PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Harry headed back to the castle heavy hearted. Beyond the sad tale of the Greyback pups, he was without Capricio for the first time in months. He felt like he was missing a part of himself.
When he gave the password to the portrait guarding Gryffindor Tower, he stopped for a moment. "I met Francois DePais recently. He told me about painting you, that he thought he might have put a bit too much personality into your portrait. I think you are perfect. Thanks for your vigil. It has to get lonely sometimes."
Saccha Rose blushed. "I remember Francois very well." She didn't add more, but continued blushing furiously.
Inside Gryffindor common room a throng of students talked, practiced magic, read, or played. Harry spotted Ron and Hermione in a corner. As he made for them, a redheaded missile collided with him.
"It's about time," said Ginny. She threw her arms around Harry's neck and kissed him thoroughly.
Harry's determination to follow his presupposed plans almost flagged.
"How did it go with Ron today?" asked Ginny with a genuine tone of interest.
"That's what you were thinking about while we kissed?" asked Harry, putting a note of mock hurt in his voice.
"I can think about more than one thing at a time. Can't you?" teased Ginny.
"I don't seem to be able to concentrate on more than one thing when you're around," said Harry grinning.
Just then, Ron and Hermione came over. Hermione was smiling. Ron seemed a bit reserved. "Harry," said Hermione, sounding like a teacher preparing to assign homework, "we need to find a quiet place to talk. It's much too crowded in here."
"How about your dormitory room?" suggested Ginny.
"Too much chance of someone walking in on us," countered Hermione.
"Do you think we could get past the prefects and make it to the Room of Requirement?" asked Harry, pointedly looking at the prefect's badges on both Ron and Hermione's chests.
"I don't think they're looking right now," smiled Hermione.
"My invisibility cloaks will cover us all," said Harry. "Let's head there."
No one argued the point, so they casually walked down the hall from the common room to the back of the Fat Lady's portrait. Harry gave one cloak to Ron and Hermione, and passed his father's cloak to Ginny.
"Into the corridor and around the corner to the left," instructed Harry. "I'll talk to the Fat Lady so she doesn't raise an alarm about unescorted students."
They pushed the portrait open. Three invisible and one visible student climbed through. Harry stopped to talk with the portrait.
"I may be calling on Francois for a little favor," said Harry trying to distract the guardian from her duty. "Would you like me to have him stop by if he comes back to the castle?"
She tittered. "I would like that very much. Please give me enough warning so I can make myself presentable."
"That shouldn't take you very long," said Harry bowing. He turned and walked calmly down the corridor and out of sight of the portrait.
Ginny met him at the corner. They snuggled under the cloak as they made their way around the seventh floor to the Room of Requirement. Ron and Hermione were already there and had called the room into service. A polished door stood opposite the tapestry of Barnabus the Barmy.
"What did you ask the room for?" inquired Harry.
"A place where we can hide while we have a private discussion," said Hermione.
"I don't know if that was a wise choice of words," said Harry ominously.
Ron opened the door. Just as Harry had suspected, using the word hide had produced the room were cast-offs of every description had been hidden.
Harry walked stealthily into the room. "Keep a sharp eye out. The last time I was in this room a redcap tried to do me in."
"I might have an answer to that," said Ron cautiously.
"What do you mean?" demanded Hermione.
"I've been meaning to tell you, but it has been a bit..."
"Hectic," offer Ginny.
"Exactly. Hectic," said Ron. He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a wad of blindingly white string. "You know how I broke my wand. I got a new one. The old one was just sitting there, so I got to thinking...what if I found a new way to use the unicorn hair. You know, to help fight You-Know-Who. My new wand has a unicorn hair too. So I must have some kind of connection. Anyway. Watch!"
Ron summoned a table and chairs. He flattened the tangle of hair. It formed a double diamond with one larger point, much like the rose on a map indicating north.
"The point me spell Harry used in the maze was my inspiration," said Ron.
"That's why you wanted to know how I knitted the frill on top of my elf hats," said Hermione as she recognized the pattern.
"Yes, but watch what it does!" Ron levitated the pointer slightly off the table. It spun slowly in the air and pointed at Harry.
"What does that mean?" asked Harry suspiciously.
"It points at the strongest nearby magic," said Ron in a tumble of words. "I've tried it all over the castle. It's amazing what things carry a strong magical pull."
"You're a genius Ron!" said Harry, but as he reached toward the floating indicator, it swung drunkenly in the air.
"That happens when the strongest magic force in the area comes too close. I'm afraid it wouldn't do you much good Harry. You've become too magically potent," said Ron.
"This is still marvelous," said Harry. "Wait a minute, I've had a brain wave." He took Capricio's pocket shield from his robes and refashioned it into a sheet. He held it up in front of him. The locator swung away from him and wavered, pointing aimlessly between Ron and Hermione.
"What? It can't decide between you and me?" asked Hermione a bit nettled.
"No. When it does that it's pointing at something beyond. It always points directly at the magic. Believe me, I've spent hours experimenting."
"Then what's it pointing at?" asked Ginny. "If you can't tell where the magic is, it amounts to no more than a parlor game...Who's the most powerful one of all...we can't..."
"No, wait," said Hermione. "We can modify Harry's shield. Watch."
She took the shield from Harry and attempted to charm it's shape. Nothing happened. "What's-wrong-with-this-spell," she said through gritted teeth.
"Gold is very difficult to alter magically," said Harry. Seeing the look on Hermione's face, he added quickly, "Maybe I just had beginner's luck. What were you trying to accomplish?"
"I envisioned a box. Thin enough to see through, but thick enough to hide the magic of the holder. The front side would be open. Much like a shielded lantern."
Harry considered Hermione's description. He encased the floating indicator in thin layers of gold, gradually increasing the thickness until the pointer no longer registered him. He handed the "magic lantern" to Ron. "You have the most experience. Teach us."
Ron seemed pleased at the chance to shine in front of Hermione. He motioned the others to stand behind him, and then turning like a lighthouse beacon, he scanned the room.
It was immediately apparent what the unicorn hair in the lantern was pointing at.
"The ax!" said Ginny with a gasp.
Harry broke away from the group and knelt by the bloodstained ax. "Look how the spatters fan out from here and trail toward the door."
"This hasn't been hidden here!" exclaimed Ron. "Something powerfully magical has been done right here!"
Harry was heartened that he and Ron had reached the same conclusion. "That's right," he said, reinforcing Ron's position.
"But there's no way to tell what happened here, is there?" asked Ginny.
"Actually there is," said Harry. "Dumbledore wrote a book on methods of determining previously performed magic. It's called Forensic Magic."
"Sounds deadly dull to me," said Ron.
"It is. A bit," said Harry. "But it can help us solve this conundrum."
Ginny cleared her throat.
"Sorry. Anyway, I've had a chance to read the book. It has come in handy several times. I'll show you." Harry walked over to the ax. He was about to pick it up when he saw a flash of evil green magic.
At the root of the razor sharp blade, about one inch of metal was not coated in blackened blood. A sharp crest of magic rode the very edge of the blade. Harry reconsidered touching the ax.
"What's wrong Harry," asked Ginny in concern.
Harry realized he had frozen in position, one hand stretched toward the ax. "This is not good," said Harry. "This magic has the trappings of Tom Riddle."
He withdrew from the ax and sat back down at the table.
"How do you know?" asked Hermione.
"I've had over a year to become familiar with his magic," responded Harry. "I've concentrated on becoming able to recognize and defeat his magic. I need to tell you where I've been."
"As much as we'd like to hear it, we have to be practical; we've no time for a lengthy explanation," said Hermione. "You have a D.A. class to teach in a little over an hour. From the rumors running around the school, there are even more who want to join the D.A.. You have to be prepared."
"We have time. If we want to use it," said Harry as he reached inside his robes and extracted the Time-Turner.
Hermione recoiled. "I never want to use one of those again," she said vehemently. "I nearly went loopy the last time."
"You used it for almost an entire school year," countered Harry. "The effects can be minimized by short duration and by getting plenty of meals and rest."
"Easy for you to say," responded Hermione. "But you'll have a hard time convincing me."
"I'm willing to try it," said Ron, glancing from Hermione to Harry.
Harry beamed at his friend. "Thanks Ron." Then his smile faded. "I do tend to make bad choices when I'm tired. I've been up since three o'clock this morning and it's been a rough day. Maybe Hermione's right. Thanks to you Ron, we know where the danger is located. Let's come back tomorrow, rested and prepared to beat it."
"What have you done with the real Harry Potter?" joked Ginny. "Actually it's good to see you take a reserved approach. You're less likely to get messed up. And I like you not messed up."
"That's a practical approach," said Hermione. "Let's go get a quick bite to eat before D.A."
"Let's eat here," suggested Harry. "My treat!"
"It's dead depressing in here," said Ginny.
"I can fix that too, ' said Harry.
He conjured pale blue silk panels to screen the table from the room. He set the table with china plates, crystal goblets, and a spectacular candelabra. He closed his eyes. Roast beef, thick black gravy, peas, potatoes, corn, and iced pumpkin juice appeared. As an after-thought, a lace tablecloth inserted itself under the plates and utensils.
"That's the second time you've done that," said Hermione crossly.
"What?' asked Harry. "I've never made you a meal before."
"Not the meal," said Hermione, her hands on her hips. "I didn't want to point it out, but when you were making the golden box, you neglected to take out your wand. You just did it again. I want to know how you do that!"
"I've got a book for you to read," said Harry.
"Pshaw. Go on. Hermione read a book. It'll never happen," said Ron with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Hermione laughed and softened her demeanor.
"Let's eat," said Ginny. "I'm starved and I want to see if this tastes as good as it looks."
Harry seated Ginny. Ron took the example and seated Hermione. When the main course was finished, puddings appeared. Ron moaned with delight over a chocolate gateau.
"Not quite up to mum's standards," said Ginny daintily wiping her mouth on a lace napkin. "But not bad for a nancy-boy."
Harry laughed. When they finished, he cleaned up and they stepped into the corridor.
The polished door disappeared. Harry immediately made the requisite three circuits, concentrating on what he needed to teach the class. The door reappeared.
"Do you think the castle gets annoyed when we do that?" asked Ginny.
"I hope not. Having the castle on our side may be our greatest asset," said Harry.
They were just about to enter the Room of Requirement when Horace Slughorn came into view.
"Harry my boy!" exclaimed Slughorn. "I decided to take you up on your offer. I look forward to this evening."
"I am very glad you could make it," said Harry amiably. "Could I talk to you for a moment?"
"Certainly, Harry, certainly," said Slughorn.
Harry gave quick instructions to Ron, Ginny, and Hermione about letting in signed D.A. members, while keeping any others in the corridor until he returned. Then he disappeared through the polished door with Slughorn.
By the time Harry reappeared a significant crowd had assembled. It looked to Harry that Hermione had been correct about many more people becoming interested in the D.A. Members signed in silently as new candidates were held to the side. Harry gave his speech about the secrecy of the D.A.'s membership and methods, losing only three individuals to the requirement.
"The castle must be almost empty," Harry confided to Ron.
"Yeah, I'm glad I don't have the pressure of teaching on me," said Ron with a wink and a weak smile.
Once inside, Harry took charge. He introduced new members to the D.A. philosophy and training process. He took all the new members himself, and assigned Ron and Hermione charge over the remaining eighteen original D.A. members training the prior night's group. Ron, contrary to his earlier statement, seemed pleased to help supervise the instruction.
As Harry worked with the newest members, he evaluated their abilities; dividing out those more proficient and sending them to Ron's group. He worked intensely with the weakest members for over an hour before he called a halt to the practice.
"You can all now deflect a basic attack," he said with a note of confidence. "Let's do triplet defence for an hour and then I've arranged a special demonstration."
Without further explanation, he divided the large group into four smaller groups. He sent each group to a remote corner of the huge practice arena. Assigning Dean, Seamus, Neville and Luna to magically harry the groups, he walked among them dolling out praise and instruction.
At the end of the second hour, Harry was encouraged at the progress. Not only the newest members, but the "old hands" also showed improvement as they contrived new methods of protecting the weaker elements of their groups.
Harry called a stop. Everyone became silent, waiting expectantly.
"As you become better at deflecting or negating hostile magic, opponents will shift their tactics. Instead of attacking you directly, they will attack what is around you... your friends, the ground you stand on, even the air you breathe. You must be ready for anything. Take a seat in the stands and please remain there."
As the students filled the bleachers, the teachers made their way to the arena floor.
Horace Slughorn approached apprehensively. "Harry my boy, I have made the arrangements. Are you quite sure you want to proceed?" Concern tinged Slughorn's every word.
"We'll start out easy," said Harry. "The teachers should be in no danger."
"I wasn't thinking about the danger to the teachers dear boy. I was thinking about you." Slughorn smiled weakly.
"If I'm ever to improve, I must be stretched. I have a secondary reason for what I'm doing, although I'm not going to share it right now. Thanks for acting the liaison with the Professors." Harry patted the slightly trembling Slughorn on the arm.
"Harry I don't want to be remembered as the one who arranged for your injury or death. Please be cautious," begged Slughorn.
Harry smiled at Slughorn and walked to the centre of the practice area. All eyes were focused on him. "The Professors," and he held out his arms to encompass the staff members on the field, "have graciously agreed to assist with a demonstration. They have been instructed to attempt to jinx, charm, or attack me in any way they can."
A susurration swept through the crowd. Shouts of "No," or "Yes," emanated from the students, depending on whether or not they had been jinxed by Harry in earlier classes.
Harry smiled again. "You may be up against overwhelming odds at some point. Even a single individual may be overwhelming. You can't look at someone and tell what resource they have at their disposal. Truly the best defence is to get away as quickly as you can. In the event that is not possible, fight one spell at a time, one jinx at a time, one breath at a time."
Almost as if on cue, Professor Slughorn attacked. Harry heard the magic gathering as he spoke. He turned the brunt of the spell to the ground and the arena shook. Slughorn looked surprised. One at a time, each Professor leveled magic at Harry. Each time he thwarted the attack. After the entire teaching staff had taken a turn, they started joint attacks. Initially half-hearted out of fear of injuring Harry, the attacks became more pointed as Harry's counters made them look weak. The teachers banded into threes and fours and rallied, using more and more potent spells. Finally Harry had to call up a golden shield to protect his back. He appeared to be reacting more and more slowly, favoring his right side.
The teachers, apparently ready to end the demonstration, began to pound Harry more furiously, pressing their advantage. When the attack from his right became so strident that it seemed to be a constant shower of magical collisions, Ginny ran onto the field. She took the pressure of the attack off of Harry's right side, while working into a back-to-back fighting stance. Ron sprinted on to the field and protected Harry's left, completing the triplet.
The teachers pressed. An ominous purple mist came from somewhere among the teachers. Harry heard Slughorn yell "No!"
Harry flicked his wand and the mist became wriggling worms that fell from the air and burrowed into the ground.
The soil beneath Ron, Harry, and Ginny began to melt. Harry pointed his wand straight down as he warded off another magic with his bare hand. A bluish light covered the molten earth and it solidified to cool rock.
A cloud appeared above the trio. Harry noticed it, and had started to encase it in a golden globe, when it began raining spiders. When they touched the ground, they began to swell. Ron staggered. Hermione came pelting out of the stands, followed by a surge of students.
Calmly Harry waved his wand. A sheet of magic rolled out, sweeping up the spiders.
"That will do," said Harry. All magic commotion ceased. "Please take your seats for a moment and we'll wrap this up."
The conglomeration of sweating teachers and excited students worked their way back onto the stands.
"That was excellent," said Harry, panting slightly. "Several lessons have been learned here. Firstly, any one of you can become very competent at magic defence. Secondly, you don't have to wait to come to the aid of someone in trouble."
Ron and Ginny smiled, many shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
"Thirdly, as you came to the field, you altered the balance of power. A multitude of small resources, brought to bear simultaneously on one point, can overwhelm a larger, stronger force."
Harry saw Slughorn's eyes widen in surprise.
"Tomorrow, our class will be all about focus. I'll be a bit late, as I have another commitment. Luna and Neville will begin the class in my absence. You have all done very well. I'm proud to have you in the D.A.
Headmistress McGonagall, who had been conversing with Alastor Moody, broke in, "As a special treat, there will be no tests for D.A. members in Defence Against the Dark Arts."
A cheer went up from the students.
"That was unexpected," said Harry to McGonagall as she approached.
"As was your ability to withstand the combined magical force of my entire staff," replied McGonagall.
"They were holding back," said Harry. "I expected them to. They would never intentionally hurt a student."
"I'd not be so sure Mr. Potter," said McGonagall. "Several of the teachers would like to have a go with you right now. A matter of pride I think."
"Before term ends, I would like that chance." He held up his hand to halt McGonagall's protest. "If I can't stand against teachers predisposed to keep me safe, what chance do I have against Voldemort?"
McGonagall shuddered at the name. "That may be true but you still have one more year here at Hogwarts to practice."
"I don't think so. I tend to agree with Phineas Nigellus on this point. Voldemort won't wait for me to complete school. As soon as I'm of age, even before, if he can find me unprotected, I expect him to attack. That's why I need to sharpen every skill I have. Would it be possible to arrange an actual defence drill with the teachers?" asked Harry.
"If we do there have to be safeguards..." began McGonagall.
"For Harry or for the teachers?" interrupted Slughorn as he turned to Harry. "My boy in all my years I've never seen the like of what you just did. You are destined for greatness. Not for your scar, or the things that happened when you were a baby, for the things you will yet accomplish. My hat is off to you." At that, Slughorn took off his pointed hat and bowed to Harry.
"I shall see to the drill," said McGonagall stiffly.
"Make sure the teachers know that it will be private. No one will have public-pride in the balance," said Harry.
McGonagall nodded and started to chivvy students to chaperones for return to their common rooms.
"I might add," whispered Slughorn conspiratorially, "mixing bits of Slytherin's rules may be a stroke of genius. Just be cautious of the mix. An old potioneer speaking, you know."
Slughorn gathered students and left the Room of Requirement.
"Potter, see that you have your charges back to Gryffindor tower before curfew," said McGonagall as she nodded to Ron, Hermione, and Ginny.
"She really seems to trust you," said Hermione, watching the Headmistress leave.
"I can't figure her out," said Harry. "Half the time, OK more than half the time, she's bent on chucking me out. Then she does something like that. I don't understand."
"It's just that..." began Hermione.
Ron put his fingertips on her lips. "We know," he said softly.
They all laughed.
"Thanks for coming to my aid," said Harry. "It was actually part of the lesson. Sorry I couldn't warn you. That would have taken the spontaneity out of the thing."
They laughed again.
"Are you really dead-set against the Time-Turner?" asked Harry of Hermione as if their earlier conversation had not been interrupted.
"I remember how it made me feel," explained Hermione. "Looking back, I see that my personality began to change. The longer I used the Time-Turner, the more agitated I became with problems. Even minor inconveniences could set me off."
"Yeah, I believe I remember something about that aspect of your personality," said Ron with a smile.
"Why would we have to use the Time-Turner?" asked Ginny. "We've got several days before term ends. Do we need more time than that?"
"Let's take the hour we have before we're out of bounds and I'll explain, in brief, where and when I've been and what remains to be done," said Harry. "Then we'll have tonight to sleep on our decisions. That's the real beauty of the Time-Turner; we can wait until virtually the last moment and still have time."
"I say let's do it," said Ginny with enthusiasm. "I for one, have been dying to hear what you've been at."
"Do you feel up to it Harry?" asked Hermione. "That demonstration with the staff had to be exhausting, and it looked like your right side was injured. Maybe you should rest tonight."
"I've learned not to make decisions or face intricate magic when I'm tired," responded Harry. "But just talking shouldn't be that much of a strain. If it becomes too much, we can head back to the dormitories."
Ginny looked frustrated at being taught consideration for Harry from Hermione.
"And as for the injury," said Harry," that was just a feint. I was setting the staff up for our next duel. They will go in with a preconceived notion of where I'm weakest. It may give me an edge."
"You've become sneaky," said Ginny. "I'll have to keep my eye on you."
"I only do what's necessary to keep myself and those around me safe," explained Harry with no hint of shame. "I admit, some of the things I may do during an actual fight might bear Slytherin's hallmarks. It doesn't mean I've abandoned my principles, just that I'll use everything I know to defeat Voldemort."
Harry watched the effect of his words on his friends. He was gratified that they only flinched rather than quailed at Voldemort's name.
"I'm up to it. Let's talk," said Harry as he conjured two cozy divans.
The next hour was filled with explanation of time spent with Dumbledore's Porcrux, with Grawp, and in the Chamber of Secrets. He told of learning spells, of discoveries in the castle and at Grimmauld Place. He shared what he had done and learned in Diagon Alley and at Riddle's cave. At the end of an hour, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny were staring at Harry, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
"Blimey mate," said Ron in astonishment. "No wonder you've changed."
"If I understand correctly," concluded Hermione, "you still need to find at least two Horcruxes."
"Actually I think I've got the one in the locket, but I haven't been able to credibly ascertain the fact."
Hermione raised her eyebrows.
"Sorry," said Harry. "I need a new look at the problem. A different approach. That's where I could really use your help."
"I think it's safe to say you've got it," said Ginny as she took Harry's hand.
"Yes we'll help," said Hermione, dragging Ron along with her eyes. "But I do want to learn some of the things you talked about...Gemynd and Wallacearia Condensata for a start."
"I've got some special classes with several of the Professors during the last few days of term," said Harry. "We'll have to find time between classes, exams, meals, and D.A. practices."
"How about tomorrow morning at six o'clock?" asked Ron.
Ginny and Hermione stared at Ron. He had never been known as an early riser.
"Just a thought," said Ron as he wilted under the gaze of the two girls.
"Well just give it some consideration," said Harry as he pulled Ginny to her feet.
They left the Room of Requirement and headed around the seventh floor corridor toward Gryffindor tower when they were met by an unlikely pair. Standing in the centre of the corridor were two house elves, Dobby and his friend Winky.
"Dobby is so glad to meet you here," squeaked the elf. "Winky made Dobby promise that he would take her to see Harry Potter, and now we have met!" Dobby's huge green eyes shone with tears.
"What is it?" asked Hermione in concern.
"Begging miss's pardon," said Dobby brushing at the tears on his Weasley jumper, "but Winky has something important to say to Harry Potter."
Winky stepped forward. No longer the ragamuffin of hearth sweepings, she was clean, even her despised clothing had been freshly laundered. "It seems," thought Harry, "that Winky took seriously my admonition to get hold of herself."
In a high-pitched squeak she addressed Harry. "Winky is ready to help Harry Potter make He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named pay for his deeds." The elf hiccupped. "Winky would not do this...Winky does not want to do this...but He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named must pay for what he did to my masters...to my family."
The hard look on the house elf's face caused Harry to take a step backward. "Winky," said Harry considering the elf, "I think I do have a way you could help. I know that house elves have tremendous power available to them. Could you help me practice defensive spell work?"
"This will help Harry Potter kill He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?" asked Winky with no attempt to soften the sentiment behind her words.
"I believe so," said Harry and he waited for reply.
"Is Harry Potter wanting to practice now?" asked Winky pointedly.
Harry took the question for assent. "Not right now Winky," he said. "How about tomorrow morning after breakfast? Say eight o'clock in the Room of Requirement?"
"Winky will be there," said the diminutive elf, and with no further word, she disappeared with a pop.
"Harry Potter must be careful," warned Dobby as he wrung his bony hands and gazed at the spot where Winky had been standing. "Winky is in a mood Dobby has never seen. Dobby does not know if Harry Potter is safe with Winky. That is why Dobby was reluctant to fulfill his promise to Winky." More tears leaked from Dobby's eyes.
Harry was taken aback at the implication that Winky might do him harm. He thought momentarily of Dobby besting Lucius Malfoy and shuddered.
"What do you mean Dobby?" demanded Ginny protectively.
Dobby began to wring his bat-like ears. Harry caught his wrists and restrained him, watching for more evidence that the elf might hurt himself. "Dobby could you come to the practice in the morning? If you see something dangerous, you could alert me."
Dobby brightened. "Dobby could help Harry Potter. Dobby will do his best to help Harry Potter or he will drown himself in tomorrow's soup."
"Drowning yourself won't be necessary Dobby. But I would appreciate your help," said Harry as he released the elf's wrists.
Dobby sniffed a great sniff, smiled tentatively, and disapparated.
"Harry let us come with you," said Ginny immediately.
"You and I can't," said Hermione almost parentally. "I have a class and you have your Transfiguration O.W.L.s. The only one who has a free period is Ronald. The two girls turned as one to Ron.
"Yeah, well I would, but I have things I have to do." Hermione punched Ron in the arm. "I think I'll postpone them though," he said rubbing the spot Hermione had punched. "That is, if Harry wants me there."
"That would be great," said Harry, inwardly hoping to further seal his breach with Ron.
"That's settled," said Hermione as she took Ron hand and led the way back to Gryffindor tower.
They arrived just as the school clock rang out nine o'clock. Finding a secluded corner of the common room, Harry listened intently as Hermione, then Ron, and finally Ginny recounted their experiences from the last two days.
Harry found he was more interested in how his friends had felt as they faced unknown magic, than he was in the magic itself. He tried diligently not to interrupt, but when Ron began to describe some of the experiments he had done with the single unicorn hair from his broken wand, Harry held up his hand.
"Do you think you could have done more if you had more unicorn hair?" he inquired.
"I thought about that. But the only place I knew I could get unicorn hair was in the forbidden forest...and...well...there are things in there I'd rather not see." He went a shade paler, making his freckles stand out even more pronouncedly.
Harry retrieved his sack from the floor at his feet. After a bit of rummaging, he pulled the hank of unicorn hair from inside. Each hair shone blindingly white in the fire-lit common room.
"Blimey Harry!" exclaimed Ron. "I knew I could never afford to buy unicorn hair. Do you have any idea how much it costs?" Ron looked longingly at the bundle but appeared reluctant to touch it.
"I spent time in the forest, remember?" said Harry in hurried explanation. "I collected these from brambles and bushes. Would they help with your experimentation?" He proffered the hair to Ron.
Ron seemed to shrink from the hair. "I don't want to responsible for that! Think of what it's worth!"
"Oh, I see," said Harry in mock hurt. "You are willing to watch out for my neck tomorrow morning but watching out for a few strands of hair is too much."
Ginny sniggered. Hermione covered her smile with her hand and turned away. Finally Ron laughed. "O.K.," he said. "I'll take them. Maybe I can come up with something for the D.A. meeting." He took the hair and carefully pushed into his inner robe pocket.
"Well I'm glad that's settled," said Hermione, "because I'd like a little time with Ronald before I go to bed." Ron blushed scarlet. Hermione pulled him from the sofa and led him to the fireplace. Ginny snuggled next to Harry.
"Finally," she said with a sigh, "I get a few minutes alone with you, well practically alone." She added as she glanced around those still up and about the common room.
"I want you to know that it was only the thought of you that kept me going many times," said Harry. "I always kept you in the forefront of my mind as a reward for completing the things I had set for myself."
"A little self-centred aren't you?" asked Ginny. "Offering me as a reward without consulting me?"
"I didn't mean...I didn't want it to sound like...I just missed you terribly," stuttered Harry.
Ginny turned her hard glower into a smile and kissed him. "I was only kidding. It's just going to take me a while to mind-surround the fact that you've endured over a year of separation while I only see it as a few days. I don't want this to sound trite Harry, but thank you for what you have put yourself through. No one will ever know what you have done, what you have given up, what you have been through, to become good enough to face Voldemort." She shuddered at the name and then she kissed him again.
He pulled Ginny into a cuddle, and they sat watching the fire lick its way through the logs on the grate. Although he had dreamed about spending time talking with Ginny about past events and future plans, he found just holding her close was all he needed. It was nearly midnight, and the last log had crumbled to embers, when Harry finally made motions to stir.
"Do we have to?" implored Ginny.
"We'd better call it a night," said Harry. "I don't want to, but otherwise we will face the wrath of the prefects."
"I don't know about that," said Ginny motioning to where Ron and Hermione sat snuggling, only their backs visible. Her expression softened. "It's so good to see them together. I just wish they hadn't been such prats all these years. They could have been so happy." She turned to look Harry full in the face. "You know they'll probably be married soon, particularly if they don't finish their last year at Hogwarts. They are both seventeen and able to make adult commitments."
Harry looked at the back of Ron's and Hermione's heads as he considered Ginny's comment. "You're probably right," he finally admitted. "We'll have to see how they act at Bill and Fleur's wedding. It might give them ideas."
Harry thought for a moment that Ginny looked disappointed at his agreement with her sentiment, but the cloud passed quickly. Immediately he wondered if he had imagined it.
He dismissed the thought as Ginny pulled him to his feet. "Prefects or not," she said. "Tomorrow morning you are going to face a serious house elf. You need your rest. I insist." Drawing him by the hand to the bottom of the girl's dormitory stairs, she kissed him and disappeared.
Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione one last time and headed to his dormitory. Ron's four-poster was still empty. Capricio was with Hagrid. Ginny was in an off-limits dormitory. Even the regular breathing of his dorm mates didn't salve Harry's feeling of being completely alone in the world.
Harry awoke from uncomfortable dreams. As he came aware of his surroundings, he jerked with a start. Ron was sitting on the edge of the bed staring at him.
"What?" asked Harry a bit more aggressively than he had intended.
"I didn't want to wake you," said Ron sheepishly. "I waited for you to wake up on your own. I've been thinking all night. I need a favor from you."
Harry looked suspiciously at him. His friend looked as though he had had a very rough night. Red hair in disarray, a sheen of sweat on his brow, and face so pale that his freckles stood out like strawberries, made Ron the picture of discouragement. A sickening thought crossed Harry's mind and he silently made the D.A. sign. Ron sighed and returned the correct sign. Harry relaxed a measure.
"What exactly is the favor?" asked Harry tentatively. Even though he wanted to mend the schism between himself and Ron, he wasn't too keen on the idea of Ron sitting on his bed, watching him sleep.
Ron seemed to catch the drift and got hurriedly to his feet. "It's just that I didn't want you to get away to breakfast before we had a chance to talk," said Ron in a rush. "I need you to put off the practice session with Winky this morning."
"Are you daft?" asked Harry. "Winky is willing to help me perfect my defence skills. House elf magic is an incredible force. I need to see if what I have learned stacks up against it."
"I know why you are doing it," said Ron. "I'm not asking you to cancel, just postpone. I need you to trust me."
Harry considered the short time available to him at Hogwarts. Only four more days remained of the term. The Hogwarts Express would be departing Saturday to take them all back to London. His first inclination was to deny Ron's request, but he decided he needed more information.
"You're going to ask this without giving me a reason?" questioned Harry.
"I've nothing right now that I can show you," explained Ron. "By the end of the day, by D.A. practice time, I should have some answers. Just trust me."
The plaintive, prove-me, quality of Ron's request finally convinced Harry. He decided to place his trust in Ron. Swinging his feet out of bed he put them on the cold floor.
"Winky," he said to thin air.
Immediately a loud pop announced the elf's arrival. "Winky is here," squeaked the elf. "Is Harry Potter wanting to start practice early?"
"No," said Harry. "In fact I'm going to have to move our session to tomorrow morning. Ron and I have some things to do before you and I have our go."
Winky looked distinctly disgruntled and mumbled something reminiscent of Kreacher under her breath. She turned her great brown eyes on Harry. "Harry Potter is not thinking of backing down on our agreement is he? Harry Potter is not giving up on his goal?"
The look on the house elf's face caught Harry by surprise. "No Winky, you've got the wrong end of it. I'm not backing down. I just need a bit more time to prepare. I want our time to be as productive as possible."
Winky's hard look did not soften. "Very well. Winky can wait until tomorrow." She disappeared abruptly.
"That goes to prove my point," said Ron. "Dobby's warning had at me all night. I think that Winky isn't quite balanced. Frankly I'm worried for your safety."
Harry was touched by his friend's concern. "Well in that case. It gives me one more day to prepare. I'll discuss it with Lupin this afternoon."
Ron seemed placated and threw a pile of clothing at Harry. "Get dressed. Ginny made me promise to see to it that you have breakfast with her. No more sneaking off to avoid her."
"Her words not mine," said Ron as he dodged Harry's shoe.
Harry dressed quickly, washed his face in the bedside basin, and followed Ron to the common room. Ginny and Hermione were waiting almost shoulder-to shoulder blocking the passageway to the Fat Lady's portrait.
"Making sure no one under an invisibility cloak gets by you, eh?" said Harry astutely.
"Bloomin' right," said Ginny. "You've sneaked out the last two mornings and I want some time with you before I get back to my O.W.L.s. Yesterday was a torment, thanks for asking."
Harry blanched. "I'm sorry I haven't helped you. I remember very well how strenuous the tests are. I should have thought more about you. It's just that so many thing have been hap..."
Ginny cut off his rambling with a kiss. "It will help me a lot just to have breakfast with you. Did Ron talk you out of the mini-murder session with Winky?"
"Yes...hey...how did you know he was going to do that this morning?" asked Harry, smelling collusion.
Hermione put her hands on Harry's shoulders, and in a tone used to calm a child she began, "Ginny came back down last night after you went to bed. We discussed..." She put her hand over Harry's mouth. "...we discussed our concern about Winky, given Dobby's warning. We all want to be there when the practice takes place. Ginny has tomorrow morning free. Her written Astronomy test is in the afternoon and the practical is at midnight. Ron has first hour free, and I am going to skive off Ancient Runes so we can all be there tomorrow."
"So this was all an elaborate plot?" said Harry a bit nettled, but amazed none the less at Hermione's willingness to skip any class.
"Not exactly," said Ginny. "We just care as much about you as you do about us."
Harry's arguments evaporated. His heart swelled at his friends' concern. "Thanks," he said examining the worn carpet.
"Enough sentimental stuff," said Ron. "I'm starved. Harry would you please escort us to the Great Hall so we can eat something...anything!"
Harry smiled at his friends. "Let's get going. I want to hear about the Creevey brothers on the way. No one ever explained what they've been up to."
As he searched for any dangers, Harry listened; first to Hermione and then to Ron as they explained that the Creevey brothers had started their own secret organization years ago. "They have been working on potions in particular," said Ron. "Colin liked the potion to make photos move. It went from a hobby to a bit of a mania. It seems that they uncovered the directions for making Felix Felicis and decided to have a go at it unaided."
"Remember what Slughorn told us," said Hermione "...desperately tricky to make, and disastrous to get wrong"... well, it appears they got something wrong. They were brewing it in the secret passage behind the mirror on the fourth floor when they caved in the tunnel."
"Fred and George told me that tunnel got blocked over two years ago," said Harry in disbelief.
"Haven't you been listening," chided Ginny. "They've been doing this on their own and they have been doing it for years."
"No wonder they are in Gryffindor," offered Harry.
"Exactly," said Hermione. "Anyway, they decided to go back and try and salvage some of the potion or at very least some of the ingredients. That's when Dennis got burned and Colin got pulled inside the potion's sphere. I've talked with Slughorn and he said that, wrongly mixed, Felix Felicis could become self-protective. I didn't realize just what that meant until you explained facing the magic in the Chamber of Secrets. Dennis and Colin are very lucky."
"Felix is supposed to be lucky," said Ron in dark humor. "Now I'm lucky. We're finally able to get something to eat."
Harry watched as Ron dived into one of the benches lining the long tables and started pulling every dish he could reach toward himself. Within seconds, his plate was piled high with fried potatoes, kippers, bacon, eggs, bangers and mash, and as if those weren't enough; he had a porringer full of hot meal and a bowl of cold cereal and cream pulled next to his plate. Ron began to eat with obscene abandon.
Harry seated himself across the table and watched the spectacle. "Hungry, are we?" he finally asked as Ron drained a huge glass of milk. Ginny sniggered.
Between mouthfuls, Ron said unabashedly, "I'm still growing. I need feeding up."
"Ronald stop it," said Hermione in a stern whisper. He ignored her.
Harry smiled even more broadly, but as Ron continued to wolf down more food, a sudden thought crossed Harry's mind. His smile faded. He could only remember being that hungry a couple of times in his life. He looked at Ron and wondered. "Couldn't be," he muttered under his breath.
"What couldn't be?" asked Ginny, who was pointedly ignoring Ron's gastric performance.
"Nothing," said Harry. "I was just thinking out loud. Please pass the toast and marmalade."
Harry ate in silence, watching in awe, as Ron ate three meals worth of food before he seemed sated.
"Would you like seconds?" asked Hermione.
"No, I think I'm good," said Ron, stretching luxuriously and obviously missing the sarcasm.
"Come on Ginny," said Hermione tersely. "You've got your Transfiguration O.W.L. and I need to get to Ancient Runes. Let's find an escort."
Harry had only time to squeeze Ginny's hand before Hermione pulled her from the table.
"See you at lunch," said Ron hopefully.
"I don't know if I want to eat lunch with a human vacuum," said Hermione as she pulled Ginny from the hall.
"What was that about?" asked Ron in bewilderment.
"You're kidding?" asked Harry.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Ron as he pocketed a pear from a bowl of fruit. Harry stared at him. "What?" he asked and then saw Harry was looking at where the pear had disappeared into his robe pocket. "For later, in case I get peckish," he explained.
Harry shook his head, and made a mental note to keep an eye on Ron. "Let's go to the Room of Requirement and practice. We have over an hour before our first class," offered Harry.
"You go ahead," said Ron. "I have something to do in the dormitory."
"You are kidding this time, aren't you?" asked Harry, exasperation creeping into his voice.
"No, it's really important, what I've got to do," said Ron as he got up and left the hall behind Professor Flitwick.
Harry stared at Ron's retreating back, trying to grasp what had just happened.
"Wotcher Harry," said Dennis Creevey as he took the seat opposite. "I wanted to say thanks. The way Madam Pomfrey tells it, my brother owes his life to you."
"More to Madam Pomfrey than me, I think," said Harry turning a bit pink.
"Don't be modest," said Dennis. He leaned close and whispered, "Colin and I, and a few other Gryffindors, have been trying to break into that magic for over a year. You did it in your first attempt. Can you teach us how?"
"If we have time," said Harry. "How is Colin doing? The last time I saw him he was still feeling poorly."
Madam Pomfrey has almost got him sorted," said Dennis excitedly. "He's up and about, but he does look the wretch, covered in orange paste. She said he'd be out of hospital by this evening. No D.A. practice though. She particularly fierce about that."
"Well, he's welcome to watch. He's earned a bit of time off don't you think?" asked Harry.
"He's not one to sit and rest," said Dennis. "He's been working out some new magic of his own."
"What kind of new magic?" asked Harry with interest.
"He's been working on potions and has begun to specialize in dry mixtures," explained Dennis. "He's found new solutions, pardon the pun, to old problems."
Harry's mind was immediately drawn to the dried potion protecting Snape's diary. "I'd like to talk to Colin about what he's accomplished. Maybe we could trade information."
"He's pretty guarded about what he's discovered," said Dennis a bit evasively, "but for someone who saved his life, he may bend a bit. You know he's always idolized you. When we started our group, I asked him to invite you to join. He said you were too advanced for our lot."
"It appears he was wrong about that," said Harry showing his bluish hands to Dennis. "I intend to learn from every source possible. How are you doing?"
Dennis held up his bandaged hands. "As well as can be expected. I'm thankful this happened here at Hogwarts. Madam Pomfrey is amazing. She's been an inspiration to me. I've decided to pursue healing as a career."
"Good for you," said Harry energetically. "We need more healers." He got up from the table. "I'll see you tonight at the D.A. meeting."
"Wouldn't miss it," said Dennis as he waved goodbye to Harry.
The reference to dried potions had started Harry thinking about all his unfinished business. He headed back to his dormitory. Once there, he took out the heavy silver locket and turned it over in his hands. It gave no hint of magic. "Capricio didn't show any concern for the locket. He can sense things I can't. How thick was I to miss that clue?"
"What's that Harry?"
He jumped in surprise. He had thought himself alone in the room, assuming his dorm mates had left for breakfast or classes.
Neville appeared from the far side of his bed. His four-poster's hanging curtains had obscured him from view.
"Sorry I thought I was alone," said Harry as his heart settled back to its normal rate. "I was just pondering how to tell if this locket hides a magic secret."
"May I see it?" asked Neville.
"Yes," said Harry tentatively. "But don't touch it with anything magic. If it holds what I think it does, it could react violently." Harry handed over the locket.
Neville examined the locket closely. "Have you weighed it?" he asked nonchalantly.
"What do you mean weighed it?" asked Harry with interest.
"Well I suppose it would work with a locket," began Neville. "It does in herbology. When you work with magical plants, you have to consider a standard weight per volume. Magic has a detectable weight. You can tell just how potent a sample is by weighing it and comparing it to the accepted standard."
"Easy for you to say," said Harry in admiration.
"No really. Just determine the volume of the locket. You say it is silver, so compare the weight of that volume of silver with the locket. If the locket weighs more, it either contains something heavier than silver, or it contains magic. If it weighs less it may be hollow. I can help if you'd like," offered Neville.
Harry looked at Neville in amazement. "Yes, please," he said in excitement.
"Do you want to try now? Defence Against the Dark Arts is over an hour away."
"Thanks," said Harry. "I'd really appreciate the help. I'd never thought to use the herbology process."
Harry conjured a table and placed the locket in the centre. "What do we need?"
"I think I have just about everything we need in my herbology kit," said Neville. He pulled out brass scales and a beaker with fine graduated markings. Then he went to his bedside table and picked up the water jug.
"What's that for?" asked Harry with interest.
"In case we get thirsty," said Neville, and then he smiled.
Harry realized that Neville was having him on and he laughed.
"We need the water to determine the volume of silver," said Neville patiently.
Harry watched as Neville, tongue between teeth, painstakingly poured the water into the beaker. "Now we submerge the locket. The amount of water it displaces gives us the volume." He carefully lowered the locket into the water. Taking a scrap piece of parchment, he calculated the difference between beginning and ending readings. "Now all we have to do is pop down to the library and find out the volume of silver per ounce."
"Give me a minute," said Harry as Neville made to get up. He reviewed several texts in his mind's-eye library. He came up with the figure and gave it over to Neville.
"Are you sure?" asked Neville in surprise. At Harry's nod, Neville set the scale and removed the locket from the beaker. He dried it on his robes and placed it on the scale. The needle balanced to zero.
"That," said Neville pointing to the needle, "would indicate that you have a heavy silver locket here. No magic. Does that help?"
"It helps but it means that I have more work to do." Harry slumped in his chair.
Neville began to gather his things. Harry reached out and placed his hand on his friend's arm. "Thanks, you're a genius. In ten minutes you solved a problem that has plagued me for months. You may well have saved my life."
Neville blushed and dismissed the compliment. When he had his things in his bag, he excused himself from the room.
Harry sat in deep contemplation of the locket gleaming on the table in front of him. He picked it up. "So you're not a Horcrux either? Now what?"