lundi 11 février 2008

chapter 13

the first war, but you got all the glory, and then I was expected to
protect you. The Chosen One! If you are the only hope of the wizarding
world, Potter, it wasn’t difficult to see which side would win. There’s
no one left to protect you now."

Overwhelmed with rage and frustration, Harry let loose a series of
curses at the advancing Snape, but Snape remained one step ahead of
him, able to deftly read Harry’s thoughts and plan his counter curses.

Harry stumbled and fell backwards, watching as Snape advanced toward
him. His face was screwed up in an expression of intense loathing, and
Harry was left without a doubt that Snape wanted to humiliate him and
make him suffer simply for who he was. But Harry also realized his
advantage. Snape wouldn’t truly do anything to harm him — he was still
following Voldemort’s orders.

"That’s right, Potter. The Dark Lord wants the pleasure of killing you
himself, but that doesn’t mean he’ll mind if I toy with you
beforehand," Snape said, answering Harry’s unspoken thoughts. "That’s
the way your dear dead father liked to do things, after all. He never
fought without his little gang backing him up and doing the dirty work
for him. Never once did he face me in a fair fight. Oh, no, he was much
too cowardly for that."
Harry had heard enough. He’d had to fight his way away from bullies
long before he’d ever learned to use a wand. In one smooth motion, he
leaped to his feet, lunged forward, and delivered a strong right hook
to his former Potion master’s jaw. He felt several of Snape’s teeth
loosen on impact.

Barely registering the surprise on Snape’s face, Harry let his fists
fly. He may have been born a half-blood himself, but Snape obviously
had forgotten his Muggle roots, as he was unprepared for the physical
attack. Harry had repressed six years of insults and abuse from this
man, and he now had an outlet for that anger.

Blood flew from Snape’s split lip as he crumpled against the wall.

"Not so smart-mouthed when it comes to Muggle dueling, are you, Snape?"
Harry snarled. "You’re not so glib when your students can actually
fight back."

He was interrupted when a piercing cry ripped the still air. He jerked
his head in time to see Bellatrix Lestrange holding a writhing Ron
under the Cruciatus curse. Ron screams cleared the rage-induced fog
from Harry’s brain. He moved away from Snape and rounded his wand on
Lestrange. She managed to dodge several curses, all the while keeping
Ron under the intense agony of her spell.

Hermione turned from the opening at the front of the cave and began
moving back towards Ron.

"No!" Harry shouted. "Just go while you can."

Ginny, who had joined Hermione at the cave’s opening, grasped the older
girl firmly round the arm and pulled her away. She shoved a still-
Stunned Wormtail into the water, and jumped in after him, holding
firmly to Hermione.

Harry aimed his wand and put all his energy into a Stunning Spell. The
red light hit Bellatrix squarely in the chest, and she crumpled to the
ground in a heap.

Using his wand, Harry levitated an unconscious Ron in the air and
hovered his limp body towards the opening. He released the spell and
watched as his friend plummeted into the cold water below.

Snape stirred and from the corner of his eye, Harry saw him reach for
his wand. Swearing, Harry kicked Snape’s hand hard, sending the wand
clattering. He desperately wanted to grab Snape and bring him into
custody, too, but he was more concerned about Ron drowning while still
unconscious. He leapt over Snape while the man was still trying to
retrieve his wand. Taking a running head start, he dove into the icy
water, feeling all the breath leave his lungs with the shock of cold.

He resurfaced quickly and frantically searched for Ron. The redhead was
lying face down in the water. Harry grasped his shoulder and pulled
with all his might until they’d reached the rocks. He saw Snape emerge
from the cave — his face bruised and bloodied yet still livid with rage
— a moment before he side-along Apparated Ron away.

He reappeared outside Grimmauld Place in time to see Remus and Mr.
Weasley hurrying down the stairs behind Ginny. Hermione held her wand
pointed steadily at a still-Stunned Wormtail.

"Ron!" she screamed, dropping her wand and scrambling towards them.

Harry gently lowered Ron to the ground, feeling panicked and short of
breath. Ron had been under the Cruciatus for a very long time. He shook
his head, attempting to dislodge the images of Neville’s parents that
had crept into his thoughts.

"What happened to him?" Mr. Weasley asked, dropping to his knees beside
his son and aiming his wand at Ron’s temple. "Ennervate."

Ron didn’t respond.

"Bellatrix Lestrange held him under the Cruciatus. He lost
consciousness before I could get her away from him," Harry replied, his
voice cracking.

"Ginny, go inside and have someone Floo Madam Pomfrey. Don’t wake your
mother if you can avoid it; I’ll tell her myself," Mr. Weasley said.

Ginny, pale and wide-eyed, nodded before sprinting inside.

"Ron, wake up," Hermione said, tears causing clean streaks to cut
through the grime on her face. "Are you listening to me, Ron? I need
you to do this."

Mr. Weasley patted Hermione on the back. "Move aside for a moment,
Hermione, so I can take him inside."

Harry moved to help Mr. Weasley lift Ron’s comatose body, but it proved
unnecessary. Mr. Weasley gently levitated Ron inside. Hermione remained
in the same spot, staring numbly at the ground where Ron had just been

Harry wrapped his arm around her and tugged her to her feet. "Come on,
Hermione. He’s going to be okay," he whispered into her hair. The color
and texture of her wig still surprised him at times.

Hermione turned and buried her face into Harry’s chest. "He has to be,
Harry. I didn’t see it happen. I was so focused on getting Wormtail

"You caught him," Remus said, speaking for the first time. His voice
had a deadened, hollow quality to it that made the hair on Harry’s
forearms stand on end.

Remus stood motionless above his former friend, an expression of
mingled scorn, rage, and disgust displayed on his face. Using his foot,
he pushed the unconscious figure onto his back and continued to stare.
"What are we going to do with him?" Harry asked nervously. Remus’s
demeanor alarmed him, and he didn’t trust what his former professor
might do.

"Take Hermione inside and check on Ron. I’ll keep an eye on him until
we can get someone to take him to the Ministry. I’m not exactly
welcomed there," Remus said. The bitterness he usually hid so well
sounded clearly in his voice.

"Remus," Harry said, staring between his father’s old friend and the
front door. He was saved having to make the choice between Remus and
Ron when Mad-Eye Moody limped toward them.

"You got one. Good work, boy," he said, gruffly.

"It’s Peter Pettigrew," Harry said. "He needs to be taken into custody
to prove Sirius’s innocence once and for all."

Although Fudge had conceded that Sirius was innocent, he’d never made a
formal declaration about the Ministry’s mistake. It had all been shoved
under the rug when the news that Voldemort had, indeed, returned had
come to light.

Sirius deserved better than that.

"I need to check on Ron," Hermione said, sniffling. She began tugging
on Harry’s arm to move him inside.

"Go on. Madam Pomfrey is with Ron now. It’ll be my pleasure to take
care of him," Moody said, roughly grabbing Wormtail by the collar of
his robes.

Inside headquarters, Harry and Hermione found Ginny pacing outside a
closed door off the entrance hall. She sprinted towards them and threw
her arms about them both. Harry could feel her trembling and wrapped
his arm tightly around her slight frame.

"How is he?" Hermione asked.

"I don’t know. Madam Pomfrey is checking him over now, but she kicked
Dad and me out. Dad went upstairs to get Mum," Ginny replied.

"Alastor took Peter to the Ministry," Remus said quietly as he entered
the room behind them. Harry thought he looked older than he’d ever seen
him, even after a full moon. "How’s Ron?"

"We don’t know yet," Ginny said, pulling closer to Harry.

"At least come and sit down," Remus said, guiding Harry towards some
chairs. Harry kept his arms wrapped around both girls as he led them
away from the door. They had just sat down when Mrs. Weasley ran down
the stairs, Mr. Weasley right on her heels.

"Ron! Where is he?" she demanded frantically. She wore a dressing gown
that she hadn’t bothered to fasten, and her hair was tousled from
sleep. She had a frantic expression in her eyes that reminded Harry of
a wild animal.
Mr. Weasley led her to the closed door, and the two of them slipped
inside. Hermione stood as if to follow, but instead began wringing her
hands as she sat back down. Ginny reached across Harry and took one of
Hermione’s hands in her own, squeezing it tightly.

Hermione turned her watery gaze on the younger girl and smiled
tremulously. She took a deep breath, and Harry felt her relax beneath
his arm.

"He’ll be okay," she whispered. "He has to be; he’s Ron."

They waited in silence for several moments, the air laden with tension.
Remus sat in a chair across from the three teens, his eyes scanning
each of them.

"Did you destroy it?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

"Yeah," Harry said, nodding. "It’s done. We were ambushed though…by
Snape and some others."

"Severus was there?" Remus asked, looking up sharply.

"Yeah. It was curious though. Crabbe obviously called for back up when
he realized we were there, but I would have expected Voldemort to be
the one to show up. I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t," Harry said,
feeling that sense of uneasiness return.

"That is odd," Remus said, rubbing his chin. "We haven’t had a report
of any Death Eater activity so far this evening, although we rarely
know anything in advance these days. How did Severus react when he saw

"Sneered a lot, then started throwing curses," Harry replied.

"He tried to curse you?" Remus asked, color rising to his cheeks.

"Yeah. I tried to curse him, too, but I didn’t do so well. He can read
me like a book," Harry said, clenching his fists. It was galling how
easily Snape could predict him. If he couldn’t manage against Snape,
how was he ever going to battle Voldemort?

"One step at a time, Harry," Remus said, as if reading his thoughts.

"I can’t master Occlumency, Remus. If I can’t clear my mind, they’ll
both always know which curse I’m about to use. How can I beat that?" he
asked. "Even when I tried to shield my eyes, he still blocked me."

"Then how did you get away?" Remus asked mildly.

"Luck," Harry spat, disgusted. "I got so frustrated that I hauled off
and punched him in the mouth. He wasn’t expecting that, and I don’t
think he ever learned to fight the Muggle way."

"So, you didn’t think about it, you simply reacted," Remus said,
rubbing his temple.
Harry shrugged. "I suppose."

"That’s what you need against Voldemort then, isn’t it? The element of
surprise," Hermione said. Her eyes remained fixed on the closed door
where Ron had been taken, but she’d obviously been paying close

"How can I surprise him when he can read my thoughts?" Harry asked,

"You just did it with Severus," Remus replied.

"So…you’re saying I have to go up against Voldemort without a plan. Oh,
that’s just great. At least it takes awhile to say Avada Kedavra,
because that’s about how long I’ll last," Harry said, flinging his back
against the couch.

"No. We’re saying the plan has to be adaptable," Hermione replied

"Besides, we still have to find the oth-"

"The next Horcrux," Harry said, interrupting Ginny. He still didn’t
want Remus to know that there was only one remaining to find.

Ginny’s eyes were wide and round. "Right. We don’t even have a place to
begin looking for the next one," she said, her voice wavering.

Remus’s eyebrows had risen slightly, but he remained silent.

"That doesn’t mean we can’t start making some plans," Hermione said,
immediately switching into revising mode. Images of her pre-OWL
hysteria flashed through Harry’s mind. She was interrupted mid-stride
when the door opened, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley exited. Madam Pomfrey,
who was levitating an unconscious Ron, followed them closely.

"How is he?" Hermione asked, rushing over to lift Ron’s limp hand into
her own.

"We’re taking him to St. Mungo’s," Mrs. Weasley said, sniffling into a

Mr. Weasley wrapped his arm around her. "We’ll send word as soon as we
know anything."

"I want to go with you," Hermione said, her eyes wild.

"We do, too," Ginny added, while Harry nodded. They’d jumped up off the
couch and stood behind Hermione. All three looked into Mr. Weasley’s
face with pleading eyes.

"We’re wasting time," Madam Pomfrey said briskly, disengaging Ron’s
hand from Hermione’s grip. "He has some severe spell damage that needs
immediate attention, and it’s more than I can do here. Let the Healers
do their work, and you can see him afterwards."
Using her wand, she levitated Ron toward the front door with Mrs.
Weasley scurrying behind her.

"I give you my word that we’ll Floo you as soon as we know anything,"
Mr. Weasley said, locking his eyes on each of the teens. He then raised
his gaze to Remus.

Remus put his hands on Hermione’s and Ginny’s shoulders. "Why don’t I
make some tea while we wait," he said calmly. "We’re all worried, but
we don’t want to create any distractions at St. Mungo’s. We want their
attention focused on Ron."

Harry knew Remus was right. Harry’s appearance at St. Mungo’s was bound
to create a scene — just look what had happened when he’d been spotted
in Diagon Alley. Helping Remus, he tugged both girls’ hands.

"Come on, Remus is right. We can visit St. Mungo’s as soon as they’ve
got Ron awake," he said, leading the girls away while Remus went to
start a pot of tea.

The night dragged unmercifully slowly. Harry, Ginny, and Hermione sat
with Remus in the drawing room drinking their tea. They each dozed on
occasion, but mostly just stared at the clock on the mantle that seemed
to tick abnormally loudly in the still house. Harry absently wondered
what happened when Mad-Eye had arrived at the Ministry with Wormtail,
but the ex-Auror hadn’t yet returned, and Harry’s thoughts were too
focused on Ron to ask Remus to check.

Remus had given Hermione a large, steaming cup of tea, and Harry
suspected he’d laced it with some sort of Calming Draught because
Hermione had been far more relaxed after drinking it. She sat curled on
a chair with a hand-knit afghan across her legs, staring at the rapidly
dwindling wick of the candle in front of her.

Remus sat in the chair beside her, holding a book in his hand that he
had yet to open. He tried several times to initiate a conversation, but
after receiving only grunts and one-word answers in reply, he’d finally
given up and lapsed into the tense silence.

Harry and Ginny sat side by side on the couch, their hands tightly
clasped. Ginny was white-faced as she stared into the fire, chewing on
her lip. Harry desperately tried not to think about the possibility of
Ron suffering permanent spell damage. He knew he was doing a shoddy job
of it by the way his hands shook, rattling his cup against the saucer
when he’d tried to take a sip of tea.

He must have finally dozed at some point, because he was startled awake
when Mrs. Weasley entered the drawing room and tried to disentangle him
and Ginny.

Ginny groggily pushed at her mother’s hands and tried to burrow her
face back into Harry’s jumper.

"Mrs. Weasley!" Harry said, becoming fully alert. "What happened? How’s
Ginny, too, jumped up, her eyes opening wide while Hermione and Remus
sat bolt upright in their chairs.

"He hasn’t regained consciousness yet. They’ve got him in the Spell
Damage ward at St. Mungo’s," Mrs. Weasley replied, worry lines heavy
around her eyes and mouth. "I left Fred with him while I came back to
check on you. I want you all upstairs and in bed, right now. None of
you are going to St. Mungo’s until you have a kip. Has your father

"Dad? I thought he was with you," Ginny said, furrowing her brow.

"He was until we got an urgent owl from Percy that he needed to return
to the Ministry," Mrs. Weasley replied, wringing her hands.

"Sit down, Molly," Remus said, guiding her to the chair he’d just
vacated. "Let me pour you a cup of herbal tea. You need to have a rest
before returning to St. Mungo’s, as well."

"Oh, Remus," Mrs. Weasley cried tearfully. "He’s just so still. I can’t
bear the thought that my Ronnie might never return to me."

"He will, Molly. You have to believe that," Remus said, pouring her
some tea.

Hermione had visibly paled at Mrs. Weasley’s words and silently sank
back onto the couch. Harry moved to sit next to her while Ginny walked
over to her mum.

"Percy sent an Owl? What’s so important that he had to drag Dad away
from the hospital?" she demanded hotly.

"You don’t want to know," Mr. Weasley replied, entering the drawing
room with Mad-Eye following. Both had tired, grim expressions on their
faces that caused Harry’s stomach to churn with dread. He’d seen that
look too many times in the past, and knew it didn’t bode well.

Mr. Weasley walked across the room and planted a kiss on Mrs. Weasley’s
head. He sank down on the chair next to her and smiled weakly as Remus
offered him a cup of tea.

"Thanks, Remus. How’s Ron?" he asked.

"There hasn’t been any change since you left. Fred is with him, and he
said he’d call if Ron wakes. The Healers don’t expect him to for quite
some time yet because of all the potions in his system. We won’t know
anything for certain until he’s awake," Mrs. Weasley said, her lower
lip trembling.

Mr. Weasley shut his eyes tightly as he patted her on the shoulder.

"What happened at the Ministry, Dad? What did Percy say?" Ginny asked.
Her face was exceedingly pale, making her freckles stand out starkly.
She sounded young and frightened, despite the determined cast of her
Mr. Weasley sighed heavily and lifted his other arm, allowing his
daughter to slide under. He pulled Ginny in close and kissed the crown
of her head.

"The Ministry is in chaos," he sighed wearily.

"Why? What happened?" Harry asked, his eyes volleying between Mr.
Weasley and Moody, who remained with his back in the doorway. He had
his arms folded across his chest as he stood scowling at everyone in

"Rufus Scrimgeour is dead," Mr. Weasley said quietly.

"What?" Ginny asked, blinking.

"Murdered," Moody said gruffly. "The Dark Mark was seen hanging above
his home late last night. Rumor has it that You-Know-Who himself was
the one who did it."

Harry and Remus exchanged a meaningful glance.

"The Ministry is in chaos. They’re trying to keep it quiet at the
moment so as not to create a panic, but I fear the Prophet already
knows. I suspect it will be the morning’s headline," Mr. Weasley said.

"Panic?" Ginny repeated numbly.

"If You-Know-Who can get to the Minister of Magic that easily, no one
is safe, and nothing the Ministry can say will convince them that they
are," Mr. Weasley said, gently running his hand along Ginny’s cheek.

"Well, they aren’t," Harry replied.

"I know that, Harry, and anyone who has been following this situation
reasonably knows that, as well, but people like to fool themselves into
believing someone else is in charge. That someone else is handling
things. Now, the person they’d hoped was handling it has been murdered.
I fear this is going to put more pressure on you, Harry," Mr. Weasley

"I don’t care about that," Harry replied.

"You should," Moody said harshly. "You don’t need any additional
attention right now."

That was true; he certainly didn’t want to be under any more of a
microscope than he usually was while he searched for the remaining

"There’s more," Mr. Weasley said, rubbing the bridge of his nose
beneath his glasses. "And you’re really not going to like it."

"What’s that?" Remus asked, his grip on Harry’s shoulder tightening.

"The Wizengamot had to appoint an acting Minister until we can arrange
an election," Mr. Weasley said, his body stiffening.
"Yes," Remus replied. "That’s standard protocol."

"The atmosphere at the Ministry right now is tense and fearful.
Everyone is looking over their shoulders. No one trusts anyone else,"
Mr. Weasley said.

"Much the same as it was during Voldemort’s last reign of terror,"
Remus replied, glancing at Harry.

"Indeed. The Wizengamot felt they had to appoint someone who could
reinstate order — to enforce the rules during this dark time. They
needed someone to provide a systemized organized approach — someone who
craves order and thrives on the rules."

"Who did they appoint, Mr. Weasley?" Harry asked, his stomach knotting.
He could feel a trickle of sweat rolling down his back despite the
chill in the room.

"They felt they needed a determined bureaucrat," Mr. Weasley replied,
appearing apologetic.

"Who did they appoint?" Harry said again, more forcefully this time.

Mr. Weasley sighed heavily and glanced at the room. It was obvious he
dreaded the answer.

"Dolores Umbridge."
Chapter Seventeen

Dolores’s Decrees

November brought below-normal temperatures throughout the land, and the
political climate matched the weather. Interim Minister Dolores
Umbridge had imposed a strict curfew upon Great Britain. All witches
and wizards not employed by the Ministry had to be in their homes by
nightfall. Anyone wanting a special dispensation for work purposes had
to request a waiver from the Ministry – in writing – in triplicate.

New laws and Ministry Decrees were issued daily, some directly
contradicting others, although no one appeared to care. The wizarding
public was desperate for someone to tell them what to do, no matter how
inadequate those instructions might be. They were afraid, and the new
Minister wasn’t above playing on that fact.

As Mr. Weasley had feared, the Daily Prophet had run a headline the
morning after the murder of Rufus Scrimgeour with a full moving picture
of the Dark Mark floating above the Minister’s handsome home. Although
the details had been sketchy, the expected response had been exactly as
Mr. Weasley had predicted. Witches and wizards took to the streets in
mass hysteria. Some tried to flee the country, and the Ministry had to
close its International Portkey office for several days after a riot
had broken out in the lobby.

Despite Umbridge’s attempts to convince the public that Harry was
merely an unqualified school boy and not critical to the defeat of
Voldemort, the people held onto their hope that Harry would somehow
stop the madness. Each day, the Daily Prophet ran a list of Harry-spottings and had several reporters assigned to the task of tracking
his comings and goings. Every day that went by saw an increase in the
public’s demand that he break his silence and make a statement about
his efforts to stop the war.

Mr. Weasley told them that Interim Minister Umbridge was growing
increasingly frustrated by her failed attempts to tamp down interest in
Harry. The public appeared ready for her to organize things, but it was
Harry they expected to finally end Voldemort’s reign of terror.
Umbridge quickly realized that her renewed smear campaign wouldn’t
succeed. She’d pulled back from her public attacks on Harry and instead
concentrated on more covert attempts to dislodge him from the public’s

The Order already felt the strain of Umbridge’s reign. Kingsley
Shacklebolt, who had been working for the Muggle Prime Minister, was
ordered to relinquish his assignment. According to Umbridge, the
wizarding population was in far more danger than the Muggles, and she
didn’t have the resources to spare at the moment. She’d refused to
listen to any arguments against leaving the Muggles defenseless, and
told the Prime Minister she’d be in touch if there was anything he
needed to know.

She’d left him without the slightest recourse for contacting anyone in
the wizarding world for help in a war he didn’t understand. When
several high-ranking Ministry officials attempted to point this out,
she argued that since the Dark Lord loathed the intermingling between
the wizarding and Muggle worlds, distancing the two factions would
actually help the Muggle population. When Mr. Weasley and several
others had continued to argue, she’d threatened them with charges of

Attacks on Muggles had been rising steadily, and several London
landmarks had suffered damage, including Tower Bridge and Big Ben. The
destruction had left the Muggles so preoccupied, they’d barely noticed
the other strange occurrences throughout the city.

While Harry was worried about the damage Dolores Umbridge was wreaking,
his main concern was Ron. Three weeks had passed since he’d been
cursed, and he’d yet to regain consciousness. He remained confined to
the Spell Damage ward at St. Mungo’s. Hermione had visited each day and
returned – pale and weary – to report there had been no change. The
Healers still suspected he’d eventually come out of it, but none of
them were willing to target a date – or if he’d suffer any permanent
brain trauma as a result.

Harry had wanted to rush straight to the hospital that first day, but
Mr. Weasley had gently pointed out the danger to Ron if word leaked out
that Harry Potter was a regular visitor. So far, they’d been able to
keep Ron’s injuries from the press, but Harry’s appearance would change
that. Harry knew it was the truth, but it didn’t make him feel any
better. He’d clenched his teeth and nodded stoically, having to settle
for Hermione and Ginny’s reports on Ron.
Harry sat in the kitchen one morning, moodily stirring a cup of coffee
when Mr. Weasley and Remus Lupin entered, each wearing grim

Harry’s heart lurched. “What happened?” he asked.

Mr. Weasley sat down, and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I
think we need to remove Ron from St. Mungo’s, Harry,” he said, sighing.

“Why? What’s happened?” Harry asked, a thrill of fear bubbling in his

“You explain. I’ll Floo Poppy and ask her if she can tend him here,”
Remus said, squeezing Harry’s shoulder as he passed.

“Dolores Umbridge has obtained information that Ron is at St. Mungo’s,
and she’s in the process of writing a Decree stating that any patient
suffering spell damage from an Unforgiveable needs to be detained in a
Ministry facility until the incident can be investigated,” Mr. Weasley
said, clenching his teeth and twisting his coffee cup around in his

“Detained how? Ron isn’t even conscious,” Harry said, jumping from his

Mr. Weasley raised his hands, attempting to calm Harry. “I know that,
Harry. She’s frustrated by her lack of ability to learn what you’re
doing. She wants to make it appear that it’s the Ministry that’s in
charge, and right now, the public is more enamored with you. Despite
all her efforts, she hasn’t been able to convince them that you’re a
dangerous threat to the peace that she’s trying to form. It’s
infuriating her.

“She knows you, and she knows how close you are to Ron. I believe
she’ll use him as a bargaining tool once he’s under her care. We need
to get Ron out of St. Mungo’s before her Decree is passed.”

“How do you know about this?” Harry asked.

Mr. Weasley rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “Percy
owled me early this morning. He’s dismayed by the Minister’s plans for

Harry bit his lip, not entirely convinced it wasn’t Percy who told
Umbridge about Ron in the first place. He wasn’t about to say that to
Mr. Weasley, however. Some of his feelings must have shown on his face,
because Mr. Weasley sighed heavily.

“I understand your mistrust of Percy, Harry, and I can’t say that I
blame you, but I do believe that he loves his family. I think Percy had
a rude awakening at Bill’s wedding, and he’s trying to make amends. I
have to believe that,” he said.

His eyes looked so sad and almost pleading that Harry had to swallow a
lump in his throat. If it turned out that Percy wasn’t on the right
side of all this, Harry would make certain he paid for it.
“I’m going with you,” he said, not about to be swayed by any argument.


“I’ve stayed away so as not to draw attention to Ron’s being there.
He’s leaving now, anyway, and his connection to me might actually work
in his favor for once. My presence at St. Mungo’s should cause enough
of a distraction to get him out. I’ll bring my Invisibility Cloak, as
well,” Harry said, his jaw set.

Mr. Weasley sat back in his chair, watching Harry closely. Finally, he
nodded. “All right, Harry. You’ve done a lot of growing up this past
year, haven’t you, son?”

Startled, Harry jerked his head toward Mr. Weasley.

The older man smiled fondly. “You were such a scrawny little thing when
Ron first brought you home. Molly used to say that if you turned
sideways you’d disappear, you were so thin. You were always polite and
soft-spoken, but even then I could sense an underlying strength of
character. You’ve grown into a remarkable young man, Harry. Your
parents would be proud.”

Harry wasn’t certain how to respond, so he merely nodded, feeling a
warm glow of pleasure flush his cheeks. When Remus returned, the three
of them left Grimmauld Place and Apparated to an alley near St. Mungo’s
Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.

London’s streets were being decorated for Christmas, and Harry was
stunned to realize he’d been so caught up in the war that he hadn’t
even been aware of the season. Boughs of holly and evergreens were
wrapped upon the streetlights, and Harry could hear the distant clang
of a bell from a department store Father Christmas. The streets were
already packed with shoppers carrying bundles of brightly wrapped

They’d managed to enter the apparently deserted department store that
hid St. Mungo’s without attracting any attention. The reception area
was filled with various witches and wizard seeking medical attention.
Healers in lime green robes moved from person to person, assessing who
was in the direst need of attention.

The witch sitting at the Inquiry desk was young with a pockmarked face
and platinum blonde hair. She cracked her gum repeatedly and looked up
with a bored expression on her face as they approached the desk. Her
eyes zeroed in on Harry’s scar, and her jaw hung open, dropping her gum
on the desk with a thump.

“Blimey, it’s Harry Potter,” she said, an annoying nasal twang to her

All activity in the waiting area halted for a brief moment and a heavy
silence filled the air. It lasted only a moment before whispering broke
out amongst the people. They began pointing and moving closer toward
Harry in order to hear him. Several of the Healers began elbowing each
other and nodding in his direction.
Annoyed with the reception witch, Mr. Weasley grabbed the register and
signed his name, handing the quill to Harry. “We know where we’re
going,” he said coldly.

Grabbing Harry’s elbow, he moved quickly towards the lift. Remus
followed behind them as the hum of voices in the lobby grew louder.
They rode the lift to the fourth floor where the Spell Damage ward was
located as quickly as possible, but news of Harry’s presence preceded
them for the corridors filled with witches and wizards eager to catch a
glimpse of the Chosen One. Several people asked him questions, but
Harry kept his eyes focused firmly ahead of him and didn’t slow his

The nurse sitting at the desk in front of the Spell Damage ward was a
young, rather plump, star-struck girl who repeatedly fluttered her
eyelashes at Harry.

“We’re here to see Ron Weasley,” he said, nodding pleasantly.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Potter,” the witch replied nervously, her eyes fixed on
his face. “We’ve had a direct order from the Ministry that no one is
allowed in the ward until further notice. We’ve got two visitors inside
now, and we’re waiting to clear them out.”

Harry leaned over the desk, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Aw,
come on. Certainly if there are already visitors inside a few more
won’t hurt. I promise we’ll be in and out so quick that no one will
know,” he said.

The witch opened and closed her mouth several times like a fish,
apparently wanting to object but unable to find the words.

“I’d consider this a great personal favor,” Harry said, briefly
scanning her nametag, “Sandy. Do you think you could let me see my
friend?” He’d learned from experience that Ginny always tended to give
him his way when he used that sappy, puppy-dog expression, and he only
hoped it would work with the nurse, as well.

“All right, Mr. Potter,” Sandy said breathlessly, “but you’ll have to
be quick. I’ll be in so much trouble if anyone finds out I let you in

“Thank you, Sandy,” Harry said, feeling very pleased. He quickly
hurried through the door to the closed ward. Remus and Mr. Weasley
followed him, each wearing wide grins.

“I think I’ve seen both your father and Sirius pulling stunts like
that, Harry. Well done,” Remus said, chuckling.

Harry’s face colored. “I hope I don’t get her sacked like the witch at
the Apparation Testing Center,” he said. There was nothing to be done
for it, however. They had to get Ron out of here.

“His room is this way,” Mr. Weasley said, leading Harry around the
When they entered, they discovered the room wasn’t empty. A stout man
sat in the chair by Ron’s bed, his back to the door. Harry drew his
wand in a flash and aimed it at the man. “Move away from his bed and
keep your hands where I can see them,” he said.

The man started and turned around, revealing the surprised face of
Harry’s classmate, Neville Longbottom.

Harry felt his body deflate as the air and the tension left his lungs
through his nose. “Neville. What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Harry,” Neville said brightly. His round face beamed as he
recognized Harry. “Hello, Professor Lupin. How have you been? And you
must be Mr. Weasley.”

“Nice to see you again, Neville,” Remus said warmly.

“Gran and I are here to visit my parents, but there’s something strange
happening. They gave us a really hard time about getting in, and they
tried to have us fill out all this extra paperwork. Gran went upstairs
to give the Head Healer a piece of her mind. I don’t envy that bloke,”
Neville replied, grimacing.

“How’s Ron?” Harry asked.

He moved cautiously toward the bed and got the first look at his friend
in weeks. Ron’s skin was pale, making the freckles on his face stand
out starkly. He looked peaceful, however, as if he was only sleeping.
Somehow, Harry had expected him to look as if he was in pain. He was
relieved that wasn’t the case. Still, it was strange and rather eerie
to see Ron this way. He was used to a Ron who was lively and full of
energy. He wanted his friend back.

“Gran told me he was here, so I cut of a sprig of my Mimbulus
mimbletonia and planted it for him. It’s supposed to have healing
properties, so I thought it might help,” Neville mumbled, kicking his
foot against the bed.

Harry glanced at the small green plant resting on Ron’s bedside table
and found it hard to swallow around the lump that had grown in his

“It’s a lovely thought, Neville,” Hermione said, entering the room.
Harry suddenly realized that Hermione’s coat was lying on the chair
beside Ron’s bed.

“Hermione! When did you get here?” Harry asked, his eyes widening.
He’d assumed she’d still been asleep when he’d left with Remus and Mr.

“I’ve been here for a few hours. I couldn’t sleep,” she replied, not
meeting his eyes. Her eyes had dark shadows beneath them, making them
appear almost bruised. She moved towards Ron and gently brushed the
hair on his forehead. “There hasn’t been any change. What are you all
doing here? What’s happened?”
“Umbridge is making life difficult, and she’s about to try and take Ron
into Ministry custody,” Harry replied, a tic working in his cheek.

“What? That’s ridiculous,” Hermione cried, her eyes seeking
confirmation from the older two men in the room.

“So is Umbridge,” Harry replied.

“What are we going to do? We can’t let her do this, Harry. Mr. Weasley?
She can’t just take him,” Hermione said, her voice growing shriller
with each syllable.

“Calm down, Hermione,” Remus said, grasping her shoulders. “No one is
going to take Ron anywhere.”

“We’re here to break him out. Even unconscious, Ron’s a rebel,” Harry
said, smirking.

“How? They’re watching all the doors. How do you propose to get an
unconscious body by them without anyone noticing? They’re counting who
goes in and who goes out. They know Neville and I were the only two
left in here,” Hermione said without taking a breath.

“Take Ron,” Neville said suddenly, a fierce, determined expression
crossing his face. “You take Ron, and I’ll stay in his bed. It won’t
fool them for long, but long enough to get you out of here.”

“Neville-” Hermione said.

“Do it. I can handle this,” Neville said, sticking out his chin.

“The Ministry will be all over you, asking you all sorts of questions,”
Harry said. “It’s me they want, and they’re going to try and use Ron to
get to me. They’ll use you, too.”

“It won’t matter,” Neville replied, squaring his shoulders. “I don’t
know where you’re taking him and as long as you don’t tell me, even
with Veritaserum there’s nothing I can give them.”

“Thank you, Neville,” said Mr. Weasley quietly, extending his hand to

“I want to help, in any way I can. If you need anything, Harry, you
know where to find me,” Neville said, shaking each of the other men’s

“Thanks, Neville,” Harry said, feeling extraordinarily proud to call
Neville a friend.

When Neville reached Hermione, he pulled her into a hug rather than
shaking her hand. He handed her the potted plant that resembled a
pulsating cactus. “Take this, maybe it’ll help.”

“Thanks, Neville,” Hermione said, her eyes glistening.
Mr. Weasley removed his wand from his pocket and aimed it as his son.
“Petrificus Totalis,” he said, causing Ron’s entire body to stiffen.

Ron’s body rose in the air and hung eerily still, slightly in front of
Mr. Weasley.

Remus moved next to him, attempting to block him from view. He turned
to Harry, his eyes twinkling. “Now, Harry, if you can just work your
charm on Sandy as we leave, hopefully she won’t give the rest of us a
second glance.”

Hermione kissed Neville on the cheek before he climbed into Ron’s bed.
She took her place in front of Ron, and they moved toward the door.

Harry hurried to the front desk, attempting to block the nurse’s view
of the others. “Thank you for letting me see my friend, Sandy. I really
appreciate it. We’ll all be leaving, now.”

Sandy blinked, staring dreamily at Harry. “Okay, Mr. Eyes…er...
Potter….Mr. Potter.…have very nice eyes... the color I mean.
It’s striking.”

Harry felt his face flush. “Thank you, Sandy.”

“I have faith in you, Harry. I know you’ll beat him,” Sandy said,
grabbing his hand.

Harry fervently hoped what he was doing wouldn’t get Sandy into
trouble. “I’m going to try,” he told her sincerely, feeling his words
were incredibly inadequate.

The rest of the group had made their way onto the lift. Harry joined
them just as the door closed. Removing his Invisibility Cloak from his
pocket, he shook it out and swung it over Ron’s head.

“I’m certain the reporters will be aware of my presence here by now. If
we get held up, let me deal with them while you get Ron out of here,”
he said to Remus and Mr. Weasley.

Neither of the two men looked particularly happy with the idea, but
they both nodded their agreement, knowing he was probably right.

They emerged from the lift and rounded the corner into the lobby before
all hell broke loose. Cameras flashed and a swarm of reporters swarmed
toward them, firing questions so rapidly Harry couldn’t distinguish
anything being said.

Blinking to clear the spots from his eyes, he shot a meaningful glance
at Remus. Harry moved slightly away from the others to give them a
chance to get away and raised his arms in the air, trying to quiet the
crowd with a gesture. When that failed, he stuck his fingers in his
mouth and whistled shrilly.

He saw Remus and Mr. Weasley slip through the entrance unhindered, and
breathed a sigh of relief. He was dismayed to realize Hermione had
stayed with him, however.
“Mr. Potter, what is your opinion of our Interim Minister? I understand
you were at odds with her when she briefly took charge at Hogwarts,” a
male reporter with narrowed eyes and an oily face asked, shoving a
recording quill and parchment beneath Harry’s nose.

“Yes. Dolores and I have had our differences in the past,” Harry
replied, refusing to acknowledge her title, “but I hope she can leave
all that behind us and concentrate on the situation at hand. Stopping
Voldemort’s reign of terror should be everyone’s first priority.”

He rolled his eyes at the gasps and shrieks of dismay the name caused,
finding them ridiculous. How could they report on Voldemort’s
activities if they couldn’t even stand to hear his name?

“Do you think she’s capable of leading us?” a female reporter asked,
her bright red nails caressing her quill.

Harry shrugged. “I don’t think Voldemort or his followers care much
about any Decree the Ministry might issue. They’re not going to stop

“What is going to stop him, Mr. Potter?” the witch asked eagerly.

Harry had to control a grin as he wondered if she might actually start
drooling. “I am,” he replied, locking his eyes with hers.

The reporters’ quills scribbled madly as the buzz of conversation once
again reached fever pitch.

“What are you doing at St. Mungo’s today?” another reporter shouted,
quieting the crowd.

“I was visiting a good friend of mine who was hurt recently in a battle
with some of Voldemort’s Death Eaters. During that battle, one of the
Death Eaters was captured and is now in custody at the Ministry. That
man’s name is Peter Pettigrew,” Harry said, clearly enunciating each

The room erupted into chaos yet again. Hermione glanced at Harry with
wide eyes, but nodded for him to continue.

“As I told the Quibbler when I did my interview after Voldemort’s
rebirth, Pettigrew was instrumental in his return. I haven’t seen much
reported about his capture, but perhaps you can ask the Ministry if
he’s revealed anything,” Harry said, ignoring their continued reactions
to hearing Voldemort’s name.

News of Wormtail’s capture had been kept extremely quiet, and Mr.
Weasley had learned that the rat still wasn’t being held in Azkaban,
but was instead in the Ministry’s Holding Facility. Access to him had
been given only to those Aurors hand-selected by Dolores Umbridge.
Harry thought it was about time the public was given the full story.
Hopefully, it would put some pressure on the Ministry.

“Where is Pettigrew now?” a reporter with a thin mustache asked.
“As far as I know, he’s at the Ministry, but I’d assume they’re
preparing to send him to Azkaban” Harry replied, shrugging. “Maybe
they’ve learned where Voldemort is hiding.”

“You think the Dark Lord is in hiding?” another reporter asked eagerly.

Harry shrugged again, holding his hands in the air. “Haven’t seen him

Questions about Pettigrew and his capture were flying fast and furious,
and Harry couldn’t suppress the bubble of pleasure that gurgled in his
chest. Dolores was going to be mightily hacked off about this.

“Look, there’s Interim Minister Umbridge, now,” Hermione said, grasping
Harry’s arm so tightly that her nails dug into his skin. “Why don’t you
ask her about Pettigrew’s fate?”

The crowd of reporters swarmed around a surprised Dolores Umbridge, her
toad-like face growing red with fury when she realized what all the
questions were about. She glared across the room at Harry, desperately
trying to make her way toward him. He could hear her simpering voice
trying to get the reporters out of her way. Hermione grabbed Harry’s
hand, and they made their escape as quickly as they could.


Although Christmas was rapidly approaching, the mood inside
headquarters remained tense and somber. One of the guest rooms had been
converted into a makeshift infirmary, and Madam Pomfrey had moved into
the adjoining room. Despite her diligent care, Ron remained
unresponsive. Hermione had set the plant Neville had given her on Ron’s
bedside table, and as the little sprig grew, Ron’s coloring had also
improved. Still, that slight change hadn’t brought him out of the coma,
and everyone’s hopes were dwindling.

Harry refused to believe his best mate would spend the rest of his life
in a vegetative state. It simply couldn’t end up this way.

Harry’s statement to the press about Wormtail’s capture had forced the
Ministry to admit that they indeed had him in custody. Any other
details were sketchy, and the Daily Prophet had soon printed an article
questioning Umbridge’s leadership ability. After two such articles
appeared in rapid succession, they’d suddenly stopped. The Order’s
attempts to locate the reporter who’d written the articles had, so far,
fallen short. It appeared the reporter had fallen off the face of the

Neville had sent an owl informing them that with all the commotion
Harry’s announcement about Wormtail had caused, he was able to leave
St. Mungo’s without being detained by the Ministry. When they’d come to
his home to question him, his grandmother’s intimidating presence had
quelled the two Aurors. It appeared that Dolores Umbridge was
unprepared to go up against a respected pureblood family.

At headquarters, Harry, Hermione and Ginny were in the library
comparing their notes on where each of the Horcruxes had been found,
and how it was destroyed. None of them had the heart to suggestcontinuing their search without Ron, although Harry feared it might
come to just that sooner rather than later. He’d decided to hold off
through the holidays and simply try and enjoy this time with the
Weasleys while they all had the chance.

Unexpectedly, loud voices in the entrance hall caused the three teens
to stick their heads outside the door to see what was happening. Tonks,
Mad-Eye Moody, Bill, and Mr. Weasley were all standing around, and they
appeared to be having a row with Remus.

Remus had his arms folded resolutely across his chest, and a resigned
yet determined expression upon his face. The others appeared agitated,
and Tonks looked as if she was holding back tears. Bill wore that
angry, frustrated expression on his face once again, making the hairs
on the back of Harry’s neck stand on end.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked, striding into the middle of the floor and
looking at each of them in turn.

“Umbridge strikes again,” George said, scowling.

Harry started, not realizing George was there. He was hidden in the
doorframe to the kitchen with Fred behind him wearing an identically
sour expression.

“What has she done now?” Hermione asked, groaning.

“She’s issued a Decree stating that all persons suffering from
Lycanthropy are to be confined to Ministry-approved Holding Facilities
until the current crisis is over,” Remus said softly.

“What?” Harry asked, whirling to face his father’s old friend. “You
must be joking.”

“Afraid not,” Remus replied, grimacing.

Harry looked briefly at Bill, who scowled. “It doesn’t mean me, since
I’m not officially diagnosed with Lycanthropy…yet. I merely display
some of the symptoms, but you’ve seen firsthand how my temper can
become…irrational. Just give her some time. It won’t be long before she
reclassifies the restrictions.”

“We’re not going to let it come to that, Bill,” Mr. Weasley said,
grimacing. Harry knew it was a father’s promise to his son, one he
desperately wanted to keep, but not necessarily one he could control.

“What do you mean? Confined for every full moon?” Hermione asked, her
brow knitting. “They’re going to lock you up each month?”

“No. Confined as in permanently for an undetermined amount of time,
regardless of whether it’s a full moon or not,” Mr. Weasley said,
casting an anxious glance in Remus’s direction. Remus averted his eyes.
“The penalty for disobeying the Decree is immediate termination.”

“She can’t do that,” Ginny cried, glancing desperately between her
father and Remus. “You’re just like everyone else except at the full
moon. She can’t just put you down like an animal.”
“Umbridge has always had a prejudice against ‘dangerous half-breeds’.
Look at the anti-werewolf Legislation she passed four years ago,” Tonks
said, her face twisting into an ugly scowl. She turned towards Remus,
tugging on his arm imploringly. “This is her own personal and misguided

“How does she propose to manage this facility?” Hermione asked, her
arms crossed indignantly.

“She doesn’t, and quite frankly, people don’t care right now,” Remus
said tiredly, taking a step away from Tonks. “Even those that might
ordinarily take up the plight are too concerned with the war, right
now. The vast number of those afflicted with Lycanthropy have already
sided with Voldemort. People are afraid, and in desperate times,
they’ll take desperate measures.”

“How does she propose to supply Wolfsbane to all those people?”
Hermione asked, glaring at Mad-Eye as if it were all his fault.

“Who says she will?” Mad-Eye asked gruffly.

“She can’t just lock you all up together,” Hermione cried, staring at
Remus scandalized.

“Why not? I don’t think the fate of anyone afflicted as I am is one of
her concerns,” Remus said wearily. “Honestly, the only ones who are
going to turn themselves in are the ones attempting to live a normal
life amongst wizards. The majority of Voldemort’s followers won’t pay
any heed to this Decree. The ones who do turn themselves in will most
likely kill each other off during the full moons. By the time this is
over, there won’t be anyone left to complain.”

“And Umbridge won’t stop there,” Bill said, firmly squaring his jaw.
“She has it in for Centaurs, Merpeople and the Goblins, too. This is
going to get ugly.”

“This is barbaric,” Ginny cried, her eyes glittering.

“This is war,” Moody snapped. “The sodding bint is using that to her

“What do you plan on doing?” Fred asked Remus.

It was then that Harry noticed Remus had a small bag at his feet.
Hermione must have noticed it at the same time.

“You’re not going to turn yourself over to them,” she said, panicked.

“Not bloody likely,” Harry said, feeling his anger beginning to boil.
The thought of losing Remus now was clawing at his insides with fevered
intensity. First Sirius, then Dumbledore, and now Remus…

“No. I’m not,” Remus said, squaring his shoulders. His eyes were very
sad, and he looked at Harry as if there was no one else in the room.
“I’m going to go underground like I did for Dumbledore. Perhaps I can
learn something about what the others are planning. If anything, thisgives me an excellent cover for why I’m turning my back on wizarding

“No,” Harry said, his breathing hard. He felt Ginny slip her hand into
his and thread her fingers with his own. “There has to be another way.”

Remus placed his hands on Harry’s shoulders and squeezed them gently.
“Harry, there is no choice.”

“It’s suicide, Remus,” Tonks said, her watery eyes finally starting to
spill her tears. They rolled down her face in fat drops as her hair
lost its pink color and turned a mousy brown. “They’ll kill you if they
even suspect what you’re doing.”

“I’ll be all right, Nym,” he replied, gently brushing her cheek with
the back on his hand. “We all have to do what we have to do.”

“No,” Harry said again, determined to Stun Remus if he had to in order
to keep him from walking out that door.

“It’s my way to fight in this war. Certainly you, of all people, can
understand that, Harry,” Remus said gently.

Harry looked away, desperately trying to think of an alternative.
Vaguely, he wondered if this was how Ginny felt when he’d tried to
leave her behind. Unable to come up with an answer, he briefly nodded,
his throat closing.

Remus patted him on the shoulder, his voice choking. “Good boy. I’m
very proud of everything you’ve accomplished, Harry. I’ve always been
extraordinarily proud of you. Sirius and your father would be, too.
I’ll be in touch as often as I can.”

Remus’s glanced at the others standing in the entrance hall and gave
them all a brief nod. He took Tonks by the hand and led her towards the
door to say his farewell in private. As he stepped by Ginny, he leaned
down and whispered to her, loud enough for Harry to hear, “Take care of

“I will,” Ginny murmured, a single tear making a silent track down her

Unmoving, Harry watched Remus lead Tonks out the front door, an aching
hole growing in his chest. Rage bubbled inside, making his stomach
roil. Voldemort had to be stopped before any more lives were ripped
apart. He had to find the remaining Horcrux; and then he had to end
this once and for all, regardless of what that meant for him.


Harry sat in a chair beside Ron’s bed, staring out the window at the
lightly falling snow. It had begun only minutes earlier, and he
watched, lost in his own thoughts, as the swirling flakes appeared to
dance on the windowpane. He’d fled the entrance hall after Remus’s
departure, unable to face everyone’s concerned stares, or Hermione’s
desire to discuss the decree in detail.
He wished Ron would get on with it and wake up, but his friend remained
unresponsive. Harry idly kicked his foot against the leg of the bed,
watching the rubber of his trainer as it peeled back each time his foot
made contact.

“I wish you’d stop this and wake up, Ron. The girls are driving me mad
with only me here to hassle,” he said, lightly snorting. “If you’re so
bored with our company, maybe I’ll ask Lavender Brown to come and stay
awhile. I’ll bet you’d love that.”

Harry grinned as he imagined the horrified expression on Ron’s face had
he been awake to hear that comment. He absently wondered what Lavender
and the others were doing now, without Hogwarts to occupy their time.

“We’ve been waiting for you to wake up before doing anything about
finding the next Horcrux, but I can’t wait any longer, mate. Too much
is happening. Umbridge is trying to take control and fix everything.
I’m certain you can remember how well that worked the last time,” Harry
said, rolling his eyes.

“Hermione is going to look through the Pensieve again. I don’t know
what she’s hoping to find, but I suppose it gives her something to do.

“You’re going to have to wake up soon, mate. If I manage to find this
last Horcrux in a reasonable amount of time, I’m not waiting to
confront Voldemort. He has to be stopped, Ron, and I’m the only one who
can do it. Ginny and Hermione don’t want to hear it, but I know you
understand. I need you to keep them out of the way, so I can do what I
have to do. When are you going to wake up, Ron?”

Harry’s throat was sore, and he had to stop talking to ease it. He
continued absently kicking at the bed, staring at Ron’s pale face.

“Remus left,” he said, his voice sounding strange in the stillness of
the room.

He watched the steady rise and fall of Ron’s chest. “He could have
stayed hidden here, I suppose. He would have been trapped here like
Sirius, though.”

Harry blinked, staring out the window again.

“We all know how badly that turned out, and I don’t think Remus wanted
to be reminded of how miserable Sirius was at the end,” Harry said, his
breath hitching. “I didn’t like it when they did it to me, so I suppose
it wouldn’t have been right to try it with him.

“I need for it to end differently this time, Ron,” he whispered,
dropping his head.

He was startled when a warm arm wrapped around his shoulders. “It will
be different this time, Harry,” Ginny said gently.

He looked up into her warm brown eyes and opened his arms, shifting
over and allowing her to snuggle onto the chair with him. He wrapped
his arms around her and buried his face in her hair, feeling his heart
rate slow as his breathing evened.
“How is he?” Ginny asked, nodding at Ron.

“The same,” Harry replied, shrugging. “I don’t know, I just felt I
should keep him in the loop on stuff, you know?”

“Yeah, well, even when he’s conscious, Ron’s not usually aware he’s in
the loop, anyway,” Ginny said, tucking the blanket over Ron’s shoulder.

Harry felt his lips start to twitch and although he tried to suppress
it, he couldn’t help the chuckle in the pit of his belly that grew
until he couldn’t contain it. Somehow, she always made him feel better.

“I miss him,” he said, his smile faltering.

“I know you do. I do, too. He’s certainly taking his own sweet time
about waking up, isn’t he?” Ginny asked, a slight catch in her voice.

Harry pulled her closer. “Sorry,” he whispered. “You came in here to
make me feel better, and now I’ve gone and made you sad.”

“Yeah. You’re a bit of wet blanket,” Ginny replied, nuzzling her nose
into his cheek.

Harry snorted, slouching back on the chair and resting his feet on top
of Ron’s bed.

“Here,” Ginny said, pulling a Chocolate Frog from her pocket. “I nicked
this from Bill, and I think it’s the last bit of chocolate in this
house. Remus always says it makes you feel better.”

Harry smiled, remembering how Remus would always have a supply of
chocolate in his desk when he taught at Hogwarts. He took the frog from
Ginny and snapped it in half.

“Share?” he asked.

“Thanks,” Ginny replied, popping the sweet into her mouth. She leaned
back and placed her legs on top of Harry’s outstretched ones.

“I wish he could have stayed here, but I know he would have been
miserable. I would be. I suppose it’s easier to feel as if you’re doing
something rather than just sitting back and waiting for someone else to
do it,” Harry replied, chewing his chocolate while not quite meeting
her eyes.

“I know that’s how I feel,” Ginny said softly.

Harry nodded. “I’m sorry, Ginny.”

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault, it’s not Remus’s fault. It’s not anyone
but bloody Tom Riddle’s fault,” Ginny said, grabbing his chin and
forcing him to look at her. “Remus doesn’t want to hurt you any more
than you wanted to hurt me. These circumstances are beyond our control,
and everyone is doing what they have to do in order to survive it.”
“I know that. He’s doing exactly what I would do in his place,” Harry
said, gritting his teeth. “But that doesn’t make me worry about him any

“I know,” Ginny said, stroking his hair.

“We need to find that last Horcrux,” Harry said, throwing his back
against the chair.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Hermione said, entering the room. She
moved to the opposite side of Ron’s bed and leaned over to kiss his
forehead before sitting down.

“Great! Where is it?” Ginny asked brightly.

“Ho, ho, very funny. Professor Dumbledore suspected that the other
Horcrux would have some connection to either Ravenclaw or Gryffindor,
so we need to begin researching the Founders,” Hermione said.

“Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. There’s loads printed about them,”
Ginny said.

“Do you think we should go back and look at Hogwarts?” Harry asked.

“I don’t think so,” Hermione said, rubbing her chin. “I’ve already read
everything about them in the library there, and I don’t remember seeing
anything that couldn’t be bought at Flourish and Blotts. We need to
find more random information, I think. Writing about just them and not
their Hogwarts connections. Rowena Ravenclaw was born in England, while
Godric Gryffindor came from Wales. I think we need to start in the
libraries in the towns where they were born.”

“Gryffindor was Welsh?” Harry asked curiously.

“Of course he was Harry. You went to Godric’s Hollow,” Hermione said,
rolling her eyes as if he was daft.

Maybe he was, because he hadn’t made the connection. “That’s where
Godric Gryffindor was born?” he asked.

“Of course. Didn’t you know?” Hermione asked, sounding scandalizing
that he’d even gone to Godric’s Hollow without knowing that

“No,” Harry replied, shaking his head. He did feel rather slow, now
that he thought about it. Godric Gryffindor. Godric’s Hollow. It made
perfect sense.

Hermione’s voice drew his attention back to the conversation. “Helga
Hufflepuff was Irish, while Salazar Slytherin came from Scotland.
Therefore, each of the Founders represented the four quarters of Great

“How do you know all this stuff?” Harry asked.
Hermione threw her arms in the air, exasperated. “Simple. I read,
Harry. You ought to try it sometime. If you’d ever taken the time to
read Hogwarts: A History, you’d know this, too. It was all detailed in
the first few chapters.”

Harry rolled his eyes this time and ignored Hermione completely. “So,
where should we start? I’m not too keen to return to Godric’s Hollow,
but I’ll be glad to get out of this house for a while.”

Hermione shrewdly narrowed her eyes. “What about your Occlumency
lessons?” she asked.

“I haven’t really had any recently,” Harry replied, shrugging. “I think
we all agree that they aren’t doing any good. I haven’t made any
progress on blocking Malfoy, and I’m tired of his sneering over
memories of Dudley chasing me around Little Whinging.”

“Have you been trying to clear your head at night?” Hermione asked,

Harry clenched his teeth. “I’ve done everything they’ve asked of me,
Hermione. I can’t do Occlumency. I told them I’d try again, but if I
thought it was still pointless I’d end it. It’s not working.”

Hermione opened her mouth as if to argue when Ginny interrupted.
“Professor Dumbledore didn’t think it was imperative for you to learn,
anyway. He said so last year. I can’t imagine it’s pleasant having
Malfoy in your head and sneering about your childhood memories,” she
said, rubbing Harry’s arm.

“No. The tosser can get really shirty about it, actually,” Harry said.

“I don’t know how you can stand even being civil to him,” Ginny said.

Harry shrugged. “I dunno. When I watched how Lucius treated him when we
were at Azkaban, I felt kind of bad for him. It didn’t last long – he
went right back to his normal git of a self quickly enough, but still…I
don’t understand how a father can treat his son that way. I mean, I
don’t like him, either, but he’s not related to me.”

“So, you’re not planning on getting the sod a Christmas gift, then?”
Ginny asked, smirking.

Hermione huffed at the language, although Harry noticed her lip
twitching as if she was fighting a grin.

“Heh, it’d be worth getting Malfoy a present just to see the expression
on Ron’s face,” Harry said, envisioning the scene. “What are you
supposed to get for a walking, talking ferret, though?”

“How about a lead?” Hermione said, snorting. “We could get a pink one
with a little rhinestone collar and Pansy could parade him around like
a show dog.”

“That’s not what she does already?” Ginny asked, and both girls
shrieked with laughter.
Harry shook his head, grinning. He was still thinking about Draco’s and
Lucius’s row, and it led him back to thoughts of his own so-called
family. “D’you suppose that Cheering Charm is still working on Dudley?”
he asked.

Hermione shifted her eyes to stare at the window. The snow had begun to
pile against the glass.

“You did do one, right?” he asked, watching her closely.

“I did,” Hermione said, nodding.

Harry knew there was something she still wasn’t saying, but didn’t feel
he needed to press the issue. If she and Ron had done something to
torment the Dursleys after they’d all left, well, it couldn’t be more
than they deserved. Harry’s thoughts often turned to Dudley, however.
He wondered if Dudley had been thinking about his suppressed magical
ability, and if he were at all curious. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia
might have succeeded in making the idea so abhorrent to Dudley that he
truly didn’t want to know any more. If it were Harry, though – he’d be

He decided he was going to send Dudley a Christmas present this year.
He still has his copy of First Year Spells. Dudley might just toss it
in the bin, but he might be curious…

At the moment, there were more pressing matters, however.

“Where in England did Ravenclaw come from?” he asked.

“Canterbury,” Ginny answered promptly.

Both Harry and Hermione stared at her, surprised.

“How’d you know that?” Harry asked.

“What? I read, too, Harry,” Ginny said with a straight face. When
Harry cocked his eyebrow, she giggled and said, “Well, Canterbury isn’t
too far from Ottery St. Catchpole, is it? Some of my ancestors were
around back then, too. In fact, Auntie Muriel’s tiara – the one Fleur
wore at her wedding – is a replica of one Rowena Ravenclaw wore.”

“So, d’you think you’re a descendent of Ravenclaw?” Harry asked.

“No,” Ginny replied, shaking her head and making her hair swish around
her shoulders. “Weasleys have been Gryffindors for as far back as I can
remember. The Prewetts, too, on Mum’s side. I had a great-uncle several
generations back who married someone from Ravenclaw, and she had the
tiara made. It’s only a replica, not the real thing, but its Auntie
Muriel’s pride and joy. Fred and George used to tease Ron with it when
we were little by making him wear it whenever we visited.”

Both Harry and Hermione snorted. It always fascinated Harry to hear
stories about the Weasleys’ childhoods.

“Ron thought the pattern of the gems looked liked spiders, and he’d
throw a wobbly whenever they started chasing him with it,” Ginny said, laughing. “He used to scowl and get all grumpy and say something like,
‘The ruddy thing looks like it’s got spiders all over it.’”

“Well, since it’s not too far, why don’t we start in Canterbury, then?”
Harry asked, feeling pleased with having made a decision.

Hermione had wrinkled her brow and appeared in deep thought. “Ginny,
that tiara…” she began, but was interrupted by a groggy voice that
sounded scratchy and raw.

“I’m hungry,” Ron said, attempting to pull himself into a seated

“Ron!” Hermione squealed, jumping up and assisting him to straighten.
She arranged the pillows behind his head, and threw her arms around his
neck. “Oh, Ron! You’re awake. You’re finally awake.”

Ron’s eyes had widened in surprise, and he used his tongue to try and
remove some of Hermione’s red hair from his mouth. “H’mione,” he said,

“Oh!” she cried, pulling back and pouring him some water from the
bedside table.

Ginny had grasped Harry’s hand when Ron first spoke, and she now gave
it a small squeeze before turning and running from the room.

Harry remained frozen on the spot, staring at Ron and resisting the
urge to fling his arms around his mate the same way Hermione had done.

“Ron,” he said hoarsely.

“Hey,” Ron said, glancing around the room as if trying to make sense of
his surroundings. “We’re back at headquarters, yeah?”

Harry nodded, not trusting his voice. Hermione clung to Ron’s hand,
sniffling. She appeared unable to speak. Ron was confused by the
reactions of the two of them.

“What day is it?” he asked.

The question was enough to push Hermione over the edge. She burst into
tears, ranting incoherently in between great gulps of air. Ron’s
expression became alarmed.

“Is it after Christmas? Have I missed presents?” he asked, horrified.

“No,” Harry replied, grinning – his amusement finally snapping him out
of his daze. “You haven’t missed presents. Of course, now I’m going to
have to go shopping again to get you something. Thanks, mate.”

Ron grinned sleepily. “We got out of Azkaban all right, then. What
happened?” he asked.

“Azkaban? Ron…do you remember the Inferi? And getting cursed by
Bellatrix Lestrange?” Harry asked, hoping Ron’s memories were just
“Oh! Right…We got Wormtail, right?” Ron asked, although he appeared
rather uncertain.

The door burst open and Mrs. Weasley came rushing through, followed
closely by Ginny, Bill, and Fleur.

“Oh, Ron,” Mrs. Weasley said, throwing her arms around him. “When Ginny
said you were awake, I felt as if all my Christmas prayers had been
answered. Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again!”

Ron’s eyes widened as he was crushed within his mother’s tearful

“It’s good to see you back among the living, little brother,” Bill
said, patting Ron’s arm affectionately. “I’ll Floo Dad and the twins.
They’ll want to know.”

“Oui, and I will zend owls to Charlie and Percy,” Fleur said, smiling
brilliantly at Ron before following Bill from the room.

Ron blinked dazedly before trying to extricate himself from Mrs.
Weasley’s arm. “Erg, Mum, gerroff me. Are you trying to put me back
into unconsciousness?”

Mrs. Weasley promptly burst into tears.

“Nice one, Ron,” Ginny said, scowling as she began patting her mother’s
back. Harry could see amusement glistening in her eyes however, and he
knew she was thrilled to have Ron back, whether she’d admit it or not.
She stood there, rubbing her mother’s back while beaming at her
brother. Harry stood and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

“It’s good to have you back, mate,” Harry said. “Are you all right,

Hermione remained in her chair, watching all the Weasleys with wide,
tear-filled eyes and still sniffling on occasion.

“I think we should all give Ron and Hermione an early Christmas present
by clearing out of here and giving them some privacy,” Ginny said, her
eyes sparkling knowingly.

“I’ll go make you some soup, Ron. You must be starving. Poppy should
return soon, and I’m going to send her right up here to take a look at
you,” Mrs. Weasley said, bustling about the room as she shooed Harry
and Ginny towards the door. A thoughtful expression crossed her face as
she turned back to Ron and Hermione, who were staring silently into one
another’s eyes. “I’ll be right downstairs…and I’d like you to leave
this door open, just so I can hear if you call, mind.”

Harry and Ginny tried to cover their sniggers as they hurried down the
corridor and away from Mrs. Weasley. They burst into the library and
collapsed on the couch, laughing madly. Suddenly, everything seemed
much brighter in the world. Ron’s recovery had brought some hope back
when it had been desperately needed. Chapter Eighteen

Christmas with the Malfoys

Harry stood on the landing at Grimmauld Place, enjoying the holiday
activity buzzing around him. It was Christmas Eve, and for this night
they had all decided to leave the war and their troubles on the other
side of the door. The stair railing was wrapped in evergreen with
ribbons of maroon and gold plaited into the pine. It looked festive and
elegant as Harry ran his hand along it, breathing in the heady scent of

Mrs. Weasley had been in high spirits ever since Ron had awoken. Madam
Pomfrey had checked him over twice and declared him fit and healthy,
although his short-term memory still had some lapses. She credited
Neville’s Mimbulus Mimbletonia as having a lot to do with Ron’s
recovery. She said that she’d detected his awareness right below the
surface on several occasions while checking his vital signs, and each
time she’d placed the plant next to his pillow. Every time she’d done
this, his stats had grown stronger.

Mrs. Weasley had made a huge tin of fudge and sent it over to Neville
as a Christmas gift. Headquarters had been decorated as cheerfully as
could be managed, and Mrs. Weasley hadn’t left the kitchen for several
days as she prepared a huge Christmas Eve feast. Harry had opened
accounts with several of the domestic shops in Diagon Alley, so Mrs.
Weasley was able to shop at will.

Harry felt torn between happiness about Ron’s recovery and sadness that
Remus wasn’t with them to celebrate. He’d only seen Tonks once since
Remus had left. She’d stopped at headquarters for an Order meeting, but
she’d looked tired and sad, and her hair was still mousy brown. She and
Harry had commiserated over the fact that neither of them had heard a
word from Remus. They each tried to make the other feel better by
saying it was a good sign, and it meant that Remus was working on
infiltrating Greyback’s den, but worry gnawed at both of them.

Hagrid had brought an enormous evergreen from the Hogwarts grounds, and
they’d decorated it in the entrance hall. Several Order members had
joined them for the Christmas Eve feast, and Harry noticed Mad-Eye
Moody and Madam Pomfrey admiring the tree together. Harry smirked,
suspecting that Moody’s presence at headquarters had a lot to do with
Madam Pomfrey’s quick decision to stay while Ron recovered.

He could see Hagrid wearing an enormous apron full of frilly ruffles
while helping Mrs. Weasley to carry platters of delectable-looking food
into the formal dining room. Harry hadn’t been aware that Grimmauld
Place even had a formal dining room until Mrs. Weasley had told them
they’d be eating in there since there was such a big crowd. The door to
the dining room was located directly opposite the kitchen, but it had
always been closed, and Harry had assumed in was a broom cupboard.

The doorbell rang, and Harry moved to answer it, wondering who it could
be. As far as he knew, everyone who’d been invited had already arrived.
Professor McGonagall had arrived with Hagrid, and Tonks had declined
the invitation. The Weasleys were all staying in the house, and none of
them ever used the bell, anyway. He cautiously opened the front door, holding his wand tightly just in case, and found Percy Weasley standing
there with an armload of gifts.

"Percy!" Harry said, surprised. He hadn’t seen much of Percy since
they’d returned from Albania, and the prodigal Weasley son still kept a
stiff distance from the Boy-Who-Lived. Harry knew that Percy and Mr.
Weasley spoke frequently at the Ministry, and Percy had kept his father
informed of any new decrees that might affect them all. Mrs. Weasley
spoke often of Percy, but none of his siblings appeared too eager to
mend fences. Harry supposed it was up to Percy to take that first step
on his own.

He helped the stray Weasley brother inside, relieving some of his

"Hello, Harry," Percy said stiffly, adjusting his horn-rimmed glasses.
"My father mentioned that everyone would be here tonight to celebrate
the Yuletide, and that I was welcome to drop by."

"Of course you are," Harry said, sharing a grin with Ginny behind
Percy’s head. She’d just come out of the kitchen, and Harry could
clearly read her amusement about Percy’s formal tone.

"Hi, Percy," Ginny said, walking over to the two. "Happy Christmas."

"Happy Christmas," Percy replied, leaning down to peck Ginny on the
cheek. "Ah, I see Mother over by the tree. If you’ll excuse me."

Ginny nodded, and they watched him hurry toward Mrs. Weasley.

"Glad to see he loosens up for the holidays," Ginny said with a wry
smirk. She was wearing a long black velvet skirt with a shimmering
green blouse that that was lined with gold flecks. She’d pulled her
hair back from her face with a shiny gold hairclip.

"You look very festive," Harry said, kissing her lightly.

"Thanks. It’s my Christmas present from Hermione. She let me open it
early so I could wear it tonight," Ginny said, spinning around. "Do you
like it?"

Harry ran his hand along the sleeve, enjoying the soft texture of the
material. "I do," he said, smiling. He leaned over and whispered so
only she could hear, "but I’d like it even better on the floor."

Ginny’s eyes widened in surprise and a pretty pink blush spread across
her cheeks. Harry grinned cockily, feeling very bold. It wasn’t often
he could make her blush anymore, and he enjoyed being the one to tease
her for a change.

"Do you?" she asked, raising her eyebrow.

Harry grinned wolfishly.

"Exactly how happy a Christmas do you think you’re going to get, Mr.
Potter?" she asked, walking away from him while sashaying her hips as
she moved toward Ron and Hermione.
Harry gaped for a moment before shaking his head and following her. He
loved their verbal sparring matches even if he didn’t ever get the best
of her. He didn’t mind. Really.

Ron and Hermione sat by the fire, Ron propped comfortably in a big,
overstuffed easy chair. He held a gift on his lap and was shaking the
box enthusiastically. Hermione sat next to him with a fond smile
playing on her lips. She appeared more relaxed than Harry had seen her
in weeks, although he noticed that she kept irritably scratching her

"Come on, Hermione, just give me one little hint," Ron said, shaking
the box again.

"No, Ron," Hermione said, giggling. "You’ll just have to wait until

"Oh, he’ll never last, Hermione. He’ll do what he did when we were kids
and open up all the gifts once everyone goes to sleep and wrap them
back up again before morning," Ginny said, laughing.

"You knew?" Ron asked, his face dropping.

"Of course I knew," Ginny said, rolling her eyes. "We all did. You
never wrapped them back up very well."

"Ron, you didn’t," Hermione said, sounding scandalized while absently
scratching the back of her head.

"Did Fred and George slip some itching powder in your wig, Hermione?"
Ginny asked, watching the other girl fidget.

"No," Hermione said, exasperated. "It’s my own hair starting to grow
back, but it’s driving me mad."

"You could always just shave it again," Ron said, tossing a piece of
chocolate in his mouth.

Hermione scowled while Ginny whacked her brother on the arm. "Oh,
that’s real helpful, Ron. You know, the twins might actually be useful
for something. They have tons of products that make you itch, and they
test all their products on themselves. I bet they’ve got some powerful
anti-itch remedies stocked by now."

"Oh, Ginny, that’s a wonderful idea," Hermione said, craning her neck
in search of Fred or George.

"Yeah, if you can trust anything they give you," Harry said warily.

All of their expressions sobered for a moment.

"Well, they did help me with that bruising remedy last year, and I have
to do something. I’ll just have to risk it," Hermione said, shrugging.
"That’s my girl — live on the edge, Hermione," Ron said, grinning. His
grin faded slowly as they all laughed, however. "Why did you need a
bruising remedy?" he asked, clearly confused.

"A telescope of Fred and George’s punched me," Hermione replied easily.
She was the only one who didn’t constantly get disconcerted by Ron’s
frequent memory lapses. She would gently explain and move on as if
nothing unusual had happened.

"Why did it punch you?" Ron asked, struggling with the memory.

"Sirius!" Ron said suddenly.

Hermione glanced nervously at Harry. "That’s right, Ron. We were
worried about Harry."

Ron smiled, pleased, and Ginny squeezed Harry’s hand

Harry looked up as a sudden silence fell across the rest of the room.
Slowly descending the stairs was the group of Slytherins in residence
at Grimmauld Place. Narcissa Malfoy led the way, her nose held loftily
in the air. Harry noticed that even Draco, Pansy and Iris were dressed
in robes, while Harry, Hermione and the younger Weasleys were all
dressed in Muggle attire. Only the adults wore robes.

Narcissa had Transfigured her robes into black velvet ones with a
silvery thread running through them. All of the Slytherins robes
appeared rather tattered and frayed, despite the Transfiguration. The
Malfoys and the Parkinsons had left their wealth and the vast majority
of their belongings behind when they’d gone into hiding, and their few
remaining clothing items were beginning to show the strain.

"Narcissa, Anastasia," Professor McGonagall said, walking towards them.
She wore her traditional black robes, but Harry noticed a tartan scarf
wrapped around her neck. "How nice of you to join us. Please come in
and sit down. I believe Molly is about to serve dinner."

"Thank you, Minerva," Anastasia Parkinson said graciously. "I’ve always
enjoyed socializing a bit at Christmastime."

"Yes. We’ve always hosted a grand affair at Malfoy Manor each year,"
Narcissa said, her eyes glazing slightly with nostalgia. "And we always
made certain to visit little gatherings just like this one on Boxing
Day. The Malfoy family has always been known for our charity."

"Yeah, that’s always the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear
the name Malfoy," Harry said under his breath, but still loud enough to
be heard.

Narcissa turned toward Harry, her eyes glittering dangerously. "Mr.
Potter, how nice you can keep your wit as sharp as ever. You’ll need a
sense of humor in the coming days."

"It’s always helps to keep laughing," Harry said, smiling tightly.
"With half your guest list either already imprisoned in Azkaban or soon to be on their way there, it’s not looking bright for your future
Christmas party guest list, is it?"

"I wouldn’t count on that. The Malfoys always land on their feet — most
Slytherins do. Take Severus, for instance," Narcissa said, raising a
finely-arched eyebrow. "He’s very good at choosing which side suits his
best interests. He’s a natural survivor."

"Can I offer you a drink, Narcissa?" Professor McGonagall asked, moving
to stand between Harry and Mrs. Malfoy. She shot Harry a stern look
before taking the woman’s arm and steering her away from the teens.

Harry’s blood boiled. Natural survivor or not, there was no way he’d
allow Snape to slip away the next time.

"I can’t believe she has the nerve to insult you about charity when
she’s a guest in your home," Hermione said, seething.

"Harry," Ginny said, touching his arm, "it’s Christmas. Ignore her for
tonight. Enjoy the fact that you can lavishly spend the Black family
fortune while the Malfoys have no access to their funds."

Harry looked at her, startled for a moment, before a slow grin crossed
his face. She was right, and that fact must be eating Narcissa alive
since she’d insisted the Black fortune rightfully belonged to her.
Suddenly, the party seemed much more festive. Fred and George stood
nearby, taking the mickey out of Percy from what he could see, while
Bill and Fleur were tucked cozily in the corner. Mr. Weasley was
happily fiddling with the wireless and making the volume of Christmas
carols rise and fall dramatically at random intervals.

Harry was celebrating Christmas with his friends and family, and he’d
be damned if he’d let Narcissa Malfoy spoil it.

Draco moved toward the fire, Pansy and Iris draped on each arm. Iris
had coiffed her hair in an elaborate knot. It appeared as if Pansy had
tried to imitate the style, but it hadn’t quite worked, leaving stray
tendrils to pop out in various locations.

"This is quaint," Draco drawled. "Is this usually how you celebrate
Christmas, Potter? I suppose that family of yours doesn’t have any
desire to see you, not that they could enter an entirely magical home
such as this one, anyway."

"His cousin could if he wanted," Ron snarled without thinking. A sharp
glare from Harry caused him to snap his mouth shut, his eyes wide.

"You have a magical cousin?" Iris asked. "I thought your family was
Muggle." She sounded bored, as if she was only looking for a topic of
conversation. Pansy, however, had narrowed her eyes shrewdly, listening
intently to the conversation. Draco, too, appeared keenly interested.

"They are," Harry replied tersely, noticing that Percy had also turned
toward their conversation. "Since this is my home now, I suppose I’ll
have to find a way to allow Muggle access."
Harry was desperate to switch the subject the topic away from the
Dursleys, and if he could infuriate Malfoy in the process, that was all
the better.

"I’ve got loads of plans for this place after the war. I think there is
a lot that could be done to improve Wizard/Muggle relations."

"Ooh, Harry, that’s a great idea," Hermione said, sitting up
straighter. Harry wasn’t certain if she was playing along, or he’d
really set her up on yet another campaign. "I have some ideas on what
we could do."

"You must be joking," Malfoy said, his face growing pink. "This home
has housed one of the most distinguished pureblood lines in all of
Britain. My mother will never stand for it."

"Your mummy really doesn’t get a vote," Harry said cheekily.

"You’re a disgrace to your heritage," Pansy said, glaring at Ginny.
"How can you lower yourself to his level?"

"The Weasleys have long been blood traitors, Pansy," Iris said in that
same bored voice. "You know that."

"I’d take him and all the people in this room over you and your
prejudiced, narrow-minded view any day, Pansy. You’re a cow — always
have been, always will be," Ginny said, lifting her nose in the air.

"A cow?" Pansy shrieked, causing several in the room to turn and stare
at them. "How dare you?"

"Oh," Ginny said, smiling sweetly. "Happy Christmas."

Pansy reached for her wand, but apparently thought better of it,
perhaps remembering Ginny’s fondness for the Bat-Bogey Hex.

"Dinner is served," Mrs. Weasley said, sticking her head out of the
kitchen. Harry expected this would be the longest Christmas dinner of
his life.


Harry entered the dining room with Ginny on his arm, and they both took
seats at the massive table. Candles glowed softly within glass
candelabras ensconced on the walls. The centerpiece on the table was an
elaborate floral arrangement amidst several more glowing candles. Harry
paused a moment to happily take in all the decorations. They were
beautiful and festive, and he enjoyed seeing Grimmauld Place looking so
nice for once. This was what Christmas was supposed to be, and he
thought Sirius would be proud.

He struggled against the dark thoughts that fought to turn to the idea
that this would probably be his last Christmas. He was truly happy with
the progress they’d made in finding the Horcruxes, but he couldn’t help
feeling that each one destroyed was yet another nail in his coffin.

He swallowed heavily, the creamy eggnog suddenly not tasting as sweet.
"Are you all right?" Ginny asked, leaning close to whisper in his ear.
Her warm breath caused a shiver to run up his spine. He looked up to
find her concerned brown eyes watching him intently.

"I’m all right," he replied, nodding resolutely. If it truly was to be
his last Christmas, he’d better make it one worth remembering. "Happy
Christmas," he said, leaning over and kissing Ginny on the cheek.

"I saw Fred and George enchanting some mistletoe earlier. If we’re
lucky we can find it after dinner," Ginny said, grinning.

Harry waggled his eyebrows. "Yeah, but with my luck they enchanted it
to stay away from you."

Ginny giggled. "Nah, that’s more the kind of prank they’d play on Ron."

"Who’s playing a prank on Ron?" Fred asked, taking the seat across from

"Yeah, and how come they didn’t let us help?" asked George, seating
himself across from Harry.

"And why are they bothering with Ron when Percy is here and makes a
perfectly delightful target?" Fred asked, nodding toward Percy who was
seated next to Mrs. Weasley.

"He only sat there because he thinks we wouldn’t dare do anything while
he’s so close to Mum," George said, grumbling.

"Well, he’s right, isn’t he?" Ginny asked, raising an eyebrow at her

"Aww, come on now, Ginny. Do you really think we’d let a little thing
like Mum’s temper get in the way of our pranking abilities? This is
serious business," Fred said, his eyes sparkling.

"A little thing?" Ginny asked incredulously.

"Okay, so maybe a formidable thing, but still, there are always ways
around it. You know the secret to Mum is to never let her build up her
rant, right? Well, there are a few other little tricks we’ve learned
through the years," George replied, folding his arms behind his head.

"Tricks such as knowing the moment to strike with something really good
is right when she’s the most pleased with us," said Fred.

"Such as right after you gift her with a bright blue traveling cloak
that she’s been fancying at Gladrags for several months," George said
with a wink.

"Uh oh," Ginny said, grinning. "So, Percy can expect it right after
presents, I suppose?"

Harry leaned back in his chair, grinning while he watched the siblings
interact. He was eager to see what they had in store for Percy come present time. Harry wasn’t certain he’d take Mrs. Weasley’s wrath so
cavalierly. She was downright scary when she was upset.

"You two certainly spend a lot of time on your little tricks, don’t
you?" Iris asked, entering the dining room behind Fred and George. She
was dressed in red, and her eyes were sparkling. Harry thought she
looked rather festive.

Fred started, taken aback, as if it had never occurred to him that
someone might not find him truly funny.

"Did you get cornered by our mistletoe?" he asked, waggling his
eyebrows. "Better not let your sister know if you were standing with

Iris rolled her eyes. "I prefer my men a little bit…older," she said,
tossing her head and taking a seat with her family.

Fred watched her, mouth agape. Giggling, Ginny leaned across the table
and pushed his chin upward to close it. Fred swatted her hand away.

"Better not let Mum see that," Ginny said, chuckling.

A tinkling of laughter from the other end of the table caught Harry’s
attention. He could see Pansy Parkinson giggling as Draco kept scooping

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