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A.N. Sorry about the waiting time on this chapter. I got a bit busy IRL, and the chapter turned out 4000 words longer than chapter two. I expect the next chapter to be somewhat shorter – maybe around the 7000 word mark. This chapter is the first time we’re going to notice the teen rating of the fic. Enjoy!

The One He Feared

By Taure

Chapter Three: The Burrow

It became clear to Harry, soon after arriving, that The Burrow had inherited Grimmauld Place’s role as the primary headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. The house was a buzzing hive of Order activity: members came and went at every hour, continuing to work their regular jobs on top of whatever Mad-Eye had them doing for the Order.

Bill and Fleur’s upcoming wedding kept them busy too. Everyone soon learnt to fear Mrs Weasley, who would inevitably recruit anyone foolish enough to dally into a seemingly endless supply of chores, each and every one of them apparently crucial. Despite this, Harry never heard a single word of complaint. Such a happy occasion made for a welcome distraction from the war and everyone contributed cheerfully.

Between the wedding and the Order, Harry found his free time under siege, barely leaving him a moment alone to think. And so, even as he helped polish cutlery and scour Muggle papers for hints of attacks, he was planning. It was immediately obvious to him that his original plan had been painfully naïve.

“You’ve changed your mind?” said Ron, almost spilling his tea in surprise. Mrs Weasley glanced sharply in their direction, her eyes narrowed, and Harry gave her a polite smile before busying himself with spreading a generous quantity of jam across his toast. The two of them were sitting at the breakfast table, the morning after Harry’s arrival, waiting for Hermione to appear.

Harry sipped his tea until Mrs Weasley turned back to chopping potatoes. “The general plan is unchanged,” he murmured, making sure to make a lot of noise pouring some orange juice as he spoke. “But there’s no purpose in simply roaming the countryside, hoping to stumble across something. We need a secure base to work from.”

“You don’t think Grimmauld Place is safe enough?” Ron whispered, taking another croissant.

Molly turned the tap on to rinse some carrots, apparently completely unconcerned by their conversation. The water was loud enough to cover their voices; Harry began to suspect Mrs Weasley was snooping with a supersensory charm.

“The Order vacated Grimmauld Place for a reason,” Harry replied while keeping his eyes on Molly. “And security isn’t our only concern. We need more information.”

“Too right,” said Ron over a mouthful of bread, “the trail’s gone colder than Pansy Parkinson’s--”

“Ahem!” coughed Mrs Weasley, clearing her throat as she hit the colander against the sink several times.

Harry hid his smile: theory confirmed. “Ideally, we’d be able to access Dumbledore’s own notes, if he kept any, but to do that we’d have to...” Hermione emerged from the bottom of the stairs, already dressed in jeans and a simple white top. Harry and Ron were still in their pyjamas.  “Morning, Hermione.”

To Harry’s great surprise, Ron leapt up to pull out a seat. Hermione gave him a baffled look, her eyebrows scrunching together, but took the offered chair. “Good morning,” she said, surveying the table and pouring some orange juice. “Did you sleep well?”

“Not bad,” said Ron, “Harry was just saying--”

“Later,” Harry interrupted, just as Mad-Eye Moody came in the kitchen door.

“Morning, Molly,” he said, giving her a nod before turning to Harry, Ron and Hermione. “Good, you’re up,” he said, stepping over to the table. He picked up a piece of toast and sniffed it suspiciously before taking a bite. “We doubled back to Privet Drive after midnight: no sign of the Polyjuice.”

Harry sighed, thinking of all the potential headaches it could cause. “Not unexpected,” he said. “We’ll need to inform--”

“Already on it,” said Mad-Eye, and he pulled a roll of parchment from his robes. He shoved it at Harry, who unrolled it to find a complex list of passcodes and secret challenges. “From now on, you’re going to confirm your ID every time you meet an Order member, you understand?” Harry nodded and Moody took the chair opposite. “There’s a snowball’s chance in hell I’m leaving that parchment lying around, so we’re going to practice them now till you can remember them all.”

It was an annoyance, but not unreasonable.

"All right Potter, let's try this out," said Moody, taking another bite of his toast. "It's the night before the full moon. I say: ‘Did you see the Puddlemere game last night?’ What’s your reply?"

Harry scanned the parchment before peering at Moody over the top of his glasses. The grizzled Auror showed no sign of duplicity. "No," Harry read from the paper, containing his amusement, "I was polishing my wand all night."

Ron sniggered.

“Good,” continued Mad-Eye, still completely straight faced. “Another. The second Sunday of the month. I say: ‘How about Fleur, eh?’ Your reply?”

Once more Harry found the answer. His eyes met Moody’s; he might have imagined it, but he was sure the man’s lips twitched. Harry sighed, before reading the reply. “I prefer wizards, myself.”

As Ron burst out laughing, Harry couldn’t help but feel it was going to be a long morning.

Moody insisted on drilling him for an hour. As he did, Harry realised that his strategy was quite clever: not only were the code phrases unlikely to be guessed, they were also highly memorable. It didn’t take long for Harry to memorise the lot; even Moody seemed impressed by how quickly he caught on. He left Harry with a nod of approval, leading Harry to wonder if his mockery was some kind of twisted sign of respect.

Now alone, Harry searched for Ron and Hermione -- they needed to have a proper conversation about the horcruxes, away from the others -- but Molly spotted him wandering the house. Soon enough he was laying the dining room table for lunch. Harry had to bury his irritation: Molly’s attempts to keep them separated were becoming painfully transparent.

“She’s in denial, I think,” Ginny told him as they lifted the tablecloth, the white fabric matching her summer dress. With great difficulty, Harry avoided staring at her tanned legs. “She won’t let herself believe that you’re going, so she’s doing everything to stop it.”

“I surmised as much,” said Harry. They flattened the cloth with their hands and fetched the cutlery. “Ironically, it may be entirely unnecessary on her part.”

A moment of silence passed between them; Harry looked up to find Ginny focused upon perfectly aligning a knife and fork. “Unnecessary?” she said at last, her voice unnaturally breezy. “Does that mean...?”

Harry could have kicked himself. He hadn’t meant to play with her feelings, nor give her false hope. “I’ve yet to discuss it with the others,” he said, “but yes: I may be returning to Hogwarts after all.”

Ginny was on him in a flash: she ran to him with a happy laugh, enveloping him in a tight hug. She was much shorter than he was; Harry rested his cheek against the top of her head, cradling her in his arms. He could smell her shampoo, the flowery scent triggering memories of long afternoons spent alone by the lake. She was so beautiful. And, he thought with stomach-churning guilt, so very young.

Dumbledore’s memories had come with an insidious cost.

She looked up at him, and Harry felt his heart skip a beat. She was too close. “Then…” she began, her voice low, “we can… I mean, the only reason we broke up was that you were leaving…”

Harry licked his lips, his thoughts turbulent. He badly wanted to say yes, to lean in and kiss her. He was not even seventeen, less than a year older than her. There was nothing wrong with it. It was natural. And yet… how many sixteen-year-old girls could he remember teaching? He had decades upon decades of memories screaming at him to step back, to think of Ginny as nothing more than a young woman to be taught and guided. And so he did her a great disservice: he lied.

“That wasn’t the only reason,” he said, and the moment Ginny’s face fell he regretted it. He could have told her, she would have understood… but something held him back, some primal instinct to keep his own council. Ginny turned her back, no doubt to hide her face. An unpleasant feeling lodged itself deep in Harry’s throat, and he let out a long, shaky breath, trying to calm himself. “Ginny…” he began, but she cut him off with an upraised hand.

She turned back to face him and, though her eyes were dry -- one of the great things about Ginny was that she rarely cried -- an unmistakable wobble had entered her voice. “Was I… did you want more?”

“No!” said Harry, and he wanted nothing more than to hug her, to comfort her. But such affection would be a form of cruelty. He wished he could take back his words… he couldn’t tell her the truth, but he could at least tell her a fiction that resembled it. “Neither can live while the other survives,” he said, looking into her wide eyes. “That’s what the prophecy says. Until Voldemort is dead, I can’t have a normal life… he’ll always seek me out, Ginny, and I him. Maybe after…”

By the time the war was over, perhaps he would have resolved his feelings -- one way or another. Or maybe he would be dead.

Finally, the tears came. She blinked them back but they came anyway, falling gently down her freckled face. “You’re not giving me much to go on here,” she said, her eyes imploring, “I can’t wait for you, Harry.”

“I know,” he said, and he wiped away a tear with his thumb. She leaned into his touch, closing her eyes. “And I wouldn’t ask you to. But maybe one day, after the war, we’ll both--”

“Don’t,” whispered Ginny. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” She sighed, rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and gave him a weak smile. “Let’s not tell the others, okay?”

She really was a most remarkable young woman.

As the days unfolded, Harry would catch glimpses of concealed sadness behind her eyes, but he was apparently the only one. Though their conversation clearly weighed on her, Ginny managed to treat him normally, showing no sign of discomfort in his presence: she laughed at his jokes, taunted him when they played Quidditch and even continued to seek out his company.

Occasionally, when Molly was otherwise distracted, Harry found himself with free time. He treasured these moments of relative quiet, heading into the orchard to think. Chief in his thoughts was the horcrux. Despite the quite logical reasons to focus on the other horcruxes first, Harry’s thoughts inevitably turned to his predicament whenever he was left alone. Everything he knew about horcruxes told him one thing: the only way to destroy one was to destroy the physical vessel. He had to die.

Harry was generally opposed to that plan. Unfortunately he could think of no alternatives: he briefly entertained the idea of being killed and resuscitated, but he doubted such a “sacrifice” would be sufficient. The intent to be resuscitated would interfere with the magic. Nor did he think he could simply obliviate himself of the intent. The magic of the soul ran deep and couldn’t be tricked by technicalities. The only way to destroy the horcrux within him was to die and for that death to take him beyond the possibility of conventional resuscitation.

It was yet another reason to return to Hogwarts. Dumbledore must have realised that Harry was a horcrux -- perhaps the man’s office, or his portrait, could reveal his plan for Harry.

Horcruxes, however, were not the only occupant of Harry’s thoughts. With Dumbledore’s knowledge swimming in his mind, he was coming to new realisations at every hour of the day, reinterpreting all of his prior experiences.

He had quickly realised that his invisibility cloak possessed remarkable properties. He barely dared to hope, but late nights spent studying the cloak under the cover of darkness all spoke to one undeniable truth: Harry possessed one of the Deathly Hallows. It was, admittedly, the least interesting of the three, but it thrilled him nonetheless: quite by coincidence, he was closer than ever to their unification. The prophecy spoke of an unknown power… could it be the Hallows?

What free time remained to him he spent flipping through every book he could find around the house, desperately trying to complete his knowledge of the late twentieth century. Unfortunately the Weasleys were not historically inclined -- nothing he found could answer the questions that were nagging him.

It wasn’t until the third night of his stay that he managed to broach the topic.

“... of course, we were only just out of Hogwarts,” said Remus, taking a sip of his beer. The five of them -- Harry and Remus, plus Hermione, Kingsley and Arthur -- were relaxing outside in the twilight, a fully laid table before them. It was one of those perfect summer evenings: the air was starting to cool, crickets were chirping, and the smell of barbecued meat was wafting across from the grill. “We thought we were invincible. We were young, talented and unattached -- except for James, of course, who’d just proposed to Lily.”

Ron came out of the back door levitating a vast array of salads. Moving carefully, he brought them over to the table and took the seat opposite Hermione. Harry noticed Kingsley eyeing the food and they shared a look -- Molly would surely kill them if they were to start before everyone had arrived.

“It was our first mission for the Order,” Remus continued, smiling slightly at the memory. He pushed the jug of beer towards Ron, who poured himself a pint. Condensation formed on the glass; Harry sipped at his own, relishing the cool, slightly bitter taste. “It all seemed terribly exciting to us. We were so young, yet to be faced with mortality. Dumbledore’s instructions came by phoenix: he wanted us to set up protections around the house of the Head of Magical Transportation. I admit, we didn’t take it too seriously -- even then, in ‘78, it seemed insane that You-Know-Who could ever take over the Floo.”

Kingsley snorted. “When was it, again? ‘79?”

Mr Weasley nodded. “I remember it well. Complete chaos. The Minister himself went into the Floo one day and never came out. At first we thought it was a freak accident… right up until the same happened to old Denny Duncan. The Minister and the Chief Warlock, days within each other… after that, it was clear who was responsible.”

“Well, in ‘78 it was a distant concern,” said Remus, putting the story back on track. “But Dumbledore, being Dumbledore, foresaw the need to protect the Floo. So we went in the middle of the night--” Kingsley chuckled “--yes, we hadn’t quite grasped the idea of stealth back then. Anyway, we did the mission, placing various charms all over the property… and of course, James and Sirius just had to add a few extras.”

Arthur gasped in realisation. “That was you!” he said, leaning back in his chair and laughing.

“What?” said Ron, leaning forward. “What did they do?”

Remus took another sip. “First you should know that Matilda Primrose -- the woman we were protecting -- had recently been promoted from the Improper Use of Magic Office. Secondly, our Order mission wasn’t, in fact, our first encounter with Ms Primrose: we’d met her the summer two years before, when she had arrested the lot of us.”

“And so you decided to take revenge,” Harry concluded.

Remus inclined his head. “Nothing harmful, mind you,” he said when he saw Hermione’s disapproving expression. “Nothing that would interfere with the mission. Just a bit of fun.”

Arthur took over. “Mad Matilda, we called her,” he said, still chuckling. “The exorcists must have visited her house twenty times.”

“Personalised profanity charms,” laughed Remus, “Sirius always was a dab-hand with them.” Harry’s lips twitched, remembering the way the Marauder’s Map had mocked Snape.

“And the hats?” asked Arthur.

“I’d forgotten those!” said Remus. “James put a paranoia charm on her mirror. What was it she wore, that one press conference?”

“A live skunk, I believe,” said Arthur, sending Remus into laughter once more.

“What happened to her, in the end?” asked Hermione.

The laughter stopped. “She was killed,” said Kingsley, sneaking a carrot stick from one of the platters. “She’d been under the Imperius for months, it turned out. The Hitwizards tried to bring her in, but the curse compelled her to take her own life.”

The conversation died as quickly as Mad Matilda had. Harry took the opening.

“You mentioned the Hitwizards,” he said, glancing at Kingsley, “but I haven’t read anything about them in the paper. Who are they?”

In Dumbledore’s day the Hitwizards had been the closest thing to an army the Ministry possessed. They weren’t as skilled as the Aurors, but what they lacked in ability they made up with numbers. An Auror worked alone to track and capture a Dark wizard; the Hitwizards trained in groups to overwhelm the enemy with sheer force. Their absence from the conflict was most mysterious.

“The Hitwizards used to be a part of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement,” said Kingsley. “They trained in just two spells: the shield charm and a blasting curse.”

“Like soldiers?” said Hermione.

“Exactly,” said Kingsley. “The Aurors’ job was to find the enemy, the Hitwizards would then bring them down.”

“But now?” asked Harry, hiding his eagerness by fiddling with his napkin.

“Cornelius Fudge saw fit to disband the Hitwizards in the late eighties,” said Arthur with a grimace. “An unnecessary expense, he called them.”

“An idiot if ever there was one,” spat Kingsley. “The Aurors now perform the Hitwizards’ duties, but there aren’t nearly enough of us.”

Harry leaned back, his curiosity somewhat satisfied. It explained a lot… the Ministry’s defensive stance, the lack of successful Death Eater captures. With the Aurors spread so thin it was remarkable the Ministry hadn’t fallen already. But it didn’t explain everything.

“There’s something I still don’t understand,” Harry began slowly, not wanting to step on any toes. The others looked at him expectantly, so he went on. “The First War, from what I’ve heard, lasted for well over a decade--”

“From 1962 to 1981,” Hermione added. “According to most books, at least.”

“Almost two decades, then,” said Harry. “And yet this time, Voldemort’s followers have infiltrated the Ministry with ease.”

Remus ran a hand through his greying hair. “That’s a complex issue,” he said. “One thing you should realise -- especially you, Hermione -- is that the history books have been written with hindsight. At the time, in the sixties and even well into the seventies, people had no idea what was happening. Certainly they wouldn’t have said they were at war.”

“It began slowly,” said Arthur. “I was still at Hogwarts back then. Sometimes there’d be an article in the paper about a death, or a disappearance, but none of them seemed connected.”

“Except that they were all powerful witches and wizards -- some of them could have even given Dumbledore a fair run for his money,” added Remus. “And not just in Britain, either... all over the world, people were disappearing.”

The puzzle began to fit together. “Voldemort was eliminating rivals,” Harry said with dawning horror. Tom Riddle had systematically wiped out every witch and wizard on Earth capable of challenging him in a duel. This was the man Harry had to kill.

“We know that now,” replied Remus, “but at the time no one had ever heard the name ‘Voldemort’. By the seventies people were beginning to connect the deaths, but no one had any idea who it was.”

“No one except Dumbledore,” added Kingsley.

“That’s right,” said Remus. “Dumbledore formed the Order of the Phoenix to try to protect potential targets, and to gather evidence of Voldemort’s activities. But that was all a secret. As far as most people knew, You-Know-Who, as the papers started to call him, was simply a particularly dangerous serial killer. Life went on as it always had.”

“That all changed in ‘77,” said Kingsley, “when You-Know-Who revealed himself.”

None of them seemed to want to continue. “It was a massacre,” said Hermione, almost whispering. “The International Confederation of Warlocks was meeting in London… Voldemort blew it up.”

“After that the war truly began,” said Remus. “But it was too late. The Ministry suddenly realised that all its most powerful warlocks had already been killed. It was all we could do to hold on. You-Know-Who’s victory seemed certain… until Halloween, 1981.”

All eyes turned to Harry. He didn’t look down. Now, more than ever, he understood what he was to these people -- even to Hermione, who had grown up in the Muggle world. He would not fail them.

* * *

That night, after everyone had either left or gone to bed, Harry, Ron and Hermione finally had the opportunity to plan.

“Not as big as it used to be, is it?” Ron whispered as they crept through the corridor, hidden under Harry’s invisibility cloak. If anyone had happened across them, they would have encountered four bare, disembodied feet padding down the hall.

They knocked as loudly as they dared on Ginny’s bedroom door -- she and Hermione were sharing, as usual -- and so were surprised when the door swung open immediately. It was Harry’s first sight of Ginny’s room. The curtains were closed and the lamps lit, casting the room in a warm yellow glow. Smaller than Ron’s, its walls were dominated by posters of the Holyhead Harpies and family photos. A mattress lay on the floor, squeezed between the bed and the desk -- Hermione’s bed.

Ron poked his head out of the cloak. “Hey,” he whispered to Hermione, who was standing in the doorway, “can we come in?”

“What are you doing here?” Hermione hissed, pulling them inside and shutting the door. The girls, though wide awake, were dressed for bed: Hermione in baggy pyjama bottoms and a tank top, Ginny in nothing more than a t-shirt and knickers. “I was about to come to you!”

Ron had other concerns. “Ginny!” he said, “you’re naked!”

She looked at him witheringly. “This is my bedroom,” she said, returning to sit on her bed. “If you didn’t want to see…” She trailed off and gave Harry a dangerous look, the kind that told him he’d been caught staring and was welcome to stare some more. He averted his eyes to Hermione, confident that she was safe to look at, only to notice the tips of her breasts poking at the fabric of her top.

He was most definitely a teenager once more.

Harry cleared his throat. “Since we’re here, we might as well stay,” he said, resisting the temptation to conjure some squishy chairs. He was still supposed to be under the Trace.

Hermione glanced at Ginny. “Are you sure? Shouldn’t we…?”

Ginny, now painting her toe nails, rolled her eyes. “Feel free to cast that privacy spell you think I don’t know about.”

Hermione went to fetch her wand; Harry motioned for her to wait. “That actually brings us quite neatly to our first order of business,” he said, navigating his way through discarded clothes to find a perch on the edge of Ginny’s bed. “It’s something that’s been weighing on me recently… if the worst should happen and we die, all our secrets will die with us.”

“We’re not going to die!” said Ron, too loudly. Hermione waved her wand and Harry felt a silencing spell settle around the room.

“Thanks, Hermione,” he said, before addressing Ron. “Don’t think that I’ve given into despair. I merely wish to be absolutely sure that Voldemort will die.”

Ginny gasped and almost dropped her varnish. “It’s true, then? That’s what you’re up to?”

Harry raised his eyebrow at Hermione, seeking an answer. “It makes sense to have some redundancy,” she said, settling down on her mattress. Harry noticed that she had remarkably few belongings with her. A mokeskin bag lay next to her pillow -- a material highly receptive to extension charms. Impressive. “But Harry, remember the Death Eaters at Privet Drive. Can we trust the Order?”

“Oh, I certainly wasn’t thinking about broadcasting it to all and sundry,” said Harry, “Just Mad-Eye and Kingsley. If we can’t trust them we’ve already lost.”

“And Ginny?” asked Ron, still leaning against to the door.

Were his emotions clouding his judgement? He didn’t believe so. Ginny had proven her loyalty many times. She could keep a secret, and already had personal experience with horcruxes. “She deserves to know, if that’s what she wants,” said Harry. “Are we in agreement?”

Ron and Hermione nodded; Harry looked over his shoulder to Ginny. “Yes,” he said, finally answering her question. “Our task, given to us by Dumbledore, is to kill Voldemort. But first we must make him mortal once more.”

Ginny went white. “He’s immortal?” she whispered. “How?”

Harry shuffled back onto the bed, getting comfortable. “Now that,” he began, “is a curious tale. It all began with--”

“Voldemort split his soul and hid the parts in objects called horcruxes,” interrupted Hermione. “He can’t die until they’re destroyed.”

Harry cleared his throat. “Yes, I suppose that’s the long and short of it.”

“Just trying to move things along a bit,” Hermione replied, giving him a sheepish look.

“Tom Riddle’s diary was one such horcrux,” said Harry, filling in the details, “destroyed by basilisk venom five years ago. Dumbledore also destroyed one -- a ring. Our knowledge of the others is limited… a locket that belonged to Salazar Slytherin, stolen by a mysterious RAB. A cup that belonged to Helga Hufflepuff. Nagini the snake, most likely. And one other, to bring the total to six.”

He didn’t tell them about himself. He presumed that Voldemort somehow made him a horcrux unintentionally, and thus his status did affect the count.

“We don’t have any idea what that last one is,” said Ron, who had moved to sit with Hermione on her mattress.

“But it’s probably an object that belonged to one of the Founders,” added Hermione. She paused. “Have we missed anything?”

“No,” said Harry, slightly disbelieving. It was no wonder they thought he’d covered other material in Dumbledore’s lessons.

Ginny nodded, taking in the information with remarkable stoicism. She was still painting her nails. “And you guys are planning to go looking for them?”

“That was the plan,” said Hermione, the sound of accusation in her voice. “I’ve been preparing for months, you know. I even confunded my parents and sent them to Australia!”

“Your preparations were not in vain, Hermione,” said Harry, trying to placate her. “From what everyone says, the Ministry will fall in a matter of months, after which Hogwarts will be closed to us. That is why we must go now, while we still can.”

A moment of silence followed Harry’s grim prediction.

“Do you really think it’ll be over so soon?” said Hermione, her voice trembling slightly. “You think he’s going to win?”

Ron glared at Harry and passed Hermione a hanky, producing it apparently from nowhere.

“The fall of the Ministry does not mean the end of the war,” Harry said gently. Hermione sniffed. “If we can kill Voldemort before he fully establishes his regime, the Death Eaters will be unable to hold the Ministry without him. And so, once again, we return to the horcruxes. Destroying them is paramount.”

Hermione sighed. “Well, I have good and bad news on that front,” she said, fishing around inside her mokeskin bag. Holding it gingerly, like one might a dead animal, she pulled out a tattered old tome bound in black leather. “This book describes how to make a horcrux.”

Harry recognised it immediately: Secrets of the Darkest Art. She opened it to a marked page filled with incantations, geometrical diagrams and illustrations of gruesome rituals. It was also written in Ancient Greek. “And, I assume, how to destroy them,” Harry said, gesturing for the book. It had been many years since he had read it. Hermione cocked her head -- no doubt wondering how he planned to read Greek -- but passed it anyway.

“Not explicitly,” said Hermione. “I don’t think the author ever conceived of a person wanting their horcrux destroyed. It’s the kind of thing you’d only make if…” She shuddered. “Well, let’s just say you wouldn’t do it if you had any second thoughts.”

“So we know how to make them, but not destroy them?” said Ron. He frowned. “What good is that?”

Hermione huffed. “I said not explicitly. But once you know how a horcrux works, the way to destroy them is obvious, really. You have to destroy the vessel.”

Ron looked relieved. “Well, that’s easy! A good Reductor--”

“If only,” said Hermione, and she took the book back from Harry. A moment later she found what she was looking for: a page filled with concentric circles of Greek writing. “This page describes how to make the horcrux almost invulnerable to harm. You could hit it with a blasting curse again and again and it wouldn’t leave a dent. You need really powerful magic to destroy one.”

“Like basilisk venom,” said Ginny, who had been following closely.

Hermione’s eyes lit up. “Of course! If we go back to Hogwarts, we can get our hands on a basilisk fang easily!”

It was something that had already occurred to Harry. He would prefer to avoid, if at all possible, demonstrating his new-found skill in the Dark Arts to his friends. “Destruction is the easy part, then,” he said. “Finding them, however… I confess, I have no real idea how Dumbledore went about locating them. This RAB is our only lead. I’d like to ask McGonagall for access to Dumbledore’s office, to see if he left anything behind.”

Hermione looked skeptical. “Like notes?”

“Perhaps nothing so obvious,” Harry said. It was highly unlikely that Dumbledore would have put his greatest secrets on paper. “I’m not certain what I expect to find. Perhaps I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Hang on,” said Ron, “doesn’t Hogwarts keep a record of all its old students?

“Yes,” said Hermione. “Why?”

Harry made the connection. It was a long shot, but it would at least narrow the field. “Past students with the initials RAB,” he said. “It’s a good idea -- if we can convince McGonagall to give us access to the records.”

“It’s a start, at least,” said Hermione, “we haven’t got much else to go on, do we?” She bit her lip. “Harry, didn’t Dumbledore say anything else about the horcruxes?”

“Seems a bit strange, mate,” added Ron. “Sending us off like this without much information.”

“We didn’t really cover how he was finding them,” said Harry, unable to tell them the truth. Dumbledore had left them with something far more useful than a few clues. “We focused more on Tom Riddle’s history.”

“And curse breaking?” asked Hermione an eyebrow raised. “Duelling? How to read Ancient Greek?” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “Don’t think we’re stupid, Harry. It’s obvious you’re hiding something.”

“You’re even speaking differently,” said Ginny, leaning forward. “The Order might not notice, but we’d have to be deaf not to.”

A hundred different excuses flew through Harry’s mind. He’d spent last year using a time-turner, being taught by Dumbledore in secret. He’d been hiding his true skill with magic all along. The ghost of Merlin had come to him in a dream. But, in the end, he couldn’t lie to his friends.

“You’re right,” he said, looking each of them in the eyes. “I am hiding something. More than one thing, in fact.” He paused. He couldn’t lie, but he couldn’t tell them the truth either. How would they treat him, if they thought of him as Dumbledore? With reverence? Respect? Fear? He didn’t want that. He wanted to keep his friends. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” he said, urging them to believe him. “But rather that I don’t wish for things to change between us.”

Hermione gave him a sad smile. “Change is inevitable, Harry,” she said. She rested a hand on his knee. “Did you think we’d stay the same forever, the three of us?”

Harry took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “Maybe you’re right,” he said, “but this isn’t quite like us leaving Hogwarts, or having families.”

He felt Ginny’s arms wrap around him from behind. He leaned back into her and closed his eyes. She was warm. “Whatever it is, we’ll still be your friends,” she said.

Their loyalty was without compare. He was about to test it even further. “What matters is this,” he said, his voice now resolved. “I am still Harry Potter. You are, each of you, the greatest of friends, and I love you more than I can describe. One day I will tell you my secret… but not today. Is that something you can live with?”

Hermione, apparently, didn’t even need to think. “It is,” she said, and she stood up to give him a tear-filled hug. Harry looked at Ron over her shoulder; he jerked his head in reluctant acceptance.

He almost missed it when Hermione whispered in his ear.

For now.

* * *

Once their plans were made, Harry began to feel restless. Waiting for the start of term seemed completely foolish: who knew when Voldemort might strike? They needed to start now. But Ron was resolute.

“We can’t go before the wedding,” he said the next day. He gave a gnome a vicious kick, sending it flying. Mrs Weasley had the three of them de-gnoming the garden under the not-so-watchful eye of Tonks, who had decided to use the opportunity to sunbathe. “Everyone’s been looking forward to it for months!”

“Besides, we’ve yet to hear back from McGonagall,” added Hermione, who still apologised to every gnome she banished. “Not to mention your birthday, Harry.”

Said birthday had been causing him more trouble than it was worth.

“We’ll invite Remus and Tonks, of course,” said Mrs Weasley while working her way through folding a small mountain of laundry. “I’m afraid we can’t really have anyone from school, though…”

“Really, it’s fine,” insisted Harry, who was pairing up socks. “I’d prefer something small, actually. Low-key.”

But Mrs Weasley was not to be stopped. “Nonsense, dear,” she said, “your seventeenth is an important occasion. Now, what do you think about Alastor? I know he’s not exactly friendly, but…”

“Mad-Eye doesn’t quite strike me as a party person,” said Harry, “can you imagine him in a party hat?”

Mrs Weasley giggled. “No, I suppose not,” she said. “So, about the cake…”

They were all obsessed. And so, when the 31st finally arrived, it was no surprise to be woken by Ron at an early hour.

“Oi, wake up!” he said, poking Harry’s ribs with his foot. Harry groaned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes; when he opened them he looked up to see Ron sitting on the edge of his bed, a clumsily-wrapped present in his lap. “Go on, then!” he said as Harry found his glasses. “It’s tradition to use a spell.”

Not even the memories of a 63-year-old man could prevent the thrill that came with knowing he was now an adult, able to use magic whenever he liked. He grinned and took his wand from beneath his pillow.

“How do you feel about a bit of redecorating?” he asked, flicking his wand twice. The walls jumped back like they were on springs, doubling the room in size; Ron almost fell from his bed when the furniture followed, leaving a large space in the centre of the room. A moment later Harry shot upwards with a bump, suddenly sitting not on a camp bed but a comfortable single.

Ron gaped. “How did you…?”

Harry tapped his nose. “Do you think breakfast’s ready?” he said as he hopped out of bed. The covers -- now a full set of sheets -- wriggled and tucked themselves in, leaving the bed pristinely made. “I’m famished.”

“Here, have this first,” said Ron, holding out the present while continuing to look around the room. The present was rectangular and quite solid feeling. Harry cocked his head curiously and shook it a little. No interior parts. Ron fidgeted impatiently. “Well, open it then!”

Harry ran his finger under the folds, breaking the invisible spellotape without tearing the paper. A book lay within: Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches. Harry raised an eyebrow. “We’ll keep this one from the girls, shall we?”

Ron laughed. “S’why I had you open it up here,” he said, fishing out his slippers from under the bed. “It’s pure gold though. Fred and George gave me a copy -- wish I’d had it last year…”

They made their way down to the kitchen, where more presents were arranged on the table in a small pile.

“Morning, all!” Harry said, taking a seat at the table next to Ginny. Almost everyone staying at the Burrow was up already, apparently having arranged to have breakfast together.

Cries of “Happy birthday!” came from all round the table, some of them getting up to greet him. Bill shook his hand; Fleur gave him a kiss on each cheek.

“Done your spell, yet?” said George, shaking one of Harry’s presents experimentally.

Fred waved a spoon at him warningly. “You should know, Harry,” he said, “the engorgement charm isn’t suitable for--”

“Thank you, Fred!” cried Mrs Weasley, delivering Harry a plate piled high with sausage, bacon, eggs and toast. “And put that down, George!” She pointed to a small box at the top of the pile. “That one’s from us, dear. Arthur had to go to work, but he’ll be back later.”

He opened the box to find an elegant pocket watch inside. Made of gold, it had no numbers nor hands. Instead a series of small metal discs moved under the glass, following the movements of the planets.

“It’s a wizard’s astrolabe,” explained Mrs Weasley. “It’s traditional, you know, to give a wizard one on his seventeenth… it’s not new, of course. It was my brother Fabian’s.”

“Thank you, Mrs Weasley,” he said, standing up to give her a warm hug. Harry remembered well the story of Fabian and Gideon. For Molly to give him something that had once been theirs was deeply touching. “It’s perfect.”

Hermione nudged a box his way. “This one’s mine,” she said. It was quite small, not much larger than a big matchbox. He opened it to find a presentation box holding a row of red sticks -- sealing wax -- and a large signet ring. A letter set. An image flashed in Harry’s mind of Hedwig, locked in her cage, her wings flapping in panic as spells flew around her.

“It’s charmed to destroy the letter if it’s intercepted,” Hermione explained, watching Harry’s face nervously. No doubt she was thinking of Hedwig too; Harry smiled at her to let her know it was okay. She had probably bought the present months ago.

“And what’s this?” he said, picking up the ring. A large ‘P’ dominated the bezel, with lions rampant either side -- Hermione must have transfigured the design herself. He returned the ring to the box and gave Hermione a huge hug. “Thank you.”

Other boxes contained an enchanted razor from Bill and Fleur and a huge box of Wheezes from Fred and George. Just as they were finishing up, an owl landed on the window-sill and hooted loudly.

“It’s addressed to you, Harry,” said Mrs Weasley after untying the letter. She passed him the envelope -- not thick enough to be a birthday card -- and he opened it with a knife. A silver badge fell out; Harry knew who it was from immediately.

“It’s McGonagall,” he said, unfolding the parchment. Ron and Hermione scrambled to read over his shoulder.

Dear Mr Potter,

It pleased me greatly to read of your plans to return to Hogwarts for your seventh and final year. The importance of a magical education cannot be underestimated, especially when we face so much uncertainty. Furthermore, in these trying times, I am confident that your familiar presence in the castle will give reassurance to all those who doubt Hogwarts’ safety.

With regards to your unconventional requests, I believe I may be of some assistance. It gives me great pleasure to enclose the Head Boy’s badge, which, as you know, was once worn by your father. The badge comes with certain privileges which I believe you shall find useful: freedom from curfew and free access to the Restricted Section of Hogwarts’ Library. Make no mistake, however: the position of Head Boy is one of responsibility. I expect you to fulfill these responsibilities to the best of your ability.

As Head Boy you are also welcome to visit me in my office at any time, where you will perhaps be able to converse with the portraits of Headteachers past. My office also has access to the Floo Network; should you feel it necessary to leave the castle on urgent business this Floo will be open to yourself, Miss Granger (whom I shall be naming Head Girl) and Mr Weasley, on the proviso that this privilege is not abused.

One of your requests, however, I am unable to grant. The castle is currently undergoing significant work in order to strengthen security and for this reason I cannot allow you to return before September 1st. The security measures being enacted are strictly confidential and there can be no question of their integrity.

Best Wishes,

Minerva McGonagall

Acting Headmistress

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

P.S. Happy Birthday.

Finished, Harry passed the letter to Hermione to examine in fine detail. “She gave us more than I thought she would,” he said, noticing Mrs Weasley watching them closely. “What do you think?”

Hermione’s eyes were still glued to the letter. Slowly, a huge grin grew on her face. “I’m Head Girl!”

“Well, I guess that settles it,” said Ron. “We’re going back to Hogwarts.”

It took quite some time to calm Mrs Weasley down after Ron’s announcement. She was so distracted that she served Harry another full breakfast, just as he finished his first massive portion; Ron was quite happy to help him with the second. Bill was finally forced to lead her away, shaking his head, when she started to make a cake with the leftover bacon.

“Wow,” said George, looking at the strange mixture of bacon, flour and sugar. “You know, I think Mum might be on to something, here…”

Hermione made a sound of disgust. “I can only imagine what my parents would say,” she said, “I still haven’t told them about Hogwarts serving sweets with dinner.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” said Ron defensively, Harry’s plate now in front of him.

The conversation quickly became heated. As the merits of bacon cake were discussed in great detail, no one but Harry seemed to notice Ginny slip away from the table. She paused at the bottom of the stairs and gave Harry a long look before heading up.

“... it’s just weird to have sweet before savory, that’s all!” said Hermione.

“Excuse me,” said Harry, standing up, but nobody was paying him any attention.

“We can always do an experiment,” suggested George, who had joined his brother by the cake mix. “Mum’s already started, it can’t be too hard to finish…”

Harry found the door to Ginny’s bedroom open. It looked bigger in the daylight, with Hermione’s mattress vanished and the window wide open, letting in a pleasant breeze. Ginny stood in front of the window with her back to the door, wearing shorts and a strappy top.

“I couldn’t decide what to get you for your birthday,” she said softly. “Everything seemed so silly, given… well, you know.”

“You don’t need to give me anything,” Harry said, “really, it’s--”

“No,” she interrupted, turning now to face him. “I want to. Close the door, Harry.”

All the conflict of their previous conversation returned to him -- he knew well enough what a closed door meant. But he closed it nonetheless, flicking his wand to swing it shut. Ginny let out a little snort of laughter.

“You were meant to turn around,” she said, “but oh well.” She grasped the hem of her top and lifted it over her head, stripping unceremoniously in front of him. All the willpower in the world couldn’t stop Harry from looking, a thrill rushing through him as his heart quickened. Her small, perky breasts were covered by a plain black bra, enough skin left bare for Harry to notice the way her freckles faded into enticingly white skin near the material’s edge. His eyes flicked downward; her stomach was flat and toned, clearly showing the curve of her hips. She fiddled with a bra strap. “Like what you see?”

Harry’s mouth opened and shut several times, coherent thought briefly escaping him. Some rapidly diminishing part of him told him to look away; it was quickly silenced.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said with a cheeky grin, and she took a step towards him.

Harry found his tongue. “You said you couldn’t wait for me.”

Ginny took another step. “I did,” she said, her voice lower than normal. “Does this look like waiting to you?”

And then she was kissing him, and he was kissing back. Her lips were soft and her kisses gentle, long and lingering -- she was in no hurry. Harry relaxed into it, his mind going blank, his hands finding their way to her waist as Ginny’s own slipped beneath his t-shirt, running over his back. The kiss deepened and Harry’s hands grew more urgent, squeezing and gripping at her taut, smooth skin: one drifted up to press at the centre of her back, bringing her closer, the other slipped lower to cup her bum. Ginny moaned into his mouth and started tugging at his top.

They broke apart, breathing heavily as she ripped his t-shirt over his head: the motion was so rough that it sent his glasses askew. She straightened them with a giggle and then they were kissing again, now skin to skin; Harry could feel her breasts pressing against him and he reached for the clasp of her bra, already beyond the point of no-return --

Someone knocked on the door. “Harry, are you in there?” came Hermione’s voice. They jumped from each other like they’d been burnt, diving for their discarded clothes.

“Just a moment!” called Ginny. She straightened out her top and ran her fingers through her hair before nodding to Harry, who opened the door.

“Hermione,” he said, his voice coming out strangely high-pitched. He cleared his throat.

Hermione looked between Harry and Ginny and blushed. “I’m sorry,” she said, and her apology appeared genuine, “but Remus and Tonks just arrived, Harry. You should come and say hello.”

Harry glanced at Ginny, the past few minutes suddenly catching up with him as rationality returned. Shame and guilt filled him, but they weren’t alone: the frustration of being interrupted and the hunger for more still surged through his veins.

“Go on,” said Ginny, who was looking very pleased with herself, “it’s your birthday, after all.”

After taking a brief detour to get changed, Harry returned with Hermione to the kitchen. The twins were still there, whispering and gesturing wildly by the cooker, but everyone else had disappeared, leaving Remus and Tonks sitting at the table alone.

“Remus!” Harry called, stepping forward to embrace him. They hugged, Remus slapping Harry on the back a few times.

“Happy birthday, Harry,” said Tonks as they pulled apart, and she kissed him on the cheek before passing him a present.

“Thanks,” said Harry, setting the present on the kitchen table to open later. “Can I offer you a drink?”

“A cuppa would hit the spot,” said Tonks, sitting back down. “It’s been a long morning.”

“Oh?” said Harry. He squeezed between the twins and tapped the kettle with his wand, refilling it, before setting it over a flame.

“Long night, more like,” said Remus, who was now investigating Harry’s small pile of presents. He picked up Hermione’s and looked at the ring. “This is nice work,” he said, examining the design. He looked at Hermione. “Your own, I take it?”

Harry fished four mugs from the cupboard. “Tea, Hermione?”

“Please,” she said, before nodding to Remus. “I couldn’t find any Potter heraldry,” she said, “so I just… well, made it up.”

“Oh, the Potters were never noble, as such,” said Remus, placing the ring back in the box. “Just rich and well-connected.”

Harry returned to the table with the tea, sliding a mug to each person. There was a moment of silence as they all blew on the hot liquid, the steam of his own misting Harry’s glasses. “You were saying something, I believe, about a long night?”

Remus nodded, looking grim. “Tracking Fenrir Greyback,” he said. “We’re hoping he’ll lead us to someone more important, but…”

“No luck so far,” said Tonks. “You-Know-Who seems to keep him at a distance.”

“I still say we take him out,” said Remus, and Harry’s eyebrows rose. Assassination, so far as he knew, was not a traditional activity of the Order of the Phoenix. “The full moon’s approaching, who knows how many more he’ll bite.”

“And then where we would be?” said Tonks, her voice carrying all the signs of a well-rehearsed argument. “We have few enough leads as it is.”

“I’m just saying,” said Remus, getting agitated, “we can--”

“So Harry,” Hermione interrupted, speaking loudly. “What were you doing all alone with Ginny?”

Though about as subtle as a niffler in a Gringotts’ vault, Hermione’s attempt to steer the conversation was a huge success: both Tonks and Remus stopped mid-sentence and swiveled to face Harry, the glint of curiosity in their eyes.

“Yes, Harry,” said Fred, who had apparently been listening. “What exactly were you doing with our sister?”

“Not besmirching her virtue, I hope,” said George, coming to rest his hands on the back of Harry’s chair. Harry’s cheeks tinged pink and he glared daggers at Hermione, who at least had the grace to look vaguely apologetic.

Tonks cackled -- apparently it ran in the Black family. “Getting a special birthday present, Harry?” she asked, grinning widely.

“Now, now,” said Remus, his own mirth barely hidden. “I’m sure they were just talking.”

“About what?” said Hermione, “the colour of Ginny’s underwear?”

“All right,” said Harry, trying to calm them, “I think that’s--”

“Ginny!” cried Fred, just as she emerged from the stairs. He waved a doughy spoon in the air like a wand. “What’ve you been doing to poor Harry?”

George laid a protective hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Not been besmirching his virtue, have you?”

Remus snorted; Harry had to resist the urge to obliviate everyone, instead sending Ginny a look that he hoped said “help me!”

Ginny smirked. “Only a little,” she said, sending Tonks off laughing again. “And he wasn’t complaining much.” Harry began to feel ganged up on.

“Only a little?” said George, looking shocked. “Don’t tell me you left him hanging?”

“How many times have we told you?” added Fred, who was clearly enjoying himself. “Once you Wingardium--

“--you better leviosa,” completed George.

This proved too much for Remus, who almost choked on his tea as he burst out laughing. Hermione, too, was almost crying at Ginny’s face, which was now a bright red. She laid a pitying hand on Harry’s arm. “Oh, Harry, I’m sorry,” she said through her giggles. “If I’d known…”

Taking the ribbing gracefully was the only option. “You’re quite forgiven,” he said with mock seriousness, patting Hermione’s hand. “Just don’t do it again.”

Mrs Weasley’s return put an end to their long breakfast. As it was his birthday, Harry alone was spared being put to work. Indeed, when he had tried to help, Mrs Weasley had firmly directed him to a deckchair, passed him a butterbeer, and told him to relax. And so, sipping his cool, sweet beverage, he watched as the others transformed the garden.

While Ginny helped her mother set up the buffet table, Remus and Tonks were set to the difficult task of repairing the temperamental gramophone. Meanwhile, Hermione was in charge of decorations: she walked around the edge of the garden, conjuring up a mass of colourful streamers and ribbons, waving her wand to drape them between the trees. Ron didn’t seem to have any task in particular, instead taking it upon himself to stand around tasting the food, frequently coming over to chat to Harry until Mrs Weasley shouted at him.

Finally, everything was ready: Hagrid and Kingsley had arrived, as had Dedalus Diggle, and Mrs Weasley had brought forth a giant cake in the shape of a golden snitch, which enjoyed pride of place on the table.

“Coming through!” called Fred, holding open the kitchen door for George, who walked out bearing another cake. It was bright orange and had sunk in the centre, but the twins looked very happy with their work, strutting up to the table and placing it next to Mrs Weasley’s much more impressive creation.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said George, bowing to them several times, “I present to you: bacon cake!”

“Now, Hermione, I think you’re up first,” said Fred, cutting out a generous slice. He passed it to Hermione, who looked at it dubiously: it was soggy in the middle and filled with lardons.

Picking a bit that looked less undercooked, Hermione took a bite. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Oh my god,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand to speak, “it’s--”

A silver light shot to the centre of the group, hovering in the air before forming the shape of a small weasel.

“Arriving with Scrimgeour.”

Remus and Tonks moved immediately: they were barely over the hedge when the distinct crack of apparition sounded twice and Mr Weasley walked up the drive, Rufus Scrimgeour in tow. The Minister for Magic had aged noticeably since Harry had seen him last, his beard now messy and flecked with grey, but he was as tall as ever and still moved with a predatory prowl.

“My apologies for gate-crashing,” he said, looking over those gathered. His gaze lingered on Kingsley.

“Minister Scrimgeour,” said Harry, stepping forward and offering his hand. Scrimgeour looked surprised, but pleasantly so: he took Harry’s hand in a strong grip and gave it several firm shakes. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“In fact there is,” said Scrimgeour, his eyes now flicking between Harry and Hagrid. “I require a private word with you, Mr Potter, as well as Mr Ronald Weasley and Miss Hermione Granger.”

“Us?” said Ron, sounding surprised, “what could you possibly want with--”

A look from Hermione shut him up.

“Shall we proceed to the sitting room, then?” said Harry, “with your permission, of course, Mr Weasley.”

Mr and Mrs Weasley shared a concerned look. “Yes, yes, of course,” said Mr Weasley, “it’s just--”

“Your presence will not be necessary, Arthur,” said Scrimgeour, and he turned back to Harry. “Lead the way, Mr Potter.”

They entered the house in silence, but Harry’s mind was racing. Why had Scrimgeour come? To seek Harry’s support once more? To spy on the Order? To interrogate them for information? The possibilities were endless.

The sitting room was probably the least-used room of The Burrow, especially in the summer. It was small and messy, but cosy, with several flowery armchairs and little tables covered in books and magazines. Scrimgeour took Mr Weasley’s normal seat opposite the sofa, where he indicated that Harry, Ron and Hermione should sit.

“Now then,” said Scrimgeour, steepling his fingers, “I think it best if we do this one by one. You two--” he gestured at Ron and Hermione “--wait outside while I talk with Mr Potter.”

Ron and Hermione got up to move, Harry motioned for them to stop. The Minister’s intent was clear: divide and conquer. “I have nothing to say that my friends can’t hear,” said Harry, waving them to sit back down, and Scrimgeour narrowed his eyes.

“Very well,” he said at last, and he reached into his pocket to remove a scroll. “As I’m sure you know, I have come today regarding the will of Albus Dumbledore.”

Harry hid his surprise -- he had thought that he’d already received Dumbledore’s bequest -- but Ron and Hermione were less subtle. Scrimgeour smiled in satisfaction. “This comes to you as a surprise, I see,” he said. He turned his gaze on Ron. “Tell me, Mr Weasley, were you and Professor Dumbledore close?”

“Never spoke to the man in my life,” said Ron, and for the second time that day Harry had to resist obliviating someone.

Scrimgeour closed in, leaning forward in the chair like a cat stalking a mouse. “Then why, Mr Weasley, do you think he left you something? Albus Dumbledore made remarkably few personal bequests, leaving most of his belongings to Hogwarts and his gold to his brother.” His eyes flicked between the three of them. “So why you?”

“Minister, I fail to see how this is relevant,” said Harry, speaking before Hermione could. “Albus Dumbledore’s reasons were his own and, forgive me, it is not the Ministry’s role to question them. In fact, it has now been over a month since Dumbledore died -- under what authority have you delayed the reading of the will?”

“It is well within the Ministry’s authority to seize magical artifacts that are potentially dangerous,” said Scrimgeour, “in this case--”

“Come now, Minister,” said Harry, “we both know the Heirloom Act explicitly denies the Ministry such powers.”

Silence met Harry’s proclamation: Hermione looked surprised, Scrimgeour almost gleeful.

“You need to brush up on your magical law, Mr Potter,” he said, “the Heirloom Act was repealed in ‘86 -- by Dumbledore himself, no less. So you see, I do possess such powers.”

Harry could have kicked himself: his knowledge of the law was painfully outdated. Scrimgeour had him at a disadvantage. Thankfully, he had Hermione.

“But only for thirty-one days,” she said, before smiling. “That time’s up, so you might as well give us what’s ours, Minister.”

Scrimgeour gave Hermione a long stare before unfurling the scroll. “‘Herein is recorded the last will and testament of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore’... let’s see… ah, yes, Mr Potter. ‘To Mr Harry Potter I leave the snitch he caught in his first Quidditch game, to help remind him of who he is.’” He flicked his wand and a shiny golden ball appeared in his left hand, which he held out to Harry.

Harry knew what Scrimgeour must have been thinking -- what Hermione, by her expression, was also thinking. Both seemed to have forgotten how he made his first catch. He took the snitch without hesitation, smiling at its touch. To help remind him of who he is. A statement only Harry truly understood, and yet he felt almost certain that there was more to the snitch than Dumbledore was letting on.

Scrimgeour looked disappointed when nothing happened -- he slumped back in his seat and sighed. “‘To Miss Hermione Granger,’” he continued, “‘I leave my pensieve, in the hope that it will help bring clarity to memories past.’” He flicked his wand again, this time conjuring a large, shallow stone bowl, which floated over to Hermione. She took it reverently, with a tear in her eye.

It was a fine gift. It would have taken Harry a year to make a new one.

“That is an extremely valuable object,” said Scrimgeour, eyeing the pensieve. “Dumbledore invented it himself, telling the secret of their construction to very few. Why is it, do you think, that he gave this item to you?”

“To look at memories, I imagine,” said Harry, raising an eyebrow. Scrimgeour’s curiosity made little sense to him. Why was the Minister for Magic performing such a mundane task? What was his interest?

Ron snorted; Scrimgeour looked at him sharply. “Unfortunately, Mr Weasley, I cannot allow Dumbledore’s bequest to you.”

“That’s illegal,” said Hermione, looking up from the pensieve. “The thirty-one days are up; you have to give it to him.”

Scrimgeour’s eye twitched. “If you would let me finish, Miss Granger, I shall explain: the item left to Mr Weasley in fact did not belong to Albus Dumbledore, and as such he had no right to pass it on.”

Harry leaned forward. “This item being…?”

“The sword of Godric Gryffindor,” said Scrimgeour, and Hermione gasped. “Now, given Mr Weasley’s confessed lack of relationship with Dumbledore, I can only assume that you, Mr Potter, are the intended recipient. Why did Dumbledore want you to have the sword? Does it possess secret properties, known only to yourself? Did Dumbledore believe, as many do, that you are destined to kill You-Know-Who, perhaps using the sword of Gryffindor?”

Harry judged his answer carefully, taking a moment to reply. “Yes.”

Ron and Hermione spun to stare at him; Scrimgeour’s eyes widened. “You claim to be this Chosen One?”

Harry inclined his head. “There is a prophecy,” he said, “I will not divulge its exact contents, for Voldemort still knows only half of it. But that half is clear: I am the only one who can -- or, rather, will -- vanquish Voldemort.”

“If that is true,” said Scrimgeour, sounding sceptical, “then you should be working with the Ministry. Come with me, now, to London. Let us give you training, Potter, and protection. The Aurors--”

“The Aurors are compromised,” said Harry.

Scrimgeour bristled. “Absurd,” he said, “the Aurors are under my personal command.”

“Three of those Aurors collaborated with a Death Eater attack five days past -- an attack designed to kill me. How often have you been testing for the Imperius curse?”

“I’m asking the questions here,” snapped Scrimgeour, his temper now beginning to flair.

Harry shook his head. “I think it’s time for you to answer my questions, Minister. Why haven’t you raised the Sound? Why are the Hitwizards still in retirement? You should be gathering all your forces to assault Malfoy Manor, yet here you are, acting as a glorified delivery owl! Why haven’t you--”

“Enough!” said Scrimgeour, jumping to his feet and brandishing his wand. “You forget your place! Chosen One you may be, but I am the Minister for Magic!”

Harry stayed sitting -- Scrimgeour was no threat to him. “Fudge, too, was fond of reminding people of his position. It is time for you to earn that respect, Rufus. Take these measures and--”

“And the Wizengamot will throw me out of office before the day is up!” said Scrimgeour, punctuating his point with a pointed finger. “The Sound… preposterous. And as for Malfoy Manor, it’s completely unplottable. Finding it would be impossible.”

“Not quite impossible,” said Harry, “there is one way.”

Scrimgeour narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know how you know about the Hall, Potter, but clearly you don’t understand what you’re asking. The Wizengamot would intervene if I so much as walked through the door.”

Harry, in fact, knew exactly what he was asking: he had helped design it. “The Wizengamot may well throw you out of office,” he said, “but better to be thrown out for doing the right thing than to stay because you do nothing. It is time, Minister, to choose between what is right and what is easy.”

Scrimgeour grimaced. “It seems you remain, even now, Dumbledore’s man.”

Harry smirked. “You have no idea.”

Scrimgeour stared at him, the moment dragging out, before nodding once. He swept from the room without another word.

“Harry… what just happened?” said Hermione, flinching at the loud crack of Scrimgeour’s disapparition.

Harry smiled. “Oh, just trying to buy us some more time,” he said, now turning his attention back to the snitch still in his hands. “So, who wants to see what Dumbledore hid inside?”

Hermione frowned, looking at the snitch in Harry’s hands. “But you’ve already touched it,” she said, “the flesh memory didn’t do anything.”

“We’ll see,” said Harry, before raising the snitch and placing upon it a light kiss. The metal shimmered, revealing a hidden symbol: a bisected circle within a triangle. A moment later, it was gone.

“What’s that?” said Ron.

“A rune?” suggested Hermione, and Harry could almost hear the whirring of her brain. “I don’t recognise it immediately…”

“It’s not a rune,” said Harry distractedly. He was deep in thought: Dumbledore’s intentions remained as mysterious as ever. “It’s the symbol of the Deathly Hallows.”

* * *

“They’re coming down the drive!”

Harry ignored Mrs Weasley’s voice and stirred thrice, anti-clockwise. The potion turned a pale blue. Perfect. Timing it just right, he added three drops eagle’s blood, one second between each drop. The potion turned even paler.

“Where’s Harry?” Mrs Weasley shouted, “Hermione--”

“I’ll find him,” Hermione replied, her voice drifting up the stairs. “I think he’s in his room.”

The sound of footsteps followed, Hermione clearly taking the stairs at a run. She burst through the bedroom door a few seconds later, immediately taking in the fire burning on the wooden floor, the cauldron above it, and Harry kneeling to the side, stirring the potion casually.

“What’re you doing?” said Hermione, frowning. “You must have heard Mrs Weasley.”

Harry looked between the cauldron and Hermione. “It would appear that I’m making a potion.”

Hermione gave him a withering look. “You know what I meant,” she said, “we’re all supposed to be outside waiting for the Delacours.”

“I’ll be there momentarily,” said Harry. He was almost done: he added the shredded fern and dispelled the fire. The potion took on a slightly green tinge, the leaves dissolving instantly. He looked up to find Hermione gone. Shrugging, he decanted the potion and cleared up, placing the three vials on the window-sill to cool.

Harry descended the stairs just in time to open the front door for the Delacours.

“Come in, come in!” said Mrs Weasley, beaming at Harry. The Delacours froze when they saw him.

“Mister Potter,” said Mrs Delacour, kissing him on each cheek. She was blonde, tall and beautiful -- clearly Fleur’s mother. “An honour to meet you.”

Mr Delacour -- shorter and rather more aged than his wife -- bounced forward to shake his hand. “We saw you at ze tournament, of course,” he said, “when you saved our leetle daughter, Gabrielle.”

At the sound of her name, Gabrielle gave Harry an adoring look from behind her sister, battering her eyelashes at him wildly. Harry coughed, sharing an amused look with Ginny. “Bonjour, Gabrielle,” he said, before stepping back to allow everyone through.

Gabrielle blushed deeply and started babbling to her sister in rapid French, quite unaware that Harry understood every word. She shut up quickly, however, when Mad-Eye came in through the Floo.

“Oh, Alastor!” said Mrs Weasley, glancing nervously between her guests and the ex-Auror. “We weren’t expecting you for another hour.”

“Precisely,” said Mad-Eye, spinning suddenly to point his wand at Harry. “What’s on your Christmas list?”

Harry sighed. “Madam Lovelock’s Sleek and Shine,” he said, daring Ron to laugh with a glare.

Moody grimaced -- probably the closest thing to a smile his face could manage -- and pocketed his wand. “Need a word with you, Potter. In private.”

They retreated to the kitchen, where Mad-Eye cast half a dozen privacy spells, before pulling out a chair. “Sit,” he said. Harry raised an eyebrow, but did as he was told. There was no need to antagonise the man. Not after the previous night.

Moody had not reacted well to the revelation of Voldemort’s immortality. Neither, for that matter, had Kingsley.

“Well, Potter, I’m sure you know what this is about,” said Moody, taking a seat himself and resting his wooden leg up on an adjacent chair.

“I can guess,” said Harry. “The horcruxes.”

The mere mention of the word sent Moody’s eye crazy, jerking quickly between the windows and doors. “That’s right,” he said. “Now, I’ve no idea what Dumbledore’s plan was. I don’t care much, neither. The old man was clearly off his rocker if he thought three teenagers could handle this. We need--”

“No,” said Harry, firmly. Anger bubbled; he suppressed it, keeping his face completely blank. “The task is mine, not the Order’s. Your job is to focus on the fight.”

“This is the fight!” Moody snarled, punching the kitchen table with his finger. “The Ministry’s a lost cause, too bloody useless to even put up a fight. Voldemort’s the key.”

“I am quite aware of our situation,” said Harry, still completely still. “Unfortunately, the Order simply cannot be trusted with information this important. Should Voldemort realise we’re after the horcruxes, everything is lost.”

Moody grunted and fell silent, thinking. Harry seized his apparent advantage. “There are ways the Order can contribute, without knowing the secret,” he said, “induct me into the Order -- Ron and Hermione too. We can work together on this.”

“Never had kids in the Order,” Moody muttered, mostly to himself. “But why not? If you want to die for something, who am I to say no?” He stood up abruptly. “All right, Potter, you’re in. We’re having a full meeting in an hour to hear what the frogs have to say. We’ll induct you then.”

“Very well,” said Harry, standing as well. Suddenly, the fire burst to life and Minerva McGonagall stepped through. Harry lowered his wand, noticing Moody doing the same.

“Professor McGonagall,” said Harry, just stopping himself from using her first name. Minerva McGonagall was one of the few members of the Order whom Harry knew from Dumbledore’s memories, having attended Hogwarts in the twenties.

“Good afternoon, Mr Potter,” she said, taking off her wide-brimmed hat and placing it on the table. “I trust you’re well?”

“Quite well, thank you,” said Harry. “How’re things progressing at Hogwarts?”

Minerva’s lips thinned.  “Slowly,” she said. “I was loath to leave the castle, even for this meeting. Are you--” she stopped mid-sentence, cocking her head like a cat “--what’s that sound?”

Harry frowned. Everything seemed normal to him. But then he heard it: a low hum, almost like that of an electric fence, was building in the air. His eyes widened. “He didn’t.”

And then it came, bursting into life from all directions, a sound which had once haunted the dreams of millions. A sound that rang in Harry’s memories: the unmistakable, ascending wail of an air-raid siren.

Minerva paled, her wand appearing in her hand in a moment, and Moody flung the kitchen door open, his magical eye fixed to the sky. The others were still in the hall beyond: most of them looked confused, but Hermione was almost as pale as Minerva, and the Delacours looked positively furious.

“Well, what’re you waiting for?” shouted Moody, the siren unceasing outside the house. “Wands out, you useless lumps of dragon dung! We’re under attack!”

“Wait!” Harry called, holding up his hand. “That’s not necessary, Moody. I highly doubt the Germans have spontaneously decided to invade.”

“What is it?” said Hermione, her voice shaking. “It’s like an air-raid siren.”

“It’s the Sound,” said Minerva, stepping into the hall. Her wand was still in her hand. “Many years have passed since I heard it.”

Hermione’s eyes flicked to Harry -- no doubt she was remembering his conversation with Scrimgeour. “But what does it do?” she said. “I mean, wizards don’t use bombs, do they?”

A booming voice, rolling like thunder from the sky, answered the question.

THIS IS THE SOUND,” it said, sounding very much like Scrimgeour, “ALL MODES OF MAGICAL TRANSPORT ARE HEREBY SUSPENDED.”

The voice died, as did the siren, but the low, electric hum persisted. It seemed Scrimgeour intended to leave the Sound permanently raised.

Hermione gaped, and Harry couldn’t help but grin at her expression. He doubted she’d ever experienced magic at this level. “It seems,” he said, breaking the sudden silence, “Scrimgeour has done something right.”

No-one replied. It was Mrs Weasley who found her voice first.

“But what about the wedding?”

A.N. Canon deviations in this chapter which are unrelated to the central plot divergence: Hermione’s birthday present to Harry (a sneakoscope is kinda lame) and the date of the wedding (in canon, it was the day after Harry’s birthday).

This chapter marks the last that will be following canon moderately closely, and is mostly a set-up chapter. Hopefully it’s still entertaining despite that.