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    НЕ МОЕ!!! Собрал главы Heart and Soul от Sillimaure в один файл и выложил для возможных переводчиков. Оригинал взят с fanfiction.net, на ficbook.net перевод Oksidian глав 1-5, Хаинц и kaFFox глав 6-15.


Heart and Soul

By: Sillimaure

   The Dementor attack on Harry during the summer after his fourth year leaves him on the verge of having his wand snapped. Unwilling to leave anything to chance, Sirius Black sets events into motion which will change Harry's life forever. HP/HG/FD
   Rated: Fiction M - English - Drama/Romance - Harry P., Hermione G., Fleur D. - Chapters: 81 - Words: 751,333 - Reviews: 6,481 - Favs: 11,659 - Follows: 8,528 - Updated: 2/16/2016 - Published: 1/19/2010 - Status: Complete - id: 5681042
  
   https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5681042/1/Heart-and-Soul
  
   Title: Heart and Soul
   Author: Sillimaure
   Summary: The Dementor attack on Harry during the summer after his fourth year leaves him on the verge of having his wand snapped. Unwilling to leave anything to chance, Sirius Black sets events into motion which will change Harry's life forever.
   Rating: PG
   Disclaimer: The Harry Potter universe is owned by JK Rowling. I do not claim ownership, or do this for any monetary gain, and fully understand she can shut me down any time she pleases.
   Author's Thanks: Thanks to Cibbler and DИjЮ Vu for looking over the initial chapter and for glancing over my outline and telling me where I'm messing up. Also thanks to texan-muggle who has kindly lent his assistance for this clean up.
  
   "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
  

Prologue - Momentous Events

   It was unfortunate but true - there were far too many similarities between Azkaban and 12 Grimmauld Place.
   Of course, many would consider such a statement maudlin at best and outright farcical at worst. After all, how could a house - admittedly a run-down, gloomy mansion straight from a Muggle horror movie - be the equal of the most feared wizarding prison in the world, one which few, if any, were known to leave with their lives, much less their sanity, intact? For instance, while an inmate at Azkaban could expect no more than a small, dank, dirty, and cheerless cell, Grimmauld Place was at least spacious, with three levels, all of which were available to a tired and bored occupant.
   But therein lay the similarities once again, as the accessible space in which to wander was no cheerier than the cell back in the prison had been, decorated as it was by dark, peeling wallpaper, a row of severed elf heads, and gloomy, threadbare furnishings, among other decorations, all equally cheery and attractive. And whereas the prison of Azkaban boasted some of the vilest creatures to ever roam the earth, the great house at Grimmauld Place boasted its own version of evil and horror: a house-elf who wandered around the house muttering about Blood Traitors, Mudbloods, and filthy, nasty masters and a painting of a dead, bitter old madwoman who berated everyone who didn't live down to her low standards. In a word: everyone.
   It was an uncharitable thought about his mother, perhaps, but Sirius Black was nothing if not honest, and his life experiences had jaded him beyond the point of making meaningless excuses for his less than worthy relatives, even before his extended sojourn in Azkaban. His whole family, while most had not been Death Eaters, had certainly held similar beliefs with Voldemort and his merry band of crazies and had, as a whole, been about as pleasant as a nest of hungry acromantulas - and almost as personable too. Unfortunately, the dИcor in their main domicile had matched the family attitudes quite nicely - it had not been a cheery place growing up, especially for one who by inclination had never espoused the same ideals as his family.
   The sun was setting in the west, illuminating the walls of the room in the softest pastels - yellows, oranges, and pinks, all mixed together, creating a brighter atmosphere in the old house than it would ever see at any other time of day. The room was large, and like the rest of the old house, the furnishings tatty. The wallpaper, where it had not completely worn down to the wall behind, was faded and gray, not that even whole it would have inspired any more than a glance and a shudder. But this room did have one redeeming feature - it was the home of his one faithful companion, Buckbeak, the hippogriff who was as highly sought after as Sirius himself.
   Sighing, Sirius patted the sleeping hippogriff on the head and leaned back in his chair. He had never liked this house and could not remember having spent more than a few moments in his mother's room as a youngster. Even then, from what he could remember of his few times in this room, the room had been decaying, much as the rest of the house - falling into ashes as the proud history of his family crumbled along with it. At one time, the Blacks had been among the most respected and influential families in all of wizarding Britain. The changes in their family fortunes did not happen overnight, but although he was aware many of his family would have disagreed, to Sirius it was obvious that the decision of his ancestor Antares Black to support the dark forces began their decline. For more than four centuries, the Blacks had made a point of living up to their dark name, causing their former power to be sapped as the family died supporting lost causes and evil Pureblood agendas. Now, he was the last of the once strong family to bear the name - of his three cousins, one had been disowned, and all had married others and now bore different names.
   And although he did not like to admit it, he was also painfully aware that centuries of inbreeding had contributed to the downfall. Just one example was his mother, whose maiden name had been Black - she had been a cousin of his father, Orion. There were far too many instances of such matches in his family tree, and Sirius had been desperate since he had understood the ramifications of such close marriages to avoid the same. Breaking the cycle of dark leanings and inbred marriages would, he hoped, change his family's fortunes and give his children a happier growing environment than the one to which he had been subjected.
   Sirius snorted bitterly, causing his faithful companion to open one baleful eye in reproach before closing it and snuggling contentedly down into the mattress once again. The antics of his companion went largely unnoticed as Sirius stared at the walls of his mother's chamber, a tear slipping silently down his cheek in regret for the path his life had taken. There had been so much promise, so much to look forward to, now all turned to ashes.
   He remembered the dreams of a group of teenage boys, dreams which now did not have a hope of coming true. Their sons (of course, the Marauders would all have first-born sons) would play together, eventually taking Hogwarts by storm, carrying on their fathers' tradition of pranks, mischief, and enmity with the hated Slytherins. Their families would grow closer and closer, forming a powerful force in the wizarding world, promoting change and equality for all, making their world a better place.
   And where were they all now? Pettigrew, a traitor, betraying Sirius's best friend to his most hated enemy; Remus, growing old before his time due to his affliction and the life he had lived; Sirius, having spent most of his adult life in the worst hell on earth for the crimes of another; and James, now dead these fourteen years... all lost, ashes like all of their dreams for the future.
   James - Merlin, how he missed James! The Marauders had been close in their mischief and adventures, although Peter had always been somewhat of an outsider even then, but Sirius and James had been like brothers, certainly closer than Sirius had ever been to his own brother.
   A rare smile lighting his features, Sirius thought back to the day he had first met James. As a young boy of eleven, Sirius had been frightened at the prospect of going out into the world, but paradoxically, had been equally frightened at the thought of remaining in the decrepit old house which had been his home. Not knowing much beyond the world his parents had weaved for him, the only thing the young Sirius had known for certain was that the vitriolic Pureblood dogma, spouted so often by his mother, had somehow never sat well with him, although he certainly could not have claimed to have much experience beyond the confines of his home, his parents' circle of friends, and the few playmates he had had from among the children of his parents' friends.
   Enter James Potter, one who Sirius knew immediately was a political enemy of his family, and Sirius could not help but be immediately charmed by his newfound friend's self-confidence and disarming charisma. Even at a young age, James had had a presence about him, much the same as his son had evinced many years later, Sirius decided after some reflection. They had become instant friends on that train to Hogwarts, and by the time they had reached the hallowed halls of the ancient institution, Sirius had known what his life had been missing amongst the conniving and hate-filled halls of his former house.
   The Sorting Hat had certainly picked up on Sirius's strongest characteristic, as he was soon to find out, for it took a substantial measure of bravery to go against Lady Walburga Black. Not only had Sirius become the only member of the Black family other than his Aunt Andromeda to be sorted into a house other than Slytherin (even his great-aunt Dorea, who had defied her parents and married a Potter, had been a Slytherin), but even Andromeda had not had the audacity to be sorted into the much-hated house of Gryffindor alongside the aforementioned Potters, Blood Traitors, and enemies to the house of Black for centuries. Within days of the event, word had made its way back to his mother, who had responded with a steady stream of Howlers and diatribe-filled letters and communiquИs to the Headmaster that he had made a mistake. His parents had even undertaken a journey by Floo to Hogwarts, demanding the Headmaster repeat the Sorting so their eldest could be removed from the "house of Blood Traitors" and placed back into the place for all "proper Pureblood wizards". Her anger and spite upon Dumbledore refusing her demand had been loud and long, but to the relief of the young boy, the Headmaster had stood firm, stating the Sorting Hat's decision was final, unless other factors made a student's position within a house untenable. Such was not the case in this situation.
   Swearing her son was betraying the family, his mother was forced to retreat from the school in defeat, but not before informing Sirius, in a loud and wrathful manner, he was not allowed to return home for Christmas.
   "You may stay in the house of traitors and cowards, if it means so much to you, but in my house, you are not welcome."
   To that very day, Sirius was able to recall the exact words of her denunciation, the crazed look in her eyes, the spittle which flew from her foam-flecked lips, and the cold, austere stare his father had fixed upon him as he looked on with disdain.
   Sirius chuckled, remembering his mother had always been the spokesperson of the family, while his father had always looked on in disapproving silence. In fact, his father, a dour, gaunt sort of man, had rarely, in Sirius's memory, spoken up or distinguished himself in any sort of manner. Sirius was uncertain whether this was by choice or by necessity, but he suspected his father had been a rather notable example of the perils of inbreeding. There simply was nothing remarkable or of note to remember him by.
   As a result, cut adrift from his family, the young Sirius would have been lost were it not for his new friendship with young James Potter. Quickly figuring out the problem, James had immediately sent a message off to his father, receiving a response the next day, complete with an invitation to join the Potter family for Christmas. From that day forward, they were inseparable, becoming the brothers in spirit which James never had and sharing a closeness Sirius had never experienced with his own brother, Regulus.
   Of course, Lord Potter had been a little distant and more difficult to get to know than his son, hardly surprising since the elderly man had lived with enmity with the Black family his whole life. But once Sirius had come to know the man, he had become almost like a surrogate father for a young boy in need of someone to look up to. In a way, James's father was as responsible for the man Sirius had become as was James himself - and certainly more than his father or any others of his family could be credited, even if they did want to take credit, considering the fact that Sirius had essentially turned his back on centuries of family political and philosophical leanings. Although he was called back to his parents' home on occasion over the years (generally in an attempt to persuade him of the "error of his ways"), from that point forward, Sirius spent much of his time with James's family, finally being disowned by his own at the age of sixteen. His father had died only a year after he completed Hogwarts, his mother following five years later. Although he had been disowned by his mother, it was supreme irony that his father had never made it official, perhaps realizing his brother Regulus was likely not destined for a long life as a minion of the Dark Lord (prophetic in hindsight). And with his incarceration being illegal due to his never having been convicted of any crime, Sirius retained his rights as Lord Black upon his father's death, regardless of his time in prison, whereas if his father had made his banishment from the family official, then Draco Malfoy, as the nearest relation to his father, would have assumed the title of Lord Black, greatly enhancing the rich, yet relatively new, family's fortunes and prestige.
   The portrait of his mother now hung in the entrance hall to the old house, convincing Sirius it had been placed there to torture him and him alone. The first time he had ventured into the house after his escape from Azkaban, his mother had praised him for finally "seeing the light" and betraying those awful Potters to his rightful lord, her malicious and contemptible visage fairly glowing with glee at the demise of Sirius's closest friend. He swore his ears still rang with the shrieks his mother had made when he had told her, contempt dripping from his voice, that he had not betrayed his friends and certainly considered the monster to whom she so freely gave praise the lowest form of scum to be found. Only the memory of her wrath could bring a smile to his lips, as he finally gave the hateful old woman a dressing down he had longed to give during her lifetime.
   As amusing as it was to bait his mother, Sirius found that today his mind could not stay focused, and once again his thoughts drifted back to his lost friend, and the melancholy which had become his constant companion once again settled into his soul. The death of James had left a hole which still felt like a gaping wound, even now, more than thirteen years later. He had hoped to begin healing the damage through a relationship with James's son - his godson - once his name had been cleared and he could take up his duties as Harry's godfather, but once again things had gone sour.
   Sirius cursed loudly at his mistake - if only he'd thought to keep Pettigrew bound and unconscious until he had been safely handed over to the proper authorities, ensuring that the rat would finally reap his rewards for his nefarious deeds, then things would have turned out very different. With the rat being proven to be alive, Sirius was certain Wizengamot would finally have been forced to grant his long-delayed trial and the travesty of justice would finally have been overturned under the effects of Veritaserum. Then, he could have been granted custody of the young man and begun the task of improving his life, finally fulfilling the vow he had made to James as a young man to watch over and protect his young son. The whispers in the back of his consciousness, that he had been in no shape at the time to be responsible for a teenage boy, he conveniently pushed back to the recesses of his mind to be ignored.
   No, instead the rat had fled and Sirius had been forced to continue in this half existence, hiding, skulking, avoiding the authorities as the most hunted man in magical Britain, wishing desperately he had some way to be useful, not only to Harry, but also in the fight to oppose Voldemort. His forced exile was seriously beginning to grate against his nerves, which had already battered by years of Dementor exposure.
   The first months of his freedom had been trying, but he had made it through, intent on the need to protect his godson and bring the traitor Pettigrew to justice. Although the second goal had been unsuccessful, Harry's safety was by far the most important consideration, and Sirius had been persuaded by Dumbledore to go to a safelocations so he could begin to heal. His sojourn in the South Pacific had been restful and soothing, but his subsequent return to Britain due to Harry's inclusion in the Tri-Wizard Tournament had put him back on the run. Unable to bear being far away from Harry during his trials in the tournament, Sirius had decided to resume his Animagus form again. He had hidden out in a cave in the nearby mountains, near enough to Harry to be of use if necessary, hoping his nearby presence would give the boy a sense of confidence in the damnable tournament if nothing else. Between trying to be there for Harry, and trips back to Grimmauld to look through some of James's old papers, trying to find some way to improve Harry's life and assume his role of guardian, even if unknown to the general populace, Sirius had at least been busy enough that his own problems had become secondary, and therefore, largely forgotten.
   However, once that had all been resolved, it had been back to Grimmauld Place, and this time, there was no escape from the disgusting old house; although he would cheerfully have gone back to the South Pacific and sat on the beach, Dumbledore had cautioned against it. Now that Voldemort had returned, even though the official line from Fudge was that his return was impossible, the Ministry was on the lookout for him leaving the country. That - and the fact that they had stepped up the search for him within the confines of Britain itself - meant Grimmauld had now effectively become his prison, much as Azkaban had been before it.
   The worst part of his situation was the feeling of uselessness, which pervaded his entire being. He wanted - he needed to be of use to his godson. His promise to James upon the birth of the little sprog remained unfulfilled, wrecked by his impulsive decision to pursue Wormtail instead of caring for Harry as was his duty. He had no way of knowing if he still would have been thrown into Azkaban without trial for betraying James and Lily, but at the very least he would have been more coherent when the questioners came rather than standing dazed in the middle of a war zone, slapped in manacles, and carted off before he was aware of what was happening. He had failed Harry once, but he was determined the experience would not be repeated.
   Harry - a part of him was amazed they had become as close as they had in so short a time. The adventure at the end of Harry's third year had forged a bond between them which could only be possible under the most stressful of situations, and the limited time they had been in one another's company had only served to strengthen it. Looking at his godson, Sirius could only be astonished at the resemblance he showed to his parents. He had traces of Lily in him - the eyes, which everyone commented on, being the most obvious - but otherwise, he was his father's son. Give him the brown eyes of his father, and Sirius would have been hard pressed to tell them apart.
   In temperament, though, Harry was much more like his mother than his father. Lily had been introspective and studious, quiet until provoked, and then like a hurricane - tempestuous in her fury, but quickly calming once that fury had been spent. And although Harry was not as confident as his mother, his quiet and introverted nature was eerily similar to the woman Sirius had known. James, by contrast, had been brash and self-assured, even as a boy of eleven, likely to get into mischief, as his career as a Marauder later attested to, and to be honest, somewhat of a bully until age and experience had tempered his youthful exuberance. In other words, nothing like his quiet son, although Sirius suspected Harry's experiences with his relatives were a major cause of his demeanor. The mere thought of those horrid Dursleys caused Sirius's fists to clench in rage. If he had anything to do with it, Harry's removal from that house at the end of this summer would be his last.
   Knowing his anger would not solve anything, Sirius forced himself to calm down, and his thoughts to return to his former musings. The other major player in both Lily and James's life was a certain dark and broody potions master. Sirius knew that much of James's problems with Snape - and what had occurred after - were in a large part due to their differences in temperament and their reactions to each other. Snape had immediately dismissed James as an arrogant Pureblood (Sirius had be to be honest and acknowledge the charge was to a certain extent true), while James had responded in kind, calling Snape a "greasy git" and an antisocial loner (in this sense, James had been completely correct). The two had struck sparks immediately, and the enmity between Slytherin and Gryffindor had certainly not helped.
   If it had not been for Lily - who knew Snape before coming to Hogwarts - there likely would have been nothing more than a simple dislike between the two young men rather than the full-blown rivalry and hatred which eventually blossomed. Although Lily had been initially repulsed by James's manners and arrogance, he had quickly caught on to her displeasure and changed some things about himself, not only to impress Lily, but also - as he told Sirius several times - because it was the right thing to do, in order to improve himself. It was then that the man James was to become was truly unleashed, as he became more studious, more tolerant to others, and more at peace with who he truly was. He became and a better friend than ever - as true a leader as Sirius had ever seen.
   This, of course, had the effect of improving his relationship with Lily to the point that by their fourth year the two had become almost inseparable, and Lily, although she was too studious and rule-oriented to ever actively participate in their mischief, became an unofficial member of their group, and in the process drew almost as close to James's friends as James himself. Sirius had even harbored a crush for the beautiful young witch for some time, but knowing how close Lily and James were - and suspecting there would never be anyone in her life to match James - he decided early on he would not invite the heartache of unrequited love. Instead, he had decided to control his feelings and be happy for them. Anything else, he suspected, would have driven a wedge between him and his closest friend, causing rivalry and bitterness, and likely dissolving their friendship.
   Unfortunately, a direct consequence of James's improved relationship with Lily was her distance and eventual estrangement from her childhood friend. To say Snape was unhappy with the closeness between his closest friend and his greatest enemy would be a gross understatement, and the two had had many disagreements and outright fights over the matter. What Sirius had feared would happen between him and James had actually happened between Lily and Snape, to the point that by the middle of their fifth year the two former friends would not even acknowledge one another, let alone speak to each other. It was obvious Snape had blamed James for the loss of his friend (some cynical members of their group had insisted Lily had been Snape's only friend), increasing his bitterness and hostility.
   Without a doubt, this had led to an escalation to the rivalry between the two antagonists, and Snape's openly hostile and vindictive behavior toward James had been actively reciprocated by the Marauders. It had finally come to a head when their sixth-year Defense professor had had the bad judgment only weeks into the term to pair them off for a dueling exercise in class. Unsurprisingly, insults had been thrown back and forth, unsuitable hexes and curses had been exchanged, and the encounter had degenerated into an all-out war between the two, the final result of which was that they had both landed in the hospital wing. Dumbledore had then stepped in, taking both Snape and James aside and informing them in no uncertain terms that their bitter rivalry had no place within the halls of Hogwarts - any further action between the two would result in significant repercussions, not excluding expulsion from school.
   Their relationship after that could only be characterized as a cold war - neither relaxed in the presence of the other, and all their professors were careful not to pair them up or leave them alone for any reason whatsoever (not that it was a good idea to ever mix students from Gryffindor and Slytherin without excessive supervision). Things had continued in this vein until late in the seventh year, when it had become evident Snape had become a Death Eater. Sirius and Remus had discussed it, and then cornered Snape alone one night just before curfew, without informing James or Lily what they were doing. What had followed had been an object lesson in the perils of crossing the Marauders and an ultimatum for Snape to stay away from Lily and James - any attempt to contact them, or attack them in the service of his new master would be met with lethal force. The memory of an ashen Snape quivering in the corridor where they had left him was still impressed upon Sirius's memory almost a decade and a half later.
   From that moment forward, Snape had avoided the Marauders assiduously, but although he could not prove it, Sirius suspected James and Lily's betrayal had been in some way influenced by the man. Whether he had somehow gotten past the mutual animosity and recruited Peter or had in some fashion passed off information to Voldemort which had been instrumental in his pursuit of the Potters specifically, Sirius could not say, but his memory of seeing Snape on their last day of their seventh year would not leave him. His expression had been one of revenge at all costs. Heaven help the man if Sirius ever discovered the truth of the events which had lead up to his friends' deaths - Merlin himself would not be able to save Snape against Sirius's wrath.
   The sound of a chime broke through Sirius's musings and he stood and stretched. Although he had donated the old manor to the Order to use as a safe house (the primary occupants being, of course, himself and Buckbeak) and as headquarters, other than regular meetings of the order, there was not much in the way of traffic, which meant Sirius was left largely to his solitary musings. Periodically, though, someone would stop by for some reason or another, and Sirius did not much care who they were - as long as they could break up the monotony of his life.
   Giving Buckbeak a final pat on the head, to which the hippogriff wuffed softly, Sirius exited the room and made his way down the stairs and into the main hallway on the ground floor. His arrival sent the painting of his mother into fits, presumably berating him once again for his "unfortunate" choices, but Sirius merely grinned cheekily and flipped a jaunty salute. The silencing charm he had finally figured how to lay around the portrait had caused her, if it were possible for a ghost, to experience an apoplectic fit, but for once, the silence suited Sirius quite well. Smiling to himself and thinking just how good it was to tweak his mother's nose, Sirius entered the front sitting room, where the fireplace was located.
   He instantly knew there was something wrong. Although it was not unusual for Dumbledore to arrive at Grimmauld unannounced, the characteristic grandfatherly smile and twinkling eyes were absent and his visage held a look of concern and anxiety.
   "Ah, Sirius, I was about to go looking for you," Dumbledore greeted him as he dropped into one of the armchairs, his hunched shoulders and almost boneless manner, generally foreign to the usually spry and active (especially for his age) Headmaster, betraying his weariness.
   After staring at him with concern for several moments, Sirius finally followed suit and sat, already bracing himself for whatever news had rattled the usually imperturbable man. "What's wrong, Albus? I presume this is not a social call."
   Dumbledore shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing in response. "Though I wish it were, alas, I fear it is only the beginning."
   "It's Harry, isn't it?"
   Dumbledore chuckled ruefully, causing Sirius to reflect that almost everything seemed to revolve around Harry. He was a flashpoint, a true magnet for trouble - as his time in Hogwarts had proved - whether he wanted to be one or not.
   "Yes, Sirius, it is. I have just spent the past several hours in an emergency session of the Wizengamot, trying to overturn the ministry's decision to expel young Mr. Potter from Hogwarts."
   Sirius was aghast at the Headmaster's words. "Expelled from Hogwarts?"
   "I was able to convince them he should be allowed to tell his side of the story, although it was not easy and may have used up what political capital I have left."
   "I think you had better start at the beginning, Albus," Sirius responded, still confused as to why the ministry could possibly be considering expelling his godson from Hogwarts. "What happened?"
   Sighing yet again, Dumbledore glanced over at Sirius, his demeanor more wretched than Sirius could ever remember seeing. "It appears young Harry and that whale of a boy he calls his cousin were attacked by Dementors this afternoon."
   Whatever Sirius had expected, Dementors was certainly not on the list. "Dementors? In Little Whinging?"
   "I am afraid so, Sirius," Dumbledore confirmed.
   "Is he all right?"
   "Young Harry is fine. You have seen his Patronus - a mere two Dementors is child's play for the young man."
   "So only two?" At Dumbledore's nod he continued, "But why? How did they end up so far from Azkaban?"
   "Unfortunately, I have no answers, Sirius. I was called in by Arthur Weasley late this afternoon - he had gotten wind of the Trace detection and the actions carried out against Harry by the Improper Use of Magic Office. I Apparated to Little Whinging immediately and spoke with Harry myself. He and his cousin were set upon by two Dementors. Harry chased them away and helped his cousin home. Although Harry was not affected to any great extent, his cousin was still in bad shape from the attack."
   "And then?"
   "I went to the Ministry building immediately, but the notice had already gone out."
   Sirius winced. "It was bad, I assume?"
   "Standard procedure," Dumbledore replied with a shrug. "As this was not his first incident, it was considered a repeat offense. He was to be detained pending a hearing and have his wand snapped immediately."
   "Without them even asking why?" Sirius was enraged now - the Ministry was messing with his godson, and he was not about to sit back and do nothing. "Isn't that what the term Reasonable is all about in the statute? How can the Ministry be so stupid?"
   "It is not so much stupid, as deliberately obtuse. Minister Fudge, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that Voldemort "simply can't have returned" and has responded to the threat in the time-honored tradition of burying his head in the sand rather than attempting to determine if Harry is telling the truth."
   Nodding in response, Sirius responded, "I know all about Fudge denying Voldemort's return, but what about the Dementors? How can Fudge possibly hide the presence of Dementors in a Muggle area from the people?"
   "Simple. The Dementors are under the control of the Ministry and therefore could not have been so many miles away from Azkaban. Thus, Harry must be lying and must be punished."
   "But this is a Patronus, Albus. This isn't casting a levitating spell or turning his cousin into a pig. How can the Ministry explain away the fact that he cast such a powerful, specific spell?"
   "The Trace cannot pick up the specific spell - it can only report that magic has been used and by whom. In fact, there is some question as to whether it is even that accurate. You have heard about the incident before Harry's second year?"
   At Sirius's nod, he continued. "If the Trace picked up the magic of a house-elf and the Ministry thought it was Harry, it casts doubt on the whole detection system the Ministry has in place. I have tried since then to find out what it actually consists of, but have been denied. Perhaps I should have worked for the ministry, some time in my past..."
   Noting the Headmaster's introspective visage, Sirius decided he needed to push the conversation back to the salient points. "Were there any witnesses?"
   "Only Harry, Dudley, and a Squib I have tasked with keeping an eye on the young man. You know their testimonies will be ignored, if they are even called to testify. Fudge seems determined to remove and discredit anyone who dares contradict him about Voldemort, and unfortunately, Harry, as the one who was actually there when he returned, is at the top of the list."
   Sirius peered at Dumbledore intently. "I knew it was bad, Albus, but this I didn't know. What is he doing?"
   "Fudge is, unfortunately, a passable peacetime Minister, but he is wholly unsuited to leading us during times of war," Dumbledore responded. "He has declared it impossible for Voldemort to have returned and has spent the past several weeks trying to erode my support in the Wizengamot and the ICW, completely refusing to increase the Auror force, freeze the assets of known Death Eaters, or do anything else useful, for that matter. We stand on the brink of war - only Voldemort's need to gather his strength has prevented his taking over the Ministry already."
   "And the Wizengamot? Is there nothing that can be done by the legislative arm of the government?"
   "Unfortunately, Wizengamot is paralyzed by opposing factions and is largely controlled by the Purebloods in any case - you know where their sympathies, if not outright support, will lie in the coming conflict, Sirius."
   And Sirius did know all too well. In the past war, although only an ultraconservative few openly supported Voldemort, their leanings were evident. The powerful Pureblood faction was interested primarily in three things - protecting their power base, preserving their blood purity, and growing their wealth. The other faction to rival them could no longer be called true Pureblood because of their willingness to marry outside the core Pureblood society and were made up of families like the Potters - old, powerful, and rich, but to purists, they were tainted by the Muggleborn dregs of society, or Halfbloods, which were not much better.
   Knowing, however, that the balance of power in Wizengamot was not the pressing issue, Sirius turned his attention back to the Headmaster, his mind playing with thoughts and half-made plans for his godson's future. Whether he had consciously considered the potential for magical Britain to become an unfriendly environment for Harry he did not know, but he had considered leaving the country for other reasons - notably due to his distaste for a society which had locked him away in a hellish dungeon without caring about the truth.
   "What about Harry, Albus? Is there any way to salvage this?"
   "My influence has been lessened in Wizengamot, but not eliminated. I was able to defer Harry's expulsion pending a hearing on the matter."
   "That's all good and well, Albus, but Wizengamot does not sound like a friendly environment for Harry right now. What are his chances?"
   "Difficult to say," Dumbledore responded, his hands held together, his fingers steepled in front of his face as he thought the matter through. "I was able to carry the day based on a sense of fairness - when I informed Wizengamot of the spell Harry cast and the reason for it, even some of the Pureblood faction felt it wise to hear him out on the matter in lieu of summarily pronouncing sentence, due in part because the thought of Dementors anywhere they are not supposed to be is of great concern to all, regardless of political leanings. I believe I still hold enough support to ensure Harry's exoneration, but it may be a near thing."
   Sirius slumped back in his chair, regarding Dumbledore, trying to get a sense of his confidence level. "Albus, this is Harry we are talking about here. I don't know why Voldemort is coming after him with such single-mindedness, but I do know if Harry's wand is snapped, he's an easy target. We have to be certain we can ensure his freedom before we commit to this. Once you take him into the Ministry for a hearing, our course is set - if he is convicted, they will snap his wand and bind his magic right there. Are you certain you can persuade them?"
   "Alas, my dear boy, nothing is ever certain," Dumbledore replied, rising to his feet. "But I believe in the ultimate rightness of our cause and that we will carry the day."
   "Albus, perhaps it's time to remove Harry from England."
   His voice was quiet, yet controlled, and his statement caused Dumbledore to blink in surprise and sink back into his seat, a look of contemplation etched on his face. However, he was not known as a powerful wizard and shrewd political opponent for nothing - he immediately recovered and regarded Sirius carefully.
   "What are you suggesting, Sirius?"
   "The political situation is no longer favorable for Harry here, if it ever was," Sirius replied regarding Dumbledore intently, making certain the other man knew through his body language exactly how serious he was. "I think the time has come to remove him from this society for his own good."
   "And where would you take him?"
   "Does it really matter? Anywhere would be preferable to here. We could relocate somewhere on the other side of the world, hire some tutors to complete his education - hell, I could help him complete the core subjects myself."
   Dumbledore appeared lost in thought for several moments before focusing back on Sirius once again. He had a hint of the lecturing Headmaster in his manner, and Sirius felt like he was back in Hogwarts being taken to task for some prank. He had to admit to himself, somewhat ruefully, that although they had rarely been able to prove his complicity, more often than not, it had been he and his friends who had been the perpetrators of what had gone on in those hallowed halls.
   "I believe your idea has two problems, Sirius. First, young Harry himself; he has made friends - very close friends - at Hogwarts, and I doubt you could convince him to leave them to Voldemort's tender mercies while he himself escaped to relative safety."
   It was true - Sirius had not thought about that aspect of Harry's character. In that, he was very much his father's son.
   "And the other?"
   "Suppose we followed your plan and you moved with Harry to another country... then what?"
   "I'm not certain I follow you..." Sirius responded uncertainly.
   "Just this: if you were to go away from Britain, you may be safe for several years or even decades, but what happens once England becomes too small to contain the Dark Lord?"
   To say Sirius was surprised was an understatement. "You aren't suggesting Voldemort will win!"
   "I'm not suggesting it, Sirius, I am guaranteeing it. I believe Harry will have an integral part to play in Voldemort's ultimate defeat and he cannot do it if he is hidden away on some tropical island somewhere, drinking piЯa coladas and surfing."
   Sirius regarded the Headmaster, his disbelief turning to a shrewd idea Dumbledore was holding back.
   "You know something, Albus."
   "Indeed I do," Dumbledore agreed with aplomb. "Now, however, is not the time to discuss this any further."
   "Albus, he's my godson - I have to know."
   "Rest assured, Sirius, in time I will tell you all I know. But the conversation must be deferred for another time - for now, I have some other tasks which cannot be delayed. Although we may have no other recourse but to flee from England at some future time, the situation has not become that desperate yet - we have no other option but to continue to play the game in the hope of turning it in our favor. Young Harry has a destiny which he must fulfill for the good of the wizarding world - and indeed the world at large. I had hoped to delay the inevitable to give the young man some time to grow and mature, but it appears events have conspired against us and our time is now dwindling."
   "I will have an accounting, Albus," Sirius growled in response. Although Dumbledore was a powerful wizard and excellent leader, he had a tendency to be secretive and at times viewed those around him as mere chess pieces. This time, however, Sirius would ensure he understood what Harry was facing and would face it by his side. He owed it to James; he owed it to himself.
   "I understand, Sirius. I promise to give you a full accounting, but for now I must leave you."
   Dumbledore moved to the Floo powder and grabbed a handful of it. But before he went through, he turned back to Sirius.
   "I will arrange to have Harry evacuated from the Dursley house and brought here. The situation there may now have become untenable in any case - they were incensed that Dudley's proximity to Harry resulted in the threat to his life and have demanded Harry's immediate removal, never to return."
   "They won't do anything to him, will they?"
   "Not at this time," Dumbledore confirmed. "I have informed his uncle we will be looking for alternate housing arrangements for the rest of the summer, but his removal will have to be handled with delicacy and kept from the knowledge of certain elements in the Ministry."
   "I will inform Kreacher to prepare for an influx of guests."
   "Be prepared for anything - the world is about to become a much darker place."
   With that ominous pronouncement, Dumbledore disappeared into the Floo Network leaving Sirius alone with his thoughts.
   Although he was worried about Harry's state of mind in the aftermath of the Dementors' attack, he knew of his godson's capabilities and was confident Harry would emerge unscathed from the experience. The more pressing concern was Dumbledore's words regarding Harry's destiny and the immediate threat of punishment. If Dumbledore could not convince Wizengamot to acquit Harry or at least agree he had acted in self-defense, then what? Could he possibly take the chance of failure? Was there anything he could do?
   A grim yet determined smile crossed Sirius's face, as he considered that he did indeed have another option. It had fallen literally out of the sky onto his lap the previous spring while he was searching through some of James's old family documents, partially to determine if James had left anything behind which would be of use to his son, partially in a vain attempt to find some way to remove Harry from the Tri-Wizard competition. His search had led him to a most startling document which had the power to change Harry's life and bring him some desperately-needed allies. Although those plans were still some months away, they could be accelerated - had to be accelerated in order to be of use to his godson in the immediate future.
   A twinge of guilt made itself known in Sirius's conscience, understanding as he did this revelation had the power to turn Harry's life upside-down and that it had far-reaching consequences for not only his godson, but also for a particular friend of his. Yet, it was obvious to Sirius that anything which could be done must be done for Harry's sake - he would never be able to live with himself if he left even one arrow in the quiver and the situation went wrong. But it would not do to tell Dumbledore at this stage - he would find out when everyone else did.
   His mind made up, Sirius turned and stalked down the hallway to his room on the second floor. He simply could not chance failure - too much depended on this, especially if Dumbledore's words about Harry's importance to Voldemort's ultimate defeat were to be believed. Although Sirius could not do much to help his godson in his current situation, perhaps others could.
   In his room, he rummaged around on the old oak desk in the corner, finding the device for which he had been searching, and activated the old communication mirror he and the other Marauders had created many years ago to keep in touch during the summer. Of course, that had not been the only use to which they had put the mirrors, Sirius thought with a smile - their pranking value had been incalculable.
   A moment later, a face appeared in the mirror. "Sirius, so good to see you," the man began, his face lighting up in a friendly smile. "What can I do for you?"
   His voice was soft yet melodious and deep; his accent, while present, was understated and almost unnoticeable, unless one was paying attention to it. He was an austere yet handsome sort of man, powerful in his own right and eminently competent, and although they had only been acquaintances for a few months, Sirius already considered him an ally and a potential friend. Sirius had contacted him upon finding the document, and the other man, to his credit, had listened to Sirius's protestations of innocence when even his own countrymen would not. A short visit and a dose of Veritaserum later, he had also been convinced of Sirius's innocence and had begun to plan for his ultimate exoneration.
   However, it was the contents of the documents upon which Sirius had come across which now held Sirius's interest. The documents were important in several ways and his companion had a stake in seeing that they were implemented, not to mention the fact that he felt he owed something to Harry because of his actions the previous year. If they played this right, they could ensure Harry's freedom and perhaps even tweak Fudge's nose in the process.
   "Jean-Sebastian we need to speak - something has come up."
   The man was silent for a moment. "I presume your news is not good?"
   Sirius snorted. "That's an understatement. Harry was attacked by Dementors today outside his home. We need to accelerate our plans."
   Jean-Sebastian's eyes burned with fury for several moments before he visibly calmed himself. "Your country appears to be making every effort to make Harry's life as difficult and dangerous as possible."
   "Agreed. But I believe we can turn this around to our advantage."
   "Well, then, I believe you must let me in on your plan," he said with an upturned eyebrow.
   Sirius grinned in response and began to lay out the events of the day and his ideas for their response. They spent several hours in earnest conversation, planning, plotting, and determining their course of action. That night, when Sirius finally lay down to rest, his face held a smile - he had done his best to help his godson. It was a good beginning.
   ***
   In another country, several hundred miles away, a man deactivated his communication mirror and sat back in his high-backed chair, staring unseeing at the desk in front of him. The information Sirius had provided him had changed many things, and although he knew in his heart that what they were about to do was for the best, a part of him wondered if his assessment would be agreed upon by others who would be affected by this decision. After all, some of those others would have to bear the major portion of the consequences of his actions - not himself.
   Sighing, he leaned forward and rested his chin in his hand, brooding over the unfairness of the world. The temptation to simply write the whole situation off as a purely British problem was there, but he knew that to take such a myopic stance would do more harm than good in the end. The current future in the beleaguered country was bleak with a newly-reconstituted Voldemort running amok and the Ministry doing little to prepare for a protracted fight. No, the future of England and perhaps the whole world lay with one young man, a man he had just pledged to help, whether it was deemed his responsibility or not.
   Then of course there was the personal debt he owed Harry Potter, one which Jean-Sebastian was not about to forget or conveniently push under the carpet. He owed Harry Potter - owed him his every effort and entire ability to protect.
   Knowing there was really no other choice, Jean-Sebastian sighed and called for his house-elf assistant. There was much to be accomplished.

Chapter 1 - Surprising Developments

   Some days, it just did not pay to even get out of bed. Unfortunately, if your name happened to be Harry Potter, the above maxim was uncomfortably close to being the story of your life.
   On this particular day, it was as yet unproven as to whether it would end up becoming a day to forget, but he had seen enough in his short life to know enough to never discount just how bad a day could get without seeing it through to its conclusion.
   His morose thoughts and the knowledge of just how ridiculous he was being caused a bubble of laughter to escape from Harry's throat, catching the attention of his two companions, both of whom, he was certain, would berate him for his overly cynical thoughts if they were to ever learn of them. Or at least, Hermione would - Ron would likely agree with him before muttering under his breath about the unfairness of life, something with which Harry privately agreed. But though Hermione would undoubtedly be correct in her assessment of his gloomy thoughts, Harry knew there was one inescapable truth about his life - sometimes it just sucked to be Harry Potter.
   "Harry, I hardly think it's time for lightheartedness," Hermione scolded. Although her words were severe, the light of compassion lit up her voice, reminding Harry again how fortunate he was to have her friendship.
   "Sorry, Hermione," he responded, trying - somewhat unsuccessfully, he thought - to appear contrite, "but something struck me as funny. If I don't laugh, I'll probably cry, so laughing at this point is better, don't you think?"
   Her gaze softened, and she gazed at him with a fondness clearly visible in her eyes.
   "What are you on about, mate?" Ron demanded peevishly, his eyes moving between his friends.
   Harry shrugged. "What would you do, Ron? I have to go on display this morning and may never come back to the magical world. Should I cry and throw a tantrum, or should I laugh? Sorry, but I prefer to laugh - I may go crazy otherwise."
   "Don't talk like that, Harry," Ron muttered. "You aren't going to be expelled."
   Hermione was clearly agitated. "Ron's right, Harry. Dumbledore would never allow it."
   Although her words appeared calm and confident, there was an underlying tension evident in her voice - knowing Hermione as he did, Harry knew she was uncertain and deeply concerned for his welfare while trying to present a brave face. A swell of affection for the young witch filled him as he gazed at her warmly, wondering what he had possibly done right to deserve such a steadfast friend. Without her, he thought he would be lost to the vagaries and injustices of the world.
   Hermione blushed and looked down, clearly uncomfortable with his scrutiny, though he was certain a half-smile had been plastered on her face the entire time. Glancing over at Ron, Harry lowered his gaze to the floor immediately at the suspicious glare his friend favored him with. Harry knew that Ron had begun to fancy Hermione, and since he had arrived at Grimmauld place nearly ten days before, Ron had taken to watching them closely, alert for any signs of affection beyond mere friendship.
   Ron was his best male friend, and closest comrade, closer even than Hermione, largely, he thought, due to their status as roommates and their ability to relate to one another as boys. However, Harry had always understood his friend sometimes had the tendency to be somewhat of a fair-weather friend, prone to occasional fits of jealousy, while at the same time being possessive of his friendship with Harry and Hermione.
   To be fair to Ron, Harry was well aware that it could not be easy to live in his shadow and he knew that at times Ron felt almost stifled being known as the best friend to the Boy-Who-Lived - not to mention younger brother to some truly exceptional wizards - rather than to being known based on who he was. However, although Ron certainly had his issues, as anyone else, for the most part he had been a good friend and staunch companion, and he certainly could not be accused of cowardice. The times he had willingly followed Harry into danger - from the Philosopher's Stone incident in their first year, to the Acromantulas and Chamber of Secrets in their second - Ron had been a steady and supportive friend, and co-conspirator in his adventures.
   However, in the matter of Hermione, Harry knew he and Ron would be at odds, should Harry ever decide he fancied his closest female friend. Harry understood, as he suspected Ron still did not, that Ron would consider Hermione his territory due to his expressing interest in her first - the fact that he had not in actuality expressed that interest to the young woman in question would ultimately have no bearing on the matter in his own mind. It was not a failing in Ron, per se, but more simply the way his best friend's mind worked, inasmuch as Harry had insight into the workings of Ron's mind.
   As for Harry's feelings on the matter of his best female friend - they were confused and not easily understood, even, he suspected, if he had given the matter a great deal of thought, which he had not. What Harry did know, was that he esteemed Hermione beyond anyone else of his acquaintance; she was his truest friend - the one who had stood by him in everything which had happened to him since his arrival in the magical world, the one upon whom he could always depend. Not even Ron could not make that claim.
   Perhaps the fact that Harry was incapable of deciphering his own feelings was not to be wondered at due to his upbringing in the Dursley household. While Harry was aware of Hermione and understood she was growing from the bushy-haired, plain girl of her youth into an attractive young woman, he was not certain how he should feel about her, being so completely ill-prepared to judge his own feelings. Understanding her feelings was equally difficult, although the way she had snuck glances at him since his arrival, particularly when she thought he was not looking - coupled with her blush from moments earlier - seemed to indicate to Harry's inexperienced eye that he was not the only one to wonder at the state of their relationship.
   But then again, knowing there was an insane and recently reincorporated madman out for his blood, could he subject Hermione to becoming an even larger target than she already was by openly declaring feelings for her?
   Harry snorted to himself, well aware of the tongue lashing he would receive from her if she was ever aware of his thoughts. Although Hermione would undoubtedly appreciate his willingness and determination to protect her, she would not take kindly to him making decisions for her without her knowledge and consent. He could well imagine her indignation, considering it was their hearts he was reflecting on - although the subject had never been broached, he thought he knew her well enough to know she would believe the risk of openly declaring romantic feelings worth taking in order to be happy.
   "Harry," a hesitant voice startled him out of his reverie. "Are you all right?"
   His eyes coming back into focus, he peered back at his friends, aware of the concerned looks which adorned both of their faces. It hit him suddenly that he had been silent for some time.
   Smiling, he nodded to them and started putting on his sneakers. "I'm fine, Hermione. I'm just worried about the hearing."
   "You don't have to worry, Harry," Ron said with some confidence. "Dumbledore will take care of everything. You'll see."
   "Thanks, Ron, I hope you're right. I'm trying to remain positive, but it's tough sometimes. Fudge has been out to get me ever since the tournament - looks like he's found his chance."
   Glancing up, Harry recognized the encouraging looks on both his friends' faces. He sighed, aware his overly pessimistic outlook on life was not doing him any good, and was simultaneously worrying his friends. Consciously, he decided it was time to let his worries go and accept what was to come.
   But whatever was to come, if Fudge was to succeed in his campaign to discredit and remove Harry from the wizarding world, Harry promised himself it would not come without a fight. If Fudge wanted to expel him, he would not do so without Harry standing up for himself. If he had been taught one thing during his fifteen years of life, it was to never turn your back on a bully. And that was what Fudge essentially was.
   A few moments later, Mr. Weasley entered the foyer of the dirty and worn-down house, indicating to Harry it was time. Nodding, Harry said a last goodbye to his friends, taking in Hermione's worried frown and Ron's attempt to be brave and positive, thanking them both for their friendship, and promising to see them once again when this was all over. For now, he was bound for the Ministry and his destiny.
   ***
   Later, Harry could only say he could not remember much of the journey to the Ministry building on that fateful day. He could vaguely recall heading down the steps of the old house to a car waiting out front and stepping into said vehicle, but then he could recall nothing until they had arrived at the old phone booth which provided the entrance to the Ministry itself. Had he been thinking clearly of what was happening at the time, he would have wondered why they were going through the bother of driving in one of the Ministry's cars to the trial rather than using the Floo system. He was told later that though it would have been possible for Mr. Weasley as an employee of the Ministry to bring him in that way, it was normal procedure for visitors to enter via the phone booth. That, and the desire to spare Harry due to his well-known aversion to Floo travel, prompted the longer journey by car. It also had the added benefit of allowing him to order his thoughts. On this day, none of this crossed Harry's mind.
   No, his mind was engaged in thoughts of what might happen and his rebellious subconscious insisted on replaying all the possible scenarios of what a conviction could mean to him, real or imagined. And although Harry had thought somewhat morosely that very morning just how much trouble he had had, not only since his reentry into this world but also throughout his whole life because of its very existence, he realized that he now thought of himself - identified himself - by his status as a wizard. Now, with the reality of being forcibly removed and bound against ever doing magic again, he knew he had no desire to leave this world, regardless of the trouble it posed to him or the dangers it represented. It was now his life - he wanted nothing more than to be allowed to continue to live it.
   Besides, he could not leave Ron and Hermione behind - their friendship and trust meant too much to him to leave them in a world which could soon be dominated by a megalomaniac. Voldemort had seen fit to target him all his life and to Harry that meant the dark wizard believed Harry to be a threat to his vision. If he was such a threat, Harry was determined to be as much of a thorn in Voldemort's side as he possibly could. This in turn strengthened his resolve to meet Fudge head on and challenge him - he would not be meek and vulnerable before the Minister. No, Fudge would not find a pliable child in Harry Potter.
   Such thoughts were not to be dwelt upon, however, as after a short journey through the streets of London, they arrived at the entrance to the Ministry and had soon entered the building by its somewhat unorthodox entrance.
   Unfortunately for Harry, who would have preferred a low-key arrival and journey to the courtroom, the Ministry atrium was overflowing that day, partially because it was a regular business day for the wizarding government, but also, he suspected, because of the sensational aspect of the trial to be held. Upon entering the atrium, the noise level in the crowded room suddenly decreased, and countless heads swiveled in his direction, almost as one, a fanciful part of him whispered. Then the soft whispering began, and he saw more than one gesture in his direction. The atmosphere was difficult for the young man to make out, and although the crowd in general did not seem overly hostile, they were not especially friendly either.
   He suspected the large crowd had something to do with the nature of the coming trial. Harry had not been idle during the past week - he had done some research on the matter (with Hermione's judicious assistance) and had learned that no one who had been charged with underage use of magic had ever been tried in an open court before the entire Wizengamot. No, this was Fudge's big chance to humble and neutralize the famous Boy-Who-Lived while setting himself up as the sole voice of reason and champion of the people. Harry only wanted to see the bastard go up against Voldemort himself; the Minister would not last more than a few moments against the dark wizard before facing utter defeat, or worse.
   Following his best friend's father, Harry made his way to the stairs which would take them down to the tenth level and the courtroom, all the while his cheeks flaming due to the unwanted attention. It was crystal clear to him - he was big news in the wizarding world, and his trial was drawing a lot of interest. He sensed that it was up to him to take the initiative and show himself in the best possible light. If he could show himself to be the hero these people all hoped him to be - especially with Voldemort's recent return - he suspected the atmosphere of the recently-exited atrium would change into a more positive one for him. Perhaps the idiot Fudge could even be put on the defensive for a change. One could only hope.
   Of course, this presupposed Harry could devise something which would not only save his hide, but also prove sufficiently inspiring to capture the imagination of the masses. Unfortunately, he would not be flying on his broom being pursued by an angry dragon, or fighting a massive basilisk - this fight would have to be won with words. He wished Hermione were here; she was the one with the gift for words.
   They emerged from the stairwell and made their way down the long hall. Their progress down the hall went largely unnoticed by Harry, intent as he was on his own problems. At length, as they progressed toward Harry's destiny, he noticed a tall, austere sort of man who was regarding them intently as they made their way toward the courtroom. As they drew near, he approached them, a kindly expression coming over his face.
   "Ah, Mr. Potter, I presume."
   Although Harry was unsurprised the man seemed to know him (was there anyone who did not after all?), everyone else had been content to do no more than watch from a distance and whisper. In his experience, there were many Lockharts in the world - those who wished to know him for their own purposes and agendas.
   Deciding it was better to be distant for the moment, he responded cautiously. "Yes? Can I help you?"
   The man chuckled. "No, young Harry, I just thought I would say hello before you enter the courtroom."
   Harry looked past the man at the open door, leading to courtroom number ten, which loomed in the distance. It seemed to mock him, beckoning him toward his destiny and sudden doom - taunting him with his own fears.
   Shaking off his fanciful thoughts, Harry focused his attention back on the newcomer, who was even now watching him with an expression of sympathy.
   "It is a little overwhelming, is it not?"
   For the first time, Harry noticed the slight accent in the man's speech - it was not blatant, nor did it make him difficult to understand. Although he had no knowledge of this man - as Arthur did not, it appeared, given his curious reaction to the man and his lack of greeting - he was the type that inspired confidence and exuded competence.
   "Just a little..." Harry finally muttered in response.
   The man nodded sagely. "Although it seems bleak, just remember to keep your head up. We can't necessarily pick our circumstances, but we can choose the manner in which we react and conduct ourselves. Sometimes, that is more important in the long run. Our behavior in trying circumstances is a better indicator of our character than when we are in our comfort zone. Remember that as you stand in front of these fops."
   His last words were spoken with a wry smile and a gesture toward Minister Fudge, who was making his way into the courtroom.
   Grateful for the kind words, Harry nodded and regarded the mysterious man. "I'm sorry, sir, but do I know you?"
   "No, although I do know of you." At Harry's grimace, he once again chuckled and slapped Harry on the shoulder. "I guess that's not exactly a surprise, now is it? Remember, you have people who are on your side - those who will fight for you. Don't let them intimidate and try to isolate you."
   Harry nodded, thinking about what the man had told him. He knew he had good friends - Hermione and Ron were the best, Dumbledore and the other professors had always looked out for him, and it was amazing how close he and Sirius had become in such a short time. Somehow he would get through the day and become stronger for it.
   Thank you, Mr...."
   "Oh, don't worry about me, Harry," the man responded. "I'm certain we will see more of one another in the very near future."
   With that, Harry found his hand firmly shaken, after which the man departed, entering a door to the side of the main entrance to the courtroom. He looked askance at Mr. Weasley and noted a slightly bemused expression on the other man's face. As this was somewhat normal for his best friend's father, Harry simply shook his head, assuming Mr. Weasley had no more idea of the new acquaintance's identity than Harry did.
   Gathering himself, Harry and his escort crossed the final distance to the courtroom entrance and paused before the open door.
   "Harry," Mr. Weasley began, "you know we're all behind you. Don't worry about a thing."
   Thanking his host for his assistance, Harry took at deep breath and entered the courtroom.
   He found himself in a semi-circular room, with a floor that was roughly the size of the Gryffindor common room at Hogwarts. On three sides, benches rose up along the walls approximately ten levels high; to his back, a raised gallery stood above the entrance to the courtroom. The benches along the walls were filled with members of the Wizengamot, most of whom were stern-looking elderly witches and wizards. Although it was difficult to get a true reading of the mood of the legislative body, Harry could tell that many were not happy to be there - whether that was due to indifference, disapproval of Fudge's actions, or enmity to himself, he could not tell. Turning back in the direction from which he had just entered Harry gazed up at the gallery, which was packed with onlookers. Among those was the forbidding presence of Lucius Malfoy, who watched him with an arrogant smirk on his face. Determined to avoid the father of his most hated rival, Harry allowed his gaze to wander over the gallery and he caught the eye of the man he had just met outside the courtroom, who gave him a cheery salute. Grinning in response, he turned back to Minister Fudge, who was now regarding him with an expression of fury and the utmost disdain.
   "Please take a seat, Mr. Potter," he said between clenched teeth, indicating the hard wooden chair which stood in the center of the room, facing away from the door. "We are ready to begin these proceedings."
   Suddenly worried, Harry peered about the room, looking for the telltale garish robes of his Headmaster. Not seeing him among the members of the Wizengamot, he looked up at the Minister, who was regarding him impatiently.
   "Excuse me, Minister - I had understood Headmaster Dumbledore was to be here."
   Fudge's face lit up with a cruel, triumphant smile. "It seems your Headmaster has not seen fit to bother himself with the deeds of a mere student. In cases of such contempt being shown to the Wizengamot, we must continue in his absence."
   Shivering at the vindictive glee which was fairly dripping from the Minister's voice, Harry glanced back at the door and then at the face of his supporter, who regarded him steadily, lending him courage and the belief that all would be well. Taking a deep breath, Harry gathered his determination and sat in the hard chair, his back straight and his head held high. He would show Fudge that he was not about to be intimidated.
   A feral grin met his response, as restraints suddenly shot out of the arms and legs of the chair, binding him and holding him immobile. The Minister smirked in triumph at his shock, as he called the Wizengamot to order.
   "Order in the courtroom!" he shouted, banging his gavel on the desk at which he sat.
   As the room quieted, he glanced around the room and spoke again. "I call this trial of underage magic use for one Harry James Potter into session." He sneered at Harry as he continued. "The defendant is accused of using magic in the presence of Muggles and in violation of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery. The truth of this charge, as well as the lies of said defendant, shall be brought to light and shall be acted upon accordingly."
   "Is that so, Cornelius?" a voice rang out from behind Harry.
   Harry twisted his head as far as he was able due to the restraints and witnessed the dramatic entrance of his Headmaster, grinning as the amused twinkling of Dumbledore's eyes was directed at him. The grandfatherly old man looked his immaculate best today, from his long flowing gray robes to his long white beard, which had been combed and tied down with his usual gold chain. Although his eyes twinkled when he looked at his young charge, Harry could tell the Headmaster was not amused - he fairly radiated power and his gaze on the assembled Wizengamot members was not only stern, but also disapproving in the extreme.
   Walking up to Harry's chair, he took his position along his side and continued. "I suppose I should not be surprised the location and time of this... hearing was changed without prior notice." His harsh tone left no doubt as to his opinion of the trial. "If one did not know better, Minister, one would think it was deliberately done to deprive Mr. Potter of his right to defend himself before this noble body."
   Fudge's eyes tightened momentarily before he sniffed in disdain. "The Wizengamot can hardly be held responsible if you cannot take the trouble to keep up with the doings of the body you lead, Dumbledore."
   Raising one eyebrow, Dumbledore's gaze bored into the Minister, making him squirm slightly in his seat. "The memo must have gone missing, Minister. If it were not for some conscientious member of this body, Mr. Potter and I may not have heard of this until after a decision had been rendered. Surely you would not want to be seen as a Minister who presided over a miscarriage of justice for one of your most famous subjects."
   Fudge looked on, his face slightly pale at the implications of Dumbledore's speech, while there was an uncomfortable silence as the Wizengamot digested all which had not been said by their leader.
   "Be that as it may," Dumbledore continued, "regardless of my opinion of this forum, here we are. I suggest we conclude this farce as quickly as may be so we can all get on with matters which are far more important. As I will be representing Mr. Potter, I yield the floor to you, Minister."
   Inside, Harry was elated over the implied dressing down his Headmaster had just given the Minister, although he tried not to let it show on his face. Harry was not a student of wizarding law - far from it - but he knew he was being singled out by a Minister who had refused to see reason and had publicly called him a liar following his testimony after the third task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. What Dumbledore had said was not only fair, but also just in the context of any wizarding law Harry knew.
   "Quite," Fudge responded at length.
   The Minister signaled for the prosecution to begin their case, their star witness being the assistant with whom Harry had had communication with twice previously: Mafalda Hopkirk. Harry listened as Fudge prompted her with the information to build the case against him, asking questions to draw out what he obviously considered to be the pertinent facts. He watched and listened carefully, noting the gleeful glances the Minister kept directing at him. Ms. Hopkirk, by contrast, appeared to have nothing against either Harry or Dumbledore; she merely presented the facts of the case as she saw them, embellishing little and only elaborating when prompted directly by the Minister or one of the Wizengamot members. The facts were simple and straightforward: on the morning of August 2, the Ministry tracking devices had detected a large surge of magic which had been traced to Harry's wand. Ms. Hopkirk had initiated standard procedures and dispatched a letter to his residence, informing him of his expulsion from Hogwarts and the actions to be taken by the Ministry in response. However, the order was soon rescinded when Albus Dumbledore had arrived at the Ministry and convinced them to hold a hearing to determine his fate.
   This final piece of information had Fudge smirking down at Harry, causing Harry to squirm in his chair.
   "Ms. Hopkirk," Fudge began after she had finished her report, "I take it this is not the first time Mr. Potter has used magic improperly?"
   "No, Minister. Mr. Potter has been detected using magic on two separate occasions outside of Hogwarts since he began attending."
   "There!" Fudge thundered. "The Wizengamot can see the pattern of disobedience and contempt for the laws of our world - contempt which puts us all in danger of discovery by the Muggles! Can anyone possibly say anything in Mr. Potter's defense?"
   "Minister, I believe Mr. Potter should be allowed to respond in his defense."
   Fudge's beady eyes fixed on Dumbledore, and an unpleasant sneer came over his face. "Ah, yes - we come to the crux of the matter. The esteemed Headmaster of our most distinguished school, who has himself shown a pattern of favoritism for Mr. Potter. Tell the Wizengamot, Headmaster, why it is, that as an official member of this body, you felt necessary to intervene on Mr. Potter's behalf. Has his stay at Hogwarts been similarly rife with favoritism from your office?"
   His insinuation was not lost on the members of the Wizengamot. Harry witnessed dark, contemplative looks on the faces of many watching Wizengamot members. It was a strike, clearly designed to focus attention on his relationship with the Headmaster, rather than the crime being discussed. Dumbledore chose to ignore the insinuation.
   "Tell me, Ms. Hopkirk," Dumbledore stated - the woman had been standing quietly, waiting to be addressed or dismissed. "How is it that a letter was dispatched to Mr. Potter's residence so quickly? Standard procedure states that a first offense generates a warning letter immediately, but a second offense requires a review before any response is made."
   "Dumbledore, I hardly think this is - "
   "But it is relevant, Minister. After all, the reason for this forum is to make certain Mr. Potter is treated the same as any other witch or wizard, and subject to the appropriate action according to our laws. You will answer the question, Ms. Hopkirk."
   Her eyes darted to those of the Minister, who was staring at her, his eyes narrowed. Sighing, she glanced back at Dumbledore and responded. "Minister Fudge sent a memo instructing prompt action if Mr. Potter were to be detected using magic."
   "Only Mr. Potter?"
   "Yes, sir."
   Dumbledore raised an eyebrow and peered back at the Minister, who was now looking distinctly uncomfortable. He appeared ready to angrily interrupt the conversation when Dumbledore spoke again.
   "In answer to your previous question, Minister, I have always acted in the best interests of those under my charge. I will continue to do so to ensure the safety and well-being of my students. I would do the same for any who I feel are being unfairly singled out - I had thought you already understood this, Minister."
   Although Harry did not understand the reference, the tightening of the Minister's eyes told him that he, at least, understood and was not pleased.
   "Really, Dumbledore," Fudge snarled in reply, his momentary setback forgotten, "you should cease involving yourself in lost causes such as this - it may eventually damage the mystique of your reputation. Regardless of anything I or anyone else in the government have done in this case, the facts are relevant and irrefutable, as is the punishment."
   "Mr. Potter is deserving of the opportunity to respond to his accusers, not only as is his right, but also due to the seriousness of the consequences. Do you, Minister, believe he should be summarily convicted without his explanation, or do you wish to perpetuate the mistakes of the past and convict another innocent man by denying his rights?"
   The Minister was practically snarling by this time. "Fine, Dumbledore - make your case! How does Mr. Potter think he can defend his actions in this?"
   "Harry? Would you like to respond?"
   Feeling the weight of the entire Wizengamot bearing down on him, Harry, nevertheless, screwed up his courage and looked Fudge right in the eyes. "We were attacked by Dementors, sir."
   "Dementors, Minister!" Dumbledore boomed. "Mr. Potter was set upon by Dementors on the morning in question. That is what accounts for his use of magic."
   "Dementors?" Fudge shrieked. "Are you claiming that a fourth-year student was able to cast a Patronus charm to drive away Dementors? Preposterous!"
   Having sat there quietly watching Dumbledore defend him, Harry was struck by the thought that Fudge did not want him to be acquitted - a fact that he knew intellectually. But having it stare him in the face brought the fact into harsh focus.
   "I've been able to cast the Patronus charm since my third year!"
   "Boy, the Patronus charm is a post-NEWT level spell which can be successfully cast by few in our society. You expect us to believe that you, a mere lad of fifteen, can do what most adults cannot?"
   "Give me my wand and let me loose, and I'll show you," Harry snapped in response.
   The Minister's eyes narrowed, but before he could say anything further, he was interrupted. A short, pudgy woman, wearing a shade of lurid pink under her dark Wizengamot robes, had raised her hand. "Hem, hem," she cleared her throat before continuing, "I believe the point of whether Mr. Potter can cast a Patronus is academic. After all, the Dementors are under the control of the Ministry and therefore cannot have been in Little Whinging."
   Harry immediately disliked the ugly woman - she spoke in a sugary sweet voice, while she simpered and smirked at the entire gathering. He sensed it was nothing more than an act.
   "There you are, Mr. Potter - straight from the Undersecretary. What do you say to that?"
   "The Dementors were there - I saw them. Mrs. Figg and my cousin Dudley were there as well."
   "Muggles," Fudge spat with derision. "Convenient, don't you think, that your only witnesses cannot actually see Dementors?"
   "The effects of a Dementor's presence are well known, Minister," Dumbledore responded. "Simple questioning of the witnesses will establish whether they were affected."
   "Rubbish! Your proposed questioning would be nothing more than circumstantial at best. We have proof through the Ministry recording devices of Mr. Potter's use of magic and nothing but his word of the existence of these Dementors to prove otherwise. Why would Dementors be after you, Potter, so far away from Azkaban?"
   "I don't know, Minister," Harry responded, the defiance and contempt he felt for the small-minded little man showing in his voice. "I have been attacked by Dementors before, as you well know, when you decided to station them at Hogwarts in my third year. Maybe they were able to escape somehow, or maybe one of Voldemort's supporters set them on me."
   A feral grin lit up the Minister's face even as a wave of gasps at hearing the dark lord's name spoken rippled through the chamber. "Ah, so now we come to the heart of the matter - Mr. Potter's insistence on the reappearance of the Dark Lord. Tell me, Potter, why you are so insistent on proclaiming the impossible? He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has been dead these past fourteen years after all... You were there, were you not?"
   Harry sat up as straight as he could manage and glared at the Minister. "I'm telling you he's back because it's the truth."
   "And I'm telling you it's impossible!" Fudge yelled in response. "Do you think you are some sort of god, that you can return a man dead for over a decade to the land of the living?"
   "I did not bring him back, Minister. He was brought back by Peter Pettigrew, who used a dark ritual to return his former master."
   "Peter Pettigrew! Another man dead since you were a child! Are there no end to your lies?"
   "Minister, it is known that there are ways to tether one's existence to this earth - and ways of bringing one who has accomplished this back. As you well know, I have never believed Voldemort to be gone and given his fear of death and intense self interest, I do not think this belief is unreasonable - he is out there, and now he has been re-embodied, and it is foolishness not to act to protect your people and our very society."
   Fudge glared at Dumbledore in disgust. "And yet, you have no proof of these claims other than the word of a young, glory-seeking upstart who seems intent on causing panic in our world."
   "The proof exists if you would only look at it!"
   "Enough!" Fudge shouted. "I will not listen to the lies of this young man, nor to your attempt to cause panic in these halls! Mr. Potter is a spoiled, indulged little brat who has been toeing your line for far too long, Dumbledore, and I mean to see his lies brought to an end for the good of our society."
   Leaning back in his chair, Fudge smirked at the Headmaster. "I have another theory of Mr. Potter's... experiences. He is attempting to sow fear and discord because his star has waned since he returned to our world - he wishes to recreate his past celebrity and is using his only claim to fame to do so by invoking the name of our greatest enemy. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is dead, Mr. Potter. You will receive no further adulation from this society for an accident which happened when you were a mere baby!"
   "If he is dead, never to return, then why do you fear to speak his name?"
   Dumbledore's question echoed out over the room, causing some to glance at the Minister with a certain speculation, while still others looked affronted that anyone would have the audacity to suggest they actually use the dark lord's name. Harry took stock of their reactions, trying to commit them to memory - these were the ones who were, at the very least, tacit supporters of Voldemort, if not actual Death Eaters.
   "Surely the Minister cannot be afraid of a dead man," Dumbledore continued, causing a swell of noise to break out over the Wizengamot, not to mention a certain amount of snickering. A point had been clearly scored by the Headmaster.
   Finally a sputtering Fudge regained control of his voice. "It matters little what you call him, Dumbledore," he spat. "The man is dead, and regardless of what Mr. Potter thinks he saw, he cannot have seen the dark lord. He is obviously lying."
   "I'll take Veritaserum!" Harry yelled desperately.
   "What?"
   "Give me Veritaserum - that will show you I'm telling the truth."
   "An excellent suggestion, Minister," Dumbledore chimed in smoothly. "Veritaserum will prove Mr. Potter's claims without a doubt."
   "Veritaserum is a valuable substance," Umbridge interrupted in her sickening voice, while Fudge sputtered. "We don't just use it on anyone with a random claim - your case does not qualify, Mr. Potter."
   "On the contrary - " Dumbledore began, but was interrupted by a now-furious Fudge.
   "Bollocks! We will listen to no more of this. It is time for the Wizengamot to deliberate and determine the results of this hearing."
   Harry was uncertain how it would play out - Dumbledore had obviously scored significant points with the Wizengamot, but would it be enough? Harry had glanced up at the Headmaster, fearful of the outcome, when he heard a strong voice from the gallery.
   ***
   By this time, Jean-Sebastian had heard enough - the British Minister was intent on petulantly getting his way and was clearly not interested in the truth. It was time to repay Sirius's trust in him and cast the die which would change the lives of his family.
   "Enough, Minister!"
   Ignoring the look of astonishment on the face of the British Minister, Jean-Sebastian rose from his chair and vaulted the bar which separated the spectator gallery from the rest of the amphitheater. He quickly strode down the stairs to the floor, and moved toward the detested chair in which the young man he had come to help still sat regarding him, a look of shock, mingled with hope, adorning his features.
   Arriving in the middle of the floor, Jean-Sebastian scowled at the chair which held Harry captive and flicked his wrist, releasing his bonds. Uncertainly, Harry glanced up at his benefactor, grinning tentatively in response to the welcoming smile Jean-Sebastian gave him.
   "Stand up and face your accusers, Harry. That chair was designed to remove a person's free will and dignity, and I will not have you spend any further time in it."
   Jean-Sebastian just had enough time to exchange a glance, accompanied by a raised eyebrow, with the Headmaster before Fudge finally recovered. His voice rang out through the courtroom.
   "Ambassador! What is the meaning of this?"
   Glaring at the nearly apoplectic Minister, Jean-Sebastian helped a stunned-looking Harry Potter to his feet before turning to address the young man's accusers.
   "This hearing is a farce, Minister. I will not allow you to continue with this character assassination, this... kangaroo court any longer. You have no interest in knowing the truth of Harry's actions, only in pushing your agenda of denial and your destructive and narrow-minded Pureblood bigotry. This young man will not be sacrificed to further your career!"
   "How dare you! By what authority do you interrupt our proceedings?"
   "By the authority of the ICW!"
   His statement apparently caught Fudge off guard, as the man's tongue was stilled momentarily, allowing Jean-Sebastian to continue his assault.
   "With the assistance of the Supreme Mugwump," he nodded in Dumbledore's direction, "an emergency session of the ICW was convened this morning. With an overwhelming majority, the ICW has voted to commend young Harry Potter for his actions, not only during the attack on him and his cousin, but also during the recently completed tournament."
   "And what authority does the ICW have here in England?" Fudge sneered in response.
   But though the Minister attempted to appear confident and unmoved by the news, Jean-Sebastian could tell his words were a little less forceful, his manner slightly less secure. The approval and recommendation of the ICW was no small matter, even to the most powerful among them - to fall afoul of the international wizarding body was not without political and personal risk, as many had found to their detriment.
   "Obviously, no legal authority," Jean-Sebastian responded, twisting the knife slightly. "My dear Minister Fudge, you must study international wizarding law further if you are concerned about that."
   The jibe did not go unnoticed and Fudge scowled in response. The members of the Wizengamot reacted differently, as those in direct opposition could be seen to be smirking in his direction, while others appeared to have varying looks of contemplation, understanding, and even apprehension.
   "The ICW cannot intervene directly in an affair which is so obviously an internal British matter," he continued, making certain the Minister and his entire Wizengamot understood exactly what he was saying. "However, young Mr. Potter is a person of interest to the wizarding world as a whole, not only for surviving an attack by one of the most feared dark lords of any age, but also because of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, among his other exploits. Mr. Potter, it appears your adventures have gained you much notoriety and fame beyond the boundaries of England, above and beyond what happened when he attacked you all those years ago. The offers of refuge came from many different countries, including my own."
   Jean-Sebastian almost laughed at Harry's look of incomprehension and consternation - he was obviously a private young man who did not appreciate his fame. Deciding he would have to watch closely - Harry appeared as if he did not fully understand what was happening, and if that was the case, he would need to be educated, not only in the ways of the wizarding world, but also in how the international world worked - Jean-Sebastian turned his attention back to Fudge, curious to see how the Minister would react to the blows his case had taken that morning.
   The Minister was glaring ferociously down at the accused, no doubt trying to determine how to resurrect his case. Jean-Sebastian stared back at the Minister, allowing the gleam of dislike and disgust to enter his eyes. Fudge's eyes narrowed in response - it was obvious to Jean-Sebastian that he had made himself an implacable (although he expected somewhat ineffectual) enemy this day. Yet, everything he had heard about Harry and the Dark Lord's unhealthy interest in the young man told him it was worth it. Harry Potter would be a leader in the fight against Voldemort - Jean-Sebastian was certain of it.
   "The ICW is irrelevant!" Fudge finally responded, making one last gasp to save his case. "Mr. Potter has broken the law - international law I might add - and we are duty-bound as a society to ensure the secrecy of our world is upheld."
   "Then instruct your Aurors to prepare the Veritaserum," Jean-Sebastian responded. "Mr. Potter has already agreed to its use."
   It was the short, pudgy, pink woman who responded. "The use of Veritaserum - "
   " - is condoned in the use of all trials to determine the truthfulness of the accused, as long as the Wizengamot condones its use. Really, Madam, I should think that as a member of this august body, you would understand the laws of your own country."
   She visibly bristled at his comments, causing Jean-Sebastian to wonder why she was so adamant in her support of Fudge in this matter. It would bear looking into.
   "The matter is still clear!" Her sickeningly sweet voice now held a hint of shrillness. "The statute was broken, and Mr. Potter has admitted to it."
   "If I may," Dumbledore intervened for the first time since Jean-Sebastian had spoken, "there is a reason for the term 'reasonable' in the statute. Surely defending himself against Dementors would be considered justified to any right-minded wizard or witch. The use of Veritaserum would verify the presence of Dementors on that morning."
   "Unless he's delusional!" Fudge snapped, finally finding his voice again.
   "Then the testimonies of the witnesses will also be necessary," Dumbledore responded with aplomb. "Unless you feel they were all delusional for some inexplicable reason."
   His sarcasm was not lost on the members of the Wizengamot. Jean-Sebastian could almost feel the tide of opinion turning against the Minister and decided it was time to finish the debate.
   "Minister, with what I have heard this morning, it would almost appear to me as though you hold a personal vendetta against this young man, although I must admit to being at a loss to understand your reason. I have had only one brief conversation with Mr. Potter, yet I can state without reservation that he seems like a nice, bright lad, one who has experienced hardship in his life due to no fault of his own. Given his stature as hero to the British wizarding people, do you really want to go down as the Minister who has driven one of your most famous heroes away from England forever? How could your people have possibly turned on Harry so quickly? Has the English wizarding world even been told the truth about Mr. Potter?"
   That more than anything else received Fudge's - and the entire Wizengamot's - attention. Jean-Sebastian was aware that Fudge could have portrayed Harry in any manner he pleased and gotten away with it, as long as he controlled the flow of information and kept public opinion firmly on his side. Now, with his arguments in ruins, and his bias and personal grudge against the young boy all but proven in the aftermath of these proceedings - which were being followed across the British Wizarding Wireless by most of the country, unless Jean-Sebastian missed his guess - it would be political suicide for Fudge to continue to push for conviction and punishment.
   Jean-Sebastian's grin was practically predatory. "Ah, I see that has gotten your attention. But be that as it may, I will not allow the exploitation of young Harry Potter to continue any longer."
   The looks of confusion and apprehension on more than one face would be almost comical if Jean-Sebastian was not so deadly serious.
   "Because the English wizarding world cannot be trusted with Mr. Potter's welfare, I fear I must take steps to ensure he is never again treated in this manner. I have recently become aware of the existence of a document signed by my father and Mr. Potter's grandfather more than fifty years ago, a document which allows me to be of some use to the young man. As I have the agreement of his guardian, by the ancient laws of magic I am hereby invoking a marriage contract between Mr. Potter and my eldest daughter. So I say it, so will it be!"

Chapter 2 - The Marriage Contract

   The blunt declaration caused the courtroom to descend into stunned silence.
   Whether the rest of the courtroom was simply surprised, shocked into silence by the brashness of the declaration, or aghast at the possibility of seeing their "national hero" (a title which still had the power to cause Harry to shake his head in disbelief, given the shots he had absorbed from those same people) betrothed to a foreign witch, it was impossible to say. Although he certainly caught the expressions of the rest of the room, Harry was, understandably, concerned with his own questions.
   How could this have happened? What did this stranger mean by claiming a marriage contract to some witch he had never met? Were such archaic traditions still followed in the magical world?
   To this last question, Harry was forced to admit, somewhat ruefully, that the possibility for such antiquated traditions were not only possible, but given the things he had seen and experienced since he had discovered the magical world, he was not surprised to learn they still existed.
   Harry Potter had never given much thought to his future and - other than a few idle hours, wiled away in which he had indulged himself in the contemplation of the various females of his acquaintance - had certainly never given serious consideration to the question of who would ultimately become Mrs. Potter. The thought of marriage not only had never really occurred to him, but it was also something which consciously or not, he had considered unappealing early in his life, no doubt largely due to the only example he had ever witnessed: the married life of his aunt and uncle. They had always, in his memory, been largely argumentative, and he could never remember any instances of spousal felicity or shows of affection. In fact, other than their shared propensity toward making him feel worthless and consigning him to a miserable existence, they had never actually shown any common goals or interests, making him wonder why they had married in the first place.
   His only other example was slightly better in execution, as the Weasley parents were at least friendly with each other and focused on their family and the importance of that family in their lives. It was a different portrait to be certain, but hardly a more reassuring one to Harry's mind - after all, although they were certainly more harmonious than his aunt and uncle, it was also obvious who was in charge of the relationship. Harry hesitated at labeling Mrs. Weasley as loud and overbearing - she had been remarkably kind toward him in the time he had known her - but he knew she was a strong-willed woman, used to getting her own way, whereas her husband was generally content to coast along, allowing her to put herself forward, while he allowed himself to slip into more of a support role. Harry was very fond of the Weasleys - he was simply not excited about emulating their relationship.
   So with Harry's examples of marital felicity, it was hardly to be wondered that young Harry was not enamored of the thought of marriage but had also - perhaps subconsciously - wondered if finding a wife was even worth it at all.
   And now he was all but engaged to be married, without his consent... and to some witch he had never met. And furthermore, he did not even know her name! How was he supposed to feel when confronted with such a situation? Was there any way out of it? Was this man another fortune seeker, bent on a connection with the infamous Boy-Who-Lived? Or was he playing some other game?
   Then again, this stranger must have some reason for not only agreeing to enact such a scheme (with Sirius's help no less!) but also accepting this marriage contract, given Harry's well-documented troubles with the aforementioned insane and powerful wizard. A fortune seeker would have to be unbalanced to consider an alliance in the face of such danger.
   Harry did not know what to think.
   Just as the inevitable pandemonium began, Harry noticed the stranger peering at him with a kindly expression on his face; the action worked to reassure Harry somewhat that - whatever the man's reasoning was for this interference - his reasons for revealing this marriage contract were not intended to be detrimental to Harry's future. Given all that was going on in his life, the thought was comforting. Then again, appearances could be deceiving.
   "Is anything wrong, Harry?" the man asked in a quiet voice, ignoring the rising noise around them.
   "Marriage contract?" Harry managed to squeak out.
   Jean-Sebastian shrugged. "Not exactly common any longer, but certainly not out of the ordinary either. Surely you had some indication such a thing was possible."
   "I'm sorry, sir," Harry said with a shake of his head, "I didn't know. I've been raised by Muggles, and sometimes I'm still surprised by some of the old-fashioned things in the wizarding world..."
   Frowning at Harry's comment, Jean-Sebastian stared at him in deep contemplation, causing Harry to become self-conscious. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, the nervous energy escaping despite his best efforts to keep it controlled.
   "It's all right, Harry," Jean-Sebastian responded, his tone soothing and a smile once more on his face. "I was not aware of your lack of knowledge. We will have to work on your education once we are away from this place."
   "Is there any way out of it?" Harry blurted, realizing immediately it was the wrong thing to say when a dark expression came over Jean-Sebastian's face.
   "I'm sorry," Harry said somewhat nervously, not wanting to offend his benefactor. "This is just all so... new to me. I mean... I've never thought..."
   "I don't even know your daughter," he finished, somewhat lamely, after a short pause.
   Jean-Sebastian chuckled quietly, his amusement immediately replacing his momentary displeasure. "Do not worry; I am not offended. I can see we have much to discuss, my young friend, and you have much to learn."
   At Harry's nod of agreement, Jean-Sebastian reached out and grasped his shoulder, squeezing it slightly in a comforting gesture. "As for not knowing my daughter, I assure you, she is not unknown to you."
   Harry regarded him uncertainly, wondering who he could possibly mean.
   "My apologies, young Mr. Potter; allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jean-Sebastian Delacour, French Ambassador to the International Confederation of Wizards. This marriage contract engages you to my daughter, Fleur, with whom I believe you are acquainted through the Tri-Wizard Tournament last year at Hogwarts."
   "ORDER!"
   At that moment they were interrupted by Minister Fudge, who was banging his gavel on the desk in front of him, yelling for the Wizengamot to come to order. But Harry, shocked as he was by the suddenly revealed identity of his mysterious benefactor and his newly betrothed, heard none of it.
   Fleur Delacour? Is that who I'm engaged to?
   Thoughts whirled around in his head, flitting from images of a beautiful young woman entering the great hall of Hogwarts for the first time and drawing the eyes of every young man (and many not so young) to a bedraggled Fleur freshly emerged from the cold of the lake, hugging him tightly in thanks for rescuing her sister. That was who he was now tied to by this contract?
   Unable to wrap his head around the thought, Harry forced himself to calm and think about the situation rationally. He considered his almost nonexistent acquaintance with the young French Veela. He had thought about asking Fleur to the Yule Ball the previous year during the tournament, but who had not? Daydreams of appearing at the event on the arm of the most beautiful young girl any of them had ever seen had filled the fantasies of most of the boys at his school. But whereas Ron had forgotten she was far above any of them, Harry had confined his thoughts to the realm of fantasy, never allowing himself to consider that she might actually say yes.
   Still... now that he thought about it, although he still considered her far above him in terms of beauty and desirability, the example of Ron was certainly not one which fit the situation. After all, as the story went, Ron had blurted his request in the middle of a crowded room and then run off in fear - to the best of Harry's knowledge, she had never actually made a response. It was possible, however unlikely, that she might have accepted Ron's proposal. After all, he had no knowledge of when Roger Davies had actually asked her to the ball, but if her expression during the event had been any indication, his continual fawning on her had likely been aggravating... and certainly not much worse than she would have experienced with Ron.
   Which brought another thought to his consciousness - did he have any real indication that she actually thought herself above those around her? She had been somewhat cold and distant when she had first appeared at the school, and she had acted snooty when he had appeared in the anteroom after the goblet incident, but that was all he had to base his thoughts of her arrogance upon. After all, people at his school thought him to be a spoiled pampered prince, glory seeker, and (since the incident in the graveyard) a delusional liar, something he liked to think was not true, although certain events in his past had led him to question his own sanity on occasion. Was her situation any different from his? Perhaps the popular perception of Miss Delacour was not the reality. He would have to actually speak to her himself and get to know her before making any judgments, something which, he admitted to himself, he had not done in the past.
   Shaking himself out of his stupor, Harry made an effort to concentrate more on what was occurring around him.
   "You really have no choice, Minister," Jean-Sebastian was saying, glaring at the Minister through narrowed eyes. "International law in this instance is very clear - since both Mr. Potter's guardian and I have agreed on the execution of the marriage contract, it is in force, regardless of the wishes of the British Ministry."
   An incoherent sputtering issued from Fudge's mouth, causing Jean-Sebastian to shake his head in response and Harry to wonder at the man who had managed to render the loquacious Minister speechless.
   "But you can't..." Fudge finally got out through his rage and indignation. "We can't have one of our most famous citizens married to a... a... foreigner!"
   "This same citizen you were prepared to lynch without bothering to learn the truth?"
   Fudge could have nothing to say to that statement.
   "And Minister, I will assume you have no other objections to my daughter's suitability as the wife to Mr. Potter."
   This last was said with a hard core of steel evident in Jean-Sebastian's voice, and although Harry did not quite understand the reference, it was not lost on Fudge or the rest of the Wizengamot. There were more than a few scowls, thoughtful looks, and nods of approval from the assembled, giving Harry no further clue as to what was being discussed.
   "As I said, regardless of the British Ministry's position on the subject, Mr. Potter is now legally and magically bound by contract, agreed to by our ancestors and enacted by myself and his guardian, to marry my daughter. I suggest you become used to that fact, as it will not change."
   Fudge appeared as though he wished to make further objections, but Jean-Sebastian did not allow it, instead speaking right over the Minister's incoherent stammering. "In addition, as Harry is still underage, I will be assuming his guardianship until he either becomes of age, or his true guardian steps forward to resume his position."
   "Again, this is non-negotiable and well within the bounds of the law," he continued when it looked like Fudge was about to object yet again. "Of course, if the English wizarding government is hell bent on expelling Mr. Potter from Hogwarts, I am certain a place can be found for him at Beauxbatons - after all, his betrothed still attends the premier French school, and I'm certain they would be happy to accept such a high profile addition to their student roster."
   For a moment, Harry almost thought Fudge's eyes would pop out of their sockets as he stared at Jean-Sebastian. Although not especially versed in the art of politics, even Harry understood this reference - his arguments in shambles politically, Fudge had no choice but to back away from his stance. Further, if he was perceived as the reason a well-known and almost revered citizen was driven from Hogwarts, his political career would be ruined. Harry could almost see Fudge's political life flashing before his eyes, causing his lips to rise in sardonic amusement. Harry had certainly never considered politics to be an enjoyable or even interesting profession, but at that moment he had to admit that the thrill of shredding the enemy's arguments and causing him to retreat in disarray was strangely appealing.
   "I assure you, ambassador, enrolling Mr. Potter in Beauxbatons will be unnecessary," an old, distinguished woman with steel gray hair and an absolutely enormous feathered hat spoke up from the lowest row of the Wizengamot. "Though the procedure of this hearing was unusual in the extreme, the intent of this body was merely to get to the bottom of the matter, regardless of what... others have led you to believe."
   Jean-Sebastian nodded his head in response. "I expect nothing less, honored member."
   "Minister," the woman continued, "I move that the letter of the law has been met in this instance and that the charges against Mr. Potter be dropped. Of course, if you wish it to avoid all appearance of favoritism, we can administer Veritaserum and call in the other witnesses."
   "Or I can cast my Patronus for you, if you'd like," Harry muttered, coloring when he realized his sarcastic comment had been clearly heard by the majority of the Wizengamot, including the elderly lady. She favored him with a smile and rolled her eyes in Fudge's direction.
   Fudge, though, was not amused and scowled at him, ignoring the chorus of laughter which met Harry's irreverent statement.
   "Did you wish to take Mr. Potter up on his offer, Minister?" Dumbledore interjected. His eyes were twinkling madly at his student, and he was clearly enjoying Harry's outburst and his somewhat impudent manner.
   Apparently deciding it was best ignore the jibe, Fudge stared down at Harry imperiously as though wishing the young man would say something further to injure his reputation. This time, Harry stayed silent, aware that his cheeky outburst had been forgiven once but would not be a second time.
   At length, Fudge raised his chin in a snooty gesture. "Very well," he stated, in a haughty tone. "It appears as though the Wizengamot has decided and further debating on the issue is futile. We will recognize Madam Longbottom's motion and drop all charges against Mr. Harry Potter. You are free to go, young man, but I must stress in the most serious manner that the Statute of Secrecy is not to be taken lightly."
   The tension he had felt since the incident was immediately released, and Harry slumped slightly in relief. He was not to be expelled and kicked out of the wizarding world! The thought of seeing his friends again and laughing about everything which had happened caused him to grin with delight. He smiled at the assembled Wizengamot and stated, none too coherently, that he understood and would avoid the use of magic unless absolutely necessary.
   Jean-Sebastian, it appeared, was not so easily appeased, if the stern and disapproving expression on his face was any indication. Fudge had apparently noticed Jean-Sebastian's expression as well, and he glared down at the man with open hostility.
   "If that is all - " he began, only to be cut off.
   "As it turns out, there is something else," Jean-Sebastian rejoined, his voice flat and unfriendly. "It has not escaped my attention that my new ward has been vilified in not only in your national newspaper," the word was spat out with some disgust, "but also by members of this government, even at the highest levels."
   What went unsaid was the fact that the Minister himself was the main driving force behind the things which had been said about Harry, but no one misunderstood the insinuation. Though Fudge's face darkened in response, he could hardly refute the charge, fact that it was.
   "So what would you propose, ambassador?" he snarled. "Mr. Potter has been exonerated in an open session of this Wizengamot. Does he wish for the post of Minister to add to his portfolio? I doubt even that would be enough of a boost to his ego."
   "Cornelius, this is exactly the attitude the ambassador is speaking of," Dumbledore interjected sternly.
   "I must insist you cease these constant attacks on my ward - I will not have the British public told sensational stories and outright lies about him."
   Fudge's eyes narrowed even further, and he glared at Jean-Sebastian.
   "Do I have your agreement, Minister?"
   "You do," Madam Longbottom interjected, fixing the recalcitrant Minister with a baleful glare. "Regardless of personal opinions or pending hearings, this government has a duty to protect all magicals, and the slandering of any citizen is not to be tolerated."
   "I concur," Dumbledore confirmed. "There will be no further opinions regarding Mr. Potter, or any other citizen, issued by any member of this government. I give you my word that any such attacks will be dealt with."
   Watching the Minister closely, Harry noticed the man himself said nothing, merely grunting in response to the strong statements which had been directed at him. Harry strongly suspected the Minister, as the top politician in the government, had never been hauled out on the carpet or spoken to in such a manner before. Or at least it had not happened since he had ascended to the Minister's office. It was equally obvious he was not appreciating the experience.
   But Jean-Sebastian was not done. "That is acceptable, Madam Longbottom, Dumbledore," he said. "But it is the prior statements which now concern me. These must be rectified so Harry can continue with his life without further prejudice."
   "And you wish to bring up the past again?" Fudge demanded. "Have we not given enough to Mr. Potter already?"
   "No, you have not," Jean-Sebastian enunciated clearly. "With all that has been said about him, especially in the past few weeks, it is clear that the wizarding public of this country has had a slanderous image of Mr. Potter painted for them. This must be addressed - otherwise the mistaken perceptions of his character will persist. I insist on a public apology, to be published in the Daily Prophet in tomorrow's edition."
   His lip curling once again in disgust, the Minister's eyes darted from Harry to Jean-Sebastian to Dumbledore and back to Harry again, clearly looking for some way out of his predicament. Unfortunately, no opportunity presented itself, and the reality of the situation was that he could not refuse without losing face even further than he already had.
   With a curt nod, he spoke, although it was clear the words were like ashes on his tongue. "An apology will be printed in the Prophet tomorrow. In return, Mr. Potter must cease making public claims of the return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."
   "Harry has offered the use of Veritaserum, Minister," Dumbledore cut in. "Will you not take him up on his offer?"
   "No!" Fudge stated vehemently. "I will not have the public panic and hysteria caused by such a story, as it is merely Mr. Potter's word and has not been confirmed. The use of Veritaserum does not rule out the possibility of hallucination or illusion: only that Mr. Potter believes what he says to be true."
   He directed an insincere smile in Harry's direction, causing Harry to scowl in return. "After all, Mr. Potter had been through a challenging task moments before his experience - there is nothing to say that what he thought he saw was not influenced by his fatigue or some overt trickery on the part of supporters of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, people intent on causing panic and destabilization. The events of the Quidditch World Cup have proved such people are still out there or that some other group wishes to make use of the fear they commanded during the war for their own purposes."
   "The Ministry will investigate Mr. Potter's claims and respond accordingly," Fudge concluded. "There is no need to incite a public panic at this time."
   Harry was unconvinced that Fudge would follow through with his pledge to investigate the matter - he struck Harry as the type of man who would ignore the unpleasant truth, hoping it would go away in time. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Dumbledore and Jean-Sebastian exchange a glance before their attention was returned to the Minister.
   "That would be acceptable, Minister," Dumbledore confirmed. "As the head of the Wizengamot, please keep me apprised of the progress of your investigation. If, as Harry has stated, Voldemort has returned, we will need to act quickly to prepare for a conflict with his forces."
   "Of course, Headmaster," the Minister said with another artificial smile. "You will be the first to know."
   ***
   Privately, Jean-Sebastian held no doubt the Minister would attempt to sweep it all under the carpet and do nothing about Voldemort's return - he had been unwilling to even entertain the notion in the first place, and his sudden about-face was suspicious in the extreme. However, knowing only the Minister had the authority to launch a full investigation, Jean-Sebastian realized his own hands were tied at present. He was a foreigner, after all, and he could only do so much.
   Still, there was one more matter which required attention, one which would provide Fudge another black eye. Or at least he hoped it would.
   "Minister, if I could have the indulgence of the Wizengamot, there is one other matter which needs to be discussed today."
   Fudge sighed and gazed down with exaggerated patience. "I think we have discussed the matter of Mr. Potter in great depth, ambassador. There is no need for further discourse. I assure you that everything which has been decided here today will be put into action at the earliest opportunity."
   "Minister, what I have to say has nothing to do with Mr. Potter. It does, however, have a great deal of significance for everyone here today."
   "I believe we need to let the ambassador speak, Minister," Dumbledore said. "The ambassador has discussed this with me previously, and this matter must inevitably come before the Wizengamot. It is better to discuss it now while we are all here."
   Although silent for several moments, peering at Jean-Sebastian suspiciously, Fudge finally acquiesced. "If you must, then make it quick - do not waste the time of the Wizengamot."
   Grinning with a feral intensity, Jean-Sebastian gave a slight, mocking bow. "Several months ago, I was contacted by Mr. Potter's guardian and made aware of his situation and the document which was used to ultimately conclude the engagement I have just spoken of. I was, I admit, absolutely astonished to be contacted by this person, but after taking the time to hear his story and verify it for myself, I understood his plight and agreed to assist him in any way possible to resolve his situation."
   Augusta Longbottom was clearly becoming impatient. "Ambassador, will you please come to the point? You have mentioned Mr. Potter's guardian several times, but you have not mentioned his name. Who are you speaking of?"
   "Mr. Potter's guardian is none other than Sirius Black."
   The pandemonium which greeted Jean-Sebastian's statement was immediate and louder than his previous declarations had caused. Jean-Sebastian stood there and watched as witches and wizards yelled in disbelief, letting loose their outrage that he, a foreigner, had dared meet with one of their most hated and reviled criminals. They would soon find out just who the enemy was, Jean-Sebastian thought grimly.
   With the assistance of Fudge's gavel, not to mention a concussion blast or two from the end of Dumbledore's wand, order was restored to the courtroom, although tempers were still high and threatened to flare at any moment.
   Fudge gazed down at Jean-Sebastian with an unpleasant sneer - Jean-Sebastian was certain Fudge thought he had finally found something with which to attack his enemy. How little the Minister understood.
   "How dare you cooperate with that murderer! Have you no decency at all? This man is a convicted killer, a mass murderer who was known to be after your charge when he escaped from Azkaban two years ago. Given your association with him, I wonder at the purpose of this alliance. Do you have some reason in conspiring with Black to gain control over the boy? And how can he even be considered to be Mr. Potter's guardian when he's a murderer?"
   "Minister," Jean-Sebastian began, choosing his words very carefully to ensure he was understood, "Sirius Black is an escapee from Azkaban, but you and I both know he is not a convicted killer!"
   "Of course he is," Fudge stammered. "He spent a dozen years in Azkaban for betraying Mr. Potter's parents to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and blowing up a street, killing Peter Pettigrew and twelve Muggles."
   "I am well aware of the time Mr. Black spent in Azkaban, Minister, but you don't have to act innocent. We both know he was put there without a trial."
   "And as for his being Harry's guardian," Dumbledore interjected, "it all has to do with the magic involved. Godparents are magically assigned - and as Sirius was never tried and convicted, the magic still recognizes him not only as Harry's godfather but also as his legal guardian. Nothing can change this until he is actually convicted of some wrongdoing - then the guardianship and position of godfather would pass to whomever the Potters designated next in their wills."
   Glancing around the room, the prevailing mood was one of shock - contrary to what Jean-Sebastian had suspected, it appeared that most, if not all of the British Wizengamot was not involved in whatever conspiracy had landed Sirius in Azkaban without due process. Either that or they were all exceptional actors. It would be a black eye on the collective Wizengamot, depending how it turned out Sirius had been denied a trial, something of which Jean-Sebastian was as of yet uncertain. He had had trouble digging up any information at all on the incarceration of Sirius Black, even with Dumbledore's help.
   "This is ridiculous!" the pink-clad woman spoke up, obviously offended by the statements being made. "Everyone knows that Black was found guilty and sentenced to life in Azkaban. Do you think we do not know the status of our own criminals?"
   "That's precisely what I am saying, Madam Umbridge," Jean-Sebastian replied. "Mr. Black stated to me, under the influence of Veritaserum, that upon being stunned by Aurors after confronting Peter Pettigrew, he awoke to find himself in Azkaban and was never taken to trial. Since the questioning of the perpetrator of such a serious crime under Veritaserum is standard procedure, I can only speculate that the trial never took place, unless some jumped-up mock trial was convened in which Mr. Black was not even allowed to defend himself. In either case, we seem to have a serious miscarriage of justice on our hands."
   "Chief Warlock, can you illuminate us on the history of Mr. Black and the ministry?"
   "Unfortunately not," Dumbledore replied with aplomb. "I became Chief Warlock more than a year after the war ended and was not involved in the decision. We were told that Minister Bagnold had convened a special tribunal of Wizengamot leaders and had found Sirius guilty and incarcerated him in Azkaban."
   Dumbledore began pacing the room, his arms clasped behind his back, a look of intense concentration engraved upon his face. "Although a tribunal is an unusual procedure, it is within the right of the Minister and Chief Warlock to agree to try a criminal in such a manner, especially if the trial is expected to be divisive, or if there is a risk of sensitive information being released to the public - the tribunal is thought to act on behalf of the Wizengamot in instances such as this. In Sirius's specific case, the Minister was concerned about the effect of a sensational trial of the betrayal of the Potters, who continue to be a very popular family, and with Harry's own burgeoning popularity due to the defeat of Voldemort, it was deemed necessary to conduct the trial as quickly and unobtrusively as possible."
   "And you never thought to question this?" Jean-Sebastian demanded, infuriated that his new friend had spent over a decade in the worst hell on earth without even the legal semblance of a trial. "Where are the checks on abuse of this procedure?"
   "The Wizengamot itself," Dumbledore responded. "You must understand that this is a course of action which is rarely invoked. If any member of the Wizengamot feels the decision rendered by the tribunal is incorrect, they can bring a motion to the body to have the case retried before the entire Wizengamot. In fact, any citizen may bring forward the same motion via a petition to the Wizengamot. The Wizengamot would then vote on whether to hear the case and whether to hear it in closed or open session."
   "Headmaster," Fudge interrupted, his voice strained, "I hardly think we should be speaking of this in full Wizengamot session. We should adjourn the court and take this up in private. I guarantee the Ministry will support any recommendation with respect to the status of Sirius Black and his escape from Azkaban."
   "On the contrary," Madam Bones spoke up, "I believe this is exactly what we need. Far too often, the doings of this body have been mired in secrecy, which has led to this situation, among others. Please continue, Dumbledore."
   Dumbledore bowed his head and continued. "With respect to Sirius, at the end of the First Wizarding War, our world was weary from years of guerilla warfare with Voldemort and heartsick over the deaths of the Potters, who many had considered heroes. The outpouring of sympathy for Harry's plight was such that the explanation was accepted and not questioned. No one would put forward a motion to grant the man a trial when the evidence against him seemed airtight.
   "Since Sirius's escape, I have searched for transcripts of the trial, affidavits signed by those involved, anything which would give an indication that the hearing actually took place. Regardless of the secrecy of the tribunal, records should still have been kept, records which would be sealed to all except the Minister, the Chief Warlock, and a few others in high and trustworthy positions. These records would provide information for future reference or evidence of a miscarriage of justice."
   Dumbledore stopped and gazed around the room, fixing each member with his expressionless stare in turn. "No such records exist. As Chief Warlock, I have the authority to access any records pertaining to any Wizengamot actions, regardless of how they were conducted. As no sign of them can be found, I conclude that the trial never took place."
   "This is all very interesting, but do you have a point in bringing this up?" Umbridge asked. "We all know Sirius Black was guilty of the crimes of which he was accused, and regardless of his trial or lack thereof, you have still communicated with a murderer on the run from the Ministry."
   Jean-Sebastian smirked at the unpleasant woman. The expression on Fudge's face told him that the Minister knew exactly why they were now referring to Sirius Black, but his pink lackey clearly had no idea of what Harry's claims regarding Pettigrew were. Wizarding Britain was about to receive a very nasty shock.
   "Harry, would you like to do the honors?"
   His new ward appeared somewhat surprised at being spoken to, but he screwed up his courage admirably and spoke in a clear voice. "Sirius didn't betray my parents, it was Peter Pettigrew."
   "Peter Pettigrew!" the woman shrieked. "He was murdered by Black along with those Muggles - his finger was the only part of his body the Aurors could find! Headmaster Dumbledore has confirmed that Black was your parents' secret keeper - why do you persist in defending your parents' murderer?"
   "Because Sirius Black was not their secret keeper when they were betrayed," Harry responded. "Sirius convinced my parents to switch to Peter Pettigrew, feeling Peter was the least obvious choice. They hoped to throw Voldemort off the trail."
   "And how do you know this?" a voice rang out from the upper sections of the chamber.
   Harry glanced apprehensively at Dumbledore - the headmaster gave a shrug, which was accompanied by Jean-Sebastian's smile of encouragement.
   "I met him in my third year," Harry stated, causing the Wizengamot to fall silent in amazement. "He unmasked Pettigrew as the Weasleys' pet rat, Scabbers, and he and I were almost kissed by Dementors put there to protect the school by the Ministry."
   Fudge had the grace to appear somewhat embarrassed at Harry's testimony - the decision to place Dementors at Hogwarts and the trouble they had caused there, particularly for Harry, had been lambasted in the press for months after they had been ordered back to Azkaban.
   "And what happened to Pettigrew?" another voice asked.
   "He escaped that night before we could get him back to the castle," Harry responded, not wanting to get into the exact details of the events from that evening. "The next time I saw him was when he performed the ritual to return Voldemort at the end of June."
   "Chief Warlock, did you know of the switch in secret keepers?" Jean-Sebastian asked. "I seem to remember you were heavily involved with prosecuting the war against Voldemort and that you had a hand in the Potters' defense."
   "Unfortunately, I didn't know at the time," Dumbledore responded somewhat sadly. "James, Peter, and Sirius enacted the switch with the utmost in secrecy, telling no one else of what they had done. I learned nothing about it until after Sirius escaped from Azkaban."
   "And if I had known," he continued after a moment's thought, "I would have counseled against it. I had known all four boys since their entrance into Hogwarts, and knew that Pettigrew was not quite made of the same stuff as the other three. Although I had no idea he was a traitor, I knew that should he be captured, Voldemort would learn of the Potters' location immediately - Peter was not the type to resist Voldemort's torture to protect his friends." Harry noted the flinches from around the room at the mention of Voldemort's name, but Dumbledore either did not notice, or ignored them. "I feared he would give up any information, do anything to avoid continued mistreatment at the hands of Voldemort, regardless of whether Voldemort knew he was the secret keeper. At the time, we were aware of a leak in our ranks, but we suspected the wrong friend - Remus Lupin was our primary suspect in part due to his status as a werewolf and the known association of a number of werewolf packs with the forces of Voldemort. I deeply regret our lack of vision in this matter."
   With Dumbledore's statement, all noise in the Wizengamot chamber ceased, giving over to contemplation of what had been revealed. It appeared the British legislative body as a whole was not happy with the situation, but with the testimony they had just heard, they could not deny the need for a trial for Sirius.
   With any luck, Jean-Sebastian reflected grimly, heads will roll over this - especially Fudge's. The fool was told of this over a year ago and denied all possibility of Sirius' innocence, doing nothing to ensure justice was done.
   Glancing over at Harry, Jean-Sebastian saw a mixture of hope and longing in the young man's face. Knowing what he did of Harry's background with his relatives, Jean-Sebastian reached out and squeezed the young man's shoulder, reassuring him that all which could be done for his godfather would be done. It was time to drive the point home and leave this place - his time dealing with British politics and their Wizengamot had left a sour taste in Jean-Sebastian's mouth.
   "Minister, you have the testimony of my charge that Sirius Black is alive and means no harm to him and that Peter Pettigrew is not only still alive, but also the real betrayer of James and Lily Potter and the murderer of those twelve Muggles. Harry, will you agree to be put under the influence of Veritaserum to confirm your statements?"
   "Absolutely," came the resolute reply.
   His eyes were still pinched with displeasure as he glared down at Harry, but for the moment, the British Minister made no response.
   "Until such time as Mr. Black receives a proper trial for his actions, the French Ministry has made an offer of asylum to him. He will be treated for his time spent in Azkaban and has agreed to return to Britain to stand trial."
   Ten minutes previous, such a statement would have set off a firestorm of indignation from the assembled members of the Wizengamot; however, the revelations about the true situation rendered the chamber silent - no one would risk their reputations, or the reputation of the body as a whole, by raising an objection to such a reasonable and lawful suggestion.
   "In addition, although I will take up Mr. Potter's guardianship for now, once Mr. Black has been exonerated - and we are certain he will be - he will once again take over his rightful duty. Please keep me and the French Ministry informed of the time of his trial so we can return him to Britain."
   "Ambassador," Dumbledore interjected from Jean-Sebastian's side, "I give you my word as Chief Warlock that Mr. Black will be given a trial."
   When Jean-Sebastian bowed in response, Dumbledore continued. "Given what I suspect is the state of his health after his long incarceration and his time on the run, perhaps it would be better to delay the hearing until he is feeling somewhat recovered from his ordeal. Perhaps sometime in September would be prudent?"
   "I will speak to our healers and have them provide an update of his condition."
   "Thank you, ambassador." Dumbledore turned his gaze on the Minister. "Minister, since Sirius is now the guest of the French Ministry, it would be prudent to alert the Muggle authorities that he is no longer sought after. Please liaise with your counterpart in the Muggle government."
   Although he appeared like he was trying to swallow a whole grapefruit, Fudge nodded his head curtly.
   Dumbledore then gazed around the silent Wizengamot chamber. "I would also like to step from my role as Chief Warlock and state as Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards that the ICW supports the actions of the French Ministry and the ambassador in the matter of Sirius Black's asylum in France and the marriage contract enacted between Harry Potter and Fleur Delacour. As the ambassador mentioned earlier, the ICW has voted overwhelmingly for support in these matters."
   He paused to let the import of his statements sink in. "Now, if there are no further matters to discuss, perhaps we should adjourn these proceedings."
   Appearing to wish nothing more than to remove himself from the site of his embarrassing defeat, Fudge acquiesced most ungraciously with a muttered agreement, coupled with a sharp rap from his gavel. In moments, he had gathered his belongings and stalked from the room, his faithful pink puppy hard on his heels.
   As the assembled members began to file from the room, Jean-Sebastian turned to Harry and Dumbledore, shaking both of their hands firmly. The expression of surprise and embarrassment on young Harry's face was amusing, while slightly concerning to Jean-Sebastian. Harry, it appeared, badly needed a measure of confidence and care, something he was not receiving from his relatives. Jean-Sebastian's family, although the marriage contract had been a shock, had fully committed to providing that to the young man, an effort which Sirius would certainly join enthusiastically.
   Sensing the young man had some questions for him, Jean-Sebastian turned to Dumbledore and thanked him for his support. "If I could have a few moments' indulgence, I believe Harry has some questions for me. I still need to speak with the Minister about one other piece of business - will you ensure he does not run off with his tail between his legs before I can meet him?"
   Dumbledore laughed quietly in response. "I do not doubt the Minister will be unexcited by such a request, but I will see to it that we have a short time with him. Shall we say in half an hour from now?"
   Jean-Sebastian nodded his head and motioned for Harry to follow him from the courtroom.
   ***
   A bewildered Harry Potter followed his benefactor from the courtroom, dazed at the events of the previous half hour. It would take some time for him to assimilate the information and changes to his life.
   Still, it seemed to be for the better - at the very least, it appeared he would not have to return to the Dursleys', even if he was about to be forced into a marriage with someone he hardly knew.
   And he had gained a significant ally. If he was any judge at all, Jean-Sebastian appeared to be a strong, no-nonsense leader who would not only fight for the rights of Harry's godfather, but also present a warm, comfortable home for him until Sirius was physically fit again. Knowing what he did of other families, Harry knew he had suffered from the lack of some manner of support from a family unit - he knew he had missed it desperately. Perhaps this would be the start of a new chapter in his life, one which was not all darkness and despair. He could only hope.
   They walked through the hallways of the Ministry, avoiding the small groups of Wizengamot elders who had stopped here and there to confer with one another and the other Ministry employees who dotted the hallways, going about whatever business the Ministry was doing that day.
   As they approached the stairway leading up to the upper levels, Harry's line of sight was caught by the woman in garish pink. She was watching him, the same sickeningly sweet expression plastered on her face, while in contrast, her cold eyes seemed to impale him from a distance. He returned her gaze unflinchingly, causing her smile to slip into a frown of displeasure, before following Jean-Sebastian up the stairs and reflecting he had made another enemy this day. Of course, given the way she had conducted herself in the courtroom, he suspected she had turned up already opposed to him for some unfathomable reason.
   "We'll take the stairway down to level one," Jean-Sebastian commented. "No sense exposing you to the masses in the Atrium so soon after the hearing."
   Harry agreed immediately, grateful the man understood his aversion to crowds, especially in light of his unwanted fame.
   On the first floor of the Ministry building, Jean-Sebastian commandeered a small conference room, and after ensuring the door was closed for complete privacy, he turned and took a seat, motioning for Harry to do the same.
   "Well, Harry," Jean-Sebastian began, slight amusement coloring his voice, "It's a lot to take in over the course of less than an hour, isn't it?"
   "Yes, sir," Harry replied automatically.
   Smiling, Jean-Sebastian waved Harry's words off. "Harry, I've just become your temporary guardian, and I will be your father-in-law at some point - I do not stand on ceremony. There is no need to call me sir. Jean-Sebastian will suffice."
   Appreciating the fact that the man wished to have more of an equal relationship with him than just guardian and ward, Harry relaxed slightly, allowing a small smile to come over his face.
   "Thank you, Jean-Sebastian. It is a lot to take in."
   "Do not worry - I am certain you will have lots of time to think about the changes. Sirius is staying in my chateau in France while he undergoes treatment for his time in Azkaban. You will see him when we go there today."
   "I've never been to France," Harry responded nervously. "Do you mean for us to stay there until school starts again?"
   "Actually, we will be moving to England in the very near future, but that's something I still need to discuss with your Minister. You will only be in France for a few days at most."
   Harry nodded, digesting the fact that he would see Sirius - he had been concerned and surprised when he had not seen his godfather at Grimmauld Place. Dumbledore had assured him that all was well, but he had refused to tell him any more, saying that it was not his place and that no one else had had any information on Sirius's whereabouts. He was reassured to know his godfather was now being cared for by real healers.
   "I'm sorry, s... Jean-Sebastian..." Harry stammered, noting the grin at his near slip-up. Harry found himself smiling in response, appreciating the fact that his new guardian was this so personable and easy to deal with.
   Trying again, Harry took a deep breath. "I just wanted to say... I'm sorry for my reaction in the courtroom to your announcement. It's all just..."
   Jean-Sebastian reached over and grasped Harry's shoulder. "As I said before, Harry, I am not upset. I knew this would be a lot for you to take in - it's not every day you find out you are engaged to someone you barely know."
   "No, it isn't," Harry responded in a quiet voice, thinking of his friends and how they would react. The thoughts he had had of Hermione and Ron this morning did not seem to matter any longer, considering the new reality of his situation. "I can't imagine Fleur is very happy about it either."
   "She was not when I first told her of what would happen," Jean-Sebastian responded with amusement. "You have to understand, Harry, although arranged marriages are not common any longer, they are still done often enough that every child raised in the magical world is aware of the possibility their spouse may be chosen for them by their parents. Fleur was surprised and not very happy about the development - she is not the type to take anything done without her consent with any degree of contentment - but we discussed it, and I believe she has become at the very least resigned to the situation. It may not have been what she would have chosen, but it is better than a lot of young women in her position can expect."
   At Harry's questioning glance, Jean-Sebastian shook his head. "That's something you will have to ask Fleur - it has to do with being a Veela. She can explain it much better than I can."
   Harry's curiosity was piqued, but he refrained from questioning his guardian any further on the subject, knowing his questions would not be answered.
   "Fleur is at least acquainted with you and respects you, so you are both starting out better than many who end up in arranged marriages. I do not know what will happen in the future, but I believe you will do well together."
   Dubiously regarding his companion, Harry responded, "Fleur respects me?"
   Jean-Sebastian let out a loud laugh and shook his head. "So, I see you have been subjected to the infamous Fleur mask of arrogance."
   At Harry's expression of incomprehension, Jean-Sebastian let out a few more chuckles and - wiping his eyes - gathered himself to face his ward. "Again, perhaps this is not my story to tell, but Fleur's arrogance is somewhat of a... show, if you will."
   Jean-Sebastian eyed Harry before continuing. "You will have to go to her for details, but you should understand it is not easy to be a Veela when you are surrounded by others who are jealous of your abilities. Surely you have felt some measure of this yourself."
   It was only the truth, Harry reflected, and he was suddenly glad of the fact he had decided to reserve judgment. He had never thought of the difficulty she would have to face every day, the jealousy and distrust others must feel toward a girl who by all accounts could turn any head, could steal any boyfriend, merely by turning on her Veela allure, without even resorting to her incredible physical beauty. He did not know Fleur beyond a simple, basic acquaintance, but he thought he knew enough to deduce she was not the type to behave in such a fashion, regardless of what others may think of her. Either way, she certainly had not done so when he had been able to witness it.
   "I understand," he responded quietly.
   "Good," Jean-Sebastian approved. "I trust you and Fleur will take the time to get to know one another."
   "Yes, sir," Harry responded without thinking, prompting another fond smile from Jean-Sebastian
   "Now, Harry, in answer to your question, yes, Fleur does respect you. Your courage during the tournament, the way you held yourself under the most trying of circumstances, the manner in which you beat the odds to win - they all definitely made an impression on my daughter."
   Harry's cheeks were burning at the praise, especially since it was coming from a man who was speaking as though he had heard these praises from his beautiful daughter. The rush of color did not go unnoticed either, as he immediately saw his new benefactor grinning in response to Harry's embarrassment.
   "But more especially, Harry, I believe she respects you and is grateful to you for your actions during the second task. You may not be aware of this, but Veela are beings of fire. Fleur's powers are at their lowest within the element of water, which is why she found it difficult, if not impossible, to defeat the grindylows which attacked her as she searched for her sister."
   Jean-Sebastian's eyes became misty as he recollected what must have been a painful experience for him and his family. "I was so worried for her - and for Gabrielle when I learned she was under the water as well - and did not sleep well for weeks in advance of the second task once Fleur told me what it entailed. Although every precaution was taken to ensure the safety of all the participants, you are well aware of the dangers inherent in the tasks, regardless of precautions."
   A smile broke over Jean-Sebastian's face. "Nice bit of flying during the first task, by the way. I don't think I've ever seen the like in all my years."
   Harry felt his face become hot yet again, but this time Jean-Sebastian was not paying attention, lost as he was in the recollection of the previous school year.
   "Knowing the nature of the tasks and the skill and courage needed to face them, place yourself in Fleur's shoes, and think of how it was for her, going into a task which was already intrinsically dangerous, but also being held in an element which is the antithesis of the majority of your powers. Fleur was at a serious disadvantage in that task, even greater than your own disadvantage throughout the entire tournament due to your being younger than the other champions.
   "Then, consider the fact that Fleur loves her sister very much, and when she discovered her missing on the morning of the task, she was frantic, knowing her handicap in the task, and seriously questioned her ability to save her sister. And then the grindylows attacked and her worst fears were realized. You heard how the clue was worded - she emerged from the lake shivering and injured, but even more so, she was heartsick at her failure, deeply afraid of what may become of her sister.
   "Then, against all hope, her sister emerges from the lake, and the means of her rescue is a boy who, in her own words, she had 'treated as though he was the lowest form of dirt to be scraped from the bottom of her shoes'. She was ashamed for her actions and words - had been ashamed of them for months - but her relief and joy were so great in the rescue of her sister that she expressed herself as gratefully as she was able. Believe me, Harry, she more than respects you. Any more than that, I think you'll have to hear from her yourself."
   Harry was struggling with the praise - he did not think he had done anything especially noteworthy or heroic. He had been in a position to help someone, or so he thought, and he had taken that opportunity. Who would not? And it had all been so pointless - if he had thought about it at the time, he would have realized Dumbledore would never have allowed someone to be lost forever just because one of the champions had failed to retrieve their hostage.
   "But Jean-Sebastian, it was all so pointless. The hostages were never in any danger at all - the Headmaster told me after the task."
   Jean-Sebastian merely shook his head. "Don't try to deflect praise, Harry - it is very unbecoming. Did you believe at the time that my daughter would be lost if she were not rescued?"
   At Harry's brief nod, he continued. "Then does the deed have any less meaning knowing in hindsight that it was ultimately unnecessary? Perhaps if you had thought about it further, you would have realized the hostages were safe regardless of your actions, but that does nothing to erase the fact that you acted heroically to save another person's life based on the information you possessed at the time."
   "Hermione calls it my saving people thing," Harry responded with some embarrassment.
   Jean-Sebastian threw his head back and roared with laughter, wiping the tears from his eyes as he shook his head in mirth. Harry had to acknowledge his laughter with a grin of his own - he had to admit it was amusing to have his impulse to help others described in such a manner.
   "I guess it is at that," Jean-Sebastian finally responded, shaking his head between bouts of laughter. "But that's why I felt I had a debt to you, Harry. I'm not certain how much you understand about these things, but debts are taken very seriously in the magical world. They are generally magical in nature and can comprise of anything from monetary debts to life debts - technically, you saved my daughter's life, which binds you to my family by magic. If you were to invoke this debt, it would make the bond even stronger, allowing you access to many other demands you could make to my family... and to Gabrielle in particular.
   "And then there is the matter of what you did for Fleur during the third task. I presume it was you who rescued her when she was unconscious in the maze?"
   Slightly scared as to where this was leading, Harry nodded his head. "She was being held by some vines. I freed her, then shot sparks out of my wand so she would be rescued."
   Looking thoughtful, Jean-Sebastian steepled his fingers for a moment before continuing. "In that case as well, it is uncertain what would have ultimately happened to Fleur. Whether a declared life debt would ever take hold if you were to invoke either incident I cannot say, but I still cannot ignore the matter."
   Struggling somewhat with the concept, Harry tentatively regarded Jean-Sebastian. "What kind of demands would I be able to ask for?"
   Jean-Sebastian shrugged. "There are many, depending on the degree of the debt and the relationship between the parties. Essentially, though, if you called in your debt to either of my girls, they would not be able to harm you, ever, and they may even be forced to take other actions, such as defending you against your enemies and the like."
   Seeing Harry's look of relief, Jean-Sebastian chuckled and slapped him on the back. "Do not worry, Harry, they could not be forced to do anything immoral or illegal - magic does not work that way. You could not make them do anything they feel is wrong or degrading, you would just be able to control their intentions and actions against yourself and anyone with whom you associate."
   "Was this why you helped me?"
   "In part," Jean-Sebastian responded. "Yes, I feel a debt exists between us, and my openly supporting you, assisting in the trial, and betrothing you to Fleur is a measure of repaying that debt.
   "But another part of my reasoning is out of concern for my daughter."
   He regarded Harry, who squirmed somewhat uncomfortably, before continuing. "I have told you very briefly of some of the challenges Fleur faces and some of my worries for her future. I am secure enough in your character and in your personality that by betrothing her to you I know she will be well taken care of and will be loved and valued for herself. Now I do not need to worry about the possibility she will never find someone or, worse yet, that she will eventually fall in love with someone who cares nothing for her but wants her for a plaything or a trophy to show his friends. It was not long ago that such a fate was all too common for Veela. Now that Fleur is taken care of, I only need to worry about Gabrielle, and she is many years from that, as she is still only nine years old.
   "And of course, the situation with this Lord Voldemort of yours played into my decision. You will be in direct conflict with this dark lord, and he seems to have taken an unhealthy interest in you. But I understand what this government of yours seems not to - eventually, if he is able to take over England, it will be too small for him, and he will start looking beyond its borders. By supporting you, who I believe will be instrumental in the effort against him, I am helping to defend my own homeland as well as yours."
   "Thank you, sir," Harry responded, filled with emotion. Jean-Sebastian spoke to him as an adult and treated him as if he was a person of worth - rarely had he experienced that from adults of his acquaintance.
   "You are welcome, Harry," Jean-Sebastian replied with a warm smile. "I can see already that we will become great friends. Now, did you have anything else you wanted to ask me?"
   Harry thought about it momentarily before venturing another question. "How did this marriage contract come about?"
   "It was your grandfather and my father, Harry," Jean-Sebastian answered after a moment's thought. "Fifty years ago, your grandfather was the English Ambassador to France. My father, Jean-Francois Delacour, was a member of the upper echelons of the French government. They met and became friends with one another and ultimately created the marriage contract to bind their families together. The contract was worded in such a way that it was to bind a firstborn Potter and a firstborn Delacour. But as I am the eldest sibling in my family and your father was your grandfather's only child, the contract went unfulfilled.
   "This is why I am able to betroth my daughter to you - you are both firstborn in your respective families, meeting the conditions of the contract."
   "But what would have happened if we were not betrothed?" Harry asked worriedly. "I've heard that breach of contract can have some disastrous results in the magic world."
   "That is correct," Jean-Sebastian said with a wry smile, "but in this case you do not need to worry. Until the contract is accepted by both parties - or in the case of a marriage contract, the guardians of both parties - it is not binding. I did not even know my father had done this - it was Sirius who was searching through some old papers belonging to your father, who found it and alerted me to its existence."
   "But isn't Fleur of age? Wouldn't she have to agree to the marriage contract herself?"
   "Fleur is of age," Jean-Sebastian confirmed. "But in the magical world, children are still bound to their parents in a number of ways, the most of important of which in this case, is in relation to my status as the head of the Delacour family. Regardless of her age, I can still negotiate a marriage contract on her behalf, if I believe it is in the best interest of the family.
   "Now, of course I would take her wishes into account, and if she had a serious boyfriend or fiancИ, or had reservations about this marriage, I would likely have tried to find another way to help you. I could have forced her into it, though, as long as she was not already married - there are a few things I cannot override, and an already existing marriage is one of them.
   "Of course, many parents might not take these things into account. I love my daughters and want them to be happy, but to many, especially in traditional Pureblood society, children are often merely pawns used to set up alliances between houses - their wishes are not taken into account. I like to think that I am somewhat more civilized than that."
   It made a certain amount of sense, Harry reflected, and fit in with a lot of what he knew about family groups in the magical world. It was also comforting that although Jean-Sebastian could have forced his daughter into this, he did not, and would not have. As he had said before, she was at least resigned to it - maybe in time they could actually grow into an appreciation or even love for each other.
   "Did you know my father?" Harry asked hesitantly, hoping he had one more link to his dead parents.
   "I did indeed. I lived in England for a time when I was a child - it is the reason I speak English without much of an accent. As my father was close to your grandfather, we were regular playmates, and even though I was a few years older than your father, we were great friends as well. Unfortunately, when we returned to France before I started my schooling, my father died tragically a short time later, and we lost contact with your family."
   Harry nodded, slightly choked with emotion. He had someone else who knew his father as a young boy, which meant another connection. It was not much, but it meant the world to him.
   "Well, young Harry, I think our half hour is almost up," Jean-Sebastian said, rising to his feet. "You undoubtedly have more questions, but I believe we will have time to answer them in the coming weeks."
   Agreeing, Harry followed his new guardian from the room, reflecting that his life was undergoing massive changes. It was not what he had expected, but his time alone with Jean-Sebastian had reassured him all would be well.

Chapter 3 - Meetings

   While a Wizengamot session would not normally be broadcast out to the general public, in this instance Fudge, seemingly confident of his case and wanting to make certain the entire population witnessed the downfall of the great Harry Potter, had ordered the proceedings open to all. Now, with his arguments in ruins and the young man exonerated, his hasty and overconfident decision appeared to have backfired, almost ensuring his popularity, which was always an iffy thing at best, would take a huge hit. How much of a hit - and whether it would ultimately cost him his job - remained to be seen.
   While most of the country paid at least some attention to the proceedings (Harry Potter was, after all, big news in the British wizarding world), nowhere was the broadcast so intently dissected as in the house at Grimmauld Place. The affection and friendship for the young man felt by most in that house, ensured the general anxiety level would be high, regardless of the outwardly confident statements of the various occupants that Dumbledore would never allow Harry to be expelled. And while they had all voiced the same platitudes at some point in time, each had his or her own doubts of the eventual outcome of the trial and the fate of the young man who had become important to each and every one of them. Every phase of the trial was carefully listened to and agonized over, and while there were enough twists and turns in the proceedings to do a murder novel proud, when the verdict was known and the charges were dropped by the Minister, a general feeling of relief over Harry's exoneration was felt through out the house.
   But beyond the relief and the satisfaction for the way Jean-Sebastian had insisted on the public apology, the reaction to the news of Harry's betrothal to the beautiful French witch was about as varied as there were people in the room.
   Remus, ever the Marauder and aware of the great prank which had just been perpetrated on the Minister, was silently cheering his friend on, thankful that Sirius had done something to assist his godson rather than mope around Grimmauld. He was also happy Sirius would finally receive the treatment he needed and the exoneration he deserved - Remus, to be truthful, still harbored feelings of guilt for believing Sirius capable of the betrayal for which he had spent so many years of his life locked away.
   Tonks, who had met Harry barely a week before and already considered him to be an honorary little brother, was contemplating the great opportunity to tease her shy friend about his engagement to the beautiful French girl. But beyond that, she was contemplating how she could help the young man further in his development and struggle against the dark lord, who seemed to have targeted the young man. She was an Auror - and though quite new to her position, she still felt she could be of some use to the young man by teaching him what she knew. The ability to fight would only help him in the coming struggle, and he was, after all, of an age and maturity where he could now be taught some of the more complicated spells which would eventually serve him.
   Fred and George were merely happy for their friend, sharing a knowing glance - as only twins as close as they were could - that such an unusual happening was undoubtedly normal for Harry's decidedly odd world.
   And Bill Weasley, though he really did not know Harry well at all, was happy the likeable young man had received the justice he was due. Beyond that, he was nevertheless arrested by an indefinable sense of loss - he had seen the young French witch at the tournament the previous June and been instantly smitten by her. And now she was out of reach.
   Ginny was the most vocal in her response - although this was perhaps not surprising to those around her - as she gasped loudly and then started wailing, throwing her arms around her mother and sobbing bitterly about the unfairness of the world.
   While she was comforting her daughter, Molly Weasley, although not as noticeably upset with the development, was at least as angry - she had always held out hope that Harry would take a fancy to her youngest child and join their family through marriage. That she had encouraged her young daughter from the earliest time of Ginny's memory - and thereby in part helped cause the infatuation which now led to her daughter's distress - was something she did not even consider. Molly had known Harry's parents when they were young, and after she had finally produced a daughter a little more than a year after Harry's birth, she had immediately gotten the idea that her little Ginevra would be the perfect mate for the young Potter heir. Those plans were, of course, now completely in ruins.
   ***
   For Ron Weasley, the reaction was a little more complex than most, partially due to his close association with Harry and all that had passed between them, especially in the last year, and partially due to his feelings for a certain brown-haired witch.
   Simply put, Ron had self-esteem issues, although he had certainly never considered it in such a way himself. The youngest of six boys, he always felt as though he was struggling to keep up with the legacy of five successful and popular brothers, not to mention a younger sister who was the darling of the family due to her being the first daughter born to the Weasley line in several generations. Add to that the fact that he had made, quite by accident, a close friend in Harry Potter, the most famous person of his generation, and it was quite easy to see why Ron sometimes felt a little lost in the shuffle.
   It was the issue of Harry's fame which had partially been behind their problems during the tournament. It was not like Ron truly believed Harry had cheated his way into the tournament or that he was seeking more fame. Or at least that is what he came to understand in hindsight, once the realization of the true reason Harry had been entered into the tournament had set in. After all, his close association with his friend dictated that Ron, more than anyone else except perhaps Hermione, knew how much Harry hated his fame. But when Harry's name came out of that goblet, to Ron it was yet another instance of Harry getting all the glory. It did not matter whether he wanted it. Ron craved a little more recognition for himself, though certainly not the fame and adulation Harry routinely received, which he understood would be exasperating. No, what Ron had in mind was to receive just enough so he could finally be known as Ron Weasley... rather than "best friend to the Boy-Who-Lived" or "the youngest Weasley boy".
   Of course, now he bitterly regretted his hasty and unthinking declaration the previous Halloween night. In true Harry fashion, once Ron had made the first move, Harry had offered his forgiveness without a single bat of an eye - Harry had the biggest heart Ron had ever seen, especially when one considered his upbringing. In anyone else, the effect of his neglectful guardians would have produced quite the opposite kind of person, Ron was certain. But despite Harry's forgiveness and acceptance of Ron's apology, it had introduced a distance between the two, a distance which had never been there before... and which Ron was uncertain how to bridge.
   But even more than the distance between Ron and his best friend, Ron regretted the fact that his behavior had essentially pushed Hermione away from him. Of course Hermione had supported and believed Harry - Ron should have known she would. Hermione had grown up as much of an outsider as Harry - there was no way she would have given up such a friendship without some catastrophic event to completely destroy it. And this did not even take into account the closeness she had always shared with Harry, a closeness which Ron suspected surpassed even that between Ron and Harry.
   And while Harry was his best friend, he wanted Hermione to be more - so much more. Of course, his friendship with Hermione remained the same as ever; as always, they mixed equal parts hanging out and sticking up for one another with an equal part of fighting with one another.
   However, Ron had been making an attempt to argue less with her while trying to appear more in tune with her personality - almost like he was wooing her without making any overt moves. It had been difficult - after all, the things in which she was most interested, books and studying, did not really mesh well with his love of Quidditch and chess. Regardless of their different personalities, Hermione was turning into an attractive young woman, one who he would love to know on a more personal, intimate basis. If only it was not for Harry.
   But then that was not fair either - Harry was the linchpin that kept them together, after all, and Ron was aware that Hermione would likely never have been more than just another annoying girl in his year without Harry.
   But without Harry, there would also be no competition for her affections - of that he was certain.
   Some people considered Ron slightly slow and thick when it came to those around him, and objectively, Ron knew he tended to be single-minded and to miss things that others would pick up on. But Ron was anything but stupid, and he was far above average in some areas. He had made an attempt to be more observant around his friends this summer, particularly watching for any hint of affection beyond that of mere friendship between his closest friends.
   And what he had seen between them had not encouraged him at all - without seeming to be aware of it, they were close, far too close for Ron's comfort. Their eyes lingered on one another a little too long, they touched more than was necessary - nothing more as of yet than a comforting hand on the shoulder or the tips of their fingers on an arm to emphasize a point - and they truly seemed in sync with one another. It all would have appeared platonic and completely innocent to the disinterested observer, yet to the newly observant Ron their actions had spoken loudly and uncomfortably for his ambitions.
   The major problem, to Ron's point of view, was the fact that if it came down to a choice between him and Harry, Ron was almost certain what Hermione's choice would be - and it would not be in his favor. Consciously or unconsciously, Hermione would always put Harry first, and if Harry were to express any interest at all in Hermione, Ron knew her choice would be made without even thinking about it. There would be nothing he could do to alter her preference.
   But then this morning's events had completely thrown everything for a loop, but amazingly enough, it had worked to Ron's advantage. Being betrothed to another, Harry could hardly be any competition to Ron's pursuit of Hermione any longer, a fact which had Ron elated. It seemed fate had intervened in his favor for once.
   But then the other side of Ron, the jealous prat who had reared his ugly head the previous year in the tournament, was slightly put off that Harry had once again, through no effort of his own, seemed to fall into a good situation. He had become engaged in an instant to a young woman who was possibly the most beautiful Ron had ever laid eyes on. How in Merlin's name did Harry get so lucky?
   Shaking his head, Ron turned his thoughts away from his musings and peered surreptitiously at the young woman he hoped would become much more in his life than a mere friend. Hermione sat quietly staring intently at something only she could see, appearing as conflicted as he felt. She seemed somewhat disappointed to Ron's point of view, no doubt unhappy Harry was now off the market.
   Still, that again could work to Ron's advantage. Perhaps he could be there for her - provide a sympathetic ear to listen to her troubles.
   That was it, Ron decided. He would forget about Harry's good fortune and concentrate on his own. He would win Hermione's heart!
   ***
   The subject of Ron's musings was engulfed in thoughts of her own.
   Harry was free. He would not be taken from her - he would return to Hogwarts with her this year, and everything would be unchanged from what it was before.
   But Hermione knew it was not the truth - everything had changed. Certainly Harry would continue to be her best friend and confidante; they would continue to do everything together, she would still see him every day.
   But it would all be different, too. The new Harry would be promised in marriage to another, and eventually he would owe his allegiance to someone else. She would stop being the most important female in his life.
   Hermione knew she should be happy for Harry - happy he had managed to avoid the fate for which Fudge had been pressing; happy he would continue to be a factor in her life.
   But a part of her - a small, indefinable part which she could not shake - felt nothing but sorrow over the news of his betrothal to the beautiful French witch. How could she possibly compete with someone like Fleur Delacour? Of course, there was no competition. He was now engaged; it was done. Nothing she could do would change that fact. She would never be anything more to him than a best friend, and even that would slip away as they matured.
   How could this have happened? How had she developed these feelings for her best friend without even realizing it? How had it managed to slip past her over-organized mind, one which was usually so adept at catching every little thing? What was she to do now?
   Automatically, she glanced over at her other friend, Ron Weasley, who appeared to be lost in a world of his own. Hermione was not unaware of Ron's feelings for her. He was not the type to hide his emotions; they were usually plain for anyone to see, and Hermione was nothing if not observant. Although she had not been aware of it, her attention had largely been on Harry since he had arrived at Grimmauld Place, and she knew that attention had in turn garnered the attention of her other best friend.
   What Hermione did not know was whether she could return Ron's feelings.
   Ron was a good friend and while he did occasionally descend into jealous fits and he argued with her incessantly, he was also fiercely protective of her. Hermione had always known there was an even chance she would end up with one of her two best friends, but until now, she had always assumed it would be Harry rather than Ron. She and Harry made a much better match than she and Ron. For one thing, they did not always argue, and while her tendency to boss and nag did annoy him as much as it did Ron (in her own defense, she was learning to curb that particular facet of her personality), she knew her drive and determination helped his sometimes lackadaisical manner, whereas his boundless courage and ability to have fun helped balance her own tendency toward overwork and occasional timidity. She seriously doubted she could have had the courage to punch Malfoy in the third year without Harry's influence.
   What did she have in common with Ron? Nothing sprang to mind, but what she did remember were their frequent arguments and Ron's tendency to belittle her achievements and anything with which she found enjoyment.
   Still, it was apparent that if she was to end up with one of her best friends, it would be Ron, as Harry was now unavailable. It was a difficult admission to make, but she knew for the good of them both she had no choice but to suppress the feelings she had always harbored for Harry.
   But could she transfer those feelings to Ron?
   ***
   Leaving Harry outside in the waiting room, Jean-Sebastian entered the minister's office, finding the Headmaster and Minister waiting for him, one with a welcoming smile and the other with an exaggerated mask of patience engraved upon his face. Jean-Sebastian barely held back from rolling his eyes at the man - his attitude was only to be expected from such a cowardly excuse for a minister. Hopefully, this meeting would take him down another peg or two.
   The office was large and lavishly furnished and decorated. The furniture was of the finest dragonhide, the walls were dotted with paintings, and every nook and cranny was filled with objects and artwork, stowed here and there with little apparent thought to organization or style. It was obviously the office of a man who loved his comforts, and it appeared to be calculated to remind the visitor that the office was occupied and that the occupant was here to stay for the foreseeable future. Taste was certainly not a consideration, if the sometimes gaudy and overdone ornaments were any indication, and there was no thought given to the arrangement or display, except to bludgeon the viewer over the head with the wealth of its owner.
   The man needs the services of an expert in interior design, Jean-Sebastian thought with some sardonic amusement. With any luck, he would not occupy the office much longer.
   He appeared to have interrupted a conversation between them - one, unless Jean-Sebastian missed his guess, which included a healthy dose of complaints from the Minister. The comments from the Headmaster's side had likely been vaguely placatory but entirely noncommittal. The subject of those complaints, of course, was obvious.
   "Have a seat, ambassador," Dumbledore said, waving his hand at one of the chairs.
   The Minister glared at the Headmaster, presumably unhappy over Dumbledore's liberality with his office, but he said little, merely echoing the sentiments in a barely civil tone.
   Laughing lightly to himself, Jean-Sebastian sat in the indicated chair and gazed at the Minister, wondering what the man's reaction would be to his little announcement. Nothing good, unless he missed his guess.
   After a moment of silence, Fudge sighed in an embellished manner and fixed Jean-Sebastian with a glare.
   "I'm told by Dumbledore that you requested this meeting, ambassador," he ground out. "If you have something to say, please say it. I am a busy man."
   Jean-Sebastian bowed his head, forcing the urge to laugh at the man's pomposity to remain unexpressed. "Indeed, I have, Minister. I have a few reasons for being here now. Foremost is to ensure the things we discussed in the Wizengamot chambers would be implemented without delay."
   Fudge fixed him with an unfriendly eye. "Ambassador, I will not lie to you - I am extremely displeased with the outcome of the trial. Your ward has been a thorn in the side of this Ministry since he began attending Hogwarts, and I am not happy with the favoritism he has been receiving and the way we have bent over backward to accommodate a young boy whose only claim to fame was an accident which occurred when he was merely a baby."
   "Favoritism? You mean a trumped up trial designed to promote character assassination and a basic denial of rights? Is the favoritism to which you refer?" Jean-Sebastian intervened quietly, his voice deadly serious and unfriendly.
   Pausing at the venom in Jean-Sebastian's voice, Fudge nevertheless chose to ignore his words and continued on as though he had not spoken. "Regardless of my personal feelings regarding the matter, I assure you that everything we have committed to will be done. You will have your apology in the Prophet tomorrow - the responsibility has already been delegated to the appropriate individual, and the Prophet reporter is already on his way to the Ministry. As for Mr. Black, he will be given a trial as soon as can be arranged."
   Although Jean-Sebastian noted that Fudge had omitted the promise to investigate the matter of Voldemort's return, he knew he would get no more out of the man given his state of mind. The Dark Lord would have to be a discussion for another time - he had another purpose for this meeting today.
   The matter of Sirius was really one which did not affect Fudge personally, as the travesty had occurred before Fudge's tenure had begun. Jean-Sebastian knew Fudge could afford to be magnanimous in that matter. Jean-Sebastian decided it was best to appear grateful for the assurances in the matter of Sirius Black - it could serve him well in the upcoming conversations which would not be quite so palatable to the English Minister.
   "That is acceptable, Minister. Please keep me up to date on the status of your investigations and provide the date and time for Mr. Black to return to England. I will be certain to get him here at the appointed time."
   "Very well, ambassador," Fudge replied with a wave of his hand. "Now, if there is nothing else...?"
   "Actually, Minister, I do have another piece of business."
   Jean-Sebastian could read the annoyance, tinged with the slightest hint of apprehension in Fudge's eyes - so far, Jean-Sebastian's announcements of business had been extraordinarily bad for the Minister.
   "Really, ambassador," he responded in a chiding tone of voice, "I would think you had put forth enough business today to last a lifetime. Surely this can wait for another day."
   "I'm afraid not, Minister. I bring you the greetings of the French Ministry today and a piece of news which will be of interest to you and will affect British/French relations."
   "Very well," Fudge responded. He comported himself in a nonchalant manner, but his eyes were as hard as agates. "Please continue, although I am not certain what the French Ministry could say which would not involve their ambassador to England. Is Ambassador Tremblay out of the country right now?"
   "Indeed, he is, Minister," Jean-Sebastian replied, watching Fudge closely. "In fact, my business here today is to inform you that Monsieur Tremblay has accepted another post within the French Ministry. Due to this shuffle and to my qualifications and unique requirements with respect to young Harry and his continued attendance at Hogwarts, I have accepted the posting of Ambassador to England, effective immediately. The move will be officially announced to your government tomorrow."
   Displeasure and anger immediately darkened Fudge's face as he glared back across the desk, causing Jean-Sebastian to reflect that the Minister should have seen this coming. After all, given the events of the morning and Jean-Sebastian's unique qualifications for the post, the Minister had to know Jean-Sebastian did not trust him and wanted to keep a closer eye on Harry and his interactions with anyone of authority in magical Britain. And although Fudge could not have known it of Jean-Sebastian, he was not the type of parent who was comfortable with sending his children off to another country for their schooling - he preferred a much closer arrangement; even if it was to a boarding school, he still wanted to reside in the same country. Unfortunately - or fortunately as the case may be - Fudge did not appear to have thought that far ahead.
   "I'm not certain I can agree to this appointment, ambassador," Fudge responded finally. "The English Ministry does not particularly appreciate your heavy-handed style, and I am certain your appointment would harm relations between our two countries."
   Jean-Sebastian laughed out loud at this pronouncement, causing Fudge's countenance to darken even further. "On the contrary, Minister, I enjoy an excellent relationship with the Chief Warlock of your Wizengamot," he nodded at Dumbledore, who returned the gesture with aplomb, "due in part to our previous association with the ICW. I'm familiar with most of your department heads and understand your traditions and customs, having lived here some years in my youth, and I am familiar with the operation of your Ministry due to various postings and experience working with your government over the years. It seems to me I am a very good candidate for the position, Minister. It is only you who seems to have a problem with me."
   "And it is my government!" Fudge snapped. "You will have to go back to your Ministry and tell them to send someone else."
   "Your government?" Jean-Sebastian responded with a snort of disdain. "Surely you do not consider yourself to be the government, Minister? The Minister is merely a servant of the people, is he not?"
   Fudge's eyes narrowed, and his lips curled with dislike. "You can be certain I will be speaking with your Minister about this."
   A slight incline of his head indicated his feelings of complete unconcern. He then infuriated Fudge even further by glancing down and making a show of inspecting his fingernails, indicating his utter contempt for the British Minister. "Be my guest, Minister. My appointment was initiated by the French Ministry with the full support of our legislative branch, so I can assure you he will confirm everything I have told you. At the end of the day, unless you have some legal reason to deny me this posting, my government can appoint anyone they like to the post, with or without your approval."
   A curt nod was the only thing which met Jean-Sebastian's declaration - Fudge obviously knew he was once again painted into a corner.
   "My house-elves will begin to move my family's personal belongings into the Ambassador's Manor immediately. I will be at your service by Monday morning."
   The nod was repeated, and although it was obvious Fudge was not happy with the development, he at least gathered enough dignity to avoid a repeat of his objections. Not that it would do him any good.
   "Which brings me to my next point," Jean-Sebastian continued, turning to Dumbledore. "As my family will be living in England now, I would prefer to have all the children in my care attending the same school. As such, I will request to transfer Fleur to Hogwarts for her final year of schooling."
   "Of course, ambassador," Dumbledore replied, even as the vein in Fudge's temple began to pulse. "Please have Madame Maxine provide you with a copy of Fleur's transcripts. I will instruct my deputy Headmistress to send an owl with her letter to you within the next few days. We would be happy to have the Beauxbatons champion attend our school this year."
   Although he was conversing with Dumbledore, Jean-Sebastian kept an eye on Fudge, watching the man's displeasure deepen as the expression of fury stole over his face. He was intelligent enough to hold his tongue this time, but it did not take a genius to understand just exactly what Fudge objected to about Fleur's attendance at England's premier school. It was time to inform the Minister of exactly how things stood.
   Jean-Sebastian allowed an expression of intense dislike and distaste to spread over his face as he glared at the Minister, noting the corresponding expression directed back at him. He smirked inwardly, perversely entertained at his ability to provoke a negative response in the pompous git.
   "Minister, allow me to make myself rightly understood. Harry Potter is now my ward, and he and my daughter Fleur will be attending Hogwarts together this year. The ICW has voted overwhelmingly to support Harry - and his godfather, I might add - and any attempt from you or your government to undermine him or make trouble with me or my family will lead to increased tensions with France and isolation from the rest of the wizarding world. I suggest you tread softly...
   "Or perhaps it's my daughter who has set off this latest fit of temper?"
   "Your daughter has no business attending Hogwarts," the Minister blustered. "Our premier school is reserved for our best and brightest students, not for some... foreign - "
   "I suggest you stop right there," Jean-Sebastian interrupted, his voice as cold as ice. "Do not think me ignorant of your petty British bigotry and your contempt for anyone who does not meet your pathetic standards of race and blood purity - your attempts to hide your objections behind the veneer of foreign discrimination are insulting and do not do you any favors. The fact that many of your compatriots meet your exceedingly high standards for blood purity, bigotry, and contemptible snobbishness means nothing to me - or any other right-thinking person for that matter.
   "Fleur is a highly skilled and competent witch, and regardless of your narrow-mindedness, she is every bit as human as you or I. She is a champion of that cursed tournament you held in this very country for Merlin's sake!"
   "And we all know how she did there!" Fudge snapped, his mouth twisted into an unpleasant sneer.
   "Better, I suspect, than a squib like you would," Jean-Sebastian spat, feeling an almost overwhelming urge to hex the man to oblivion.
   The Minister's eyes bugged out and he appeared ready to fling another retort, but Dumbledore stepped in to try to diffuse the situation.
   "Minister, ambassador, I hardly think this is constructive. Cornelius, you are well aware that Hogwarts' charter does not allow for prospective students to be discriminated against due to blood status, race, nationality, or any other factor. Legally, if I have openings available in her year - which I do - I cannot refuse Miss Delacour entrance into our school - and I would not do so if the opportunity was there. She is a fine young woman, and you are well aware of the reasons for her performance in the tournament and the interference by Bartemius Crouch Jr. I have no doubt she will be a fine asset to Hogwarts and a pleasant addition to our ranks. Do not make this situation any more difficult by bringing up antiquated notions of blood purity or arguments regarding the status of Veela, which is what we all know this is about!"
   Certain the Minister was about to burst a vein in his head, Jean-Sebastian regarded the minister with an eye of complete loathing, daring the man to do his worst. It was only a short time, though, before Fudge appeared to master himself and leave well enough alone. It was the first good decision the man had made the entire day.
   "Fine!" Fudge spat out. "Your daughter may attend Hogwarts with the attention seeker. Now leave me - I have much work to do."
   Jean-Sebastian stood, but he was unable to leave without a parting shot. He loomed over the Minister, aware his height and furious manner were intimidating to the hapless Fudge, who shrunk away in response.
   "Let me be rightly understood," Jean-Sebastian growled in a voice absolutely dripping with menace, "I will brook no interference by you or anyone in your government. Don't try me, Minister," the word spat with every ounce of disdain Jean-Sebastian could muster, "you will not enjoy the results."
   He turned and stormed from the office and through the Minister's waiting room, beckoning to Harry as he strode past Fudge's startled assistant. Harry took one look at Jean-Sebastian's face and fell in behind him meekly, but although Jean-Sebastian did not want the boy to cower or feel intimidated, it was several minutes' walk down the hallways and up the stairwells of the Ministry building before his Occlumency skills were able to reassert themselves and he was able to master his towering fury toward the impotent and useless British Minister. Something would have to be done about the man, or the war was as good as lost already.
   They had reached the Atrium before Jean-Sebastian finally slowed down and turned to Harry, noting the expression of confused apprehension on the boy's face. He smiled at Harry to show him he was not angry, reflecting that something would also have to be done about the boy's timidity and lack of confidence - such traits would do him no good in the face of the vile madman Voldemort.
   "I'm sorry, Harry, but it appears your Minister is adept in bringing out the worst in me," Jean-Sebastian commented with a wry smile.
   Harry's eyes lit up in relief and he returned the smile tentatively. "I can certainly understand that, sir."
   "Now, Harry," Jean-Sebastian admonished, "what did we agree about calling me 'sir'?"
   Harry's answering blush and stammered reply was were somewhat endearing, but they were still matters of concern to the ambassador. He wondered what the boy had put up with from his so-called relatives - Sirius had only known of the situation in the most general terms. It was definitely something which demanded his immediate attention once things began to settle down.
   At that moment, Dumbledore strode up to them with a thoughtful expression on his face which belied the mad twinkling of his eyes.
   "Not meaning to criticize," he said with good-natured amusement, "but you do realize you just insulted and threatened a head of state?"
   Jean-Sebastian's answering sneer was almost feral. "Why should he be any different? The French Minister knows I will insult him too if he is being an ass!"
   "Indeed," Dumbledore, shaking his head with mirth. Harry, Jean-Sebastian noticed, was looking a little lost but was still grinning at the mention of Fudge being insulted.
   Jean-Sebastian sobered as quickly as his mirth had appeared. "What do you think the chances are that the Minister will do as he says and investigate Voldemort's return?"
   "Slim," Dumbledore responded. "Alas, Fudge was once a good man and is still a passable peacetime minister, but I fear he has become too obsessed with maintaining his image and position and all the comforts, money, and adulation that go with it. It is far easier to hide and claim it cannot be so than to do the right thing. It would surprise me if this was anything more than a stalling tactic."
   Jean-Sebastian nodded, expecting nothing else. "We will have to discuss this further, Headmaster, but not here." He peered around them at the bustle of the Ministry building, not trusting that any of those passing by might not be eavesdropping on him now. "I think a more private setting would be prudent."
   "I presume you mean to take young Harry back to Delacour castle tonight?" Dumbledore asked with a smile at the young man.
   "Yes," Jean-Sebastian responded. "I think he should get used to living with us. Besides, there is someone I think he would like to see waiting for him in France."
   The responding smile lit up the young man's face, and he nodded emphatically, prompting both adults to smile in an indulgent manner.
   "Then we had best get your belongings, Harry," Jean-Sebastian continued. "You can see Sirius tonight, and I will introduce you to the whole family. But don't worry - we will be back in England by the beginning of the week, so you can continue to see your friends."
   The answering grin on Harry's face told Jean-Sebastian all he needed to know - he had handled the situation properly. He knew Harry had some very good friends whom he would not want to leave behind. Hopefully, these friends of his would become close to his own daughter as well - she could use the support herself.
   ***
   The short journey back to Grimmauld Place was much easier than the trip to the Ministry had been by the simple expedient of the fact that they travelled by Floo rather than the longer Muggle method which had afforded Harry so much time to brood about his situation. Although he knew he had much to consider with the events of the morning, Harry was actually grateful he was not given the time to lose himself in his thoughts - he would need more than a few minutes to assimilate the changes in his life brought about by the morning's events. Now, all he wanted to do was to see his friends and then later in the day see his godfather.
   The walk through the Atrium was as uncomfortable as the walk across it that morning had been, as yet again all the attention in the massive room was directed at Harry, making him uncomfortable and edgy. The difference was that whereas in the morning those gathered had largely stared at him and whispered to each other, this time the crowd was more positive, and more than one person had called out greetings and congratulations for the outcome of the trial. He shuddered to think of what it would have been like if he had suffered through a less successful outcome to Fudge's threats. He had learned the wizarding public as a whole tended to be a fickle entity, easily persuaded by the prevailing winds of opinion and recent events, fair or not.
   They stopped momentarily near the Floo connection, where Dumbledore passed Jean-Sebastian a small piece of paper. After Jean-Sebastian nodded, they entered the Floo one by one, Dumbledore leading, leaving the Ministry building behind them.
   As with every other time he had travelled using the infernal device, Harry, following Dumbledore through the connection, ended up in a heap on the floor at their destination.
   Chuckling, a newly arrived Jean-Sebastian helped him to his feet. "I see I will have to teach you the proper way of travelling by Floo. We cannot have you ending up on the floor every time you use it, after all."
   Harry thanked him as he stumbled to his feet, eager now to go to meet his friends and thank them for their support.
   "Come, Harry - I believe everyone will be waiting for us in the parlor," Dumbledore stated, leading the way from the room.
   The short walk to the parlor ended with Harry's vision being occluded by a head of rich brown hair when he was engulfed in one of Hermione's infamous hugs.
   "We were so worried," she whispered in his ear, the raw emotion plain in her voice.
   "Thanks, Hermione," Harry whispered back, choked with his own emotion. "Your support means everything."
   He pulled back and noticed her watery eyes and the way in which she attempted to keep her feelings in check. She was always there for him, no matter what. Harry was uncertain what he had possibly done to deserve such a wonderful and steadfast friend.
   His ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of the youngest Weasley boys as they crowded around him congratulating him for his escape, and laughing the way people often do when their relief is manifest in an emotional manner.
   Ron said nothing, merely slapping him on the back in a comradely fashion, his face beaming at his friend. The twins, though, were a different story.
   "Congratulations, Harry!" one exclaimed. "Trust you to wiggle your way out of another trap."
   "And come out engaged to a beautiful girl at the same time!" the other finished.
   Laughs were heard around the room as Moony and Tonks, along with Bill Weasley, gathered around to offer their congratulations as well. Harry snuck a look at Jean-Sebastian, curious as to what his reaction would be toward the irreverent manner in which the twins had spoken of his daughter, but he could detect nothing in the man's demeanor which would suggest displeasure. It appeared he was enjoying the antics of Harry's friends.
   Looking around, Harry spotted Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, but although they both wore smiles, those smiles appeared somewhat forced. A fully confused Harry accepted congratulations from them both. He sensed they were happy that he had been exonerated, but also somewhat offended by something.
   Introductions were made all around, with Jean-Sebastian greeting Harry's friends cordially, before his new guardian pulled him aside and in a low voice instructed him to get his things prepared for their departure. Harry nodded and left the room, his two closest friends in tow.
   "So what now, mate?" Ron asked.
   Climbing the stairs, Harry turned down the long hallway and made his way toward the room he shared with Ron, glancing wistfully over the dingy house which he and his friends had spent the past week so industriously cleaning - no amount of cleaning and scrubbing seemed to be able to dent the air of oppressive gloom which pervaded the dilapidated old house.
   "I'm going to France today with Jean-Sebastian," Harry replied absently as they entered the bedroom. "Sirius is already there, and I'll be staying with him, Jean-Sebastian, and his family over the weekend."
   Ron blinked. "Going to France?"
   "Yeah, Jean-Sebastian wants me to stay with the family and get to know them."
   The reactions of his friends were a study in contrasts. Hermione's face became slightly sad, a reflection, he felt, of her unhappiness that their time together this summer would be curtailed. Ron, on the other hand, seemed a little affronted by Harry's opportunity, before his gaze narrowed slightly and his eyes flickered to Hermione and his face assumed a small smirk of satisfaction.
   Controlling himself, Harry made certain he did not glance at Hermione himself - it would not do to have Ron catch such a glance. And whatever his feelings were or could have been for his best friend, his betrothal to the young French witch now put any possibility of a relationship with Hermione out of their reach. It appeared Ron had gotten what he had wished - the attention of Hermione without the interference of a competing best friend to muddy the waters. Harry did not allow himself to feel anything over the matter; he would sort it out in his own mind later.
   "Good for you, mate," Ron finally stated, a sort of smugness intruding in his manner. "I'll leave you to your packing - we'll see a lot of each other at school again this year."
   Slapping Harry's back yet again, Ron exited the room, never noticing the raised eyebrows and slight smirks of his best friends. As the door closed behind him, they both burst out into soft laughter, making certain to keep it quiet so Ron could not hear their amusement, as they knew he would not take being laughed at, especially in a matter such as this, very well.
   "I guess he doesn't need to watch us like a hawk any more, does he?" Harry quipped irreverently.
   Hermione's laughter grew louder. "I guess not," she responded with a cheeky grin.
   "So, are you going to give in and go out with him?" Harry asked. His manner was nonchalant, but he knew inside that the answer to this question was important to him for some indefinable reason. Or perhaps he was simply not willing to admit the reason.
   "I don't know if I like him that way," she replied after a moment's thought. "Of course, you know Ron - he may never even get around to asking."
   Chuckling at her portrayal of the young redhead, Harry pulled Hermione into another hug, earning himself a surprised expression from her.
   Blushing slightly at his own forwardness, Harry reached down and grabbed his trunk. Dropping it on the bed, he began to stuff some of his belongings inside its confines. His possessions were still a little meager, he thought to himself as he put Dudley's old clothes into the trunk. An internal shrug later, he deposited his school stuff and the few items of his own he had managed to collect in the trunk, thinking he had done without many possessions his entire life. Why should now be any different?
   Once the action had been completed, he closed the trunk and returned his gaze to his best friend, noting the slightly unsettled expression on the face of his dearest friend.
   "Hey, are you all right?" Harry asked gently.
   Hermione ducked her head, causing her hair to cascade down and hide her face, but not before Harry caught the faint pink of her cheeks. "I'm fine, Harry." She raised her head again, brushed her hair back behind an ear - an action which caught Harry's attention as one that he found uncommonly attractive - and peered at her friend. "I was just hoping to spend the rest of the summer with all my friends, and now you'll be in France until school starts."
   "Don't worry, Hermione. Jean-Sebastian said we'll be back in England next week, so I'm sure we'll have a chance to spend time together again this summer. I'm not sure where we'll be staying, but I'm sure you could come and stay with us."
   She smiled again. "I'd like that, Harry." Her mien became serious once again. "I'm glad we'll see you, but I'm concerned about you, Harry. How are you doing with all this?"
   Shrugging, Harry gazed back at his friend. "It was a shock, I'll tell you that."
   "You didn't know about it in advance?"
   "I met Jean-Sebastian for the first time this morning," Harry affirmed, "though I think I remember seeing him with Fleur during the tournament."
   "But how do you feel about it?" Hermione pressed. For some reason, the answer to this question seemed important to her.
   "Well, it helps that she's cute," Harry responded with a hint of a mischievous grin.
   Hermione rolled her eyes and glared at him. "Honestly, Harry, is that all you boys think about? I mean, Ron's comments about suitable dates to the Yule Ball, and now you basing your future life on Fleur's looks. Do you ever think about anything else?"
   "I'm I a guy, Hermione - what do you expect?" Harry responded, grinning cheekily. "You have to admit - the looks certainly do help. I mean, it could have been someone like Millicent Bulstrode or Pansy Parkinson."
   The irreverent statement was completed with a theatrical shudder, causing Hermione to convulse into giggles at his antics.
   "Harry James Potter! Will you be serious?"
   "Well, if you insist," Harry drawled, giving her a look of long-suffering in response to her exasperation. She laughed and rolled her eyes before directing a baleful glare at him. Harry decided now might be the best time to be serious.
   "To be honest," Harry mused after a moment, "I don't know what to think about it. I mean, it was done without my approval - something I'll be talking to Sirius about, I can tell you - but I'm also sure it was done with my best interests at heart. Jean-Sebastian and I had a talk after the trial, and he explained some of his motivations and his concerns for Fleur, so I understand why he did it."
   "You'll have to tell me about it sometime."
   "Of course."
   It went without saying that there would be no secrets between Hermione and himself - they had never had any in the past, and he would not start distancing himself from her now, regardless of the existence of a marriage contract.
   "I suppose I just have to think of it as an opportunity to expand my horizons and make connections outside of England - an alliance with one of the premier families of France is no small matter, and it may help some day against Voldemort."
   He grinned somewhat mischievously at her before continuing, "You should be proud of me; I thought of that all by myself!"
   Harry ducked as Hermione swatted at him in a playful manner, grinning the entire time like a Cheshire cat.
   "On the other hand," he continued, in a somewhat more serious manner than before, "I don't really know Fleur. I mean, Jean-Sebastian explained a little about what her life has been like and why she is the way she is, but I have two memories of her which stand out in my mind: her snooty tone when she called me a little boy after my name came out of the goblet and the huge hug she gave me after I came out of the water with her sister. How am I to merge those two images in my head? It's almost like it was two different people."
   "I understand," Hermione said with a nod. "I guess you have no choice but to get to know her."
   "Yeah. That's one of the reasons why Jean-Sebastian wants to go back to France tonight. He told me to ask Fleur about herself and get to know her without any preconceived notions. He didn't want to tell me about her; he wanted me to get it straight from her. He did tell me, though, that her arrogance is a mask and that she has trouble meeting people due to being a Veela. I need to get her perspective before I can know what she is like."
   "It makes sense, Harry."
   "I know." He sighed and looked at the ground. "I guess I don't have a choice, do I? She's my fiancИe now - I'd better get to know her."
   That truth acknowledged, they sat in companionable silence for several moments. Although so much had changed in the past few hours, Harry was happy, knowing that no matter what happened, he could always count on the support of his closest friends, especially Hermione. He supposed he would eventually have to transfer his allegiance to Fleur, but for now, Hermione was by far the most important person in his life.
   "So what's with Ginny and Mrs. Weasley?" he asked after a moment's thought. "They seemed offended about something."
   Hermione just shook her head and gazed fondly at her friend. "Honestly, Harry, you boys are completely thick about some things, aren't you?"
   "When it comes to girls, you bet," Harry shot back. "Like Ron says, 'daft - completely daft!'"
   This, of course, earned him a roll of Hermione's eyes. "If you'd open your eyes once in a while, you wouldn't think that. They were mad about your change in status, dear Harry. You must have noticed Ginny has had a crush on you forever, and Mrs. Weasley has been eying you as potential son-in-law material for just as long. Longer, I would think, since she told bedtime stories of you to Ginny when she was little."
   Harry's eyes felt like they were bugging out of his sockets. "Ginny?" he sputtered incredulously. "How... I mean... what... But I hardly know her! And she's never in the room long enough for me to talk to her or anything. She just squeaks and runs off!"
   "And what do you think that means?"
   Harry was certain his expression was comical, given Hermione's giggles, but he was not certain where she was going with this.
   "She's shy? Or she doesn't like me?"
   A huff of irritation met his declaration, and he got the distinct impression Hermione thought him rather slow.
   "Harry, do you even use that thing on the top of your shoulders? It's amazing you can even see Ron's feelings for me."
   An even more confused Harry stared open-eyed at his friend. "Come on, Hermione, Ron is obvious, considering the way he was watching us and the cow eyes he makes at you when he thinks you're not looking. Besides, he implied as much to me several times, no doubt trying to warn me away from you."
   "Oh, he did, did he?" Hermione responded, her voice flat and disapproving. "Maybe I'll need to have a talk with Mr. Weasley and let him know I don't appreciate his claim on me like I was some sort of... object or something."
   That was certainly something Harry did not want to deal with - Harry had learned over the years they had been friends to stay out of Ron and Hermione's arguments, not to mention the fact that Ron would be infuriated if he knew the content of this conversation. "If you do, you heard nothing from me!"
   A withering glance once again flew in his direction, but Hermione said nothing further on the subject - she merely huffed yet again and directed her gaze at Harry, her manner suggesting she considered him to be somewhat of a simpleton.
   "Harry, the reason she won't say anything to you is because she has a crush on you and is too shy to be able to talk to you. She's always been completely infatuated with you and doesn't want you to get the wrong impression of her. She's been fed stories of the Boy-Who-Lived since she was a little girl, and your escapade in the chamber during your second year only solidified you in her mind as her perfect mate."
   Another Boy-Who-Lived groupie, Harry thought with some disgust.
   His expression must have shown his feelings, as Hermione quickly reached over and placed her hand on his wrist. "Harry, I'm not suggesting she's after you just for your fame, but she has had a crush on you for years. In time, she will probably get over her infatuation and become easier for you to get to know - I don't think she's the kind of person to be interested in you for just your fame."
   Harry nodded, but he was still a little sour on the whole idea - he had had enough of people looking at him, seeing nothing more than the boy who had survived a killing curse ever since he had entered this world. He certainly did not need the little sister of one of his closest friends joining the chorus.
   Still, if Hermione was convinced of Ginny's character, he supposed he could give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, it didn't really matter anymore anyway - even if Ginny was nothing more than a fan-girl, he was now betrothed.
   "Thanks for the explanation, Hermione," he finally responded, regarding his friend somewhat sheepishly. "I guess I never really thought about it."
   "Clueless," Hermione responded with a smirk. "You boys are clueless."
   "About some things, I guess," Harry responded with a good-natured smile on his face. "But I think we'll need to continue this conversation another time - Jean-Sebastian wants to get back to France. I should get going."
   Although she appeared to prefer that he not have to leave so soon, Hermione nodded her agreement, and they exited the room. A short flight of stairs later, they had once again entered the parlor, where the rest of the group awaited them.
   The room was quiet, with the occupants divided into several groups, all talking softly to one another - Jean-Sebastian and Dumbledore along with Tonks, Moony and a recently arrived Mr. Weasley, were speaking near the Floo connection, the twins were with Ron, and Bill was watching his brothers' antics with a slight grin on his face. Given Ron's red face and somewhat strangled voice, Harry suspected Fred and George were giving their youngest brother a rough time yet again. And in a corner furthest from the fireplace, Mrs. Weasley and Ginny sat close together, murmuring to each other and casting reproachful looks at the other end of the room, presumably toward Harry's new guardian, if he was any judge. Harry frowned slightly at them, still not completely comfortable with the situation of which Hermione had just made him aware.
   Shrugging, he put them from his mind - there would be time enough to deal with Ginny later, if indeed there was any such need. For now, it was time to leave.
   With Hermione in tow, Harry crossed the room and approached the largest group in the room. "I'm ready, Jean-Sebastian."
   "Excellent." Jean-Sebastian turned to Dumbledore. "If you would, Headmaster, I would like to visit Harry's old guardians and gather whatever he has left there."
   "Of course. I can apparate you both there and then you can return and use the Floo in this house to return to the Ministry and the International Floo Network."
   "Excuse me," Mrs. Weasley's voice interrupted, "but Harry was to stay with here for the rest of the summer."
   Harry turned to regard his friend's mother, noting that a frown crossed Jean-Sebastian's face as he did the same. Still, his voice was nothing less than cordial as he responded.
   "That may have been the plan previously, Madam, but the situation has now changed. Harry will be returning to Delacour castle with me this evening and staying with his godfather and my family for the rest of the summer."
   "But what about his friends?"
   The tightening of Jean-Sebastian's mouth was visible to Harry, but his reply was as genial as before. "I have no intention whatsoever to prohibit Harry from seeing his friends. I have accepted the position of Ambassador to England, so we will move here by the beginning of next week. After that, Harry will only be a Floo connection away from his friends and can visit at any time. In fact, we would be more than happy to have them stay with us whenever they would like - we are very grateful he has had such close friends to help him through his time in Hogwarts. But for now, he will return to France with me and get to know his new family. And I think he would like to see his godfather..."
   Harry blushed and returned Jean-Sebastian's questioning gaze with tentative smile. "I'd like to see Sirius. And I think I should get to know Fleur as well."
   The responding smile was one of genuine affection, which caused Harry to duck his head in embarrassment. But Mrs. Weasley was still not convinced.
   "But surely he should be with his friends - "
   "I beg your pardon, madam," Jean-Sebastian interjected, cutting her off before she could get going, "but I think I am aware of what is best for my ward. Harry needs to get to know his betrothed and his new family."
   "We're his family," Mrs. Weasley snapped.
   The full force of Jean-Sebastian's glare was now directed at the Weasley matron, and while she was clearly uncomfortable at being the focus of his displeasure, she responded gamely with a glare of her own.
   "I hardly think Harry considers you his family, given what I know of the time he has spent in your company over the past several years."
   She began stuttering in response, but Jean-Sebastian did not allow her to get started. "Please, Mrs. Weasley, Harry has stayed with you for what - a few weeks in the summer? And I know you were gone most of the summer before his third year. He can hardly have become like another son to you in so short a time, unless you have some other reason for claiming him."
   With an almost audible snap, her mouth closed, but the glower never left her face. Jean-Sebastian, however, appeared unconcerned.
   "As I stated before, I am thankful for the efforts of your family and others of Harry's acquaintance," he nodded to Dumbledore and Remus, "for their support and assistance to Harry, but one day, Harry will be my son-in-law. At the present time, he is my responsibility and will eventually be part of my family."
   His tone left no room for disagreement. Although she was still visibly upset, Mrs. Weasley nodded her head in understanding and rose from her chair, approaching Harry with a warm smile on her face.
   "Harry, dear, remember we are your friends and would be happy to have you stay with us at any time. We will see you next week when you return from France."
   She hugged him briefly and then, after favoring Jean-Sebastian with an imperious glance, stalked out of the parlor. Harry smiled at Jean-Sebastian's raised eyebrow, indicating his readiness to depart. Saying a quick goodbye to his friends, he gathered his trunk and followed him out down the hallway and through the front door, eager to see Sirius and start his new life.

Chapter 4 - Plots and Conversations

   The general public, especially the wizarding public, was at best a rather capricious entity. What was popularity and adulation one day was no guarantee of the same in the next, no matter the stature of the individual in question.
   Harry Potter was a prime example of the changeable nature of the opinion of the masses. Revered for an event he could not even remember, Harry Potter entered Diagon Alley as an eleven-year-old to the adulation of the masses he had not only never met, but also had not even known of before that day. His entrance into the hallowed halls of Hogwarts was no different, generating whispers and pointed fingers, not to mention cheers from Gryffindor house when he had been sorted there and groans from all the others.
   Yet by the middle of his second year, the cheers and shouts of acclamation had turned to angry mutters and rumors of his complicity in the Chamber of Secrets fiasco. But once the mystery of the chamber had been solved, his entry back into the good books of the masses had been immediate - at least until his entry into the Tri-Wizard Tournament, where he had been branded an attention seeker and glory hound.
   Truly, as Harry had mused only that morning, it was not only tough at times to be Harry Potter, but it was also difficult being anyone who was in the public eye.
   Of course, the Minister of Magic was no exception to this rule - in fact the masses traditionally had a love/hate relationship with the Minister. As with the coach of a professional Quidditch team, the prevailing attitude amongst the Minister's supporters tended to be, "What have you done for me lately?"
   Cornelius Fudge sat in the comfortable confines of his office, deliberating over the injustices which were sometimes heaped upon the shoulders of the Minister in general and himself in particular.
   As a new Minister, Fudge had generally enjoyed good popularity, in part, whether he admitted it or not, because he was not Millicent Bagnold. Not that the previous Minister was reviled - far from it. But she had always been perceived as a gruff, no-nonsense type who was a stickler for the rules, and she had governed with an eye toward improving the wizarding government so it more fully represented the people it purported to serve. In short, she was considered a progressive reformer. While this would normally have been a position which would have endeared her to the masses, Bagnold's style of governance was closely mirrored by her personality - at least, by what personality she actually possessed, some cynics were known to remark. It was truly a shame she had had virtually no people skills, as a bit of charisma could have allowed her to connect closer to the populace and create a much more effective engine for change in the British wizarding world.
   Unfortunately, she had not an ounce of charisma, which was why although her policies generally made her administration a friend of the people, she herself had never really enjoyed a great deal of popularity. And, of course, her policies had made her an enemy of the Pureblood faction, as their ideals supported only one thing: their own agenda, which was concerned with nothing more than improving their own lot to the detriment of all others. Although small in number, a disproportionate percentage of the wealth in the wizarding world rested in the hands of the Purebloods, rendering them the most powerful faction in Britain. Even more importantly, however, was the fact that the seats of the Wizengamot were all hereditary and, once again, largely held by old Pureblood families.
   The result of this was that Bagnold, although she had had a certain amount of success pushing through her more progressive agenda, had been thwarted in many of her endeavors by a hostile Wizengamot. Even Dumbledore, once he had become Chief Warlock, had only been able to provide so much assistance. Eventually, she had resigned and left the country, tired of fighting the constant battle against a foe who was implacable and capable of using its massive wealth and influence to maintain as much of the status quo as possible.
   Enter Fudge and the nature of the Ministry had changed. Although Fudge had campaigned on a platform which was somewhat more conservative than the one over which Bagnold had presided for the previous ten years, he had privately made it known to certain Wizengamot members that he was open for business - translation: his support and policies could be bought by anyone who was willing to provide a... pecuniary incentive. As only the members of the Wizengamot had a vote for the next Minister, the above had perhaps been Fudge's greatest political maneuver - the combination of those members who felt he would slow down the changes to their society to a more manageable level and those who knew they could buy his support for the right amount of Galleons had been enough to tip the scales and ensure his election.
   Unfortunately, he had been in office less than six months before it was generally understood that he was a lame duck Minister, one who had no agenda whatsoever beyond the acceptance of massive bribes in return for his interference in the business of all branches of his government.
   Of course, his greatest contributor had always been the Malfoy family, which seemed to have money to burn. Lucius Malfoy had paid him bribes for everything from the support of his extremist bills presented before the Wizengamot (necessary due to the fact that the Malfoy family, although extremely wealthy, were of French descent and had no seat) to buying Fudge's obstruction of various departments who might otherwise have been investigating his family's activities.
   Of course, it completely escaped Fudge's attention that Malfoy really did not need Fudge at all - Malfoy's Pureblood friends on the Wizengamot were able to introduce his proposed laws and actions without the assistance of the Minister if he so chose. If Fudge had ever thought to look into the matter, he would have noticed that many of the actions which he sponsored were defeated, and he would have come to the conclusion that often he was used as a decoy.
   Or perhaps Fudge would not have cared even then - his primary concern, of course, had always been the money which made its way from Malfoy's vault into his own. Whether Malfoy succeeded or not really meant nothing to the Minister - all that mattered to Fudge was that he was paid well for what he did.
   On this day, however, Fudge felt his popularity had fallen into an abyss, what with his failed persecution of young Harry Potter. It was a valuable lesson to learn - before taking on one of the nation's greatest heroes, you needed to make certain you had an airtight case. Especially when said hero was being supported by another.
   That Dumbledore had staged the entire session with that despicable French wizard was beyond contradiction in Fudge's opinion. And worse, Fudge felt it was all calculated to make him look as bad as they possibly could - and in that endeavor, they had succeeded in spades.
   What bothered Fudge was that he was uncertain of just what Dumbledore's aims were. Was he merely trying to get the Potter brat off, or was he aiming for something more? Had he designs on the Minister's office for himself or one of his cronies? The fact that the Minister's office had been Dumbledore's for the taking when Bagnold resigned (if he'd only declared his candidacy rather than refusing due to lack of interest and contentment with his current positions) did not occur to the Minister.
   No, Fudge was certain that Dumbledore was up to something and that whatever it was, it could not be beneficial for Fudge's long-term residence in the Minister's office.
   Two can play that game! Fudge snarled to himself.
   It was time to fight back.
   "Minister? Minister, did you hear me?"
   Fudge blinked and focused his eyes. Across his desk sat the annoying pink woman whose grating high-pitched voice had interrupted his ruminations. Umbridge was a menace, but he had promoted her for one reason only - she blindly fell in with whatever schemes he promoted, if only to further her own agenda of bigotry and hate, something which although Fudge did not espouse, he had no particular disliking for either. Unfortunately, despite her usefulness, he could only take her in small doses, as her voice was aggravating and her constant harping was not especially conducive to his own agenda of enriching himself.
   "I'm sorry, Madam Undersecretary - I'm afraid my mind wandered for a moment. What were you saying?"
   She gave Fudge an imperious glare. "I had finished my report on the plans for my time at Hogwarts, Minister. But I believe I may have a plan to deal with the Delacour girl before the next school year starts."
   Privately, Fudge doubted she could do anything to influence the Veela's attendance in any way, but he had not stayed in power as long as he had by ignoring the schemes of his underlings. He motioned for her to continue, nodding thoughtfully and responding in monosyllables when she seemed to be expecting it.
   All in all, it was something which might have succeeded if it had been thought of several months before. In the current environment, though, Fudge was certain she would have difficulty pulling it off - Dumbledore would crush her without a second thought.
   Yet anything which diverted Dumbledore's attention was welcome in Fudge's opinion. For him, the main thrust was her installment at Hogwarts as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and the slow and careful way in which he would have her take over the school... that would have to be handled with delicacy. The fact that Umbridge had no true mastery of the subject and had indeed been an indifferent and pampered student at best when she had attended did not even enter into the equation in Fudge's eyes. Her use to him in the school was to find a way to have Dumbledore removed and to ensure Fudge was not challenged as Minister.
   Of course, the scheme she had come up with to deal with this most vexing news of the Delacour girl's entrance into Hogwarts would be annoying for his opponents, although a little ham-fisted. He immediately threw his support behind her endeavors.
   "Very well, Undersecretary, you have my permission to proceed," Fudge responded magnanimously. "Thank you for your time and efforts."
   Umbridge's answering smile was most unpleasant, and Fudge shuddered as she scurried from the office. The woman made even him uncomfortable!
   ***
   In the north of Britain, an old manor building stood. It was the old estate manor of some landowner long forgotten in the mists of time, a reminder of the way things had once been in the kingdom. The building was still standing and in relatively good shape, which was surprising considering the years of neglect and indifference it had suffered. If one looked closely enough, a hint of its former glory could still be seen in the chipped and cracked marble floors and in the faded and peeling wallpaper - it had obviously been the home of a family of some wealth and consequence.
   Now, it was the home to people of a much less savory reputation. The newly reconstituted dark lord Tom Marvolo Riddle, or the self-styled Lord Voldemort, now made the old house his base of operations.
   Voldemort was indifferent as to his surroundings or the state of the old house - if things had been different, he could just as easily have made the manor of his Riddle ancestors his home. Unfortunately, the escape of Harry Potter from the Little Hangleton cemetery and the house's proximity to the site of his rising meant the location was now compromised, necessitating his removal and relocation. It was an irritant, no more, no less, and the dark lord knew there were better things with which to concern himself than creature comforts and the location of his lair. Soon, the British wizarding world would be his once again, and locations such as this crumbling, ramshackle old building would mean nothing to him.
   His minions were currently out doing his bidding, all except the groveling fool Pettigrew, who was now in an upstairs room keeping watch for any hint of trouble. Voldemort did not think anyone would find him here, but he had not become one of the most feared and hated men in the history of the wizarding world by being careless.
   Left to his own devices, the dark lord immediately settled into one of the things he did best - he plotted and pondered his next moves.
   This new news of French involvement with Harry Potter was troubling. Not that he had expected Fudge's persecution (at Lucius' urging, of course) to succeed - on the contrary, he had firmly expected Dumbledore to crush the Minister's initiative with little or no trouble. The manner in which Fudge's defeat had occurred had been unexpected, though, and although Voldemort had no proof whatsoever, he was certain the way it had played out had been orchestrated by Dumbledore for some particular purpose which Voldemort was not yet able to see. After all, Dumbledore had allowed this French ambassador to do most of the talking and the tearing apart of Fudge's arguments, and though it was possible that age was finally catching up to the old man, Voldemort did not think that was the case. Dumbledore's actions in the past several years suggested the man was still fully in control of his magical and mental capacities. Dumbledore had not gotten to where he was today by being a political lightweight.
   The dark lord bared his lips in an unsightly sneer. Voldemort's own rise to power had certainly not been characterized by incompetence - even his enemies were willing to allow him that much. Dumbledore was a worthy opponent; he would definitely have to be removed in order to ensure Voldemort's ultimate victory.
   No, whatever Dumbledore was playing at, Voldemort was certain it had been planned and executed meticulously, with nothing left to chance, which meant that Dumbledore had some purpose in orchestrating the incident. Did it have to do with bringing the French into the conflict as allies, or did he have some other more... esoteric purpose which the dark lord had yet to discover?
   No matter - eventually Dumbledore would be forced to tip his hand, and the dark lord would be ready for him. Besides, two could play at that game - Voldemort was certain there were just as many discontented Purebloods in France as there were in Britain.
   The problem of Potter was a tricky one; twice now he had defied and defeated, or at the very worst escaped from a fully constituted dark lord at the height of his powers. It was troubling to say the least. Perhaps there was more to the prophecy which Voldemort had not considered yet. Perhaps there was more to it than he had been led to believe. It would bear some further thought.
   As for the meddling foreigner, he would have to be taught in the harshest manner possible about the perils of involving himself in a matter which was not of his concern. A message would have to be sent, an indication of what would happen if he continued on his course of supporting the boy - it was imperative that Harry Potter be as isolated from the rest of the wizarding world as possible. Malfoy's job was to sow the seeds, in the matter of the trial, among other plans, of young Harry's disenchantment from the general public. That was the most important consideration right now.
   Yes, a message would be sent - one to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies. It need not be done immediately; they could afford to wait several months if necessary, before the right circumstance presented itself. He would have to speak to Lucius and arrange it. The dark lord smiled unpleasantly - the world would again learn to fear the name of Voldemort.
   ***
   Dumbledore apparated them to a small park not far from the Dursleys' home, and once they had ensured their arrival had not been witnessed, Dumbledore and Jean-Sebastian shook hands and the Headmaster disapparated away.
   Smiling at Harry, Jean-Sebastian motioned for him to lead the way to his relatives' house, noting with a frown the look of trepidation which appeared on Harry's face.
   "I don't think I've left anything behind," Harry began softly, his eyes never meeting Jean-Sebastian's face. "Maybe we could go straight to France?"
   Regarding his ward, Jean-Sebastian thought again about his scant knowledge of Harry's life with his relatives, understanding that this reaction was more evidence of the fact that it had not been a good life. Whatever Harry's reservations were, they would need to be addressed and their effects resolved so his future son-in-law could move on with his life.
   "Perhaps not," Jean-Sebastian replied, "but I would prefer to make certain. In any case, we should at least inform them of your change in status and let them know you will never live with them again."
   "Like they care," Harry muttered under his breath - Jean-Sebastian had to strain to hear Harry's words, frowning when he realized the implications. He would need to find out sooner rather than later the details of Harry's upbringing.
   Turning with some abruptness, Harry began walking down the street, prompting Jean-Sebastian to pursue him. "They won't like us showing up, sir," he said, his voice quiet. "They've never wanted to have anything to do with my world before."
   "Do not worry, Harry. I can deal with them. They cannot be any worse than dealing with Fudge."
   Harry threw a wry grin back at his companion, and they chuckled together, Jean-Sebastian happy he had been able to release the tension in his charge.
   The distance was short, and soon they arrived at a sleepy-looking street. A row of Muggle houses met Jean-Sebastian's gaze, and although the area appeared to be a little older, the houses were generally neat and in good repair. It was like any other Muggle neighborhood, with nothing that suggested it was anything out of the ordinary - of course, it had housed the most famous wizard in magical Britain for almost the last fourteen years of his life, which made it remarkable, to the wizarding world at least.
   The house to which Harry led them was as commonplace as the rest - it looked comfortable, but not overly large, and it had well manicured lawns and foliage in good repair.
   They went to the front door, at which Harry raised his hand and knocked, an action which surprised Jean-Sebastian He would have thought, having lived there for many years, Harry would just walk in the front door, but it appeared that either something had happened which had revoked his rights to such an action, or he had never really felt welcome in the first place.
   At length, the door swung open, revealing a young boy about Harry's age. Though Jean-Sebastian knew he must be Harry's cousin, there was virtually no family resemblance, as the boy was stocky to Harry's rather slender frame - the two also had very different features.
   "Hi, Dud," Harry greeted the young man somewhat diffidently.
   The young man's eyes narrowed and he glanced over his shoulder in a furtive manner. "Harry, what are you doing here?"
   "We've come to pick up my things and talk to your Mum and Dad," Harry said, his voice quavering slightly in nervousness.
   "Dad doesn't want you here anymore. He said you're not welcome."
   Jean-Sebastian decided it was time to intervene. "Mr. Dursley, I assure you we will not be staying long. I simply need to speak with your parents, after which Harry and I will leave. Will you please call them?"
   Dudley appeared to consider this momentarily before opening the door fully and motioning for them to follow him. "You can sit in the living room - I'll call Mum and Dad," he said over his shoulder.
   Following Harry, Jean-Sebastian entered the house. A short walk through the entranceway brought them to a comfortable living area filled with Muggle gadgets. As a Pureblood, Jean-Sebastian had grown up in the wizarding world, but he had more knowledge about the Muggle world than most of his contemporaries. After all, they shared the world with Muggles and were vastly outnumbered by them - it seemed only prudent to know about them and their customs. The one thing which did catch his attention was the lack of anything which would suggest that more than one boy had ever lived in this house - there were pictures of the young Dursley aplenty, but not a single image of Harry could be found in the entire room. Such an oversight did nothing to calm Jean-Sebastian's fears over the manner in which the young man had been treated over the years.
   They took a seat on a couch, and it was only moments before an enormous man with a walrus mustache and a thin woman with blond hair entered into the room. Their faces clearly showed their anger, but they kept their temper in check with some effort.
   "Boy! I told you when you left that you were no longer welcome in this house, and now you're bringing your freak friends with you?"
   Jean-Sebastian's face went stony, and he regarded the fat man as though he were a slug. "Mr. Dursley, I presume?"
   The fat man grudgingly nodded his head and glared at them. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get out!"
   "Mr. Dursley, I am Jean-Sebastian Delacour, and believe me, nothing will please me more than to take Harry away from here and never return," Jean-Sebastian responded, his voice the icy chill of a winter wind. "But Harry's circumstances have changed, and I think you have a right to know. Shall we sit and discuss this like adults?"
   "We don't care what happens to the freak," Mrs. Dursley spoke up with some distaste. "Our Dudders was almost killed by those creatures. Having him here is dangerous."
   A scornful laugh escaped Jean-Sebastian's lips and he stood and turned the full force of his glare on the bad-mannered couple. "Do you really think you could stop Dumbledore if he decided Harry needed to stay here again?"
   The woman's face became white at his suggestion, while the fat man's face purpled in anger. "We don't care! Get out!"
   "Sit down!" Jean-Sebastian thundered, whipping out his wand and pointing it at them. They paled and muttered but sat as asked, although their faces still showed the petulant anger of truly small-minded people.
   "Now, we will sit down and converse like rational adults," Jean-Sebastian enunciated clearly. "There will be no further outbursts about 'freaks' or any of the other names you have called Harry over the years."
   His voice was stern and uncompromising, and although Jean-Sebastian had the impression Harry's relatives had rarely been spoken to in such a manner, they grudgingly nodded their heads in assent while stealing apprehensive glances at his wand, which was still held in his hand.
   "Thank you. I understand there was an incident this summer before Harry left your care."
   At their nods, Jean-Sebastian continued. "He has been exonerated for his actions during that incident, but due to certain circumstances, his guardianship has changed, and he will no longer be required to live with you."
   He witnessed as the man and woman exchanged a glance with each other, triumphant grins passing across their face.
   "Good!" the woman finally exulted. "We never wanted the little fre... our nephew to live with us anyway - that Headmaster of his forced him on us and we had no choice."
   "We want nothing further to do with your strange world!" the man continued, his voice forceful and unpleasant. "You people aren't natural, and his parents weren't any better. We'll be happy to be rid of him!"
   Jean-Sebastian leaned back and studied the three of them for a moment, feeling more resignation and annoyance at their attitude than any true anger - he had seen this behavior many times, although since he was a magical, he had usually seen magicals disparaging Muggles rather than the reverse. Still, it did not take a genius to see the blatant bigotry and hatred these people harbored for something they could not possibly understand. It was good that Jean-Sebastian had intervened when he had, as this life could not have been comfortable for Harry.
   Glancing sidelong at his new ward, Jean-Sebastian considered the situation and wondered if the situation had been what he had seen here, or if the Dursleys had been more... physical in their treatment of the young boy. His eyes narrowed as he saw Harry's slumped posture and the way he would not meet his relatives' eyes. It was difficult to tell, but Jean-Sebastian determined he would get to the bottom of it and swore that these ignorant people would pay if they had abused the young man.
   In the interim of Jean-Sebastian's thoughts, silence had stretched on in the room, a silence which had clearly become uncomfortable for the couple sitting opposite, although their son did not seem to mind - he was openly gazing at his cousin, as though he had never truly seen him before. It was petty, but Jean-Sebastian took a perverse amount of pleasure in their unease, allowing the silence to continue as he merely gazed at the couple, his contempt showing in his expression which was tinged with distaste.
   "Should you not be thanking your nephew for his actions?" he queried at last. "If not for Harry's actions, your son would have been killed by those Dementors."
   "And if he wasn't here, your freaky creatures would never have been here either," Mr. Dursley snarled in response. "He's been nothing but trouble since he showed up, and we're well rid of him."
   "He did save me, dad," Dudley spoke up suddenly.
   From the looks Dudley received from not only his father and mother but also Harry, Jean-Sebastian deduced that Dudley backing Harry up was an uncommon, if not unheard of, event. The young man, however, ignored the looks he was receiving from his parents and kept his gaze focused on Harry, an earnest and almost pleading expression on his features. Harry returned his gaze with a questioning one of his own, before finally relaxing and slumping slightly in his seat with a half smile on his face.
   "Don't worry about it, Dud. It was no problem."
   Mr. Dursley's snort met Harry's statement, but Harry ignored it, seeming to be relieved and somewhat happier over the situation. Jean-Sebastian strongly suspected he was happy to have finally received some measure of approbation from at least one of his relatives, even if it had been bought at the price of a life-threatening situation.
   "Mr. Dursley, I fully understand you would like us to leave, so I'll get right to the point. I am not impressed with what I've seen here today and what I've heard about Harry's home life - you clearly know nothing about nurturing a young man properly, and if I didn't consider you to be worth nothing more than an ant to crush beneath my boots, I might take offense to the things you have said today."
   Mrs. Dursley paled, while her husband's face purpled in anger, but Jean-Sebastian ignored them. "Be that as it may, I am happy to say that Harry will never have to suffer your presence again. I will certainly never allow him to return here, and I cannot imagine him ever wanting to return once he comes of age."
   A single glance at Harry, showing the boy's slightly anxious expression and furtive glances in the direction of the front door, told him what he already knew - Harry would undoubtedly be quite happy to never return to his relatives' house again.
   "But be that as it may, I felt it only prudent to advise you of the change in Harry's status and the fact that he will not be returning. He is now betrothed to my daughter and will be my ward until his guardian is once again fit to resume his duties. Therefore, he will not be requiring your hospitality any longer."
   "Once a freak, always a freak," Mr. Dursley responded with a sneer. "Imagine! Magic and betrothals! It's all freakiness, I tell you!"
   His beady eyes fixed on Harry, and an unpleasant leer came over his face. "So, you had to go and get someone else to get you a betrothal to get yourself a girl, did you, boy? Couldn't get a girl on your own with your freakiness? I bet she's short and warty - a true witch!"
   Mr. Dursley's laugh grated on Jean-Sebastian's nerves, but he said nothing, merely removing a Muggle-style picture from his wallet and enlarging it until it was the size of a large painting. "This is my daughter, Fleur, who is now engaged to Harry. I don't think she has any warts, to the best of my knowledge. However, she may turn you into a toad if you were to suggest such a thing to her face, so I suggest you keep your opinions firmly to yourself."
   The mouths of all three Dursleys dropped as they gazed at the picture of his daughter, causing Jean-Sebastian to chuckle in response - as a father, he was proud of his daughters' beauty and Veela heritage, even while he had worried about the effect that heritage would have on potential suitors. Harry was truly a godsend to the French ambassador.
   After a moment, Mr. Dursley turned red and he began to stutter with rage while his wife regarded Harry as if she had never seen him before. The youngest Dursley could hardly take his eyes off the picture, although he did glance at Harry with a new respect in his eyes.
   Shrinking the picture once again and replacing it in his wallet, Jean-Sebastian regarded the abysmal family with some distaste. "Once we leave this place, it will be up to Harry as to whether or not you will ever see him again. When he comes of age, I will leave that decision up to him."
   "Just take him and go," Mr. Dursley said in a gruff tone of voice once he had recovered somewhat from his anger. "The only thing that will make us happy is if we don't have to deal with you lot again."
   "We will, Dursley," Jean-Sebastian responded. "But I also feel it necessary to warn you as well."
   Dursley passed a weary hand over his face. "Why can't you freaks just take a hint and understand where you're not wanted? We didn't want to have anything to do with him," Dursley jabbed a finger at Harry, "but your Headmaster wouldn't hear of anything else. We wanted him to live normally without all his parents' freakiness, but we were forced to send him to that school. Why do you people insist on doing this to us?"
   Astonished at the rudeness and tenacity of this man, Jean-Sebastian was tempted to do exactly what he asked - leave them to their fate. However, his sense of responsibility demanded he deliver his message before he quit the place entirely. Besides, Dumbledore had convinced Jean-Sebastian that regardless of the Dursleys' worthiness as guardians or their worth as human beings, they deserved to be warned, due to the fact that they were Harry's relations.
   "Mr. Dursley, are you familiar with the story of Lord Voldemort?"
   Mrs. Dursley gasped. "Wasn't he that madman who was after Lily?"
   Jean-Sebastian inclined his head. "He was after the whole family, yes, but more specifically after Harry, I suspect."
   Although his wife seemed to understand what Jean-Sebastian was talking about, Mr. Dursley appeared to be completely at a loss. "What are you talking about?"
   "Lily told me about him before she died," Mrs. Dursley told her husband. "He was after them for some reason or another - he's the one who killed them."
   With a grunt, Dursley glared across at the two wizards. "What about him? He died back then - what does he have to do with anything now?"
   Turning to Harry, Jean-Sebastian raised an eyebrow at Harry.
   "They don't want to hear anything I have to say," Harry muttered defensively. "Even if I tried to tell them, they wouldn't have listened."
   Turning back to the Dursleys, Jean-Sebastian sized them up. He suspected they might not give any weight to what he was about to tell them, but he decided it was on their heads if they did not. He could only warn them - they would need to do the rest.
   "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, we are here today not only to tell you that Harry will be leaving your residence but also to warn you that you may be in danger if you stay here. This Voldemort who tried to kill Harry when he was a baby has recently returned, and if he learns of your relationship with Harry, he may try to get to Harry though you. Now, you and I both know that there are virtually no familial feelings between you and your nephew, but Voldemort certainly will not know that."
   "But he died!" Mr. Dursley scoffed. "Would you have us fear a dead man?"
   "He did not die," Jean-Sebastian responded evenly. "Through unknown means, he managed to cheat his fate and has recently returned to Britain, intent on picking up where he left off. When he left Harry here as a baby, Dumbledore erected a set of protections which not only kept young Harry safe but also kept you and your family safe. But a condition of these protections is that he must be present for part of the summer for them to be effective. Harry will not be returning next year to reset the wards, which means they will fade away some time next summer. Once that happens, this house will be visible once again to the magical world, and if Voldemort ever makes the connection between Harry and your family, you will all be in great danger."
   "I'm sure we can reason with him if he does show up," Mr. Dursley claimed rather nonchalantly. "If he hates the boy as much as we do, I'd think he would award us a medal for getting him out of the house."
   "Vernon, I think we should consider the warning," his wife spoke up, her eyes bright with fear.
   "Frankly, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, it matters little to me if you heed the warning or not," Jean-Sebastian replied with a shrug. "I have done my duty. But I strongly suggest you listen to me and take steps to protect your family. Voldemort does not reason with or reward Muggles... he kills them. It is your choice, but I urge you not to underestimate him. Harry and I will collect his remaining belongings and leave you now."
   Rising to his feet, Jean-Sebastian motioned for Harry to precede him from the room, but they were interrupted by Dudley's fearful voice.
   "There isn't anything of Harry's left here. After he left last week, Dad got rid of it all."
   Jean-Sebastian's eyes flashed and he turned on Vernon. "You discarded Harry's possessions?"
   Vernon paled and seemed to sink back in his seat, his eyes darting from side to side. His fear would almost have been amusing if Jean-Sebastian had not been so thoroughly disgusted with the man who had provided Harry with such a dismal childhood environment.
   "It's okay," Harry said, his manner somewhat resigned. "I make sure I take everything that means anything to me when I leave after summer hols. All I had left were a few old clothes and some odds and ends."
   Turning to regard his ward, Jean-Sebastian searched his eyes, looking for some hint of anything other than the resignation which had been so evident in Harry's voice - if the boy had lost anything of value to Dursley's "housecleaning", he would have it out of their hides. Once again, Jean-Sebastian noticed the somewhat tattered and oversized state of Harry's clothes, which he had assumed was some Muggle fashion statement, but now he was not certain. Then, there was the single trunk of his possessions, which he clutched tightly in his hand. Whatever the Dursleys had or had not done to Harry, they had certainly not provided a suitably nurturing environment to the young man, and knowing that filled him with rage. But he checked his temper and glared down at the elder Dursleys with contempt.
   "Very well - we will be taking our leave now. I have never witnessed such complete disdain and criminal negligence in a couple responsible for the upbringing and wellbeing of a young man in my life. You, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, should be in prison for what you have done! Do not ever attempt to contact Harry again - you will not appreciate the consequences!"
   Motioning to Harry, Jean-Sebastian swept from the room with Harry close on his heels. They had walked no more than a few steps when they heard a voice calling to them.
   Jean-Sebastian turned and looked at the heavyset bulk of Harry's cousin. Seeing with a glance that Harry was regarding his cousin curiously, he felt it would do little harm to let them speak before they left.
   Dudley shifted from foot to foot nervously while covertly watching Harry out of the corner of his eye. He seemed to want to say something, but for whatever reason was uncertain - or unwilling - to come to the point.
   "What is it, Dud?"
   The sound of the young man's voice seemed to startle him from his thoughts. "Harry... I wanted... Oh, hang it all - I'm not very good at this."
   He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before visibly screwing up his courage and addressing his cousin. "I just wanted to say... I know I haven't treated you well, but... Thanks for saving me from those ghost thingies..."
   Harry smiled at his cousin, a smile which actually seemed to reach his eyes - somewhat surprising if half of what Jean-Sebastian suspected about his time with his cousin was true. "It's okay, Dudley. I couldn't just leave you behind. Don't think anything of it."
   "I think a lot of it, Harry," Dudley contradicted. "The way I've treated you, I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd left me in the dust."
   Harry did not appear to know what to say - after a moment's thought, he again smiled. "You're welcome."
   "And Harry... don't listen to what dad says about you. You're no freak. Wherever you're going, I hope I can see you again... sometime..."
   "I'd like that, Dudley," Harry said again. "Maybe when this is all over I'll look you up sometime."
   Although he was certain Harry would have denied it, he thought he detected the hint of tears in Harry's eyes - obviously, finally being offered a hint of acceptance from one of his relatives was affecting Harry more than he was letting on.
   Dudley nodded his agreement to Harry's offer and then turned his attention to Jean-Sebastian and ducked his head. "Please take care of my cousin, Mr. Delacour."
   Inclining his head, Jean-Sebastian directed a smile at the young man. "I will. Thank you for your words here, Mr. Dursley - it takes a lot of courage to admit when you've been wrong. Please convince your father to take the warning seriously," he continued with a stern expression on his face. "If you don't, the consequences could be disastrous."
   Dudley nodded, and after shuffling forward and shaking Harry's hand awkwardly, he disappeared back into the house, leaving behind one bemused wizard and a confused young man whom Jean-Sebastian suspected felt somewhat better about his relatives than he did before.
   They left the house, walking down the block back to the park, but instead of finding the secluded spot they had arrived in before, Jean-Sebastian directed Harry to a bench, intent on getting some answers from him before they went any further. Harry seemed somewhat confused, but he allowed himself to be guided and then sat down, waiting for further instructions. Jean-Sebastian flicked his wand, setting up a few charms to ensure their privacy, before turning his attention on the young man.
   "Harry," he began, not wanting the boy to become uncomfortable with a long silence, "I wanted to speak with you about your time with your relatives."
   Harry's face assumed a defensive expression, and Jean-Sebastian could almost imagine he saw an extra mask come over his eyes, hiding his feelings behind them.
   "I'd prefer not to talk about it, JS," he finally responded. "I'm never going back there, so there's no point."
   "Harry, you may have come to believe such ill treatment was something that you deserved, but believe me, the Dursleys' behavior is just short of criminal. You don't have to tell me anything which makes you uncomfortable, but I want to know what things were like for you and take the appropriate actions if necessary."
   Silence reigned for the next few moments as Harry seemed to retreat into himself. The expression of anguish on his features and the way he wrung his hands nervously tugged at Jean-Sebastian's heartstrings, but he was determined to give his young ward the space and time to discover his feelings on his own. If the situation was as Jean-Sebastian suspected, he promised he would have the Dursleys' hides hung on his wall.
   "What's the point?" Harry finally asked as he glanced up. "It's done, and there's nothing we can do about it. I would prefer to just move on and forget about them."
   "And what good is that?" Jean-Sebastian asked pointedly. "Harry, you may not believe you're worth the effort, but I intend to take the time to convince you that you are. And if your relatives never pay the price for their crimes, are they really learning anything? What of their own son? Will they do the same to him?"
   "You don't have worry about their little Duddykins," Harry muttered.
   Lifting an eyebrow, Jean-Sebastian thought back to the encounter, remembering the way the couple had spoken of and referred to their son, and he reflected, somewhat ruefully, that Harry was probably right - Dudley had likely been treated like a prince by his parents. Of course, their treatment of their own son obviously created its own problems in their son's sense of entitlement and his becoming spoiled, but that really was not Jean-Sebastian's concern. Such an inequality of their situations must have made Harry's childhood all the worse, knowing that he had been singled out.
   Jean-Sebastian sat there regarding Harry, allowing him time to sort through his feelings and find his words while at the same time presenting a calm yet implacable front to the young man - he would have an accounting of Harry's relatives.
   At length, Harry began speaking. He was somewhat reluctant and unsure, and although his manner was hesitant, once he started, the words began to come in a torrent. Yet though the subject matter was emotional and the actions of his relatives had hurt him immensely, his face was a stony mask and his voice was emotionless - Jean-Sebastian knew he had learned to protect himself from his relatives' neglect by holding his emotions in check and not admitting they had hurt him. It was something they would have to work on changing - Harry would certainly never face such attitudes in his family.
   The story Harry weaved was heartbreaking - it was one of a lonely, miserable child who could not understand what he had done to deserve the contempt and ridicule to which he was subjected on a daily basis. The story was one of emotional abuse, where the words "freak", "worthless" and "unwanted" figured prominently in the boy's upbringing. Harry spoke of growing up living in a cupboard under the stairs, moving out of said closet and into his cousin's second bedroom after receiving a letter from Hogwarts, only because the Dursleys worried what Dumbledore would do when he found out his living circumstances. Of course, he was not allowed to remove the pile of discarded and broken old toys which took up the majority of his new room. No, little Duddykins was not finished with them, so they had to stay.
   According to Harry, he had started cooking the family meals at an early age and ended up doing the bulk of the household chores while his cousin sat on his lazy behind, planning his latest round of bullying. He had never had a Christmas present from them, whereas his cousin had been buried in a veritable mountain of presents, and he had been told that freaks did not have birthdays, while again his cousin was treated as if he were a prince.
   He spoke of odd things happening to him, things which he could not understand, but of which his relatives must have known due to their knowledge of his parents' abilities. Yet nothing was ever explained - instead, he was punished whenever anything happened which could not be explained while his relatives lied to him, telling him he was the spawn of drunkards who were killed in a car accident, blaming them for the scar he now wore on his forehead.
   As horror after horror was spoken in that same emotionless monotone, still, Jean-Sebastian reflected, there was something missing from Harry's tale. The young man fell silent, and Jean-Sebastian determined he would discover whether or not Harry was hiding anything from him.
   "Thank you for trusting me with your story, Harry," Jean-Sebastian told him, showing the young man a smile of compassion. "But, Harry, I need to know something. Your relatives treated you abominably, but you haven't said anything about physical mistreatment. Did your uncle ever beat you?"
   His eyes widened and he began shaking his head vigorously. "No, he never did anything like that. I mean, there were some times I thought he was so mad he would, but he never did. Maybe he was afraid of what I could do to him when I grew up or something."
   "And your cousin?"
   Harry laughed bitterly. "Dudley's favorite game was called 'Harry hunting'. He and his gang used to terrorize the neighborhood and vandalize whatever they could without getting caught. I learned very quickly to be much faster than Dudley and very good at hiding - otherwise, I'd get a beating. But he never hit me hard enough to leave a permanent mark and was careful to never leave any kind of mark where it would show. He didn't want my school teachers to know about the bullying."
   Jean-Sebastian digested all this, reflecting it was better than he would have thought or hoped. The mental abuse in some ways was worse than if they had physically abused him, but if they had beat him, then nothing would have prevented Jean-Sebastian from exacting a stiff price for their actions. As it was, he was inclined to leave well enough alone - Harry was physically undamaged after all, and it would not do to drag up further painful memories for the young man. Instead, he would focus on helping Harry rehabilitate his sense of self worth - something which he knew would be difficult yet ultimately rewarding. It was amazing how well he had turned out, given the adversities he had faced in his life - Jean-Sebastian would have understood if he had grown into a bitter and vengeful young man, yet nothing was further from the truth. He was as pleasant a young man as Jean-Sebastian had ever had the good fortune to meet.
   "Harry, I want you to know something."
   The young man's eyes flickered up to meet his, but his expression remained placid, waiting for Jean-Sebastian to come to the point.
   "That part of your life is over, and I will never bring it up again. Is that clear?"
   "Yes, sir," Harry responded.
   Jean-Sebastian raised an eyebrow at the young man, prompting him to flush with embarrassment. "JS..." he amended sheepishly.
   "That's better. Just remember, Harry, I will not bring it up, but that does not mean you cannot. If you ever want to talk about it or ask my advice, I will always be available for you, and for that matter, Sirius can help too."
   "Thanks JS," Harry replied with considerable feeling.
   "You're welcome, Harry," Jean-Sebastian said, his mouth rising in a warm smile. He had only met Harry that day, and already he was developing a fondness for the polite and serious young man. If the stories he had heard of Harry's time in Hogwarts to this point were any indication, life with Harry Potter certainly would not be dull.
   ***
   That evening, Hermione Granger was sitting on the bed in her room considering the events of the day when Ginny stepped into their shared bedroom. Knowing as she did Ginny's obsession with the Boy-Who-Lived, Hermione was not surprised that the announcement from earlier that day had been a shock and a crushing blow for the young woman. She had been closeted with her mother for the better part of the day, presumably commiserating and crying out her frustrations, joined by her mother no doubt, considering Mrs. Weasley had wanted the match longer than her daughter had.
   The Ginny who entered the room still had a hint of red around her eyes, evidence of the amount of mourning she had done for the loss of all her dreams. Still, as Hermione looked closer, she saw something she had not expected - a small inkling of hope. Although Hermione could not claim to be an expert on wizarding customs and laws, she did not know how Ginny could still hold out hope. The betrothal was a legal one, sealed by the magical power of the two families, therefore completely binding and unbreakable.
   "Hi, Hermione," Ginny said, her manner nervous and uncertain.
   Hermione smiled and returned to the open book on her lap - the book which she had opened over an hour earlier, but of which she had, as yet, not even read a single page. She was uncertain what she could do to help the young woman. Ginny's feelings, after all, were uncomfortably close to Hermione's, although unlike Ginny's, hers new and still somewhat raw.
   "Crazy day, wasn't it?"
   "Yes, but a good day, nonetheless," was the response.
   The room was silent for several moments until Hermione glanced up and saw tears glistening in the corners of Ginny's eyes.
   "Yes, a red letter day," the redhead spat bitterly.
   "Harry's free," Hermione responded pointedly. "Would you have preferred the Ministry had snapped his wand?"
   Flopping down on her bed, Ginny sank down onto her back, spreading her arms out wide and allowing an explosive sigh to pass through her lips. "That's not what I mean, Hermione. I'm... I'm happy Harry was freed, but..."
   She was trying to be patient, but dealing with Ginny's fatalism and hopeless infatuation with Hermione's best friend was the last thing she wanted to think about. With her own thoughts and feelings as unsettled as they were, Hermione would have preferred a quiet, solitary room to herself to think and deal with everything which had happened. Not for the first time, she wondered why she was not in her own room - the house certainly had enough to provide everyone with their own privacy.
   "Of course, you don't care, do you?" Ginny spat bitterly when the silence had become oppressive. "You have never looked at him as anything other than a friend."
   Hermione was just able to check her reaction to Ginny's statement, knowing in her own mind exactly how untrue it was. Still, she felt somewhat ashamed of her thoughts about the young girl - this was a shock for her, and Hermione knew she had not exactly been supportive.
   "No, Ginny, I certainly don't know how you feel," Hermione replied, hearing the lie in her own voice but denying it all the same - her friend did not need to know of Hermione's feelings. "But Ginny, you knew there was no guarantee he would ever return your feelings. You've set yourself up for this by refusing to get over this obsession."
   Abruptly sitting up, Ginny glared at Hermione, tears glistening on her cheeks and an expression of utter desolation etched upon her face. "I know," she responded quietly. "But as long as he was unattached, there was always a chance... I could still hope..."
   Reaching across, Hermione took one of Ginny's hands and squeezed it in a friendly, commiserating gesture. "I understand. It's got to be hard, Ginny, but you need to let it go. Maybe now you can just be his friend without this infatuation getting in the way."
   "I tell myself that," Ginny responded, lowering her head, "but I can't help but hope..."
   "What is there left to hope for?" Hermione said, confused again over this hope to which Ginny continued to cling. "Harry's betrothed now, Ginny - a magical betrothal. As I understand it, there's nothing you or I or anyone else can do to break it."
   The little redhead glanced up with a faint smile on her face which was incongruous with the tears which continued to sparkle on her cheeks. "Actually, there is a way to break it, but that takes the agreement of both heads of the houses, which I doubt they would ever do - politically, this betrothal is far too important for Harry, the Delacours, and potentially our entire world. This could bring the French into the fight against You-Know-Who, which we badly need with Fudge at the controls."
   This was a condition of which Hermione had not been aware, but she still failed to understand how Ginny could still hold out hope to be with Harry when there was little to no chance he would ever be free of the contract.
   "You mean I finally knew something the great Hermione Granger didn't?" Ginny exclaimed with a small giggle.
   A mock glare met her declaration, which only caused the girl to descend further into her mirth. Hermione would have been happy that Ginny was able to laugh, if she had not detected a hint of hysteria in her voice.
   "I imagine there are many things about the magical world and Pureblood traditions I don't know," Hermione responded, mock sternly. "That doesn't explain why you still hope to be with Harry even though he's essentially engaged."
   The laughter stopped and a pensive looked stole over Ginny's face. "I guess you wouldn't know this either... You know the magical world is somewhat... behind the Muggle world, as far as traditions go..."
   At Hermione's impatient nod, she continued, "Well, in the magical world, there are no laws that state a man can only have one wife..."
   A shocked Hermione stared back at her friend, her mouth open and working soundlessly.
   "It's more like the lack of a law, actually. Although multiple marriages are not exactly common, they do still happen on occasion, especially among old Pureblood families which are in danger of dying out. The thought is that by having multiple wives, a man can father more children, expanding the blood line and preventing the possibility of only having one child and risking the line dying out."
   Hermione was aghast, although a part of her was curious. "Really?"
   Nodding her head, Ginny chuckled at Hermione's reaction. "Apparently, your reaction is very common among Muggle borns. For some families, such as the Zabinis, the problem is not serious - Blaise has several uncles, great-uncles, etc, all who have families of their own, making it unlikely Blaise will ever be involved in a multiple marriage. However, the Malfoys, although they may still have some relatives in France, do not have that luxury. Draco is the last scion of the Malfoy family in England, making him a prime candidate for eventually having more than one wife."
   "As is Harry," Hermione breathed, understanding what her friend was saying.
   Ginny nodded vigorously. "Yes. The Potters were a larger family at one time and are related to several other families if you go back far enough - the Longbottoms and my own family, for example. If he had been brought up by his parents, Harry would have been taught by his parents that he may one day be a part of a multiple marriage. In fact, if he had lived, James might have eventually had more than one wife, as he had no siblings either."
   "Not if what I have heard of Lily was true," Hermione murmured, feeling certain the headstrong witch would never have put up with another wife for her husband.
   Giggling again, Ginny nodded her head. "You're likely right. The first wife has to agree to the second marriage, so Lily could have vetoed any subsequent marriages."
   "What if there are multiple marriage contracts?" Hermione asked.
   "Then the first one has precedence, and any subsequent ones must be ratified by the first wife before they can become active. However, that would never happen, as the father would have to negotiate both. Why would he create two when there is no guarantee the first wife would agree to the second contract?"
   "For the political connections?"
   "Possible, but there still is no guarantee. And negotiating such a contract would have inherent risks - the second family might be offended by their contract being cancelled, especially if they were not notified of the first contract's existence. It hardly ever happens."
   As she thought about it, Hermione wondered if Ginny was thinking this through properly. It certainly seemed as though there was a possibility there, but there were so many variables.
   "I was not aware of this," she said, speaking slowly and carefully. "But there are so many unknown factors, Ginny. Harry may not feel that way about you, and I'm sure his fiancИe will not appreciate you dating him in order to try to become his second wife."
   "I know," Ginny responded, her features once again assuming the desolate look they had had when she had first entered the room.
   "So why do you continue to hope?" Hermione asked her, trying to remain as kind and understanding as she could. "And besides, are you certain you want to share your husband?"
   "If you really loved someone and the only way to be with them was to share, wouldn't you?" Ginny challenged.
   "I'm... not certain I could," Hermione responded, confused as to her own feelings. Would she be willing to share Harry with Fleur, a woman she did not even really know? It would be one thing with someone like Ginny whom she knew and liked, but to do so with a near stranger would be... difficult. Even if she could manage to reconcile herself to the idea in the first place...
   "Ginny, don't take this the wrong way, but I'm not certain you love Harry."
   When the young girl began to protest, Hermione stopped her with an open hand. "Ginny, you don't even know Harry - you've been too shy to get to know him. How can you say you love him?"
   For the first time since she had known the young girl, Hermione's statement seemed to give Ginny pause where Harry was concerned. She did not know if Ginny was truly in love with Harry or just infatuated, but she felt it would be better for the girl to let this go - it was almost certain to cause her less heartache in the long run.
   "I don't know," Ginny finally stated in a small voice. "I've had this attraction to him for so long... And yet, I guess I really don't know him, do I? I just know the Boy-Who-Lived."
   "That can always be fixed," Hermione said with a smile.
   At Ginny's raised eyebrow, Hermione continued, "Be his friend, Ginny. Harry doesn't need another fan girl or a potential second wife right now - there will be time enough for that later. What he needs now are friends. You need to let go of your infatuation and get to know Harry as he is, not as you've pictured him all your life. Believe me, treating him as a friend is the best way for you to catch his eye."
   The thoughtful look which entered Ginny's eye caused a sigh of relief to the young witch - it appeared she was finally getting through to the younger girl.
   "And one other thing, Ginny... I would recommend you give up on your hope - there are too many obstacles to be overcome. If some time down the road it does happen, it will be pleasantly surprising for you, but you're setting yourself to be crushed if it doesn't. Let it go."
   The clouded over eyes told Hermione all she needed to know about Ginny's reaction to her second piece of advice, but the girl smiled tremulously after a few moments and nodded bravely. It perhaps was not the best she could have hoped, but as long as the other girl had held on to her fantasy, giving it up would undoubtedly be difficult.
   Hermione lay back down on her bed and stared up at the ceiling. Now if she could only let it go herself...
   ***
   "I know this is sudden and not what you wished for, ma cherie, but you know how I worry for you. It could be much worse, could it not?"
   As the light of the afternoon gave way to the lengthening shadows of early evening, Fleur Delacour sat on the window seat in her bedchamber, peering out at the beautiful landscapes of the hills and valleys which comprised her home, the words of her father echoing through her mind. For once, the scene in front of her, the mass of verdant green trees and narrow streams amidst the rugged hills of her home, was not enough to distract her from her thoughts and worries.
   A small sigh escaped her lips and she pressed her forehead against the window, lost in thought. As every other young girl in the wizarding world, she had been well aware of the fact that her father could negotiate a marriage contract for her, although he had promised her he would only do it if he felt it was in her best interests and the best interests of the family. And of course like any other girl, she had dreamed of a wonderful man sweeping her off her feet, carrying her away to life of love and laughter. Still, as her father said, it was not truly a bad situation. And though she was unsettled over the situation, thinking back on the conversation with her father did bring her some comfort...
   ***
   Fleur sat down heavily on the chair in front of the desk in her father's study, unable to believe what her father had just told her.
   "Marriage contract?" she breathed. "I was not aware there was a marriage contract in existence for me."
   "I found out about it just recently myself," her father responded with a kindly smile. "I did not wish to worry you, so I did not say anything about it until I was certain we would be agreeing to it."
   Not knowing what to say, Fleur sat quietly in her chair, staring at the wood of her father's desk. Having reached the age of seventeen, she had assumed that as she had not yet been entered into a marriage contract, it was not likely to happen. Erroneously assumed, it appeared. She was well aware of the state of her father's position in both the political landscape of France and the wizarding world as a whole, and try as she might, she could not imagine with whom he would need to cement a political alliance.
   But suddenly, the import of the words made its way through her consciousness and she peered up at her father. "You didn't know about it? Then who negotiated it if you did not?"
   "It was negotiated fifty years ago for my generation," her father replied. He then proceeded to relate the history of the marriage contract by which she was now bound. But the one thing he did not tell her was the identity of her betrothed.
   "I see you are curious of the identity of the young man," he finally said after he had related the entirety of it to her.
   "On the contrary," she said with a hint of wry humor which she did not feel, "that is the kind of minor detail which is quite unimportant, given the circumstances."
   Her father favored her with an indulgent smile. "That is the spirit, Fleur - and I think you will not be displeased with the young man I have chosen for you."
   Fleur glared at her father, somewhat put out that he would not come to the point and tell her to whom she had been saddled.
   With another smile of amusement, her father finally relented. "Your new betrothed is Harry Potter."
   A stunned Fleur stared back at her father, aghast at the revelation. Never would she have believed that her father would betroth her to not only a foreign wizard but one of the most famous in the wizarding world. Harry Potter!
   "Fleur?"
   "But Papa, I hardly know him."
   "You have met him, yes?" At Fleur's nod, he continued. "I have never met him personally, but from what little I saw at that tournament, he seemed like a serious, competent young man, and he handled himself amazingly well given the circumstances. His godfather, although I suppose he can be considered to be somewhat biased in his opinion, has nothing but good to say about the young man."
   Fleur considered all her father had said, certain he believed he was doing as he felt was right. Knowing what she did of Harry, Fleur could not help but agree with her father's assessment. There were certainly worse wizards out there to whom she could be bound, not that Jean-Sebastian Delacour would ever tie her to someone merely for political gain - he loved his daughters too much for that.
   "I know this is sudden and not what your wished for, ma cherie, but you know how I worry for you. It could be much worse, could it not?"
   And she was aware of what it could be. As a Veela, she knew that many men would seek her out for her beauty and the status of being with a Veela. The burden of distinguishing those interested in Fleur the person from those interested in the Veela was always difficult and uncertain. Surely, from what she knew of Harry Potter, he was not the type who would use her in such a way.
   "Yes, father," she whispered, "it could be worse."
   "That is one of the reasons why I decided to enter into this agreement. I trust the account of your young man that I have been given, and I believe that he will treat you well. By all accounts, Harry hates his fame and wishes for a normal life, something which I hope you both can build together. In fact, it seems to me that you two share a similar problem: you cannot be certain if a man is attracted to you or the Veela in you, and Mr. Potter cannot be certain if a woman is attracted to him or his fame.
   "Besides, given what I have been told of him, I think you will do very well together. At the very least, it is much more than many Purebloods have to look forward to when entering into an arranged marriage."
   Fleur flushed and smiled at her father. "I understand, papa, and I appreciate the fact that you look out for Gabrielle and me so well."
   "I have only ever wanted for you and your sister to be happy, Fleur," Mr. Delacour said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his desk while fixing his daughter with a serious look. "All I ask is that you keep an open mind about your betrothed and give him a chance. I think you will be pleasantly surprised."
   Although still somewhat shocked and uncertain about the situation, Fleur nevertheless agreed that at this point it was the only thing she could do. Besides, after she had gotten over her initial impression of Harry, she had been intrigued by his heroism and bravery.
   "I shall give him every chance, papa," Fleur agreed.
   ***
   She was still unsettled two days after the conversation with her father. She had undergone several opinion shifts since she had met the young man - from the irritation and condescension she had felt toward the young man when he had unexpectedly entered the anteroom after the goblet incident, to the respect she had grudgingly felt when he had out flown his dragon, to the grateful admiration she had felt when he had appeared from the waters of the lake... Fleur's emotions toward the young man had been in a state of constant flux from the time she had met him.
   And now she was all but engaged to him. It was unsettling.
   Yet she knew her father was right about Harry - he was not happy with his fame and wanted nothing more than to leave it behind. The young man who had saved her sister and helped her in the maze when he had every reason to ignore her in pursuit of the prize would never mistreat her or hold her up as a trophy.
   The other part of her changing circumstances was the prospect of her spending her last year of schooling at Hogwarts, leaving the familiar halls of Beauxbatons and entering the hallowed halls of the oldest school in Europe as a student rather than a visitor. She was ambivalent about that thought - on the one hand, she was leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, while on the other she really was not leaving much. She had a few friends at Beauxbatons, and none of them were particularly close - a result of her heritage, unfortunately. In some ways, Hogwarts might even be better, as there she would potentially have at least the friendship and support of her betrothed. Yes, it was certainly better to look forward to the future and hope for the best rather than mope at her sudden change in status.
   A small pop startled her from her musings. Looking away from the window, she saw the small creature that had joined her in the room.
   "Mistress Fleur, the master comes with his guest. You is being wanted in the drawing room."
   Fleur smiled at the house-elf. "I will be right there. Thank you, Kappy."
   The elf grinned and then popped away, leaving Fleur to look at herself one last time in the mirror before making her way from the room. It was time to meet with her betrothed.

Chapter 5 - Chateau Delacour

   The journey back to Grimmauld, and subsequently through the Floo connection to the Ministry and ultimately to France, was uneventful, a fact for which Harry was extremely grateful. Due to the lateness of the hour, the Ministry building had been far less populated than it had been earlier in the day, meaning that although the few people who were still there would stop and stare at Harry as he passed, he was free from the scrutiny of scores of curious magicals all at once.
   Jean-Sebastian, after seeing Harry arrive to the Ministry building in a heap on the floor, had taken him in hand, showing him the proper way to exit a Floo - the trick was to keep moving. Harry's mistake had been to stop, for he had not realized the transportation magic assumed that a person entered the connection moving and would end it moving - his momentum had always caused him to pitch forward onto his face whenever he exited. Simply walking into the Floo and continuing to walk should be enough to keep a magical on his feet. Wondering why no one had ever seen fit to share this pearl of information with him, Harry was nevertheless eager to put his new knowledge to the test. His first attempt through the international Floo was somewhat successful - he did stumble, but he was able to maintain his balance and not fall, a huge accomplishment for the young man.
   The French Ministry building was as quiet as the British one had been, but the difference between the two was palpable. Whereas he was an object of curiosity in his homeland, here people continued on their business without a second glance. Those few who did recognize him - and from their reactions, he could tell who did - merely looked at him curiously, perhaps wondering why he was in France, before continuing on their way. Likely, word of what had happened in the Wizengamot courtroom that morning had not made its way to the general populace of France. For now, Harry reveled in the anonymity - there would undoubtedly be a time later when he would become an object of much more scrutiny in this country, as well, due to Jean-Sebastian and the marriage contract.
   The French Ministry was a whirlwind tour for Harry. Jean-Sebastian took him to the main administrative offices of the building, introducing him to some of his acquaintances who were still in the building, before taking him to the Minister's office and introducing him to the French Minister.
   The French Minister was a short and balding man, heavyset, but with a jovial smile and a welcoming attitude - Harry liked him immediately, not only for the welcome he received, but also for the sense he received of the man. Although this man was friendly and outgoing, Harry sensed that he was not another Fudge - his questions and observations were keen and to the point, yet not intrusive.
   Their conversation was short and mainly consisted of pleasantries and the Minister's personal welcome to France, after which Harry and Jean-Sebastian made their way to the main Floo connections of the building and used the Floo Network to go to Chateau Delacour.
   After stepping through the connection, Harry found himself in a large entry hall in an old stone building. It was largely unfurnished, decorated only with a few chairs along the walls and a large area carpet spread out in front of the fireplace through which he had just arrived. Halfway along the walls at right angles to the wall with the fireplace stood two opposing doors - the one on the left was massive, and he suspected it led to the outside of the castle, while the other was a large double door which, standing open, swung outward toward the entry hall. In all, the fireplace looked incongruous in the long entry hall, and he wondered if it had been built after the fact.
   Seeing his expression, Jean-Sebastian smiled at the young man, his words making it appear as though he had guessed the contents of Harry's thoughts.
   "Looks a little odd, does it not?"
   "I don't think castle builders were in the habit of putting fireplaces in entry halls."
   Jean-Sebastian laughed. "No, I don't suppose they were. One of my ancestors added it soon after the Floo was developed as a main entry into the castle. I also have a private Floo in my study, but its existence is known only to a few, and it is heavily warded. Here, we can control who has access to the rest of the building, and the room is always watched by one of our house-elves."
   As though on cue, a small pop was heard, and a house-elf stood gazing up at the two of them. He was dressed in a forest-green, one-piece pantsuit with gold stripes down the legs and along the lapels and cuffs, and shiny black shoes on his feet. It looked very much to Harry like it was a uniform.
   The elf bowed low. "Master Delacour, I is welcoming you home."
   Harry stood there in surprise as the small elf spoke in much the same flawed English as his friend Dobby had spoken.
   "Thank you, Matty. Can you please call Sirius to greet us?"
   "Of course, master," the small elf replied. "I be taking young master's trunk up to young master's room." And then he disappeared with another small pop, taking Harry's belongings with him.
   "Do you normally speak English here as well?" Harry asked with a glance at his guardian.
   "We have always tried to ensure our girls spoke English as well as French, but ever since we found out about the tournament last summer, we have spoken English at home. The only way to learn how to speak in another language is to use it, after all."
   Harry pondered that for several moments, thinking his words made sense, but still not understanding about the house-elf. "But what about the house-elves? Matty sounded just like..."
   "Just like your house-elves in England?"
   At Harry's confused nod, Jean-Sebastian chuckled and led him through the double doors into the castle. "One facet of house-elf magic is that it allows them to speak in whatever language their master requires, though I assure you their grammar is no better in French than it is in English. For some reason, they always speak in this manner, regardless of what language it is."
   It sounded like something which would catch Hermione's interest, but Harry did not pursue the subject - it was enough to know the house-elves would be able to speak with him.
   At that moment, Sirius came rushing down a large set of stairs, and upon seeing Harry, his face broke out into a huge grin. He ambled over and engulfed his godson in a huge embrace, which Harry returned fiercely, the beginnings of tears forming in his eyes.
   Overall, Sirius looked somewhat better than when Harry had seen him the last time more than three days earlier. Although he was still haggard and thin, he had a twinkling in his eyes which Harry had never seen before, and his coloring was markedly better.
   "It's good to see you, Sirius," Harry said, his voice choking with emotion. "I wondered where you went, but no one would tell me."
   "I'm glad you're here, pup," Sirius responded. "No one was told where I was going - we had to keep this under wraps."
   "Indeed," Jean-Sebastian interjected. The corners of his mouth were turned up in a slight smile as he regarded the two wizards fondly. "I had Sirius brought here a few days ago, not only to get him out of England, but also to get him some treatment for the years he spent in Azkaban and on the run. We had to do it in secrecy, of course."
   "Thank you," Harry said with some feeling. "I was hoping Sirius would get some help, but I didn't know what do to."
   "You are very welcome - I think I've become quite attached to you all. And then, there is certainly some benefit in this arrangement for us all, not to mention the danger we are all in from your Voldemort. But that is a topic for another day. I assume you would like to do come catching up?"
   Harry glanced at Sirius and - catching the smirk on his face - grinned in response.
   "Well then, I think you could use my office for a private conversation," Jean-Sebastian continued, apparently not requiring an answer. "I'll have Matty call you for dinner - it should be served in about another hour."
   With a companionable hand on each of his companions' shoulders, Jean-Sebastian walked away, leaving the two to their privacy.
   They walked the halls in silence until they came to an ornate door which opened into a large comfortable study with a wooden desk and several comfortable chairs. The walls held several bookcases along with several tapestries and wizard photos of the Delacour family. On the far wall away from the desk stood the other fireplace of which Jean-Sebastian spoke; it was lit with a cheery, yet small, fire. It was roomy and welcoming and spoke of a level of comfort which Harry had not experienced frequently in a home setting.
   Sirius directed Harry to two chairs situated in front of the fireplace, and they sat down, neither one commenting for the moment, both content in being again with the other. Although he had only known Sirius for a little over a year and had yet to spend much time in his company, Harry was amazed at how comfortable he felt with the older wizard - they had a natural connection between them, one which Harry felt transcended the bond between them due to Harry being James's son.
   "So, I suppose you have some questions for me," Sirius broke the silence.
   He supposed correctly - yet Harry hardly knew where to start. This day had been so sudden that he had not had time to come to terms with what had happened. It would take some time before he had it all sorted out in his mind.
   "You're getting treatment?"
   "The best healers in France," Sirius said with a laugh. "Although I don't know I'll ever be truly free of the specter of Azkaban, I feel better now than I have in years."
   "I'm happy," Harry responded quietly. "I had wondered where you went. It seemed a little unfair that Ron and Hermione got to spend more time with my own godfather than I did."
   "I understand, Harry - I'd love to spend more time with you. Unfortunately, it will have to wait until next summer. You'll be going to England with the Delacours next week, while I will have to stay in France and continue my treatment."
   "I guess..." Harry said, somewhat despondent that his godfather would be taken away from him again.
   "It will be all right. You will be back for Christmas and Easter breaks, and I'll make sure to be here so we can spend time together."
   Somewhat mollified, Harry fixed his godfather with questioning look. "So, how did you get to France? I imagine you couldn't just walk through the international Floo."
   "No, there you would be correct," Sirius said with a laugh. "Actually, Moony brought me here. Most wizards are so arrogant in their belief in the superiority of magic that they completely discount Muggles. Moony has spent considerable time in the Muggle world due to his difficulty in finding work in the wizarding world - it has to do with his furry little problem, you see.
   "He purchased a rail ticket through the Chunnel to France, and I went with him in my dog form. Once here, it was a simple matter to make our way to the Ministry building, where I was formally granted asylum."
   Such a simple yet effective plan, Harry mused. Not only would the local authorities have no way to detect him in his Animagus form, but the magical world would have no way of knowing he was using Muggle transportation - most magicals used magical transportation, with the notable exception of the Hogwarts Express.
   "And the marriage contract? Care to explain to me how it came about?"
   Laughing, Sirius slapped Harry on the shoulder. "I had imagined you would like to hear about that."
   The story was short, but Sirius did his best to explain the circumstances. And although Harry was still somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing, the situation made sense from Sirius' point of view. He even understood why they accelerated their plans after the incident with Dementors in Little Whinging.
   When Sirius fell silent, Harry thought for several moments before making any comments.
   "So, you did this for my benefit?"
   "Yes, Harry," Sirius responded, looking somewhat embarrassed to Harry's eyes. "The marriage contract seemed like a godsend when I found it - by then it was much too late to get you out of the tournament, but knowing Voldemort had been after you for some time, I felt it was the best way to ensure your safety and cement some alliances."
   "But wasn't there some other way?" Harry complained. "I mean, I know you did your best and all, but now I've got to marry someone I hardly know..."
   A mischievous expression came over Sirius' face. "Come on, Harry, I don't think it will be that much of a sacrifice. After all, if the rumors are anything to go by, the lady is not too repulsive.
   Harry snorted. "More like bloody stunning, if you ask me! But that's not the point."
   "I know it isn't. But you have to consider the advantages, Harry. With this contract, you are forging an important political alliance which will only help with your insane dark lord problem. The French can be very helpful in the coming war, and you can't discount the value of friends who love you and want to protect you."
   "I know, Sirius," Harry replied with a sigh. "It's just... it seems like my whole life has been decided for me... I've never made any decisions on my own. This is just another example of someone deciding something important for me without my input."
   Sirius' almost playful expression sobered immediately, and he stared at Harry. "I'm sorry, Harry. I just... I was desperate to help you. I felt so useless sitting there in Grimmauld while you were in danger. I truly believe this is a very big step for you. It is in your best interest, Harry."
   "I believe you," Harry responded, his voice almost inaudible. "Look, I'm... grateful you care, Sirius. Merlin knows that's been in short supply in my life. But don't expect me to be... ecstatic about this betrothal - it's too much, too soon. I need some time to think about it... to figure out how I feel about all this."
   "I would not have expected anything else. Just promise me one thing - don't shut Fleur out. She is a wonderful young woman, and if I'm any judge of character, I think you will get along famously with her. Get to know her, Harry."
   "I will, Sirius," Harry affirmed. "She's in the same boat as I am - I certainly wouldn't hold this against her."
   "Great!" Sirius said, slapping Harry on the back. "That's all I can ask for. I think it's almost time for dinner - would you like to see your room first?"
   When Harry replied he would, Matty was called and the two of them separated - Harry to go to his bedroom, and Sirius started to pour himself a drink. Harry suspected he was now feeling guilty over his actions regarding the betrothal, and although Harry did not want to accuse Sirius of anything or make him feel the guilt, he wanted his feelings to be known. He would talk to Sirius later that night and tell him.
   A quick walk through the castle and they had arrived at the family apartments, Matty chattering away at his side, telling him about how the family had been excited about his arrival and how it was an honor for him to be housed in the family wing rather than the guest wing. Harry smiled indulgently at the loquacious little fellow, reflecting that he reminded him of Dobby - not as hyper, but certainly eager to please and talkative.
   The room was several times larger than the small room at Privet Drive which the Dursleys had allowed him to inhabit. It was dominated by a large four-poster bed, while a large fireplace stood on the opposite wall. No Floo access, though, thought Harry, nor could he expect to find many of things which had been present in his aunt and uncle's home. It was a castle, after all, and the home of a wizarding family, which meant the normal necessities of a Muggle house, such as electricity and central heating, would not be present.
   The light switch on the wall and the large dome light above his head disproved that fact, and as he flicked it on, light flooded into the room. Wondering why they had lights, Harry set out to search the room for any other Muggle items, but he was unable to find anything else. It was another question to ask the Delacours.
   Other than the bed, the furnishings in the room consisted of a desk against the far wall beside the window and two comfortable looking stuffed armchairs situated in front of the fire. His trunk lay on a chest at the end of the bed, although it had not yet been unpacked. Harry pondered doing some unpacking for a moment before deciding not to bother - Jean-Sebastian had said they were moving into the ambassador's manor in England very shortly, after all, so his stay here would likely be very short in nature.
   Lying down on the bed, Harry spread his hands and legs out wide, luxuriating in the softness of the mattress and the overall comfort of the suite, something of which he had not known much in the past. His bedroom on Privet Drive certainly could not compare, and although his bed at Hogwarts was very comfortable, still it was a dorm room, shared with four other young men. This was his own and far more than he had ever had before.
   A moment later, Matty popped in, informing him that dinner would be served shortly and that he was to make his way down to the dining hall to greet the family. Suddenly nervous, Harry asked the small elf to lead him there, to which Matty replied that was the reason why he was here after all. Harry grinned and fell into step behind him.
   Harry was led to a sitting room down several levels below his bedchamber. Upon entering, he was stunned by the sight of more beauty in one location than he ever could have imagined - the entire female population of the Delacour family was there. Fleur, of course, he already knew from the previous year, but the older woman who sat beside her could easily have been mistaken for her older sister, if Harry did not already know who she was. Fleur was a carbon copy of her mother, from her deep ice-blue eyes, to the waves of silvery blond hair which hung free down her back, to the pale skin, high cheekbones and slightly narrowed chin. When they stood to greet him, he could see that they were even of the same height with one another, with the mother perhaps slightly taller than the daughter.
   Gabrielle, whom he also knew, was contrasted slightly from the two older women by her hair, which was a lighter shade - a pale, almost white, blond which shimmered in the late afternoon sun. Her eyes were also a darker shade of blue, and her face was heart-shaped, although with age and the loss of her baby fat, that might well change. Still, her whole person bespoke of the ethereal beauty of her older family members, of which she would undoubtedly share when she matured. The truly disconcerting fact was that they were all watching him closely, making Harry feel like he was on display.
   Feeling exceptionally self-conscious, Harry nevertheless squared his shoulders and, with resoluteness he was far from feeling, marched into the room, only to be almost bowled over by a blond-haired blur who latched on to him like a heat-seeking missile. Gabrielle excitedly chanted his name while chattering away in French (of which Harry, of course, did not understand a word), all the while hugging him as though she would never let go.
   Harry glanced up at the other two Delacour women, noting their fond smiles for their younger family member as well as the welcoming smiles for himself. Harry immediately blushed again, looking down at the still-prattling Gabrielle, not noticing the smile of appraisal which graced his future mother-in-law's face, or the slightly forced quality of Fleur's own smile.
   "Gabrielle, Harry does not understand French, my sweet," Mrs. Delacour admonished, her voice a throaty soprano, contrasting with what he remembered of Fleur's clearer voice.
   The young witch's hands flew to her mouth, and she giggled, batting her eyelashes at Harry, who, bemused at the sight, smiled back at her.
   "Oh, excusez-moi, Harry," Gabrielle breathed. "I did not think; I was so happy to see you."
   "It's all right, Gabrielle," Harry responded, unable to stifle a returning grin.
   "Come with me - I shall introduce you to my maman."
   She dragged him the rest of the way across the room and dropped into a girlish curtsey in front of her mother, making Harry wonder if he should bow to the Delacour matron.
   "Mama, I would like you to meet Harry Potter, my savior, and Fleur's..." here she cast a dirty look at her elder sister, "...betrothed."
   Ignoring her daughter's antics, Mrs. Delacour stepped forward with a silvery laugh and greeted Harry. "Welcome to Chateau Delacour, Harry; we are happy to have you here."
   "Thank you, Mrs. Delacour," Harry replied, feeling somewhat uncertain.
   "Now, Harry," she admonished, "I know you call my husband by his name, and I would prefer you did the same with me. Please, call me Apolline. Now, I believe you are already acquainted with my older daughter, Fleur."
   Harry smiled, suddenly feeling bashful, and turned to greet Fleur. She was regarding him with an unreadable expression on her face, and although he did not detect any hostility, he was still uncertain of her reception.
   "Harry," she greeted him softly, prompting him to respond in kind. The situation seemed about to become somewhat awkward between the two of them until Gabrielle was once again there, tugging on his arm, once again began speaking, asking him how his trip was and how he liked France, among about a million other things.
   Trying to decide how to respond, Harry was grateful when they were interrupted by the arrival of the two men.
   "Ah, Harry, I see you have begun to charm my entire family," Jean-Sebastian stated with a hint of laughter in his voice. "I can see I will have to watch you, or you'll be stealing them all
   away from me!"
   "Don't tease the boy," Sirius cautioned with a smirk. "You'll break him. He is a teenager, after all."
   The entire room broke out into laughter; even Harry laughed, although he did direct a pointed glare at the Marauder. Sirius did not deign to reply to his godson's displeasure, contenting himself with nothing more than a wink and an even larger grin.
   "Well, if we are all finished, I think we can proceed to the dining room for dinner," Apolline interjected. She closed the remaining distance between Harry and herself and smiled brightly at him, interlocking one of his arms in hers. "Besides, Harry is such a handsome, charming young man - I think my husband could stand to take a few pointers from him."
   She directed a mock arch look at her husband and then began sashaying from the room, pulling a completely nonplused Harry along with her. He could feel his cheeks burning in embarrassment, but Apolline merely smiled at him and directed him into the dining room, making certain to seat him beside her. Over his shoulder, he could hear Jean-Sebastian's good-natured grumbling, along with Sirius' open laughter, as each of the other men chose one of the sisters and escorted them into the room.
   Whatever Harry had expected from the family, this was certainly not it, prompting him to wonder if he could manage to survive not only Sirius but also the entire Delacour family.
   ***
   Dinner that evening was nothing like Harry had ever experienced at a dinner table - at least, nothing like any family he had ever eaten with; Hogwarts was another story altogether.
   At the Dursleys', his residence from the time he had arrived as a child until after his eleventh birthday and his summers since then, dinners had not been an occasion for much conversation. While Dudley and Vernon had typically spent every meal trying to stuff everything they could in their mouths, his Aunt Petunia had eaten sparingly and daintily, almost as though trying to make up for the atrocious table manners and gluttony of her male family members. And to Harry, whose presence was merely tolerated at the best of times, actually speaking to any of his family members of inconsequential nothings was just as incomprehensible. His usual practice was to eat as quickly as possible and leave their presence - a circumstance which was undoubtedly as welcome to the Dursleys as it was to Harry himself.
   By contrast, the other family with whom he had frequently dined - the Weasleys - had a tendency toward garrulity, as they were, as a family, quite boisterous and outgoing. Their mealtimes were generally filled with chatter, each family member loudly and confidently stating their opinions and generally having a good time. Yet while Harry generally enjoyed his time with the Weasleys, the raucous atmosphere, along with the way the family generally interacted with one another, left the quiet and shy young man slightly overwhelmed; in essence, they made him feel welcome by word and deed, but their family atmosphere was not one in which he could feel completely comfortable. He just was not certain he fit in.
   Dinner with the Delacours was, by contrast, quiet and subdued. They quite clearly adored each other - the parents' pride and affection for their daughters, the children's respect and love for their parents, all of this was clear to see. Yet they were quiet and controlled in their warmth, and their conversation was pleasant and loving, yet restrained and respectful. Each person was allowed to state their own opinion without interruption before the next person took up the conversation, something which contrasted heavily with the Weasleys' tendency to speak over one another in an effort to be heard. Harry did not think any less of the Weasleys for the way their family unit worked, but he found himself thankful for the Delacours' quiet camaraderie - it was certainly more suited to his own somewhat quiet and thoughtful demeanor.
   The food was delicious - as good or better than anything he had eaten at the Weasley table or even Hogwarts, and Harry, as famished as he was due to the length of time which had passed since breakfast, was able to do a credible impression of Ron's legendary ability to pack away his food, much to the amusement of his hosts.
   The conversation generally revolved around the events of the day, with Sirius and the Delacour women literally hanging on every word of what had happened in the courtroom. Sirius, of course, had found the whole situation - especially Fudge's humiliation - amusing in the extreme, and he had complimented Harry and Jean-Sebastian many times on the immense prank they had perpetrated on magical Britain.
   Harry's questions also proved a major topic of conversation. Anything regarding the situation and the specifics of the marriage contract, and what was expected of them was deferred by tacit consent by each of the diners. Now was the time for dinner and pleasant conversation - such weighty discussion could wait for another time.
   However, Harry did learn a few things of interest. First, when he asked about the lights in his room, Jean-Sebastian chuckled and informed him that although the light switch and dome in his room gave the appearance of electricity, it was in reality a clever manipulation of magic paired with certain Muggle ideas. Unless heavily shielded, electricity and electronics were almost inoperable when a certain level of ambient magic was present, and of course, with the presence of the house-elves, Chateau Delacour far exceeded those limits. The lights in his room were actually a permanent charm which cast a Lumos spell in the dome of his room and which was controlled by the runes set into the switch and the dome where the Lumos spell was cast. Similarly, the temperature in each room, the water in the taps and toilets, and a number of other ideas taken from Muggle devices could all be controlled by similar magical ingenuity.
   Harry was astonished, not having seen its like before. When questioned, Jean-Sebastian and Sirius led a new discussion of the lives of magicals in Britain and other lands, conversing about what the rich could afford in comparison to those of a more modest financial stature. Essentially, the gist of the conversation was that although such devices were certainly not banned, for many of the poorer classes, it was prohibited due to the sheer cost they incurred. Thus, the Delacours, who were quite wealthy in their own right, were able to afford such luxuries, while the Weasleys, who were notorious for their limited means, could not.
   When further questioned, Harry discovered that political leanings and prejudices also affected the presence of such devices in their homes. The Longbottoms, for example, were certainly able to afford the expense and would likely have such devices, due to their generally tolerant opinions, whereas the Malfoys, well known for hating anything Muggle, would undoubtedly stick to the old ways to light and heat their homes merely due to their distaste for admitting Muggles had any good ideas.
   The diners themselves were a treat to converse with, each different in their own ways. Sirius was talkative, regaling the company with tales of his exploits with James and the other Marauders, while the older Delacours were friendly and kind (Mrs. Delacour doing her best to learn everything of her future son-in-law). Gabrielle was chatty and bold for a nine-year-old, as she attempted to monopolize Harry's attention for the entire meal, something which earned admonishments from her mother several times. By contrast, Fleur was quiet and composed, and although Harry felt her gaze resting on him several times, her expression was inscrutable and her contribution to the dinner conversation was sparing and vague. He was unable to determine whether she was displeased with the situation in which they now found themselves - by contrast, he could not determine that she was especially pleased with it either. It had Harry worried.
   When dinner was finished, the adults, no doubt thinking it would be better for the two young people to become better acquainted with one another while they became used to their new situation, suggested they go off for a while together. Harry, though he was not opposed to the idea, nevertheless glanced at Fleur, trying to see if she had any particular opposition for the plan. Seeing her nod in agreement, he signaled his own consent and followed her from the room.
   She led him up several flights of stairs, down several hallways, and to a sitting room which he thought was near to the family bedrooms, though he was not certain due to his unfamiliarity to the layout of the castle.
   They sat somewhat uncomfortably for several moments, neither knowing what could be said at such a time. To Harry, it almost seemed like he was stealing her future from her by means of the infernal contract - the fact that he had had nothing to do with its enactment was almost irrelevant.
   "It is really too bad neither of us possesses my sister's ability to chatter."
   Harry laughed at her comment, happy that his betrothed had found a way to break the stalemate.
   "She appears rather determined," he said in response. "I don't remember her being that talkative at the tournament."
   "She would have been if papa had allowed her to be. She's not always this way - you seem to have made a lifelong friend when you pulled her from that lake."
   Harry groaned and leaned back on the couch. "I hope she gets over it - I get enough of that treatment as it is."
   Fleur appeared to be amused by his reaction. "She will - she is only nine, after all."
   They were silent for several moments, the lightness of the moment seemingly exhausted. Harry was not certain he was the greatest conversationalist, but he felt he had best try to contribute to their conversation - the tone of this time may greatly affect their future relationship.
   He blurted the only thing he could think of: "This is a little awkward."
   She smiled her agreement but said nothing further.
   "So, I supposed you were surprised," he continued after another brief pause.
   "Just a little," she agreed. "I always knew it was possible, but I didn't realize there was a contract already in existence.
   "I was certainly surprised it was you," she continued quietly after a slight pause.
   "I'm sorry," Harry said, uncertain as to how accepting of the situation she was. "It seems my ability to attract trouble to my complicated life has pulled you in, too."
   "Oh, Harry," she responded, reaching out a hand to touch his arm, "I was not meaning to complain or blame you. We weren't the ones who agreed to this contract, though we have to live with it..."
   Her comments mollified Harry somewhat, but he still did not know how she felt about the situation. It appeared she was at the very least resigned, but certainly she was not exactly happy about it.
   "How did you feel when you found out?"
   Harry took a deep breath and tried to organize his scattered thoughts. "I'm not certain I've sorted out my feelings yet... I just found out at the trial this morning."
   Aghast, Fleur stared back at him. "Just found out this morning?" She did not appear happy with his disclosure. "You mean they told me two days ago to give me time to get used to it, and nobody thought to tell you before?"
   "Sirius was already gone by that time," Harry protested. "I assume they wanted to make certain it was kept a secret..."
   Fleur's eyes continued to flash with displeasure. "We'll see about that," she responded coldly. "No wonder you still have not had the time to think about it."
   Though he could see her point, Harry was not about to continue with this line of conversation - she was obviously displeased with her father and Sirius for not telling him in advance, but for Harry, having been told the minimum all his life, this was nothing new. He had learned to take momentous changes with a certain amount of aplomb - it was either that or go completely insane.
   "I was surprised," he stated, trying to return to the previous direction of their conversation. "I don't know that I've ever been so shocked as when your father made his announcement.
   "Though I suppose I shouldn't have been," he continued in a slightly mischievous manner. "I've had so many things happen in my crazy life I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by anything any more. After tournaments, crazy dark lords, Dementors, and basilisks, a betrothal contract should be a run-of-the-mill occurrence!"
   Her silvery laughter rang out through the room, prompting Harry to join in. The ability to laugh in the face of such life-changing and unsettling circumstances was one which brought him a certain amount of comfort.
   Sobering, Harry sized up his still-chuckling companion. He had to admit that Sirius was right - he would have had to have been blind not to notice it for himself, but it was true that she was delicate and beautiful - stunning, even - and he was well aware that physical appearance would never be an issue in this relationship, at least from his side. Of course, he had always seen her from a bit of a distance in the past - figuratively and, at times, even literally. Now, from up close, looking on her as a betrothed and potential lover, he had to admit he could likely do no better from a physical standpoint. And, he had discovered in the past few moments, though he could certainly not claim to be intimately familiar with her, he was quickly coming to realize that her personality was equally as appealing as her physical attributes. Love had grown from less, he was certain.
   "How do you feel about it?" Harry inquired, wanting to get directly to the point.
   "I am not any more certain about my feelings than you are," Fleur responded, her manner hesitant. "I was surprised, and I am a little nervous, which is no less than what you feel, I think."
   At Harry's nod of agreement, she continued. "I must tell you, though, that I was not disappointed or upset, just surprised. In fact, to a degree, I welcome this."
   That definitely shocked Harry. "Really? Wouldn't you prefer to choose who you want to spend the rest of your life with?"
   The penetrating gaze he received in response made him feel a little uncomfortable, but sensing his companion was not upset, he waited for her to reply.
   "Do you know much of Veela, Harry?"
   "The first I'd ever heard of Veela was at the Quidditch World Cup, Fleur. You're the first Veela I've ever met."
   "You haven't had a magical upbringing, have you?"
   When Harry confirmed her suspicion with a nod, she continued. "Harry, contrary to what you may have heard or read, Veela either are or are not. I am a Veela - I am not a 'quarter-Veela' or 'part-Veela' or anything of the sort. Veela always breed true - if a Veela gives birth to a girl, that girl is a Veela, and if she gives birth to a boy, then that boy is just a boy, although it could be said that that boy will likely be especially handsome. The Veela powers I possess are not any different from what my grandmother possessed."
   "I didn't know that. Everyone talked about you being the granddaughter of a Veela."
   Fleur shook her head in exasperation. "That is what I am talking about - it is a common misconception about Veela, which most people simply do not understand. It is true that my grandmother was the first Veela to marry into my mother's family line, but that is the extent of the truth about what is 'commonly known' about me.
   "You should also know that Veela almost always give birth to girls and that Veela find it very difficult to become pregnant - most Veela give birth to only one child, and two is generally about the limit."
   Harry was puzzled, uncertain of what this had to do with their present conversation. "So, we are likely to have only girls?" he queried.
   "Yes, but that is not why I bring it up. I'm merely trying to point out that much is assumed or completely misunderstood about Veela. As for your question, I should explain in greater depth.
   "Other things which you may have heard about Veela also have a grain of truth to them. I can, generally when I am angry or afraid, turn into a large bird-like creature and cast balls of fire, although I can control it to a degree. We are generally taught to control it as much as possible, as to Veela, losing oneself in one's emotions enough to undergo the transformation is considered to be a failing and one to be avoided assiduously. Because of this ability, I cannot become an animagus.
   "Of course, you have heard about a Veela's looks - all Veela are hereditarily born with great beauty, which is passed down from our predecessors.
   "The final thing which you may know about is the Veela allure. Tell me, Harry, have you ever seen the effects of the allure?"
   "When I was at the World Cup," Harry began thoughtfully, "a group of Veela came out and danced in front of the crowd, causing most of the men to... to go a little crazy."
   "Yes, that's it," Fleur confirmed, while looking at him with a speculative eye.
   A little intimidated by her gaze, and guessing her thoughts, Harry became somewhat defensive. "I wasn't affected much by it. Not like Ron and his brothers. Hermione shook my shoulder, and I was fine."
   A warm smile lit up her face. "I see my father was right about you," she murmured. "Harry, it takes great strength of mind to resist the allure of a Veela, and the fact that you were able to throw it off, especially when there were many Veela exerting their powers, is a testament to your strength of will and mind."
   A blushing Harry ducked his head, embarrassed at the praise, but a quick look at Fleur merely showed her amusement.
   "Do not be uncomfortable, Harry; there is no quality which is more highly sought after by Veela than the ability to resist the allure."
   Harry simply nodded, not wishing to continue the conversation any further - it was just another example of his being different from everyone else when all he wanted was just to be normal.
   "So, would you it surprise you to learn that I have difficulty making friends?"
   Though his first instinct was to gawk at her, other thoughts intruded, and the impact of what he had been told, both by Fleur and her father, brought him up short.
   "I suppose the allure makes having friends difficult?" he ventured.
   Fleur laughed. "A little. I'm impressed, Harry - most would not know what I am speaking of. All they see is my looks, and they automatically assume that I am the most popular girl in my school, when the opposite is true. Those who are not intimidated or outright jealous of my looks are afraid of my ability to steal their boyfriends by simply exerting myself. I have a tendency to have acquaintances rather than friends, and if any of those acquaintances begins a relationship with a boy, they tend to start avoiding me."
   "And I suppose your beauty doesn't help in obtaining a boyfriend," Harry guessed. "I tend to have the same problem with my fame, although I'll admit I've never really tried to find a girlfriend."
   "Exactly," Fleur said with a smile. "And I do not want a mindless, slobbering fool for a boyfriend... and believe me - I could have them by the dozen if I really wanted."
   Harry snickered in response, certain she could.
   "So, that is why the ability to resist the allure is such a prized commodity to Veela," she continued. "If I should ever be fortunate enough to have earned your love, I will know it is for me rather than the allure. And trust me - Veela have a tendency to... lose..."
   Fleur blushed furiously and trailed off before visibly screwing up her courage and looking Harry in the eye. "What I mean to say is that Veela lose control of the allure when being... intimate... with a man - it tends to turn the man into a gibbering idiot. With your ability to resist the allure, I never need to worry about that, and it will help make our encounters much more... satisfying."
   She breathed a sigh of relief and continued on in a calmer tone of voice. "And, given what I know about you, I will not have to worry about your using me for my looks. That is why, although this has been a shock and not entirely welcome, when I found out it was you, I knew that it could be much worse. I am willing to do whatever it takes to make sure our relationship works."
   With those quiet words, Harry finally understood what the situation meant to her and how she viewed their future. It was humbling to know that she trusted him to the extent she did, and though he still did not feel like he knew her well, he was willing to ensure her future was everything she could ever hope it would be.
   He smiled at her and reached across to give her a hug, an action with surprised her no more than it surprised himself - he normally was not one to initiate much body contact. Fleur, though, was pleased, if the beaming smile which adorned her face was anything to go by. It gave Harry a warm feeling inside to know he could be the means of making her happy.
   "I understand, Fleur," he finally responded, trying to inject every bit of warmth he felt at that moment into his voice. "I think we have common goals and desires in a companion - I hope we can work it out between us."
   "I am certain we can," she assured him. "We will have lots of time this year to work everything out - I am to attend Hogwarts for my last year of schooling."
   Now Harry was confused. "Last year? I thought you were in seventh year during the tournament - you were seventeen, weren't you?"
   "Yes, but I turned seventeen in October, so I was just within the rules. If you recall, all the Headmaster said was that contestants needed to be of age by the start of the tournament, and I was."
   And Harry did see - after all, if they had been two years older, Hermione would have been eligible to enter the tournament due to the same circumstance.
   "I understand," he responded with a smile. "I have a friend who was born in September, so although she's in the same year as I am, she is almost a full year older."
   "That brown-haired witch that Krum rescued under the lake?"
   "Yeah, that's her. Hermione is great - my best friend."
   Fleur cocked her head to the side and peered at him with curiosity. "Then why was she not your hostage during the task? For that matter, if she is your best friend and you did not have a girlfriend, why did you not take her to the ball?"
   "Hello? What do you see here? Male? Teenager? Clueless?"
   His irreverent statement caught Fleur by surprise, and she descended into a fit of giggles while Harry grinned at her.
   "I know I should have asked her, but I was too worried about being on display for all the school to see, not being able to dance, and I was afraid I would be rejected by anyone I asked."
   Harry was silent for several moments, thinking about the events around the ball; knowing what he knew now about his relationship with his closest friend, he knew he had been a fool to have let the opportunity slip away. Not that it mattered now...
   "I should have asked her," he repeated quietly.
   "Hindsight is a wonderful thing, is it not?" said Fleur, breaking him out of his introspection.
   "I suppose so," he replied with a sigh before visibly shaking himself out of his thoughts. This was his betrothed, and it would not do for her to see him pining over another woman.
   "So, is there anything else you wanted to know about me?"
   The twinkle in her eyes was reminiscent of a certain Headmaster. "Many things, I should imagine..."
   They laughed together, and Harry was struck by the thought that just as the Delacour family had not been what he had expected, neither was Fleur personally. Regardless of the way she had acted when he had originally met her, she was very friendly and personable now - Harry was becoming more accepting of the way things had turned out and was hopeful life with her would be all he had ever hoped for.
   ***
   Upon spending some hours talking and laughing together, Fleur and Harry left the sitting room to rejoin her family, both still somewhat uncertain about the situation yet confident in the fact that they had begun to take steps to get to know one another.
   They were greeted by the other family members, particularly by one young blond girl who had been sitting rather impatiently with the adults, eagerly awaiting Harry's return. His attention was immediately commandeered, and she led him over to a sofa and proceeded to chatter away at him, completely oblivious to the fond looks directed at her by the rest of the family.
   Fleur was amused at her sister's antics, reflecting that from the time she had emerged from the lake and discovered the identity of her savior, the only subject which held any interest for her was Harry Potter. She appeared to have come down with a serious case of hero worship for the young man, and Fleur knew that although she was close as ever to her sister, Gabrielle was envious of the betrothal contract - Fleur was certain that if possible, Gabrielle would have traded places with her in an instant.
   Knowing the benefits of the betrothal and having come to know Harry better by means of their conversation that evening, Fleur was beginning to feel better about the circumstance in which she found herself. She was by no means reconciled to it and was still somewhat anxious about what the future held for them, but she could see now why her father had acted the way he had, and she knew her chance for happiness was as good as any. She had put on a brave face for Harry - and suspected he had done the same for her - but hoped that everything would work out for the best.
   The Delacour family, along with Sirius and Harry - who Fleur already knew were considered part of their extended family by her parents - discussed the upcoming week, noting that there was much to be done. First, her father brought up the fact that Harry had very few possessions - particularly clothes - and suggested the entire group go out on a shopping trip the next day to buy Harry some new things. Harry, of course, declined, stating that he had always done with little and did not need new things. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had been overruled by the female members of the family, whose ears perked up at the word "shopping", and Fleur's mother had immediately began sizing up Harry and planning his wardrobe, if Fleur knew her mother at all. Sirius and her father had merely smirked and gone along with the trip, teasing Harry to beware of females afflicted with "shopping disease". It had not taken much for her mother to quell their joking, merely a glare at Sirius along with an upraised eyebrow at her husband which promised a long, unpleasant discussion later if he continued to bait the young boy.
   When Harry grudgingly agreed to the excursion on the condition that he would be allowed to pay for his own clothes, her father had once again stepped in and told him that the Delacours were quite well off and that he could consider the new clothes a gift from his new family. His reaction to that had been rather surprising, as he had colored, disbelieving it and ultimately having to be convinced that his hosts were in earnest. Fleur had heard stories of his upbringing by what she was rapidly coming to think of as nasty Muggles, but she had not thought it to be as bad as it now appeared. She was left thinking that perhaps some day she would have to pay a visit to the reprehensible family and explain a few things to them...
   Then they began discussing the impending move to the ambassador's manor in England, which, her father had informed the family, was to take place over the next several days. The house-elves would begin to move the family's belongings over to their new home the next day and would have it completed by Sunday at the latest. This would allow the family time to prepare and move at their leisure and perhaps even take Harry and Sirius to a few of the more famous sights in France. Needless to say, Harry was once again taken aback and embarrassed by the attention shown to him by his new family.
   It was not until the talk turned to Harry's experiences that it really became interesting and Fleur began to truly understand exactly what life in the wizarding world had been like for the young man. And of course, it was her father who broached the subject.
   "Harry," he stated into a lull in the conversation, "I would like to ask you about the return of this dark lord and the things I have heard about you over the past few years."
   Harry shyly ducked his head, mumbling about how he had not really done anything special.
   But her father was not amused. "Really, Harry, there is no need to be overly modest or ashamed of your successes. You have had a remarkable life thus far, and you should be proud of all that you have accomplished - do not be afraid to take credit for the things you have done well."
   Fleur watched her betrothed very carefully, wondering how he would react to her father's admonition. He was a very modest young man, to be certain, but beyond that, Fleur was certain that his upbringing was a major contributor to his self-effacing attitude and inability to take praise. Her father was right - the ability to be proud of one's accomplishments without being overly arrogant was an important life skill, and Harry's inability to see any good in his experiences bespoke a disturbing lack of confidence, especially if, as rumored, he was to be at the forefront of the struggle against the dark lord.
   At length, Harry gave a tentative smile back at his new guardian. "I will try, J.S."
   "Good. Now, please tell us about your adventures, and there will be no holding back."
   The next two hours were incredible in the description of the sheer number of dangerous escapades in which Harry Potter had been embroiled throughout the course of his first four years at Hogwarts. The family listened as he described his experiences with the Philosopher's Stone in his first year, shuddered in stunned disbelief when he told them about fighting the huge basilisk, and were awed by the story of the rescue of Sirius and the pure power of Harry's Patronus which had driven off dozens of the foul Dementors. And although Fleur herself had lived through much of his fourth year herself - bar the duel in the cemetery, of course - hearing Harry detail the events from his own perspective brought Fleur new understanding, giving her an even greater respect for the young man. He had truly undergone an incredible number of challenges in his short life, and with the dark lord's unhealthy interest in him, Fleur felt certain it was only a matter of time until his next escapade. Her future with him, at least in the short term, would be anything but boring.
   "That is a truly remarkable story, Harry," Jean-Sebastian said at length, once Harry had finished his narration. "I do not know that I have ever heard of such heroism in an adult, let alone a teen such as you."
   Harry blushed in response but had the presence of mind to murmur a quiet thank you to his host. "I had the help of my friends."
   "I am sure you did, Harry, but you were obviously the catalyst for these events as well as the main participant. There are a few things I would like to clarify, though."
   At Harry's nod, he continued. "In your second year, you say you fought a basilisk under the castle. Just how large was this basilisk?"
   "I was a little too busy to take measurements," Harry responded cheekily.
   Sirius let out a guffaw among the Delacours' laughter and slapped his godson on the back. "Spoken like a true Marauder!"
   When the laughter had died down, her father said nothing - he just raised his eyebrow at Harry and waited for him to continue.
   "My guess would be about fifty to sixty feet," Harry finally responded after a moment's thought. "At the end, I was standing about twenty feet up on Slytherin's statue when the basilisk reared up and faced me, and I'm guessing that as much or more of it was still on the ground."
   A stunned silence met Harry's declaration. Fleur did not know much about basilisks - they were incredibly rare and illegal to breed, after all - but she did know that the bigger they became, the older and more deadly they were. One over fifty feet long would have to have been several centuries old. It was obvious, though, that Harry himself did not know anything of them beyond that which he had experienced first hand - that was probably enough for him. It would be enough for anyone.
   Sirius whistled in awe. "I knew it had been a nasty piece of work there, Pup, but I didn't know the full extent. You really don't know what you have done, do you?"
   At Harry's blank look, Jean-Sebastian took up the discussion. "Harry, not much is known about basilisks beyond the obvious and their abilities. They are illegal to breed, and as the circumstances of their birth are specific, it is almost impossible for one to have been born naturally. You are aware of how they are bred?"
   "Hermione researched in second year," Harry confirmed.
   "Of course. Then you must realize that in order for a basilisk to exist, they almost had to have been created specifically by one with the knowledge, the will, and the reason to do so. They are truly foul creatures and are illegal to breed - it is one of the tenets agreed to by all member states of the ICW. Therefore, the fact that you not only killed a basilisk but also one of that size underneath the castle is astonishing."
   "Not only that, but you did it as a twelve-year-old, without any training," Sirius added. "I don't doubt there are few fully trained adults who could accomplish such a feat."
   When Harry was about to protest, Sirius waved him off. "I know, Harry - you had help, and without the Headmaster's trusty phoenix, you would likely not be here to talk about it today. But it still is a marvelous feat, whether you did it yourself or not."
   "And that brings us to another point," Jean-Sebastian interjected. "Given the dark lord's interest in you, I think it is high time you receive some training to combat him. Has Dumbledore provided any additional training for you?"
   Harry shook his head no.
   "I am not surprised," Jean-Sebastian responded, stroking his chin absently. "You are still young and just coming into the age of being able to handle some of the more powerful spells."
   "Don't forget the fact that he mastered the Patronus in his third year," Sirius interrupted.
   "Indeed. Maybe you have been there for a while. But the point is that it is generally about fifteen when a young person's magic is deemed stable and powerful enough to handle truly powerful curses and hexes, and you will start learning them during this school year. Still, I think we need to accelerate your learning so you can be ready for Voldemort the next time he comes after you - you may not be able to defeat him yet, but knowing some spells and having some dueling skills may just be enough to keep you alive until you can escape.
   "I think we will bring someone in to tutor you for the rest of the summer, and Fleur can join you in your sessions."
   Harry glanced over at Fleur with a questioning look in his eyes.
   "It would certainly help, Harry," she told him. "The dark lord has shown many times that he takes a specific interest in you, and I would feel much better if my betrothed knew how to defend himself."
   The shy smile on Harry's face completely disarmed Fleur, and she responded with one of her own. At this moment, she felt better about the whole situation - sitting with Harry and her family, listening to him talk about his adventures, all in his modest and self-effacing manner, had given her further insight into his character. She had to admit that she was impressed with what she had seen.
   "Thank you, Jean-Sebastian I would be happy to receive the additional training," Harry finally responded. "But could I invite my friends to attend, too?"
   Jean-Sebastian and Sirius shared a glance.
   "Ron and Hermione?" Sirius asked.
   At Harry's nod, both of the men chuckled. "That would be fine, Harry," Jean-Sebastian affirmed. "I understand the bond you have with your friends - it would be good for you to have your support group better trained as well."
   The talk then turned to other matters and continued for some time, Harry by now completely charming Fleur's entire family. She had not known what to expect from Harry - her interactions with him during the previous year had been sporadic and rather impersonal. He was not as she had expected.
   ***
   Jean-Sebastian watched his family interact with their guests, especially with one Harry Potter, and he was pleased with what he had seen from their interactions. Harry had quickly and effortlessly integrated with the entire Delacour family, even after only a few short hours, and he was certain Fleur had begun to get to know the young man she would eventually marry. She was a good girl and had always made him proud - he wanted the best for her, and although he had only known young Harry for a day, he was quickly becoming of the opinion that Harry was it. This was working out better than he had imagined.
   As for Harry, it was clearer than ever that Harry lacked the confidence that an exceptional young man such as himself should have at his age, and it was also obvious that it was the Dursleys' influence which was at the root of his problems. His association with Jean-Sebastian's family should go a long way to helping him gain that confidence which only acceptance and love could instill. Looking around at his family, Jean-Sebastian could see them all riveted on whatever the young man was saying - Gabrielle (he had to chuckle at the obvious hero worship and infatuation his youngest was showing) seemed almost unable to take her eyes off of him, while his wife was quite enamored of the young man. If they had been young and still in their dating phase, Jean-Sebastian fancied that he might almost feel threatened by the attention she was showing him.
   Fleur was the difficult one. Though she was beginning to get to know Harry Potter, her manners and ways of expressing herself were still somewhat reserved, something he knew she had picked up as a defense mechanism against the sometimes open hostility she often experienced from other girls her age. Still, she seemed to have made a good start with him, and he certainly could not expect her to throw herself into his arms and declare undying love only a few hours after his arrival. Jean-Sebastian believed in his heart that they were a very good match - they only needed time to get to know one another better.
   The other things he had learned that day - the state of the British Ministry and of the Minister in particular - well, he had known what the situation was prior to his trip into Britain that morning. However, seeing it firsthand was a shock - it was clear that the Ministry, as long as Fudge was at the helm, would be of no help whatsoever. It bore some consideration for their future and could necessitate removing Harry from Britain if things became too bad there. It was a step Jean-Sebastian was loath to take, as he knew that retaking a hostile land would be much more difficult fighting a hostile force from within.
   And that was another matter - this secret society of Dumbledore's which Sirius had discussed with him. He would have to contact Dumbledore at the first opportunity and discover what exactly it was, what their goals were, and how they meant to fight the battle he knew was on the horizon. If it was something he could in all conscience support, then he would have to, not only for the sake of his family, but also for the sake of the young man who had entered their lives.

Chapter 6 - Baby Steps

   The first few days after Harry's arrival were hectic, filled with various activities as the Delacour family tried to cram as much into their only two days in France as they could. Through it all, Harry was polite and cheerful - if a little overwhelmed - but the way in which he went about his new life with an almost childlike joy and wonder made it clear that he had never taken part in most of those activities before - his relatives had kept him from it. It appeared he had gone about life as a passive viewer - never really part of anything - a family, a group of friends, or anything like them - he simply had moved from one situation to another with no real purpose or thought and no welcome from the reprehensible Muggles. Although it was never voiced out loud within his hearing, his new family was filled with disgust at his old guardians, and in the confines of their own minds, more than one of them contemplated a healthy dose of revenge against the loathsome family.
   To combat his hesitance and uncertainty, his new family, by unspoken agreement, simply tried to be open and friendly - the Delacours took special care as a family to ensure that he knew they had his best interests at heart and that they cared for his happiness. It took some time, but it seemed as though the two days in France went a long way toward making him feel comfortable and welcome in their home and in their presence. The elder Delacours made him feel like his opinion mattered when they spoke with him, listening when he had something to say and taking the time to talk to him, explaining things he did not understand and patiently guiding him when required. The younger members of the family contributed in a slightly different manner - Gabrielle became his shadow, rarely letting him leave her side, while Fleur was friendly and polite, yet still maintaining the reserve she had shown the first evening. Sirius, of course, was the same as ever - the consummate Marauder - as he joked and laughed and told stories of his escapades as a young man with Harry's father.
   The day after his arrival in France, Harry was treated to a new phenomenon - the concept of women and shopping. The Delacour women were not fanatical shoppers - they tended to get what they needed when they needed and did not spend an excessive amount of time browsing. But a case such as Harry's - where it was clear he required everything from the basics to a more formal style - caught the imaginations of Apolline and her daughters, and they found themselves eagerly anticipating the upcoming trip and the opportunity to assist Harry in finally coming into his own as the powerful and confident young man and wizard into which he was to grow. The first step in this endeavor was that he had to look and dress the part.
   The day after his arrival, the entire family Portkeyed away from the castle to the French equivalent of Diagon Alley to peruse the shops and make certain Harry was outfitted with whatever wizard robes he would need for the coming year. As with Diagon Alley, the district was small, and there was nothing there he would not have seen in his own country, so things went very smoothly, leaving the young man to wonder why Sirius and Jean-Sebastian were so amused at the thought of a shopping date with the women.
   But then the true fun had begun. Exiting the magical shopping area, they had entered a nearby Muggle district with shops as far as the eye could see - and the wonder and curiosity on Harry's face had been priceless. The women, their imaginations on fire as to how they could build the young man's wardrobe from the ground up, immediately dragged him off, intent on seeing him clothed properly and his cast-off rags from Dudley burned as soon as may be.
   Thus had begun a marathon of shopping, and by the end of it, Harry was feeling as though he had tried on and modeled every piece of clothing in the Muggle world. They included, but were not limited to, shirts, pants, sweaters, jackets, and shoes - all of them in casual and formal styles, many of which he would never have thought to even look at had he been on his own. The ladies had been positively indefatigable, and their energy had been astounding - Harry had thought they would never quit.
   Everything he looked at or tried on was either approved or rejected by the ladies, who at times did not even listen to his opinion, if he had even had one to give. It had finally taken a shirt which they had forced him to try on - one he decided he would not be caught dead in - which had forced them to listen to his opinions on his new wardrobe. Of course, Apolline had been amused by his sudden recalcitrance, smirking as she told him that she had been waiting for him to make up his mind and dig in his heels. After that incident, it had gone much more smoothly, as everything was first agreed upon by Harry before the ladies approved or, conversely, exercised their veto power.
   However, this new meeting of the minds did not seriously limit the number of different outfits to try on. They literally spent the entirety of an afternoon at it, and all were exhausted by the time Harry walked away from the shopping center carrying bags and bags worth of pants - denim, cotton, formal - as well as several shirts of all kinds and socks, shoes, boxers and all of the accessories the ladies had decided he needed. Then his new family had coaxed him into wearing some of his purchases, and a quick Incendio in an out-of-the-way alley did away with the old baggy clothes he had been wearing.
   Seeing how much they were purchasing, Harry had begged Apolline to allow him to pay for his own purchases, but she was firm - Harry was now part of the family, and as such, the Delacours would now treat him as one of their own children, which included providing him with the essentials in clothing, shelter, food and the love and care of a family. It was a slightly choked-up Harry who left the shopping malls behind, clutching bags upon bags of his new possessions and feeling slightly overwhelmed.
   That evening, they ate dinner at an expensive restaurant in Paris. Not ever having an experience to compare with, Harry was amazed at the excellence of the cuisine, while simultaneously being concerned that he would make some serious faux pas and embarrass himself. His new family quickly allayed his fears and made him feel welcome, while Sirius teased him out of his reticent mood; soon he was laughing along with the family and having a wonderful time.
   The next day was spent taking in some of the sights of France. Jean-Sebastian explained to Harry that although they could not stay long, he could hardly be here without seeing some of the major sights. So, Harry was able to go to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, see some of the more famous locations on the Champs Elysees, the Arc du Triomphe, as well as a few other locations he had always heard of, but never visited. In all, it was an eye-opening experience for Harry and served to draw him closer to his new family.
   They were also days for Harry to get to know his newly betrothed. Both had felt they had gotten a good start during their conversation from the previous night, but they also realized it would take some effort for them each to get to know the other. The first part of that bonding process was for them both to understand the other in contrast to their preconceptions and their commonly held misconceptions.
   For Fleur's part, she wanted to know more about him - she had heard his stories of his adventures and had heard all the so-called "official" information about Harry Potter, but he was to be her husband, and it was simply not enough. She was resigned to the match, but still she had reservations, as she had so honestly disclosed to him on his first evening in France, and the best way to remove those reservations was for the two of them to become better acquainted and knowledgeable about each other.
   This had entailed taking as much time as their event-filled days before their departure would allow, and although it upset Gabrielle to a certain extent, they had spent much of the following evening shut up in a room together and walking about the park in which the chateau stood. Gabrielle was soon put to rights by her mother, who reprimanded her gently and reminded her that Harry was Fleur's betrothed and that they needed to get to know one another without the interference from others - Harry would spend time with her, but she must not be so possessive of him. Gabrielle had sulked a little when told this, but her better nature took over, and she was soon able to interact with Harry more like a typical nine-year-old rather than with the clingy hero worship which had characterized her actions before. Not that the hero worship still did not show up from time to time...
   The conversations between Harry and Fleur generally revolved around how Harry felt about the situations in which he had found himself. Fleur had already heard about the events themselves, so she had the information; however, she felt that knowing about Harry's feelings would help her to get to know him better. In addition, she asked him about his childhood at the Dursley residence and induced him to talk about his friends at Hogwarts, his impressions of the education there, and anything else he could be persuaded to speak of.
   However, it was not only a one-way passing of information - Harry was just as curious about his betrothed as she was him. He was unable to get her to discuss much of her experiences at Beauxbatons - she told him she was not ready, and it really did not matter anyway - but when it came to her times with her family and her abilities as a witch and a Veela, she was much more forthcoming.
   There were two events which particularly illuminated her character to Harry, causing him to gain no small measure of respect for his newly betrothed.
   ***
   The morning after Harry's arrival at Chateau Delacour, he had knocked on Fleur's bedroom door, intending to escort her down to breakfast. They chatted amiably on the way down, entering the dining room to see that they were the last arrivals. Harry, seeing the breakfast foods spread out on the table and suddenly feeling the hunger for the morning repast, motioned for her to precede him to the table, only to find that she had already moved from his side.
   He watched as she strode purposefully to the table and stopped by Sirius' chair, her hands on her hips as she glared down at the former Marauder.
   "Sirius Black!"
   Sirius started and stared up in surprise, even while Jean-Sebastian chortled at the scene playing out in front of their eyes.
   "I do not know what you have done, my friend, but my daughter glaring at you in that manner is not a good sign!"
   "I would not make such comments, Father, dear," Fleur retorted with an incongruously sweet smile. "I have some words for you as well."
   With Fleur focused on another, Sirius had managed to rein in his surprise, and he peered back up at her, a charming smile now plastered upon his face. "And what can I do for you, my lady?"
   "You can start by explaining why you did not tell Harry about the marriage contract before he had to walk in to that trial."
   Whatever Sirius had been expecting, this was clearly not it. "Well... I... I mean, we... thought that it would be better to keep it a secret," he stammered. "Dumbledore felt that we should keep it to ourselves until the trial."
   Fleur raised an elegant eyebrow. "And Dumbledore rules over house Black?" was her rhetorical - not to mention slightly sarcastic - question.
   Upon seeing Sirius had nothing to say in response, she continued, "Besides, I know how you British revere the Headmaster, but truthfully, I am not convinced he has Harry's best interests at heart."
   Sirius began to sputter in response, but he was ruthlessly drowned out by the irate young woman. "I do not think he is evil, Sirius, but he did leave Harry in a very poor environment for years when he surely could have found alternate arrangements."
   A sigh and a weary hand over his eyes was Sirius' response. "I cannot help but agree with you. I argued that myself with him, but he was convinced Lily's blood protection was the best means of defense for Harry."
   "They may have protected him from Death Eaters," Fleur retorted, "but certainly not from the neglect of his guardians."
   Jean-Sebastian Delacour had had many more years to know his daughter and understand her moods - in this case, he evidently felt she was serious in her displeasure, and he attempted a conciliatory tone.
   "I suppose you are correct, Fleur - we should have told Harry before the trial. There simply was not a lot of time or opportunity, and as Sirius said, secrecy was paramount. But all is well, and Harry is no longer bound to stay with his relatives. I can promise he will not be going back while either Sirius or I have guardianship over him. And again, as Sirius has said, the utmost secrecy needed to be kept, so as to spring the surprise on the Minister without allowing him time to form a counter-strategy."
   Apolline, who was astonished by the revelation and just as displeased about it as her daughter, joined forces with her against the men. "Oh, you thought Harry was not to be trusted to keep information about his own future secret?" she asked with an arch look.
   When confronted by both of his female family members - not to mention Gabrielle, who, even though she did not understand fully of what they were speaking, at least knew that it was about the boy she practically worshipped - Jean-Sebastian apparently realized that retreat was the best option.
   "You are completely correct, my dear. From now on, Harry will be informed of everything which concerns him."
   "Sure thing, pup," Sirius chimed in, catching on quickly. "I would have told you, but I couldn't get a moment when you were apart from Ron and Hermione. And it didn't help that Molly was always hovering around you. You know how nosy she can be."
   Harry pondered his godfather's words for a moment before nodding in agreement. "Thanks, Sirius. I would appreciate knowing about stuff like this from now on."
   "Everything, father," Fleur interrupted. "I am not a child, and neither is Harry - we need to know when something important is about to happen and when you learn of any crucial information. Harry needs to be better prepared than he has been, and it starts with telling him everything."
   ***
   That incident highlighted the fact that Fleur was no pushover, and Harry filed that little tidbit away for future reference. And it would certainly be a novelty to be told about things in advance, something which Dumbledore, for all the good things which he had done, had never seen fit to do.
   Late the evening of the shopping trip, Harry had had another conversation with Fleur, in which he learned much more about Veela - and about some of the buttons which, when pushed, really angered his betrothed.
   ***
   It was rather late, and their discussion had already gone on for some hours. They were sequestered in Fleur's bedroom, to which they had retired upon their return from the shopping trip, and there they had talked about many things. Harry was finally feeling like he was slowly coming to know her. The conversation was casual, as they sprawled across her bed talking about anything and everything.
   The discussion had turned to Veela again, specifically the allure, and Harry, curious about its effects, asked Fleur how she used it and how it could be defended against.
   "It is difficult to explain, Harry," she responded after a moment's thought. "I simply... exert myself, although that is not the right word. It feels like... projecting an aura."
   Harry considered the explanation. "So, it's kind of like you extend your senses out or something?"
   "Not exactly." Fleur thought for a moment before picking up the explanation. "Think about what happens when someone is wearing perfume - you can smell the perfume for a few meters around that person."
   Grimacing in distaste, Harry nodded. "Yeah, but it depends on how much you use. I swear that one girl in my year bathes in it - you can smell her a mile off - more if you're downwind."
   A delighted laugh was Fleur's response. "I will have to learn to avoid her - I do not care much for perfume. The principle is the same, Harry. With the allure, I create an aura that's not unlike the scent of perfume. Now, of course, there are differences - what I create is not a smell, exactly, but more like a magical field mixed with pheromones, which affects men to various degrees. And I can direct it, to a certain extent. For example, I could specifically direct it towards a single person in a room full of people - the other men in the room would not be unaffected by it, but they would not receive the full dose the one I directed it at would."
   "Does the allure work on women?"
   "No, Harry, women are immune from its effects."
   "And are there any defenses?"
   "Some, such as you have natural defenses, while others who know a branch of mind magic called Occlumency are also afforded a certain measure of protection. The other protection is love, Harry."
   The intense look she directed at him made him feel like he was under her scrutiny.
   "If a man is in love with a woman, then his feelings for her will lessen the effect of the allure. Most Veela magic is largely love-based, Harry, although the allure is admittedly more connected to lust than love. And because lust is a pale offshoot of the emotion of love, a true loving feeling for another person trumps the allure and makes it much easier for the man to resist."
   "And what else can your magic do if it is based on love?"
   Fleur looked uncomfortable but gamely met his gaze and forged on. "Well, Harry, Veela partnerships are renowned for their strength and closeness. If you and I ever have the good fortune to bond with each other in a truly loving way, we will become closer than most normal couples can ever dream. If we ever truly love-bond, I will know without a doubt of your love for me - it's simply part of my powers. I can also tell when others share the emotion. In addition, when we are married and become... intimate with each other, I will know exactly how to please you - it is ingrained in me to know what my lover requires in a mate. It is the reason why Veela were prized as concubines throughout history - what man would not want to have a woman who could effortlessly become exactly what he wants and needs?"
   Now, Harry was not a true innocent - the education he had gotten in school just before entering for Hogwarts ensured he had at least some knowledge - but it did not take a lot of imagination to determine why having a woman who could please him was a good thing. The conversation was slightly embarrassing, but already Harry had a much healthier respect for Fleur than he had ever had before - she was more of a sex object to most men than any movie star or supermodel ever could be, and yet she was poised, confident, and modest, not reveling in her ability to catch anyone she wanted. His hopes for the relationship rose even higher due to her obvious self-effacing manner.
   "I can see how that could be a problem."
   An unhappy sigh was his response. "Yes, it is a problem. I have been propositioned regularly since I was twelve years old."
   Harry blinked. "Twelve?"
   She nodded. "Veela hit puberty about the same time as normal girls, but until we have gained a little control, there is some... leakage, for want of a better term. The boys my age at Beauxbatons had no defense against it. As I got older and learned to control it better, the situation improved, but by then the damage had already been done. To most of them, I was just a plaything - they would put the moves on me, trying to be masculine and suave in front of their friends. Many times, I had boys try to get me into broom closets, and they generally made my life miserable. And since I can sense true emotion to a certain extent, I knew that none of them were interested in me, just in using me."
   The frown on Harry's face was thunderous as he thought of what his betrothed would likely face even at Hogwarts.
   "There will be none of that at Hogwarts," he growled. "I'll hex anyone who tries anything!"
   Reaching across with a smile on her face, Fleur grasped his hand and squeezed. "Thank you, Harry - it is very sweet of you to want to protect me."
   But Harry was still not amused. "I want you to tell me if anyone tries anything, Fleur. I know we're still working through this, but no one will be allowed to take liberties with you."
   Fleur inclined her head and lay back down, resting her head in the palm of her hand. "Is there anything else you want to know?"
   "Well, there was one other thing..." he started cautiously, instinctively knowing his next question would likely upset her. "I understand that some consider Veela to be non-human..."
   He was correct; the expression on her face quickly became cold, and when she spoke, her voice was like an Antarctic wind.
   "I am every bit as human as you or anyone else, Harry - do not let anyone tell you anything else."
   "I never thought any differently, Fleur," he responded, speaking in a calm and rational tone of voice. "I just wanted to know what your thoughts about it are - I can assure you that you will hear about it when we go to Hogwarts - from the Purebloods in Slytherin, if no one else."
   Fleur's expression quickly changed to chagrin, and she apologized for her outburst. "I am sorry, Harry, I should not have reacted in such a way."
   "It's understandable," Harry responded, squeezing her hand in a comforting gesture, returning her actions from moments earlier. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay."
   "No, Harry, you will be a target of some of the bigotry by being betrothed to me, so you should know the consequences."
   She was silent as she considered her words, clearly trying to find the right balance between outrage and imparting a true sense of the situation. Harry was quiet, allowing her to think about her response and half wishing he had not asked the question in the first place.
   "I apologize again for my reactions, Harry," she finally said. "It was a reflex response to the intolerance I have had to put up with my entire life, though I suspect it is not as prevalent here as it is in your society."
   Harry nodded, and she continued. "Bigots prefer to think of Veela as being non-human, but the fact of the matter is that we are every bit as human as those who like to promote their agenda of hatred. Veela roots have been traced back to the sirens of Greek mythology, although our origins before that time are much murkier - The Odyssey is the first mention of the race which would come to be known as Veela."
   "There are no earlier records?"
   Fleur shook her head. "No, but of course there are legends - it is impossible to know the truth, though. Some say the first Veela was a result of some long-forgotten spell which has since been lost to time. Others contend that our existence goes all the way back beyond the time when magic was recognized as a talent, long before any kind of training - even word of mouth - was developed. It is thought that the world long ago was rife with wild magic, and all magical creatures came into existence at this time. Living creatures were affected by the forces of the wild magic and adapted to survive. In any case, physiologically, I am exactly the same as any other woman - regardless of the truth of the origins of Veela, the first of us was a human woman who was changed in some manner by magic. All else is passed down from that time."
   "And what do you believe to be the truth of your origins?"
   A smile crept over Fleur's face. "It does not really matter what I think. I am a human, the same as any other woman. I simply have a few extra abilities and a much higher chance of giving birth to girls rather than boys. I think it is our nature's way of preserving Veela - as there are no male Veela, our magic forces us to have girls, which perpetuates our race and abilities. The population of Veela generally stays the same or grows only slightly overall. It also seems to be a case of preserving the rest of the human race - can you imagine what would happen if Veela could give birth to many children?"
   Harry thought about it for a few moments, but the results were rather obvious. "Eventually, if Veela only give birth to Veela girls, then there would be more and more Veela."
   "Exactly. Then, there eventually be a large disparity in the numbers of the sexes - for every boy born to a Veela, approximately nine girls are born, which would cause massive problems for the world. And can you imagine what would happen with so many Veela in the world?"
   The implications were obvious. "Veela, with their powers, would generally have the advantage in gaining a mate."
   "Exactly. It would take many generations, but ultimately, I believe that the only women left would be Veela. So, I believe that the way Veela reproduce protects both the Veela populations and the population of the world as a whole.
   "Which brings us to another point, Harry," she continued. "The fact that we will only have girls is a problem for the continuation of your house."
   "What do you mean?"
   Fleur shook her head in exasperation. "I keep forgetting that you were not brought up in magical society. The Potters go back centuries, Harry, right back to the time of your founders. If we only have girls, you will not have a son to carry on your name - this is something that is very important, especially to old Pureblood families."
   She was right - Harry had never thought to consider this before. "But can't a girl inherit?"
   "Yes, she can, but the Potter name would not continue, which is a very big deal to the right families - for example, take the Blacks. If Sirius does not marry and have a son, his name would die out, and his name is at least as old as yours."
   "But don't families die out anyway?" Harry demanded. "And some of the girls at Hogwarts don't have any brothers - what do they do?"
   "Yes, family names do die out," Fleur agreed. "In the past this may have been as much to do with disease and war, as with only having a female child. And to some it's not as important. But in the high echelons of Pureblood circles, it is a very big deal. You are descended from a Pureblood line. Most members of your social sphere would naturally want a son to carry on the line."
   "So, what do we do?"
   Harry had the distinct feeling Fleur was feeling him out for some unfathomable reason, but she did not elaborate on her comments. "There are other ways of ensuring your name continues, Harry, but I think I would like to hold off discussing them for now. I would prefer to continue to get to know each other before we think about such serious subjects."
   Agreeing with her - although being curious as to her meaning - Harry nevertheless allowed the conversation to move to other lighter topics. It was very late before he finally sought his own bed, feeling more than pleased that he and Fleur had been able to make the progress they had.
   ***
   For Apolline Delacour, the two days spent in her future son-in-law's company were enjoyable and very revealing. He was reserved and quiet, generally speaking his opinion in a thoughtful yet diffident manner, especially when that opinion was something which he did not feel strongly or have specific knowledge about. But when he spoke of things with which he had experience, his confidence shone through, and Apolline could see a different side of him - a side which held great promise. For instance, when questioned about Quidditch, he responded with several stories about his time playing the game and experiences he had had. But underlying his exposition about the game was his talk of flying - and that revealed his true passion. It was clear he enjoyed the game, but by and large it was merely a release and an excuse to go flying on his broom.
   He was polite and kind, treating everyone around him with deference and respect, something Apolline wondered about considering his upbringing by those horrid Muggles with whom he had lived. Given what she had heard of the confrontation with the Dursleys, she would have expected him to grow up to be bitter and vengeful, filled with the need to prove himself. It was still very early in their relationship, yet although she could detect some of the latter in his manner, there was none of the former. She suspected he could be as angry and petulant as the next teenager, but the true bitterness of spirit seemed absent from his character; he appeared to accept the first fifteen years of his life and his time with the Dursleys with a certain fatalistic resignation, even while he struggled to integrate himself into Apolline's family.
   It was a period of adjustment for the young man, and Apolline could clearly see the difficulty he had, especially when he was praised for something or overwhelmed by the welcome of the family. Apolline also suspected he was desperate to fit in with this family, not only because of the fact that he would one day marry into it, but also because he recognized they had taken a large risk in supporting him.
   It was not an issue which Apolline had any concerns about whatsoever - in fact, the family was impressed (she was impressed) by his manner and character. She had been dubious about the marriage contract at first - he was, after all, a famous wizard and a target of one of the greatest dark wizards of the past millennium. However, now that she was getting to know him and understand his past and see a glimpse of his future, she had no concerns about how Harry would treat Fleur. She was now coming to view it as a very fortunate alliance.
   True, he still did have the aforementioned dark lord to contend with, but really, the whole magical world was in danger. She did not know why Harry had been targeted, but she was quickly coming to the understanding that he could become a great wizard with the proper guidance. Jean-Sebastian was a good man and could provide that desperately needed male influence in Harry's life. Together, as a family, they would help the young man grow and become what she knew he could be.
   The day of the move, Apolline was sitting in Gabrielle's bedroom, thinking about the changes to their lives, when her husband walked into the room. Sensing his hesitation, Apolline's eyes narrowed in anticipation of the subject of whatever he wished to discuss. If it was as she suspected, he may as well hold his breath.
   "Yes, love?" she greeted him, prompting him to smile and approach her.
   "Apolline," he began after seating himself and taking one of her hands, "I wish you would reconsider and stay behind in France with Gabrielle."
   Apolline huffed her exasperation, wondering if the man would ever give up. "Jean-Sebastian Delacour, we have already had this discussion!"
   A lesser man might have quailed at her displeasure, but her husband merely gave her a mischievous smile which still caused her heart to do back flips in her chest, even after almost two decades of marriage. Damn the man and what he did to her!
   "We have had the conversation, but the result was not to my satisfaction. That means I must have it again, does it not?"
   "Our conversation may not have been to your satisfaction, but it was to mine," Apolline retorted. "If you think I will allow you to go into danger while I stay behind, you had better seriously revise your way of thinking."
   "Apolline, please be reasonable - "
   "No, Jean-Sebastian, I will not be reasonable. We are a family, and we will stay together as a family. We have taken a young man into our lives, and I mean to give him every bit of my support, as I know you intend to do yourself. That support does not entail staying behind in France. My place is with you."
   "But Apolline, think about the danger - think about Gabrielle. It will be very difficult to do what must be done when I must constantly worry about you both."
   "Then you should have thought about that before you decided to enact the marriage contract."
   He started to speak again, but Apolline placed a finger over his mouth, compelling him to silence. He was a good man - the very best of men - but he sometimes had a tendency to treat her and their daughters as though they were made of porcelain. While she loved him for it, she was a fully trained witch, and she had her Veela abilities to fall back on if she was to run into any trouble.
   "Jean-Sebastian, I will not stay behind, so you may as well save your breath. If things become too difficult, then we will send Gabrielle to live with her grandmother, but I will not leave your side. You do not need to treat me with kid gloves - I will be fine."
   His long look was expressionless, but to one who knew him intimately, his struggle was evident.
   "You will not give in on this matter, will you?"
   "No."
   He looked down and sighed before glancing back at her with a lopsided grin on his face.
   "I thought as much. Whatever possessed me to marry such a strong-willed woman?"
   The chuckle he received in response was amused. "Come now, Jean-Sebastian, you like me the way I am - admit it."
   "I do - I just wish I could keep you out of danger."
   "That you cannot do. Think of it this way - if this Voldemort takes over England, where do you think his next stop will be?"
   "I have already considered this," he responded softly.
   "Then you know that even France is not truly safe. In fact, I would be surprised if he does not already have agents here recruiting for his cause - certain members of our society can be as bigoted and short-sighted as those across the channel. You know this. In fact, I think Gabrielle and I are safer with you in England than we would be here."
   Jean-Sebastian gave a resigned sigh and leaned over to kiss his wife on the cheek before rising. "There is still much to be done."
   Apolline rose also and began to busy herself, sorting through Gabrielle's clothes. But before her husband left, she had one more thing to say.
   "Jean-Sebastian, please do not bring this up again - I have made up my mind."
   Pausing at the door, Jean-Sebastian glanced back at her and smiled. "I can see that you have. The subject is closed, and I will not speak of it again."
   Satisfied, Apolline returned to her task as her husband left the room.
   ***
   The rest of that Saturday afternoon was spent ensuring all the family's belongings were packed away and transported to their new home by the house-elves. This consisted primarily of clothes and personal effects, the furniture not being needed, except for a few items which were deemed necessary - including Jean-Sebastian's well-worn but comfortable office chair. It was Apolline's housekeeping which kept their transported belongings to a minimum, as she had spent the afternoon going through the family's clothes, putting aside old items to be discarded or donated and generally ensuring everything the family would need would be on hand. Of course, Harry's clothes, which had largely been purchased the previous day, were the easiest, as they were simply left in their bags, ready to be moved.
   They were all touched a little by Sirius' melancholy - still considered a fugitive in the eyes of the British Ministry, he was to stay at Chateau Delacour to continue his recovery and await his trial, which had tentatively been scheduled for the middle of the following month. Still, although he was a little glum, Sirius roused himself to do a little teasing of his godson, promising to see him again at the trial and during the upcoming winter break.
   The end result of the day's efforts was that the family arrived early that evening, stored their belongings in their chosen bedrooms, and sat down for the evening meal, tired but happy - at least in Harry's case - to be back in England.
   It was at this point that Jean-Sebastian, having accomplished the welcoming of his new ward into the family and having moved his family to England, decided that it was time to follow up with his resolution to contact Dumbledore about the secret society of which he was the head.
   He made his way to his office and made a Floo call - correctly deducing the Headmaster would be in his office at Hogwarts - asking for a quick meeting to discuss certain items of interest. Dumbledore readily assented, proposing they meet at Grimmauld Place to give Harry a chance to connect once again with his friends. It was done quickly, and a mere thirty minutes later, Jean-Sebastian was travelling through the Floo connection along with Harry and Fleur.
   They stepped into the parlor, and Jean-Sebastian was gratified to see the greeting Harry received from his friends. He had heard much about Harry's friends over the past two days, particularly one Hermione Granger, who was at that very moment engulfing his new ward into a crushing embrace, much as she had done when they had arrived after the trial. It was good to know that Harry had a support group to rally around him - he suspected it would be needed in what was to come.
   The only concern he had was fleeting and resolved quickly.
   "Hey, guys," Harry began. "I'd like to introduce you all to my betrothed, Fleur Delacour."
   The silence only lasted a moment before Hermione, visibly screwing herself up, stepped over and greeted the young French witch. "Hello, Fleur. My name is Hermione Granger. Welcome to Grimmauld Place."
   Jean-Sebastian let out a relieved sigh, one which was echoed, he noticed, albeit in a much quieter fashion, by Fleur. His daughter returned the greeting hesitantly, but her smile was genuine and wide.
   The twins approached Fleur, and each made bows, complete with elaborate flourishes, and smiled winning smiles at her.
   "Any friend of Harry's is a friend of ours."
   "She's his fiancИe, George."
   "I'm not George, I'm Fred! And I'd hope that she's his friend, too."
   "His friend? Wouldn't you like to be her friend? And don't call yourself Fred when we both know I'm Fred."
   "You're delusional. And of course I want to be her friend. Blokes like us look so much better when we have pretty friends."
   "Shh... Don't say that too loud. You'll make little Harrikins angry for moving in on his girl."
   "I'm not moving on his girl - just trying to make myself look better by basking in the light of her glory."
   "Well, just as long as you make certain everyone knows you're George when you make a fool out of yourself, that's fine. I'd prefer you didn't sully my name."
   "There you go again!"
   "There I go? It's you who persists in thinking you're Fred."
   "Well, then, I guess we'll just have fall back on our old standby."
   "Gred and Forge?"
   "Yes, but remember - I'm Gred."
   "But I'm..."
   "Will you two stop it already?" Hermione's voice interrupted. She was not precisely scowling at them, but her expression did hold a certain amused exasperation. She turned back to Fleur, who had been following their banter back and forth, much as she would have followed a tennis match.
   "This is Fred and George, the Weasley twins. Don't let them get going, or they can go on for hours."
   "Yup, that's us!" one of the twins piped in.
   "You can call us Fred, George, Gred, Forge - it's all the same to us."
   Fleur could not hold in a laugh at their antics, and she visibly relaxed, which was no doubt their purpose in their confusing duologue.
   "Fleur will be attending Hogwarts this year," advised Harry. "She'll be in your year."
   The two boys looked at one another before turning back to Fleur and favoring her with a huge smile. "Brilliant!" they exclaimed in unison.
   "If you guys are quite finished, there are a couple of more introductions to complete."
   Hermione turned to the other two redheaded children and quickly made the introductions. Their responses, however, were certainly not as welcoming and warm as the twins' had been. The youngest son, Ron, appeared too tongue-tied to formulate a coherent response - something with which Jean-Sebastian knew that Fleur was intimately familiar - and the girl, Ginevra, appeared to be sizing up Jean-Sebastian's daughter with a frown on her face.
   "So, that's how it stands," thought Jean-Sebastian. The evening of the trial, he had thought Mrs. Weasley and her daughter were a trifle cold, although he had not had the opportunity to observe them. The young woman in particular would bear keeping an eye on.
   The door to the room opened at that moment, and the Headmaster walked in, greeting everyone cheerfully.
   Once the pleasantries had been completed, Dumbledore invited Jean-Sebastian to a nearby study. Confident that his daughter would be well taken care of by Harry and his friends, Jean-Sebastian acquiesced, and they were soon leaving the room.
   Their initial conversation consisted of pleasantries and discussions of the situation, punctuated by Dumbledore's approval of Jean-Sebastian's involvement in Harry's life.
   "I am glad to hear young Harry is settling into his life with your family," Dumbledore finally stated after hearing Jean-Sebastian's recitation of the past few days. "I believe it will be good for him to witness firsthand how a wizarding family lives."
   Jean-Sebastian directed a piercing stare at the Headmaster. "I must admit that I am uncertain as to why you left Harry with those Muggles. I had heard of their treatment of him, but even so, I was unprepared for what I witnessed. They treated him like he was diseased, Dumbledore, denying him the basics of human love and affection. I am amazed that he has turned out as well as he has."
   At that moment, Albus Dumbledore looked every one of his 114 years. He passed a hand over his eyes and rubbed his temples briefly before raising his eyes back to his companion and sighing heavily.
   "Unfortunately - or fortunately, perhaps - you don't know what it was like here after the war, Jean-Sebastian. The country was in celebration, yet - although Voldemort had been defeated - there was still some question as to who had supported the Dark Lord.
   "Oh, certain Death Eaters were obvious and had been well-known supporters, with incontrovertible proof existing of their complicity and crimes - those such as the Lestranges, Mulciber and Crouch Jr. were easily convicted. They still reside in Azkaban to this day."
   "And Malfoy? I understand he was as involved as anyone."
   "And I am afraid you are correct. However, Malfoy was not known to have committed any crimes, although it is certain he did while in his Death Eater robes. He and others, such Walden Macnair, were more difficult to pin down, even though we had known of their participation and, more importantly, the fact that they had financed Voldemort's operations."
   Jean-Sebastian gazed at Dumbledore in disbelief. "Then why was Veritaserum not used? I remember reports of the time that its use had been rejected, but the reasons were not clear."
   "It was not as easy as you might think," Dumbledore responded, a thoughtful look etched upon his face. "We were in disarray, even with Voldemort's defeat, and our justice system was in shambles. The Minister approved the use of Veritaserum, but as the Wizengamot serves as the judicial branch of our government, they were able to overturn her directive. Therefore, people like Malfoy were able to claim the influence of the Imperius curse and successfully avoid their time in Azkaban. Unfortunately, I was not Chief Warlock at that time, and although I had been a member for years and had a certain amount of influence, I was not able to sway the Wizengamot away from that disastrous course."
   "But why would the Wizengamot effectively hobble its own ability to deal out justice?"
   "Because the Pureblood faction was concerned that they would lose their influence by virtue of the fact that many of their members had supported Voldemort and would lose their seats as a result. They were able to beg, buy, and threaten the rest of the Wizengamot to forego the use of Veritaserum, claiming it was an 'infringement on the rights of its most upstanding members.'"
   The explanation made sense and matched what Jean-Sebastian remembered of the time. The reports from France had been sporadic and incomplete, and although Voldemort had made headlines in the French papers, wizarding France had at the time largely contented itself with viewing the situation as a British problem. To Jean-Sebastian, it had seemed more like a determination for them to stick their collective heads in the sand and ignore a situation which had the potential to become a huge international problem rather than merely a British one.
   What he was not certain of, was exactly how this influenced Harry's placement with his mother's sister. Surely Dumbledore could have found someone trustworthy to raise the boy.
   "And Harry?" he prompted.
   "Harry presented a unique problem," Dumbledore answered. "Ideally, I would have placed him with Sirius, but given the fact that we all believed Sirius to be a traitor, I was not certain who to leave him with. I admit, there was a certain panic to my thoughts at the time - after all, if Sirius, who was closer than a brother to James, could be a traitor, anyone could be.
   "So, I placed him with the one family I could be certain was not affiliated with the Death Eaters - knowing the Dursleys' aversion to magic, I knew that they would, at the very least, keep him safe from the Death Eaters as long as a strong set of wards was erected to keep his presence a secret. I used Lily's blood protection as a means to erect the wards which would keep him safe from discovery by any hostile magical. This was intended to be temporary until I found another solution."
   "So, what happened?" Jean-Sebastian inquired. He was beginning to understand that Harry's residence at the Dursleys was an unfortunate string of circumstances and not the callous abandonment he had feared. At least, he hoped that was the case - it would be a disaster if Dumbledore proved to be untrustworthy. The man was far too important to the future fight, not to mention the fact that Jean-Sebastian's children would be under the man's authority for the better part of every year.
   "That is when the second problem appeared," Dumbledore responded with a shrug. "I failed to predict the instant fame for the young boy and the outpouring of sympathy and support. Overnight, there were petitions and applications to provide him a home registered by the dozen, and I could not take the chance that someone less than trustworthy would have gained custody of him - that would have spelled disaster."
   "You think they would have had him killed?"
   Dumbledore's face was thoughtful. "That was one possible outcome. There was another, and both depended entirely upon how much information the Dark Lord had shared with his minions."
   "What do you mean?"
   "He - or at least his parents - were known to have been targeted by the Dark Lord himself. Therefore, if that is all that was known, then I think he would have been brought up, indoctrinated with the ideals of the Purebloods."
   "But they recruited based on blood purity, and Harry is not a Pureblood."
   "They were not as biased as they wanted everyone to believe," Dumbledore refuted. "All that was required for admittance was to show a sufficient level of personal loyalty to Voldemort, a thirst for power, and some level of blood purity. They did not accept Muggleborn members, but anyone with at least one magical parent was welcome with certain restrictions."
   It made a certain amount of sense. After all, whatever else Voldemort had been, he was not stupid, and to limit his recruiting to a mere ten percent of the population when trying to take over a nation would have been short-sighted in the extreme.
   "Then Harry in the hands of former Death Eaters would have been a problem."
   "In more ways than one," Dumbledore responded. He then flicked his wand, and a series of privacy spells shot toward the door and the walls, effectively rendering them imperturbable and silenced. Jean-Sebastian raised an eyebrow at the Headmaster's actions, but Dumbledore merely smiled at him.
   "What I am about to reveal to you must not leave the confines of this room. Although I don't believe anyone is listening to us, I cannot take that chance - the Weasley twins in particular are known to be ingenious inventors and have managed to ferret out some impressive secrets over the course of their short lives."
   Jean-Sebastian gazed at the Headmaster. Although his words about the twins had been somewhat light and slightly amused, there was no amusement in his manner. Whatever he had to impart, he deemed it critical to Harry's safety - that was enough to convince Jean-Sebastian to follow his lead.
   "Do you require a magical oath?"
   Dumbledore nodded his approval. "Thank you for the offer, but no - I know your character through our interactions in the ICW and I believe you are devoted to Harry's protection. Your word will suffice."
   "Then you have it."
   "Very well. The reason Harry was targeted by Voldemort was a prophecy which was given to me when I was interviewing a candidate for the position of Divinations Professor the spring before Harry was born."
   A frown came over Jean-Sebastian's face. "I must admit I have little faith in divination - are you certain it was a true prophecy?"
   "I witnessed it myself," Dumbledore responded. "I too have little use for the branch of magic in general, but she did not use her accoutrements when making this prediction. It was a classic case of a seer entering a trance, reciting a prophecy, and not remembering it afterward, and its existence was recorded in the hall of prophecy. If you will recall, prophecies are kept by the most ancient and powerful of magics - once I had verified its existence there, I knew it was a true prophecy.
   "Now, the existence of the prophecy would not have been a problem if Voldemort had never found out. Unfortunately, a young Death Eater happened to be listening outside the room and heard part of it himself. Of course, he immediately ran to his master to tell him what he had heard, but not having heard the entire foretelling, Voldemort acted in a completely different manner than he would have if he had known the missing pieces."
   It was everything Dumbledore had said it was... and worse than Jean-Sebastian had expected. Yet there were still unanswered questions.
   "But how did you know of this if the Death Eater immediately went to his master with the information?"
   "I knew him," Dumbledore answered simply. "He was young and idealistic and believed - correctly, in my opinion - that there were many things about the wizarding world which needed to be changed. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong engine of change, and has paid the price ever since. Once he had realized the implications of what he had set in motion and understood Voldemort's plans, he came to me immediately and confessed all. Since that time, he has been a double agent - a spy in Voldemort's camp who has remained in that role to this day."
   So, a traitor had caused the death of Jean-Sebastian's childhood friend. He already knew of Pettigrew and yearned for the chance to mete out justice to the rat, but this man had set the events in motion. A burning fire lit itself in his heart, and he glared at the Headmaster. "Who was it?"
   Shaking his head, Dumbledore directed a level gaze back at his companion. "There is no reason to share that with you and every reason to keep it to myself. For his protection and for the invaluable information he brings to me, especially with Voldemort now returned, I must keep his identity a secret."
   Jean-Sebastian peered at Dumbledore, his emotions roiling. "How can you be certain this man is not playing you as well?"
   "Because I hold something over him," Dumbledore replied quietly, his eyes flashing in annoyance. "I am many things and have made mistakes, Jean-Sebastian, but do not ever think I am stupid. As soon as the Death Eater came to me, I ensured his compliance and engineered his loyalty - he risks his life on a daily basis and has proven his worth."
   Still unhappy with Dumbledore's refusal to divulge the name, Jean-Sebastian nodded his head curtly. "I want to know the moment anything changes," he demanded, to which Dumbledore responded with a nod. "Then what is this prophecy?"
   "The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches. ... Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies ... and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not ... and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives. ... The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies..."
   A chill in the air seemed to settle into Jean-Sebastian's very bones as the words of the seer filled the room. The language was certainly that of prophecy, filled with obscure references and predictions which could be understood in many different ways, and Jean-Sebastian could only speculate that it was a true foretelling when Dumbledore's testimony of his origins was examined.
   "That is truly a vague prediction," Jean-Sebastian finally stated after some thought.
   "Indeed it is. But when it is examined, I think one can gain a clearer picture of what it foretells.
   "The first lines are unclear, stating only that the child would be born to those who faced the Dark Lord three times and survived and that he would be born near or at the end of July."
   "What about September? It was the seventh month of the Roman calendar."
   Dumbledore's eyes twinkled in response. "I had considered that. However, due to the fact that September was still several months away and the other requirements could not be fulfilled, I concluded that it must be July. There were two young boys who fit the bill - Harry Potter and one other. And it was only the first two lines that the Death Eater heard that day; otherwise; Voldemort's actions would likely have been completely different.
   "It is the third line which proves that the prophecy was made about Harry - when Voldemort attacked the Potters in 1981, he left Harry with a scar which 'marked him as his equal.' He could have attacked the other young boy, but for reasons only Voldemort himself can reveal, he chose to attack the Potters. I can only assume the other boy would have been next had he succeeded."
   "And the power the Dark Lord knows not?"
   "Unclear," Dumbledore responded. "However, I believe that power to be the power of love. Voldemort never knew love as a young man, and I believe he has no comprehension of its power or the lengths most people will go to in order to protect loved ones. The only witnesses to that night are dead, outside of a small boy who could not possibly remember what happened, much less understand it. In piecing together the events which took place, I postulated that Lily Potter placed a blood-based protection on her son which was sealed by her death, which is why Harry survived the killing curse."
   The explanation made a certain amount of sense - there were many old and forgotten magics in the world, and it was very possible that a mother could have used one of the most powerful positive emotions to protect her son.
   "So this 'power he knows not' has been used up?"
   "Not necessarily," Dumbledore disagreed. "Harry, despite his childhood with the Dursleys, appears to have an amazing capacity for love. And don't forget the entry of your daughter into the equation - aren't Veela powers largely based on love?"
   A chill once again swept through Jean-Sebastian at the Headmaster's words. Had he unknowingly provided Harry with the means of the ultimate defeat of the Dark Lord? And what part did his daughter have to play? Could she have somehow been destined to join with Harry in defeating the Dark Lord? The possibilities boggled the mind, and Jean-Sebastian was momentarily surprised that he had not seen it himself.
   "So, you believe the power manifested itself on the night Voldemort was vanquished... and still has some part to play."
   "In short, yes. There may be other pieces which must still come into play, but those will have to reveal themselves at the appropriate time."
   After a little more thought, Jean-Sebastian thought he understood why the Headmaster had acted the way he had. "And the fact that the prophecy specifically says that one of them must die means it does not refer to the night Harry's parents were murdered."
   "Exactly," Dumbledore confirmed. "The term 'vanquish' suggests that once Harry had survived that night when Voldemort was defeated, the prophecy could have been fulfilled. Yet the fourth line says that they are destined to meet and that someday one of them must kill the other. Whatever happened that night, it is certain that Voldemort did not 'die' at Harry's hand - it was his mother's sacrifice, or so I believe, which resulted in his downfall."
   "That is a substantial amount of supposition and speculation on which to base your entire strategy."
   A shrug met his declaration. "It is, but the Dark Lord's return seems to support the theory. Voldemort had been known to claim that he had gone further down the path to immortality than any other, so I believe he was not truly killed that night. He was certainly disembodied, but he wasn't truly defeated. Harry is the only one who can bring about his demise."
   Although wary to take such a nebulous prediction at face value, Jean-Sebastian knew the time to ponder it for himself was not here. Dumbledore's interpretation certainly seemed valid, and for now, it seemed as though the best course of action was to be cautious and act as though it was the literal truth.
   "There is still a certain vagueness, but it is certainly plausible."
   "Ah, unfortunately, my friend, all prophecy is such," Dumbledore agreed with aplomb. "We can never be sure until after the events have concluded. We can only base our actions on what we believe, and we must adapt as events demand."
   "Has Harry been told?" Jean-Sebastian knew his question was blunt, but although he already knew the answer, he wanted to know why this information had been kept from him.
   "No, I have not told Harry," Dumbledore responded, and he continued before Jean-Sebastian could make any further comment. "It is a heavy burden for a young man to bear. I believe Harry to be supremely capable and confident, but I do not think he is ready for this."
   "When do you mean to tell him, then?"
   Dumbledore thought for a few moments before he made any comment. "I had thought to see how he does this year and then tell him by about his sixteenth birthday. Much will depend upon his maturity level and whether I believe he can handle it."
   Though he was still not convinced, Jean-Sebastian understood the Headmaster's point. "I have promised not to keep anything from Harry - my daughter was most insistent on this. However, I believe you may be right in this case. But he must be told, Dumbledore, and sooner rather than later."
   "I will think on it further."
   Jean-Sebastian nodded. "In that case, I think we should talk about my purpose for coming here tonight."
   A wave of Dumbledore's hand, and Jean-Sebastian continued. "I would like to know more about this order you have established."
   "You wish to join."
   Jean-Sebastian shook his head. "Unfortunately, I do not know enough about it yet to determine my actions. If it is what I suspect it is, then I may very well join, but I would like to know more first, attend some meetings, and generally see how you handle things before I make any commitments."
   "That would be acceptable," Dumbledore replied with a nod. "I formed the Order to directly combat Voldemort's forces during the first war when it became evident the Ministry was... shall we say, less than effective in dealing with the Dark Lord. We carried out many activities, such as intelligence gathering, combat, and security provision. I have been reforming it for the upcoming conflict and recruiting new members - I do not believe the Ministry will be any more effective now than they were fifteen years ago.
   "The next meeting will be held here next Saturday, and you are welcome to attend if you would like."
   "I will be here," Jean-Sebastian affirmed. "Of course, as the French Ambassador, I will be limited in what I can do overtly, but if I should choose to join, you may be assured of my full support."
   "Of course."
   "That brings us to one more item - I have spoken with Harry and believe that some specialized training would be advisable. I don't think that the things he will learn in school will be enough for what he has to face."
   "An excellent idea!" Dumbledore approved. "I had planned to start his training this year in any case. I presume you wished to get an early start?"
   When Jean-Sebastian confirmed that was his intent, Dumbledore continued. "In that case, might I suggest Alastor Moody as a trainer? I doubt you could find anyone more knowledgeable, especially at such short notice."
   Jean-Sebastian did know of the man's reputation. He experienced a moment of concern, knowing that Moody had been impersonated by the man who had engineered Harry's capture and the return of the Dark Lord during the Tri-Wizard, but that was swiftly quashed. Harry could have no reason to distrust the man himself.
   "Auror Moody would be acceptable. Please contact him and see if he is agreeable. If he is, have him contact me and we can set it up."
   Their conversation concluded, Jean-Sebastian rose and shook Dumbledore's hand and exited the room. He was now armed with crucial knowledge which would assist him in ensuring Harry's safety and ultimate survival, and he intended to make good use of it.
   ***
   Although Hermione was happy to see her friend, she could not help but feel tense and unsettled.
   It was not that she was not happy for him - that could not be further from the truth. In fact, though Harry had never shared the details of his life with his relatives, she had guessed what his home life had been like. The Delacours appeared to be a godsend for Harry, and she was happy he had found some acceptance and affection from a good and loving family.
   No, what had brought Hermione to her current state of disquiet was a part of her she had though she had left behind years ago.
   Simply put, Hermione was afraid and insecure. Part of her was still the timid young girl whose only friends had been the ones she had found in the pages of her favorite books. And though she told herself she was being silly and that Harry had experienced the same lack of friends as she had, she still could not shake the lingering fear she felt at seeing him interact with Fleur and the rest of his friends. Surely Harry would never shunt her aside now that he had a fiancИe.
   But although she knew in her heart that Harry was not the type to toss her aside on a whim, her head would not listen and she fretted. He seemed so much happier now - his face truly shone when he spoke, he traded banter with the twins, and every time he looked at Fleur it seemed as though they were communing on a different level. How could she - Hermione Jane Bookworm Granger - ever hope to compete with the luminous beauty of Fleur Delacour, Veela goddess and Tri-Wizard champion?
   Her world had been centered around him ever since they had entered Hogwarts together - how would she ever cope if he drifted away from her? The trio would cease to exist, and her one other friend would drift away as well. It was Harry who kept the trio together, Harry who bridged the gap between her and Ron. If he was removed from the equation, Hermione had little doubt Ron would initially bask in the chance to win her before quickly losing interest after seeing they had nothing in common. She would be left friendless and alone, as she had been before.
   She did not know how long she watched her friends laughing and joking, but her reticence did not go unnoticed for long. Soon, she saw Harry sneaking her curious glances, concern evident on his features. She blushed and tried to hide her anxiety under a veneer of nonchalance, but Harry had been her friend for five years now - he knew her better than almost anyone else and could almost sense her unrest.
   He disengaged from his other friends and turned his attention on her, a questioning expression on his face.
   "Hermione, are you all right?"
   She squirmed and tried to avoid him, but he was there, patience and affection rolling off him in waves. Her heart melted at the sight, and she relaxed slightly, although her head still refused to cooperate.
   "I'm fine, Harry," she finally managed in a tremulous voice.
   "You don't sound fine to me," Harry countered with a frown. "Now, why don't you tell me what is bothering you?"
   Unable to divert him, Hermione blurted the first thing which came into her mind. "You are still my friend, right?"
   The full gambit of emotions ran over Harry's face - from disbelief to confusion, through suspicion, and finally to speculative amusement.
   "Hermione Jane Granger, what on earth are you blathering on about?"
   Then he winked at her and continued in a cheeky tone. "I've wanted to do that for ages! Usually, it's you who uses my full name!"
   "Harry James Potter!" Hermione mockingly scolded, causing them both to collapse in laughter.
   "Seriously, Hermione," Harry said, once they had both regained their composure, "did you really think this change in my life would change anything between you and me?"
   Hermione felt all the embarrassment for ever doubting him, yet within the confines of her own mind, she still felt she was justified for her fears.
   "Hermione," Harry interrupted her thoughts. "You do know that you are my best friend, don't you? This is a change in my life, but I would hope that nothing will ever come between us. You've been the one person who has always been there for me. You were there to the end when I faced Quirrel and the stone, provided me with the key to the secret of the basilisk, and then flew with me on Buckbeak in third year. And I can't even describe how valuable your support was last year when even half the members of my own House were angry with me for besmirching Gryffindor's honor by entering the tournament, while the other half congratulated me on circumventing the rules. You were the only one who believed me implicitly and without reservation. Do you have any idea what you mean to me?"
   A blushing Hermione nevertheless grabbed her closest friend and give him a massive hug, one which was returned with interest. The relief she felt was indescribable, and she felt tears leaking from the corners of her eyes.
   Harry, pulling away, noticed her tears and wiped them away with the pads of his thumbs, all the while smiling at her affectionately.
   "Now, let's hear no more about this, all right?"
   Hermione nodded her head happily, pleased to acquiesce to his request.
   At that moment, the door opened, and in walked Dumbledore and Mr. Delacour. Hermione noticed the French Ambassador's curious look in their direction but was too happy to do anything but smile in response.
   "Harry, Fleur, it is time to return to the manor," Mr. Delacour stated, addressing his charges.
   "Yes, J.S."
   "Before we go, would you like to ask your friends if they would like to join you?"
   Nodding, Harry turned to his friends. "Jean-Sebastian is setting up some training for Fleur and me and said it was okay for Ron and Hermione to join me. Would you guys like to?"
   Their answers were immediate and fervent, and Hermione beamed in gratitude for his continued support and thoughts about her.
   But there was one among the group who was not happy with the development. Ginny gazed longingly at Harry, and although she did not say anything, she appeared hurt that she had not been invited as well. Still uncomfortable with Ginny's continued unwillingness to give him up, Hermione nevertheless empathized with the young girl. She cleared her voice and spoke in a diffident manner.
   "Excuse me, Mr. Delacour," she began. "Since we're all in danger, why don't we open up the training group to include others? That way, Harry will always have a group of his friends to support him and defend him if need be, and the rest of us will get advanced training which will help us in the future."
   Mr. Delacour peered at her with a half smile forming on his face. "I can see why they call you the smartest witch of your generation, Miss Granger."
   Hermione felt her cheeks burn in pleasure at his compliment.
   "But I will only acquiesce if you call me J.S., like your friend does."
   Smiling happily, Hermione nodded her assent.
   Jean-Sebastian turned to Harry. "I'm sure Auror Moody can take on a few more students. The Weasleys may all join, and if there are any others, please let us know, and we will arrange for them to be included."
   And it was done - Hermione was pleased with the outcome of the evening. She would continue to be Harry's closest friend and would be involved with his life. Her earlier distress now seemed silly and childish, and when she thought about it, she knew Harry would never have cast her off. Still, it was a relief to be able to settle her fears.
   ***
   There was another who had witnessed the events of the evening but could not find the same satisfaction in its results. Ron had overheard Hermione's conversation with Harry, and his friends were a little too close for Ron's comfort. After all, Ron was aware of the fact that Harry, as the last Potter, was almost required to take a second wife - the realization had come soon after his friend left the last time, causing his smugness to depart rather precipitously. He was desperate to prevent Hermione from being that second wife. The fact that they were still only fifteen did not penetrate his consciousness - right then, the need to keep them separated was paramount.
   In addition, Ron was somewhat offended that Harry had named Hermione as his best friend - that was his title by right! How dare Potter claim such a ridiculous thing?
   As indignation and unhappiness swelled within him, Ron thought about Hermione and how he could prevent Harry from making a move on her. He would have to move quickly himself and get to her before Harry could do the same to him. This was one contest with the other boy that Ron did not intend to lose.

Chapter 7 - Attack and Counterattack

   The Monday after the trial, Harry gathered with his new betrothed and his friends, and waited for the man who would be giving them some training in combat which Harry was certain he would end up needing sooner, rather than later.
   Their group had expanded more than Harry and Fleur had expected. Looking around the room, Harry considered each one of his companions and thought about his relationship with them and their reasons for being there. Hermione and Ron were obvious of course, their friendship forged through four years of almost constant companionship. Though Harry's relationship with Ron had been strained by his friend's actions at the outset of the Triwizard Tournament, he knew Ron would be there when it most counted. Ron was a little flaky at times, but he was loyal. Hermione was not even a question - in one way or another, he had been the center of her world - and he of hers - since they had met on the train. She would never be left out where he was involved.
   Fleur was, of course, a given in this endeavor. Not only was she now his intended, but in the few days in which they had had to become better acquainted, he had come to know her as a fierce defender of those who she considered family - clearly, Harry now fit into that group. It was humbling and overwhelming to be considered part of a real family - something he had never had before - but Harry was grateful for her caring and concern.
   Likewise, Ginny's motivations were no secret - or at least they were not now that Hermione had explained her actions. What surprised Harry about Ginny was the change that appeared to have come over her since they had met again only two days prior. Upon arriving at the ambassador's manor, Ginny had visibly screwed up her courage and approached him, greeting him with none of the embarrassment and shyness he had expected from her in the past. The annoying squeak was gone, and for that Harry could only be pleased - he hoped to get to know her better, as he suspected she could turn out to be a close friend.
   The twins lounged in the corner of the room, speaking quietly with one another, no doubt planning their pranks for the coming year. Not only were they fun to hang out with, but Harry also trusted them - at least he trusted them to have his back when it mattered. In the matter of their pranking, no one was safe from their attentions, but at least Harry knew none of their jokes were meant in a malicious manner. Their presence was also a given, as they had always supported him.
   The difficult ones to place were the last two in the room. Neville Longbottom stood speaking with Hermione in quiet tones, his manner as shy and self-effacing as ever, as had been his appearance that morning. Hermione had suggested including him, and with Harry's agreement she made the overture. Harry had been surprised when Neville agreed. While he had not yet had a chance to talk to Neville, he knew the boy considered himself to be a failure - his confidence could only be helped by this undertaking, and Harry figured that was at least part of the reason for his presence.
   Finally, his eyes rested upon the final member of their little group - Luna Lovegood. Not knowing her in the slightest, Harry was uncertain as to her presence. He understood that she was a childhood friend of Ginny's - who had invited her to become a member of the little group - but beyond that, his contact with her had been limited to a few words of greeting spoken that very morning. She was sitting by herself, a slight smile on her face while she looked off into the distance at something which only she could see. Hermione told him she was very intelligent, but her ways were somewhat fanciful and odd. Deciding to reserve judgment for himself, Harry had greeted her in a friendly manner, which she had returned with a like sentiment.
   Together, Harry was hoping they would make a potent force in the fight against Voldemort. They were all, he suspected - with the exception of Neville, who could not seem to get anything right, and Luna, who he did not know anything about - among the most powerful of their age group, something which would only continue to develop as they matured.
   After a few minutes of waiting, the sound of the professor's approach - the characteristic thud-stomp of his gait - was heard through the door, and the man entered, his eye rotating wildly, presumably searching for enemies. He stopped inside the door and regarded the assembled youths with an unreadable expression.
   "So you're the recruits I'm to be saddled with," he ground out grumpily.
   From behind him, Jean-Sebastian slipped into the room, a wry smile on his face as he watched the showdown between teacher and students. He took a seat in a chair at the back of the room and settled in to watch.
   "All right then, let's all get in a line side-to-side, facing me," Moody barked out, turning his back to close the door, clearly expecting his orders to be followed.
   A few moments later, the young students were arranged to his liking, he turned back to them with an unreadable expression. The man stumped around the room inspecting his charges for several moments, correcting posture where he found it lacking, admonishing the lack of care of a wand, or an expression lacking the appropriate gravity - the Weasley twins, specifically, were reproved for their irrepressible humor and lightheartedness.
   At length he trudged back to the front of the group and once again observed them with a critical eye.
   "First, you will all understand that this is no lark," he snapped, peering at each of them in turn. "Anyone who does not treat this with the appropriate level of seriousness will be asked to leave - no exceptions."
   He began stumping in front of Harry and his friends, his eyes still affixed upon them as he passed each one. "Death Eaters are deadly serious, and they depend upon ruthlessness and brute force to instill fear in their enemies, and possess the power and the will to use their knowledge for the support of their master. In short, they will kill - and have killed - without a second thought. And killing is not even the worst of their crimes. You are all targets, either by circumstance, your family's political and social beliefs, or by the simple matter of your birth.
   "I am here to try to give you the basics in learning how to defend yourselves, not only with the use of curses and hexes, but also in employing various stratagems, learning to outthink your opponents, and above all, knowing when to fight and when to retreat. The last might be the most important thing you will learn. You must never be too proud to admit you are overmatched - living to fight another day must always be your goal in any engagement, as dying in an untenable situation will not help anyone."
   Moody was now walking behind them, but the trainees kept their eyes forward. Moody's manner, his words and way of instructing them reminded Harry of certain old war movies he had chanced to see glimpses of in his uncle's house. Vernon had considered himself to be somewhat of a connoisseur of such films and had watched them frequently.
   "Now, I do not have the time to teach you everything," Moody continued. "In two weeks you will return to Hogwarts, where I will not be a professor this year. Regardless, as I have other tasks which require my attention, I would not be available to hold your hands. I will try to give you some measure of my experience so that when you leave here, you will be better prepared.
   He completed the circle and stopped in front of them, facing the students once more, his face as impassive as when he had entered the room.
   "Ground rules! I expect each of you to obey my commands immediately and with no question. I also expect that each of you will give your best effort - if you do not, there is no point in your being here. Finally, I expect you all to practice constant vigilance - there is no way of knowing if someone is a Death Eater unless you are able to check their arm. And the friend you think you know may not even be that, as there are other ways for an enemy to get close to you. Simple Polyjuice potion can be used against you, not to mention the Imperius curse which will turn your friends into your enemies. Practicing watchfulness, and spotting things which are not as they appear, may save your life one day."
   He scanned them once again, before his eye alighted on Harry. "Mr. Potter!" he boomed, startling Harry to stand up straighter. "I believe you have seen the Unforgivable Curses in action. What is the best defense against an Unforgivable?"
   Harry considered the question for a moment. "I would say it is best not to be caught in the curse's path."
   A smile, almost like a grimace, came over Moody's face. "A very good defense indeed. Listen to Mr. Potter's answer - no shield will work against the Unforgivable Curses, and you had better not be there when one is cast at you.
   "Other than that, the only way to defend against them is the use of the summoning charm to intercept the beam - which can be a tricky piece of timing, I can tell you - or the use of battle transfiguration for the same purpose. We will cover both of these defenses, and although I do not expect any of you to master them for some time, I do expect you to give your best effort and learn the basics, which you will then practice.
   "We will also be covering the art of dueling and you will learn some of the basic concepts which duelists will use to get a leg up on their opponents. However, you must remember that while dueling is a very important foundation upon which to build, it will not get you through a life and death struggle in a true combat situation. The art of dueling has a set of rules by which each duelist must abide - of course, a true fight does not have any rules, nor could you expect a Death Eater to abide by any such rules if they did exist.
   "A fight with a Death Eater will generally be short and dirty, with each of you using every trick you can think of to get the better of the other. Clear your thoughts of long drawn out struggles between two titans which fill literature, as they have no place in the real world. I will teach you how to duel first and then I will teach you how to fight. There are some tricks you can learn which will help you to gain the upper hand, and I'm certain that some of the other adults will have some valuable things to teach you in addition. Learn everything you can - you never know when a piece of insignificant knowledge will save your life."
   He once again paused and gazed at each of the youths in turn. "Again, you will not be able to master these techniques in the brief time we have available, but by the time you return to Hogwarts, you will at least have a foundation in these subjects, and I will give you further exercises for you to use while you are at school to hone your skills. Assuming you all do well, we will continue these sessions next summer.
   "Now, does everyone understand?"
   "Yes, sir," the group intoned.
   They started with some simple stances, the professor teaching them how best to position themselves and to move, stating that good balance was key to being able to not only fight, but also to defend oneself. From the balancing instruction, the moved to various exercises which would help them shift from stance to stance, as well as to dodge, roll, and otherwise ensure that they could move about during a combat situation in the most efficient manner, while retaining their ability to respond to attacks. And though there were some grumbles from the assembled students of how they wanted to get to the dueling and fighting, Moody was firm, telling them repeatedly that they needed to learn to walk before they could even think about running.
   What struck Harry throughout the course of the day was the man himself. He was fair but strict, exacting a high level of commitment from his charges, while putting his all into teaching them what he felt they needed to know. He was clearly knowledgeable, if his years as a top Auror had not already convinced them of his fitness, and the manner in which he taught them was concise and exact, yet his words and demonstrations were designed to be quickly understood and acted upon. When questioned, he told them that the methods he was teaching them were quite similar to what trainee Aurors were taught, modified slightly to account for their younger years and incomplete education. He was effusive with his praise, especially toward Harry, who he almost seemed to consider a prodigy who was his personal responsibility. Harry returned the favor by giving his all, picking up the exercises with ease and helping to instruct the others where required. DADA had always been Harry's favorite class - he was enjoying himself immensely.
   But what surprised Harry the most, was the sense of familiarity he had with the professor. In fact, if Harry had not known that the Professor Moody he remembered from his fourth year Defense Against the Dark Arts class was an imposter, he would never have believed that they were not the same person. Whatever Barty Crouch, Jr. had been, a poor actor was not one of them. The man should have been presented an Academy Award, based on the minute details of the grizzled Auror which he had acted out so flawlessly.
   There was one memorable event which occurred during the course of the day. Moody had just asked them to do some basic spell casting using the stances he had just taught them, when he pulled up short at the sight of Neville struggling to cast a simple spell through his wand.
   "Mr. Longbottom! What appears to be the matter?"
   Neville blushed and stammered that everything was fine, but that did not placate the observant Auror.
   "Do not try to cover up your struggles, son," Moody admonished. "You appear to be trying to force your spell through your wand, when your magic should be working in tandem with the wand to produce the desired effect. Where did you get that wand?"
   "From my G-Grandmother," Neville stammered. "It was my father's."
   Moody's remaining eye widened at Neville's admission and he held his hand out, inspecting it carefully once Neville had deposited it in his hand.
   "I knew your parents, Mr. Longbottom," he said quietly, "the same as I knew Mr. Potter's." He nodded in Harry's direction. "Good people, excellent Aurors, they were. I was privileged to serve with them.
   "Unfortunately, it appears to me that your wand does not match you, which makes casting anything very difficult. I recommend you visit Mr. Ollivander's shop and purchase a new wand which will match you more closely. If you don't, you will have trouble casting even the simplest magic for the rest of your life."
   Neville appeared flabbergasted. "Really? But Gran... I thought I could use my father's wand because of our close relationship."
   Moody shook his head and clasped Neville around the shoulders. "While it is true that children often have somewhat of an affinity for their parents' wands, we are all different and there is no guarantee. You go today after we are finished here and get a new wand. Tell your grandmother that I insisted. I don't think she will be upset - you will always have a piece of your father with you, as long as you possess his wand."
   Thanking him, Neville moved away to continue his exercises, while appearing deep in thought. Harry was glad for his friend - while he could understand wishing to keep something of his parents' close to him, Mr. Ollivander's words from his visit still echoed through his mind. "The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter." Hopefully, Neville would improve once he had his new wand.
   The day ended with another pep talk from the professor, and they all separated to go their separate ways. In Harry's mind he felt as though he was finally beginning to obtain the skills he would require to take on Voldemort. It was a welcome feeling.
   ***
   "I hereby call this session of the Wizengamot of Britain to order!"
   Albus Dumbledore surveyed the Wizengamot chambers, thinking, with some distraction, that this was the first meeting of the English legislative body since Harry's trial the previous week. There would undoubtedly be some fireworks - especially a certain piece of legislation which he had found through his contacts would be presented. He was not disappointed.
   The meeting started much the same as any other, with talks of the state of country, any news as to the activities of known Death Eaters (Fudge's denial of the Dark Lord's return making the topic of Voldemort specifically taboo), budgets - including a call for the Ministry to increase the Auror budget, which Dumbledore had proposed himself - and the other unexciting, yet necessary minutia which characterized any other meeting of the august body.
   The arrival of the legislative portion of the meeting signaled the beginning of the true battle to be waged that day. When the Ministry propositions had been dealt with, Dumbledore opened the floor to private members' bills, and, as expected, the unsightly, pink cardigan-clad figure of the Minister's lackey stood and cleared her voice with her customary, "Hem, hem."
   "Honored members," she began in her shrill voice, "I stand before you today outraged as one of our long-established institutions is under attack from forces which would see it tarnished and reduced to a shadow of its former glory."
   A murmur welled up in the chamber at the woman's audacious and inflammatory words, and Dumbledore sat back and listened with a half smile on his face. This was politics at its finest (so to speak); impassioned speeches, outrage, and the playing upon the emotions, traditions, and solidarity of the body in order to accomplish a purpose.
   Regardless, Dumbledore thought with a sardonic smile, Umbridge was a duffer in the political arena and her words - while she was doing a credible job of liberally sprinkling her speech with provocative statements - were not as affective as they would have been had they been delivered by a true orator. Umbridge - and by extension Minister Fudge, and Dumbledore assumed his financial backer Malfoy - would lose the vote here today, and would have even if Dumbledore had not held an ace up his sleeve.
   "While perhaps some of you may not be aware of the threat to our way of life, I am certain all will be incensed by what I have to say here today. Our beloved national education institution of Hogwarts, which many of you here today attended in your youths, is on the brink of accepting those who should truly be kept away from its hallowed halls.
   "Case in point, I direct you to our esteemed Headmaster, who also leads this body, and question some of the decisions he has made with regard to who is allowed to attend our beloved institution. In fact, we all know of the dark creature he allowed to teach our children, and we know that that same dark creature was allowed to attend Hogwarts many years ago as a student. How can he justify this travesty?"
   She sneered at Dumbledore, the curl of her lip completely incongruous with the lurid pink of her robes and the nasally whine of her voice. Dumbledore almost laughed aloud at the spectacle she was making of herself and wondered why the minister would saddle himself with her - likely because she was the only one he could induce to take him seriously.
   A quick glance at the Minister revealed his attention on the pink-clad woman, but his face betrayed no emotion as he listened to her words. Dumbledore knew Minister Fudge was a willing conspirator in this attempt, but that concept had been the Undersecretary's. The Minister himself, however, wished to keep himself aloof and maintain the fiction he stood for the people, rather than the highest bidder, which was why he had left it to her.
   "In response to this grievous threat, I have come before this body today with a proposal to bar those unfit from attending our beloved institution, or any of our other schools in Britain." The woman's eyes fairly glowed with her fanatical devotion and self-righteous indignation, and she cast her eyes about the chamber, her gaze almost seeming to imperiously demand the cooperation of the Wizengamot. "The copies of the proposed law are being distributed by the clerks. In considering this legislation, I would ask each of you to truly consider what is best for our land, and whether we wish to educate those creatures who mean us harm so they may further perpetrate their nefarious deeds against us all. I thank you for your time, and ask for your support and your honorable attention in this matter."
   The member sat down and Dumbledore, once he had received the parchment detailing the Undersecretary's proposition, glanced down the sheet, taking in the details of her foolhardy plan. It was similar to other documents he had seen over the years, rife with pureblood dogma and full of defamatory and incendiary statements. It was nothing less than he would have expected from such a short-sighted woman.
   After a few moments had passed, Dumbledore set the parchment down on the desk in front of him, and steepled his fingers in front of him as he considered the matter at hand. The Wizengamot was a conservative body, it was true, but it was not necessarily a forum for blood purists and bigots. Like any other organization, it had its share of factions ranging from the true Pureblood fanatics, right down through the spectrum to the moderates who knew there was no basis to Voldemort's dogma. In fact, the truly fanatical members were very small in number, and those who sympathized with their beliefs, although not overt followers of the Dark Lord, were only slightly more numerous. Like most groups of intelligent beings gathered together, the majority of those in the group were intelligent, honest, and reasonable, with only a few zealots who sometimes gave the entire group a poor reputation.
   Which was why Dumbledore was somewhat puzzled with the Minister's move. Even without the threat of Harry leaving Britain to attend Beauxbatons, there was little chance of this bill ever being passed. Dumbledore fancied that he had more than enough support to overrule Umbridge's bill with little to no trouble. What could Fudge mean by it? Was this a prelude to something else, or was the minister so ineffectual that he actually thought he would pass this tripe just because he wished it?
   It was a problem for another time, perhaps - the rustling of parchment had largely ceased, and more than one member was now looking to him to initiate the debate.
   "Thank you, Madam Umbridge," Dumbledore said, rising to his feet. "A proposal for a new law has been put before the Wizengamot. I now invite discussion on the bill before we put it to a vote."
   There were a few murmurs as the members discussed the issue amongst themselves. A man stood on the far end of the chambers, motioning that he would like to speak. Dumbledore bowed affably and recognized him. "Jonas Strong has the floor."
   The man bowed in response before directing his gaze across the chamber. Strong was a tall, handsome man in his middle years, and though he was normally an intelligent and somewhat moderate sort of man, he had a disturbing tendency to vote with the Pureblood block on seemingly random occasions.
   "Thank you, Chief Warlock. Before we get into discussion of this... bill Madam Umbridge has put before us, I wish to discuss this issue she raised of a werewolf who attended Hogwarts. I must say that I - and many of my colleagues - were surprised to find that not only had such a dark creature attended the institution, but also that he was hired to teach one of the core courses. I would like to ask the Headmaster to account for this."
   Smiling, Dumbledore rose and stood before the chamber. "I might remind Member Strong, that though werewolves are technically deemed to be dark creatures, they are only truly dangerous on one night in a lunar month, unless they are known to be an insane criminal such as Fenrir Greyback. The student in question was never a danger to the student population - he was sequestered during his night every month. Besides, as per the Hogwarts charter, I have no authority to deny anyone an education who wishes it - as I told our esteemed Minister only days ago," he nodded at Minister Fudge, who had allowed a slight frown to come over his face, "the charter is very clear on this matter."
   Dumbledore glanced around the room, seeing the nods of agreement on the faces of many. This was the true measure of a politician, and Dumbledore was, at heart, a political animal. "As for the professor, the same precautions were taken during his tenure. You are all well aware of the difficulty in finding suitable professors for the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and having to find a replacement every year is difficult and taxing. In addition, I believe that if you were to ask the students, the majority of them would declare that the professor in question was the best teacher I have been able to find for the post in several years. If not for the outcry against his being employed at Hogwarts, I would still have him as a professor, I assure you."
   Strong said nothing in response - he merely nodded and sat, seemingly considering the matter in a thoughtful manner.
   "This is all very interesting," Madam Longbottom interrupted, "but I believe we had best focus on the present, rather than discussing the past."
   The Longbottoms - truly ambassadors for the light, and had been for several centuries. The current matriarch was a tough, no-nonsense woman, who had stood for her family for more than thirty years since the death of her late husband. A more formidable political foe was difficult to find, though her choice of headwear was somewhat suspect...
   "Your proposal, Madam Umbridge, is very... interesting." The Undersecretary's face darkened at the contemptuous way in which Lady Longbottom expressed her opinion of the bill. "But, in essence, I believe that this bill is a measure to prevent those undesirables from attending any of our educational institutions, am I correct?"
   Umbridge nodded, a pleasant - and patently insincere - expression plastered upon her face.
   "In that case, Undersecretary, I wonder at the wording of your proposal. In particular, you use the word 'creature' several times over in this document. However, I would like to know who would determine the definition of the word, in light of the many disparate peoples with whom we come in daily contact."
   "I second Madam Longbottom's question," Dumbledore interrupted. "For example, does creature refer to any who are not human? And if so, what about those who are of mixed blood? There are those who are part goblin, giant, and some who have fairy blood, among others. How do they fall into this definition of yours?"
   "An important question to be sure," Umbridge simpered. "We shall designate a committee to study the matter and come to a determination as to the precise definition."
   "A committee designated by you?" Amelia Bones snapped.
   "The Minister is responsible for enacting the laws passed by this body into law. He shall set up the commission to determine the exact standards of those we allow into our school system."
   "Do you not think it dangerous to pass a law which does not clearly define its own aims, Madam Umbridge?" asked Lady Longbottom. "It seems to me that if you wish to deprive certain beings access to various benefits of society, that you had best classify exactly what - and whom - is being denied."
   "Exactly!" another voice spoke up. Porter Friesinger was a moderate whose family had come to Britain some centuries early from Germany, and were also rumored to claim fairy blood in their past, though the family was largely Pureblood from the time they emigrated. "I should not like to vote for a law which would prevent my own family from gaining an education."
   "Mr. Friesinger, I am certain we can come to some accommodation and make an exception for... certain members of good standing, whose loyalty and pedigree are well known." Umbridge's simpering voice was even more grating in her obviously rising annoyance. Moreover, it was clear in the instant that she finished her statement, that she had made an error of judgment. In order to carry the day, she would have to convince those moderate members who had certain elitist tendencies. However, this selective ban that she now appeared to be proposing was now clearly exposed for the intolerance it espoused.
   "You cannot have it both ways," Lady Longbottom said in a stern tone, her disapproval clear in the censure of her words. "You propose to disallow all 'creatures' from attending due to the danger of educating them, and now you propose that there can be exceptions. Are there exceptions to the safety of our children? Are there those who are creatures that mean us harm, yet will be eligible to attend due to some... exception? And who would determine just whom will be awarded an exception? Really, Madam Umbridge, you appear to have given this little thought. Perhaps you should go away and redraft your proposal - if you were to bar all truly dangerous creatures, such as vampires or giants from Hogwarts, it may be something I could support. Of course, as we have never had such creatures attempt to infiltrate our education system in the past, your bill appears to be worth less than the parchment upon which it is printed. I would ask you to avoid wasting the Wizengamot's time."
   The mottled red of Umbridge's face indicated the complete loss of her patience, but Dumbledore, deciding that it was time to end this farce of a proposal, cut in before she could reply.
   "Come, Madam Umbridge, let us be honest with one another, don't you think?" he said, keeping a careful eye on her reaction to his words, along with the reaction of her superior. "I hardly think there is anyone in this chamber who does not understand the reason for your reticence in defining your words. Your strategy is to get your law passed and then leave the rest up to the Minister to further define your target group... or the particular person you target, is that not correct?"
   "I have no idea what of you are speaking," the Undersecretary snapped.
   "On the contrary, Madam, I believe you understand me perfectly," was Dumbledore's steely response. He glared at her for several moments before she was forced to look away. He smiled grimly in response.
   "Your proposal is meaningless - the friendlier races, such as goblins and centaurs - are contemptuous of us and our brand of magic, and have no desire to attend Hogwarts, even should we extend the invitation. The darker groups, by contrast, have no interest in being educated by us, and would not fit into our society even if they did.
   "And as for those others who I have no doubt you would brand as 'creatures,' lycanthropy is a well-documented disease which does not take away the humanity of a person. And as for Veela..."
   No one in the room missed Dumbledore's emphasis, least of all Umbridge. "Yes, I know what the thrust of this... this travesty is," Dumbledore snapped, waving the parchment in the air before crushing it in his fist. All trace of the grandfatherly persona he often projected was now gone in favor of making an impression upon this stupid woman of just how formidable he could be when provoked.
   "Make no mistake, esteemed members," he continued, addressing the entire chamber. "If this bill passes and Miss Delacour is not allowed to attend Hogwarts with her betrothed, then Mr. Potter may very well decide that he has had enough of us. I have heard from my French counterpart, and Madame Maxine has assured me that Harry Potter will be welcome at Beauxbatons any time he chooses. If you wish to be the means of forcing one of this nation's greatest heroes away from our shores, then I suggest you support this bill. If you are a right-thinking, rational person, then the choice is clear - Madam Umbridge's proposal is defamatory and discriminatory. It must be defeated.
   "Now, I call for a vote on the member's private bill."
   "Seconded!" exclaimed Amelia Bones.
   Needless to say, the members of the Wizengamot, unwilling to appear to the Wizarding public as though they had driven Harry Potter from Britain, were cowed by Dumbledore's words. The motion was defeated soundly.
   ***
   Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic of Magical Britain, sat behind his desk, at once amused and annoyed by the spectacle he was witnessing. The meeting of the Wizengamot had concluded over an hour earlier, and while his senior Undersecretary had arrived almost ten minutes previous, she had not stopped her ranting and raving the entire time she had been in his office. Even now she paced in front of his desk, her screeching grating on his nerves, the way she threw her hands up in the air to punctuate her words making him concerned her gyrations would cause her to suddenly take flight.
   Such an absurd thought to have at such a time - he shook his head and smiled at the incongruousness of the thought paired with the situation. On the other hand, it was difficult not having such thoughts about such an absurd woman. Unfortunately, his smile had not gone unnoticed by his companion.
   "...and I cannot countenance such effrontery, such disregard for the standing and honor of those of us - "
   Umbridge stopped and rounded on the Minister, her chubby face turning red in her anger. "Minister!" she demanded in her typical shrill voice, which was rendered even higher by her agitated state. "How can you smile at a time like this? These... beasts are threatening our society, our way of life, and our very existence as a noble social order which must be the envy of all the world. Can you countenance this even for a moment?"
   "Madam Undersecretary, I am certain you are well within your rights to be outraged by the defeat of your proposition in the Wizengamot." Actually, Fudge, not having much more than a rudimentary loyalty to anything other than his wallet, was indifferent to her schemes. What mattered was his ability to stay in power, and unless she went along with his plans, her ability to continue to forward her own agenda would also be seriously compromised - even the most fervent Pureblood fanatic, unlikely as it was that such a person could actually be elected to be the next Minister, would have a difficult time putting up with her. "However, you must consider the fact that it was by no means certain that your motion would pass, and given the state of the Wizengamot with Mr. Potter's acquittal last week, I dare say your defeat was inevitable."
   Eyes narrowed, the Undersecretary stared at him with suspicion. "Do you mean to tell me that you expected my motion to be defeated?" she demanded, indignation evident in her tone.
   Apparently the expression on his face told her everything she needed to know, as her expression became flinty and she sniffed at him in disdain. "In that case, Minister, I wonder why you allowed me to make a fool of myself before the Wizengamot and even encouraged me to do so."
   "You need no encouragement from anyone to make yourself into the fool," Fudge thought to himself.
   Out loud he merely gestured her to a chair and leaned back in his, considering the proper response that would maintain her loyalty, while allowing him to continue to employ her as his own personal attack dog to be pointed directly at Dumbledore and his annoying little lackey.
   "Madam Umbridge, I am most surprised at you," he finally said with a hint of reproof in his voice. "I should have thought that a woman of your political acumen would have read the situation and understood the thrust of my allowing you to present your legislation."
   Her eyes softened at the flattery, even while she appeared to become more thoughtful. In truth, the woman had no political acumen whatsoever, and was merely guided by her prejudices and wishes for a society in which her definition of what was right and proper was allowed to rule over the rest.
   "I can only assume that you misread what I had seen due to your righteous indignation," Fudge continued, taking great care to appeal to her vanity. "The situation in the Wizengamot was such that a motion which would even appear to be even remotely detrimental to young Harry Potter had no chance at success. If you had perhaps been able to phrase your proposal in language which was a little more... reasonable, there may been a slight chance it its being carried, but the likelihood - now that Potter has been exonerated and publicly linked to the Veela - of it being passed was never great.
   "In short, I allowed you to proceed as a distraction to Dumbledore. He and I are engaged in a power struggle for control of our government, as you well know, and if he were to be able to best me, I shudder to think what would happen to the society we all love. We would be overrun with Mudbloods and those of less than human ancestry, no doubt."
   The woman was silent for several moments, though here glare did not lessen. "So you allowed me to be a... diversion!" she spat at length.
   "I allowed you to create a diversion," Fudge replied with aplomb. "There is a fine distinction. You are not the diversion, but your proposal was. Dumbledore must now watch and be afraid of a modified version of your proposal being slipped past him, which will take his attention from other matters, including your coming installment at Hogwarts. You have not forgotten that have you?"
   "I have not," she responded slowly.
   Fudge knew he had her - she had been basking in the fact that he had entrusted her with such an important design ever since he had first informed her of it.
   "Good," Fudge said, allowing his approval to be conveyed by his voice. She truly was a useful tool in that she was manic in attacking whatever he pointed her at, and he could disavow her actions if she went too far, as she was well known to be a fanatic. Hopefully, in this instance she would be able to curb her natural tendencies and accomplish the complete takeover of the school.
   "Always keep the goal in sight, Madam," he admonished. "Removing Hogwarts from the Headmaster's control is the first step in our plan to neuter him. Once we can prove he is unfit for that role, it will be easier to unseat him from the Wizengamot and completely marginalize him. And without Dumbledore's support, Harry Potter will be completely without any power. Then with Dumbledore out of the way and Potter shunted to the side, we will be able to claim the moral high ground, quash any hint of this ludicrous story of the return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and proceed with building our society into one which will be the envy of the world.
   "But in order to achieve this goal, I will need to you adhere to the plan and gradually take over control of the school. Remove Dumbledore from his positions of power, Madam, then we will have the upper hand."
   Umbridge's smile became truly unpleasant - Fudge thought she may have intended it to be predatory, but he could not imagine any short, plump predators clad entirely in pink. It was a most disturbing sight, and one which would undoubtedly take an excess of brandy to remove from his consciousness.
   ***
   After another day of training with the demanding and critical Alastor Moody, Ron Weasley stumbled from the Floo, ignoring his brothers and sister who followed him, and trudged up the stairs to his room in the Burrow, thankful that another day had come to a close. It seemed that every part of him ached, and he was certain he had never worked this hard before in his life. Moody was trying to kill them - of that, he was convinced.
   Still, though Ron was perhaps not the most motivated or studious sort of person, the training and the things he had learned filled him with a... pride, for want of a better term - pride in what he was doing. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had returned, after all, and his best friend was still the number one target. Ron would not sit back on the sidelines while Harry was threatened - he would stand and fight.
   On the other front... The thought of Hermione brought a grimace to his face. He had not wavered for an instant in his determination to woo his brainy friend, and he was quickly coming to realize that Hermione was not the plain young woman he had always thought her to be - she was growing and filling in nicely, and was now a girl who he thought would command considerable attention as she continued to mature. Much as he regretted it, he knew that previously, his desire to be with her was something of a desire not to lose to Harry again, but now that had changed - she was perhaps not the statuesque beauty he had always noticed in the past, but she was attractive in her own right. The fact that they fought constantly...
   That, he firmly pushed from his mind. Their arguing had the earmarks of an old married couple's relationship - everyone said so. It was logical to assume - as his desired girlfriend was so fond of stating - that their relationship was ready to move to the more official one which he desired. If only it were that easy...
   He was trying - he certainly was. He had attempted to tone down their disagreements, he tried to speak of her favorite things, and he endeavored to show her that he really cared. It did not seem to be working. She acted suspiciously around him, almost as though she thought he was trying to put one over on her, and moreover, his attempts to appear interested in the things which were important to her she seemed to see through with ease. If only she were interested in the things he was - he could talk about Quidditch and chess forever!
   The door to his room banged open, and Ron sat up in surprise, as his two elder brothers entered the room.
   "Hello Ronnikins, fancy meeting you here!" exclaimed one twin.
   "It's a surprise to see our brother in his own room, Gred?"
   "No, perhaps not, Forge. It just seemed like a good way to open the conversation."
   The other twin nodded sagely. Ron, however, was not in the mood to deal with his ever-exuberant brothers.
   "Do you two have a reason for bugging me?"
   The twins shared a smirk. "Was that a hint of surliness I heard from our ungrateful brother?"
   "I believe it was," replied the other. "And it's particularly rude of him, considering the fact that we came to help him, don't you think?"
   "I concur, brother."
   "Help me what?" Ron demanded.
   "Well, Ron, it appears your attempts to woo the lovely Miss Granger have run into an impasse."
   Ron attempted to react nonchalantly. "What are you guys talking about?"
   Fred raised an eyebrow. "It appears that little Ronnie is trying to play stupid."
   "An easy endeavor, to be sure."
   Though Ron's anger was about to explode, George moved quickly to prevent him from erupting. "Ron, don't ever think that we're blind. The only one you are not fooling with your little puppy dog devotion is Moody, and I doubt he can tear his attention away from his paranoid delusions long enough to see your romantic fumblings."
   "But have no fear, George and I have come to your rescue."
   Though Ron was suspicious and angry at his brothers' teasing, he was desperate enough to grasp at just about anything. "What do you mean?"
   The soft sound of something hitting his bed brought Ron's attention away from his brothers. A book? What good would that do?
   "That book, Ronnie, is the ticket to your successful wooing of your lovely lady."
   "Read the cover, Ron."
   Looking down, Ron noted the wizarding illustration of a young woman holding the hand of a young man as they walked along a street, a look of utter devotion on her face. They were surrounded by delicate flowers and vines, which weaved and intertwined with each other, no doubt a subtle example of what was occurring between the couple in the picture. The title of the book was emblazoned upon the top in lurid red letters, Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches.
   Ron glanced back up at his brothers to see them smirking at him. "Just read the book, Ron. It tells you how you can mold yourself into boyfriend material."
   "No guarantee that she will go out with you, but at least you'll have a fighting chance."
   They smiled, identical evil grins, before they turned as one and left he room, leaving Ron alone with the book. Curiously, Ron opened it and began leafing through its pages. The irony of using a book to gain Hermione's affections was not lost on Ron, but as desperate as he was, he was willing to resort to just about anything. Hopefully, she would see he was serious about connecting with her.
   ________________________________________
   "I know you are indignant about his, Jean-Sebastian, but I believe there is no response to make at this time."
   Jean-Sebastian stopped his pacing and glared at Dumbledore. "A member of your government just attempted to brand my daughters as creatures, and all you can say is that I should let the insult slide? At the very least I should be giving your Minister a stinging set-down, if not pulling Fleur - and Harry - from Hogwarts immediately."
   Dumbledore smiled faintly. "I understand your need to protect your daughter. However, I believe it would be absolutely pointless to protest directly to the Minister. It would only give him possible ammunition to demand that you are removed from your post."
   "As though my Minister would listen to him," Jean-Sebastian replied with a derisive snort. "Alain's opinion of Fudge is perhaps worse than my own."
   "That may be," Dumbledore agreed pleasantly. "However, the situation has been dealt with. Even if I did not remind the Wizengamot of the consequences of barring your daughter from Hogwarts, I do not think that Fudge had anywhere close to the number of necessary votes to pass the law. No, this was nothing more than a diversionary tactic, and a rather obvious one at that."
   Jean-Sebastian did not like what Dumbledore was suggesting, but he was conscious of the fact that nothing could be gained by storming into the British Minister's office and threatening him within an inch of his life. Much as he would like to do exactly that...
   Flinging himself into a chair, Jean-Sebastian considered his companion, even as he worked to calm his inflamed emotions.
   "What do you suggest then?"
   A shrug was his response, prompting Jean-Sebastian to narrow his eyes.
   "You do not need to take make that face, Jean-Sebastian," Dumbledore said with a chuckle. "At this point, we can do nothing but wait for Fudge to make his move. I do not doubt that it will be something aimed at discrediting me - you and your family enjoy diplomatic immunity, after all, and I do not think he will be foolish enough to attack you directly."
   The man was right - much though Jean-Sebastian wished he was not. But that did not change the fact that he would not allow the man to persecute his family, a family which now included Harry.
   "I will not allow your government to target my family, Dumbledore - officially or unofficially. If Fudge attempts to make it difficult for Fleur, I will leave the country and not look back."
   "I understand," Dumbledore affirmed. "However, I would ask you to trust us. My staff and I will ensure Fleur's safety and wellbeing at Hogwarts, and I will be vigilant in the Wizengamot, though I doubt that Fudge will try again so soon."
   It was the best he was going to get at the moment, Jean-Sebastian reflected. He knew what he was getting into when he agreed to Sirius' plan to help Harry, and he had no choice but to ride out the storm. It did not change the fact that he had not expected such open opposition from the Minister himself. Perhaps the Minister was something they need to change...
   "I will leave it in your hands, Dumbledore," he finally responded. "But I think it is high time we speak of your Minister. He has done nothing about Voldemort's return and I believe we should begin planning for his ultimate removal."
   "I agree. It will become the main focus of the Order, along with the ongoing effort against Voldemort."
   The two men spoke deep into the night, speaking, planning, discarding, and ultimately agreeing on nothing, but both feeling that they had begun to approach a method for accomplishing their goal. Jean-Sebastian was still concerned about his children, but he knew that they would be protected at Hogwarts. He would need to do his part, from attempting to convince the English government to take the threat of Voldemort seriously, to acting as a liaison to his own government. He did not for a moment believe that the Voldemort problem was merely a British one.

Chapter 8 - A Course is Set

   It was with a high level of excitement that Harry stepped into the Floo Connection to return to Grimmauld Place that Saturday for his first official meeting of the Order of the Phoenix.
   The meeting of the Order which had occurred when he had previously stayed at Grimmauld had allowed him a glimpse of the Order's goals, and of course the twins' Extendable Ears had allowed them to eavesdrop a certain extent. But now he was to be considered a part of the Order - or, at least, a prospective part. For a young man such as Harry, who had grown up in a miserable environment, it was a large step - and a particularly welcome one. He had never had the opportunity to determine the direction in which he wished his life to proceed, and though he supposed young people normally did as their parents directed, at least most of them would have had a little more autonomy than he had ever enjoyed.
   The thought of his new betrothal was an example of his discontent and inability to choose the course of his own life. He understood Sirius' reasons, and he understood the way these things often worked in the extremely old-fashioned society in which the wizarding world existed. It still did not make it any easier to have that choice completely torn away, regardless of the good intentions or potential advantages the match would bring. His only comfort was that it had taken no time at all to conclude that Fleur was a fine young woman, to be esteemed for who she was rather than what she was. Even so, he was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he was now tied to her for life.
   This meeting was, so far as he could remember, the first time in which he was to be included and his opinion sought. It was heady for a young man who was anxious and determined to be seen as a young man rather than to be referred to as "the boy," as his uncle had always called him.
   He stumbled only slightly upon exiting the Floo - a fact which he noted with some pride, not to mention a certain relief - and was greeted by his friends. Hermione, Fleur, and the younger Weasley siblings were to be included in the meeting as well. Neville and Luna, who were of age with Harry and engaged in the training, were excluded for the time being, not only due to their lack of knowledge about the Order in the first place, but also because Dumbledore was uncertain whether their guardians would approve of their inclusion. Depending upon their level of skill and whether they ultimately were deemed trustworthy - which Harry felt certain they were - he intended to speak with Dumbledore when the time was right about their inclusion.
   "Harry!" Hermione exclaimed as soon as he appeared. He found himself immediately engulfed in one of her trademark hugs, which, he reflected, were very warm and comforting, much like Hermione herself.
   When the young brunette witch released him, he grinned at her before turning to greet the Weasleys, noting the congenial smile on Ginny's face, the twins' irrepressible grins, and Ron's own broad smile. By then, Apolline, Jean-Sebastian, Fleur, and Sirius - who had insisted on attending - had emerged from the Floo. The adults smiled at the youngsters before making their way from the room, leaving Fleur and her betrothed in the care of the others.
   The group engaged in small talk for a few moments, most of the conversation seeming to center around what had happened since they had all been together last - as though they had not seen one another at Moody's training session only the day before. Unfortunately for Harry, the twins made certain to exact their pound of flesh, teasing him about being cooped up in that great big mansion with only his incredibly gorgeous fiancИe for company. Harry bore it as best he could and found, to his delight, that the most effective method of deterring them from their fun was to tease them back about their own inability to find themselves a "gorgeous witch" of their own. Needless to say, the banter was friendly and playful, and Fleur's judicious use of her allure at the right moment - thereby turning the young men into gibbering imbeciles - helped Harry get the better of the exchange.
   Their time together was interrupted by Sirius, who poked his head into the room after several minutes had passed. "Showtime, everyone!" was his ebullient declaration.
   Eagerly, the seven young people traded glances, and as one, they moved from the room. The house at Grimmauld was large and dark, but a few rooms had been made almost habitable by their efforts at cleaning it earlier that month. They were led to one of those rooms. It was a large sitting room, and it had been cleared of all the old, ghoulish furniture, which had been replaced with a number of chairs and a small, portable lectern in one of the corners. The order members all appeared to be there, and though Harry was familiar with some - such as his former DADA professor Remus Lupin - there were a great many faces which he did not recognize.
   They were directed toward a group of chairs nearest the lectern and took their seats gingerly, an amused Harry noting that his friends were all as excited and nervous as he himself felt. Unfortunately, the first test of their fortitude was made almost before they were able to seat themselves.
   "Ron, what are you and your friends doing here?" Mrs. Weasley demanded, rising to her feet and stalking to the front of the room until she stood in front of the teenagers, her hands on her hips, and her eyes filled with a fiery indignation.
   Ron was nonplused by his mother's displeasure - he had seen her unhappy enough times to know when his mother was in danger of experiencing a serious eruption.
   Seeing his friend in this state, Harry answered for him. "We were invited, Mrs. Weasley."
   Though her eyes narrowed for a moment, Mrs. Weasley's expression soon softened, and she smiled. Unfortunately, her smile seemed to be full of condescension, and it immediately annoyed Harry.
   "Harry, dear, there must have been some mistake," Mrs. Weasley answered. "This is a meeting of the Order, not some lark for school children. You are all too young to be here. Now run along and keep each other company while we discuss what is to be done. We will talk about your behavior after the meeting."
   "Ah, but they were invited," interjected Jean-Sebastian. A quick glance by Harry at his new guardian revealed that Jean-Sebastian still sat in his seat, seemingly at ease, but Harry, who had started to get to know the man, could tell his seriousness in the intensity of his gaze, and the tone of his voice.
   "Your headmaster and I discussed the matter at some length and agreed that the young people are ready for the burden, particularly with the fact that some of them have faced your dark lord more than once."
   "They are too young," Mrs. Weasley insisted. "They should not have to bear the burden that is rightfully ours as their guardians."
   "Harry and his friends appear to have been targeted specifically by Voldemort," Jean-Sebastian countered. "As a result, they will be on the front lines of this fight before long. Besides, Harry himself has faced - and triumphed - over Voldemort more than once since he returned to your world, and as such, he deserves to know what is happening. How many times have you faced the Dark Lord?"
   Mrs. Weasley's eyes were mere slits by now, her displeasure evident for the entire room to see. Jean-Sebastian, however, affected not to notice this, as he continued to regard her with a slightly less than friendly expression.
   "My wife and I," he said, gesturing to Apolline, "have decided to attend this meeting in order to determine whether we will support your order. The safety of my family is paramount, as I am certain is the case with yours as well. Thus far, I have been impressed with your people and your methods, but I can tell you that your attitude is not helping matters."
   A loud sniff of disdain met his declaration, but Mrs. Weasley, though she obviously would have preferred to protest further, had sensed she would not be able to carry the point.
   "I am sure I do not know how you raise your children in France, but here we do not allow our children to face danger when it is our duty to protect them."
   She fixed her stare on the children. "Harry, I cannot force you to leave because of your guardian," she spat the word with some disdain and a glare at the French ambassador, "but my own children will not attend. Boys, Ginny, Hermione, you will leave now and return to your rooms. I will meet you upstairs later to discuss your defiance."
   "In France, we allow our children to grow and give them more responsibilities as they do so in order for them to gain experience, Mrs. Weasley," Jean-Sebastian snapped, all pretense toward friendliness now gone.
   "Mrs. Weasley, you are not my guardian," Hermione quietly said. "I will stay with Harry."
   Mrs. Weasley had just rounded on the girl when her husband stepped forward and took her by the arm, leading her back to her chair. "Dumbledore and Jean-Sebastian spoke to me about the children's inclusion, Molly, and I agreed. Now, let's sit down and wait for the headmaster."
   "Indeed, we did speak of it, Molly," the voice of Dumbledore intoned as he entered the room. "Harry and his friends have shown remarkable maturity in meeting the challenges they have come up against, and I believe that they will bring a fresh perspective to our deliberations.
   "Now, if everyone is ready," he continued, striding up to the lectern, "I believe we should call this meeting to order."
   The room quieted, and the meeting began, much to Harry's relief. He had not expected Mrs. Weasley's objections, though he likely should have. He knew she was a good woman who had the best of intentions and a genuine care for his - and the others' - welfare, but she also had certain opinions and was very strong-willed. That did not stop her from seeming overbearing at times, and he found he did occasionally resent her tendency to think she knew best. However, he could not overlook the welcome she had always given him and the fact that she had often treated him as one of her own. He did not take pleasure in her set-down, but he was glad his friends had all been able to stay for the meeting.
   The meeting turned out to be more of a general planning session than the council of war Harry had been imagining in his mind. The first topic of discussion was security, which for obvious reasons was a primary concern. Grimmauld Place, which was under a Fidelius Charm, was as safe as magic could make it, as long as the secret keeper kept it from the enemy. As Dumbledore himself was the secret keeper, there was virtually no possibility of their security being breached. However, the Burrow, the various members' residences, and the Granger home were all considered to be softer targets which the enemy could exploit. There was some discussion about the Ambassador's Mansion, but as the residence was under heavy warding of its own - and as there were several French Aurors present - it was deemed to be safe enough for the present. In addition to this, there was a guarded Floo Connection to the French Floo Network, which allowed an escape route should the defenses be overwhelmed.
   As for the other locations, it was decided that Bill Weasley - being very familiar with warding schemes due to his employment as a Gringotts curse breaker - would be drafted into providing improved wards at all order member locations, including Hermione's parents' house. Mad-Eye Moody would assist him in this endeavor. In addition, all members and their families would carry emergency Portkeys to allow them a quick escape should a situation become untenable.
   From there, the discussion moved to the subject of the Ministry and Fudge's likely response to his defeat in Harry's trial. A tall, dark-skinned man - who was introduced as Kingsley Shacklebolt - stood to give his report of the current state in the Ministry.
   "Thus far, Minister Fudge has done nothing to increase the Auror budget, and the hiring of new Aurors is proceeding as it ever was - in other words, there is no budget for hiring any additional help to combat the threat of You-Know-Who. The official policy within the Ministry is that Harry is lying and trying to stir up trouble. Minister Fudge has authorized a press release for tomorrow which is aimed at discrediting Harry and reassuring the public that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has not returned and that we are all safe."
   "Is he mad?" a woman from the back row demanded.
   "No, he's a politician," Sirius replied with a cynical laugh. "Fudge only cares about his public image and the amount of money in his pocket, and war is bad for business. By denying You-Know-Who's return, he can continue to keep the money rolling into his vault."
   "Unfortunately, that's a pessimistic, but accurate statement, Sirius," Dumbledore confirmed. "In spite of my advice, Minister Fudge refuses to listen and will take no action which will appear to confirm the Voldemort's return in any way. Nor will he authorize any investigation into Harry's claims. It is clear he has chosen to hide his head in the sand and will do nothing unless forced.
   "The Wizengamot is fractured, with few of the factions agreeing on any matter, and certainly not enough to come to a consensus. I have had private conversations with various Wizengamot members over the past few days and have determined that I do not have the votes to have Fudge removed from office. Therefore, I believe the burden of opposing Voldemort will fall to the order until we can influence some change in leadership."
   The room fell silent as the members absorbed that piece of news. It was not unexpected - Fudge had made his position very clear, after all - but to have it confirmed was certainly not welcome in any way.
   "For now, as Voldemort must gain his strength and marshal his forces, our missions will likely be confined to intelligence gathering, but the longer the Ministry goes without making any sort of preparations, the less tenable our situation will be. We must come up with some way to force the Ministry to take the threat seriously, as I have no doubt that we do not have the resources to prosecute a war against Voldemort ourselves."
   "It's possible that we may be able to get Madam Bones to support a more active response to the Death Eaters," Shacklebolt suggested. "She's pragmatic, no nonsense, and just a little disgusted with Fudge in general."
   "That is an option," Mr. Weasley said with a hint of wariness. "But she would have to be careful to fly her broom close to the ground. If Fudge gets wind of what she is doing, he may even have her replaced, and to do that now with You-Know-Who on the rise would be disastrous."
   "I can speak with Madam Bones," said Dumbledore. "She will understand the need to keep her actions quiet, and I have every confidence in her ability to withstand Death Eater attacks for the time being. Does anyone have anything else to bring up?"
   "Sir?" Harry asked a little diffidently. He felt he had something to share, but to do so under the eyes of the entire gathering during his first meeting was a little intimidating.
   "Yes, Harry?" Dumbledore asked kindly.
   "I was thinking, sir - everything I've seen of the Minister says that he's not going to admit he was wrong unless he's forced into it. I don't know how, but he'd almost have to see Voldemort for himself before he'd believe it. Is there some way we can force a confrontation?"
   Dumbledore was silent for several moments, and speculative murmurs sprung up throughout the room. Harry glanced to Hermione by his side, noting that she was smiling at him in approval. He returned the grin and turned his attention back to the headmaster.
   "At present, I doubt Voldemort can be lured from his lair," Dumbledore said, appearing deep in thought. "However, that doesn't mean that your idea does not have merit. There may be an opportunity at some point, and if such does present itself, we will need to be ready to seize it. Very good thinking, Harry."
   Flushing at the praise, Harry nodded his thanks and settled in for the rest of the meeting. The rest of the time passed as they discussed the Order's strategy and the different assignments which Dumbledore gave to members of the group. For now, it appeared that they were very much waiting to see what the enemy would do, while attempting to counter whatever the Death Eaters threw at them. It was perhaps not the ideal position, but it was the best they had for the present.
   The meeting broke up soon after that, and though there was much uncertainty over Voldemort's plans and the state of the Ministry, Harry was convinced that someone was doing what was possible to mitigate the danger. He was especially pleased that the Order was taking steps to protect its members - especially the Grangers, who would have no wards to protect them whatsoever. He knew how devastated Hermione would be if she lost her parents...
   Though she said not a word, Mrs. Weasley's disdainful glance at the children as she left the room spoke volumes. Harry almost sighed - she clung to her beliefs tenaciously, and there was precious little he could do to change them. He decided not to be concerned, however; he was certain she would eventually come around. At the very least, he did not live at Grimmauld any longer, so he would be able to avoid her if she was unpleasant.
   The best part of the night, in Harry's opinion, was the discussion between the headmaster and Jean-Sebastian before they returned to the Ambassador's Mansion. One of his greatest fears had been that his guardian would not agree with the Order's goals and would strike out on his own, putting Harry in a difficult position. Their conversation ended any chance of that happening.
   "Well, Jean-Sebastian, I hope that this meeting calmed your fears and that you will continue to work with us."
   Jean-Sebastian smiled at Dumbledore and indicated his acquiescence with a slight bow. "It has. Anything you need from me will be provided."
   "Very well, then."
   Dumbledore excused himself to go, leaving the rest of the occupants of the room to mill about and speak to one another about the meeting they had just left. Harry particularly enjoyed speaking a few moments with his friends. Things were looking up for him, and he was looking forward to continuing to get to know his new family better.
   ***
   In another part of the old house, Molly Weasley fumed about the situation and the loss of all her plans. This latest straw - having that awful Mr. Delacour set her down in front of the children - was just another reason for her to dislike him. The children were too young - they needed to step back and allow the adults to take care of them, as was their right and duty.
   What Molly did not acknowledge, even to herself, was her fear. She had not escaped the first war unscathed - few had - and though she would largely not acknowledge it even to herself, she was afraid of once again going through the heartbreak of losing another loved one to that damned dark lord. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had been directly responsible for the deaths of her twin brothers, and the ache she felt at their loss, though dulled with time, was still keenly felt. She wanted to keep the children safe at all costs, and it was very difficult to admit that they were growing up and could take care of themselves.
   That Harry, a young man of whom she was genuinely fond, was now in a better home situation was something to be glad about, as personally distasteful as she found the Delacours. He was closemouthed about his experiences during his childhood, but she suspected that the Muggles he had lived with were, at the very least, apathetic toward him, not caring for him in the manner that they should have.
   It still rankled, however, that if he should leave their care, then he would not be put in hers. She was far better known to the boy than the Delacours and was able to provide a far healthier environment for his upbringing than they could, she was certain. And that betrothal...
   The mere thought of the fact that Harry was betrothed filled Molly with indignation, especially since it was to that hussy! Harry was perfect for Ginny! He had saved her in the chamber, for Merlin's sake - it bespoke to his noble and self-sacrificing nature, which was all Molly wanted for her only daughter, and in her mind, it tied them together with an unbreakable bond. Of course, it would not hurt that the boy's social and financial situation could only bolster that of the Weasleys' - Harry truly did not completely understand the stature he could command in their world, not only due to his status as the Boy-Who-Lived, but also because of the fact that the Potters had a very old name and had always been influential. Their substantial wealth did not hurt matters either.
   But Harry's stature and birthright were secondary to all other concerns. Ginny was her baby, and since Ginny had been a little girl, she had idolized the Boy-Who-Lived and fantasized about marrying him. And since that was what Ginny wanted, Molly had been determined that she would help her only daughter to achieve that goal, whatever it took. This contract with the French witch all but put that notion to rest, unless Ginny were to consider a multiple marriage with the young man.
   She continued to chew upon the issue, worrying at it from every side she could think of, but nothing presented itself. No matter how she approached the situation in her mind, there was nothing she could do. Harry Potter was, for all intents and purposes, engaged to Fleur Delacour, and there was nothing to be done about it.
   "Come to bed, Molly," the voice of her husband startled her from her thoughts. She glanced around, and noting the time on the clock, she wondered at how long she had stewed, thinking about her daughter and the boy whom she considered as good as a son.
   She swiftly prepared herself for sleep and joined her husband in their bed, lifting the blankets to her chin while letting out a long sigh of frustration. Arthur, who knew her better than anyone else, regarded her in silence before breaking it with a gentle remonstrance.
   "Molly, I understand you are not happy about this betrothal business, but I believe it is truly in Harry's best interests at this point."
   "How can you say that?" Molly demanded. "How can that... that... girl be good for Harry, who is the gentlest, nicest boy I have ever met? We know nothing about her, Arthur, and being a Veela, she is almost certainly a scarlet woman!"
   "You know no such thing," Arthur reprimanded. "Everything I've seen of her suggests that she is quiet and pleasant. There is no reason to vilify her."
   Arthur regarded her for a moment, his eyes intent, and Molly was reminded of the fact that though her husband often appeared to be oblivious and intent upon his eccentric interests, he was an intelligent man, and not entirely blind to what was occurring around him.
   "Now, what is this all about, Molly?" he asked. His tone, while gentle and affectionate, was also commanding - he was not about to let this go without a fight.
   "Arthur, you know Ginny has always idolized Harry. She is very upset about this betrothal, and I am upset for her - she and Harry would be perfect together if not for these Delacours interfering."
   "Are you forgetting Sirius, love? He was the instigator of this in the first place."
   "Yes, Sirius had a hand in it, and though I do not like it, I am well aware of the fact that he is only trying to do his best for Harry. He should have consulted us - what can an unmarried man of his age, who has spent the last decade of his life in prison, know about raising a young boy?"
   Arthur sighed and snuggled closer into his wife, a movement which she returned, feeling somewhat comforted by his presence.
   "Molly, Ginny has never idolized Harry - she idolized the Boy-Who-Lived. It is only recently that she has begun to see him for himself rather than for his fame.
   "And if I may be so bold, I'd like to point out that she appears to be handling this better than you are."
   "But, Arthur - "
   "No, Molly," Arthur interrupted, using a firm tone he rarely used with her. "You need to step back and allow the children to live their lives. If Ginny is meant to be with Harry, I do not doubt that she will still end up with him - he is a prime candidate for a multiple marriage, after all.
   "And besides, I think you're missing the reaction of another who is much closer to Harry than Ginny has ever been."
   Molly turned her puzzled gaze on her husband. "Pardon me?"
   Arthur chuckled quietly. "You've been so focused on Ginny that I'm not surprised you missed it. Though she's handled it very well, I believe that Hermione has been just as upset with the betrothal as Ginny - if not more so."
   "Hermione?" Molly demanded.
   "Yes, Molly. I think our little resident bookworm has fancied Harry for some time now. It's hardly surprising, if you think about it - they are practically inseparable."
   Was it true? How could she have missed such a thing? Unless, of course, her normally somewhat distracted husband was completely mistaken. But if he was not mistaken, then what about...
   "But Arthur, what about Ronnie?"
   "Yes, I've noticed Ron's infatuation with Hermione, too," Arthur confirmed with a smile.
   "Arthur, Ron would be so disappointed to learn that Hermione has feelings for Harry. I can't bear to have two children upset."
   "You have no choice, Molly," replied Arthur firmly. "They have their own choices and must live their own lives. Besides, despite Ron's feelings, I truly doubt that he and Hermione could cease their frequent disagreements long enough to come to an understanding of such significance. I'm afraid they are not well suited to one another at all."
   It was only the truth, Molly had to admit. Much as she loved all of her children, she was not blind to Ron's faults, and she knew that a driven and intelligent young woman such as Hermione - who shared virtually no common interests with him - would not likely develop feelings for Ron under such circumstances. Ron had undoubtedly improved over the years - and she could only admit the influence that Hermione and Harry had exerted had much to do with it - but he still had a certain amount of growing to do.
   "Now, Molly, I must have your word on this - you must not interfere. The children must be free to live their own lives with whomever they wish. Leave them alone, my dear - I have no doubt they will work it out themselves."
   Molly murmured her agreement, which seemed to satisfy her husband, and within minutes, he was snoring softly. In the back of her mind, however, she could not help but worry the situation like a dog with a bone. There must be something she could do to save her daughter from heartache. She would have to continue to think on it.
   ________________________________________
   The next week after the Order meeting saw a slight change in the training program. While Moody continued to drill them in stances, avoiding curses, and the proper way to move about a battlefield, he also began to move them toward learning more about curses and hexes which they would use in a duel. He was very blunt with them, telling them all he was covering months of training in the period of a few days. However, it was necessary, for, as he told them, they did not have months and months to prepare. Once they arrived at school, they would need to continue to practice what they had learned, and they could call on the headmaster (when he was available) or Professor Flitwick (who had been considered a master duelist in his youth). Next year, he told them, he would continue on with their training in the summer.
   The other circumstance which changed was the fact that from Monday of that week, the entire group Flooed to the manor with their trunks, as it had been decided that they would stay the entire week there rather than returning after their sessions were complete. It had been a joint idea put forth by Fleur and Harry. It afforded them more time with their friends and helped build their level of camaraderie. Harry particularly was happy to have his friends there for longer, and Fleur, though she was still getting to know Harry's friends, welcomed the opportunity to do so more quickly.
   In fact, by the end of the first week, Hermione had all but moved into the manor and away from Grimmauld Place. Her parents had visited the Delacours the day after the Order meeting - with Hermione joining them, of course - and had come to stay the final weekend of the summer as well, meaning Hermione stayed for that weekend as well.
   In the Grangers, Harry found a couple who genuinely cared about their daughter's wellbeing and happiness, and as a consequence, they had accepted wholeheartedly her status as a witch, even though it had seriously curbed the time they were able to spend with their daughter. They took to Harry immediately as Hermione's closest friend, and it was not long before he was calling them by name - William and Elizabeth.
   Of course, this arrangement was also the cause of a certain amount of discontent in their group as well. Specifically, the Weasley children, who were there at their mother's rather grudging acceptance, were absolutely refused when they applied to their parents to stay the last weekend of the summer with the Delacours as well. It was understood by all that although the given reason for Mrs. Weasley's refusal was the fact that she would not see her children again until Christmas, a rather large consideration was the fact that she truly did not like the Delacours and would prefer her children spent as little time with them as possible. She was barely tolerant of her children training with "those foreign people" at all.
   The twins took this decision rather stoically - most of the rest of the group were younger than they were, after all, and they decided they could plot their pranks from Grimmauld place more effectively anyway. Ginny, though disappointed that she was not to spend more time with her friends - including Harry, who she was coming to know on a more personal basis - was also philosophical about it. She would be in their company for the next several months, and she was happy to spend some more time with her parents.
   The true difficulty was Ron. He was decidedly unhappy that his request had been denied and had complained loud and long on the matter. His mother was not to be moved, however, and Ron spent the entire weekend at Grimmauld Place seething, angry over the loss of his time with Hermione and imagining everything that Harry might be getting up to with her.
   For Hermione's part, she was rather suspicious of Ron. He had seemingly changed overnight, and though the change could be said to be for the better, there almost seemed to be a forced quality to it. He was much more considerate of her feelings, for instance, and he rarely provoked a disagreement with her. There had been times, however, when he had appeared to be on the verge of an explosion and had curbed his natural tendency just in time. The rest of the time, he paid a lot of attention to her, flattering her with comments and giving her awkward little gifts. It was almost like he had someone coaching him and was now set on making a move upon her. It was most disconcerting to the young woman who had rarely attracted such attention in the past, but on the other hand, it also felt good to have someone behave in such a way toward her. Not that she was in danger of falling to his charms - she was firmly of the opinion that they would do badly together as a couple.
   As for the various relationships between the disparate members of the group, while they appeared to get along well, there were certain undercurrents that passed between them which often appeared only to the discerning eye. Neville and Luna seemed somewhat blind to the underlying tensions between certain other members of the group, but that was hardly surprising, given the fact that everyone else was much more familiar with each other than they were, with the possible exception of Fleur.
   Fleur's initial relationship with Ginny was characterized by wariness, though they had warmed to each other significantly by the end of the first week. For those who were perceptive enough, it was clear that their initial difficulties were based almost solely upon Ginny's all-consuming jealousy of the older witch. However, this jealousy was quickly eased because Fleur made the effort to get to know Ginny, and Ginny, for her part, discovered that Fleur was a pleasant and intelligent witch. She soon realized that Fleur had been forced into this as much as Harry had - once she had realized and accepted that fact, it was much easier to get to know the French witch without any rancor straining their relationship.
   Between Hermione and Fleur, a fast friendship had formed, and the two were much in each other's confidence early on in their relationship. They were different in some respects, but they had many similarities as well, the least of which was not the fact that they had both been loners to a certain extent in their younger years, Fleur due to her heritage, and Hermione due to her intelligence. And as they were both interested in Harry's happiness, they found that they had much common ground upon which to base a friendship.
   Finally, a certain amount of friction had also sprung up between Harry and Ron, though Harry was not completely certain the cause for this. He had known that Ron was not happy to have had to stay at Grimmauld Place the Sunday Hermione had come to visit with her parents, but what that had to do with him, he could not be certain. Ron, however, was not about to let it lie, and Harry would soon find out what was bothering his friend.
   ________________________________________
   Ron was frustrated. He had never been exactly a paragon of patience (even Ron could admit he was not blessed with that particular virtue), and the situation with Hermione was wearing on him.
   Perhaps amazingly, for one who was not normally particularly fond of books, Ron had taken the one that the twins had given him and read through it in no time. The book had been filled with such helpful tips and instructions, and he had been inordinately pleased with himself - surely with this aid, he could go about wooing his closest female friend!
   But unfortunately, it had not happened that way. Though Ron had made good use of the book, following its instructions to the letter, something appeared to be missing. Hermione seemed as though she was warming to him, and she appeared to be appreciative of the effort he was making to show her how he felt, but beyond that, she seemed unaffected. It was driving Ron barmy - he was stuck, and he did not know what he should do.
   In addition, Harry's relationship with Hermione looked as though it was stronger than ever - they laughed and joked together, and both appeared to be drawing closer than ever to the Veela, though Ron himself was still rather tongue-tied around the girl. This was not the way things were supposed to go.
   In his mind's eye, Ron could only imagine what Harry and Hermione were getting up to when he was not around. How could Harry do this to him? He already had a beautiful Veela at his beck and call - why could Harry not leave Hermione for him?
   He was not about to stand for it, and he resolved to confront Harry on the situation immediately.
   His chance came on the Tuesday of that week. The training group had just been dismissed by Moody, and the other participants had already left, and though Ron would have liked to get to dinner, which he was certain had already been set out for them, he knew there was likely no better time to confront his friend.
   "Harry, I'd like to talk to you for a moment," Ron said a little hesitantly. Harry was a good friend, after all, and he did not wish to anger him - their relationship had already taken a bit of a beating due to Ron's behavior over the Triwizard (Ron's fault, he was able to admit to himself), and Ron did not wish for them to become further estranged. But he could not let Harry snap up all the good witches!
   "Sure, Ron," Harry replied from the bench where he was lacing his shoes. "What's up?"
   "I just wanted to talk to you about Hermione."
   Harry looked up at him, confused. "Hermione? What about her?"
   "Well... I was kind of wondering..."
   As Ron stammered, trying to find the words to ask his question, Harry's countenance became even more confused.
   "What is it, Ron?"
   "What is your relationship with her?" Ron finally blurted out, inwardly wincing at just how inelegant his sudden question sounded.
   "My relationship?" Harry echoed uncertainly. "I'm not certain what you are referring to, Ron. I believe my relationship with Hermione is the same as it's ever been - she's my friend, and I'm grateful to her for believing in me, for always sticking up for me."
   "That's not what you told her last week!" snapped Ron. "You told her that she was your best friend! Just what did you mean by that?"
   Harry's look became speculative and more than a little darker. He glared at Ron, making Ron feel even more uncomfortable. But he would not give in - he had to know what Harry's intentions toward Hermione were!
   "I wasn't aware that you were in the habit of eavesdropping on private conversations."
   "Just answer the question, Harry!"
   "Fine," said Harry, rising to his feet. "Hermione is my best friend!"
   Ron's jaw dropped, and he peered at Harry in disbelief. "But Harry, I'm your best friend! We've been through everything together - best mates and all - how can you say that Hermione - a girl! - is closer than we are?"
   "Does the term 'Tri-Wizard Tournament' mean anything to you, Ron?" was Harry's sarcastic reply.
   Blushing crimson, Ron hung his head in shame - perhaps Harry was right. Ron had not behaved well during that whole debacle, though he had assumed that Harry had forgiven him.
   "Listen, Ron," Harry continued in a more conciliatory tone, "I don't hold that against you, but since you asked, I will tell you. Hermione never doubted me, while you would not talk to me for over a month, even though I told you all along I wanted nothing to do with the tournament and didn't enter my name into it.
   "To be honest with you, Ron, that's not the only time."
   Startled, Ron looked up at Harry, noting the expression of seriousness on his face.
   "You've been a bit of a flake at times, not only to me, but also to Hermione. I consider you a friend, Ron - a best friend even - and I know that no matter how you flake out, you'll always come to your senses sooner or later. But I must admit that waiting for you to get over it can be annoying.
   "That is why Hermione is my best friend. She's never put me through that. Hell, the only time I've ever fought with her at all was when she turned my Firebolt in to McGonagall in the third year, and even then, she did it for me, because she was scared that I would get hurt."
   Embarrassed, Ron considered Harry's words and decided they were completely correct. There had been times when he had been jealous of Harry or had treated him badly, and he knew that if he wanted to maintain their friendship, he would have to improve his behavior.
   "I'll try to do better, Harry," he mumbled, hoping his friend would accept that.
   "I know, Ron," replied Harry with a grin. "I know you try. I just hope you get over your jealousy some time. You don't seem to realize it, but it's not always fun and games being Harry Potter."
   Ron was aware of this - perhaps subconsciously - but Harry seemed to get the short end of the stick more than most. Still, this was something to be considered at another time. For now, Harry still had not given him an answer for exactly how he viewed Hermione, and Ron was not about to let him go until he had some idea of what he was up against.
   "But what about Hermione?" Ron pressed. "I know she's a friend, but what do you... think of her?"
   A true smile came over Harry's face, and he chuckled with pure amusement. "So that's what this is all about. You think I fancy Hermione?"
   "Don't you?" Ron challenged.
   "Doesn't matter, now does it?" Harry asked, completely solemn. "Ron, I am bound by a marriage contract with Fleur. Hermione..."
   His sudden pause when speaking of the young witch caused Ron to peer at him with heightened suspicion. It appeared very much the case that Harry did have feelings of some sort for Hermione. Ron was not happy with the confirmation.
   "Even if I do have feelings for Hermione, I can hardly act on them because of my contract with Fleur, now can I? Do you think I would betray either Fleur or Hermione that way - or that Hermione would even accept such an arrangement? What are you thinking, Ron?"
   It was all the confirmation Ron needed. He knew that just because Harry had a betrothal contract with Fleur, he could still woo Hermione due to his status and ability to marry more than one witch. But if Harry did not know that, then Ron would not be the one to illuminate him on the subject. He knew Harry would find out about it some time, but Ron hoped that by the time he did, Ron would already have secured Hermione's affections.
   "I'm sorry, Harry - you're right," was all Ron said. "It's just... I like Hermione, you know?"
   "I suspected," Harry admitted. "Have you told her?"
   "I'm working on it."
   "I suggest you do."
   Ron peered at his friend, wondering just how sincere he was being - after all, Ron was convinced that Harry also had feelings for Hermione, whether he had admitted it to himself or not. But Harry was too noble to do what Ron had suggested, and Ron - belatedly - realized that fact. He would have to begin repairing his relationship with his friend in earnest.
   "Listen, Harry, I just got a bit jealous, what with your close relationship with her. I want to get together with her, you know?"
   "I do, Ron, but I suggest you speak with her about it. Don't pull me into this - I already have Fleur to worry about, and getting to know her is all I can handle right now."
   "Sure, Harry," said Ron. Then he slapped his friend on the back. "Let's get to dinner - I'm starving!"
   Harry grinned, and they left the room. For Ron, he was content with the outcome of the discussion. With Harry admitting himself that he had no designs on Hermione, Ron doubted there would be anyone else even in the running. Things were looking up!

Chapter 9 - Choices

   There was perhaps no race of being upon the earth as misunderstood as the race of Veela.
   Many considered them to be little more than creatures - on the same level as giants or dragons, and though they resembled humans more closely than most other races, it was a common opinion that they needed to be regulated, like most other non-human races were. Nothing could be further from the truth. Veela were physiologically identical to any "normal" human beings - they simply had special and very specific abilities which set them apart from the rest of the human race.
   For one, Veela had an alternate form into which they could change - at moments of great stress or fear when young, though control was achieved as the Veela matured. They were creatures of fire, having an affinity for all types of fire magic, and able to hurl destructive fireballs when they had changed into their alternate forms.
   The Veela abilities regarding emotions, or more specifically love, were also a widely misunderstood facet of their abilities. Most considered Veela to be purely sexual beings, and their history had been one which had reflected that belief. It had not been uncommon for wealthy men to own a Veela slave, when such things had been legal, and even now, Veela were sought after as second wives, or even as concubines in some cultures. It was that fact that made growing up - and even in some cases adult life - difficult for many Veela, as most of them went through every day life knowing that most men who saw them were interested in their perceived sexual prowess and not much more.
   In truth, however, Veela were highly attuned to the emotion of love, their sexual nature merely being a byproduct of their ability to sense the wants and desires of their partners. True, the allure acted as a magnet and in some cases a weapon against those who were affected by such things, but for a Veela, nothing was more attractive than a prospective mate who could withstand the effects of the allure. They could sense love in others, in all its various forms, which was why if a Veela was fortunate to find true love, they quickly recognized this, and went through life secure in their partner's affections.
   As Fleur reflected on the past weeks in the company of her betrothed, she thought on what she had been able to glean from his emotions. She knew that she had yet to touch Harry's heart, not surprising considering his upbringing and the way this whole situation had been sprung upon him. Far from feeling frustration for his hesitance, she was glad he still seemed to be cautious of moving their relationship forward too quickly. She knew from experience that Harry was almost immune to her allure, and for him to fall in love with her so quickly would indicate an emotional immaturity and weakness of character which would be at odds with the strength of mind which allowed him to resist her.
   No, Fleur was perfectly content to allow her relationship with Harry to follow its natural course, helped along by nothing more than time spent in one another's company, and the manner in which they would hopefully become friends, and later lovers. Besides, beyond the fact that she could sense emotions, as a Veela, Fleur was also very instinctively able to determine compatibility, and she knew that she and Harry were well-suited for one another. Her future looked bright with Harry, not only when considering Harry's character and abilities, but also from the likelihood of their becoming emotionally attached to one another. She knew that it was only a matter of time - eventually they would come to love one another. This was not an issue.
   What was an issue were the emotions Harry so blatantly displayed for someone else - at least it was blatant to a Veela who naturally noticed these things. Though she suspected Harry himself did not understand his own feelings, Fleur was positive that he was in love with his best friend. And if she was any judge of the matter, Fleur was certain that Hermione returned Harry's feelings wholeheartedly. Of course, they were only fifteen years of age, but already Fleur could tell that regardless of their tender years, their mutual feelings were not the kind of childish infatuation most teenagers could be expected to feel. Theirs was the kind of mature regard and love Fleur so desperately wanted for herself - the kind of love built upon years of friendship, companionship and mutual respect and affection.
   On one level, Fleur felt bad about the fact that the marriage contract had essentially removed Harry's choice. Assuming they had ever truly been able to communicate their feelings, Fleur knew that Harry and Hermione were as good a match as she was with Harry. Had it been entirely left to their choices, Fleur never would have even been in the picture - their relationship being so much stronger due to their long friendship, they would almost certainly have married when they had upon reaching adulthood. The fact that it had not been her decision which had taken away his was a consolation, but as she had told him previously, she did feel responsible for the fact that his name would likely not continue with her as a wife. And she knew that this was a very big issue, whether he yet understood that fact or not.
   Her parents were in much the same situation, in fact. Her father had given up much to marry her mother, and he had done it solely due to the fact that he loved her and would not live without her. Without a son, his own name would die out, and he could not even ask for a male grandchild to continue his name, due to the near impossibility of either Gabrielle or Fleur herself bearing two sons (one to carry on her husband's name, one to carry on her father's.)
   Could she do this to Harry? Could she go through life knowing that such a venerable name as the magical Potters would disappear from the world with her as Harry's wife?
   There was another way, of course. Fleur was well aware of the traditions and customs of the magical world, and knew that Harry, as the last surviving member of his family, was a prime candidate for having multiple wives. If Fleur could not give him a son, then by marrying someone else, he would have a much better chance to gain the heir he would some day want. And Fleur knew just who would fit into Harry's married life as seamlessly as she fit into her role as friend.
   The problem, of course, was convincing Hermione that this was the right thing to do. Fleur was convinced of Hermione's feelings for Harry, but he also knew that the girl now considered Harry beyond her reach - the girl's sadness had not gone unnoticed. It would undoubtedly be a disaster if Hermione were to turn to someone else in her pain, especially as the person to whom she was most likely to turn was her other best friend.
   Ron, though Fleur did not dislike the redhead, was somewhat immature, and had certain issues he would have to work through before he could finally grow up. What was more, was that all of Fleur's senses told her that Ron was a very poor match for Hermione, and that she would end up regretting her choice if she settled for Ron as a replacement for Harry. No, Ron would not do at all.
   Again, the biggest problem for Hermione would be helping her to become accustomed to the thought of sharing her husband, for Hermione had been brought up in Muggle society which banned such unions as immoral and unnatural. Yet Fleur was almost certain that Hermione marrying Harry was the best thing the young woman could do. They suited one another on every level.
   It helped, of course, that Fleur genuinely liked Hermione - she doubted she could have countenanced sharing her future husband with a woman she did not like wholeheartedly. With Hermione, she had no such issues. Hermione was not perfect, Fleur knew, but in an odd sort of way, Harry and Hermione balanced out each other's strengths and weaknesses rather well. And though perhaps others would scoff at Fleur's self-aggrandizement, she fancied that her presence with Harry would only improve the dynamic.
   Perhaps it was time to have a quick chat with Hermione. Harry would not be ready for marriage for several years at least - not that Fleur herself was ready either - but if she got Hermione thinking about it early enough, maybe the girl would have to time get used to the idea and come to her own conclusion sooner, rather than later. Yes, she would need to speak with Hermione - before they returned to school, if possible.
   A knock on Fleur's door brought her out of her musings. When she called out her permission to open the door, her mother stepped into the room.
   It was unsurprising, perhaps, Fleur thought with an internal grin, that her mother should come to visit her just when she was contemplating her future life. She knew that Apolline had sensed the same things Fleur had - her mother probably knew earlier, as she had more than two decades more experience with her abilities than Fleur.
   "Ah, my dear," greeted the elder Delacour woman. "I was hoping to speak with you."
   "Of course, Maman," said Fleur, rising from her reclined state and sitting on the edge of the bed. Her mother sat next to her and appeared to be considering her words before speaking. That she was concerned for her, Fleur could easily tell - Veela women had a certain affinity for each other, which was only stronger between those related. Fleur had always known that her mother loved her and was there for her, regardless of the circumstances. It was a comfort beyond anything else she had ever known.
   "How are you getting along with Harry?" was the opening question.
   "Fine, Maman," Fleur responded. "He is a very nice young man, and treats me with respect and consideration. I believe that we will do very well together."
   Apolline smiled at her daughter. "I believe you will. I have sensed the same thing about your young man. But do not forget to take the time to get to know him better - despite your apparent compatibility, a strong relationship will not grow from nothing. And I wish for you to have the same happiness in life that I have found with your father."
   "I will, Maman. We have only truly known one another for a few weeks now, so I am sure you realize that love has not grown between us. I am content to let it develop on its own."
   Apolline Delacour eyed her daughter. "Yes, that is perhaps for the best."
   Mother and daughter were silent for several moments, Fleur content to wait for her mother to get to the point, while her mother, she suspected, was searching for the proper way to broach the subject. She seemed to struggle with indecision, before she took a deep breath and began speaking once again.
   "Fleur, I will not insult your intelligence by supposing that you have not seen it for yourself, but I wish to know what you mean to do about this situation between Harry and his best friend."
   "Maman..."
   Apolline's stern glance silenced her daughter. "Fleur, you cannot ignore the situation. Harry's feelings for Hermione are strong, and returned. You cannot begin a relationship with that hanging over your head."
   An exasperated sigh was Fleur's response. "And what would you have me do, Maman? If I push them on it, I do not doubt that at this point in time I would lose Harry altogether - oh, I know he cannot get out of the marriage contract, but I would give up any chance of making a connection with him. They have a strong bond of friendship, regardless of whatever else they feel for each other, and I do not wish to anger Harry by demanding he give up his closest friend. Besides, it is not fair to Harry - he did not choose this for himself."
   "I am aware of that, Fleur," responded her mother evenly. "But should you not be selfish in this matter? Harry is to be your husband, not Hermione's."
   "He could be husband to us both."
   Though her piercing gaze never relented, Apolline's stern countenance softened and she put her arm around Fleur, hugging her in commiseration and support. "So, that is the lay of the land, is it?"
   "It is Maman, and I hardly think there is any other choice in the matter."
   Feeling the upwelling of her emotions which she had previously held in check, Fleur rose and began to pace the floor, wringing her hands with some agitation. "Harry and Hermione are so close - as I've already told you, I don't think that forbidding them from seeing one another is the right thing to do, nor do I think it is fair. I did not choose this any more than Harry did, but I think in certain respects it has been easier on me, than it has on Harry. I do not have someone else with whom I am in love - Harry does, though he may not know it himself.
   "Do I want to share my husband? Part of me shudders at the very thought. But another part recognizes the situation and accepts that it would be likely in any event - he is the last Potter, after all. And though I hesitate, I also understand that Hermione is such a fine young woman. I could have been forced to share my husband with someone much worse."
   "You do not have to share your husband at all, Fleur," Apolline soothed. "You will be the first wife, after all - all others must be approved by you."
   Fleur stopped her pacing and slumped back into her former place by her mother. "Perhaps that is true, Maman. But there is also the matter of the continuation of Harry's line to consider. You know as well as I that the chance of giving him a son to continue his name are small. That leaves us the option of convincing some young man to forsake his own name and take on our daughter's (and then have the same problem the next generation!) or allow Harry to take another wife, who should be able to give him a son."
   Apolline's face curved into a smile. "Somehow this situation sounds familiar," she declared.
   "You had the same issue with Papa?"
   "I did," Apolline confirmed with a smile. "Your father and I had a similar discussion when I informed him that I would likely be able to bear nothing but daughters. He thought about it for a time because, as you know, it is an important consideration in our world, and then declared he loved me and no other, claiming that it did not matter to him a whit, as he would be as happy with daughters as he would be with a son, should a miracle happen and I give birth to a boy. And I don't think that he's ever regretted that decision. Perhaps Harry would be the same way."
   "I am sure he would," Fleur responded. "Harry was not brought up in our world, and has not had the concept of carrying on the family name drilled into him. I'm sure Harry would say the same thing that Papa said if I asked."
   "Then why do you fret? He is young - perhaps he will get over his infatuation with his friend in time."
   Fleur stared at her mother incredulously. "I know you do not believe that, maman. You have much more experience with this than I do, and I can tell their emotions are true."
   Apolline's answering grimace was rueful. "Much as I wish I could claim otherwise, I cannot."
   "And that is why I have chosen as I have. I understand Papa's situation, but Papa was not forced into a betrothal contract when he was in love with someone else. I will not take this away from Harry, Maman - he deserves to have his heart's desire. I think highly of Hermione as well - she deserves Harry as much as he deserves her.
   "Besides, I have another motivation. I do not know why, but I feel as though Harry will require the support of us both in the time to come. I cannot explain it, but I know it is true."
   The sharp gaze of her mother pierced her, but Fleur stood firm. She was not certain where this impression had come from, but the more she thought of it, the more she knew it was true. For Harry to be successful in his quest against Voldemort, he would need the support of them both.
   "It appears, then, that you have made your decision. I will support you in this, as you well know."
   Fleur smile and engulfed her mother in a large embrace. "I know you will, Maman, and I thank you for it."
   "I will support you, Fleur," Apolline said with a steady look, "but that does not mean I like this. I had hoped you would find true love with your young man."
   "And who says that I will not?" replied Fleur, her manner impish. "Regardless of Harry's feelings for Hermione, I am still very compatible with him. Harry has more than enough room in his heart for both Hermione and me, Maman. I perhaps do not like the situation, but I am also confident that Harry and I can come into our own feelings for each other, separate from what he also has with Hermione."
   Apolline smiled and reached up to touch her daughter's face with affection. "I believe he does have an amazing capacity for love, my daughter - I believe he truly does."
   ________________________________________
   At Hogwarts, the staff was busily preparing for the upcoming term, which was set to begin in only a few days. Summer was a time for a variety of tasks which were not able to be performed during the school year - the whole castle was aired out and cleaned, lessons for the upcoming year were prepared by the professors, and a myriad of other administrative tasks were completed, all necessary for the smooth and proper running of the school.
   As had been their tradition as long as they had been in their respective positions - and Minerva McGonagall had been the deputy Headmistress since Horace Slughorn had retired, a period of well over a decade - Minerva found herself in the Headmaster's office, going over a last few details in preparation for the return of the students.
   They had been doing this for so many years now and knew each other so well, that their meetings were almost always efficient and brief. Minerva knew that her mentor held the highest of confidence in her abilities, and was grateful for the fact. After all, due to his commitments with the Wizengamot and the ICW, it seemed as though Dumbledore was absent from the school as much as he was present. Minerva was the Headmistress in all but name for much of the year.
   This particular meeting began no differently than any other time they had met during the past decade. Minerva made her report of the incoming first year students - particularly the Muggleborn students, as it was part of her duty to deliver their acceptance letters and explain the new world in which they would soon find themselves.
   They had made it a practice over the years to discuss the new students, and amuse themselves by guessing into which houses they would be sorted, almost making a game it. Some were easy - Draco Malfoy, for example had been unlikely in the extreme to have been sorted into any other house other than Slytherin. Privately, Minerva thought the lad's destiny in Slytherin was due to his complete lack of loyalty to anyone other than himself (and perhaps his father, who invariably came up in just about any conversation with him), his less than stellar intellect, and the fact that he was a bully, and therefore a complete coward. It was the ones who could end up in multiple houses who were the most interesting to guess. And then there were those surprises such as Miss Granger, who no one thought would end up in Gryffindor.
   "I do have one question, Albus," Minerva remarked after their conversation regarding the new students wound down.
   "Please, Minerva," Dumbledore responded, leaning back in his chair.
   "Miss Delacour. She will be attending Hogwarts this year, but what do you mean to do with her? Will you just place her in Gryffindor, or will you let the hat decide?"
   Dumbledore appeared to contemplate the matter for several moments before responding. "Though it would be less than ideal to place her in a house without her betrothed, I think we shall have her wear the hat anyway. I suspect she will be placed in Gryffindor anyway, given what I know of her, so it should not matter."
   Minerva nodded. "I remember the second task last year. It was clear she was terrified - understandable, given her nature - but she competed in defiance of her fears, the outcome notwithstanding."
   "Exactly," rumbled Dumbledore. "If the hat does place her in another house, we will have to make a decision then. There is one house for which she would not be suited at all, not that I believe the hat would place her there."
   A grimace of distaste met his declaration. "She'd be in physical danger in Slytherin, Albus - you know this. Even many of those whose families' are not associated with the Death Eaters would consider her a freak and a plaything."
   "Quite," confirmed the Headmaster. "She is not without ambition, but it is not her defining trait, so I think the odds of that happening are very low in any case. But though she is intelligent, I do not think that Ravenclaw would suit her either. Of course Gryffindor would be best, though Hufflepuff would perhaps work for her as well."
   McGonagall smiled and nodded. This conversation was likely academic anyway - she was almost certain to be sorted into Gryffindor.
   "Bring her to my office before the feast, we can sort her in private," Dumbledore instructed. "There is no reason to subject her to a sorting in front of the entire school along with the first years."
   McGonagall expressed her agreement, before the Headmaster moved onto another topic.
   "And what of your choices for Gryffindor prefect?"
   "Yes, of course," McGonagall responded. Rarely had the choices for prefect been so obvious to her - in fact, Dumbledore likely already knew who she would choose, as well as she did herself.
   "As neither of the head students this year are from Gryffindor, and my sixth and seventh year prefects performed their duties well last year, I will not be replacing any of them. As for fifth year, I don't think I've ever had such an easy decision in all my time at Hogwarts. The prefects will be Hermione Granger and Harry Potter."
   Dumbledore was silent for several moments, stroking his beard as if in thought. McGonagall wondered at his unusual behavior - Miss Granger could not be disputed, and as the Headmaster took such pride in Mr. Potter's accomplishments, she was surprised he had not immediately agreed with her choices.
   "Yes, Minerva, excellent choices indeed," he said at last. "However, do you not think that perhaps the fifth year prefect position should be offered to young Mr. Weasley instead of Mr. Potter?"
   Nonplused at the Headmaster's words, it was all Minerva could do to keep her countenance. Dumbledore had never taken any overt interest in her choices in the past except to approve them. What possible reason could he have for objecting to the choice of Harry for prefect, especially given how she knew he personally felt for the boy?
   Still, Dumbledore was nothing if not thoughtful and intelligent, and Minerva knew he would not suggest such a thing for no good reason. She opened her mouth to agree with him, when she considered his suggestion once again, and thought of the possible ramifications of the posting he was suggesting. No, she could not possibly agree with him without some sort of indication as to why he thought Harry should be passed over.
   "I'm sorry, Headmaster, but why do you believe Mr. Potter is unsuited for the position?"
   "Not unsuited, Minerva," Dumbledore responded. "I have the highest confidence in Harry's abilities, as you well know. I am merely concerned about his state of mind and the many things he has to deal with. Perhaps the position of prefect would be too much for him to handle, under the circumstances."
   McGonagall scowled. "I am afraid I must disagree, Albus. Harry is not perhaps the most studious young man I've ever taught - though a little application would go a long way in improving his grades - but his other qualities of leadership and maturity make him the best choice in my opinion. I also believe it sends a bad message to the entire house if a deserving young man such as Mr. Potter is passed over for the honor, for someone who is not nearly as qualified. Mr. Weasley is a good young man, but I believe he lacks the emotional maturity for the position.
   "Besides, I feel it far better for Mr. Potter to learn to manage his life - all facets of his life - while he is young, rather than coddling him unnecessarily. If anyone can manage everything happening around him, I believe Harry is that young man. You do him a disservice by discounting his abilities in such a manner."
   Dumbledore chuckled and bowed his head. "That is precisely why I appreciate your abilities and candor, Minerva. You are correct - I had been thinking of sparing Harry some responsibility, but I do agree that if anyone can handle the pressure, it is surely Mr. Potter. Thank you for setting me straight."
   Mollified, Minerva responded it was no trouble, happy she was able to persuade him to her point of view. They spoke on for a few more moments before their meeting came to an end. Minerva left the office, her mind already upon the tasks she would need to complete to be ready for the students' arrival.
   ***
   The last few days of summer holidays passed, leaving Harry wondering at all the changes which had occurred in his life over the past four weeks. It had been a lot to take in, but he was happy with everything which had happened, and was, for once, looking forward to the future with something akin to anticipation, rather than the dread which had often been his wont.
   His relationship with Fleur, though still progressing very slowly, was at least characterized by a friendliness that he had not been certain he would able to attain, and her personality, sweet, yet confident and determined, was one with which he was certain he would be able to love. Hermione had almost moved into the ambassador's manor, not returning to her home or Grimmauld Place for even the weekends, a situation which was made even better for the young witch due to the fact that her parents were now regular visitors, and stayed through the weekend themselves. It was good, Harry reflected, that the Delacours were not uncomfortable around Muggles, and the Grangers had in a short time become very good friends with them.
   The Weasley children - along with Neville and Luna - were much in evidence as well, though as a group they had not been allowed to stay for the weekends. Neville and Luna also returned to their homes for the weekends, though they had not been forced to by their guardians. Both simply stated that they would like to spend time at home - Luna with her father, and Neville with his grandmother - and their explanations were accepted for what they were.
   In Neville, Harry had begun to see a true and loyal friend. The bumbling young man he had once been had been replaced, and now in his place stood one who was growing and maturing, and now that he had had his wand replaced, he was excelling where he once had thought he would never be able to do so. Harry now counted him a close friend, and was happy that he had joined them - his new confidence made him a great asset, and a better friend than ever before.
   As for Luna, Harry was still not certain what to think of the quirky Ravenclaw. Her constant prattling of all the fantastical creatures which no one else could see sometimes had him wondering about her sanity. But she could be as lucid as anyone else - though always some what whimsical - leading Harry to wonder if there was something in her past which made her act as she did. As she had yet to open up about her past, Harry could not be certain, but he genuinely liked her and respected her abilities. And though she was not as brilliant as Hermione, she was clearly very intelligent, and added a dynamic to the group which would be missed if she were to disassociate herself with them.
   The Wednesday before the end of the month saw the entire group engaged in their last training session with Moody. Though they had been clearly covering the material he taught at a highly accelerated rate, none of them had felt like they were getting in over their heads. Moody, as strange and paranoid as he was, had a way of imparting his message that made the learning all the easier, and Harry, though he knew he still had much to learn before he could truly be deemed proficient, felt as though he had learned more than had ever before.
   After their session for that day, Moody gathered the entire group together and had them stand at attention, much as he had on his first day in the manor. Though Harry had heard all about Moody's philosophy from the man during the course of their training sessions - and from the imposter during the previous school year - the old Auror never tired of constantly harping on the lessons he taught. Their final lecture was quintessential Moody, and caused more than one set of rolled eyes and grins, though Harry knew his advice to be sound.
   "Now then," the Auror began when they had all been arranged to his satisfaction, "this is your last training session before the end of the summer. Now, who among you thinks you have mastered everything I have to teach?"
   No one said a word - not only did they all realize they had much to learn, but they also knew Moody was fond of spouting off questions designed to trip them up, then teaching them how wrong they were. This was one of his less than subtle attempts.
   "Good. The first thing to be aware of is how little you know. I have been an Auror for more than fifty years, and I can tell you that I am still learning.
   "You have all put your best effort into these sessions, and I must tell you I have been impressed with you all - high praise from me, I can tell you. You are all competent, and even gifted, and I know that you will continue to do well."
   He stopped walking around the room and stood in front of them, fixing his gaze upon them sternly. Or at least his real eye was fixed on them - the false eye whirled this way and that, seemingly at random as it usually did. "However," he continued, emphasizing the word, "though you may be very competent, you will never improve if you do not continue to practice. Returning to Hogwarts is not an excuse to slack off - constant practice will be necessary to retain all that you have learned and improve.
   "I will not be at Hogwarts this year - I have other tasks to accomplish. You can still enlist the assistance of the Headmaster, and though you may not know this, your Charms Professor was quite the duelist in his day. In addition to this, Miss Delacour and the two elder Mr. Weasleys," he nodded to the elder students, "also have at least two more years of schooling than the rest of you - use their knowledge and set up a time when you can all practice together. Remember what I taught you, and you will do well.
   "And above all," he suddenly thundered, "you must remember and practice constant vigilance!"
   The twins shared an amused grin, while others of the group fought valiantly to keep their own from their faces. Of course, this did not go unnoticed by their trainer.
   "Mr. Potter!" he barked.
   "Yes, Auror Moody?"
   "Do you know who the Death Eater children at Hogwarts are?"
   Harry thought for a moment before replying. "I know some. There's Malfoy, of course, Crabbe, Goyle, Nott, Pucey, Zabini, probably Parkinson, the Greengrass sisters... Heck, all of Slytherin house could likely be included."
   Moody's answering smile was positively feral.
   "That's an assumption, Potter. The fact is that though some of the group you just mentioned were almost certainly Death Eaters, to paint the whole house with the same brush is incorrect. Remember this lesson - you must always be vigilant, but do not assume.
   "Weasley!" he continued. "Who are the Death Eater spawn in Gryffindor house?"
   The incredulous expression on Ron's face was priceless. "But... but... there are no children of Death Eaters in Gryffindor!" he sputtered, appearing highly offended.
   "Are you certain? What evidence do you have? Were you at the Death Eater trials at the end of the first war? Can you see into the minds of your classmates and read their intentions?"
   Though he continued to sputter, Ron could say nothing in response. Harry glanced around the room, noting the looks of speculation on most of the faces. It was the general opinion in his house that Gryffindors were "good," while Slytherins were "evil." Most of those in the other houses seemed to occupy a position somewhere in between the two. But now that Harry thought of it, why should it be so? He had learned long ago that very few things were black and white - qualifying people in that matter was remarkably short-sighted, and inherently dangerous.
   "What then, is Gryffindor house too noble to house Death Eaters and their children?"
   Harry was hesitant to speak up, but he knew to what Moody was referring, and thought it would make a good object lesson. "What about Pettigrew?"
   Moody's eyes pierced Harry - though the false one continued to gyrate insanely - and he stepped back with a grimace. "Pettigrew! Very good, Mr. Potter."
   "What do you think, Mr. Weasley?" Mad-eye demanded of Ron. "Still think that everyone in your house must be lily white?"
   Appearing thoughtful, Ron shook his head.
   "And well you should not. Anyone can hide who they truly are. In fact, it is the truly cunning ones you must watch carefully. The Slytherins are known and can be a problem, even though they are mostly milksops who are not as dangerous as their parents were. But it is the Death Eater sympathizers in the other houses who you truly must beware of."
   "Even if no one in your house is an actual Death Eater, can you be certain that none of them are under the Imperius curse?"
   Suddenly, Moody spun and launched a stinging hex at Neville. Neville, though he had often been considered to be a duffer, in actuality had very quick reflexes, and he had snapped off a Protego in time to absorb the stinging hex before it could hit him. Moody had been doing this the entire time they had been taking lessons from him, and they had all become proficient by this time in protecting themselves from his random attacks.
   Moody barked out a laugh, and slapped Neville on the back, before stumping to the front of the room, and turning to face the trainees. "Very good. I am proud of you all. But you must remember to practice vigilance. Be certain you know who is around you, and be watchful of your surroundings at all times - even places which are supposed to be 'safe,' such as your common rooms. You can never know who has been turned to the enemy's cause, willingly or not."
   ________________________________________
   The group broke up very soon after Moody's lecture, and they soon found themselves in the manor dining room, eating the lunch provided by the manor house-elves. Their training over for the summer, Hermione could now look forward to returning to Hogwarts for the school year.
   She blushed, thinking that she was likely the only one of the group who was actually looking forward to more schooling. Looking around with a critical eye she revised that opinion - Luna, being a Ravenclaw, was likely excited as well, and though she still did not know Fleur as well as she would like, she felt confident that the French witch was quite happy to continue learning. Even Harry seemed somewhat eager to be returning to Hogwarts, though perhaps not as much as in previous years. Of course, that was due to the fact that until this year he had lived with his relatives - from what she knew of them, getting away from them was likely as much a factor in his relief to be returning to Hogwarts as anything else.
   Sighing, Hermione turned back to her meal, thinking of all the changes and the new friends she had made. The Weasley twins she had of course known before, and Neville she could now count as a friend, as before he had perhaps been little more than an acquaintance, while being less than a friend. Ginny had fit into a little more of a "casual friend" category, while Fleur, though she was coming to consider a close friend, had been a complete unknown. Even Luna, who Hermione recognized was a diametric opposite to herself, was now treading into that hallowed ground of friendship, regardless of the differences between them.
   For Hermione, friends were a treasure to be carefully nurtured and preserved. It come from her rather lonely upbringing, she knew, but the knowledge of how it had come about mattered little - she would do whatever she could to help her friends, and knew that they would do the same.
   Frowning, Hermione peered around the room to the assembled training group. In fact, other than the Weasleys, all the others had had a rather solitary upbringing. None of them had had quite the experience Harry had, but each, in their own way, had been lonely as a child. Fleur was set apart by her beauty and heritage, Neville by his fears over his abilities - not to mention his overbearing and protective grandmother - Luna by her nature, while Hermione was set apart by her intelligence. It bound them together in a very real sense, she thought, and made them closer and more loyal to one another as a result. And the four Weasleys were bound to the group by deep ties of friendship, not to mention that Harry had saved one of their number from certain death when he had been merely a boy. These would be her friends, confidants, and fellow soldiers in the years to come. It was a heady feeling.
   Apolline Delacour entered the room at that moment, with a smile on her face and some envelopes in her hands. "These arrived while you were in training," she said as she passed the envelopes to Harry, Fleur and Hermione. "I suspect your letters went to your homes," she stated, addressing the other occupants of the room.
   Suddenly excited, Hermione tore open her envelope to reveal her Hogwarts letter and booklist for the coming year. It was receiving the long anticipated letter which had always brought home the reality of her imminent return to the school, and the end of the summer. But this time, there was something else in the envelope - something which fell from the ruined envelope and tumbled to the floor, making a tinkling sound as it rolled to a stop.
   Curious, Hermione bent down to retrieve the object, her hand trembling slightly as she speculated as to what it could be. She knew as soon as she touched the cool metal with her fingers what it was, the supposition being confirmed by the sight of the shiny metal badge with a large "P" engraved upon its surface. A prefect badge!
   "Hermione, you've made prefect?" Harry asked with a delighted smile upon his face.
   Nodding, Hermione held up the badge for all to see. A round of congratulations came in from all sides of the room, as Hermione blushed from the praise.
   When the tumult had died down, Ron snorted and addressed her. "Oh come now, Hermione, who else would be the Gryffindor prefect? I've known since first year you'd get it."
   Hermione glared at him, but her heart was not in it - besides, the grin on his face belied any sting his words might have delivered. "Well, I didn't know, Ronald, and I'm honored that Professor McGonagall has this much confidence in me."
   Ron rolled his eyes. "Yeah, like she was going to pick Lavender "more-boobs-than-brains" Brown, or Parvati "there's-no-secret-I-can't-turn-into-gossip" Patil. Besides, our whole house together doesn't even know half the rules you do. It had to be you!"
   Laughter erupted in the room, and Hermione's cheeks pinked slightly at Ron's assertions. She directed a mock glare in his direction, but he merely waggled his eyebrows at her and laughed along with the rest of them. Hermione sniffed at him, and turned back to her booklist, making a note of everything she would have to purchase.
   "So who's the other Gryffindor prefect?" Luna inquired, glancing pointedly at Harry.
   Hermione looked up from her list to see everyone in the room speculating over the three potential candidates.
   "Me, of course," Ron stated proudly.
   "And how do you reckon that?" Ginny queried with a snort.
   "Well, it's like this," Ron began, "Hermione here is a straitlaced rules enforcer, and to balance her out, they need a fun loving, laid-back sort of chap - which I am. Obviously, it has to be me."
   Hermione rolled her eyes at her friend and shook her head. Hopefully he was joking. She thought he was joking, anyway.
   "Nah, my money's on Harry," George said.
   All eyes turned to the black-haired young man. Harry, though seemingly somewhat uncomfortable with everyone watching him, shrugged his shoulders and opened his envelope. Reaching in to its depths, he produced an identical prefects' badge to Hermione's, and smiled at George. "Should have made that bet, George - you would have won."
   Another round of congratulations rang in from around the room, while Hermione darted around the table and hugged him. She was pleased - not only was Harry still her friend, but they would now be working together more closely than ever. Harry truly was a great choice.
   ***
   One among the company was not as thrilled as the rest. Ron sat back in his chair, a hint of a scowl upon his face as he thought of Harry getting the prefects' badge. It was another example of the Boy-Who-Lived getting something that he did not, and Ron was frankly getting rather tired of it. And Hermione's reaction was a little more... affectionate than Ron liked.
   "Ron!" a voice hissed from his side.
   Startled, he turned, noting Ginny's glare.
   "What?"
   "You are not going to do this, Ron. Let go of your jealousy!"
   Scowling, Ron turned away from her. "Don't worry, Ginny, I won't say anything."
   "Your body language is saying it for you, Ron," Ginny insisted. "Why would you have wanted the badge anyway, Ron? It's not like you truly wanted to enforce the rules and deal with the responsibility of being a prefect, do you? Think of it - the boring meetings, the time you'd need to do patrols, having to obey and enforce the rules. Think about it!"
   A little shamefaced, Ron considered Ginny's points, knowing she was right. He did not want to worry about rules and such - he wanted to play Quidditch, play chess, do his homework (preferably as quickly as possible), and have fun. Being a prefect would put a major damper on all that. Better Harry than him.
   On the other hand, part of the reason he had wanted to become a prefect was because he would get to spend more time with Hermione. Now, that time was Harry's.
   But Harry was his best mate, and he had already told Ron he had no interest in Hermione in that way. Perhaps it was for the best this way - Ron had a good idea of what Hermione's feelings for Harry were, but knew that Harry could not return them. With them both being prefects, they would have time alone, true, but Hermione would learn fairly quickly - if she did not already know - that she could not have a relationship with Harry. Added to that, Harry would be the one with the responsibility, and he would also protect Hermione from others who may fancy her. None of Neville, Seamus, or Dean had ever shown much inclination for her in the past, but she was becoming more fanciable all the time, after all. Better she was with someone who was already taken, than someone who might be sniffing around her.
   Besides, Harry was a good bloke, and he deserved to have some good come into his life. So Ron sucked up his pride and extended his hand to his friend, congratulating him for becoming a prefect. Harry's responding smile and thanks was all Ron needed to know that he had made the right choice in being gracious.

Chapter 10 - Summer's End

   If Harry Potter had learned one thing, it was that anything good in his mixed-up life was certain to be balanced - or overbalanced! - by something equally negative. He could not be allowed to be completely happy, now could he? That summer after his fourth year had been by far the best of his life. Regardless of the month at the Dursleys - they had actually left him alone for the most part - regardless of the Dementors and the trial and regardless of anything else which had happened, he had been happy. Simply put, this summer he had found acceptance, and what he felt was the love and support of a family. But in Harry Potter's strange world, it was unsurprising that the summer should ultimately end on a negative note with news of a toad.
   It was the last day of summer before they were to board the Express to return to Hogwarts. Neville and Luna had returned to their respective homes the previous evening, promising to see their friends the following day, while the Weasleys had left for the Burrow, though they were to join the Delacour party in Diagon Alley that afternoon to shop for their school supplies.
   Harry had left the breakfast room, and was sitting in the main parlor of the Ambassador's Mansion, thinking of the previous month spent with his new family, and the school year to come. It was amazing how his perception had changed in the short month since the Dementor attack. Before, he had always been excited and eager to return to Hogwarts, whether he had been stuck at Privet Drive until the very end, or had actually managed to escape for some weeks - Hogwarts was the only place he had ever truly been able to call home. However, this year, with the kindness of the Delacours, he was almost sorry to be leaving them behind, though, of course, Fleur would return to Hogwarts with him. Apolline was kind and a pleasure to be with, Gabrielle was bubbly and excitable, and Jean-Sebastian had become the father he had never known. Not even Sirius could claim to be a father figure - Sirius, with his effervescent personality and ability to see the humor in anything, was almost like an older brother. Privately, Harry suspected that Sirius preferred it that way, as he considered himself too young to be a father.
   As for the return to Hogwarts, Harry could predict much of what he would be facing this year. Though Fudge had been declawed to a certain extent by the defeat he had suffered at Harry's trial, it was easy to conclude that the Minister's attacks against both him and Dumbledore would continue. As long as Fudge refused to acknowledge the return of Voldemort, many would believe him, and Harry would be ridiculed for it. It was good to know he had friends and supporters who did believe him and would stand beside him regardless of what happened.
   Of course the normal school year events would continue to plague him - from Snape's unreasonable hatred to Malfoy's continual goading, though Harry was much less inclined to cut the mini-Death Eater any slack than he had been in the past. The little ferret was a problem which would have to be dealt with sooner, rather than later...
   It was while Harry was immersed in these thoughts that the Floo flared, and the voice of the Headmaster came through the network asking for permission to step through. Having been tutored by Jean-Sebastian, Harry immediately went to the Floo and granted permission to the professor, and stepped back to allow his Headmaster to come through.
   "Ah, Harry, just who I wanted to see," greeted Dumbledore when he arrived. "I have some news which will affect us all in the coming year. If you would be so good as to call Jean-Sebastian and your friends, I would appreciate the opportunity to share it with all of you at once."
   Harry assented and left the room, his mind already speculating as to what the professor wanted to share. It could be nothing good, he was certain.
   It took Harry only a few moments to summon the residents of the manor to the parlor to receive the Headmaster's news. With the departure of the Weasleys and their other friends - as well as Hermione's parents who had only been staying over the weekend - only the family was left in residence, along with Hermione, who would stay until they returned to Hogwarts.
   With the entire group gathered, Dumbledore smiled at them and spoke. "I have some news to share with you all, and as it may affect what happens at Hogwarts this year, I decided that I should inform you all in advance. Especially you, Jean-Sebastian," he continued, nodding at the Delacour patriarch, "as you have expressed some concerns regarding the children's schooling to me privately."
   Jean-Sebastian appeared stern as he gazed back at Dumbledore, his face almost expressionless. "Your opening statements are not exactly inspiring confidence, Dumbledore. Perhaps you should come to the point?"
   Chuckling, Dumbledore nodded his head in assent. "My apologies to you all - sometimes we of the elder generations forget that those younger than us do not like to hear us talk nearly as much as we enjoy the sound of our own voices. The point it is.
   "Today I was notified that the Ministry has appointed a professor to fill the ever problematic Defense Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts. Harry and Hermione will certainly be aware that we have not been able to keep a professor in that position for more than a year, a problem with dates back to the late sixties."
   "But why, Headmaster?" asked Harry. "It's not as though it's a bad position - I'd think it would be fairly prestigious, to be honest."
   "And so it should be, Harry."
   "Do you have any indication what is wrong?" Jean-Sebastian interjected. "Surely it cannot be coincidence."
   "I do not believe it is coincidence, but unfortunately, I do not have any concrete evidence - only supposition and guesswork, which unfortunately seem to fit the circumstances."
   Dumbledore turned to Harry and affixed him with a questioning look. "Harry, unless I misremember, I believe that you previously learned the identity of the Dark Lord, did you not?"
   "Tom Riddle," Harry replied with a nod. "He told me it was an anagram for Voldemort."
   "It is indeed," agreed Dumbledore. "So, would it surprise you to learn that Tom applied for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts twice?"
   "Voldemort applied to become a professor?" Jean-Sebastian demanded. "Was that before or after he started his campaign of violence?"
   "Well before, Jean-Sebastian. Had he come after, I would not have allowed him to escape, I assure you."
   Dumbledore's expression became introspective for a few moments, while Harry considered what he had been told. Voldemort as the Defense teacher? He shuddered at the very thought.
   "His first application was made during my predecessor's tenure. Headmaster Dippet interviewed him and thanked him for his interest, but told him that he was too young and inexperienced for the position. He asked Tom to return the next time the position was open, after he had had a chance to work in the wizarding world and develop his skills further. I believe at that time Tom, though perhaps not pleased to be refused, accepted the advice and went out to prove himself.
   "The second time he applied was not long after I had become Headmaster. By this time he was more than qualified for the position."
   "Then why did you not hire him?"
   Jean-Sebastian's question hung in the room for a few moments, and though Harry thought he knew the answer, he said nothing. His thoughts were confirmed by Dumbledore's next words.
   "I did not hire him because I did not trust him - something about him seemed off to me. I suspect, in hindsight, that by this time he was already well practiced in the dark arts, which was why he seemed to be so qualified - those who employ the dark arts themselves, are uniquely positioned to understand them, after all. I am certain Harry and Hermione remember how effective the Polyjuiced Barty Crouch Jr. was as a teacher."
   Harry did not really like recalling the Death Eater and what had happened in his classes, but he nodded tightly to the Headmaster.
   "Therefore," Dumbledore said, continuing his narrative, "I thanked Tom again for his interest, but told him I had another candidate with more experience teaching - which was in fact true - and declined to offer him the position. I thought of offering him a different teaching position to keep him at the school and therefore under my supervision. But again, something about him struck me as wrong, and I ultimately decided that if I could not trust him in one professorship, I could not allow him to influence any of the younger generation in another.
   "This time, when he was refused, Riddle was incensed, though he attempted to hide it behind a mask of disappointment. He left and has not set foot in Hogwarts again. However, since that time, I have never been able to keep a Defense professor for more than a single year."
   "Are you suggesting he employed a curse, Headmaster?" demanded Hermione. "I've heard of items or locations being cursed, but a position?"
   "Very good indeed, Miss Granger," said Dumbledore with a chuckle. "In answer to your question, I suspect that Tom did indeed do just that. The wondrous thing about magic is that if the practitioner is innovative enough, and understands the process and the Arithmancy behind the magic, any existing spell can be modified to do what you wish it to. Magic in general can do almost anything you can imagine, if you can develop the proper manner in which to do it. In fact, I would go so far to say that given the number of cultures in the world which have existed over the millennia, the magics that our society can perform are likely only a fraction of the vast sum of magic which has been developed at one time or another in our race's history. And this does not even mention the other sentient and magical races. Given this, it does not seem so impossible, and if anyone could manage to do something so esoteric as to place a curse on a teaching position, it would be Tom Riddle. He is very intelligent - gifted, even."
   "But why? What would he gain from it?" Hermione queried.
   "Why does he do anything he does?" was Dumbledore's gentle response. "You may as well ask why you prefer the color blue to the color red. I have no real insight as to the workings of Tom Riddle's mind - I doubt even he completely understands exactly why he thinks the way he does.
   "In this particular instance, however, I suspect that there are at least two factors which play significantly into his actions. The first is simple spite - Tom was a very confident and arrogant student and did not take rejection well at all. In that, he has not changed over the years. The other reason was likely to try to weaken our society in general in preparation for his bid for power. Due to the lack of stability in the Defense position, the instruction has not been as good as it should have been. If you look at OWL scores for the past thirty years the average grades in Defense have fallen - in essence, Hogwarts graduates of forty years ago are better able to defend themselves than those graduating today."
   "So how do we break the curse?" asked Harry.
   "Ah, that is the question, is it not?" was Dumbledore's rhetorical response. "Not knowing exactly how Tom did what he did, the counter-spell would seem to be almost impossible to achieve. However, the easy answer would be to have a professor last for more than one year in the position, thus overcoming the magic of the curse and breaking its hold.
   "When Professor Lupin was revealed to be a werewolf at the end of your third year, I tried to persuade him not to resign, reasoning that if this was the curse's way of assuring he not return, the simple matter of his return would break it. Of course, that does not account for the curse potentially using other means to ensure he didn't return. That is neither here nor there, though, as the professor had other - more compelling - reasons to resign. I had intended Professor Moody to be the one to finally break it, but you all know how that turned out. I doubt this year's professor will be any more likely to last more than a single year."
   "Which brings us back to our original reason for this discussion, Dumbledore," Jean-Sebastian interjected. "I believe you said the Ministry had assigned you a Defense professor?"
   "Ah yes. A lengthy digression, but ultimately a useful one, I believe. The Ministry has indeed assigned a professor for Defense, pulling an old law out of mothballs which dates back some centuries. Essentially, it allows the Ministry to designate a professor if the Headmaster has not been able to fill the position. In this specific case, the inability to keep a professor in that position, coupled with the Crouch incident from last year, has rendered the position almost impossible to fill - I received no applicants for Defense this year, and was turned down by everyone I approached."
   "What of Auror Moody?" Hermione asked. "Couldn't he actually be the professor this year?"
   "With Voldemort's return, unfortunately Alastor has other, more important duties which require his attention."
   Jean-Sebastian glared at Dumbledore with a keen look in his eye. "Dumbledore, I doubt this discussion would have been necessary if the Ministry had simply appointed an Auror, for example, to become the Defense professor. Who did they appoint?"
   Grimacing, Dumbledore nodded his head in agreement. "You are correct. I would have been happy with many of our Aurors, though any of them would have been a huge loss to the department. However, the Minister did not make even that choice. Unfortunately, he has appointed the Senior Undersecretary, Dolores Umbridge to be the Defense professor."
   Though Harry did not immediately recognize the name, it was clear that Jean-Sebastian and Apolline had, if their sudden scowls were any evidence. Harry would have expected Jean-Sebastian to respond, but was surprised when a clearly upset Apolline - who had not yet said anything during the conversation - rounded on Dumbledore.
   "Umbridge?" she spat. "That woman is as vile a bigot as I've ever met!"
   "I take it you have some experience with the Undersecretary?"
   Apolline nodded brusquely. "She was in France a few years ago as a part of a diplomatic delegation, where she made insulting comments about how Veela were creatures which needed to be controlled. If she had her way, all Veela would be locked up and studied, but officially designated as less than human. Tell me why I should allow my daughter to be subjected to the machinations of such a despicable woman?"
   Reaching an arm out, Jean-Sebastian pulled his wife into a comforting embrace, while maintaining his scowl at Dumbledore. It was clear that he was just as incensed as his wife.
   "Apolline is understandably passionate about this issue, Headmaster, and as our country is home to many Veela, Dolores Umbridge is all but persona non grata there. Apolline's question is valid. Fleur - and Harry, if the Undersecretary's performance during his trial is any indication - will be a target for her vitriol. Why should we not remove them both from the potential of such persecution, and have them take up their studies at Beauxbatons?"
   Dumbledore spread his hands out wide in a gesture of conciliation. "I understand your concerns, and acknowledge that Madam Umbridge is... distasteful in her beliefs. However, I believe you may not be thinking of all the ramifications of pulling your children from Hogwarts."
   Jean-Sebastian shared a look with his wife, before he turned back to Dumbledore with narrowed eyes. "Explain."
   "Just this - now that Voldemort has returned and has continued to show an unhealthy interest in Harry, it is in Harry's best interests that he be protected. No offense to Madam Maxine, but I do not think Harry would be adequately protected at Beauxbatons. It is largely due to Voldemort's respect for and fear of me, that Harry would be safer attending Hogwarts, and by extension, Fleur would also be safer there, as she is now known to have a connection with Mr. Potter, and could be used against him."
   "I cannot dispute that," said Jean-Sebastian after a moment. Then a sly look came over his face as he continued, "One might think you are attempting to boast with a statement like that, Dumbledore."
   "Certainly not," an amused Dumbledore brushed the comment off, but not without the ever-present twinkling of his eyes. "It is the truth, however - as long as Harry is at Hogwarts while I am there, I do not think Voldemort will attempt anything overt, unless he feels that he will be assured of victory.
   "We all know that Harry is Fudge's target," Dumbledore continued candidly. "His failure to discredit Harry during the trial has merely prompted him to change his tactics. However, I believe that I am as much of a target, and that Harry's friends will not be spared either. Therefore, we must make plans to counter the Undersecretary's intentions, and eventually to expose them for what they are, and I will need their help - specifically Harry's - to do that."
   "What do I need to do, professor?" Harry asked. He was not about to stand by and listen to the adults discuss the situation - he had been a passive observer far too often in the past, and had ended up acting on impulse at the last moment. He would take a more active role in events.
   Dumbledore inclined his head in Harry's direction. "I simply need you to be yourself and to be on your best behavior. During the trial, Umbridge and Fudge attempted to brand you as a troublemaker who seeks to be in the limelight. I do not doubt that Umbridge will attempt to provoke you in some manner; you must resist responding while we work out a way to turn the tables on her and the Minister. Our response will largely be dependent upon Umbridge's actions after you arrive at Hogwarts."
   "And what of Fleur?" Apolline demanded. "That woman will take every opportunity to goad and demean Fleur, if she does not openly attack her."
   "Mrs. Delacour, I assure you that I will do everything in my power to protect your daughter. I doubt that Madam Umbridge will attempt anything blatant, at least in the short term."
   "Maman, I can protect myself," Fleur said, attempting to reassure her mother. "I will have Harry and our other friends with me - she can do nothing."
   "You will, Miss Delacour, and I assure you that there is no more loyal friend than Mr. Potter."
   Harry blushed immediately at the Headmaster's praise, but he shyly looked at his betrothed and assured her that he would be there for her. Fleur glanced back at him with a large smile upon her face, but she said nothing - for which Harry was grateful.
   In an attempt to change the subject - and be relieved from his embarrassment - Harry asked who exactly Umbridge was.
   "Do you remember the woman in pink who supported Fudge at your trial?" At Harry's nod, Jean-Sebastian continued. "Dolores Umbridge is a well-known bigot and proponent of anything which she considers helpful in controlling creatures. Her definition of creatures includes just about anything which is not British and Pureblood."
   Harry thought for a moment before a thought occurred to him and he allowed a mischievous smile to appear on his face. "She may be vile, but after facing Voldemort himself four times, I hardly think a pudgy, pink, toad woman is anything to be afraid of."
   His jest broke the tension in the room, as he had intended, and the company broke into laughter. It was clear that the Delacours - especially Apolline - were still not happy with this development, nor were they pleased with the lack of a concrete plan to counter whatever Umbridge had planned for their children. However, it was also clear that without knowing the precise nature of what the woman wished to accomplish - other than the discrediting of both Dumbledore and Harry, a matter which was now much more difficult due to the thorough routing she and Fudge had experienced at the trial - countering her actions was problematic. But, as Hermione pointed out, echoing Dumbledore's earlier words, they would all have the support of the group which had developed over the summer, and that Fleur would have, at the very least, the support of the Weasley twins in Defense class, as they were in the same year. Harry had no doubt that the rest of the Gryffindor seventh years - especially those on the Quidditch team who he knew well - would also accept Fleur with very little hesitation.
   At length the discussion wound up and after the Headmaster requested that Harry make sure his friends were aware of the appointment and to be on their best behavior, he departed, leaving Harry once again to his thoughts. He knew that Umbridge was coming to the school to cause trouble for him, but somehow the thought did not bother him. They had had challenges throughout their time at Hogwarts, after all, and they would face and overcome this one as they had all the others.
   No, it was his friends - and his betrothed - who caused him greater concern. They would be targets in order to get at him. He was determined to protect them - no one would hurt his friends to get at him!
   ***
   The day before their return to Hogwarts, Hermione had a visitor.
   She had left the breakfast room, and had returned to her own room to mull over the changes this summer had wrought in her relationships and in the lives of her friends. It had been eventful and, but for the quick action of her closest friend and the timely intervention of some adults, the outcome may very well have been tragic. But what was done was done, after all, and she supposed there was no sense in belaboring the issue.
   The residents of the manor were due to depart for Diagon Alley that morning to purchase the final supplies for the students' return to school, and Hermione was looking forward to the trip. She knew her friends would tease her for her excitement, but she had always enjoyed the excursion - returning to school had always been an exciting time for Hermione, and the opportunity to learn, not to mention the chance to browse through Flourish and Blotts and purchase more books, was something which had always given her great pleasure.
   Oh yes, she reflected, Harry and Fleur would certainly tease me about my book habits.
   Especially Harry, knowing her best out of all her friends as he did, though his teasing would be gentle and playful, not the mean-spirited and spiteful bullying she had endured as a young child. Harry would never hurt her - not intentionally, anyway.
   When the knock sounded on the door, she called out permission, and was unsurprised to see Fleur step in through the door. In addition to being intelligent, Hermione was also highly observant, and she had not missed the serious glances Fleur had been directing at her, not only since the announcement of her betrothal had been made, but especially in the past few days. She knew that Fleur would have witnessed the close camaraderie which existed between herself and her best friend, if she had not already heard of their friendship while at Hogwarts the previous year. Hermione had been expecting for some time now to have to reassure her best friend's betrothed of the exact state of their relationship.
   Hermione smiled and invited Fleur to seat herself on the edge of the bed. To be honest, Hermione was not certain why the blond witch would be concerned - she was beautiful, after all, and had far more than her share of attributes to keep the attention of any young man. Hermione, though her confidence had been growing, still thought of herself as a mousy little bookworm. What could Fleur possibly have to worry about?
   Shaking her head at such thoughts, Hermione concentrated on her friend. They exchanged small talk for several moments, and Hermione noted with amusement Fleur's attempts to keep the conversation light-hearted and friendly. But Hermione had come to know her in the time they had spent together and was aware that something was bothering her. The French witch, though she generally had good English pronunciation - much better than she had shown at the tournament - had a habit of slipping into a much more noticeable French accent when she was nervous or excited. And as excitement was not evident in her manner, Hermione could only conclude that Fleur was nervous about something.
   "Hermione, I wanted to ask you something," Fleur finally said after their conversation had gone on for some moments.
   "Of course," was Hermione's answer.
   Fleur fidgeted for a moment longer before visibly screwing up her courage and looking Hermione directly in the eye. "I wanted to know more of your relationship with Harry. What are your feelings for Harry?"
   Smiling at the fact that she had read her friend so well, Hermione immediately thought to reassure her friend. "Harry and I are the best of friends."
   "And?"
   "Like I said, Fleur - we are best friends," Hermione repeated, emphasizing the words. "We are extremely close and I would do anything for Harry - I know he'd do anything for me too. But there is nothing more than that. We're completely platonic Fleur - we've always been like siblings."
   Fleur actually snorted at that declaration, causing Hermione to narrow her eyes at her friend. But before she could respond, Fleur had already spoken.
   "Hermione," she said gently, while reaching over to pat Hermione's hand, "perhaps you are not aware of the specific powers of Veela, but I know that you are not telling me the truth. Whether you are lying to yourself or me matters little - but I want you to truly search your feelings and be as candid as you possibly can. It is very important.
   "Most of the wizarding world considers Veela to be purely sexual beings, but I can tell you that our magic is actually highly in tune with the power of love. I can feel the connection between you and Harry, Hermione, and there is no denying it. Please be truthful."
   Throughout Fleur's speech, Hermione felt her horror and mortification building to almost unbearable levels. Fleur knew her secret! How would she ever live it down? How would she even get the other girl to ever trust her again? She knew she was caught - only the truth would get her out of her predicament.
   "I do have feelings for Harry," Hermione acknowledged while hanging her head in shame. "I didn't realize it until this summer after he was already betrothed to you, but I do care for him.
   "But Fleur," she pleaded, "you have to believe me - I told you that our relationship is completely platonic, and I swear that's all that it has ever been. We have never been anything but the best of friends to each other. Harry has never seen me that way, and I doubt he ever will - I've always been nothing more than a sister to him."
   The last was said slightly bitterly as, though Hermione wanted the best for her friend and truly wished to set Fleur's mind at ease, she did wish that Harry could have seen her as more than simply one of the guys.
   She was thus startled out of her morose thoughts when Fleur let out a snort, and descended into laughter. "You know," she managed in her mirth, "you English have a saying which fits the situation perfectly: 'Love is blind.'"
   "What are you saying?" demanded Hermione with a frown.
   Still chuckling to herself, Fleur scooted over on the bed and draped an arm around Hermione's shoulders. "Hermione, you are just about the brightest person I have ever known, but when it comes to Harry, you have a blind spot the size of an acromantula. You think Harry will never have any feelings for you? Well I can tell you that he does not see you as merely a sister."
   Hermione narrowed her eyes at Fleur and pulled away from her. "He's never given any indication of it."
   "Teenager? Male? Clueless?"
   Fleur's irreverent portrayal of Harry sent Hermione into her own spasm of giggles. She swatted at Fleur while trying to affect a stern expression. "Fleur! Harry's not that bad."
   "He's not? He said those very words to me, you know."
   That got Hermione's attention. "You asked him about me?"
   "Not exactly," Fleur said in a soothing tone. "We were talking about you, but I only asked him why he didn't take you to the Yule Ball if he didn't have a girlfriend and he thought as highly of you as he obviously does. That was his response."
   Hermione chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully. "Did he say anything else?"
   "He didn't need to, Hermione. I can sense his emotions, whether he admits them to himself or not."
   If anything, the confirmation of Harry's feelings - or at least Fleur's assertion of them - was almost more painful than the suspicion of their existence. It made her think of all the time they had spent together in the past, and the attraction which she had felt steadily growing, almost literally since the first time she had met him. She had known to a certain extent that Harry was not comfortable in expressing his emotions, certainly due in part to the way he had been treated by his relatives, but also because he simply was not an overly demonstrative person. Perhaps if she had taken the initiative and shown him how interested she was...
   But no - if anything that would have made things even worse. If they had drawn closer in the way she had hoped, the enactment of that marriage contract would have torn him from her, in an even more painful way. Since the announcement, Hermione had done her best to accept the situation as there was nothing she could do about it, but she was never as inclined to curse his betrothal as she was at that moment.
   But it was what it was, and there was nothing she could do about it - she would not lose a friend with whom she had become very close, or risk Fleur telling her that she could not see Harry at all any longer. His friendship mattered too much to her for her to consider that, even if she would never be allowed to become anything more to him.
   "Be that as it may, it changes nothing," Hermione asserted. "Whatever Harry feels for me, he is far too noble to ever betray you like that. And you have nothing to worry about from me, Fleur. I - "
   Hermione's throat constricted and she felt a hitch in her voice and the beginnings of tears forming in her eyes. Ruthlessly she forced herself to regain her composure and face her friend, who she noted was regarding her with a look of compassion.
   "I have realized that I have feelings for Harry, much as I would like to deny them. However, I would never dream of interfering in your relationship with him, and I know that you two will do well together. Trust me, Fleur - Harry's heart is so big and you are such a wonderful person, that I have no doubt that he will get over whatever feelings he has for me, and grow to love you in time."
   "Thank you, Hermione," said Fleur. "I am truly grateful that I have gained you and Harry for friends - in my past, close friends have been difficult to obtain, much less keep. However, I'd like to take this discussion a little further."
   Hermione frowned - Fleur's tone was completely calm, and she did not appear to be angry or even concerned with the fact that a female friend had just admitted to having feelings for her fiancИ. What was she thinking?
   "I'm not sure there's anything more to talk about."
   "Indulge me, please," responded Fleur with a smile. "I'd like to know how much you know about wizarding marriage laws in this country. In fact, customs in the wizarding world are so old-fashioned, that I think you'll find little in the way of difference between the laws of any of the western European countries."
   Cautiously, Hermione stared back at her friend. Fleur could not be speaking of the potential for Harry to have multiple wives, could she?
   "Hermione," Fleur said with a great deal affection, "are you aware that Harry is not confined to only me as his wife? He has the ability to take another wife, as long as I approve."
   Shocked that she had guessed Fleur's intent, Hermione gaped at her friend. "Fleur!" she stammered. "Are you suggesting...? You would actually consider sharing Harry with someone else?"
   She conveniently ignored the fact that Fleur had not only suggested exactly that, but that she had suggested that she would share Harry with her.
   "Ah, so you are aware."
   "I have heard that, yes," Hermione snapped. "You didn't answer my question."
   "Let me guess - it was Ginevra Weasley who told you. Am I right?"
   "What does that have to do with it?" demanded Hermione.
   "Nothing," Fleur admitted. "But she may as well forget it - if I were to approve of a second wife, it certainly would not be her."
   The conversation was going off track, and Hermione was becoming frustrated with her friend. However, drawing upon her admittedly small well of patience, Hermione fixed her eye upon Fleur and defended her other friend.
   "Ginny isn't a bad person, Fleur."
   "No, but she is a bit of a fan-girl. You, of all people, should know how much Harry hates his fame."
   "I do, but Ginny is changing. When we spoke, I told her that she'd best try to be his friend, rather than attempting to be his second wife."
   Fleur snorted. "Good advice."
   "You still didn't answer my question, Fleur."
   "And I still won't," the French witch responded with what Hermione considered to be an absolutely infuriating smirk. "First, though I admit I'm already getting an idea of your opinion on the subject, can you tell me if you would consider sharing Harry with me?"
   With narrowed eyes, Hermione glared at Fleur, before deciding that she would have her questions answered a lot more quickly if she gave in.
   "To be completely honest, Fleur, I don't know," Hermione admitted. "I mean, if I was enough in love with someone, I suppose it may be possible to share him with someone else, but I can't really say until I was in that position. I was raised to believe that such relationships are wrong, after all.
   "Now, will you answer my question?"
   The accompanying glare which Hermione directed at Fleur had apparently struck the French witch as amusing, as she started laughing immediately. Still somewhat put out with Fleur, Hermione snapped, "Fleur, can you please be serious?"
   "I'm sorry, Hermione," Fleur said as her giggles faded away, to be replaced with a sober expression which was completely incongruous with her previously jocular attitude. "You must understand that this is difficult for me as well, and I suppose my mirth is my way of dealing with the stress."
   Realizing at once that the older witch was not making fun of her, Hermione reached out and patted her hand. "I'm not sure why we're having this conversation in the first place, Fleur. You have just become betrothed to Harry, and you're already trying to find a second wife for him? Perhaps you should try becoming comfortable with him first."
   "Perhaps," said Fleur with a sigh. "But everything I sense tells me a different story, Hermione. I believe you have some very deep feelings for Harry, and if I'm right, then separating you - even though the fault belongs to neither of us - would be a mistake."
   "But I'm still only fifteen years old, Fleur!" Hermione said with exasperation. "I'm a little young to have found the only man I'll ever love."
   Hermione words were filled with sarcasm, and she fully intended to communicate to her friend the fact that she was still young and had plenty of time to find someone else. Unfortunately, the French witch's next words showed that she had not taken them in the way Hermione had intended.
   "Perhaps not, Hermione. But there is nothing to say that you haven't found a life long love either. Yes, people develop emotionally and physically as we age, but there is nothing to say that the feelings of love one feels when young aren't as valid as though you had felt those emotions as an adult. Harry has an amazing capacity for love, Hermione, and everything I can sense from you both suggests that you are completely compatible, and already share a great depth of emotion.
   "And I should inform you that I'm not the only one who has noted your closeness and compatibility. My mother has noticed as well, and confirms my observations - you and Harry are almost perfectly suited for one another. You would both be fools to throw the possibility of a relationship away."
   On one level, Hermione could not believe what her friend was suggesting. Fleur already had Harry sewn up, as it were - they were both bound by the contract her father and Sirius had enacted. Perhaps if she was trying to snare him and knew the only way to gain his interest was as part of a package deal, as it were, this discussion might make a little more sense. But then in that case, Hermione would by default hold the upper hand and would have little incentive to share him with Fleur. Surely there was more to this than Fleur simply believing that Harry and Hermione had feelings for each other.
   "Fleur, would you please answer my question now?" Hermione queried. "You have asked me if I'd be willing to share Harry, and the line of discussion seems to suggest that you'd be willing to share him, but I haven't actually heard your feelings on the subject."
   Fleur sighed and looked away. "Hermione, you must know that Veela have been prized in the past as mistresses or second wives - it's part of my heritage."
   "And you are still avoiding my question," said Hermione with some exasperation. "That is all in the past, Fleur - though, as you pointed out the wizarding world is far behind the Muggle world socially, I'm certain that it has come far enough that you would not have to worry about being forced into that type of relationship. Will you not tell me why you are bringing this up, and what your feelings are on the subject? Do you really want to share Harry with me?"
   Though the French witch kept her head bowed as she thought, Hermione could tell that she was considering her answer carefully. She wrung her hands together lightly and shook her head almost imperceptibly as the silence wore on. Though she was obviously agitated to a certain extent, Hermione did not interrupt her, knowing that she needed an answer from her friend.
   When she finally spoke, her voice was low, but also firm and confident. "To be honest with you, Hermione, I never expected to be in such a situation. I understand the history of my heritage, but I have always intended to find a husband who would love only me, and I him. I think I've found a man I can love. Harry and I are very compatible - in a different way from you and him of course, but compatible nonetheless."
   "Then why are we having this conversation?" asked Hermione gently. "You have him, Fleur. By the terms of that contract he is yours! As you said, Harry has a great capacity to love others, and if you're as compatible as you seem to think, he will come to love you in no time. There is no reason for us to even discuss this."
   A sigh was Fleur's response. "Perhaps you are right, but there is more at stake here than simply my own desires. Yes, I want to be happy in my life, but I also want Harry to be happy, and I cannot shake the feeling that Harry's happiness depends at least in part on you. You are his first love - his true love. I do not want him to come to resent me for keeping him from you."
   Hermione could not help but be touched by Fleur's selflessness and care for Harry. "Fleur, I really don't think Harry would do that, though I am happy that you care for my best friend as much as you do."
   "I do care for Harry very much, though I still do not know him well in many respects. However, there is still more at stake than simply Harry's happiness. I assume, given your penchant for research, that you have acquired some knowledge of Veela traits and characteristics."
   Blushing, Hermione acknowledged that she had, reflecting somewhat ruefully that her reputation had preceded her - either that or her friend was getting to know her very well already. "But there wasn't a lot of information that I could find in any of my books. I thought I would look for some more information when we go to Flourish and Blotts today."
   Fleur sniffed in disdain. "Here, the only place you would find any information at all, would be in a book of magical creatures, and even then, it would likely be incomplete or wrong altogether. There is more accurate information available on the continent since there are many more Veela there - especially in France. To save time, I shall tell you.
   "Veela are essentially humans with special characteristics, but when we have children we always breed true."
   Thinking it through, Hermione considered what she knew of Veela. She had precious little experience with them - limited to Fleur and her sister, and the Veela at the world cup the previous year. And though the information she had been able to find was scarce, she had noted that there was a lack of any mention of male Veela. That would suggest...
   "So Veela are always female?" she asked out loud. "And any male children of Veela are just ordinary boys?"
   "I thought you would figure it out," said Fleur with a nod of approval. "You are correct - any female children I have will be Veela, while any males will be normal human men, though they likely will be quite attractive.
   "However, there is another point that is very important to the present discussion. Veela women have great difficulty getting pregnant - a Veela with more than two children is a rarity, and only one child is not uncommon. Even more importantly, more than ninety percent of all children born to Veela are girls."
   "And Harry is the last of his line..." breathed Hermione, seeing the dilemma immediately.
   "Exactly. If I am Harry's only wife, the chances are very good that the name Potter will die with him, which is one of the reasons why I am bringing this up - if he must have a second wife to carry on his name, why not a woman he already loves? If you were to become romantically linked to him in addition to me, there would be less jockeying for position by other ladies looking to snag themselves a piece of the Boy-Who-Lived. Believe me, there are plenty of Pureblood families out there who are not aligned with Voldemort, but who are knowledgeable enough about Veela - or have contacts on the continent who could divulge this information - who would believe that they would benefit by an alliance with House Potter. I doubt Harry could do better than you - you are loyal, brave, incredibly intelligent, and he is obviously attracted to you, not to mention that you know Harry the young man, and do not idolize Harry the legend. I consider you perfect for him, beyond your obvious compatibility."
   It all made sense, Hermione had to admit. Fleur's arguments were logical and well thought out, and though she was raised in a non-magical home and therefore did not consider the lack of a male heir to be an issue - she was her parents only child, after all - she did know that in magical society it was a very big deal in many respects.
   It all boiled down to whether she could share a husband with another woman; know that a piece of his heart and body was owned by someone else. Could she do it? At the moment, she knew herself well enough to know that she could not answer that question truthfully - she would need a considerable amount of time to think about such a momentous decision.
   Then there was the question of her parents - what would they have to say about her marrying a man who had more than one wife? Her parents were not devout Christians by any means - they tended to be Christmas and Easter Anglicans more than anything else, observing the traditions during those special times, and then ignoring religion for the rest of the year. However, they had been raised in Western society where plural marriage was considered to be immoral. She could not truthfully predict what their reaction would be, but she knew that they would not be completely happy at the very least. Ultimately, they would likely accept it, much as they had finally accepted the fact that she was a witch. Even more frightening was the fact that she had felt herself slipping away from her parents over the years by the simple fact that she was a witch - this was just another thing which would potentially drive the wedge between them even deeper.
   "Your arguments do make sense," she said at last, speaking very slowly, while taking her time to think of her words and determine exactly what she wished to say. "I do understand, Fleur, but while part of me wants to jump at the chance, there are things which are holding me back."
   Fleur regarded her compassionately, and when she spoke, her voice was very soft and affectionate. "Hermione, I'm not asking you to commit to a lifetime with Harry at this very moment. You are still very young as you pointed out and it is still very early for you to be making such an important decision in your life.
   "But I did not wish to put off the conversation for two reasons: the first, is that I want you to think about it. Regardless of what my senses tell me, there is no guarantee that you and Harry would have decided to be together even if I was not a part of the equation. Veela powers only tell us certain things, and do not give us clairvoyance, or take into account another's free will. My betrothal to Harry obviously complicates a potential romantic relationship with him. I understand your hesitation and want you to have plenty of time to think about it before you make a decision.
   "The second reason is that I wanted to prevent you from making a mistake and settling for someone who is wholly unsuited to you in your sorrow over 'losing' Harry. That would make you miserable, and I like you far too much for you to waste your life in that manner."
   Though Fleur did not name any names, Hermione knew that she was speaking of Ron and truthfully, she could not say that Fleur was wrong. Hermione truly did like Ron. Most of the time, he was a good and loyal friend, and even when he did allow his jealousy to get the better of him, he could be counted on to come around eventually.
   But Hermione also knew that regardless of whatever feelings Ron had for her, a romantic relationship between them would never last. Their bickering, divergent goals and priorities, and completely opposite personalities would be a recipe for disaster. Fleur's words, if nothing else, further clarified this in her mind - she and Ron as a couple would never happen.
   "I understand," was what she said out loud. "I will think about it."
   "That is all I can ask."

Chapter 11 - New Friends and Old Enemies

   The Hogwarts Express. To generations of Hogwarts students, the big, red engine had symbolized new beginnings, adventure, and the return to the venerable and distinguished institution, one, which Jean-Sebastian Delacour had to admit, rivaled and surpassed even that of the beloved school of his youth.
   There was also, he supposed, a sort of conceited arrogance about the old engine, especially in its location. Hidden away in one of the busiest stations in the country, the platform and the entire railway line up to the magical town in Scotland was almost a physical manifestation of the Wizarding world thumbing its nose at the Muggle world - in essence it was a sneering example of what wizards could do under the very noses of the Muggles, an example of what their magic could accomplish and how there was nothing the Muggles could do to stop them.
   In an age where almost instantaneous travel could be initiated by those in the Wizarding world, the Express was a lasting image to the British magical public, not to mention a leftover anachronism to a world which had largely progressed passed the point of needing it. Beauxbatons, for example, had a large Floo reception area in its main hall where the students would arrive on the first day of classes, and subsequently return home on the days when school was let out. Of course, as it would be inadvisable at best to allow young school students access to an instantaneous method of travelling, the Floo connections were shut down for the bulk of the school year, and all travel through them was heavily supervised by the staff when they were open.
   However, knowing as he did the importance of symbols in everyday life, Jean-Sebastian supposed that maintaining the Express was a worthwhile endeavor - not all traditions became defunct simply because a better way had been developed. And looking at the excitement on the faces of the assembled students told him that they at least did not consider the Express to be redundant.
   Of course, the one part of the Express with which Jean-Sebastian was not enamored, was the fact that the students spent several hours travelling between London and Hogsmeade with very little supervision outside that of the student leaders themselves. And given what Harry had told him about some of the goings on during the journey - specifically those involving the confrontations with the Malfoy scion which appeared to happen every time they travelled to or from the school - Jean-Sebastian could not be entirely comfortable.
   Still, the children are very capable and responsible, he mused to himself. The Malfoy boy may be a bit of a hothead, but Harry, especially with Fleur's backing, can certainly handle him. The way I understand it, he's been handling the boy for years.
   The thought was comforting - Fleur, despite what the British wizards generally thought was her failure at the Triwizard, was a supremely capable and powerful witch. They would have each other - not to mention their friends - to provide support and protection. The power and capacity of a talented, determined and united group of friends could not be underestimated.
   As they stepped through the barrier, the three teens made their way to the train and settled their belongings into a compartment before rejoining the three Delacours who were not leaving for Hogwarts - Gabrielle was still a little upset that she would not be accompanying her sister and her hero on their adventure - to say their final goodbyes.
   "Neville! Luna!" Harry exclaimed as they stepped down from the train coach.
   The two friends arrived and were greeted warmly by the party, though the greetings were a little understated; they had only parted two days earlier, after all.
   Once the greetings had been completed, the two new arrivals boarded the train to leave their belongings in the compartment their three friends had already secured.
   "Harry, where are the Weasleys?" Fleur suddenly asked, while peering around the platform.
   Clearly amused, Hermione and Harry shared a glance. Then Harry looked at his watch - a clearly exaggerated gesture - before returning his gaze to Fleur and meeting her eyes with a look of mischief.
   "They should be showing up about ten minutes from now."
   Perplexed, Fleur glanced down at her own watch. "But the express will depart in ten minutes."
   By now the two best friends were sniggering under their breaths, causing Fleur no small amount of exasperation, Jean-Sebastian noted.
   "Fleur, the Weasleys are known for being a little tardy," said Harry between laughs.
   "They'll come bustling in just before the train departs," added Hermione. "They do this every year - everyone who has ridden the train since Bill started school knows about them and looks forward to the show."
   The three shared a laugh, after which Harry launched into the story of how they arrived at the last moment for his second year, and how he and Ron had found the portal closed to them. But as amusing as the story was, Jean-Sebastian found his mind wandering. As he had already told himself, they were extremely capable young people, but he could not help but worry, especially with Umbridge in residence at the venerable castle. He did not doubt that the woman would seize the first opportunity to spew her vitriol at his eldest daughter.
   Jean-Sebastian scowled at the thought - he would have the woman's head if she behaved with anything other than the most professional conduct.
   The group's discussions were interrupted by the train's whistle, signaling that the departure was five minutes away. Immediately hugs were exchanged, farewells spoken, and Jean-Sebastian took the opportunity for a last piece of instruction for the departing teens.
   "Have a good time at school," he admonished. "And remember - if Umbridge should try anything at all, speak with your Headmaster. You can contact me for anything, and I will give you whatever help you require."
   Fleur stepped over to hug him and say her farewells. Jean-Sebastian enveloped her in his arms, reflecting that this was the last time that she would be leaving for school - after this year, she would have graduated, and be ready to enter the larger adult world. A lump formed in his throat as he retreated to arm's length and gazed into the face of his beautiful daughter.
   "I am very proud of you, Fleur," he said through slightly misty eyes.
   "Thank you, Papa," was her response.
   She paused for a moment before she spoke again. "I want you to know that I am very pleased with my situation, Papa. I was a little upset about the betrothal - since you never even saw fit to inform me of its existence! I was worried it would not work out. But I think it has all been for the best. I think I will be very happy with Harry."
   Jean-Sebastian's smile was one of relief. He had wrestled with the decision for some time, not wishing to take his beloved daughter's chance at happiness away, before he had finally determined to enact the marriage contract. The fact that everything he had heard about Harry was positive had been a great relief, as he felt the young man would treat Fleur well. But that did not guarantee her happiness. That she was getting along with the young man so well was exactly what he wished to hear.
   "I am glad to hear it," he finally answered. "I too think you will do well together. Just remember to confide in one another; look out for one another - it will draw you closer together, and make your transition even easier."
   "We both will, Papa. Harry is very protective of his friends, and I know that he will be watching out for me as much as I will be for him."
   Jean-Sebastian separated from his daughter, and once the general goodbyes had been said, the three teenagers boarded the train. Jean-Sebastian was amused as the prediction regarding the Weasleys proved true, as moments before the train began the long journey, the family scurried onto the platform and the four youngest instantly ran for the train. He shared an amused glance with Fleur through the window, as the train gave a lurch, and slowly began to move down the tracks.
   "Is it just me, or has this year been the hardest to let go of her?" Apolline asked as they waved farewell to the children.
   "It's her last year of school," was Jean-Sebastian's simple reply. "This time next year she will be looking for a job. She's all grown up."
   "That makes me feel so old!"
   Amused, Jean-Sebastian put his arm around his wife's shoulders. "My dear, you are still every bit as beautiful today as you were the day I first saw you. And we are not so very old yet, you know."
   "We are not so very young, either," came the grumpy voice of his wife. "A daughter all grown." She looked down at her younger daughter, who was peering up at her parents with a quizzical expression on her face. "And this little one will be following in her sister's footsteps before long," she continued with a smile and a hug for Gabrielle."
   "So she will," Jean-Sebastian agreed, as he steered his wife and daughter from the platform. "But not today."
   ***
   "How long does it take to get to Hogsmeade, Harry?"
   "About eight hours, give or take," was Harry's reply.
   Harry regarded his new betrothed with a hint of a mile evident on his face. Fleur's demeanor reminded him of himself on his first journey to Hogwarts - excited and thrilled at the new experience, yet with a hint of trepidation at the unknown.
   Of course Fleur had been to Hogwarts before - she had spent most of the previous year at the school, after all. However, this was different. It was the first time she had ridden the express for one thing. Perhaps it was more mundane than the method she had used the previous year - it was difficult to top a journey made in some fancy Cinderella carriage pulled by flying horses - but the journey via the express was a magical experience in its own right. Most importantly, however, she was returning to Hogwarts as a student, not a visitor, and that made all the difference for the young woman.
   Harry was well aware of her insecurities - they had talked enough for him to understand them, regardless of the fact that she had never openly declared what was worrying her. But he knew that she fretted that her experience at Hogwarts would end up much the same way as it had at Beauxbatons: plenty of acquaintances, but no close friends. She feared that she would forever be set apart by her heritage.
   She need not have worried, as Harry was certain nothing could be further from the truth. For starters, Harry would be by her side, and he knew that his friends would accept her for the simple fact that he did. That by itself should be recommendation enough for her to form friendships of her own. In addition, she had already made the acquaintance of several of her fellow students, and the Weasley twins were in her year as well, and should smooth her transition and help her gain acceptance of the others in their year.
   The only concern was where she would end up sorted - thus far Professor Dumbledore had not made any mention of how or when she would be placed in a house. Even so Harry was certain she would end up with him in Gryffindor, though he knew she would do well in Ravenclaw, with her intelligence. Gryffindor, however, made the most sense, as there she would find greater acceptance than anywhere else.
   The conversation for the first part of the journey was pleasant and animated. Ron and Ginny had joined them in their compartment, along with Luna and Neville, and though it made for a slightly cramped compartment, the company was good, and none of the friends saw fit to complain. The Weasley twins had stopped in to say hello as the train left, but they immediately left to search for their partner in crime, Lee Jordan, no doubt discussing the mayhem they were likely to create in this their final year at the school. Harry did not doubt that whatever they had in mind, it would not be dull!
   About a half hour into the journey, the party was interrupted by the train's loudspeaker.
   "Your attention please: All prefects will now assemble in the prefects' car for the prefects' meeting."
   As the only two prefects in the compartment, Harry and Hermione immediately grabbed their school robes.
   "You know, I've always wondered how the loudspeaker works, when wizards don't know about Muggle electronics, much less have the ability or interest to make them," Harry said absently as he pulled his robes on over his head.
   Hermione rolled her eyes. "You'd know if you had taken Runes, Harry."
   "It's all done with Runes?"
   "It's like the lights and other devices you saw at my home, Harry," Fleur chimed in. "The microphone they are using has a modified Sonorus charm which instead of amplifying the sound, transmits it to a set of similar runes in each compartment. Those runes then amplify the sound."
   "That's pretty ingenious," said Harry after a moment's thought.
   Fleur smiled. "Thank you, Harry. The Muggles do have some marvelous things, but I dare say the magical world has its share of innovations."
   "Sounds interesting." Harry then turned to Hermione who was busily tying her hair up in a French braid. "I never knew runes were so versatile. Do you feel like tutoring me this year?"
   Startled, Hermione's hands stilled in the middle of her efforts and she peered at him with some disbelief. "You actually want to learn Runes?"
   "Yeah mate," Ron chimed in. "Why would you want to torture yourself with more studying, Harry? We're already taking a couple of electives."
   "Two electives we chose specifically because we thought they were easy," said Harry with a roll of his eyes.
   "And what's wrong with that?" Ron demanded.
   "Nothing at all, Ron, if that's what you want to do. For myself, I figure I've skived off a little too much - I've got an insane madman after me, and I doubt he'll want to play Quidditch to the death when we finally meet."
   The comment prompted giggles from his companions, though Ron appeared to be alternating between amusement at the thought, and indignation at the way Harry spoke of his favorite sport.
   "I think I need to be a little more studious and serious, Ron," said Harry, hoping to avoid offending Ron with his conciliatory words. "Otherwise, I'll never be ready to face him. I know he's coming after me. He won't stop until one of us is gone - of that I am certain."
   "And you think Runes is going to help?"
   Ron's voice held a certain amount of sarcasm, prompting Harry to consciously hold his temper in. This was Ron, after all, and though he was smart enough and was a good friend, studious he would never be. The important thing right now, was to make certain Ron did not say anything to upset Hermione like he was prone to at times like these - he was working up to a comment about how he preferred that his best friend not become like the resident bookworm, if Harry were to guess.
   "Not Runes, specifically," Harry admitted. "But I think a little extra effort in general would be good, and like I said - it sounds interesting.
   "Well, how about it?" he continued, turning to Hermione.
   Though her expression was suspicious, Hermione appeared pleased at Harry's interest. "Sure Harry, if you'd like."
   "I promise, Hermione."
   Hermione responded to his grin in like manner before she became all business. "We better go, Harry."
   Nodding, Harry followed her from the compartment.
   The prefects' meeting was not exactly what Harry would call scintillating - but then again, he supposed it wasn't supposed to be. It was important, however, and Harry paid close attention to the instructions given by the head students - Roger Davies from Ravenclaw, who he remembered was Fleur's date from the Yule Ball, and Samantha Dewhurst, a pretty blond from Hufflepuff. The fact that Hermione was listening intently was not a surprise - Harry fully expected her to take her duties as seriously as she did anything else. Knowing she expected the same from him, and wanting to live up to his newfound maturity, Harry was determined to emulate her.
   Unfortunately, he found upon entering the car that Malfoy had also been made a prefect. It was not exactly a surprise, though, considering just how much Snape favored the blond ponce. He said nothing throughout the whole of the meeting, yet his smirk at both Harry, and sometimes Hermione, seemed to suggest that he knew something which they did not. Harry ignored him - it was either that, or hex the Death Eater spawn to oblivion, and he did not think the head students would appreciate the disruption to their meeting, not to mention the mess to clean up after.
   Suppressing a laugh at the image, Harry returned Malfoy's smirk in an even more insolent manner, allowing it to become wider when the other boy's countenance darkened. He then decided he had had enough fun antagonizing the little git, and focused his attention back on the meeting.
   As luck would have it, the Gryffindor prefects were assigned the first patrols from junior to senior, meaning that Harry and Hermione would have the first patrol. They left the compartment, ignoring Malfoy's glare, and made their way to the front of the train where they would start their patrol. It too was somewhat uneventful as, other than admonishing a couple of first years to stop horsing around, they could find nothing else wrong. The other students were either too well behaved, or too adept at hiding what they were doing to be caught.
   They made their way back to their compartment after their patrol was complete, and the rest of the trip passed uneventfully until they were nearing their destination.
   No trip on the Express could truly be complete, Harry reflected, without a visit from Malfoy and cronies. This year's version happened during the last ninety minutes of the journey, and as the Slytherins had been assigned the final patrol slots, Harry suspected that the blond git had timed his appearance during his own patrol rounds, so as not to be caught by any of the other prefects, not that any of the other Slytherins would do much more than cheer him on.
   Harry had just begun a discussion with Ron about the upcoming Quidditch Cup, when the doors to the compartment snapped open, and Malfoy walked in, his face stretched in a most unpleasant grin. He was flanked, as always, by his faithful bodyguards. Out in the hallway, Pansy Parkinson looked on with a superior smirk on her face.
   "Well, well, well, if it isn't Potty and his merry band of misfits," said Malfoy with a sneer.
   "Ah, now all is right with the world again," Harry returned. "It wouldn't truly seem right to go all the way to Hogsmeade without a visit from the Ferret and the Gorillas, with the Pug tagging along for good measure. What is this - has the zoo been allowed on the Express when I wasn't looking?"
   Everyone in the compartment laughed, with the exception of the Slytherins. Crabbe and Goyle appeared confused, while Parkinson and Malfoy flushed in anger, though neither deigned to respond. He only stuck his nose higher in the air. "I certainly couldn't have missed the lot of you - the stench of lesser beings was evident from the moment we entered the car."
   Letting out a longsuffering sigh, Harry affixed an unfriendly eye upon the Malfoy heir. "Ferret, did you know that 'Malfoy' in French means bad faith? Do you think that some event in your family's background caused you to be saddled with that unfortunate moniker? Although, I must admit - it does fit you rather well..."
   His face almost purple with rage, Malfoy took what he probably thought was a menacing step forward. "You filthy Halfblood! How dare you insult a Pureblood of my standing and pedigree?"
   "Ferret, your family was still herding sheep in France when my family had been established as a leading family in England centuries earlier. That's the reason why your criminal father doesn't have a Wizengamot seat - he's still considered an outsider by British Pureblood standards."
   Harry smiled at Malfoy's rage, thanking Sirius for his brief lessons on the history of the leading English magical families. Malfoy may not know it, but the only reason his father had any influence at all was because of his money, and the fear his support for Voldemort engendered.
   It was truly amusing to see the little git stew in his own juices, his mouth working ineffectually, but Harry was becoming rather tired of the confrontation and wanted to enjoy the rest of the trip in peace. "You know, Bad Faith," Harry continued conversationally after a few moments, "every year you strut in here like you own the place, leading these two brainless baboons around by the nose, and every year you end up fleeing the scene with your tail between your legs. Why don't you do us both a favor, save yourself whatever dignity you may have left, and leave now before you're humiliated yet again?"
   The color of Malfoy's face reminded Harry of Uncle Vernon in full rage. He surprised Harry, however, by maintaining his temper and sneering once again.
   "You know, Potty, I know you're nothing more than a Halfblood, but I didn't think even you could stoop this low. I mean, it's bad enough that you lower yourself to associating with Mudbloods," he gestured disdainfully at Hermione, "and squibs, but Delacour? That whore isn't even human!"
   Incensed did not even begin to cover Harry's emotions. He sprang up from his seat and shot off two body binds in rapid succession, locking up Crabbe and Goyle. The bookends fell to the floor before they even knew what hit them. Another quick spell disarmed the Slytherin, while another slammed the door behind Malfoy closed, and all before Malfoy could even think to reach for his wand. Then Harry grabbed Malfoy by the front of his shirt and slammed him up against the door, his forearm pressed against the boy's throat, a grim frown on his face.
   "You don't seem to understand me, Bad Faith," Harry ground out, "so I suppose I'll have to be explicit. I'm not interested in your bigoted beliefs, or your whiny inferiority complex, nor am I interested in continually being baited by you. I'm not going to put up with your garbage this year, Ferret - if you know what's good for you, you'll stay away from me and all my friends."
   Malfoy's eyes blazed and he struggled against Harry's grip, but Harry had all the leverage and would not give him any room to move.
   "When my father hears - " he rasped, until Harry cut him off.
   "And that is why I have no respect for you, Ferret. The first sign of trouble and you go running for Daddy. Perhaps some time you should learn to fight your own battles. Or perhaps this is something they teach in Death Eater School? Do all of daddy's cronies go running to Voldemort when the going gets rough?"
   Calling on all his disdain and disgust for the inbred twit, Harry pulled out his best impression of the elder Malfoy's cultured voice. "How dare you defy me? When the Dork Lord hears of this..."
   Ignoring the laughter from the rest of the group, Harry focused his attention on Malfoy, noting the almost purple hue of his face, though whether that was due to anger or the pressure on his throat, Harry could not be certain. "Just remember, Bad Faith, you've never managed to beat me and you never will. You're welcome to try, though, any time you like."
   A quick swish of his wand, and the door sprang open, spilling the Malfoy heir into the hallway where he collided with Parkinson, who had been banging on the door, demanding alternately that Harry release Draco, and that he open the door. The almost comic look of disbelief on her face when she went down with Malfoy sprawled on top of her was priceless. A couple of levitation charms later, and all four Slytherins had been dumped in the hallway in a tangle of limbs. Harry then shut the door, locking it behind him, while he pulled the shade to give them some privacy.
   Predictably, it was Ron who spoke first. "Mate, that was bloody brilliant!"
   Chuckling, Harry acknowledged his friend with a grin, before turning to the rest of them, with a more serious demeanor. "I meant what I said - that little prick better stay away from us this year. If he tries anything, hex first and ask questions later."
   "But Harry, you could get into trouble for that," Hermione responded. "It's not that he doesn't deserve it, but do you really want to run the risk of getting detention or worse?"
   "This coming from the girl who bloodied his nose in third year?" asked Harry rhetorically. Hermione blushed at the reference, though he thought he detected a small smirk as well.
   Surprisingly it was Neville who answered for the entire group. "Hermione, the reason Malfoy gets away with as much as he does is because there are no consequences for his behavior. Snape ignores his actions, and Malfoy is clever enough that he hides them when any of the other teachers are around. If he starts feeling the consequences of his actions from those he is trying to bully, then maybe he'll think twice before doing it again."
   "Exactly, Neville," Harry said, saluting the other boy. "Though I doubt Malfoy is smart enough to understand enough to leave us alone, I say we practice Moody's mantra - constant vigilance. But we also need to remember not to allow the enemy to get the upper hand. Don't start anything, but if he does start something, make certain you finish it."
   A general agreement met his declaration, though Hermione's was perhaps a little subdued. Seeing this, Harry sat down next to her.
   "I don't intend to start a fight with him, Hermione," he said softly. "But I will not allow him to continue to insult my friends or my betrothed."
   He glanced up at Fleur and smiled at her, which she returned. "For my part, Harry, I agree. He'll just get worse the older he gets if you don't teach him that he can't get away with it."
   "All right, Harry," Hermione finally agreed. "But don't go looking for trouble."
   Harry allowed an injured frown to come over his face. "I? Go looking for trouble? Hermione, you wound me."
   The general laughter in the car once again dispelled the serious mood, and the friends returned to their light-hearted banter, until the announcement of their arrival.
   ***
   Fleur had initially pushed back when her friends suggested she would be as wide-eyed as a first year upon going to Hogwarts this year, making it plain to all her friends that it was not as though she had never before been to Hogwarts.
   What she had not counted on, however, was the fact that the famed old castle was well able to surprise and awe virtually anyone, especially one who was entering it for the first time as an actual member of its student population. From the station, and the long train ride, to the carriages which they boarded to journey to the castle, everything felt far more magical to Fleur than she felt it should have, being, as she was, as seventh year student on the cusp of adulthood.
   But there was nothing to be done - she found herself impressed all over at the grandeur of it all, and excited for the coming year, much to the amusement of her companions.
   Exiting the station, the group of friends stepped down from the platform and made their way to the waiting carriages which would take them the final distance to their destination. While they were waiting in queue, however, her fiancИ stared ahead at the gathered carriages, his eyes wide with astonishment.
   "What are those things pulling the carriages?"
   Almost as one, the group followed his gaze. Confused, Fleur glanced back at her betrothed - there was nothing in front of the carriages. They appeared to be propelled by some sort of magic.
   "There's nothing in front of the carriages, Harry," Hermione told her friend gently.
   "Yes there are, Hermione," Harry disagreed. "They look like big scaly horses, with wings folded along their backs."
   "Oh, those are thestrals," the voice of Luna Lovegood piped up.
   Now, in the time that they had spent training and associating with one another, the group had become intimately familiar with Luna, and her odd ways. Her proclamations regarding fantastical creatures such as Nargles, Nifflers, and Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, among others, were well-known to the group. And though they truly liked her and had quickly come to consider her a good friend, her pronouncements were still somewhat confusing - at times, they did not truly know how to take the little blond.
   "What are you on about, Luna?" Ron demanded. "There's nothing there."
   Luna turned her gaze upon Ron - more focused than was her wont, Fleur noted - and chided him. "Just because you cannot see them, Ronald, doesn't mean they don't exist. Thestrals are invisible to all but those who have seen death."
   "Then that means since I saw Cedric die at the third task last year..." Harry's voice trailed off as he was clearly remembering the events of that horrible night.
   Fleur reached out and took his hand, imparting what comfort she was able, while Luna addressed Harry.
   "Yes, Harry - that would qualify. Cedric was such a nice boy..."
   "Then why can you see them, Luna?" Neville asked.
   "My mother died when I was nine," responded the girl. "I was there."
   "I'm sorry to hear that," was Neville's response, as he reached out to take her hand. Luna smiled up at him, but she did not remove her hand from his.
   The group waited in silence until they boarded the carriages, Fleur's thoughts centered upon her betrothed. Harry had not spoken much of the night he had seen Cedric die, but she knew that it still had the power to affect him. As they entered the carriage, she took up position to Harry's right, never letting go of his hand, while Hermione bracketed her friend on the other side. Fleur raised a knowing eyebrow at her friend, which Hermione ignored, before Neville, Ron and Luna entered and took their positions on the other seat. Fleur noted idly that Neville and Luna had not released each other's hands.
   The mood lifted, however, as they approached the castle, and Fleur, still excited as she was, peered forward, eager to catch a first glimpse at the famous building. Harry favored her with an indulgent smile, but Fleur was too excited to do more than return it somewhat breathlessly.
   "Maybe Fleur should have ridden in the boats with the firsties," Ron commented with a grin.
   "And why is that, Mr. Weasley?" asked Fleur with an uplifted eyebrow.
   "The boats carry first years to an underground grotto where they wait for the sorting," Harry explained. "The boats are kind of cool, but the most spectacular thing is the first sight of the castle as you round the point on the lake. I've never seen anything so awe-inspiring in my entire life."
   "Then I'm sorry I've missed it."
   "That should be our goal for this year, then," said Neville. "We'll build a boat and sail her round the head at dusk so Fleur can see the castle from the lake."
   As the friends laughed, Fleur looked archly at the young man. "Thank you, Neville, but I think part of the mystique is the first glimpse of the castle. I have already seen it, after all."
   "True enough," said Hermione. "But it's still worth seeing if you get the chance."
   The carriage stopped in front of the castle and the six friends disembarked, meeting up with their friends who had ridden in different carriages. As a group they strode into the entrance hall, making their way through the milling mass of students.
   At one point Fleur noticed the blond Slytherin from earlier staring at them with some displeasure, but he made no comment, merely pointedly turning his back on them with an exaggerated flourish.
   "Looks like something I said may have finally penetrated through Malfoy's rock-hard skull."
   Fleur glanced questioningly at Harry. He pointed toward a tall man with dark hair and black robes who was currently glaring at them with some disdain.
   "In previous years Malfoy would have gone directly to Snape with tales of how I mistreated him. But with Snape just standing there, I guess he hasn't - maybe he wants to turn over a new leaf and start living up to his potential of a bully who doesn't go running to daddy or his head of house at the first sign of trouble."
   "Oh Harry," Hermione said with a roll of her eyes, "don't even joke about something like that. Malfoy is bad enough the way he is - he'd be ten times worse if he actually grew a backbone and acquired some competence."
   Harry chuckled and winked at her, while Fleur merely smiled. She had seen Malfoy in action and could not help but agree with their assessment of the boy. And as for Snape, she had already been warned many times over by members of the entire group. She expected nothing less from the man than the treatment to which he routinely subjected Harry. However, with her father as a protector this year, Snape had better watch his behavior - Jean-Sebastian Delacour was not one to put up with the kind of nonsense for which the man was infamous.
   The group moved further into the hall, and had reached the massive doors to the great hall when they were stopped by the diminutive charms professor Fleur remembered from the previous year.
   "Miss Delacour, welcome to Hogwarts!"
   "Thank you, professor, I am happy to be here."
   "And I am certain that Hogwarts is happy to have stolen such a bright and talented witch from our counterparts in Beauxbatons. You will be a credit to our school, to be sure."
   He leaned close and conspiratorially, but in a stage whisper, said, "I know perhaps you are hoping to be sorted in the same house as your betrothed, but you should consider the house of the intelligent - we would be pleased to have you join us."
   "Are you attempting to influence a prospective student, professor?" asked Hermione with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
   Professor Flitwick grinned at her. "Certainly not, Miss Granger, though now that you mention it, I believe there is another present who should have ended up in my house."
   "Oh no, professor," Luna chimed in. "I think Hermione ending up in Gryffindor was for the best."
   "You are probably right at that," Flitwick replied with a sigh. "But that doesn't stop me from wishing it were different.
   "In any case, my errand here is not a social one," he continued. "I have been instructed by the Headmaster to convey Miss Delacour to his office for her sorting - he feels there is no need to make a spectacle of your sorting in front of the entire school."
   "Yes sir," Fleur agreed, before turning to her companions. "Harry, Hermione, will you come with me also? If that is acceptable, professor."
   "No problem at all, Miss Delacour - I'm sure the support will be more than welcome."
   "We'll take her there, professor," stated Harry. "I'm sure we know the way."
   Flitwick laughed. "I'm sure you do, Mr. Potter. In that case, I will resume my normal duties. Please hurry along, as we do not wish to delay the sorting of the first years."
   With that, Flitwick departed. Harry turned to the rest of the group.
   "Please save us places - we'll be back shortly."
   As the group nodded and departed, Fleur noted that no one called Harry on his assumption that she would be sitting at Gryffindor table with the rest of them. Perhaps it was because she would be sitting with him regardless of whether she was sorted in the same house or not.
   The trip up to the Headmaster's office was accomplished in silence, and when they arrived, the gargoyle guarding the door immediately moved to the side and allowed them to step on the revolving stair. They soon reached the top, and entered through the open door, to find Dumbledore sitting behind his desk, with Professor McGonagall perched on one of the chairs to the side.
   "Ah, Miss Delacour," greeted the Headmaster. He gestured to a chair situated directly in front of his desk. "Please have a seat and we will begin.
   "And as for you, Mr. Potter," said Dumbledore with a barely concealed smirk, "I suppose you felt you had to accompany your betrothed to ensure she was sorted in the proper place?"
   "Of course, Headmaster," said Harry with an answering grin. "I wouldn't want my fiancИe to have to live with the snakes, after all."
   The Headmaster chuckled, while McGonagall looked on with amusement. But it was a ratty old hat sitting on the Headmaster's desk that responded.
   "That will be quite enough, Mr. Potter," said the hat. "Just because you had a bad experience with a future Slytherin and didn't want to be sorted into that house, doesn't mean you control me. Miss Delacour will be placed in the house in which she would be most suited, I assure you, regardless of your juvenile wishes."
   Fleur gaped at Harry with astonishment. Not only was she surprised at the sight of her betrothed being chastised by a hat, but the fact that it had almost played him in Slytherin of all places was a revelation! She regarded Harry, noting that Hermione had an identical expression of shock on her face.
   Harry shrugged and grinned cheekily. "What can I say? I met Malfoy on the train and didn't want to be anywhere near him. I asked the hat not to put me in Slytherin, and given what I have to put up with from the little prick ever since then, it was the right choice."
   "Mr. Potter!" exclaimed Professor McGonagall, though to Fleur's eyes she did not appear to be overly scandalized.
   At the same time, the hat snorted with some exasperation. "I still say you could have aspired to greatness in Slytherin, though I will admit that it was a tossup between Slytherin and Gryffindor. I suppose you have done well there too."
   "Thanks." Harry's response was more than a little sarcastic.
   "Though this is perhaps a most interesting discussion," interjected the Headmaster, "we should move on to what are here for."
   Indicating her readiness, Fleur waited while McGonagall, receiving a nod from Headmaster Dumbledore, retrieved the hat and placed it upon her head. Suddenly, Fleur felt a presence in her mind.
   It is a pleasure to finally be able to sit upon your head, Miss Delacour.
   Fleur laughed. I'm not sure what I expected, but I don't think it was this.
   Well, how could I have come to know your strongest characteristics if I was unable to see in your mind and communicate with you? Should I instead sort you based on the color of your hair, or perhaps you should just tell me where you want to go - would we save time that way, do you think? It worked for Mr. Potter, after all.
   You're rather sarcastic for a hat.
   The hat gave the equivalent of a mental shrug. My creator patterned me after his own personality, and Godric was as sarcastic as anyone I've ever met. I have developed my own brand of cynicism, though - it comes from sitting on the heads of every snot-nosed eleven year-old to come through this institution for the past thousand years.
   I can see how that would affect you, Fleur responded politely.
   I'm sure you can. In fact, I must say it is rather refreshing to be perched on the head of someone a little more mature. I can certainly do without all the pubescent hormones, emotional uncertainty, and the perpetual angst of the unknown which exists in the minds of most of those upon whose heads I have been perched. Now, shall was have a look and place you in your proper house?
   Though speaking with the hat was amusing, its particular brand of sarcastic cynicism was beginning to grate on her. Please.
   The hat went silent for a moment, before it began musing to itself in her head. Most intriguing. I see you have an impressive intelligence, more than enough to see you in the house of Ravenclaw, though perhaps it is not your defining characteristic. You have do have some ambition, though again not as strong as some of your other traits. Regardless, that particular house would obviously not accept you, so the point is moot. You are loyal in the right circumstances, so Hufflepuff is a possibility. However... Ah yes, you have courage aplenty, not only to stand up for who you are, but for the trials you've faced in your life. Then, at the second task, though you were terrified, you faced your fears and competed. For that alone, you would do well in...
   "Gryffindor!"
   Removing the hat from her head, Fleur smiled and thanked both of the professors. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled in response.
   "Well, Minerva?"
   "Nothing more than I expected, Albus," replied the professor, a little smugly, Fleur thought. "In fact, I believe I should have made that wager with you."
   "I think not," responded Dumbledore. "I believe I would have known better than to accept a bet of that kind."
   McGonagall laughed then turned to face Fleur, a bright smile adorning her face. "And let me welcome you to Gryffindor, Miss Delacour! I trust you will be a welcome addition to the house, and will fit in with all your friends."
   "Thank you professor," responded Fleur, somewhat embarrassed at the praise. "I will do my best to become a credit to the house."
   "And I am sure you will," responded the deputy Headmistress. "However, I believe that we have a sorting ceremony to attend, and I would not wish to keep you all from your friends for any longer than is necessary. Let us go to the Great Hall now, shall we?"
   The rest of the evening was somewhat of a blur for Fleur. Though the sorting proceeded in apace, she could not say who was sorted where, other than that her new house had received the most students - almost twenty in number. Not that the other houses were ignored. Harry gave her to understand that this group of first years was by far the largest he had seen in his time at the venerable institution.
   The one thing which was quite clear in her mind when she thought about it later was what happened immediately after the Headmaster's opening remarks and introductions. And if she had not already felt a rather large measure of distaste for the pink-clad woman sitting primly at the head table, looking down her nose at the assembled students - though Fleur privately thought the woman had sneered in the direction of their group more often than anywhere else - the woman's words would have provoked her dislike.
   Upon her introduction, Madam Umbridge stood and after usurping the Headmaster's position, proceeded to address the assembly.
   "Students of Hogwarts, I thank you for the most gracious welcome you have given me. Indeed, I feel at home already amongst you all in this ancient institution."
   The members of their group all exchanged smirks with one another. If the woman truly considered the silent stares a warm welcome, then she was either witless or blind, not to mention deaf.
   "My name is Delores Umbridge," she continued, "and I have the very great honor to be serving as your Defense Against the Dark Arts professor this year. I hope we shall accomplish many great things together in the days ahead."
   The woman stopped for a moment and gazed up at the ceiling, apparently deep in thought.
   "The Ministry has become very concerned about the standard of education taught at this august establishment in recent years," she continued slowly, once her period of introspection had passed. "I am here to ensure the standards of instruction improve, but also to ensure you are taught the proper information which will allow you to succeed, without overwhelming you. I trust this will benefit you not only at Hogwarts, but also in your future life.
   "But make no mistake - I intend to see that Hogwarts improves so that its graduates meet their potential. As a part of this, I have come to the understanding that certain... students," here she directed a simpering glance in Harry's direction, "have received preferential treatment. I assure you that every student in this school is - and is to be considered - equal, by all of the professors."
   She once again flashed her insipid and insincere smile at the students. "Again, thank you, and I look forward to working with you all!"
   The students were dismissed soon after Umbridge's statements, and though Harry and Hermione were busy directing the new first year students to Gryffindor tower, Fleur walked with the rest of their friends in the wake of the wide-eyed new students.
   "Is she for real?" said Ron, voicing the thought Fleur suspected they were all thinking.
   "For real or not, it's going to be an interesting year," said Neville ruefully.
   "Is it any different from usual?" said one of the twins.
   "Yeah, ever since Harry got here, every year has been interesting," said the other.
   Fleur simply took all this in stride, while gazing around at the castle. It was the first time she had been up to the Gryffindor dorms and though she was not unfamiliar with Hogwarts, she was not certain she would be able to find her way again.
   The common room was garishly decorated in red and gold (in Fleur's opinion anyway), but exuded a warm, comfortable feeling despite being rather hard on the eyes. She was introduced to some of the other students, particularly the seventh years, and though she was warmly accepted by the twins' friend, Lee Jordan, she felt the typical reserve from the ladies. Even the three Gryffindor chasers appeared to be somewhat wary of her, even though they clearly had nothing but respect and affection for Harry. She knew that for the time being, until she proved herself, she was been accepted based on the recommendations of the members of their little group. And it was partially her fault, she suspected - they had likely seen her aloof act at the tournament and equated her with the spoiled and arrogant princess she showed to keep the world at bay.
   Still, it was much better than the almost blatant hostility she received from many of the other girls at Beauxbatons. With time - not to mention the girls' eventual understanding that she would not be attempting to steal any prospective boyfriends, not with Harry having already claimed her - she was sure they would become easier in each other's company. In all, she was happy with her first day at school. There would undoubtedly be challenges, but they would stick together and overcome them.

Chapter 12 - Of Bats and Toads

   The school year beginning in September 1995 was an oddity in that September the first was a Friday. As such, after the welcoming feast and the first night in the castle, the next two days fell on the weekend and first classes did not begin until Monday. That did not mean the days were uneventful - in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
   As Angelina had been made the Quidditch captain that year, she had decided that she wanted to get the team squared away as soon as possible, so they could get down to practicing. This was her one chance to win the Quidditch Cup as the team's captain - as she would graduate the next June - and she wanted to make certain that she did everything in her power to ensure that Gryffindor prevailed. The one problem the Gryffindor Quidditch team would face that year was the loss of their keeper, Oliver Wood, who, it was rumored, was trying out for a professional team. Therefore, the position would need to be filled. If Wood's replacement was even marginally competent, Angelina felt her squad had a very good shot at winning the cup again that year, as the rest of the team was returning and had won the cup two years earlier, the previous year being cancelled due to the Triwizard tournament.
   Therefore, on the day after the feast, the hopefuls of Gryffindor house all trooped down to the Quidditch pitch for the anticipated tryouts, and though everyone knew there was only one starting spot available, Angelina had insisted on there being fair tryouts for all positions, regardless of how long they had been on the team, or how secure their position was considered.
   Of course, the tryouts went almost exactly as expected. Fred and George Weasley were clearly the class of those who tried out and were named the team's beaters, while Katie Bell, Alicia Spinet along with Angelina Johnson were the team's chasers. The three girls had played together so long it seemed almost uncanny how well in tune they were with each other. Of course, Harry's position as seeker was secure, though an arrogant sixth year by the name of Cormac McLaggen had been bragging all the way to the pitch how he would take Harry's spot from him. But no one in the school could out-fly Harry, and he caught the snitch in every trial. McLaggen was not best pleased, but he left the pitch in a huff once it became apparent he would not be making good on his boasts.
   The final position was taken by Ron Weasley. Ron had dreamed of the day when he would be able to make the Quidditch team since long before arriving at Hogwarts, and though the trial was somewhat anticlimactic - he was the only one to try out for the spot - he performed competently and was named the starting keeper.
   The one true surprise, however, was the reserve team. The usual suspects, such as Ginny Weasley and Dean Thomas, were again made reserves, but the fact that Fleur Delacour had also tried out and made the team as a reserve chaser, induced many raised eyebrows. It had all come about due to a discussion several days before the start of school.
   ***
   "Harry?"
   Turning to the person of his betrothed, Harry smiled. "Yes?" he asked, noting that she appeared nervous. They had been sitting in one of the rooms of the manor for the past hour and though Harry had been leafing through his transfiguration textbook for the coming year, it had not escaped his attention that she appeared a little nervous and out of sorts. She had been working up to this the whole time they had been in the room.
   "I'm just wondering..." she began, her words coming out slowly, proclaiming her hesitance, "What are the others in my year at Hogwarts like?"
   "I only really know those in Gryffindor," Harry replied. He supposed he should have expected this to a certain extent. Fleur had not had a good history with others her own age, and she would undoubtedly be concerned about how she would be accepted.
   "Well, how are they then?" Fleur asked. "I suspect I'll end up there with you anyway?"
   "What, you don't want to go in with the snakes?" Harry teased gently.
   "Oh, Harry, don't even suggest such a thing!" Hermione exclaimed from where she had been following the conversation in a nearby chair.
   "But Hermione," Harry innocently replied, "you know that not all Slytherins are greasy bastards and slimy gits like Malfoy and Snape, right?"
   Hermione rolled her eyes. "Of course I do. But the house does have a preponderance of bigots. Fleur would never fit in there."
   "Just Gryffindor house please," Fleur interjected, apparently attempting to get the conversation back on its original track.
   "Well, you've already met Fred and George. Lee Jordan is the other guy in seventh year and he's pretty laid back and fun. He spends a lot of time with the twins actually."
   "So I should watch out for him then?" Fleur asked with an arch of an eyebrow. "Is he likely to prank me too?"
   "Nah, Lee's cool. I think he sometimes helps the twins plan their pranks, but he generally lets them do the dirty work. Then you have Angelina and Alicia - they're on the Quidditch team too, along with me and the twins."
   "That's 'the twins and me,' Harry," Hermione corrected him. Harry merely grinned at her impishly, having known that she would try to correct his grammar. Hermione shook her head at him and turned to Fleur.
   "Angelina and Alicia are very nice; I think you'll get along well with them."
   Fleur nodded, but her distraction showed in her unfocused eyes. "I don't have... a good history when it comes to making friends."
   "Just be yourself, Fleur," Hermione urged. "You'll be fine. Besides, you're hogtied to him," Hermione jerked a thumb at Harry, "so you shouldn't have any trouble with jealous girlfriends."
   "Hey!" Harry protested. "I'll have you know that I'm considered to be a fine catch."
   "Methinks someone is obtaining a rather large head," Hermione said in a sing-song, teasing tone.
   "I know!" Harry said, snapping his fingers. It was time to move this conversation away from the tangent in which it had proceeded. "You can fly pretty well, right?"
   "I am a witch, Harry," Fleur replied primly.
   "So is she," Harry retorted, returning Hermione's earlier gesture and pointing his thumb at her.
   "Be nice!" Hermione said while reaching over to slap him on the shoulder. Harry could tell from her grin that she was taking his comment in the spirit in which it was meant.
   "Yes, I can fly," Fleur affirmed. "I may not possess the death-defying skills and fearless ability to out-fly a dragon, but I'm pretty good."
   Harry ignored that comment. "Then why don't you try out for the Quidditch team?" Harry asked. He was more than a little excited about the prospect, the more that he thought about it. It would be nice to have his betrothed on the team, as it would allow them to spend a little more time together and learn more about one another.
   "Harry, that's a great idea!" Hermione exclaimed.
   Fleur, however, did not seem to understand.
   "I wouldn't exactly suggest that Angelina and Alicia are Quidditch fanatics," Harry hastened to explain, "but they do enjoy the game. Trying out would be a way to get their respect pretty much instantly. I think it would be a good way to meet others, especially the two girls you'd be sharing a dorm with. And Katie's on the team too. She's a year younger, but she's really nice. You could get to know her too."
   "Well, I have played a little in the Beauxbatons recreation league," Fleur began slowly.
   "That would be perfect," Harry assured her. "Unless you're a great flyer, you're unlikely to unseat any of the three starting chasers, but you could be an alternate, and maybe get into some of the games."
   Smiling, Fleur nodded her head; it seemed that the Gryffindor Quidditch team would have another member trying out this year.
   ***
   It turned out that Harry's advice was almost prophetic in nature. Angelina had praised Fleur's flying ability and her determination, and a bridge had been built between Fleur and the three chasers. And though perhaps she could not at this point consider the three girls close friends, she could at least consider them strong acquaintances. Time spent together would do the rest. It was a heady realization for a young woman who had largely been lonely throughout her school experience.
   Another thing of note that weekend was the behavior of one Ron Weasley, which raised some eyebrows, not to mention provoking some smirks and muted laughter at times. Simply put, Ron had decided it was time to seriously woo his chosen love, and though he was earnest and sincere, his efforts were at times so blatantly obvious that a blind man could see them.
   The twins - who knew what he was about, given the fact that they had gifted him with the book - sat back to enjoy the show for the most part, poking fun at their brother whenever they got the chance. For his part, Harry stayed well clear of the torturous mating ritual, knowing that Ron's short temper would be ignited if he suspected his closest friend was not only aware of his attempts, but found them vastly amusing.
   As for the recipient of Ron's attempts at courtship, Hermione found herself more embarrassed than anything else. She was flattered that he felt that way about her - she truly was - but the more she thought about her conversation with Fleur, the more she understood that the French witch was absolutely correct in her assessment of the situation. She and Ron were not compatible, and she had no interest in dating him.
   The problem, of course, was how to tell Ron in a manner which would not only not hurt his feelings, but induce him to accept the situation with grace. She attempted to indicate to him gently that she did not return his feelings, but he either misread her attempts, or blatantly ignored them. After a few days of this, Hermione finally decided that the best way to handle the situation would be to wait for him to finally come to the point and let him down gently. Now all she had to do was to endure his attentions until he decided to do so.
   As for her other topic of conversation with Fleur, Hermione had firmly decided that to enter into a relationship with Harry when he was already involved with Fleur was not a decision she could make on the spur of the moment. There were so many things to consider: her feelings - which were as strong as they had ever been - her parents' reactions, whether she could actually share her husband, to name a few. It would take much thought before she felt she could even begin to determine what she wanted to do. For the time being, she resolved to think about it, while intimating to Fleur that she was considering it, and would appreciate some time to do so. Fleur, who truly liked Hermione, was quick to assure her friend that she would not press her. Of course, Harry remained blissfully ignorant of the situation.
   ***
   While Harry had been happy to return to Hogwarts for his fifth year, the first day of classes - and indeed every succeeding Monday - was not exactly something to be anticipated. Not only did Monday start out with History - the most boring class in existence, in Harry's opinion - but it was followed up with a double potions class with Slytherin, and then Defense after lunch with the newly appointed Umbridge. Potions was always fun with Snape at the helm, especially when Gryffindor was paired with Slytherin, but Defense, which had always been a favorite of Harry's, now promised to be just as trying.
   Therefore, following the History class - a class in which Harry had actually managed to stay conscious, despite the inducement to catch up on his sleep - Harry and his friends made their way toward the dungeons, wondering what the Slytherin potions master had in store for them this year.
   "Harry, you need to relax," Hermione said from his side. "Potions isn't all that bad."
   "Speak for yourself, Hermione," Neville said somewhat morosely. "You aren't Snape's favorite chew toy."
   Turning to look at her friend, Hermione tried to cheer the young man. "You just need to follow the instructions, Neville. The problems you've had in the past are because you did something in the wrong order."
   Neville snorted. "That would be good advice, but Snape hovers around and I get flustered. I think he does it on purpose."
   "Don't be ridiculous, Neville," responded Hermione, somewhat primly it was to be admitted.
   "You know he does, Hermione," interjected Harry. "The plonker has a vendetta against me and Neville - you know he does."
   "Neville and me, Harry," said Hermione offhandedly, to which Harry grinned and winked at Neville. It had become something of a game in the past few weeks for Harry to deliberately say something which would cause Hermione to correct him, though to be honest she had been doing it since they had met.
   Hermione completely missed the exchange, however, as she appeared to be deep in thought. And although she appeared as though she wanted to refute his claim, years of experiencing the professor's treatment of Harry suggested otherwise, and Hermione was certainly smart enough to see it. The man was a professional - that could not be denied. He was acknowledged as a true master of the subject of potions, and Harry could never detect any deficiency in his knowledge. In addition, he was also a competent teacher, relating and instructing the students with a flair which could be infectious, if the man himself was not so personally distasteful.
   The major problem with him was the fact that although he was a professional, he did not act in a professional manner, allowing his dislike for any not of his own house, and a few in particular, to color his interpersonal relationships with his students. The man was a bit of a bully.
   "I've had a few choice words from him myself," interjected Ron.
   Hermione sighed. "He is a little... strict."
   "Hermione, I could stand strict," said Harry. "It's the unfairness, the bullying and the outright intimidation I don't particularly like. The man is skilled, no doubt about it, but he's still a child in the way he acts. I'll bet you he wouldn't act that way if my parents were alive."
   "You're right, Harry," Hermione said. "But you'd better stop talking. We're here now."
   "Well, the Snape-free summer was nice while it lasted."
   They entered the classroom to discover the potions master still blessedly absent - in fact, only a few of the Slytherins had arrived. Taking a seat near the middle of the classroom, Harry suppressed a smile when Hermione sat down next to him, prompting a glare from Ron, and then pulled his textbook from his backpack and arranged his things on his desk in preparation for class. He knew from experience, after all, that being ready for the beginning of the day's lecture would earn him a small measure of grudging respect from Snape. At the very least it gave the man one less thing to complain about.
   For the few minutes before the other students began to file in, the four friends spoke in low voices, about potions and school, but Defense in particular. Harry had already made certain to pass Jean-Sebastian's warning about Umbridge on the express, but the specifics of what the woman would be attempting were still unknown. They had made an agreement, therefore, to support one another and ensure she was given no reason to make an example of them, regardless of how difficult she made it for them in class.
   A few moments before the beginning of class, Malfoy and his friends walked into the room and took their seats at the very back of the class. In the two days since the confrontation on the train, Harry had seen the Malfoy scion several times, but every time the blond twit had declined to bait his favorite target, making Harry hope that he had finally been able to get through to the ponce. Unfortunately, the moment Draco entered the room, Harry's hope was dashed.
   "Hey Scarhead, congratulations on your engagement."
   Harry ignored him - as long as he said nothing against Fleur, the little bigot could spout whatever he liked.
   "Good thing he landed a betrothal," Parkinson sneered. "No one would have him otherwise."
   Harry just laughed at Pansy's stupidity - if anything, the unwanted fame of being the Boy-Who-Lived made it easy for him to find a girlfriend, if all he wanted was a shallow relationship with a girl who wanted nothing more than his fame.
   "It seems like even the bollicking I gave you on the express hasn't managed to knock some sense into your empty head, Bad Faith.
   "And as for you, Parkinson," he continued, fixing the girl with a glare, "even a betrothal contract wouldn't be enough to get you attached. Your family would have to pay someone to take you off their hands, and even then they would have to throw a bag over your pug face."
   Parkinson colored and looked to be gathering a retort, when Draco threw himself back into the fray. "I hear you're claiming that the Dark Lord is back. Has he come after you yet? I bet you're crying in your bed at night wondering when he will finally show up teach you a lesson."
   "And I've heard that he hasn't been able to go anywhere," countered Harry with an evil smirk. "The scuttlebutt is that your lips have been magically attached to his arse all summer."
   Furious, Malfoy grabbed his wand and directed a hex at Harry. But Harry, who had been expecting this from the Slytherin, blocked it easily and hit him in the chest with a stinging hex of his own, causing the blond to yelp in pain. The Gryffindors laughed at the ponce's girly squeak, while the rest of the Slytherins looked on, for the most part impassively.
   Of course, Snape chose that exact moment to enter the classroom.
   "Potter!" he yelled. "That will be five points and detention for hexing a classmate."
   "Don't look now," Harry whispered to Hermione, "but His Lugubriousness has arrived."
   Hermione let out a soft giggle at Harry's quip, an action which was covered nicely by Ron's protestations.
   "What about Malfoy?" Ron demanded. "He started it and threw the first curse."
   Snape turned his dark glare on the redhead. "Perhaps you'd like to join your friend in detention for lying, Weasley?"
   "He wasn't lying, sir," Neville said in a rare show of backbone in front of his nemesis.
   Snape regarded Neville as though he was an insect. "I only saw Potter's actions. Any further discussion on this subject will result in more points and detentions."
   Harry said nothing, content with sitting back in his chair and glaring at a now smirking Malfoy. He reviewed the confrontation, noting the attempt to get a rise out of him by the Slytherins. He did not know if it had been planned from the start, though he doubted that Snape would conspire with a group of students to hand out a detention to another, not when he was so gifted at managing it all himself. But if Harry had to guess, he thought that Snape had probably been waiting outside the classroom door - waiting for an opportunity, knowing the mutual hatred which existed between the two boys. He would have to think about it further, and figure out a way to turn the tables on the Slytherins.
   The rest of potions class went much the same as it usually did. Harry, by virtue of being Hermione's lab partner - not to mention his newfound dedication to his studies - was able to brew the potion assigned. He was even able to induce Snape to pronounce the potion "acceptable," though he was certain the professor would almost rather have gouged out his own eyes than praise the son of his enemy. Hermione's potion was, as usual, impeccable. Even Ron and Neville were able to gain acceptable grades for the day's work, though their potions were not exactly the right shade Snape had expected.
   As they left the potions laboratory, Harry made it a point to ignore the Slytherins who were still heckling him as he walked from the classroom, he mind still working over the problem of Snape and his unprofessional attitude.
   "Harry," Hermione said gently, "you really should know better than to respond to Malfoy. Can't you just ignore him like you're doing now?"
   "Do you suppose he waited outside the classroom to try to catch me doing something?"
   "Doesn't he always?" was Ron's pessimistic statement.
   Expecting Hermione to scoff at his suggestion, Harry was surprised when she thought about it before responding. "He does seem to have near perfect timing, doesn't he?"
   "That and he's a bigoted, unprofessional, childish git, who can't see past the fact that I'm James Potter's son," groused Harry.
   "You seemed to take the fact that he assigned you a detention rather calmly."
   "He's done it before and he'll do it again," was Harry's shrugged response. "The more I protest, the worse it gets, so why bother?"
   "But it's not right!"
   "Tell it to Snape," said Harry, and with a grin he put his arm around her shoulders, ignoring Ron's dark look at his actions. "Look, Hermione, you're right about allowing Malfoy to provoke me into a response. We promised Jean-Sebastian that we wouldn't let Umbridge trick us into doing something she could use against us, and I go and let Draco do the same. I'll have to apply that same principle to Malfoy and Snape."
   The look Hermione gave him was proud and a little mischievous. "That's a rather mature attitude, Harry. I didn't think you had it in you."
   Harry waggled his eyebrows, provoking a laugh from his friend. "Maybe it is. I guess we all have to grow up at some time."
   "All right you two, what's so funny?" Ron demanded, hurrying up to them.
   It was all Harry could do not to roll his eyes - even after informing Ron that he had no designs on Hermione, the redhead still regarded them with suspicion when they so much as glanced at one another. He should know better, as they had behaved in this manner practically since the first day they had become friends. Really, Harry wished Ron would just settle down - he would have a much better chance with Hermione if he was not so tense and jealous of her interactions.
   "We were just talking about how to deal with Snape and Malfoy," said Hermione, while disengaging herself from Harry's arm. The apologetic sidelong glance at Harry nearly prompted his laughter in response. He did manage to control himself, but it was a near thing.
   Ron turned and looked at Harry. "What, you're going to banish them through a wall? Or maybe hex their bits off?"
   "Nah, I'll just ignore them. That's what Jean-Sebastian told us to do with Umbridge - why shouldn't it work for the bat and the ferret?"
   Though Ron looked a little dubious - simply ignoring Malfoy had never actually been on the table before. He said nothing though, and the foursome entered the Great Hall for lunch.
   They found Fleur sitting with the twins and the chasers halfway down the Gryffindor table and sat beside them, Harry sitting next to Fleur with Hermione on his other side. The talk turned to the morning's classes - the seventh years had begun the year with charms - and though the twins pressed them, knowing they had had potions that morning, Harry brushed them off, saying it had been just another potions class. It was a sad fact that Harry spoke nothing but the truth - unfortunately, Snape's behavior that morning had not been anything out of the ordinary.
   ***
   That afternoon, their Monday continued with the dreaded Ministry-appointed Umbridge. Though the class had not yet started, a sense of foreboding had settled over the joint Hufflepuff/Gryffindor class.
   It was perhaps ridiculous, Hermione thought to herself, considering the fact that none of them knew the woman personally, and most of the class had little clue of what to expect from her. Even her words on the night of the feast had contained very little real information as to how she would run the class that year, and had said nothing of her teaching methods.
   Of course, the textbook they had been assigned was not the best - it was vague and contained relatively little information, especially considering this was an OWL year. But again, that in and of itself did not account for the nervousness Hermione felt from her classmates.
   Regardless, the nervousness was present, perhaps to a greater degree than it had been even during first year - firsties are nervous about everything - and fourth year, when an unpredictable, yet decorated Auror had been contracted to instruct at the school. The fact that Voldemort's return had been publicized, though completely denied by the current Minister, added to the atmosphere, but Hermione had to attribute the uncertainty to the fact that Umbridge was known as a vehement supporter of the Minister, and a cruel detractor of anything not Pureblood.
   As the bell sounded, the door to the woman's office opened, and she stepped through, directing a sweet smile - which was patently false - at the assembled students. Hermione snorted inwardly; the woman herself certainly projected no overt threat. How could she? Unless one's greatest fear was short, pudgy women, dressed tastelessly from head to toe in pink, she could hardly intimidate. In fact, she reminded Hermione more of a pink Care Bear than a Defense Professor.
   "Hem, hem, welcome to Defense Against the Dark Arts class," she simpered once she had reached the desk at the front of the room. "I thank you all for coming to class on time. I trust you are all ready to learn as you never have before!"
   In private, Hermione had to suppress the urge to gape at the woman as though she was stupid - it was an OWL year, after all. Why would they show up if not to learn? To her side, she thought she sensed Harry suppressing a snicker, but when she glanced at him his face was placid and controlled. A thrill of affection raced through her, and she considered the events of the summer and how he had grown and matured since fourth year. The old Harry would likely already have started becoming impatient with the woman and her prattle.
   Umbridge scanned the room, her eyes coming to a stop on Harry for the briefest of moments before moving on, and though her expression did not change, Hermione could almost sense the malevolence hidden below the surface. It was completely beyond her how something so pink and fluffy could be considered malevolent, and it was that thought which had her suppressing another laugh. She hoped that Harry would be able to continue to control his temper as this woman would almost certainly test it.
   "Well now, class, I understand your education to be somewhat fractured in this class, is that not so? We at the Ministry are well aware of the fact that not one professor has lasted for more than one year for some time now."
   When the class grumbled their assent, the woman smiled and continued. "This year shall be different. The best minds at the Ministry have toiled over the summer months to determine a curriculum which will not only provide you with the best education, but will do so in a safe, Ministry-sanctioned environment. As such, I will share with you the goals for this course for the coming year."
   At a wave of her wand, a short list appeared on the blackboard.
   1. Understanding the principles underlying defensive magic.
   2. Learning to recognize situations in which defensive magic can legally be used.
   3. Placing the use of defensive magic in a context for practical use.
   Though Hermione wondered exactly what the woman was up to, she dutifully copied the points down on her parchment, along with the other members of the class.
   "Now, I presume everyone has a copy of Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard?" said Umbridge once the scratching of quills had ceased.
   A murmured assent met her query, to which she frowned. "Perhaps your previous professors ran their classes in a lackadaisical manner, but when I went to school, we raised our hands when we wished to speak in class, and when the professor asks a question we respond, 'Yes, Professor Umbridge,' or 'No, Professor Umbridge.' Now, shall we try that again?"
   "Yes, Professor Umbridge," the class intoned, and though Hermione could definitely detect a certain mocking quality from several quarters, it seemed to satisfy the professor.
   "Much better. Now, if you will all open to chapter one, let us jump right into the material."
   The material was dry. In fact, it was worse than dry. Even Hermione, who had never had trouble staying awake in History of Magic - though perhaps she was the only one - found the text to be almost hypnotizing. The author, though perhaps possessing a certain competent knowledge of defensive magic, had obviously never actually cast such a spell in his life, as the text was littered with theory, conjecture, and anecdotal accounts of possible uses of defensive spells. In short, as Hermione had expected, the material was useless.
   Umbridge ran the class much as Hermione remember from her second grade in the local primary school. Anyone who wished to speak was required to raise their hand, and Umbridge demanded that she be referred to as "Professor Umbridge." The level of formality was not so much the issue, as that was how she generally referred to all of her professors. It was more that Umbridge seemed to be trying to stamp her authority on the class, and not only because she was teaching it.
   Underneath it all, Umbridge seemed to be watching the class with an almost ferocious glee. She clearly expected someone to say something about the text, and the way she gazed at Harry suggested that she expected it to be him. Harry, however, merely read along with the rest of the class and contributed his not inconsiderable knowledge to the conversation at the appropriate times, though he never offered an answer without prompting. The times he did speak, it was due to Umbridge calling on him, hoping, Hermione suspected, to obtain a rise out of him.
   Hermione, knowing that she was not the target that Harry was decided it was up to her to poke at the woman a little in an attempt to discover exactly what she was up to. At a short pause in the discussion, Hermione raised her hand, speaking once Umbridge had acknowledged her with a sickly sweet smile.
   "I'm just wondering," said Hermione in as diffident a manner as she could manage. "This theory is... interesting, but in previous years we would already have begun practicing the material by now. When will we get to that?"
   Umbridge's smile was patronizing and her answer even more so. "My dear child, surely the subject is interesting enough that you are not already dissatisfied?"
   "No, Professor. I am merely inquiring as to when we will be allowed to use what we are studying."
   Umbridge let out an exasperated sigh. "Are you a Ministry-accredited instructor, Miss...?"
   "Granger," Hermione answered. "And no I am not. I'm just wondering - that's all."
   Though Umbridge looked suspicious, she merely answered the question with the same condescension as she had showed earlier. "Well then, the answer is very simple, Miss Granger. We will not actually be casting spells in this class, as it is unnecessary."
   The faces around the room darkened at the implication.
   "But Professor, isn't practical application in Defense the most important aspect?" queried Susan Bones.
   Hermione did not truly know Susan - as a Hufflepuff she tended to keep to herself and fly under the radar, as many Hufflepuffs did. However, what she knew of the girl suggested that she was intelligent and hardworking, and perhaps most importantly, protected. Her aunt was the director of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, after all, and Hermione doubted Umbridge would incur the wrath of the DMLE head unless Susan truly did something to merit punishment.
   "You could injure yourself using these spells, Miss Bones."
   "Wouldn't we be more injured if a dark curse actually hit us because we have not practiced the proper counter?" demanded Ron.
   Umbridge turned her sickly smile on Ron. "Now where could you possibly come into contact with a dark curse, Mr. Weasley? Do you not think our institution is safe?"
   Harry and Hermione shared an amused look - given what had happened every year of their education at Hogwarts, a very strong case could be made that it was most certainly not safe. However, pointing that out to Umbridge would likely prompt her anger in return, so the friends kept silent.
   "Oh the school is safe," replied Ron, though perhaps only a few of his closest friends caught the irony in his voice. "But what happens if I am attacked in Diagon Alley?"
   "Then you should call in the Aurors, Mr. Weasley. Is that not what they are there for?"
   "To apprehend criminals, perhaps," said Susan Bones, a hint of steel in her voice, "but the Aurors cannot be everywhere at once. If you wait for Aurors to arrive on the scene, you may be dead already."
   "What an imagination you have, Miss Bones. I assure you that Diagon Alley - and any other wizarding area - is completely safe. There is no need to fear."
   "Pardon me, Professor, but that is not what my aunt says. She has told me on multiple occasions that she has far too few Aurors to properly protect the populace, and that it is every citizen's right and responsibility to protect themselves. We all carry a deadly weapon on us at all times, after all."
   A flash of annoyance spread over Umbridge's face, but she masked it in an instant. Clearly, the woman was upset that the niece of the DMLE head had torn her arguments apart so effortlessly.
   "A deadly weapon? What fanciful nonsense are you speaking?"
   "A wand," Harry's voice rang out through the room.
   "Pardon me Mr. Potter?"
   Harry gazed at the woman with the placid look he had adopted since she had entered the room plastered across his face. "The weapon Susan referred to, Professor, is a wand. Each of us carries with us a tool which is capable of bludgeoning, stinging, cutting, causing a person to itch, regurgitate slugs, and a whole host of other unpleasant things. And given what the fake Professor Moody demonstrated last year, it can also be used to torture, kill, and force someone to do what you want them to do."
   "And are you planning on committing such nefarious deeds, Mr. Potter?"
   Hermione almost chuckled at the stupidity of the question, and wondered if Umbridge truly expected Harry to respond incorrectly. Did she truly consider him an imbecile? The woman was about as subtle as a high-speed bludger.
   "Of course not, Professor," replied Harry. "I'm merely pointing out some of the things which are theoretically possible with a tool which we all carry on our persons at all times."
   Umbridge shook her head, her visage sorrowful. "And that is what I am speaking of. Obviously your experiences last year with your Defense professor have skewed your views. You should not consider your wand to be a weapon - only hooligans and misfits would think in such a manner. Rather, you should think of it as a tool which can be used to perform amazing feats of magic."
   "Oh, I do, Professor," said Harry with an entirely feigned measure of earnestness. It was all Hermione could do not to laugh at the way Harry was baiting her without appear to be baiting her.
   It was again clear from the almost constipated expression of disappointment she sported, that Harry's brief and concise answer irritated Umbridge. She was sent to the school to attempt to marginalize Harry - and likely Dumbledore - that much was certain. But she was obviously having difficulty determining exactly how to go about accomplishing this mission, given the fact that Harry was not behaving as she had expected him to. Hermione was proud of Harry all over again - Hermione did not know what the toad had planned, but Harry certainly was not making it easy for her.
   "But Professor," Parvati Patil chimed in with a perky and seemingly innocent enthusiasm, "you just said there was no danger in the magical world. Shouldn't that suggest that there are no 'hooligans' and 'misfits?'"
   The entire class had to stifle their laughter at such blatant challenge of the professor had told them. Though Umbridge's eyes narrowed for a moment, her sickly sweet smile never left her face.
   "Please put your hand up if you wish to speak, Miss Patil. I will not have this class degenerate into a group of rowdies all clamoring for attention.
   "In answer to your question, I did say that the wizarding world is safe, but I also said that if you stumble into a dangerous situation, you should allow the Aurors to handle it. They are the professionals, after all."
   Hermione could almost hear the rolling of eyes at Umbridge's statement. The woman must truly consider them to be nothing more than eight year-old children, if she expected them to be taken in by her blatant obfuscation.
   "But Professor," Dean Thomas chimed in, "it's our OWL year. How are we supposed to pass our practical exams if we don't practice the spells?"
   "Raise your hand, Mr. Thomas!" Umbridge squealed.
   Dean raised his hand and waved it around in an exaggerated manner, repeating his question once Umbridge had motioned for him to do so.
   "There will be enough theoretical knowledge in the course of the year, that when it comes time for you to take the practical portion of your exam, you should have no problems."
   "So we'll need to cast the spells in an examination situation, without ever having performed them before?" demanded Justin Finch-Fletchley, who had until that moment remained silent.
   "Is that a problem?"
   "Casting a spell without practice?" said Ron. "It sure is!"
   Murmurs of agreement echoed from all sides of the room.
   "It usually takes some practice time before I can properly cast a spell, and I'm not the only one," Ron continued. "Not all of us can be Harry Potter, after all."
   A gleam entered Umbridge's eye as she turned her attention on Harry. Knowing Harry as she did, Hermione guessed that Harry would like to smack Ron upside the head for unnecessarily drawing attention to him.
   "We can't all be Mr. Potter, is it? I must admit that I was unaware of the presence of a prodigy in our midst."
   Harry shook his head. "I'm not a prodigy, Professor. I'm just a student trying to study my hardest, get the best grades I can, and have a little fun at school."
   "Don't let him fool you," Dean spoke up. "Harry's better at defense than all the rest of us put together."
   "Don't give him a bigger head than he already has," Seamus said in a stage whisper, accompanied by a glare at Harry. He had not been overt, but since they had returned for classes, Seamus had seemed a little colder to Harry than he had been in the past
   "Hands, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Finnegan," Umbridge said absently, while still gazing at Harry. "Is this so, Mr. Potter?"
   Harry's answering gaze was calm and implacable. "I don't know about that, Professor Umbridge - I don't really want to get into bragging about myself, you understand. Defense is my best subject, and I usually pick up the spells quite quickly, but I'm sure there are others who do as well."
   "And did you pick up last year's lessons as well as you normally do?"
   Harry paused and looked up, while cupping his hand in his chin, in apparent thought. "Well, of course we didn't try to cast the Unforgivables - I guess that's a line that not even Barty Crouch Jr. would dare to cross. But whatever you say about the man, he was an effective teacher - I suppose it was because of the fact that he was so familiar with the dark arts himself, being a previous follower of the Dark Lord and all."
   All of Umbridge's affected sweetness was by now completely missing from her manner. The way her eyes were fixed on Harry, Hermione suspected that if she could pierce him through with just her gaze, Harry would be bleeding on the floor even now. However, even she could not take exception to what he said.
   "A Dark Lord you claim has returned, if I recall correctly, Mr. Potter."
   Hermione held her breath - Umbridge was now not only openly tempting Harry to respond, she was obviously attempting to get him to lose his temper by insinuating that he was either lying or delusional about Voldemort's return. With the Minister's insistence that the Dark Lord could not have returned, it was clear to see what she hoped to accomplish.
   "I've told my story, Professor Umbridge, and I see no reason to continue to discuss it. Obviously, given your faith in Minister Fudge and Madam Bones, they are handling the situation - as a mere student, I don't see that it's my place to become involved any further."
   "There is no situation to be handled, Mr. Potter, as the Dark Lord has not returned."
   "Then I have nothing to worry about," replied Harry with a shrug.
   She continued to stare at Harry with a hint of consternation entering into her eyes. It was but a moment, however, before she once again resumed her veneer of sweetness.
   "If you are as good as the rest of the class seems to think, then you should have no problem with the Defense OWL exam."
   "I don't rightly know, Professor," responded Harry with a genial smile. "We've only just begun the year, and this is just the first class."
   Harry's smile became brighter and Hermione thought she could detect a hint of deviousness in his eyes. "If you would like me to provide an assessment of your class once the year is complete, I'd be happy to do so, but I don't think I could do so now with so little practical experience."
   Umbridge's eyes widened in surprise. Obviously she had not expected an answer from him, and the concept of a student rating a teacher was not something which had made its way into the magical world. However, Umbridge merely looked away and returned to her desk, her disappointment palpable.
   "If the interruptions are finished, I believe we should return to the lesson. I trust you all still have your books open?"
   The rest of the class passed in the same manner the first part had, with sections of the book read to the class while the professor expounded on certain points. Her observations were insipid, and downright stupid on some cases, while in others, she merely restated exactly what the book said, with the words merely rearranged to give her the appearance of expanding upon the subject. In other words, the woman had proved beyond a doubt her lack of any detailed knowledge, and just exactly how little use her class would be in preparing them for their OWL exams. With a useless text and a useless professor, this class would perhaps be even worse than Lockhart's class.
   What Hermione could not decide was what to do about it. Could they have Professor Moody come and tutor them to get some practical application? But that would almost certainly draw the attention - and the ire - of the esteemed toad-woman, who would almost certainly object, not to mention giving her some ammunition to proceed with whatever plans still percolated in her ugly head. It was a dilemma to be certain, and one which would require some thought.
   At length, the class was dismissed. The four friends filed from the room and out in the hallway, pausing for a brief moment to let the Hufflepuffs and the rest of the Gryffindors to clear the area.
   "Can you believe that woman?" Neville began in an undertone.
   "I'm more concerned about Harry," said Hermione. "I'm proud of you, Harry - you ignored her insults and kept your temper."
   Harry shrugged and then grinned at her. "I won't say I wasn't tempted. But she's so full of it that I figured it was a waste of my time to play her game."
   "Good on you, mate," said Ron, stepping forward and putting his arm around Hermione's shoulders.
   Hermione was just able to keep herself from rolling her eyes at him before she disengaged his arm from her shoulders with a gentle twist. Speaking of blatant, Ron had been getting more and more obvious since they had arrived at school. It was not difficult to keep him at bay, but it was a little annoying.
   "It's no big deal," said Harry. "I appreciate your support, but in the end, it's just like Jean-Sebastian said. She's just not worth the effort.
   "I'll tell you this, though," he continued with more than a little steel in his voice. "If all she does is try to get me to respond, I can handle her. But I won't take, or allow my friends to take any abuse from her or anyone else, just like I told Malfoy."
   The boys murmured their agreement to his sentiments, and they set off for Gryffindor tower. Hermione was of two minds about Harry's declaration. On the one hand, she knew that they all need to stand up for one another and push back against the bullies. However, Umbridge truly was not worth it and Harry would only get himself into hot water with her if he pushed back.
   But then again, he would not be Harry if he just lay down and took whatever Umbridge dished out. He was far too noble for that.
   ***
   It was later that evening when the friends were gathered in the Gryffindor common room. Fleur was sitting beside Harry, with Hermione on her other side, while Ron tried to get as close as possible to Hermione in a nearby armchair. Neville and the twins sat on the other side of a table from them, and the chasers were all close by. Nominally the group was glancing over their respective school work and textbooks for the next day. In reality, however, there was very little studying actually occurring. The group was more engrossed in discussing the day's events than anything else.
   When the older students heard what had happened in Defense, there was some groaning and moaning about having to put up with that woman for a whole year. However, there was an equal number of smirks for the way that Harry had dealt with her.
   Fleur's true interest, however, appeared to be captured when the account of the morning's potions class was shared. Harry, though in truth he still despised Snape as much as the sentiment was returned by the greasy bat, treated the episode as though it were nothing more than a joke. And to him it was - he had been dealing with it since he started at Hogwarts.
   Fleur, however, did not see it in quite that manner.
   "Is this the way the potions professor normally behaves?" Her voice was flinty and her expression hard.
   "Don't worry, Fleur, I've learned to deal with Snape."
   Throwing her hands up in the air with some exasperation, Fleur glared at him. "That's not the point, Harry. A professor has an obligation to the students he teaches. He must be fair, teach his subject in a manner which can be understood, help those who require additional help, and ultimately, to guide his students through their studies so that they succeed. It sounds to me like Snape is a pretty poor teacher."
   Hermione sighed. "Actually, Snape is a good teacher. He understands potions, and is very good at explaining how different ingredients work together to create the proper effect. That is, when he takes the time to do so."
   "Yeah, but too bad he's such a failure as a human being," said Harry with a snort.
   "Are you the only one he picks on?"
   Harry shared a glance with Neville. "He favors his own house without a doubt. It's always seemed to me that he singles Neville and me out more often than not."
   "Do you know why?"
   "As for me, it's probably because I'm pants at potions," said Neville with a certain note of dejection in his voice.
   "Have you ever attempted to make a potion without that bully standing over you?"
   An embarrassed Neville just shrugged his shoulders in response.
   "And you, Harry?"
   Leaning back on the sofa, Harry thought about it for several moments. Fleur did have a point about Neville's performance, and he knew that though he himself would never be a master at potion making, his new confidence induced by a loving family had given him a sense of determination to do better, something which would likely affect his potion making skills.
   Even more than the aspect of his potion making, Harry found that he truly liked this side of Fleur which he had never seen before. Not only did she exude a righteous anger, and a sense of determination for a cause, but he also found it made her already stunning beauty somehow more enticing.
   "In my case it has to do more with my parents than with me, I think," Harry responded at length. "Sirius told me that my Dad and Snape were rivals at school, and that their rivalry sometimes got out of hand. As for my Mum, apparently she and Snape were close friends before coming to Hogwarts. But they drifted apart over the years and Snape blamed my father for their estrangement."
   "So, a professor, at what is widely considered to be the premier magical school in Europe - if not the world - essentially picks on three quarters of the student population and singles out certain students for special treatment. This is bullying, Harry. Normally a student would only have to worry about bullying from other students, not from their teachers."
   Harry nodded his head with the others - what Fleur had said was only the truth.
   "Have you appealed the detention and points?"
   Harry merely looked blankly at her, while Hermione started and peered at her with some surprise.
   "Appealed?" queried Hermione. "You can do that?"
   Fleur rolled her eyes. "Of course you can. Surely you have such a process in the Muggle school system as well?"
   "Well, yes, but..." Hermione trailed off.
   Knowing what Hermione was thinking, Harry understood her reluctance to speak. It was known - even by many Purebloods, who had never had any interaction whatsoever with the Muggle world - that socially the magical world was many decades behind their Muggle counterparts. However, it was one thing to understand it, and quite another to have it pointed out to you.
   Luckily, either Fleur did not understand Hermione's reticence, or she chose the simple expedient of ignoring it. "Hermione, I would be very surprised if there was not an appeals process at Hogwarts. There is certainly one at Beauxbatons. Though the house system and house points do not exist there, I still have seen it used to protest detentions, or even essay results. There must be something similar at Hogwarts."
   "I've never heard of one," Angelina chimed in.
   Many of the other students who had been listening to the conversation murmured in agreement. It was a general consensus that had such a process been known, it would have been used long before to protest Snape's treatment of Gryffindors in general.
   Thoughtful Harry wondered if such a process did exist, and if so, if it could be used to get the greasy bat off of his back. It was certainly worth a try.
   "All right," he finally said, responding to Fleur's unspoken question. "I'll go to Dumbledore tomorrow and talk to him about what happened in potions today."
   A bright smile met his declaration. "Good choice, Harry. I will go with you. If Dumbledore refuses to do anything, we can always involve my father."
   Harry frowned. "I'm not sure we need to call your father, Fleur. Like I said, I've handled Snape for the past four years - I'm sure I can continue to do so."
   "But you don't need to, nor should you have to," said Fleur with an affectionate pat on his hand. "Snape undermines the entire educational process when he behaves like a bully, and a generation of Hogwarts students has not had the potions experience they should have had due to his actions. That needs to be corrected.
   "And besides, you now have my family to help look out for you. You don't need to do it all yourself."
   This was at the crux of the issue, Harry mused. He had always been required to be self sufficient and make certain he looked out for himself - the Dursleys certainly could never be bothered to have his best interests at heart. Even after he had arrived at Hogwarts and made friends who would look out for him, it had not been the same as having a parent to watch over him. Rather than feel smothered like he would have expected, Harry found that he liked the sensation. It felt good to know he was no longer alone.

Chapter 13 - Appeals and Reprimands

   Fleur Delacour, filled with righteous anger, turned out to be a revelation for Harry. Not only did it make her even more enticing than she already was, as he had previously noted, but it also revealed a whole new facet of his betrothed which he had never known existed. The affection and respect he felt for her deepened because of it.
   Though he had promised her the day before that he would talk to Dumbledore about Snape's behavior, she apparently harbored enough doubt about his intentions - or more about his tendency to try to deal with everything on his own, as she informed him - that Harry arrived in the common room the following morning and was greeted by the sight of Fleur waiting impatiently on a nearby sofa. By her side sat Hermione, who appeared to be slightly in awe of Fleur; his betrothed was obviously still incensed by Snape's actions. Upon seeing him, Fleur rose and greeted him with a perfunctory, "Good morning, Harry," before grasping his hand, beckoning Hermione to accompany them, and essentially frog-marching them out of Gryffindor common room.
   It had been Hermione who had pointed out - quite correctly - that courtesy, as well as proper procedure, dictated that their first appeal should be made to their head of house, rather than directly to the Headmaster. And while Fleur was clearly eager for an accounting from the Headmaster as to why this situation had been allowed to persist, she had grudgingly agreed with Hermione's assessment. Therefore, to Professor McGonagall's office they were to go.
   On the way to their destination, Harry's thoughts led him to his new understanding of several of Fleur's traits, as she admitted to having herself. The first was that Fleur was a rather patient witch, one who would put up with quite a bit before truly becoming angry. However, when that anger was released, it was rarely a mild display, and more often resembled a spectacular pyrotechnic explosion. She was a passionate witch, and for that fact, Harry could only be thankful; life with her would never be dull.
   However, he had also learned that Fleur was particularly intolerant of bullies, gossipers, and those who looked for ways to enjoy the misfortune of others. This was due, she freely admitted, to the treatment she had often received as a young Veela attending school, and the prejudice to which she had been subjected all her life. A sure-fire way to completely bypass her normally long fuse was to expose her to someone behaving in the manner which Snape had done - her patience generally evaporated quite quickly in such cases.
   Another thing which he had known for a time, but which had been abundantly displayed only recently, was that Fleur was fiercely protective of anyone she deemed part of her family. It appeared that Harry - and perhaps somewhat surprisingly Hermione - now fitted into that category. Since their return to school, Harry had found that Seamus Finnegan, with whom he had roomed for the entire first four years of his schooling, had been quiet and withdrawn where Harry was concerned, though he had been as he ever was with everyone else. A chance remark a few evenings earlier had betrayed the fact that he now believed the Ministry in their smear campaign against Harry, and was suspicious of Harry's complicity in the matter of Cedric's death.
   Harry, true to form, had been more than willing to let his dorm mate believe whatever he liked, but he had not counted on Fleur's protective streak. The French witch had eyed Seamus with some distaste, before she proceeded to tell him in pointed and sometimes insulting fashion, exactly how stupid she considered him to be in believing the Prophet's slander. Her observations had not been brief either - it had finally been Seamus's rather petulant and quick departure which had served to halt her diatribe.
   In light of her character and sense of right, it was clear that nothing would interfere with her demands for justice for Harry and Neville, and she had vowed to her companions that morning, that if Dumbledore was not prepared to rein the potions master in, then she would have no choice but to involve her father. And knowing Jean-Sebastian and his own tenacity, involving him would likely involve a world of hurt for Snape and would undoubtedly bring Fudge into the situation. It was obvious that the Snape was retained by Dumbledore for some reason other than his less than sterling teaching record, and as such, Fudge would take a perverse delight in making certain that one of Dumbledore's men was ejected from the school, forcefully if possible. And while this would perhaps give Fudge another weapon to use against Dumbledore, the three companions all knew that Jean-Sebastian would consider the quality of education and the protection of his daughter and her betrothed to be his first priority.
   Strangely enough, Harry found her determination to be infectious, and though a part of him still nagged, telling him that he could handle the potions master himself, the new and growing sense of belonging to a family told him that he could be worrying about more important matters than a petty, greasy bat with a chip on his shoulder. Besides, the thought of Snape getting reprimanded, coupled with the even more delicious notion of Malfoy finally not getting away with whatever he wanted, was far too tempting to pass up. He could almost hear Malfoy's usual response. "When my father hears about this..."
   Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending upon whose opinion was canvassed, McGonagall indicated that she was powerless to do anything regarding Snape.
   "Unfortunately, Mr. Potter, I believe you will need to speak with the Headmaster on this subject," she said with some regret. "I am glad you are receiving such good advice from Miss Delacour and not allowing Severus to get away with his behavior any longer."
   Fleur's eyes narrowed in what Harry understood to be fury, having seen it several times in the past day. "Professor, are you telling us that you are aware of the abuse Harry has had to put up with from the potions professor?"
   "Directly aware? No," was the response. "And I will thank you not to insinuate that I would have allowed it had I known. The fact of the matter is that I've always known how Professor Snape felt about Harry; even had I not been aware of his hatred for James, I could hardly have missed the comments he has made in my hearing over the years.
   "But knowing of his feelings and suspecting him of improper behavior in his classroom are two completely different things. He's always been very circumspect in my presence, not surprising given he knows what my likely reaction would be."
   "But what about his propensity to take away points or assign detentions?" Fleur persisted.
   "He is very careful about the assignation of detentions, as he knows they are, to a certain extent, scrutinized. As for points, I will only say that not all is as it seems. I can assure you, however, that I would never allow him to influence the point system to the degree that it would adversely impact my, or any other, house."
   With that, the three friends had to be content, as the deputy Headmistress would not be more explicit. She encouraged them to seek out the Headmaster immediately and discuss the matter with him. The three, correctly interpreting her words as a dismissal, took her advice.
   A few moments later, the gargoyle outside the head's office announced them to Dumbledore, who immediately granted them access. They settled into the chairs across the desk from the Headmaster, and Harry could not help but notice Dumbledore regarding them curiously.
   "Welcome, Harry, Miss Granger, Miss Delacour," the man said with aplomb. "I had not expected to see you in my office this early in the term. Nothing has happened with Madam Umbridge, has it?"
   Harry rolled his eyes. "Only if you consider the fact that she's incompetent, and does not know the material in the slightest."
   "She tried to bait Harry into saying something she could use against him," Hermione chimed in. "But Harry kept calm and didn't give her anything."
   "Very good," Dumbledore said with a nod. "Until we can come up a way to remove her, avoidance is the best policy."
   "I must admit to being confused, Headmaster," said Fleur. "Since the woman is clearly not qualified to teach the subject, wouldn't it be easy to have her sacked?"
   "I've tried," said Dumbledore with a sigh. "Unfortunately, the matter is out of my hands. In the past, this law was put into place to ensure the quality of instruction at Hogwarts was maintained in case a candidate could not be found by the Headmaster. Generally, however, the appointment would be made by the educational department. If the Headmaster did not agree with the appointment, he could bring it up with the Minister, and have him arbitrate the situation. The law has never been changed, unfortunately, and it's being abused by Minister Fudge. As he is the one who appointed Madam Umbridge, there is nothing I can do at this point to remove her. We need some ammunition against her before we can make our move."
   It was convoluted and much of it did not make a whole lot of common sense, but Harry, having known for quite some time that things in the magical world were often nonsensical, pushed the matter from his head. The Minister was a problem for another time.
   "If you are not here about Madam Umbridge, what can I do for you this morning?"
   "We're here about your other problem professor," Fleur said in an even, yet implacable voice.
   Dumbledore raised an eyebrow at Fleur's tone. "Have you had an issue with a professor, Miss Delacour?"
   "No, but Harry has. And apparently, it's been going on for some time."
   The Headmaster's gaze shifted to Harry. "Mr. Potter?"
   With as little emotion as possible, Harry related the events of the previous day's potions class, explaining the facts with little embellishment.
   At the end of his account, Dumbledore sat back in his chair, and directed a stern gaze at Harry. "You say this is not the first time Professor Snape has behaved this way?"
   "He's always seemed to have had it in for Harry, sir," said Hermione. "He seems to have a knack for showing up at the wrong moment so that he can catch Harry doing something he shouldn't, while missing what Malfoy or someone else did to provoke it. In fact, I'd say it's happened a few too many times to be merely coincidence."
   "To the best of your knowledge, has the professor ever given you unfair grades?"
   Harry scratched his head; he had never even considered this aspect of the matter, though from Fleur's expression, she evidently had.
   "I'm not sure I know, sir," he finally responded slowly. "I've always known that the professor doesn't like me, but I never thought to question the grades he has given me. And how would I know that a potion he graded as an 'Acceptable' should actually have been 'Exceeds Expectations?'"
   "How indeed?" was the Headmaster's rhetorical reply. He turned his attention to Hermione. "And you Miss Granger? By all accounts you have shown a certain amount of skill in potions class. Have you noticed anything with respect to Harry's grades?"
   Hermione was clearly uncomfortable with the question, but she gamely tried to answer it all the same. "I'm not sure either, Headmaster. I think Harry's potions have been graded properly, though Professor Snape has not been as forthcoming with assistance in Harry's case as perhaps he has should have been."
   Dumbledore motioned for her to continue.
   "Well," Hermione said slowly, "for example, sometimes when Harry has made a mistake, the professor will vanish his potion. He's not exactly kind about either, usually calling Harry stupid, or saying that he was watching Harry do the steps in the wrong order. Shouldn't he correct Harry if he notices he is doing something wrong, rather than simply giving him a failing grade?"
   With a sigh, Dumbledore nodded his head. "Yes, indeed he should, Miss Granger. Have you ever seen Professor Snape behave this way with anyone else?"
   "He seems to have a certain amount of dislike for Neville too, but to a certain extent he is hard on all Gryffindors, and favors his own house. I understand that there is a certain amount of bias for one's own house, Headmaster - that is unavoidable. But Snape goes entirely beyond what is acceptable. He has taken points from me for being an 'insufferable know-it-all,' and in Harry's first-ever potions lesson, he asked questions which were definitely beyond what a first year should know, and when Harry could not answer, he deducted points."
   "Is there an appeals process for unfair detentions and point losses sir?" asked Fleur.
   Dumbledore smiled and responded: "There certainly is - in fact, you are now invoking it."
   "Then it should be published a little more clearly, sir," said Hermione somewhat hesitantly. "I had no idea it existed."
   "I believe you are correct, Miss Granger. I shall speak with Professor McGonagall on the matter.
   "Regarding Professor Snape," Dumbledore continued, "I was certainly aware of his antipathy toward you, Mr. Potter. But while I am well aware of the cause of his disdain, it is not my place to explain the matter any further to you at this time. I assume Sirius has explained it at least in part?"
   At Harry's nod he continued. "Very well then. As I was saying, I knew of his issues with you, but as you never approached me about his behavior, I assumed that it did not approach inappropriate levels."
   "You did not know of his behavior towards Harry?"
   Dumbledore smiled. "Contrary to popular opinion, Miss Delacour, I neither know everything that occurs in this school, nor do I attempt to know, though I do try to remain informed as the major issues at Hogwarts. There is far too much involved with the running of the school, not to mention my other positions, for me to become some all-knowing being at this school. At some point, I have to rely on information from others, and I trust in my professors to tell me if anything is amiss."
   Sitting back in his chair, the Headmaster appeared to consider something and when he spoke, it appeared as though he was musing out loud and not truly talking to them. "Perhaps that is my greatest failing - the tendency to trust in others when they do not truly deserve it, or perhaps when they are adept at hiding their actions from casual scrutiny. Perhaps taking a more active role will help ameliorate the problem."
   He was silent for several more moments before he turned his attention back to the students. "Thank you for bringing this to me, Harry. You may be assured that I will speak with Professor Snape about this."
   "Thank you, sir," said Harry in response.
   "I beg your pardon, Headmaster," said Fleur, her countenance set in a stony cast, "but I'm concerned about the treatment I will receive from Professor Snape, just by my association with Harry. And furthermore, with all due respect, the professor is undermining the education at this school with his behavior, and affecting the futures of many students graduating from this school. I won't go into the mockery he is making of the points system. I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but hasn't he proven unsuitable for his position?"
   Dumbledore gazed placidly at Fleur, and while she was obviously a little uncomfortable with his scrutiny, she held her ground and met his eyes without flinching.
   "You are to be commended for your concern, Miss Delacour. However, I do not believe that the situation is as bad as you seem to think."
   Turning to Harry and Hermione, Dumbledore asked, "How would you rate Professor Snape's knowledge and teaching ability?"
   A little uncomfortable, Harry nevertheless spoke up. "He's unpleasant, and sometimes even a foul git, but he's obviously a master potions brewer, sir. And when he actually takes the trouble to explain something, he is able to do so effectively."
   "Miss Granger?"
   "I'd say the same as Harry, sir."
   "Very well," said Dumbledore. "I have observed the same - I've always known Professor Snape to be a brilliant brewer, and I am aware that his teaching method, though perhaps rough and blunt, and perhaps overly demanding and exacting, is acceptable. The exception to this, of course, is what we have already discussed in some detail - he needs to take a greater interest in correcting his students before they make a mistake if he is in a position to do so.
   "However," he continued with a stern glance at them all, "I can assure you that the questions I asked you regarding Professor Snape's behavior were not mere idle conversation. The integrity of the educational process is a responsibility held by both parties - the professor and the student. The professor must teach the subject matter, help the students achieve what they are capable of achieving, and grade their work fairly and properly, while the student must listen to the teacher, give their best effort, and turn in work they have completed to the best of their ability. Clearly, in your case, Harry, Professor Snape has not upheld his end of the equation to the level I expect. His behavior in the classroom, while not proper, has not been egregiously so. However, I assure you that had there been any suspicion of unfair grading - beyond not offering advice before a student fails - I would have been much harsher with the professor than I will otherwise. As Headmaster of this school, I must consider the deliberate act of grading assignments improperly as a major violation of the educational process. I believe he needs to be taken to task and instructed in the proper manner to treat the students, but given what you have told me, I do not believe he has crossed that greater line. Am I correct?"
   Harry, with support from Hermione, had to agree - rather reluctantly - that Dumbledore was correct. But Harry could not help but to add, "I'm not sure he'll ever be fair toward me."
   "I understand that, Harry, but can you claim a complete lack of bias yourself? We are all colored by our perceptions, and yes, our experiences, and though I will not tell you more of Professor Snape's past, I can tell you that certain events in his past, have influenced him. However, it is not a requisite of the position to like all the students, merely to teach them properly and treat them fairly. Since I believe that for the most part he has been upholding the necessity of teaching the subject - though certainly more professionalism, not to mention personal care and attention, is desired - I believe I will focus on his fair treatment of you and demand he make changes."
   "And if he won't?" Fleur asked, her tone and manner still somewhat confrontational.
   "If that were to happen, Miss Delacour, then you can be certain that I will take the appropriate steps.
   "With regard to your other points, though, I will tell you that Hogwarts has not experienced a dearth of potions graduates since Professor Snape began teaching here - on the contrary, though many will not scruple to say that they do not like him, very few have complained about his knowledge, or his ability to teach. And as for your concerns about the point system, I assure you I have that well in hand."
   Harry looked curiously at his Headmaster, but no further explanation appeared to be forthcoming.
   Dumbledore, however, adopted a stern visage when he spoke next, "I appreciate you approaching me with your concerns. However, in the future, I expect you to be a little more circumspect and a little less... confrontational in the way you make your case."
   That last was clearly directed more at Fleur, but to Harry's eyes, Fleur appeared to be anything but repentant at the way she had addressed the Headmaster. Her next words made that fact abundantly clear.
   "Thank you for listening to us, Headmaster," said Fleur. "I apologize for the way I spoke, but I do not apologize for the things I said. We truly do appreciate your assistance in this matter and hope that it can be resolved without involving my father who is, as you know, now Harry's guardian. I'm sure you are aware that my father would be much less circumspect in making his sentiments known."
   Dumbledore inclined his head in understanding of the meaning of Fleur's words. "I understand, and I thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will take it up with Professor Snape personally."
   And with that, the discussion ended. And though Harry would perhaps have preferred to see Snape pitched out of Hogwarts on his ear, he could not fault Dumbledore for his words and opinions on the subject. As long as Snape was off his back, he would be content.
   Leaving the office, the three friends made their way toward the Great Hall for breakfast, in silence for the most part. There was much to consider.
   ***
   As it turned out, it was the next day after dinner before Albus called the potions master into his office to have the discussion he knew that Severus would not take well. In preparation for the confrontation, he had investigated the incident from the previous day's potions class, not because he doubted the young Gryffindors' claims, but because he wanted to confirm exactly what had occurred from various sources, should Severus ask. Unfortunately, he knew exactly how the conversation would progress - Severus would respond with a derogatory comment about Harry's arrogance, while instantly blowing off whatever he was accused of. It was the man's modus operandi, after all.
   It was a simple matter, to be truthful. Though he was the Headmaster, he had always tried to make himself available to the student body - to be approachable, as it were. A few subtle comments to get the right students thinking about the subject about which he wished to learn more, and a little passive Legilimency later, he had all the facts he required. He had even managed to snare a couple of Slytherin fifth years in his net, a fact which he could hold in reserve should Severus prove obstinate, not that Albus expected him to be anything else. It was a good thing passive Legilimency was not illegal - frowned on, but not precisely illegal. It was not something Albus practiced much, though he was very skilled at it, but it was a good way to quickly get to the bottom of things when he either could not, or did not wish to draw the attention of a formal investigation. Luckily, it only revealed active and surface thoughts; to obtain memories, one would have to invoke active Legilimency with the incantation, and Albus was not certain he could withstand the things he would find in an adolescent's mind. Memories of his own adolescence were more than enough for him.
   Investigation was not the only activity in which he had been engaged, however. Most of the previous evening he had spent soul-searching, asking himself over and over again if he had made the right choice - did the benefits of having Severus in the castle and close by outweigh the obvious drawbacks?
   The man himself was more than a little unpleasant, and even Albus, who fancied he possessed an unusually large well of patience, found Severus to be difficult to tolerate. He was always in a foul mood, his personal hygiene was suspect, he could hold a grudge with an almost unparalleled ferocity for years at a time, and his world views were at odds with everything Albus cherished. And in particular, the man was such a headache to regulate and control, that Albus had several times wondered whether having him here was truly worth the benefits, both real and potential. In fact, had Albus not had been absolutely certain that Severus was working for the light, his behavior alone would cause Albus to seriously suspect the man was still in fact a Death Eater, and still loyal to his erstwhile master.
   He had decided long ago that when the Dark Lord returned - and Albus knew he would return - having Severus as a supposedly loyal Death Eater, yet positioned in Hogwarts, would be an invaluable asset. The Dark Lord could then be convinced that Severus had remained faithful to the Pureblood cause and used his position to spy on the light. Thus far events had proven that theory. Whatever else the man was, his powers of persuasion were not lacking, as he had immediately convinced the Dark Lord that his loyalty was unchanged, and had been admitted into the ranks of Voldemort's Death Eaters once again without question. And his worth as a spy had once again been proven invaluable, as several pieces of priceless information had been gained, not to mention tragedies prevented. The trick, of course, was in making use of the information, without alerting Voldemort to the fact that his circle had been compromised.
   And yet, for all that benefit he brought to his position, one could not ignore the fact that Albus had unleashed the man on the student population knowingly and willingly. And contrary to what he had said earlier to Harry and his friends, Albus was well aware of the fact that though those who graduated with a potions NEWT were extremely well educated in the subject - for Severus truly was a gifted teacher when he took the trouble - there were many who could not stomach the thought of spending two additional NEWT years after the five they were already forced to put up with him. It had certainly impacted their society, as fewer potions NEWTs graduates meant that certain doors had been closed all to those students who may have pursued their NEWTs if Severus were not the Hogwarts potions professor. And those who did pursue their NEWT studies through self study, obviously did so at a slower pace, and likely gained their NEWTs with a less precise knowledge of the subject than they would have, had they been taught in a classroom with a true master of the profession.
   As for Severus's insistence that he would only accept students who scored an Outstanding on their potions OWL... Albus snorted at the thought. The man certainly had a certain arrogant conceit, to attempt to thumb his nose at international standards, which declared that anyone with a passing grade in an OWL subject was eligible to continue to NEWT level studies. Though Severus blustered and snarled about it, the fact of the matter was that Albus had always made the true standards known, and saw to it that Severus accepted those who achieved those standards, whether he liked it or not.
   Albus was well aware of the fact that he was taking much onto himself with the decision to keep Severus in his position. Some might say that the damage he was doing far outweighed the benefits to Severus's position as an inner circle member of Voldemort's retinue. In all fairness, Albus could not help but agree, especially when he had to deal with situations such as Harry's.
   The thing which always stopped him from cutting all ties with Severus and sending him on his way, however, was the vital role Severus played. Voldemort was a very real threat, and in order to defeat him, Albus knew that every weapon in his arsenal must be employed to its greatest effect. Otherwise, if the unthinkable were to happen and Voldemort should win, it could usher in a dark age the likes of which had never before existed, and which could last for centuries to come, possibly even spreading to all four corners of the world. In the light of such fears, concerns about the number of potions NEWT graduates seemed an almost insignificant consideration.
   When the time finally came and Severus sat across the desk from him, Albus considered the man before him. He was a petty, immature bully, but his greatest failing when it came to Harry Potter, was the inability to separate the boy from the boy's father.
   Severus likely knew why he was here already; there had been no other overt incidents in any of his classes to Albus's knowledge. His face was already set in his customary sneer and Albus knew there would be a certain level of acrimony in the coming discussion. With Harry as the subject, it could not proceed in any other manner.
   "I suspect you know why I have called you in my office today, Severus," Albus began without any preamble. With Severus, it was always best to be blunt and straightforward.
   "The Potter brat has complained again, no doubt," drawled the potions master with a sniff of disdain.
   This was exactly the kind of attitude which called Severus's usefulness into question, and Albus was determined to nip it in the bud.
   "Again?" Albus queried gently. "Are you suggesting Mr. Potter has complained before?"
   A roll of the eyes met Albus's question. "Incessantly I would imagine. The boy is as arrogant and spoiled as his father was."
   Albus shook his head. "And that is where you are wrong, Severus. Mr. Potter has never before complained about your behavior, though I think that there are likely many instances in the past where he should have."
   "Then I suppose you have taken the brat's side and I am here to be reprimanded."
   "Indeed you are, but I will remind you that I am not stupid, Severus. I am well aware of what occurred in your potions class two days ago, and his account has been corroborated by several students of both houses."
   "Who did you speak to in Slytherin?" he demanded, instantly incensed that one of his own house members would betray him for a mere Gryffindor. It was Severus's second failing - an overwhelming loyalty to his own house, coupled with an almost pathological hatred for anything in red and gold.
   "You know I have ways to find out the truth, Severus. I am well aware that Mr. Malfoy cast the first hex. Mr. Potter protected himself, and then responded in kind. I will also point out that Mr. Potter's object lesson was rather mild - a mere stinging hex."
   Snape affected a nonchalant ignorance. "If that is so, Headmaster, then I was not aware of it. I saw Potter hex my house member, and I responded with the appropriate punishments."
   "Do not insult my intelligence, Severus," Albus snapped, his anger building in the face of potions master's continuing belligerence. "I strongly suspect you were waiting outside the potions classroom for something to happen, as it usually seems to between those two - especially the way you let Mr. Malfoy get away with whatever he wishes. Regardless, a little investigation - which was no less than what I did, by the way - would have revealed the true events. You have once again let your arrogance and your hatred for that boy color your judgment."
   Snape leaned back in his seat in an indolent and insolent manner. "I assure you, Headmaster, that Potter is well able to get himself into trouble without any manipulations on my part. He is exactly like his rule-breaking, arrogant father."
   Albus sat back in his seat, removed his glasses and massaged his nose in frustration. Severus truly was blind if he could not see what everyone who met Harry - and had known his parents - could plainly see. It was frustrating, and though Albus knew he had to make the attempt, he knew that Severus would refuse to see reason.
   "It truly makes me wonder, Severus," he said at length, "how such an intelligent man can be so blind about something which is plain to everyone else. You must get past this. You cannot continue to take out your festering resentment of James out on his son."
   "Perhaps I simply see much more clearly than everyone else," Severus growled.
   "Not when you insist on comparing Harry with James. The fact of the matter is that Harry is nothing like James was. He doesn't have the arrogance - which even you must admit James grew out of as he aged - nor does he have James's devil-may-care attitude.
   "In fact, I believe if you examined the matter closely, you would see that Harry is much more like his mother, than his father, other than his rather striking physical resemblance to his father."
   "Oh yes," drawled Snape with a roll of the eyes. "Potter is much like his mother. Lily excelled at every subject and was the most intelligent witch I have ever met. Her son barely scrapes by with acceptable grades and has none of the flair for potions which his mother had."
   "I believe Mr. Potter has some extenuating circumstances which have affected his performance over the years. I believe you will be surprised to see his improvement across the board this year, Severus."
   "I would not be merely surprised," said Snape rather flippantly. "Astonished does not even begin to cover what I would feel should the whelp actually develop some intelligence to go with his arrogance."
   By now Albus's anger - always slow in developing - was beginning to build in the back of his mind. This was exactly why he wished he did not have to keep this man on staff and protect him against his own actions. He was so inflexible, so unwilling to learn or admit that he may have been wrong. Though holding his temper was beginning to be more difficult as the conversation went on, Albus bit back a caustic retort and forced himself to deal with the former Death Eater in a rational manner.
   "That will be quite enough, Severus," he reprimanded. "I will not have you saying anything else about Harry, or any other student. In fact, if it were not Harry we were speaking of, you would have lost your position long ago."
   Curiosity written on his face, Severus raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry, Albus. Of what are you speaking?"
   "Oh come now, Severus - you are not blind, nor are you stupid. Mr. Potter has had to learn to rely on himself. It is a consequence of his neglectful upbringing by his aunt and uncle. Any other student would have complained to his guardian or his parents the first time you behaved in the manner you behave toward Mr. Potter on a daily basis. The first time would have been a formal reprimand, placed permanently in your file. The second could very well have resulted in your dismissal.
   "Furthermore," Albus continued, interrupting whatever Severus was about to say, "you should know that the free ride you have enjoyed with Mr. Potter has come to an end. Surely you know that Monsieur Delacour has taken over Mr. Potter's guardianship. Trust me when I tell you that Jean-Sebastian is not a man with whom you should trifle."
   "So, you wish me to favor the little whelp like everyone else in this institution does?"
   Albus glared at Severus, forcing him to look down after an intense staring match. This discussion - far more intense than any they had had before, regarding Harry - was long overdue. It was time for Severus to understand that this behavior and continual belittling of the young man would no longer be tolerated.
   "I do not know how you think that Mr. Potter receives special treatment, but I assure you that he receives only his due as a student - I expect the same from you.
   "As for his guardian, Mr. Potter and Miss Delacour have informed me that they have not informed Jean-Sebastian of what happened in your potions class, nor do they plan to do so. However, they have both made it clear that repeated incidents of unfair behavior would result in their bringing her father into the situation, and I would not blame them, nor would I stand in their way if they felt such a step was necessary. I need not explain to you just how damaging that would be to your continued tenure here. Once I am not able to protect you, your only recourse would be to rejoin Voldemort. You know what would happen then."
   A grimace was Snape's only response. Albus took it as a sign that he had finally managed to reach through to the man, if only to frighten him into behaving as he ought. He did not for a second believe that Severus truly believed anything Albus had just told him about Harry. If he acted properly, that was sufficient - there was nothing Albus could do to alter his beliefs. As he had told the children the day before, it was not necessary for a professor to like his students, only that he treat them properly. At this point, Albus would take any progress he could get.
   "It appears I have no choice, Headmaster," the man finally said, his reply equal parts sulky and nonchalant.
   "Indeed, you do not," Albus agreed. "I would hope that you would agree to behave with professionalism and decorum because it is the right thing to do, but at this point, I will take nothing more than your agreement due to your lack of other options."
   A sneer was his response, but Severus also nodded his head.
   "And let me be rightly understood, Severus," said Albus with more than a hint of steel in his voice, "that if I suspected you of intentionally grading Mr. Potter's work improperly, this would not be a reprimand - it would be an exit interview. But that is not something with which I need to concern myself, am I correct?"
   Severus did not respond, he merely nodded tightly. He did not even allow his customary sneer to adorn his features.
   "Good. I trust that your fair and unbiased judgment will continue, and that the educational process will be protected. The only thing I must insist upon in the matter of your teaching style, is that you be more proactive in assisting your charges - no more vanishing potions and berating students after they have made a mistake."
   Again Severus agreed, though not without a certain level of anger.
   "Now, as for the particulars of the altercation," Albus continued, noting the potions master's even darker expression at the mention of the incident, "as I have said, I have reviewed the incident with several of the students who were there. In particular, I found that not only did Mr. Malfoy and his friends incite the confrontation with their taunting, but that he also cast the first hex. As such, I am hereby reversing Mr. Potter's points deduction and detention, and reassigning them both to Mr. Malfoy. You may inform young Draco that he will serve his detention with Mr. Filch tomorrow evening."
   Though Snape appeared like he wished to protest, he wisely kept his own counsel.
   Albus shook his head slightly and focused a glare on the potions master. "Severus, I know you do not like this, but it is a reality. In particular, I would like to see you work with Mr. Malfoy. Until now the boy has been allowed to get away with the worst behavior. He must be brought to see the fact that certain behaviors have consequences, or he will turn out exactly as his father has.
   "In addition, I must see your own behavior improve, not only to Mr. Potter, but to all who are not members of your house. I do not wish to have to do it, but I will review every punishment and reward you give out if I have to."
   The potions master appeared a little green, but Albus just inwardly smirked. Over the years, Severus had thought that his point changes were relatively easy to slip through the cracks, while detentions received a little more scrutiny. He thus removed points with impunity, though generally the detentions he assigned were more deserved.
   What Severus did not realize, however, was that Albus already did review every point modification the man made, regardless of who was the recipient. A record was created of every punishment and reward handed out by every professor, head student and prefect, though only the Headmaster and deputy had access to those records. That was why a professor was required to state the point action - or detention - and the reason for the action. Albus spent some time every evening going through those records, and would then reverse those unnecessary or blatant deductions, leaving the man ignorant of the fact that his teeth had been pulled. It had proved necessary - otherwise, Severus would have single-handedly made the House Cup a mockery, ensuring his Slytherins won the house cup year after year, and by a handy margin. Not that Albus would ever let him know he had done this - it would no doubt incense Severus in the extreme. The man was already difficult enough to deal with, without adding that humiliation on top of everything else. Albus had not even told McGonagall that he was doing this, though he suspected that she already knew.
   "I hope that this discussion has been clear, Severus," Albus continued after a moment of watching the man chew the issues over in his own mind. "I would hate to have it repeated, especially if Mr. Potter's guardian were to be brought into the fray."
   Severus nodded curtly, and pulled himself to his feet. "I will attempt to modify my behavior, Headmaster. Now, if you will excuse me, I believe it is time to retire."
   Without another word, Severus turned on his heel and stormed from the room, his cloak billowing in behind him. Sighing, Albus reached over to his candy dish and popped a lemon drop into his mouth, savoring the tart, yet sweet, candy. In truth, he had no faith whatsoever that Severus would change in any meaningful way. Oh, he would undoubtedly curb his natural unpleasantness for the time being, but Albus knew that he was simply incapable of modifying his cherished beliefs. He would change his behavior for a short time, but eventually his hatreds and grudges would force their way back to the surface, and he would yet again be every bit as insufferable, his changes completely forgotten. Albus had seen it before. He was not certain just how many more times Snape could survive the cycle.
   ***
   The rest of the week passed in an uneventful manner. Fleur's potions class with Professor Snape was spectacular in the complete lack of anything resembling the man's expected behavior. In fact, had Fleur not already known of the reasons for his changed attitude, she would have been surprised, and then suspicious that her friends had misled her with their stories of Snape's lessons. As it was, other than the one time when she had asked a question - not due to a lack of knowledge, but rather to her curiosity about his reaction - Snape had completely avoided her and all but ignored her very existence. The fact that the man absolutely exuded bad temper, regardless of his tight rein on his own emotions, left Fleur glad of the fact. She wanted to have no more personal contact with him than the lessons absolutely required.
   Defense class was the next major event of the week, and though she had already heard stories from her friends about Umbridge's inability to understand the subject, let alone teach it, the woman's behavior was something she had not expected.
   It appeared that number one on Umbridge's hit list was indeed none other than Harry Potter. Although she was unpleasant at times to certain members of the student body - as was expected, considering she was a well-known bigot - Harry had been the only one she had openly baited, as far as they were able to determine. Fleur had entered the classroom expecting to be the recipient of the woman's displeasure, by the simple fact of her Veela heritage.
   However, other than a slight tightening of the eyes and a disdainful sniff when the woman had first seen her, she had acted much as Snape had, and completely ignored Fleur altogether. After a certain amount of thought, Fleur had determined that either Dumbledore had warned Umbridge against any kind of overtly improper behavior, or the woman had decided that Fleur was unnecessary to whatever plans she had up her sleeve. The chilling part of that thought was that Harry was undoubtedly a major part of her plans, and Fleur could not be in class with him.
   What was entirely evident from almost the first moment Umbridge had had the students open their books, was the fact that Defense this year was a pointless exercise. As Harry and Hermione had already said, Umbridge taught them nothing, understood what actually was in the book imprecisely, and had no intention of allowing them to use their wands at any point during the year. It was a sticky situation, as Fleur, though she was certainly competent in defense, was no prodigy like Harry was, and she was certain she would have a difficult time passing her NEWT without first practicing the spells which would be on the examination. And it was obvious she would not obtain that in Umbridge's class.
   Defense was an afternoon class, and once it let out, Fleur headed straight back to the common room in the company of the other seventh year Gryffindors. Since the fifth years were free that afternoon, Fleur found the group of them lounging in the common room. True to form, Hermione had her textbook and parchment spread out on the table, her face intense with concentration on her work. With her sat Harry and Neville on either side of her - both working gamely away on their own homework - while Ron looked bored on the opposite side of the table. Fleur shook her head. Ron was a good and staunch friend for the most part, but his aversion to homework was almost legendary. Fleur was surprised Hermione had been able to get him as far as she had on homework which was not due until the next week.
   Once again feeling the frustration of the Defense class, Fleur flopped down on a nearby sofa and groaned.
   Harry smirked. "Have fun in Defense?"
   "Oh yes," Fleur said with a glare. "Umbridge is so intelligent and knowledgeable, and she has our interests at heart. I just know that I'll learn..." she paused dramatically, "...absolutely nothing that I'll need to know to pass my Defense NEWT!"
   A smattering of laughter was heard, Fleur's voice having gone from innocent worship to frigid disdain as she completed her declaration.
   Harry directed a look of wide-eyed astonishment at Fleur's declaration. "But Fleur, Professor Umbridge said that we'd get enough theoretical knowledge in her class that we'd have no problem with our tests."
   Harry's breathy imitation of Umbridge's voice brought out an even louder burst of laughter from those close enough to hear the exchange.
   "Ah, but not everyone can be Harry Potter."
   "Alright, alright - enough of that already!" Harry groused, alternately glaring at Fleur and Ron. "I think I owe you for that comment, Ron."
   Ron's responding grin was all insolence.
   "But Fleur's right," Hermione interjected. "How are we supposed to pass our OWL with Umbridge teaching us nothing, and not even allowing us to use our wands? Even Harry I think would admit to needing at least a time or two to practice the spells we will be quizzed on."
   "We'll do the same as we do every year," said Harry with a shrug. "The same we did in first year with the stuttering idiot, or the second year with the fraud... Need I go on?"
   "But this is different, Harry," Hermione complained, her voice taking on an almost whining quality. "We have OWLs this year and those test scores will affect our future schooling."
   "Is this how it always is?" Fleur asked teasingly.
   Smattered chuckles were heard throughout the rest of the room, and several of the students shared an amused glance.
   "Well, for starters there was Professor Quirrel in first year," Harry began. "He not only stuttered so badly that you could not understand him, but also had Voldemort hitching a ride on the back of his head."
   "Yeah, then there was the fraud, Gilderoy The-Only-Spell-I-Can-Cast-Is-An-Obliviate Lockhart," chimed in Ron. "The moron couldn't cast anything properly, and then to cap the year, he tried to off us and take credit for killing the basilisk for his latest work of fiction."
   "And how about the disguised Death Eater from last year?" added Neville. "Although I will admit that Crouch was actually a decent teacher - at least he knew his stuff."
   "That's nothing," one of the twins spoke up.
   "Yeah, in our first year, our Defense professor didn't even last until Halloween," said the other.
   Angelina rolled her eyes. "And her replacement didn't make it past the end of the year himself."
   "There you have it, Fleur," said Harry. "Defense has always been a problem like the Headmaster said. Only once in my time at Hogwarts has the professor been competent and on our side!"
   "Then how have you managed up until now?" Fleur demanded.
   "We've had to fend for ourselves," was Harry's simple reply. "We used the textbooks - when they weren't Lockhart's fiction, anyway - and practiced on our own."
   "But that's not going to happen this year," contradicted Hermione. "Not with Umbridge watching us like a hawk."
   "Perhaps there is a way around it?" Fleur suggested. "We learned some things from Auror Moody this summer. Is there a way for us to get some more books and practice on our own?"
   Hermione chewed on her lower lip, deep in thought. "We'd have to make sure it doesn't get back to Umbridge."
   "Would Dumbledore support us?" asked Ron.
   Hermione shook her head. "It would be best if we didn't involve the Headmaster. If it got back to Umbridge that he had helped us, it may give her a reason to see him removed from the school."
   It was a quandary, but there had to be some solution which they had not come up with yet. If they needed to fend for themselves, then that was what they would have to do. Still, without a teacher, it would be very difficult. Surely something would come up to improve the situation. At least, Fleur hoped something would present itself. It would be a long year with Umbridge at the helm otherwise.

Chapter 14 - Avoiding Detention

   The rest of the week passed in relative quiet for the circle of friends. Harry went to the second potions class of the week, wondering if the treatment Fleur had received from Snape was due to the Headmaster coming down on him, or if she had merely been granted a reprieve. Happily, it appeared to be the former as, other than a few glares, Snape largely left Harry alone - in fact, he said very little to any of the Gryffindors outside of his normal instruction. This, of course, pleased the entire Gryffindor contingent, though perhaps Neville and Harry wore the largest grins.
   Fleur and Harry received a letter from her father on Friday, asking how their first week of schooling went, though when they read between the lines, they could both see he was asking about certain professors in particular. Fleur responded positively for the most part, in that, though the woman had tried to bait Harry into a detention, nothing of note had happened, as he had kept his temper in check, and Snape was by that time a non-issue.
   In Jean-Sebastian's letter, however, his frustration with the fact that Fudge was doing nothing about Voldemort's return was readily apparent. The group had been watching the Prophet closely enough to know that the Minister persisted in denying the Dark Lord's return, flatly refusing to hear anyone who tried to tell him otherwise. As a result, Auror recruitment and training continued to proceed at the same inadequate levels, and the Ministry forces were significantly lagging behind the Death Eaters, who were, without a doubt, not neglecting their own training and recruiting efforts. Though he was not explicit, Fleur was led to suspect that her father had been in more or less continual contact with Dumbledore about the situation, but that his own position as ambassador did not leave him any room to pressure Fudge, much though he would have wished he could.
   Of note in the school, Umbridge had been seen speaking with to some of the more rabid extremist Slytherins - of whom it was not surprising that Malfoy took center stage. After discussing it at some length, the group could only assume she was intent upon ingratiating herself to them, and promising rewards for information and their cooperation. Thus far nothing had come of this cozying up, but Harry in particular was worried that whatever reason the toad had to curry favor with the Slytherins, it appeared to be preparatory for whatever she had planned for the future. An interesting side note, however, was the fact that though many would have expected Snape to agree with Umbridge in principle, the reality appeared to be the complete opposite - he in fact appeared to avoid her as though she carried a rather virulent disease, conversing with her in short, clipped language when discourse was unavoidable.
   Harry, Fleur and Ron had their first official practice with the Quidditch team that weekend, and though Fleur was not actually a starter, she found that she enjoyed the practice, and more importantly, the camaraderie of the team. Though she certainly did not possess the skills or the familiarity with her teammates that Katie, Angelina, and Alicia had with each other, Angelina was still able to comment that either she or Ginny would make admirable substitutions, should they be necessary. The Quidditch team was supremely confident for the upcoming Quidditch cup - on parchment, none of the other teams appeared to stack up.
   And of course, Ron continued in his attempts to get closer to Hermione, oblivious to the fact that she was not responding the way a young woman who was willing to be courted would be expected to respond. Or perhaps it was more likely that he was so set upon winning her that he was almost willingly obtuse to the fact that she simply was not interested. Hermione did not want to make a scene, nor did she wish to hurt him, but she felt he was ultimately going to force her to do so. It was a sticky business, and she was not certain how Ron would respond - not well, if she knew him at all.
   At potions class the next Monday, Harry made certain to continue to keep his head down, do his potions work, and avoid drawing the professor's ire. And though he was feeling a little more confident in his brewing abilities - partially from his generally greater confidence those days, and partially from the better atmosphere in the class - he was not so confident that the professor would let up on him. Besides, he knew that Snape was so set against him that regardless of whatever had passed between professor and Headmaster, avoidance was still the best policy.
   On that day, however, though Snape generally stayed away from him, Harry would often look up and find the potions professor's baleful glare fixated on him, accompanied by the man's customary sneer. It was truly annoying to the young man, but though he would have preferred to have called the greasy bat out for it, the warnings about not giving his enemies anything to hold over him still filled his mind, and he declined to incite a confrontation.
   Unfortunately Snape was not of the same mind. The class was ending and the students were packing their things and beginning to file out when the hated man's voice rang out.
   "Potter! Stay after class. I have something to discuss with you."
   Harry exchanged a glance with Hermione, who whispered that she, Neville, and Ron would wait outside for him, before indicating his assent to the professor. He sat down at his desk, watching the other students leave, ignoring the almost gleeful derision on Malfoy's face. Once they were gone, he sat at his desk, waiting for Snape to begin. The man seemed disinclined to begin - he simply stared at Harry, showing his dislike and contempt. Harry said nothing. Harry was not uncomfortable - he refused to be uncomfortable! - but he would not start anything with the professor and give him the excuse to hand out the punishments he so relished.
   At length Snape stood and approached Harry's desk. "So, you found it necessary to complain to the Headmaster about me."
   "I did."
   "And now I suppose you wish special treatment in my class, the same as you receive in any other class?"
   Harry only refrained from rolling his eyes by the slimmest of margins. "I do not, sir. I expect to be treated the same as any other student."
   "Your arrogance knows no bounds, Potter."
   "How can it be arrogance to expect to be treated the same as anyone else?"
   Snape said nothing. He merely continued to glare at Harry, his hatred and contempt still plain for all to see. The two emotions were ones which Harry felt he could return quite cheerfully, and in equal measure.
   "I have done nothing to earn your hatred, Professor," Harry continued, still careful to refrain from giving this man any ammunition to use against him. "All I ever did was to show up on my first day of classes. You appeared then to already dislike me before you even knew me. Why?"
   "You are too much like your father," Snape spat. "He was a blight upon this school, always running wild with those friends of his, always strutting around the school like he owned it."
   "Sounds like a certain blond ponce I know," was Harry's sarcastic reply.
   "Do not interrupt me! We were speaking of your father and no one else."
   "Oh really?" This time Harry was not able to keep the scorn out of his voice. "I thought we were talking about me? I asked you why you hated me from the beginning, and you talk about my father's arrogance and how I mirrored him, but you did not even take the time to get to know me before you made that judgment."
   Snape's eyes narrowed, and though Harry knew he had scored a significant point, he knew there was no way the professor would acknowledge it. He said nothing, however, which allowed Harry to continue.
   "I'm afraid I cannot know how much like my father I am. You see, he's dead!" Harry barked. Though the admission that his parents were not with him had always been painful, Harry forced himself to be blunt with his recalcitrant professor. "I was too young to know my father when he died. So you see, Professor, any resemblance between my father and me is a result of genetics and chance - nothing more."
   "Believe me, Potter, you are just like your arrogant father."
   Rising to his feet, Harry fixed a glare on the man. "Professor, may I speak bluntly?"
   A raised eyebrow met his question. "Are you not doing so now?"
   "After a fashion. However, I'd like to be able to speak my mind as you are so obviously doing. No detentions, no point deductions - just you and me clearing the air."
   Seeming to be intrigued, Snape peered at him contemplatively. "Very well then. Everything said in this room is completely off the record until further notice, or until you leave the room. Now, I believe you have something to say?"
   "Yes, sir," Harry said with a tight nod. "It may come as no surprise to you, but I hate you as much as you obviously hate me. But where I am forced to show you respect as a professor - which you have in no way earned, I might add - you feel free to belittle me, and behave as though I am something disgusting you wiped from your shoes. You are a vile, bitter, and contemptuous man, with very few redeeming qualities, and your abilities as a potions master in no way compensate for your utter failure as a professor. Your behavior is atrocious, and in the Muggle world you would have lost your position years ago. You have disliked me because of something which happened between you and my father before I was even born, and you have never once attempted to look past my resemblance to my father and to see the person I am, rather than what you thought I would be.
   "What you continue to fail to understand is that I don't know who my father was as a person, and as such, I can hardly emulate him, whether I want to or not. He may have been an arrogant git like you say. He may have acted like he owned the school and everything in it. In fact, he may have acted like the very world owed him everything on a silver platter. I wouldn't know. I can tell you that he could hardly be worse that that little Pureblood idiot you are so intent upon protecting, so it seems to me that on top of everything else, you are a hypocrite as well as a bully.
   "The point of this discussion is that I've had to put up with every bit of abuse that you thought you could get away with, ever since I came to this school. I will not continue to do so. One way or another, your treatment of me will cease, or I will do everything in my power to see you lose your precious position, and I expect that an entire generation of Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, and Ravenclaw students will laud my name after you are booted from this school in disgrace!"
   Silence reigned in the room after Harry's rant, and though he would have liked to break it, Harry had had his say, and he would wait to see what Snape said in response. It appeared that his outburst had done no overt damage - it was not like it was possible to further damage their relationship. In fact, the Professor's demeanor had softened slightly, and he now looked at Harry with a speculative eye.
   "I suppose there is no disputing your courage," Snape finally said.
   "I would imagine that is why the hat placed me in Gryffindor," was Harry's dry reply.
   He was not going to touch on the fact that he had specifically requested that the hat not place him in Slytherin. He had no idea how Snape would respond to that piece of information. Perhaps dancing with joy that the hat had not placed him in Slytherin was just as likely a reaction as anything else.
   "Quite," Snape responded.
   After peering at Harry for a few more moments, Snape appeared to come to a resolution. "Very well then, Potter. As long as you keep your nose clean in class and do your work with a certain level of competence, I shall leave you alone. Will that do?"
   "What about Malfoy?" Harry asked.
   "What about him?" was the dark reply.
   "Come on, Professor, you are not blind. Malfoy is a thorn in my side whenever he gets the chance. He taunts me and my friends, tries to get us in detention, and attempts to sabotage our potions whenever he thinks he can get away with it. Considering the fact that you are teaching this class, he thinks he can get away with it with whenever he likes. I can keep my head down and do my best in class, but I guarantee that if Malfoy tries something, my response will not be to his liking. I will not allow that little prick to attack any of my friends any longer."
   "You are lucky that this all off the record, or you would have lost some of Miss Granger's hard-earned points."
   "Which is why I asked," was Harry's response. "You don't think I'd be so blunt unless I was certain it was off the record, do you? I'm not that stupid."
   Snape snorted. "Though I hate to say it, it's very Slytherin of you, Potter. I will deal with Mr. Malfoy."
   "Very well, Professor."
   Nodding his head, Harry picked up his backpack and sauntered from the room. The fact that Snape's eyes continued to bore into his back as he left did not escape him.
   "What was that all about?" Hermione asked when he joined his friends.
   "Nothing much," Harry said with a wink. "Just clearing the air a little with the Professor."
   "Did you punch his lights out?" asked Ron with a grin.
   Hermione rolled her eyes. "Perhaps you should do that, Ronald, if you want to have detention for the rest of your time at Hogwarts."
   "It might actually be worth it," said Neville. "At least it would be satisfying."
   The group laughed as they started down the hall.
   "I agree with Neville," said Harry. "But no, I didn't punch him. Like I said, we cleared the air a little. Hopefully, we'll have less trouble with Snape from now on."
   ***
   By the time the fifth years had reached the Defense classroom later that afternoon, Harry had related the story of his discussion with Snape to all of his friends. Fleur in particular seemed to be extremely pleased by the turn of events. But though word that something had occurred between Harry and the potions professor had spread through the school very quickly, Harry asked those who were aware of the exact nature of the confrontation to keep it quiet. He did not want Snape to get the idea that he was spreading their private dealings to all and sundry - his new truce with the potions professor was too new and fragile, he sensed, to take it lightly.
   Malfoy, however, appeared perplexed. He had obviously suspected that something was up when Harry had been told to stay behind, but seeing Harry laughing with his friends rather than seething at his treatment was clearly not what he had expected. As they were leaving the hall, Harry caught a look of discontent upon the face of his nemesis, which darkened even further when Harry flipped him a jaunty salute. At that moment, it occurred to Harry that he had still not heard what Malfoy's reaction had been to learning he had been assigned Harry's detention - that outcome could not be fueling any good temper for the Malfoy scion. Harry supposed that Snape had told the blond ponce to accept the detention and keep his mouth closed, though Harry was surprised that Malfoy had listened, if such had been the case.
   Though one of his Monday classes appeared to have changed for the better, the other dreaded class - which ironically would have been his favorite in previous years, regardless of the Headmaster's inability to provide a proper professor - would prove that it still had the capacity to infuriate him.
   Defense that day was much the same as it had been the previous week. Umbridge still demanded they put their wands away as soon as the students entered the class, and she once again lectured directly from the text. In truth, had the subject matter still not held some interest for Harry, regardless of the less than stellar textbook, he would have been in danger of considering Defense to be almost the equal of History for its ability to numb his mind into sheer insensibility.
   What changed, however, was the fact that for the most part, Umbridge completely ignored him, even when he wanted to say something, which was very infrequent. It was nearing the end of class when Harry raised his hand to speak - and was ignored - for the third time, as Umbridge called on Hannah Abbot to answer a question she had posed. Harry raised an eyebrow at Hermione, who returned his gesture with a smirk of her own.
   "Looks like someone has a new tactic," Harry whispered.
   "It would seem to be so," Hermione responded.
   Their short tete-a-tete, however, served to draw the professor's attention. She peered at him with her patently false and irritating silly smile, and asked him in her high voice, "Did you have something to say, Mr. Potter? Did I not instruct the class to raise your hands when you have something to say? Perhaps you would like to share with the class what you and Miss Granger were speaking of?"
   Grimacing, Harry responded, "I was merely pointing out that I haven't been able to answer a question yet this class, Professor."
   "Well, Mr. Potter, if I had known you were so eager to participate in class, I would have called upon you sooner."
   "Thank you, Professor. It is good to know that I am a valued member."
   Umbridge peered at him suspiciously, before she broke out into her sickly sweet smile once again. "Indeed, Mr. Potter. However, there is still the matter of your speaking out of turn, and I'm afraid that you and Miss Granger will have to serve a detention. It seems I must prove my point that I wish to have discipline in this class."
   Very much wishing he could respond to the woman, Harry nevertheless calmed himself and kept quiet. It was no doubt part of the woman's plan to attack him, and though he was not certain if this was a detention which the Headmaster would overturn, he thought that at the very least it would be a good idea to inform him of what had happened.
   "Very good, Mr. Potter - it appears you can control your trouble-making nature if you so choose. Perhaps we shall be able to make a proper wizard out of you yet."
   Even that failed to raise a response from Harry - the woman's opinion meant less than that of a flobberworm to him, after all. Umbridge appeared to have a slight air of disappointment to her manner at being unable to obtain a rise out of him. However, her sudden change thereafter to studied nonchalance made him instantly suspicious.
   "You shall serve detention..." she trailed off while tapping her wand on her chin in what Harry was convinced was a false show of considering the situation.
   Her face suddenly lit up with glee. "Yes, your detention shall be served on Thursday, immediately before dinner." She all but sneered at Harry. "As I will be away from Hogwarts that day on Wizengamot business, you shall serve your detention with Professor Snape, and I will be certain to ensure he has something... suitable for you both to do."
   "But that's the day of Sirius's trial!" Harry blurted out, immediately guessing the thrust of the woman's actions. "I've received permission to attend with Professor Dumbledore."
   "Now, now, Mr. Potter," soothed Umbridge. "We can't have students who are scheduled for detention leave the school on an obviously unnecessary field trip - it's not fair to the other students."
   "It's not fair for you to assign a detention on a day which means so much to me," Harry snapped in response.
   "Perhaps one day is not enough for you," cooed Umbridge. "You and Miss Granger will serve your Thursday detention with Professor Snape, and then you will serve Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with me."
   Harry saw red, and was almost ready to tear into the woman, but Hermione's presence by his side, coupled with the hand she laid on his shoulder, reminded him of the need to keep his cool. He looked away from Umbridge, while allowing an emotionless mask to descend over his face, and he ignored the woman for the rest of the class - she did not call on him either, though she did glance smugly in his direction several times before the bell rang.
   At the end of the class, Harry slammed his textbook in his bag, and stalked from the room, barely aware of his friends attempting to catch him as he strode through the halls of Hogwarts.
   "Harry, will you hold up a moment?" Hermione shouted.
   He almost caused Hermione to run into him, he pulled up so abruptly.
   "Where are you going?" she demanded once she had regained her balance.
   "Dumbledore," was Harry's short reply. "What she did was not fair - I'm not going to let her get away with it."
   Turning to look at Neville and Ron, who had hurried to catch up, Harry motioned them away. "Go ahead with Hermione to the Great Hall - I'll be there when I finish speaking with the Headmaster."
   Ron and Neville nodded, but Hermione dug in her heels. "No way, Harry. You'll need someone to back you up - I'm coming too."
   The fact that Harry felt he did not exactly require help with the Headmaster gave way to the idea of the comfort he knew Hermione's presence would bring. He nodded briefly to her before turning and marching off down the hallway which led toward the Headmaster's office.
   Once they had gained admission to the office, they entered, earning a raised eyebrow from the elderly Headmaster.
   "I take it something else has happened?" he inquired mildly. "Is this to be a regular occurrence, Harry?"
   "I hope not, sir," Harry responded with a tight grin.
   Dumbledore peered at Harry for several moments. "I did some checking earlier, and other than your rumored discussion with Professor Snape, nothing of significance happened in your potions class. Can I therefore assume that your current problem as nothing to do with potions?"
   "Yes, sir," said Harry. "There was a bit of an incident in Defense, and Umbridge assigned me an unfair detention that I'd like you to review."
   Nodding, Dumbledore said, "Very well, please proceed."
   Being careful not to omit anything, yet give the Headmaster a detailed explanation of what exactly happened, Harry related the story of the confrontation with the Defense Professor. It took only a few moments for the entire tale to be related, after which Dumbledore sat back in his chair and regarded the teens thoughtfully.
   "Unfortunately, Harry, there is nothing I can do about the original detention - it is the professor's prerogative as to how they run their class, and how they enforce discipline."
   "But, sir," Hermione exclaimed, "that's completely unfair and beyond the type of punishment which should be assessed for whispering in class."
   "I don't disagree with you, Miss Granger," said Dumbledore. "However, technically, she has the right to assess a detention. But that doesn't mean we can't modify the terms of that detention."
   Feeling some relief that by Dumbledore's implication, he would not have to miss Sirius's trial, Harry asked, "You said the first detention. Can you do something about the other one?"
   "That is a different matter," said Dumbledore firmly. "Though perhaps your protests could be construed as backtalk if one were to so choose, I believe the stress of the situation led to your responding as you did. As such, we shall call Professor Umbridge in to hear her explanation, after which I will make my final decision. After all, I am certain it is in our best interests that you not serve a detention with the professor for now. Wouldn't you agree?"
   Agreeing with a grin, Harry watched as the Headmaster approached his Floo connection, and threw a handful of Floo powder into it, calling for the Defense Professor's office. After a moment, the fiery visage of Professor Umbridge, looking even more ridiculous than usual, appeared in the flames.
   "Ah, Professor Umbridge," said Dumbledore in greeting. "Will you please step into my office for a moment?"
   A moment later, the Headmaster had retreated from the fireplace to allow the Defense professor to step through. She immediately noticed the students sitting facing the desk and donned her simpering mask, though Harry would clearly see that she was not happy at all to see them.
   "Yes, Headmaster? Is there a problem?" she simpered.
   "I'm afraid there is, Professor," replied Dumbledore while returning to his chair. "Mr. Potter here has come to me to appeal a detention which you assigned to him in Defense class, and in the course of my investigation, I have called you here to hear your reasons for assigning this detention."
   Umbridge's eyes narrowed. "I was not aware that I had to justify my decisions to fifth-year students."
   "You do not to the students, of course," responded the Headmaster. "However, in the case where a student invokes the appeals process, you must account for your actions to me. Mr. Potter has given me his account of what occurred in your Defense class, and now I must hear your reasons before I render a judgment."
   The familiar sweet smile once again appeared on her face. "Of course, Headmaster. Very well - I assigned a detention for speaking out in class. I have been trying to instill discipline in my class and these two students were speaking out of turn."
   "Yes. Mr. Potter has admitted to whispering in class."
   "Then why are we having this discussion?"
   "Because you subsequently assigned another three days when Mr. Potter protested, not to mention you specifically assigned the original detention on the day you knew Harry would be absent from the school to attend his godfather's trial."
   "I assure you I did no such thing, Headmaster, and I resent these two students," the word was almost sneered, "implicating otherwise."
   "And I assure you, Professor, that I am well able to make the connection myself without Mr. Potter or Miss Granger's assistance," rejoined the Headmaster. "Have you anything further to add?"
   "Not at all, Headmaster. I saw a violation of my classroom rules and I reacted accordingly. As for Mr. Potter's subsequent detentions, I will not tolerate any cheek in my class."
   "Very well then," replied Dumbledore. "Obviously, though I believe your punishment for whispering in class is excessive, I will agree that it is your right to assign the level of punishment you deem fit. However, demanding Mr. Potter attend a detention on the day his Godfather is to be tried and thereby preventing his attendance is unreasonably cruel. Therefore, Mr. Potter and Miss Granger will instead serve their detentions this evening with their head of house and not Professor Snape."
   It was easy to tell Umbridge was not happy with the Headmaster's decision, but she merely smiled before saying, "Very well, Headmaster. However, as I am available tonight, Mr. Potter and Miss Granger may serve their detentions with me."
   "I have already made my decision, Professor Umbridge," Dumbledore snapped in response. "You will abide by it.
   "As for the matter of Mr. Potter's subsequent detentions," he stated when the Defense Professor would have interjected, "there is no basis in fact for those detentions to be assigned, particularly in light of the fact that the subject being discussed was one which is highly emotional to Mr. Potter. Those detentions are hereby reversed."
   "This is one of the reasons I was sent here," Umbridge hissed. "Your continual and blatant favoritism toward Mr. Potter and his friends must cease immediately, Headmaster!
   "Or perhaps I should speak with the Minister about your blatant bias," she continued with an attempt at nonchalance.
   Dumbledore's eyes appeared to flare briefly, but he made no response to Umbridge. He, instead, turned to Harry. "Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, I think we have dealt with the matter about which you inquired. Is there anything else you would like to say at this time?"
   "No sir," Harry replied after glancing at Hermione. It appeared that whatever was to be said in the subsequent conversation between the Headmaster and Defense Professor was not meant for their ears to hear.
   "Very well then - you may leave. Please report to Professor McGonagall at seven this evening for your detention. I will ensure she knows you are coming."
   Agreeing to this, the two teens stood and retreated from the room. When they had made their way down to the hallway beyond the gargoyle guardian, Harry turned to Hermione with a grin.
   "Looks like someone's in trouble," he said in a singsong voice.
   "Harry!" Hermione scolded, though a matching grin was etched upon her face. "That's the kind of attitude that saw us in the office in the first place."
   Harry shook his head. "It looks like she really wants me in detention. We'll have to be very careful."
   Hermione agreed and together they headed in the direction of the Great Hall.
   ***
   As soon as the door closed behind the two students, Albus allowed the mask of congeniality slip from his face. He fixed a stern glare at the Defense Professor, allowing every bit of his distaste for the woman to show in his expression.
   "Madam Umbridge, must I remind you that I am the Headmaster of this institution?"
   "A Headmaster who has perhaps passed his prime," said Umbridge in response. Her accompanying sneer would have made Snape himself proud. "And you will refer to me as 'Professor Umbridge,' Headmaster,"
   Albus snorted with some disdain. "In public, perhaps, when I have no other choice. In private, however, I will not refer to you with an honorific which you have not earned."
   Though her nostrils flared in anger, Albus watched her as she struggled to come up with a response. His rejoinder was the truth, after all, and there was little she could do to refute the fact.
   "Let us not obfuscate, Madam," Albus continued after allowing her to stew for a moment. "You are not in this school to improve the quality of education or the atmosphere, or whatever other platitudes you are attempting to push on the student body or the public at large. You are here precisely to attempt to marginalize Harry and discredit me, all because of your narrow views of the world, and the Minister's short-sighted fear that I will attempt to replace him. You should remind Minister Fudge that I could have had the Minister's post had I wanted it when Minister Bagnold retired. I did not want it then, and do not want it now, as I already have more than enough on my plate.
   "However, I am and will remain the Headmaster of this school, and as such, I am responsible not only for its running, but also for matters such as the adjudicating of appeals. My judgment stands as I have already said. In the future, if you feel you must make an object lesson due to such a minor breach of your classroom rules, I suggest that you deduct points from the offenders. For an infraction such as Mr. Potter and Miss Granger brought before me today, a detention is much too severe."
   Though it was obvious Umbridge was furious, she merely nodded tightly. "Very well, Headmaster, but I shall warn you that if you continue to blatantly protect troublemakers such as Mr. Potter, you may very well find yourself removed from your position."
   "And I will warn you, that continued attempts to attack Mr. Potter - or any other student at this institution - will result in your removal, Madam Umbridge. Given the fact that your very competence in the subject you teach is suspect - you do not even hold a NEWT in Defense! - I doubt anyone other than your precious Minister would protest such a move. Do I make myself clear?"
   "Quite," snapped Umbridge.
   Without any further words or even a glance, she returned to her own office via the Floo, leaving Albus to his thoughts. The necessity of having the woman at Hogwarts was galling, but at that moment, he knew he had no choice but to accept her presence. Regardless of his words to her, he knew he needed an airtight reason to remove her from the school, allowing him to replace her with a professor of his own choice. He had someone in mind, but the timing was not correct at the moment, not that he would have hesitated had he possessed a valid reason for her removal at present.
   Thinking about the matter for several moments, Albus worried about the situation. He certainly did not need Jean-Sebastian's intervention in the matter, which would certainly come about if Umbridge could not be reined in. Perhaps at some point it would be prudent to allow Harry to have a detention with the woman - carefully controlled of course - to discover exactly what she wanted with him. He was not certain at present what the woman intended, but he would not put it past her to go too far - then maybe he would have his ammunition to have her removed.
   After a few more moments of thought, Albus let out a weary sigh and rose from his chair. Popping a lemon drop in his mouth, he exited his office and made his way toward the Great Hall, his mind working the problem over and over as he walked.
   ***
   Having made their way to dinner, Hermione sat down across the table from Harry, her mind chewing over the problem which Defense had presented that year. This year's class was turning out to be far worse than it had been in any previous year, which was saying a lot, considering the comedy of errors Defense had been for almost the entirety of her schooling career. How would they possibly pass their OWLs this year with Umbridge at the helm? Unfortunately, no answers came, regardless of her will to discover some sort of way to alleviate the problem. A part of her wanted to suggest anew that they try to have some competent adult join them on weekends to give them some tutoring, but having witnessed Umbridge's teaching thus far, and her Ministry-driven insistence that the students not be allowed to practice dangerous and unnecessary spellcasting, she knew that the idea of tutoring would not go over well. And Dumbledore appeared to believe that directly opposing the woman at the moment time was not prudent, so unfortunately, whatever they attempted would have to be done in secret.
   Pushing the thoughts away for contemplation at some other time, Hermione focused on what her friends were saying, only to find out that her thoughts were similar to the topic of conversation. Evidently Harry had told Fleur of the confrontation in Defense, and the subsequent meeting in the Headmaster's office, for she appeared quite distressed.
   "What are we going to do about Umbridge?" Hermione heard Fleur ask. "I've got NEWTs this year, and it's going to be difficult to pass the practical if we aren't able to practice the spells in advance."
   "And we have OWLs," said Hermione, chewing her lip in agitation.
   "That doesn't even account for Voldemort's return," added Ron. "At this rate, we won't even know enough to defend ourselves."
   "We did learn some things from Moody this summer," Neville disagreed.
   "Yeah, but we haven't been able to practice much of it," retorted Ron.
   Neville held out his hands in supplication before returning his attention to his meal.
   "We all know the problem, Ron," said Hermione. "We just need to find a solution."
   "Hello everyone," a dreamy voice interrupted.
   Hermione looked up and saw Luna standing behind Harry, smiling absentmindedly. Harry turned and, smiling at Luna, he scooted a little closer to Fleur. "Would you like to join us, Luna?" he asked.
   Smiling, Luna sat down beside him, and greeted the entire group. "Thanks, Harry. It's a little disconcerting being the only non-Gryffindor in our group. But the Ravenclaws don't really like me very much - I'd much prefer to eat with you."
   "Then the Ravenclaws are stupid, Luna," Neville replied seriously from her other side. "You're welcome to join us at any time."
   A general murmur of agreement made its way through the group. Though perhaps a student sitting at any table other than their own was not something which happened often, it was not disallowed. They all truly liked Luna and considered her a friend, so everyone was glad to have her join them.
   "Besides, the nargles told me you were speaking of a particular problem."
   It was difficult, but Hermione just managed to avoid rolling her eyes. She liked Luna - she truly did - but sometimes the girl's whimsical nature and preoccupation with her creatures was enough to drive Hermione nutty. This was a serious issue they were discussing, after all.
   "We're just trying to figure out what to do about Defense," said Harry. "We've got important tests at the end of the year that we won't pass if we can't practice."
   "That and we need to practice more fighting like Professor Moody said," Neville chimed in.
   "Why don't you start a defense club?" asked Luna, while filling her plate with food.
   Hermione looked at Luna blankly. "A defense club?"
   "Yes," replied Luna. "Anyone can start up a club with permission. In this case, I think you'd probably prefer to keep the club secret from all the staff, and I wouldn't blame you for that. It would provide us with the opportunity to the spells we need to know and learn how to better protect ourselves at the same time."
   "Umbridge wouldn't like it," said Harry, voicing the obvious problem.
   "Who says she has to know?" asked Fleur. "If we only invite certain people, she would never even have to know that it exists."
   "That's got possibilities," said Hermione, beginning to become excited about the idea. "We could get Harry to lead it."
   The general agreement at Hermione's statement did not, unfortunately, include the beneficiary of her largesse. Harry blinked in surprise, and then regarded Hermione with some befuddlement.
   "Why me?"
   "You're the best at defense, Harry," Hermione said, deciding that a simple reply was likely to go much farther with her friend. "You always get a spell after the first few tries, and you always help others get it after, which shows a certain flair for teaching."
   Harry still looked skeptical. "I'm not so sure about that, Hermione. Besides, if we could form a club, I think it would be best to get someone in a higher year to run it - they have more experience than I do."
   "Don't look at me," Fleur protested, noting where Harry had attempted to deflect the suggestion. "I can hold my own in defense, but Hermione's right - no one can match you, either in sheer power or understanding."
   Harry's noncommittal shrug indicated an end to the discussion, and though Hermione would have liked to press the issue further, she sensed from Harry's demeanor that now was not the time. He was very stubborn, and this issue appeared to be one in which he would dig in his heels. They would need to discuss it further at a later date. For now, the two Gryffindors were due for detention, so they finished their dinner and bade farewell to their companions, making their way toward the Transfiguration Professor's office.
   ***
   The very next day was Hermione's birthday, and as Fleur's birthday was also coming up a few days later, they had decided to make a joint celebration of it, even inviting Luna to join them in the Gryffindor common room for the celebration. Though she knew Harry would never forget her birthday - he never had in their previous four years at Hogwarts - the fact that the rest of her friends also pitched in to make her birthday a special occasion touched her deeply. She was certain Fleur felt the same way, if her brilliant smiles and warm words toward Harry were any indication.
   They sat in a corner of the common room, drinking butterbeer - which the twins had somehow managed to procure - while eating snacks and birthday cake, provided by the ever-excitable Dobby. She had received presents from most of those with whom she was close, but none were as personal as the ones she had received Harry and Fleur.
   Harry had thoughtfully purchased her a set of personalized etching tools for her Runes class, knowing how much she enjoyed the class. Each tool was exquisitely hand-crafted and the entire set was stored in a fine lacquered case of dark cherry wood, with her name surrounded in delicate electrum filigree emblazoned along the lower right corner of the case. Harry jokingly told her that it was also in thanks for assisting him with his understanding of Runes, something for which she was surprised to note he had some aptitude.
   As for Fleur, her new friend had purchased her a fine French charm bracelet with several charms. In particular, there was a stylized heart charm which had the inscription 'Toujours Amies' etched upon its surface. It was a thoughtful gift indeed, which prompted Hermione's teary thank you, in which she captured the French witch in a fierce embrace.
   As for Fleur, she also received gifts, though perhaps not as many as Hermione had, due, no doubt, to the fact that she had only been known in Gryffindor since the beginning of the year. Still, all their friends had procured presents for Fleur, though the finest by far was the finely crafted white gold locket in the shape of a stylized heart Harry had given her. And Hermione herself responded to Fleur's gift by purchasing her new friend a pair of designer jeans she had seen Fleur looking at one day while they had been shopping.
   Fleur had truly begun to become a good friend, and the two were becoming very close. Hermione was also thankful to Fleur for not pushing her to accept the arrangement she had proposed on the last day of summer holidays. Instead, she seemed willing to allow Hermione to consider it on her own, while always being available to talk if she wished it.
   It was truly the best birthday Hermione had ever had, and she stayed up quite late with all of her friends, talking and laughing, and for once, she allowed all thoughts of homework and classes to slip away in favor of simply having fun with her friends. It did not hurt, of course, that she had already finished everything due for that week.
   As night wore on, more of her friends announced their intentions to retire, eventually leaving Hermione alone with Harry, Fleur, and Ron. Something about the way Ron had acted all evening - he had been quieter than normal, while watching her intently - suggested to Hermione that tonight would finally be the night he got off the fence and made whatever intentions he had toward her known. Hermione did not wish to hurt Ron - that was the last thing she wanted to do - but this continual doomed effort to get her to notice him was wearing on her, and she welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight.
   Apparently Fleur had noticed the same thing. She glanced at Hermione and winked when the two boys were speaking together and she was certain they were not watching. She then stood and pulled Harry to his feet with her.
   "I think it's time to go to bed," she suggested.
   Harry smiled and nodded, turning to Ron. "Coming Ron?"
   "That's... Well, what I mean to say is... erm..." Ron stammered incoherently, almost setting Fleur and Hermione to giggling. "I have... something... Yeah, something to... to ask Hermione," the redhead finally finished, his cheeks turning pink with embarrassment.
   Finally, that seemed to percolate its way through Harry's eternal obliviousness. He slyly grinned at Ron. "Oh, okay. If I don't see you before I go to sleep, have a good night."
   Ron mumbled his agreement, while Harry and Fleur headed off together, parting at the stairs to head up to their respective dormitories.
   Alone with Ron, Hermione waited patiently for several minutes for Ron to finally get up the courage to make his move. However, Ron just fidgeted and eyed her in what he probably thought was a surreptitious manner.
   "Yes, Ron?" Hermione prompted gently. "You had something you wanted to ask me?"
   "Umm... Yeah," was Ron's reply. "You know... we've been friends for a few years now, and I really... umm... I really like you, Hermione. And I kind of thought, what better day to... ask the girl you... like... to be your girlfriend... What better day than on her birthday?" he finished in a rush
   "That's sweet, Ron," said Hermione. And it was - she had not thought he had it in him. But regardless of how much of a gentleman he was trying to be, Hermione would not be swayed.
   "Yeah," he said with a grin. "I figured it would be a good idea, though the b - "
   He stopped abruptly and his cheeks slightly pinked. Hermione had no idea what he was about to say - it almost sounded like he had had some advice from some other source. Regardless, it did not matter - if someone was encouraging him, then they were not seeing the true situation.
   "So, now that you're my girlfriend, can I kiss you or something?"
   That brought Hermione up short.
   "Hold on, Ron!" she cried. He looked at her puzzled, no doubt wondering what he had done wrong.
   "I'm sorry, Ron," she continued more gently, "but I'm afraid I have to say no."
   "What?" a befuddled Ron asked, appearing shell-shocked.
   "I'm sorry, Ron," Hermione repeated. "I understand your feelings, but mine aren't the same. I see you as a close brother, but nothing more."
   Though his mouth moved soundlessly for a few moments, Hermione could see a hint of redness working its way up Ron's neck and ears, a sure sign that he was working up a head of steam.
   "A brother?" Ron demanded. "I've been acting like as much of gentleman as I can, trying to learn what you like, how to make you happy, putting myself on the line here, and this is how you treat me?"
   Hermione sighed - she could have predicted this was how Ron would respond.
   "Ron," she said very gently, "I'm sorry, but I can't return your feelings."
   Ron's jaw worked as he tried to control his anger, but when he finally spoke, his words did not make a lot of sense. "It won't happen, you know." He was almost forcing the words out through his teeth, he was so visibly upset.
   Nonplused, Hermione tilted her head to one side. "I'm sorry?"
   "Harry is already taken, Hermione, but it seems like you still have designs on him. You may as well give up your fantasy - he has no way to get out of his betrothal, so he'll never date you."
   "You think I'm holding out for Harry," Hermione slowly repeated.
   "It's obvious," was Ron's offhand reply. "I've seen you watching him, you know. You and I can be really good together, Hermione, and you have no chance with Harry. I think you should go out with me."
   Hermione forbore to mention that she knew about the possibility of a multiple marriage, not to mention the fact that Fleur was already trying to get her to enter into her own relationship with Harry. It would only make Ron even angrier and less willing to accept her rejection.
   "Oh Ron, the reason I don't want to date you is not because of Harry," Hermione said firmly. "I am well aware of the marriage contract, and I know that Harry is tied to it. I am not hoping that Harry will date me when he already has Fleur - Harry is too honorable to cheat on her like that, and I wouldn't do that to Fleur, either."
   "Then why won't you go out with me? I'm as good as Harry." His voice had taken on a slightly whining quality as he tried to wheedle her into a relationship.
   "I told you, Ron, I don't think we are compatible. And you shouldn't compare yourself with Harry - it makes it very clear that you still have some jealousy issues with him. I was not comparing you and Harry, and neither should you."
   "I am not jealous of Harry," Ron denied vehemently, his voice becoming rather loud.
   "Ron, just listen to me," Hermione pleaded, leaning closer to him and lowering her voice. "I think that a lot of your behavior around Harry - especially since the Triwizard - has been because of your jealousy. You shouldn't feel jealous of him - he doesn't want his fame, or anything that comes with it, you know."
   "You just have to bring up the tournament again, don't you?" said Ron. "I already said I was wrong - what more do you want?"
   "I don't want anything, Ron," was Hermione's simple reply. "I was not the one who was hurt when you called Harry a liar. You may think that it's water under the bridge, but I can tell you that Harry still doesn't trust you fully like he used to. You never really discussed the situation or apologized to him, and I think that you should so you can both finally put it behind you."
   "But... But... Harry told me just to forget it!" Ron said hotly.
   "But that's just Harry, Ron," Hermione rejoined. "You know how he is. Despite what he said, though, he was still hurt by it, and you owe him an apology."
   Ron's eyes narrowed. "You've been talking with Harry about this stuff behind my back?"
   "No, Ron," Hermione responded firmly. "I know how Harry feels, but he has never told me."
   "You're changing the subject."
   "I think it's more proper to say that I've changed the subject, but I think you needed to hear this," said Hermione, injecting as much firmness into her voice as she could. "Regardless, my feelings for any of my friends are my private concern, and are not up for discussion.
   "Ron," she repeated, kindly, "I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have no romantic feelings for you. We are so different - we would make a really poor match. Please get over this so we can stay friends."
   But Ron was not about to let it go without a final word. "What do you mean we are a poor match?" he demanded.
   "Think about it, Ron," said an exasperated Hermione. "We argue and bicker all the time, we have little in common, and we don't like to do the same things."
   "But everyone says the arguing makes us sound like an old married couple."
   Hermione shook her head. "They don't know what they are talking about. Real successful marriages are built on love and mutual respect, not on arguing. Do you see your parents arguing all the time like we do?"
   "Mum and Dad argue," was Ron's defensive reply.
   "Of course they do! All couples have times when they don't agree. But their arguing doesn't define their relationship. Our relationship is not the close, affectionate one that couples should share, and if we argue this badly now, it would just get worse after we start dating. We would eventually split up, and that might even ruin our friendship."
   At his look of incomprehension, Hermione threw her hands up in the air. "Really, Ron, can you imagine us married to one another? What would you do if you came home one day and I wanted to discuss the latest Arithmantic formula I was working on? And you know how little I think of Quidditch. Do you really want a wife who could care less about your favorite sport?"
   A contemplative look appeared on Ron's face - for the first time, he appeared to be thinking about Hermione's words, rather than only about what he wanted. It was a start, Hermione decided.
   "Anyway, thank you for asking, Ron, but I don't think it's a good idea. I hope we can stay friends."
   With that, Hermione bid her friend good night and headed toward the stairs and the dormitories. She hated hurting him, but knew it was for the best.
   She stepped onto the stairs and made her way up to the fifth year girls' dormitories, and was surprised to see Fleur sitting on the landing, watching her approach, an expression of sympathy etched on her face.
   "He asked?" she queried quietly.
   Hermione nodded, feeling tears begin to run down her face.
   "Ah, mon amie," Fleur said, while drawing Hermione into a hug. "It is hard, but you have done the right thing. He is a good friend, no?"
   "Usually," said Hermione while dabbing at her eyes. "He can be a little flaky at times, but at the end of the day you always know he'll be there."
   "Then if he is a true friend, he will accept your decision and allow your friendship to remain intact. If he is not..."
   Fleur's final thought remained unvoiced, but Hermione knew what she was about to say in any case. It did not make it any easier to hear, but Hermione knew the older witch was correct.
   "Thank you, Fleur, but I think I'd like to go to bed now."
   "Sleep well," Fleur said, kissing her softly on both cheeks before she departed to her own dormitory.
   As Hermione entered her own room, she reflected that the day had generally been a good one. And regardless of the way it had ended, she had faith that Ron would come to his senses and get over his disappointment. It might take some time, but he would eventually get there.

Chapter 15 - Sweet Freedom

   "Hey, Hermione," Harry said as he plopped down beside her on their favorite sofa in the common room. It was still fairly early and the room was still mostly deserted; Fleur and their other friends had yet to make an appearance.
   "Hi Harry," Hermione said with a smile, before she turned back to her book.
   Harry smiled at her, noting to himself that seeing Hermione without a book in her hands was the same as a unicorn without a horn.
   He studied her surreptitiously, wondering if he should say something to her. Contrary to popular belief, Harry was not truly unobservant - he merely did not always interpret the evidence before him in a correct manner. This defect was especially exacerbated in the case of anything of a family or interpersonal nature, mostly due to his upbringing with the Dursleys. The Dursleys were not an overly demonstrative family; other than their sickening - and rather contrived, Harry felt - displays of affection for Dudley, Harry had rarely been able to discern anything in their actions which even displayed the barest of affection for each other, never mind anyone else. As such, growing up in such an environment and doing his best to avoid their notice, and consequently any unpleasantness, Harry was not precisely equipped to be an expert on relationships and the common signs most people unconsciously showed which betrayed their true emotions.
   The past few weeks, though, Ron's display had been so blatant that Harry could not imagine that a blind man would have been unable to see through it. Harry would have noticed even if Ron had not approached him to ask his feelings about Hermione. And given the words which had been exchanged the evening before, and the way that Fleur had practically dragged him away from his two closest friends, it appeared that Ron had finally worked up the courage to ask Hermione out.
   In truth, Harry was of two minds about the development. They were his closest friends, and he wanted them to be happy. However, with all the fighting they did, he was not sure that they would work as a couple, and did not wish to become caught between them as had so often happened in the past. Of paramount importance, however, was the fact that Harry could not stand to see Hermione hurt...
   "Something on your mind, Harry?"
   Broken out of his reverie, Harry noted Hermione's knowing smile; obviously he had not been as subtle as he had thought. Hermione was too observant for her own good.
   "I was just wondering if I should be congratulating you this morning."
   Hermione's brow furrowed in confusion. "For what, Harry?"
   "You know..." he trailed off, making vague hand gestures. "You and Ron?"
   At that Hermione burst out laughing, causing Harry some confusion in turn. "What?"
   "Oh, Harry, I think you may have mistaken a few things."
   By now Harry was completely perplexed. Had he truly misunderstood the situation that badly? "Ron didn't ask you out?"
   "He did, but I told him I don't see him like that," was Hermione's response. "I mean, can you imagine us as a couple? I'd be hexing him before the end of the honeymoon!"
   Grinning, Harry wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Personally, I would have guessed before the end of the reception, but I'll bow to your superior knowledge. And I'll have you know that I may be a little more observant than you think. Ron's actions the past few weeks haven't exactly been subtle."
   "No they haven't," Hermione agreed. "But if you're so observant, I would have thought you would have seen how little encouragement I gave him."
   Thinking about it for a moment, Harry understood what Hermione was telling him. "I may not have noticed as you say, but I was trying not to step on Ron's toes, in my own defense. I also wasn't convinced you would be good together, but I thought that you might actually give him a chance."
   "I can't," was Hermione's prim response. "You know how he can be. If I had agreed he would almost have considered me to be his property. If I so much as talked with another boy he would get jealous, and when it came time to break up with him - which would happen, sooner rather than later - it would have been almost impossible to get him to let go. It's better this way."
   Harry held his hands out in surrender. "I understand, Hermione. Obviously you've given this a lot of thought. You do know that he'll be put out, at least for the time being."
   A sigh met his declaration. "I know that Harry, but it's best to get this out of the way now so we can continue to be friends."
   She was quietly contemplative for several moments and Harry, sensing that she had more to say and was trying to interpret her own feelings, allowed her to think. He had never been in such a situation before - it could not be an easy one.
   "I didn't want to hurt him," she finally confided in a soft voice. "He is my friend, regardless of how he has acted at times. I tried to let him down easily and explain to him how poorly suited we were; I'm sure I had him thinking at the end, but I'm well aware that he will need to work it all through in his own mind before he will begin to accept it."
   "You did the right thing," said Harry.
   Hermione raised an eyebrow at him. "Is this coming from Harry Potter, the new student of the human heart?"
   "No," he responded, not being drawn into her playful words. "It's just Harry Potter, who has an appreciation for his friend and understands that she knows what she wants."
   At his statement a shadow passed across Hermione's face, and she blushed and ducked her head in apparent embarrassment. Harry was dumbfounded - he had only said the truth, had he not? She had rejected Ron's advances because she was certain they would not work; was she second-guessing her decision?
   It was better for him to ignore it, he decided. If she wished to confide in him the reason for her sudden reaction, he had no doubt she would. Until then, he would give her enough space to work it out for herself.
   ***
   True to Harry's prediction, Ron was distant that day, and for several more to come. He was not precisely petulant; he seemed, rather, to be unusually pensive and thoughtful, and though he peered at Hermione at times and appeared to be decidedly unhappy, Harry had the distinct impression that he was much more reflective than resentful. Harry was simply glad that he was not required to referee again between them, as he had thought would have been the result of such an event.
   Fleur, however, appeared to be a constant comfort for Hermione, and given his betrothed's actions the previous night, he suspected that Fleur was not only well aware of what had occurred between Ron and Hermione, but that she had actively been giving counsel to Hermione. Harry hoped that Ron never realized that as Harry suspected that Fleur's advice had not been in Ron's favor. That would not likely endear her to the redhead, regardless of how starry-eyed he still sometimes became due to the effects of her allure.
   They sat companionably, the earlier solemn subject of conversation now forgotten in favor of lighter topics, until Fleur had joined them in the common room. When they made their way down to the Great Hall, they found a rather unwelcome surprise waiting for them outside their destination - something unexpected which caused them to stop and take notice.
   Attached to the wall at the side of the entrance to the Great Hall were several large wooden cases, locked with large, old-fashioned padlocks. The cases each had a glass door set into their casings, showing yellowed parchments inside. The trio looked at one another and approached the boxes, looking inside the one closest to the door. It read in big, block script:
   Proclamation
   Educational Decree #1
   For their own safety, all students enrolled at Hogwarts shall not be allowed to cast dangerous hexes and curses. Any student found in contravention of this decree shall be expelled.
   "What is an educational decree?" asked Fleur after some moments.
   "I don't know," was Hermione's response. "I've never seen or heard of anything like this."
   A quick investigation showed that the other cases held similar Educational Decrees, though none were as serious as the first. In fact, most of the others were somewhat silly, ranging from the allowed amount of paper and quills to be carried in one's bag, to the required quantity of socks to be owned by each student, to the prohibition of any "unapproved sweets," though just exactly what constituted unapproved was not stated.
   The trio exchanged another glance before they entered the Great Hall and sat about halfway down the length of the table. They ate their breakfast, discussing what they had seen in a quiet manner. In time, all the members of the group had joined them at their table; none of them had missed the proclamations on their way in.
   It was the work of but a moment to come to the consensus agreement that the decrees must be the work of Umbridge, and likely constituted the beginnings of her attempt to enforce the ministry's authority over the school.
   As Hermione said, "She has really not done much of anything yet, other than refuse to teach us anything, and somehow I doubt that that is what Fudge had in mind when he sent her here."
   Sage nods met her declaration but Harry frowned. "But what is she up to? A few stupid declarations will hardly allow her to discredit Dumbledore."
   It was of course a question which no one could answer. For Umbridge to truly take control of the school - if that was her objective - then she would need to do away with Dumbledore in some manner, and no one here could see how she could possibly accomplish such a feat. Harry's trial had backfired seriously on the Minister, and Dumbledore's popularity - not to mention Harry's - had not suffered the serious hit that Fudge no doubt intended. She would have to prove him somehow unsuited for the position, or directly in violation of school charter or Ministry law, a task which appeared difficult to pull off, given Dumbledore's years of service and his record which, by any standard, was exemplary. It was not like she could just challenge him to a duel - no one with their head on straight could possibly consider a frumpy, dumpy little woman with an obsessive fondness for pink to be the equal of the famed defeater of Grindelwald.
   They went to their classes after breakfast with no further inclination as to what Umbridge could be trying to accomplish, but possessed of a determination to watch her very carefully.
   As the day wore on, Harry found that his mind could not stay focused on such mundane thoughts, as another more important event was looming on the horizon. The next day was to be Sirius's trial, and for the remainder of the day, Harry became more and more distracted. Not so distracted, however, that he did not notice his friends' reactions. Fleur and Hermione were, if anything, even more affectionate and understanding than they would normally be, while most of his other friends - excluding Ron, of course, who was largely keeping to himself - just murmured their support and allowed him his thoughts. Harry was grateful for their forbearance and understanding.
   His distraction became even worse the following morning. As the trial was not scheduled to begin until two hours after noon, they still had to attend their morning classes. Unfortunately, that morning was potions and Harry, not wishing to bring Snape down on him for any reason, forced himself to at least pay a modicum of attention. Luckily, there was no brewing that day - Mondays were generally reserved for brewing, while Thursday was Snape's theory and preparation day - so Harry did not have to try to create a working brew, which he knew would have failed spectacularly, given the circumstances. And Snape, perhaps understanding Harry's anxiety - or perhaps still remembering his recent set down - largely left Harry to himself.
   One event which surprised most of the students present occurred as the class was ending. Apparently the difference in Harry's normal routine was noticed from an unwelcome quarter - one who had no problem heckling Harry over it.
   "Hey Scarface," the annoying tones of Draco Malfoy's voice rang out over the room while the students were packing up. "What's the matter? Your doxy won't put out for you?"
   Harry spun around, the need to regulate his emotions instantly forgotten. He was ready to slam Malfoy's teeth down his throat when another voice interrupted him.
   "That will be enough, Mr. Malfoy."
   The entire class stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at the potions master. Was Snape actually defending Harry Potter?
   No less astonished was the cause of the disturbance himself. The boy's eyes were wide open and his mouth appeared about ready to hit the floor. "Professor - "
   Snape's eyebrow rose, neatly cutting whatever the Malfoy scion was about to say. "Was I unclear? You will not use unacceptable language while you are in my classroom."
   Several emotions seemed to pass over Malfoy's face all at once, not the least of which included shock, embarrassment and rage. Finally he turned his attention away from the professor who had just set him down for perhaps the first time, and threw his books into his pack far more forcefully than was required.
   "Crabbe! Goyle! Let's get out of here!" he snapped as he stalked from the room, forcing the two goons to hurry to catch him.
   Harry turned toward Professor Snape, his face carefully neutral, and nodded to the man when he saw the other returning his gaze. Snape's only response was a tight nod of his own, before he turned and strode into his office, cloak billowing behind him.
   "I never though I'd see the day," Ron blurted.
   Agreeing with him wholeheartedly, Harry accompanied his friends from the room and toward the Great Hall for lunch, while thinking about Snape's words to Malfoy. Obviously, the bat was still on what passed for his best behavior; otherwise he would simply have sat back and watched the confrontation with glee. It did not escape Harry's attention, however, that Snape had only reprimanded Malfoy for his language, and not for the sentiments he expressed. Clearly the changes in the man only went so far.
   An hour later, the three friends said good-bye to everyone else and made their way toward Dumbledore's office, where they would Floo to the Ministry. At first, Dumbledore had been disinclined to allow Hermione's attendance. Fleur was allowed because her father was involved and she was Harry's betrothed, but Hermione was no relation to Harry or to Sirius. However, the Headmaster was persuaded to relent when Harry correctly pointed out that she had been an integral part of Sirius's rescue at the end of third year, and thus, was connected to him in an important way.
   They arrived in the office, returning Dumbledore's affable greeting, and moment and a quick Floo trip later, they were all making their way through the Ministry building toward the courtrooms on the tenth level.
   It was different, Harry reflected, to see courtroom number ten from the vantage point of the gallery. The last time he had been in that room, he had been front and center and had not had much time to survey the surroundings. However, one thing he could detect was a much different atmosphere than he remembered from two months earlier. For one thing, the air of implacability which Fudge had injected into Harry's trial had been replaced by curiosity. Sirius Black had been a rather large figure in magical England for some time, after all. He was the rumored betrayer of the Potters, and by extension the Boy-Who-Lived, who had then escaped not only from Azkaban, but from Hogwarts when he was due to be kissed, and then had his innocence summarily declared at Harry's trial. The interest level in this trial was incredibly high.
   They had only been seated for a moment when Jean-Sebastian entered the room. Spying them, he stepped forward and engulfed his daughter in a hug, and then slapped Harry's back and nodded at Hermione.
   "You all are looking... eager today," he said with a grin.
   Harry could not help the bashful feeling which swept over him, causing Jean-Sebastian to laugh.
   "Do not worry, Harry. Sirius will walk from this courtroom today a free man. I've already seen him questioned under Veritaserum, as you recall. I know he's innocent, even if I hadn't already known."
   Harry rolled his eyes at his new protector, but Jean-Sebastian simply smirked and left them to join Dumbledore on the floor of the courtroom.
   "He's right, Harry," Hermione said softly from his side. "There's nothing to worry about."
   From his other side, Fleur reached out and grasped his hand. "Veritaserum cannot be beaten, Harry."
   Gratefully, Harry nodded his appreciation for their support. But that did not help him from feeling nervous. Of course not.
   ***
   In a small anteroom off the main courtroom, Sirius Black waited, and though he was not aware of the fact, he was every bit as nervous as his godson. Sirius knew he was innocent - he had clung to that truth with an almost fanatical fervency since he had come to his senses at the beginning of those horrible years in Azkaban. The thought of his innocence, along with the protection his Animagus form afforded him, had kept him sane all those years. Of course, Moony and Prongs would have claimed otherwise when it came to the subject of his sanity...
   Smiling, Sirius thought of his friends, and how they had planned to storm the world and make it a better place. Their unique backgrounds - James with his status as the heir of an old and respected house, Sirius as the rebellious scion of a historically dark house, and Remus who had been ostracized his entire life for a condition which was not his fault - gave them - or so they felt - the necessary insight into the evils of their society. Things must change or their world was in danger of becoming an anachronism and collapsing in on itself.
   Even though many years had passed since James's death and the acute ache of his passing had dulled with the passage of time, Sirius could still feel an empty hole where James's presence had once been, and he knew Moony felt the same. In some respects, Harry had begun to fill that hole, though Sirius knew he would never fully be able to do so. Harry was different from James, and would therefore occupy a different location in Sirius's heart than James had.
   But perhaps all their dreams were not dead. Harry was a bright and exceptional person, and perhaps with his help, not to mention the assistance of his fame and influence - which was not inconsiderable - they could still realize their dreams. Harry, Sirius was certain, had not yet begun to think of what would happen after Voldemort was defeated; all of his thoughts and energy were bent toward that one goal, not to mention the need to survive the coming difficulties. Sirius, based on the thoughts and plans he had had with his friends, wanted to change their society, and was certain that once he shared his thoughts, Harry would agree. This did not even mention the enthusiasm the little Muggleborn girl he always hung out with would bring. She would, no doubt, see even more clearly that Harry that the wizarding world needed to change if they were to survive and do away with the conditions which contributed to the rise of several previous dark lords.
   One thing Sirius knew beyond all others, however, was that James and Lily were still looking down on their son. And he knew their greatest wish was that regardless of his mistakes - specifically that of chasing after Pettigrew when he should have concerned himself with Harry - that Sirius finally take his role of Harry's defender, with Moony occupying a large role in the young man's life as well. And that was what Sirius was determined to do. After he was declared a free man, of course...
   Turning his attention to the matter at hand, Sirius thought of the upcoming trial. Trials in the magical world were not the same as the descriptions of those in the Muggle world he had heard from Lily. They were both more efficient and more effective than those the Muggles held, due to their ability to use magic to determine the truth. This was a trial in front of the entire Wizengamot, and though Sirius would have an advocate - Jean-Sebastian had agreed to take the role as they had decided Dumbledore would be of more use running the trial as Chief Warlock - it would not be the advocate's responsibility to prove his client's innocence. If the case was important or sensational enough - which his was in spades, on both accounts - the release of Veritaserum would be authorized and the person on trial would be compelled magically to either convict or acquit himself.
   Unfortunately, what was not admissible was Sirius's conviction that Peter was the actual betrayer of Lily and James. A person could only speak what they believed to be the truth, which was why Veritaserum could not be used in testimony against anyone else.
   In other words, Sirius was not Peter, and as he was not Peter, he could not know Peter's thoughts, feelings or motivations, and therefore only Peter could convict himself under the influence of Veritaserum.
   Now, the fact that Sirius had been present when Lily cast the Fidelius and saw her make Pettigrew the secret keeper would be damning, as would the subsequent events that led to the Potters' deaths. However, since Sirius had immediately left James and Lily and had not returned until after their deaths, he could not say for certain that the secret keeper had not been changed once again. After all, they had used one piece of misdirection - who was to say James and Lily had not done it once again?
   His testimony was, however, enough evidence that a warrant would be issued for the arrest of the traitorous rat. Some day, he would be made to pay for his crimes against James and Lily. In Sirius's mind, this was Marauder justice - betrayal would be met with the harshest penalty possible.
   The door opened and into the room stepped an Auror - one whom he would have known well, if he had been free instead of in Azkaban.
   "Sirius, it's time," Nymphadora Tonks said, her hair flickering to a solemn black from the platinum blond she had originally sported.
   "Hello, Dora," he responded.
   She stared at him hard, no doubt wondering if this new nickname he had come up with for her was intended to tease.
   "What, would you prefer that I call you Nymphy?" Sirius asked with a chuckle
   "Certainly not!" Tonks snapped, sending Sirius into even greater peals of laughter.
   "Then you'll have to put up with it. It's certainly a lot better than you ridiculously insisting that everyone call you by your last name."
   The newly christened Dora's expression became even darker. But she said nothing, only motioning him to the door. Sirius stood and walked towards the door, stopping when he had reached his cousin.
   "Thanks, Dora," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting to know you better."
   She cocked her head to one side. "My mother always had good things to say about you, Sirius. She never believed that you were guilty."
   Sirius smiled. "I always said Andy was the best of her sisters. Thank you."
   Turning, Sirius walked out through the hallway and into the courtroom, holding his head high, while Dora and another Auror flanked him on either side. Feeling the eyes of everyone in the chamber bearing down on him, Sirius, calling up a hint of the old Marauder spirit, directed a saucy wave at the Minister, before smiling at Harry and the two girls by his godson's side. The smile was returned somewhat nervously by the young man, but with real hope shining in his eyes. Sirius vowed right there to be worthy of his godson's hope.
   The Minister was clearly not amused. He sat there, leaning back in his seat, gazing petulantly at the display Sirius was making. The Minister truly had no political skin in the game when it came to Sirius's imprisonment - he had not been the Minister when Sirius had been imprisoned, and thus could not be held responsible, unless one counted the negligence which had kept anyone in any position of power from reviewing his case, and Fudge was not the only one guilty of that oversight. It appeared that the Minister's displeasure stemmed more from his connection to Harry Potter. Anything which benefitted Harry was anathema in his eyes.
   Approaching the center of the room where Jean-Sebastian waited, Sirius instantly noticed the chair with its restraints, which he remembered from his own time as an Auror, was missing, and a straight-backed wooden chair had replaced it. He raised his eyebrow at Jean-Sebastian in question.
   "I would not allow Harry to sit in that demeaning chair; do you think I would allow you to do so?" he queried good-naturedly.
   "I'm surprised Fudge allowed it."
   Jean-Sebastian snorted with some disdain. "In this instance he did not have much of a choice or any real reason to argue. Your absence has left you less than informed, but this trial is almost being considered a formality. Madam Bones felt there was no need for restraints, as you were turning yourself in for trial."
   "I always knew I liked her," said Sirius, with a smile for the Bones matron. She returned it, before returning to her conversation with Dumbledore.
   As Sirius took his seat in the chair, the courtroom quieted and the attention moved to the Chief Warlock who was now standing to begin the proceedings.
   "Ladies, Gentlemen of the Wizengamot, I believe we are ready to begin. I call this trial for Sirius Black in session." He peered down at Sirius with a slight smile on his face. "Thank you for giving yourself up to the judgment of this court."
   "Of course, Chief Warlock," replied Sirius. "I am very interested in having my name cleared, and resuming my place in this society."
   "Very well. We shall begin." Dumbledore motioned toward Madam Bones. "Director, if you will."
   Madam Bones rose to her feet and took her place before the lectern. "Sirius Orion Black, you are called today before Wizengamot of Great Britain to answer to the charges brought against you. Those charges include the betrayal of James Potter, Lily Potter and Harry Potter to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and thereby causing the deaths of Lily and James. You have also been charged with the killing of Peter Pettigrew and the murder of thirteen Muggles during your confrontation with the aforementioned Peter Pettigrew. How do you plead?"
   "Innocent of all charges, Madam Director," said Sirius.
   "Mr. Black," she responded, peering down at him severely through her monocle, "you understand that the release of Veritaserum has been authorized, and that you will be magically compelled to prove your innocence?"
   "I do." Sirius's eyes became a little misty for a moment as he remembered his fallen friend. "James Potter was my closest friend growing up, and by my seventh year, Lily was like a sister. I would have turned a killing curse on myself before I hurt either of them."
   Madam Bones's scrutiny continued for several seconds before she motioned the nearby Aurors. "Very well then. Auror Dawlish, if you will administer the Veritaserum please."
   It was a quirk of Veritaserum - or perhaps it was so designed - but it was known that the counter-agent could not be taken before the truth agent. If taken in the wrong order, Veritaserum and the counter-agent would form a highly toxic poison, from which a person could only be saved if the attention of a highly skilled healer or a bezoar was available immediately. That was why a defendant was not tested first for the counter-agent - the effects were well known.
   Tilting his head back, Sirius allowed the Auror to place the requisite three drops on his tongue. He felt the haze of the Veritaserum take effect immediately - he was still in command of his faculties and was completely aware, but any falsehood he might have harbored disappeared from his mind. He could not even think up a lie, which was why the truth agent was so powerful - it did not affect the speech of the recipient, rather it affected their very mind, will, and being, and no known potion or force of will was able to defeat it.
   He focused on Madam Bones as she peered at him. After a moment, she appeared to be satisfied that the potion had taken affect.
   "Please state your name."
   "Sirius Orion Black."
   "Very well, Mr. Black. Did you, on the night of October 31, 1981, betray James, Lily and Harry Potter to You-Know-Who with the intent of causing their deaths?"
   "No." Sirius wanted to say more, but the power of the truth serum was forcing him to reply only to the question asked.
   "Were you secret keeper to their location?"
   "No."
   "Why were you thought to be their secret keeper?"
   "James and I thought that I was the obvious choice," Sirius responded, happy to finally be able to tell his story. "We let it be known that I was to be the secret keeper, but we switched at the last moment to Peter Pettigrew."
   "Why did you do this?"
   "Misdirection. You-Know-Who would concentrate on finding me, while Peter would be able to go into hiding. No one would ever suspect James of entrusting his safety to Peter, as he was not known to be the most competent or courageous of wizards."
   "Were you actually present during the casting of the charm?"
   "I was."
   "And what of the charges of killing Peter Pettigrew? Did you kill him?"
   "No."
   "Then how was he able to make it seem that you had? What happened during your confrontation?"
   "When I cornered Peter, he was holding his wand behind his back. He yelled at me, accusing me of betraying James and Lily, and cast a blasting curse which tore through a pipe and caused an explosion which killed the Muggles. Then he cut off his own finger to make it appear like the rest of his body had been consumed in the blast and disapparated."
   "Why didn't you tell this to the Aurors who apprehended you?"
   "I was disoriented by the explosion, and by the time I came to my senses, I was already inside my cell at Azkaban."
   Madam Bones regarded him for a long moment before she continued. "And what of your escape from Azkaban? Why did you escape? And if you were able to escape, why did you wait so long?"
   "I became desperate when learned that Peter Pettigrew was close to Harry. It was that desperation which drove me to attempt it."
   "How did learn of this?" Madam Bones interrupted.
   "During the Minister's annual tour of Azkaban, he left me with a copy of his Daily Prophet. I saw a picture of Peter Pettigrew with the Weasleys, and knowing he would be at Hogwarts this year, I knew I had to get close to Harry to protect him."
   "I seem to remember that edition," said Madam Bones with a frown. "The picture of the Weasley family was on the front cover, yet it would have been obvious that a man believed to be dead for over a decade could not have openly appeared in the picture. Yet you claim you saw him?"
   "Yes."
   "Please explain."
   "Peter Pettigrew is a rat animagus. I saw him in the picture perched on Ronald Weasley's shoulder."
   The Director's nodded thoughtfully. "Are you saying that Peter Pettigrew lived as a rat with the Weasley family since his apparent demise?"
   "I have no knowledge of how and when he came to be living with the Weasleys. However, I am positive it was him."
   "How can you be certain?" Madam Bones pressed.
   "I have seen the rat in his animagus form many times, Madam Bones," Sirius responded, a hint of dryness entering his voice regardless of the truth agent. "Besides that, he was also missing a toe on his left forepaw, which is the hand which Peter cut his finger off. I also saw him at Hogwarts in his human form."
   "So you went to Hogwarts to protect Harry?"
   "Yes, but also to capture or kill the rat if I could."
   "Let's return to your escape. How did you manage it?"
   "I changed into my animagus form and squeezed through the bars of my cell."
   Her eyebrows rose. "You are an animagus as well?"
   "Yes."
   "And what is your form?"
   "A black grim."
   "That's not ironic at all," Madam Bones responded in a dry manner. "A grim with the name Sirius Black - that's something one could hardly have planned had you even attempted to do so. Do you not agree?"
   "Yes," Sirius said. "My friends certainly teased me often enough for it."
   "What did you do then?"
   "I evaded the Dementors - which wasn't difficult, as they practically ignored me as a dog - then I swam ashore."
   "Is that how you continued to evade the Dementors who were sent to apprehend you?"
   "It is."
   Halting her questioning there, Madam Bones peered about the room, before stopping at Dumbledore. "Chief Warlock, I believe that I have no further questions to ask Mr. Black at this time, though I would ask that he meet with me at a later date, as I would like to ask him some further questions, which perhaps should not be made public. In addition, I would recommend that we begin the search for the whereabouts of Peter Pettigrew."
   Dumbledore rose and signaled to Dawlish, who immediately administered the counter agent. Immediately, Sirius felt the compulsion to tell the truth wane.
   "I trust the information I provided was what you were looking for?" he asked cheekily.
   A murmur of laughter swept over the assembled members, and Dumbledore's eyes twinkled madly.
   "I believe so, Mr. Black."
   Dumbledore's gaze then swept over the courtroom. "Is there anyone who wishes to say anything further before we take a vote?"
   Though Dumbledore addressed the entire room, he directed his gaze at Fudge who, although he appeared to be less than pleased with the proceedings, made no comment - clearly there was to be no outburst from the Minister regarding the matter.
   "In that case, I move that in light of Mr. Black's testimony under the influence of Veritaserum, that the charges against him be dropped. I believe the evidence is convincing enough to eschew a vote in favor of a proclamation by general acclamation. Does anyone object?"
   Sirius grinned at the Chief Warlock. A proclamation by general acclamation was considered to be superior to a unanimous vote, as the evidence was deemed so airtight that a vote was not required. No one would ever question his exoneration, and the Ministry reparations would likely be substantially higher based on this development.
   When no one spoke, Dumbledore banged his gavel against the desk. "So proclaimed. Sirius Black, we find you not guilty of all charges against you."
   A whoop of joy sounded from Harry's direction, and Dumbledore allowed himself an indulgent smile at the young man. "I will not keep you much longer, as I understand there will be quite a celebration occurring tonight. However, there is one other matter to discuss.
   "Through the course of today's testimony, we have learned that you have broken the law in at least one instance. For failing to register yourself as an animagus, the penalty is normally a stay in Azkaban. In light of the fact that you have already spent a considerable amount of time there, I believe we can rule that your sentence has already been served. However, the court will give you sixty days to present yourself at the Ministry and register yourself, or other action may be taken against you. Do you understand?"
   "I do."
   "As for any reparations in the matter of your unjust imprisonment, perhaps we should confront that matter at another time? Do you agree?"
   Sirius smirked and looked at the Minister, who appeared as though he had swallowed something rather unpleasant. "I believe that is acceptable to me, Chief Warlock. Please inform me of the appropriate time, and I will meet with you and the Minister.
   "And Madam Bones," he continued, turning his attention to the Director of Law Enforcement, "I would be more than happy to meet with you at any time convenient. Please owl me and we can set up a time."
   Madam Bones nodded, while Dumbledore peered about the room. "Does anyone in the august body have anything else to add at this time?"
   Again, after a moment of silence, Dumbledore banged his gavel and dismissed the assembled.
   Standing up from his chair, a beaming Sirius caught his godson in a hug, as Harry ran to him the moment the gavel sounded.
   "Hey there, Pup! Didn't you have any faith in me?"
   "In you, yes," Harry replied. He cast a significant look at Fudge. "Not in him."
   "Even he is bound by the laws. He may try to circumvent them, but in the end the procedure in this case was clear, and there was nothing he could do to derail it without looking bad himself."
   "I'm just happy it's over," said Harry.
   "So am I, Pup. So am I."
   ***
   They reconvened at the Ambassador's manor shortly after Sirius was pronounced free, and were treated to a celebratory dinner cooked up by the Delacour house elves. The atmosphere was jubilant, and the company was able to relax now that the specter of the manhunt for Sirius had been removed.
   Among the subjects discussed that night were the events of the early school year, which was of particular interest to both Sirius and the Delacours. And though they were both displeased at the antics of Madam Umbridge - and to a lesser extent Professor Snape - they were also pleased with the way the students had handled the matters thus far and the support the Headmaster had given them. Sirius in particular was interested in the report of Harry's confrontation with Snape, and the manner in which Snape had reprimanded Draco that very morning. He warned them to watch out for the greasy git - he did not think the man's behavior would continue, nor did he think that the man had changed to any degree. The fact that all appeared to be well thus far did not stop the adults from cautioning the teens once again and reminding them that they were available at any time, should either professor become a serious problem.
   The decision was also made that Sirius would return to France to continue his treatment and rehabilitation for the years of malnutrition and mental distress he had suffered during his time in Azkaban. Harry in particular was unhappy that Sirius would not be nearby, but as Jean-Sebastian pointed out, Harry would have to return to school and Sirius would not be able to be nearby anyway. Sirius promised that he would see them at Christmas, and expressed his hope that he would be able to return to England by the time the New Year rolled around. He also told Harry he hoped to be able to take up his guardianship as soon as possible, and begin to fulfill the responsibility which James and Lily had entrusted to him. Needless to say, that suggestion was accepted enthusiastically by Harry.
   The evening was a balm to them all, and laughter and high spirits rang out throughout the manor. However, as all good things must end, their time that evening came to a close when the Headmaster collected them for the return to Hogwarts. After saying their good byes, they returned to the school via the Floo. It had been a good day - one of the best, in Harry's opinion.
   ***
   At Hogwarts, Ron Weasley was not in as festive a mood as his friends were at the ambassador's manor.
   If Ron were to be honest with himself, what he was feeling at that particular moment was petulance. Hermione, the girl he had been dreaming about for most of the previous year, and had finally gathered the courage to ask out, had rejected him out of hand. Sure his ego was bruised, but even more, he felt heartsick. Why did she not like him back?
   Hermione had denied it, but Ron was not so blind that he did not see more of her feelings than she thought. And what Ron was certain he saw, was that Hermione still harbored feelings for Harry. He was sure of it, and the fact of the matter was that he was more than a little jealous of his best friend. Harry Potter, Boy-Who-Lived, defeater of Voldemort and all around famous bloke had the affections of the one girl Ron Weasley wanted to like him. It was all so unfair, especially since Harry could not do anything about it, being betrothed to Fleur Delacour.
   A small part of Ron's mind niggled at him, telling him that that was not precisely true. Harry was able to have more than one wife, after all, and though Hermione was a Muggleborn, and therefore needed to tread carefully in the matter, he would not be surprised if her love for Harry was enough to help her overcome her socially-induced distaste for a multiple marriage enough to agree to become a second wife.
   How did Harry get all the luck anyway? A beautiful bird like Fleur already sewn up and a wonderful girl like Hermione infatuated with him.
   But even as Ron's jealousy spiked he felt ashamed of himself. Harry was not the kind of guy to lord what he had over everyone else - in fact, he was quite the opposite. He never wanted his fame; it had been thrust upon him. And if Hermione was truly in love with Harry, then Harry was a guy who truly deserved a girl like her, much as it pained Ron to admit it.
   The more he thought about it, the more Ron was convinced that there was nothing he could do about the situation. To make a big fuss over Hermione's rejection not only meant risking her friendship, but risking Harry's as well. He was certain Harry would not tolerate anyone hurting Hermione, best friend or no. And the last thing Ron wanted was a repeat of last year...
   And who knew? Maybe Hermione was only infatuated with Harry. Maybe she would grow out of it. She was still only sixteen, after all; how many people actually found a true love at such a tender age?
   The thought rang hollow for Ron the instant it entered his mind. Hermione was very mature and well beyond her years in many was, not the least of which was her intelligence and her emotional maturity. Though her feelings still may turn out to be nothing more than teenage infatuation, Ron felt it was something more - it had always been something more. They had been a trio since that Halloween night during first year, but in truth, Ron had always known subconsciously that he orbited around the two of them, rather than the three orbiting around each other. It had always been Harry and Hermione, and it likely would have only been Harry and Hermione, had the betrothal contract with Fleur not interfered.
   No, the sooner he accepted the reality of the situation, the better, as it would allow him to get things back to normal. Having come to the decision, Ron was rather proud of his own emotional maturity - it was certainly better than he had behaved the previous year.
   Besides, Hermione's last words to him about their suitability for each other still echoed in his head. Was she correct? It was something he would have to think about in greater detail when the time came, but for now her rejection was still a little too raw. There would be time enough for that later.
   Thoughts of the events of the previous year once more put Ron into a pensive mood. Hermione was right - though Harry had immediately forgiven him, they had never actually discussed what had happened, and he could now see it had affected their relationship. And though he knew it would be uncomfortable, he knew he had to speak with Harry about it and apologize for his behavior. Nothing else would do.
   Having come to a determination, Ron felt lighter than he had in months. He would wait until the appropriate time, but he would have a conversation with Harry. Harry deserved it as his closest friend.
   Taking note once again of his surroundings, Ron saw that the common room appeared pretty empty. The hour was getting late and though he had thought to wait up for Harry's return, he now felt that maybe he had better head to bed. He would once again rejoin the group tomorrow.
   He was about to push himself up from the sofa, when Fred and George sat down on either side of him, their faces lit up with their usual laughing grins. Ron peered suspiciously back and forth at the two jokesters - usually when they acted in this manner, they had something up their sleeves which would inevitably turn out to be embarrassing, and sometimes painful.
   "Good evening, Ron," said one.
   "How are you this fine evening?" said the other.
   Ron glared at his brothers. "What do you want?"
   "Hey, is that any way to speak to your favorite brothers?"
   "It's almost as though he doesn't trust us, Forge."
   "Hmm... Where do you think he came by that attitude?"
   "Please, I was just about to go to bed," Ron complained, knowing that if he allowed it, they could keep up their banter almost indefinitely.
   "Far be it for us to deny you your beauty sleep, Ronnie. But you've appeared to be a little down and distant the past couple of days."
   "We thought we'd see if there was anything we could do to help."
   "I'm fine," Ron answered gruffly. "Nothing wrong with me that a little sleep won't cure."
   Unfortunately, the two pranksters did not take the hint.
   "I would have thought you'd be on top of the world, Ron," said Gred, going by the fact that he had already called the other Forge. In truth, it generally did not matter which twin was which, as they generally answered to each other's names, and almost seemed to know what the other was thinking.
   "Why?"
   "Well, you've been using the book we gave you, right?" replied Forge. "By now you should have the delectable Miss Granger eating out of the palm of your hand."
   Ron snorted with derision. "Yeah, well your stupid book didn't work."
   Gred's eyes widened at the admission. "You already asked her out?"
   "Yeah, and she turned me down flat," Ron grumped, still upset at the turn of events.
   The twins shared a glance, and began smirking at one another, instantly putting Ron on his guard. If they had tricked him with that book...
   "Hey, what's going on? Why are you two grinning like that?"
   "Nothing in particular."
   "Nope, nothing at all."
   "Yeah, and I'm Merlin. Come on, guys, spill."
   Once again the twins glanced at each other in that uncanny manner which suggested they were sharing a conversation without words. By now Ron was beginning to become a little cross, but the twins appeared to notice it and attempted to placate him.
   "We really have to hand it to you, Ron," said Gred with a smirk. "We didn't really think you had it in you."
   "We thought you'd dillydally about for months before finally getting the courage to ask her out. You really surprised us."
   "Didn't see the point in waiting around," Ron said with a shrug.
   "No, I suppose not. In true Gryffindor fashion you charged ahead, regardless of the fact that you had virtually no chance whatsoever."
   "You almost remind us of your favorite team, the Cannons. They do the same thing - charging out to certain defeat game after game. True Gryffindors, the whole lot of them, though perhaps not the brightest specimens of our house."
   "I suspect that they may have a little too much Hufflepuff in them too."
   "Not to mention a complete lack of anything resembling skill. But that's probably a prerequisite for admission to the Cannon fraternity."
   The first twin nodded sagely at his counterpart's words, but for once Ron ignored the insult against his favorite team.
   "Wh... What to you mean no chance?" he managed to stammer.
   Forge peered at him like he had the intelligence of a particularly stupid flobberworm. "You didn't really think you had a chance with Hermione, did you?"
   Ron sputtered with indignation. "Why wouldn't I?"
   "Because you are so different from each other," Gred interjected. "You fight, argue and complain about each other - there's no way a relationship between you two would last. Hermione would be hexing you before you ever got around to saying your vows."
   With narrowed eyes, Ron glared at his brothers. "If you thought I didn't have a chance, why did you give me that stupid book? Did you want me to embarrass myself?"
   "I'm positively wounded that you would think that of us, Ronnie," declared Gred with a hand placed theatrically over his heart.
   "What have we ever done to cause you to think such a thing?" said Forge.
   When Ron glared at them even further, they sighed almost as one.
   "Well, I guess we have kind of made you suspect our intentions in the past."
   "But we assure you we did not do it to embarrass you this time."
   "Then why did you do it?"
   "To give you the courage to get it out of your system," said Gred. "Otherwise you may have moped around with your puppy dog eyes, and your longing looks for months and months before finally mustering the courage to be shot down."
   "This way, we've helped you gain some confidence, and helped you get this painful episode out of the way much sooner than you would have otherwise."
   "Not to mention the fact that the book has given you an idea of how to act around girls which you can use the next time."
   "Though we would recommend you learn to behave that way naturally, rather than just to impress the girls."
   "Seems to me you owe us thanks for our assistance."
   Ron did not know whether to be outraged, or to laugh uproariously at their irreverent behavior. They had set him up, giving him the book and giving him hope, all the while expecting him to fail. He wanted to be angry - desperately wanted to let loose on them - but somehow, found that he could not find the will within him to do so. There was never a dull moment when the twins were around and Ron reflected that he should have been suspicious at their apparent largesse. Desperation, it seemed, had made him careless.
   "I think the next time I see you, I'll give that book back to you - right between the eyes, if I can manage it."
   "In that case, aim for Fred - it was his idea," said Forge.
   "Hey, I distinctly remember it being your idea, George!" said Gred.
   Ron, however, just shooed them away. "All right then. You two have had your fun. Now off with you!"
   "Very well," they said, standing. "We had better go and collect our winnings now."
   They turned to walk away, but had only made it a couple of steps before Ron's mouth caught up with his brain. "Winnings?"
   "Yes. Some of our housemates had the stupidity to bet us that Hermione would get together with you."
   "Knowing you both better, we took that bet, and are about to make a tidy profit."
   Flashing identical grins, the twins turned and sauntered away, supposedly to collect their aforementioned winnings.
   Ron was once again left in the unenviable position of not knowing whether to laugh or cry. In the end though, he did neither - he was too weary and wished the day to end too much for that.
   He rose from the sofa and trudged up the stairs, swearing once again to never accept anything from the twins, be it their assistance, or any of their other double-edged gifts. The results of their assistance were almost guaranteed to be immensely devastating to his pride.

Chapter 16 - Weasley Troubles

   The days after the trial of Sirius Black were good ones for Harry Potter and his group. Though perhaps he was essentially the same person as he had always been, others were heard to comment on the fact that Harry seemed to have an extra spring in his step, not to mention the smile which was always hovering, ready to appear on his face at a moment's notice. Not even the presence and the watchful disdain of the resident Defense Against the Dark Arts professor was able to bring him down from his emotional high.
   The next morning's Daily Prophet headline, hailing the trial and subsequent acquittal of the head of the family Black - and last to bear the name - induced as large a grin as any of his friends had ever seen, though perhaps the acclamation was not universal. To most of the rest of the student body, it was supposed, it was a matter of relatively little consequence, though Draco Malfoy's disgust was evident. He had been in line to become the head of the House of Black, had Sirius been convicted and executed, and his displeasure that the heir to the Black Estate was alive and well, and innocent of all charges, turned his mood as bad as Harry's was good.
   For the forces of the light, Sirius's exoneration was important, though possible only through a certain set of curious circumstances. When Sirius had run away as a young man, his mother had promptly disowned him from the family, blasting him from the family tapestry in her disgust and rage. However, his father had never made the banishment official, and as head of house, only he had the power to do so. Whether this was because Orion disagreed with his wife in this matter or because he had decided that having a blood traitor as an heir was better than one of the cadet lines inheriting, Sirius never knew. Suffice to say that upon his escape from Azkaban, Sirius was astonished to find that he was still a member of the family, and more importantly, its head. One would perhaps think that his time in Azkaban would have negated his rights as head of house, but as Sirius had never actually been convicted of a crime, and had never been banished by his father, the magic which governed such issues had always recognized him as the official head of house once his father and brother had passed away, regardless of the perceptions of society at large.
   A more important consideration was the fact that his exoneration kept the Black fortune - which, despite centuries of decline, was still sizable - out of the hands of Voldemort's forces, and specifically, from Draco Malfoy. Privately, Sirius informed Harry that he had already completed the necessary steps to make Harry his heir, so Draco would never have inherited in any case. However, as his will could have been challenged on a number of fronts, being free and recognized as the head of his house was the best outcome for all. Of course, Harry's position as heir was pending upon Sirius never having a child - a son would inherit if Sirius was ever fortunate enough to have one.
   Sirius's exoneration also allowed him to assume his family's hereditary seat in the Wizengamot, and to hold the proxy vote for house Potter. In the past, though the Potter vote had always been cast by those aligned with the light, the Black vote had been held by those who had held similar beliefs to those espoused by Orion Black, and though one might scoff at the effect of having one vote defect to an opposing stance, the power and influence of a new and secure Black head was not to be underestimated, especially when that vote had been traditionally dark.
   And finally, and perhaps most importantly, as the new head of Black, Sirius was able to run the politics of his house, and to specifically determine the status of any present members of his house. Bellatrix LeStrange and Narcissa Malfoy, in particular, would find themselves under close scrutiny, as Sirius had instructed the goblins to investigate the marriage contracts under which the two women had been married. If there had been any breach of contract, Sirius was well within his rights to declare the contracts null and void, and demand any bride prices attached to the contracts returned. This would not affect their marriages, as such - regardless of whether the contracts had actually been breached, the marriages had taken place - but at the very least it could deprive Voldemort's forces of some of their liquid assets. Since the family's history was dark, Sirius was uncertain as to whether the goblins would actually find anything, but he felt it was a reasonable move to make in light of the potential benefits
   The reactions of the rest of the school to Sirius's exoneration were in general as expected. Most of the students were indifferent as, though the older years remembered the stories of Sirius Black and his actions during Harry's third year, he was still largely an unknown quantity. The Headmaster was openly relieved at the outcome, and the teachers who had known Sirius were happy that he had finally received the justice he deserved, especially Minerva McGonagall, who had always had a soft spot in her heart for Sirius and his fellow Marauders. As for Severus Snape - whose rivalry with James Potter and Sirius Black had been legendary - he gave the report one of his trademark sneers, and then proceeded to ignore its very existence.
   The most curious, perhaps, was Dolores Umbridge. The woman had said absolutely nothing during Sirius's trial, though Harry would have expected her to be vocal in condemning him. Her silence seemed to indicate that Fudge had deemed the situation a lost cause and had ordered her to keep her peace, for Harry doubted privately that the woman was intelligent enough to come to such a determination on her own. But once the report was circulated amongst the Hogwarts population, Dolores was even more obvious in her attention toward Harry Potter. On several occasions, Harry could almost have sworn that the professor was attempting to bore holes through him with her eyes, though why the freedom of Sirius Black should make her even more disposed to hate him than before, he had no idea whatsoever.
   Whatever the woman's plans had been when she entered the school, she had not progressed very far on them. Thus far, other than the contrived attempt to assign him detention on the day of the trial, things had been fairly calm in her class, and it was now widely acknowledged to be almost as boring as History. And other than the one Educational Decree which was a concern, the rest of them - including two more which had appeared since the first ones had been posted - were almost nonsensical, not to mention completely useless to what they suspected was her cause. If she was trying to infiltrate the school and force changes due to the supposed uncontrolled nature of the students, she was sadly failing. Thus far, she had had relatively little about which to complain, especially if she was attempting to prove the Hogwarts was out of control, and the Headmaster out of touch.
   Life at the school continued apace. Classes were attended, homework assigned and completed - or ignored, as the case may be - and Harry found himself becoming even closer to his two female friends than he had been before, if that was even possible. His closeness to Hermione was a given - they had been by each other's side since they had arrived at Hogwarts, after all. However, now that Fleur had become part of the dynamic, and Hermione and Fleur had drawn so close, Ron's distance from the entire group for several days caused a gentle shift in their friendships. It now seemed that Harry, Fleur, and Hermione had almost become the new de facto golden trio as, other than for classes, they could almost always be seen in one another's company. And though Ron was able to see this as well as any other, he was quick to realize that to a certain extent it was his own fault due to his actions the previous year. His distance from Hermione in particular, which, despite his determination to accept the situation, persisted for several days, further cemented the new trio's status.
   The one thing in which there appeared to be little change was the status of Harry's relationship with Fleur, or at least it would have to a casual observer. In truth, they were becoming closer and more comfortable with each other all the time. Up to that point it had not translated into a more physical sort of affection, but they were both determined that that particular facet of their relationship did not need to be rushed. It was not like they did not have time for that in the future.
   There were two things specifically of note during those few days. The first was that Malfoy was making much less of a pain of himself, particularly in Potions class, but overall as well. He had not taken Snape's set down well, and Dean had gleefully reported seeing the ponce storming down to the owlery soon after the incident in Potions with a letter in his hand, presumably to whine to the senior ponce about his mistreatment in Snape's class. Whether there was ever any response was not known, but the fact that Malfoy was much less obtrusive was undeniable.
   The other matter of some note was the furthering of the concept of a defense club to help offset the uselessness of Umbridge's class. Fleur and Hermione had discussed Luna's suggestion at length, and both of them agreed that it was exactly what they needed to help pass their year-end tests. Furthermore, Fleur agreed with Hermione's idea of having Harry lead the group. Not only was he the best at defense, Fleur had pointed out, but running a club such as this was also a good way to further improve Harry's confidence in himself. The problem was convincing Harry to agree with their way of thinking.
   Harry was stubborn - Hermione knew this from years of friendship, and Fleur had seen it several times, even in the short time of their betrothal. And though Harry had no problem helping others - and actually possessed a healthy dose of what Hermione coined his "saving people thing" - in this instance he did not feel that he was up to the task of running a club on top of his other activities. Why this was so, the two young women could not precisely say. It may have been a consequence of his new determination to excel at his school work, or it may have been simply because he still lacked confidence. Whatever the reason, he was digging in his heels, and no matter how many times they discussed it, he would deflect any discussion of leading it himself, though he would certainly add his own opinions to exactly how it would be structured, what should be taught, or anything else of any merit.
   Hermione and Fleur were not about to give up, though - Harry was the perfect person to lead it, whether he knew it or not, and they were determined to help him see that fact.
   ***
   Monday morning found the trio in the Great Hall with their other friends, all concentrating on their breakfast. As it was a Monday, none of them were precisely energetic - Mondays had a tendency to have that effect on a person. The conversation was sporadic and desultory, and the entire hall was rather quiet. This quiet and contemplative mood was interrupted when dozens of owls swooped into the Great Hall to deliver the morning mail.
   Fleur was watching the spectacle in a rather bored fashion - she had exchanged letters with her parents late the previous week and was not expecting anything - when she noticed a slow and somewhat clumsy owl gliding unsteadily down through the throngs of the other post owls. The clumsy creature was aiming directly - or as close as it could - for their spot along the table.
   It hit the table several seats down and spun out of control, knocking over several glasses of pumpkin juice and upsetting a plate of bacon, before it stopped a short distance down the table from where Fleur sat with Harry and Hermione. The creature then picked itself up with whatever dignity it still possessed and shuffled toward them, stopping directly in front of Hermione. From further down the table Fleur heard a gasp.
   "Isn't that Errol?" she heard Ginny Weasley ask.
   By now the attention of the entire in the area was fixed upon the owl, or perhaps more correctly, on the angry red envelope the owl was even now offering to Hermione.
   Hermione gingerly reached out and accepted the red envelope, after which the owl - showing that although it was clumsy and old, it was decidedly not stupid - awkwardly flapped its wings and began hightailing it from the hall, inasmuch as it was physically capable.
   Fleur gazed at her friend with some trepidation - it was clear that Hermione had most certainly not expected a letter, let alone a howler, and especially not one which was carried by an owl the Weasley family all seemed to recognize. A quick glance at Harry showed his surprise, though Fleur did notice an undercurrent of suspicion and a hint of anger beginning to color his features.
   With a shaky hand, Hermione ran her thumb through the flap of the envelope, which was beginning to smolder, and very tentatively, she pulled letter out of the envelope, immediately snatching her hand away when confetti exploded from the howler, and it began to scream.
   "HERMIONE GRANGER! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING, YOUNG LADY? I SIMPLY COULD NOT BELIEVE IT WHEN I HEARD THAT A YOUNG GIRL LIKE YOU WOULD REJECT MY SON! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE ANYWAY? ARE YOU THAT MUCH OF A GOLD-DIGGER THAT YOU WOULD REJECT RONNIE AND SET YOUR SIGHTS ON A YOUNG MAN WHO IS ALREADY TAKEN? I AM UTTERLY ASHAMED OF YOU, YOUNG LADY, AFTER ALL RONNIE HAS DONE FOR YOU, BEING YOUR FRIEND ALL THESE YEARS, AND STANDING BEHIND YOU AND SUPPORTING YOU, THIS IS THE WAY YOU TREAT HIM? IF THIS IS THE WAY YOU ARE GOING TO ACT, YOU ARE NO LONGER WELCOME IN MY HOME UNTIL YOU COME TO YOUR SENSES! YOU ARE A DISGRACE!
   With that final accusation, the howler burst into flame and was consumed, leaving a stunned Hermione with tears already leaking from the corners of her eyes. Without a word to anyone, she stood and fled the hall to the already growing chorus of jeers from the Slytherin table.
   Fleur glanced at Harry and, seeing him begin to rise, she put her hand on his arm to restrain him.
   "I'll go find her," she told him.
   Harry appeared as though he wanted to protest, but after a moment he gave her a tight nod. As Fleur rose to go, she cast a glance at the assembled Weasleys and was unsurprised to see them all sporting the same looks of astonished befuddlement, though she though Ron also had a hint of embarrassment and even guilt in his visage.
   Shaking her head, Fleur grabbed both her and Hermione's packs, and made for the door. She exited to the entrance hall to find that Harry had followed her. In his hands was the map his father and friends had made, which he was studying intently.
   "She's in an unused classroom on the first floor," he bit out through clenched teeth.
   Looking over his shoulder, Fleur noted the location on the map, while inwardly thinking about Harry's protectiveness towards Hermione. How her betrothed could not be fully aware of his feelings for the young witch was beyond Fleur's comprehension. However, that was a subject for later thought - for now, her friend needed her.
   "I'll comfort her," said Fleur.
   Harry smiled at her and reached out to squeeze her hand, and kiss her cheek. "Thanks Fleur. I'll join you as soon as I figure out what's going on."
   Nodding, Fleur slung the two backpacks over her shoulder and set out, noting Harry's determined gait as he returned to the Great Hall. Clearly, certain students were about to be called to account for the events of the morning.
   ***
   Ron watched as Harry and Fleur followed Hermione from the hallway, his mind spinning at what had just happened. When he had written his mother, it had been in order to release some of his frustration and ease the pressure he felt on his heart. It was widely known exactly how Molly Weasley doted on her children, and for Ron her mothering normally caused him no end of annoyance, as she could be positively stifling at times. However, she also had a way of listening to her children and supporting them regardless of the situation, which at times - like this, he had thought - was immensely comforting. Attacking his friend, however, was not exactly the type of comfort Ron had in mind.
   "Ron!" Ginny hissed. "What did you tell Mum?"
   "I sure didn't tell her to send Hermione a howler!" Ron whispered back in his own defense."
   "Our siblings appear to be up to something, George."
   Ron turned and saw the twins regarding both himself and Ginny with looks of suspicion etched upon their faces.
   "They do, Fred, and if I'm not mistaken, it has something to do with the lovely Miss Granger, who has just run from the room in tears."
   For once, the twins appeared to be completely serious - no hint of their usual playfulness and sense of fun was evident in the suspicious glares they were directing at their two youngest siblings. And if that was not unnerving, the other members of their group - Neville and Luna (who almost always sat at the Gryffindor table recently), not to mention the Gryffindor Quidditch team members - all had frowns upon their faces as they regarded the two youngest Weasleys.
   "Well, Ronnie? Gin? What is going on here?"
   Ron glanced around with some apprehension, noticing the sea of eyes fixed on their little conference. "Umm... Fred, George, can we have this discussion elsewhere?"
   The twins exchanged a look and a glance around the hall where, it appeared, an undue amount of attention was fixed upon their little conference. "I suppose that makes sense," replied George at length.
   "No sense in airing our family's dirty laundry in a room full of gossiping teenagers," Fred agreed.
   The four stood and made their way from the table, Ron assiduously avoiding Malfoy's smirk - and perversely wishing he could knock it off the poncy git's face. He followed his brothers and sister from the Great Hall where they were confronted by an extremely angry-looking Harry.
   "Give us five minutes, then come and find us," said George, preempting whatever Harry was about to say.
   "We want to talk to our brother and sister first," added Fred.
   Harry eyed them with no lessening of his anger, before nodding and entering the Great Hall. Meanwhile Ron and his sister followed the twins to an unoccupied anteroom, where the two pranksters immediately turned on their siblings.
   "Well you two? What's going on here?"
   "Don't look at me," cried Ginny defensively. "Ron's the letter king, not me!"
   George's responding glare seemed to indicate he thought Ginny had all the intelligence of a mountain troll. "Are you not our sister?" he asked rhetorically.
   "And more to the point," Fred continued, "aren't you the one who has mooned about, making puppy dog eyes at Harry ever since he became friends with Ron? Come on, Ginny, if you have anything to do with this, tell us so we can save our friendship with Harry."
   "I had nothing to do with it," Ginny insisted. "Yes, I like Harry, but I've not said one thing to Mum about Harry or Hermione since we came to school."
   "And have you given up on Harry yet?" prompted George.
   "No!" was her decisive reply. "Why should I? You both know as well as I that he is able to have more than one wife. I'm not going to give up when there's still hope."
   "Ginny, you don't have a chance!" said Fred bluntly. "He's engaged to Fleur, and unless I miss my guess, if anyone has the inside track on becoming the second Mrs. Potter, that person most certainly appears to be Hermione."
   "But Harry said he wasn't interested in Hermione!" Ron exclaimed.
   "Ron, you really are a thick git," said Fred with some disgust. "He may think he has no intentions toward her, but even you, the perpetually blind, has seen that the world revolves around her in his eyes. Isn't that why you actually developed a backbone and went after her yourself?"
   "Harry's getting more comfortable with Fleur all the time," George added. "But it's always been Hermione."
   "Be quiet for a moment - we'll deal with you after we deal with our younger sister."
   Through all of this, Ginny gaped at her brothers. "Hermione is interested in Harry? She told me she wasn't!"
   Fred shook his head with some disgust. "It appears like Ron is not the only one who can't see two feet in front of his face. It's like the blind leading the blind!"
   "We've got our youngest sister who watches Harry like a hawk and practically undresses him with her eyes," George said, ticking one finger, "and she can't even see how into each other Harry and Hermione are."
   "Then we've got Harry and Hermione themselves who can't see how into each other they are," continued Fred, ticking another finger.
   "The surprising part is that our resident thicko here," George jerked a thumb at Ron, "has taken his head out of his arse and noticed enough to try to make a move on Hermione before Harry stakes his claim. And even then he believes Harrikins when he says he's not into Hermione."
   Ron bristled at the insult but remained silent.
   "And George is right, Ginny," said Fred. "I would have expected you to see how important Hermione is to Harry a long time ago, given how much attention you pay to him."
   "Look, Ginny, we know you've always had a crush on Harry, but you need to let it go. Even if he does take another wife, there is no guarantee he will choose you."
   "I know," said Ginny. "I've already had this conversation with Hermione. She told me to just be Harry's friend, and that's what I'm trying to do."
   "Well, that's certainly an improvement on your 'squeak and run' tactics from before," was Fred's dry response.
   Ginny's gaze darkened, but George spoke before she could go off on his twin. "You aren't going to be all angry at Hermione now because you know this, are you?"
   "Of course not!" Ginny snapped. Her stance and stony expression screamed her defiance. "But I won't give up hope. I won't complain to Mum, or bother Harry, but I'm going to try to get to know him better. Hopefully, he'll come to love me as much as I love him."
   There was a moment's silence after Ginny's statement, and though Ron did not say anything, he knew that whatever feelings Ginny had for Harry, they must be deeper than the infatuation he felt for Hermione. A small niggling part of him still thought Ginny was not seeing or even attracted to the real Harry, but he was not about to get in her way. She had to make her own decisions; he was having difficulty enough dealing with his own.
   "Ginny, I'd advise you to give it up, but it's your choice."
   "As long as you don't go antagonizing our friends, that is."
   Ginny nodded, and though there were tears in her eyes, her expression held a determined and almost implacable obstinacy. It was clear that regardless of what the brothers said to her, she was not ready to give up.
   Therefore, Ron soon found himself directly in the crosshairs of his older brothers once again. "Well, Ron? Do you want to tell us something?"
   Ron shuffled his feet awkwardly, not really wanting to talk about it. The twins already had far too much blackmail knowledge about his feelings for Hermione, and he was reluctant to discuss it further. He tried mumbling a response, hoping that it would mollify them, but the twins were having nothing of it.
   "I'm sorry, Ron, I can't hear you. Perhaps you should speak up."
   "All right, all right!" Ron exclaimed. "I wrote to Mum and told her that I asked Hermione out and that she had said no."
   "And..." Fred prompted.
   "And nothing," said Ron. "That's all I told her. I was hoping she'd help me feel better - you guys know how supportive she can be. I certainly can't expect that from you gits now, can I?"
   "So you didn't complain to Mum and ask her to stick up for you against big bad Hermione?"
   Ron glared at Fred. "No. I figured she'd write me back, not attack Hermione.
   "Look, guys," Ron continued, "I was hurt when Hermione wouldn't go out with me - I won't deny that. But I respect her decision and I'd never want Mum to embarrass her in front of the whole school. Or embarrass me, for that matter."
   At that moment the door opened and Harry walked in, looking at them all with a grimness seldom seen. Ron had to do a double take - he had never seen Harry so focused, and rarely had he seen his best friend looking so upset. It appeared the confidence he had obtained from the influence of the Delacours was being unleashed, and a new Harry, complete with the leadership skills and the implacable will to achieve his goals - not to mention his will to protect his friends - was emerging. Ron found himself feeling a little intimidated.
   ***
   Stepping into the room, Harry surveyed his friends and wondered just exactly what was going on. The howler he had just heard insulting his closest friend reminded him of the crap Hermione had had to put up with the previous year. She would not have to do the same this year - not if Harry had anything to say about it.
   What he was not certain of, was Ron's role in this fiasco. He knew that Ron was upset by Hermione's rejection - his behavior during that past few days had made that plain for anyone who knew him to see. Ron was... difficult sometimes. He could be petulant and jealous without a doubt, and his past had shown him to have a certain vindictive streak as well. Harry thought he would not behave in such a spiteful manner simply because Hermione had refused to go out with him, but he was not completely certain. If Ron had caused Hermione's embarrassment, it would be some time before Harry was able to forgive him.
   "Well, what's going on guys?" Harry asked without preamble.
   The Weasley children all shuffled from side to side, and none of them would meet his eyes. Harry folded his arms and leaned back against the door frame, waiting for one of them to speak up.
   "Maybe you should tell him, Ron," one of the twins said.
   Ron scowled, but he visibly gathered himself, and turned to face Harry.
   "I asked Hermione out, but she told me no."
   Becoming a little impatient, Harry gave Ron the hurry up motion with his hand. "And?"
   "Well, apparently Mum didn't take it very well."
   "Ron, what exactly did you tell your mother?" Harry asked.
   "Just that Hermione told me she wouldn't go out with me and that I wasn't happy with it, I swear. I'm not happy about it; you know that, Harry. But I didn't expect Mum to do this. I'd never want Mum to go after Hermione like that. Hermione is my friend."
   It was more than likely nothing more than the truth, thought Harry. Ron was not a very good liar - Harry figured he could usually spot when Ron was trying to cover something up. The thing Harry was not certain of was why Mrs. Weasley would react this way. He was well aware of the fact that she wanted him for a son-in-law, but was she really that set on having Hermione as a daughter as well?
   No, it was likely not that, exactly. It was more likely that she was being protective of her son, though a certain amount of resentment for the way Harry had suddenly been tied to Fleur had likely bled over into the situation.
   "So, what do we do now?" queried Harry.
   His friends all looked at one another as though they had not considered what they should do to fix the problem.
   "I guess we need to speak with Mum," said one of the twins.
   "Not that I'm looking forward to that," grumbled the other.
   "Come on now, Fred, where's your sense of adventure?"
   "My sense of adventure is completely subservient to my sense of preservation," was Fred's response. "Especially where Mum is concerned."
   Harry smirked - leave it to the twins to take a tense situation and release a little of the stress with just a few words.
   "Don't worry, Harry," Ron assured him. "We'll talk to Mum and get her all sorted out."
   "Thanks, guys," Harry responded. But while he appreciated their willingness to tackle the problem, he wanted to make certain his friends understood his opinion on the matter.
   "I just want you all to know that I consider you family - you've all been very good to me, and I really do appreciate it. And I include your mother in that statement - she's always welcomed me to the Burrow, and she and your father have always been there for me when I needed to feel like I had a family.
   "But," Harry emphasized, "I will not continue to consider her a part of my family if she continues to attack my friends. She can be angry with Hermione for not going out with you, Ron - that is her choice. But she canno react in such a public manner. I will not allow her to continue to embarrass my friend in front of the entire school. After she believed the articles about Hermione last year, I set her straight - I would have thought she would know Hermione better by now."
   "We know, Harry," George responded.
   Harry looked at them curiously, and he smiled a little apologetically at Ginny. "Sorry for bringing this up, Ginny - I know it's hard for you. But is part of this related to her disappointment over my betrothal to Fleur?"
   The siblings all looked at one another yet again while Ginny blushed, giving Harry all the answer he felt he needed. It was confirmed by Fred, however.
   "We're not sure, but it may be."
   Shaking his head, Harry fixed them all with a stern glare. "Well, your Mum can't do anything about that. And besides, it's not Hermione's fault, so she I'd appreciate it if your Mum didn't attack her."
   He glanced at Ginny and smiled, which she returned somewhat hesitantly. "I'm sorry if this is all difficult for you Ginny. I don't mean to hurt your feelings."
   Ginny gamely smiled at him and murmured that she was fine, which was heartening - maybe she was starting to outgrow this infatuation. She was behaving a little more familiarly around him, rather than the almost silent shyness he had always seen from her in the past. He liked the change in her - it was much better having another friend, rather than someone who would not even speak when he entered a room.
   "Look guys," Harry stressed, "I can handle your Mum's disappointment over what has happened. But she has to get used to it because she cannot change it. I really don't want to have to break ties with the first mother figure I've ever had."
   The message he had just imparted did not seem to have escaped any of his friends - Molly Weasley had been the first woman he had ever met who had any of the criteria he would expect in a mother. Petunia Dursley certainly could not be accused of being motherly - not even to her own son, regardless of her sickening displays. However, Harry now had another woman who he looked up to, and to be completely blunt, Apolline Delacour was far less overbearing and nosy than Molly Weasley. Apolline would eventually become his mother-in-law, and her personality made her much easier to approach than the Weasley matron. Harry still liked and appreciated Molly, but he would not continue to associate with her if she persisted in her attacks.
   The redhead siblings readily agreed with his sentiments, and after a few more moments of discussion, Harry exited the room, consulting the map as he left. He had a hurting friend to find and comfort.
   ***
   For the rest of the day, Harry, Hermione, and Fleur were a little cold to all the Weasley siblings, though in truth Hermione did not hold a grudge against her friends - they could not control the actions of their mother, after all. That did not change the hurt she felt, nor what her friends felt on her behalf. She was able to be gracious when, one by one, the Weasley children approached her to apologize for their mother's behavior. But even so, she could not help but be aloof from them, regardless of their best efforts - the humiliation she felt from receiving such an accusing howler was still too acute for her to forget it so easily.
   The one who held back, though, and watched them from a distance was Ron. She knew Ron would not have maliciously encouraged his mother to attack her - Harry's account of his conversation with the Weasley siblings forced her to agree with that assessment, not that she would have thought him complicit in the event anyway. Still, it was disappointing and hurtful that Ron's mother would have thought she was capable of such gasping behavior, and she was not eager to see the woman again any time soon. And given the distance between her and Ron - the distance Ron had already created due to his own disappointment - Hermione was not exactly surprised when Ron did not approach her during the day like his siblings had. Perhaps Ron was making some progress, but in Hermione's eyes he was still had some growing to do.
   The one thing which struck Hermione that day was Harry's attitude and actions. He positively doted on Hermione throughout that entire day. He was gentle and caring, and very solicitous for her feelings, and Hermione found herself enjoying the attention. And she knew that Fleur had not missed it at all - in fact, the French witch had smirked at Harry's behavior any time she thought the two of them were not looking, though Hermione did catch her at it a couple of times. And when Hermione confronted Fleur about it, the Veela simply smiled and asked if she still doubted the depth of Harry's feelings for her now.
   After classes were finished - and Monday was their heaviest day of classes - a very relieved Hermione dropped her books off in her dorm, happy that she was finally done for the day. She had been the subject of attention from all quarters that day, and though no one had actually said anything to her - even Malfoy had been cowed to a certain extent by Harry's glares, she thought - still it had been a trying day, and one she was happy was over. Now all she had to do was make it through dinner, and she could relax with her friends and work on her homework.
   She made her way down to the common room, and was surprised to see Ron pacing the floor not ten feet from the foot of the stairs. She paused for a moment, and then resolutely stepped into the room, causing Ron to stop his pacing and look at her with a certain measure of nervousness.
   "Umm... Hermione, can I talk to you for a moment?" Ron stammered.
   "Of course, Ronald. What can I do for you?"
   She noticed Ron's slight flinch at the moniker "Ronald" - he knew as well as anyone that she only called him that when he was in trouble - before he glanced about the room and motioned her to a nearby corner which was unoccupied. Once they had moved there, he sighed and ran his hand through his hair in agitation, before he turned to face her with determination.
   "Hermione, I wanted to apologize for my mother."
   "Thank you, Ron, but I'm certain it wasn't your fault," Hermione replied. "Right?"
   Though perhaps she should have had more faith in her friend, a part of Hermione still could not help but wonder if Ron had had something to do with his mother's actions. His own actions the previous year toward Harry, not to mention what he had done over the broom incident in third year, made her hesitant.
   "I did write my mother a letter, but I was disappointed, you know? I do like you and I did want to go out with you, and I told my mother that. I do have feelings for you, Hermione, but I respect your feelings as well, and would never want to see you hurt and embarrassed the way you were this morning."
   "Thank you, Ron," Hermione said, patting his hand. "Thanks for saying this - I know it wasn't easy. However, I don't hold you responsible for your mother's actions."
   A relieved smile stole over Ron's face, and he pulled Hermione into an enthusiastic, but clumsy hug. This was more like the Ron she knew - uncomfortable speaking of his feelings, and awkward in his actions, and more endearing than the Ron attempting to be a suave ladies' man. She was grateful to see his reappearance.
   "I also want you to know that I respect your feelings too, Ron," Hermione replied when Ron had finally pulled back. "I don't have the kind of feelings for you that you want, but I'd never hurt you over them either.
   "I just really would like you to be a little more consistent in your friendships to both Harry and me. I really want to return to the way we used to be when we were younger, before all these feelings and hormones started getting in the way."
   "I'm working on it, okay?" said Ron with a cheeky grin.
   Hermione could not help but laugh at his antics. He waggled his eyebrows at her and bowed in an exaggerated manner.
   "Shall we go to dinner now, milady?" he asked.
   Giggling, Hermione grasped his proffered arm and joined their friends who, unnoticed, had gathered behind them, all ready to head out of the portrait hole and go for dinner.
   As they walked toward the hall, Hermione could not help but reflect yet again on the day, and on her close friend. Ron had always been somewhat immature, but if there was a silver lining to his mother's regrettable actions, it seemed as though it was giving him a push to finally grow up a little. It was definitely a start.
   ***
   Albus had been in the Great Hall that morning when Miss Granger opened her howler. Even so, he was somewhat surprised to receive a visit from the Weasley twins later that afternoon, asking for permission for a rather odd request - they wanted to Floo the Burrow and talk to their mother about the howler.
   He had been considering doing something about the situation himself. The pressures on Harry, particularly with Umbridge in the castle spreading her vitriol, were such that Albus did not wish for his favorite student to have even more stress than was already the case. And certainly not from one he considered family.
   Molly Weasley was a good woman, and a staunch supporter of the light, having brought her children up with the same set of beliefs and strong desire to do the right thing as she and Arthur already possessed. For that, he could only be grateful - the Weasley family was amongst the strongest opponents of Voldemort and his forces, and their assistance and support were invaluable.
   But this obsession of Molly's to run her children's lives and her insistence that Ginny would be a perfect match for Harry was not helpful in the slightest. And Albus knew that her frustration over the situation regarding the now-enacted marriage contract was behind this, far more than any disappointment she felt over the young Muggleborn rejecting the advances of her youngest son.
   Albus had to chuckle - he was not so old that he did not remember his own attempts as a youth. He had been just as awkward and lacking in confidence as any young person, but if he had to guess, he thought young Ronald would have put him to shame, as socially awkward as the lad was known to be at times.
   He was quick to accept their request - it was best to resolve the matter in as timely a fashion as possible, after all. And it was far better that the reprimand come from her own family than from him. Albus did not wish to embarrass her, after all.
   As Albus was to be briefly absent from the school that Monday evening, he requested the siblings' presence in his office on Tuesday. Once they had all gathered together, he grasped a handful of Floo powder, and called the Burrow. He received the requisite permission and motioned for the children to precede him, stepping through once they had all left. He arrived in the living room of the Burrow, where Molly and Arthur awaited them noting that the Weasley parents' faces were etched with concern - no doubt they suspected that their children had done something to warrant a visit from the Headmaster. How ironic that exactly the opposite was the case.
   "Albus, are the children all right?" Molly fretted the moment he had entered the room.
   "They are fine, Molly, but they do have something important to discuss with you," responded Albus. "I will stay only to give support, but I will allow the children to tell you the problem."
   By this time, the children had greeted their parents with hugs all around, and then made their way to the various pieces of furniture which was set about the room. Young Ronald was the one to break the ice, and Albus was unsurprised that his words were a trifle blunt.
   "Mum, why did you attack Hermione that way?"
   Molly appeared taken aback at her son's forthrightness, but it was only a moment before she collected herself.
   "Ron, I'll ask you not to speak to me in that manner," she admonished. "I did not attack Miss Granger - I merely tried to point out to her that she was making a mistake."
   "Making a mistake?" asked George.
   "That's rich, Mum," said Fred. "I thought it was a person's choice who they wanted to date."
   When Molly was about to respond, Arthur, with a look of confusion, interjected, "What are you talking about? What happened?"
   "I asked Hermione to be my girlfriend, Dad," said Ron with a hint of embarrassment.
   Arthur smiled widely. "Good for you, son. She's a wonderful girl."
   Ron's expression was stoic. "She refused me, Dad. She told me she doesn't have anything but brotherly feelings for me."
   Clearly Arthur did not know what to say. "It's okay - I was a little upset, but I respect her feelings."
   "That's good, son," Arthur said with a hint of pride. "We cannot force our feelings on others, no matter how much we want them to be returned. It sounds like you handled it properly."
   Arthur glanced at Molly, who was now blushing faintly, clearly suspecting what her children wished to discuss. "Then what is the problem, Ron?"
   "Mum sent Hermione a howler," Ginny stated. "She called Hermione a gold-digger and insinuated that she was a tramp trying to go after Harry when he's already taken. She embarrassed Hermione in front of the whole school."
   "And embarrassed me as well," Ron added. "Hermione's more important than me here, but what Mum said made me look like a little whiner, going to his mother for protection. I expect I'll have the Slytherins on me as much in the next little while as Hermione."
   "Oh, Molly," Arthur said with some resignation and a shake of his head.
   "It wasn't like that," Molly protested. "The girl doesn't know what is best for her, and I was just trying to help her come to a better decision."
   "On the contrary, Molly," Albus spoke up, feeling the need for a little back up for the children's claims, "I was there when Miss Granger received your howler. It was rude, overbearing and completely uncalled for - you should not have sent her that. You are not her mother, after all."
   The woman had probably not been set down in this manner since she was a schoolgirl at Hogwarts, Albus reflected. Certainly he had never spoken to her in such a manner since he had gently reprimanded her for some mild misbehavior during her sixth year. Clearly she was not used to it. She said nothing, however, though her nervous glances at everyone in the room made her appear as though she was feeling slightly besieged.
   "Mum, I want to know why you are trying to drive away our friends," said Ginny with a cold implacability.
   Molly was surprised at Ginny's accusation, but her eyes immediately narrowed. "Ginny, I will not have you speak to me in this manner."
   "It's true, Mum," said Ron, supporting his sister. "You know what Harry told us? He told us that he considers us a family, but he won't if you keep attacking Hermione."
   Molly threw her hands up in the air with some exasperation. "I was not attacking the girl, and I resent the implication that I was. Ron sent me a letter which clearly told me he was heartbroken, and I was trying to support him by pointing out that Hermione should think about it a little more before she dismissed him out of hand."
   "Mum, no one is accusing you of being intentionally hateful," said Fred. "But the letter you sent to Hermione was not a gentle remonstrance."
   "Hermione was crying as she left the hall, Mum," added George. "She was embarrassed about it, and I don't think I need to tell you how the Slytherins reacted."
   "Well... perhaps I may have been a little... forceful in voicing my opinions," said Molly, now having the grace to appear embarrassed.
   "I wouldn't exactly call it a little forceful, Mum," said Ron. "But I'd really like to know why you're so set on a match between me and Hermione. I mean, I know you want Ginny and Harry..." Ron trailed off, looking a trifle embarrassed himself.
   Albus was interested himself. The fact that Molly wanted Harry and Ginny together was about the worst kept secret in existence, but Albus had never given much thought to the other two members of the trio, and whether Molly had any ambitions in that quarter.
   Though she did not answer at once, Molly threw a few surreptitious looks at her youngest son, leading Albus to believe that her reasons revolved around him. When she finally did break her silence, his suspicions were confirmed.
   "I... I don't want you to feel badly, Ron, but sometimes you have a tendency to be a little... unmotivated. Hermione is a driven girl, and I think she would be perfect to help you achieve your potential."
   "Oh Mum," Ron said with some exasperation. "I know what I'm like sometimes, and I'm trying to get better. To be honest, Harry's new attitude has been a great help, and I think I'm making progress.
   "But even I know that that is nothing to base a long-term relationship on. I like Hermione, and I'd love for her to like me back, but if we're really that different, then it's really for the best this way."
   "Good job, Ronnie," said George with a slap on his brother's back. "There's some hope for you yet."
   Ron backed that statement up when he very maturely crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out at his brother, causing laughter around the room. Even Molly appeared to feel somewhat better as the tension eased out of the room. She was not a bad woman, Albus told himself - she was just somewhat of a meddling one, and she sometimes had a tendency to believe that she knew best. Painful as it was, it was a trait she shared with Albus, if he was completely honest with himself.
   Once the laughter died down Arthur spoke up, seemingly deciding it was time for him to take control of the situation. "You have to let it go, Molly. Hermione is a bright and mature girl - she can decide for herself what she wants, and there is nothing you can do to change her mind."
   "Very well," said Molly. "I will leave the children alone. I'm not happy with the situation, but it is what it is."
   "It is that indeed," said Albus kindly. "I thank you, Molly. I know this is not easy, but it is necessary. We all need to be focused on what is important here, and Harry does not need to be distracted by such matters."
   Molly nodded her head in agreement, and then announced that her children needed to get back to school. Once again hugs were exchanged all around, along with the Weasley matriarch imparting some final few pieces of advice for her children, while telling them that she was proud of them. That was where Molly was at her best, Albus reflected - supporting, teaching, and loving her family was where her true qualities lay. Albus had no doubt that Arthur would continue to work with her and help her to find the proper outlet for her frustrations.
   As for the children, Albus was very impressed with the maturity they had shown on this evening. The Weasleys had always been staunch supporters of the light, as he had already reflected upon. The young generation was shaping up to be just as important and steadfast as their parents.

Chapter 17 - Compromise

   Unfortunately, no one could maintain an emotional high for long, and in the case of one Harry Potter, the likelihood of doing so was practically nonexistent. As he had reflected before, his life was not a simple one, nor was it a calm, placid cruise along idle currents. No, his life was more like a trip down a set of raging rapids, or sailing into the teeth of a monster hurricane. Regardless of whether one's life was that of Harry Potter, or of someone more... normal, reality must set in, and the day-to-day life once more dominate one's focus.
   For Harry, it was not one thing which brought him down from his previous high, it was a number of things all put together, and the fall was not a slow decline as might be expected, rather it was a quick and sudden drop.
   It started, of course, with the howler from Molly Weasley attacking his best friend. The fact that the Weasley matron had not offered even the barest of apologies did not impress Harry in the slightest, nor did it appease Hermione. The account of her discussion with her children was welcome to the extent that Harry knew she would not repeat her actions in the matter of the howler. However, Harry also knew that she would expect them to simply forget the matter and ignore it, without the proper process of contrition and apology. Doubtless, the next time she saw them she would behave as though everything was as it always was and attempt to smother them in her affection and warm, possessive hugs, as was her wont. She might consider the matter closed, but to Harry and Hermione, as long as the apology was unspoken Molly Weasley would be forgiven, but the episode would not be forgotten.
   For several days after the event, Harry found himself responding to the Weasley siblings with a little more coldness than he had ever before. In fact, both Hermione and Fleur were the same way. It was not fair, Harry knew, as the children were really not to blame for the actions of their mother, but perhaps it was understandable. Either way, the Weasleys accepted it for what it was, and allowed the trio some time to come to terms with the event by allowing them the space they required. It did not take long, and soon the friends were once again as close as they had ever been.
   The one thing which the howler did for Harry was to force him to think about the female adult figures in his life and to put them into some perspective. He now understood that his initial reaction to Molly Weasley as a mother figure was a simple product of the fact that he had never had such a person in his life before. Aunt Petunia could certainly never be considered to be motherly, and outside of Mrs. Figg - whom he considered to be more of a batty old grandmother than anything else - he had not really had any contact with any other adult women, other than Professor McGonagall, who also did not fit the mother mould.
   He quickly came to the conclusion that Mrs. Weasley, for all her good points, was not what he considered a mother to be either. At least, she was not what he considered his mother to be. If he had had an image of his mother throughout his formative years, Harry would have said that he had always hoped that she was loving and kind, willing to support him in anything, and quietly help him improve his faults as a mother should. Harry was well aware that his image of his mother was skewed, and represented a level of perfection which was not attainable by anyone. And all he had heard from others led him to believe that Lily Evans had been a strong woman, with a stubborn mindset, and a tendency toward somewhat of a volatile temper. However, Harry was certain she would have provided him a loving and positive environment in which to grow, had she lived long enough to do so. Of course, such thoughts engendered a renewed sense of loss, but Harry was well used to it by that time.
   So, if Molly Weasley was not a mother figure, what role did she fill in his life? The more Harry thought about it, the more he decided that she filled the role of a meddling aunt, one who was forever poking her nose into the lives of her nieces and nephews, while smothering them with an entirely unnecessary - and perhaps somewhat contrived - level of affection. The description fit Mrs. Weasley precisely, Harry realized, though he knew both the woman and her children would likely be offended should he ever characterize her in such a way in front of them.
   By contrast, his ideal of a mother was quickly being filled by Apolline Delacour. She was more what he imagined his mother to be - she was firm and unyielding when the situation demanded, but she was also willing to step back and allow her children to live their lives, while providing advice when asked. Harry could not say that he knew her well yet, but he already felt comfortable with her, which was for the best, he reflected, as one day she would be his mother. Or at least she would be his mother-in-law.
   Regardless of Harry's thoughts about mother Weasley and the havoc her actions had caused to his equilibrium, it was only a few days before his feelings settled and he was able to put it behind him, though he did not forget. Other, more immediate, concerns intruded into his consciousness, which replaced the drama with the Weasleys. Malfoy's avoidance turned out to be a rather temporary respite, as after the howler, he returned with a vengeance, though seemingly with a new target. Though he did not exclude Harry from his comments, he now took every opportunity to taunt Hermione, asking her how her campaign to become Harry's mistress was coming, how she was getting along with Mrs. Weasley, and anything else he could think of which would cast her in a negative light. Hermione counseled Harry to ignore the prat, and though Harry would have liked nothing more than to blast Malfoy where it hurt, he agreed that the ferret was not worth his time or effort. It helped that Malfoy did not dare to approach the same level of crudity for which Snape had reprimanded him - it seemed like those words had had a rather large affect on the Malfoy spawn. Or perhaps it was simply the fear of being called out by his head of house again. It turned out to be a good thing that Harry was ignoring him, as they discovered several times that Umbridge had been watching them as Malfoy had been spouting off, no doubt hoping for an opportunity to catch Harry responding to the prick's taunts and begin her task of proving him to be a trouble-maker, which had thus far been stymied by his control over his temper.
   The final thing which had begun to dominate Harry's attention was the aforementioned Defense professor and her class. The woman was a menace, he quickly decided, and she seemed intent upon goading Harry into a response, using whatever method she could. Harry, with his new-found maturity - not to mention the ever-present assistance of his closest friend - managed to resist her ever more blatant attempts. It was taxing on his temper, however, as he desperately wanted to put the woman in her place.
   More than a month into classes, it was very apparent that their original estimation of her class was spot on - they had learned almost nothing in that time and Harry doubted things would get better as long as she was at Hogwarts. With OWLs looming large at the end of the year, even Harry, who had always found Defense to be easier than most, began to be worried about how he would manage to pass the tests without any practical experience.
   Ironically, however, the biggest drain on his temper was not the toad woman or the ferret, as may have been expected. That distinction began to manifest itself in that ridiculous suggestion Luna had made that evening at dinner - the idea to start up a Defense Club. Sure he wanted to learn his Defense material for OWLs that year, and he would have participated in such a club had it existed, but the thought of running it himself was not something he wanted to consider. Not only did he not consider himself qualified to teach a class to his peers, but with his determination to improve his overall performance, he was certain that taking on a responsibility such as Luna had suggested would affect his other subjects, all of which he was not as comfortable with as he was with Defense. He felt it did not make sense to concentrate on a subject he was good at, to the expense of others which he felt required more effort.
   His friends, however, did not see it that way. It became a frequent topic of conversation, not only among the training group, but also among some of their other friends in Gryffindor house. It seemed like hardly an hour went by when someone would once again bring up the possibility of some sort of Defense Club. Then, inevitably, eyes would wander in his direction, comments would be made without any subtlety whatsoever, and Harry would find himself once again becoming annoyed with the topic.
   The worst, of course, were his friends, who took every opportunity to point out that no one could match him with respect to Defense, and that they should really begin planning to start up the club. But though all of his friends got into it to a certain extent, the worst perpetrators were Fleur and Hermione. The latter especially, it seemed, was determined to see him lead this so-called club.
   It reached a boiling point on the second Monday in October. Admittedly, Harry had been in a bit of a foul mood the whole day. Potions had been Potions, and though Snape had let up on Harry specifically, he was still a strict and exacting disciplinarian. His classes were always stressful and never any fun, in Harry's mind. History and Divination were as they always were, but the worst was obviously Defense. That day, Umbridge had been particularly blatant in her attempts to bait Harry, and leaving the class, he was almost coming to the conclusion that it would be worth it to provoke the toad for the simple reason that he would finally be able to tell her exactly what he thought of her. Not even Hermione's tutoring in Runes - which he curiously found rather enjoyable and relaxing - was able to help Harry unwind that evening. It was, therefore, a stressed and fed up Harry who was sitting with his friends in the Gryffindor common room after dinner, puzzling through a Rune cluster which Hermione had given him to solve.
   After the fact, Harry could not even say what it was that set him off. In hindsight, it was often this way - the most innocuous comments could have the most negative impact upon a person, causing them to react in a manner which could not have been predicted. A person's state of mind simply had a way of affecting them to behave abnormally at times. This was such a time.
   "Hermione, will you just let it go already?" Harry snapped at Hermione when she once again broached the subject of the club.
   It was a tone Harry rarely used - especially with Hermione - and the suddenness of it clearly took her aback.
   "Harry, I - "
   "No, Hermione!" Harry was practically yelling, and though he could see everyone in the common room stop to watch the spectacle, his frustration had boiled over and he was beyond caring who saw his tirade.
   "You have continued to harp and harp on this, and you don't seem to get the picture. I don't want to lead any stupid club and I wish Luna had never come up with this harebrained idea at all. I'm sick of continually hearing about it from everyone - no one seems to respect my feelings in this matter. Now shut it! I don't want to hear about it again!"
   Closing his textbook with a resounding crack, Harry stormed from the room, almost running over a firstie who was entering through the porthole with a friend. Harry dodged around her and, ignoring the look of curiosity she directed at him, he stalked away from the common room.
   The next half hour saw Harry wandering through the school aimlessly, thinking about the school year thus far, and the events of the past weeks. It had not taken long for his anger to cool and his control to reassert itself, and as a consequence, he soon felt ashamed for his outburst. He had never spoken to Hermione in such a way before - though they had certainly had disagreements and even spats - and he knew that she never expected it from him. She was due an apology, and he knew it would have to be made immediately.
   Regardless, he was unwilling to return to the common room so soon after losing his cool - his mind needed a little soothing, and some solitary time spent thinking was just what was required.
   It had been difficult at times, he decided, though there had certainly been bright spots. What he would not give for a year - just one! - where he didn't have to deal with all the crazy happenings in his life. And yet regardless of what he wanted, he found himself dealing with stupid and unqualified Defense professors who would like nothing better than to discredit him for her stupid employer, along with greasy, grudge-bearing potions masters (though Snape had certainly been better since they had cleared the air), and the ever-present interference from poncy, ferrety, bigoted gits with little manners and even fewer brains. As he had reflected before, it sometimes just did not pay to be Harry Potter.
   Harry had just about decided it was time to return to the common room, when he turned a corner in the hallway and saw Hermione and Fleur walking toward him, both wearing expressions of determination on their faces.
   "Come with us, Harry," Fleur instructed, and taking his hand in hers, she began pulling him along the corridor, with Hermione trailing behind. Harry avoided looking at his closest friend, not wanting to see the hurt on her face until he had to.
   "That one's empty," Hermione said, pointing to a door on their right.
   Glancing back at Hermione - completely forgetting his reluctance to look at her - Harry raised an eyebrow. Hermione merely smiled, holding up the Marauders' Map.
   They stepped into the empty classroom, and closed the door. Fleur applied privacy charms to the room, while Hermione grabbed three chairs and positioned them close together. She motioned to a chair and took one of the others.
   "Look Hermione," Harry began, "I'm sorry I lost it back there. I shouldn't have yelled at you."
   Hermione smiled, and reached forward to pat Harry's knee. "It's all right, Harry. I shouldn't have kept on pushing you either."
   "It is not all right," Fleur interrupted with a clipped tone. She seated herself in the third chair, and directed a pointed look at an abashed Harry. "This is exactly what we've spoken of - you have done well so far this year, but you still need to learn to control yourself better."
   Harry mumbled that he knew and he was trying, and after a brief, but intense look, Fleur appeared to accept Harry's apology.
   "We need to discuss this," she stated after a few moments. "You should not have spoken the way you did, Harry, but we have not handled this any better. We should have sat down from the beginning and talked about this, rather than pestering you about it."
   Harry looked up in shock. "Fleur, I already said I don't want to do this."
   "Why?" was her blunt query. "Why are you so against it?"
   Sputtering, Harry's ire began to return. They simply would not leave this alone!
   "Maybe because I'm not qualified," Harry growled. "Or maybe it's because I have enough on my plate with being a Prefect, trying to do my best in all my classes, not to mention Quidditch. I don't understand why you two are so insistent about this."
   Sighing, Fleur reached out and grasped his hand once again, her thumb working circles on the back of it. It was clearly an attempt to calm him, and given her hands were soft, and her manner gentle and affectionate, Harry had to admit that it was working perfectly.
   "Harry, we need to speak about this rationally. I don't think you've considered everything yet."
   "What do you mean?"
   "What we mean, is that Defense is not doing us any good, Harry," said Hermione. "And the way things are going so far, we may have to put up with her for the rest of the year."
   "So how is that my problem?" Harry demanded. "Why is it my responsibility to make up the slack for her incompetence?"
   "It isn't your responsibility, Harry," said Fleur. "But what everyone has been saying is correct - you are the best in Defense in the school. You are modest, which is a good trait, but you cannot deny the facts."
   "And think about it, Harry," urged Hermione. "We came to school thinking that we would need some way to put the things that Moody taught us to good use. This is the perfect way to do it, and to train others at the same time."
   "You will learn more that way, too," Fleur added. "Teaching others is a great way to learn yourself."
   Harry almost felt like he was watching a tennis match, the way the two girls were going at him. But though he felt once again like they were pressuring him, he was not getting angry. He was beginning to become tired of the whole thing. Was that their plan? Browbeat him until he finally gave in only to get them to stop?
   Once again Harry was shamed by his thoughts. They would not do that - they were both passionate in their beliefs and unwilling to give ground when they thought they were in the right, but they would never attempt to manipulate him in such a manner.
   "Harry, what is it that really bothers you about this?" Fleur asked gently.
   "I've already told you," said Harry, combing his hand through his hair. "Hermione's been after me since we came to Hogwarts to take my studies seriously, and I'm trying to do that. I'm comfortable with Defense - it's my best subject. I think I should be spending more time working on other subjects which I'm not as comfortable with, rather than getting involved in a time-consuming Defense Club."
   Hermione and Fleur shared a look, and for a moment, Harry was almost amused - they had become so close in the last month that they almost seemed to exchange entire conversations in the space of one glance.
   "Do you think it will be all that bad?"
   Harry shrugged. "I would think a lot of work goes into running a club like this."
   "Who says you have to do it alone?"
   "That's not what I meant," Harry said with some exasperation. "I am well aware that you were not intending me to do all the work on my own. That doesn't change the fact that running a club will be time-consuming and will pull our attention away from other things, like my other classes."
   "I hardly think you have anything to worry about," soothed Hermione. "You do well in your studies, Harry, and your increased dedication is only going to help. I don't think this will take up so much of your time that you'll have to neglect your other classes."
   Shaking his head, Harry returned Hermione's gaze. "I still don't think I can juggle this many things and not have my school work suffer."
   The girls once again exchanged a glance, before Hermione gently leaned forward and grasped the hand which was not already held by Fleur. "Harry, why don't you tell us the real reason you don't want to do this?"
   Sputtering, Harry glared at her, a look she returned with a placid, yet expectant, smile. "I think I've already told you."
   "No you haven't. All the things you've said are all reasons, but I don't think they are the real reason why you're so set against this. You've always shared things like this with me before - why can't you now?"
   Harry was frustrated with her continual pushing, and so snapped, "Is it wrong to want to have a normal year for once?"
   "No, it isn't," Fleur soothed. "But you should consider that 'normal' is not a word which describes you, nor should it be something you aspire to be."
   "What do you mean?"
   "Harry, you are not normal," said Hermione affectionately. "You are a great Quidditch player and flyer, you are a prodigy in Defense, and you are loyal, intelligent, brave and cunning - a true mix of the four houses. The fact that you are the only known survivor of the killing curse does not even begin to scratch the surface of who you are as a person."
   Feeling the heat rise to his cheeks, Harry looked away, embarrassed at the things they were saying about him. Harry did not consider himself to be all that - he was just Harry Potter, one of the guys. Others could have all the fame and fortune - he just wanted to be himself.
   "Your relatives told you all your life that you were not normal, right?" Fleur asked.
   When Harry indicated that she was correct, she continued, "Regardless of what your relatives told you, their brand of normal is not something you should aspire to. Think of it - would you really want to be like them if they are the ones who are normal?"
   Harry had perhaps not thought of it in quite those terms, but he immediately understood that Fleur was correct and said as much.
   "You are not normal, Harry," Fleur continued. "You are a symbol of hope. You are a natural leader. You are the focus of a Dark Lord who considers you to be the greatest threat to his power. He must have some reason for believing that, even though we don't understand it. Perhaps you should begin to act like the exceptional person we all know you are. Normal people live in the world; exceptional people change the world."
   In truth, Harry had never thought of the matter in that fashion. He had never felt like a born leader, or any other sort of leader - he had always just wanted to be a normal teenager and worry about normal things, not have the weight of the world upon his shoulders.
   But the girls - possibly the two most important people in his life - were urging him to be more. Did he have it within him to be more? Did he even want to?
   With these two pushing him, he knew he at least had a shot. He had known ever since entering this world that there was much wrong with it, much which could be fixed. Starting up a Defense Club was a small step, but it could turn into so much more. They were right in that Voldemort needed to be opposed, and perhaps it was the younger generation which needed to do so. There was no better way to begin the task of readying them than to start this club.
   But regardless of his wants and desires, he knew that it was not likely, not with the damnable scar on his forehead, that he would ever be considered to be normal. Like it or not, he was a galvanizing figure, and others would follow him if he showed them the way. Perhaps Fleur was right and it was time to take a lead in taking the fight to Voldemort. Perhaps it was time to grow up.
   "Can I think about it tonight?" Harry asked, not wanting to make a snap decision.
   They smiled at him, assuring him that they did not have any intention of forcing him to do something he truly did not want to do.
   "Harry," Hermione spoke up as they were getting up to leave, "I should apologize to you as well. I know I get a little..." she blushed and ducked her head, "single-minded when I decide something. I shouldn't have badgered you about the club."
   "Yeah, Hermione, you're a Gryffindor," Harry said with a smirk. "Whatever you do, don't go badgering people. Otherwise, we'll all think you have become a Hufflepuff."
   Groans and playful smacks on the shoulder met Harry's poor attempt at a joke, but he grinned at Hermione, before placing a hand on her shoulder.
   "Seriously, Hermione, don't worry about it. I know you are passionate in your beliefs, and whatever happens, I should never snap at you like that. I think I should be asking for your forgiveness."
   "But you already did," was Hermione's impish reply.
   "And I think we should let it rest now," said Fleur.
   She stepped next to Harry, and soon her hand was comfortably ensconced within his own. Harry smiled at them both, indicating that he agreed with Fleur's statement, and the three ambled from the room and made their way back toward the Gryffindor common room.
   Harry, however, was still thinking about what had happened the past few hours, and he was beginning to wonder about his relationships with the two attractive girls with whom he was walking. Fleur was still somewhat of a mystery. They had made some progress - the little touches of affection, like their growing propensity to hold hands, were becoming more commonplace - and yet they were still very much becoming accustomed to the situation in which they found themselves and getting to know one another. She was a beautiful and brilliant young woman, and Harry was certain that he could come to love her very easily. He was not willing to push the issue however, being more than content to relax and allow their relationship to deepen without any artificial attempts which would just, in his opinion, make the process that much longer and more difficult.
   As for Hermione, well in her case, Harry was not certain any longer what he was to think. Hermione was his best friend - it was a subject which he had contemplated many times in the past. He did not know where he would be without Hermione.
   And that was part of the problem; he was now pledged to Fleur for the rest of his life, and he would not betray her. However, the thought of losing what he had with Hermione caused Harry to feel an almost physical pain - he did not think he could do without her in his life. But what would happen as they got older? Surely some day some lucky bloke would see Hermione for what she was - a truly exceptional young woman. The man would then sweep her off her feet and they would marry. The thought troubled Harry excessively. Why? What did he truly feel for his best friend? Was he in love with her? He was not certain of his feelings, but he did know that he would not betray Fleur; such a thing was unthinkable.
   As they arrived at the portrait hole, Harry decided to put those thoughts out of his mind - it was a topic to be considered another day. They stepped into the common room and took their former seats, once again pulling out their homework which had been interrupted by Harry's outburst.
   But as he worked on his homework, Harry could not help but notice Ron giving him dark looks as he worked on his own assignments. Knowing what his friend was likely about, Harry had to suppress a grin - it was quite the reversal for Ron to be angry with Harry for his treatment of Hermione. Mentally, Harry prepared himself for a confrontation, as Ron appeared as though he wanted to have it out. He did not have long to wait.
   They had retired to the dormitories early - the day having been long and difficult, and Harry found himself tired and ready to head to bed early. When he approached his bed after brushing his teeth and washing up, he was accosted by Ron who wore a very determined expression on his face.
   "You were out of line tonight, Mate," he stated without preamble.
   "I know, Ron," Harry replied.
   The best way of dealing with Ron in a situation like this - not that he had much experience in this exact set of circumstances - was to agree with him and allow him to get his opinion off his chest. Ron's anger could be impressive when provoked, but it usually ran its course fairly quickly, unless he was of a mind to hold a grudge. Harry did not think he was in such a mood at this point.
   "I've already apologized to Hermione, Ron, so you can leave off the big brother act."
   Ron cocked his head to the side, clearly taken aback, yet thoughtfully considering Harry's words. He shook his head after a moment.
   "All right then, but I hope you've worked it out."
   "We have."
   "Good, because I don't want you taking my place. I'm the one who makes her cry, and you're the one who sticks up for her."
   Thinking that Ron's joke was in poor taste, Harry gazed pointedly at his friend.
   "All right, all right," Ron conceded, his hands raised in surrender. "I know I've got some things to work on myself, and I've been trying, you know. But I've never seen you go at Hermione like that before, though if you'd done so, maybe I would have got my head out of my arse before now."
   "What do you mean?" asked a curious Harry.
   Ron sighed. "I guess I finally saw a bit of myself in the way you yelled at her," Ron admitted.
   "It's not easy seeing something like that about yourself, is it?" Harry stated, with some sympathy.
   "It isn't, mate, but now I've finally figured it out, I figure I can do better with her. She doesn't want to go out with me, but she's still my friend. I know I need to treat her better to keep her as a friend."
   Ron appeared as though he wanted to say something further, but he glanced around at the other three occupants of the room, and seemed to think better of it. He smiled hesitantly at Harry before saying good night and making his way to his bed.
   Harry lay down on his bed, his mind immediately working over the problem of the Defense Club. Fleur and Hermione had not convinced him yet of the benefit of his leading it, but though he would have liked to dispute its necessity, he could not. Clearly this was something which would be a benefit for not only him and his friends, but for anyone who was invited to attend as well. Though he was tired, Harry was a long time falling asleep that night, and by the time he did, he had almost reconciled himself to appeasing his two closest female friends - though perhaps appease was not really the right word - and agreeing to their request. First, however, there were a few things he wanted to make clear with them, and a few ground rules he thought would be necessary.
   ***
   The next morning found the trio up earlier than usual. Though it was unplanned, all three gravitated to the common room before most of the other house members were up and, deciding that there was no time like the present, they made their way toward the Great Hall for breakfast.
   Initially, when they sat down at the table, each of the three concentrated on their meal, and although Harry did not truly feel very hungry, he dutifully ate his breakfast. Thoughts of the proposed club and what he wanted to clarify with the girls rolled through his mind the entire time.
   To either side, he could see the girls eying him somewhat nervously. Clearly they were convinced that this plan was the answer to their dilemma, though their behavior over the past weeks had been as much a hint as their current demeanors. That thought of course sent Harry off on a tangent, thinking that perhaps he should have been paying a little more attention, rather than focusing so much on his concerns and worries. Hermione was, after all, very intelligent, and he had trusted her judgment in the past. If he had thought about it a little more, perhaps the previous evening's unpleasantness could have been avoided. There was obviously a lesson there, and one Harry was determined not to forget.
   At length, however, he decided that as amusing as their behavior was in their attempts to act nonchalant, it was not getting them anywhere. Class time was approaching, and Harry really wanted to get this sorted out and make a decision now.
   "All right, you two," he said, breaking the silence. "I suppose we should talk about this idea of yours."
   The two young ladies acquiesced, and Harry continued. "You know what I'm worried about. Have either of you thought how you wanted to do this?"
   Hermione was the first to speak. "Well, we don't have everything planned out..."
   "What?" Harry demanded cheekily. "Hermione Granger doesn't have everything planned out yet? You must be slipping - usually you have it all done in advance."
   "Prat!" Hermione exclaimed, followed with a swat.
   Harry just grinned at her impudently.
   His jest seemed to have the desired effect of breaking the tension somewhat. Hermione rolled her eyes and continued in a more normal tone of voice.
   "Right. Well, Fleur and I figured that we could all share the planning and running of the club."
   "We could create a basic plan of what we want to accomplish each week," Fleur spoke up. "We begin each week by demonstrating the spells we are teaching, and then we split the attendees off into groups. Depending on how many we have to each meeting, we could have our friends who trained with Moody each take control over a group and be responsible for helping the students in their group learn the spells. Then the three of us could act sort of like roving instructors - we would go around the room helping out and giving additional demonstrations where required."
   "And how much time would we need to prepare?" Harry asked.
   "That depends on what we want to teach," said Hermione. Harry smiled at her, hearing the tone of her voice and knowing that she was going into her lecture mode, which she so often did when she was explaining something.
   "A lot of the spells we will need to teach we already know. For example, given what happened in the first war, we should likely teach the Patronus Charm. With Voldemort on the loose again, I would be surprised if he didn't get the Dementors to side with him. You already know that spell, Harry, so there wouldn't be much preparation."
   "Moody taught us more than how to cast spells," Harry noted. "I presume you want to do more than that in the club too?"
   The girls shared a glance. "Ideally, that would be best," Hermione said, speaking up for both of them. "Yes, part of the goal is to help people practice so they can pass their OWLs, but I think an equally important part is to train a group of students who will be able to defend themselves against the Death Eaters, and maybe even carry the fight back to them."
   Harry frowned at the implication. "That's pretty dangerous, you know," he stated. "You're talking about turning school children into a fighting force - some of them could get killed."
   "That is true, Harry," Hermione admitted, "but think about it: with Voldemort being back, we're all in danger already, and the danger will get worse the longer he is allowed to build his power."
   "And some are in even more danger," Fleur added. "What about Dean Thomas, who is a Muggleborn? Or the Patils or Cho Chang, who are not originally from England? Voldemort will not look kindly on them either because he considers them mongrels."
   Harry had to admit they had a point. Reluctant as he was to form a fighting group which would inevitably put its members in danger, they already were, as Fleur had pointed out. At the very least, they would be helping others learn to defend themselves, which would only be of benefit for them, and the entire wizarding world.
   He was about to speak when Hermione nudged him, while throwing a significant glance at Fleur. Harry took it as he thought Hermione intended - someone was approaching who they definitely did not want to overhear their current conversation.
   "Mr. Potter," the cloying tones of his new personal nemesis interrupted them.
   Harry turned to see the hideously pink-clad Defense professor standing nearby, while affixing the students with her normally false cheerful gaze.
   "You and your... friends are here early today, Mr. Potter," Umbridge trilled in her girlish voice.
   However, Harry did not miss the emphasis, nor did he miss the implication that Umbridge thought both of his closest friends to be lower than dirt. He would dearly have liked to respond and put the woman in her place, but the events of the previous day and his discussion with the two girls about the need to hold his temper made resisting the temptation that much easier. But that did not stop him from wanting to witness the payback which he would make certain the detestable woman eventually received. Yes, she would receive it, he promised himself. Her, and all others like her.
   "Just wanted to get an early start on the day," Harry responded in a chipper and eager tone of voice which he had learned truly annoyed the toad woman. It was, after all, the only weapon in his arsenal against her, at present, and he had come to the point where he had begun to use it often, especially when he felt himself in danger of giving in and snapping at the woman.
   Umbridge sniffed with ill-concealed disdain. "Very commendable of you, I am sure."
   "Thank you, Professor," Harry continued in the same tone. "I am trying my best."
   Umbridge did not say anything in response. Rather, she directed an expression of sweet approval - with which she attempted to cover the malice in her eyes - at Harry, and walked away toward the staff table, her nose held higher in the air than was her wont.
   Grinning at his friends, Harry motioned to the entrance. The three gathered their things and left the Great Hall to find a location more conducive to a private discussion. After all, it was somewhat silly of them to have been discussing this in the Great Hall in the first place. There were too many eyes to see and ears to hear.
   They made their way from the hall and through the school, eventually stopping in the same classroom in which they had had their discussion the evening before. They settled down to speak once Fleur had once again cast privacy spells.
   "What about Umbridge?" Harry asked without preamble.
   "What about her?" said Hermione.
   "Well, I assume you don't want her to know about this."
   It was a question and not a statement, but Hermione nodded her head in agreement anyway.
   "That means that we won't be telling any of the other professors either?"
   "Plausible deniability, Harry," Hermione responded. "We don't want Umbridge to have any ammunition she could use to try to take over the school, so if our professors don't know what we're doing, then they can't be held responsible."
   Harry frowned. "But we can."
   "Perhaps," interjected Fleur. "But what could be done to us? Starting up a group like this is not against school rules, after all, and the only ones who may take exception are Fudge and Umbridge, and then only because they are paranoid that Dumbledore is trying to take over the Ministry. If Dumbledore is able to state, even under Veritaserum, that he had no knowledge of what we were doing, then any suspicion is deflected off him, and onto us. The worst we would get is a slap on the wrist for failing to clear the club with one of the professors."
   It was well thought out, but it would have to be, considering it was Fleur and Hermione's brainchild. And it just may work. There were only a few other things he wanted to work out before he agreed to it.
   "You mentioned that we would act like instructors. What about our practice time?"
   "Why Harry, have you forgotten we need to prepare?" asked Hermione impishly. "On the nights we run the club we would instruct, but we could have our own practice sessions with our friends on other nights. And besides, I think there would be plenty of practicing going on while instructing."
   "We could even run some dueling tournaments," said Fleur with some excitement. "That would help us all know where we stand and where we need to improve."
   "Good idea," said Harry, "though I think some of the younger students might find themselves in over their heads."
   "So, have some mini-tournaments then," suggested Hermione. "Rank everyone based on how well they are doing, and have several smaller tournaments."
   It was a good idea, and a perfect way to put Moody's advice to work. "What about the location?"
   "That we haven't figured out yet," admitted Hermione. "We obviously need a place where we won't be interrupted or found out by Umbridge, but I'm not sure of where we could do it."
   "Well," began Harry slowly, "if nothing else, there's always the chamber."
   Hermione wrinkled her nose in distaste. "From what you've told me, Harry, it doesn't sound like a very good place to spend several hours."
   "No," Harry agreed, "but it's very secure. I doubt that Umbridge is a Parselmouth, so there's no way she'd be able to catch us."
   "True, but she could catch us going in or out of it - I think we should look for a better place."
   Harry shrugged his shoulders. As the only one of the three who had ever been down to the chamber, he was well aware of the fact that it was not truly suitable for their needs. Needless to say, the millennia of filth which had built up down there would not help matters either. They would need to find a better place, and he figured the first place to start looking was to ask Fred and George - if anyone knew of such a place, it would be the Gryffindor pranksters.
   "Have you two got a list together of who you want to invite?"
   "Does this mean you're going to do it?"
   "Looks like I don't have a choice," said Harry with a smirk. "You two will pester me until I agree, so I might as well save myself from being annoyed by just agreeing now."
   A glowing Fleur let out a little squeak and hugged Harry, pressing her lips against his cheek. What surprised Harry, however, is that Hermione mirrored Fleur's actions from Harry's right side, so Harry found to his astonishment, that he had two soft pairs of lips attached to his cheeks.
   It did not last long. Hermione seemed to immediately realize what she was doing, and she blushed and pulled away. A quick glance at Fleur showed that she was not angry at Hermione's presumption - as a matter of fact, she appeared rather amused at the brunette's actions. Hermione did not say anything, but it was clear she was embarrassed, if her pink cheeks and nervous glances were any indication.
   "Well, it's not every day a guy gets kissed on the cheeks by two pretty girls," Harry deadpanned.
   Hermione's blush deepened and she began stammering, presumably to apologize. Fleur cut her off, though, with a bit of well-placed humor to complement what Harry had said.
   "We had better be careful, Hermione," said in a dry tone of voice. "Harry's going to get a swelled head with this kind of attention."
   Giggling in spite of her embarrassment, Hermione made a great show of gathering her things and rising. She looked to her two friends and with exaggerated casualness said, "Well, shall we head off to classes?"
   Harry shook his head and rose, assisting Fleur to her feet. He then wrapped his arms around both girls and ushered them from the room.
   "I think you're right, Hermione," he said. "I'm sure glad I have you two around to keep me grounded. You two are the best."
   Both girls beamed as they allowed him to lead them from the room.
   ***
   Sitting in the small breakfast nook, Sirius Black was enjoying his meal, his newspaper, and the new direction his life had taken.
   "These French certainly know how to eat breakfast," he thought as he savored his sweet treat. A chocolate-filled croissant was something one would rarely find in England as a breakfast food and Sirius, who had been legendary at Hogwarts for his sweet-tooth, took every opportunity now to indulge. He deserved it, he thought, considering the hell on earth in which he had been imprisoned for more than twelve years, not to mention the equally hellish slop that passed for food.
   He glanced around, noting the tastefully decorated and comfortable furnishings of the Delacour home, noting the difference between this affluent family dwelling and the dark and dirty hole in which he had been raised. The Delacours had insisted he treat the chateau as his home during the course of his sojourn in France, and he found that he was very happy and at ease here. It did not hurt that that the Delacour house-elves saw to his every need and fondly looked to him as a member of their human family. It was the perfect place to rest, recuperate, and get his life back in order, and one which he was happy to have at his disposal. And though he would not have thought that the solitude would suit him, due to his gregarious and social personality, he found that dealing with the demons in his mind often required quiet and an undisturbed location. And when he felt like it, he had made a few acquaintances in France, and the Delacours were just a short Portkey journey away - being friendly with someone of Jean-Sebastian's influence in France certainly did have its perks. Jean-Sebastian was well on the way to becoming a good friend and powerful ally, and Apolline was lovely and welcoming. It appeared that he had chosen well when he had made the decision to involve them in Harry's life.
   Sirius's recovery was for the most part going smoothly. Though he was still plagued at times with nightmares of his time in Azkaban, and at times he brooded over the unfairness of life, those times were becoming fewer and further in between. All in all, his therapist assured him that he was making tremendous progress.
   Chuckling, Sirius thought of the woman he saw twice weekly as his therapist. She was the one part of his recovery which was not proceeding according to plan. Audrey St. Laurent was a tall, statuesque blond, who was - unaccountably - still single, though she was older than Sirius by a few years. Naturally Sirius, as a self-proclaimed ladies' man, had immediately become infatuated with the beautiful woman, but thus far all his attempts at coming to know her intimately had failed. In fact, she seemed to take great satisfaction from shooting him down and reminding him at every opportunity that it was inappropriate for a mind healer to be seeing her patient in any capacity which was not professional.
   Ah well, Sirius reflected, it was more the fun of the chase than the catching of the prey, after all. For now, he was having fun honing his flirting abilities, which had rusted during his stay at Chateau Azkaban, needless to say - Dementors were not exactly adept at the practice - and generally attempting to make the woman blush. Not that he was having that much success in that endeavor either...
   Soon he would be ready to return to England and build a new life with his godson, taking his rightful place in society, and once again defying Voldemort and spitting in his eye. He was determined that Lily and James would have their justice, and he would use every knut of the Black family fortune to see it done if necessary.
   His musings were cut short by the sight of an owl drifting in through an open window and landing on the table in front of him. Sirius promptly removed the parchment from the owl's leg, while Matty popped in and placed a dish of water and a generous helping of owl treats in front of the bird. Since it did not appear to be eager to depart again, Sirius assumed the owl was waiting for a reply.
   He opened the letter and though he was somewhat surprised at its contents, he was not at all displeased with it. In fact...
   A devilish grin slipped over Sirius's face, as he contemplated the possibility for a prank - as a Marauder at heart, such an opportunity could not be allowed to slip away without taking it up.
   At his request, the house-elf provided him with a quill and parchment, and Sirius set about drafting his reply. He could hardly wait - things were looking up in Sirius Black's world.
   ***
   For the next few days, Harry, Hermione, and Fleur, along with the rest of their friends, who were quickly brought into the discussion, debated the composition of those who would be invited to join their proposed club. It was perhaps unsurprising that just about every Gryffindor of Harry's year and up were on the list - and a few from the younger years as well. However, though Gryffindors constituted most of the planned club members, there were a number of Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws who, after some debate, were considered trustworthy enough to receive invitations.
   The one task, in which they did not have any success, was in locating a suitable location for their meetings. Harry was insistent that they had to find a place which was almost foolproof in its defenses and simply commandeering an unused classroom and placing protective charms on it was not good enough. In addition, the members had to be made aware of the location and times of the meetings. To offset this problem, Hermione and Fleur charmed a number coins with a protean charm to alert potential club members of the times of future meetings. Once they had a meeting place, they would rely on their members to spread the word to their friends, and ultimately to all those who were on the list for possible membership. However, they were completely at a standstill until a location could be determined.
   Through all of this, Fleur gave as much assistance as she was able, but for the most part she simply listened and absorbed what she could of what her friends were saying. She was the newcomer to the school, and as such, she could not give much advice on the other students, after all, and she was by far the least familiar with the castle. On the planning side, she, Hermione and Harry worked closely to come up with a list of activities for the club, once they were able to officially get it off the ground.
   Other than that, Fleur's days were spent with her friends and housemates, getting to know everyone, and learning what she could about the new school she found herself attending. A month had gone by and Fleur had quickly adjusted to the new school. It was different from Beauxbatons, but not necessarily in a bad way, the major difference, of course, being the house system, which did not exist in her old school. As a result, though the student body of Beauxbatons still had its share of cliques and rivalries, it was in no way comparable to the rivalries which existed at Hogwarts.
   It was almost incomprehensible, but true - it seemed that generally only the barest of relationships existed between members of the different houses. There were of course some exceptions, but Fleur came to understand that those exceptions often seemed to be between those friends who had known one another before coming to school. In general, the houses interacted on only the most rudimentary of levels, and when they did, it was almost always with a certain distrust and wariness. And heaven forbid a Gryffindor and a Slytherin actually speak to one another without resorting to threats and intimidation. Fleur quickly became aware of the fact that Luna being part of their group was somewhat of an oddity, as normally she would be expected to stick with "others of her own house." The fact that very few in her own house seemed to tolerate the quirky girl, much less like her, added to the fact that she had been Ginny's childhood friend, seemed to make it easier for her to associate with mostly Gryffindors. However, she was an exception, rather than the rule.
   All in all, though, Fleur found herself content with her new home, and happy to be there. Here in Hogwarts, she felt that she had gained some true friends for the first time in her life, and possibly more importantly - acceptance. And, she was becoming closer to Harry and Hermione all the time.
   The one thing which was not going well was her time in Defense class. She could not claim to have been singled out to the extent that Harry had, but she was well aware of the professor's opinion of her, from the way Umbridge ignored her whenever possible, to the barely concealed contempt which she was favored with whenever the woman did actually acknowledge her.
   The Friday after they had finally persuaded Harry to start the club, Fleur gathered her books and departed the Defense classroom in the company of the other Gryffindors. Due to the size of the class and the number of students who had either not obtained the grades sufficient to continue on to NEWT Defense, or had not continued with the subject, the entire seventh year was taught in one large class, which was scheduled for Wednesdays and Fridays. As such, she was also in class with some of the few acquaintances she had made the previous year, primarily with Ravenclaw house, with whom she and her Beauxbatons schoolmates had usually taken their meals.
   She had begun to walk from the room in the company of the Weasley twins when a voice calling her name prompted her to stop.
   "Hello Fleur," Roger Davies said as she turned.
   She returned his greeting in a friendly manner, which was the mirror of his own. Roger was, quite honestly, an enigma to Fleur. To say that he had been an uninspiring date at the ball was a massive understatement. She had agreed to accompany him, in part, due to the fact that he had asked her to the ball with every appearance of composure and confidence, and as the thought of spending the entire evening with a drooling sycophant had been unappealing, she had thought he would be a good choice.
   Sadly, she had been mistaken. Once he had been able to secure her as a date, it appeared the composure had deserted him, and the entire evening she had felt like she was drying herself off from the continual drool that even the small leak of her allure had engendered. Most of those in attendance had thought that she and Roger had left the ballroom late in the festivities for an intimate interlude in the gardens; Fleur had laughed long and hard when Harry had told her of the speculation. In reality, Fleur had become tired of his constant adulation, and her feet had become sore because of his continued inability to stay off her toes when dancing. She had left to return to the Beauxbatons carriage, only to be followed by an amorous Roger. Fortunately, it had taken nothing more than a small burst of her allure to render him a gibbering idiot and allow her to make her escape, to nurse her toes and curse the unfairness of her life.
   This year, Roger appeared to have overcome his susceptibility to her allure, and he could always be counted on to stop to talk to her in the hallways, or to exchange a few words in class. She was certain he was a good sort of boy, but something about his manner seemed to suggest to her that he was still influenced by her far more than he ought. She therefore attempted to limit the times of contact, and exchange only the barest of pleasantries with him if at all possible.
   "I haven't seen you in a while," Roger commented as they continued to walk from the room.
   "Well, you know how it is," Fleur responded vaguely. Roger was on the list of those to invite to the Defense Club, but Fleur did not want to let the cat out of the bag too early. "With schoolwork and everything that's going on with Defense class, things have been a little hectic."
   "True. Seems crazy that it's already NEWT year, doesn't it?"
   Fleur smiled and agreed, and they walked on in silence.
   "Are you looking forward to your first trip to Hogsmeade?" continued Roger after a moment.
   "I am - anything to get out of this castle. I never thought a building this big could become so stifling, but I am looking forward to leaving it for a while."
   "Just wait until January," Roger replied with a smirk. "Scottish winters are not pleasant, you know."
   Fleur, having grown up in the south of France, shivered a little theatrically. "Don't remind me," she said, remembering the previous winter at Hogwarts.
   "So what are your plans for the Hogsmeade weekend?" he asked.
   Glancing sidelong at him, Fleur wondered what he was getting at. He had to know the group she associated with, not to mention her betrothal to Harry - could she really have any other plans than to go to Hogsmeade with them?
   "Harry and Hermione have promised to show me around the village," she said.
   A flicker of something passed over his face, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared, and Fleur was unable to decipher it. "It's good to see they are taking care of you," was his only enigmatic reply. He then excused himself with a friendly good bye, and strode off in the direction of his common room.
   Their interactions always seemed to be this way - short, desultory, and lacking in any substance whatsoever. What was he about? His little conversations which he initiated from time to time seemed innocuous enough, but Fleur could not help but wonder if he had some other objective in mind when they spoke. He would often make small talk as he had only moments ago, but he also avoided any conversation about Harry, or any of her other friends. She did not sense any sort of malice from him, but she also could not feel entirely comfortable with him either.
   Shrugging, Fleur put it from her mind. Aside from Roger and Luna, and a few other acquaintances she had made the previous year, Fleur had very little direct contact with anyone other than her own housemates. The atmosphere in the school was simply not conducive to creating lasting friendships with the members of other houses. If nothing else, the club they were planning would be good in the sense that it would at the very least promote some interaction between members of the disparate houses, and possibly a little cooperation at the same time. The school could only benefit from it.
   As for the other girls with whom she had not yet become acquainted, whether they regarded her in the same light as her Beauxbatons contemporaries had, or were just simply not interested due to the fact that she was not one of their own, she could not say. The one thing she could say with absolute certainty was that the Slytherins by and large viewed her as little more than an intelligent animal. In fact, some of the looks she received from certain members of that house - particularly the older boys - brought nightmarish stories of kidnapped Veela sold into sexual slavery to her mind. Though the world was in general more civilized now, such traffic did still exist, a fact which accounted for some of her father's protectiveness toward her and Gabrielle. Some of those Slytherin boys - particularly Malfoy and his cronies - would be only too happy to use her and sell her, she thought. She was glad she had the protection of her friends, as the school would be a very nervous place without it.

Chapter 18 - The Defense Club

   By the time the weekend rolled around, Harry was ready to leave the castle for a day in Hogsmeade. His studies had been going well, plans for their Defense club were proceeding - with the obvious exception of where they were going to hold it - and all in all, regardless of the presence of Umbridge, Harry found himself more content in the school than he had ever felt before. But as much as he was enjoying school this year - aside from Defense and potions, of course - it had not exactly been a relaxing year. The opportunity to escape from the castle for a few hours was welcome.
   The Gryffindor upper years had decided to go to the village as a group, though they would likely go their separate ways once they actually got there. A funny thing had happened in that the fifth years were largely friendly with the seventh years - unsurprising as Fleur, the twins, Angelina and Alicia were seventh years - but the sixth years, with the exception of Katie Bell, were not part of their clique. For Harry this was not a great loss as the sixth year group was very small, and other than Katie Bell - who of course he had known as part of the Quidditch team since arriving at Hogwarts - the only other sixth year with whom he was at all familiar was Cormac McLaggen. And since Harry was not especially enamored with arrogance as a character trait, he was quite willing to ignore the ponce's very existence.
   After breakfast, Harry returned to his room to gather his winter clothing, before making his way back down to the common room where he waited for the others to return. A few moments later he was greeted by the sight of his fiancИe descending the stairs. Fleur had dressed herself in a light blue jacket which was befitting of chill in the air, and though her jeans were fit snugly, they did not appear to be painted on like some he had seen in the Muggle world. She had on a pair of soft leather boots and to complete the ensemble, her hair was pulled up in a French braid, covered by a white, woolen hat in the beret style.
   Harry was mesmerized - she was absolutely stunning. He walked over to her and bowed slightly, taking her hand and tenderly bestowing a kiss upon it. "Hello Fleur - you are looking absolutely beautiful this morning."
   Fleur giggled lightly at his gallantry. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek affectionately. "Thank you, Harry. You are not looking so bad yourself."
   "Smooth, Loverboy," said a grinning Hermione as she descended the stairs behind Fleur. "Looks like there may be some hope for him after all," she commented to Fleur.
   "Oh, I think with the right guidance Harry will work out just fine," Fleur responded as she stepped to Harry's side and took his arm in her hand.
   "Perhaps I am hopeless," was Harry's pleasant reply. "But it doesn't take a genius to recognize beauty when it stares you in the face."
   This time Fleur actually did blush lightly, though it was evident in her fond smile that she was more than pleased with Harry's comments.
   Harry kept hold of Fleur's hand on his arm, and when the entire group had gathered, he switched to take her hand as they made their way down toward the entrance hall laughing and joking with one another along the way. There, they met Luna, before they finally made their way out of the entrance and down toward the village.
   It was a fine October morning and the air was clear and crisp without being cold as it would become in later months. All in all, Harry felt it was a good day, with his closest friends at his side, and his beautiful fiancИe walking next to him, hand ensconced in his, talking animatedly with his closest female friend.
   The sight of Hermione and Fleur getting along so well brought a smile to his face, and considering Hermione's apathetic attitude toward Fleur the previous year, it was a marvel that they were now such close friends. They shared everything: confidences, gossip - inasmuch as Hermione gossiped - and they were fiercely protective of one another, and of him. It was very satisfying, he decided, to have two such wonderful girls so concerned about him. He liked it very much, he decided.
   They had walked for several moments, the group fluidly shifting places and talking amongst themselves, though Harry kept his grip on Fleur's hand, and Hermione kept her place by Fleur's side. They had just left Hogwarts grounds when Harry found Ginny walking by his side.
   "Hey, Harry," Ginny said, with just a trace of a blush. "How's it going?"
   Harry smiled, indicating to her that all was well, and they walked for a few moments exchanging pleasantries of the sort which friends sometimes do.
   "Have you found a place for the Defense Club yet?" she asked, suddenly changing the topic.
   "Not yet," Harry admitted. "We've thought of a bunch of different possibilities, but nothing that will keep us safe from Umbridge."
   "Have you tried asking someone else?" said Ginny after a moment's consideration.
   "Like professors or such?" Harry asked. When she nodded Harry replied, "We'd prefer not to involve the professors; they can truthfully say that they knew nothing of the club if it is ever discovered."
   "Keep at it, Harry," she said. "I'm sure you'll figure something out. You can do anything you put your mind to."
   She then hurried forward to walk next to Luna, while Harry watched her with a bemused smile. Ginny appeared to be much more at ease around him lately, and though he was grateful for her newfound confidence, her tendency to shower him with praise, state her confidence in his abilities, or stare longingly at him at times prompted him to wish for a little less of her attention. She was obviously not truly over her crush of him, even though he was grateful for her attempts to act normally in his presence. She was a very nice girl, he had decided, and had the situation with Fleur been different, and his relationship with Hermione not been quite so close, he admitted, he might have been interested in Ginny.
   Putting the subject of Ginny from his mind for a moment, Harry glanced back at his two companions, only to find that Fleur was eying Ginny with a look which contained a small measure of animosity. He exchanged a look with Hermione on Fleur's other side, but Hermione merely smiled at him and shrugged. It only lasted a moment before Fleur glanced in his direction, smiled, and returned to her conversation with Hermione.
   Puzzled, Harry returned to his own thoughts. Though the older witch was not openly antagonistic, there were times where Harry got the distinctive impression that Fleur did not truly like Ginny. No, perhaps it was not that she did not like Ginny; it was more that Fleur had a tendency to watch Ginny, like she was watching a predator, wary of when it would finally make its move. Fleur must know of Ginny's crush - it was not precisely a secret, after all, and at times it was blatantly obvious. It was almost as though she felt it necessary to warn the younger girl away from her territory, and made no bones about the fact that Ginny was not allowed to show Harry any affection which was anything more than friendly. Her behavior was understandable, considering they were all but engaged, but strangely, it was only Ginny who was subjected to this scrutiny from Fleur. Not even Hermione...
   Harry had to turn his head to hide a sudden burst of embarrassment, and what he assumed was his flaming cheeks. He had thought over and over again about what had happened during the previous week, and he could still not make it out. Fleur kissing him on the cheek was no big deal - she had done it on occasion since they had become betrothed and Harry had gotten used to her displays of affection. Hermione had also done it once or twice, he reflected, so that was not exactly out of the ordinary either. But both of them at the same time? And without Fleur getting all territorial and protective? That was what confused Harry. Whereas Ginny definitely received the cold shoulder from Fleur at times - though Harry had to allow that if Ginny was trying to flirt with him, her attempts were painfully awkward, even by Harry's standards! - Hermione, whose shows of affection were transparent and obvious, was not subjected to the same treatment.
   It did not make sense. From all Harry knew of girls - and he was willing to admit he was somewhat clueless when it came to the fairer sex - he would have thought that Hermione's action would have had Fleur's wand out in an instant. Moreover, Harry was convinced that if Ginny had done the same, a drawn wand and some harsh words would have been on the mild end of Fleur's reaction. But instead of any such reaction, Fleur had merely looked amused at Hermione's behavior. Amused! It was almost as though Fleur had expected it, and was happy it had finally occurred. Why were the rules different for two different girls? Again, Harry would have thought the roles would have been reversed. He had spent every free moment the past four years with Hermione, while Ginny had merely been Ron's younger sister. If anything, Hermione would seem to be the greater threat.
   Whatever was happening, Harry was determined to figure it out. It was no use asking them, he knew - they would only laugh and spout something about girls needing their secrets, if he did not somehow manage to offend them with his questions. No, he would have to simply keep a close eye on them and figure it out for himself.
   Pushing those thoughts to the back of his mind for the time being, Harry considered his fiancИe, whose animated conversation with Hermione was continuing unabated. He was a lucky man, he decided, as he watched her. The morning sunlight streamed down through the Scottish morning, illuminating the pale gold of her hair, causing it to glow and sparkle. The chill in the air had pinked her cheeks and nose, heightening her already ethereal beauty, stopping the breath in his throat. Not even this morning as she had come down the stairs or her appearance at the ball had been as completely enchanting as the image she now presented.
   And it was not just her appearance, he decided. She was kind and considerate to all she knew, she was intelligent and competent, and she was highly personable and approachable, once you were able to penetrate the veneer of haughtiness she erected to protect herself. There was much to like; in fact, if he had known her this well last year, he could not imagine not becoming highly infatuated with her then. As a betrothed, well he was not quite certain yet. Infatuation with a young woman he was coming to know was one thing, but in a marriage relationship, he did not think that infatuation was enough - it would wear off sooner or later. They had made significant strides in becoming friends, and for the time being that was enough for Harry - he figured the more romantic feelings would come naturally, the more time he spent with her. She was a wonderful person, and to a certain extent, he considered himself lucky that he had become her betrothed.
   "Umm, Harry," a voice from slightly behind him broke him out of his reverie.
   Filing his thoughts away for later, Harry turned and noticed Ron regarding him somewhat nervously.
   "Hey Ron," Harry said cheerfully. "What's up?"
   "Can I talk to you alone for a few seconds?"
   Curious, Harry agreed and, suspecting by Ron's nervousness and demeanor that the conversation was to be private, he dropped back, creating some space between themselves and the rest of their friends. He was not so insensible, however, that he did not recognize the knowing glances exchanged by Ginny and Hermione. Clearly they had known something was up.
   The redhead walked by his side for several moments, apparently trying to work up his courage to say whatever he had in mind. Harry was content to allow him the space he needed; this was Ron's show.
   "Harry, I just wanted to talk to you for a moment," Ron finally began. "I think I owe you an apology for the way I've acted."
   "There's no need, Ron," Harry interrupted. "I thought we were past all that."
   "But we're not," Ron insisted. "Harry, I know you are generally quick to forgive people, and you're a good person for it. But sometimes apologies need to be made, not only to put the matter in the past, but also to allow the person apologizing to make amends."
   "Wow, Ron," said Harry with some amusement, "that's pretty deep for you."
   "Oi, there's no need to be insulting," cried Ron. The good-natured smile on his face, however, belied his protestation.
   "Okay then, Ron. Say what you need to say."
   "Thanks, Harry," Ron replied, before he became serious again. "I know I acted wrongly during the tournament last year, and I guess my only excuse is my jealousy. I've truly enjoyed being your friend, not to mention the adventures we've had, and I want you to know that I was never in it to get close to the Boy-Who-Lived."
   "And I've never thought you were," Harry said.
   "That's just because you are a good person, Harry. I know I've not always given you reason to believe that. Thanks for your faith in me.
   "A few things have happened, though, and they've opened my eyes."
   Harry regarded him curiously. "What are you talking about?"
   "Well, I was... talking with Hermione, and she mentioned some things and got me thinking. Then, there is the fact that you are... different now."
   "Different?" Harry asked, perplexed.
   "Yeah. You are a lot more confident and at ease with others. I guess I have to put it all down to the fact that you have a loving a supportive family now."
   Ron was quiet for several moments, thinking about what he wanted to say, and his silence allowed Harry to consider the matter himself. Was he all that changed since the Delacours had come into his life? The answer was obvious, and he knew immediately that Ron definitely had a point. He did feel more confident now that he had a family's support, and that confidence extended not only to his schoolwork and his determination to do better, but also to his interactions with others. He liked it, he decided instantly, and he liked the direction his life was now going, with the exception, of course, of the continual thorn in his side that was Voldemort.
   "I know that the Delacours support you far more than your relatives ever did, and I can see the good this has done you. I finally realized that though I was somewhat jealous of what you have, you have at times been equally jealous of what I have. It kind of put things in perspective, you know?"
   "I do, Ron," replied Harry.
   "I don't really have anything to be jealous over, so I've decided to try to see others the way they see themselves. Like walking in their shoes, I guess.
   "That's why I wanted to apologize for my behavior last year and even to a certain extent this year."
   "And what about Hermione?" Harry asked.
   "Well, I'm not happy that she wouldn't go out with me - I won't lie about that," Ron said after taking in a shuddering breath. "But she has the right to choose, just the same as anyone else.
   "I can still hope that she will change her mind, though," Ron said with a sudden grin.
   Harry laughed. "I guess you can at that. She's only sixteen, after all."
   "Exactly!" Ron then got a sly look on his face, and he adopted a pose of manly nonchalance, while brushing his fingernails on his coat. "I figure I just have to give her some time to realize what she's been missing out on," he said pompously. "After all, a strapping, handsome lad like me - I'm betting she can't resist!"
   Harry laughed at has friend's antics, joined a moment later by Ron. "Seriously, though, Hermione's a big girl and like I said, she has the right to choose. I'm not going to pine for her - I'd prefer to continue to be her friend."
   "Good," said Harry. "I accept your apology, Ron, and I thank you for it. To be honest, I've always felt your biggest problem is your tendency to react without thinking."
   "I know, and I've been working on that."
   "Brilliant! Then, as far as I'm concerned, there is nothing else to say. Why don't we catch up with everyone?"
   Ron responded with a grin and he quickened his pace until they had once again caught up with the group. Harry noticed a number of curious looks among those of their group who did not seem to be in the know about what had just happened, but when asked, Harry just told them, rather blandly, that it was guy talk and nothing serious.
   ***
   Stepping into Hogsmeade for the first time was almost like stepping back into the eighteenth century. It was a quaint little village of steep thatched roofs, and sharply canted eaves, with colorful signs of the different shops all the way up and down High Street, which was the main avenue running through the heart of the village. It was not large, perhaps housing less than one thousand souls altogether. However, as Fleur understood it, Hogsmeade was somewhat of an alternative to the busier - and likely pricier - Diagon Alley, and as such, High Street was usually bustling during the day at any time of the year. Of course, the biggest days of the year were reserved for Hogsmeade weekends, in which the students of the nearby school would descend upon the village in droves, eager to spend their parents' hard-earned money.
   Fleur was enchanted immediately. The main shopping thoroughfare in Paris was similar to Diagon Alley, with a definite French flavor, of course, and though there were others scattered throughout France, none that Fleur had seen looked like they had appeared straight off the illustration on a Christmas card. The village was homey and welcoming, and Fleur immediately determined that she could spend several hours quite contentedly perusing the shops.
   Of course, wandering through the village would have to wait as, once they arrived, Hermione immediately dragged Fleur off to Tomes and Scrolls, the local bookstore. Fleur's amused glance back at Harry showed that he was not in the least surprised at his best friend's antics, and after he exchanged a few words with the rest of the group, he followed along behind them. Fleur was certainly not unwilling; though she was not the same level of bibliophile as Hermione, she was happy to expand her personal library, and was more than willing to put up with the eccentricity of the other girl.
   They spent some time in the bookstore - not that an outing with Hermione could have any other result - but that was not all. Harry and Hermione, with some help from their other friends, with whom they crossed paths several times - Ron and Neville in particular spent most of their time with the trio - showed her the highlights of the village. Their visits included Gladrag's Wizardwear - where Fleur was treated to the unlikely sight of several very smelly, screaming socks in the front window - Scrivenshafts, where Hermione purchased some extra quills, and Honeydukes, where they indulged in an assortment of the establishment's sweet and tasty treats. They even strolled down to the end of the street to gaze at the Shrieking Shack, Harry and Ron relating the events of their third year, and the confrontation with Sirius Black.
   The return journey toward the Three Broomsticks - which was where Harry had agreed they would all meet - led them past Zonko's, where they found Lee Jordan and the twins, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, given what Fleur knew of their general proclivities. The group stopped in the shop and exchanged a few laughing remarks with the twins before Fleur, who did not intend to buy anything, stepped from the shop to escape the press of eager students. Finding a bench across the street from the shop, she sat and watched as her friends laughed and talked.
   She had not been sitting long, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun, when she was joined by a smiling Roger Davies.
   "Hello Fleur," he greeted her as he sat down on the bench. "How are you enjoying your first visit to Hogsmeade?"
   "Very interesting," said Fleur with a smile. "We don't really have anything like this in France. I feel like I've stepped through time to come here."
   "It's pretty different, all right," Roger said as he sat down beside her. "But then again I suppose Hogwarts is a lot different from Beauxbatons."
   "In some ways," Fleur confirmed. "But essentially it's still just a school, and an old one with many traditions much as Hogwarts."
   "So the transition has been easy for you?"
   "I don't know about easy," was Fleur's response. "The language and the different culture have been a bit of a problem at times, but it has been a new experience for me and for the most part an enjoyable one. I told you that things weren't always easy for me at Beauxbatons. The best part of being at Hogwarts is finding acceptance with a group of friends."
   Roger paused a moment and shot a glance in the direction of the joke shop. Following his gaze, Fleur could see Harry and Hermione laughing with Ron through the shop window, looking like they had not a care in the world. A large part of that acceptance of which she had just spoken, she knew, was due to her connection with Harry and the fact that his friends had accepted her on his recommendation. However, she felt as though she was also liked for who she was, and this extended not only to Harry and his friends, but others as well - especially Angelina, Alicia and Katie, all of whom treated her as though they had known her for years. It was a wonderful feeling to be part of the group.
   She returned her gaze to her companion, only to see him staring back at her with a look of intense concentration. "I'm glad you have found some acceptance here."
   "Thank you," she replied.
   "And how is it being on the arm of a celebrity?" Roger suddenly asked.
   Surprised, Fleur paused for a moment. Roger had always avoided the topic of Harry in their past conversations, so his sudden desire to discuss the state of her relationship with him was a complete departure from his earlier behavior.
   "It's not really like that," she finally said. "Harry is so unpretentious that he doesn't pay any attention to those things. He's happy just being Harry."
   "So you're happy with him."
   Though Fleur was not certain she wanted to discuss the exact state of her relationship with Harry - Roger was no more than a casual acquaintance, after all - it was not something she felt she needed ignore either.
   "I suppose I am," she replied, deciding to be honest, yet vague. "He's a good person - any girl would be lucky, I think."
   "Well, I wish you the best," Roger said with what Fleur felt was a little forced jocularity. He stood and smiled. "Hopefully you can train him - he often appears at sea with you." Roger then laughed. "Most of the time he doesn't even look like he understands that he's engaged to you. He only holds your hand, and even then he looks like he doesn't know what to do with it. In fact, he seems to be much more comfortable with that Granger girl than anyone else."
   Roger smiled at her a final time and started walking up the street, Fleur looking on with some asperity. Why was he making those comments? It was not as if he actually knew Fleur - or Harry and Hermione for that matter - nor did he know of their relationship. Fleur was happy with where they were and the direction in which they were going, and trying to force a deeper bond before it developed naturally would not be healthy in her opinion.
   In particular, she found his comments about Hermione to be offensive. Their relationship predated Fleur's with Harry by years, and regardless of the state of their affection for one another or the exact state of their feelings, Fleur would never have dreamed of interfering with his friendship with her. If Roger thought he was upsetting her with comments about Harry and Hermione, he was in for a rude awakening if he ever learned that Fleur was pushing toward a closer relationship. Of course Fleur wished she could have him all to herself, but she had thought of this at some length and determined it was for the best...
   "Fleur," Harry's voice interrupted her thoughts. He held out his hand and helped to her feet, and she smiled at him. Harry seemed to be paying much more attention to her today. She knew that he was being influenced by her looks to a certain extent, but Fleur was convinced the deeper feelings would follow in time. She just had to be patient.
   "Was that Roger?" he asked.
   "It was," said Fleur. "He talks to be me every so often."
   Harry smiled at her before leading her down the street toward the Three Broomsticks where they were supposed to meet the rest of the group. As they walked, Fleur chewed over Roger's words, wondering if he should mention them to Harry.
   At length she decided not to - Roger had not really said anything out of order, and telling Harry would serve no purpose. Roger might not mean anything by his comments, and Fleur preferred to simply wait and be wary of the other seventh year. Whatever his comments were directed toward, it really did not matter much - she and Harry were fine with their friendship and their feelings progressing the way they were.
   The pub was filled with Hogwarts students when they arrived, but they were immediately waved over to a few tables which had been moved together. The rest of their friends appeared to have been waiting for them only a short time. An order of Butterbeers later and the group of friends were happily engaged in conversation, jokes, and friendly, bantering conversation.
   At one point, Ron leaned over and gestured across the pub. "Looks like Malfoy isn't having fun."
   Sure enough, across the way sat Malfoy with several other Slytherins. They appeared to be much quieter than the Gryffindor group, and Fleur could see Malfoy glancing from time to time over at their table, generally accompanied by his ever-present sneer. On his other side, Pansy Parkinson was speaking, presumably trying to gain his attention, but it was evident that she was not having much success the way Malfoy ignored her.
   "He's probably just mad that Snape won't let him say anything he wants in Potions any more."
   "And how long do you think that will last?"
   Harry shrugged. "Probably not as long as it should. But any respite is welcome."
   The conversation turned from that point, and soon they were speaking in low voices about the proposed Defense Club. And while Fleur felt that the particulars of the club had been decided upon, the troublesome prospect of where to hold the meetings was still a roadblock.
   Some of the group thought Harry to be overly cautious and somewhat bull-headed about his insistence on finding a location where Umbridge could not discover them, but he was adamant. Jean-Sebastian and Dumbledore had impressed upon them the necessity of keeping their heads down and not giving her any reason to attempt to exert more control on the school than she already was, and Harry was determined to do exactly that. Fleur was happy that he was showing some forethought and caution, but on another level the further delay chafed. Something told her that this club and the training they would provide would be needed, and she felt it would be needed sooner rather than later.
   "Harry, have you thought of asking Sirius if he knows a good place for us to meet?" Hermione asked.
   "He's seen every location on the map, I would think," Harry replied with a frown.
   "I still think it's worth asking him," said Hermione. "He may have some ideas that we haven't considered before."
   "I suppose I could always call him on the mirror."
   "Well look at what we have here," a grating, cultured drawl interrupted their discussion. "It's Potty's band of Mudbloods, misfits, and creatures - I really must speak with Madam Rosmerta about letting the riffraff in."
   Lazily, Harry put his bottle of butterbeer down on the table, and stared up at Malfoy, while leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. "Ferret," he said in response, "those tired insults which always spew from that hole you call a mouth never change, do they? I guess all the inbreeding doesn't allow for any original thought."
   Malfoy's nostrils flared, and he glared contemptuously back at Harry. "You'd better watch yourself, Potty. Or perhaps no one has ever taught you how to behave in the presence your betters."
   "If I was in the presence of my betters, maybe I would behave," snapped Harry. "Look, Ferret, I'm supposed to be relaxing on my day off, and I'd prefer not to have to take out the trash right now. Can we do this some other time?"
   Growling, Malfoy reflexively reached for his wand when a voice stopped him.
   "Mr. Malfoy, there will be no fighting in my establishment."
   Madam Rosmerta glided into view. "If you cannot leave my