn't want too many people involved, in case the wrong person were to catch wind of it. Minerva understood. She didn't like it, but she understood.

"You will all take care of yourselves, correct?" she asked sternly, giving him a look no one else would have been able to duplicate. Harry nodded soberly. "We'll be as safe as we can. What I really wanted to find out today, though, was the situation everywhere else. What happened at the Ministry and at the Alley?" Minerva sighed, looking down.

"The building was lost. Amelia sent out an evacuation signal as she got out, and everyone abandoned the building to the Death Eaters. Arthur, Frank, Alice, Kingsley, and Tonks are all fine, as is Cedric. There were some deaths, but we don't have full details. Amelia and Sirius left earlier this morning to meet with the senior staff in a secure location that they set up as a safe house earlier this year." She shook her head sadly.

"Rufus Scrimgeour was killed, as was…" She looked at Harry, her eyes sad. "Harry, Percy didn't make it." Harry gasped, covering his mouth with his hands. Across the bond, he felt Ginny's wave of pain and horror, but couldn't attempt to comfort her just yet.

He was too caught up in his own shock. "How?" he whispered. Minerva rested a hand on his shoulder. "He pushed Amelia out of the way of a Killing Curse.

He died a hero, Harry, that much is certain." Harry nodded shakily. Ginny, I'm so sorry. He felt Ginny's grief, and winced. A moment later, she got herself under control. Just concentrate on getting information now, Harry, we'll talk later. Harry withdrew himself from the conversation and turned back to Minerva. "What about the others?" He was almost afraid of the answer.

Minerva took a deep breath. "Most of our group is at McGonagall Castle. Tonks brought her parents over, since our wards are stronger. Sirius and Amelia decided to open up the Bones Estate to any Ministry employees who need a place to lay low, and they're staying with us.

Sirius, Remus, Fred, George, Bill, and Fleur were at the Alley, and reported it to be in shambles, but they were all unharmed." She smiled slightly. "Bill mentioned this morning that his employers want a report on your status. As he put it, they told him when he left yesterday afternoon, to make sure that his 'friends' were unharmed." Harry chuckled. Being on good terms with the goblins was certainly a good thing.

Minerva sighed. "The Alley is a mess, and I am certain people won't be shopping there for a while. Many people were injured or killed in the fight. Some are still missing." "Missing?" Harry questioned. Minerva shook her head. "Sirius said that Ollivander was dragged from his shop by Death Eaters, and has not been seen since." Harry's eyes widened.

"What would they want with him?" he asked. Minerva pursed her lips. "We can only guess." Harry nodded, but he had a feeling that whenever they did find out, it wouldn't be good. "In the meantime, I will let everyone know that you are well, and that the others are fine. Is there any specific message you would like me to carry?" Minerva asked. Harry bit his lip. "Tell Molly and Arthur how sorry I am for their loss.

And Bill and the twins as well." Minerva nodded, and Harry looked at the floor. "Tell everyone that we miss them, and that we'll be careful." Minerva nodded again, and gave Harry a hug. They stood up together, and Harry walked a few feet forward with his pseudo aunt, stopping when they reached the mantle.

"I'll try to write at least once a week," Harry assured her. "And I'll keep you keyed into the wards here, just in case. If something comes up and you need to get someone else here, let me know. I know we're probably being overly cautious, but " Minerva shook her head, cutting him off. "I understand, Harry. Caution is a good thing, even if it seems as if you're being paranoid.

I'm glad you're taking precautions. I will expect to hear from you soon, all right?" Harry nodded. "I'll make sure to send you an update by next week. If something comes up beforehand, use the medallion I gave you last year to get my attention.

If you need to meet, let me know through the medallion I gave you, or just tell me what's going on." Minerva smiled as she felt the medallion through her dress. She never took it off, and it was good to know that she had a way of getting in touch with Harry in an emergency if need be. After one more hug, Minerva Flooed back to McGonagall Castle, and Harry collected the carry case containing the two cats, before he used his ring to get him back to Lion's Castle.

His friends met him in the Entrance Hall, looking confused. "Harry, what's going on?" Ron asked worriedly. They had all been startled out of their reading when Ginny had gasped loudly and rushed out of the room. Blaise, Daphne, and Luna were more alarmed than the rest, not knowing anything about why she may have done such a thing. The others had come to the conclusion that something Minerva had told Harry had upset her. Harry looked at each of them grimly. "Let's go to the library," he said softly.

Hermione gave a small shriek when she saw the case that Harry was carrying. "Harry, do you have…" Harry glanced down at his hand, and started. He had actually forgotten he was carrying the case. He set it down and let the two cats out. "Aunt Minerva got them back to the Castle. She thought you and Ginny would like them back." Hermione scooped up Crookshanks and cradled him against her chest, a few tears leaking from her eyes.

She had been so worried for him. Selene looked around at the teenagers, stretched, and then bounded off to find the human that belonged to her.

Ginny joined them as they entered the massive library, her eyes red as she cuddled Selene close to her. Harry put an arm around her shoulders as they walked. I'm so sorry, Gin. Ginny nodded slightly.

I can't believe it, her mental voice was soft. We just got him back. They sat down, and Harry turned to Ron, his emerald eyes somber. "Ron…" Ron's face drained of blood. "No…" he whispered. "Who…" Harry looked down. "Percy." Ron gasped, and the others looked shocked.

"How?" Hermione asked softly, wrapping an arm around Ron's back, pulling him close to her in an effort to comfort him. Harry bit his lip.

"He pushed Amelia out of the way of a Killing Curse." They all absorbed the information, reeling from the blow. Of course they knew there were casualties in a war; Daphne had already lost her mother, Ron and Ginny had lost uncles, Harry and Susan had lost their parents, as had Neville, for a while. But it still hurt, and none of them wanted to lose another loved one.

Susan shifted in her seat. "I'm so sorry, guys. If there's anything I can do…" Ron looked at Harry. "Tell us everything McGonagall said. Was anyone else…?" Harry shook his head. "From what she said, our circle was mostly unharmed.

Rufus Scrimgeour, the DMLE Head, was killed, and Ollivander is missing. The Alley is in shambles, and the Ministry building is lost." "Aunt Amelia's all right?" Susan whispered, hope shining in her eyes. Harry nodded, smiling slightly. "Aunt Minerva said that Amelia and Sirius were meeting with the senior officials in a safe house this morning, and that they could still operate in the shadows if need be. The Ministry hasn't completely fallen, just the building.

She also said that Sirius and Amelia opened up the Bones Estate to house any Ministry employees that needed someplace safe to stay." Susan nodded, smiling a little. That sounded like her aunt. "I can't believe what the wizarding world has turned to," Blaise commented softly. "In one day, thousands of people have been killed, injured, or forced into hiding. How many more will die before this war is over?" Harry's eyes hardened. "We had better do everything we can to stop Voldemort before it comes to that, then." He looked at each of them in turn.

"I can't do this alone, and I don't want to. You're all here because together, we can stop this. It's the only way." Ginny nodded firmly. "Find the horcruxes. Destroy them. Kill Voldemort. We can do this. We have to do this." "But how can we destroy the horcruxes now?" Neville asked. "The sword is still in Dumbledore's office at Hogwarts." Harry shook his head.

"One step at a time. The horcruxes we have are safe for now, so let's deal with finding the others, and work on how to get the sword out." They agreed, and decided to head up to the kitchen for lunch. Harry fell back with Ron, gesturing for Hermione to go on ahead. She did so with one last helpless look at her boyfriend, before leaving them alone. Harry waited for Ron to say something, knowing that his redhead friend had to come to him.

After a few moments, Ron swallowed. "We always teased him. He was so studious, and he didn't like to play Quidditch, or really do anything besides read. What if " Harry shook his head.

"He knew that you all loved him. He came back, remember? He realized that he had been wrong, and he wanted to be a part of the family again. He's a hero, Ron. He gave his life to protect Amelia. You can't get much more heroic than that." Ron nodded, looking a little better, as they joined the rest of their friends. XXX Snape tried to ignore the apprehension curling in his gut as he walked up the path to Hogwarts, the castle looming imposingly above him. He had acted the part of dutiful Death Eater, and responded immediately to the summons of the Dark Lord, but for some reason, he couldn't get rid of the feeling that something was wrong.

The day before, he had vacated the premises as soon as he had heard of the battle taking place by the train. He couldn't be seen helping the light side, but he wouldn't fight with Voldemort either. The safest and best thing for him to do, it seemed, was leave. But this morning, he had felt the call of his former master, and had responded, knowing the consequences of not doing so.

The door opened as he approached, and Lucius sneered at him. "Severus. He's waiting." Snape nodded curtly and brushed past Malfoy. He noted the younger Malfoy brooding in a corner as he entered the Great Hall, which Voldemort had apparently decided to turn into his new throne room. He had previously used the Great Hall at Malfoy Manor, where Snape had managed to hide the Weasley twins' listening device, which was no small feat, getting it into place without anyone noticing.

But with the Dark Lord's conquering of Hogwarts, it seemed he had decided to move court to the castle. Voldemort observed the potions master neutrally, his red eyes gleaming. "Severus." Snape approached the Dark Lord cautiously, hiding his unease, as he knelt. "You called, My Lord?" Voldemort inclined his head. "Many things have not added up lately, Severus." His left hand came up and began stroking Nagini's head, as the snake curled around her master.

"Why did Dumbledore's Order become so much more knowledgeable these past months? Yes, something seems to be off." Snape stopped himself from swallowing, a lump appearing in his throat as he felt the danger looming. "My Lord, I cannot answer this question." "Can you not?" Voldemort looked at him closely.

"I have considered the possibilities many times, but only one scenario seems to fit. You, Severus, have sown your seeds on both sides. You say you are loyal to me, yet you attended meetings with the old fool and call yourself loyal to the light as well. So which is it?" Snape stiffened.

"My Lord knows I only serve him." Voldemort almost smiled. "We shall see." And then he was casting the Cruciatus Curse on Snape with a vengeance. The Potions Master fell to the ground, twitching and writhing in pain.

Voldemort held him under the curse for several minutes, before he lifted it. "Tell me, Severus, how long has it been since you switched sides?

How much did you tell the old fool about our plans?" Severus let out a half groan, half whimper, and Voldemort's lips curled into a sneer, before he ruthlessly cast the curse again. Four more times, Snape was subjected to the worst curse imaginable. By the time the Dark Lord had lost interest, Snape was nearly unconscious, and certainly didn't have the ability to fight back.

Voldemort cast him aside with a flick of the wand, and turned to the two Malfoys. "Clean up this mess," he ordered, before sweeping out of the room. Lucius and Draco used their wands to cart Snape's body outside, sneering all the while and expressing their disappointment that such a promising half blood had turned out to be just another piece of filth.

Snape feigned unconsciousness, but knew he would need to act quickly if he was to have any chance, as he could feel the black of blissful oblivion creeping in. Halfway down the path towards the gate, beyond which led the road to Hogsmeade, the Malfoys dropped Snape to the ground. Draco's eyes gleamed in the moonlight, eager to prove his worth to the Dark Lord. Lucius casually cast a cutting curse that caught Snape on the shoulder, and that was when the potions master acted.

He reached out swiftly and knocked Lucius to the ground. Standing up was a bit of a challenge, but he forced his legs under him as he grabbed Lucius' dropped wand and stunned Draco. He may have been weak, but his stunner still knocked Draco back a good five feet, where he crumpled to the hard stone path. Snape quickly limped towards the gate, knowing that he didn't have much time before the alarm was sounded.

Death Eaters were pouring out of the front entrance as Snape passed the boundary, and without wasting any more time, he concentrated harder than he had since he was sixteen and just learning how to apparate, and willed his body to appear at his desired destination. XXX Minerva was recounting her conversation with Harry that evening, for the second time, as Sirius, Amelia, and Kingsley had only just returned from their meeting with the senior officials, when a siren blared through the Castle, causing everyone in residence to quickly make their way to the Entrance Hall, wands in hand.

Minerva's wand was raised slightly, pointed at the doors, as she looked at everyone gathered around her. It was a large group, consisting of herself, Sirius, Remus, Amelia, Kingsley, Ted, Andromeda, Tonks, Augusta, Bill, Fleur, Fred, George, Arthur, Molly, Frank, and Alice. "Someone has breached the wards," she informed them. Frank's eyes widened. "An attack?" he asked, glancing at the closed and bolted doors leading out to the grounds. Minerva shook her head slightly.

"That alarm indicates that it is someone who is allowed access, but not on the list of those keyed into the wards." She turned to the doors and waved her wand. Noiselessly, the bolt lifted up and the doors opened.

Minerva frowned, venturing outside cautiously. A short distance from the doors was what looked to be a pile of clothing. She moved forward and bent down next to the pile. It shifted and groaned, and Minerva reared back in surprise. Suddenly, Sirius and Remus were at her side, Frank and Alice not far behind.

"Minerva?" Sirius asked, tightening the grip on his wand. Minerva glanced at him, and then reached out to prod the pile, turning it over.

They all gasped at the nearly unconscious Potions Master. Minerva quickly called for several house elves to take him inside, but the man caught her arm before she could stand up. His obsidian eyes were half closed, but rimmed in red. He looked at her in a way that had her uncertain if he actually knew where he was. "Dark… Lord…" he coughed, before his eyes closed and he lapsed into unconsciousness.

Three house elves moved in and brought him to an empty room, while another went down to the potions storeroom to gather healing potions. Suddenly, Minerva realized that they didn't have a healer. Sirius, however, was a step ahead. "I'm going to get Narcissa. Minerva, will you add her to the wards within the next few minutes? She'll be able to help." Minerva nodded as Sirius ran to the Floo and disappeared in a flash of green fire.

When he returned five minutes later, the group was still in the Entrance Hall, waiting anxiously. Narcissa trailed behind her cousin, her normally pale face completely ashen. Severus had helped her get free of the Dark Lord and of her husband. She would do whatever she could to ensure his health. Sirius led her to Snape's room and then left her alone to work, with a house elf on call to fetch anything she needed, before he returned to the others.

XXX It was over an hour before Narcissa reappeared, tired and shaking slightly, but not giving off the defeated air of having lost a patient. The rest had taken seats near the staircase, but they all stood up quickly as the woman entered. Narcissa took a moment to marvel at their anxious expressions if only Severus knew how much this group cared for him! before she smiled slightly. "He's out of danger," she informed them.

There was a collective sigh of relief. Narcissa descended the last few steps. "He'll be sore for a while yet, but fortunately he should escape permanent damage." "What happened?" Tonks asked. Narcissa bit her lip, glancing at the Longbottoms briefly. "He suffered a prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus Curse." Frank and Alice inhaled sharply, grasping each other's hands tightly, while the others looked at them sympathetically.

Narcissa sighed. "His mind appears to be sound, though his limbs will be shaking for a while. Additionally, he has some bruises from thrashing around under the curse, and a Cutting Curse to his shoulder, which missed anything vital. For the time being, he's unconscious. I'm not sure when he'll wake up, but the good news is that I am certain he will." Sirius smiled and guided her towards the kitchen.

"Thank you, Narcissa. Why don't you get something to eat, and then get some rest yourself. You look tired." Narcissa glared at him halfheartedly. "You should know better than to say that to a woman, Sirius.

If I weren't so exhausted, I would hex you." The women all laughed, while the men smiled slightly. Despite her words, Narcissa put up no fight as the house elves plied her with food. The others all snacked a little, still thinking about the man currently unconscious upstairs. After a few minutes, Sirius told Narcissa that he would return to the safe house and collect her things.

When she protested, he put his foot down. "Those wards may be sound, but I would prefer you to stay here for the time being.

You'll be of more help nearby, to take care of Severus, and keep him from getting out of bed before he's ready. You could also use the potions lab here, to brew potions that we'll probably need in the near future." Narcissa sighed but assented, and Sirius left the room.

The others all drifted off after a while, until Narcissa was nearly alone at the table. She glanced down a few seats to the few stragglers, and swallowed. She hated apologies, but if anyone deserved one, it was the duo sitting two seats down. "I would like to apologize for what my sister and brother-in-law did to your family," she said quietly, causing Frank and Alice to halt their conversation and turn to her in shock.

Narcissa looked down at her nearly empty plate, shamed at what Bellatrix had descended to. Frank furrowed his brow, but it was Alice's kind voice that raised the proud woman's gaze to meet theirs. "Frank and I believe that everyone is responsible for their own actions. Narcissa, you had no control over what Bellatrix did.

We don't hold you accountable, so don't hold yourself accountable." Narcissa sniffed, amazed at these people. If it were her, she would be blaming the whole family for what they had done. Andromeda had entered just in time to hear Alice's response, and she hurried forward to support her sister. "Cissy, you can't blame yourself. Believe me, it took me a long time to stop feeling guilty over what my family had done, but Alice is right.

You are your own person." Narcissa leaned into the embrace, letting out all of the fear, anger, and guilt that had been building up. "I'm so sorry," she sobbed. "I should have listened to you all those years ago. I should never have married him, you were right." Andromeda soothed her patiently, knowing that she needed to get all of this out. A pointed look at Frank and Alice had the Aurors departing, leaving the sisters alone.

After five minutes, Narcissa's sobs slowed, and Andromeda knew that she was nearly asleep, so she gently maneuvered her sister up, and practically carried her to the second floor, putting her in an empty room near Snape's, taking off her shoes and socks, but leaving her clothed, before she dimmed the lamp and left, leaving the door opened just a crack behind her. As she headed in the direction of the library, she felt as if a weight had lifted.

For so many years, she had been shunned as the Black daughter that had dared marry a muggleborn. Her sisters had stopped talking to her, her parents had disowned her. But after all these years, she had Narcissa back!

She sat down next to her husband and pulled a book towards her, smiling broadly and ignoring the inquisitive looks she was being given. Nothing could dampen her mood right now. XXX Harry knew that the only thing he and his friends could do was take it week by week, but he had no idea before now, how long a week really was.

They spent their time researching and trying to narrow down locations, but it just seemed like busy work, something to keep them occupied because they couldn't do anything else. Harry just tried to be grateful that at least they had somewhere safe and comfortable to sleep; they could have been spending this time camping outside the brutal United Kingdom winter definitely made them all thankful for the warm castle they were staying in.

Harry knew that not nearly as many bedrooms were in use as they should be, but he didn't say anything. He had seen Susan and Neville unpacking in the same room, and he was aware that Blaise and Luna were sharing as well.

He trusted his friends to be safe and responsible, and he wouldn't regulate how they spent their nights. Ron and Hermione were still sleeping in separate rooms, but Harry knew that his oldest friends were much shyer about their relationship than the others, and didn't judge them for that. Ron and Hermione were keen on taking their relationship slow, because they wanted it to last, and didn't want to rush into anything they weren't quite ready for.

Harry, Ron, and Neville were pleasantly surprised and relieved to wake up the day after Harry had met with Minerva, to find all of their owls waiting for them in the dining room, each one wearing similarly smug expressions on their faces.

All three owls appeared to be very proud of the fact that they had found their owner even behind the impressive wards surrounding the Castle.

The boys weren't complaining, however, as each of them had been worried about their pets. Hermione went out two days after Harry's meeting with Minerva, using glamour charms, to get a copy of the Prophet.

Just by looking at the front page, they could tell that Voldemort was officially in control. The attacks he had carried out on Hogwarts, the Ministry, and Diagon Alley were reported on as a 'resound defeat of the oppressive regime, and the uprising of the new and noble leader.' Herbert Yaxley had been named as the new Minister for Magic, and though many of those who had previously been employed at the Ministry had gone into hiding, the building was functioning again.

Those who had fewer ties to the light side, or were pureblood or half-blood, had returned to work, though Arthur, Frank, and Alice made no move to do so. They knew it wouldn't end well for them, as all three were known members of the light side. Tonks and Kingsley, likewise, decided it would be prudent for them to stay out of sight for the time being. There wasn't much information of value, but Harry didn't expect it since Voldemort was most likely controlling the paper.

He did make note of the restricted access to the Alley, with hours that people could shop being severely limited, as well as the muggleborn registration commission. They were all outraged at the article that called for all 'so-called muggleborns' to submit themselves for questioning by the end of the week, so that they could be interrogated on how they got their magic, since it clearly wasn't through blood.

Harry doubted any of those who submitted themselves would be heard from again. When they got stir-crazy sitting around the library, they explored the Castle. Everything was in pretty good shape, considering no one had lived there for centuries. Harry spoke with the house elves, and discovered that they had used preservation charms on the furniture, as well as spells that kept dust from settling, and pests from invading.

Harry was very impressed, and thanked them wholeheartedly for keeping his family home in excellent condition. All of the elves were crying with pleasure, and immediately popped away to ensure they continued to do their master proud.

It was impressive how well stocked the entire Castle was. Even beyond the charms protecting the furniture, the kitchen was completely full, and there were full closets in every room. A few transfigurations had them looking like clothes that a typical teenager in this century would wear. A few days later, Blaise, Daphne, and Luna pulled him aside and asked if they could get their families to a safer location.

Harry bit his lip as he considered. "You don't think your wards are safe enough?" he asked curiously. Daphne glared at him. "My home has already been broken into once before. I won't lose any more family to that bastard." Harry winced and rested a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Daph. Send your families a letter with Mimsy, have them pack a bag, and I'll get them to McGonagall Castle.

There should be more than enough room there." They all nodded and disappeared to do just that. The day after that, Harry sent them a letter telling them to Floo to Potter Manor shortly after noon in two days, so that they could get to McGonagall Castle safely.

He then sent Minerva a letter asking her to meet him at the same time. Two days later, Harry left the others practicing in the dueling room, and Flooed to his Ancestral Home. The first thing he did was add the Greengrasses, Madam Zabini, and Mr.

Lovegood to the access list, before he settled in to wait the remaining few minutes for Minerva to show up. He stood up quickly when Minerva stepped out of the fireplace, and her grim expression clued Harry in that something was wrong. He had to sit down again when she told him about Snape. "Is he all right?" Harry asked worriedly, once she had finished. Minerva sighed and also took a seat. "He's still unconscious," she informed him. "Narcissa has barely left his side, and she is keeping him asleep for now, to try and heal some of the nerve damage the Cruciatus Curse caused.

We won't know everything until he wakes up, but Narcissa tells us that it isn't wise to attempt to do so until he is further along in the healing process." Harry let out a shaky breath. "Please keep me informed," he said, his eyes full of worry for the snarky man. Minerva nodded and attempted a smile, before she moved on to more news, including the Taboo that had been placed on the Dark Lord's name.

"I believe powerful wards, such as goblin wards will block it, but if you venture out in public, do not use the name," Minerva warned. "It will cause Death Eaters to be able to apparate to your exact location." Harry nodded shakily, making a mental note to not use the name when they ventured beyond Lion's Castle, before he told her of his promise to house his friends' families at McGonagall Castle.

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "I know that they need to be somewhere safe, Harry, but I'm not sure you understand how full the Castle really is. We're housing pretty much everyone in our circle. Augusta, Frank, and Alice don't want to go home yet I believe what happened at the end of the last war has sharpened their fears. Amelia and Sirius have opened their home to anyone who needs somewhere to hide, so they don't really have anywhere else to go for the time being.

And the Weasleys believe their home to be too well known to risk staying there right now." Harry nodded. He understood, but he also would not take no for an answer. "None of them have wards as good as ours, and I promised Blaise, Daphne, and Luna that I would make sure they were safe.

Daphne can't lose another family member. They'll be here in a few minutes." Minerva sighed, shaking her head slightly. "All right, Harry. They can stay with us for as long as they need. We'll manage." Harry snorted. "It's not like the Castle is lacking in space." Minerva rolled her eyes, but had to agree.

Her Ancestral Home was rather spacious. It was just getting a little too crowded for her, but she wouldn't turn anyone away if they needed help. Their conversation was cut off by the fire flaring up, as Madam Zabini stepped through.

She brushed herself off briskly before greeting Harry and Minerva. "I thank you for your willingness to open your home," Druella smiled thinly at Minerva. "I know my son worries. Especially after what happened last year." Minerva nodded, taking the hand Madam Zabini offered. "I am always willing to lend aid to those who need it." Druella turned to Harry. "While I cannot claim to understand why my son felt the need to leave on some adventure, I trust him to take care of himself, and I know he would not disappear unless he felt there was no other option." Harry smiled, and shook his friend's mother's hand.

"It is a pleasure to see you again, Madam Zabini. I apologize for all the inconvenience, but I promise that we will do our best to ensure Blaise's safety." Druella nodded sharply. "You all do your best to ensure all of your safety. We will manage, but whatever you are doing, it must be dangerous, and important, for Blaise to be so vague about it.

I trust my son, Lord Potter. I also trust you, so do not make a liar of me." Harry nodded quickly, and then stepped forward to greet Luna's father as he stepped through the Floo, and a moment after that, Cyrus and Astoria as they arrived at the Manor. After the greetings, they all left with Minerva, and a promise that Harry would try to keep in touch with them, before he was left alone in his family home once more. After removing everyone but himself and Minerva from the access list, Harry returned to Lion's Castle.

His friends were shocked to learn of the Taboo, and knew that they would need to remind themselves to not use the name in public, since they were accustomed to calling the megalomaniac by his moniker. They knew that they were safe behind the wards of the Castle, because they had used the name multiple times and nothing had happened, but they would need to use caution everywhere else.

Ron surprised them all by chuckling once Harry had finished speaking. When they looked at him, he shrugged. "Sorry, I was just thinking about how McGonagall must feel like she's running an inn or something.

How many people are staying with her?" Harry had to let out a snort as he agreed. "A lot," he replied. "Your parents have moved in, plus Sirius and Amelia, the Tonkses, Fred and George, Bill and Fleur, Kingsley, Snape, Narcissa, Frank, Alice, and Augusta, and now the Greengrasses, Madam Zabini, and Mr. Lovegood." He shook his head slightly.

"Aunt Minerva also said that the Bones Estate has basically turned into a giant housing unit for Ministry employees in hiding. The building is back up and running, but that's just so Voldemort can pretend he's in control." "Erm, Harry, he is in control," Susan had to point out. Harry shook his head. "He thinks that, and most everyone else probably does as well, but think about it.

We're still here, we're not locked up or dead, and we've got the knowledge of how to end the war. I'd say we're the ones in control." They all looked startled, but after a moment, what he had said sunk in, and they had to agree. Harry raised an eyebrow. "So, now that that's cleared up, let's get back to work, shall we?" They nodded, and returned to their dueling practice. _ _ _ Chapter 14 Disclaimer: not mine The last days towards Christmas dwindled, with Harry and his friends researching and keeping their fighting skills sharp.

They had plans to make another go at finding the Gaunt Shack before the new year, and had found a few more clues that might point to the location, in several books so old Harry thought they may have been lost to the fabric of time. Genealogy books that traced the old family lines had provided a good deal of information, including areas where some families had chosen to settle.

While the Gaunt Family had faded several decades earlier, these books had been written generations ago, and still included the family they were so interested in.

On the morning of the Twenty Fifth, Ron, somewhat predictably, woke them all up early. They congregated in the sitting room, where Harry had asked the house elves to set up a Christmas tree, and ate breakfast sitting on the floor as they opened their gifts.

They all missed their families, but were grateful to be able to spend the day with each other, and because they had kept their trunks shrunken in their pockets when heading to catch the train out of Hogsmeade, they all were able to exchange their gifts with each other. Ginny immediately put on the gold lioness pendant that Harry had given her, grinning with pleasure as she admired the necklace.

Harry leaned over to give his wife a kiss when he unwrapped a photo of the two of them from her. They were seated on the grass by the lake at Hogwarts, with Ginny leaning against Harry's chest, the two of them oblivious to the camera. "Did Colin take this?" Harry asked curiously, running a finger along the frame.

Ginny nodded, smiling. "He gave it to me a couple weeks before the end of the term. He thought we might like it. It seems he caught us in a rare moment of relaxation, without stressing about the war, or school, or anything." Harry nodded absentmindedly. "I love it, Gin." "This is great, Harry, thanks!" Ron called, reading the back cover of a book on the history of Quidditch. Harry smiled at his friend, knowing that he had gifted the redhead with probably one of the few books the teenager was likely to enjoy reading.

Hermione cut in next, thanking Harry for the book on various jobs in the Ministry, and then it was Neville's turn; Harry had given him a book on jobs that utilize Herbology training. Harry opened a few more gifts, including a book on wizarding villages and towns in Britain from Hermione, candy from Ron, and a book on advanced warding from Neville.

When he got to Susan's present, she looked nervous. "I found this over the summer, and I thought you would like a copy," she bit her lip. Confused, Harry unwrapped another picture frame. He turned it over, and gasped lightly, looking at the photo within. He recognized his and Neville's parents in the background, along with another man and woman who looked vaguely familiar. Looking at Susan once more, he realized why they seemed so recognizable: the woman in the photo had the same face as his auburn-haired friend, but he could detect a trace of the unknown man in Susan's eyes and jaw line.

Susan nodded, looking down, and Harry turned back to the photo. In the foreground, three toddlers were playing together; he once more recognized himself and Neville, from the photos the Longbottom heir had given him over the last few years. The third toddler he had never seen before, but she had Susan's eyes, and her hair was the same color.

Susan coughed, clearing her throat. "I asked Aunt Amelia, and she told me that we played together a few times before…" Her eyes filled with water. "Our parents weren't great friends, since mine were several years older, but when there was an Order meeting, or if they needed someone to babysit… well, we had a few play dates before my parents died." Neville gave her a tight hug, and she buried her head in his shoulder for a minute, collecting herself.

When she looked back up, Harry was watching her with a sad smile, though his eyes were completely understanding. "Thank you, so much, Susan. This is a great photo." Ginny nodded, looking over Harry's shoulder. "You three look like you're having a lot of fun together. It's amazing to see how intertwined we were, even before we all became friends." Harry sighed, placing the photo aside gently.

"It's sad to think about how things could have been. We probably would have grown up as friends right from the start. Our parents all knew each other, it's likely we would have been over at each other's houses frequently before Hogwarts." They all spared a moment to think about the lives they had been deprived of thanks to Voldemort, before they decided to cast aside the gloomy thoughts for the day, and got back to opening gifts.

Blaise was excited to read about the biography of a celebrated Healer that Harry had gotten him, and Daphne gave him a hug after opening the impressive set of potions stirring rods, with various sizes and that could be set to stir certain ways and speeds.

Susan gasped as she unwrapped the jade carving of a hawk from Harry. "Oh, this is beautiful, Harry!" she gushed, admiring the carving from different angles. Harry smiled at his friend's pleasure, and then proceeded to thank Luna for the drawing of a crumple horned snorkack that she had given him.

Luna beamed at him, pleased that he liked her gift, before thanking him for the quartz carving of a falcon that he had given her. "This is quite exquisite, Harry, did you make it yourself?" Harry shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck. "I had them commissioned from a shop in Diagon Alley. I couldn't manage that level of detail." "Well, they do impressive work," Susan smiled, looking at Harry. "It looks so lifelike," she admired her own carving again. Harry blushed slightly, as he opened his last gift: a model of a field from Blaise and Daphne.

Playing in the field were all of them, in their animagus forms. The model didn't move, but it was so real that it didn't have to.

Harry and Ginny were sitting on one side, their panther and lioness forms practically intertwined, as they watched over the rest of them. Ron and Neville were wrestling as dog and wolf, while Hermione's cat watched them with an amused expression. Blaise and Daphne's forms were nearby, winding through the grass of the meadow, and Susan and Luna were perched on the lone scraggly tree in the field.

He was quite impressed, and the two Slytherins smiled with pleasure at his praise. "It took a while to make," Blaise admitted. "But I think it came out quite well." "Definitely," Harry agreed.

Everyone else had one more gift left, and they opened them to find matching rings, a simple silver band that would fit around their middle finger. "These are permanent portkeys," Harry explained. "They'll let you, and only you, portkey to the entryway of this Castle.

Anyone who is holding onto you won't get through the wards. This way you can return here when we go out, without needing me." They all grinned and put the rings on, thanking Harry, before they decided to go outside and play in their animal forms. Harry smiled at Mimsy as the elf popped in and began cleaning up the paper and remains of breakfast.

He thanked her for her work, before following his friends, leaving an overjoyed house elf behind. They spent the day relaxing and enjoying each other's company, before they returned to the horcrux hunt the next day. In disguise and in small groups, they went out searching the area around Little Hangleton, each group taking a different part of the countryside. The one issue they had to get around was the Trace Luna and Ginny were still sixteen, and as such, if they cast a spell outside of the protection wards around the Castle, the Ministry would know.

Fortunately, that problem could be taken care of by having the two girls use different wands. Harry had found a vault at Potter Manor during one of his exploration visits over the last year; this vault held many valuable objects, including many of his family wands.

He had taken Ginny and Luna to his Ancestral Home just after Christmas, and had them test out each of the wands. They had found two that would work fairly well for them, even if they didn't produce as powerful results as their own wands. They would work well enough, and the two girls had spent some time practicing, to understand the differences between the new wands and their old ones. They searched every night for a week before they had any luck. Harry and Ginny had been scouring a portion of the land west of the town, keeping track of the time they had spent searching that night by the New Year's celebrations from the nearby town, when they felt the presence of magic.

Rather than continue on, they immediately took a step back, marked the place they were standing, and went to collect the others.

The fireworks had fallen silent hours earlier, and they knew that dawn was not that far away, so they agreed to wait until the next evening before returning, this time all together in one place.

After getting some rest, they spent the rest of the day reading up on wards, before returning to the place Harry and Ginny had marked. It took them a further three days to figure out that they couldn't do this alone.

They knew that there were layers of wards covering a portion of land off the path that led to Little Hangleton, but they couldn't figure out how to bring them down, and beyond that, whether or not breaking them would alert Voldemort.

After three nights with no success, Harry finally had to concede that they needed to bring in more help. Once they returned to Lion's Castle, Harry wrote a letter to Bill, including a one-time portkey that would allow him access to Potter Manor, and sent it off with Mimsy to deliver.

XXX To say Bill was shocked to receive a letter from a strange house elf was an understatement. He and Fleur had been eating breakfast alone a rare commodity at the overcrowded Castle when the elf had popped into the dining room, delivered the note, and then left without saying a word.

Bill scanned the letter for hexes or curses, but when it came up clean, he unfurled it cautiously. Even more shocking than the situation, was the information the note contained. He recognized Harry's handwriting, instructing him to take the portkey enclosed in the letter at precisely ten o'clock that evening. As long as he was holding onto it, he would appear at the desired location what that location was, however, was not mentioned.

Neither did Harry mention why he needed Bill, just that his skills and expertise were required. It did, however, implore him not to speak of this to anyone, other than to let them know that he would be out late. Bill was still confused when he kissed Fleur goodbye that evening, before holding onto the knut that Harry had charmed as a portkey. At precisely ten o'clock, he disappeared from the front entryway of McGonagall Castle, and appeared in a cozy but costly sitting room. "Bill!" Ginny cried, bounding forward a few steps to grasp her eldest brother in a tight hug.

"Ginny?" Bill asked, startled. He hugged his sister, before looking around his surroundings. Harry and Ginny were standing in front of him, both looking tired, but well. "Your note was very vague," he commented. "What is it that you need me to do?" Harry bit his lip. "You remember the search we carried out last summer?" Bill nodded.

"We found the location." Bill inhaled sharply. "You're sure?" Harry nodded grimly. "The problem is, it's layered in wards and curses. We've managed to decipher a few, but we're hopelessly outclassed.

We figured a Curse Breaker would come in handy." Bill looked between Harry and Ginny, both of whom were now looking grim and determined. He sighed. "I'm happy to help." Harry smiled slightly. "Thanks, Bill. If you want to hold onto me, I'll apparate to the location. We're meeting the others there." Bill furrowed his brow. "Are you sure you can do side-along? I mean, not that I don't trust you, but it can take some practice to get it right, even after you get your license." Harry shrugged.

"I can do it. Besides, if you tried to apparate on your own, it wouldn't work. Not from here." Bill looked confused, and Harry smirked. "Oh yeah, welcome to Potter Manor, by the way. There's a lot of defenses on this place, including the ward that prevents anyone but the lord or lady of the house from apparating in or out." Bill nodded slowly. That was an impressive ward, he had to admit.

He suspected the goblins had been the ones to place the defenses on this place, with wards like that. His employers were well-known for placing intricate and powerful defenses around homes for those who were willing and able to pay.

As if knowing what his brother-in-law was thinking, Harry's smirk widened. "It didn't cost anything." "Huh?" Bill asked, not understanding. Harry shrugged. "The wards, they didn't cost anything for my family. At least, not in terms of monetary value.

The goblins warded this property because the Potter Family is considered to be a true goblin friend. They warded this Manor after my ancestors were forced to abandon our last Ancestral Home." Bill nodded again, processing the fact that Harry was more than just on good terms with the goblins.

He knew that they respected him and considered him to be a valuable customer, but he hadn't realized just how deep the actions ran. The goblins were doing more than just aiding and assisting a wealthy customer who treated them well. Harry was a goblin-friend. "So are you all staying here?" he asked curiously. Harry shook his head. "Even though it's well-protected, people know of its existence, and the general location is known to more people than we feel comfortable with.

We're somewhere safe, and I'm sure Aunt Minerva has guessed where by now, even if she can't get there." Bill pursed his lips but didn't say anything, as Ginny cleared her throat. "We should get going," she suggested. Harry nodded quickly, and then grasped onto Bill's arm, while Ginny took the other hand.

One thing they were going to try to rectify was Ginny and Luna's inability to apparate on their own. Because of the attack, the two wouldn't be able to take the class Harry and the others had taken the year before, so they were working on teaching the girls, since it could come in handy in the near future.

They had begun practicing over the last week, and they were getting better, but for the time being, Ginny relied on Harry to help guide her to the correct location. They reappeared a moment later, and Bill shook himself off, before taking a look around, not recognizing his surroundings. Neville greeted them as they stepped up to the turn off towards the Gaunt Shack. "We've set up Notice-Me-Not charms to prevent people from taking interest," he informed Harry.

"Hopefully no one will decide to take a midnight walk this way, but if they do, we'll be prepared." Harry nodded, as Bill greeted the rest of the teenagers. He was relieved to see them all, and made mental notes of their wellbeing, since he knew that his mother and Minerva would grill him on it if and when he mentioned seeing them. Without wasting any more time, they got to work. Bill was amazed at the number of wards protecting the Shack. There was one to instigate fear, to make people turn away, one that caused the bushes to grow and block them from coming any further, one that was designed to make people forget why they were heading in that particular direction, and at least four more.

In the end, it took them nearly the entire night just to get through the wards, being careful to ensure that there were no trip wards anywhere, designed to go off if any of the other wards were triggered.

Fortunately, none were present, but untangling the wards still took no small amount of skill. Bill worked with Harry, Ginny, Blaise, and Hermione, while the rest kept watch; those four teens were the best at wards, and the others would just be a hindrance. It was nearing four o'clock in the morning when Harry called the others back to them. Neville and Susan appeared, nodding at the exhausted group, glancing at the small shack that was now visible behind them.

"The others are still keeping watch," Neville informed them. Harry nodded tiredly. "We've got through the outer wards, but now we need to try and find the… vessel." He didn't want to say the word horcrux out loud, especially out in the open like this.

Neville bit his lip. "Do you think you have enough time?" Harry glanced at the sky, which was still dark, but he knew that dawn was only a couple of hours away. He looked back at Neville. "Reinforce the Notice-Me-Not charms, and try and add a few more. We shouldn't have too much traffic this way, and I don't want to leave the job half done. We've started, we need to finish this today." Neville and Susan nodded, and headed back out to the road, as Harry turned back to his group.

Bill was looking at the Shack with a calculating expression. "Harry, I think you might want to check this out." Harry moved over to his brother-in-law's side, and frowned. "What's up?" Bill glanced at him. "There's a ward on the door that I can't quite crack. When I try, I keep getting this hissing sound." Harry furrowed his brow. "A parseltongue passcode, maybe?

Vol " Ginny immediately cut him off with a hand on his shoulder, and Harry stopped talking, suddenly realizing what he had been about to do. With an apologetic look at the others, he amended his statement. "You-Know-Who is a parselmouth, it would make sense that he would set a passcode to ensure only he was able to get through." Hermione looked at him.

"Shouldn't you be able to get through, then? You can speak parseltongue as well." Harry bit his lip, and glanced at Ginny. Do you think I still have the ability? With that piece of… Him… gone, I'm not sure I can, anymore. Ginny shrugged. Only one way to find out. Harry nodded slightly, and then turned to the door. He tried to imagine a snake in his head. "Open." Nothing happened. Hermione looked disappointed. "Still English." Harry shook his head.

"I think I lost the ability a few months ago. Long story." They all looked intrigued, but didn't press at the moment. "So how do we get in?" Blaise asked, studying the door. Harry furrowed his brow, thinking hard. Catching his direction of thought, Ginny inhaled sharply, drawing the others' attention, but the two ignored them for the moment. Do you really think that will work? Ginny asked, excitedly. Harry looked at her, amused. Only one way to find out.

Ginny huffed and shoved him lightly, but she was smiling slightly. "What's going on?" Bill asked, looking between the two.

Harry bit his lip. "What you see has to stay between us," he warned them. "I've got an idea, but I'm not sure if it will work." They all nodded slowly, confused. Harry squeezed Ginny's hand once, before he stepped up to the door.

In his research, he had discovered that phoenixes and indeed many magical creatures had the ability to bypass most wards and spells set by witches and wizards.

Phoenixes were among the more powerful of magical creatures, along with griffins and unicorns, and it was possible that Harry could use his abilities as a phoenix animagus to bring down the ward on the door. He could theoretically flame travel into the Shack, but that wouldn't really help the rest of the group, especially if they couldn't get the door open from the inside. And if he flame traveled inside and accidentally set off a ward, they'd all be in huge trouble.

He reached out with one hand, concentrating on his phoenix form, without actually making the change. Next to him, Ginny grasped his hand with one of hers, while her other hand also reached out to touch the door. They both felt the intense and joyous song travel through them to congregate in their palms.

The hissing of the ward sounded once more, but the couple kept going. The others gasped at seeing the glow coming from the duo's hands.

When they touched the wood, the entire door began to glow with a soft gold. A moment later, there was a pulse of green, and then the gold intensified. A few moments later, Harry and Ginny lowered their hands, breathing hard.

"That took more effort than I thought," Harry commented idly. "The ward should be down." Next to him, Ginny nodded her agreement. Bill frowned and ran his wand over the door, nodding after a minute to indicate that it was safe to go in. "How did you do that?" he asked curiously.

Harry looked around, and then turned back to Bill. "We'll explain later. For now, let's just do what we came here to do." Bill nodded, and they all focused on the dark and dusty interior.

There was one large room, with a several doors leading to presumably other parts of the small shack. It looked like no one had set foot in this place in decades. There were a few pots and pans scattered around the floor and counters, a few plates, whole and in pieces, and what looked like an old lantern, turned over on its side in the middle of the room. They all raised their wands and began casting detection spells, finding several spots on the stone floor that would trigger defenses if they stepped on them.

They marked those spots so that they could avoid them, and continued searching for where the horcrux could be hidden. There was no doubt in any of their minds by now, that there was a horcrux there.

Why else would it be so well protected? Bill disabled a ward that if triggered would alert Voldemort that someone was at the Shack, before he turned his attention to the floor in the corner of the room. There was a concentration of protective magic in that area, and he got Harry's attention. Working together, the two were able to dispel most of them.

A few more minutes got the rest, and they both had to take a breather for a moment. "Guys." The rest of the group turned towards Harry, and upon seeing where his concentration was directed, also focused his gaze on that specific corner. A wave of the wand had part of the floor lifting on a hinge, and Harry stepped cautiously forward, avoiding the marked stones to avoid springing any traps.

When he looked down into the hole in the floor, he saw a small box sitting innocently before him. He made sure there were no more curses on the box, before he levitated it out of the hole, and opened it. Inside was a ring. A pressure in his mind told him to put the ring on, and he shook his head quickly, clearing it of the thought. He recognized a compulsion charm when he felt it.

Closing the lid to the box, Harry placed a locking charm on it before turning around and nodding to the others. "Let's get out of here." They all needed no further encouragement, and quickly left the cramped Shack.

Out on the path, Harry nodded at Neville, who was the closest. Smiling, Neville went to collect the others. Harry turned to Bill. "Let's return to Potter Manor, and I'll try and answer the questions I know you have." He looked at Ginny. "Can you and the others Floo in, in about five minutes? I'll make sure the wards will let everyone through." Ginny nodded and gave him a kiss, before he took Bill's arm and disapparated. XXX When Ginny and the others Flooed into Potter Manor a few minutes later, they found Bill and Harry waiting for them in the dining room, an impressive breakfast spread set up before them.

Bill smiled tiredly. "I sent a Patronus to Fleur to let her know I'll be gone a little longer, and Harry sent Gringotts a note excusing me from work for the day," he grinned at the idea of a 'get out of work' letter being sent on his behalf by a seventeen year old.

Harry shrugged. "Sharptooth will understand what we're doing, and he'll smooth it over with your immediate supervisor. In the meantime, the house elves prepared breakfast for us. It looks amazing, and I'm famished. Shall we?" They nodded quickly, and fell on the spread with gusto. Fifteen minutes later, everyone had been sated, and they sat back from the now empty table, all breathing sighs of relief.

Bill spent a few minutes explaining to them the state of things as he knew it. Snape had woken up briefly a few days earlier, and was doing well, according to Narcissa. Hogwarts was being used as a Death Eater camp for Voldemort. The Bones Estate was hosting many former Ministry employees, while McGonagall Castle was hosting most of their circle, and Sirius had opened up Grimmauld Place for any members of the Order who needed a place to stay.

The Ministry was still functioning, though it was obvious to anyone with a brain, that the Death Eaters were in charge; even if he hadn't declared himself Minister of Magic, Voldemort was definitely pulling the strings. Once he was finished updating them, Bill turned to Harry with keen interest. "So, Harry, are you going to explain how you two got through that door?" he asked.

Harry sighed, before he and Ginny stood up and stepped back from the table. "This can go no further than here," he warned them. "Aunt Minerva and Sirius know, but we don't want anyone else to find out." They all nodded, confused, and then gaped as the two teens turned into phoenixes before their eyes.

Ron actually fell off his seat in surprise. "How…?" Harry gave them the bird equivalent of a smirk, before he gathered the fire he could feel coursing through him, and let himself be consumed by it. Everyone whipped their heads around to the opposite side of the room, to see Harry reappear in another burst of flame.

A moment later, Ginny followed his lead, disappearing in a burst of flame and reappearing next to Harry on the other side of the room.

A minute later, both turned back. Harry rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, and Ginny beamed. "When we took the animagus potion, we had two forms.

We completed the phoenix one a couple years ago, a few months after we finished our first forms. Near as we can tell, we've got all the traits and abilities of phoenixes, though we haven't tried out the healing tears part yet." There was a shocked silence, before Bill furrowed his brow in thought.

"All the abilities…" He trailed off, and Harry nodded. "Including their ability to get passed any ward set by mere mortals," Harry commented, shrugging. "Most magical creatures have some level of control over wards and spells made by wizards, with phoenixes and griffins having the most power, followed closely by unicorns.

We used that ability to bring down the ward on the door to the Shack." "That doesn't explain everything though," Blaise commented, looking at the two with a shrewd expression. Harry raised an eyebrow, and the Slytherin leaned forward. "You and Ginny have something going on. I don't know what it is, but sometimes it seems like you're having conversations without saying anything." Harry let out a sigh, glancing at Ginny. She shook her head slightly, her eyes accepting.

"I don't think we can keep it a secret anymore," she answered his unasked question. Harry nodded ruefully, and Bill looked even more confused. "What's going on?" Biting his lip, Harry extracted another promise not to tell anyone anything they heard in this room, before he informed Bill, Blaise, Daphne, and Luna about their soul bond.

All four were suitably shocked, and surprised that no one else was, which led to an explanation of how the rest had known for over a year. Harry shrugged sheepishly. "We told them right after we told our guardians. We're sorry we didn't say anything to the rest of you, we just…" He shrugged again. Blaise nodded slowly. "It makes sense. I guess I wish you had told me sooner, but I can understand you not wanting anyone else to know." Harry nodded.

"Thanks," he said, relieved that they understood. Daphne and Luna were nodding their acceptance as well. Bill pursed his lips. "Mum and dad know?" he asked Ginny softly. Ginny nodded, leaning into Harry's side. "They were shocked, and startled to realize that I have been married since I was thirteen, but they trust us to be responsible.

They've worked really hard to let Harry and I have our space, and they realize that they don't have much say in it anyway, so they have no choice but to trust us." Bill inclined his head, looking between the two. "Well, I can't say I'm thrilled, but I think I knew you two would stay together, even without this bond. I'm happy for you, Ginny. You guys are really good together." Harry and Ginny grinned happily, glad that Bill was all right with it.

Harry shifted in his seat. "Just so you know, Bill, Fleur knows about this as well. We didn't tell her," he hurried on when Bill opened his mouth, "but she's part Veela, so she could sense it. I know you don't want to hide things from your wife, so I thought I'd let you know that you don't have to." Bill nodded slowly. "Thanks." He knew it would take some getting used to, and he definitely needed to process everything he had learned that night and morning, but it was nice that they trusted him enough to tell him.

A few minutes later, Bill decided he really needed to get back to McGonagall Castle and get some rest, so he said his last farewells, told them that he was glad they were all well, and promised to carry their greetings to their families, before he departed through the Floo. The rest of them used their ring portkeys to return to Lion's Castle, and when Harry was alone in his Ancestral Home once more, he removed all their names from the access list before he joined the others.

Not much more was said, as they were all exhausted. Harry placed their newest acquisition with the other horcruxes, before he joined Ginny in their room, and settled down to get some much needed rest. _ _ _ Chapter 15 Disclaimer: I'm just playing with them When Bill returned to McGonagall Castle, he was too exhausted to do much more than head up to the room he and Fleur were sharing, and drop onto the bed, fully clothed, asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

When he awoke, it was to the comforting feeling of a hand running through his hair, and a soft but melodious voice humming something he thought he recognized as an old lullaby. He shifted slightly, and Fleur fell silent, smiling down at her husband. "You took longer than you thought last night, mon chéri?" she queried. Bill nodded and sat up. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I couldn't leave early." Fleur shook her head. "It was important, non? I understand. You do not need to explain what you were doing.

Master Sharptooth came into the office this morning to tell Master Goldbreath that you had been excused from your duties for the day. I had not realized that goblins from the different departments could outrank each other." Bill shrugged.

"I think it depends on the rank and the department. Sharptooth is a senior Manager, and I think he might have some sort of position on the Goblin Council.

He's Harry's Family Manager." Fleur inhaled sharply. "You have seen Harry?" Bill nodded ruefully. "Harry and the others needed my help with something last night, that's where I was.

I can't give you any more than that, but I should probably tell Mum and Minerva, so that they can be assured that the kids are all right." Fleur inclined her head. "Everyone is gathering for dinner, so we should head down there, yes?" Bill smiled and brushed the part-Veela's hair behind her ear.

He gave her a soft kiss. "You're amazing," he said, pulling back. Fleur beamed, and stood up, stepping back to wait, while Bill changed into a clean set of clothes. He stopped Fleur as she made to leave the room, grabbing her around the waist, spinning her so that he could kiss her properly.

"I love you," he murmured against her lips. Fleur giggled and threw her arms around his neck. "I know," she replied. "As I love you." Bill pulled back and smiled into her warm gaze.

"Thank you." Fleur raised an eyebrow in silent question, and Bill shrugged. "Harry told me about the secret you've been keeping for him." Fleur gasped. "He and Ginny told you about the bond?" Bill nodded. "I wasn't exactly thrilled to hear that my little sister has been married since she was thirteen, but Harry's exactly the kind of guy I would want for her. I'm grateful that you kept such a secret for them.

Thank you for looking after my sister and… brother-in-law… they really appreciate it as well." Fleur nodded determinedly. "It is not my secret to share," she said firmly. "A soul bond is a sacred thing, the manifestation of true love. Such an occurrence happens once every other lifetime, if you are lucky. It is an honor, just to see their love." Bill smiled, and kissed her again, before the two headed down to the dining room, hand in hand.

XXX When they arrived, pretty much everyone was gathered, preparing to sit down for dinner as Fleur had said. They all greeted Bill warmly, having been worried at his absence all night, despite Fleur's assurances that he was fine and just had to work. The lanky redhead bit his lip, unsure if he should give everyone the update on the teenagers. Minerva frowned. "Bill?

Has something happened? Fleur was very vague when she told us you had been called away last night." Bill smiled slightly. "Everything's fine. I was out all night, helping a few… friends." Minerva narrowed her gaze, and Molly gasped.

"Bill? Have you " Bill nodded quickly. "They're fine," he assured them. "They just needed my help with something. But I've seen all of them, and they're well." The entire table let out a sigh of relief, particularly those whose children were a part of the group of teenagers.

"They're really all right?" Cyrus asked urgently, staring intently at the redhead. Bill nodded again. "They are; they said to say hello, and to tell you all that they miss you, but they're doing fine." Everyone relaxed, as Bill focused on Minerva.

Jerking his head slightly, he made a silent request to speak with his former professor in private. Looking concerned, Minerva excused herself from the table, and followed Bill to a nearby empty room. Once they were alone, Bill had to smile at the nervous expression on the Transfiguration Mistress' face.

"Relax, Minerva, they're really all right. I just wanted to tell you that that… task, Harry and the others are undertaking, is progressing well." Minerva inhaled sharply. "That's what they needed your assistance for?" Bill nodded. "It was a success, and they're one step closer." Minerva exhaled, and almost slumped in relief. "I can't believe they managed to find it.

It was like searching for a needle in a haystack." Bill shrugged. "Harry said it took them nearly a week of searching every night, and once they found it, another three nights before they called for me. It took us the entire night and part of the morning to bring down the wards and get the… object." Minerva sighed.

"I am relieved that it was a success. Thank you for telling me, Bill, and I am glad Harry and the others are well. Harry didn't tell me of their progress the last time we spoke." Bill furrowed his brow. "You've been in contact?" Minerva nodded. "He sends a letter once a week, to let me know everything is all right.

He hasn't told me much of their search though. Likely it is because he doesn't feel comfortable putting anything on paper, even if the letters come directly to me via house elf, and I burn them after I have read them." Bill lifted one shoulder.

"They're being cautious. Harry doesn't want anything to get out, and that means not sharing too much with anyone, no matter how much you trust them. There's always a chance." Minerva nodded in understanding. "As much as I hate to say it, he's learning from his parents mistakes. They thought they could trust Peter, and look how that turned out." She sighed. "I do get it, I just wish it wasn't necessary." Bill smiled slightly.

"Some day, it won't be." He glanced at his watch. "We should get back, or my wife will come in here and drag me back to stuff me full of food, while giving me quite a lecture at how bad it is to go an entire day without eating." Minerva chuckled as she inclined her head.

"I will not argue with that. I myself am famished." The pair headed back towards the dining room. After a few moments of silence, Minerva sighed. "I am glad that you were safe, Bill. I don't like the idea of anyone venturing out in public at the moment." Bill shook his head. "I work for the goblins. Business doesn't stop just because wizards are at war.

They've been good about setting up a special room for their witch and wizard employees to apparate directly into, so that we don't have to go through the Alley." Minerva nodded slightly. "That is comforting. Still, please, you and Fleur be safe and on your guard." Bill smiled his agreement, as the two reached the dining room and sat down, integrating themselves into the conversation with ease.

XXX When Harry woke up, it was nearly suppertime. Ginny was still asleep, so he quietly extracted himself from the bed, and headed over to his dresser. Sitting on top was a folded up piece of old parchment.

He brought his wand to the parchment and murmured, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good." Before his eyes, lines of ink began to form.

He opened the parchment and waited for the map to fully form. What are you doing? Ginny asked, her mental voice filled with sleep. Harry glanced back at her. I just thought it might be a good idea to see what we're dealing with at Hogwarts. Aunt Minerva said that Voldemort was holding it, and Bill said the place was being used as a Death Eater base.

Ginny nodded, sitting up and folding her knees to her chest. What does it say? Harry looked at the map for a few minutes, and grimaced. They were right. There are probably around fifty Death Eaters in the castle right now.

I recognize a lot of the names Avery, Yaxley, Macnair, Carrow, Greyback, both Malfoys… he sighed, and folded up the map, whispering, "Mischief managed," as he did so.

When it was clear, he turned back to Ginny. "Yaxley's the new 'Minister'," he reminded her. "I guess that's just more proof that he's Voldemort's plant." Ginny shook her head. "No use worrying about it now," she said logically. "But we've got a way to know when the Death Eaters are there, and where they are in the castle. That could come in handy." Harry nodded slightly. "We're going to need to worry about it pretty soon," he commented. Ginny glanced at him and then sighed.

"The sword." "The sword," Harry agreed. "I don't want to try Fiendfyre, ever." "Do you think our phoenix abilities could destroy them?" Ginny wondered. Harry thought about it for a minute, and then shook his head. "I don't think so," he said regrettably. "The phoenix abilities help against wards, but these aren't wards.

It's dark magic, but I don't think we could physically destroy them with our phoenix powers. We need basilisk venom." "So we need to get into the castle." Harry nodded. "We'll start coming up with a plan. We also need to search for a hiding place for a horcrux in there as well." Ginny sighed. "Yeah, Hogwarts told you that something was 'wrong' in the castle. But you realize how impossible it will be to just get in and search the place from top to bottom, right?" Harry shrugged.

"I know, but it's the only real lead we've got. There's only two more horcruxes left, and we're going off the idea that one of them is Nagini." Ginny groaned.

"So much guesswork. I wish we could have certainties." Harry nodded his agreement. "Let's see if the others are up. Maybe they'll have some ideas." XXX Everyone began to trickle into the dining room a few minutes later, as Harry was helping the house elves put the last few dishes on the table.

He looked up at his friends and smiled. "Dinner's ready." Everyone fell on the meal quickly, famished after sleeping all day. Over supper, they discussed their next steps.

Harry told them what he had seen on the Map, which didn't exactly thrill anyone. "How are we supposed to get passed all those Death Eaters to get the sword?" Ron asked, spooning potatoes into his mouth eagerly. Harry shrugged. "Just another obstacle. If there was another way to destroy the horcruxes, I'd be all for it, but other than Fiendfyre, I can't think of one." Blaise furrowed his brow. "Is it possible to buy basilisk venom?" Harry bit his lip.

"I don't think so," he admitted. "It's pretty rare. If there was a way, Sharptooth would have mentioned it when we told him about the horcruxes this summer, and how we needed the sword to destroy them." They all looked disappointed. Hermione leaned forward. "Harry, I know you think there's still a horcrux at Hogwarts, but I think we should try looking other places first. It'll be easier to check out other possibilities, and what if we do manage to get in, and risk our lives and possibly the war, only to find out there's nothing there?" Harry didn't like it, but he had to agree.

"All right. Let's try to think of other places he might have used. But we're still going to have to try and figure out a way in. Gryffindor's Sword is our best shot at destroying these things. And it's more than just a guess, Hermione. Hogwarts knows that something is 'wrong' in the castle." They stared at him. "What do you mean?" Blaise asked curiously. Harry sighed. "Hogwarts knows that something is wrong. She doesn't know what or where, but she does know that there is something wrong inside the walls." They paused to consider that, before Ron asked, "Can you get in as Gryffindor's heir?" Harry considered for a moment.

"I could probably get passed the wards, because the castle would let me in, but Hogwarts isn't really all powerful. I would still be visible to the Death Eaters and Voldemort, and if he had anything that let him know when someone unauthorized, or maybe someone without a Dark Mark, entered the castle, he would know I was there." Ron nodded, understanding. Ginny sighed. "It's really too bad; we were going to switch the swords after the holiday.

I guess we don't need that fake sword anymore." Hermione pursed her lips. "We should continue searching the library." "Tomorrow," Harry corrected. "Let's just relax tonight, and get back to work tomorrow.

We've had a big success today, so let's enjoy it." They all agreed, and left the dining room, separating to various rooms in the Castle to wind down before going to sleep. XXX As January picked up speed, Harry and his friends spent most of their time searching for new possibilities on locations, or trying to come up with ways to get into Hogwarts undetected.

They set up a schedule so that several of them would go out each day in disguise, to collect information on what was going on in the wizarding world. They made sure to stake out the area by the Ministry employee entrance to the building, Diagon Alley, and Hogsmeade.

A few weeks after they found the ring, Harry and Daphne left the confines of the Castle early, after first making sure that no one would recognize them. They appeared in the alley next to the Leaky Cauldron, and after checking themselves once more, they headed into the pub. Tom the barman was at the counter, but he didn't even look up as Harry and Daphne passed through.

Instead, he ducked his head as if hoping his potential customers wouldn't notice him. The two teenagers threw their hoods up as they exited out the back, and after tapping the correct brick, stepped into the Alley. No one looked at them for more than a few seconds, as they wound their way down the overrun cobbled brick; with the situation as it was, the Alley just wasn't being maintained the way it used to be.

The Death Eaters didn't really care about everything looking beautiful, and everyday witches and wizards knew to avoid the Alley as much as possible. Some shops were still open, but not that many on the main drag. Harry and Daphne's destination, however, was not on the main drag. They turned off pretty quickly, heading down a dark path that Harry remembered quite vividly from the summer before his second year.

"Are we sure about this?" Daphne murmured, glancing at her friend briefly. Harry shrugged with one shoulder. "We need to get more information. If he can help us, this may be the only way. He won't tell us willingly." Daphne nodded, knowing that he was right.

She was just worried that someone would find them, or that they would call attention to themselves. Harry gestured for her to turn towards the familiar shop entrance. Though it had been years since he had hidden in that cupboard in Borgin and Burkes, he still remembered where the store was. Once inside, they took a look around to make sure that it was empty, before Daphne warded the door to keep anyone else from entering.

Borgin walked through a back door, and stopped short at seeing the two cloaked figures in his shop. "Can I " Harry raised a hand and shot off a silent, wandless Stupefy, and Borgin dropped to the floor.

Harry and Daphne levitated the unconscious man to the back room, putting up a few more wards as they locked themselves in. They sat Borgin down on a chair and tied him to the armrests, before Daphne pulled out a small bottle filled with a clear liquid.

She took a deep breath as she uncorked it. "Are you sure this will work?" she asked, looking at Harry. Harry nodded. "We followed all the instructions correctly, and it looks the way it's supposed to. Just put three drops on his tongue." Daphne complied, opening the unconscious man's mouth with little difficulty.

Harry tried not to feel too guilty about what they were doing. The research Harry and his friends had done over the last year had told them that Voldemort had worked for Borgin and Burkes after graduation. It was possible that the remaining owner of the store might know something, even if he didn't know that he knew. And the sad truth was that this was war.

Harry knew it was a slippery slope, and if he and his friends weren't careful, they could end up falling further than was acceptable. After all, the excuse of war had been what had caused his godfather to spend twelve years in Azkaban without a trial. So even though Harry knew it was necessary, he still couldn't get rid of the sick feeling in his gut.

Ginny told him it was a good thing that he felt guilty, and reassured him that he wasn't evil for doing what was necessary. Once the potion was administered, a quick Enervate had Borgin awake. His eyes were glazed over, an indication that the potion was working. Knowing that they only had so long, and not wanting to risk what might happen if someone were to discover their presence, Harry got right to the questions.

He asked a few to get a baseline, and make sure the Veritaserum was working the way it should. After getting responses for his name, his business, and his former partner, they got down to the more important questions. "Mr. Borgin, do you remember an employee of yours called Tom Riddle?" Borgin continued to stare straight ahead.

"Yes." "Tell us about him." "He started working here right after graduation. Great employee. Great at getting people to part with their valuables for only a fraction of what they'd be worth in resale," Borgin almost smirked, but the potion kept him from showing any real emotion.

Harry grimaced at the greedy shopkeeper. "Did he ever seem particularly interested in anything?" Borgin nodded. "Old Hepzibah Smith had lots of items I'd have loved to get my hands on. Tom went over there many times to try and convince her to sell.

More than was really necessary, but he was good at the job. Hepzibah was always a hard egg. Liked to hoard her treasures, she did. But Tom could convince her to part with lots of pricey items. I sold her an old locket way back when.

Would have loved to have gotten it back when she died." Harry frowned slightly. "Tell us about the locket." "Big and solid. An 'S' on the front, in emeralds." Borgin was nearly drooling. "Bought it off a ragamuffin more'n seventy years ago.

Got a great deal, I did. Woman was covered in rags, near 'bout to pop, she was so pregnant. Didn't know what she had, I reckon. Bought it for ten galleons." Harry grit his teeth. Trust Borgin to cheat a pregnant woman in need. "What happened to the woman?" He had a sneaking suspicion the woman was Voldemort's mother, and he was curious about what had happened to her. He knew Tom had grown up in an orphanage, so he assumed his mother Merope Gaunt, if he remembered correctly had died, or abandoned him.

"Don't know, do I?" Borgin replied. "Sold me the locket, and left. Never saw her again." Harry glanced at Daphne, and when she shook her head, he knew she didn't have anything to add, so he knocked Borgin out again, before they took down the wards and left.

They hadn't really learned anything new, but they did reaffirm some things they had already known. XXX Minerva and Sirius shared an exasperated look as they took in the yelling mass in front of them. Ever since Dumbledore's death, the Order had been in limbo. No one knew who was in charge, and the few meetings they had had since the Dark Lord had taken over, had been little more than people screaming over one another, some trying to take control, others fighting those who tried.

Minerva tried to stay out of it; she knew that she could make a claim for leadership, but she didn't really want to lead the Order.

In her opinion, they hadn't been of much use in this war, and were far too reactive, something Albus had made no move to change. She didn't think she could turn them into a fighting body, which was really what was needed.

What else could they do? The ball, as the muggles would say, was in Harry's court. He and his friends had to find the horcruxes and destroy them, before You-Know-Who could be defeated. "Enough!" Everyone quieted as Moody's grizzled voice made itself known over the din.

The ex-Auror was glaring at the entire crowd. "Stop your inane babbling, before I lose all my patience and hex you to oblivion." Several people looked offended, but wisely, no one chose to fight Moody.

The man's electric blue eye spun in its socket as he continued to glare. After a moment, he nodded. "All right. Here's how it's going to go." Minerva listened as Moody talked, agreeing with most of what he was saying; telling people not to go out in public more than necessary, especially since most of them could be recognized as fighters for the light. People like the Weasleys, and Sirius, Remus, Tonks and Kingsley, they would most likely be killed on sight.

Some could continue to work, those who weren't well known as members of the Order of the Phoenix, but most would rather keep out of view, just to be safe. It was fortunate that Sirius had offered Grimmauld Place for people to stay, if they needed somewhere safer than their own homes. When the meeting was over, most returned to the rooms they had been staying in, or to their own homes if they had decided against moving into Grimmauld Place.

Moody stomped over to where Minerva and Sirius were sitting. "Bunch of young idiots," he grumbled. Minerva shrugged. "They're scared. Albus was a staple in our world; none of us have ever imagined a life without him there." Moody growled. "They need to be prepared for anything. Constant vigilance." Sirius shook his head. "Not everyone is as paranoid as you, Mad-Eye." He stood up. "If you'll excuse me, I need to get back to Amelia. Minerva, I'll see you soon." Minerva nodded, and watched as Sirius left the room, catching up with Remus, Tonks, Molly, and Arthur by the door.

Moody harrumphed. "They should be. This isn't a time to be soft." Minerva stood up. "Alastor, I understand, but Sirius is right.

Not everyone is used to being as wary as you. They're trying. I should return to my home now. Good day." She left the room, heading to the Floo. She was unsure if she should continue meeting with the Order. It didn't seem like they were accomplishing anything, and she had better things to do than sit in a room and listen to people yell at each other.

XXX Back at the Castle, Harry and Daphne shared what they had learned, which really wasn't that much, but at least they knew how Voldemort had gotten the locket, though it didn't help them now. After lunch, they all spent the remainder of the afternoon in the library, researching. Hermione's hesitant cough interrupted them as Harry was starting to think about dinner. "Harry? Can you take a look at this?" Harry glanced up, and saw his friend's confused expression, as she stared down at the tattered book in her hands.

"What's up, Hermione?" he asked, concerned. Hermione looked around at the group, who were all watching her with varying expressions of worry. She bit her lip. "I was looking through a row of books in the very back of the library, and I found this journal. It looks handwritten and very old." "Who wrote it?" Harry asked, interested. He wondered if it was a memoir from one of his relatives. Hermione glanced at the front of the book. "Ignotus Peverell.

From the dates, he probably lived and died generations before the Founders." "So what's in his journal that's got you so confused?" Ron asked, leaning forward. Hermione shrugged slightly. "This recount he has, it's just interesting. It talks about how he and his two brothers acquired these objects. His eldest brother had an unbeatable wand, while his middle brother, a stone that could supposedly bring the dead back to life.

And he had an invisibility cloak for himself, one that would never fail." Neville tilted his head to the side. "That sounds sort of like the Tale of the Three Brothers." "The what?" Harry asked, interested. Hermione also seemed confused, so Neville told them the bedtime story he had heard many times, about the three brothers who had encountered Death late one evening.

He had been angry because they had cheated him of his prize, by managing to build a bridge to get them across a deep gorge; however, he had hidden his fury, and granted them each a request. "The eldest brother wanted a wand that would never fail, so Death plucked a branch from a nearby Elder tree, and proclaimed that whomever he fought would surely be defeated," Neville explained. Susan picked up, twirling a lock of hair between her fingers.

"The middle brother had had a fiancée, who had died; he wished to see her again, and so made his request. Death picked up a rock from the ground, and proclaimed that if the brother turned it over three times in his hands, he would see his loved one again." Ginny took over.

"The youngest brother was the wisest, and he did not trust Death. He asked for an object that would allow him to walk away from that road, safe from Death. Furious, Death handed over his own cloak of invisibility, and left the brothers. A short time later, the eldest brother returned to his home village, and challenged a man with whom he had had a disagreement.

As promised by Death, the wand did not fail, and he killed the man. Overjoyed, he spent the evening bragging about his unbeatable wand at the village pub. That night, another man snuck into his bedroom while he slept, and took the wand. For safe measure, he slit the brother's throat. And so, Death took the eldest brother." Blaise shifted in his seat. "The middle brother went back to his own home, and turned the rock three times in his hands. His late fiancée joined him, as promised.

However, she was unhappy, and separated from him as if by a veil. After just a few days of living in agony, the middle brother couldn't take it anymore, and he killed himself to join his fiancée. And so, Death took the middle brother." "However, Death searched and searched for years, but could not find the youngest brother," Neville picked back up. "Finally, once his children and grandchildren were grown, the youngest brother removed his cloak of invisibility, gifted to him by Death itself, and passed it down to his eldest son.

And he and Death departed together, as old friends." Hermione furrowed her brow. "That does have some similarities to this," she commented. Luna's keen gaze sought out her bushy-haired friend. "Of course it does," she said breezily. "True searchers understand that the Peverell brothers were the brothers of the tale." "Searchers of what?" Hermione asked, interested. Luna's wide eyes lightened slightly. "The Deathly Hallows, of course!" She reached for a spare piece of parchment, and drew a triangle on it, angling the parchment so that they could all see it.

"The Cloak of Invisibility." She drew a circle inside the triangle. "The Resurrection Stone." Finally, she added a single vertical line straight down the middle. "The Elder Wand." She looked back up. "Together they make the three Deathly Hallows.

Legend has it that the person who unites all three will become the true Master of Death." Hermione had to let out a snort at that. "I'm sorry, but what? Master of Death? A stone that can bring back the dead? An unbeatable wand? I'll admit that there are invisibility cloaks, but one that's supposed to shield the wearer from Death?" Susan shrugged.

"It does seem like a fairytale, but the wand is pretty easily traceable. It pops up from time to time, under different names, of course, but the signs are there.

The Deathstick, the Wand of Destiny, all claim to be unbeatable wands." Hermione frowned. "Ok, so that might be true, but " "And Harry's got an invisibility cloak," Ron cut in. Hermione rolled her eyes. "They're rare, Ron, but not unheard of." "But a cloak that holds up for years without losing any power?" Neville asked, looking at Harry with interest. "Most invisibility cloaks tend to wear out after fifteen or twenty years.

But you've had yours for a while, right?" Harry nodded absentmindedly. "Dumbledore gave it back to me in first year, and it was my dad's before that. Sirius said it's a family heirloom. It's definitely held up for way more than twenty years, without losing any power." Ron's eyes widened.

"This journal is by the youngest brother. What if your cloak is the same one he got from Death!" They all looked at him, and he sighed exasperatedly.

"Ok, so maybe he didn't get it from Death, but what if it's the same one from the story?" Hermione shook her head. "I just don't believe in something like objects that make someone the Master of Death.

And nothing can bring back the dead. Such a stone just can't exist." "Why not?" Blaise asked reasonably. Hermione spluttered for a moment. "Come on, you can't seriously believe in something like that!" she finally managed to get out. "It's impossible." "How can you be so certain?" Luna asked.

"Didn't we have this conversation last year?" Hermione grimaced slightly at the reminder of the discussion they had had on the train the previous June, but shook her head. "I've never seen anything to support the claim." "You've never seen anything that doesn't support it, either," Luna countered.

"They're right, Hermione," Harry put in, softly. "Remember, once upon a time, magic wasn't real to you, either." Hermione lowered her head, but agreed not to rule out the possibility. Just because she had never seen anything that suggested the existence of such an object, didn't mean it couldn't be out there. After all, she couldn't very well go out and test all of the stones in the world, could she? "So you're descended from the Peverells, then?" Neville asked, interested, looking at Harry.

He remembered the name from his studies when he was younger. They used to be a well-known family, but they had died out or changed their name more than five hundred years ago. Harry nodded. "It would seem so." He frowned and pulled the drawing Luna had made towards him. "Harry?" Ginny asked, concerned. Harry bit his lip and stood up.

"I'll be right back," he said quickly, almost running as he left the library. Everyone turned to look at Ginny. The redhead shrugged. "He's had a thought. He's definitely concerned by it, though." They all looked a little worried, and waited in silence until Harry returned, a few minutes later.

He looked around at them, and held out the ring they had collected from the Gaunt Shack. "I thought that drawing looked familiar," he informed them. "Look at this." They all crowded around and looked at the stone embedded in the gold setting of the ring. On the flat side, they could each make out a crudely scratched image. If they squinted, it took the shape of a triangle encased around a circle, with a vertical line down the middle. Susan gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.

"Could this be…?" They all understood the implications, and Harry quickly lowered his hand, hiding the ring from view. "I don't want that much power. Besides, it's still a horcrux. I'm going to go put it away." They all looked unsettled by the idea of the Resurrection Stone being within their very grasp, though Hermione gave her friend an approving smile as he left the library once more. After another minute of silence, Ginny sighed, standing up wearily.

"Come on, let's get to bed. I think we've done enough studying for the night." Agreeing wholeheartedly, the group left the library, in search of their comfortable beds several floors above them.