The Sugar Quill
Author: Paleologus (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Feather and Flame  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Summary: In the wake of the disaster at Azkaban, the Ministry investigates Hogwarts, Hermione and Ron investigate each other, and Harry investigates himself while Ginny (sigh) waits. The Order of the Phoenix rises unwelcome from the ashes. Third story in a series of four.

Author’s note: Is it possible, after all this time, that anyone is still itching to know what happens after “The Innocents”? I know I was. Well, itch no longer. This is the third story in a series set in Harry’s fifth year- it follows “Drastic Measures” and “The Innocents”, in that order. Special thanks go to Mrs Paleologus for helping this story rise from the ashes of its trashy first draft, and to Elanor Gamgee for her very encouraging beta-reading. Enjoy!

***

"You look um, nice, Hermione," Harry said uneasily, as Hermione joined him on the busy landing where two stairways met under the great wall of portraits of past Headmasters. They had arranged to meet Ron in the library, to begin revising for O.W.L.s, at Hermione’s insistence. “You’ll never have time when Quidditch begins, Harry,” she had said. “We mustn’t leave it a minute longer.”

Harry had seen her coming down the opposite staircase, fidgeting with her hair. At first he had not even recognized her in the crowd of students. Harry couldn’t put his finger on it. She looked somehow different. "Fetching" was the word Harry thought of but didn’t dare say. It was the word the saleswoman used to describe expensive vases on the shopping channel that Aunt Petunia would watch religiously. "Fetching," she would repeat to herself softly. It usually meant there was going to be an argument with Uncle Vernon about buying the vase. He blinked the memory away.

Hermione's face reddened guiltily at Harry’s words, but she recovered and was all business.

"Really? Do you think so?" she said, with feigned nonchalance. Her eyes shone.

Harry said the only thing he could think of.

"Are you all right? Is there something wrong?" He kept thinking about Aunt Petunia and her fetching vases.

"Wrong?" Hermione sounded annoyed. "No, of course not."

Harry shrugged and started down the rest of the stairs.

Hermione dashed after him and caught his arm, nearly knocking him off balance. A Slytherin third-year coming down the stairs narrowly avoided crashing into them. He tsked his annoyance loudly.

"Do I look terrible?" Hermione said. She had changed colour.

"No," Harry said, smiling at her sudden frantic change. It reminded him of his Aunt Petunia when the number of the vases on the shopping channel was dwindling. "I just said you looked nice."

"Oh," Hermione breathed. "Thanks. It’s… just a bit of makeup that Ginny lent me, and, er, this ribbon…"

She vaguely indicated a thin twinkling stripe winding its way through her bushy hair with a wave. It changed colours like shifting winds. Right now it was blinking subtly at him - trying to get his attention.

Harry started. It was his turn to flush. He recognized the ribbon. Ginny had worn it once, one morning a couple of weeks before, a morning that Harry had been keeping out of his mind. A morning when some things were done and said that, in the cold light of what had happened after, seemed silly and regrettable to Harry. He tried to ignore the blinking hair-band.

"Oh, right," Harry said, and when he felt the weight of Hermione's expectant gaze, he knew he had to explain himself. "I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. Anyway, let's go, then."

And he started down the rest of the stairway, the less said about the ribbon the better.

Harry left Hermione on the steps. Only when he got to the next landing did he notice she wasn't with him. He turned to face her, repeating "Is something wrong?"

Hermione chewed her lip. Her hair-ribbon went a deep plum colour. "Nnnooo… " she began.

"Right then," said Harry and mimed proceeding. She didn't move. "Hermio-"

"Not wrong, exactly," Hermione interrupted uncertainly.

Harry stomped back up the steps and grabbed the right sleeve of Hermione’s robe, steering her down a side corridor. He hoped Hermione could see his exasperation.

"What are you doing?" Hermione hissed, her eyes bugging out. Her hair band had turned an acid green.

"Does this have anything to do with-" Harry dropped his voice to a whisper. "-Ron?"

Hermione blushed deeply, rendering quite superfluous the colour she had added to her cheeks.

"Harry, I-" she whispered urgently and then straightened up. “Oh, blast, this is stupid!" she said in her regular fussy voice. "I’m going back to the Tower-"

"Are you trying to get Ron’s attention?"

Harry smiled slightly at the shocked reaction on Hermione's face.

"How-" she stammered. Her hair band became the same mousy colour as her hair and he could no longer see it.

"Because you’ve got it already."

"When will he say so? I just can’t tell. I’m pretty sure he likes me. He-" Hermione sighed. "The only time he lets on is when his life’s in danger. Harry, it’s ridiculous. He’s spoiling my concentration."

Harry grinned. "He’s mad about you. Trust me, I know," he added with pointed weariness. Few lights-out had gone by recently without Ron muttering about how he would broach the subject with Hermione. "D'you think she actually likes me, Harry? I mean, I know she said she does, but that was when she was about to die, wasn't it? I'm sure people say all sorts of things under duress..." and so forth.

Hermione bit her lip. "Don’t laugh at me, Harry. I was going to, in the library…" she whispered conspiratorially. "I thought I’d tell him to go get a book from the stacks, then follow him there-"

"Okay, enough, I’ve got the idea," Harry said, waving his hands. "But the library?"

"Well, there's not much privacy these days, is there? It was Ginny’s idea. I was about to make a fool of myself," Hermione declared. "Thanks for talking me out of it," she said briskly and started to turn.

"No," Harry said, grinning. "I think that’s a terrific idea."

Hermione stood, torn, ready to go march back to Gryffindor Tower but clearly wanting to believe Harry too.

"Don’t make me go through with it, Harry," she pleaded.

"Never dream of it. Ron will be delighted," Harry said, "when I tell him."

Harry greatly enjoyed the expression on Hermione’s face.

"You would not!" she hissed.

Harry stayed silent.

"All right," Hermione began again. "Here’s a deal. You have to swear…"

"Anything," Harry said, smiling.

"You’ll do the same for Ginny."

Harry was stunned, as if Hermione had just upended his dinner-plate.

"Why-" he began, then stopped.

"I know about you two," Hermione said, her face serious. “Ginny’s been miserable. You haven’t spoken to her.”

"Yes, I ha-" Harry stopped. He would not lie. "Why did she tell you-"

"You really should speak to her. She's heartbroken."

"Hermione, I- I'm just not sure about Ginny..." Harry stammered out.

"Then you owe it to her to tell her," Hermione said, her hands on her hips. "Are you going to let her suffer until you make up your mind?"

There was no longer anything remotely fetching about Hermione’s expression.

"What can I tell her?" Harry said, pleading.

"Whatever you like," Hermione said, her voice suddenly quite nasty. She tore the ribbon out of her hair, which poofed out messily. "I'm going to wash my ridiculous face. I'll catch you two up in ten minutes."

Hermione jogged back up the stairs. Harry followed her a little ways, out to the stairway, then stopped, at a loss.

“Oi!” came the voice of a younger student, who knocked into Harry’s elbow as he passed.

***

The revision session was not going well. Hermione had returned just a couple of minutes later, but nobody seemed inclined to concentrate. Ron, who had already protested that this study session was a waste of a fine day, was in a restless mood, suggesting every few minutes that they could study out by the lake. Hermione acted like herself (“No, Ron, you don’t need the distraction.”), but Harry knew better. She, too, was distracted. Every few minutes, flipping through her notes, she would heave an exasperated sigh.

"This isn't the right one at all," Hermione said, heaving the thick weight of a massive open book, which closed with a dusty "phlump". Hermione sat still a moment. "Ron, would you go get-"

Harry looked up. Would she really-

"Never mind," she said finally. "I can find it myself." She lifted the heavy tome and lugged it over to the shelves under her arm. Harry shook his head.

"What d'you suppose is eating her?" Ron asked in a whisper, leaning over the study table. Hermione had disappeared into the stacks.

"No idea," Harry said, poker-faced.

There was a sly smile on Ron's face. He dropped his whisper even lower. "Y'know, sometimes I think I'd like to follow her into the shelves. Surprise her, you know? Wonder if she'd slap me."

"Probably," Harry muttered, shrugging.

"You don't think I would, do you?" Ron seemed to Harry like a puppy wanting to play-fight.

This was becoming interesting. For some reason, Harry thought of some game Dudley used to play, where he would take two toy electric cars, and set them up so that they would smash into each other until the doors came off. Harry had always wished Dudley would let him play.

Harry put down his quill and took a moment to look thoughtful. "No, you're far too chicken," Harry said. "Definitely."

Ron looked away, then crossed his arms, then uncrossed them. "Bet I could. I bet I could."

"I dare you," Harry said.

Ron went quite red. "All right," he said, and stood up.

"For England," Harry said. He buried his face in his book as Ron walked away.

"Oh! What are you doing here?" Hermione whispered from behind two shelves of books and scrolls piled high.

"Erm... " came a voice that positively croaked. "Just wondering if you needed help finding- ermph!" A short

but weighty silence. "Blimey!" came the same voice, at full volume this time and sounding very impressed.

Harry saw Madam Pince, across the way, look up from her table, a cross look flashing on her face, but she went back to her work.

"Blast!" came a sharp whisper. It was Hermione this time. "I can't believe I -- I'm a prefect-!"

Harry saw Hermione shoot out from between the rows of shelves toward the library door, as if she were suddenly taken ill.

"No running!" Madam Pince called crankily from her table. She shook her head. Hermione was gone. Ron emerged from between the shelves. He walked back to the study table in a daze and sat down across from Harry, where Hermione had been sitting.

"You'd better bring her that," Harry said.

Ron looked up, his face stuck in an absent grin. "Huh?"

"You'd better take that when you go," Harry enunciated, indicating the quill and pile of parchment sheets at Hermione's place. "Bring them back to her. She'll be missing them later."

"Riiiight!" Ron said, catching on. He gathered up the sheets and stuffed them sloppily into Hermione's bag, which he hoisted onto his shoulder. "Told you I could do it," Ron said with a wink. He left the library at a trot.

***

There was no way Harry was going to continue studying without his friends. This was a free period, a rare enough thing, and Harry decided to go out for the hour remaining before the call for supper, perhaps to pay a call on Hagrid. Ron had had a point about the weather. The October sun was making a last stab at acting in a summery manner, and the grounds looked inviting as Harry walked out the main entrance.

On his way, Harry made a detour toward the Quidditch pitch. Harry had taken to watching the second- and third- years play their pickup games during free periods. Trials for the new season would begin in only a few days, and Katie Bell, the new captain of the Gryffindor side, had advised her teammates to keep an eye out for interesting prospects to fill their vacancies. This time, there was nobody playing, but he heard a voice as he began to move away in the direction of Hagrid's hut.

"-would be perfect- two against two. Call him!"

"Hey Harry!" came another voice.

There were three students running over toward Harry. Derek Hawthorne the Hufflepuff Keeper, Sarah Jackson the Ravenclaw Keeper, and... Cho Chang.

"You want to join us?" Derek said. "We've got an odd number."

"It'll be great," Sarah said. "The Keepers versus the Seekers, see who's more useless with a Quaffle in their hands."

"Uh. sure," Harry said quietly. Cho was smiling.

"Great!" Sarah said. "Get your broom- we'll beat off anyone else who tries to use the pitch."

Harry was back ten minutes later, on his Firebolt. The others were in the air already, warming up with the Quaffle. Harry swooped in between Sarah and Cho and intercepted the ball. "Smooth!" Derek called out.

What followed was the best half-hour Harry had had in weeks. He and Cho were teamed up together against the two Keepers. It was a dramatic little match- Derek and Sarah had it all over the two Seekers in passing, but when Harry or Cho got a hold of the ball they could fly rings around the Keepers. Harry was in a state of bliss, his worries left far below. He had not played Quidditch for over a year. They traded goals, ratcheting up a score that stayed close to even for the duration of the match.

When the call came from the castle to go in for supper, the Keepers were ahead by two goals, and Harry and Cho were forced to concede the match. "Bloody hell!" Derek said. "Just as it was getting interesting!"

The four touched the ground a little ways from the castle. "That was terrific," Cho said to Harry as the four walked into the Entrance Hall. "I needed that."

"Yeah," Harry said, completely understanding what she meant.

"Why don't you guys join us at pudding, after supper?" Sarah said. "If you're not too good to be seen at the Ravenclaw table."

"Yeah, I'll swallow my pride," Derek said, winking at Sarah. "You going to come, Harry?"

Harry was going to say no, but then he thought of Ron and Hermione. He had a feeling they would not be the best company this evening.

"Sure!" Harry said. "See you later." He ran up to his dormitory to change.

***

Harry had guessed right about Ron and Hermione. Ron was in an unnaturally chipper mood. Hermione, across the table from the two of them, seemed to giggle almost every time she was spoken to. "What'd you do this afternoon?" Ron asked Harry as he chewed his roast beef.

"That's disgusting, Ron," Hermione said. "Swallow first, can't you?"

"Yes, Mum," Ron drawled. He gulped, and a lump travelled down his neck.

Hermione frowned. "That's dangerous. Don't expect me to lift a finger if you start choking. Harry, he's baiting me on purpose. Stop him."

"Stop it, Ron," Harry said dryly. Hermione gave Ron a superior look which caused Ron to snicker and Hermione to giggle again.

Ron turned back to Harry. "So, what'd you do this afternoon, Harry?"

"Quidditch. I ran into some people playing. How about you?"

"Not much," Ron said seriously.

Hermione grinned. Harry wondered if she had any idea what she looked like. Dean Thomas, sitting next to her, looked over at her occasionally, as if wondering if she was running a temperature. "We had a bit of a walk by the lake," she said. Harry smiled. It looked like Ron had won the day after all.

"That's good, then," Harry said. He stood up suddenly. "I'll see you later."

"Where are you going?" Ron asked. Harry had noticed Ginny standing up from her place among the fourth-years. She was walking over toward Hermione. Hermione's face had gone serious, and she was eyeing Harry suspiciously.

"Er, they invited me to join them at pudding. The people I was playing Quidditch with. I'll see you later."

Harry retreated from the Gryffindor table. From time to time he had caught Ginny looking at him from her place a few seats away, which caused a painful pang. The morning of their disastrous detour to Azkaban, Ginny had surprised Harry with a rather astonishing kiss. In that moment he had found it very natural to kiss her back. But the rest of that day was so horrible, Harry could hardly picture that moment, and when he did, he cringed with shame. He had avoided Ginny whenever possible, and had assumed, as a fifteen-year old boy might, that his behaviour would not be noticed or have an effect on anybody. Meanwhile, having Ginny nearby made him feel horrible and confused.

There was a shuffle as students rose from their places and went to speak with friends elsewhere in the Hall. It was a privilege granted at pudding time to pay calls on friends from other houses or years, scrambling the strict and regimented seating order of the houses for a few minutes each evening. Harry got a hero's welcome from his new friends at the Ravenclaw table. "Harry!" Sarah Jackson called out. Cho moved aside and made a place between herself and Sarah for Harry to sit. Derek was already there, sitting on the other side of Sarah. He waved with one great hand. Harry nervously took the place offered.

The four Quidditch players replayed their match in word and gesture over pudding at the Ravenclaw table, every swoop and pass examined carefully. The four compared notes on the up-and-coming students they expected to see at trials the following week, as every team had vacancies to fill. Harry was unexpectedly having a grand time, talking about the one thing he knew best. Only occasionally did it hit him that he was talking to Cho, to whom he had never had the nerve to speak two coherent sentences before. He realized that it was certainly much easier to speak to Cho the Ravenclaw Seeker than to Cho the pretty girl whom he had liked to look at from halfway across the Great Hall.

Harry looked toward the head table for a moment and noticed something very strange. Nobody was sitting in Dumbledore's place. Dumbledore had arrived at dinner late, and was seated a little ways behind, a blank expression on his face. Beside him were three wizards whom Harry did not recognize, each dressed in official-looking robes. He craned his head a little to get a better look.

"Oh!" Harry said.

"What?" Cho said.

"Nothing, I- that's Percy Weasley, isn't it?" Harry said, indicating the row of wizards.

"It is!" Sarah agreed. "What's he doing here?" she said, a trace of distaste in her voice.

Percy Weasley stood up, and walked over to the head table, taking a place just behind Dumbledore's usual place. He was nervously fingering a sheet of parchment. "Er..." he intoned, adopting a supercilious smile.

"Excuse me, everybody," Percy went on, and the Great Hall fell silent. "Ah, wonderful to see you all again, really much sooner than I expected to be back here, quite a pleasure."

These words were greeted with looks of confusion and muttering from the assembly. Harry turned his head and spied Ron shrugging his shoulders as the Gryffindors surrounding him looked at him quizzically.

"I'm here on behalf of the Minister, who has asked us to do some, ah, work here with the Hogwarts faculty. Over the next few days, my colleagues, Mr Ekers and Mr Throng, and I will be visiting some of you personally, to ask some questions. I hope you'll be able to give us all your assistance, as we straighten out some problems, here at the school. Er, your Headmaster has a brief statement to make as well."

Since when did Dumbledore need Percy Weasley to introduce him, Harry thought. He had a bad feeling about what was coming next.

Dumbledore stood up, and Percy handed him the sheet of parchment. Dumbledore pointedly ignored the contents of the sheet and folded it in four as he stepped forward. Harry held his breath.

"Mr Weasley is much too modest," Dumbledore said, more quietly than usual. "He is about some very important business. The Minister has asked me to resign as Headmaster of the school, pending investigation into certain alleged wrongdoings on my part."

There was a collective gasp. This was clearly news even to the other teachers. The Ministry wizards' faces darkened- this was clearly not the statement they had been expecting.

"I have refused his request. So he has requested rather more forcefully that I take a temporary leave of absence. I have agreed to this. The three gentlemen sitting here behind me will be taking on my administrative duties during their investigation. I second Mr Weasley in encouraging you to help them learn the full truth in their investigations." Dumbledore began to turn, then, as if something had occurred to him, he faced the students once more. "Oh, the Minister did also ask me to take some time away from Hogwarts," Dumbledore added. "I have advised him that this much I will not do. I am to remain in the staff quarters, but I will stay at the school, to help in any capacity I am permitted to. Enjoy your pudding. The strawberries are exquisite."

The three wizards seated behind Dumbledore wore astonished expressions as Dumbledore took his seat. The oldest of the three was gritting his teeth in suppressed rage. Percy looked abashed.

"What was that all about?" Sarah said in astonishment.

"Don't know," Cho said. "Do you have any idea, Harry?"

"Something to do with whatever that was that happened a few weeks ago, I expect," he muttered. It was one of the school's open secrets that only four students were not accounted for the day all students were herded into the Great Hall while seven mysterious bodies were collected from the grounds by the lake and taken away. Draco Malfoy had not failed to name them all whenever he felt the occasion had presented itself. Cho simply nodded, and Harry was relieved that she chose not to pursue the matter.

Sarah was not so discreet. "You ought to know something about that, shouldn't you, Harry?"

Harry adopted his blankest face. "No. Why?" he said.

"Hush, Sarah," Cho said. "Don't believe every bit of nonsense you hear."

Harry thought to himself that he could kiss her right then. Ha, that wasn't news, he mused.

"What are you smiling about?" Sarah said.

"I wasn't," Harry said, looking perfectly serious.

***

Harry climbed through the portrait hole, and scanned the common room. Ron and Hermione were sitting across from each other over a chess board. Harry started when he saw that Ginny was standing with them. There was no escaping, though: Hermione had already caught his eye.

"Over here, Harry," she called out.

The chess game had obviously been abandoned for the moment, as all the pieces were sitting down in their squares with bored expressions. Ginny was clutching a sheet of parchment.

"Nice of you to join us," Hermione said, a little too pointedly for Harry's comfort.

"Yeah, Harry," Ron said, cheerfully. "Sarah Jackson and Cho Chang? Must have been tough to tear yourself away."

Harry caught a flash of utter mortification crossing Hermione's features. Harry's own face felt hot. Ginny's face remained a blank.

"Ron!" Hermione hissed. "That's hardly nice."

"Sorry," Ron said, looking suddenly sheepish.

Harry wondered what was going through the minds of the three others as he took a seat, feeling about as awkward as he ever had. "So what d'you think that was all about? With Dumbledore?" he said, changing the subject.

"It's awful," Hermione said. "How can they get rid of Dumbledore? Are they still that blinkered, after Azkaban?"

"I thought Percy loved Dumbledore," Harry said.

Ron shrugged. "Percy loves whoever he's working for. Dad owled me a couple of days ago. Said he'd been 'attached' to Fudge's office. Now he's higher-ranking than Dad, even. Never said anything about him coming to the school."

"What are we going to do now?" Harry said. "They're certain to come after us."

"We were just talking about that," Ginny said. She extended her arm to Harry, holding out the sheet of parchment, which seemed to have been folded about a hundred times and was covered in watery red stains.

"We all got one," Hermione said.

Harry took the proffered paper.

When they come for you, just tell the truth. - D.

"Why didn't I get one?" Harry said.

"Didn't stay around for your pudding, did you?" Ron said. "It was hidden inside a strawberry. Here's yours," he added, holding out another sheet, which was almost torn in two. "Sorry. Neville bit into it."

Harry's message was different. There was only one word written on it.

Marzipan.

"He's a nutter. What's that about?" Ron said.

"I know," Harry said. "It's a password. For emergencies."

***

Somewhere between fourth and fifth year, Herbology class had taken a much more sinister turn. For the last three classes they had been studying a plant called the Bloodweed, a seven-foot tall carnivorous vine. The Bloodweed was not nearly as bad, however, as the Songolo Ape-Wasp which it fed on. Hagrid brought in a cageful of these angry flying beasts for the Bloodweed's daily care and feeding, to be administered by the increasingly nervous students.

"I hope these things are really bloody useful," Ron griped as he held on to the panicking ape-wasp's harness and approached the Bloodweed slowly and cautiously.

"Oh yes, they've got loads of medicinal properties!" Neville Longbottom chipped in. He had been first in Herbology all year, outperforming even Hermione, and it was the one place he always seemed to be on sure footing. "The enormous curative potential-"

"Thanks, Neville. I feel better now," Ron said with finality.

"Stun the poor bastard, won't you?" Seamus said. "I don't want to hear that scream again when it's eaten."

Harry took out his wand to do exactly this, when a voice came from the greenhouse doorway. "Excuse me!" It was Percy Weasley.

Professor Sprout tied off an ape-wasp's lead to a post, where it remained, buzzing and struggling. "Can I help you?"

"Can I borrow Harry Potter for a bit? Sorry to bother you. Governing Committee business," Percy said with a tentative, ingratiating smile.

There were few feelings Harry had grown to hate more than the one he got when a whole roomful of people suddenly turned to look at him. That is exactly what happened at that moment. Professor Sprout looked mildly put out but she nodded. Harry went over to the door, where Percy was waiting with his Ministry-issue smile.

"How're you doing, Harry?" Percy asked jauntily as they exited onto the grounds before the castle. "How's the year going?"

"Fine," Harry said noncommitally.

"I've been doing fantastically myself," Percy said, not that Harry had asked. "Busy, of course. It was a shame about the whole Crouch affair, of course. But I've been getting on! I was moved over to the Minister's office, with a brief for Educational Affairs- quite a promotion, really. These are exciting times in magical education. We're working on a sweeping reform package. Utterly revolutionary," Percy declared.

Harry blinked. The resurrection of Voldemort was such an ever-present reality at Hogwarts, that it was easy to forget that much of the wizarding world, not least the Ministry, continued to exist without acknowledging the fact. It seemed incredible that the Ministry's first priority was "educational reform".

"What's this committee for?" Harry asked, almost fearing the answer.

Percy's smile stayed fixed in place. "As I'm sure you know, Harry," he said indulgently, "there have been some curious things going on at this school lately. Mr Ekers thought it was worth a looking-into."

They were inside the castle now, walking along a corridor toward a block of classrooms. Harry felt anger rising. "Are you trying to get Dumbledore sacked?" he said, patience gone.

The point-blank question seemed to strike Percy's smile like a dart and cause it to deflate. "Don't be absurd, Harry," Percy said, his voice now colder. "Dumbledore has nothing to worry about. No decision will be made in haste."

"That's the problem, isn't it?" Harry said, coming to a stop. Percy blinked at him. "You do know Voldemort's back, don't you? Your Mum and Dad did tell you that, didn't they?"

Harry saw something he had never seen in Percy's face. He was angry. Not annoyed, not pompous, not superior- angry.

"I rather think," Percy said, "that I am better-placed to know about this sort of thing!"

Harry was stunned. Was Percy listening to himself? He stayed silent the rest of the way.

The committee had chosen to conduct their inquiries in a classroom not far from the entrance to the staff's quarters, the better, Harry guessed, to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the staff, whose obedience to their dictates was likely to be unenthusiastic at best. An old wizard stood in the doorway waiting for Percy and Harry. His face was deeply lined, with a few thick, bristly white hairs jutting straight out of his jaw by way of a beard. It was Mr Ekers, who had been present but silent at supper the evening before.

"Good day, Mr Potter," Mr Ekers said in a gruff, croaking voice. "Thank you for joining us." Harry had never been thanked less warmly in his life. Mr Ekers ushered him to a student's desk in the front row, while he and Percy moved up to join the third wizard, Throng, at the head table.

"Mr Potter," Ekers began, "we have some questions about the events of September nineteenth. We assume you will be direct and truthful with us. You know that there are means to compel forthrightness if you choose not to be."

Harry blinked. "You're an educational reform committee?"

Ekers actually appeared to smile. "Well," he croaked, "things will be changing around this school, that's reasonably certain."

"Erm..." Percy interrupted. "I'm sure I can vouch for Mr Potter, sir," he said. "I am confident he'll be straight with us. Won't you, Harry."

Harry nodded.

"All right then, then, the beam, please," Ekers said.

The third committee member, Throng, stood up. He was young, older than Percy of course, but probably in his thirties. Harry jumped back in his seat- with a sudden movement, Throng had pulled a wand from his deep purple robe and directed it straight at Harry. A beam of intense yellowish light blinded his right eye. Yet, it was as if... the light was coming from his eye.

"What's that!" Harry exclaimed. He could not raise his hands from his sides. He was paralysed. He heard Percy mutter "I'm sure that's not strictly necessary, sir. This boy has visited my family's house."

Out of his remaining eye, Harry could tell that Ekers had ignored Percy's remark.

"Er... let's get started then, shall we?" Percy said, unease in his voice. "I wonder if you could take us through that morning, Harry. Start at the beginning."

***

Harry was in a fury when he left the committee room, his right eye slowly readjusting to the darkness of the corridor. The strange yellow beam had left a violated, humiliating feeling, as if he had had the story sucked out of him by a gang of hoover-wielding thugs. Harry found Ron and Hermione in the Great Hall. Lunch was almost over, but his friends had mercifully saved him a serving, which Ron pushed toward him as Harry sat down at his place.

"You're just out now?" Hermione said. "That took ages!"

"It was stupid," Harry said, still fuming. "They asked the same questions over and over. The whole time they kept this yellow light in my eye-"

There was a guttural laugh behind Harry. He turned and saw Moody standing behind him. "Saw you coming in. Congratulations, laddie!" he said with a wicked smile, patting Harry's shoulder. "That means they think you've gone mad. The yellow beam lets 'em see your brains. See if you're deluded and cooking it up."

"But I told them the truth!" Harry protested. The ordeal had been frustrating, and embarrassing to boot- he had to fight hard not to blurt out everything he had done with Ginny that morning.

"Of course you did," Moody said, whispering now. Some of the Gryffindors were leaning in, less than subtly, to try to hear the conversation. "You know the reputation you've got with the Ministry now. Almost as bad as mine. Claiming you're chasing You-Know-Who around graveyards, trying to get people riled up."

Hermione looked shocked at Moody's words, but Harry smiled. After the grilling he took from the committee, it was good to hear at least one person out there who took him seriously.

"Did they call you?" Harry asked Moody.

Moody nodded. "For this afternoon. Expect I'll be shown the door directly," Moody said, his expression sardonic. He moved on, ambling slowly back toward his place at the Slytherin table.

***

"Harry! Come over here!" Fred called out across the common room. Harry lifted his head from the Transfiguration text he was alternately reading and pretending to read. In recent days, he had taken to studying on his own, while Ron and Hermione worked together in the library. It was a poor substitute for dating, perhaps, but it was the best they could do in the circumstances, and Harry respected that. As a matter of fact, it was fine with him, because much as he wished them well, he still found it all a bit... weird.

Fred and George were crouched over a table in a corner, examining something closely. Harry walked over and saw that there was a sheet of parchment, with a quill lying on it.

"You show him," George said excitedly.

"Look at this," Fred said. "We've just worked out something positively wicked. Do you see this quill?" Harry nodded. "Do you know whose it is?"

"No, of course not-"

"Neither did we. We found it on the floor. But watch this," Fred added.

George muttered something very very quietly, and the quill lifted itself to standing, point resting on the parchment. Suddenly it lifted itself and made a period.

Harry smirked. "I've seen Levitation before."

George held up a finger. The quill then moved slightly to the left, and began to form an elegant small "e". George smiled. The pen was writing backwards. "n", "o" - "One?" Harry thought. Then an "i" and an "m" followed.

"Know whose it is now?" Fred said, smiling. Harry nodded. The quill ended the word with a neat flourish on the capital letter H. "Hermione". The quill rose up again, and the word "love" appeared. Harry blushed a little. He realised this was not his business, but he could not just yet bring himself to stop the quill. The quill then rested itself for a few moments, still half-suspended in the air and Harry suddenly imagined he saw Hermione, as in a lingering image behind the eyelids, settling her pen on the paper while she paused to think. He had seen the gesture so many times. The quill moved up a line. Words continued to appear, right to left.

night

by

moon

the

nor

day

"Suppose she's written a love sonnet?' George grinned. "Bet we can guess wh-"

The words clanged very unpleasantly in Harry's mind. He shuddered as if with cold, the cold of a stormy day in Azkaban. He grasped the quill, and it struggled in his hand to reach the parchment and continue writing. "Stop it," Harry muttered. "Stop the spell."

Fred frowned. George muttered obediently.

"Sorry, guys," Harry said softly. "That's really great. But I think I know- try it with someone else, okay?"

Fred and George looked at each other, as Harry grabbed the parchment. He walked over to the fire and threw it in. George stood up and went over to Harry. He put his hand on Harry's shoulder. "Sorry about that, Harry, we didn't mean to upset you."

"No, that's okay. Just... reminded me of something..."

"Come here, okay? Let's have a hand of Exploding Snap," George said. Harry followed him, grateful to put the awkward moment behind them. Fred had an expression on his face Harry found completely uncharacteristic for him. He realized with a start that it was shame.

Harry's mind was not on the game. He was brought to every few moments as another card went "bang" in his fingers, and George and Fred starting laughing again, although Harry could see a curious concerned glance from George every few moments. Something was nagging at Harry's mind. Another "pow" from his hand seemed to suddenly awaken the stirring thought. "Hey!"

"What?" said Fred.

"I've just had an idea-" Harry rose from his seat and ran up the stairs to his dormitory, leaving George and Fred mystified. Harry was back a minute later, a scroll in his hand.

"That's our map!" George said. "Don't go flashing that about."

"No," Harry said. "Listen- what you did to that quill- could you do it to this map?"

"What do you mean?" Fred asked.

"Make it go backwards. Make the little marks go backwards, through time." Harry grasped the scroll tightly in his hand, waving it at Fred.

George raised his eyebrows. "Well. I don't know about that- I mean, the markings are magic- not just quill marks. But, well, we could try." He looked over at Fred, who had a smile growing on his face. Harry recognized the face of someone who tasted a challenge.

"What do you want it to show? Something devilish, I hope," George said, grinning.

"Absolutely," Harry said. "I want to see the morning of September nineteenth."

***

It only took an hour. Harry had left Fred and George to their devices, but much sooner than expected they were beckoning him back to their corner of the common room. Fred and George, through some unspoken arrangement with the rest of Gryffindor house, seemed to have special entitlement to the little turret-nook at the corner of the room, the most private spot in the Tower, at least the most private where students were permitted to go. Only a few of Gryffindor's recognized couples shared this entitlement, and when the high armchairs were turned toward the window with back to the common room, everyone understood that the occupants were not to be disturbed.

"Bingo, Harry," Fred grinned. "We've done it. It's tough going, though. The map really is interested in the here and now, not in what's gone by."

George was waving his wand over the map, which was spread over the low table. Harry saw the labelled points moving across the great map. In a corner there were "Fred Weasley", "George Weasley" and "Harry Potter" clumped together. "Ron Weasley" and "Hermione Granger" were situated on either side of a library table. ("Turning into a bit of a prig, isn't he?" George observed, obviously noticing the same thing as Harry).

There was a sweep of George's wand, and suddenly "Harry Potter" swept away from the common room and up the dormitory stairs. The points began to move faster and faster. All the points converged suddenly on the four Houses. "That's this morning," Fred said. "Everyone back in bed."

Now the points zoomed around at dizzying speed, every minute or so coalescing back in the Houses for a few seconds' rest. The three of them counted the days backwards. "October second... October first... September thirtieth..."

"Slow down here, can you?" Harry said. They had reached the nineteenth. George moved the wand and the points began to move in a more leisurely fashion.

"Care to tell us what we're looking for, Harry?" Fred asked.

"I want to see who was first out of the castle, in the morning."

The map was wound back to before sunrise, then George circled his wand slowly forward. A few house-elves appeared in the kitchen. Then "Harry Potter" and "Ginny Weasley" stirred in Gryffindor Tower, converged in the common room and walked down to the Entrance Hall. Fred and George looked at each other, expressions edging toward a smirk. "Never you mind," Harry muttered pre-emptively.

The two points moved together out onto the grounds. Then Harry saw what he was looking for.

"Draco Malfoy" appeared in the Entrance Hall, then moved outside, not far behind "Harry" and "Ginny".

"Malfoy!" Harry exclaimed. "No surprise there."

"What on earth is going on, Harry?" Fred's voice was no longer humourous. "Shh," Harry hissed.

"Harry" and "Ginny" stayed still in one very tight spot for an embarrassingly long time. To Harry's horror, "Draco" was only a few feet away. Seven cloudy points appeared around "Harry" and "Ginny". The names were indistinct and illegible. Harry shuddered. These were the names of people with no souls left. Then "Harry" and "Ginny" moved toward the cluster of points. "Draco" was fading back toward the castle.

Suddenly "Ginny Weasley" vanished, and was replaced by a new name. George jumped in his seat. "Who is Argo Rathbone?" he said. "Where did Ginny go-"

"I'll explain," Harry said shortly. "Hold on a minute." Who would come next, Harry thought. Who was meant to be there, other than Malfoy-

Seven points were approaching. Seven? That makes eight, but there are only seven bodies. Harry's eyes were wide. "Atholstan, he's in Slytherin, of course, but... Heskwith- he's in Ravenclaw! And Bolger, she's Hufflepuff!"

"Harry" and "Argo Rathbone" charged up toward the castle, and the six points scattered. "Draco Malfoy" was already back inside, moving toward Slytherin Tower.

"Guys," Harry said finally. "Will you do me a favour? Don't tell anyone about this."

"How could we, Harry?" George said. "We don't even know what this is about."

"Thanks, guys," Harry said, and ran out of the corner. “Oof!” Harry exclaimed in surprise as he nearly knocked a passing Neville Longbottom over in his haste. Neville raised his hands in apology.

On his way toward the stairs to the dormitory, he was stopped in his tracks by Ginny, who had been watching him from a study table, and stood awkwardly as he had approached. Harry felt a flash of anger, thinking to himself that this was not a convenient time, and then he felt a flash of shame at his anger.

"Hello, Harry, I wanted to-" she said, quite tentatively. Harry saw that she was wearing the hair-ribbon that she had lent to Hermione, which at that moment was changing from green to purple.

"Hi Gin!" Harry said, speaking quickly and excitedly to conceal his momentary rush of annoyance. "I think-" He moved closer to her and whispered. "I think I might have found who the students were- the other week..."

Ginny raised her eyebrows. She clearly understood what he was talking about. "How?"

Harry held out his map, then realised that that would entail many, many explanations. "Well... it's a long story. Let's find Ron and Hermione- I'll tell you all about it."

"They're in the library again," Ginny said, and they headed for the portrait hole.

***

Walking through the corridors alongside Ginny was awkward and strange. She was acting... normally, but Harry felt anything but normal around her. Ginny seemed to have wanted to speak to him before. Harry wondered what she was going to say. A part of him desperately wanted to ask what she was thinking. Not that he would dare, of course. Another part didn't want to know at all.

"Harry?"

A voice came from behind which almost caused Harry to jump. It was Cho. I can't believe this, Harry thought to himself. Ginny stopped walking beside him.

"Sorry... were you on your way somewhere?" Cho said, looking from Harry to Ginny and back.

"Just the library," Ginny said. "No matter."

"Well, I just wanted to say... we've got a few more people interested in a game tomorrow morning at eleven. Are you up for it?"

Harry looked over at Ginny, then couldn't account for quite why he did. "Er, yeah, I'll be there."

"Great," Cho said. "See you then."

"Yeah," Harry said, and watched her walk away.

He turned and saw Ginny looking directly at him. She had a strange expression on her face. The ribbon in her hair was suddenly a bright red that looked altogether wrong against her hair colour.

"Ahh!" she exclaimed suddenly in a harsh whisper, her face flushing red. "Stop looking like that. I'm going to bloody leave you alone, all right?"

"What?" Harry's mind flushed itself of all thought. He did not register Ginny's words at all.

"You don't have to run around looking all guilty-like. You look more pathetic than me, even. I'm not planning on bothering you anymore. I am frankly too tired to care."

"Ginny, no, that's not-"

"Don't humour me. We have more important things to worry about. Just talk to me like a bloody person, please. Things will go much easier that way."

Ginny began walking down the staircase at a trot. Harry followed, speechless. His mind had gone from blank to full of raging, incomprehensible noise as they made their way through the corridors. Ginny was going at a pace that was making it difficult for him to keep up.

When they arrived at the library, they spotted Ron and Hermione deep in a stack of books and scrolls at a study table. Crossing the room in haste, Harry saw Hermione suddenly shut her book when she spotted Harry and Ginny approaching.

"What's your big secret, then?" Ginny said testily to Ron as he shoved some parchment scrolls away hastily.

"Nothing, to you," Ron muttered.

Harry had to concentrate hard to explain his discovery to Ron and Hermione while an acid ache of shame burned behind his eyes. He must have succeeded in explaining himself, though, because they looked increasingly delighted at the prospect of catching Malfoy taking part in something that could get him expelled or even arrested. But their smiles notched down as Harry listed the names of the other students.

"Anne Bolger!" Hermione said, eyes wide. "I've helped her study!"

"This is terrible!" Ron said. "Can there really be that many students involved? Some of them... well, some of them aren't even Slytherins!"

"We've got to tell... who can we tell?" Hermione said.

"Don't think Percy and his friends will be too receptive," Ron said with a trace of disgust. "We'll probably wind up the ones in trouble, and meanwhile they'll blow the names so that everyone can disappear."

"Moody," Harry said. "Only he knows."

"Do you want to go to the Slytherin dormitories to call on him?" Ron said, smiling grimly.

"Tomorrow morning," Harry said. "We'll catch him at breakfast."

***

Harry had difficulty sleeping that night. His mind was turning over so many thoughts that he wished he could get his hands on a Pensieve. Somewhere in the castle eight Death Eaters were sleeping, eight people who were willing to give their bodies over to Dark wizards bent on the destruction of the school. What did they hope to gain? What sorts of rewards did Voldemort offer to these people? What would make them willing to work for killers? And were there others?

On top of that, a sick, embarrassed feeling had sat in his stomach since his talk with Ginny, or rather, Ginny's talk with him. He was sure Ginny must have seen him watching Cho walk away. Harry could not remember how long he had watched Cho, but he could not forget the look on Ginny's face when he turned back to face her. He had never even imagined her being angry before. She had wanted to say something to him, and he had talked right over her. What did he stop her from saying? She said she wouldn't bother him anymore. What did that mean? A regretful sting- did that mean she didn't-

"Haaaaaaaaaaah-!"

Harry jumped suddenly to alertness. The noise was coming from Ron's bed- a strangled breath. Ron began hyperventilating. Was he having a nightmare? Harry sat up and looked over toward his bed, but saw nothing in the dark. He grabbed his wand from under his covers, and whispered, "Lumos". Ron's eyes had sprung wide open, but Harry could not say for sure if he was actually awake. Harry stepped out of his bed. In the faint light he saw that Neville and Seamus were awake, blinking.

"What's wrong with him?" Seamus said.

Harry looked down at Ron, who suddenly sat up, his eyes wide with horror. "Harry! Harry! I'm dying-" Ron grasped Harry's wrist. "Hermione's alone- !"

"No, Ron, relax-"

"Harry, go to Hermione's room!" Ron said, in panicked anger. "She's alone- !"

Harry, confused, stood still.

"NOW!" Ron said, in full voice, but his eyes shut themselves tight. Harry ran to the door, and down the stairs. He did not understand, and wondered what Hermione would think about Harry knocking on her door in the middle of the night. He ran across the common room, and down the corridor toward Hermione's room. He stopped and knocked lightly on her door. There was a cold, breathless shriek from inside that caused Harry to jump.

"It's Harry!" Harry said, as quietly as possible, although the yell must have woken Lupin, across the corridor, if not the whole house.

"Harry!" Hermione's voice was breathless like Ron's. Harry opened the door. Hermione was sitting up in her bed, shivering, the covers wrapped tightly around her as she hugged her knees. "Oh god oh god I'm dying..." she whispered. Her eyes were wide and hollow.

Lupin came into the room behind Harry, his own wand lit. "What's wrong, Hermione?" he said. She did not answer. Lupin looked over at Harry. "Ron's like this too," Harry whispered to him. "He told me to come down because Hermione is by herself..."

Lupin went back to his room, leaving Harry alone with Hermione for a moment. He didn't know what to do. Hermione seemed at best only half-aware that he was in the room. He walked over, sat on the bed, and tentatively put a hand on her shoulder. This must have been the right thing to do, because she then curled up like a baby and pressed herself into his chest. "I'm cold," she said to nobody.

Lupin came back into the room, holding a package which Harry recognized as his stock of medicinal chocolate, which he himself had tasted many times in his learning to deal with Dementors. He broke off a generous chunk and handed it to Harry. "Make sure she eats this as soon as she has her breath," Lupin said. "Bring her out to the common room when she can walk. I'm going to see Ron right away."

Lupin left Harry holding Hermione, whose breathing slowly relaxed. She started to uncurl, and Harry wondered if he could edge away from her yet. Something told him not to. Harry handed her the chocolate. "Chocolate," he explained. "Lupin said to eat it." Hermione nodded. She sat up, to Harry's relief, her hair in a disordered mop. She still shivered slightly as she ate the chocolate. "Lupin's gone to see Ron?" Hermione said.

Harry nodded. "What's happening, Hermione?"

"Ron and I, last night, we both had nightmares. About what happened in Azkaban. He told me just this morning. But this was worse, by far," Hermione explained, her voice still shaking. "This wasn't even a dream. I thought- I was sure I was dying."

"Is this what you were- in the library, you covered up the books you were-"

"Yes. Sorry. We were going to tell you- it just felt like... our problem."

"It's okay. Can you walk?" Harry asked. "Lupin wants me to take you to the common room."

Hermione nodded. She stood uneasily and pulled a dressing-gown from over the end of her bed. Harry followed her, close behind as she teetered along the corridor.

Ron was there in a huge armchair, wrapped in a blanket. Lupin sat on a footstool, watching him carefully. Hermione sat down, squeezing herself into the same chair next to Ron. "Hi," she said.

"Hi," Ron said quietly.

"Can either of you tell me what's happened?" Lupin asked with concern, watching Ron's face as he spoke.

"This is because of Azkaban, isn't it?" Harry said. "What Dumbledore was trying to warn you about."

Ron shrugged. "We have no idea. Probably."

"Dumbledore had no idea, either," Lupin said. "He didn't know what to expect. He just knew something had to happen. You don’t go through a spell like that unscathed."

"You knew about Azkaban?" Harry said, startled.

Lupin nodded. "Dumbledore told me last week, when he found out the Committee was coming. Told me to keep an eye on you two," he added, looking to Ron and Hermione.

All four started when the portrait hole swung open behind them. It was Mundungus Fletcher, the monitor for Hufflepuff house. His eyes were wide and frightened. "Oh... Lupin, you're awake. Can you come-"

"Hands are full, Mundungus. What's up?" Lupin said. Fletcher's eyes moved to the students. "Go ahead," Lupin prompted.

"A student's been attacked, in her bed, just a few minutes ago," Fletcher explained. "She's within an inch of her life."

"Who!" the four said simultaneously.

"Anne Bolger," Fletcher said.

Harry, Ron and Hermione looked at each other. Somehow they all understood they should say nothing just yet. "Go ahead, sir," Harry said. "I'll watch them."

Lupin stood up and followed Fletcher out of the room.

***

Only a few minutes later, Lupin was back, looking shaken. “Anne Bolger is a mess,” he said. “Somebody used a curse that, well, simply put, it scrambles your insides. They’re summoning magical surgeons to Hogsmeade. It will be a close-run thing. Hufflepuff tower is in a panic. The Phoenix Mark was hanging in Anne’s dormitory.”

Harry looked at Ron, expecting an explanation. Five years in, he still encountered bits of knowledge wizards took for granted that meant nothing to him. However, this time, Ron looked just as puzzled.

“What’s that?” Hermione asked finally.

“Right, you wouldn’t necessarily know about that,” Lupin nodded. “The Phoenix Mark is an image of a flaming feather that hangs in the air. It’s an answer to You-Know-Who’s Dark Mark. There was- or is, I suppose- a secret organisation called the Order of the Phoenix. So secret that to this day not one single member has been identified. They believed that the best way to root out the Death Eaters was summary murder,” Lupin said, disgust evident in his voice. “You-Know-Who promises his followers that he can abolish death. What is the Order’s answer? Instant death for anybody who considers joining his cause. That would make you think twice, wouldn’t it? Except who knows if their victims are guilty. They didn’t go in for trials and other niceties. Better too many than too few. The idea of Anne Bolger being a Death Eater seems absurd.”

Harry looked over at Ron and Hermione. Hermione nodded slightly.

“Maybe not so absurd,” Harry muttered. Harry explained what the map had shown him earlier that evening, while Lupin’s eyes grew wider.

“Why didn’t you tell me right away!” Lupin said sharply.

“We didn’t know you knew about Azkaban,” Harry protested. “We were going to find Moody in the morning.”

Lupin nodded. “Yes, I’m sorry. You were quite right in the circumstances, of course. There is another side to this… I don’t know if you noticed. Hermione, Ron, your… nightmare, it began exactly when Anne was attacked.”

“They…” Hermione began, then stopped.

“Why?” Ron asked.

“I don’t know. I- I have guesses,” Lupin said nervously, noticing Hermione looking down darkly. “I think it is a very good thing, for you both, that Anne was not killed. I wish that I could consult with Dumbledore… in fact…”

“Marzipan,” Harry muttered.

Lupin smiled. “Exactly so. I see you enjoyed the strawberries too. We will arrange something in the morning. In the meantime, you should all return to bed. I am expected to do some night-watchman duty tonight. Ron, Hermione, finish your chocolate. In the morning, I want you to go to Madam Pomfrey and get yourselves enough to eat two ounces every hour, without fail.” Lupin stood to go. Hermione muttered “Um…” but then closed her mouth.

Ron seemed to read her mind. He looked over at Lupin, who seemed to read his.

“Right,” Lupin said. “Go up to Ginny’s dormitory, Hermione. I would really feel better if you weren’t by yourself.” Hermione smiled slightly, and Ron nodded at Lupin gratefully, squeezing Hermione’s hand. Harry caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye, and felt a stab of longing to see Ginny himself. Lupin left them in the dark common room.

***

In the night, the seven other students, besides Anne Bolger, that Harry had named to Lupin were rounded up and brought to the staff room. There were no further incidents, and when Harry arrived in the Great Hall for breakfast, Ekers from the committee made a perfunctory announcement that the magical surgeons had saved Anne Bolger, but that her convalescence would be long. Harry could tell the Monitors and some of the teachers had had long nights. The Monitors were strolling exhaustedly up and down the aisles as the students ate and speculated. There was no keeping this incident secret. Every Hufflepuff had been present.

The Hufflepuff table was in shock. A third-year girl, a close friend and dormitory-mate of Anne Bolger's, was in tears, surrounded by a gaggle of girls who seemed to be consoling her while at the same time trying to get details of the story. The girl looked like she was hardly able to speak for the shock- her best friend was not only badly hurt but also unveiled as a possible dangerous traitor. Harry wanted to wish away all the curious students surrounding her- he had some idea of how undesirable this kind of attention was.

Harry sat with Ron, Hermione and Ginny, all of whom were quiet and tired. "Terrible screams," Harry could hear bubbling over from the Hufflepuffs at the neighbouring table. "A great, flaming feather…"

As he left the table and made for the exit with his friends, Harry felt a hand grab his arm. He turned to see Draco Malfoy staring at him, the usual hostility on his face mixed with apprehension. Harry noticed that Crabbe and Goyle were not with him.

"Potter," Malfoy whispered viciously. Hermione, Ron and Ginny all turned their heads at once at the sound of his voice.

Malfoy saw this and addressed them. "I’ve got business with Potter. Sod off."

Ron slowly reached for his wand. "You can tell it to all of us, Malfoy."

Draco Malfoy tried to look defiant, but Harry could see that something made him too frightened to argue.

"Keep it in your trousers, Weasley," Malfoy spat. "Potter, tell your friends they’ve got it all wrong."

Harry looked over at Ron, Ginny and Hermione, confused. "My friends? What are you talking about?"

"Don’t play thick. The ones who set off that Mark in my dormitory. I didn’t have anything to do with it. They’ve got it wrong."

Harry gaped at him. Malfoy is terrified of us, he thought. It was a delicious realization, and he could not bring himself to own up and ruin it so soon.

"I saw what I saw, Malfoy. You were there," Harry said coldly.

Malfoy’s face was a picture of impotent rage. "You’re fools and murderers, Potter!" Malfoy hissed. He began to walk away, raising his voice so that the whole Hall could hear. "You’re a murderer, Potter. I’m going to make sure everyone knows it!" Professor Figg angrily beckoned Malfoy back to his table, where the six other suspects that Harry had named shared their meal.

"Sure," Ron muttered. "Takes one to know one."

"Hold up, Harry," came another voice from the aisle leading to the exit. Harry turned. It was Lupin.

"I'll find you later," Harry whispered to his friends. Ron, Ginny and Hermione went out the doorway, while Lupin caught up to Harry.

Lupin dropped his voice. "Shall we try to see Dumbledore?"

Harry nodded. "All right," Lupin said. "We might want to… make use of something of yours. The Committee has its office right by the entrance to Dumbledore’s quarters. We won’t be able to get by unnoticed."

"I’ll get the cloak," Harry said.

***

The invisibility cloak could not possibly have fit Harry, Ron and Hermione all together any more. Harry had not worn it since he was somewhat smaller, and it took very careful and deliberate movement to conceal himself and Lupin. "This is so queer," Lupin whispered. “Last time I did this I was with James.”

The hall was deserted, but there seemed to be quite a commotion coming from the chamber where the committee had set up shop. Harry and Lupin stopped by the entrance, which stood part-way open. A drawling, superior voice emerged from the chamber.

"-unable to ensure the safety of students from these terrorists, I certainly see no need to continue supporting-"

Lucius Malfoy, Harry realised.

The next voice was the oldest of the committee wizards, Ekers. "Mr Malfoy, there is no reason to believe that the Order had anything to do with this, if they even exist. Anybody can cast a Mark."

"I intend to remove my son from the school immediately, and withdraw my family’s endowment. A girl is nearly killed, and you try to tell me this is somebody’s joke," Malfoy hissed.

"Of course we can’t stop you, if that is your decision, Mr Malfoy." The voice was Percy’s, strained and exasperated.

"Yes we bloody can," Ekers croaked testily.

Lupin whispered close to Harry’s ear. "We won’t get a better chance than this."

They moved in close to the gargoyle that guarded the entrance to Dumbledore’s quarters. "Marzipan," Lupin whispered. The door moved aside silently. The spiral stairway was immobile this time. Harry gathered up the cloak, and they stepped gingerly up the stairs.

Dumbledore opened the door of his office. "Visitors!" he said, smiling warmly. "How marvellous! Please come in. Am I to assume our friends on the committee are not aware of your presence?"

"Quite right," Lupin said, taking a seat in front of Dumbledore's vast desk. Harry remained standing just inside the doorway.

"Do come sit, Harry," Dumbledore said, smiling. "There is no need to stand on ceremony. I am not your Headmaster at the moment."

Harry moved forward. "Yes, you are, sir." Harry sat.

Dumbledore smiled. "Well, well, that's most gracious. Glad as I am to see you both, I expect it's too much to hope that you bring happy news."

"I'm afraid so," Lupin said. Lupin gave an account of the attack on Anne Bolger, and the appearance of the Phoenix Mark. Dumbledore's face grew darker. Harry filled in the story with his discoveries from the map and Draco Malfoy's denial of his involvement with the conspiracy.

Dumbledore nodded. "I know the Malfoys of old. Draco may have learned about the plot somehow from his father, but Lucius is too shrewd and clever to have included Draco. Draco is... not a person given to discretion. I expect he tried to beat the others to the rendezvous in order to involve himself."

Harry nodded. "Then the only person who believed Malfoy was part of the plot was me... and yet, the Mark appeared in his room!"

Lupin and Dumbledore looked at each other. "Somebody got the information from you, then, Harry," Lupin said, a slightly cross expression on his face. "Who’ve you told?"

"Only Ginny. And Ron, and, well, Hermione of course... and Fred and George were there when I found..." Harry trailed off.

"So, nobody really, then," Lupin said, with slight testiness.

"None of them would tell!" Harry said.

"We will have to look at that more closely," Lupin said. "There is something else, Professor. It's about Hermione and Ron."

Lupin proceeded to explain Ron and Hermione's strange nightmare, and its coincidence with the attack on Anne Bolger. Dumbledore's face became increasingly pensive as Lupin spoke. When Lupin concluded, Dumbledore stood up without a word, and began examining a shelf containing a stack of very ancient-looking manuscript scrolls.

"Hmm," Dumbledore muttered, pulling down a scroll and examining its contents. "Yes," he concluded finally. "The last account of something like this is from an English wizard travelling in Serbia in 1293. It is not good, if my guess is correct."

"What isn't good?" Harry asked. Anything that made Dumbledore look so grave must be terrible indeed.

"Do you know about Deathlessness, Remus?" Dumbledore asked.

Lupin opened his eyes wide. "Only as a legend."

Dumbledore nodded. "So did I, until now. Do you care to explain it?"

Lupin turned to Harry. "Well, Deathlessness is a state... of not being dead, really. Although not alive either. A person becomes a sort of living corpse, brooding on suffering and pain. Some far-fetched theories have it that Dementors are Deathless sunk to their lowest state."

Harry sat bolt upright. "Ron and Hermione are turning into Dementors?" he exclaimed.

"No," Dumbledore said. "They are still very much themselves. But if somebody suffers a magical death anywhere near them, they may slip into a Deathless state. We must prevent that at all costs."

"Well, they can be cured, can't they?" Harry said, an edge of pleading in his voice.

"The condition is generally believed to be mythical," Dumbledore said. "Nobody has a cure that I know of."

"Well if *you* don't know--" Harry said, then fell silent.

After a silence, Lupin spoke. "I don't like to say it, but the odds of a magical death happening at Hogwarts these days are not negligible."

Dumbledore scratched his beard. "Yes. It is terrible to contemplate, but for all its defenses we can no longer assume Hogwarts is a safe place."

"Well... all I can think of as a preventative," Lupin said, "is an induced comatose state. So that their minds cannot be affected. Until they can be reasonably safe... or until a cure is found," he added, looking over at Harry. Harry read the lack of hope in Lupin's eyes.

"Put them to sleep! That could be years!" Harry said.

"It could be," Dumbledore agreed. "Of course it will have to be their own choice. But I see more hope in that than in simply, well, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best."

"Harry and I will speak with them," Lupin said. "Madam Pomfrey will have the potion if we need it."

***

There was no Quidditch match that morning. Unsurprisingly in the light of the night's events, the students were confined to the castle for the day. While most of the Hufflepuffs retreated to their dormitories still shaken and exhausted, many other students who had no personal connection to the previous night's horror chafed at the restrictions imposed on their Saturday activities. The corridors were full of restless students making what they could of their free day. Harry, Ron and Hermione had some difficulty making their way to the hospital wing, as students rushed around, appearing around corners, tossing Quaffles up stairways, and evading Filch, who was in an apoplexy. Ginny was there too. It seemed appropriate to Harry that she should hear this information as well.

"What's this about, Harry?" Hermione said. "Last night?"

Harry nodded. He realised he must have appeared oddly silent, not having said a word since calling Ron and Hermione away from their chess game to lead them to the hospital wing. He had a sick, sad feeling in his stomach, and could not bring himself to reveal any details of his conversation with Dumbledore. As he walked first toward Gryffindor Tower and now back out toward the hospital wing, the implications were sinking in... he would be losing his friends. Only minutes from now, they could be silenced... who could guess for how long... the horror he had been acquainted with a couple of weeks before was returning...

"Lupin wants to tell you something... he has some ideas..." Harry said falteringly, feeling cowardly. He caught Hermione looking at Ron quizzically.

Lupin seemed surprised to see Ginny enter along with the others, but he raised no objections. "Good, then," he said, clutching and unclutching his hands. "Why don't we all take a seat then." Madam Pomfrey was pottering about at the back of the ward. Harry suspected she had already been told, and might even now be preparing the potion. "What I have to say is difficult. I'm going to be as direct as I can."

Harry did not interrupt as Lupin told Ron and Hermione about their visit to Dumbledore that morning. At first they appeared merely confused, but as the implications of Lupin's words sank in, their faces became blanker.

"This is happening to us now?" Ron said. "We're... one of these Deathless?"

"No," Lupin explained. "You're not. But if you... feel another person's death, you may become it. You will have experienced the death without dying. You came very close last night."

Hermione grimaced. "What can we do?"

Lupin inhaled deeply. "Nothing. We don't have a cure. We can only prevent you from undergoing that experience. Right now we can't say for certain that nobody will be killed at Hogwarts. First the Death Eaters, now the Order of the Phoenix, have attacked the school. Yet I can't name anywhere in the world that would be safer. All we can think of... is to turn your minds off. So that if it does happen... you won't be affected. We- Madam Pomfrey can induce a coma. We would revive you periodically, of course, when we felt it was safe-"

"And that would be when, exactly?" Ron said, his composure starting to crack. "When You-Know-Who's defeated?"

"Or when we've found a remedy," Lupin said. "Which we will look for. But the risk of losing you both-"

"Are you giving us a choice?" Ron said, his voice edged with anger.

"Ron," Hermione whispered.

"Of course you have a choice," Lupin said. "Of course. But it comes with a strong recommendation. We love you. We want you to live."

Harry and Ginny both looked up at these words, and nodded their agreement. There was a silence.

Hermione, her face flushed red, stood up and walked over to Lupin, and cupped her hand over her mouth. Lupin leaned over to allow her to whisper in his ear.

Ron smiled grimly. "I know what she said, sir. I was going to say the same thing."

Harry saw Hermione give Ron a look which Ron could not hold. Ron looked away from her, blushing. "Anyway," he mumbled. Harry knew that they were both thinking what he would have said in the same position- she would only go along if he did.

"I suppose that's a yes, then," Hermione said tiredly.

"It could be a week," Harry said.

"Or ten years," Hermione said.

"Or never," Ron said. "If You-Know-Who wins."

"Then we'll be luckier than anybody," Hermione said.

"He won't," Harry said icily. He surprised himself. He must have surprised Ginny, too. She looked at him with an expression much like fear.

Hermione's hands were clenched. "Well... honestly, this is... can you give us an hour or so? I'd like to... I don't know, write some letters, I suppose." She almost seemed to laugh at this.

Ron stood up and started to pace. "Don't you all forget about us and leave us here, will you?"

Harry and Ginny both shook their heads dumbly. The suggestion was too absurd to merit an answer.

***

Lupin, Harry and Ginny had left Ron and Hermione for an hour. It had taken an alarmingly large part of the hour for Harry and Ginny to explain the story to an increasingly horrified Fred and George.

"Bloody hell," Fred had said. "Why were we never told?"

The looks of genuine hurt on the twins' faces as Ginny told them the story broke Harry's heart.

"We couldn't tell anyone," Ginny said. "Sorry, really. You'll come, then?"

"Don't be barmy," Fred said. That settled that.

"Does Percy know?" George said.

Harry looked at Ginny. With shame, Harry realised it had not even occurred to him to advise Percy. Ginny expressed no such surprise as she shook her head. Clearly it had been on her mind.

"I haven't yet," she said, with a grimace. "I don't know how to tell him. I don't know how he'll react, and..." Here Ginny paused. "I don't even know if we can trust him."

"You've got to, Gin," George said with finality. "There's no way around it. He's family. And anyway, he's as much as running the school now. How d'you think he'll take it if he finds all this happened under his nose?"

"We'll go with you," Fred offered.

Harry watched Ginny, who was deep in thought. Everyone somehow seemed to acknowledge that she was in charge in this situation, and Harry could not help watching her thoughtful face with a swelling admiration. In the last couple of weeks, she had been called upon to act with a very level head several times. This seriousness, which Harry had not really noticed before, became her.

"No," Ginny declared finally. "No, it'll be worse if he thinks we're all going in ganging up on him. I'll tell him myself."

Ginny stood up. Harry, without thinking, stood up as well. "I'll go alone," Ginny said, noticing this. "I'm family. They'd boot you right out, I'm sorry to say," she said, smiling. She walked off toward the portrait hole, and Harry watched her go. He turned back to see Fred and George watching him rather than their sister, a wry amusement on their faces.

"She's all right, you know," George said. "We can vouch for her."

Harry blushed. "Yeah, I suppose," he muttered, unable to hold the twins' amused eyes.

***

"Prat."

Ginny's sudden outburst startled Harry. He had not seen her coming, as he waited in a discreet corner a few yards from the archway leading into the wing containing the staff quarters.

"Absolute bloody self-important smug little cold-hearted prat," Ginny elaborated as Harry caught up with her. She was proceeding down the corridor at a storming pace.

"He's not coming, then?" Harry said, already panting for the effort of keeping up.

"Oh, he's coming," Ginny said. She adopted a mocking supercilious tone. "’Absolutely shocking that you should endeavour to conceal this from the Committee. Demand that you cease and desist from any action ‘til we're there. Lupin ought to be ashamed,’" Ginny spat sarcastically. "That sort of rubbish. We'll have to get there fast."

Harry and Ginny ran up staircases and down corridors until they came finally to the hospital wing. Fred and George were there already when they arrived, waiting outside the door of the ward.

"Don't know if we want to go in just yet," Fred hissed, as Harry and Ginny came to a halt.

Ginny spoke at full volume. "But we can't wait--"

Ginny broke off. Harry heard the sound of raised voices inside the ward. His heart sank with foreboding.

"You see what I mean," Fred said with a hopeless shrug.

At that moment, Lupin arrived, and looked at the gathered group, his eyes darting puzzledly from one face to the other. Harry saw understanding in Lupin's eyes when the voices from inside erupted once more.

Ginny wasn't having any of it. She stepped forward and pushed the great door aside. Ron and Hermione were there, a distressing tableau. Hermione was sitting on the edge of one of the beds, her eyes puffy. Ron was standing with his arms crossed, facing away from her.

"Oh, why do you have to spoil everything!" Hermione cried out, near tears.

"What is this all about?" Ginny said indignantly as Harry followed her in. Ron was standing, looking furious.

"She wrote to Krum!" Ron said. "What's that for, eh?"

"I told you, he's a *friend*," Hermione said. "He'll wonder about me, if I just vanish off the face of the earth!"

"I didn't even know you were still writing to him!"

"What a time to be jealous!" Hermione said. "I don't know why I... you've been so good to me since- why now, of all times, do you have to be cruel?"

"Cruel, am I?" Ron snapped. "At least I only have one girlfriend!" Ron said icily.

"Do you now!" Hermione said with a humourless laugh.

Ron plopped himself in a chair, facing away from Hermione. The two of them fell into sulky silence.

Ginny looked at Harry and bugged her eyes, shaking her head with disbelief.

"Excuse me, so sorry, but we haven't got loads of time," Ginny said, an exasperated sting in her voice. She turned toward Lupin. "Percy's bringing the Committee."

Lupin raised his eyebrows. "We do not appear to have the luxury of making peace."

Hermione shuddered. "Suits me fine. Knock me out now."

"Yeah, no problem," Ron spat.

Lupin looked pained. Harry looked pleadingly from one of his best friends to the other.

"Can't you two... settle this... for now?" Harry said, faltering and feeling stupid.

"Do you really believe I would do that to you?" Hermione said bitterly to the air in front of her.

Ron heaved a heavy sigh. "I don't know."

The other occupants of the room shuffled awkwardly as the air remained tense.

"This is... regrettable," Lupin muttered finally.

At that moment, the door burst aside once again. Percy came in, and stopped in his tracks as seven pairs of eyes turned on him at once. He looked at Lupin, then at Hermione, then at Ron.

Percy appeared to lose his nerve, and cleared his throat.

"Erm..." Percy began weakly. "Officially, as a member of the Governing Committee, I must, erm, insist that you await our approval before taking any, erm, action of this sort..."

Percy then did something that nobody in the room expected. He walked over to Hermione, and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, hugging her tightly. It was as if he had squeezed a sob out of her, and she began weeping without restraint. Percy released her, then walked over and did the same to Ron. Ron squeezed his eyes tight and looked as though he might explode as his brother embraced him.

Percy released Ron, then walked swiftly past the others on his way out of the ward, avoiding all of their eyes and pulling the door shut behind him. The silence that followed his exit was thick, except for Hermione's heavy inhaling of breath.

Hermione spoke finally, facing Ron this time. "I might be eighty years old next time you see me," she said. "Suppose you could not be angry at me by then?" she concluded, more sad than bitter.

Ron's arms dropped. He looked over at Hermione. "Forget it," he said weakly. "Forget about it."

Harry watched them move together and embrace, more politely than anything, although he realised it must be hard to say goodbye with five people watching. Lupin busied himself with a potion that was steaming quietly on a nearby table. "You won't be eighty," Lupin said with a reassuring smile. "As soon as we think you'll be safe, we'll bring you round. Even if just for a while."

It did not seem necessary to say effusive farewells. Fred, George, Harry and Ginny simply pulled up chairs between the beds where Ron and Hermione sat waiting. "You'll take notes, won't you?" Hermione instructed Harry, her voice steadying. "We don't want to wind up hopelessly behind on our O.W.L.s. What a fiasco this is, it couldn't have been worse-timed."

"Yeah," Ron said with a snort and a grin. "Would have been much more convenient on summer hols."

Even Hermione had to smile.

***

After returning from the hospital wing, and a stop at the Owlery to send away the notes Hermione and Ron had dashed off to their families and friends, Harry had returned to the common room with Fred, George and Ginny, in what felt disturbingly like a funeral procession. Silence in a group of three Weasleys was a rare and grim occurrence. Though some kind of peace had returned before Lupin administered the potion, it still had been a rude shock to see Ron's, then Hermione's, eyes roll up as they slumped back on their hospital beds. They're not gone, Harry kept reminding himself. They're not gone. But friends of Harry Potter were starting to seem very thin on the ground.

Harry went to the quiet end of the common room, away from the fireplace and toward the turret-nook, which was unoccupied. Ginny followed him, for which he was unaccountably grateful. He realised that he had been hoping she would. Fred and George, on the other hand, dissolved into the knot of students gathered around the fireplace chattering, to continue behaving as normal until the manner of announcing Ron and Hermione's... absence could be decided upon.

Harry and Ginny took seats in the turret-nook, an event that in Gryffindor Tower would be an occasion for rumours to erupt, but at that moment Harry did not care. He just wanted something like privacy and quiet.

Harry had so many questions weighing on his mind. Everything seemed wrong. A Gryffindor he may have been, but he felt anything but brave. Everything was swirling away from him and there was nothing he could do. Ginny was sitting by him, silent. Harry looked over at her where she sat, staring at her hands in her lap, thoughtful. After about two minutes, having given up hope that Ginny would speak first, Harry asked one of the questions.

"What were you going to tell me yesterday?"

Ginny looked up, her thin orange eyebrows raised in a look of surprise. Harry went on.

"You were stopping me to tell me something, but I interrupted you."

Ginny smiled a lopsided, uncertain smile before she spoke.

"The same thing I said to you later, really, only in a nicer way," she said. "I wanted you to stop avoiding me. I wanted to tell you I... wasn't holding you to anything."

Harry felt his face warming. "Oh. Well, that wasn't-"

"It's all right," Ginny said. "I'm not angry with you or anything." Her voice dropped to a mumble. "It was my stupid mistake, really."

"It wasn't... that stupid," Harry muttered under his breath.

"I mean," Ginny went on, venturing uncertainly, "I know I'm no match for Cho..."

Involuntarily, Harry chuckled. "Cho! It's not like there's any chance there..." Immediately he felt his face go another twelve degrees warmer. Ginny had winced visibly. Harry wished he knew how to Disapparate on the spot. Instead, his stupid flapping mouth moved some more.

"No, I mean, it's not a question of being a match, that is, you're lovely, I just argh! No! It's just that it's weird and all what with you-"

"Being Ron's sister?" Ginny suggested.

Harry stopped speaking.

"Or, being like family? Or, being so nice but really you love me as a friend?" Ginny started to breathe rather heavily.

Harry continued to not speak. He was not sure it was going any better than the speaking.

Ginny was shaking now. "I really really really really really really wish I had never met you," she said, her voice quiet, hoarse and cold. Harry could not do anything but observe her, shivering like she had just been struck by a fever chill, her eyes narrow and angry. He pressed himself uncomfortably into his seat, completely at a loss at how he should act with this very unfamiliar-looking girl.

After a moment, gathering herself, Ginny went on. "I used to admire you so much. Before you were at school, even. Mum's magazines were all full of rubbishy articles about you, and how wonderful and brave you were, growing up out there with the Muggles, what a marvellous life you had. I thought about you a lot. I worked out that you were only a few months older, that I might even meet you at school. Spent hours by myself thinking about nonsense like that. Completely cracked, I know. I- you don't want to hear this."

Ginny came to a full stop and inhaled sharply, but Harry was transfixed, watching Ginny talk like she never had before. It was like meeting a whole new person. It took Harry a couple of seconds to catch on that she had stopped speaking.

"No!" he said, loudly enough to startle himself. "No, I mean, I want to hear."

"Oh, it's sickening girl stuff," Ginny said, waving her hand dismissively. "It's nonsense. I used to imagine... being your girlfriend, not just any girl, not just one of a load of busy chattering Weasleys, not just target-practice for six brothers."

Ginny smiled despite herself. "And you know, I thought I might marry you and be Mrs the most bloody famous wizard in history. Well," she said, her face now a deep red. "Not you, really. The bloke in the magazines. It was all made-up stuff, I know."

Harry was amazed. It had never ceased to annoy him how much people seemed to know or imagine they knew about him, but the idea that little girls across England had idolized him like a teen pop-star had never occurred to him... it was too absurd to contemplate!

"Don't laugh at me!" Ginny squealed angrily.

"No," Harry said, trying to get his breath. "No, Gin, I'm not... I mean, it's too much, just imagine, in my place, well I never had any idea! I was just... me!"

Ginny looked quite put out.

"Honestly, Ginny, I'm not laughing at you," Harry said, wiping his eyes. "I just- just- well, I'm sorry I turned out to be such a disappointment!"

"That's just it," Ginny said, her voice soft. "You weren't. Otherwise I would have gotten over this... ridiculous thing... ages ago."

Harry's smile vanished under the very serious look Ginny gave him in speaking those words. She held his eyes, and he resolved for once not to look away. Instantly he discovered he did not want to look away. What had he been afraid of seeing? Anger? Accusation? There was nothing of the sort. Her brown eyes were deep, brave. He felt himself becoming warm, but it was for once not from embarrassment. Many seconds passed. He and Ginny were together for that moment in a very calm, still place. He noticed something... he had never seen in anyone... the set of her mouth and the lines under her eyes... the crease in her forehead... he saw exactly what Ginny would look like when she was old. It was just a matter of imagining the lines a little deeper, the cheeks a little rounder, the worried furrow in her brow becoming permanent...

"Harry?"

Her soft voice caused something to lift in his throat that seemed to compel him to speak. "You... are... not... just... any... girl," Harry said, finding each word as he spoke, and on the last word the spell lifted. His mind was no longer still. It was no wonder he had been avoiding her... she was... too enormous. He had to know something. He had to figure out something about this impossible person whose entire life he felt he had just seen. How could he find it out? Ginny was looking at him, her face twisting oddly.

"Er," Harry said, reaching his hand out and slipping his fingers into her hair. "D'you suppose I could kiss you again?" His voice came out funny, deep and croaking.

"Oh!" Ginny's hand went up to her mouth. Her eyes glistened.

"For real. I mean it. I think I'll lose my nerve in a minute," Harry said. His voice was shaking.

Ginny shook her head. "Don't play with my mind, Harry, you're just upset..."

"I'm serious... I've been ridiculous..." Harry whispered. "Ginny, oh Ginny, I'm sorry..."

"Nonsense! Be quiet," Ginny whispered falteringly, eyes wide as Harry began to lean in toward her.

"You're so beauti- I mean it!" he added plaintively, as Ginny broke his gaze and sat up to look over the back of the chair.

"Yes, yes, all right!" Ginny hissed, flustered. "But I don't want anyone looking-" she said.

Harry's hand slid down her shoulder and arm and grasped her hand. He wanted desperately to pull her back down behind the shelter of the armchairs.

"Neville!" Ginny called out suddenly.

"What's that?" Harry said testily. His mind was on fire.

"Neville was here, Harry!" Ginny said.

"Oh, well, is he gone now?" Harry said absently.

"Harry, sweet Harry," Ginny started over, smiling patiently, "yesterday, Neville was standing right by here when you were talking to Fred and George! He could have heard everything you said to them."

Harry's mind rewound itself.

Ginny went on. "I know it's stupid to imagine that Neville could work for the Order of the Phoenix, but maybe he told som-"

That did it.

Of course.

Harry stood up.

He, and he alone, could guess all too well why Neville could work for the Order of the Phoenix.

"Right," he said.

Ginny followed Harry as he walked out of the turret-nook.

***

"I didn't know they'd kill, Harry," Neville said, pleading, as Harry cornered him in their dormitory room. "I've been sick all day. I had no idea."

Harry was struggling with a blank rage. "What did you think you were doing?!" he fairly shouted.

Neville winced. "Please. Please be quiet. I know... I have no right... I... but please listen to me first-"

"How did you get involved with the Order of the Phoenix!" Harry interrupted.

Neville's face went blank, baffled, for a moment. "Order-? I... I didn't even know they had a name. Years ago, I was at St Mungo's visiting my parents. Erm, my parents-"

"I know," Harry said, waving his hand dismissively. Harry startled himself with the callousness of the gesture, and resolved to calm himself.

"You- how? Well, anyway, a woman at the hospital stopped me and said... she knew some people who would help catch them. The torturers. And would I like to help them. Well, I said yes. She told me a password, a word that would appear in messages to prove it was from them."

"And?" Harry urged.

"And, I didn't hear from them for ages. First time was just a week or so ago. They sent me an owl, with the password, telling me to watch you closely. And... that I'd be sorry if I gave them away."

Harry released Neville's shoulder, which he realised he had been gripping with painful force. He sat on the edge his bed.

"Right," Harry said tiredly. "So you told them the names I mentioned to Fred and George."

"But I didn't know they were killers. They never said they'd do that. They said they would 'catch' the Death Eaters."

"Have you done anything else for them?" Harry asked.

Neville shook his head, speaking quickly. "I- I don't think they're finished. I'm worried that they'll... expect more from me. I got a message this morning telling me to wait for instructions. Not to breathe a word. Please, Harry, you mustn't say anything to anyone. I need your help, Harry. I would do anything to get myself out of this. I'll help you catch them. Please help me. But please don't tell anyone, or I'll be next."

Harry turned away from Neville, his mind full of noise. Suddenly, in a gesture that surprised even himself, Harry grabbed his wand from the pocket of his cloak, and viciously, with all his strength, he pitched it against the wall of their dormitory. It ricocheted off the wall with a SMACK, then off the ceiling, sending red and orange sparks spurting aimlessly around the room. The wand settled, unharmed, on Seamus' bed.

Neville had his back plastered against the wall, looking at Harry, wide-eyed and horrified.

Harry looked back at him. He felt loads better.

"Yes, all right, I'll help you."

THE END --- to be continued

//
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