Mrs Weasley had decided that the best restorative after their exertions was a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Hermione concentrated on the turkey and vegetables, declining the suet pudding in favour of some fruit. "Are you sure you're all right?" asked Mrs Weasley.
"I'm fine," said Hermione, "it's just that you give us such large helpings. If I ate all I wanted to I'd not fit in my dress robes."
"You were working it off until a few weeks ago," said Mrs Weasley. "Perhaps I should invite a Doxy or two back for you to exercise with?”
"No thank you, Mum," said Ron, "Hermione can always take up Quidditch when we go back to Hogwarts." This well-meant advice earned him a hurt look from Hermione, which he put down to her dislike of flying.
The war on the house had indeed been won. Even Mrs Black's portrait had been removed. The fight had gone out of her with Sirius' death, and she had been satisfied with a solemn promise that, after its removal, her portrait would be sold to Borgin and Burkes, in the hope that a suitably pure-blood family would purchase her. The only real defect of 12, Grimmauld Place, now, apart from its associations with Sirius, was that many of the rooms looked rather empty. The kitchen fortunately was not one of them. Mrs Weasley had made it her own.
When Ron had finished his second helping of pudding, they stood back and Hermione watched carefully as Mrs Weasley raised her wand and brandished it at the dishes, almost as if telling them off. They started to wash themselves up, and Hermione continued to watch them closely. After a while, Hermione got up, extracted one of Mrs Weasley’s books on household magic from the shelves, leafed through it, and said, “Oh, I see. Of course,” before putting it back. Shortly afterwards, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Minerva McGonagall, and Aberforth Dumbledore joined them.
"You did well to get out of that house in one piece," said Kingsley. "It's a trap from top to bottom. None of it lethal, though, at least if you're careful. I can honestly explain our involvement as a training exercise. You're not getting off lightly, mind you," he said, looking at Tonks. "You did well to cover for each other as a team, but I expect my people to learn from mistakes that don't kill them. That's hard for some, but I can assure you, learning from the other kind is even harder."
"Not lethal," said Aberforth, "and potions played a big part?"
"All Snape, nothing from You-Know-Who," confirmed Shacklebolt. "That note to Potter confirms it. This means that we don't even know if Snape is a Death Eater or not. I'm sorry, but there are no new leads here. And no sign of unusual magical objects," he said as he looked at Aberforth.
"Just keep me informed of charmed or cursed objects, especially if they are the sort of the thing that Voldemort might regard as a keepsake," said Aberforth. "That's all you need to know. Unlike Albus, I don't like to commit myself too heavily to any single strategy, but I’m not going to turn his ideas on that down. Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to turn down any ideas. The Order," he continued, "has no more idea where Voldemort is, or Snape, or what they are doing, than anybody here. Neither does the Ministry;" at this point he looked back at Kingsley, who nodded. "Nor the Daily Prophet, or the Quibbler, for that matter. Snape was our man in Voldemort's ranks, and you," he glanced at Harry, "seem to be receiving more information from him than I am now."
"If you think...” started Harry, but Aberforth silenced him with a glance.
"He didn't give you bad advice, you know," he said, "it's pretty much what we told Snape before we sent him under cover. If you're likely to get hurt alone, it makes sense to know how to patch yourself up. What you just did was a bad idea, but I'd run out of good ideas. Now I've run out of bad ideas, too. Where were you planning to rush in next, Harry?"
"I don't know," said Harry, "this feels silly. How are we supposed to fight Voldemort if he won't turn up?"
"What you want to do," said Kingsley, "is not get yourselves killed while we scrounge around for proper intelligence. And Professor McGonagall can keep you occupied in the mean time." He turned to look at Professor McGonagall expectantly.
"I can help you work," she said, "but not at Hogwarts." A shout of surprise went up from those who had just lunched; Aberforth and Kingsley, obviously, already knew. "It's out of my hands," she said. "Hogwarts is indeed less safe with Dumbledore gone, and the governors, and most especially the Ministry, do not want to be responsible for even a single episode that could endanger an entire generation of children. No matter how hard we might work to make such a situation unlikely.” Professor McGonagall caught Hermione’s eye. “You will have noticed,” she said, “that I have described a process which considers the effects on people’s lives only when those effects produce political consequences. Despite this, the decision itself is not entirely unreasonable.”
“You will all be safe in Grimmauld Place. Elsewhere, small groups will gather at family homes and strongholds throughout the country. Teachers will Apparate or Floo from one place to the other, assigning work. For final year students, this won't be a tremendous change. For many of you, this will be your last year of directed study. We will use project work to allow you some time to get used to working on your own, and to allow you to specialise in a topic of your choice. For others," she said as she glanced at Ginny, "Well, there are special circumstances here and there that suggest individual study, too."
"I would like to see you all individually. If nobody minds, Aberforth will sit in as head of the Order. I will be present while you are with him." Here Mrs Weasley, Remus, and Tonks all nodded. Aberforth raised his eyes to the ceiling, looking half amused and half resigned. "It would be fitting to see you in the old library," Professor McGonagall said as she got up.
Harry saw her first. When he came back, Harry said apologetically, "Can’t say much, I'm afraid. None of us is a good enough Occlumens for loose talk it appears. Ginny, you're next."
"Well, at least you won't have to worry about Snape this year," said Hermione, "as a teacher, I mean."
Ginny was gone for nearly as long as Harry was. When, she came back she went straight to Harry and whispered in his ear. He replied in a normal tone of voice. "But how am I supposed to carry on if you got hurt? Later." Ginny continued standing very close to him, then turned round quickly and said,
"You're next, Ron."
Ron walked up the stairs to the library, not knowing whether to expect Duelling and Dark Arts round the clock, or History of Magic and remedial Potions for real. Would Mrs Weasley allow Potions in the kitchen? He walked in to find three chairs arranged in a horseshoe formation opposite one of the tall, narrow, windows that gave the room such light as it had. Most of the shelves were empty; the Black family library had consisted largely of long outdated works on very Dark Arts indeed and the pedigrees of wizards long dead. Only some of the 'stud books' remained, and Ron wondered why they had kept even these. Ron sat down on the only empty chair on the right. "You have a number of equally good options," said Professor McGonagall. Was she just trying to cheer him up? "What did you most enjoy about Hogwarts?"
"Quidditch," said Ron, "and the food's very good, too."
"I do not know of any students who have successfully made eating their career," said Professor McGonagall dryly, "and as for Quidditch; you follow the Chudley Cannons, don't you?"
"Yes," said Ron, wondering what she was getting at. Could he really play professional Quidditch?
"What do you think of Puddlemere United? Do they have a lot of strong players, compared to other teams?"
"No," said Ron, "they've had a lot of problems with injuries. They've never been as good as the Cannons. They've just been lucky, that's all".
"A trifle biased," said Professor McGonagall, "but not completely unfair. And yet when they recruited Oliver Wood as their reserve Keeper, he said he was very lucky to get in at all. I'm told he's improving, but he has yet to start a game for them, isn't that right? Now, you're both Keepers. How would you compare yourself to Oliver Wood?"
"I never really thought I'd play Quidditch for a living," said Ron.
"Good. Now what have you done that we can build on? What has sparked your interest in class and sent you running to the library?"
Ron wavered. "Well," he said hesitantly, "I did go there when Hagrid was preparing Buckbeak's appeal."
"When you were preparing it for him, you mean," said Professor McGonagall, "I'd forgotten about that, but that was a good piece of work. Now all we need is a Hippogriff to defend."
"What about Stan Shunpike?" said Ron. "I mean, he's not a Hippogriff, but he's in a bit of a spot, isn't he? How is he going to prepare an appeal from Azkaban?"
"A most worthy cause," said Aberforth, "we can't all be Hippogriffs, after all, or even goats," he said, smiling. "More order members should have a working knowledge of the law. Don't expect to win that appeal, but it's a good first step. I always like to exhaust the official channels before I get the real work started." Ron looked surprised. "Don't worry, you're only a Gryffindor. You wouldn't understand."
"I believe that this library will be more usable shortly," said Professor McGonagall. "I will be back again in a week's time, with schedules for your other subjects. Do you think that you could have at least a draft of the main grounds for appeal ready?"
"Yes," said Ron, "and - thank you." He was actually being given something useful to do! Most schoolwork, he thought, was about as useful as digging a hole in the ground and then filling it in again.
"Don't mention it," said Professor McGonagall. "That was easy. Now I have to persuade Hermione that she can't be a Healer, and an Auror, and an Unspeakable, all at the same time, and all in time left over from her other subjects."
"I'll handle that," said Aberforth, "you'll get your prize student, don't you worry."
Thanks to my pre-Beta Tinnidawg for both detailed comments and advice.