Unsure Steps Forward
Harry was lying in bed, his mind a whirlpool of thoughts and worry.
The encounter with the Death Eaters had again forced him to think very deeply about everything. He realized, with a pang of fear, that he hadn't been a match for them. True, he could have probably escaped if it hadn't been for Bill, but the fact remained that he would have lost if he had stayed and fought. And they hadn't even been using the killing curse.
Harry also knew that Voldemort was somewhere on par with Dumbledore in terms of power, and the Headmaster was the person who had single handedly captured nearly all the Death Eater Inner Circle at the Ministry. He realized that Voldemort was equally capable of taking on the Order and incapacitating them.
Even after training all summer he wasn't even close to being ready. There was no way he could beat Voldemort in a duel. And no matter how hard he trained all through the year he still didn't think he would be ready.
Voldemort had been studying magic for fifty years. He was a master at dueling, probably second only to Dumbledore. He also possessed one of the most cunning and brilliant minds Hogwarts had ever seen.
Harry, on the other hand, had five years of training and had been an average student. In those five years he had exactly two competent DADA professors. Lastly, he didn't fool himself by thinking he was a match for the Dark Lord in the brains section.
Dumbledore... yes, the ancient Headmaster was the only reason that Voldemort hadn't won the war already. But for how long would it last? Dumbledore was not young, even by wizarding standards, and he couldn't defeat or kill Voldemort. How long before the light finally lost the only person keeping the Dark Lord at bay?
And what would happen then? Voldemort had taken so many precautions to ensure he couldn't be killed. He was as close to immortal as anybody had ever reached. What would happen if Harry failed to defeat him?
Would the Dark Lord terrorize the world for an eternity? Was that to be the fate of the world? Would that be the fate of all his friends?
The thought terrified Harry beyond all measure.
The prophecy... it was absolutely vital that Voldemort didn't get his hands on it. The only reason that he still feared Dumbledore was because he thought the Headmaster could defeat him. It would be a shattering blow to the light if the Dark Lord found out that this was not true. Voldemort not knowing the contents of the prophecy was the one advantage the light side had, and it had to be kept secret at all cost.
But if Voldemort captured him, was there any possible way of keeping the prophecy from him? No matter how good an Occlumens Harry was it would do no good once he was under the Cruciatus curse.
Suddenly Harry remembered a passage from the book on Unforgivables that he had read over the summer. Maybe... just maybe... there might be a way. It was foolish and so risky that it didn't even bear thinking about. And there was only one person who could possibly help him with it - Severus Snape.
Harry moved his hands slowly, bringing them in position to block an unseen blow. Again they moved, into yet another position, his body moving jerkily with his hands to counter another blow.
His normally smooth movements were hampered by his yet unhealed wounds. While the burns had greatly healed, his body was still sore from the prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus curse.
He relaxed as he completed the exercise, raising a hand to wipe the sweat from his brow. He had been working out for close to an hour and it had been hard, sweaty work. He had driven himself mercilessly, ignoring his body's protests. Tears of pain streaked his face along with the sweat.
Stripping off his wet top, he threw it to the ground and fell down to the floor and began to count off his pushups, the final bit of his workout.
After nearly a month and a half of rigorous exercise he had managed to get himself upto a hundred pushups a day. It was mostly due to Sean's hitleristic behavior in the dojo that this had been possible. He knew he would be lucky to manage fifteen today.
He grunted painfully as he drove his body to its limit and in his exertion didn't hear the footsteps entering the room.
"HARRY POTTER!" Hermione shrieked indignantly, "What in the blazes do you think you are doing?"
Harry got up slowly and wiped his face with a towel. "Exercising. What did it look like?"
Hermione glared at him. "I can see /that/. What I'm trying to understand, and failing to, is how you can be so thick as to do any exercise so soon after you were injured. Your body isn't even healed yet!" she hissed angrily.
Harry shrugged. "It's really ok. I'm fine."
Hermione's lips pursed up in disapproval and she was just opening her mouth to really yell at Harry when she was stopped by Ginny's hand on her arm.
"Leave it, Hermione," she whispered. "It's not the time for it. Besides, he's already gone and done it. No use yelling at him now." Her voice had a tinge of annoyance, laced with worry in it. But she sensed that Harry was not really in the mood for any lectures.
Ron, on the other hand, was gaping at Harry. "Are you trying to punish yourself for something? That hurt just by looking at it. And why in the blue blazes do you want to get up so early in the morning to do this? Six in the morning is earlier than even garden gnomes rise! You've gone barmy, you have."
Harry grinned at his tousled haired friend, who looked like he had been dragged out of bed kicking and screaming. Ron never liked getting up before ten during vacations and seven was positively unthinkable for him.
"You mean you aren't going to join me from tomorrow? I was hoping you would," Harry said innocently.
"Me? Join you?? To do physical exercise??? At six in the morning????" Ron said in an aghast whisper, he looked at Harry like he wanted to seize him and drag him off to St Mungo's to be examined. "Hah! If you even try to wake me up that early you will be the Boy-who-died."
Harry burst out laughing. It was so good to be with his friends again. So good to see Ron being his normal self, to see Hermione glaring at them both, while a small smile tugged at her lips. To see Ginny giggling helplessly at her brothers reaction.
"Come on, Harry," Ginny said finally. "Let's go down and get some breakfast.
Harry nodded. "You guys head down. I need to go shower first."
Ginny shrugged and she turned and walked out of the room, followed by a still annoyed Hermione, and a more awake Ron, who had finally perked up at hearing the word 'breakfast'.
Harry headed in the opposite direction, for his well earned and much needed shower.
Harry sat opposite Dumbledore, screwing his face up in concentration to keep his mental shields intact. He was panting from exertion, and felt drained. It felt like a battering ram was hitting his defenses, repeatedly.
The Headmaster was throwing quite a bit of his considerable force in trying to breach his shields and so far he had not managed to get through. He marveled at how much Harry had improved in Occlumency in such a short time. It was nothing short of amazing.
He applied even more pressure against Harry's shields and they finally collapsed. Dumbledore broke off the attack immediately.
Harry had been making good progression in Occlumency. While he was still not a master Occlumens, he could now protect his mind quite adequately. Voldemort would still be able to break into his mind if he was physically in front of Harry, but he would no longer be able to use the link he shared with him to break into his mind. This pleased Dumbledore greatly, as it was just one more area that Harry had made progress in leaps and bounds over the summer.
Harry sighed and rubbed his temples tiredly. He had the beginnings of a massive headache and felt like he had run a marathon. These sessions were always very draining.
He looked up to see Dumbledore smiling at him, the twinkle in his eyes turned on full power. "That was excellent, Harry. I believe that now you are at a level where your mind is safe from Tom's mental intrusions."
Harry nodded, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips, then he remembered how the Dark Lord had broken into Snape's mind and the smile quickly vanished.
Dumbledore noticed this, and he gently put a hand on Harry's shoulder.
"Do not think of it, Harry. You will not need to worry about that unless he is successful in kidnapping you. And if we are careful that will never happen. There is this wise Muggle saying: Prevention is better than a cure. I think it applies to this situation marvelously, don't you think?"
Harry slowly nodded.
He knew that over the past month a group of the best curse-breakers and ward casters had been working day and night to make Hogwarts safe. /Safer than ever before/. Multiple layers of protections had been added, making it impossible to use a Portkey in or out of the Castle, unless the portkey was made by the Headmaster. The Floo networks had been locked. No one could enter or exit through them. The secret passages had all been heavily charmed to stop any disreputable person from using them. Any high level Dark Magic or Unforgivables would set off alarms.
But there were always ways. And this had been proven before.
The Forbidden Forest was one place they couldn't protect against. It was situated on the edge of the castle boundaries and it was far too big to ward properly. That was one entrance that would always be open to attack.
"What about my friends? Jack, Sean and Alan? And Pat and her family? Will they be safe?"
"Indeed, Harry," Dumbledore said gently. "I have had strong wards put up all around their houses. If any Death Eater so much as comes close to any of them the area will be swarming with Aurors."
"Thank you, professor," Harry said gratefully.
"There is no need to thank me, Harry. I was very pleased to find out that you made such good friends. If making sure that they are protected is all I need to do to repay them for saving your life then I was very pleased to do so. And speaking of them... they will be arriving here by Portkey, tomorrow morning, at eleven."
Harry smiled. It would be fun to see them again. He was also eager to introduce them to Ron, Hermione and Ginny.
"Now excuse me, Harry, our Muggle Studies Professor is leaving us next year and I need to start looking for replacements."
"Thank you... I couldn't have done this without you, Professor. I hope you have luck finding a new teacher."
Dumbledore chuckled. "Perhaps luck might have to play a role in finding me a teacher for this subject. All Muggleborn teachers are either leaving the country, or have no interest in teaching at Hogwarts due to the state of the war."
Harry looked thoughtful for a moment. "What are the qualifications needed for the post, Professor?"
Dumbledore eyed Harry shrewdly. "At least an Exceeds Expectations in the NEWT's in Muggle Studies, some knowledge of the latest technologies in the Muggle world, and preferably a few years of having stayed amongst the Muggles."
Harry smiled. "Professor, you say the current Professor isn't leaving until next year... what if a certain squib, who has stayed amongst Muggles all her life, was to come and apprentice under him for a year, and then take her Muggle Studies NEWTS at the end of the year. Would that make her qualified to teach the subject?"
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled merrily. "I do think you might have hit upon an ideal solution, Harry. But would this squib be interested in teaching at Hogwarts?"
Harry grinned. "Absolutely."
"Very well, for this to work she will need to take her OWL's before the start of the school year. But I think that should not be a problem. I will talk with her and her parents and see if they are agreeable."
Harry's grin broadened. "Thank you, Professor. It will mean a lot to her."
Dumbledore merely smiled at the young boy that he had come to think of as his own Grandson. He was glad to see him smiling again.
Harry Potter grinned as the Headmaster apparated away. Pat was going to be stunned at this. She might get to go to Hogwarts after all.
Harry slowly walked out of the parlour, where he had been practicing his Occlumency with Dumbledore and went off to find Ron and Hermione.
He wondered how his magical friends would get along with his Muggle friends. Would they become friends? He hoped they would.
He peeked into the kitchen and saw that they weren't in there. He walked into the Hall and didn't find them there either. He shrugged and began climbing the stairs to Ron's room, figuring they would be in there.
Alan and Ron would find one thing in common - Chess. Both were masters at it and were sure to have a grand time trying to beat each other.
He had an idea that Hermione would get along with Pat very well, and he hoped Ginny would too.
As for Sean and Jack... he could only wonder.
He heard noises coming from Ron's room and smiled, bounding up the last few steps and pulling open the door.
What he saw inside froze him in place, his eyes going impossibly wide.
Ron and Hermione were sitting on Ron's bed and it looked like they were trying to suck each other's tonsils out. Hermione's clothes were disheveled and a couple of buttons were undone... and Ron's hands... Ron's hands were.... roaming.
They apparently hadn't heard him come in.
Harry blushed bright red and covered his face with his hand, blindly reaching for the door knob to close the door as he made his exit.
He bumped into a warm body behind him and heard a small feminine 'oof' of surprise.
He uncovered his eyes for a second to see the face of a very curious Ginny Weasley, before he heard Hermione making a needy, mewling sound and let go of the door so he could try and cover both his ears, shutting his eyes tightly.
He considered Hermione as his sister and Ron was the closest thing he had to a brother... seeing both of them... like that/... it was just /wrong.
Ginny peered into the room and then at Harry and started giggling helplessly.
"Oi... you t-two...s-s-stop it... I think you've scarred p-poor Harry for life!" she gasped breathlessly, before bursting out into giggles again.
Hermione and Ron both looked up in shock. Ron leapt up about three feet in the air, a panicked look on his face as he tried to think of a reason for why his lips had been attached to Hermione's. But Hermione knew they had been caught. She blushed as bright a red as Harry and buried her face in her hands.
"I'll... um... I'll just go down and come back later," Harry said quickly, whirling around and almost running out of the room.
Ginny's giggles followed him all the way down the stairs along with Ron's muffled curses.
Ten minutes later...
There was a hesitant knock on Harry's door and he looked up from his book on Arithmancy. "Come in."
The door opened and a sheepish looking Ron and Hermione walked in, followed by Ginny who had a wicked grin on her face that said loads about how much she was enjoying this.
"Harry... we didn't mean for you to see..." Hermione started timidly.
"Stop! Don't say any more... please," Harry said quickly, cutting her off.
"I don't ever want to discuss /that/. I'm glad that you're together and I'm happy for you. Let's leave it at that."
Hermione nodded quickly. "I think that would be best."
"So... are you mad at us for not telling you earlier?" Ron asked slowly.
Harry was a bit upset about not being told about this development between his two best friends, truth be told. But considering the amount of things he was hiding from them he felt it would be hypocritical of him to say anything to them.
"No, not mad," Harry said shaking his head.
Ron looked relieved. "You could try knocking next time, you know."
Harry glared at him. "You could try locking next time. Or putting up a sign outside. I'm not psychic."
Ron's face went bright red and he looked away.
"What's that you're reading, Harry?" Hermione asked quickly, trying to change the subject.
Harry handed her his textbook on Arithmancy. "I picked up a book each on Arithmancy and Ancient Runes when I was in Diagon Alley, you know... to find out what the subjects are about. Well, they were quite interesting. So I figured if I could take my OWL's on them before we go back to Hogwarts, and if I pass, I might take these two subjects instead of Divination and COMC."
Hermione squealed excitedly. "That's wonderful, Harry! Do you need any help?"
"Well, to tell you the truth I was doing all right till the fourth year material," Harry said exasperatedly. "But now it's all starting to go over my head. Especially Ancient Runes. So yeah, I was hoping you could help."
"I'll be glad to help out, Harry," Hermione beamed. "I think I have all my notes from the fourth and fifth year with me. I'll lend them to you. And we can spend a few hours studying each day. Once you get the hang of the formulas it gets much easier."
Harry grinned. "Thanks, Hermione, you are a lifesaver. I can always depend on you," he said warmly.
Hermione blushed, and shot Harry a small, pleased smile.
"Are you both quite done?" Ron demanded. "Wasn't it enough that one person was obsessed with schoolwork and studies, Harry? Why did you have to go join her too?" Ron still looked as if he was not totally sure whether Harry was under some kind of mind control spell or polyjuice potion.
Before either of them could answer Dobby popped into the room with a jug of iced Pumpkin juice and several goblets. He placed it on the table in front of Harry. "Is Harry Potter needing anything else?"
Harry smiled warmly at the House Elf. "No, thank you, Dobby."
Dobby nodded and popped away.
Harry could almost feel the glare Hermione was directing at him and he sighed.
"All right, Hermione, say it."
"How could you, Harry? After all you've seen, after all my efforts into S.P.E.W, how could you keep not one, but two of them? It's slavery. Pure and simple," Hermione said in a wounded tone.
"Firstly, Hermione, Dobby and Winky are not my slaves, they are my employees. They get wages, and time off, and can wear anything they want."
"Really? How much are you paying them, then?" Hermione demanded angrily.
"As much as I can get them to accept," Harry said calmly. "If you think you can get them to accept more, go right ahead. I'll pay them whatever they agree to. It was a headache to get them to accept any pay at all."
"That's not the point, Harry," Hermione said frustratedly. "You are famous in the wizarding world, a symbol, what message do you send out when you keep House-Elves?"
"Hermione, when people see Dobby and Winky I hope that they see how happy they are and stop abusing their elves. That's the message I want to send out."
"Look, I think your whole thinking on House-Elves is wrong," Harry said gently.
"How so?" Hermione asked angrily.
Harry ignored her tone, getting a bit irritated himself. "Look, you must understand that House-Elves enjoy their work. You can argue till you are blue in the face and you still wont change this fact. Take Dobby as an example. He might wear clothes, be paid, take time off, but try and get him to not do any work and he'd be miserable. You make the mistake of thinking of them as the same as Humans. Well, they're not, Hermione, they are a separate species," Harry said earnestly. He saw the stubborn look on Hermione's face and knew that he hadn't convinced her.
"Ok, look, I'll give you an example, let me see..." Harry said, thinking furiously to try and convince the angry brunette before she completely lost it and started yelling at him.
"Okay, Ants... and no, I'm not calling House-Elves ants, it's just an example," Harry said placatingly, seeing Hermione's eyes flash in fury.
"When we look at an anthill, what do we see? Hundreds and millions of ants, working all day long, carrying loads that seem almost impossible to believe for their size. None of them seem to have an identity of their own, they are just another ant in the anthill. But that's how ants live, they know no other way to live. They couldn't survive any other way. It's the same with House-Elves. They are different. If you want to try and help House-Elves, first understand them and their culture."
"Your thinking is totally flawed, Harry. House Elves can think, can speak, have brains that they can use to think for themselves. How can you even begin to compare them to an ant in an anthill? You say they might like the work they do but what if they did some other kind of work and they decided they liked that better? How will they ever know if they don't have an option?" Hermione argued fiercely.
"You sooo missed the point, Hermione. What I meant was that you should find out more about them before you go crusading for their rights. I mean, Ron and I always thought that you were a bit mad to be so crazy about studies and research. We thought that you didn't know what you were missing out on by not playing Quidditch. But you know what? You would be miserable playing Quidditch, because you enjoy what you do. It's what defines you. But you're right in a way, they haven't exactly had a choice of job offers to choose from. Let's say that they would like an option to do another type of job, you really think the way you are going is the right way to go about it?"
"What do you mean?" Hermione asked defensively, her eyes narrowed. "I was the only one doing anything for their rights."
Harry sighed. "What I meant was, you spent all of last year knitting hats and leaving them in the Gryffindor common room. Supposing a few house elves were tricked into freedom, where would they go? Who would hire them?"
"Dumbledore would hire them. He hired Dobby," Hermione pointed out.
"Hermione, what if Umbridge had found out about the free elves and that Dumbledore was paying them? How long do you think it would have been before she passed a decree banning the hiring of free house elves? You know her hatred of half-breeds and other magical creatures as well as I do."
Hermione went red. She knew that she couldn't argue Harry's logic on this.
"Where would those House-Elves go, Hermione? Who would hire them? Who in today's world would give a disgraced house elf work? Did you think they could just go up to people and ask for work?"
"Well, what would you have done?" Hermione burst out.
Harry looked at her warily. He knew that she was highly upset. "I think if you want to make their lives better you must change people's way of thinking first, not the House-Elves'. You should petition for their rights in the Ministry, you should set up a system to employ House-Elves that have no work or wish to be free. Get the people who abuse House-Elves prosecuted. People need to start appreciating them for the work they do, before anything can be done."
Hermione suddenly leapt up, her face showing a mix of anger and hurt, and strode out of the room.
Harry was stunned for a second, but then he got up to follow her.
"Don't," Ginny's voice stopped him in his tracks. "You just destroyed over two years of her work, efforts and way of thinking. Let her be alone for a while to think it over."
"Do you reckon I was wrong?" Harry asked her worriedly.
"No, you said what needed to be said," Ginny said gently. "I agree with you totally. But still give her some time to think about what you said."
Harry nodded wearily, and sank down into his chair, a frown on his face.
Ron came up and slapped him on his shoulder showing his support for him, and telling him in his own way that he didn't think he was to blame for Hermione getting upset.
Harry was immensely grateful for it.
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