It was well after midnight when Bill Weasley Apparated into the tight confines of the library storeroom. He stumbled on an inconveniently placed stool and nearly toppled over. He reached for his wand instinctively, in case someone sought to take advantage of his momentary loss of balance.
He was too late. A strong arm clamped itself around his neck, and the tip of a wand was placed to one temple.
"When you were fourteen, someone sent you a hat. Where did that person live, and what did the hat do to you?"
"Brazil, and it made my ears shrivel up," Bill gasped. "Who-"
"Harry Potter first met you how many years ago?"
"And what did he say you looked like later that night? What-"
"A rock star."
"What did you do to the twins when they found out about you and Fleur?"
"Tipped Mum off about the Extendable Ears. Look-"
The grip was released.
"Turn around, slowly."
He did so. Before he could see anything, a bright light shone into his eyes.
"Who are your brothers and sisters named after?"
Bill looked as though he were about to start hexing sooner rather than later, but for now he was patient.
"Charlie's named after Charles Spencer, the Prince of Wales. Percy's named after Dumbledore. Fred and George were named for Fabian and Gideon, our uncles. Ron's named for our great-grandfather. Ginny, my only sister, is named after Guinevere, King Arthur's Queen."
The light dimmed slightly, allowing Bill to make out the shadowy shapes behind it.
"What are you three playing at?" he asked, squinting slightly in the light.
"Sorry, Bill," Harry said, the tip of his wand still levelled at Bill's throat, even as the light at the end of it continued to glow. "We've run into two Death Eaters in the last three days. We can't be too careful."
"We got the first one left him for the Ministry. The prat was only a year or two older than us," Ron said.
"And the other one?"
"He saw us first," Hermione said. Bill frowned.
"Hermione, are you okay?"
"She's hurt, Bill. That's why we called you."
"Let me see."
Harry let him approach, his wand still levelled steadily at Bill's throat.
"Harry, it's me," he said.
"Just make sure it is. If you hurt Hermione-"
"Harry, it is Bill," Ron said, a note of alarm in his voice.
"He's right to be careful," Bill said. "Besides, he's nowhere near as bad as the goblins at Gringotts. Hermione, what-"
He gasped. Hermione had lifted the hem of her shirt, revealing a green-tinged wound just below her ribcage.
"What the bloody hell were you thinking?" he snapped, rounding on Harry and his brother. "She needs to be in St. Mungos!"
"We can't go there. We wouldn't have called you but we needed someone who knows about curses and magical injuries," Harry said, his voice shaking slightly. "Do you know how to treat it?"
"When did it happen?" he asked, turning back to Hermione. Harry grimaced as he tried not to think about the way in which she was biting her lip, nor the shaking of her hand as she held her shirt to one side. It was clear that she was in a great deal more pain than she was letting on.
"About two hours ago. We had to find someplace with a Floo connection. It took ages."
Bill glanced around the shelves. "There's a Floo here?"
"Good. You're not completely stupid, then. Hermione, this is going to hurt," he said. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," she whispered.
"We're cutting it close."
Without preamble, Bill pushed the tip of his wand into the wound. Hermione just stifled a scream.
"Bill-" Ron began, starting forward, but Harry caught him.
"She's been poisoned, Ron," Bill said. "That's what the green means. The spell keeps the blood inside the body, but it's poisoning her. If I can't clean the blood, then we'll be in real trouble."
"Define 'real trouble'," Hermione managed. Bill managed to catch her and lower her gently onto a box as she slumped over.
"Harry, hold her upright. Ron, I need hot water and clean cloths. Even if I can clean her blood and get rid of the spell, she might still bleed heavily. It's going to be a long night."
"Right," Ron said, vanishing into the darkness.
"Why don't you tell me what happened?" Bill asked, as Harry sat behind Hermione and tried to find a way of holding her that didn't interfere with what Bill was doing.
"Yeah, okay. It sort of began three days ago..."
It had been a long day. They had all been long days, ever since they'd left London.
Harry wasn't yet sure what had brought them to Cornwall, but it was nice to enjoy the summer sun while it lasted. September the first had come and gone without much fuss on their part. The Prophet had run a small article announcing a student body of around two hundred, and only ten new students reporting for their first year.
"There'll be trouble next year," Ron said, folding the paper and setting it on the table outside the café. "Everyone'll be back - they'll have to do a load of magic to make sure there's enough room for everyone." He paused. "Maybe if we get done quickly, we can just have a late start this year?"
Hermione smiled at him, while Harry looked at his rucksack, not seeing the bag but rather the swaddled cup he knew to be within it.
"Did Professor Lupin suggest any other books we can try?" he asked, nodding at the letter in Hermione's hand.
"A few. We should be able to find them here, I think. One or two might even be in the library."
Harry nodded. He had lived in the wizarding world for six years, and fewer things surprised him as more time passed, but he had still been surprised to learn that most libraries contained small magical sections. Hermione had explained that the post of librarian was an ideal one for wizards and witches, as they were almost expected to be slightly odd in manner and dress, which described most wizards exactly when they tried to move in Muggle society.
"Well, you check that out," he said. "Are there any that we'll have to buy?"
"Yes, one," she said. "It's only been released in the last month - libraries won't have a copy yet. I think there's a bookshop on Old Launton Street."
"I'll take that," Ron said. "Can't have you risking being seen too much, mate."
Harry nodded. It was starting to grate slightly on his nerves that Ron and Hermione seemed intent on keeping him safely hidden away as much as possible. He suspected that it would become an issue if they intended to keep it up - but he rather hoped that the notion would pass with time. If nothing else, he thought that he had a rather better chance of surviving a run in with Death Eaters then they did - but he supposed that their chances of provoking a conflict were lessened in his absence.
He went back to the hotel and sat on his bed, once again leafing through one of the heavy, blackened books that Hermione had insisted they bring with them. She had managed to find a way to shrink the books so that they could carry them without too much difficulty, but so far they had proven to be singularly useless. It had been more than two weeks since they had found the first Horcrux, and the books had provided no advice on how to go about destroying such a magical artefact.
Harry threw the book aside, and reached into the inside pocket of his coat. Withdrawing Dumbledore's slim notebook, he let it fall open on the section which addressed his destruction of Gaunt's ring.
The book lay on the bed, its pages familiar from long hours of study. Harry read through once more the tale of Dumbledore's journey to the old home of Marvolo Gaunt and his children, how he had broken down the weak barriers that had diverted the mildly curious from the site - these spells, Harry noted with a sense of irritation, were fully annotated - and then several lines of the many, greatly abbreviated, spells that he had used to destroy the Horcrux. Harry's eyes settled, once more, on the note that Dumbledore had been too slow to avoid the near-destruction of his right hand.
Did the Horcrux have one last surprise? Or did Dumbledore just not see something that he should have done?
Harry sighed, and shoved the book back in his coat. Lying back on his bed, he waited for Ron or Hermione to come back from their errand.
"You know, if I was a Death Eater, you'd have been in trouble."
Harry's eyes creaked open, and his focus swum tantalisingly before him until he finally settled on the grinning face of Ron, waving a book in front of his face.
"Come on, get reading. I need a shower. It's got a lot hotter out there."
Harry glanced at his watch as he took the book. He had slept for three hours.
"What took you so long?"
"Had to search a couple of shops before I found it. It's a best seller, apparently."
Harry looked at the book.
"Defiance in the Face of Doom: Knowing the Dark Arts and Defeating Them. This is a best-seller?"
"It's all anyone's talking about," Ron said. "Especially since, well..."
"Dumbledore died," Harry finished for him.
"Especially since the Ministry's not doing much to help."
"'Call your local Auror'," Harry said, remembering the Ministry's latest information leaflet.
"Dad reckons they just don't want vigilante groups getting together and trying to hunt down Death Eaters."
"Who'd be that stupid?"
"Apparently there were a few in the last war. A lot of people killed."
Harry shook his head. "The DA could have been like that," he said. "They were smart enough to stay hidden when we called."
"It can't hurt people to know how to defend themselves, though. Anyway, have a look at the book, and see if it's any use."
"Yeah, you never know," Harry said, but as Ron went off to have a shower, he privately doubted it. Leafing through the first chapter, he didn't see anything that he hadn't himself taught the DA. Turning to the back of the book, he pored over the index, and sighed. It read like a Defence Against the Dark Arts textbook - and not even one for NEWT level students.
Harry was about to shut the book when a small sub-heading caught his eye.
Expecto Parcia Maledicta Beneficia
Harry stared at the spell, which was listed under the heading of Withdrawal Spells. Harry turned to the section listed and read the introduction.
Withdrawal Spells have many uses. At a basic level, one can use the Sifting spell to separate a failed recipe into its component ingredients for a repeat attempt. In the context of the Dark Arts, however, Withdrawal Spells have a much more injurious application.
In the hands of a skilled Dark wizard, a Withdrawal Spell can be used to badly injure - or in some cases kill - a victim. A spell such as the Beneficial Withdrawal spell can be used by a Healer to remove a poison from a patient's system. When used by a Dark wizard, however, the same spell may be used to separate a victim's blood from their body, although such an extreme and skilful application is rare. In most cases, a victim will be left disoriented by the sudden loss of blood, but not fatally wounded.
The Beneficial Withdrawal spell was the one that had caught Harry's eye in the index. Slowly, he reached inside his coat and pulled out the slim book. Opening it on the pages dealing with Gaunt's ring, his eyes settled on the section of abbreviated spells. As he read Dumbledore's narrow, slanting writing, one group of letter stood out, just as he had thought.
EPMB, he read, used to draw out the essence.
Harry sat back, letting the back of his head rest against the wall. Something, at last, seemed to be going their way.
"Yes, I think you're right," Hermione said, later that day. "That's one spell we've certainly found, by my reckoning."
"You have something else?" Harry asked.
"Perhaps. It's a possibility, but I think it's worth mentioning."
She opened one of the library books - Harry wondered briefly if all books connected with the Dark Arts had to look as though they had been carved rather than printed and bound - and pointed at a spell.
"This might be one of the spells that Professor Dumbledore mentioned," she said.
"It's supposed to break chains, bonds, that sort of thing. Maybe, if it was Dumbledore casting it, it could break something like the charms protecting the ring?"
"Maybe," Harry said, checking the list of spells and finding an LT listed a short while before EPMB. "But does that mean that we couldn't use it on the cup, if it took Dumbledore to do it?"
"Well, I don't know," Hermione said. "But between the three of us, we might be able to manage it."
"It's something, anyway," Ron said. "And more than we had this morning. Anything else look hopeful?"
"I'll keep looking," she said. "Why don't you two go and get us some dinner?"
There were several large, steaming parcels in the bag by the time Ron had finished ordering. He grinned at Harry as they left the shop, its smiling owner inviting them back anytime they felt like spending so much on fish and chips.
"Well, we've got something to celebrate, haven't we?" Ron said. Harry couldn't help but grin. "Anyway, as soon as Hermione puts that book away, she'll be starving. I bet she forgot to- What?"
Harry had stopped in the middle of the pavement. Something was wrong. He scanned the street around them, his eyes settling on a young man on the other side of the street, doing his best to look nonchalant as he looked away from them. Unfortunately for him, he wasn't quick enough to hide his wand, which had been pointing at them.
"Someone's watching us," Harry said, as he set off again at a fast walk. Ron strode after him, following Harry's quick nod in the direction of the man.
"He was at Hogwarts," Ron said. "Fred and George's year. He was a Ravenclaw, I think."
"I think he was listening in on us, using his wand."
"What do you want to do?" Ron asked.
"Get out of here. Is he following us?"
Ron glanced back, and swore under his breath.
"Yeah, he is."
"Down here," Harry said, grabbing Ron's arm and steering him into an alleyway.
Hidden from view, they ducked behind some dustbins and waited, wands drawn.
It seemed like a very long time, but was probably no more than a minute. However long it was, their follower at last appeared in the mouth of the alleyway, silhouetted against the street beyond.
His wand was drawn. It was all the excuse that Harry needed.
Petrificus Totalis, he thought. The spell blasted form his wand, and crossed the few feet to the man so quickly that he barely had time to look in that direction. He froze, mid-step, and toppled forward, crashing into a stack of rubbish bags.
"Quick," Harry hissed, darting out and grabbing one of the man's arms. Ron followed, bag flapping behind him as he helped Harry haul the man behind the dustbins. Harry rolled back the man's sleeve, unveiling the expected and unwelcome skull-and-snake brand of the Death Eaters. The man's eyes moved frantically as Harry and Ron stood over him.
"How'd they find us?"
"Doesn't matter," Harry said, shortly. "Tie him up. We'll send a message when we're clear."
The days passed. They criss-crossed the country, never staying in one place longer than was necessary to have a meal or sleep for a few hours. At night they broke into libraries and shops, being careful to leave no trace of their passing.
By the end of the third day, Hermione was visibly wilting.
"Harry, can we get a room tonight, please?" she said, as they Apparated on the outskirts of a small village just inside the Welsh border. "All this Apparating is wearing me out."
"Yeah, yeah okay," Harry said, quickly glancing about them. Seeing nothing, he relaxed slightly. "But we'll have to keep moving tomorrow."
"Rushing our research isn't helping," Hermione said, as they walked into town. "I'm sure I'm missing half the things in the books we're studying."
"We can't stay for too long. If that Death Eater found us, another one might."
"I know, Harry, but we'll have to stop for a while soon."
"Alright but somewhere remote, okay?" Harry said. "Tomorrow we'll buy some more books and lay up for a day somewhere. I know I've been pushing you hard, but-"
"We understand," Ron said. "Seeing the Mark on that bloke's arm... It wasn't much fun."
"Let's sleep tonight," Harry said, suddenly feeling as tired as Hermione looked.
It was already late, and to Harry's dismay the town seemed to be hosting some sort of festival. Banners and flags festooned the fronts of buildings, and every hotel and boarding house had signs saying that they were full. Finally they found a small, battered looking hotel that, Harry suspected, was probably empty. It had to be the least-inviting place he had ever seen. Yellowing, moth-eaten curtains hung in the windows, moss coated the path, making it treacherously slippery, while a large crack ran all the way up one wall. He felt sure that it had shifted slightly as the wind blew gently on it. Something crunched under his foot as they approached the door. He resolved not to look down, in case he saw what it was.
"Look at this place," Ron said, poking at a wooden pillar that formed part of the porch. As he did so a large chunk of it broke off and fell to the ground, where it shattered into sawdust. He looked guilty for a moment, before grimacing.
"Woodworm," he said. "Honestly, I bet there's magic holding this up."
"I doubt it," Hermione said, tiredly. "It's just old."
"Just remember, get a decent room," Ron said, as Harry drew his cloak from his inside pocket. He threw it over the two of them as Hermione knocked on the door.
"I'll let you know when you can come up," she said. They fell into silence as they waited for a reply. Finally, the door creaked open.
"What do you want?" A tall figure grunted. Harry couldn't make out his features. The light streamed out from behind him, meaning his entire front was in shadow.
"Oh, good evening. I'm sorry it's so late, but I was hoping you had a room free for tonight."
The figure looked Hermione up and down, as though wondering whether she should be allowed entrance. At last it grunted "Come in," and the door swung shut behind them.
A few minutes passed and then a window at the side of the house opened. Hermione stuck her head out, and looked down at them.
"Are you there?" she called softly.
"Yeah," Ron replied.
"It's clear to come up. The room's about fifteen feet on each side, and there's a clear space about three feet to the left of this window."
Ron nodded and grasped Harry's wrist. Harry just had time to wince before they were standing in the bedroom. They threw off the cloak, and looked around.
The room was surprisingly nice, with its own small shower room in one corner. It was nicely furnished, with a large bed to one side and two chairs which, Harry suspected, would be where Ron and himself were spending the night.
"Not bad," Ron said. "Better than the outside, anyway."
"I know. I was surprised, as well," Hermione said. "Anyway, keep your voice down. It's only supposed to be me here, remember?"
Ron nodded. It had been his idea that each time they stopped only one of them would book a room, so that anyone looking for three people travelling together might be put off their scent.
"What name did you give?"
"Wanda Glen," Hermione said. "Next time I'll be Glenda Wand," she added, with a smile.
Ron grinned back, making Harry wonder if he should give them a little time alone. He wasn't exactly certain what was happening between his friends, but it was clear that there was something going on although how far it had gone Harry couldn't say. He just hoped that it didn't make things too uncomfortable as the trip went on.
A heavy knocking on the door interrupted the moment.
"Into the shower room, quick," Hermione hissed. Ron and Harry tiptoed across the room and squeezed, backpacks and all, into the shower room.
"Who is it?" they heard Hermione ask.
"Brought you some towels," came the rumbling reply.
"Just a minute."
Harry was squashed against the towel rail, wondering exactly how he'd managed to squeeze into the tiny room. Something in Ron's backpack was jabbing painfully into his arm. He clenched his fists around the towel rail, digging his nails into the rather rough towels that were hanging there.
"I won't be a second!" Hermione called again. Harry supposed that she was making sure there was no evidence of anyone but her in the room.
Once again, Harry found himself realising something was wrong. He looked down at the towel rail, where several clean, dry towels were hanging, and then at the door. He lunged for it, willing Hermione to stay where she was even as he heard her footsteps crossing the room.
Tangled up with Ron and his bag, Harry struggled frantically before managing to release himself from the straps across his chest. Yanking the door open, he fell into the room just as Hermione turned the door handle.
Startled by the sound, she turned back towards him and pulled the door open as she did so.
The large man on the other side of the door wasn't carrying towels instead he held a wand aloft. He appeared surprised at Harry's sudden appearance, and jerked his hand towards his prone body even as the tip of the wand glowed. There was a flash of green light and Hermione cried out, before toppling backwards to the ground.
Harry lay immobile on the floor, unable to move as he watched Hermione fall. His wand lay under him, tucked inside his shirt. He stared at the man, willing himself to rise, and draw his wand, and hex him for hurting Hermione.
But before Harry could move, and before the man could fully recover from his surprise, a purple flash illuminated the room and slashed across the man's chest. He crashed backwards across the hallway and into the wall, before slumping to the floor, unconscious.
Ron sprinted across the room and dropped to his knees beside her still body. He pressed two fingers to her neck, and then laid his head against her chest.
"She's still breathing. What was that?" he asked, looking up at Harry as he climbed to his feet.
"I don't know. I thought..." Harry tailed off. The green flash had been all too familiar but Hermione was still alive.
"We need help, Harry. St. Mungos-"
"No." Harry cut Ron off. "We'll call someone in. This place must be on the Floo network but we can't wait here. Keep an eye on Hermione, and I'll go call-"
"Bill," Ron put in. "He knows more about curses and hexes then anyone."
"Right. Where is he?"
"Don't you know?" Ron said. He grimaced. "He's the new Dark Arts teacher."
Despite the urgency of the situation, Harry paused for a moment when he entered the front room of the house. He remembered, when he was very young and Mrs. Figg had been away, being taken by the Dursleys to a Second World War exhibition. The room was laid out in a similar fashion to that of an air raid warden, with a large map of the local area spread out on one wall, and coloured pins marking different sites. The pins were clustered together, all blacks in some places, all reds in others and all whites in still others.
A green fire burned in the fireplace. Harry made his way around the large table that filled the room and knelt before it. Thrusting his head into the flames, he called out "Hogwarts Defence Professor's Quarters" and hoped that it was the right wording.
"Harry!" Bill was staring wide-eyed at the fireplace. "What-"
"There's no time," Harry snapped. "We're in the library in North Rhyl and Hermione's been hurt. You need to come quickly."
"How badly?" Bill asked, already grabbing things from his shelves and shoving them into a bag.
"I'm on my way."
"You took a chance, bringing her here from that place."
"It was a Death Eater's place, Bill, what were we supposed to do?"
Bill grunted, and refocused his attention on Hermione's wound. She whimpered quietly, and Ron wrapped one long arm around her shoulders. Harry let go of his hold on her, and allowed Ron to take his place. Harry moved so that he could focus the light from his wand on Hermione's wound, while Ron wrapped his arms around her,
"Did you notify the Order?"
"We sent one of the library owls to Hogwarts," Harry said.
"Good. I heard about the one in Cornwall. That was nice work."
Harry shrugged off the praise. If I was that good, Hermione wouldn't have been hurt.
"Mum's going spare, you know that?"
"We left a note," Harry said.
"Oh, we found it. Some work that Dumbledore left for you. Very enlightening. I don't suppose you want to tell me what it is, or why you have to do it alone?"
"I didn't think so. And I suppose that if I threatened to hold you captive here which I could do then you'd still be as stubborn as anything?"
"Yeah. Sorry," Harry said.
Bill muttered a swear word under his breath.
"And you don't want anyone to know that I've seen you?"
"You're not giving me a lot to work with, Harry."
"Dumbledore never gave me much to work with, either. If he thought that you could help, he would have asked for it."
"Harry... Dumbledore was the greatest wizard of this century. You... are not. You're a sixteen year old boy-"
Bill shook his head, making his ponytail bounce. "Whatever. Harry, listen to me: Whatever you're doing, you need our help or else why would I be here at one in the morning, drawing poison out of Hermione's bloodstream?"
"Is that a Withdrawal spell, then?" Harry asked, ignoring Bill's point.
"I need to learn it."
"This one specifically?"
"The Beneficial Withdrawal Spell. I've been trying to get it to work, but I can't."
"Defiance In The Face Of Doom?" Bill asked, sounding scornful.
"Yeah, that's where I got it."
Bill gave a short and concise opinion of the book, and Ron snorted softly.
"It's that bad?"
"Have you read it?"
"I glanced through it. It's all very basic."
"And most of it is wrong. Not badly wrong, not obviously wrong, but just wrong enough... I wouldn't be surprised-"
Hermione let out a gasp of pain, and then bit her lip. Harry caught sight of the tears spilling down her cheeks in the dim light from Ron's wand.
"Sorry," Bill muttered. "You're doing well, Hermione. I know that it hurts but Ron and Harry got you the help you needed. You'll be fine."
"You wouldn't be surprised..." Harry prompted.
"Yeah," Bill said. "There's a few people who think the book was put on the market by the Death Eaters. Anyone who tries the spells in there when they're face to face with an attacker, or treating an injury... Well, they're in for a surprise."
Harry's stomach churned.
"Is anyone letting people know? The Ministry or anyone?"
The Ministry have bigger concerns in mind like trying to capture a real Death Eater. Especially since Stan Shunpike got let off."
"About time," he said.
"Scrimgeour's position is pretty shaky nowadays," Bill continued. "So he's doing everything he can to solidify his standing. The Order is putting the word out where it can but we can only put our heads so far above the parapet before we get them hexed off."
"Plus Snape's bound to have told Voldemort everything about the Order anyway, so they'll be watching out for anything that a member does."
"Yeah," Bill grunted. "Done."
"That was quick," Ron said, sounding surprised.
"I don't agree," Hermione said, weakly.
"It wasn't as bad as it looked. Whoever cursed her didn't catch her cleanly, or it would have been much worse. You might not believe it, Hermione, but you were very lucky. Anyway, I've put a charm on the wound to stop it bleeding for now, but it'll need to be treated properly," Bill said.
"We'll do that," Harry assured him. He shared a look with Ron, who grimaced, but nodded. "Thanks."
With that, he took hold of Hermione's hand, closed his eyes, and helped Ron Apparate them away from the library and Bill.
Harry sat on the bench and kicked his heels in frustration. Deep in the Lake District, the hospital offered stunning views of the surrounding countryside, but Harry had long since grown bored of the sights. Hermione was within the building behind him, having her dressings changed for the third time that week. Her need for regular treatment had kept them close to the hospital as long trips via Apparation left her weak, and risked reopening her wound.
Ron had accompanied her into the hospital, as usual, his vivid red hair coloured a muted brown with a clever spell that Hermione had learned from Lavender Brown. The mention of Ron's ex-girlfriend had caused an awkward moment for the two of them, and Harry had desperately wanted to be somewhere else. Moments like that had been happening on and off since they'd left the Burrow, and Harry was beginning to wonder whether the two of them were ever going to bite the bullet. It was a pity, he thought, that there weren't any Quidditch matches available for them to go to Voldemort's forces had Apparated in the middle of the first match of the season and fired a string of curses into the crowd and at the players before disappearing again, almost before anyone could react. Five people had died, and dozens more had been injured, many of them in the panic caused by the attack.
Harry shook his head. One by one, the things that made life worth living were being taken out by Voldemort and his followers. Reaching into his coat pocket, Harry pulled out the locket that he and Dumbledore had retrieved from the seaside. He stared at the golden locket for several minutes, trying as he always did whenever he looked at it to work out where the real Horcrux might be, and who the mysterious R.A.B. might be.
He was stirred from his reverie by a trilling note that seemed to cause a warm glow within his chest. Looking around, he stared in surprise at the beautiful, red-gold bird perched on the arm of his bench. It took several seconds for Harry to realise that he recognised the bird.
"Fawkes?" he said, in a low voice.
Fawkes the phoenix shifted his weight from one foot to the other, cocking his head on one side to stare at Harry. Held in Fawkes' beak was a scrap of parchment, which Harry reached out tentatively to take. Unfolding it, he read,
Albus Dumbledore once told me that a phoenix would find whoever it was sent after, and I hope that this is true. I also hope that Fawkes' presence will assure you that I am someone whom you can trust. I told you, several years ago, of my relationship with him and it is this relationship that I hope shall be of use to you.
I am afraid that I cannot be any more direct in this letter, in case agents of the Dark Lord should intercept it. Should you wish to find out more and I would advise it, for I believe that I may be able to offer you some truly invaluable assistance then Fawkes will be able to bring you to me.
With regards, and awaiting your reply.
Harry read and reread the letter while he waited for Ron and Hermione to come out of the hospital. So caught up in it was he, that he didn't notice the owl that had landed beside him until it started pecking his leg irritably.
Harry blinked again, staring down at the handsome tawny owl, and the letter tied to its leg, a letter that bore a familiar, official-looking seal. Folding the anonymous letter and setting it aside, he took the new envelope and slit it open with a wave of his wand. A thick piece of parchment slid out, and Harry sighed as he read it.
Dear Mr. Potter,
It has come to our attention that on the evening of 28th June, you performed Side-Along Apparation in the company of an adult wizard (deceased).
You are now required to attend a hearing at which your underage use of serious magic that could have caused significant harm to yourself and your Apparation partner.
Please come to the Ministry of Magic offices, Treacle Mine Road, London, W2 at 9.00 on Wednesday the 15th October. You will be required to surrender your wand for the duration of the hearing.
I await your letter confirming your acquiescence by return owl.
Improper Use of Magic Office
Cc: Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister for Magic
Harry shook his head. Rufus Scrimgeour was apparently willing to attempt anything to make it appear as though Harry was working with the Ministry in its attempt to defeat Voldemort. He wondered whether the hearing would be as formal and contrived as the last one had been called to, in front of the whole Wizengamot.
His eyes lingered on the reference to Professor Dumbledore. The Headmaster had been on Harry's side at that hearing, but he wouldn't have anyone with him this time he was an adult, and would be tried as such.
Pushing any worries from his mind, he turned to look at the Ministry owl, which regarded him with an equally critical gaze. He wondered whether there was any way to prevent mail owls from finding him he didn't want to make things simple for Voldemort by being so easy to find.
He looked up. Hermione and Ron were standing on the path. Hermione, as she had done since her injury, looked rather pained, and quite a fit thicker around the middle, where her bandages were.
At first, Ron had teased her about being pregnant. After a couple of days, she had suggested writing to Mrs. Weasley and telling her that she was and that Ron was the father.
Ron had been very quiet for some time afterwards.
"Catching up on your correspondence?" Ron asked. "Isn't that Fawkes?" he added, holding out a hand for the phoenix to rub its head against.
"Yeah," he said. "Know any spells to stop us getting post?" he asked of Hermione. He held out the letters for them to read. They each took one, and both tried to read both of the letters at the same time.
"They must be joking!" Ron said at last, having finished the Ministry letter.
"But... Will you go?" Hermione asked, looking pale.
"Of course not," Harry said. "How can I? As soon as Scrimgeour gets me into the Ministry, I'll be lucky to walk out under my own power I doubt he'll let me go of his own fee will. Not unless I agree to be his poster boy, anyway."
"But... He couldn't just hold you prisoner," Ron protested.
"Oh, he wouldn't call it that," Hermione said, two spots of colour booming on her cheeks. "It would be 'protective custody' or something like that. No, we must be able to find a way around this. Maybe Mr. Weasley-"
"No," Harry said. "We can't get anyone else involved. Bad enough we had to call Bill out."
Hermione flushed a little redder.
"Well, if you won't go, and you won't ask for help, how are we going to avoid the Aurors? As soon as you don't arrive at the Ministry, Scrimgeour will probably have them all out looking for you and not all of them are Order members. We can keep colouring our hair, and things like that, but that will only work for so long. I'm sure the Ministry can track magical signatures, and if they put their minds to it, it won't take them too much time to find out where we are."
"Then we keep moving," Harry said, with a sigh. "And moving, and moving, and moving. I've thought about it, and we just have to keep a low profile. No more staying in hotels and guesthouses not unless it gets really inhospitable. We'll have to get a tent, like we used at the World Cup."
He hung his head. "Look, you don't have to get dragged into this. You can leave at any time."
"We know," Ron said, his tone of voice clearly expressing what he thought of the idea.
"What about this other letter?" Hermione asked. "Who sent you this?"
"I think I know although how we're supposed to reply I'm not sure. Fawkes, can you-"
Fawkes didn't wait for Harry to finish his question. Instead, he leapt into the air and hovered before them, his scarlet wings beating steadily as he bobbed gently in mid-air.
"Well, Dumbledore used Fawkes to leave his office the night Umbridge took over at Hogwarts," Harry said. "And we've flown with him before. I think we're supposed to reply in person to that letter."
Harry and Ron picked up the backpacks and slung them over their shoulders, Ron swearing under his breath at the weight. Hermione looked as though she wanted to offer to take back her share but she held back. Harry knew that Ron would flatly refuse to let her take the weight until she was fully healed. Harry also knew that Hermione, while rather flattered by Ron's behaviour, was also likely to become irritated by it, if she ever thought that it was becoming patronising.
As he reached out for Fawkes' tail feathers, he hoped that Ron would know where to draw the line. If they were going to be sharing a tent for the foreseeable future, he had no interest in being in the middle of one of their arguments.
Ron and Hermione also grasped the feathers, and Fawkes beat his wings hard, actually lifting the three of them slightly off the ground, as though checking to see that they were holding tightly. Harry glanced at the Ministry owl, which was regarding the odd sight of them rather snootily, and just had enough time to think that he should have replied to the letter it had brought him, when they vanished.
(Author note: Can you believe my wife still hasn't found her way to this yet? She's about a week behind with her e-mail and hasn't gotten to the author notification yet... Oh well, hope everyone else is enjoying it so far. Thanks again to Aggiebell for betaing!)