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Misjudgement

By Eliška Suchánková

Adventure / Mystery

Misjudgement

So it was finally here. The time had come for Harry to leave Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for good. Whether the school would open again next year or not, Harry had already decided that he would no longer be a part of it, seeking instead to fight the evil that had lately reached such unprecedented dimensions. And so he now stood facing the castle where he had spent the better part of the last six years, his vision slightly misty, his hand unconsciously clutching the fake Horcrux in his pocket, and his mind swirling with emotions and memories. It seemed like yesterday when he, an uncertain boy of eleven, who had only recently found out that he was actually a wizard, first set his eyes on the majestic building, and yet so many things have happened since then, both good and bad, but all worth remembering.

Now, however, it was all over. All those years, Harry had positively dreaded the moment when he would have to say goodbye to the only place which he had ever considered his home, but never, not even in his wildest dreams, did he imagine that he would leave under such dreadful circumstances. Even now, after the funeral, he still found it somewhat difficult to come to terms with the fact that Dumbledore, the man who always gave off the impression that he would be around forever, was gone. He knew he was being silly, but he simply couldn't shake off the feeling that every second Dumbledore would place a hand on his shoulder and, with his usual twinkle in the eye, tell him that it had all been just a joke, a somewhat cruel one, yes, but a joke none the less. And Harry would instantly forgive him, simply because he would be happy just to see him alive.

But this was not to be. Dumbledore was dead, and there was only one person to blame for that.

Severus Snape.

Oh, if only words could express just how much hatred Harry currently felt towards the man! True, he and Snape had taken a mutual dislike to each other ever since Harry had first entered Snape's classroom, and their enmity only increased with every passing year, reaching an all time high after Sirius Black's death, but that was still nothing compared to what Harry felt towards his former teacher now. Come to think of it, he now loathed him even more than Voldemort, and that was certainly saying something. Perhaps he should make it his priority to find Snape first, make him pay for everything he had done and possibly even for what he hadn't done, and only then begin his hunt for the remaining four Horcruxes. After all, it would be much easier without Snape crossing his path all the time. Easier ... yet still nearly impossible.

Harry heaved a deep sigh; from whichever angle he looked at it, it seemed certain that there were some very difficult times ahead of him. If only Dumbledore were here to help him... But no, he would have to rely mostly on himself from now on. Which was just as well, because he was already sick of people sacrificing their lives just so he could live. It was highly unfair, and he planned to put an abrupt stop to it. Which meant that he would finally have to grow up, and start facing things like the man that he very nearly was.

Giving the Hogwarts castle one last, affectionate look, as if trying to imprint its appearance into his memory, he slowly turned around to face the two people quietly standing nearby, patiently waiting for him to join them. They were Ron and Hermione, Harry's best friends. Harry often wondered whether he would still be alive if it hadn't been for them. And though he would never admit it, least of all in front of them, he knew he would need their help more than ever now that Dumbledore was no longer here to give him advice. That, however, definitely didn't mean that he would let them get involved in anything dangerous. No way. He knew they would follow him anywhere if he asked them to (and, knowing them, even if he didn't ask them to), but this time he was determined to undertake every errand that smelt even slightly of danger completely alone. Even if that meant leaving his friends behind immobilized by a full Body-Bind. Yes, even that. For Harry would rather die than see one of them get hurt.

He endowed them both with a fond look. "I think I'm ready now," he told them gravely. "Let's go. The train's waiting."

Ron and Hermione both nodded mutely, and they all set off towards the castle entrance to get their trunks.

Once there, they found the Entrance Hall quite deserted; most of the students must have already left for the train station. The only person present was the caretaker, Mr Filch, who eyed them all in his usual suspicious manner, as if he felt certain that the only reason why they had come was to cause mischief. Mrs Norris sat at his feet, regarding them in much the same fashion.

Harry felt a wave of nostalgia sweep over him. He would never have thought it possible, but with the way he was feeling now, he had a strong hunch that he would miss even Filch and his cat. He was almost outside now, but on a sudden spur he turned around and retraced his steps until he was standing right in front of the caretaker.

"Goodbye, Mr Filch," he said quietly. "Goodbye, Mrs Norris."

Filch gave him a bewildered look, as if he couldn't quite decide which one of them was mad. Mrs Norris hissed at him.

Not really expecting a different reaction, Harry simply shrugged, grabbed his trunk and walked through the open castle gates to join Ron and Hermione outside.

"All right, mate?" asked Ron sympathetically.

"I guess so, yeah," said Harry. "It's just that ... I'm really going to miss Hogwarts."

"So are we," Hermione assured him. "But after we finish Voldemort off," (Harry was proud to see that Ron didn't even flinch at the sound of the Dark Lord's name any more) "we can always come back and continue where we left off, can't we?"

"Sure ... if we're not dead," muttered Harry darkly. Or, rather, if I'm not dead, he mentally corrected himself. Because Hermione and Ron wouldn't even get close to Voldemort, let alone finish him off, he would make sure of that.

Hermione threw him a reproving look. "Harry, you mustn't-"

"Still," Harry continued as if he hadn't heard her, "it will never be the same again. Not after ... you know..." He trailed off, Dumbledore's death still too fresh in his mind to discuss it freely.

Ron and Hermione nodded understandingly; they knew only too well what Harry was talking about. Neither of them, however, could think of a way to continue the conversation, and so they spent the rest of the journey to the train station in silence. It was only when they had boarded the Hogwarts Express, and Ron and Hermione had returned from their prefect duties to join Harry in an empty compartment (which he had obtained only after explaining to Neville, Ginny and Luna, who had automatically come to sit with him, that he'd rather be alone for a while) that Harry decided to unburden his most immediate plan of action to them.

"I want to find Snape," he declared heatedly. "I want him out of the way before I do anything else. I won't find peace until that bastard gets what he deserves."

"That's all very well, Harry," said Hermione reasonably, "but how do you plan to find him? For all we know, he could be practically anywhere."

Harry nodded. "That's true, but I don't need to find his hiding place. At least not directly. Unless he plans to keep himself hidden from the entire world, there will always be someone, besides Voldemort, with the knowledge of his whereabouts. All I have to do is get them to tell me."

Hermione regarded him in a speculative way. "Have you got any particular person in mind?" she asked finally.

"Yes," said Harry earnestly. "I think Narcissa Malfoy should know. After all, she got Snape to make an Unbreakable Vow, so they must be pretty good pals."

"So you are just going to walk up to Narcissa Malfoy and ask her about Snape's hiding place?" inquired Ron disbelievingly. "And you think she's going to tell you? I doubt that, mate. Even she's not that stupid."

"I know she's not," said Harry. "That's why I plan to learn Legilimency. Then I'll be able to read the answer in her mind."

Ron and Hermione both looked stunned.

"Legilimency?" repeated Ron. "Isn't that the thing that Snape used on you last year? How the hell do you want to learn that? You gave up even that other thing, Occlumency or whatever, because you said it was too hard."

"It was," agreed Harry. "But only because I wasn't sufficiently motivated. I didn't really want to learn it. But I think I've got heaps of motivation now, wouldn't you say?"

"All right," said Hermione, "but what are you going to do if Narcissa doesn't know where Snape is? What if Snape and Voldemort decide not to take any risks, and don't tell anyone? From what I've heard, the Minister is pretty eager to get his hands on Snape since his disappearance from Hogwarts. All his men are out looking for him. Maybe Voldemort will want to play it safe for a while, and keep Snape hidden until the worst is over. He wouldn't want to lose such an important ally so easily."

Harry frowned; he had to admit he hadn't really considered such an option. "Well, in that case I'd be doomed, wouldn't I?" he conceded with a wry smile. "But I think you're wrong, Hermione. Knowing Snape, he won't stay idle for long. People might start calling him a coward if he did, and he can't stand that. You should've seen him; he nearly went berserk when I accused him of being a coward just before he Disapparated from Hogwarts. No, I think we'll hear about him soon enough. All we have to do is keep reading the Daily Prophet; it's only a matter of time before they mention his name in connection with some Death Eater attack. And when they do, I'm going straight to Narcissa."

"No, you're not," said Hermione firmly. "You have to wait until you come of age. You can't do magic before then."

Harry sighed in exasperation; Hermione really was a terrible perfectionist sometimes. But, as much as he hated to admit it, she did actually have a point this time. "All right, all right," he renounced. "I'll wait for my birthday, even if it means losing heaps of precious time, and then I'll go and see Narcissa. Happy?"

Hermione seemed satisfied. Ron, on the other hand, looked thoughtful. "But Harry," he began uncertainly, "how are you going to find Narcissa? You don't know where she lives."

But Harry had already thought about this. "No, I don't," he admitted confidently. "But your Dad does. I just need to ask him."

"Oh, right," muttered Ron, obviously ashamed of not having figured it out himself.

"OK, let's say Narcissa's going to reveal Snape's hiding place to you," resumed Hermione speculatively. "Let's even say you are going to corner Snape. But what then? What are you going to do with him? Have you thought about that at all? You don't mean to do anything rash, do you? Perhaps if you just turned him over to the Ministry..."

"No, Hermione," said Harry resolutely. "If they can't find him themselves, then I'm definitely not going to help them. As long as they're arresting innocent people like Stan Shunpike, I refuse to have anything to do with them. Snape is going to be my prisoner, and I plan to transfer him to Godric's Hollow and keep him locked up in a cellar or something until the war is over. Then we'll see."

He gave Hermione an expectant look, hoping for her to express some kind of approval concerning his plan, which he personally was rather proud of (after all, he would resist such tempting things as murdering or torturing Snape, which certainly wasn't easy), but Hermione seemed to have got lost in thought. Harry felt a little disappointed, but he soon found compensation in a heated game of Exploding Snap with Ron. After all, who could blame him for having a bit of fun? It might as well be the last time, because once he got off the train, there would hardly be any room left for joking around. And so he tried to make the most of it by pretending that, at least for the next couple of hours, there was no Voldemort, no Snape, no dead Dumbledore, no fake Horcrux ... in fact, that there was absolutely nothing except for him, Ron, and their pack of cards. And maybe also Hermione, who chose that very moment to snap out of her reverie and return Harry to the world of harsh reality with sadistic abruptness.

"I've been thinking, Harry," she declared pensively, looking somewhat worried, as if the results of her musings didn't please her at all.

Harry reluctantly glanced up from his game. "So I've noticed," he returned sarcastically, hoping that Hermione would come to realize that she still owed him an opinion of his plan.

To his considerable chagrin, Hermione ignored him. "You know how you said that Snape seemed quite put out when you called him a coward," she went on doggedly, "well, what exactly did he say?"

Harry frowned, trying hard to remember. "Well," he began uncertainly, silently wondering why Hermione had brought up such a random subject in the first place, "he just yelled at me not to call him a coward. And he seemed absolutely livid, as if it offended him or something. Can't see why it should, though. He is a coward. And a stinking murderer, too."

"Maybe," said Hermione, "but don't you think his reaction was a bit strange for someone who had just commited cold-blooded murder? Why didn't he just ignore you and Disapparate straight away? Why did he linger and get all worked up by your insult, especially if he evidently deserved it?"

"How am I supposed to know what goes on in a murderer's mind?" snapped Harry, who didn't like what Hermione was hinting at one bit. "Maybe, for some twisted reason which only he understands, he considered killing Dumbledore a heroic deed or something. He thought he did the world a great favour, and instead he got called a coward. Wouldn't that give him the right to get his ginger up?"

"I suppose so," conceded Hermione thoughtfully, apparently oblivious to the biting sarcasm in Harry's voice. "But if he really is as mad as you make him out to be, why did he let you off so easily? Why didn't he kill you when he had the chance?"

"Because he had orders from Voldemort to leave me alone," said Harry triumphantly. "I heard him say so. He didn't even let those friends of his use Crucio on me. "

To Harry's disbelief, however, Hermione didn't seem at all deterred by this piece of information ... on the contrary. "Did he really do that?" she asked, looking as though she had just discovered a gold mine. "But Harry, that only proves what I've been trying to say! Can't you see? Snape was, as always, trying to protect you! Yes, Voldemort might have asked his Death Eaters to leave you alone, but I believe that only meant that they shouldn't kill you. Or do you really think he would specifically order them to handle you with kid gloves? I doubt it. In any case, Snape could have effed what his fellow Death Eaters were doing with you, and simply concentrated on his own escape. But he didn't. Doesn't that tell you something?"

"Yes," said Harry curtly. "It tells me that he was taking maximum care to fulfill Voldemort's orders to the letter, seeing as he was put in charge of the mission, and it would therefore be he who'd get punished if anything went wrong. So he didn't take any risks. Anyway, Hermione, what the hell are you trying to prove? Snape killed Dumbledore, for god's sake! What else would he have to do to stop you from defending him?"

"Yeah, Hermione," Ron chimed in. "Not all teachers are saints, you know. Just remember Quirrell. Or Barty Crouch jr. Or Umbridge. Or even Lockhart, come to think of it."

"But Snape taught us for six years!" exclaimed Hermione, now looking almost desperate. "And despite what most people say, I think he was a good teacher. Not to mention that he constantly went out of his way to save Harry's life. He didn't have to bother, did he? He could have just minded his own business, like all the other teachers. But he didn't." She took a deep breath, as if to calm herself. "Look, I'll tell you what I think. I think Snape killed Dumbledore because he had no other choice. It was either that, or having to face a certain death that would await him if he didn't meet the conditions of the Unbreakable Vow. Dumbledore knew this. He knew one of them had to die, and he decided that it would be him. There was not much he could do for the Order any more, he was getting old and weak, whereas Snape was in a position where he could obtain plenty of invaluable information, especially after disposing of Dumbledore, because then Voldemort would trust him like never before. And so Dumbledore asked Snape to kill him. Snape probably agreed, but then he must have got seconds thoughts, because Hagrid overheard a quarrel in which he told Dumbledore that he wouldn't do it. Evidently he was referring to Dumbledore's earlier request. But Dumbledore must have convinced him in the end, because we know what happened then. By the way, Harry, did either Snape or Dumbledore say anything when they came face to face at the Astronomy Tower?"

Harry, who had been meaning to interrupt Hermione's heated monologue for quite some time already, knew his chance had come at last. "Yes," he replied, absolutely positive that what he would say next would bring Hermione's absurd theories crashing down like a badly built house during an earthquake. "Dumbledore asked Snape to spare him. He said Severus... Severus, please... But Snape just gave him this look full of hatred, and then..."

Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It pained him to have to once again live through that terrible moment, but from previous experience he knew he would feel much better once he shared his sorrow with someone else. So why not do it now? He had already waited long enough.

He took another deep breath and looked Hermione squarely in the eyes. "And then he killed him," he finished malignantly. "Just like that. Without a single word. Do you still think it had all been planned in advance, Hermione? Are you still going to create excuses for that filthy, cold-hearted bastard, who had barely hesitated before uttering the Killing Curse that sent Dumbledore flying off the Astronomy Tower as if he were nothing more than a rag doll?"

He glared at Hermione, as if daring her to oppose him. He noticed that she now looked close to tears. When she finally spoke, however, it was with an air of conviction and silent determination.

"Only because he had no choice, Harry," she said quietly. "Didn't you say there were about four other Death Eaters up at the Astronomy Tower? Don't you think they would've instantly smelled something fishy if Snape hadn't acted straight away, if he had hesitated? Then the whole plan would've gone right into pieces, wouldn't it?"

"Provided there was such a plan to begin with," retorted Harry darkly, slowly losing his patience. What was the matter with Hermione? Was it so hard for her to accept that she was, for once, completely off the track? Why did she keep defending Snape (of all people!) so vehemently? He didn't want to lose his temper with her, but with the way she was going... Well, he would have to convince her before she got too far.

He took yet another deep breath, this time to compose himself. "You didn't see Snape's face, Hermione," he resumed with forced calmness. "I've never seen it so full of loathing, not even when Sirius was around. If, as you say, Snape was about to kill Dumbledore only because Dumbledore had asked him to, he might as well have kept his expression neutral, don't you think? It would have made no difference to the Death Eaters. They simply wanted Dumbledore dead without further delay."

"Oh, no doubt they did," sighed Hermione, looking unusually dejected all of a sudden. "But I think I can explain Snape's expression all the same. You see, I have a strong feeling that the hatred you saw in his face wasn't aimed at Dumbledore, but at himself. Imagine how you would feel if you had to murder someone whom you admire and respect, someone who gave you a second chance when nobody else would. Wouldn't you feel like murdering yourself instead? Wouldn't you despise yourself for having to do something so abominable? Think about it, Harry."

But Harry didn't want to think about it. "Snape is an unfeeling monster," he said in a low voice. "He's not capable of such emotions as self-loathing. I don't know why you keep sticking up for him, Hermione, but I've had enough of it. I'm never going to forgive him, no matter what you say. Even if he did have a justifiable reason for killing Dumbledore, there's still the fact that he set Voldemort hunting after my parents. And that's something I simply cannot excuse."

"But Harry," urged Hermione softly, "Snape didn't know that the prophecy was referring to you. How could he have? He simply heard something that concerned his master. Naturally, then, he went and told him about it. Of course he shouldn't have been listening behind that door in the first place, but-"

"For god's sake, Hermione!" Harry exclaimed, unable to contain himself any longer. "Now you sound exactly like Dumbledore! And look what happened to him. Snape killed him! Do you want to end up dead as well? Why the hell does everyone keep trusting Snape like he was some sort of saint? Will I always be the only one to see him for what he really is? You know, I'm starting to get sick of this conversation, I really am. Just ... just leave me alone, will you?"

And with that said, he turned away from his friends to look out of the window, thus making it perfectly clear that, until further notice, he didn't wish to be spoken to by either of them.

"Now you've done it," he heard Ron declare in a hushed tone, after which Hermione gave a small sob and whimpered, "I-I was only t-trying to point out that a great injustice was g-going on. Y-you know I can't stand it when somebody is t-treated unfairly."

Harry ignored them. He tried to clear his mind, to forget everything that had been said, but one of Hermione's statements kept ringing in his head, repeating itself again and again like a broken record.

Wouldn't you feel like murdering yourself instead? Wouldn't you despise yourself for having to do something so abominable?

Was it possible that Hermione had been right? That Snape only killed Dumbledore because he had been forced to? That he was now suffering because of what he had done, and was therefore a person to be pitied rather than despised?

Harry closed his eyes and shook his head. What on earth was he thinking? Had Hermione managed to infect him already? Pity Snape indeed! Over his dead body! Snape was a murderer, no matter which way he looked at it, and murderers don't deserve pity. Not even if they kill involuntarily. Because if Snape really had been against Dumbledore's plan, as Hermione seemed to believe, he should have sacrificed himself instead of Dumbledore, like he, Harry, would undoubtedly have done had he found himself in a similar situation. But then, who knows? Hadn't he, only a few days before, promised Dumbledore that he would obey his every order, no matter how nonsensical it may sound? Well, what if Dumbledore had asked him to abandon the cave and leave him behind to die? Would he follow this order too? Would he?

It didn't take long for Harry to realize that he didn't know. He suddenly felt very insecure and unhappy. If only Hermione hadn't started with all those speculations, everything would have been so much easier. But he wouldn't forgive Snape, he wouldn't! Even if Hermione was right about the circumstances surrounding Dumbledore's death, which, personally, he thought she wasn't, there were still enough other things that Snape had done that, added up, gave Harry a sufficient reason to hate the man for the rest of his life. He had indirectly caused Sirius's death. He brought the prophecy to Voldemort. He had given him and his friends hell for six years. He...

Spending the rest of the journey mentally enumerating Snape's crimes, Harry was back to thinking only the worst of his former teacher by the time he got off the train, and so it was really no wonder that his determination to seek him out and deal with him accordingly was now greater than ever. That's why he made it clear to the Dursleys that he wouldn't go home with them until they took him to Diagon Alley, where he hoped to obtain as many books on Legilimency as he could possibly find.

Uncle Vernon, however, was evidently against. "Diagon Alley?" he sputtered. "What sort of nonsense is that? There's no such street in London as Diagon Alley. And even if there was, I wouldn't take you there. As if I didn't have other things to do than drive around London for half a day. So you either get in the car and come straight home with us, or stay here and do whatever you please with yourself. See if I care."

"Oh, you'll care all right," said Ron, who had just arrived together with Hermione, poking a wand in Uncle Vernon's back. Hermione threw Harry a furtive look, as if to check whether he was still angry with her, and then cautiously approached him.

"We've asked our parents, Harry," she began uncertainly, "and they let us come and stay with you until Bill's wedding. Then we can all go to The Burrow together. Is ... is that OK with you?"

Harry stared at her in amazement, too shocked to speak. "Are you kidding me?" he blurted out finally. "Of course it's OK! I admit I didn't really take you seriously when you first suggested it there at the funeral, but ... that's wonderful, Hermione! Thanks!"

Hermione was about to say something in reply, but her voice was completely drowned by Uncle Vernon's angry shouts.

"What do you mean you will make me?" he hollered, trying to push Ron's wand, which was now pointed at his chest, away. "You don't need to bother trying to fool me with your empty threats, because I just happen to know that you are forbidden from doing magic outside that freak school of yours. So put that stick away and bugger off!"

"Actually, I think I'll stay right where I am, thanks," said Ron dispassionately. "You, on the other hand, had better get your fat ass into the car and drive Harry to Diagon Alley before I turn you into something big and disgusting. Even if it would mean doing you something of a favour, because even the ugliest animal is still a hundred times more pleasant to look at than you are."

"How dare you insult me, you ... you freak!" yelled Uncle Vernon, turning an ugly shade of red. "Bugger off, I say, or I'll call the police!"

"Oh, really?" said Ron mockingly. "Well, I'd like to see you try. Tarantallegra!"

A jet of light shot from Ron's wand, and suddenly Uncle Vernon looked as though he was dancing, his legs moving uncontrollably in a kind of quickstep.

"Stop it, stop it!" he shrieked, looking in horror at the group of people who had instantly gathered around him, laughing and pointing. Aunt Petunia burst into tears, while Dudley let out a frightened whimper and made an unsuccessful attempt to hide behind his mother's thin body.

"All right," said Ron in a bored tone, "but first you'll have to promise me to take Harry to Diagon Alley. Then I might consider doing something about your legs."

"Never!" screamed Uncle Vernon, growing redder and redder with rage and humiliation. "You can't do mag-" he glanced around in panic, realizing what he had been about to say and quickly correcting himself, "you can't do you-know-what outside school! They'll come and get you, just you wait!"

"No, they won't," Ron informed him with a smirk. "I'm already of age, I can do whatever I want now. So unless you want to keep dancing for the rest of your life, you'd better do as I say."

"I'd listen to him if I were you, Uncle Vernon," Harry chimed in. "Just swear to take me to Diagon Alley and everything will be all right."

"That's blackmail!" puffed Uncle Vernon, who was already badly out of breath. "I'll have you both arrested for blackmail!"

"No, Vernon, please don't," pleaded Aunt Petunia in a small voice, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Why don't you just do as they say? It won't hurt us to take a little detour."

Uncle Vernon threw his wife a doubtful look, then turned his gaze back to Ron. He seemed to be going through a huge dilemma. "Well ... all right," he choked out finally. "I will take Potter to Dia ... wherever he wants to go. Now make this stop!"

Ron cocked his head to one side. "Do you promise?"

"Yes, yes, just make it stop!"

"Well, if you insist..."

After first making sure that the crowd's attention was fully devoted to Uncle Vernon, Ron pulled out his wand and gave it an inconspicuous wave, whispering Finite Incantatem as he did so. Uncle Vernon immediately stopped dancing, and collapsed onto the pavement in a trembling heap. Aunt Petunia rushed over to help him up. The crowd, evidently realizing that the performance was over, started cheering and clapping, and one man even threw Uncle Vernon some money. Uncle Vernon hesitated, but then his innate greediness must have prevailed, because he picked the coins up and hastily stuffed them in his pocket. Then, with some assistance from Aunt Petunia, he got to his feet and limped over to the car.

"Well, what are you waiting for, Potter?" he snarled, as he threw open the door and sank into the driver's seat. "We haven't got all day."

But Harry had just realized something. "Just ... hold on a minute!" he called back, then quickly turned towards his two friends. "This might seem like a silly question," he said, "but ... have you two thought about how you're going to get to my Uncle's house? Because I'm afraid we can only fit one of you into the car..."

"Oh, no worries, mate," said Ron with a reassuring smile. "My Dad taught me this useful spell..."

He walked over to the car and tapped it with his wand. Nothing happened.

"Um, Ron?" said Harry uncertainly. "Are you sure it works?"

Ron nodded. "Positive. Just open the boot and see what happens when you put your trunk in."

Harry gave him a sceptical look, but in the end did as he was told, and merely stared in amazement as his trunk, which normally occupied almost the whole of the car boot, easily slid in, still leaving enough space for at least another trunk of the same size. Nodding appreciatively, Harry was about to chuck in Hedwig's cage as well, but the sight of the bird made him realize something.

"Hermione, where's Crookshanks?" he asked with disconcertion. "And Ron, what happened to Pig?"

"Don't worry, Harry," said Hermione soothingly, "they're both at The Burrow. Ron's parents offered to take care of them, seeing as you once mentioned that your Aunt can't stand animals."

"That's true," agreed Harry, "but you really didn't have to-"

"No, no, it's fine," Hermione broke in, and, in an obvious attempt to end the conversation, bent down to pick up her trunk, which she then proceeded to lug into the car boot.

"Wait, let me help you with that," exclaimed Ron, and, with exaggerated courtesy, rushed over to assist his friend as she dropped her book-laden trunk in next to Harry's, after which he went to retrieve his own trunk and chucked it in as well. Still, Harry noticed, the car boot remained almost empty. He closed it with a loud snap and went to talk to Uncle Vernon, who obviously still hadn't realized that he would have to accept two extra passengers.

"Well, what took you so long?" Uncle Vernon snapped before Harry could say a single word. "Stop dawdling around and get in the car."

"All right," shrugged Harry. "I just thought you might like to know that Ron and Hermione are coming with us."

Uncle Vernon spun around so fast that Harry feared he might have broken his neck. "No, they bloody aren't!" he exclaimed, turning scarlet with rage again. "As if it wasn't enough that-"

"Oh yes, they bloody are!" said Ron, suddenly materializing at Harry's side and waving his wand in front of Uncle Vernon's face. "Or did you enjoy your dance so much that you feel like repeating it?"

There was a long pause, during which Uncle Vernon tried to – unsuccessfully – murder Ron with his gaze. Then his face suddenly lit up. "I can only take one of you," he announced triumphantly, eyeing Ron with unconcealed malice. "I don't have room for both. One of you will have to stay behind."

He gave Ron a suggestive look, obviously hinting that he should be the one to stay.

"Oh, I don't think that will be necessary," said Ron, confidently walking over to open the back door. "After you, Hermione."

Giving him a toothy smile, Hermione hastily climbed in and seated herself next to Dudley. Ron got in after her and Harry went last, not even surprised any more that the back seat still remained half empty.

"But-" began Uncle Vernon, who looked as though he was about to have a heart attack, but quickly fell silent when Ron threateningly held up his wand. He only dared to speak again when, after some much needed navigation through the London streets by Harry, he successfully parked his car outside the Leaky Cauldron.

"All right, now get out," he snapped irritably. "And you, Potter, don't take long."

Harry obediently climbed out of the car, but Ron and Hermione didn't move.

Uncle Vernon shot them an uneasy look. "What are you two still doing there?" he inquired suspiciously, painfully aware that something was evidently escaping him.

"Oh, I think we'll just stick around until Harry gets back," drawled Ron. "You know, just to make sure you don't leave him here or something."

Uncle Vernon turned red. "Why, you little ... of course we're not going to leave him here! What do you take us for? Just go with him and don't worry about a thing."

"Actually, we'd really rather stay here and keep you company," insisted Ron. "Get to know you and stuff, 'specially as we'll be staying with you for the next couple of weeks..."

"You ... WHAT?" bellowed Uncle Vernon. "There's no bloody way ... you, Potter, get back here right this instant and tell me what this is supposed to mean!"

"What's what supposed to mean?" asked Harry innocently, poking his head back in the car.

"This ... what he just said! That he and the girl will be staying with us!"

"Of course we'll pay for the food," offered Hermione helpfully.

Uncle Vernon ignored her. "I will have no more of you creeps coming into my house!" he yelled, spitting all over his sparkling car window. "Potter's more than enough!"

"It's only for two weeks," said Harry apologetically.

"I don't care!" howled Uncle Vernon. "Even two seconds would be too much! I don't know what makes you think that just because I decided to take pity on your friends by giving them a ride I will also-"

But Ron had evidently had enough. "Silencio!" he said, leisurely flicking his wand.

To the trio's relief and amusement, Uncle Vernon's shouts instantly died away, though his lips still continued to move. Aunt Petunia screamed. Dudley shrank back in his seat, as if hoping for it to swallow him.

Ron looked rather pleased with himself. "There," he said. "I should've done that long ago."

Hermione's expression, however, grew more and more concerned. "I don't know, Ron," she muttered, anxiously watching on as Uncle Vernon kept opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. "Perhaps, instead of sending curses at them all the time, we should try to actually get on with Harry's family. We will be staying in their house for the next two weeks, after all, so we don't really want to have them as enemies."

Ron gave her an aggrieved look. "I didn't start it," he said defensively. "It was him yelling at us all the time. I only tried to make him see reason. But anyway, he deserves what he got. He shouldn't have treated Harry like a piece of dirt all those years."

"Thanks, Ron," said Harry appreciatively. "I'll just go now, then, shall I? You two sure you don't want to come?"

"Oh, I think we'll be fine here," said Ron, giving Uncle Vernon a mischievous wink.

Hermione said nothing, obviously upset that Harry didn't stand up for her. Hoping she would get over it by the time he got back, Harry simply shrugged, slammed the car door shut and hastily set off towards the dingy entrance of the Leaky Cauldron.

As usual, everybody started looking and pointing in his direction as soon as he walked through the door, but Harry no longer paid it any attention. Making his way through the pub as quickly as possible, he soon found himself outside facing the already familiar brick wall, which turned into an archway the moment he tapped the right bricks with his wand. He passed straight through to Diagon Alley, which seemed even more deserted than the last time he had been there. Harry figured that with Dumbledore's death people had lost all remaining sense of security, causing most of them to barricade themselves in their homes to anxiously await the moment when the Death Eaters would come and get them. Sighing, Harry found the handle of his wand in his pocket and quickened his steps, hurrying up the nearly empty street straight towards Flourish and Blotts.

Upon entering the normally busy shop, he was somewhat surprised to discover that he was the only customer. Then again, what did he expect? Anything was possible these days.

"Good day, Mr Potter," bowed the shopkeeper respectfully, as Harry approached the counter. "How may I help you?"

"Well," began Harry uncertainly, not quite sure how the shopkeeper would react to his request, "I was wondering whether you had any books on Legilimency. Some textbooks or something, from which I could learn the spell on my own."

"Learn Legilimency?" the shopkeeper repeated, looking astonished. "But ... what for?"

Harry sighed; he knew it wouldn't be so easy. "I have my reasons," he said curtly, silently wishing that the shop keeper would mind his own business.

"But ... aren't you a bit young to learn such a complicated spell?" the man persisted.

"I'll be seventeen in a month," retorted Harry. "Now, will you please tell me whether you have any books or not? Otherwise I'll go and ask elsewhere."

"Oh no, there's no need to do that," said the shopkeeper hurriedly. "Of course I have some books. Please follow me."

Suddenly a picture of servility, he led Harry to the farthest, darkest corner of the shop, where, it seemed, he kept books which came just short of the Dark Arts. He pointed to one of the shelves.

"This is the Mind Spells section," he informed Harry. "Have a look if you like. I think you should find what you're searching for."

Harry eagerly stepped towards the shelf. Glancing over the titles, he saw that there were books on Telepathy, Oblivion, Occlumency and, to his infinite delight, also Legilimency. He selected several of the heavy volumes and flipped through the pages. Most of the text seemed to deal merely with the actual penetration into another person's mind, and how to make the most of it while avoiding all the possible side-effects, but one or two of the books looked like they were intended for beginners. Harry took both of them, plus one of the more advanced ones, and then followed the shopkeeper back to the counter.

"That will be one hundred and twenty Galleons," said the man, putting the books into a big paper bag, charmed, as Harry later found out, to completely eliminate their weight.

Harry took out his money bag and, to his great annoyance, discovered that he didn't have enough money.

"I'm sorry," he told the shopkeeper with an apologetic smile. "I've only got seventy-five. I'll just pop into Gringotts to withdraw some more, OK? I'll be right back."

And he turned around to walk out of the shop, but the shopkeeper called him back.

"That won't be necessary," he said solemnly. "Just give me what you have and the books are yours."

Harry stared at him. "But ... that will be a huge loss for you!" he exclaimed. "You can't keep a shop going if you let people off like that!"

"With You-Know-Who on the loose, I won't have a shop much longer," said the shopkeeper sadly. "People call you the Chosen One. I suppose they must have a reason for that. If you manage to defeat You-Know-Who, it will be worth much more than just a couple of Galleons."

"It wasn't just a couple," muttered Harry. "It was almost fifty."

"I hope those books will help you with your task, if only a little," continued the shopkeeper, as if he hadn't heard him. "Good luck."

"Thank you," said Harry, finally realizing that the shopkeeper wasn't about to take his offer back. "Thank you for everything."

Giving the shopkeeper his seventy-five Galleons, he took the paper bag, said goodbye, and left the shop. A few minutes later he was already back in the car, showing Ron and Hermione his new books. Ron had obviously managed to talk some sense into Uncle Vernon during his absence, because Uncle Vernon only threw him a dark look when he arrived, and then set off without a single word of protest, even though Ron claimed that he had already been de-silenced. Even Hermione seemed to have got rid of her earlier bad mood, and was now examining Harry's Legilimency books as if they were some sort of precious jewel.

"You know, Harry, I think I will learn Legilimency too," she declared some five minutes later, looking lovingly at a particularly complicated diagram. "You never know when it might come in handy. Plus, I imagine it will be easier for you if you don't study it alone."

Harry gave her a fond look. "Thanks, Hermione. But you really don't have to learn it just because of me."

"Oh, it's not just because of you," Hermione assured him, a maniacal gleam stealing into her eyes. "I really do want to learn it. It will be a challenge, and you know just how much I love challenges."

Harry nodded understandingly; Hermione would probably learn even the phone book by heart if she considered it a big enough challenge.

Ron sighed. "Well, then I suppose I'd better join the club, hadn't I?" he muttered unenthusiastically. "I don't want to feel left out."

Harry looked at him with alarm. "Nobody's forcing you, Ron," he said hurriedly. "We won't think any less of you if you don't study with us."

"Really, no pressure, Ron," Hermione chimed in.

Ron's expression, however, grew determined. "No, I think I really will learn it," he said pensively. "Can you imagine all the advantages, like peeking into a certain someone's mind" (he threw a meaningful look in Dudley's direction) "and getting to know their thoughts? Not that there'll be much to see, mind you, but it could be fun all the same."

Spending the rest of the journey discussing the wonderful possibilities of Legilimency, the trio didn't even notice when Uncle Vernon stopped the car outside the Dursleys' house, and it was only when he impatiently inquired whether they were going to stick around in the backseat until Christmas time that they finally realized that the journey had come to an end. Lugging their trunks out of the car boot, they slowly filed into the house.

"Ah, home, sweet home," sighed Ron, dropping his trunk near the door before proceeding to the living room and glancing around appreciatively. "I was kind of expecting to still see this place in ruins," he declared with a smirk, obviously wallowing in the memory of his last visit to the Dursleys' residence just before the start of Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts, "but those relatives of yours have managed to fix it up quite well, haven't they? Come to think of it, where are they, anyway?"

Harry took a look around, but the Dursleys were nowhere in sight. Harry reckoned they must have already embarked on Uncle Vernon's favourite campaign of pretending that Harry (and in this case also his friends) did not exist.

"Oh, well, doesn't matter," continued Ron leisurely. "As long as they feed me and give me a place to sleep, I don't particularly mind if I don't see any of them for the rest of my stay."

"Speaking of a place to sleep," said Hermione, waltzing into the living room with her trunk floating a couple of feet ahead of her, "could you please show me my room, Harry? Because the sooner we all unpack, the sooner we can get started on Legilimency."

"What?" cried Ron in disbelief. "Do you mean to say that you actually want to start tonight? Are you crazy, Hermione? I'm dead tired! Couldn't it possibly wait until tomorrow?"

"No, Ron, I think Hermione's right," declared Harry, though he didn't sound exactly enthusiastic. "The sooner we start, the better. Come on, I'll show you to your rooms."

Receiving an approving smile from Hermione and a murderous look from Ron, Harry led the way up the stairs. The house was unusually quiet, and Harry soon found himself wondering whether the Dursleys were planning to spend his entire stay locked up in their bedrooms. Reaching the top landing, he took a quick look around, only to catch Dudley eyeing the three of them from behind his bedroom door. As soon as he caught Harry's gaze, however, he let out a frightened squeal and slammed his door shut. Harry smiled. It sure was good having Ron and Hermione in the house.

After everybody had settled down and filled their stomach with whatever they found in the fridge, they met in Harry's room to leaf through all the Legilimency books in order to work out the best way to go about learning this highly difficult branch of magic. Unsurprisingly, Ron got tired of the books very quickly, and could soon be found snoring away on Harry's bed, still cradling one of the volumes in his arms. Hermione, on the other hand, looked determined to master the whole art of Legilimency that very evening.

"The way I see it," she whispered to Harry, lifting her eyes from the book she was holding to throw a disapproving look in Ron's direction, "is that the first thing we must do is learn to empty our minds. Snape was right, it is the key to everything."

"What he didn't know, though, was that it would turn out to be the key to his downfall as well," said Harry vindictively. "But anyway, does the book include any advice as to how I should get my brain to just take a rest for a while? That bastard Snape never told me."

Hermione briskly scanned the pages. "Oh yes, here it is," she announced a couple of seconds later. "There are actually several ways to do it, but I think the easiest one for us would be to simply count."

Harry gave her an uncomprehending look. "Count?" he asked blankly.

Hermione nodded. "Yes, count until your brain gets tired. That's when you reach the right state. Of course, once you get the hang of it, this phase will no longer be necessary, but for the time being..."

Harry shrugged. "OK, let's count, then. Just one more thing, though. What exactly do you do once your brain does actually take leave?"

"Just try to maintain that state for as long as you can, that's all. You see, until you can keep your mind empty for at least a minute, you can't proceed to the next stage."

"Oh, right." Harry instantly realized that it could take weeks before he was able to do what the book was asking him to, but he was determined to practise hard, and maybe manage to cut those weeks down to days. "So, can we start?" he inquired, feeling as though he couldn't afford to lose another moment.

Hermione looked as if nothing could please her more. "Sure, why not? Just close your eyes and start counting."

Harry did as he was told.

One ... two ... three ... four ... god, this feels stupid ... five ... six ... it had better be worth it ... seven ... eight ... nine ... I wonder if Snape also had to do this when he was learning Legilimency ... ten ...eleven...

...a hundred and twenty-one ... a hundred and twenty-two ... a hundred and twenty-three ... a hundred and...

And then it happened. Harry suddenly felt as if his brain had burned out: not only was he unable to continue counting, but, for a moment there, his mind became strangely clear, like someone was standing outside with a Quidditch bat, smashing every thought that tried to enter into a thousand tiny pieces.

Cool, thought Harry. So it really was possible to think about nothing. Unfortunately, it was just then that he also realized that by thinking this he had, in fact, broken the spell. Oh well, he couldn't expect miracles on his first try, could he?

He opened his eyes to check on Hermione, only to be met with a wide smile and an enthusiastic, "I managed, Harry! About ten seconds! It was an amazing feeling, I have to say! Did you have it as well?"

Harry nodded. "For about three or four seconds, yeah. I'm sure I'll manage longer next time, though. Can we have another go straight away?"

Hermione gave him an amused look. "You really are eager to learn this, aren't you? Are you sure you don't need a break?"

"Positive. Can I close my eyes now?"

And so the two of them spent the next hour or so immersed in furious practice, by the end of which Harry could pride himself in being able to empty his mind for a little over ten seconds, while Hermione was on twenty. It was really no wonder, then, that after such an intensive mental exercise Harry was able to enjoy one of the most refreshing slumbers of his life. Perhaps emptying one's mind really wasn't as bad as he had always thought. That's why he continued practising even harder as soon as he opened his eyes the next morning, until finally Hermione had to step in, claiming that going for so long without a break spelled nothing but trouble.

"It could even lead to brain damage, you know," she told him heatedly. "Come on, let's go outside for a while."

"Can I have a break too?" asked Ron hopefully, obviously forgetting that he had only begun with the exercise some ten minutes earlier.

Hermione threw him her best how-can-you-be-so-childish look. "You really don't have to do this if you don't want to, Ron," she declared haughtily. "We've told you before."

Turning slightly pink, Ron lowered his gaze. "No, I ... I do want to do it," he muttered. "It's just-"

"Well, in that case you'd better do it properly," said Hermione sharply. "Otherwise it's no use."

And with that said, she marched briskly out of the room, leaving Ron staring after her, looking unusually dejected.

Harry couldn't help but feel sorry for him. "Look, I'm sure she didn't mean it," he said comfortingly. "Just come outside with me and don't worry about it."

To his surprise, however, Ron shook his head. "No, Harry. She's right. I should do this properly. You just go along, I'll catch up with you later."

Harry gave him a long, searching look. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yeah, just go."

Shrugging, Harry turned on his heel and left the room, but not without turning around for one last time just before he walked out the door. Afterwards he wondered whether he had ever seen Ron looking so depressed.

Still turning the matter over in his mind, he eventually found his way into the garden, where he soon spotted Hermione bending over Aunt Petunia's flowerbeds. Upon his arrival, however, she quickly stood up and endowed him with a somewhat forced smile.

"There you are!" she exclaimed, looking as though she were doing her best to appear happy. "I was already beginning to wonder whether you hadn't secretly returned to practising Legilimency. You really have to be careful not to overdo it, Harry."

Harry smiled. "I'll try. Now, shall we go and sit down somewhere? On the terrace, maybe? Uncle Vernon has a set of really comfy chairs over there."

Hermione gave an absent-minded nod. "OK, sure. Is Ron coming as well?"

Harry couldn't help but notice that her voice sounded slightly higher than usual when she said this. He didn't really have to be a genius to know what was behind it, either.

"No, Ron's not coming," he informed her matter-of-factly, as he led the way to the terrace. "He chose to follow your advice and continue practising."

Hermione threw him a nervous sideways glance. "Oh, did he? That's nice. I just hope I haven't been too harsh with him. I really didn't mean to sound as though I was forcing him."

"Well, he didn't look exactly happy when I left him," said Harry meaningfully, hoping Hermione would get the hint.

Instead of rushing straight off to comfort Ron, however, as Harry had wished, Hermione merely sighed, and then, sounding as though she were convincing herself rather than Harry, said, "Oh, but he'll get over it. After all, I didn't say anything that wasn't true, did I?"

"Well, no," admitted Harry, "but you could have said it a bit more tactfully. You see, Ron is very touchy when it comes to criticism from you."

"Really?" said Hermione edgily. "I've never noticed."

It was obvious that she was lying, but since at that very moment the two of them arrived at the terrace, Harry chose to let it slide. Instead he settled himself in one of the upholstered chairs and tried to collect his racing thoughts. He knew he was absolutely hopeless when it came to feelings, despite his brief romance with Ginny, but he was also sick and tired of having to watch his two best friends suffer. It was as clear as daylight that Hermione and Ron were strongly attracted to each other; they only needed someone to give them a little push. Unfortunately, it so turned out that the only 'someone' who was currently around happened to be he, Harry. Then again, what are best friends for?

He glanced over at Hermione, who was staring off into space and looking far from happy, and then took a deep breath. It was either now or never.

"Look, Hermione," he began cautiously, "you don't have hide anything from me. I know what's going on, OK? I would have to be blind not to notice that you and Ron are crazy about each other. I just don't get what's still keeping you apart. Are you worried that I would be upset or something?"

Hermione didn't answer. In fact, she didn't even look at Harry, being too busy staring into her lap, where her trembling hands were systematically pulling chunks off her best skirt. She seemed to be on the verge of tears.

"So ... so you know," she managed to choke out finally, glancing up momentarily to meet Harry's gaze. "Is it ... is it really so obvious?"

Harry gave her an apologetic smile. "I'm afraid so."

Hermione let out a quiet sob and hid her face in her hands. A moment later, however, she looked up again and, in a voice full of anxiety, asked, "But you ... you don't mind?"

"Mind what?" said Harry. "That you and Ron fancy each other? No, of course not. Why should I? I just wish you'd stop being so silly about it all. Those constant arguments of yours can really drive one crazy, you know. Why don't you just go and get it all sorted out? I think it would make us all feel much better."

Hermione, however, looked bewildered at the very thought. "You think I should go and see Ron?" she repeated dazedly. "Tell him about my f-feelings? But Harry, what if he turns me down? I ... I don't think I could stand that."

"Nonsense, Hermione," said Harry firmly. "Ron adores you, there's no doubt about that. It's actually you I was never quite sure about." He smirked. "Until now, that is."

Hermione managed a weak smile. "But ... are you sure?" she peeped. "About Ron, I mean? Because, you see ... I know it seems like he fancies me, but sometimes I get this feeling that he'd much rather be with someone ... I don't know ... someone better-looking, I suppose ... someone he could actually be proud of having by his side."

Harry shook his head in disbelief. "How on earth can you talk like that, Hermione?" he declared heatedly. "How can you possibly stoop so low as to compare yourself to some dimwitted coquette who spends all day thinking of nothing but her looks? Do you really think Ron would be proud to have someone like that by his side? OK, I know he likes to look at a pretty girl every now and then, but he's definitely not foolish enough to choose one as his partner, for god's sake! He just-"

But Hermione didn't let him finish. "Then why did he go out with Lavender?" she demanded, wiping away a stray tear that was threatening to fall down her cheek. "The head of all coquettes!"

"You really don't know?" asked Harry in amazement. "I thought it was obvious ... especially to you, who always seemed to know everything about other people's feelings. It sort of scared me, actually, the way you knew exactly what Cho was going through after Cedric died..."

"It's not hard to tell what's going on when the matter doesn't concern you ... or at least not directly," sighed Hermione. "Once you get involved, though, you stop being objective. You start seeing things that aren't there, or, maybe even worse, you don't see things that are staring you right in the face. So please tell me, Harry – what was Ron trying to achieve by dating Lavender? Why do it if, as you say, he wasn't really interested ... oh."

Harry smiled. "Seems like you've just saved me an explanation."

Hermione threw him a frustrated look. "How could I have been so stupid!" she exclaimed, shaking her head in disbelief. "When I consider that I've been doing exactly the same thing with Cormac McLaggen... And I was actually so naive as to think that Ron really liked Lavender! Silly, silly Hermione!"

"Oh now, stop insulting yourself," said Harry comfortingly, though at the same time he couldn't help but feel amused by this sudden outburst of emotion so untypical of his usually reserved friend. "It's not the end of the world, you know. Just go and see Ron now and all will be fine, I'm sure."

"Yes ... yes, I think I'll do that," said Hermione, shakily getting up to her feet and taking a few uncertain steps in the direction of the house. Then, however, she stopped and turned back towards Harry, her expression so full of gratefulness that it was almost comical. "I really don't know what I'd do without you, Harry," she proclaimed warmly. "Are ... are you sure you won't mind if Ron and I ... you know ... end up being together? I would understand if you didn't-"

"Hermione," said Harry forcefully, looking his friend straight in the eye, "do you really think I would've spent the last ten minutes persuading you to go and see Ron if I didn't want you to be together? Honestly, what do you take me for?"

Hermione lowered her gaze in shame. "I'm sorry, Harry," she muttered. "It was a stupid question, I know. I ... I'll just go now, shall I?"

And with that said, she trotted out of sight.

Smiling a satisfied smile, Harry leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. It would probably take quite a while before he would get to see either of his two friends again. Come to think of it, he may as well make use of the time and get back to practising Legilimency. He was certain he wouldn't be disturbed.

Sure enough, Ron and Hermione only appeared when the time came to have some lunch, both smiling dreamy smiles and occasionally throwing each other affectionate looks. Normally such an open display of emotions would have made Harry feel sick, but this time he found that he didn't really mind. There was something soothing in seeing other people enjoy their fair share of happiness, especially after Harry had been forced to give his own happiness up. And so he simply endowed the brand new couple with a friendly grin, after which he, with false haughtiness, let them know that "It was about time."

Unsure of how to react to this, Hermione merely beamed at him. Ron stared at his feet for a while, and then casually asked what was for lunch. That was when they all burst out laughing.

Despite Hermione's continuous protests, Harry spent the best part of the next couple of days practising Legilimency like a person possessed, and so it was really no wonder that he was the first of the trio to surpass the required limit of one minute, thus earning himself the priviledge of moving onto the next exercise. In practice, this meant that he was to stare unblinkingly into somebody's eyes until he learned see 'through' them into the person's mind, while keeping his own mind securely closed. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before Harry arrived at the conclusion that this might just be a little beyond his reach.

"I'm telling you, Hermione, I can't do it!" he exploded one afternoon, having just spent the past two hours sitting on his bed and gazing into said witch's eyes. "It's just too difficult!"

"No, Harry, I'm sure you'll manage," said Hermione soothingly. "All you have to do is keep trying."

"I've been trying for the past three days," Harry retorted, "and what use has it been? I've made no progress whatsoever! I'm still where I was at the beginning! Now, with that first exercise, it was different, I could at least see some improvement, but here? How can I even be sure that I'm doing it right?"

"Oh, come on, mate, you're still way better than us," said Ron placably, stretching himself out on Harry's bed and putting an arm around Hermione's waist. "Personally I haven't even reached thirty seconds yet, if that makes you feel any better."

Frankly, Harry was surprised that Ron had managed to get anywhere at all, what with his mind always full of Hermione, but he knew better than to say it. Instead he turned his attention back to the witch in question, who seemed to be pondering over something.

"You know," she said finally, "I think I might have discovered what the problem is."

"I'm all ears," muttered Harry unenthusiastically, having already given up all hope.

Hermione ignored him. "You see, I have a feeling that Ron and I are not the right people to practise upon," she continued zealously. "After all, we already know how to close our minds, so maybe our brain is a little more resistant to infiltration than other peoples'. Which means-"

"-that I should find somebody else to practise upon ... somebody without training," finished Harry. "That's great, Hermione, but who?"

"How about your relatives?" suggested Hermione gingerly. "I've seen them leave their bedrooms on several occasions lately; maybe you could make use of it."

"Right, so I'll just walk up to Uncle Vernon and say 'Hey, Uncle, could you please hold still for a while so that I can stare into your eyes?'. Really, Hermione, this is getting a bit comical, don't you think?"

"No, no, I'm sure it would work!" cried Hermione with conviction. "All you have to do is look into your Uncle's – or whoever it is that you bump into first – eyes when you meet him, and then he'll look back at you, and during those couple of seconds you'll try to concentrate as hard as you can..."

"And Uncle Vernon will think I've gone mad," concluded Harry breezily.

Ron chuckled. "Doesn't he think that already?" he asked innocently.

"Yes, Harry, you've got nothing to lose," Hermione chimed in.

As much as he hated to admit it, Harry realized that his friends did actually have a point. Besides, hadn't he already tried everything else ... and failed? What harm could trying something a little out of the ordinary do? After all, it might just turn out to be the impulse that would help him overcome his difficulties with finding his way into someone's mind.

Getting this far in his thoughts, he was compelled to give a resigned sigh. "All right then, I'll do it," he proclaimed grudgingly. "I suppose I'm just going to sit here now and wait for one of my beloved relatives to leave their bedroom?"

"Well, there's not much else you can do, is there?" said Hermione, sounding almost apologetic. Suddenly, Harry felt ashamed for being so harsh with her; after all, she was only trying to help.

"No, I guess not," he said gloomily, staring at his hands. "But thanks anyway."

Hermione only smiled, before snuggling closer to Ron and closing her eyes. Harry stared into empty space for a while, but soon let his own eyelids droop, with the aim of using the time he now had on his hands to empty his mind for a while. He had barely lulled his brain to sleep, however, when he distinctly heard a door slam somewhere close by, and soon the whole house began shaking as Uncle Vernon's heavy footsteps echoed through the hallway. Harry waited until his Uncle had descended the stairs, before quietly leaving his bedroom and setting off after him.

As he had expected, he found his Uncle in the kitchen, sitting at the kitchen table and pouring himself a drink. Upon spotting Harry, however, he set his glass down on the table with a clatter, nearly spilling all its contents, and fixed his nephew with a suspicious (and also, as Harry was delighted to see, slightly nervous) look.

"What are you doing here?" he spat, appearing more and more unsettled with every step that Harry took towards him. "Shouldn't you be attending to those freak friends of yours?"

Harry didn't reply; he merely sat down at the table opposite his Uncle, promptly rid his mind of all thoughts (Hermione was right, he could easily do it without the counting now), and then looked Uncle Vernon straight in the eye.

At first, nothing happened; all he could see was Uncle Vernon's pudgy face and his eyes, filled with dread now, inadvertently glued to his own, but then, then it all disappeared and for a second or two Harry suddenly found himself staring at something pink and furrowed, which he later recognized to have been Uncle Vernon's brain. Just at that moment, however, Uncle Vernon finally succeeded in tearing his gaze away from Harry's, and the image vanished.

"What the hell are you playing at, boy?" demanded Uncle Vernon angrily, in an attempt to sound like his usual, confident self, but his voice came out small and weak.

Harry gave him an innocent look. "Nothing," he said, languidly rising from the table and starting to make his way out of the kitchen. "Nothing at all."

"What do you mean, nothing?" yelled Uncle Vernon after him, but Harry no longer paid him any attention, primarily because he had just caught a glimpse of Aunt Petunia at the top of the staircase. Perhaps he could try out his little stunt on her, too.

Reaching the bottom landing sooner than she did, he ostentatiously put himself in her way. Aunt Petunia instantly froze, eyeing him with poorly hidden disconcertion.

"What do you want?" she asked, a note of hysteria creeping into her voice. "Let me pass at once!"

Just like with Uncle Vernon, Harry said nothing; instead he put all his concentration into staring fixedly into her eyes, and soon he was rewarded with the already familiar sight of a creased pink matter surrounded by blackness. But this time he didn't stop there. Staring ahead as hard as he could, he eventually penetrated even further, past the soft crust, and into the brain itself. All at once, he found himself surrounded by images, some moving, some still, but to his considerable chagrin they never seemed to linger in those areas towards which he looked. He sincerely hoped that the reason for this was merely his lack of training. Shortly after, however, Aunt Petunia finally found the strength to avert her gaze, push past him and hastily escape into the kitchen, giving him no time to ponder over it any further. Not that Harry really minded; he had, after all, finally made the breakthrough that would allow him to continue his Legilimency studies, something which, less than ten minutes ago, he would have considered to be nearly impossible. Consequently, then, he returned to his bedroom in the highest of spirits, instantly demanding to test out whether his newly gained ability would work on his friends as well, or whether it was still limited to untrained individuals only.

To his indescribable delight, it did work. Ron was the first to volunteer, and it didn't take long before Harry managed to successfully force his way past his eyes and into his mind, just like he had done with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. Hermione, on the other hand, was a slightly harder nut to crack, but after a couple of fruitless attempts Harry finally succeeded in conquering even her brain, which filled him with such enthusiasm that he went on to repeat the process fifteen more times before at last Hermione decided that it was high time for them all to have a break.

"Right, so what happens next, Hermione?" Harry asked, as the three of them transferred themselves outside onto the sunny terrace and settled down in Uncle Vernon's comfortable chairs with glasses of cold orange juice in their hands. "Does the book say how I should get those images to stop running away from me?"

Hermione gave an uncertain nod. "Yes, but it's going to be difficult. You see, now the time has come for you to use the actual spell, and since you're not of age yet, you have to perform it only with us, otherwise the Ministry will come after you."

"Well, that's fine with me," said Harry airily. "I don't really need to practise upon my relatives any more, so I don't quite see where the problem is."

"The problem," returned Hermione, "is the spell itself. If you don't want Narcissa to know you're using it, you'll have to perform it without words and without a wand, which basically means that you will have to concentrate all your energy into your mind instead of your wand hand."

Harry considered this. He'd already gone through enough trouble learning the basics of wordless magic, and now he was being asked to give up even his wand? Then again, nobody has ever said this was going to be easy, did they?

Sighing an unhappy sigh, he endowed Hermione with a resigned look. "OK, so how does the spell work?"

Looking as though no question could please her more, Hermione consulted her memory for a while and then, sounding very much as if she were quoting a textbook, said, "Well, there are actually two ways of using it. Either you can just call up random memories, which, I think, is what Snape had been doing with you during your Occlumency lessons, or, and this is our case, you can concentrate on finding just one particular memory, such as the answer to where Snape is at the moment. This, of course, is much harder to do, as it requires the utmost concentration, and also-"

"All right, all right," cut in Harry, who was already bursting to try the spell out, "but what do you actually have to do to call up the memory you want? From what you say, shouting Legilimens obviously isn't enough, is it?"

"No, unfortunately not," said Hermione curtly, obviously unhappy to have been so inconsiderately robbed of the chance to show off her knowledge. "Saying the spell is just a formality. The real trick lies in concentrating on the question you want answered. You mustn't think about anything else. Only when you achieve this can you take the next step, which is scanning the brain."

Harry stared at her in bewilderment. "Scanning the ... what? But Hermione, that could take several lifetimes! Have you any idea how many things people carry in their brains? Oh, please tell me you're not serious!"

Hermione gave him an amused look. "Actually, I've never been more serious in my entire life, but don't worry, it's not as bad as you think. The question will show you the way ... that's why it's so important to concentrate on it with every single particle of your body. Because if you do it properly, you will automatically be led into those parts of the brain which contain memories related to what you need ... if such memories exist, of course."

"Right," said Harry, doing his best to process what he had just heard, "and then? What happens then? How do I take a look at those memories? Won't they run away from me again?"

Hermione shook her head. "No, Harry. What you've been seeing in our minds until now were only images of memories, reflections. The real memories stay stored in one place, and every time a person thinks about something or remembers something, the corresponding image gets created and flies around until the person starts thinking about something else. Then the image disappears."

"So what I have to do is find the memory, not the image," said Harry pensively, totally captivated by what Hermione had just told him.

"That's right," Hermione confirmed. "Once you have the right memory, you're almost there. The only thing you still have to do is pull the memory out of the brain cells where it's stored and take a look at it."

"Pull it out of the brain cells?" repeated Harry, dumbfounded. "But how?"

"With the power of your mind. Just imagine drawing the memory towards you, and if you do it well enough, it will actually happen. You have to be very, very careful when putting it back, though. If you don't return it into the exact place where you found it, you could cause the person into whose mind you've penetrated serious brain damage. Either that, or the person could discover that their mind had been tampered with. And we definitely can't risk that."

"Causing Narcissa a bit of brain damage wouldn't be such a big catastrophe, though, would it?" snickered Ron. "Some people might even say that we'd be doing her a favour."

"Ron, this is a serious matter," said Hermione disapprovingly. "Did you know that you could go to Azkaban for trifling with somebody's mind?"

"Even if that someone is Narcissa?" persisted Ron.

"No matter who it is!" snapped Hermione. "Don't you see that by doing something like that you'd be putting yourself in the same league as her? Really, Ron, you can be such a ... a..."

"All right now, you two, time to stop fighting," said Harry quickly, feeling the need to step in before Hermione could utter something she would later regret. "One would say that after getting together you'd finally lay off each other, but so far there's been little difference! Really, is it so difficult to talk things over like two civilized people?"

Ron and Hermione stared at him in shock; it wasn't often that they received such a scolding from him. Pleased to have got his point across, Harry let them stew in their own juice for a while, before getting up from his chair and cheerfully asking, "Right, so who's going to be the first to volunteer for a dose of Legilimens?"

Spending most of their time immersed in Legilimency practice, the rest of their stay at the Dursleys' residence passed remarkably fast for the trio. Before they knew it, they were saying goodbye to a very relieved-looking Uncle Vernon (Aunt Petunia and Dudley were nowhere in sight) and greeting a very excited-looking Mr and Mrs Weasley, who had come to transport Harry and Ron to The Burrow, seeing as, unlike Hermione, they still hadn't passed their Apparition tests.

"But ... what about our trunks?" asked Harry with concern, as he and his two friends followed Ron's parents to the end of Privet Drive, dragging all their luggage behind. "And what about Hedwig? Will you be able to Apparate her, too?"

Mr Weasley stopped and turned around, looking rather abashed. "Er ... so sorry, Harry," he muttered apologetically. "We were in such a hurry to get you safely to The Burrow that we didn't realize ... well, anyway, I'll fix it right off," he concluded, having perceived Mrs Weasley give him an impatient look, and quickly waved his wand. All three trunks, together with Hedwig's cage, vanished.

"That's better," Mr Weasley said. "Now come on, let's not lose any more time. It isn't safe to stay in unprotected areas for longer than we have to."

"Is Voldemort getting stronger, then?" inquired Harry with interest, struggling to keep up with Mr Weasley's long strides.

Mr Weasley threw a cautious look in the direction of his wife, then put his arm around Harry's shoulders and leaned towards his ear. "I hate to say it, Harry, but it gets worse and worse every day. You-Know-Who is quickly gaining supporters. Most wizards and witches join him out of fear, but You-Know-Who is also a master of persuasion. He knows exactly which cord to strike to win people onto his side. Our people, on the other hand, are slowly becoming demoralized. The Ministry still hasn't found Severus Snape, which, to many, makes it seem as though we're not trying hard enough. If we could only get wind of him, we'd have something to build on, but as it is..."

Throwing his hands up in despair, Mr Weasley gave a great sigh and fell silent. Harry figured he couldn't have wished for a better moment to tell him about his plans, and so he unhesitatingly launched into a quick roundup of what he and his friends had done so far, and what they still hoped to do in the upcoming weeks. To his enormous relief, Mr Weasley didn't show the slightest sign of protest; instead he listened attentively, giving a small nod here and there, and only cut Harry off when he started telling him about his intentions of visiting Narcissa Malfoy and searching her memory for Snape's whereabouts.

"Oh Harry," he declared sadly, "do you really think we haven't tried all this already? Narcissa has been locked up at the Ministry ever since Snape's and Draco's disappearance; we've used Veritaserum on her, dozens of specially trained wizards have turned her mind inside out, and do you know what we found out?"

Harry shook his head, eagerly awaiting what was to come.

Mr Weasley gazed at him with haunted eyes for a while, then looked at the ground. "Absolutely nothing," he uttered quietly.

Harry felt as if his whole world had come tumbling down. All those days of endless training, all the hard work ... and now he was basically told that he needn't have bothered? What kind of justice was that? And what's more, how was he to find Snape now, having learned that Narcissa, his only hope, had turned out to be completely useless? It was like searching for a needle in a haystack! No, correction, it was worse than searching for a needle in a haystack, seeing as needles didn't have legs. And wands. And-

Fortunately, Harry didn't have the chance to pursue these gloomy thoughts for much longer, because at that very moment he and the rest of the party reached the end of Privet Drive, from where it was relatively safe to Disapparate without being seen by any inquisitive Muggles.

"OK, Harry, grab hold of my arm," ordered Mr Weasley, glancing quickly around before taking up his position. Harry did as he was told, noticing Ron do the same with Mrs Weasley. Hermione was to Disapparate on her own.

"Well, are you ready?" asked Mr Weasley. "Three ... two ... one ... hold on tight!"

Having already experienced it a couple of times with Dumbledore, Harry was somewhat more prepared for the unpleasant sensation that was to follow than Ron, whom Harry saw lying in a heap at Mrs Weasley's feet after the whole trial was over, feverishly rubbing his eyes and gasping for breath.

"You all right, mate?" he asked, walking over to help the red-head up.

"Far out, Harry," Ron choked out, gratefully accepting Harry's hand and pulling himself to his feet. "I feel like a flock of Hippogriffs had been dancing on my back. Why didn't anybody tell me that side-along Apparition was such an ordeal?"

Harry smirked. "Do you think it would've helped?"

Ron started to say something in reply, but his voice was quickly drowned out by Mrs Weasley's siren-like one.

"Come on, boys, stop dawdling around," she was saying. "Get in the house, quick!"

Obeying her command, Harry turned to face the Weasleys' home, suddenly feeling as if his stomach had been filled with lead. He hadn't really allowed himself to think about it much during the past couple of weeks, but now the fact that he would have to face Ginny again hit him with full force. It was, of course, true that after Dumbledore's funeral they had parted with the intention of going on as friends, but would they be able to keep it that way? They were, after all, going to spend the next two weeks in the same house, and with Ron and Hermione constantly reminding them of the joys of being a couple, who knows how long they would manage to resist the temptation?

Feeling as though he were walking towards the gallows, Harry entered the house. The scene that greeted his eyes was one of complete mayhem; obviously, the wedding preparations were already in full flow. But even though the kitchen was filled with people to the point of bursting, the first thing that caught Harry's eye was a flash of red hair. Ginny's red hair. And, to his mounting disconcertion, its owner was heading right towards him.

"Harry!" she exclaimed, throwing her hands around his neck. "I'm so happy to see you!"

"So ... so am I, Ginny," stuttered Harry, wishing he could do something about his violently beating heart and wobbly knees.

"You'll have to tell me all about what you've been doing these past two weeks," continued Ginny, finally untangling herself from Harry and measuring him with a critical eye. "My, you look thin. Haven't those relatives of yours been feeding you properly?"

"No," said Harry truthfully, inwardly smiling at how much Ginny currently resembled her mother. "Not really. Actually, we usually fixed our meals ourselves."

"Tsk, tsk," clucked Ginny disapprovingly, shaking her head. "We'll have to get you something to eat, then, won't we? Come on, let's see what we can find."

Suddenly realizing just how hungry he was, Harry obligingly followed her to the kitchen counter, which was virtually swamped with various kinds of delicatessen, ranging from a roasted porker surrounded by potatoes to a platter filled with an assortment of wedding cakes. Ginny heaped some chicken wings and a pile of chips onto a plate and handed it to Harry. Thanking her, Harry carried the plate to the kitchen table, all the while silently praising Ginny for managing to behave so casually, almost as if they had never been anything but good friends. If only she knew just how much it meant to him! He would make sure to repay her a thousand times once Voldemort was defeated, he really would. For one thing, he would make her his bride and take her for a long honeymoon to some exotic place. And then, after they returned, they would move to Godric's Hollow. He would have to fix to whole house up, of course, but he could hardly imagine carrying out a more pleasant task. If only all his duties were like that, he would-

"Cheers, Harry," came a sudden, distinctly familiar voice from somewhere behind him, ruthlessly bringing him from fantasy land back to reality. "Thought you could hide away from us, eh?"

"Must have forgotten that there's no escaping us," added another voice, very similar to the first.

Smiling, Harry turned around. "Hi, Fred. Hi, George. Great to see you, guys! How are you? How's your business going?"

"Couldn't be better," said Fred.

"Yeah, 'specially after Dumbledore's death," agreed George. "It's like the whole wizarding world's gone mad. People are buying whole cartons of our stuff!"

"Not that we're happy to see Dumbledore dead, mind you," Fred cut in quickly, noticing Harry's expression darken. "He was a great guy, Dumbledore. Always had a soft spot for our pranks."

"Is it true that it was Snape who'd done him in?" asked George. "It was all over the papers."

"Yes, but at first we thought they were kidding," said Fred. "Snape was a bastard, no doubt about that, but there's a slight difference between handing out detentions and finishing off one's boss. I guess we've underestimated him, though."

"You were by far not the only ones," muttered Harry. "I saw it all, and Snape killed Dumbledore without batting an eyelash. He's nothing less than a cold-blooded murderer. Now, could we please talk about something else?"

Truth be told, Harry didn't really mind discussing the events of that fatal day any more, especially not with Fred and George, who had a special gift of making Dumbledore's death sound about as casual as a weather forecast; it was just that after meeting Ginny, and after what Mr Weasley had told him, he desperately needed to talk about something cheerful, otherwise he would probably go crazy.

"Well, if you absolutely insist," said George, a mischievous glint stealing into his eyes.

"He asked for it, didn't he, George?" cooed Fred.

"He sure did, Fred," returned George.

Fred nodded, then turned to Harry with an extremely serious expression and, in an even more serious voice, asked, "Harry, what's going on between you and our sister?"

"She wouldn't tell us, you see," George chimed in.

"But even a complete imbecile would notice that she's back in love with you, just like she was a couple of years ago."

"Ever since she got back from Hogwarts, she wouldn't stop talking about you."

"Who wouldn't stop talking about who?" asked Ginny, who had just arrived at the table carrying her own plate piled with food. "You wouldn't happen to be talking about me, would you?" she added suspiciously.

"Us?" said Fred and George in unison, both looking as innocent as a new-born lamb. "Never."

Ginny, however, wasn't fooled. "Don't tell them anything, Harry," she said emphatically. "It's none of their business."

"I don't mind if they know," said Harry placably.

"But I do," snapped Ginny. "Besides, there's nothing to tell. If they want to hear some gossip, they should go and talk to Ron and Hermione."

Fred and George instantly pricked up their ears. "Wait a sec ... does that mean what we think it means?" they breathed, looking very much like two hungry puppies waiting to get their dinner.

"I thought it was impossible not to notice," said Ginny haughtily. "Just take one look at them and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about."

Not having to be told twice, the twins promptly directed their gaze to where Ron and Hermione were standing engrossed in a conversation with Charlie, looking like two slightly overgrown turtledoves. Ron's arm was coiled around Hermione's waist, while Hermione kept throwing her boyfriend adoring looks.

Fred was the first to recover his wits. "Right, sorry to leave you, guys, but we've got other business to attend to," he announced, starting off from the table like a rocket. "Thanks for the tip, Gin!"

"I can't wait to see Mum's face when she hears about this," declared George, swiftly setting out after Fred. "She's going to cut a caper!"

Sure enough, a short while later Mrs Weasley's excited voice could be heard reverberating all around the kitchen, while its owner was alternately hugging both members of the newly formed couple, making it look as though she expected another wedding any minute.

Inwardly smiling at the image, Harry turned back to Ginny, only to find her staring dejectedly into her plate.

"You OK, Gin?" he asked with concern, wondering what could have caused such a drastic turnaround in her mood. After all, she seemed so cheerful only a minute ago...

Ginny raised her head, and Harry was shocked to see that there were tears in her eyes. "I ... I'm fine," she croaked. "It's just that ... I don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep this up. I didn't count on Ron and Hermione getting together so soon ... not that I'm not happy for them, of course, but they are making it so much harder for me, strutting around like that, letting the whole world see how blissfully happy they are... It ... it just reminds me too much of what I can't have, if you know what I mean."

Feeling his own eyes burn uncomfortably, Harry instinctively reached across the table and took Ginny's hand in his. "I know exactly what you mean, Ginny," he whispered. "But we have to overcome it, you know we have to. I simply can't let Voldemort get to you. I will do my best to finish him off as soon as I can, though, and then we will make it all up, I promise. In the meantime, just try not to murder Ron and Hermione in their sleep, all right? They've been through a lot too, and they deserve to be happy. I know it's hard to watch them show off their love when you and I have been deprived of our own, but I've found that it's possible to actually draw from their happiness, instead of letting it cast you down. So let's both try to do that, and hopefully we'll manage to survive these next two weeks without too much suffering. OK?"

Ginny responded with a weak smile. "OK. But now I want to hear all about your adventures at the Dursleys' house ... for example, how exactly did it come about that Ron and Hermione got together? I thought it would take ages!"

Harry was more than happy to oblige this request (anything to get Ginny's – and his – mind off the topic of their relationship), and so he enthusiastically plunged into a detailed narrative of his eventful stay at the Dursleys', trying hard to make it as engaging as he possibly could. But he had barely got round to describing his latest Legilimency attempt when his depiction was suddenly broken by-

"'Arry! So good to see you again!"

Harry would recognize that voice anywhere, and truth be told, even after the events in the hospital wing following Bill's injury he still wasn't exactly thrilled to hear it. Taking a deep breath, he slowly turned around. "Oh hi, Fleur," he said, as cheerfully as he could manage. "How are you? Looking forward to your wedding?"

"Oh, yes!" chirped Fleur, who seemed to be positively shining with happiness. "Bill 'as bought me such a beautiful wedding dress, just wait until you see eet. I zink eet is ze most beautiful wedding dress in ze world. And ze wedding rings! I adore zem so!"

"I'm glad to hear that, Fleur," said Harry with a forced smile. "But if you'll excuse me now, I have some business to do upstairs. I'll see you around, OK?" And without finishing his food, he disappeared out of the kitchen as quickly as he could, with Ginny not taking long to follow.

"Where do we go now?" Harry asked as they made their way up the stairs. "Is there any place where we'd be safe from Fleur?"

Ginny never got the chance to answer, as at that very moment a door on their right opened, and the two of them were virtually dragged into the room (which, thanks to the bright orange that seemed to cover its every inch, Harry instantly recognized to be Ron's) by a wary looking Ron and Hermione, who at first made sure that the staircase was completely empty before returning into the room and shutting the door.

"Just checking for Fleur," Hermione explained, perceiving Harry's and Ginny's blank looks.

"She's a nightmare, that's what she is!" cried Ron, throwing himself down onto his blinding bed. "Kept going on and on about how Hermione and I should get married as well, but how Hermione would never make such a pretty bride as she herself will be ... honestly, she made me sick! And to imagine that I actually used to fancy her..." He looked horrifed at the very thought.

"I suppose you two also came up here to escape her?" said Hermione with a knowing look, settling herself next to Ron.

"How on earth did you know?" said Ginny in mock surprise, as she and Harry sat down on the floor, leaning against Harry's trunk, which Mr Weasley must have sent there from the Dursleys'. "By the way, congratulations on finally getting together. I was already beginning to give up all hope of you ever doing so."

"Thanks," said Hermione with a shy smile, snuggling closer to Ron as if striving to prove that she and he were really a couple. Ginny looked away.

"Well, and what are we going to do now?" asked Harry, who sensed that it was just about time to change the topic. "We're kind of stuck here, aren't we?"

"I think we should continue our Legilimency practice," said Hermione. "Ginny can join us if she wants to, she'd make a good object for trying out our skills."

Harry sighed. "Actually, Hermione, I think we may as well give up on Legilimency altogether," he stated sadly. "Mr Weasley told me they'd already tried it on Narcissa, and she doesn't know a thing. And since there's been no mention of Snape in the Daily Prophet for the past two weeks, I guess you were right – he really must've gone into hiding. Which inevitably means that unless I get Voldemort to tell me where he is, I can say goodbye to ever finding him."

"Not necessarily," said Hermione, wearing a mysterious expression very similar to Mona Lisa.

Harry stared at her. "What do you mean, not necessarily?" he inquired, totally lost as to what Hermione could be driving at. "Are you trying to say you know where Snape had disappeared to?"

"Well, I can't tell you the exact place, of course," said Hermione slowly, obviously enjoying her moment of glory, "but I do have a pretty good idea. You see, I kind of expected that the plan of interrogating Narcissa might not work out, and because I knew how disappointing it would be for you to give the whole idea of finding Snape up, I tried a bit of logical deduction, hoping that maybe I'd be able to figure out Snape's hiding place on my own. In the end it wasn't that hard ... in fact, I'm sure that with a little help you'd reach the same conclusion as I did."

"Really?" said Ginny excitedly. "Why don't we give it a go, then?"

Hermione turned a questioning gaze to Harry, as if to ask whether he, being the boss, was OK with it. Harry merely shrugged, still unsure what to think about all this. Could Hermione really have worked out where Snape was hiding without any help whatsoever? Was it even possible? For all he knew, Snape could be practically anywhere, the North Pole included, so to narrow this down to even a medium-sized area would, at least to Harry, come just short of a miracle.

For Hermione, however, it seemed to be mere routine. "Well, all right," she was just saying with false reluctancy, seeing as it was only too clear that she had been waiting for this moment all along. "Where do I ... oh yes. The first question we have to ask ourselves is – would Snape go and hide abroad or would he stay in England?"

"Um, go abroad?" guessed Harry. "Because our Ministry couldn't get him there?"

"I think he'd stay in England," said Ginny. "Voldemort would want to have him close at hand, in case something went wrong."

"Exactly," agreed Hermione. "So the next question is – where in England would he hide? In what kind of place can a person get lost without even trying?"

"In a city," said Harry, who was slowly starting to see where Hermione was heading. "In London."

Hermione gave an approving nod. "And which part of London? The Muggle one or the wizarding one?"

"The Muggle one," supplied Harry promptly, growing more and more excited. Perhaps this really wasn't going to be as hard as he had originally thought. "Nobody would ever think of looking for him there, what with his attitude towards Muggle-borns and all."

"I can see you're catching on, Harry," beamed Hermione. "Now there is only one question left to ask – what sort of place in Muggle London would you never ever think of in connection with Snape?"

"Maybe a ... a football stadium?" suggested Ron.

Hermione shook her head.

"A boutique?" provided Ginny.

Again, Hermione shook her head. "Think of something where he could actually live," she advised.

Harry and Ginny exchanged puzzled glances. Ron was staring at his hands, his brows knitted in concentration. All of a sudden, however, he glanced up ... and started laughing.

"A ... a brothel!" he wheezed, in between great fits of laughter. "Snape's hiding in a ... in a brothel!"

Harry looked at Hermione in disbelief. Surely Ron couldn't be right? Not that what he had said didn't make sense, but to picture Snape in a brothel was just too ... well, too impossible to picture.

Hermione, however, answered his look with a nod. "Yes, ingenious, isn't it?" she smiled. "It's the last place anyone would ever look for a person like Snape. I could be wrong, of course, but doesn't it just sound too good to be wrong?"

"It's definitely an interesting idea," conceded Harry, "but tell me, Hermione, how do we use it to our advantage? There are probably hundreds of brothels in London! How do we know which is the right one?"

"Well, that is going to be a bit of a problem," admitted Hermione. "Our only option is to visit them one by one, and hope that we'll get lucky soon. Still, there are three of us here who are or will be of age soon, so the search will be a little quicker if we split up and go around on our own. That is, of course, if we all manage to learn Legilimency properly."

"Legilimency?" frowned Ron, looking as though somebody had given him a present and then snatched it away. "What are we going to need Legilimency for? I thought Harry said we were giving up on that."

Hermione gave him a pitiful look. "Ron, do you honestly think that the Muggle who runs the brothel is going to tell us about Snape voluntarily? God knows what spells Voldemort had used on them to stop them from talking, which means that it will take only a highly skilled Legilimens to extract the information we need from their mind."

"Well, in that case, what are we waiting for?" said Harry impatiently, seizing this new hope that Hermione had given him like a drowning person would seize a piece of floating wood. "Let's get back to our practice!"

Having set themselves a concrete goal, the four teenagers brought themselves to spend endless hours shut up in Ron's room (though with Fleur on the loose, they didn't really have any other choice), which Mrs Weasley found a little worrying at first, but only until Hermione told her that they were merely practising for Harry and Ron's upcoming Apparition test, due a couple of days after Bill's wedding. Which, from time to time, was actually true, because if Harry and Ron wanted to travel around London, they would need Apparition just as much as they needed Legilimency, but that still didn't stop Legilimency from being at the top of their list of priorities, and according to that they divided their time schedule. Consequently, then, Harry had nearly mastered the skill by the time the much awaited wedding day arrived, as had Hermione, while Ron was, as usual, a couple of steps behind.

"I'd never have thought I'd say this," he proclaimed as the three of them, together with Ginny, made their way down the stairs into the garden where the wedding was to take place, "but I'd rather go back to practising Legilimency than have to watch Fleur show off. Why don't we just give it a miss? Nobody'd notice we're not there."

"Ron, it's your brother who's getting married," Hermione scolded him. "How would you like it if Bill reacted the same way to your wedding? Or Fred and George?"

"They wouldn't," said Ron confidently. "Contrary to Fleur, nobody can say a thing against you."

Looking as if Ron had just flatly asked her to marry him, Hermione blushed a deep shade of crimson. It was only then that Ron realized what he had said, and he dropped his gaze in embarrassment. The rest of the way to the garden passed in silence.

Stepping outside onto the lawn, the four of them instantly had to throw their hands up to their faces as bright sunlight hit their eyes. It was a beautiful summer's day, as if made for a wedding. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky, but a mild breeze ensured that it wasn't too hot, either. Harry inadvertently found himself wondering what Fleur had done to deserve such luck. As if the weather wasn't enough, it also looked as though the whole wizarding world had come to see her wedding, making the Weasleys' garden seem much too small. Harry spotted some of the Hogwarts teachers, huddled together in one tight group as if talking about something they didn't want the other guests to overhear, Hagrid and Madame Maxime, helping themselves to giant portions of prawn salad, Lupin and Tonks, throwing fond looks at each other and thus reminding Harry vaguely of Ron and Hermione, the Minister of Magic, leading an urgent-looking discussion with Mr Weasley, and even several goblins, who looked as though they definitely didn't come to the wedding of their own free will. Almost tripping over one of them, Harry made to turn back to his friends, but found that they had already disappeared towards the nearest table laden with food, and were now helping themselves hungrily to everything within their reach. He quickly joined them, his mouth watering at the mere sight of all the dishes Mrs Weasley had managed to prepare.

"At least something's positive about this wedding," said Ron, stuffing his mouth with corn cobs as he made his way towards the rows of plastic seats that had been arranged in front of the altar. Choosing one in the very back row, he motioned for the others to join him. "Watching Fleur show off from close up would ruin my appetite," he explained, causing Hermione to giggle as she sank into the seat next to him. Ginny rolled her eyes in disgust.

The wedding itself turned out to be somewhat dull. Fleur really did look stunning in her wedding dress, but the fact that she was only too aware of it rather spoiled the effect, Bill looked as though he could do without so many people staring at his deformed face, and the words of the Minister of Magic, who performed the whole ceremony, were largely drowned out by Mrs Weasley's continuous sobbing. All in all, Harry was quite happy when it was all over, and he walked up to the house swearing to himself that if he was ever lucky enough to marry Ginny, he would make sure to make it as quiet an affair as possible. After all, having one's picture on the front cover of Witch Weekly didn't necessarily secure eternal happiness, did it?

Over the next two days, Harry and Ron couldn't quite decide which to practise first, whether Apparition or Legilimency. The day of the Apparition test was looming closer, and Ron in particular was beginning to panic. His last botched test still fresh in his mind, he concentrated with all his might on not leaving one of his eyebrows behind again, which often resulted in his Apparating without a much more important part of his body, such as a hand or a knee. Consequently, on the morning of the actual test his nervosity reached an all time high, and so it was only with the greatest difficulty that Mrs Weasley managed to Apparate him to Hogsmeade, where the examination was to take place.

Harry, on the other hand, was quite calm. He knew the world would not fall apart if he failed his test, not to mention that Hermione had promised him that if it came to the worst, he could Apparate around London with her help. But somehow Harry felt that this would not be necessary. He had, after all, already managed to Apparate Dumbledore to Hogwarts under rather stressful circumstances, and he doubted the test could be worse than that. That's why, unlike Ron, who was shaking like an aspen leaf and looking positively green, he approached Twycross the Apparition Instructor in an almost bored manner, clearly stated his name, and then joined the crowd of students already waiting to be examined, cheerfully waving to Seamus Finnigan whom he spotted standing nearby.

It took quite some time before his name was called, most of which he spent fruitlessly attempting to convince Ron that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, but then at last Twycross asked him to step forward, informing him that the place which he would have to Apparate to was the outside of Madam Puddifoot's teashop.

"Make sure to Apparate all parts of your body, do you understand, Mr Potter?" he added, as Harry got ready to leave. "Otherwise we cannot let you pass."

Nodding mechanically, Harry slowly closed his eyes, took a deep breath, determinedly focused his mind onto the image of Madam Puddifoot's, where he had only been once before, but the experience was so memorable that he wasn't about to forget it in a hurry, and Disapparated.

The unpleasant yet familiar sensation of being squashed from all sides that followed no longer surprised him. In fact, he discovered that the better he was at Apparition, the shorter it took, and by now he was so good that it was all over within a second. Opening his eyes, he found himself standing right outside the inconspicuous cottage that housed the heaven of all couples, with all his body parts still safely in place and a tiny Ministry wizard rushing over to meet him.

"Well done, Mr Potter, you passed the test," he squeaked, reminding Harry vaguely of Professor Flitwick. "Here is your Apparition certificate," he continued quickly, waving his wand over a piece of parchment, which he then handed to Harry. "Now please follow me."

Folding the certificate into his pocket with the intention of examining it later, Harry did as he was told, keeping close behind the little wizard as he led him through the deserted village back to the place where he started from. There the wizard took his leave and Disapparated with a faint 'pop', apparently returning to Madam Puddifoot's to await the arrival of other examinees. Harry, meanwhile, scanned the thinning crowd of students gathered around Twycross for Ron, but he was no longer there; Harry figured he must have already had his turn. Hoping that he hadn't panicked too much during his exam, Harry decided to go and await his return together with the Weasleys, who were standing a little way off, along with a mob of other parents, waiting to escort both boys home.

It was Mrs Weasley who noticed him approaching first, and she instantly ran over to give him a big hug, making it seem as though she hadn't seen him for several months. Obviously she didn't care whether he passed his exam or not, as long as he made it back in one piece.

Mr Weasley, on the other hand, remained practical. "So, Harry, how did you go?" he asked as he came up behind his wife, smirking at Harry's momentary indisposition.

Harry quickly forced his way out of Mrs Weasley's tight grasp. "I passed," he croaked, massaging his throat as he pulled out the Apparition certificate out of his pocket and handed it over for Mr Weasley to see.

Mr Weasley examined it for several seconds, then returned it with an approving nod. "Well done, Harry," he said. "I didn't expect anything less from you."

"We're so proud of you, Harry," Mrs Weasley chimed in, looking as though she intended to pull Harry into another hug. Fortunately for Harry, however, the danger was warded off by Ron's timely arrival, seeing as from then on Mrs Weasley had eyes only for her son, who entered the scene like a whirlwind.

"I did it, I passed!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, allowing his mother to sweep him into an embrace without a single word of protest. "Can you believe it, Harry?" he continued, a bit more quietly, as soon as he was free again. "They actually let me pass! I'm sure I left a bit of hair behind, but they just didn't notice. How lucky is that?"

Harry, however, had no time to comment on Ron's wave of euphoria, as at that moment Mr Weasley called, "OK, boys, time to go! You can finish this conversation at home. I trust you will be able to Apparate on your own now?"

Harry nodded in agreement; Ron, however, looked more than a little apprehensive. "I don't know about this, Harry," he whispered anxiously. "I've never Apparated such a long distance. And the certificate, that was just pure luck. Couldn't you just ... help me a bit? Just this once?"

Harry reacted by giving him a very Hermione-like look. "Ron, you'll never learn to do it properly if you keep asking people to help you," he said firmly. "You'll manage. I know you will. Now, on the count of three, OK?"

And before Ron could put up any signs of protest, he quickly chanted "One ... two ... three ... go!" and Disapparated, leaving Ron to his fate. Imagine his delight, then, when the first thing he saw upon materializing in the Weasleys' front yard was a flash of red hair, accompanied by Ron's voice shouting, "Far out, Harry! I really did it! I think I really can Apparate now, don't you reckon?"

Harry smirked. "I never doubted you could," he said pointedly. "It was you who needed to realize it in the first place."

"Yeah, I suppose," said Ron, smiling a satisfied smile as he started walking towards the house. Mr and Mrs Weasley, who had Apparated from Hogsmeade a second or two before them, were already on the threshold, motioning for them to hurry up.

When Harry and Ron finally walked through the front door, however, all was quiet. Harry thought this extremely odd; after all, hadn't Mr and Mrs Weasley come in only a moment before them? He glanced over at Ron, but he seemed just as puzzled as he was. Starting to feel a little worried, Harry crossed the entrance hall and poked his head into the kitchen.

"Mrs Weasley?"

No answer.

"Mr Weasley?"

Still nothing.

Frowning, Harry backed out of the kitchen and headed towards the stairs, with Ron trailing close behind, looking decidedly fearful.

"Where d'you think they'd gone?" he asked in a high voice, as they started ascending the stairs. "You don't suppose anything's happened to them, do you?"

Harry wasn't sure what to answer. "Let's try your room first, OK?" he said instead, doing his best to desperately cling to the hope that there was a perfectly logical explanation for everything. "And if they're not there, we'll just go and ask Hermione and Ginny what's going on." Or Fred and George. Or whoever it is they manage to find first.

Fighting off the feeling of dread that was threatening to settle in his stomach, Harry came to a halt in front of Ron's door. The house was still eerily quiet, something Harry didn't like one bit. Taking a deep breath and closing his hand over the handle of his wand, he slowly pushed open the door, trying not to imagine the horrors he could find inside.

The room, however, was pitch dark. Harry's pulse quickened; surely it wasn't normal for Ron's room to look that way in the middle of the day? Pulling out his wand, he hastily turned back to his friend, who was still standing on the landing, looking rather uncertain.

"Stay where you are," Harry told him quietly. "I'll go and sort this out."

And, taking a deep breath to calm himself down, he burst into the room, shouting "Lumos!" as he did so. But someone was quicker; before Harry had finished saying the incantation, he was knocked backwards onto the floor, while at the same time the lights in the room flickered on, revealing the entire Weasley family (minus Percy and Ron, plus Hermione and Fleur) crowded around Ron's bed, all smiling broadly and shouting "Happy birthday, Harry!"

Harry groaned. He had completely forgotten about his birthday, what with all the fuss around his and Ron's Apparition test, but was it really necessary to remind him of it in such a gruesome manner? He would much rather get his presents the traditional way, thank you very much. Then again, Fred and George always had to have something extra, though this time they had obviously gone a little too far.

Picking himself up off the floor, Harry let his eyes sweep over the room, wondering how to express his gratitude and at the same time give everyone a little scolding for their unseemly joke. "Erm, thanks," he started uncertainly, trying not to notice Ginny's eyes boring into the side of his head. "It ... it's very nice of you not to have forgotten my birthday, but you really didn't have to bother with the whole charade around it. Ron and I were scared half to death when we couldn't find you anywhere! We ... we thought the house had been invaded by Death Eaters or something!"

"Yeah, it was a pretty stupid prank to play considering the horrible things that happen to people these days," added Ron, who had meanwhile followed Harry into the room. Harry threw him a grateful look, but quickly turned his gaze back to the people in front of him, satisfied to see them all looking slightly ashamed, especially Fred and George, who both appeared as though they'd just eaten an entire bag of Ton-Tongue Toffees.

Unsurprisingly, it was Ginny who managed to recover first: walking over to where Harry stood, she pulled him into a quick hug, before presenting him with a little box wrapped in Gryffindor colours.

"Happy birthday, Harry," she whispered. "I hope you're not too angry with us... I did keep telling Fred and George that their little trick was no good, but would they ever listen to me?"

Harry shook his head and smiled. "Don't worry about it, Gin," he said placably. "I'll deal with those two gits later. As for now, how about I take a look at what you got me?"

For some reason, however, Ginny didn't look exactly comfortable with this suggestion. "Um, I'd rather you opened it somewhere private," she said, turning slightly pink. "Would save Fred and George quite a few nightmares, that's all," she added with a wink and, not waiting for a response, took her leave, making room for the rest of the well-wishers, who were by now also feeling up to giving Harry his presents.

All in all, mused Harry as he lay in bed that evening, it wasn't such a bad day. Not only did he get heaps of presents (even from Ron, who had been so worried about getting enough Apparition practice that he had completely forgotten to worry about obtaining some wrapping paper) as well as the eagerly anticipated Apparition certificate, but later in the afternoon he also managed, for the first time ever, to delve into Hermione's mind and take a look at exactly the memory he desired, which meant that as soon as he woke up the next morning he could finally embark on his hunt for Snape. And so with this on his mind and with Ginny's present (a small teddy bear with the words 'I'll wait for you' stitched on its back) in his arms, he eventually fell into a peaceful sleep, dreaming of a land of which he and Ginny were the sole occupants.

Harry awoke feeling full of optimism. It was a beautiful day, the birds outside sounded as though they were practising for a concert, and Snape was somewhere out there, merely waiting for Harry to find him. Harry's heart skipped at the mere idea; for all he knew, it was quite possible that thanks to some unexpected stroke of luck he would succeed in finding Snape as soon as today!

Unfortunately, Harry's optimism was brutally extinguished before the morning had even properly begun, for it wasn't long before he discovered that nothing, not even the one thing he took for granted, was going to be as easy as he had originally thought.

"What do you mean by telling me that the phone book doesn't list brothels?" he hissed at Hermione during breakfast. "How are people supposed to find them, then?"

Looking slightly unnerved by his outburst, Hermione once again buried herself in the phone book which she had gone to pick up from home the previous evening. "Well, maybe they're hidden under Night clubs," she suggested after a while. "Or possibly Hotels. Or perhaps ... oh, to heck with it, Harry, why don't you just go to Soho? Everybody knows that most brothels can be found over there. In the meantime, Ron and I can take a look around the other suburbs, and see if we can find anything useful there. How does that sound?"

Harry thought about it for a while, then at last gave a reluctant sign of agreement. Obviously he would still prefer a lucid list of all brothels in London, but since that was clearly too much to ask, he would just have to do with the second best option, which, as he later admitted to himself, wasn't actually so bad either.

Having successfully got this problem out of the way, however, Harry and his friends instantly stumbled upon another one: what to tell the Weasleys? Admitting that they were all going to spend a day or more wandering around Soho and other such suburbs definitely didn't count as an option, which meant that they would have to come up with some other reason for their sudden desire to visit London, such as sightseeing or going on a shopping spree. In the end it turned out to be a combination of both, and though Mrs Weasley still didn't like the idea of the trio scouring about the city on their own, she was eventually persuaded not only by Harry's argument that they would make sure to visit only places with heaps of Muggles around, but also by Hermione's sly promise to buy her something useful into the kitchen. Consequently, then, it wasn't long after breakfast that Harry, Ron and Hermione could already be seen roaming the vilest and most corrupted parts of London, all carrying maps in their hands as well as a notepad where they intended to keep track of all the places they had already found or, in Harry's case, visited. In accordance with Hermione's plan, however, they didn't stay together for long, and so while Ron and Hermione soon headed off in random directions, Harry remained in Soho, helplessly looking around as he wondered how on earth he was to distinguish brothels from other, less scandalous buildings. At first he found it virtually impossible, but the more places he went to, the more skilled he became at recognizing what was most obviously a brothel and what was not, until at last it gave him no trouble whatsoever. Once inside, though, his method was always the same: he walked up to the matron, stared her in the eyes until he was sure that she knew absolutely nothing about Snape, and then simply walked out again, leaving the matron gaping after him without bothering to provide any sort of explanation. It was much easier than having to make up silly excuses, he reasoned, and also much quicker.

Even so, three days and forty-seven inspected brothels later he was still no closer to finding Snape than he had been to begin with. By this time even Hermione had become good enough at Legilimency to join him on his trips to Soho, but, to both her and Harry's disappointment, she was as unsuccessful in her search as he was. The result was that a terrible suspicion began to slowly germinate in Harry's mind: what if Hermione's guess had been incorrect to begin with? What if Snape's hiding place was in fact something much less astute than what Hermione had designated for him?

When he confided his fears to Hermione, however, she merely waved him off. "Just keep searching," she had told him, at which point Harry realized that he didn't really have any other choice anyway, seeing as Hermione's assumption was the only lead he currently had. And so he continued in his activities for another two days, venturing even into the darkest alleys and visiting the most godforsaken of places, but the results were always the same – Snape was still nowhere to be found. That was when he decided to finally change his strategy: he left Soho to Hermione, while he himself, armed with Ron's list of the places he had so far managed to find in other suburbs, started paying visits elsewhere.

To his extreme chagrin, however, the first six items on Ron's list turned out to be absolutely useless – they were not even brothels. Obviously, at that time Ron hadn't learned to recognize them yet, which meant that it would probably be a good idea to go through his list from the bottom instead of wasting precious time by continuing from the top. Bearing this in mind, Harry skipped to the very last item on the list, which read the name Land's End. He felt a sudden surge of excitement run through his veins. He knew he was being completely irrational, but something told him that this time he had finally struck home. Land's End, the perfect place to hide. It was almost too good to be true.

His heart racing, he quickly consulted his map, and was thrilled to find Land's End to be located right at the edge of London, which was very much where he had pictured it to be. Land's End – the end, or edge, of London. Even more perfect, he thought, as he pocketed the map and Disapparated.

The place where he found himself standing a second or two later was a dingy alley, drowned in darkness despite the blazing sun up above. Dilapidated houses stretched as far as the eye could see, though some, judging by the lights in the windows, were obviously inhabited. Harry even spotted a couple of warped dustbins standing nearby, providing refuge for a couple of cats. Another cat was meowing in the distance. Otherwise the alley was deserted.

Unsure of which way to go, Harry decided to check Ron's list for the house number, but was disappointed to see that there wasn't any. Probably because these houses don't have numbers, he thought to himself as he looked around. He would just have to chance it, and hope that the direction he picked was the right one. Glancing left and right, he eventually chose the side that appeared to grow even darker in the distance, reasoning that Snape, having lived in the dungeons for so long, would prefer it too.

Unsurprisingly, the walk was far from pleasant. His hand firmly closed around the handle of his wand, Harry flinched at even the smallest of sounds, despite the source usually turning out to be something perfectly innocent, such as a cat or a loose door banging in the wind. As a matter of fact, he was yet to meet a person, which slowly led him to the conclusion that the people living in the houses lining the alley were probably a little strange.

As he had predicted, the alley got darker and darker the longer he walked, just as the houses became more and more ruin-like, and were no longer inhabited. Harry was just beginning to wonder whether he shouldn't turn back and try walking in the opposite direction when he suddenly noticed the alley end in an enormous brick wall – a dead-end. Dead-end – Land's End, flashed through his mind, and that was when he saw it: a building right next to the wall, a little more well-preserved than the rest, bearing a faded sign reading the very name he had been looking for all this time. He breathed a sigh of relief ... so he had found it at last. Now it was only a question of whether his hunch was correct ... whether Snape really had picked this horrid spot as his hiding place.

Taking a cautious look around, he quickly checked his surroundings for any potential danger, but the alley appeared to be just as empty as it always was. Perhaps Voldemort considered the place so well hidden that he hadn't even bothered to guard it, he thought, glancing around for one last time before finally heading towards the entrance, which was faintly lit by a single, dust-covered red lantern. The door let out an ominous creak as he pushed it open, entering a dirty and cramped lobby, completely bare besides a rickety-looking staircase directly opposite him and several moth-eaten armchairs standing off to his right. One of them was occupied by a portly matron smoking a cigar, who didn't even bother to rise in greeting as Harry came walking towards her; instead she eyed him with a suspicious look for a while, before finally asking him what he wanted.

Harry, however, didn't answer; he was already busy staring intently into her eyes, trying to see past them ... trying to find his way into her brain. Once there, though, he quickly changed his tactics, now making sure to concentrate on one thing only, to leave all other thoughts behind, to focus solely on the ultimate question: Is Snape here? For, as Hermione had once emphasized, the question was the key to everything, because without it he would never be able to find the right memory. As it was, however, he now found himself hurtling through the brain at top speed, images flying past him, until at last he came to a stop in front a wall of brain cells, one of which was faintly shining. So this was the one, he thought. This brain cell should contain the memory related to his question. All he had to do was imagine pulling it out, and then wait until it really happened.

Unfortunately, it didn't take Harry long to realize that something wasn't quite as it should be, seeing as the memory simply wouldn't budge. Even more unfortunately, he also knew exactly what was causing it – Voldemort must have tampered with the matron's brain. Which, of course, wasn't all that unexpected, but what on earth was he to do about it? Completely desperate, he tried the only thing he could think of – focusing even harder on conjuring the image of himself pulling the memory out of the brain cell and taking a look at it. At first it didn't seem to have any effect, the memory remaining firmly wedged in the phosphorescent brain cell, but then, all of a sudden, it shot out towards Harry, stopping only to hover in the air in front of him.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. Now there was only one thing left for him to do – finding out what the memory contained. From previous experience he knew that the process was rather similar to that of looking into a Pensieve, which meant that he would have to plunge straight into the memory and ... wait a minute. Examining the memory more closely, he suddenly noticed that it appeared to be covered by a black veil, a veil which imperviously obscured all images inside. Another trick of Voldemort's!

But Harry wasn't about to be put off. Summoning the rest of his strength, he gave the veil one hard, intense look, hoping to penetrate through it or to even make it disappear, but his enthusiasm quickly diminished when he realized that it was of absolutely no use – if anything, the veil turned even thicker. Harry felt like crying. He had come all this way, only to be stopped by a stupid veil? No, he couldn't let that happen, he simply couldn't! He had to see that memory, even if it meant sacrificing all he had.

And then, out of the blue, he had an idea. What if it sufficed to simply imagine that the veil wasn't there? After all, if it had worked for getting the memory out of the brain cell, why shouldn't it work here too? And so, once again, he emloyed his imagination, trying desperately to picture the memory under the veil, trying with all his might to imagine what it could contain ... perhaps Snape and Voldemort coming to the brothel, paying the matron a handsome amount of money for letting Snape stay there for an indefinite period of time, then Voldemort modifying the matron's memory and leaving, while the matron led Snape up the staircase and down to the very end of a dark hallway, where she finally stopped in front of a door with the number thirteen written on it in peeling paint... Harry felt his heart miss a beat. There was no way he would know the number on the door unless ... unless what he had seen was no longer the work of his imagination. No, he had looked into the real memory! He had done it, he had penetrated the veil!

Careful to replace the memory by imagining it sliding back into the empty brain cell, Harry wasted no time and quickly left the brain, only to find himself once again staring into the sunken eyes of the matron. She must have sensed that something peculiar was going on, though, because she was now eyeing Harry somewhat fearfully, looking very much as though she wished him gone.

"What do you want?" she repeated in an unnaturally loud voice, extinguishing her cigar as she rose from her chair. "Are you even of age?"

Harry had to admit he hadn't planned it quite this far. What should he do now, what should he say? He knew he had to get to Snape's room somehow, but something told him that the matron would probably have a little problem with that. He also knew it wouldn't be wise to risk using any more magic; being in the presence of a Muggle, he could have the place swarming with Ministry officials before the echo of his Petrificus Totalus even died away. No, what he needed was a diversion, something to lure the matron away for a while, giving him enough time to pay Snape a visit before she returned. Unfortunately, being where he was, he could think of only one way of making the matron leave her current post. Asking her to bring him a prostitute.

Trying hard not to imagine what Mrs Weasley would have to say to this particular request, he endowed the matron with his best affronted expression. "Of course I'm of age," he replied in a dignified voice. "Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to come here, would I? Now, hurry up and get me your best prostitute before I change my mind and go elsewhere. And while you're at it, fix me something strong to drink too, will you? I'll have a little something here for you when you get back." And, as if to emphasize his words, he pulled out his wallet and began to rummage in it ostentatiously, hoping against hope that he matron would rise to his bait.

To his enormous relief, his words had an almost magical effect. All her suspicions instantly forgotten at the sight of Harry's money, the matron only muttered "Of course, of course", before giving Harry a theatrical bow and disappearing up the staircase as fast as her chubby legs would carry her.

Harry gave her a couple of seconds head start, and then followed her up the stairs. But instead of turning right at the top as she had done, he chose the hallway on his left, which, thanks to the matron's memory, he knew to lead to Snape's room. Holding his breath as he tiptoed through the hallway, he was unable to control his mounting excitement. After a month of scheming and self-denial, after experiencing several moments when all he wanted was to just give up, he had finally reached his goal. But perhaps he was merely dreaming? Perhaps after coming to the end of the hallway he would simply wake up, and find the whole scenery to be replaced by the bright orange of Ron's room.

Fortunately, though, no such thing happened. Snape's door remained firmly in place as he reached it, not looking as though it was planning to disappear any time soon. Harry figured it was probably locked, and he was just deciding on the best course of action when he heard something so unexpected that he instantly forgot about everything else. A man's sob. Coming from behind Snape's door.

Harry thought he was having hallucinations. Snape was without question the last man in the world he would ever consider capable of unleashing his emotions in such a way, and yet, unless there was somebody else in the room with him, it had to be he whom he had heard. As if they had merely been waiting for the right impulse, all of Hermione's earlier presumptions suddenly swam back to the surface of Harry's mind, and even though Harry tried hard to push them back down, he knew right from the start that he was fighting a lost battle. Snape was crying, which could only mean that he was feeling sorry for what he had done, just like Hermione had said. Harry could almost hear her voice in his head, as clearly as if the witch were standing right next to him, repeating the very things he had already heard on the Hogwarts Express, only at that time he had, apart from one brief moment of weakness, strictly refused to believe them. Now, however, he was no longer sure what to believe. Secretly he was still hoping that Snape would somehow prove himself guilty, simply because he would find it much easier to go on hating him like he always had, but if, on the other hand, Snape really had killed Dumbledore only because Dumbledore had asked him to ... well, he would have enough time to think about that after he and Snape had had a little chat. For the time being, however, he would limit his attention only to the most pressing of matters, such as how to make Snape open the door, seeing as he could neither use magic, nor break it down, in case the matron heard the noise and came running to see what was going on.

Pondering over it for a while, Harry eventually decided that the best thing to do would be to simply knock. Were he a Ministry official, he would probably consider the danger of Snape Disapparating before he would even finish saying his name, but being who he was, he was sure that Snape would let him in ... if for no other reason, then at least to make fun of him. And so, after first making sure that the matron was nowhere in sight, he finally raised his hand and gave the door a small tap, intensely praying that he had estimated Snape's reaction correctly.

At first, however, the only reaction he received was silence. Even the sobbing had subsided by now, and so the only sound that could now be heard was the steady rhythm of Harry's somewhat accelerated heartbeat. Still, Harry didn't think there was any reason to panic; he simply had to give Snape time. Which, in the end, proved to be a wise decision, because it wasn't long before a faint rustling noise came from the room, followed by the the sound of footsteps approaching the door. And then...

"Who is there?" came a sudden sharp voice, which Harry instantly identified as Snape's. Well, there could be no doubt about it now: he really had found him at last.

Quickly dismissing the instinctive feeling of hatred that Snape's voice had automatically evoked, Harry preventively prepared himself for the worst. Then at last he took a deep breath and, in a loud, clear voice, stated his name.

There was a long pause, which probably lasted only several seconds, but to Harry it seemed like an eternity before the lock finally gave a metallic click and the door opened, revealing a tall, unhealthy-looking man with greasy hair standing in the doorway. It was, of course, none other than Severus Snape, staring down his hooked nose at Harry and wearing a rather unpleasant sneer.

"Well, well, well," he drawled, his black eyes – still a little red from crying – narrowing. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?"

Doing his best to ignore the disdainful note in his voice, Harry looked him straight in the eye. "I want to talk," he said simply.

Snape raised an eyebrow. "Really? From what I recall, the last time we saw each other your intentions did not seem to be nearly as peaceful. May I ask what had caused you to change your mind so drastically?"

Drastically – yes, that just about described it. Now that Harry thought about it, it really was strange how his attitude towards Snape had altered in the space of only a couple of minutes. After all, hadn't he, some ten minutes ago, entered the brothel with the intention of making him his prisoner? And yet, here he was now, talking to him as if they were still at school, as if Dumbledore hadn't been thrown over the castellated wall ... in short, as if Snape wasn't a murderer. And all because of one little incident, thanks to which Harry suddenly came to realize that even Snape was only human, that even he had his weak moments ... something which Harry planned to put to good use in their current conversation. Starting now.

"Well," he replied slowly, weighing his every word, "it's just that Hermione's shared this theory with me, according to which you only killed Dumbledore because you had no choice. That's what sort of set me off, I suppose. But I only really believed it when I came here and ... heard you cry, sir."

Observing Snape closely to see his reaction, Harry noticed him draw a sharp intake of breath, while at the same time his eyes flickered with some unidentifiable emotion (could it have been relief?), but before he could determine what it was, Snape was back to looking as impassive as ever as he muttered "Let's take this inside, shall we?", and motioned for Harry to enter the room.

Deciding, for once, to follow Snape's orders, Harry obediently left the hallway, only to find himself in the tiniest room he had ever seen (unless, of course, he chose to count the cupboard under the stairs at the Dursleys'), which seemed to be utterly taken up by a creaky-looking bed, with the only other furniture in the room being a battered table and chair.

Following Harry into the room and closing the door, Snape wordlessly pointed to the single chair, while he himself settled down on the bed. Harry took the offered chair.

"So," began Snape, as soon as Harry was seated. "What is it that you wanted to talk about with me?"

Harry had to hand to him; he sure managed to dismiss the uncomfortable topic of his tears quite cleverly. Which was fine with him, as long as he had Snape's full attention, meaning he could finally get to the point.

"I want to know the truth about Dumbledore's death," he said determinedly, fixing Snape with a steady gaze.

Snape eyed him thoughtfully for a while, obviously pondering over his request. "I see," he said finally. "And what makes you think I will tell you, Potter?"

Harry, however, had counted on this question; after all, when had Snape ever told him anything willingly? "Well," he said slowly, "I already know most of it from Hermione, so it's not as if you're going to tell me anything new; I just thought you could clarify a few details for me, that's all."

But Snape obviously still wasn't satisfied. "That may very well be," he declared, "but what use will it be to you? Tell me, Potter, why have you come here to begin with? I suspect information is not the only thing you want from me, is it?"

"No," admitted Harry reluctantly, unhappy to reveal his cards so early on but sensing he had no other choice. "No, it isn't. Actually, I thought you could help me. But ... I'm still not sure if I can trust you, so that's why I wanted you to confirm Hermione's theory before I talked to you about anything else."

"Ah, but how would you know I was being honest with you?" inquired Snape with a smirk. "I could easily win your trust, and then hurry to share all that I learned from you with the Dark Lord, without you ever knowing."

"If you really wanted to do that," said Harry briskly, "you wouldn't be telling me about it now, would you? Plus, I've got another way of finding out whether you're lying or not."

And before Snape could realize what was going on, he was already hurtling through his brain, eagerly searching for the memory containing the events preceding Dumbledore's death. Snape, however, must have recovered almost instantly, because a moment later a thick layer of fog spread out in his brain, making all further search impossible.

"It seems you took my advice to heart, Potter," Harry heard him say as he disappointedly left his brain and focused his mind back on reality. "Not only did you finally learn to close your mind, but I see you have even attempted to master Legilimency. I would, however, recommend that you did not use it here, unless you wish to continue this conversation with the assistance of the Ministry."

Harry noticed there was a slight hint of bitterness in his voice as he said this, which he instantly decided to investigate further. "Does that mean you've refrained from using magic the whole time you've been here?" he asked, trying to look incredulous. "Ever since you killed Dumbledore more than a month ago?"

He seemed to have struck home with those words, because, for a short moment, an incredibly pained expression crossed over Snape's face, as if he were reliving the whole scene at the Astronomy Tower all over again.

"More or less, yes," he answered at last, still looking slightly dejected.

Harry felt a sudden wave of pity for the man rush over him, seeing as he had just remembered how Sirius had felt when he couldn't leave the house for several weeks and make himself useful in any way. Then, however, he also remembered how Snape had taunted him because of it, and his pity quickly dissipated.

"So Voldemort just shut you up in here," he observed maliciously, "forbidding you to use magic, and expecting you to do what? How long did he tell you to stay here for, anyway?"

"I think that is hardly any concern of yours, Potter," retorted Snape, who seemed to have recovered at last. "Instead, why don't you tell me how you managed to find me? With the help of another one of Miss Granger's theories, perhaps?"

"Yes, it was her idea all right," replied Harry, feeling his control over the course of the conversation slowly slipping away. Time to change the tactics, then.

Sighing, he gave Snape a resigned look, and, in his best you've-got-to-trust me voice, said, "Look, Professor, this is going nowhere. I'll be perfectly honest with you, all right? I don't like you, just as you don't like me, but if we want to defeat Voldemort, we'll just have to co-operate. Dumbledore's given me a task to fulfill before he died, but I don't think I have the necessary magical abilities to pull it off. You, on the other hand, are one of the strongest wizards I know. Why don't we join forces? You will get to leave this hole from time to time, which will finally give you something useful to do instead of spending all your days drowning in sorrow, while I will get the help I need to complete my quest. And before Voldemort realizes what's going on, he'll be buried three feet under." He looked at Snape with expectation. "So, Professor, what do you say?"

Snape returned his gaze, wearing a strange expression on his face, as if he had just seen Harry for the first time. Then, at last, he asked, "What exactly is this quest that you speak of? Could you perhaps be more specific?"

Looking slightly apologetic, Harry shook his head. "Dumbledore forbade me to tell anyone except Ron and Hermione what it concerns," he said. "I know he trusted you boundlessly, and once you manage to convince me that you really are on my side I will probably trust you too, but unless I have no other choice, I will keep the nature of the quest to myself, if you don't mind."

Regarding Harry in a most unnerving way, this time it took Snape almost a full minute before he finally spoke. "As much as I hate to say it, Potter," he said in a grave tone, "I believe I may have misjudged you. You are much more like your mother than your father."

Harry was stunned. Had Snape really just said that? Did it mean that he was actually going to help him?

He threw him a somewhat uncertain look. "I ... I've probably made the same mistake, Professor," he stuttered out eventually. "Hermione's always stood up for you, but only now do I see that I was wrong not to have listened to her."

"Perhaps I will have to reconsider my judgement of Miss Granger, too, then," said Snape with a smirk.

Harry smiled, and, on a sudden impulse, stretched out his hand. "Peace, Professor?"

Snape eyed the hand for a while as if he thought it might bite him, then at last gave it a brief shake. "Peace," he said.

Suddenly, the whole quest of defeating Voldemort no longer seemed so utterly hopeless.

THE END

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