Strange things happen to Harry all the time, but an encounter in the forest is about the strangest.
A Contract and Something Else
Harry got out of the hospital on the fourth day after the attack and disappeared. While Harry was convalescing, the Lovegoods were visited a lot by people who they guessed to be part of the Order of the Phoenix. Mr. Lovegood received an invitation to join, which he declined. When Dumbledore invited him personally, he tried to imply that, by refusing to join, Odd was declaring that he wanted Voldemort to win. When Odd asked if there was any way that people could oppose Voldemort without joining the Order, Dumbledore conceded that they could. But he returned that the Order was the best way. To which Odd replied that that was a matter of opinion, and ended the conversation. Dumbledore tried to find out what the relationship was between Luna and Harry, but Odd made it clear that the conversation was over, and he had to leave.
However, despite not getting Odd into the Order, Dumbledore concluded that Harry wasn't staying at the Lovegoods' tower. Which was true. Mr. Lovegood had withdrawn money from Harry's account at Gringotts and had it converted to Muggle currency. Harry took a vacation for a week on the Isle of Wright and for the first time in his life he spent time by the ocean. He spent a quiet, and somewhat lonely week, but read and practiced his magic core strengthening exercises. His casting speed had increased dynamically as a side benefit -- in order to tire himself out magically, he had to cast a lot of spells, and since he had other things he'd rather be doing, he cast them as quickly as he could.
He also spent a lot of time reading. He read the book about shielding spells and the ritual book. He made a trip to Florish and Botts to get some books on runes, which he studied. He called the phone number on the bottom of his letter from Hermione, and spoke to her. She was staying at her grandmother's house, and would probably be there until the term started. She had used legal means to re-route mail to the Diagon Alley post office, and would pick it up about once a week. She asked about Luna, and he told her about the vacation to Sweden. He refused to answer any questions on his relationship with the blond Ravenclaw. He let her know that mail sent for him to the Lovegoods would still reach him.
Before leaving London, he did stop by Scrimgeour's office. Being scrupulously polite, he got Scrimgeour to accept that Harry would supply the Minister with all the information he found from "his source" if Scrimgeour didn't insist he reveal the source. The Minister, thinking it was a spy among the Death Eaters, accepted that keeping the theoretical spy safe would lead to more information than knowing who it was. Scrimgeour insisted that Harry give the name of the spy to the goblins to be released to the ministry should Harry die. Harry agreed.
Hedwig, who had come with him to the beach, didn't enjoy it much, and took the opportunity to go back to the Lovegoods' Tower when Harry offered her the option.
He also completely read Riddle's diary.
Harry kept coming back to the fact that Riddle had performed a lot of ritual variations that, perhaps, no one else had ever performed. For example, a ritual to protect him from all diseases; after doing the ritual as described in the books, he tried to vary it to make himself live forever. He did the same thing to the ritual to protect himself from poisoning, and the one to strengthen himself -- he tried to modify it to make himself eternally strong. Riddle did it again and again, yet there was no proof that any of this worked.
The lack of confirmation (despite all of Riddle's praises for himself) and the comments in the book on rituals led Harry to conclude that in all probability these modified rituals were not effective. The base rituals he performed -- protection from disease, anti-poison, etc -- were described as only partially effective by the ritual book. However, they did explain Voldemort's appearance. Those sorts of rituals usually required a sacrifice from your own body. Suddenly, Voldemort's lack of hair and nose (and maybe fingers, toes, and other things -- Harry didn't know for sure) could be explained.
So if it wasn't those rituals that kept him from dying, that left the Horcrux and the Dark Mark tattoos. He wished he had more information on the tattoos -- but it was something that Riddle had created, so there was no other source of information than the Dark Lord's self flattering notes.
But Harry realized that wasn't true -- almost every invention is based on something else. The Dark Mark was based on the Love Mark, and he had information on that in the book that taught him the magical exercises he did every morning. He stood up from the beach chair he was lounging in, and went back to his room. He smiled at how he wasn't remarked upon. In the wizarding world, Witch Weekly would be all over him if they knew he was sunning himself in just a pair of bathing trunks. But here, the mostly naked people ignored his scrawny, weak body. He enjoyed the anonymity. He also watched the women walking around in very small bathing suits, and found he was wondering how Luna would look in one of those. He missed her.
He pulled out the book from his trunk and started reading. It was slow -- the old English was difficult to read and understand. The spelling rules were certainly different, and Harry spent the day struggling through it. He took a walk into town and bought a notebook, and started translating.
The next day he reviewed his modern English version. There were several interesting things about the Love Marks that he guessed would be in the Dark Mark. Hidden in the tattoo were runes that gave the image its magical aspect. In the Love Mark various configurations could be used to share emotions, sexual pleasure, and even thoughts. These were barely mentioned because the book was mostly about magical cores. It did spend a chapter on the two runes that were used to allow the lovers to join their cores. All the runes were presented in the book, as well as possible configurations, but in a very cursory manner. Their advantages and disadvantages weren't given. He thought about it -- while it would be nice to share thoughts with someone and communicate without speaking, did he want to give someone that sort of access to his mind? Would he have any privacy? Could he avoid invading someone else's privacy?
Harry was only about a third of the way through the book, and the next chapter was about familiars, so he put the book down and went back to the beach. He had a lot of information, but nothing that directly helped with understanding the Dark Marks.
One thing that he did know was that the Dark Mark responded to him. He wasn't sure how that worked, what he could do with it, or if Riddle could detect it. But it deserved more experimentation.
- - -
After a week at the beach, he returned to Ottery-St. Catchpole and watched the Lovegoods' tower for a while. Darkness fell, and after not seeing anyone enter or leave, he put on his invisibility cloak, and went to the door. He knocked, and was let in by Luna when he told her who was there.
Luna and he spent a quiet evening together, talking with each other, and with her father. Harry found out that the Weasley's had gotten cold with Luna, Dumbledore had confronted her father, he had not placed any advertisement in the Quibbler, and he still hadn't picked NEWT classes. He also found out that Scrimgeour had played up Harry's role in the attack on his relatives, and made him out to be some sort of hero. He frowned at that. As if he didn't have a big enough target painted on his back. Luna had received a note from Hermione thanking her for the warning, and saying that her parents were taking her on a vacation. Odd updated him on events in the wizarding world. There had been several attacks on muggle targets while Harry was away, but nothing done against the wizards. It was more a "we're still here" sort of attack. The Prophet had started calling him "Lord Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived" and Luna petted his back as he hit his head against the table top. He was sure Witch Weekly would start putting him on the cover again.
He wrote Professor McGonagall a note giving her the list of classes he wanted to take. He selected Charms, Transfigurations, Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA), Herbology, and Care of Magical Creatures. He dropped history -- if he wanted to know he could probably find a more interesting book. The big change was the addition of Ancient Runes. As he hadn't taken it from third year, he selected the Sixth Year Beginning Runes class, which was described as being more difficult and faster than the third year version; if he kept with it sixth and seventh years, he would end up taking the Rune OWL in his seventh year. He also stated categorically that he was dropping Potions. He wrote that while he might have worked for Minister Bones, there were not enough galleons in Gringotts to make him work for someone like Scrimgeour or Fudge and that they had turned him against a career in the Ministry. He asked that she contact him through the Weasleys, as Hermione was away now, but only for school related subjects.
The next day, Harry apparated to Diagon Alley to use an owl from the post office to mail his letter to McGonagall. He was not going to send Hedwig to Dumbledore's Den of Thieves if he didn't need to. He walked into muggle London to phone Hermione, but only got her answering machine. He was glad that she wasn't there. There was a lot of staring and pointing as he walked through the Leaky Cauldron, but when people tried to stop him, he was almost rude, insisting that he had errands to run. Then he apparated to the Burrow and knocked on the door.
"Oh! Harry. Come in," Mrs. Weasley said. "Where have you been? We were so worried about you?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Weasley, but I've been quite well. I took another vacation; I went to the ocean for the very first time."
"That was much too dangerous, Harry! With You-Know-Who looking for you, you shouldn't go off like that."
"Mrs. Weasley, I've lived my entire life in a cage. I'm out and refuse to go back in it. If Voldemort, or the Headmaster, want to lock me up again, then I will fight them, and it will be over my dead body. At least I'll die free."
"Harry! He only has your best interests at heart."
"Well, his "best interests" for me no longer coincide with what I perceive as my best interests."
"Ho! Harry, mate!" Ron showed up.
"Hey, Ron! How've you been?"
"Want to go flying? I'll need to borrow a broom. As far as I know, mine is still locked up in Hogwarts."
"Harry, Ron! You stay in the wards. And take your sister, too."
"Right, Mum," Ron answered. Heading into the other room, he yelled, "HEY GINNY! Let's go flying!"
Meanwhile, Harry spoke again, "Mrs. Weasley? I would appreciate it if you didn't tell the headmaster that I'm here. I asked him to contact me, and he hasn't. If he doesn't want to talk to me in a situation where I feel comfortable, then that's his choice. I'd rather not be ambushed by him. So, please?"
"But Harry, he asked us. . . ."
"And I asked you. So now it's come to a choice between us. You have to choose."
"Don't make me choose between you, Harry. If you just talked with him. . . ."
"I told you, I left him a way to get a hold of me. He hasn't seen fit to use it.
"Oh, and another thing; I've sent a letter to Professor McGonagall, and since the headmaster is stealing my mail, I asked her to send the reply here. So you wouldn't mind if I picked it up here, would you? Thank you."
Ron returned at that time and they headed outside to the broom shed.
"So what did you write to McGonagall?"
"What classes I wanted to take."
"You haven't selected them yet? I picked mine a couple of weeks ago."
"Dumbledore is stealing my mail. I haven't received a single letter all summer."
"Nope! At first it bothered me, but lately I've enjoyed the fact that Dumbledore can't get a hold of me. Oh, if you get any mail for me, please keep it until I come back."
"Sure, mate. I can't believe I'm done with Snape! Got an A in potions, so there's no way he's going to let me in again. I'm going to concentrate on charms and transfigurations, and my flying. I decided I really want to try to go pro in Quidditch. Here, take the Quaffle and lets see if you can get it past me to the goals."
"I'm not a Chaser."
"I know, but you're the best I have at the moment. Besides, you owe me for missing my great game last year!"
"Yes sorry about that. It worked out well that Hermione knew Grawp, though. Saved us, in the end. Umbridge won't be back, will she? If she is, I'm following Fred and George. I've got my OWLs, theoretically, and might go somewhere else to finish schooling. I am just so angry with Dumbledore!"
"Hey, Harry, why is that? What did he do to you to cause this?"
"After refusing to speak with me all last year, and forcing me to be mind raped by Snape without checking to see if he was even teaching me correctly, which he wasn't, it turns out that Dumbledore knew the prophecy the whole time, and never told me that was what was going on. So, if I had been taught correctly, if he had just informed me of what Voldemort was trying to tempt me with, if he had left some way to contact help beside Snape, we might not have gone to the Ministry. And then, right after Sirius was killed, he finally decides to tell me why Voldemort has been after me my whole life. As if I didn't have enough to agonize over. If he was a healer, he'd have the bedside manor of Umbridge."
While they were talking, Harry was unsuccessfully trying to get the Quaffle through the hoops.
"What am I going to do? Aunt Amelia always warned me about the Malfoys. She warned me not to cross them unless I had my troops prepared and the law on my side, because they'll use every loophole available to win and we would have to do the same."
Hannah and her mother were sitting around the kitchen table after lunch, commiserating with Susan.
"Unless you move out of the country, I don't see a way out."
"I don't want to leave England. My family has been here for over a thousand years. Sure, we married a bunch of Saxons and Vikings along the way, but we've always been English. I don't know if I could be anything but English."
"Then we have to get you married."
"That's very nice, but you're not my type, Hannah."
"You prat! You have to get married to some bloke. Is there anyone? Anyone at all?"
Susan shook her head. "I went over this with Auntie right before. . . . Anyway, there isn't anyone in our year."
"Nope. Went over every one of them."
"What about Potter?"
"You know the rumors."
"What rumors?" Hannah's mother asked.
"The ones about him maybe being interested in marrying Ron Weasley," Hannah told her.
"What? The Boy-Who-Lived is one of those?"
"It's just a rumor, Mrs. Abbot. He's got a very short track record with girls. However, he did meet us with Luna Lovegood."
Hannah looked thoughtful. "Yes, what's up with that? They spent over a month camping together. How come there wasn't any indication of that before they left school?"
"Maybe they were very discrete. Do you think they're together?"
Hannah shrugged, "They were together for a month, and her father was chaperoning them at the restaurant. She said they were together, but he denied it. I hope they've got that resolved by now."
"But they didn't do anything like hold hands or share secret looks or anything. Maybe they're just friends."
Hannah snorted, "Maybe. But can you see anyone really being friends with Loony?"
Mrs. Abbot interrupted again, "With who?"
"Luna Lovegood," her daughter explained. "She's called Loony because she's not all there."
Susan objected, "She seemed perfectly fine when we had lunch with her."
"Except the snorker rats and the vernicious kerniv."
"Her father took her and Harry Potter camping in Scandinavia looking for traces of an extinct animal."
Mrs. Abbot paused for a moment then said, "Oh, snorkacks. Yes, old Slughorm said they were extinct, which made several potions un-brewable, or else they had to use regular goat parts instead of snorkack parts. Hmmm, Aberforth Dumbledore tried to enchant goats to make them better ingredients to replace the extinct snorkacks, if I recall; never heard of the other thing."
"I just said that, it came from a muggle story book."
Susan brightened up. "But what that means is that Loony isn't really loony. Oh, we'll have to stop calling her that." Then her mood shifted again. "But that means he could really be interested in her."
"Why don't you find out?" Mrs. Abbot asked.
"Why don't you talk to one of them, or both of them? You're not going to figure it out here."
"I don't know how to get a hold of Harry, except through Luna. If I want to talk to either of them, I have to talk to her." She got up, and looked at her friend.
"Hey, what about you?" Susan asked.
"Daddy's finalizing the contract with Ernie's grandfather. It's so unfair! These laws haven't been enforced in years. Then our class comes along and suddenly they decide to do it now? What did we do to deserve this?"
"Two things," her mother answered. "You were born in the same class as the Boy-Who-Lived, and You-Know-Who returned. Suddenly, every thing's a battle between the dark forces and the rest of the wizarding world."
Susan nodded and headed to the fireplace.
Ginny flew up while Harry was failing to get the Quaffle through the hoop again.
"Hello, Ginny. Now we have a chance to score on Ron."
"You're just jealous because I've shut you out," Ron yelled to Harry, while Ginny made a run at the hoops while holding the large ball.
"Shut me out? You haven't scored against me yet!" Harry yelled back.
"Since I'm the Keeper, I can't score. We just assume that every time I intercept the ball, I score, because you have no Keeper."
Harry caught the ball Ginny tossed to him, and faked a throw at the upper goal while tossing it back to her. "How about we don't assume your team scored against my non-existent Keeper because your Chasers are non-existent, too."
Ginny shot, and Ron blocked it. He threw it to Harry, and by the agreed upon rules Harry took the ball back to mid pitch and moved in for another shot on the goal hoops.
"Ginny!" he yelled, as he tossed it to her.
"You're not supposed to yell my name! That would just let the opposing team know who you're throwing it to." She tossed it back, and Harry tried to throw it through the lower hoop, which was a bad angle for him. Ron missed the Quaffle, but the Quaffle missed the goal, too. Ginny grabbed it before it hit the ground, and flew around for another shot.
And so it went for over an hour.
McGonagall received Harry's note and updated her information. The headmaster had already let her know what Harry was going to take, saying that if he hadn't received his Hogwarts letter yet, that he probably wouldn't receive it before school started. He also authorized the purchase of Harry's books. She looked at the letter accompanying Harry's selection, and knew that the headmaster hadn't discussed this with Harry before making his selection. She went to talk to him.
"Come in, Minerva."
"Will you please tell me how you always know who's at the door before they knock?"
He just smiled. "What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to inform you that Mr. Potter has sent his class request in."
That took the smile off him. "What? How? The Granger girl had his school letter, and she disappeared. Unless she disappeared with him! That will never work! The Wizengamot will not allow Potter to marry a muggle-born!"
Minerva was confused. "Am I missing something here? What has marriage to do with Mr. Potter's class schedule?"
"Nothing, but we can't let the Wizengamot be involved!"
"And why would they be involved with Mr. Potter's schedule?"
"They won't. They'll be involved with his marriage. My spies say that they're leaning between Parkenson and Bulstrode as to who they will assign to marry Harry. I cannot let that happen. And if he's going to be dating a muggle-born, he'll be playing into their hands. They'll force a contract with one of them, and both families are fully in Voldemort's camp."
"Very well. I just wanted to let you know that Mr. Potter has dropped Potions."
"Nonsense. He needs potions to become an auror."
"He no longer wants anything to do with the Ministry of Magic, citing problems all the way to the top: Scrimgeour and Fudge, in particular. He also said he would be withdrawing from the school should Umbridge still be teaching. . . ."
"No chance of that," Dumbledore interrupted.
"And he wants to take Runes."
"He hasn't the background. He can't take NEWT Runes. Just leave his schedule the way I set it."
McGonagall looked at him for a moment, and nodded. "I'll make sure the schedule is correct."
"Thank you, Minerva. Now if only we could find where Harry and Hermione are hiding, I can nip that romance right in the bud."
"He said he could be reached at the Weasley's. . . ."
Dumbledore jumped up with an energy that belied his hundred and forty years. He quickly moved to the fireplace, threw in some floo powder and magically traveled to the Burrow.
Luna served tea to her guest, sat down across the table from her, and stared at Susan Bones with her large, silvery eyes.
"What can I do for you, Susan?"
"I wanted to ask you something, but now I'm . . . " she trailed off.
"A bit embarrassed?" Luna suggested, helpfully.
"Yes. I wanted to ask you some personal questions, but I really don't know you, and it's a lot more awkward than I thought when I first decided to come here."
"You can always ask. I suppose you know that I don't have to answer any questions. You're not an auror, and Daddy was telling me that I don't have to answer their questions either, but that always made me wonder because if they are doing an important investigation then it might be wrong for me to not answer their questions. But then if their questions were personal, I can't imagine what they would have to do with an important investigation anyway."
"Er, yes. I was wondering, what is your relationship with Harry Potter?"
"Yes, I can see how that might be an embarrassing question, and I don't feel like answering."
"Well, that non-answer is itself an answer," Susan replied, feeling hope fade.
"May I ask a question in return? Why do you want to know?"
In answer Susan pulled a piece of parchment out of her dress. Luna unfolded it, and read Narcissa Malfoy's thinly veiled threat.
"Oh. I see now. So tell me, why did you pick Harry to come to with this?"
Susan went through the list of possible pure bloods in her class. She wasn't as up on the ones in Luna's class. She briefly went over some from the year ahead of her, too. She finished up with, "After all that, I kept coming back to Harry being so friendly in the DA, and his offer to help if I needed anything when we had lunch the other day."
That caused Luna to break out in laughter. Susan got a bit indignant about that, until Luna got her breath and explained.
"I remember when Mum died. All the people who came to the funeral said something like they would be available should Daddy or I need anything. Even people we barely knew, and who barely knew Mum. Can you see asking one of them to marry you on the basis of that?" Susan's face reddened at the blond's words.
Luna continued, "But you're right, Harry meant every word when he said that. He's noble like that, and has what Hermione called a 'saving people thing.' You'd think with all the brains that girl has that she would have come up with a better term, wouldn't you?"
Susan's reddened face suddenly paled, "Oh, Merlin! He's always hanging around Hermione! What if they already have some sort of understanding?"
"Don't panic. Harry and Hermione are just friends. Harry and I are friends, too, but if he decides to marry you, I won't stand in his way. . ."
"Oh, thank you, Luna!"
Luna ignored the interruption, ". . . but he would consult with me, and I would have a say in whether he decides to marry you or not. So, tell me about yourself. . . ."
Deputy Headmistress Minerva McGonagall went back to her office angry. You just didn't ignore someone's course requests out of hand like that. How in the world would making Potter take potions be for the "Greater Good."
She sat at her desk, and entered Potters name to the magic schedule book. She could use it to create copies of individual's class schedules, teachers' schedules, and which classrooms were assigned to which classes which hours. She turned the page, and under Advanced Beginner Runes she wrote /Harry Potter/.
"Harry, why did you go to Luna when your family was attacked?" Ginny asked, as they flew to the middle of the pitch preparing to make yet another run at the goals defended by Ron.
"Because I knew she wouldn't argue with me. If I came here first people wouldn't believe me, arguing that maybe it was just a dream, then they would argue about me going, and by that time my family would have all been dead."
"What about Hermione? Why didn't you go to her?"
"I don't know. Oh, yes, I do. She's not on the Floo network. She wouldn't have been able to get help. The other possibility would have been Neville, but I thought of Luna first. So, anything you want to tell me?" he said, stopping his broom in mid air, holding the Quaffle.
Ginny looked at him, and said, "I'd be happy to accept your marriage contract."
"Well, I'm glad you're honest enough to tell me. Dumbledore hasn't. Of course it's his own fault if he hasn't. He's the one who probably stopped my mail. But even so, I didn't know anything about it, nor did I give him permission to negotiate a contract.
"/Contract/. So impersonal. It's not supposed to be this way."
Ron flew over when he noticed Harry and Ginny just talking. "What's up?" he asked.
"We're talking about marriage," Ginny answered.
"No, we're talking about marriage contracts. Dumbledore has been negotiating with your parents, but he doesn't have my permission to do that, so don't believe anything he says."
Ginny sighed,"I was afraid of that. It didn't seem like something you'd do without talking to me first. Do you want to marry me, Harry?" Ginny asked.
"I don't want to marry anyone. But my feelings aren't being considered."
"But if you have to marry someone, shouldn't you marry someone who wants to marry you?" Ginny persisted.
"That would make it better, but I think there are an awful lot of girls who would want to marry me thanks to Witch Weekly; most of whom I've never even met. I don't want to marry anyone, including you, Ginny."
"Hey! Are you saying Ginny's not good enough for you?"
Ginny was about to say something but Harry held up his hand and just looked at Ron.
"Ron, if I had been interested in Ginny, you would have yelled at me about that, wouldn't you?"
Ron looked confused for a moment, opened his mouth, and closed it again, and looked confused again.
"Ron, don't ever change. But Ginny, you were going to try to persuade me. I'm not in the mood for a sales pitch on why I should marry you. I like you as a friend; can't we keep things like that?"
"It's Hermione, isn't it?" Ginny said, with an angry tone. "You've been spending time with her, haven't you! You went on vacation together, and now you've both disappeared together. Those muggle raised witches don't understand the importance of being pure when they enter a marriage. . . ."
"Enough!" Harry roared. "Think about what you're accusing Hermione of! And I haven't seen her since the train, so keep your filthy mind to yourself."
Harry probably would have left anyway, but Dumbledore started yelling his name and waving for him.
"Oh, he's signaling he's open," Harry said, throwing the Quaffle at the approaching headmaster, yelling out "Here you go, but you'll never make a goal without a broom."
Harry then angled the broom almost straight down. As he approached the ground he pulled up, and sped away from Dumbledore. He left the pitch going at a pretty good speed. The pitch was placed just inside the wards, and as soon as Harry was outside them, he disapparated.
Reappearing at the road near the Burrow, he flew up to the door, and attempted to lean the broom next to the door. Mrs. Weasley, who had been preparing dinner, noticed him riding up. She opened the door, and took the broom from the surprised Harry.
"I'm terribly sorry, Harry. I have no idea how he figured out that you were visiting us. I certainly didn't tell him, and I'm pretty sure that the children didn't."
"Thanks, Mrs. Weasley. By the way, Albus Dumbledore does not have my permission to negotiate anything. I like Ginny, but only as a friend. I'm not interested in marrying her. I just thought you'd like to know." He trotted towards the road and disapparated again.
Luna looked over the table at Susan. They had talked for a while, about Susan, Harry, and to a lesser extent about Luna. Luna had not told her about the contract she had with Harry, nor Harry's dual wife situation.
Luna felt sad. No, that was not true. She felt mixed. She liked Susan. She loved Harry. She wasn't happy about Harry's second wife. She wasn't happy about Susan being forced to marry Malfoy. He was foul to her, and she didn't really wish him on anyone; not even that Parkenson girl. She hoped that Harry could help Susan. She had a thought.
"Susan? What would happen if you asked Harry for help and he suggested someone for you to marry?"
Susan looked a little surprised. "I thought he would be the one. . . ." she trailed off. "I don't know who he'd suggest besides Weasley, and I don't think I could put up with Weasley."
"I'm sorry, it was just a thought about how he could answer your request. I don't think he will, but it seemed legitimate to bring it up."
"So, do I have your approval to propose to Harry?" Susan asked, still not sure why Luna would have veto power over Harry's choices.
"Yes, you do. But it's not a done deal. You still need the approval of two more people."
"Harry, of course. And you."
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't want. . . ."
Luna shook her head. "The problem is that Harry has some secrets that I cannot tell you. If he agrees to enter contract negotiations with you, he will tell you, and then you'll have to decide."
"He's not gay, is he?"
Luna fell off the chair laughing. Eventually, she got control of herself. "No, he's not gay. Don't worry about that. He should be back in a little while and then all will be revealed."
Harry appeared on the side of the lake near Hogwarts. He didn't want to enter through the front gates, so he made his way along the beach for the kilometer or so that he needed to reach the castle. He saw no one on the grounds as he made his way inside by a back door. He sometimes wondered about all the side and back entrances to the castle -- what use was the big iron shod, oak door at the front? He shrugged. He didn't encounter anyone as he made his way to Myrtle's bathroom, but wasn't as lucky as the last time.
"Hello, Harry. Did you come to see me?"
"Yes, Myrtle, I did." A little lie to help her feelings. He conjured a chair to sit in, and, after a moment, conjured another for her. "I thought I should tell you, as I think of you as a friend, and you are the first girl to offer me a permanent relationship, I have made a contract with another girl to marry her. I felt you should be the first to know, because of our friendship."
"I'm really the first to know?"
"Well, I know, and the girl knows, and her father, but that's it. We agreed to keep it secret for the moment. I can trust your discretion, can't I, Myrtle?"
"Yes, of course, Harry. No one's ever trusted me before." She looked pensive, then smiled. "Of course your marriage won't last. They never do."
"What do you mean? I'm not going into this lightly. I may be young but I understand that marriage is a forever thing."
"No it's not, Harry. It's until death do you part. Then you can come share my loo with me."
"I don't know, Myrtle. Not everyone becomes a ghost."
"But if you decide to live with me as a ghost, then you'll have an unresolved life goal, and you'll come back. Simple, see?"
"But what about your unresolved goal? Have you ever wanted to finish it and move on? No offense, but I don't think you've been very happy since you've died. If you completed your task, do you think you'd be happier?"
Myrtle seemed to slouch in her chair. Harry thought she was falling into it at first.
"Ghosts aren't very happy creatures. And it's not as simple as finishing what we left unfinished. I thought I was a ghost so I could haunt Olive Hornby, but after she died, I was still here. It's not like I really want to be a ghost, but it's like being a girl, or a boy -- no one gave me a choice, I just am/. And it's not like we're /told what our unfinished task is. We just continue. I wouldn't know how to pass on if it bit me, which it can't since I'm a ghost." She broke down at the end.
Why did girls always cry at him? Harry wondered. He couldn't even hug her. He stood and disenchanted his chair. This seemed to get Myrtle's attention.
"Want to go on an adventure with me?" Harry asked, as he opened the sink to reveal the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets.
"You're going down there?"
"Yes, it should be safe for you. For me, too, I'm hoping."
"All right." Harry got on the moving stairway and Myrtle floated beside him. They descended into darkness, and came out in the bone chamber. He was alone. He yelled up the pipe for Myrtle, but there was no answer. He shrugged, and walked into the Chamber of Secrets. First thing he did was try to apparate. He couldn't so he figured the Hogwarts wards were in effect here. He wished he had a portkey to test, but shrugged since he didn't. Looking at the corpse of the snake, he mentally kicked himself for not bringing equipment for holding the poison he wanted to give to Ollivander for his second wand.
He looked at the statue of Slytherin, it's mouth still open from when the snake came out to attack him, and he conjured a ladder. He climbed up, and looked into darkness. He entered the mouth carefully, and lit a bluebell flame for light, as it left his wand free should he need it. The "mouth" opened into a large, reptile smelling room. There were more bones here, larger ones; Human-like skulls, horse-like legs, and giant spider legs, and other things that weren't rats. The basilisk had eaten many species during its thousand year wait. Harry found the exit from the room and headed down it. There were no lights here, but there were no turns, either. He passed another discarded skin of the basilisk. Were those worth anything? Of course, with the Potter and Black fortunes his, why was he worried about money? Because it was his responsibility, he answered himself. He should leave the families better off than when he assumed control.
Drat! He was only sixteen! He shouldn't have to worry about these sorts of responsibilities. He had a flash of anger at his parents and Sirius for dying and leaving him with this. Then he felt guilty for feeling angry.
He continued thinking as he walked down the tunnel. He didn't have to have the responsibilities, though. Isn't that what Dumbledore had been doing his whole life? Protecting him from his responsibilities? But in order to do that, Dumbledore had to make the decisions, and Harry wasn't comfortable with other people making his decisions any more. People ended up dead, and if it was because of him, so be it. But it would be because he screwed up, not because someone else screwed up making what should have been his decisions.
It was impossible to tell how far he had walked. He supposed he could walk it again, and count steps. It wasn't worth it -- it wouldn't make it any shorter to know the distance. He wondered how this tunnel had been formed. Round and smooth, right through the rock, it would take, well, it would be magic, probably. He smirked. Will that be the answer to everything? Magic? How does the Burrow not fall down? Magic. How do you instantly travel from one place to another? Magic. How to bend space and time and change one thing into another and create something from nothing? Magic.
The tunnel seemed to be angling up. It was hard to tell. It could have been angling down this whole way, and only now was leveling off -- strange how the lack of references made it difficult to judge time and distance. The tunnel was definitely getting steeper. It widened and next to the wall was a set of steps. He climbed to a room cut roughly from the rock. One side was flat, with an image of a snake on it. Harry hissed in Parseltongue, "Open," and it did. He wondered if this was a condition of all Parslemouths that they had to think they were speaking to a snake in order to actually use the power. Otherwise, why put the image of the snake on the pipe and the door to the Chamber? The wall opened to reveal a clearing in what Harry assumed was the Forbidden Forest. He stepped out, and saw a centaur standing in the clearing, her eyes tightly closed, shoulders hunched, trembling in fear.
Harry stared. He had never seen naked breasts before. They moved in the most fascinating way as she shook. He used his meditation to calm himself when he realized that his body was reacting to the sight.
"Hello?" he said, hesitantly.
She opened an eye. "You're going to eat me?"
Harry looked behind him, to make sure that she wasn't talking to something else, but no, nothing there.
"No. I hope that's okay with you?"
"Yes, that's fine," she said, relaxing. "Where is the monster? It's sort of boring waiting around here."
"Why are you waiting for a monster that's going to eat you?"
"It's the ancient agreement. We're safe here as long as one of us is fed to the monster every fourth year, and we feed it during the other years. But with the coming of the spiders, they are in charge of two of the years, and they sacrifice one of their own during one of their years."
"So you are going to be sacrificed to the monster?"
"To keep my people safe, yes."
"Is the monster a basilisk?"
"The snake king, yes. What were you doing in its lair?"
"I killed it. It attacked me, and I slew it."
"You mean we're free?"
"Yes. I suppose that you are."
"And you did it?"
"What is your name?"
"I'm Harry Potter. Bane has met me."
"I am nameless. Without a name, none will miss me when I am gone."
"That's terrible. You mean that you've been raised your whole life to be a sacrifice?"
"Yes. As such, I was a drain on the community; they did not teach me any jobs to assist the herd, as I would never have a chance to become proficient. So they fed and pampered me. They will not be happy to see me back. To them I have always been dead.
"But since you have saved me, you are now responsible for my life. I am yours, Harry Potter."
Harry felt his jaw hit his chest as he stared wide eyed at the Centaur. "How do I get into these situations?" he asked himself.
"You do not want me. I will stay here, and after the equinox the herd will no longer feed me, and I shall starve or the spiders will kill and eat me. Fare well, Harry Potter."
"You are not going to starve or be eaten. I take my responsibilities seriously, and that includes you, now. It's just that, until this summer, the only responsibilities I had were making food for my relatives and taking care of the garden. Now I have the fortunes of two families to take care of, and you are just another surprise. Let me see how to close this, and we'll go to the Lovegoods' house."
"Families?" She seemed to mull over the word. "Ah, herds. You have two herds? That is a difficult situation to be in. I will join whichever herd you want."
He looked over the stone door. It was built into a rock face and looked plain, but towards the bottom of the door near the ground was an engraved snake image. Harry looked at it and hissed "Close" in the snake language. The door did.
"Where is Hogwarts castle from here?" he asked.
"That way," she said, pointing over the hill the rock face was part of.
"Very well, let's see if we can apparate from here. Ready to travel magically?"
She nodded, hesitantly. "It doesn't hurt, but it is uncomfortable." He stood next to her, putting one arm around her withers, which was just under his shoulder height (which made those breasts just about eye height -- mind out of the gutter Potter! he thought to himself). He draped her arm over him so she held his shoulder, and he took her other hand in his.
"I've never done this with a Centaur before. Here goes."
Susan and Luna were playing gobstones when Luna looked up. "The wards -- someone's coming." She went to a window and looked out. "It's Professor Dumbledore. Harry doesn't like him very much any more."
She opened the door as he came up.
"Hullo, Professor. My Daddy's not here."
"I came to see Harry."
"Harry Potter? He's not here."
Dumbledore walked right past her, into the living room.
"Hello, Headmaster," Susan said. "It's your turn, Luna."
"Where is Harry Potter?" Dumbledore asked, his eyes not twinkling.
"I haven't the faintest idea," Luna said.
He stared at her. Damn, he thought, it's like trying to read a werewolf. The memories and emotions were there, but it was like they were written in a different language.
"Is it cold out?" Luna asked, "Because your cheek is all red. Although that would be a strange cold, only affecting one cheek."
He ignored her. At least his beard had given him some protection from the slap that Molly gave him. Ginerva was crying because Harry wasn't going to marry her, and unless he got a hold of the boy soon, those plans would be in ruins.
"Do you know where Harry is, Miss Bones?"
"No, sir. And I've been here a couple of hours, he hasn't been here since I've been here."
He didn't try to probe her -- he knew her aunt had taught her some Occlumency. But from passive Legilimency, he could detect that she was speaking the truth.
"If you see him, let him know it is vital that I speak to him."
"That is between him and me."
"If I see him, I'll let him know."
"Me too, Headmaster," Susan said.
Luna turned away from the Headmaster long enough to move her gobstones. Susan lifted a towel quickly, and one of her stones, just captured, tried to squirt her. Dumbledore observed the stains on the towel and concluded that they had been playing for a while before he arrived.
"Very well, thank you." He left. Further searches would show that Harry was in Diagon Alley much earlier in the day, but he would have no further luck in finding him.
"Let's not play gobstones any more," Susan said, returning from the bathroom where she had just washed off the stinky liquid that her stone hit her with when she was too slow with the towel. "I should have known better than to play a logic game with a Ravenclaw." The last was said with a smile, indicating no hard feelings.
Luna stood up and announced, "There go the wards again. I hope it's Harry this time." She went to the window that looked at the steps leading to the drawbridge. "Yes, it's Harry. You have learned that strange things happen around him, right?"
"He ends up in the hospital wing an awful lot, if that's what you mean."
"No, just strange things happen around him. Like being the fourth contestant in a three person tournament that hasn't been held for over a hundred years; being involved with the Chamber of Secrets that has only been opened once before in a thousand years; being chased by the only prisoner to ever escape from Azkaban without outside help. Things like that."
"You're telling me this for a reason, aren't you."
"Yes," Luna answered as she opened the door and let in Harry and a Centaur.
"Hello, Harry. Who's your friend?"
The Centaur looked down, a bit embarrassed.
"Turns out I saved her life by defeating the basilisk. Now she's my responsibility. She doesn't have a name yet, but she's going to be in the Potter family. Do you have a name you'd like us to call you?"
"Whatever name you give me, my stallion."
This was too much for Luna, and she rolled on the floor laughing. Susan stood with her mouth open until she started laughing, too. Harry noticed Susan for the first time, and greeted her. She couldn't stop laughing, and gave him a little wave.
"My mother's family seemed to like flower names. How about Laurel, symbol of victory? Is that alright?"
"That is a pretty name. Thank you my stallion." That started Luna laughing again. Susan brought herself under control.
"Just call me Harry, please. Then you are Laurel of the House of Potter. May I present Luna Lovegood, and Susan Bones. Susan, Luna, this is Laurel."
"Pleased to meet you," Susan said.
"Hello," Luna was able to get out.
"Luna, is it OK if Laurel stays here? I'll have to figure out where she'll live tomorrow."
"I would stay with the herd!"
"The problem is you can't come to Hogwarts, and you can't stay in the forest alone. I don't know too much about Centaurs but you'll need some protection from the cold, correct?"
"Yes, and clothes."
"I wasn't going to point that out, but since it's come up, why are you naked?"
"Except on cool nights, I would be naked most of the summer. We only wear clothes for comfort reasons, not to adorn ourselves like humans. And while the evenings have been cool, as I was scheduled to be eaten by the basilisk, they didn't deem it worth while to give me a night shirt."
Harry had been ignoring her naked chest for most of the conversation, but when it couldn't be avoided, he felt it politic to turn away.
"Luna? Do you have anything she could wear?"
"I certainly don't have a bra big enough."
"What is a bra?" Laurel asked.
"I don't think she wears them," Harry told Luna.
"And I don't think she needs one," Susan pointed out.
Harry felt his face turning red. This was not missed by Luna or Susan.
"I'll get her a blouse, and Susan can tell you why she came over."
"Thanks Luna. Go ahead, Susan."
"Can we sit down, Harry?"
"Sure. Uh, Laurel? I have no idea about Centaur furniture, but if you describe it, I can try to make some for you?"
"I can stand, my Harry. We often sleep standing up."
"Very well, go ahead Susan."
"Harry, when we talked at the restaurant, you said to ask if there was anything you could do for me. Well, there is." She paused to get her courage up. Harry could see that this was difficult for her, and was thinking that if she needed money or something, that it really wasn't a big deal.
"Harry, I'd like to negotiate a contract for marriage between the House of Bones and the House of Potter."
"WHA. . . ." This was not what he was expecting.
"Although I didn't plan on it, I'll even accept the Cent. . . Laurel in the family. I assume it's like a daughter relationship, right? And not a marriage?"
"Uh, right. Because of her status as sacrifice, I figured I would have to get her educated in whatever she needs to know to be a useful member of the herd, and find her a Centaur husband. But as this all just happened in the last hour, I haven't put any plans in place."
Luna came down the steps with a sleeveless blouse, and said, "Just like a Gryffindor. Act first, figure out what to do later. Here you go, I don't think you'd fit in most of my clothes."
"It is nice, but not very practical. It will not hold much heat in during the night."
"We'll get you some blankets. Meanwhile, Harry, I spoke with Susan this afternoon, and think you should consider her offer. I didn't tell her any secrets, though. Only you should tell her those."
"Well, since you know what you didn't tell her, why don't you start filling her in, then I'll know exactly what you're talking about?"
"Oh, Merlin! You got Luna pregnant!"
"He most certainly didn't. I fully intend to give my husband my virginity on my wedding night."
"I'm so sorry, Luna, I really didn't mean. . . ."
"That's alright, Susan. I meant it when I said you would have to decide once you knew Harry's secrets. When we went to the Department of Mysteries last June, it was because of a trap that You-Know-Who set for Harry to find a prophecy made about Harry and You-Know-Who. . . ."
"Just call him Tom Riddle if you can't say his made up name."
"Anyway, the result was that Harry learned the full prophecy that Tom Riddle partially knew -- that Harry is the only one who can defeat him. So Riddle will keep coming after Harry until he's defeated or until Harry's dead. And anyone with a marriage contract or, Heaven forbid, actually married to this goof," she smiled sweetly at Harry, who fake scowled back at her, "is going to be a target for Riddle, too."
Susan nodded, and closed her eyes. Luna started a fire in the fireplace, and they waited while Susan considered what she heard. Harry talked quietly with Laurel and created a fur covered rock for her to lean against -- some Centaur furniture. She commented on the fur being an animal skin back at their village, and never seeing a rock with actual hair coming out of it.
"Still doesn't matter. Harry, to be honest, I don't want to get married. But the Malfoys will force me to marry Draco if I don't. I like you, Harry. I can't say I love you, but I do like you, and I think you would make an excellent husband, and I would try to be a good wife."
"I like you, too, Susan. I have been informed that the Wizengamot will force me to marry someone who's probably a Death Eater if I don't take care of it first. Then I found that Dumbledore was negotiating with the Weasleys on my behalf . . ."
"Oh," Susan said, disappointed.
". . . without my permission. I informed the Weasleys, both parents and Ginny, that I wasn't interested in marrying her; at least not with our current relationship."
"What relationship is that?" Susan wanted to know.
"She's been a fan of mine since she was old enough to hear Harry Potter stories. She thinks I'm her knight in shiny armor. I have enough problems. I don't need to marry someone who's in love with a fairy tale character instead of me.
"But there's something else you have to know before you agree to a contract. You know that Sirius Black was my godfather?"
"I heard that, and I don't care. The Bones are distantly related to the Malfoys. It doesn't change who I am, any more than having a murderer for a godfather changes who you are."
"He wasn't a murderer. He was innocent. But beyond that, he filled out adoption papers for me. When I turned sixteen, I was able to sign them, and became heir to the Black family. I'm head of two families."
Susan's eyes opened wide, but she didn't say anything.
"I have to take one wife for each of the families. You couldn't be the wife of the head of the Potter Family. You could be the wife of the head of the Black family, though."
Susan's eyes were still wide. Then she looked at Luna. "You! You already have a contract with Harry."
"Yes. But he still needs to take another wife. Neither of us likes it, but you know the law is being enforced now because it inconveniences the people opposed to Riddle."
"And you're in love?"
"No. For Harry it's like you -- he needs to get these contracts. For me, I offered, because I do love him. But should he come to love someone else before we are married, he can get out of the contract."
"And you, too, Susan. We'll put in a clause stating you can get out if you want to. I won't let them marry me to a Death Eater, but neither will I let them stop me from marrying for love."
Susan nodded and said, "But there are other requirements in the law. If you don't marry right, they can annul it and still force you to marry their choice. If they get desperate, they could Imperius us, or drug us with love potions, or something and try to get us to break off with you."
Harry got a far away look for a moment. Then he looked at Susan and said, "That's good thinking. What we need is an expert -- someone whose job it is to think like a dark wizard. Then we make sure the contract counters them as well as we can. Susan? Would you mind contacting Mad Eye Moody and just talking to him? Make notes about what he comes up with, and then we'll draw up the contract as strong and open as we can make it."
"All right, Harry. I'll talk to him."
Luna asked, "Then you're still going to contract with Harry? Even with the prophecy and the two wives?"
Susan nodded. "I don't see much choice."
"I'm sorry it has to be this way, Susan."
"Don't be too sorry, Harry. I'm sure I'd enjoy being your wife. I just don't want to be a wife yet! I'm only sixteen!"
Luna said with such enthusiasm that it cause both Harry and Susan to smile, "Fifteen! I've got you beat! I win again!"
"Is she always like this?" Susan asked.
"She always seems to be able to cheer me up."
"Then keep her, Harry! You can be such a grump sometimes."
"Thanks a lot!"
"Hey, if your wives can't point out your faults, who can?"
"And I thought I had friends and enemies to do that for me."
Luna put in, "Wives are better at it than friends and enemies."
"And I get two! How lucky can a guy be?"
Luna shook her head, "I'm not touching that one with a ten foot pole. Will you stay for dinner, Susan?"
"Thank you. I'll just floo Mrs. Abbot and let her know."
"Laurel, what do you like to eat?"
It turned out that the Centaurs didn't use much cooked food except for meat, which was charred over an open fire. Otherwise, they ate fruits and vegetables raw.
Mr. Lovegood came home from a day at the Quibbler office. Luna introduced him to Susan and Laurel. Odd was overjoyed to meet the Centaur, and spent most of the night talking about her culture. Dinner finished, Susan floo-ed home, and they relaxed in the living room. They discussed the contract he would make with Susan and, ignoring Voldemort, how they would live after they married. Luna was interested in following her mother's career of spell crafting -- creating new spells. Harry wasn't sure what he would do, but Odd pointed out that there was nothing wrong with rich Lords doing nothing. Harry didn't think he could do that, but still wasn't sure what he could do. He was a little nervous about Susan -- her ability to guess what the dark wizards might do made him think of Mad Eye, and while he wouldn't stop her, he would be nervous every day she worked if she became an auror, a career she was interested in. Luna pointed out that spell crafting wasn't without its dangers. She laughed as he tried to express his worry for her, too. They eventually went to bed.
Before he went up to the guest room, he checked on Laurel, who was very quiet during the conversation. She leaned against the fur covered rock he had conjured, and seemed tense.
"Laurel, what's wrong? Are you cold?"
"My stallion, may I ask a favor of you?"
"Would you sleep with me? I have had to sleep alone since the solstice, but I do not like it. In the herd we never sleep alone, and I would rather not."
"I will help you, but in a few weeks I go back to school, and I won't be with you. Tomorrow, I'll start working on what we will do . . . er, where you will stay while I'm away."
"You live such strange lives. You talk about how you are going to live, yet the Centaurs just live. I do not know if I can be part of your herd, my stallion. I am not like you, and I am not like my people. They have made me an outcast."
"I'm sorry; I'll do my best to help you have a good life."
"You do not have to apologize. They did what they thought was right to help the herd."
"Merlin! That's what Dumbledore did to me. He made me an outcast so that I could be sacrificed! Or at least it seems that way."
"Then will you be going to the Great Field soon, my stallion? Who will head your herds? And how can your sacrifice help your herd when it seems that there are just the five of us in it."
"Your two mates, the elder, me, and you."
"I think the herd that Dumbledore was trying to save is all witches and wizards, not just my family. But I'm not planning on dying any time soon. I didn't die when I fought the basilisk, and I will do everything I know to not die when I face Voldemort.
"But when you get chosen to be the sacrifice, it still hurts. Even if we don't lie down and die, or are rescued, we still end up hurt."
Laurel nodded, "Yet we can be happy knowing that the rest of the herd survives."
"If asked, I think I would have sacrificed myself, if I knew that it would save all the people I cared for. But I was never asked. And I was never told why I was being treated differently. Would you have felt betrayed if you weren't told why you were different, but were raised without a name, not taught, and finally given to the snake? If you hadn't been prepared, wouldn't you feel betrayed?"
"Perhaps. It is hard for me to think of the herd betraying one of its own; almost as hard as thinking of one betraying the herd. The only one to do that that I know of is Firenze. And, as he is not talked about, in one generation his name will be forgotten."
"Firenze. I wonder why he did what he did. Laurel? Would you object if I talked to him about your situation?"
"You are my stallion. You may do whatever you want."
"Fine. Although I wish you would just call me Harry and your friend, rather than your stallion."
"It is a term like your "lord", you are the one to whom I owe obedience and support, and who has responsibility to care for me. I do not wish to upset you, but it is a true title."
"Yes, well, we'll work on it. I'd like to go to sleep now."
She folded her legs beneath her, leaning against the rock, and stretching her "human" part out in front of her. It seemed that her back was a lot more flexible than a human's. She cradled her head in her arms and closed her eyes.
"You may use me as a pillow, or lean against me. That is how we usually sleep."
He positioned a pillow near her head and asked, "How about I just sleep next to you here?"
"That will be fine. I just feel better when someone is near me."
"Good night, Laurel."
"Good night, Harry. I'm glad I'm not going to be eaten."