Harry and Ron, red-faced and perspiring, staggered together towards the locker room after their morning training session.

'Merlin, I'm knackered,' said Ron wearily. 'I reckon Murdoch wanted to send you off with a few parting hexes.'

'A few parting hexes?' protested Harry, rubbing his left shoulder. 'He must have hit me at least a hundred times … was it really necessary to spend an hour practising wandless shield charms whilst running? I'd have thought my presence this morning would be enough to convince him the Prophet was talking bollocks, and that I'm not going anywhere.'

Ron lowered his voice, 'He must have sussed out the truth using Legilimency. You were always rubbish at mind arts.'

'Ugh ... the only thing that could have made that training worse would be Snape deducting house points every time Murdoch hit me. He'd have loved that, the greasy git.'

'Tut tut, Potter. Show some gratitude towards the man who spent years secretly protecting you,' mocked Ron.

'And taking petty revenge all the while,' scowled Harry.

'That's just the hex wounds talking. You'd better change your attitude before meeting with Kingsley.'

'Good point. Right now I'm likely to Reducto his office into smithereens and disappear in a burst of Phoenix fire.'

They'd arrived at the locker room, where they peeled off their sweat-soaked gear and trudged into separate shower stalls. Harry emerged ten minutes later, wearing a towel and feeling much less sore, and he sat down on the bench. Am I really doing this? he thought. Yes. His mind was made up.

Ron, pulling on his robes, turned to Harry. 'Are you ready?'

'Yes,' said Harry soberly. 'I'm going to meet with Kingsley wearing a towel. I've decided to become a house-elf.'

'You know what I meant,' replied Ron. 'Are you all right with this?'

'Yes, I really am,' declared Harry, standing and opening his locker. He pulled on his maroon Auror robes for the last time.

Soon I'll be wearing bright orange robes, he thought with anticipation.

'Right then. Good luck, mate.'

Harry felt a surge of affection for Ron. He'd miss working with him.

They walked out of the locker room together, but Harry turned left towards the stairwell that would take him to Kingsley's office. As a rule he stayed away from the lifts, ostensibly to build up his stamina, but mostly to avoid the other riders' sidelong glances.

He was seized by a sudden panic. Merlin, I'm choosing the life of a celebrity! His whole wizarding life he'd tried to avoid the public eye, and now he was stepping into it heart raced—why hadn't he considered this until now?

A small, steady voice in his mind reassured him. This time it's my decision. He felt a deep wave of calm, and his heart rate settled back down. He emerged from the stairwell and walked with resolve towards the Head Auror's office.

He was greeted by Kingsley's secretary, Agnes. Kingsley had acquired her during his stint as Acting Minister for Magic, and she'd accompanied him back to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, even though it was technically a step down. Harry liked her.

'Good morning, Agnes. I have a nine o'clock appointment with Kingsley. How are you?'

'I'm well, Mr Potter, thank you. And you? I suppose you're here to tell Mr Shacklebolt you're packing it in to go fly with the Cannons, as it were,' she said, winking.

Flustered, Harry coughed before replying. 'Ha ha, indeed.'

'You can go right in—he's expecting you. Good luck!'

'Thanks, Agnes,' he said, opening the door and walking into the office.

'Harry, good morning,' said Kingsley without looking up. 'Have a seat.'

Harry sat down in one of the hard-backed chairs facing Kingsley's desk. No squashy armchairs for the DMLE.

'Good morning, Kingsley,' he said. 'I'm glad we can talk straight away.'

'Yes, it's always worth clearing the air whenever the Prophet comes out with some new fiction.'

'Er, yes … about that,' stammered Harry.

Kingsley looked up with alarm.

'I hadn't the slightest intention of leaving the Department … originally. I'd merely been talking to George Weasley at a pub about my training, and our privacy charms were down at precisely the moment I made a joke about chucking it all and flying with the Cannons. Someone must have overheard, and the Prophet ran with it.'

'I see,' said Kingsley evenly. He waited for Harry to continue.

'It got me thinking, though. My whole life, I've never had much fun. Not like most kids do, anyway. I never had fun growing up with my Muggle relations … and then I came to Hogwarts, where I had friends for the first time, and lots of laughs of course, but there was always Voldemort coming after me.

'Playing Quidditch for Gryffindor was probably the happiest I've ever been. And when I read those articles in the Prophet yesterday, I suddenly knew I what I wanted.'

Kingsley sighed heavily. 'I'm sorry to hear that, Harry. I had no idea you were so unhappy in the training programme.'

'I wasn't exactly unhappy. It's just the training has been the same combination of enjoyment and crap that's characterised my entire wizarding life. I'd forgot, or maybe I never knew in the first place, that there's no rule saying my life has to be–' Harry hesitated. 'To be all vegetables and no pudding.'

Kingsley was quiet for a long moment, but then he nodded. 'I understand, Harry. And I apologise. When we offered you a job as an Auror, we didn't look at it from your perspective. But you're right. You never had a proper childhood, not since your parents died. And if anyone deserves a bit of fun, it's you.'

Harry briefly closed his eyes, relieved that Kingsley understood. 'Thank you for seeing it that way. I really never intended to abandon the Ministry like this.'

'Harry, you've already done more for the Ministry than most wizards do in a lifetime.'

Looking down, Harry nodded his thanks.

Kingsley continued. 'So is this your last day then? Not much point in hanging about. Have you spoken to the Cannons team manager yet?'

'No, I wanted to talk to you first. I suppose I'll owl him straight away.'

'Right.' Kingsley looked at him a moment and said, 'You're sure about the Cannons? I can't convince you to play for, say, the Appleby Arrows?'

Harry chuckled. 'No, it has to be the Cannons, else Ron will never forgive me.'

'Understood,' smiled Kingsley. 'So, how would you like to handle this? Shall we issue a joint statement, or do you want me to make the announcement?'

'I'd love for you to do it, honestly. You're better at that sort of thing than I am.'

'You'd best improve quickly—you're going to be a public figure. Officially, that is.'

'Yes, I know. I guess it's not all pudding.'

'It never is.' Kingsley stood up and extended his hand. 'Thanks again, Harry, and remember, you're always welcome back, should you change your mind.'

'Thanks, I appreciate that,' he said, shaking hands with Kingsley. 'Hermione will be glad to hear I have a fallback—she was worried about my lack of N.E.W.T.s.'

Kingsley actually guffawed. 'Classic. That Hermione is a real treasure, make no mistake.'

'I know,' said Harry. 'She'll be good at puncturing my ego if the team starts winning.'

'Not much risk of that,' replied Kingsley. 'Let me know if you need to borrow some curse-breakers.'

Harry laughed, and they said goodbye. He hadn't the heart to tell Agnes.

-––—––-

The reply from Darius Sprott, Cannons team manager, arrived almost impossibly quickly:

Harry,

I've cleared my schedule. Please Floo to 'Cannons Head Office' whenever you're ready.

Darius

Harry grinned when he read the brief note. No doubt about it—he had the job.

There's no time like the present, he thought, and he grabbed a pinch of Floo powder. 'Cannons Head Office,' he intoned clearly, his heart swelling with excitement.

He soon found himself in a spacious office, where he was immediately drawn to a large picture window overlooking a Quidditch pitch. The office was level with the ring-shaped goals, affording the occupants a prime view.

'Harry! Welcome!'

A sandy-haired, jovial-looking man of about fifty greeted him, hand outstretched. "So glad you could make it! I'm Darius … pleasure to meet you.'

'Thank you, likewise. I appreciate your seeing me on such short notice, and under such unusual circumstances.'

'Nonsense, it's an honour. Please, sit down. Care for a cup of tea? My assistant can fetch you one.'

'No, thank you,' replied Harry, feeling comfortable already.

Darius smiled and sat down, shaking his head in amazement. 'What an extraordinary turn of events, all because the Prophet took a bit of hearsay and put it on the front page! Though I can't say I'm surprised they were talking rubbish, the lying bastards.'

Harry laughed. 'No argument there.'

'So, let's get down to business … you say you really want to join the team?'

'I do, sir.'

'No need to call me sir—just Darius. And you still want to play Seeker?'

'I've never played any other position. I suppose I'm better at catching than throwing.'

'Well, catching's what's needed! When did you last play?'

'Er, not since my sixth year at Hogwarts.'

'Why not your seventh year? Scratch that, silly question. Done much flying since then?'

'Only for pleasure, and not as often as I'd like. Until this morning I was in training to become an Auror, and they kept us pretty busy. I play the occasional scratch game with mates, but other than that I've been largely earthbound.'

'That'll change soon enough!' he said brightly. 'What's your broomstick?'

'I learnt on a Nimbus 2000, and I had a Firebolt after that, but they were both destroyed, unfortunately. After the war I was given a Firebolt Ultra by the manufacturer, when word got out my vault was frozen, but I confess I'm not very fond of it.'

'Yes, I've heard complaints from others as well. A bit twitchy, eh?'

'Exactly. I think they sacrificed fluidity for acceleration,' replied Harry.

Darius thought for a moment before his mouth curved into a sly grin. 'Have you tried the new Silver Arrow Seeker Edition?'

Harry's eyes widened. 'Is it out already? I thought they weren't releasing it until August.'

Still grinning, Darius said, 'They're not releasing it to the public until August, but professional teams get first crack at it. I've had one hidden in the storeroom the past couple of weeks, still in the box. Didn't want it to get broken …'

Harry grimaced slightly—he felt a bit guilty about replacing the team's current Seeker, even if he was incompetent.

Darius continued, 'I'm inclined to offer you the job right now, but I suppose I ought to watch you fly first. Want to try her out?'

'I'd love to! I've been looking forward to the Silver Arrow since I first read about it months ago. I feel a little bad, to be honest—I don't want to insult the Firebolt people after they've been so generous.'

'Never mind that, they made it all back in publicity. Speaking of which …' Darius's tone turned serious for the first time. 'There's no point pretending you're not famous. You always have been, sad to say.'

Harry nodded and said nothing.

'There'll be a lot of publicity if you join the team. Are you all right with that? You've never seemed to like the spotlight much.'

'I've given that some thought, actually. You're right that I've never liked being famous. First it was for something I didn't even do—it was my mum who defeated Voldemort the first time, not me. And then at Hogwarts I was surrounded by kids who'd grown up with fairy tales about the Boy Who Lived … it was overwhelming and more than a little uncomfortable.

'And then Voldemort came back and the Ministry turned against me, telling everyone I was delusional …' Harry trailed off. It was still hard for him to talk about his fifth year.

A little embarrassed, he looked at Darius. The older man was hanging on his every word, but his expression was kind. Harry exhaled and continued.

'And then after the war,' he said, skipping ahead. 'It was easier because my best mates, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, got a lot of attention as well. It wasn't just me anymore. And they deserved it—I was glad to see them getting credit. Especially Ron, who'd been overshadowed most of his life.'

Harry smiled. 'By the way, this is all Ron's fault. He introduced me to the Cannons the first day I met him, when he hung Cannons paraphernalia all over our dormitory. I'd never seen a moving poster before.'

Darius laughed and said, 'I suppose I know who to thank then!'

'Yes, absolutely. But back to my point … Quidditch was the only thing I got attention for that I felt I deserved. That was me up there flying, me catching the Snitch—not someone's idea of me. So if that's what I'm famous for now, at least in part, then I suppose I'm all right with it.'

Darius nodded appreciatively. 'Thanks for telling me all that, Harry. I admit, I had my own ideas about you as well.'

'I'll give you credit, though,' said Harry. 'You're one of the few wizards I've met who didn't take a peek at my scar.'

'Am I?' exclaimed Darius, whose eyes belatedly flicked up to Harry's forehead. 'I suppose I was busy trying to figure out how tall you are. Stand up, if you please.'

Harry stood, and Darius frowned, 'What are you, about five foot nine?'

'No,' sighed Harry. 'I'm five foot seven.' He flattened his hair.

Darius's expression brightened. 'Oh, splendid! Five-nine's a bit tall for a Seeker, but five-seven is ideal.'

'Well, there's a silver lining,' said Harry dryly. 'Ron's about six foot four and is always twitting me about my height. But he'll change his tune if I catch the Snitch for the Cannons.'

'He certainly will!' beamed Darius. 'Now let's get you on that Silver Arrow and see what you've got!'

Within a few minutes they were standing on the Cannons training pitch, waiting for Darius's assistant to fetch the Silver Arrow from its hiding place. To Harry's surprise, the building was only a single storey, and Darius's window was charmed to display the view at goal height, fifty feet off the ground.

'Where are all the players?' asked Harry.

'At lunch—they usually pop over to the village pub around now.'

Darius's assistant, an energetic young witch named Lara, scurried onto the pitch carrying a long, slim package, which Darius instructed her to place on a nearby bench.

Admiring the shining box, Darius commented, 'Always loved a Silver Arrow—I'm pleased they've started production again.' He turned to Harry and cheerfully asked, 'Well, aren't you going to open it?'

Harry, who needed no further prompting, removed the lid. A whoosh of rushing wind issued from the box as he opened it, which startled him before he realised it was only sound and not actual wind. He removed the silvery tissue paper to reveal a pale, sleek broomstick, smoothly polished to an iridescent finish.

'See that pale colour?' said Darius. 'That's English white holly, specially hardened using proprietary charms. You can always spot a Silver Arrow that way—no other broom is like it.'

It was warm to Harry's touch, reminding him of the first time he'd held his holly and phoenix feather wand. He felt an almost physical longing to start flying on it. 'May I?' he asked in a low voice.

'Merlin yes! Are you waiting for an owled invitation?' laughed Darius.

Harry mounted the broom and took off, soaring towards the nearer set of rings. Now this is what I've been missing! he thought hungrily, as the broomstick responded to his subtlest intent. He raced across the pitch, testing the Silver Arrow's acceleration, and then weaved through the opposite goals to gauge its handling. He loved it.

Angling downwards, he simulated a sharp dive for the Snitch before levelling near the ground and landing smoothly near Darius and Lara. 'Blimey, now that's a broomstick!' he exclaimed breathlessly.

'The broomstick is one thing, but that flying–' sputtered Darius. 'For once the Prophet didn't exaggerate! When can you start?'

Harry laughed, ecstatic as the reality set in—he was going to play professional Quidditch!

Practically giddy, he replied, 'I'm sure I should be sensible and talk salary right now but sweet Merlin, I want to fly again! Can you throw me some practice Snitches?'

At a nod from Darius, Lara rushed to the supply shed and retrieved a device resembling a tennis ball launcher, only the balls were golden and Snitch-sized. She touched a rune to activate it, and Harry kicked off the ground again, this time in hot pursuit.

The Launcher flung ball after ball into the air, at varying speeds and distances. Harry caught every last one of them, still amazed by the perfection of the Silver Arrow. No wonder Madam Hooch had rhapsodised about them—this broom was magnificent.

When the Launcher had emptied, he landed again near Darius, while Lara used her wand to gather the golden balls Harry had discarded on the pitch after catching them.

Darius grasped Harry by the shoulder, 'I hate to drag you indoors, but let's formalise things straight away. I don't want to wait any longer than necessary to see you in Cannons robes.'

They walked together back into the building and soon found themselves in Darius's office, where the older man pulled a parchment from atop his desk.

'I had this drawn this up yesterday afternoon—I couldn't help myself. It's the standard contract we offer a starting Seeker. I know the base salary isn't much, but you'll see here,' he said, indicating a section halfway down the parchment, 'that your pay includes a significant bonus every time you catch the Snitch, and you also get a percentage of any merchandise sold with your image or name on it, which in your case will probably be a bloody fortune.

'Are you allowed back in Gringotts yet? I can refer you to a wizard solicitor if necessary, but the goblins are your best option.'

'Yes,' said Harry. 'My ban ended on Saturday.'

'Splendid,' said Darius. 'I'll owl this over straight away.'

Harry was too overcome to speak, and for a moment they just stood there smiling.

Darius looked thoughtfully at Harry. 'Now about those spectacles … Eyewear is heavily regulated in league play, to stop players from using eyesight-enhancing charms. Seekers in particular.'

Harry frowned. 'I can't see without my glasses.'

'No, of course not,' replied Darius. 'I was wondering whether you might consider …' he hesitated. 'A vision-correcting ritual.'

'Is that possible?' asked Harry, surprised. He'd never heard of such a thing.

'Yes, absolutely. It's quite common, in fact.'

'Why didn't anyone suggest this to me at Hogwarts?' Harry felt a bit miffed to have been kept ignorant yet again.

'That's the thing, they wouldn't have done it at Hogwarts. The ritual is considered a bit … Dark.'

Harry paled. Had he misjudged Darius? The man had seemed so benign.

'No, nothing like that,' said Darius, mortified by Harry's reaction. 'Forgive me for alarming you … the ritual simply requires a few drops of your blood, which makes it subject to the Ministry's regulations regarding Dark magic. It's perfectly legal, but it requires special authorisation.'

Harry exhaled, not realising he'd been holding his breath. 'Oh, that sounds fine. I'll first consult my friend Hermione, but otherwise I've no objection. Would you be able to set that up?'

'Yes, of course. We work with a highly reputable Optimancer in Diagon Alley.'

'Not Knockturn Alley, then?' joked Harry.

Darius chuckled, clearly relieved that the tense moment had passed. 'No, nor in a graveyard under moonlight. Oh, blast! I just keep putting my foot in it!'

Harry couldn't help laughing. 'That may be the most impressive clanger I've ever heard. Well done!'

'I'd best let you go before I dig myself in further—bloody hell! Get out of here and don't let me speak ever again.' Darius was beet red by but looked pleased nonetheless.

'Right, I'll go. When should I come back and meet the other players?' Harry's smile faded. 'What about your other Seeker?'

'Spencer? He's no fool—he knew his days were numbered even before yesterday's Prophet. But not to worry … I've heard that Cleansweep wants him for their testing department. I've already sent them an owl on his behalf.'

Harry relaxed again. Was this how it felt when things lined up perfectly? He wondered whether Kreacher had slipped some Felix Felicis into his midmorning tea.

Darius continued, 'The sooner you can get to Gringotts, the sooner we can have you back on the pitch, and on that Silver Arrow!'

'Fantastic—can't wait. I know where I'm heading after lunch,' said Harry brightly. They shook hands, and he stepped through the Floo back to Grimmauld Place.

There was no need to invite Ron and Hermione over that evening. Harry knew they would both turn up anyway—Ron to grill him about the Cannons and Hermione to check on whatever potion she was brewing in the basement.

He'd had a busy afternoon, first reviewing and signing his new contract, and then stopping at the post office to send owls to Andromeda Tonks and to the portrait painter recommended by Gringotts. He'd also slipped into the Ministry to clear out his locker, knowing that Ron and the other trainees would be engaged elsewhere. He felt bad about leaving without saying goodbye to his colleagues and instructors, but felt a thrill as he realised he could make it up to them with Cannons tickets.

Back at home, he didn't have to wait long for company. Ron arrived first, bursting from the fireplace and excitedly pressing Harry for details about his day.

'You already signed the contract? Fantastic! Can you get me tickets? When's your first match?'

'No idea, I haven't even met the rest of the team yet.'

'You won't play right off—there's a special charity tournament this weekend and the Cannons aren't playing. But that's perfect—gives you more time to practice before your debut,' said Ron.

Hermione was next to emerge from the fireplace and rushed directly to the laboratory. 'Hold on,' she called up, 'I need to check on my potion.'

She returned a few minutes later, looking relieved. 'I had a bit of a panic that I'd used juniper twigs rather than juniper needles, but I just checked and everything's fine.'

Ron and Harry were staring at her in shock. 'Er, what did you do to your hair?' asked Ron haltingly.

Hermione froze.

'I mean, it looks nice and all,' blundered Ron. 'Just different. More, er … sproingy.' He looked nervously at Harry, who knew what Ron had left unsaid. She looks like Bellatrix Lestrange.

Blushing, Hermione confessed, 'It was a charm I found in the Grimoire.'

'Oh, that explains it,' said Harry without thinking.

'That explains what?' asked Hermione pointedly.

Harry threw a desperate glance at Ron, who raised his eyebrows in terror and rapidly shook his head.

'Er, you look kind of like–' Harry paused. Might as well rip off the plaster. 'Bellatrix Lestrange.'

Hermione's eyes widened in alarm. Which unfortunately made her look even more like Bellatrix.

'It's not so bad,' attempted Ron. 'I mean, there's worse people you could look like. Well, not worse than Bellatrix Lestrange, but …'

Harry tried to rescue him. 'She was kind of pretty, you know. Really pretty, actually.'

'It's true,' babbled Ron. 'Harry once had a dream about her. In sixth year.'

'I told you that in confidence!' hissed Harry, wishing the earth would hurry up and swallow him whole.

Nobody spoke for at least a minute. Hermione looked down at the floor. Ron fidgeted with his wand.

'It's probably the same hair charm she used,' said Hermione dully. 'I wonder if her hair was naturally like mine.' She looked like she was about to cry.

Ron put his arm around her. 'Is it an all-purpose hair-taming charm? Do you reckon it would work on Harry?'

Hermione snorted, and tears started to flow as Ron pulled her into a hug. She cried a little longer, and then he led her to the sofa in the adjacent sitting room.

'It looks nice,' consoled Harry, sitting down across from them. 'It was just a bit of a shock. I doubt anyone will notice, or if they do they'll get over it. Andromeda looks like Bellatrix too, and no one minds.'

'You don't think I'm related to her, do you? Switched at birth or something? It would explain a lot.'

Ron shook his head. 'Not possible. The Sorting Hat would have said something, or Walburga would have done. Besides, you look just like your mum, only she has straight hair.'

Hermione relaxed as Ron held her close. Then, unexpectedly, she looked up at him with a mischievous grin.

'If only we'd known,' she observed wryly. 'We needn't have bothered with Polyjuice Potion. It could have saved us a whole lot of trouble.'

'We'd have missed out on riding that dragon, though,' countered Ron. Hermione smiled and snuggled closer to him.

Harry felt a little awkward, like he was intruding on their privacy. He moved to leave when Hermione suddenly spoke.

'Harry, I'm so sorry—I forgot to ask about your day. How did it go with Kingsley?'

'It went well, all things considered,' he replied. 'Afterwards I met with Darius—the Cannons team manager—and signed a contract. Which reminds me … do you know anything about vision-correcting rituals?'

'That's blood magic, right? I think they're regulated by the Ministry,' said Hermione.

'You knew about them? Why didn't you tell me I could get my vision fixed?'

'I'm sorry Harry, it never crossed my mind. I assumed Madam Pomfrey had said something to you. Are you considering having it done now?'

'Yes, Darius recommended it and knows a reputable Optimancer. Do you think it's safe?'

'I'm sure it's fine. Blood magic doesn't entirely deserve its bad reputation—it's all in the intent.'

Ron mock glared at Harry. 'See what you've done, Potter? Not one day after you give her that Grimoire, she turns up looking like Bellatrix Lestrange and praising blood magic. You'll have her speaking Parseltongue next.'

Hermione turned abruptly towards Harry and exclaimed, 'Parseltongue! Try using Parseltongue on the ring, to see if that takes care of Walburga!'

'Sorry, what?' asked Harry, not following.

'Speak in Parseltongue to the snake on your new ring! Maybe it has the power to remove the portrait,' Hermione said excitedly.

Sitting up sharply, Harry removed the concealment charm on the ring. He looked fixedly at the glittering snake and said, 'I'm Harry. What's your name?'

Ron shook his head. 'English.'

Harry concentrated and tried again. 'My name is Harry. To whom am I speaking?'

This time Hermione shook her head. 'Maybe you're trying too hard,' she suggested.

Harry took a deep breath and relaxed his gaze. 'Greetings, serpent.' He looked hopefully at Ron and Hermione, who both shook their heads again.

'No, that was still English,' said Hermione. Her brow furrowed. 'When was the last time you spoke Parseltongue?'

Harry frowned. 'I can't remember, to be honest. Not since the war ended, I suspect. I've not had much call for it.'

Hermione nodded. 'That would explain it. You must have lost your ability to speak Parseltongue when your Horcrux was destroyed. Er, Voldemort's Horcrux, that is.'

Harry was silent, stunned.

'That's fantastic!' exclaimed Ron. 'You're not a Parselmouth anymore!'

Looking at Harry uncertainly, Hermione asked, 'Are you all right?'

'What? I'm fine. Just surprised.'

'Are you sure? You look like you're upset.' asked Ron. 'I'll grant you, talking to snakes was kind of cool, in a weird way. And it came in right handy with the Chamber of Secrets. But, to be honest, it always gave me the creeps, and I'm glad you're shot of it. Looks like it was Voldemort's skill the whole time, not yours.'

'Indeed,' said Harry, appearing more composed. He looked at them. 'Are you hungry? We should see if Kreacher has dinner ready yet.'

With a loud crack, Kreacher Apparated before them. 'Dinner is ready. Would Master like to eat in the kitchen or in the dining room?'

'The dining room, if you please,' said Harry. Kreacher disappeared, and they went upstairs to the formal dining room.

Hermione and Ron each spoke about their day, occasionally directing questions towards Harry, but he gave them only perfunctory replies. He was still adjusting to the discovery he was no longer a Parselmouth.

Why am I upset? he wondered. He still remembered his classmates' horrified reaction when his ability was discovered back in second year, and how Ron and Hermione had hurried him up to Gryffindor Tower. It had been unsettling at the time to learn that the skill may have come from Voldemort. But he realised now that he had been oddly proud of his rare ability to speak to snakes.

And yet, hadn't he always wanted to be like everyone else? The Dursleys had called him a freak—and with good reason, given his bouts of accidental magic. But even at Hogwarts he had been abnormal, a freak ...

Ron caught his attention. 'So what time does your training start tomorrow?'

Harry blinked, returning to the present. 'Nine o'clock.'

'You lucky bastard! That's a right lie-in compared to Auror training.'

'It is,' agreed Harry, smiling as he recalled the day's events. 'Perhaps I'll return to my night-owl ways.'

'Do it for the rest of us, mate!' said Ron emphatically.

Ron and Hermione departed soon after, leaving Harry to reflect with pleasure on his new circumstances. Tomorrow he would meet his teammates and suit up to fly with the Cannons. He wished he could somehow tell his younger self about the remarkable future that awaited him—literally a dream come true.

It certainly beats speaking to snakes, mused Harry.